Recently, a bunch of we cartoonists got in a discussion about what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate in terms of copying people’s styles, reposting people’s stuff, and so on. I think most people do these sorts of things innocently without some sort of philosophy or intellectual defense. Just as you aren’t born knowing that it’s inappropriate to pick your nose at the table, you aren’t born knowing that it’s inappropriate to repost original work without trying to credit the author.
Since people generally don’t know this is a point of etiquette, the responsibility falls to artists and informed consumers to teach them. It’s beneficial for the artist for obvious reasons. However, it’s also beneficial to the reader. If your favorite artist has to get a day job, she won’t be producing as much or as high quality of work. So, if you can contribute to that artist’s revenue and readership, you’re ultimately helping yourself.
So, here goes: The Proper Care and Feeding of Artists
Before anything else, artists need money. They don’t necessarily need a lot, especially if they’re young, but they do need money. This is mainly because an artist without a day job is a productive artist. She has more time to spend reading, thinking, and producing the material you like to read. Extra money for leisure can be good too, as an artist who is constantly worried about making rent isn’t really in a state of mind to do outstanding work.
With that in mind, here are ways you can help:
1) Buy merchandise
Generally speaking, this is the best way to support an artist. If you’ve been a longtime reader and wish to contribute, buy a shirt or a book or something. If an artist has just 2,000 readers who are willing to buy a single item per year, that artist can probably quit her day job (albeit to live off ramen). If you like her art, be one of the 2,000.
2) Donate money
Not everyone takes donations, but if they do, contribute. I personally prefer sales because donations are more fickle. I’ve heard stories of people who rely largely on donations getting hit very hard by economic downturns. My sense is that people in recessions can still justify buying a book, since 20 bucks is not bad for the several hours (at least) of entertainment you’ll get from the book. It’s harder to justify paying for something you were going to have anyway.
That said, especially if your beloved artist does donation drives, contribute. Much like with merchandise, it only takes a small group of contributors paying a little per year to buy an artist out of her day job.
3) Turn off adblock for favorite sites
Adblock is great, unless you sell ads. Personally, I estimate I lose something like 10% of ad revenue (though it may be higher) to people who use adblock. If your artist gives you good content and doesn’t put on nasty ads (like pop-ups, noisy ads, etc.), you can return the favor by turning off adblock
4) If you view the comics ad free, pay for it
In addition to adblock, there are many other ways to view a comic for free. You might do it through an unlicensed website or app. Or perhaps you check the site through rss. If you’re doing so, you’re not contributing to the artist’s ad revenue.
I’ve had people come up to me at cons and say “I use adblock, so here’s 5 dollars.” I think this is awesome, and a great way to think about supporting your favorite artist. As a reader, if you never buy something, I’d estimate you’re worth between 2 and 5 bucks to me annually via ad sales, if you’re super loyal. If you want to run adblock or read through rss or whatever, you can make up for the lost ad sales by buying one or two things a year.
The best thing for an artist’s career is word of mouth. There are lots of ways you can help with this.
1) Spread the word
If you can’t send money, you can still spread the word. Pick a few favorite comics and send them to friends. If your favorite artist runs ads, she’ll make money off the pageviews. And, maybe one of your friends will buy something from her.
2) Spot theft
If you see one of your favorite comics posted offsite with no attribution, take action in two ways: First, alert the site owners that copyrighted material is being posted on their site and request attribution. Second, if the site allows comments, post a polite complaint along with a proper attribution. Most cartoonists have archive searching, so it should be easy to find the original site for the comic.
3) Encourage good attitudes in others
Most image theft isn’t malicious. People see something funny, dump it to imgur, and post it online without thinking of the loss to the original creator. When you see this, instead of calling people dicks for doing it, talk to them about how it’s important to support the artist. People who have the right attitude about image theft really do a huge service to we artists.
I should add that this is especially true for newer artists. I’m fortunate enough to have a large audience, so I always have defenders when my comics get posted improperly. But, if you’re a fan of a comic with, say, under a thousand readers, you need to step up to the plate in that comic’s defense. It’s very likely you’ll be the only one who can do that.
This is more true for some artists than others, but everyone appreciates a friendly email now and then. I’m at the point where I get more emails than I can respond to, but I still read every single one, and every single one brightens my day. As an artist, you have only limited interaction with your readers. So, even if a small army of people are reading every day, you can feel like nobody’s visiting the site anymore. Hearing from regular people who read your stuff can really turn around a crummy day.
2) If your artist is going through a change, don’t be a dick about it
All artists change from time to time. If your favorite artist is making a change somehow, give it a fair shot. As a reader, it’s very hard to tell if you dislike the new thing because it’s bad or if you dislike it because it’s different. So, keep an open mind, and give it a shot.
The thing to realize is that if your artist never changes, it’ll be bad for you too. You’ll get repetitive, stale work. So, even if you could get an artist to revert back to her old style by complaining, the result wouldn’t necessarily be something you’d like. Stick with the artist while she’s feeling out this new direction. If you liked her work in the past, there’s a decent chance you’ll come around to the new thing.
Also, realize that there’s a learning curve to everything. If your favorite artist is suddenly also doing origami sculpture, realize that her first 100 attempts aren’t going to be Grade A. If you don’t like it right now, consider leaving and returning in 6 months.
3) If you’re learning from your favorite artist, there’s a fine line between homage and theft
20 years ago, if you were a big fan of Garfield, you might decide to draw a completely original comic called Argfield and show it to friends via a xerox machine. These days, the equivalent is to put it online. The problem is that online, if your style is very similar, you might confuse readers. This is especially worrisome from an artist’s perspective if your content is more edgy than the person you’re imitating. As a webcartoonist, my reputation is everything to me. If someone, for example, copied my style and did a racist joke, I could lose a lot of readers over it.
Copying your heroes is an important part of every artist’s development, so I don’t want to discourage that. However, as I said, it’s a fine line. Here are some clear rules:
(A) Don’t steal someone else’s words.
(B) If you’re doing a very close copy, just to learn, credit the artist and not yourself. If you do a great rendering of Gabe from Penny Arcade, that’s awesome, but don’t claim it as your own.
(C) Don’t imitate for too long. Learn by imitation, then move on, and cultivate your own style.
I know the above is quite a list of recommendations, but when you think about it, it’s all pretty simple. If you like someone, you should: contribute financially, tell people about it, and be good to the artist. The above are just a bunch of particulars that facilitate those 3 things in a big way.
In the last few years, a lot of online cartoonists have made the switch to full time. This is great! But, there are still many artists who have to skirt the line by taking odd jobs. There are even artists who once were full time who have been compelled to go back to a day job.
Running a website means you have to speed up just to stay in the same place. As more websites and vendors go online, you have to have a larger and larger audience just to make the same revenue. So, we as artists really rely on the readers to help us keep things going. So please, do your part by following the simple rules above.
PS: I have a suspicion I’ll get suggestions from fellow artists about additions to this document. So, there may be edits after it goes up.