If you ask any type of artist why they engage their particular art, you will, of course, get a multitude of seemingly unique answers.
Boil them down, though, and they always end up falling in one of two categories.
The first is the one the artist will give when the inquisitor is not themselves an artist. This well-rehearsed statement will list everything that slots in the ‘pro’ column when dealing with their particular medium, and deftly avoids nearly all of the cons.
(And it’s well-rehearsed because the artist has made this little speech to themselves in the mirror more than a few times, usually when things aren’t going well with the art, and often in the wee hours of a sleepless night, as a way to justify their efforts to themselves when the results aren’t completely obvious.)
Not that this response is a total fabrication, but the REAL truth lies somewhere closer to the shorter answer an artist will give one of their peers, perhaps when asked by someone from a slightly different, yet still creative-oriented, field. When it comes down to it, we may all have different and strong individual accents, but we all speak a common tongue.
We make the art that we make because we simply can’t NOT make it.
It’s an obsessive compulsion, an addiction of the highest and most heinous order that causes us to devote vast amounts of time, resources, and effort into trying to build a career out making music, painting pictures, writing stories, or what have you.
Non-artist ‘Muggles’ can’t really digest that response, and it just makes the artist come off as a pretentious twit that can’t give a simple answer to a direct question.
So we dress it up and make it sound noble, when in truth, we’re really junkies that can’t get enough of a certain thing to the point that we have to make our own.
Most times we start out as fans of the art form we indulge in, and while not every fan is able to cross that line to ‘creator’, those of us that do tend to have just the right genetic make-up so that when we’re holding the beaker with the volatile chemicals and the lighting bolt comes crashing through the window, or the radioactive spider unexpectedly drops down and bites us, we don’t end up in a ward somewhere dedicated to the care of victims of unfortunate freak accidents.
Well … usually we don’t.
I was twenty years old when I first had my work as a writer published in comics in 1993. I was probably about fifteen when I initially decided making comics was what I wanted to do for a living.
Truth is, those particular seeds were probably planted a decade earlier. I’d been reading comics since I was maybe five or six. If something didn’t have Superman, Spider-Man, or the Incredible Hulk emblazoned across it, I didn’t want anything to do with it. My parents had to bribe me to get me out of my Batman Underoos long enough to launder them, because I believed they were appropriate dress for every possible social occasion.
My professional comics career only lasted about six years total, during which I had close to two hundred pages of material published (and sold about 48 pages of material that was never published, but for which I was paid rather handsomely).
That was five entire full-length comics, and enough short pieces to fill a sixth. (Some of this you can read, free of charge, over at DoorMan Online.)
My attempt at a career writing comics came to an end after a disastrous attempt at putting together a start-up publisher that would’ve involved investors and a projected $250,000 budget. After two years of almost daily work, putting all my other projects essentially on hold, and getting several established names tentatively on board, we never even got to the investor stage because my partner in the venture sunk it by demanding a ridiculous new budget full of personal ‘pork’ that took the buy-in to $2 million, which no one was going to give us.
And that was after he managed to offend nearly every single talent we had involved by suddenly finding reasons why their work now wasn’t up to snuff, leaving me to field one angry phone call after another.
Moral of the story: not every orange jumpsuit that has ‘Property of Arkham Asylum’ on it is just a cosplay prop.
At that point, I’d frankly had enough of comics, both as a fan and a creator.
Like Princess Diana here, I too declared “I quit!” (Although reports of me flinging my tiara are greatly exaggerated.)
This wasn’t a decision I took in the least bit lightly, nor made overnight. After the start-up went down, I investigated self-publishing and didn’t feel comfortable taking the financial risk — I was married at the time and we were already heavily in debt.
And I had spent nearly all my time developing properties for my own publishing venture, rather than trying to place creator-owned work or seeking freelance jobs and building contacts and relationships in the rest of the industry. And with some stormy seas ahead, those relationships would be crucial.
To anyone who was serious about making comics a business, the writing was on the wall for an impending implosion of the marketplace near the end of the 1990s, and it had been scribbled in glow-in-the-dark, foil-embossed lettering for a while — too much sub-par, creatively bereft product in exotic covers being aimed squarely at speculators, and the whole house of cards hinged on the fact that these would-be collectible moguls didn’t seem to realize that everyone was buying the same comics in bulk as they were.
Short of a mothership showing up and dumping out hundreds of thousands of extraterrestrial comic book collectors with empty longboxes they wanted to fill and fistfuls of American currency, there’d be no one who would buy these things for a 2000% mark up of their cover price, and pay for their children’s college education.
No demand, and a copious, readily-available supply meant the price guide values for these ‘hot’ comics were as much fantasy as the contents of an issue of Conan the Barbarian or Red Sonja.
Publishers seemed completely oblivious to the fact that the boom times of the past several years with record-setting sales weren’t sustainable, and just kept churning out one armload of marketing-driven drivel after another. This offended quite a few creatives like myself, if for nothing else because we were still fans of the medium, and no one could realistically take any sort of pride in the wheelbarrows full of overhyped junk being dumped on shelves every month.
Everyone knew that yes, the collector-speculators would eventually move on like the swarm of locusts they were. What no one seemed to get was that quite a few disgruntled readers would feel betrayed and decide comics were no longer worth bothering with as a form of art or entertainment.
The resulting mass exodus from both ends of the spectrum crashed the industry and sent shockwaves down the supply chain, affecting everyone. Publishers went under, some of whom didn’t cater to the speculators and produce chromium-covered crap, and didn’t deserve to go. Retailers closed their doors in droves. Some of them had been fly-by-night opportunists who had just started selling comics because of the collector frenzy, but many pre-existing shops that had been in operation for years hit severe cash crunches that they couldn’t recover from. Creators saw their incomes greatly reduced as the post-crash sales figures couldn’t justify the rates they were being paid.
I think the moment of truth for me was being at the same local comics shop I had been frequenting since I’d been a teenager, the one where I’d done my first in-store signing as a writer, and watching them fire sale new comics at nearly 50% off the cover price just to try to get enough cashflow to keep the lights on another couple months.
This was a store that hadn’t catered to collectors or speculators, was very realistic in their ordering, not expecting droves of new fans to suddenly come plowing through the door for whatever hot gimmick comic they’d heard about on some TV report or newspaper article, had passionate owners and employees that genuinely loved comics, and they were going out of business, just the same. Large numbers of their customer base had just decided they were done with comics, because they just weren’t fun to read anymore.
I felt exactly like Peter Parker did in the iconic image from Amazing Spider-Man #50, stuffing his costume unceremoniously into a trash can and walking away dejectedly in the pouring rain.
Unlike Peter, I didn’t slip back into Spandex and strap on my web-shooters a few months later. My last work was published in 1997, and I didn’t take on another formal assignment until late last year, for an eight-page tale in an upcoming anthology title.
Fourteen years passed, during which I meandered around, tried my hand at various things, both creative and non-creative, before deciding last January that I needed to stage a New Year’s ‘revolution’ / intervention and get back to my roots of being an aspiring writer instead of just working retail until I retire.
I’m not planning on focusing exclusively on comics in this new Career 2.0, but I’d like for the medium to be a part of my goal of making at least a modest living as a writer and creator.
So the question of ‘why make comics?’ has been something I’ve been examining from every angle over the past year, both in business and creative terms.
Because I need to know that it’s going to be worth it, why I’m going to leap back in the fray that broke my spirit the first time around, and how I’m going to adapt my strategies and do things differently to achieve a better and more satisfactory outcome.
I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror and deliver an answer I can believe in and get behind, and it can’t just be semi-pretentious fluffy rhetoric that sounds good.
I think, after some time, that I have a definite answer, and course of action.
To be continued …
Thanks for stopping by Public Domain! And welcome to all the new readers who wander in from the spin-off Son of Public Domain! tumblr blog, which has been chugging along quite nicely.
It’s March, but this is our first post of 2014, so I have to apologize for content being a bit thin. There’s a whole list of things on the agenda to tackle, but the main thrust of PD! in the coming months is going to be concerning the creative process and examining particular hows and whys (with the occasional pause to just stop and have some fun).
My goal isn’t just to be narcissistic and talk about myself, nor stuff upcoming projects down everyone’s throats via self-promotion, but rather to hopefully use some of the things I’ve been struggling with to get myself artistically back on track after a ridiculously long hiatus to illustrate that everyone has hurdles to overcome to pursue their creativity, and sometimes it’s not nearly as difficult as you think to make course corrections to get back on the correct path.
What it does take is being honest with yourself and being willing to find a realistic, workable solution. I’m no genius, so if I can navigate this maze, so can anyone else. There is no handy, universal, one-size-fits all guide, but I think there is a list of common topics to take under consideration and mull over, so we’re going to try to highlight those and have an open forum in the comments for discussing them. Comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated.
Photo / image sources: Cap, EC addict, Dimension of Doom, Diva Diana (Google), Conan, Spidey, and ‘Eureka’ Cap. Note that these links may lead to sites that feature NSFW content, so follow the bread crumbs at your own risk (or at least make sure the boss isn’t looking).