Creating comic books seems like one of those dream jobs you plan to have as a kid—doing what you love and getting paid for it. Talking to actual comics creators hasn’t exactly dispelled that impression, but just like being an astronaut, movie star, or whatever else kids dream of doing, it’s still a job. Aside from the major scandals—like a white writer pretending to be Japanese, or a legendary creator known as much for his comics as for having them stolen—the comics industry has ups and downs like any other profession. VICE caught up with five creators to hear about what it took to break in, and about those teeth-cutting gigs that made for better stories than paychecks.
Mimi Pond is a PEN USA Award-winning cartoonist, writer, and illustrator. Her graphic novels Over Easy and The Customer is Always Wrong were published by Drawn & Quarterly. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Seventeen Magazine, and National Lampoon. She has also worked in TV and wrote the first full-length episode of The Simpsons.
I started out selling comics to this sleazy sex classifieds ads newspaper that was the sister publication of the Berkeley Barb, it was called the Spectator. And then I started accumulating clippings and sending them to magazines in New York, and Shary Flenniken at the National Lampoon started buying cartoons from me. There was just so much more work back then in the 80s. I was working all the time. I moved to LA in 1990 with my husband, had a couple of kids, and I suddenly looked up in the mid-90s and my career was just gone, along with everyone else's.
Magazines started going down the drain, and the internet happened, and nobody wanted to pay for content anymore. I did a lot of commercial work, a lot of illustration work, and a lot of comics for magazines in the 80s—things I might not have normally undertaken, but they paid. I had editors breathing down my neck, some good and some bad. I don't know if you're familiar with Clay Felker. He started New York magazine. He was very supportive of women writers, and of women in general in publishing, and he was doing a magazine called Manhattan Inc., and he asked me to do a cartoon about the problems women face in the workplace—sexual harassment in the workplace. This is 1986 or something. First of all, I said no. I've made it my life's work to avoid working in an office, so I don't even know what office life is like. He said "No, no, no, you do it. You have to do it." So I talked to all my friends who worked in offices, and they would tell me these stories about being made to feel very uncomfortable in all these different ways.
One of the big ones was guys telling dirty jokes just to make them uncomfortable. So I showed him this pencil rough that's got a woman surrounded by a group of men by the water cooler, and one of them has just told the punchline to a dirty joke, and all the men are laughing, and the woman says, "That reminds me of a joke my gynecologist told me the other day while he was giving me a pap smear," and they all turn white. And I showed it to Clay Felker, and he just said, "This is disgusting!" I said, “Yeah, I know.” And he made me redo it. It just felt to me like the first one was dead on. Finally publishing Over Easy and The Customer is Always Wrong is definitely the highest point. I loved working in New York in the 80s. I loved publishing in the Village Voice. It's gratifying when people see your work and like it. It's gratifying just to be able to make a living doing it.
R. Sikoryak is a cartoonist and the author of Masterpiece Comics , in which he adapts literary classics through comics parody. His art has appeared in the New Yorker, the Onion, GQ, MAD Magazine, SpongeBob Comics , Nickelodeon Magazine, and The Daily Show.
I was introduced [to comics] via a teacher at Parsons where I now teach. He introduced me to Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, and I started working in the offices of Raw when they were putting out their anthology—this was in the late 80s. I learned so much from them in many ways. In terms of production and in terms of editorial and in terms of many other parts of making comics. I think you can probably be too aggressive, but I definitely was not being too aggressive in terms of getting my stuff out. I was concentrated on making comics. I wanted to make comics, but I've never been the best at promotion.
It was such a different world. Comics were on the cusp of being accepted. The kinds of comics I was interested in doing kind of made fun of the fact that people didn't like comics. That's very different than my experience in the last couple of years where, even me, using Tumblr in a very rudimentary way has really catapulted my work to a different audiences that I couldn't have imagined was out there. In late 2015, I had made as mini comics my iTunes Terms and Conditionsgraphic novel, which is a complete appropriation of the terms and conditions of iTunes, inserted into a comic. I say it's an adaptation, but it's literally just the text of that document that everyone has not read but everyone has seen. At the level I was working with, I made the comics privately, I made them into black and white mini comics to sell at conventions and sell at comics shops, essentially breaking even. I didn't sell them at a great profit. I sent out an email to every contact I had in my almost 30 years of comics making, just in an email. And I said, "Hey, I made this thing, and I put it up [on Tumblr]," and then within 24 hours, I'd gotten an article on Boing Boing. The Guardian interviewed me, and then I had all these requests for interviews.
NPR wanted to interview me for Morning Edition, which is the radio show that I listen to every morning. And I actually was freaking out. It was the best experience, and in a way it was the worst experience, because I didn't have a publisher. I was photocopying these at my local shop. I was in tears, literally, because I was like, "I don't have a publicist for this. I don't know how to handle it." This was long before Drawn & Quarterly published it. I couldn't call my publisher and say "We have to print 4,000 more copies tonight." One of the gigs I got, which was a good gig half the time, and the other half was completely frustrating, was a friend of mine was an editor at a small financial magazine, and they wanted a gag cartoon in every issue. I could never write gag cartoons about banks, so they'd write the gags, and then I would illustrate them. And sometimes the gags were really funny, and sometimes they weren't. I remember one month really struggling to get a likeness of Alan Greenspan, the head of the Fed, and I think I ended up tracing a photo, because I was just like, "I don't know how to do this." I flipped it, and I disguised it. I was a little embarrassed. And it was like, is anyone even reading this comic?