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DC Comics creators Dustin Nguyen, Tini Howard, Jackson Lanzing & Jeff Parker reveal the one and only time you a comic creator should work for free

If anyone offers to pay you in exposure, don't forget "you can expose yourself," said creators at ECCC 2024

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Image credit: Cameron Stewart/Marvel

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It’s an age-old question: should new comic creators work for free when they’re trying to break into the industry? DC editor-in-chief Marie Javins and a group of comic creators addressed the subject during Emerald City Comic Con 2024’s Breaking into the Source Wall panel, intended to help newcomers get into comics as a business.

“I’m on a different track from everyone else. I came in as an intern and I joined the staff at Marvel Comics,” Javins admitted at the start of the panel, going on to say that the most reliable way to get a staff position at a comic publisher is begin as an intern and demonstrate how reliable you can be. “I assume most people here are looking to become freelance,” she said, by way of introducing her panelists — each one of whom was a freelancer, and each one of whom had an opinion on the topic of working for free.

“As an artist you’re going to create anyway. I did work for free for myself. But if someone requested something, and they said I’d get paid in exposure, I didn’t feel like doing it at all,” explained Dustin Nguyen. "The only way I’d do something I didn’t want to do is to pay me a lot of money.”

“Anyone who tells you that they’re going to pay you in exposure... I mean, the world we’re living in, I don’t mean this to sound weird, but you can expose yourself!” laughed Tini Howard, who otherwise echoed Nguyen’s commentary by saying, “If you want to make something for free, make something that feeds yourself [emotionally]… The only way you can do the thing that no-one else is doing is to do the thing that’s in your head.”

“Don’t work for free for DC. Don’t work for free for Marvel,” agreed Jackson Lanzing. “This is the key thing to this: make something that serves you, that is your art. But there will be companies that purport to have money and the ability to help you out, and they will wave in front of you the idea that exposure is your payment, and you have to be really, really careful about who you trust in that.” Ultimately, he said, “if you make something for free, own it. Control it.”

Not everyone on the panel agreed with this, though. Jeff Parker said, “A free story led to 10 years of me working at Marvel. I woke up in the middle of night with a joke that I thought was really funny,” noting that the sharing the joke — which featured Marvel characters — led to years worth of work at Marvel including Agents of Atlas, Thunderbolts, and Red Hulk. The key, he said, was that it opened communication with editors to whom he then proved he was capable of good work. Those editors, in turn, would recommend him for other work. “If someone goes to bat for you, do not let them down,” he recommended. “Do not whiff.”

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