Joining The Fray: Yes, Rich Tommaso’s Work Should Be Selling Better

by Hannah Means Shannon

 

I’m writing this piece in response to an ongoing discussion happened in the comics community about a Facebook post that comic creator Rich Tommaso placed online last week voicing in very personal terms his frustration with his career in comics. The impetus for writing the post was receiving initial order numbers on the first issue of his upcoming Image Comics series Spy Seal, a Herge-like exploration of international intrigue driven by talking animals who wear clothes. And very fine clothes, indeed.

Here’s that post from Rich Tommaso in text form:

In my 24-year “profession” as a cartoonist, I have never felt more angry, depressed, frustrated, confused, disenchanted, burned out, suicidal, and just plain fed up working in the comics medium than I do right at this moment. After a grueling, 3-year-long, 7-day-a-week work schedule of writing, hand lettering, penciling, inking, and coloring various original projects at IMAGE, I have just experienced a total meltdown after discovering the narrow sales figures for Issue #1 of my third series for them, SPY SEAL, now mere weeks from its release date. Sure, I could’ve hired someone to do one of those tasks for me, like coloring, but they would have done that work for close to nothing–and I don’t believe in hiring people to do a job like that for free. And I know–there are a lot of cartoonists working for nothing out there, the indie or art-house or whatever cartoonists.

Well, if you’re going to bring up that old, “you’re not supposed to make money making comics” argument, don’t bother. I’ve heard that bullshit for years and I’m tired of it, so you can stop reading this now and go back to reading your R. Crumb comics, you little curmudgeons. Reminder: R. Crumb is the underground artist who bought a villa in France for a suitcase of sketchbooks–and whose first ZAP comic book sold a million copies. So, anyway, what the hell happened? Did comic shops pass on the series because it’s not a blood and guts, gore-fest? Is it because it’s not based on a movie or television show? Is it because I have never written or drawn a high selling MARVEL or DC comic? Or maybe I just don’t understand the comics business at all. And just what is the point of using ALL of these social media tools to promote your work when they only lead to such abysmal, diminishing returns? I don’t mean any of this as a slight against my publisher–I feel like IMAGE has done everything they could to promote this series–certainly more than I have.

They’ve helped to get my work reviewed, they’ve set up interviews for me, highlighted my work on their website and podcast, kept costs down on my books, and ultimately have afforded me the time to work solely on my own comics, something I’d always dreamed about doing ever since I was a child and, eventually got to do, only these past few years. And I more than appreciate the confidence and support that Eric Stephenson has given me and my work during my brief time with IMAGE. But I have definitely hit a wall here–when sales on a first issue are this low, one wonders and worries about paying the rent in the coming months–and much more work needs to be done before the series is even completed. I wish I could pin point just what the hell went wrong as I sit here, racking my brain to think of just what the hell I’m even qualified to do for a j-o-b these days–besides going back to making pizzas again. A job I’m no longer even physically equipped to do, since I suffer horrible back pains whenever I stand on a hard surface for more than an hour. But a job, nonetheless, that right now seems strangely like an oasis compared to one where I continue to place my livelihood in the hands of the comics buying public.

Since then, comic creators have been chatting about the points Tommaso raises in his Facebook post, the long career he’s pursued in comics, and the diminishing return on his sales figures. Comics news sites have started talking about it too, going so far as to suggest there might be another slump in comic sales happening right now affecting comics like Spy Seal. Heidi MacDonald at The Beat gives a full critique on the state of the industry right now, and pin-points a downturn for Marvel as something affecting retailers and the market as a whole.

MacDonald rightly by-passes some of the snark and criticism that Tommaso has been receiving for coming off as entitled to a successful comics career. The argument goes: Surely no creator, however talented, is guaranteed success in this field, and certainly not financial success in a field so competitive? Sometimes hard work is not enough, and creators have to just accept this or else find work outside of comics.

As a testament to Tommaso’s generally very level-headed and determined personality, he has since said that he’s been overwhelmed by the kindness and support he received in response to his post, and doesn’t seem affected by the criticism he’s also receiving.

As someone who has personally been writing about Tommaso’s work consistently for about five years (though that’s nothing compared to some who have followed him for wenty years), I propose that Rich Tommaso’s work should be selling better than it is, and simply throwing up our hands and blaming the state of comics may have enough truth to make us feel it’s justified, but doesn’t speak to the whole truth of the situation.

I’m not arguing that every talented and able comic artist should be able to make a full-time job of comics and rely on comics for financial security. I am arguing that Tommaso’s work has consistently flown under the radar of comics news sites and publishers, and therefore the reading public, also.

There are a core of comics journalists who have been enthused by every book Tommaso has written and drawn, and given substantial praise to those books, but that number is small.

As Tommaso says, there has been a huge amount of support from his current publisher, Image Comics, in getting Spy Seal out there, and taking a chance on his previous works Dark Corridor and She Wolf, but that level of media focus from a publisher feels new in the context of Tommaso’s long career.

So, what’s the deal? The truth is in the numbers. The more times a comics-reading public sees the name of a creator in print or hears it on a podcast, the more times the comics-reading public hears a comic title, the more likely they are to give a book a shot and support it financially in ordering from their retailers. That goes for retailers, who are people, too. If they rarely hear about a creator or title, or not at all, how could they possibly decide to stock it in their shop?

It would be impossible to argue against the maxim that it is nobody’s fault that Tommaso’s books aren’t selling. This is not something we can attribute to any one factor.

But Tommaso’s books have never gotten the attention they fully deserve. So surely that’s a factor in sales. It’s long been an issue in the arts that we should not equate critical success with financial success, and we shouldn’t. They are separate things. But considering the quality of the work Tommaso produces, he has been far more deserving of both. And both have, largely, eluded him so far.

I’m not saying the comics-buying public is to blame for this–I’m saying that the comics-supporting journalists and publishers have let an astonishingly original and skilled cartoonist slip through their fingers series after series as he’s worked through the years.

And yes, comics is currently flooded with talented comic artists, and as MacDonald suggests, even a fleet of new publishers probably wouldn’t be able to give the number of deserving artists work.

But let’s not lump Tommaso in with that new wave. He’s been here, producing remarkable work in a variety of genres, for years, and in my mind he has something that artists newer to the medium do not yet have–a wide understanding of the beauties of the medium, and its history, that comes out in his work.

In the end, any position accusing Tommaso of acting entitled to more, or lamenting the realities that more realistic comic artists should simply accept shows a lack of knowledge of who Rich Tommaso is and what he has created so far.

Many readers may be coming to this topic purely based on looking at a cover or a couple pages of Spy Seal, determining that a comic drawn in a European-homage style is niche, and therefore won’t sell well, and judging Tommaso as naive for not seeing low sales figures as a likelihood.

What they are failing to see is a person who has enriched this field with many comics over a long period of time, and yet neither he nor his work have been a subject of conversation among journalists or publishers very often.

If he had, the public would be reacting differently to his lament and would share in his frustration more fully.

His comics should be selling better, and the reason they are not lies in the response of journalists and publishers at each interval that he published a work over the past twenty years, not in a lack of publicity for Spy Seal.

Could this turn around? Yes, it could, as long as Tommaso doesn’t give up on comics.

Is Tommaso entitled to the support of journalists and publishers? Certainly not.

Are journalists and publishers responsible for supporting unique talents in the medium? They certainly are.

Whether one considers this an ethical or a moral choice depends on the individual, but if people writing about comics don’t feel they have a responsibility in this regard, their work is not really supporting the future of the medium in the way that it should be supported.

If you would like to support Rich Tommaso’s work, you can pre-order Spy Seal #1 using the following Diamond Code: JUN170705

You can also find many of his works on ComiXology here.

Additionally, you can pre-order the Spy Seal trade on Amazon.

For a substantial interview about Spy Seal and more with Tommaso here on Comicon.com, that’s right here too.