A Creative Culture Where It Is Hard to Make a Living: The Socio-Economic Situation of Comics Authors and Illustrators in Belgium

Article excerpt

Abstract

On the initiative of the research office of the non-profit SMartBe Professional Association for Creative Professions, an exploratory survey into the current socio-economic circumstances of comics authors and illustrators in Belgium has been undertaken for the first time.1 The replies of 191 French-speaking and 72 Dutch-speaking artists to the online questionnaire have given an idea of the profile of comics authors and illustrators in Belgium (in terms of gender, age, place of residence, educational background), their professional activities and the type of publications in which their work appears, and their employment status and income. The results show that, in general, their monthly income falls below the Belgian median, and that many artists, particularly in the younger age range, are reliant on supplementing their earnings from other sources. A number of differences emerged between the situation of French-speaking and Dutch-speaking artists. The role of creative grants (especially subsidies from the government) is shown to be crucial.

Whereas a number of studies have already been published concerning different aspects of the comics world, the socio-economic situation of the artist has been largely neglected.2 This context nonetheless determines to a large extent what kind of work artists are able to produce. In the case of authors who do not receive a creative grant from the government, their publications must be commercially viable or their publishers will not be eager to continue investing in marketing their work. If authors do not earn enough from their creative work, they are obliged to look for other kinds of work and consequently have less time to devote to their art.

This research focuses on a country with a long-lasting and strong tradition in the area of visual arts and book production. Although Belgium, with its current population of about 11 million people, is a relatively small country, comics authors such as Hergé, Morris and Schuiten and illustrators such as Ever Meulen, Carll Cneut or Klaas Verplancke have established its international reputation. Belgium is, however, a complex country with two important language groups (around 50 per cent of the inhabitants have Dutch, 40 per cent French and 10 per cent another language as their mother tongue), a language difference that divides the publishing sector, press and book market mainly into a Dutch and a French section. This creative sector is also connected in different ways with neighbouring countries where French (France) or Dutch (the Netherlands) are spoken. In order to obtain a better picture of the current place of comics authors and illustrators within this complex Belgian situation, the research office of the non-profit SMartBe Professional Association for Creative Professions took the initiative, in 2009, of conducting a survey into the socio-economic situation of comics authors and illustrators in Belgium, via a questionnaire. In this article we will summarise the most important results of the questionnaire on the basis of 263 respondents (191 French-speaking and 72 Dutch-speaking comics authors and illustrators).

Structure of the Belgian Comics and Illustration Sector

Before going over the results of this questionnaire, it is useful briefly to describe the traditional production structure of books and newspapers. An author (a single author or one who works in collaboration with others) submits his/her work to a publisher, to be edited, printed and promoted (see Fig. 1).3 The publisher contacts a distributor in order to bring the finished books to the shops. This production structure has already been in place for more than a century, not only in Belgium, but in many other countries. However, local conditions can support other players such as subsidised agencies, media, libraries, festivals and prizes (see Fig. 2). Moreover, between publishers and authors, there are sometimes intermediaries such as agents. …