In September 2013, as I binged all of Breaking Bad before the series finale, I was inspired to draw a cartoon about how the show’s premise relied on the stark realities of the U.S. healthcare system. I dashed it off in a couple of days and tossed it on Twitter, where I had (I think) somewhere between 500 and 1,500 followers. Somehow, Michael Moore saw it and retweeted it, and the thing went crazy viral. My personal web site crashed. I got reprint requests from publications like the Huffington Post, Salon, and MTV. But what really blew my mind was a DM from Matt Bors, asking to reprint my comic in The Nib.
To say Matt’s work was formative on my own would be an understatement. I’d been a fan of his since I first saw his early 2000s cartoons critiquing the Bush Administration. I was a regular reader of The Nib, and had been following many of the publication’s regulars since I started picking up weekly alternative newspapers in Philadelphia in the mid-90s.
I’ve always been an artist, but that mostly consisted of sketching superheroes in the margins of notebooks. I’d finished, at most, five or six sequential comics in my lifetime, and had never made even the slightest attempt at professional cartooning. Appearing in The Nib with my first real cartoon felt like I was being added to Mount Rushmore after winning a local school board election.
I promptly embarrassed myself. I told Matt he could absolutely run my cartoon, but that I didn’t need the money and he could keep it or donate it to other artists who needed it more. I had a good day job that paid well, I said, not realizing how condescending this must seem.
What I meant was that I didn’t feel like I deserved it. Having followed Matt and other cartoonists for years (and knowing a few in my personal life) I knew what it meant to pursue a career in the creative arts — years of slugging it out, pitching editors endlessly and mostly facing rejection, living on a meager income and putting in long hours to try and establish a name and a following. I’d done none of that, and in truth I’ve always carried a little guilt for selling out and making money at a desk job while friends and creators I admired “paid their dues” and dedicated themselves to their art. Call it imposter syndrome, but I didn’t feel like I’d earned my place among these devoted artists, let alone a paycheck for my work.
To Matt’s credit, he insisted on paying me without calling me a condescending asshole. That’s one of the things that I admired most about Matt Bors. He always insisted artists should be paid for their labor. It is, I think, the greatest loss to society now that The Nib is shutting down — above all, it was a place where cartoonists (including many, like me, new to the field) could actually get paid for their art.
It’s ironic that, in the age of social media, cartooning has become more popular than ever (memes are, after all, a form of cartoon) and yet no one wants to pay for them. There was a time when every newspaper employed one or more cartoonists, who earned a decent living producing a panel a day, or sometimes more. The funny pages were filled with syndicated artists who, often, made substantially more than a decent living. Garfield and Peanuts made Jim Davis and Charles Schulz millionaires many times over, though granted a big chunk of that was from licensing. These days the funny pages, where they exist at all, mostly feature legacy strips by artists long dead, alongside a few newcomers who may still be struggling to make ends meet.
The best way to earn a living as a new cartoonist seems to be the creation of an independent webcomic, but that forces the artist to also function as publisher, publicist, marketer, and often coder. For artists who want to focus only on their craft, outlets like The Nib are few and far between.
Meanwhile, your social media feeds are filled with cartoons, often shared by “influencer” accounts that have built massive followings on stolen content. It’s not unusual for these influencers to intentionally remove or obscure the original artists’s signature, URL, and other identifying information, denying them the few pennies they might make from new fans visiting their personal domains or even the “exposure” from the association of their names with popular content. I doubt there’s a person on the Internet who wouldn’t recognize Pepe the Frog or the “This is fine” dog, but I bet almost none could tell you the names of their creators (Matt Furie and KC Green, respectively, both of whom published strips in The Nib responding to their creations’ meme status).
For me, appearing in The Nib meant artistic and professional validation. Matt bought two cartoons from me, and I suspect he would have bought more if I had overcome my imposter syndrome and pitched more often. But for many artists, The Nib was a source of regular income. It meant they could worry less about rent and food and gas money and spend more time making content — content the rest of the Internet gobbled up and repurposed like a commodity, with no regard to the creator’s own fortunes. Many of these artists will need to find new sources of income, which might mean they produce fewer cartoons.
For readers, The Nib’s closing will make it harder to find not only the artists they already know, but harder to encounter new and emerging cartoonists with fresh perspectives and artistic approaches.
I know Matt worked like crazy to keep The Nib afloat, moving from platform to platform (including, for some time, Medium) and finding the funding necessary to ensure artists were always paid. I don’t begrudge Matt choosing to shut down, instead I want to show my appreciation for what he’s done, for me and for other cartoonists. It’s been almost exactly ten years since Matt made me a professional cartoonist, and I’ll always be grateful.
If, like me, you’d like continue supporting the artists who published at The Nib, here are are a few of my favorites. Where I could find it, I’ve linked to a Patreon so you can help them get paid.