The Business of Creative Careers: Kris Straub, Cartoonist
Kris Straub is the cartoonist behind “Chainsawsuit,” and is also known for “Broodhollow” and “Candle Cove” as well as his podcast “Morning Rush with Kris and Mikey.” I once beat him at a game of “Cards Against Humanity.” His comic art is both sensitive and extremely on-point; you might have seen his “All Lives Matter” comic, which—you know what, just click the link, it’s hard to describe a comic in paragraph form.
Kris agreed to answer our questions about creative careers, as follows:
When you decided to pursue a career as a cartoonist, did you plan for the financial considerations of your career? Was it “do what you love and the money will follow,” or “map out every potential expense and prospective income source in advance,” or somewhere in between?
I pursued my career as a cartoonist in a dumb way. At the time (2004) I was a software developer, and the company had been in a crunch to get something out the door. They cracked down harder and harder, and I finally quit.
By this point, I had been a cartoonist online for about four years, and I had to try to do something more creative than software development. I segued into graphic design, while doing my comics on the side. I didn’t have an expectation that the comics would eventually pick up enough to be what I did for a living. Graphic design was sort of my creative compromise. So it wasn’t a complete blind leap of faith, but I hadn’t really prepared myself a soft place to land either.
What did you learn after you got started? What surprised you?
I think the most interesting thing I learned was how fickle and capricious a casual audience could be. I had what I considered my regular audience, the entrenched readers, but I knew people would wander over and take a look from time to time. Occasionally I’d get linked by a really big blog and my sites would have a surge of traffic over a day or two—but the percentage of this traffic that stuck around was usually tiny. I’m talking about an additional 80 readers. It took much, much longer to build it to the reasonable size it is now. Doing consistent work was more valuable than getting linked by a huge site.
How much did you finance your career “out of pocket?” At what point did your career start to pay for itself, as if it were a small business? Are you able to earn a personal income on top of the cost of running this business?
It was almost entirely out of pocket to start with. It didn’t really start to pay for itself until 2006 or thereabouts, and even then I was supplementing it with occasional design work.
What are your current income sources? Is it mostly comics merch and Patreon, or do you have other sources as well?
Patreon came up in a big way for me, and I think creators are very fortunate to have it. It’s mostly books and pins, a little advertising on the site, the very occasional Kickstarter (like the one live right now, which has acted to print said books and pins). And I will do other creative work a couple times throughout the year, like animations for the D&D live games at PAX.
Can you reasonably predict your income every month?
I can predict it, within some wretched degree of inaccuracy, throughout the year. This has been difficult to adjust to too, having memories of a career with a regular paycheck. I make a very reasonable living each year, even for someone with a new baby, but I only count it in December. It’s very much in flux over the year. Lean months, and then a couple very good ones.
Last year your brilliant “All Lives Matter” comic went viral. There’s this myth among new creative types that all you need is one viral success and you’re set: you’ll get your audience, your signal will be out of the noise, etc. Understanding that you had already done the work of building Chainsawsuit, finding your audience, and honing your voice, let’s take a look at that viral myth. Did you see a significant change in engagement and earnings after your viral comic? Did it affect Chainsawsuit beyond the success of the individual comic?
This is the question I was most excited to answer. The “All Lives Matter” comic was the most viral thing I’ve made by far, by very far, and I doubt I even know the distances it reached, since I’m sure there are many copies of it floating around in places that don’t link back to me. I’m grateful that every time I’ve seen it, it still had my URL on it.
That said! As before, even this didn’t tick the monthly readership up as much as you’d expect. Maybe an additional 4-5 percent? But it’s very tenuous. People get introduced to a tone, and they come expecting more of the same—it was a very political strip. But then there’s a lot of comics on the site about Cthulhu or terrible infomercials.
There’s no such thing as being done after one viral success. Even if it had doubled my audience, the question is still “okay, but what’s next?” There is this idea of “having made it,” which doesn’t occur in the past tense. No one we think of as having made it has quit working. They are always making it. They have to continue making it every single day. Or it goes away.
In addition to your comics, you also do podcasts and live performances and take your work to conventions. Is “getting your face out there” (or your voice, in terms of podcasting) something that you view as essential to a creative career? Do you lose money when you do performances/conventions, or do you come out ahead?
I’ve been very fortunate to be able to exhibit at PAX, which is always an amazing convention for me. And as I get older and more tired, I have to be more selective about what shows I’ll attend. I used to go anywhere I was invited, but I have really trimmed down the convention schedule. I just can’t afford to sit at a table for 18 hours over a weekend anymore if I lose money.
But there is value in doing a new show, knowing you may not come out ahead monetarily, but connecting with a new audience and treating it like an advertising expense. Even though I’ve cut down the number drastically, I would like to have the freedom to try a new con every year, just to try it on, but it’s tough with a baby at home.
What financial advice do you have for other people who are thinking about going into cartooning?
Let cartooning be what you do on the side, for as long as possible. It’s very appealing to think about quitting your job and pouring yourself into comics, thinking that with enough hard work, you can start drawing a modest but self-sustaining income within a year. For 99 percent of us, this is not the case! I’ve been a cartoonist for 15 years. Only about 8 of those years were full-time. There’s no shame in doing what you love in the evenings. And it’s the people who are crazy enough to come home from a full day of work, and then put in another full day of comics, who will ultimately go the distance. Whether it did or didn’t become my career, I would have always made comics. Even if I was the only one reading them, I couldn’t not make them. That was never an option.