The road to a sustainable career in comics is not an easy path to walk. There are many obstacles and hardships along the way - a whole list of reasons you won't make it.
But there's one reason, in particular, that stands out to me. It's probably the biggest reason of them all, but it's also easily overcome with patience and sincerity.
That reason is that you're trying to break in alone.
Comics is not, usually, a soloist's medium. Most comics are the product of a team's collective work and even writer-artists are often supported by colorists, letterers, editors, and designers.
But the collaborative nature of comics extends beyond the team that puts together each comic. It extends to your network - the group of fellow creators or colleagues within the industry who you support and, in turn, support you.
The Value of a Network
Fortunately, network's are extremely valuable. They make the entire experience of creating comics a lot better by smoothing your path toward a sustainable career in comics.
Finding Potential Collaborations
If you don't know anyone else, you're often relegated to prowling online forums and artist alleys at various conventions. While this can work, it's much easier to find collaborators through other creators you know.
Not to mention, you can also find more reliable collaborators. Though you can, and probably should, ask for references when considering working with people you don't know, it's a lot easier when you already know somebody who can vouch for the collaborator you're considering and answer any questions you have.
Obviously, collaborators are an essential part of the process of creating comics. Finding good, reliable people to work with can be difficult if you're going in blind, but having a network to support you makes all of that much easier.
The collaborative benefits of a network aren't limited to direct collaborations, though. There are also indirect collaborations that can be extremely useful in building your career - whether you want to break in or remain independent.
Direct collaborations primarily tend to involve artists, colorists, letterers, editors, and designers. Indirect collaborations can extend more broadly - to filmmakers, for example - or involve the same roles as direct collaborations, but employ them differently.
Where your direct collaborators help you make your comic, indirect collaborators can help you increase the impact of what you create. Soliciting backmatter from your network, is one example. As is collaborating with a musician you know to create a theme for your comic, to be used in the trailer, or however else you decide to use it. Pin-ups by other artists are another great example of ancillary content, that can flesh out a comic.
All of these are much easier to execute on when you have cultivated a network that is both capable and willing to work with you to deliver this sort of material.
This kind of amplification might involve something as simple as a signal boost in the form of a retweet or share to help you get the word out about whatever you're trying to spread.
However, amplification gets really interesting when it takes on more complex forms, like associative quality. Associative quality uses the people in your network to passively amplify the effect of your work, rather than actively amplify it by spreading the word.
Any sort of recommendation or pull quote by somebody generally regarded as having a good sense of quality, can help convince potential readers of the value of your comic, and be generally valuable to your progress as a creator.
It can also help open doors for you in traditional publishing if you are focusing on breaking in, rather than building an independent career.
The Two-Way Street
You can't build a network with that kind of mentality. A network is about communal support. Everybody who engages with a network meaningfully, benefits. But those who just seek to extract as much value from the network as possible will often find themselves isolated.
This is why sincerity and patience are so important.
Becoming a part of a network and building one around yourself are both kind of like organ transplants. It's a weird analogy, I know, but hear me out.
I'm not an expert on this, but my understanding is that when an organ is transferred to a new body, it's possible for that body to reject it.
In creative circles, the early stages of engaging with a network is similar. To ensure that you are able to stay part of the network you need to be engaging with it sincerely. While there are certain expectations of reciprocity, it's critical to only support people you genuinely want to succeed.
However you decide to support your growing network, that's how you're bringing value to your network. The more value you bring to a network the more likely you are to have an opportunity to ask for value from your network.
That's right. It's not direct reciprocity. That's why you shouldn't even bother to think about it like that. Bringing value to your network by connecting them with collaborators, helping promote their Kickstarter, or providing feedback on a project they're working on, all add up to you having a chance to ask to have some of that value reciprocated.
This isn't an overnight exchange. That's why the patience is so important. It can take years of providing value before any of that value is returned to you. But if you really care about the network you're a part of - if your desire to be involved is authentic - then that won't matter. Because a rising tide lifts all boats. The enthusiasm you and everyone in your network has for each other's work should outweigh and eclipse any expectations of reciprocity. After all, you and your network are fighting the same fight.
But a network is just the start. While this group of associated creators can help individual members of the group progress, it won't go beyond that.
In order to cause real change. In order for the impact of your group to go beyond the personal, a network isn't enough. Instead, you need an army.
A Creator's Army
It does all the things a network does and then goes further, tackling the biggest issues its members are commonly concerned about.
Rather than seek to carve out a place in the industry, an army changes the industry to make the kind of space that's needed.
It might seem like a semantic difference. And in someways I suppose it is. The only difference between a network and an army is in how the people in each body engage with each other.
You turn a network into an army by tackling the issues you feel are problematic, together. Creator diversity, distribution, comics criticism, the viability of independence, creative limitations. Whatever you take issue with is what you work on.
And if you work on it with your network then slowly you'll become an army. Because an army tries to effect change, rather than just find a way in.
Every once in a while in comics, armies appear - often in response to a large controversy. But they can dissipate, without enough momentum. If they don't, then they have a chance to create a lasting impact. Image Comics, for example, was founded by a small army.
Maybe you don't feel the need to be a part of an army like that. But maybe you do.
And regardless of whether you feel you need an army, or just want to be a part of a network, one thing doesn't change.
You need to engage, meaningfully. You can't just pollute the waters by trying to extract value. If you do this over a long enough period of time and continue to connect with other creators by being an authentic, decent person, you'll find yourself slowly surrounded by a network.
It doesn't matter whether it's in person or online - on a Facebook group or a forum like the Comics Experience Workshop.
It won't be the only factor in your success, but it will definitely help. The road to a sustainable career in comics is not easy, but it's a lot easier, with an army at your side.