I've spoken as guest speaker a number of times over the years (come visit me at SCAD Atlanta in January). While I'm not the best or most patient teacher, I think my strength is my pragmatic and blunt approach to the business side of comics. In order to help the students think of a "5 YEAR PLAN" (more on that in an upcoming post), I'll often break down the different page rate levels of comic book artists as a way to help analyze the playing field of our industry. If there's a ladder to success, what's wrong with defining each rung? I imagine such a breakdown helpful for moving up in most any industry, not just comics.
Here are the 5 LEVELS of comic artists as I see them--NOT based on talent but on page rates, popularity, and the prestige of the titles the artist works on. You might define them differently or have more than just 5, but I find that less-is-more when it comes to people being able to retain information.
I'm guessing that only 1% of artists fit into this category. These are the marquee players in comics--they get the top page rates, they have the biggest sales, and they're put on larger "event" titles advertised most heavily by the big two. These guys also have more say over the projects they choose and are more aware of future projects (sometimes) years in advance so the company can plan whom-will-get-what-book early on. Many of these guys even have representation to help them with contracts and with their back-end bonuses. While most artists might dream of Level 1 status, there's also a lot of politics at this level that most artists aren't aware of. Which is why I think Level 1 success is a bit of a double -edged sword. Companies will label you with your probable sales. And if your numbers aren't high enough, you might not get onto the book you want. And it has nothing to do with how well you draw.
While not as well paid or popular as Level 1 artists, these artists are consistently fed with work throughout the year (many of them are under contract) and manage to carve out a comfortable salary (assuming they can stay away from drug addiction or bad financial planning). Most of the books they work on are mainstream Marvel/DC staples that most people are aware of. But you can also find a few of these guys on large Dark Horse and creator owned Image books. I think that there are a few "artist's artists" in this category whose cult following has brought them very high up, but their distinct style of drawing often excludes them from larger "event" books. Some Level 2 artists are happy to stay at this level because they have no interest in being a marquee player. Some were marquee players but decided to drop down to Level 2 in exchange for more control over their careers.
These artists are mostly found at smaller publishers, although many of them are grateful for the rare Marvel/DC offer. I don't imagine most of these guys having consistent work, but rather putting out a few issues a year and coasting toward the next gig on whatever money they saved. Some of them do have consistent work, but it's mostly on titles that pay leaner rates. Whenever I hear about someone "paying their due" I imagine them stuck at Level 3. Too much time in Level 3 can often leave you jaded and bitter, because barely paying your bills SUCKS when you're working your ass off. I speak from experience on this one.
These are often the students who are running the convention circuit while trying to get that first gig. They're hungry enough where they'll take anything--even if it only pays on the back-end. Many of these guys get burned by publishers or private individuals who promise them a rate. Level 4 artists usually have a daytime job and draw comics at night. Or they still live with mom. It's a rough life, but at this early stage the artist still has his optimism intact, making it a bit easier to trudge forward. Fair warning: getting that "first gig" does not guarantee you will advance to Level 3.
A Level X artist is out to do his own thing once he's had some form of success. What makes these guys different is that they have no interest in doing mainstream comics. Many of them are indy artists while many of them have an illustration career and dabble in comics from time to time. Some of them will do a mainstream "event" book, but it's usually only for a limited run. I think most "artist's artists" are in this category because having a Level X mindset frees you from conforming to the normal comic book styles. You're more likely to find Level X art inside an "art book" and not within a comic. Or maybe they just do covers.
Again, this isn't based on an artist's ability. And it's not meant to judge working comic artists in a mean way (I stopped myself from naming examples in each category). Most artists work their way up from Level 4 while others seem to appear suddenly at Level 2. Most artists probably fit into more than one level. Obviously the nuances of different careers defies the idea of such classification, but I still argue that it's helpful from a student standpoint. Or from any standpoint where you're looking to move up.
Later on I'll post more about the "5 Year Plan"