Who doesn’t dream of going big? Waking up to that one mail notification on your phone that could possibly change everything. Years later, you’ll be talking in retrospect about the day that changed it all at TEDx conference. But does it actually work this way? Is there a pot of gold at the end of this (insert big-publisher-name) rainbow?
Artists are often bound by legal agreements and it’s not always easy to find someone who would provide answers. I turn to Lenka Šimečková, probably the most famous comics artist in Czechia and also my former University colleague.
‘From the experience, I had with the big names, I’d say there are two things that significantly differ from work for local publishers. First is the level of engagement they expect and second the materials they give you to work with,’ she says.
FAME IN THE HORROR
Lenka is an expert in horror and her various illustrations of witches, skeletons and other beastly creatures have captured eyes of people from all over the world. Her Instagram account now boasts with around 33,5K followers and she has done plenty of what many would consider a dream job.
In 2018 she was commissioned by SyFy to create artwork so be presented at San Diego Comic-Con. She is also the author of the beautiful cover of 2000AD’s Scream & Misty Special and contributed to The Wyrmwood Deceit, an official Dishonored comics, her favorite video game.
It truly sounds like she is in the position most artists want to find themselves in. Doing stuff they love and (are good at!) for specialized publishers, who have the money and the reach to make something truly great and lasting.
MIND READING AND OTHER EXPENSES
I can’t wait to know if it’s as great as it sounds. Were there some downsides of the previous mostly local work? ‘I was used to getting the whole script or the book. The publishers I worked with before, mostly Czech, expect the artist to read the whole thing in their free time, then dissect the text to find what he or she needs to create the artwork. Then you talk with the publisher and present your own take on the story.’ she says. ‘I was often given complete freedom on the visuals only to find out later that they had something in mind the whole time (I was supposed to mind-read I guess) and I had to re-do everything.’ It’s not all bad though. ‘This approach is definitely more human. Organic and rather chaotic though. But it gives you an opportunity to truly pour yourself into the artwork.’
Pressed to choose her preference, she hesitantly picks the second model. As expected, this one is much less personal and the artist can in some places feel like a cog in a wheel.
‘I find it easier when the publishers outright send me the part of the text I need to read. They usually send along mood boards and have quite a precise idea of what they expect to see. In cases when I was given complete freedom, there was very little of revisions after.
Sometimes the whole communication took only three emails!’ She laughs, as she points out that for such a hardcore introvert as she is, that is the exact number of interactions she’s comfortable with.
BIG NAMES BIG MONEY?
For many, the true advantage of well-known publishers is money. Hey, they are big, they should pay well, right? As it happens, it’s piece by piece.
‘I wouldn’t even say that what local publishers offer is significantly less than their foreign counterparts. I can’t make a generalization.’ Sometimes the companies look like big money but reality doesn’t match. ‘I remember once I was commissioned to work for quite a well-known American publisher and the price quote blew me away… in a bad way. I was surprised how little they offered, much less than a Czech publisher would dare to. I asked around, to compare numbers with people who worked for them before. They confirmed that that’s normal with this company.’ she shrugs, ‘ But yeah, others paid well or even very well, so I really don’t want to say this is better or this is worse.’
It seems that the bigger you are, the more you can boss people around. The promised glory that might come as a result of working with famous publishers can cut down a part of your cheque. But fame rarely pays bills!
IS IT WORTH IT?
When approached by an agent or a publishing house representative, it’s good to have a set of rules of your own, otherwise, you’ll be easily pressured to take up work just on the basis of external validation.
What are the things you should always take into account? What are the gems on your freelance crown?
Will I have fun?
If you’re not counting your ribs and your landlord is not calling the police to evict you, this should be your number one concern. Your selling your time after all. Will you wish you did more of those beer commercial storyboards when you’ll be lying on your deathbed? I don’t think so. So choose carefully.
I gave up on many projects that sounded great but didn’t sit with me right. Once I was approached to turn a literary classic into a comics. It was tempting. Stable pay for half a year, royalties afterward… But my goal has always been to create new stories, with diverse cast and today’s themes and issue. If I took the job, I’d be doing the exact opposite. So I politely decline and you know what? I never regretted it.
Will this advance my career?
We all have it in us to want to be better. If you never leave your comfort zone, you’ll never know what you’ll capable of. If you stick with the same clients, you’ll be stuck with the same kind of work. And the same kind of pay.
Will I be able to make this part of my portfolio?
There are many fields of creative work where you can make great art and be part of something bigger, but gradually you dissolve into the monolith mass that it ‘The Team’.
I had friends working on beautiful board games, spitting out illustration after illustration and none of this work was ever published online, because of the contract and the time it took to finish the game. The same goes with character and costume design and most of the storyboards. You are an essential part of the team and it couldn’t have happened without you, but who will ever see that…?
Does the financial reward matches the size of the company and the time it will require to create it?
This one is very tricky. I often find that when my clients are the sole users of the final products, meaning you’re not selling your art so somebody could slap in on a thing and then sell the said thing, it all turns out much better. They trust your artistry.
On the other hand, if you see your client losing their mind about the saleability, they will probably come back, again and again, to ask you to change the navy blue to dark-blue-gray.
But rest assured: The big names know how to sell stuff and they most definitely will. After all, they found you, they want to work with you. You set the rules. Don’t let them sell you on fame, because they have the money.
Are my bosses good and appreciative people?
In my days, I worked with a lot of… difficult bosses. It’s amazing how often you come in contact with people while sitting in your PJs working on a computer all days.
How do you recognize a client that will make your life hard? Trust your instinct, it’s that easy.
Is their email nicely written, do they know basic grammar? Are they writing you because their previous four artists inexplicably disappeared on them and now you must save the renomé of your field? Are they even capable of articulating what they want? And do you feel like they actually like their and your work?
Most of these questions are easily and quickly answered. In my experience, it takes crazy amounts of money to balance out a crazy boss.
NOTHING IS SET IN STONE
Time to time you’ll run across a commission that will make you chip away a piece from one of these ‘gems’, trading in for a pile in a different section. That’s okay! Just make sure you are really getting what you think you’re getting, otherwise, you’ll end up with a lot of empty promises and very little retribution.
This value chart should not really change from commission to commission, but only after putting work aside, sitting down and re-examining it thoughtfully is only reasonable. The market changes and so do you!
Author: Štěpánka Jislová
Štěpánka Jislová is a Czech Illustrator and Comics artist. Born in 1992, she resides in Prague and apart from numerous illustrated books and two stand-alone graphic novels, she enjoys doing tattoo and cloths designs, teaches, writes and gives talks and presentations. She participated in the comics symposium The Superheroes of Eastern Bloc (2015) and was awarded a prestigious Getting to know Europe grant at Wilkinson College, CA. She’s a co-founder of the Czech branch of Laydeez do Comics. Main focus of her work is storytelling via symbolism and archetypes, which she explores through carefully crafted compositions and precise line-work.