Over the summer you might have stumbled onto Robert Kirkman’s plea for comics creators to leave DC and Marvel behind for independent publishing (or to come to Image, if you read it with a cynical view). You may also have heard that Brian Bendis attempted to call BS on Kirkman’s plea and debated him on the topic.

While the debate didn’t have a clear winner, the stances were clear: Kirkman wishes more creators at DC and Marvel realized how much money they could make by going independent. Bendis thinks Kirkman’s sales are too high to be a reasonable example, finds his Marvel deal (including a page rate, royalties and placing Powers at Icon) preferable and kept talking about the value of trade paperback reprints.

Unfortunately, nobody really got into the numbers of the situation, despite reports of Kirkman having some charts on hand. Fortunately for you, I don’t fear math, so let’s find out what you could reasonably expect to make as a comic creator under the Image deal. Note there are many kinds of deals in independent comics—for creator-owned books under the Image and Icon deals the creator pays a "production" fee up front, but collects the majority of the profits. A handful of self-publishers who take all the risk and all the profits, such as Terry Moore's ABS and Jeff Smith's Cartoon Books. There's also "creator participation" (common at IDW, Boom, Dark Horse, Oni and most other publishers) where the publishers pays creators a something up front or on the backend and all profits are shared down the line.

Creators make much more on the first two kinds of publishing models, but for the purposes of argument well look at the metrics of many kinds of indies.

(And note none of this has anything to do with the publisher deals at companies like Fantagraphics, D&Q and so on, where a more traditional royalty system is in effect.)

The direct market isn’t very complicated. You’re selling to the distributor at approximately a 60% discount. For our purposes, we’re going to call it 61% for a little bit of hidden costs fudge factor.

So the amount of money a publisher gets to keep from a $2.99 cover price is $1.1661. A $3.99 comic gives you $1.5561 from the distributor.

Morgan Printing was kind enough to provide me with some rough estimates on printing costs, so we can see some ballpark figures on what we’re dealing with in terms of price per issue and net profit if selling out the print run:

For Black & White Comics




Net @ $2.99

Net @ $3.99





















For Color Comics




Net @ $2.99

Net @ $3.99





















Now who actually sells in these ranges, in terms of Independent/Creator-Owned comics? According to ICV2’s September charts:

0-3000 (Breaking Even)

Pax Romana (Image) 2889

Golly (Image) 2896

Godland (Image) 2930

Roberts (Image) 2958

Perhapanauts (Image) 2964

3000 — 5000 (Beer Money)

Zombie Tales (Boom) 3074

Necronomicon (Boom) 3197

I Kill Giants (Image) 3251

PVP (Image) 3408

Spooks: Omega Team (Devil’s Due) 3893

Knights of the Dinner Table 4262

Dead Space (Image) 4331

Tank Girl (IDW) 4515

Atomic Robo (Red 5) 4925

5000 — 10000 (Starting to Get Paid)

Dynamo 5 (Image) 5014

Youngblood (Image) 5328

Usagi Yojimbo (Dark Horse) 5471

Glamourpuss (A-V) 5642

Dead, She Said (IDW) 5963

Armory Wars II (Image) 6414

Gravel (Avatar) 7138

Savage Dragon (Image) 7937

Astounding Wolf-Man (Image) 8716

Sword (Image) 8887

Over 10000 (The Money Makers)

End League (Dark Horse) 10649

Echo (ABS) 13033

Fathom (Aspen) 13811

Darkness (Image) 14228

Back to Brooklyn (Image) 14474

Invincible (Image) 14904

Witchblade 15086

Criminal (Marvel Icon) 15615

Powers (Marvel Icon) 17985

Spawn (Image) 19078

War Heroes (Image) 22411

Walking Dead (Image) 23627

Hellboy: Crooked Man (Dark Horse) 24419

The Boys (Dynamite) 27104

Project Superpowers 29153

Bendis is right about one thing: Kirkman is abnormally successful in independent comics. The only other person with a similar success is Garth Ennis, and The Boys got a head start under DC’s Wildstorm imprint. Kirkman has two books selling well over 10K copies and another selling not too far under 10K. He’s done this with artists that weren’t necessarily “names” when they came on board, in comparison to the DC and Marvel folks he’s courting.

While Top Cow's Fathom/Witchblade/Darkness are pushing the definition of a licensed comic these days, what Kirkman is probably trying to bring to Image, err, creator-owned comics are more projects teaming writers and artists with DC/Marvel exposure like Back to Brooklyn (Garth Ennis/Jimmy Palmiotti) and War Heroes (Mark Millar/Tony Harris). If you look at ex-DC/Marvel writers paired with artists without many Big Two credits you get Joe Casey on Godland, Joe Kelly on I Kill Giants, Todd DeZago on Perhapanauts, or Larry Hama on Spooks: Omega Team. That is to say, the street cred may be there, but the sales are so low as to make you wonder if anybody’s making money off those books. Especially when Image is charging a $2500 listing/production fee off the top, which would suggest a color comic doesn’t start to put a dime in the creator's pockets until the sales start climbing to the 4-5K range.

Bendis is correct in saying that the trade paperbacks are an important part of the formula, and this is much harder to estimate for two reasons. First, a non-publisher really only has access to estimates for the top 100 tpb’s each month and virtually no access to reorder information past when the book debuts (with a few exceptions like Walking Dead by Kirkman, which regularly has reorders on multiple volumes crack the top 100). The data available suggests it’s unusual for an independent book not by Kirkman to hit the Top 100 list, and when it does, they tend to top out around 3,000. Secondly, a lot of publishers will print these books in China. This can save up to 40-50% of your printing bill I’m told, but the time table for getting the books to the shops means you have place your order before the Diamond numbers arrive, which means you’re guessing at your numbers and looking to err on the high side. It also means you’re talking about carrying inventory which is normally less of an issue with the direct market. The numbers below are U.S. printing estimates, so if you want to adjust the numbers for China, figure a bit less than double the net revenues. With the 61% discount + fudge factor to Diamond, you’d get $5.8461 back from a cover price of $14.99 and $7.7961 back from a cover price of $19.99

192 pages — Black & White




Net @ $14.99

Net @ $19.99
















192 pages — Color




Net @ $14.99

Net @ $19.99
















As a side benefit, this chart gives you a little insight into the economics of graphic novels. Depending on the amount of extras, 192 pages is the equivalent of around 8 issues, so selling out a color run of 3000 copies with a $19.99 cover is about the same net income as 8 issues with a cover price of $3.99 and a circulation in the neighborhood of 2500 copies each. Remember to knock 20% off the net income if you’re with Image (and that 2500 issue floppy probably wouldn’t be making back your $2500 fee, either, were you with Image). Absolute pricing aside, you’re not going to get the printing down to where you’re closer to 8 issues worth of income out of the collected edition until you’re selling much higher than seems like a reasonable short-term goal from the available data. It makes more sense in the independent market to serial and collect, than to do an original graphic novel (and it makes sense that when people do, they like to do a hardcover edition first).

Kirkman likes to throw in the media licensing rights at this point. I don’t personally find that to be a realistically predictable revenue stream. The odds may be slightly better than the lottery, but it isn’t like the creator has a lot of control over this, so in terms of knowing there will be food on your plate, movie money can’t factor into this decision.

The other thing to realize here, and nobody likes to mention it, is that it will take you several months to get paid. Quite likely 3-4 months with a monthly comic, since this is largely back-end royalties. Thus a month will pass after the book has shipped and we like to think work has at least started on a given issue before it’s solicited. Writers find it a whole lot easier to kick out an extra script each month than artists do fitting in another book, so your pencillers and inkers will need deep pockets or somebody arranging for an advance before they step into the creator owned world. If you’re waiting to see your profits come in from the trade edition, that could easily be a 9-12 month wait depending on how many issues you’re collecting and how long you wait between the last monthly issue and the collected edition... and how much inventory you’re holding that needs to be sold before you see a profit... and add 6 months if you’re selling through any returnable, “traditional” bookstore markets.

So who wins the Kirkman/Bendis debate? I really wish I could say Kirkman wins, as a healthy Image economy is good for everyone, but that simply isn’t the case barring special circumstances. Marvel declined to officially comment, but their “normal” creative budget for a comic used to be about $15K. I have reason to believe that’s gone up a bit. Since Image is usually in the habit of pricing their books individually, instead of pooling resources for a bulk rate, it looks like you’re probably going to start sniffing at the Marvel creative budget around 15K copies, depending on what cover price the book in question is (and obviously, this is a lower number if you’re doing a black & white book).

I talked to a fellow, let’s call him “Westby,” who is very familiar with Image, Marvel and even DC numbers. Westby thought 15K was roughly a “break-even” number with Image, whereas you really started making money at Image when you cracked the 20K circulation barrier. Westby emphasized an often ignored fact: that Image is a much better deal if you do the entire book yourself, that is to say, you aren’t paying a colorist or letter out of your own pocket. Westby further opined that Image’s system only really worked well for Top 40 creators.

Let’s go back and look at that sales chart again for names of Image creators selling in the neighborhood of 20K+

In September, that would be Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard on Walking Dead, Kirkman being reigning King of Independents; Mark Millar and Tony Harris on War Heroes, Millar being a top 2 Marvel writer and Harris currently doing the quasi-indie Ex Machina for Wildstorm and more famous for his Starman run at DC; Spawn by David Hine and Brian Haberline, an exception to the rule, but Spawn is a brand at this point. That’s it. Hitting right around 15K, are Witchblade and The Darkness, two more Image “brand” books where the original creators haven’t touched the book on a regular basis for years and are effectively work for hire books inside a creator-owned structure, and Back to Brooklyn by Garth Ennis and Jimmy Palmiotti. Ennis being most famous for Preacher from Vertigo and Punisher for Marvel, and whose indie book from Dynamite, The Boys, outsells anything from Image. Palmiotti spends most of his time with DC, still will ink a bit for Marvel and his name comes up whenever executive positions are discussed. Both are likely Top 40 creators. Looking down that list, the only other Top 40 names I see are Alex Ross at the top with a creator participation deal on Project Superpowers and Warren Ellis on Gravel, where he has a co-writing role; in other months Ellis would appear slightly under that 15K line with other work from Avatar.

Maybe more Top 40 talent would cause an increase in indie books selling over 15K. There really aren’t a lot of data points. What I can tell you is the evidence suggests that unless you’ve got a team of writer and artist both with reasonably high profile mainstream work and you jump into an independent book, the 5K-10K range is where you’ll mostly likely aspire to, if you can debut that high. That’s what the numbers say, and that’s where even Kirkman’s Astounding Wolf-Man book is crawling from. You’re not even nearing DC or Marvel page rate money in that range, especially if Image is taking the first $2500. You’re making some money, but not the big league rate.

The collected edition money can help make this up, except for two things: outside of The Walking Dead, we don’t have clear evidence how well the trades sell; and this is money you won’t see for a year, so it won’t pay your bills. The biggest barrier to entry in the independent market is you’re working on speculation for delayed income. Walking Dead is a good example of delayed income. Kirkman could afford to stick to that book while it grew an audience. Tech Jacket didn’t work, you may recall. Invincible appeared to be close to not making it. But every time a new collected edition came out, everything grew for both Walking Dead and Invincible. This doesn’t happen to every book.

The big plusses with Image are that they front the money for printing. They get you in the front of the Diamond catalog. They manage your book distribution with bookstores (with the specter of returnability and longer payment delays hanging over your short-term head) and are more experienced with the China advance order process. If you get movie option money, you keep it.

Icon from Marvel is a better deal, if you’re one of the extremely few who can get it. You’re in the catalog with your Marvel titles, which will be your best selling material, right where the retailers can’t help but see the connection. According to a source familiar with Icon, whom we'll call "Smiley" Icon does charge a fee, it’s less than what Image charges. In addition, Marvel prints so much more, your cost per issue will be lower than at Image. If true, 15K sales at Icon could be equivalent to 20K at Image, but consider that speculative until somebody throws down hard data.

If you can be like Kirkman and build up your sales over a few years, if you can build a library of popular trade editions, if you can sell the media rights to your comic, then Image can make you more money than DC or Marvel.

On the other hand, if you’re selling 3K-5K copies of an Image book—and some people are—I hope you have alternate income sources, because I don’t see how you’re making a living. Some sources I spoke with while working on this article suggested my numbers were on the conservative side, but I’d rather err on the side of caution when talking about income.

If you’re interested in independent comics publishing, take a look at cost and revenue estimates and take a look at the sales charts for a few months. That’s a tight market, particularly if you live in an area with high cost of living. You’re not paying rent in Manhattan with most independent comics, if you get my drift. People talk about the price of comics going up. Take a look at the charts, there’s economic justification, given the circulations we’re talking about. I don’t know that the consumer will be willing to spend freely or buy as many titles at that price point, but the publisher justification is there, unfortunately. And if you can make a compelling black & white comic, by all means, the finances work a lot smoother.

[Todd Allen is a technology consultant and adjunct professor with Columbia College Chicago's Arts, Entertainment & Media Management department. Allen's book, The Economics of Web Comics, is taught at the college level. His further comics industry commentary is available at Indignant Online. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of PW Comics Week.]