I’ve been thinking about reboots. Sequels. Relaunches. We are living in a culture of constant recycling, remixing, never dying content. Zombie content. And I find myself wishing for new, original voices and stories.
Of course, there is the argument that nothing is ever new, not really. And I agree with that. Every story is influenced by something else. But what we are seeing now are a parade of never ending reboots. Audiences are comfortable with what they know. Movie studios and publishers are comfortable with what they can perceive to be “hits.” And, I don’t know? I understand it and regret it at the same time. Sometimes I’m excited about it when something reboots. I want that comfort too, a chance to relive a story that I adored in my youth.
One of the most frequent questions I am asked is when I’m doing a sequel to Golden Boy or Quick Step. And I always answer that I am not. Sometimes I let myself consider it. In my head, I have all the characters stories mapped out from birth to death. The story I tell is only a small section of that. So, I could if I wanted to.
The more you do, the more you do
A couple of months ago, I had a stretch of extreme comics productivity. I floated the idea out to relaunch Drunk Elephant Comics. I felt I could handle it with everything else I was doing. I really wanted to get back into webcomics. I thought I’d take a 30–60 days off after my big deadline. Then I would launch into Drunk Elephant and a couple other stories I’m developing.
Here I am at the end of my 60 day break thinking that I probably shouldn’t do the relaunch. For one, it took me 60 days to rest up. I had a grueling schedule that didn’t afford me much in the way of a life. I was exhausted. And just a year past heart surgery, there are signs that I pushed myself too hard during that deadline. I can’t maintain that level.
But also I have the desire to do new stories. I have two that I am excited about. I want to share them with the world. Why not do them as webcomics?
So I am reconsidering Drunk Elephant as an ongoing webcomic. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t revisit it in the future. I like the characters a great deal. I’m overdue in creating a collection of the strips. Maybe in the collection I’ll create a new story that can be the basis of a future reboot? I like that idea.
It’s good for me to take stock at what has worked and hasn’t worked for me in the past. Drunk Elephant had its time. I’m going to let it rest for now and start working on my other two projects. Just as soon as I finish The Walk.
When I get on Facebook, I see posts from other cartoonists exclaiming how busy they are, and how tired they are. And if you also work in tech or in a startup, you know that being tired is a badge of honor. It was for me too. I’ve been working in web for 20 years now. “Tired” becomes the default answer to the question of “how are you doing?” A year ago, I was forced into resting for two months post surgery, and it has changed my outlook forever.
For most of my life, I would work all day, then come home and draw comics at night. I still do that. I love to work. Then Friday would come around and I would party through the whole weekend. Suddenly it would be Monday. I started getting more responsibilities at work and doing more with my comics. And I started having some drinks at the end of a long day. Then I started having nothing but long days. And in your 20s, you can do that. Moving into my 30s, I started to see some problems with that lifestyle. But there wasn’t much else in my life. And I started to think that I was working for the sake of work.
“How did we get here?”
My worst night: I had a huge website redesign that I was shepherding. I was acting as the account manager, the project manager, and the designer. That’s too much. But I always used to think I could handle it. My developer was building out a custom CMS on top of it all. The site had to be done the next day for an 8:30am meeting. I had to do a manual upload of their product database. All I had was a text file. It was going to take me all night. So I grabbed a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of bourbon on the way home. I poured myself a drink and I got to work on my update for Drunk Elephant Comics. After 5pm, comics became my priority.
A couple hours later, I had a comic done and a good buzz going. I got to work in TextMate configuring the products. My girlfriend came over for an hour or so, and one of my friends did also. They sat and had a drink with me while I worked, music buzzing from iTunes. They came and went. And by 1am, I was tipsy. I had to sober up, because there was a lot of work left to be done. So I put on a pot of coffee. My developer called around 3am and we had an hour of back and forth about the project. How we got to this point. Why were we doing this to ourselves. I paced and drank coffee.
By 7am, I was done. Done with the project. Done with being a real human being. I was totally fried. Beyond tired. My body in a weird limbo of having had alcohol in its system recently. But also a truckload of adrenaline and caffeine. I showered, shaved and drove myself to the client meeting. I was so tired driving that I kept the window open on that frigid winter morning. It didn’t help.
The project wrapped. The client was happy. We delivered the impossible. And I created a new comic even.
Why did I do that to myself? What was the point of risking my health that much? For any of that? I mean, I wasn’t even getting paid for the comic. I was doing it for the fans. And I’m still proud that for over five hundred strips, I only missed a scheduled update five times. And as far as the website deadline, I could have done half the work that I did and still been fine. Companies aren’t soulless, capitalistic monsters, despite media depictions. They consist of real human beings, that care. And that became evident when I rolled into that meeting looking like death. The clients were happy, but also concerned that I had been up all night working. And my boss pulled me aside and told me to never do that again. So why did I do that to myself? It’s almost like I wanted to see how much work I could do. See how much I could take on until I broke. And that was it. I got it all done, but it broke me.
A couple weeks ago, I was back in Vermont. The Center for Cartoon Studies celebrated their tenth anniversary. I came to the school maybe 6 months after that ill advised all-nighter, in September of 2011. The last all-nighter I’ve done. I don’t want to say cartooning school was easy. It’s not. But reading through the above again, that was my life. That was all my life was. Were there some tough deadlines at CCS? Absolutely. Could I handle it? It was never a doubt in my mind. Going to CCS was a dream. I could work on comics and my studies full time. Under the instruction of some of the finest cartoonists I’ve ever met.
I was thinking about the time I spent in White River Junction during the block party celebration. The day also had some personal significance to me. It was the first anniversary of my open heart surgery. I saw many friends on Saturday who were happy I was still up and walking around with the living.
Recovery after surgery
For the first time in my adult life, I was forced to rest. It took me two months to recover enough to get back to work. The first month was hard. A week after I came home, I started going to cardiac rehab. Everything was hard. Taking a crap. Showering. I couldn’t even get out of bed on my own. That first month was rough.
But by the second month, my strength was returning. I was walking 30 minutes everyday. And since the pain was starting to fade away bit by bit, I was getting bored. So I started to work a little here and there. I started by rebuilding this website from the ground up. I’d been tooling around with it for the better part of a year. I ended up rebuilding the whole thing in a day. Then I started looking at some comics that I had put off for too long. And the art just poured out of me. Those two months spent convalescing brought my creativity back. I was on fire.
The Galloway Method
When you start running long distances, you’ll read about Jeff Galloway’s methods. Simply put, you take breaks. When I could still run, I found that walking a minute for every mile I ran actually improved my time.
I have started to look at work that way now also. During March and April, I cranked out 25 pages of comics. This is for a project that will be released soon. But pretty much all I did was work all day at my job, then come home and draw all night. It was great. I had so much fun. There wasn’t much time for anything else though.
This month, I’m taking a break. I need a recharge before I head back into The Walk. And I’m traveling. Having some fun. Visited CCS, like I mentioned. Last weekend I went to Chicago to see the Cubs beat the Pirates. I stayed at my first Airbnb, which was near Wrigley Field and where my father grew up in the 50s. In a couple of weeks, I’m going to Disneyworld with my family. I don’t have kids, but my niece and nephew are going to have a ball. I’m finishing up some writing projects in the meantime and taking a break from the drawing table.
“What are you working on now?”
Some of my peers who graduated from CCS were nervous about this question. “What are you working on now?” Because if you are a recent graduate, the answer is usually “not much.” James Sturm told my class to take a break after graduation. A year isn’t out of the question. The program is intense. And we are all so hardwired by that point to create that most of us feel like we can’t hop off the hamster wheel. But we should. We all should from time to time. It doesn’t make you a failure. It doesn’t make you less committed to whatever you love. Whatever your passion is. Breaks are good. Rest is good.
As for myself, I don’t drink too much anymore. I definitely don’t smoke anymore. I go to bed at a reasonable hour. I take walks. I drink so much damn Sleepytime tea. And I read books. Actual books! Not comics! At least, not as much as I used to. And then when I’m ready to cut loose again on comics, I will be.
You will, too. Take care of yourselves.
Something that sticks in my craw is the idea that I hate mainstream comics. Let me back up. I have an indy comic pedigree. I have an MFA from the Center for Cartoon Studies. I won the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini Comics. Fantagraphics has released my work. I do work for SpongeBob Comics, which is a haven for indy cartoonists. These opportunities came about from self-publishing my own work, and telling my own stories.
On occasion, I’ll get asked by younger cartoonists to look at their portfolio (I’ll stop you right there; I don’t know why either). And it will contain sample pages of Spider-Man or Batman. I’ll ask, “where are your stories?” The answer almost always is “I’m going to work for Marvel/DC. It’s my dream. It’s my dream. I like your work, but my heart is in superheroes.”
I wish them luck. And I tell them the truth.
Know what you are getting into.
I love Valiant Comics.
If your goal in comics is to draw Batman, your sole goal, you are setting yourself up for heartbreak. It isn’t the 90s anymore. The Big Two aren’t picking kids off the street to draw variant issues. But I get obsession. I don’t want you to not want to draw Batman, believe me. But the only way you are going to get there is to do your own stories. And if you get the opportunity to draw your favorite superhero, you should have a lawyer look at the contract. Many creators have gotten screwed by these companies in the past.
And despite it all, I love superheroes. I don’t read Marvel or DC because they’ve become so complicated, but I do dip my toe in from time to time. And I love Valiant. I don’t need years of reading to understand the whole universe they are creating. The contracts I mentioned earlier? They’ve become much better today. Working in mainstream comics pays. If you want to make comics for a living, there’s no better way to do it.
Superheroes are fun!
Look, who doesn’t love The Silver Surfer?
And the simple truth of it all? Without superhero/mainstream comics? There wouldn’t be much of a comic industry as a whole. I don’t know if there would be a place for indy comics. I assume so, but I don’t want it to get to that point. For many readers, superheroes are how they become enamored with the medium. Some readers grow out of superheroes and into the indy books. Some don’t. Some stick with superheroes. And honestly, there is no better time for superhero fans. There are great creators working for Marvel and DC. This is a great time to be a superhero fan!
No, I don’t hate Marvel and DC (or any other superhero company). If I ever have an opportunity to work for them, I would consider it. My only doubts about it are about myself as a creator, and if I have anything unique to bring to the table as a storyteller. And that’s why I don’t seek it out. My issue, cartoonist to cartoonist, is, why don’t you have your own stories to fall back on? Because that’s what these companies look for. Can you tell a story?
Get to work. Tell your story. I wish you all the luck in the world.
Incredibly rich cartoonist Winsor McCay hosting a dinner party.
Working full time as a cartoonist is a wonderful dream. Some people get a chance to do it. But it’s a hard life. As a successful cartoonist told me once, “sometimes I make $100,000 a year, and sometimes I make $10,000. You just never know.” And that’s a successful cartoonist. Most of us are lucky to earn minimum wage a year, and you have to hustle for it. You can’t just make your comic. You have to be hitting up your editors, or making merchandise to sell, or looking at advertising. Some cartoonists share their struggles, and in my own brief experience trying it out, I agree.
After I graduated from the Center for Cartoon Studies, I moved back home with some prospects. I had a couple of publishers interested in my work, and I had work-for-hire with SpongeBob Comics. I figured I’d make up the rest of my income doing freelance design work. I made it work for about 5 months but I noticed a few things. One, I was spending a lot of time trying to get work and two, I was lonely. Cartooning (and freelance design) is a life of solitude. A little over two years ago I signed up to be the Creative Director at B² Interactive and I’ve loved every moment of it.
Let me take you back to 1994
I was about a semester away from graduating high school and I was not interested in college. I wanted to move to New York City and draw for Marvel Comics. This was the boom years for comics, remember. And if you saw some of the art Marvel was pumping out monthly, it was conceivable that I could get work if I tried. I remember driving with my father one day and he asked me what I wanted to do. College application deadlines were fast approaching. I told him my dream. And he said “no.”
He told me I could either go to college, or I could go to work in the warehouse with him (or join the Navy). This was one of the best things to ever happen to me.
I hated that warehouse. I applied for college.
I graduated in 1999 with a double major in Graphic Design and Art and a minor in English.
Graphic Design is the Best
I love design. I can’t stress it enough. I love graphic design. I’m creative all day, but it’s a job. Graphic design is a service (and sometimes an art). And I learned all the old production methods. I did paste up. I carried a toolbox full of rubber cement, razor blades, and Rapidographs. I learned how to take apart and hack my computers for more performance. I got into web design on the ground floor. I can visually communicate an idea to a mass audience.
That knowledge has informed my art. And my art is comics. I can build a webcomic site by hand. I know pre-press, or even how to bind books by hand. I often don’t have to meassure when I cut; I can just eyeball it. But the real magic comes in the drawing. I can visually communicate a story to you. The faculty of CCS are fond of saying that comics are a perfect combination of graphic design and poetry. I agree with that statement.
And the best thing is that I have a career. When the going gets tough (and oh man has it), I can find work. Going on twenty years of selling myself and my talent, and I can always find work.
And part of the reason I love graphic design is that when it comes to comics, it is not a job. It’s my passion, and I get to dictate the terms of how I engage it. Especially in this day and age of webcomics, you don’t need a publisher to get your comics out to the world. There are no barriers anymore.
I also don’t worry about money with graphic design. I had a flat tire today, and it was an annoyance. Talk to a full time cartoonist with a flat tire and it’s a big deal. When I had open heart surgery, I was just concerned about surviving the surgery, not how I would pay for it.
The best part of working in graphic design for so long: I work with a lot of different businesses. I have to learn their business back and forth. I apply those lessons to how I sell my comics and myself as a cartoonist.
I’m not Don Draper.
I’m a creative director for an agency now. Which is weird. I like getting my hands dirty and pushing pixels. But I’ve proven to the world that I have vision. So I write copy sometimes (and duties as assigned) and I set the creative standard for the agency as a whole. I’m the idea guy. And the boss. I teach and mentor more than I create now. I love it. I love waking up in the morning and I look forward to seeing my employees at 9am for our daily standup meeting. We joke. We laugh. We hit it hard. My plans for the day never happen; I always get sidelined. How do we move this trade show display to another city? How can I convert this to a PDF? Have do I convince this business owner to trust us? Can we turn this room soundproof for recording video? Can I get some business cards for tomorrow?
The answer is always “yes.” I come home late, and I sit down at my drawing board. I grab my brush and my ink and I smile. I’m living life on my terms, and I like my life.
I love starting my morning catching up with Tom Spurgeon’s excellent site, The Comics Reporter. He just published a great interview with Sammy Harkham, and one part in particular really hit home for me:
I am genuinely in awe of anybody in the comics industry who makes their living from making comics. That’s a wonderful thing. What I think the rest of us do, is at a certain point, you begin to scramble and to find ways to make it work I need an – agent! I need to do a topical graphic novel! A memoir! I need to do a web comic! But once you exhaust yourself thinking about what you did wrong, what could you do better, it really is about producing the work and just releasing it, and trusting that it will find whatever audience there is for it, naturally. You can’t look at the success of another cartoonist and assume you can copy it. So therefore, just do the work and things fall where they fall.
You can look at a successful non-genre cartoonist, like Chris Ware, and it’s as simple as it gets as far as a “plan.” He drew Jimmy Corrigan one page a week — it ran in weekly papers. When he had enough material for a comic book, it came out as a comic. Then when it was all done it came out as a book. I think thats as good a model as any, with the web being the equivalent of the weekly paper.
So I don’t think cartoonists should worry about finding a way. If anything, they have a tendency to get in their own ways and make things incredibly complicated. Very few people will have the readership of Ware, so I am not taking about making a living now, I am talking about a system to keep engaged and working on comics. I am tempted to think cartoonists are like fiction writers, who also rarely make a real living from their work, but there is institutional support in the other arts thats are not in place in comics. People love the story of Carver sitting in his driveway writing at his dashboard after work, but it’s not true. Talented writers are often recognized and encouraged and supported very early on. The more of that in comics the better. Until then, I think its healthy to expect nothing, do it because you love the process, the medium, and the great people it puts you in contact with. That’s enough.
In my youth, I made myself miserable worrying about comics as a career instead of comics as my art. I see that drive in so many younger cartoonists. I feel much more free now not worrying about it. I have the freedom to choose what I want to do. It’s a much healthier frame of mind. Now, I just work.