While many of us are finding new ways to entertain ourselves during the pandemic, content creators are wrestling with how to make our shows, comics, games and books safely. The challenges for each industry are unique, as are the challenges faced by individual creators.
Justin Barcelo Osterling is the co-creator and artist for Dryad, published by Oni Press. He also does fantasy illustrations for Wizards of the Coast and Roll 20 shows. He spoke to us to discuss the impact COVID had on his work, and on the larger comics industry.
Justin Osterling: Well, normally I started every day staring into the void with my first cup of coffee, maybe like 10 minutes. Now, I stare into the void for 30 minutes, and it’s much sadder.
Sadly, actually, my day to day has not been affected, which sucks because I work from home already. I was already quarantining for long periods of time. I think I was like, racing deadlines for a few different projects. I didn’t really leave my house for two or three months before quarantine hit Georgia, where I couldn’t leave again.
Luckily, my girlfriend was able to step away from work and sit here while she was dealing with some at-home work that she could do through a job and that sort of thing. And then eventually that led to unemployment [because she was laid off due to COVID], so now I am the sole provider—which adds a weight to every day.
Luckily, we’re getting enough to just skirt by, but it definitely feels like the race to finish every page is a lot harder, which stacks every time you either miss a deadline or something takes longer to draw, because that thought is just in your head the entire time. It’s definitely a battle to keep yourself in the right headspace every day. But as for scheduling, sadly it’s just working from home.
SZ: To give you a little bit background on the series, I’m actually speaking to voice actors, people in animation, people in comics, people in traditional publishing, and kind of asking them similar questions so I can get a feel for what the differences are in each industry.
So as a comics professional, how does health insurance work? Are you a member of a freelancer’s union? Does a publisher help?
JO: I work very hard to maintain my health and well-being because I have no health insurance. It is a lot of taking care of myself, and that’s like, super stressful, already stacked on top of itself with the threat of COVID.
Two years ago, I was riding my bicycle and I was t-boned by a truck. I was blamed for the accident for some reason, and despite me having all the precautions and totally having the right of way, I’ve just been dealing with those medical bills the entire time, which — waves vaguely in general direction of American health care — so it’s definitely taking every precaution I can, because I have no safety net.
SZ: Is that common for people in the comics industry?
JO: To my knowledge, yes. A lot of people in Savannah are all comics industry, and we all have the same sentiment, which is — we don’t really leave the house. Our partners make sure they go and wear a mask and don’t interact with people. I mean, there’s people that have the opportunity to join the Hero Initiative and different freelancing organizations, but there are a lot of us that sadly do not have that opportunity.
SZ: What is the Hero Initiative?
JO: The Hero Initiative is a collection based on comic fans and comics professionals. It’s honestly the GoFundMe of the comics community, where you sign yourself up for it, you donate if you can, and if something occurs health-wise or medical-wise, they help with a little bit of the billing.
SZ: So a crowdfunded freelancers union?
JO: Yeah, focused within comics.
SZ: On that same topic, when I spoke to authors and voice actors, I asked if there were unions and professional organizations providing support. Since I know most people in comics aren’t unionized, are there professional organizations that are kind of filling in to help people, give advice, give counseling, or does that not exist?
JO: It does, but not on our front, simply because we’re very lucky that we get to continue to work. I mean, it’s kind of shitty to say that, like, “Oh, yes, I’m lucky to work during a global pandemic.” But because a lot of our day to day doesn’t actually change, it means that we can continue to draw and work and I know at Oni Press, they’re having their editors work from home and that sort of thing, so that they’re not doing things within the office.
So luckily, that hasn’t dramatically changed for creators, but going back to organizations that are doing things to help people out, they’re actually focusing more on comic shops. A lot of them are having trouble staying open, because when no monthlies were coming out, there was nothing to put on shelves, so no income.
DC just stepped away from Diamond, which is like the sole distributor in comics, because they were holding back everyone. They said, “Oh, we’re not gonna release books,” and that sort of thing. And they weren’t doing anything to help out comic shops, whereas DC has stepped up and done a lot of work to help out local shops.
I mean, if those aren’t around, as much as you can go into your bookstore and hopefully pick up comic books, I mean, [local shops are still] where a lot of the income is coming in from.
SZ: So we’re seeing support for comics shops by publishers, but support for comics professionals has been fairly minimal?
JO: Yeah, which is — well, it’s hard to say they’re not helping us, because I mean, we get to continue to do our job, right?
There’s a lot of smaller publishers who sadly had to cancel their books, because they can’t afford to have their artists on. I’m lucky enough to be working at Oni and to have been able to continue to work on Dryad, but that is kind of the benefit of working from home is that this is kind of built in.
But then, everyone has the very scary weight of, how long does this last? Will that be sustainable for us? If strict, stay at home quarantine lasted for months and months, and people weren’t able to go out to the comic shops and send things to print and that sort of thing… If those weren’t available, [publishers] are kind of burning through their backlog of cash to make sure everyone else is paid, and eventually that’s going to run out and then who knows what would have happened?
SZ: Is that a continuing fear, that the publishers will start having to do more aggressive layoffs or cost cutting because people can’t go to comic shops?
JO: Absolutely, it is. It’s a constant fear throughout working in comic books. I mean, there’s been plenty of series that you’ve really enjoyed or not enjoyed, that have been canceled because of low sales, and right now sales are atrocious.
Books that are already out, like full form graphic novels and OGNs — those are doing really, really well. I think the highest trade sales in the last decade have happened in the last six months, but the monthly issues are kind of tanking, because it’s harder to get people to go out.
Digital sales are doing really well, too, but it’s still that fear of, “If we still don’t make enough sales, is this gonna be a thing that’s going to continue to happen?” So it’s that normal, regular fear of, “I hope my book does well,” but double so under the conditions of COVID.
It’s there. It’s definitely there.
SZ: Is Dryad, your comic, primarily a monthly, or does it release as a trade?
JO: It releases as a monthly. We had a three month gap, I want to say, between issues #1 and #2, because of COVID. Issue #1 sold really well. I forgot to ask about the numbers for issue #2, because I admittedly try to use as much of my brain space to not think about the outside world when I’m at my desk. Otherwise it turns into a spiral.
SZ: Building on that, because of the pandemic, there aren’t really comic conventions — those that are still around have gone virtual. How does the lack of conventions affect you?
JO: It fucking sucks, dude. I am in Georgia, my editor is in Portland, and my writer is in Sweden. I was going to be slated for Emerald City Comic Con and the New York Comic Con, and that was going to be a time of all of us getting together and like — one, getting to hang out and like, be friends — but also double down on certain ideas or talk things through on Dryad and that sort of thing.
[Conventions also] help me get some extra income, because working in comics is beneficial in that they can be a steady paycheck, but you still get paid on work produced. So if you slow down for any reason, it slows down your paychecks. And so conventions are a really good way of buffering that, making sure that you essentially live a normal life.
I have a lot of friends who aren’t on series right now or were starting series, and then going to those conventions to finalize deals or talk to editors on what the status of a term project is going to be. And then after conventions closed down, they just whisked into the wind.
Now they spent all their money on stickers and posters, and they’re just down hundreds of dollars, if not thousands, because some businesses weren’t refunding money for plane travel or hotel costs that they reserved. Now everyone’s kind of like trying to focus on Patreon and GoFundMe and Ko-Fis and all that sort of stuff. But the lack of a convention is rough, because it is the other half of comics income.
SZ: So it sounds like the loss of conventions actually triggered several problems. I guess I didn’t really ever think of this, but it sounds like a lot of process of making comics actually happens at conventions.
JO: Yeah, because it’s really the one time a lot of us see each other in person, so it’s a really good way of pitching ideas and that sort of thing.
I had a project that I was going to write and I was going to pitch to my friend. We were going to talk about it over at Emerald City, then COVID happened and I stopped having the money to pay them for pitches.
A lot of publishers stopped having meetings to take in acquisitions. Usually, once or twice a year, publishers will be like, “Alright, let’s take a bunch of pitches and see which ones we want to take and move in and have them be books.” They suddenly couldn’t do that because they had to make sure they had the money to pay the people they do have. So it’s like everything just ironclad shut down.
SZ: And then you have the other points that you made, which was that merch sales and tabling income from a con that’s not there. For most comics professionals, is tabling a big part of their income?
JO: Yeah, absolutely. If you are on an OGN or just a trade, just a graphic novel, and that’s done, your conventions after that are how you make more sales, so then you make your royalty money or you sell the comics that are given to you. It’s a lot of just extra money that you would get not directly tied to your page rate, but there’s also a lot of traditional artists who sell their [original] pages there, because comic rates really fluctuate. It depends on the publisher and the depth of the book or how much weight they want to put into the book.
So if you are working traditionally, and you’re not being paid super great per page, you still get money from royalties on that sort of stuff, but being able to sell those individual pages, goes well and beyond as a huge help monetarily.
SZ: So you’re both selling original work, and the book itself, from which you have the income from royalties. That’s interesting for me, because when interviewing a children’s author, they aren’t actually allowed to sell their own book. The children’s author said, “When we go to a school book sale, we’re making money off the speaking fees because our agreements with the publishers are that we can’t sell.”
So that sounds different from comics in that you can actually sell your own book.
JO: It might depend on whatever deal you have. I own my property, which allows me to sell it. So it just depends on whatever contract you have lined up because there’s plenty of people who work at DC and Marvel who sell their originals and do well with that sort of thing, but then you might also have people who are not able to.
SZ: But it sounds like, regardless of selling original work, you’re always allowed to sell issues?
JO: To my knowledge, yeah.
SZ: Do you think, based on what you’ve seen so far, that there will be some semblance of normalcy soon? Or do you think this is the new normal, and people are going to adapt to virtual cons and virtual tabling?
JO: I think it’s definitely the new normal for a while. I think we’re going to return to regular conventions and that sort of thing, but I do also think we’re going to see a rise of e-conventions. I think it’s a really great way to open up doors to people who wouldn’t be able to fly out or find a hotel within a specific city, especially for bigger conventions.
I think this will actually, hopefully, in the end benefit a lot of people for having that opportunity. I know a lot of creators are like doing Instagram lives together and that sort of thing, doing different Twitch activities together to help bring in just a little bit more income to everyone else.
The idea of continuing that more-accessible type of convention, after we’ve returned to the new normal, and we can do conventions and that sort of thing… I think it would be really beneficial and it’s hopefully going to help a lot of people. It’s just using the internet at its full capacity, that I don’t think a lot of people will give credit to. It’s almost like, 20 years ago, people were still really nervous about saying they started dating someone on the internet, but nowadays, Tinder is the new normal. I think it’s going to be something akin to that.
SZ: Improving the convention access both for the artist and for the attendees?
JO: Absolutely. It’s gonna open up the gates to a lot of people.
SZ: Do you and most comics artists you know still do work on paper and do like lettering by hand? I ask because, with respect to COVID, are there still packages that have to be sent between artists and letterer or publisher?
JO: Actually, that was a really big thing that happened to a lot of artists that I know who do still work traditionally. Before the shutdown, they actually had to go and splurge a bunch of money to stock up on paper and art materials, because there were fears about shortages. People were concerned it wasn’t going to get stocked at all, because it wasn’t deemed a necessary item, or it was going to take like a month or two to receive new supply orders.
So I know a bunch of people who were stocking up just to make sure that they were going to be okay because, again, it was at the time when no one really knew what was going to happen and how long it was going to last. Manufacturing wasn’t happening, even on digital stuff.
And this applies to all supplies. For example, I had to build a desk during COVID because I needed a new one. Supplies weren’t accessible and it was stalling processes comics-wise for a little bit. I think they’re doing okay. My best friend works traditionally and he hasn’t brought it up for a little bit, so I think he’s at least able to stock up a bit better now.
SZ: And I suspect these supply concerns were multiplied because there are several people in traditional page work, each handing off their work to the next person, correct?
JO: It’ll go writer, penciller, inker, generally to the colorist and then the letterer, but depending on schedule, it may go to the letterer and then the colorist but yeah, it is a multi-stage production to make a single comic book. It is a lot of work.
SZ: And you work digitally, so you have—I’m assuming—a slightly easier flow, to some degree.
JO: Yeah, luckily I work on an iPad and I’m the penciller and inker for my book. So it’s definitely made my life a little easier because you essentially get paid for every stage that you do. So if I’m not coloring, they’re taking money from what would have been my paycheck to then pay the colorist. Each page has a certain budget, and it’s broken off to the different people who touch it.
SZ: And that gets into what you previously mentioned about a page rate, where each person is getting paid some amount per page.
JO: Depending on the terms of the project, you might get paid $100 — I’m just pulling these out completely out of the air, because page rates are wildly all over the place and depend on the individual book, individual publisher, even the person. It is not standardized at all.
Each page rate will then be like, “Okay, I’m being paid $100 on just penciling,” and then the inker would be like, “Alright, well, I’m getting $50, because I’m not starting over completely.” It’s just like chunks for everyone, and their rate is what they get paid when they finish that page. And then you don’t get paid until all the pages are done.
SZ: How long does it take to get the first paycheck, from when you start work on a new book?
JO: Generally, your goal is to finish one page per day. That changes depending on what stage you are in the process.
I colored for almost 10 years, and you can do anywhere from like five to 10 pages a day, depending on whatever book you’re on, because it might be easier to color or it might be less complicated or what have you. But you usually get paid less, and then you might pay your assistant who helps you because it’ll cut down time. So colorists will be on different projects because they get paid less, so they want to spread out as much as they can. A penciller, who can only do one book at a time, will get paid a larger sum.
It’s all math magic, getting paid. In terms of when you get done, if you’re doing a page a day and you have a 25-page book, you then send in your invoice at the end of that process, 25 days later. Then the publisher has 30 days to pay you, so it can be a month to two months between payments. If you’re on top of your deadlines as laid out by your editor, those tend to overlap and you should be fairly solid.
Like I said, if you end up slowing down for any reason, that’s when the stretches can get longer and longer.
Sean Z: That explains more of the panic you mentioned, where, if you start falling behind it can build up into other problems.
JO: Yeah, and sadly, that’s kind of where the poor artists or starving artists stereotype comes from. You can be a full time artist and doing well for yourself and still have to then remind people to pay you.
Generally with freelance work, you don’t get paid until the product is done, and those people then have to send an email or a letter to whatever accounting firm that needs to process the payments.
So it’s a lot of chasing your money, and that’s where that comes from. Then if the accounting guy is depressed because of COVID, he’s going to take longer on his job. It’s just the chain reaction of sadness.
SZ: Do you want to add anything about work during COVID?
JO: I think the thing that was really revealed in the art community was how much every day can be a struggle for an artist. I have some very good friends that I talk to on a fairly regular basis that are just nowhere near anything entertainment or comics related. They get to work from home and live their lives, play video games all day and that sort of thing. They clock in and clock out. Anyone in the entertainment side, like comics — if you’re in any stage, from penciller to inker to letterer to colorist, you have to bring in your full mentality to it.
So if it ever gets caught up in the world, it just slowly and insidiously starts taking over your brainpower. And there were just so many people that I knew who would sit at their desk, and then just stare at a blank canvas for like two hours. Or they’ll be drawing and things that would take 15 minutes to draw were taking upwards of hours to do, because they were just so caught up in everything.
There’s even a guilt to being like, “I can’t look at the news because I’ve got to do my job. Does that make me a worse person?” and that sort of thing. It’s just like a processing unit trying to run all of these things all the time, while still trying to produce the thing that makes sure you get fed. And it’s just one tick every day making it harder and harder and harder, until eventually, you either just burn out — and then you can’t do anything — or you finally get that moment of reprieve at the end of the day, or you finally built up enough time for yourself to give yourself an actual weekend. Then you can finally just decompress and hopefully come back and actually do your job.
SZ: It’s interesting that you mentioned the blank canvas. One of the best pieces of advice I received when I started doing journalism was from a friend of mine who worked for the New York Times. She took me out to dinner, and said “just so you know, there will be times when you sit in front of your computer and start sobbing. That is perfectly normal and it happens to everyone, and you shouldn’t be afraid when it happens.”
JO: Absolutely. Two days ago, I just got caught up in everything. I was getting behind on bills. The news was just progressively getting worse. I am a Latinx individual; I’m a person of color living in the south. So my experiences anytime I do leave my house isn’t safe.
Fairly recently, I was followed back to my car with some threats. The whole world just catches up and I was just trying not to cry and totally shut down. I was just like, “How does anyone in the world actually make art?” It was just very… intense. It sucks, but I mean, I’m grateful I do it. I love my job. I wouldn’t do anything else. It’s a happiness tax, I guess.
SZ: Perhaps related to that, do you have any advice you would want to give other artists on how you’re staying sane?
JO: It is okay to let yourself hit rock bottom every once in a while. I know for myself, I have to acknowledge my feelings. If I am just feeling absolutely horrible, I will just let myself feel horrible. I will just wallow and sulk and look out a window while it’s raining and let a single tear fall down my face. I feel like a lot of things that stop you from creating or stop you existing is trying to deny those feelings. Being able to acknowledge them and admit they’re real and they’re there helps you then move past them.
I don’t think it does anyone good to deny the emotions they feel. Then after you do acknowledge it, you can’t let it control you, or else will never do anything ever. That is how you fall down the very dark spiral of the world and yourself. So, feel those emotions, acknowledge they’re real and then don’t let them stop you.
SZ: Good answer.
JO: Thanks. I spent a lot of my time being very sad.
SZ: When I was in college, there was a piece that made the rounds called “I Am Fine,” and it was discussing the mental health issues that all of us were kind of glossing over.
You’d ask someone, “How are you doing?” And someone would respond, “Well, I haven’t slept in two days. I’m late to a lab and I’m behind on three classes, but I’m fine.” And people would always just end all those comments with, “But I’m fine.”
Are we though?
JO: It’s a real problem. When Tara [Lehmann, Publicist at Oni Press] actually connected me with, “Oh, hey, Sean wants to do an interview,” and that sort of thing, she started off with, “How are you doing for as well as you can?”
If we were in person, the two of us would have just stared at each other blankly for a full minute as we both just went, “It’s fine. We’re okay. This is fine.” It goes back to that comic meme where it’s the dog in the fire saying, “Oh yeah, this is fine.”
I think we all just really need to admit to ourselves that it’s okay when it’s not fine.
I live fairly close to the art school (SCAD) that I went to, and a lot of school professors will bring me in and actually have me talk to their seniors or their graduating students who are trying to get into a full time position.
I talk to the realities of it because you usually have someone say, “Follow your dreams! We drew this and hung out a bunch until we made a comic book and it was great!”
The reality is: Imagine the worst possible day of your life. Now, draw the best thing you’ve ever drawn on that day. That’s every day for the rest of your life in comic books. The turnaround has to be so intense that you can give yourself days off, but it’s still just haunting you in the back of your head.
Tom Fowler, the amazing comic artist, he was either on vacation or was on an anniversary. It was supposed to be a day where he was relaxing, and he was like, “I hope you comic nerds are grateful, I have to work today.” No one in comics gets paid enough for the amount of stress that making a single issue entails.
It’s everyone looking at each other and saying, “This is fine.”
How are you doing, by the way? Do you want to talk?
SZ: I’m fine.
You can follow Justin on Twitter. This piece is part of an ongoing series, Creating During COVID, which explores how creators are reacting to and coping with the pandemic.