-By Greg Ruth

Photo by JS Choi of he-who-will-not-be-named doing his brilliant thing at Illuxcon. So perfect and hilarious.

Below is an actual conversation… posted here mainly because it is almost the exact same conversation I have had over the last few weeks with different clients. It’s nice to get contacted for work, but this isn’t work. There’s clearly a hunger our there in the world right now for art- mainly for promotional purposes, and that can be a good thing for us all no doubt. Doing a high profile thing for free sounds like a workable idea and sometimes it can be. But know what it is you’re actually agreeing to, and what they are truly doing. Much of it is spearheaded by the notion that “Great Exposure” is the same as actual currency- that it is in and of itself, pay. It isn’t.

“Do you work at your job for free?”
“Of course not.”
“But you assume that its okay for me to do so.”
“Well the exposure is going to be huge for this. So that exposure could be considered your pay.”
“Look I can’t pay my mortgage in exposure bucks and can’t really take away the time to do this from existing jobs that respect what I do enough to pay in actual real-life dollars. I’ve got a family to support, you know?”
“But it can help you get more work get noticed, you know?”
“Sure… like this job right?”
“So by ‘exposure’ you mean to say like the kind I already have that got you to notice me for this job that you don’t want to pay me for… That might lead to another job I get to do for free?”
“Well when you put it like that…”
“Is there another way to put it?”
“I guess not. So do you want to do it?”
“I think I’m going to pass.”
“Well I am sorry to hear that. Are there other artists you might recommend that might be interested in doing this?”
“I’d be happy to. Are you going to pay them anything?”
“As I said before, we just don’t have it in our budget.”
“Then I can’t think of anyone”.

Here’s the deal. Exposure to a wider audience is of course a good thing generally speaking, and that’s the bait. There’s some value and truth in it especially in the early days of your career where you absolutely should do things to grow your fan-base and readership. This has an actual long term value if done right, and can really boost you forward. But it’s hard to quantify and requires certain elements to line up to actually be something to grow from. However, when you are approached by a company to do art for them to help push their game, movie, whatever… not a pinup on their tumblr blog, but actual art-directed work, and they claim not to have money to pay but that’s okay because it will be great exposure… stop and think about what’s happening. When “Great Exposure” is offered up in lieu of money, your hopes and needs, maybe even the enthusiasm you might have as a fan of the thing you are being asked to do work for, are being exploited to provide free art they can use to make money from. That’s what’s happening from a basic clinical perspective. They’re getting paid, but you are not, and yet both of you are working. Why is that? Are they actually incapable of paying you or are they choosing to? Are the circumstances that burned through their budget just in time not to pay you, something you need to feel responsible for paying for, by not getting paid? If you accept this now-free work for their profit, how will you pay for your bills? What happens if a paying gig comes along in conflict with your now pro-bono commitment? And most importantly: recognizing what is actually happening here, decide how you feel about doing it, and why. If you’re going to do this anyway, do it with your eyes wide open going in. It’s your choice to make- no one else’s, but I’d prefer you didn’t. Here’s why.

My cover for THE LIGHTENING GIRL for Scholastic Books. One of the rare jobs for hire that also
produced on of my all time favorite pieces of art. Sometimes you just get lucky.

Working this way encourages more offers like this, and that isn’t working in a professional sense. And usually it encourages more of the same. Which is not what you’re after. It’s bad for your peers and community because it reinforces their idea of how your work is valued- economically speaking, (which is not very much at all). Like leaving food out of for mice: you attract more mice, not more jobs. For some reason the arts are the only industry I know of where this presumption is considered such a common business practice the response when you bring it up to others, is a shrug. The easy clarification of this situation is to reverse the question is here below when applied to other goods and services in a  fairly hilarious way:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=essNmNOrQto]

It’s a tempting potential, but easily creates a dangerously tricky cul-de-sac for your career, rather than the launchpad you’re being sold. You may find yourself ten years down the road where you are in pretty much the same spot doing this kind of thing over and over. Exposure can lead to more work, but often once you set your work rate to zero, expect more clients to hope for the same, or a nibble above if you’re lucky. Why wouldn’t they? I have always seen dividends from the jobs I took were exposure was a factor, but only the jobs that were professionalized by being paid for them. The free stuff has not once brought in a single actual quantifiable return except in extremely rare and specific cases. The paid gigs that are also great exposure work because you are taken seriously as an  professional-ass artist, and by investing in you, it behooves them to at least justify the expense by making it successful and put to good use. Everybody wins, and everybody gets to work for a living. It’s the way most of it functions, and all of it should work. That’s not collectivism, it’s just mutual self interest. The flipside is this new flood of Work-For-Exposure gigs- The work merits no value from them and so you may find it treated as such- or at least not necessarily in the way you think should be.  Not being invested in the work means it doesn’t matter if it succeeds  because it doesn’t cost them anything if it doesn’t… so who cares, right? Most of the time someone asking you to do free work and thank them from the exposure is taking advantage of you. Many are just messengers- and some genuinely do not see what the big deal is. It’s not always a crass manipulation or conspiracy… but the end result is the same. Who cares who lit the match if the house has burned down?

When I was finishing up Freaks of the Heartland for Dark Horse, Scott Allie got in touch to offer me a run on Conan alongside Kurt Busiek. I hesitated not being very much familiar with the stories as I felt I should be, and one of the big encouragements was the exposure to my work it would bring. That was kind of one of the prevailing points and values, (aside from getting to learn about comics from Kurt which was priceless all by itself). He was right to do so and while this turned out to be true, they also still paid me to do it. They actively promoted the book and I made appearances at SDCC and they reprinted the work later and again later still in a massive compendium book. They were invested in making a return for themselves off of what they had invested in Kurt and I to do it. And it lead directly to Ethan getting in touch with me to do INDEH, my next graphic novel project- of which I am so very proud of. So it worked great, but it DIDN’T work because I did it for just the exposure- a.k.a. For Free. This is definitionally work, and they will profit from your efforts which is why they’re doing it in the first place. Dark Horse paid, I got to focus and do my best job, and they got a better book out of it they can keep reprinting and folding into their assets. This is the system working.  Again, you’re all working here… just make sure you all get paychecks so you can do it again, and then again.

As a helpful tool, when I’m being considered for a job, I always apply my four basic rules for how to decide whether its something I want to do. Exposure is in here and counts as a potential value, or deficit. Often times it’s easy and obvious… other times not so much. But it helps to have a checklist, so here’s mine as an example.



A massive hyper involved graphic novel done at night after working my dayjob as a handyman,
Sudden Gravity was nothing if not an act of profound love both for the medium of comics but also for the
characters and stories I desperately wanted to write about. It put me on the map in ways that still
resonate today, and though looking back at all its flaws and errors, i still cannot but love it
for being so earnest and nerdishly impassioned. 

This is the easy one. The thing we do as five year olds with a box of crayons. We draw because we want to- scratch that. Because we NEED to. We’re artists and compelled to do it. We make work because it makes us happy to do so. No artist should ever find themselves in a place where this does not happen with regular frequency or you’ll lose your spirit for the work. Maintaining joy in your work is obvious, but in art it can mean the difference between doing good work or hack work. And you’ll always be able to tell the difference. If you find, like I do, that you are locked into a lot of necessary work to pay bills, try to make time to do work that doesn’t to balance that out rather than rage against your predicament at the time. Not doing this can lead to a total flame out. for me it’s the ongoing act of codified hooky I call THE 52 WEEKLS PROJECT. Even if it never gets regarded by others or brings you anyplace, it will back feed into your ability to do commercial work. At the very least it can be the weekend you work towards. This is also the only pillar that can make the job worthwhile without the others. A piece or work of art can always be done for nothing if the love is there, not so much should it be done in any other direction. Love however is also the most vulnerable as it will be the one aspect most exploited by people looking to trick you into making money for them. For free. You grew up adoring and idolizing Spiderman and Marvel comes to see if you’ll do a free work-for-hire comic for them because the exposure will be great for you, you’ll probably leap at the chance,  at least on the outset. So as much as I hate to say it, if you’re going to let your heart drive the car, make sure your brain is in charge of the steering wheel. Question everything especially the properties you love most. THat’s where the snakes can creep in and will.


Free piece done for Scholastic’s 10th Anniversary celebration. I did this because
I love working with them, and more than happy and honored to celebrate them by doing a fun piece like this.
It also helps push THE LOST BOY out again. Doing this piece also helped me test a new method that I then went on to use successfully for three consecutive paying gigs and I think helped land me another book cover there. 

This is one of the secret values that can really pay dividends later. In fact truth be told, relationships are the most important asset to your career aside from the quality of the work you do.  Essentially there are times when you can and should take a job or sign a contract below your usual wage to secure fortify and grow a relationship with a certain company, publisher, studio, director, AD or editor. Let’s say you have a book you want Pantheon to publish, and they come to you with an offer to do a holiday card, for free as a favor to them. Do this. This is not such a bad thing to do as it can and is a compliment to your craft that would reach out to you, a newbie, to do this. Think of it as a date before you get married for a more serious project. Treat these even more seriously than you would a contracted job, (you should treat ALL assignments as if they are the last you’ll ever get, by the way- because if you don’t they very well could be). You do this card everyone has a great time… they like your work and now you are on their radar for a paid gig. That’s your first date. Relationships may be the most long term value you can muster in your career, and you don’t want to nickel and dime these things. But again, like with Publicity, (or true exposure), this need-to-believe can be bastardized and twisted into something that looks and sound like this, but isn’t. Learn to spot the difference and remember.

Now the other side of this are the positive aspects of the relationship currency. The books world, the comics industry… these are both very very big things but very very small as well. Everyone talks and everyone knows each other, so your relationship seeds of goodwill can sprout blossoms beyond even your own expectations. AD’s when they’re good, are your good pals. They run interference, manage lunatic writers or even editors and largely behind the scenes in a way you’ll never even know. Their job is to see the job get done, they are not the write of policy. My deepest long-lasting friendships with AD’s have all come out of TERRIBLE circumstances. They brought us together to navigate as a team and in going through war we became partners. Trust and work-ethics are never more on display than when you two are dealing with a project that is just going badly. If you can keep your cool in a bummer scenario, do your job trust your compatriots, you cannot measure the goodwill that comes and the AD will be looking for a better gig for you later if in no other way by telling their co-ADers how awesome you were during that bad bad week. In war terms, the AD is your platoon sergeant. Your beef is with the top brass, not with them. They can help make things better or they can make things worse if you don’t see them as allies. Frankly it’s in your interest to go the yellow brick road route.


Done for Rob Thomas’ “Ever the Same” video with Harder/Fuller Films. 

The apple in the garden of art making- and maybe the snake too. This is both the thing that lets you afford a life to make more work as it is the siren singing you to shipwreck. Money is what buys you food and art materials and a place to do it so you can make more art to make more money and continue the cycle. Surviving solely as an artist is a rare and tricky thing to pull off. You’ll never work harder for less, but you’ll never be more fulfilled if this is what you want to do. It takes a lot of help and requires a lot of time and craft to do successfully. When you’re young and just out of school, the money factor can be less essential to you then when say, twenty years later you have kids and a mortgage. The necessities of money and art are situational, and the value of it like all of these others, are likewise so. Money can soften the hard edge soft a bad job, and its lack can be paid for in other ways. Money is the most direct codification of value but potentially the most exploitive and confusing. But it is the practical measure by which we legitimate the success or failings of our profession. Not taking money or taking on a endless screed of jobs for free or, God forbid, “exposure” alone undermines you as a serious person who has value. I mean if you can’t value your own work… who do you expect to do it for you?


THe 9-11 story for Dark Horse Comics
fundraiser book…
… it was directly to doing Freaks
of the Heartland.

This is the thing above that comes in- getting your work out there, getting exposure is absolutely essential in making a career in art. There are so many artists working now, and visibly so thanks to Mr. Interwebs, that commanding anyone’s attention away from the flood of art is an important achievement. Exposure is and can be a value. It’s no guarantee to pay dividends off later and is as a result a gamble, but a worthwhile one. When you’re just coming up, exposure is arguably more important to your career than money. It’s the long road that leads to taking care of that and making sure to get a handle on it when your personal lifestyle overhead is low is a key time to dance this dance. It is also known to the hose who hire that this has a value and will be presented as a reason to do a job often to ameliorate the fact the job itself pays little. An that’s fine if presented properly. Oftentimes this is exploited and abused as being cause to not pay an artist anything at all, and becomes a demeaning condescending tool that reveals more how little a client values artists than it provides a future for the artist it’s exploiting. Knowing the difference is key. This kind of actual exposure is real and can boost a career there is little doubt. Not to be confused with fake exposure which we’ll get into soon.

Any one of these can be absent in lieu of a stronger showing by the others, sometimes even two can be missing. Only LOVE can be the last man standing in a scenario like this, or should. None of the others are motivations enough to ever do a job and enjoy doing it. And it’s important to be happy doing it because that attitude will translate directly into how well you do that work. And if some AD has convinced you to work for them for free, you will start to resent them and it as it goes tough and the changes come in, the edits and rush. Because no matter how much they are not paying you, they will treat you like they did. They’ll expect things, want changes. This will gnaw at you over time and really just isn’t worth it because you decided to do it for free and it doesn’t feel right. No matter how much they may convince you it should, it doesn’t for a really good reason: it isn’t in fact, right.

Sumi drawing for SHERLOCK HOLMES 7 THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS for Scholastic books. 

Bottom line: Working for Exposure is more complicated than it may seem and than the current discussions of this practice are attending to. It’s easy to demonize an AD delivering the bad message instead of seeing them as mere messengers. Largely they’re on your side and will do their best to work with you within the system they’re in. And remember they likely won’t be there forever- so don’t burn down that relationship just because they make an available target. Often the face closest to you is not the face to punch.

Exposure should never be considered currency, and this practice is bad for both sides of the equation. It discourages the best possible work, and sows discontent and further distrust for the sake of saving what amounts to comparatively little for the client’s budgets. It discourages better work that would better help promote or expand the reach of the thing they are trying to sell, and degrades the artists whom they rely upon to do this for them. It downgrades our value as artists and creatives at large when we take on gigs like this in lieu of legitimate paying efforts, and further makes it harder for all of us to make a living in a business already extremely difficult to do so in. It’s the very definition of a being penny wise and pound foolish. The opposite of this unsurprisingly garners opposite results: better work, flourishing artists supported by the work they do, and a business model that benefits both the client and the creative together, instead of trying to feed off each other.

Never feel ashamed for making sure you get paid in some form for the work you do. If you feel bullied or pushed into this, turn the question on to its questioner and see if it sounds better. It won’t and it might well make them realize they’re treating you like doody. Look out for work coming from any movie franchise or a campaign for a tv show that seems suddenly to have spent all their money by the time they got to you. They didn’t – it’s a choice. If it isn’t, they mismanaged their resources poorly and that should be a red flag too. Someone comes knocking on your door grinning with offers like these, assume the worst until proven otherwise for your own sake and safety. Read those contracts closely. That’s where the demons live. Really. (You walk in with all rights and powers to any situation- a contract from the company is looking to trade those out- usually for a fee, but they write the contract that suits their needs, not yours. Get professional eyes on it and look for clauses about wholesale v. retail percentages, usage agreements, copyright v. license… these can end up taking everything you made without you knowing it if you’re not careful).

And none of this should be confused with donations, charity, or other inherently voluntary fundraising efforts. Those are good and noble things and I participate in them regularly and happily. Those aren’t free- you’re giving of yourself to something more important than yourself, and all of us could do well do do more of this overall. I’m talking about work. Being asked to donate your time and skill set for work is a lot like being forced to volunteer: neither are actually what the word means. Making a life in art is hard enough without having to apologize for it. You work long hours, and when other people are relaxing and having something called a “weekend”, and for little pay overall and zero security. Yes it’s a choice and you love doing it, but that doesn’t mean all the situations you encounter as a result are your fault to apologize for. It also deserves respect, and you need to eat. Stand up and saying “no” can leave room for a better “yes” to come along. If we all said no, I bet they’d stop offering nothing. Let’s try it out and see what happens.