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Sean McKeever worked in comics full-time from 2003 to 2011, writing titles like Gravity, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, and Teen Titans. But, suddenly, he wasn’t able to land new work when Marvel placed a moratorium on new series and DC was in the midst of launching its New 52 initiative. The industry had quietly been playing a game of musical chairs, and by the time Sean noticed the music had stopped, there weren’t any seats left at the table. Several months out of work, he went deep into debt and needed to find a new outlet for telling stories.
McKeever had long been interested in writing video games, especially intrigued by the branching narratives of role-playing games like Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect. He applied for a job at BioWare Austin, and after an intense interview process moved across the country to accept a full-time position writing for the MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic. McKeever’s position at Bioware allowed him to continue telling stories for a living after the comic book industry left him behind, and he’s had a successful career as a video game writer ever since.
Working in video games doesn’t guarantee job stability, given the frequency with which studios close down or see layoffs. But the game industry has become an increasingly common alternative for comic book creators who are struggling to make a living, suffering from burnout, or eager to try something new. For creators like McKeever, video games were a lifeline. For others interviewed for this piece, like Antony Johnston and Sam Maggs, they’re an opportunity to experiment with different kinds of storytelling. At the same time, video game professionals have increasingly turned to comics as an outlet for passion projects because they fulfill creative itches that don’t get scratched working in games.
I spoke to 7 professionals who’ve worked in both comics and games to learn about differences between the two industries and art forms, and what brings creators from one field to the other. Here’s what I learned from the experience.
Making comics is a very different process than making video games, but there’s a surprising amount of overlap in the required skill sets. Five Ghosts and Violent Love writer Frank Barbiere said that his experience in comics was good preparation for writing video games. His ability to write quality work quickly, take editorial notes, and adapt to different voices and IPs proved valuable when he began writing for games like Destiny 2 and Apex Legends.
Both comics and games are visual mediums, so creatives in each profession understand how to tell stories through images. Writers coming from fields like prose, film, and television often need to learn how to adapt to the comics format. But Carlos Giffoni, former Product Manager at Riot Games, spent years working with visual artists in all kinds of disciplines. When he started work on Strayed, his Dark Horse miniseries with Juan Doe, Giffoni said he immediately understood how to communicate what he wanted on the page through his comic book scripts.
Comics and games are also both collaborative mediums, but those collaborations take very different forms. Comics are typically made in an assembly line process. Before pen hits paper, a creative team ideally has the opportunity to chat with one another about the project, so they can learn how to bring out the best in one another, though even that isn’t always the case. From there, each member of the team generally completes their job independently. The writer writes the script, the artist draws the pages, the colorist colors them, and the letterer letters them. Sometimes a writer will edit the scripts so dialogue or captions better fit the art, but that’s about the extent of the overlap.
Video games, on the other hand, require constant collaboration. Sam Maggs, writer of comics like Tell No Tales and Con Quest and games including Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and Call of Duty: Vanguard, explained how, at most studios, levels of a video game are designed in a pod. A writer, a level designer, environmental artists, and whoever else is needed determine what they want the level to look like, and they’ll create it together from beginning to end. When that doesn’t happen, one aspect of a game tends to feel disconnected from the others. Maggs found it frustrating when asked to plop writing on top of an otherwise completed part of a game, because continuous collaboration is key to synchronizing the gameplay and story.
Team sizes and budgets are also wildly different. AAA video game titles tend to be made by studios with over 100 employees and budgets in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Indie games can technically be made by a single individual, but most notable indie titles are made by teams of developers with budgets in the millions. Whether they’re published by a small publisher or Marvel Comics, comic books are rarely made by more than a handful of creators.
Another key difference is turnaround time. Comics are often released on a monthly schedule, whereas games typically take years to develop. Skullkickers artist Edwin Huang explained how making comics is a constant grind with little time to reflect on what you’ve worked on. Since single issues are such a small-scale approach to world building, creators can lose sight of the big picture. Video game development is almost the opposite. Huang said the size and development time of a single game can feel daunting, and developers have to focus so much on the big picture that little things get missed.
Just like comics and games have their own challenges, they also have their own unique appeals. The creative freedom in comics was widely cited as a selling point of comics, particularly on the writing side.
Giffoni had a fair amount of freedom during his time as Lead Product Manager of the skins team for League of Legends, but he was ultimately working on a small part of someone else’s game, which included plenty of constraints. As one of the lead creators on a comic, he has a lot more say, and his role on the project is much more apparent from the outside.
Antony Johnston, writer of comics like The Coldest City (the basis for the movie Atomic Blonde) and games like Dead Space, explained that a comic book writer and artist generally have the final say over their contribution to the work. Even if an editor requests changes, the creator generally knows that what they turn in will be reflected in the final product. In video games, the final say lies with the producer. Unless a professional in the games industry ascends to that role, all they can do is hope their boss values their expertise and heeds their advice, but they’re under no obligation to do so.
McKeever said he’s rarely been offered the wheel on video game projects. Normally he comes aboard games that are in mid-development, with premises and sometimes overarching plots already in place. With the exception of a 2019 X-Files narrative game McKeever wrote for Storyscape, he’s always beholden to what other people want him to write. In comics, McKeever typically pitches what he wants to write and then writes it, which he finds far more freeing. That level of control is a big reason comics remain his favorite format for telling stories.
While comics provide more freedom, writers pointed to the more complex nature of video game storytelling as an exciting challenge. Like McKeever, Johnston was intrigued by the narrative challenges that come with the interactivity of video games. A writer of a video game has to consider every scenario. They need to prepare for everything a player might choose to do (or not do) over the course of a playthrough, even when scripting cut scenes. Johnston also said he enjoys the opportunity to work with different types of creatives than he does in comics, like actors and animators.
Maggs similarly enjoys how the limitations and challenges that come with writing video games result in more creative problem-solving. The restraints of video game storytelling force creatives to think outside the box and head in directions they wouldn’t normally consider.
X-Men artist and video game concept artist Mike Choi pointed out that artists take direction from others whether they work in games or comics, unless they’re both writing and drawing a comic book. The amount of freedom an artist has depends on the publisher and collaborators. Choi is currently working on the comics series Telepaths at AWA Studios, where he enjoys more creative control than he had working at Marvel.
Even when creative control is more limited, the artist of a comic has more influence than that of one of many concept or environmental or character artists on a video game. Comics allow individual artists to fulfill their creative visions in a way games largely do not.
In my research for this piece, the work environment proved to be one of the clearest delineations between comics and games. For one, positions in the game industry are generally full-time, versus the largely freelance nature of the comic book industry. You can spend years successfully navigating the comic book industry like McKeever did only to find yourself suddenly left high and dry, since publishers don’t owe creators work unless they enter into exclusive contracts, which are exceedingly rare.
Unlike freelancers, full-time workers receive employer-provided benefits, such as health insurance, 401(k) plans, sick days, and paid vacation time, all important perks that provide an extra level of security. Game development is also on a fixed schedule. The office hours at a game studio may stretch longer than 40 hours a week, but it at least means there are times of the day when employees are actually off the clock.
On some level, freelancers are never off the clock, since the work is always there. That’s doubly true when low pay rates require extremely long hours to make a living wage. The workload of comic book artists is particularly demanding. As The Beat covered in a feature about crunch in the comic book industry, artists need to spend countless hours at the drawing table to 1. Meet deadlines and 2. Earn enough money to keep their career path viable.
The different production cycles also have an impact on creators’ lives. As a comic book creator, your job is to deliver a new script each month or 20 pages of art every 6-8 weeks. Video games, on the other hand, are typically made over the course of years and go through several stages of development.
In comics, one month can bleed into the next, since the work remains largely the same. In video games, pre-production, active development, and post-production are separate cycles that carry different job responsibilities. The change of pace can be positive or negative, depending on an employee’s personality type. In pre-production, the pace is typically more relaxed, but closer to release date the workload picks up dramatically and developers are often expected to crunch.
Edwin Huang said the hours in both comics and games can be gruesome if you don’t know when to call it a day. Mike Choi never dealt with crunch at Industrial Toys, the video game studio he worked at from 2012-2015, because the company was in pre-production the whole time he was there and hadn’t yet been acquired by EA. But comic book artist friends told him they found even the most intense video game crunch manageable, since in comics it’s just a given that you’ll be burnt out. At least in games, the crunch ends at some point.
Comparing the job security of the two professions is challenging because of how differently the two fields operate. How do you measure the security of freelance vs. full-time employment? Full-time employment is generally seen as more stable since employees don’t have to constantly hunt down their next paycheck and generally receive unemployment benefits and health insurance. However, by diversifying their workload, freelancers can avoid being dependent on a single employer. Plus, as mentioned earlier in this piece, the game industry sees its share of layoffs. Studios and publishers let employees go if a certain job role is no longer needed on a project, or simply to reduce expenses before the end of a sales quarter. When developers are laid off, they don’t have a backup.
Giffoni said that, with a little experience, there are plenty of places to find work in the video game industry that can pay a living wage. That’s only proven more true since I interviewed him, thanks to the rise in demand for developers. Maggs believes that video game writers are in particularly privileged positions, less likely to get laid off than the average developer. Many studios are expanding their game writing divisions as they’ve begun to understand the value of a good story, which improves the job market for writers.
In comics, especially the direct market, the pool of potential employers is much smaller. Everyone is competing to land their creator-owned comics at Image, Dark Horse, Vault, and a handful of other publishers, or to get hired by the Big Two to work on superheroes. To even get an independent book published, the creative team often needs to have part of it completed without any financial support, as was the case for Giffoni with Strayed. So not only does a career in comics pay less, it requires more upfront financial risk.
Everyone I interviewed was in agreement that video games pay significantly better than comics. The survey size was far too small to nail down any concrete numbers, but based on my interviews surviving solely off comics work is significantly more challenging than charting a career in games. Maggs said she simply could not see a path to making a good living just through writing comics, unless she became one of the few creators lucky enough to have their work translated into a successful film or television series, or if she became a fast enough writer to outrace the low page rates.
Obviously, there are creators who make a living in comics. But with only a certain number of publishers offering page rates high enough to make a good living, it’s an uphill climb. And whereas in video games employees hold the power in the current economy, the job market in comics remains highly competitive, which enables publishers to keep wages low. Publishers may not even be able to raise their rates due to the relatively small audience for comics and graphic novels compared to other sources of entertainment. Whatever the reason for the pay disparity between comics and games, it obviously plays a huge role in creators’ decision whether or not to switch fields.
While comic book writers and artists are increasingly turning to the game industry for employment, they often find themselves returning to sequential storytelling. What draws them back? Sometimes it’s the creative control. Other times it’s the opportunity to write or draw characters they grew up with.
There are also more tangible benefits. For example, making comic books increases name recognition. Unless they’re the creative lead on a big title, fans aren’t likely to know a video game developer by name. In comics, your name is typically right there on the cover. The extra notoriety in comics isn’t just nice for the ego, it can also be a profit driver, especially for artists. Mike Choi, for example, grew an audience for commissions more from his time drawing X-Men than he did in his role as a video game concept artist. Creators can even use the cache they built in comics to sell themselves to game studios.
Comics clearly have a unique and powerful pull on creators, considering how many professionals in the game industry are eager to try their hands at them. At the same time, video games have created an alternate career path for comic book creators in search of a less volatile profession.
And those creators can always return to comics. After 7 years of solely working in games, Sean McKeever came back in 2018 to write Outpost Zero for Skybound. Sam Maggs finds time to write comics for publishers like Oni, IDW, and Dark Horse on the side. Mike Choi recently returned to draw Telepaths for AWA Studios. Antony Johnston has balanced writing comics with writing games throughout his career. For creators like them and many more, the rise of the game industry has only proven additive in the pursuit of a career in telling stories.
Correction: Sean McKeever began working in comics full-time in 2003, not 2005.