Can You Make a Living in the Independent Comic World?

by Grace Bello

Nicholas Burgess is a 24-year-old artist and activist living in Queens, N.Y. He draws independent comics (not the superhero kind) and created a zine called Against Debt, whose proceeds go to the Rolling Jubilee, a project from Occupy Wall Street’s offshoot, Strike Debt. He also collaborated with the New York City arts organization Bruce High Quality Foundation on their free arts education initiative, BHQFU. I spoke with him about art school and student debt, making a living off of creating comics, and what it means to ask artists to work for free.

GB: Do you have student debt from art school?
NB: I actually don’t. I had really wanted to go to what I thought was a more prestigious art school, and my parents talked me out of it. I went to a public school, MassArt [Massachusetts College of Art and Design], the only independent public art school in the country. I’m really happy that I don’t have any loans. Now that I’m out of school, I’m seeing the debt people have to deal with — from $30,000 to $50,000 — which is a lot.

So what about your fellow art school grads? Are they working artists, or are they doing unrelated jobs to pay off their student loans?
I think it varies a lot. A lot of people I know who went to my school don’t have any student debt, but that’s not to say that they’re not still struggling to make a living. I also know a lot of people who live in Brooklyn and have MFAs and owe a lot of money. A lot of people work (or are trying to work) these jobs that are in the art world, but they aren’t actually making art. They’re working at a nonprofit or at a framing shop or at a gallery. It seems like all that work is pretty deadening in a lot of ways. It’s related to the art world, but it doesn’t seem to be helpful to an artist to have to work those jobs.

What about being able to afford New York City? Luckily, you’re not paying any rent, because you live with your grandmother, but what about your friends who are living in Brooklyn, paying rent, paying off student debt from their MFAs, and working at nonprofits?
It seems like people are moving out: People are moving upstate, my friend just moved down to Alabama where she’s from. It seems like the people I know here are really hustling. Or maybe they already have some job that pays the bills, and they do art on the weekends.

Is it expensive to do what you do?
Not really. I mostly work digitally. I have a Wacom tablet, but other than that, everything is pretty much cheap or free: web hosting, this shared studio. My expenses are pretty low.

And what are your sources of income?
It’s totally random. Recently, I’ve been moving stuff for this woman who lives in Manhattan. She has this huge art collection. I’ll just go and work for a little while and make $20 per hour, which is pretty good. And sometimes I sell some comics at conventions like the Brooklyn Zine Fest.

One of your zines is Against Debt. Can you tell me a little bit about how that came about and how that’s connected with debt?
Sure. So it’s connected with student debt only tangentially. So basically, Against Debt was a project that I did to support the Rolling Jubilee, which is a project from Strike Debt, which is an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street. What they do is they buy people’s debt on the open market, and what they buy right now is distressed medical debt. So they buy it for pennies on the dollar, and then they forgive it. So when I heard about that, I thought it was such a great idea. I wanted to do something to support it. So I decided to make a zine that had a drawing, a comic, an essay, and a poem that all related to debt in a creative way. It would make you rethink it. I got my friend to print it really cheaply. Then I sold copies, and I gave all the money to the Rolling Jubilee.

And then the other zines that you make, are those also politically related?
Most of them aren’t. I think of myself, in terms of my comics, as a fiction writer.

Is there an ideal model for success as an artist for you? Is there anyone that you’re trying to emulate in terms of structuring your career?
That’s a really good question. The independent comic world is really small. And a while ago, I got the idea to just get in touch with these people whom I admire and are big in the comics world and just ask them how they got where they are today. And it was really depressing! These are people who are really big in the indie scene. And I was asking very pointed questions about their personal finances and stuff. None of them are making a living, basically. In fact, I really enjoy the work of this guy Noah Van Sciver. I haven’t talked to him. But he did a diary comic, and I was reading his stuff. I thought he was making a living off of comics, but he’s working in a sandwich shop. Good for him for hustling and working a lot. But you read those diary comics and it’s like, “Man, is that where I want to be when I’m 29?” I don’t know.

Do you personally know anyone who is making a living off their art in a way that they feel is successful?
Um, not anyone under 45. [laughs]

I’m trying to think of good examples of successful people in comics. I think the people who are, in any way, successful — they came of age at a different time. Pre-Internet. So it’s just a different scale in terms of how they got started. They distributed their zines independently, and then maybe they got into Raw magazine and others, and then they got a book deal with Fantagraphics, and they eventually became the go-to indie comics artists.
I saw Gary Panter down at SPX [Small Press Expo], and he was saying that was what he did. I think it’s probably still possible to take that sort of route today. I haven’t met anyone who knows how to do it yet.

What about Molly Crabapple? She’s successful — even though what she does isn’t exactly analogous because she doesn’t do comics. But she does the art that she wants to do, and she does it, essentially, through developing this huge Internet fan base that she built up over years and years. Do you think other people can replicate that success? Is this a thing?
I think it is a thing. But it’s also: How good are you at being a small business person? How enterprising are you? It seems like it’s a staggering amount of business work and managing to get to that point.

In terms of independent comics artists, I know of some people who are making a living off of their art. But they, like, live in France.
Yeah! It’s a really good point: How much of a social safety net there is in your country is a big thing. I still have health insurance [through my parents], and I would definitely be thousands of dollars in the red otherwise. I, personally, am very lucky that Obamacare came. There’s a lot of time that you need to invest in yourself to become successful, and I think that’s easier when there’s more of a social safety net.

So it costs a lot to become an artist in the first place. And there are a few groups that address that, like Bruce High Quality Foundation University and Free Cooper Union. I know you’ve been involved with those groups. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
So basically Bruce High Quality Foundation University is an organization. It’s a free art school on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. It started three or four years ago as this anarchist alternative. My teacher had told me about it, and I thought it was such an amazing idea. What it is, it’s a community where people get together and one person who knows something arts-related teaches a class. And the process of vetting and creating the classes was a class called Curriculum. You send in an application if you want to be a part of it, and then you join and talk about what you want the school to be next semester and who wants to teach what classes. It sounded like a really great idea, so I got involved with that. I wanted to make sure that I stayed in a community of people who were engaged in arts and who didn’t want to go to grad school because it was so expensive. And that seemed like a good way to keep that fire alive. So then I started working for them for a while; me and three other people organized their lecture series. That was a really interesting way for me to meet people in the art world and to be a part of that community.

Is Free Cooper Union related?
They’re separate from each other. Free Cooper Union — I’m not as connected with them but I know a lot of people who are part of it. Basically, Free Cooper Union is a response to Cooper Union deciding to institute tuition. Before, it was free. Then they basically financially mismanaged themselves and decided to start charging $20,000 a year — which is a big jump from zero. There was a big reaction to that from students. They occupied the president’s office and they eventually got a bunch of promises that the administration is now reneging on. The idea that they would have a student trustee at the trustee boards, now they’re not making that happen. So, yeah. Unfortunately, that’s what’s going on right now. We’re not moving in the right direction for arts. It’s so hard to make money as an artist. So the idea that you would go into debt to become an artist is bananas. And we’re not moving in a direction of arts education getting cheaper. It’s getting more expensive.

So, if you don’t have much of a safety net, to what extent should you or can you work for free [to get exposure for your art]?
That’s a really good question. Unfortunately, a lot of places like alternative weeklies — I’d really like to have my comics in there, but they don’t pay anything. Because there’s so much that they can get for free, basically. Like with The Village Voice. They did a comics issue, and they didn’t pay anyone! And then everyone had this huge outcry against them. They eventually decided to pay the artists. You’ve just got to feel it out, I think. I would err on the side of not working for free.

Anything else you wanted to mention about doing art for free?
One thing I was thinking about, I was working for Printed Matter at their Art Book Fair. Then they asked me if I wanted to be an intern there. Against my better judgement, I said yes. It was a really eye-opening experience, because there were maybe 10 people there and five unpaid interns, and they were all doing work that a paid employee should be doing. It was not a learning experience for these interns — it was just a job that you didn’t get paid for. I didn’t really feel like it was a good fit for me. I want to focus my energy on finding a job that takes what I love about making art and puts it into a different context.

So do you mean teaching art?
No, I mean maybe something totally different. For example, if you’re an electrical engineer and you’re trying to figure out how systems work, then when you come home, you’re much more likely to use those same skills on the side. Because what you’re doing for your job — that’s the heart of what your art is.

Grace Bello is a lifestyle and culture reporter based in New York.

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