It’s a funny thing, to hear the word “employed” in tandem with comic books, says Eben Burgoon, creator of the local comic B-Squad. He and Sean Sutter, lead artist on the project, explain that many artists and writers — even at the highest levels of comic book creation — often have to work for free or in trade. And as Burgoon points out, free beer and exposure don’t pay the rent.
The problem is, too many are expected to work for too little. It’s basically only the big brand-name comics like DC and Marvel that pay their artists and writers a living wage, and even then they don’t take many risks on unknown creators. According to Burgoon, the pay scale drops even further when they’re working on a local level. “All too frequently, the way comic books manifest is an agreement that, ‘We’re in this together and we’re not going to pay each other until this is successful,’” he says. “It’s excruciatingly hard.” That’s something he says he hopes to change, and moreover, Burgoon is making good on that mission by paying B-Squad artists a decent wage for their work.
“I’m a huge advocate in the comics community… to give themselves self-respect,” says Burgoon, who works with about six to nine local creatives per issue. It takes a long time to work on even a single page, he says, and often, writers and artists are working on several series at the same time and still struggle to pay bills and buy groceries. Page rates for artists working on something like a Batman comic might top out at a couple hundred dollars per page, but often, local rates can be as low as $20. Unfortunately, it’s a quirk of the industry, and the way comics developed starting in the 1930s, say Sutter and Burgoon.
“People do it as a passion project,” says Sutter, “and that leads to doing a lot of work for free. People deserve to be respected even if they’re passionate about it.”
Burgoon says that every artist who has worked for B-Squad thus far has taken “creative leaps” of their own. By employing mostly new and local artists, he hopes to create a community of professionals that can build their portfolios and move on to their own projects. Moreover, Burgoon says the artists come to understand that their work is valuable and worthy of being purchased and enjoyed. Burgoon points to Sutter’s latest project, a tabletop miniatures game called Relicblade, as an example.
But he can’t support local creativity without local backing, and Burgoon has already poured a significant sum of his own money into B Side: Volume One — the profits of which has been put back into Volume Two. So that’s what his latest Kickstarter campaign (he’s already done three with varying levels of success) is for: to get enough backing to continue paying the artists and creators working on Volume Two for their time and art. Sutter is also currently running a Kickstarter to fund Relicblade, a venture he says he wouldn’t have had the confidence or inspiration to pursue if not for his time working with Burgoon and the B-Squad team.
“I’ve wanted to make a tabletop miniatures game since 2010, and I’ve worked really hard to learn everything I need to learn, and to achieve all of the skills I needed,” says Sutter. “Doing work in my studio and believing in myself and knowing people will like it, that confidence in myself came because Eben invested in me.”
Sutter says he’s been building games as a hobby for years, but wanted to make a game that it didn’t take hundreds of hours or hundreds of dollars to learn how to play. Sutter says he wanted to make a game that was easy to pick up, hard to put down and affordable for beginners. Though it’s easy to learn and play with a small set of characters, Relicblade becomes a more in-depth game for the players who are willing to invest more time in it, says Sutter. Players can play a full game with as few as three of the intricate figurines, while still experiencing a fun game right from the beginning — or they can invest a little more into new miniatures for the tabletop, and play a deeper game. A lot of tabletop games require massive armies of the figurines before the game becomes truly playable.
“That’s one of the charming things about Relicblade,” says Burgoon, chiming in for his friend’s project. “The price point to enter is so low and it’s simple enough to teach it to a kid.”
Burgoon says that a lot of people ask him why he turns to crowdfunding for his projects instead of taking them to a publisher for a steady, reliable stream of funding. “At Kickstarter you’re basically making your fans your publisher, and when they say ‘yes,’ that’s really awesome,” he says.
Fans have already said yes to Volume One of the comedy-action series, which follows the group of “expendable misfits,” who make their home base in Sacramento. Volume Two will feature the Golden 1 Center, Tower Theater and the Crocker Art Museum. In fact, the ever-changing faces of the hapless, six-member squad — wherein each issue, a character dies by the chance rolling of a real-life, whalebone die owned by Burgoon called “The Pequod” — supposedly make their underground headquarters beneath the New Helvetia Brewery in midtown.
That’s why, when the dual Kickstarter campaigns are over on March 19, Burgoon and his team will be celebrating — or commiserating, depending on how the funding goes — with a pint of “B-Squad Blonde,” a craft beer by New Helvetia brewed in honor of their fictional downstairs neighbors. Also at the party will be the chance to play Relicblade with Sutter himself.
The two Kickstarters, for B-Squad and Relicblade, are asking for $10,000 and $12,000 respectively, but Sutter’s project has soared past that goal with many more days to go. (At the time of this writing, it was past $17,000, and starting to reach into its stretch goals.) But Burgoon doesn’t seem worried about meeting his own goal; he’s got a legion of dedicated fans. He’s also got a prime spot at San Diego Comic Con this year, where he hope to sell out of B-Squad’s Volume One copies — allowing him to fund the new volume even if the Kickstarter campaign doesn’t reach his goal.
“So often in life we spend money on stuff we don’t like,” says Sutter. “You get to make Relicblade or B-Squad real for a couple of bucks.”
And to the artist, the monetary backing means a lot to the creator, says Burgoon, “To an independent creator, you’re saying ‘Keep creating.’”