Talking Comics Money and Art with Sarah Catherine Firth – Part 1

Comic artist and illustrator, Sarah Catherine Firth
Comic artist and illustrator, Sarah Catherine Firth

Sarah Catherine Firth is an award winning artist, and creative business owner. She loves graphic story telling in all its forms – Illustration, comics, animations, graphic recording and films. She is currently working on her first graphic novel. Go find her on the internet: Website Twitter Instagram Facebook Vimeo


We asked Sarah for some Hints&Tips for the comic world, and here’s Part 1. Part 2 to come tomorrow!


Is it possible to make a living from comics in Melbourne?


Gavin Aung Than, creator of Zen Pencils, makes a living off his comics. He’s based in Melbourne, with a publisher in the US, and has successfully tapped into the inspirational stories and quotes market, making the New York Times Best Selling Author list. I know of a few other artists who are based locally and work globally, that make a modest living in editorial cartoons, in the young adult, manga and superhero comics spaces.


Similarly, those I know in the alternative, literary, avant-garde, autobiographical, and zine scenes sometimes have publishing deals, but tend to need multiple income streams to make a living. Some have great success using Patreon and other crowd funding platforms to fund themselves and their projects, others not so much. It really depends on what work you make, how you make it, who your audience is and how good you are at engaging them.


What do you think of the ‘do what you love, love what you do’ mantra?


This aphorism is nice for about half a second. But then, when you actually think about it, at best, it is vacuous. Then, you realise, it is actually highly problematic and, at worst, pretty dangerous. I want to sternly waggle my finger at it. Let me unpack my perspective.


There are only a few people out there who are totally clear on their passion. For the rest of us, we love many things and it can be distressing and confusing to decide on the Right One. (Gavin Aung Than illustrates this anxiety in his comic rendering of the fig tree, from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar). Usually, finding what you ‘love’ is a messy process of trying things and failing, until you finally just decide to land on and invest in something. Jessica Abel wrote a great and short piece about this. Passions aren’t born; they are made via investment and attention over time.


If you do have something you love and you want to make money doing it, the frustrating reality is that not everyone can make it happen. There are complex dynamics at play behind success and failure. It has a lot to do with luck, hard work, persistence, resilience, timing and privilege. It’s easy to get seduced into thinking that living the dream is possible – life-coaches, self-help teachers, professional creatives and entrepreneurs like to encourage us. But in reality, the barrier to entry is high. Most people who have successfully found a way to do what they love, have failed many times before. This takes time and almost always costs money. Successful creative businesses take years to be established and become financially viable. You need access to personal savings, the ability to get a loan, or financial support from friends and/or family. And not everyone has access to those resources.


In saying that, if you find yourself in the wonderful position to make money doing what you love, please relish it and do something great. Don’t be sanctimonious about it. Many people are forced to do unlovable work to make ends meet. It’s important to be aware that many people are excluded and made invisible, because of structural injustice and inequality. This limits access, agency and opportunity. As Mika Tokumitsu puts it, “‘do what you love’ disguises the fact that being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is an unmerited privilege, a sign of that person’s socio-economic class.


Even if a self-employed graphic designer had parents who could pay for art school and co-sign a lease for a slick Brooklyn apartment, she can self-righteously bestow career advice to those covetous of her success… ‘do what you love’ keeps us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, often distracting us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices… It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labour is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labour serves the self and not the marketplace.”


Here is a sardonic illustration I drew, I Made a Decision. I Decided to be Great, of a life-coach preaching his ‘do what you love’ sermon atop a pile of privilege.


Do you make a living from your comics? What is your advice to other artists?


Yes and no. I get comic commissions, sell comics and zines, and when my graphic novel is published I will no doubt make money from that. This certainly supplements my income, but I don’t aim to make a living from my art. I tried that in the past, and found it stifling. Plus, I didn’t make enough money to pay the rent. Now I’m interested in keeping my art practice autonomous and vocational.


I have the privilege to do this, because I’ve been able to turn other passions of mine (curiosity, learning and process mapping) into a business. I have highly desirable skills with visualisation and communication of content so, over the past six years, I’ve built a successful adjunct career via my creative services business. With this work, my focus is always on collaborating with and being of service to the client, to deliver the most value I can to them. I do live graphic recording, action sketch videos, animations and facilitate creative workshops. This allows me to work freelance and carve out the space and time I need to make art on my own terms without the pressure of needing it to support me.


My advice? Take all advice with a grain of salt. If you’re not sure what you want to make of your art and comics, remember there are lots of different ways to do it. There is no right way. It’s totally healthy and normal to have no idea what you are doing, what you want to do, or how to do it. Figuring out this kind of stuff is hard, and it often involves a lot of testing and failing and time. I suggest sniffing down people who are doing what you think you might want to do, asking them lots of questions and getting an idea of how they make it work.


When I was figuring out what to do, I found it useful to explore the motivations behind my art making. You might want to ask yourself, is my art a hobby (for fun), or potentially a career (for money), or more of a vocation (for love)? Writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about these distinctions in a really helpful manner in a Facebook post about distinguishing your hobby, job, career and vocation.


Some people can hone their art into a career. It’s a huge investment and requires luck, ambition, strategy, and hustle. It involves building relationships, deadlines, sales targets, and managing yourself in the public realm. Some people can’t, or don’t want to make their art into a career.  There is no point in damaging the creative integrity of your vocation by insisting that it become a career, and then making career decisions that end up destroying what you love or making you feel like you’ve ‘sold out’. There is absolutely nothing wrong with going through your entire life working whatever jobs to pay the bills, and enjoying your art as a hobby or a vocation and never making it a career of it.


Are comics the art ‘for you’? Or is it another medium that you’re engaging with as part of your larger arts practice, one that you will eventually move past?


I like the freedom of being able to work in whatever medium best fits the idea. Nothing is off-limits to me. Who knows. In a few years I may be doing dance, interactive holographic sculptures, or skywriting in a plane. That said, I really like connecting events through time and find that the sequential narratives in film, animation, writing, and comics are extremely powerful and engaging ways for me to explore this. My brain also gets really excited by the interplay of words and images, and for that, comics are king.


Stay tuned! More to come tomorrow from Sarah Catherine Firth…