Comics: It’s Hard Work If You Can Get It
I was chatting recently with a friend who realized his dream of writing comics over the past few years. His arc has been interesting to watch, as it followed a path reminiscent of my own. And while I tried to help point out his likely destination at the start, it’s something he had to discover for himself. Here are some lessons learned—and confirmed—from his experience.
It Can Be a Struggle
As a child, I dreamed of being a cartoonist. I spent hours toiling away on scrawled doodles and world-building, creating characters and stories more myself more than anyone. I poured over comic books and strips, trying to re-engineer the thought process of the cartoonists and creators involved. Now that I’ve been a comic creator for a couple of decades, I sometimes have to tap into that childhood dream for some additional drive when I can use a boost. Because, as fun as comics can be, an unrelenting flow of steady deadlines can be exhausting. “Real life”—such as family, friends, day jobs, and other responsibilities—can intervene to conflict with your creative drive and otherwise fight for your attention. And that creative drive, it can waver from feast to famine (and back again) over time.
Keep the Passion Alive
With the struggle being so real, you have to be invested in your work. For me, that’s a big reason why I tend to focus on my own creations, my own stories. Once upon a time, early on in my career as a comic professional, I entertained the daydream of working for “The Big Two”. I remember drafting story ideas for a New Mutants spinoff featuring intergalactic rock star Lila Cheney, hanging out with fellow mutants Dazzler and Strong Guy (and occasional guest-star Cannonball), and making mischief and commentary in true X-Men fashion. My friend had a similar ambition, albeit even moreso.
While in my daydream, my “rise to mutantdom” was a side-hustle to increase my brand and help bring more readers to my indie work, my friend initially saw his indie comic creations as a rung in a ladder to becoming the next Matt Fraction or Jonathan Hickman. To that end, he recently tried his hand at helping bring an artist friend’s creations to life, fleshing out some of the artist’s loose concepts into fully-realized characters and story. However, what he discovered is that his heart wasn’t in it as much. Working on another person’s intellectual property and concepts became really more a distraction from his own work than anything else. His heart wasn’t in bringing someone else’s characters and ideas to life, and as such, he found himself spinning his wheels on all fronts. Without the passion, it was all simply a struggle.
Do Work That’s Meaningful (To You)
Contributing stories to the characters you grew up with can be rewarding. (And Marvel, if you’re listening, I’m sure I could recover those Lila Cheney notes.) But from my experience, it’s hard to compete with your own creations. Even with my editorial cartoons, where the “characters” are largely anthropomorphic partisan icons and politician caricatures, the work is mine. My undiluted ideas and work, for good or for bad. Similarly, as I’ve discussed before, my illustrations are often exercises in creativity, opportunities for me to experiment and learn as much as they are for the client’s needs. And my comic book work—those sequential pages that require the largest investment of my time, attention, and creativity—always becomes less of a struggle when they bring my own creations and ideas to life.
tl;dr: After a recent conversation with my writer friend, discussing his realizations along these same lines, I noticed a convo on Erik Larsen’s Facebook wall that summed it up nicely: Comics are too hard if you don’t believe 100% in the story you’re telling.
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Editor, Artist, Letterer, Colorist Steve is the long-running cartoonist at the Charleston, SC alt-weekly Charleston City Paper, where he skewers politicians and criminals (and criminal politicians) alike with editorial cartoons and police blotter illustrations every issue. Steve was best known his indie comic book (and subsequent webcomic) BOONDOGGLE