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Monday, March 9, 2015

Free Art For Profit

Vincent Van Gogh: Starving Artist
On a seemingly innocuous Website called resides an ad titled, Artist Needed for Graphic Novel, asking for an illustrator to help develop a 90-page graphic novel for free. The average illustrator can produce one to two comic pages per day, so at minimum, this is a 45-day, full-time commitment. To non-creative types, this internship looks innocent enough--the ground floor of something potentially career enhancing. But those in the creative fields know better, and ads like this in American business are a dime a dozen. 

To paraphrase my old friend Kevin, a working illustrator with a family: "It's infuriating enough that this guy is asking to get a 90-page graphic novel developed and drawn and is calling it an 'internship'--but the real jewel comes near the end of the pitch, when he casually drops the suggestion that the book will get shown to a *gasp* Hollywood producer, but fails to stipulate whether the artist will have any profit participation in a film deal, which of course guarantees none."

So basically:
·      Draw the book for free for someone who, based on this ad, is likely demanding and unreasonable;
·      Get paid on copies sold only (if any); and
·      If the stars align and it gets made into film, you get to buy a ticket like any other straphanger to enjoy the fruits of your labors, while everyone else involved is watching it on their yacht, sipping champagne.

Actual ad from

But surely this must be a rare case says non-artists? Ha, ha...Wrong! 

My Own Encounter

In the 90s when I worked at Marvel Comics, entrepreneurs would often call the art director looking for hungry artists in our bullpen. I took one of these projects--to develop characters for a new kid’s show--that "The Man" (as I will affectionately refer to him) would pitch to "his connection" at Hasbro.

The popular shows of that era were ThunderCats, Transformers, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony...etc. They made tens of millions from licensing, toy sales, and animated shows. The Man and "his assistant", a single mom in her thirties who I suspected was working for nothing as well, decided our concept would be animal men fused with butterflies. (I kid you not.)

The Man was in his fifties and lived in midtown, near the Ziegfeld Theater. Even if his apartment was rent stabilized, it was still in a ritzy area. He'd made his money co-writing a country song or two. A picture of him, a famous blonde country singer from the 70s and 80s, and the other fellows who co-wrote the song hung with the gold record in his hallway. So in essence, he couldn't have been poor. He liked my portfolio and "hired" me. What I would get for my part in his toy project was a flat $300 fee. What did I know...? I'd just gotten out of art school. Essentially, they handed me a poster of different species of butterflies and said, mix a tiger man with a butterfly, or a lion. (Basically ThunderCats with butterfly wings.) I soon realized we were not talking about one drawing.

There was no script, no concept sheets, no models, no environment or world that the creatures existed in--NOTHING existed with regards to these characters other than "make animal butterflies." All The Man had was this idea and a "connection" at Hasbro. I soon realized I would be doing dozens upon dozens of sketches, creating the back story, supporting characters, making up props like swords, whips, and vehicles, deciding even the conflicts they would have in their world ('cause you gotta have drama), who the villains were, which animals represented the villains, where the universe would take place, and that I would be redrawing things over and over and over until they were satisfied--for quite literally a pittance with no stake to any creatorship. I did one large drawing and a couple of sketches, and they kept changing their minds and hawing, and I realized working for free for noncreative people who don't know what they want was not for me. (I call the "songwriter" noncreative because based on what I experienced, I've surmised his contribution to the song he co-wrote was to include the word "Y'all" in one stanza, for which he likely negotiated an equal cut of royalties.) I had a day job at Marvel, so this project would have consumed the remaining time in my life, and if by some miracle he sold it to Hasbro, I'd have virtually nothing for it.
Note: This artist wasn't identified on the Facebook page where I found it. 

I tried to settle on a kill fee for the work, which for you non-freelance types means a fair compromise between what was agreed upon and $0. The Man preferred to pay $0. Suddenly, his tune went from my portfolio being "exciting" before he hired me to "work not up to his standard." So I called his "contact" at Hasbro, a retired vice president, and discovered that their relationship was nowhere near as solid as The Man claimed it was. "Who, that guy?" this retired VP remarked. They had no contract, no funding, were not friends...essentially little relationship. Commuters form closer bonds with the person they sit next to on any given day than this guy had with the Hasbro VP. The Man, much like the person offering the internship above, was hustling. I chalked it up to a lesson learned.

When I reported what had happened to the Marvel art director (the legendary John Romita), he called The Man and promptly explained if I didn't get compensated for work done, he could never call Marvel again looking for talent, and that he would tell the people he knew in the toy industry about what The Man had done. (For the record, there is no human alive who has met John Romita and does not have the kindest, most positive things to say about him. He's an American treasure and we love him.) The Man relented and "decided" to pay me the full amount, but as he drew out the check, he tried to lay a guilt trip on me about my professionalism. I'm certain The Man thought my 6'1", 240 lbs, scraggly, long-haired friend Chris (who was coloring Teen Titans for DC at the time) was some sort of muscle I brought along for leverage, but he wasn't. Chris is a big a sweet-natured soul--like a butterfly merged with a grizzly bear.

Artists are easy marks for savvy business people. We're storytellers, regardless of whether we use a brush, a mouse, a keyboard or a guitar. We live in a world of ideas and aesthetics. We create mythologies for fun. We're ambitious for things other than money and power, although money is certainly necessary to function in the real world. No artist is adverse to money. And most of all--and this is what makes us prey to these types of unscrupulous offers--we want to be acknowledged. We want the most number of people to see and love our work. We want our visions validated. The best avenues to this lay with the commercial business world. Even an arty SoHo gallery painter needs a patron, marketing, promotion, and a web presence. No one would ever say that the marketing or media relation person should not get paid for his or her work in an artistic enterprise (see attached meme below for context). In the best-case scenario, everybody comes out earning something fair for their efforts.

Would a business major respond to a similar ad if the roles were reversed?
So if you are not creative, but want to use an artist to flesh out your idea, and you don't have money up front, at least be honest about how success would be shared. Artists are not averse to working on spec on the promise of future rewards. Just don't think you are doing anyone a favor by offering them a chance to have a portfolio piece one day. Creative people spend a lot of money in education and materials to create portfolios. By the time you've seen them and decided you want to work with us, it's a business relationship. 

Ed Lazellari is a blogger, humorist, and fiction writer. His novels Awakenings and The Lost Prince from Tor Books are available at Barnes & Nobles and

These books are available at


  1. Your experience is nearly identical to one I had about three years after yours.

    I was (as you know) also in the Marvel Bullpen, and one of the suits from upstairs came down to the Bullpen looking for someone to do art for a project. I won't name the suit but she was basically a nice sort, though rather clueless — she tried to involve me in other projects and in working with her I swiftly discovered she had less brains than the gods gave a planarian worm — so she was unable to recognize the project for the outright dud that it was. It was the idea of the son of another exec, a guy who was a recent college grad, and he was convinced that his idea was "revolutionary" and that it would "change TV cartoons as we know them."

    Trust me when I say that there was not one original aspect to his idea, which was basically a standard sitcom about a family, only with the wrinkle being that all of the characters would be anthropomorphic rats. That was it. That was the "revolutionary" hook. His mother was bankrolling the project and the pair of them expected me to do exactly the amount of work you described with your experience, with no credit or possible piece of the Hollywood/TV pie, but I talked with them at length and immediately established that what they were looking for would consume a ton of developmental time and that they would have to double the flat fee (which they did) for me to produce only model sheets featuring the most basic of turnarounds for the main characters. They repeatedly tried to cajole me into creating the show from the ground up — the only element the guy had in place was the rat angle and the names and most minimal of personality descriptions for the characters — but I kept telling them that no freelancer would do the kind of work they wanted for basically crumbs. They even wanted me to do glossy color presentation-level pieces mounted on foam core, but they killed that idea once I asked for the money needed to gets such items made.

    Anyway, realizing that the project had about as much life in it as week-old roadkill, I demanded payment up front (which I received) and turned in the agreed-upon work once it was done. I never heard another word about the project and nothing ever came of it, likely because no producers in their right minds would have touched it with a ten-foot pole. And once she found out that I expected to be paid for the work I did, the suit who involved me in the first place never came knocking again.

  2. Sounds about right. Ideas are a dime a dozen and worth half as much as a good fart.