career advice

The cream forces itself to the top.

I’ve been a writer and illustrator for a while now, and my independently published comic Arsenic Lullaby has become a benchmark of sorts.  Somewhere along the way I have  unwittingly graduated from loud mouth punk to elder statesman in the eyes of peers and readers, so at conventions and signings and in emails there is one thing that people just starting out all ask.  They ask it in different ways “how did you get started”  or “how do I get started” or “how did you get this opportunity” or “how did you get connected with so and so”.  It all basically boils down to some person looking up at you with a portfolio and big brown cow eyes wanting some secret of how they can get where you are.

Here’s the secret, you work your ass off, and get as good as you possibly can.  Period. Amen.

That’s the short answer…which never seems to satisfy them.  So here is the long answer. 

You have to be so good that people notice you.  So good that you stand out no matter if you are competing with a bookshelf of other comics, a store full of other comics, or the entire internet. Get really good at what you do. That is the only thing you can control. Are more people happening to run across Arsenic Lullaby now then ten years ago?  Maybe, maybe not…the difference is now when they see it they go “wow…that’s really good.  REALLY good”.    When someone stumbles across your work and has to stop and take notice, THAT is the goal.  THAT is when things start falling in your favor. That is when things people chalk up to “luck” or “fate” or “chance” go your way.  The only thing you can really control is how good your work is, and that when someone does see it that they are impressed.  You will never know how many people see your work, or how many people who can give you an opportunity have seen your work until it is so good that they STOP and take note of it.  Whether or not the editor in chief of Marvel Comics happens to run across you work is out of your hands by and large…but whether or not he is impressed if he does happen to see it…THAT is your first and foremost concern.

It starts with DRIVE.  You have to be driven, you have to have it in your head, or put it there, that nothing is going to stop you.  By that I mean NOTHING.  Not talented enough? Overcome it with practice. Don’t have the time to practice? Sleep less, screw off less, get off the f’n internet.  If you are on FB ten minutes in the morning, ten minutes at lunch, ten minutes at the end of work, ten minutes before you go to bed…that’s 40 minutes a day you COULD have been improving.  40 minutes times seven days a week, is four and a half hours.  Now add up the time you waste on video games.  The time is there. The people who succeed in life understand how precious time is.

Study. Study the people who came before you who were better than you, and the people around now that are better than you.  Why are they better, what are they doing right, what techniques are specifically making them so good?  Dig deeper than who can draw a car the best.  Take Jack Kirby…we all know who he is, he made the Fantastic Four what they are.  His people are clunky looking, he couldn’t draw hands well, his women had big square-ish heads, BUT what he did better than most people was lead your eye around the page, make you feel motion and impact and energy.  He used composition, and line movement and contrasting shapes to hit you in the gut and grab you by the shirt. Study those techniques and learn them and practice them.  Then you take the next guy, and break down what he is good at and study it and learn and practice.  Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.  The job here is to capture people imaginations.  Good at drawing half naked women?  Great…that’s going to capture the imagination until they see the next picture of a half naked women.  Learn how to tell a story, how to draw people into your book.  You have just a split second as they flip through or click through, for your work to draw them in and make them feel like they are looking into a different world…and feel compelled to linger there.  How much that split second impresses them is really the only thing you have control over. Control that and the “starts” and “breaks” will find you.

Get good, and then get better.  Then get better. Log the hours, do the studying, waste the pencil lead and ink.  Make page after page. And realize THIS…because after what I just said, it is very very important that what I am about to say next sinks in. Do a project; finish a project, MOVE ON TO THE NEXT ONE.  I see guys at conventions who have spent years reworking the same story, never publishing it or putting it out there…”not yet, it’s not ready”  as if the first story they make is going to be perfect.   Do NOT sit and spin your wheels reworking the same thing over and over as if you are going to turn yourself into Bernie Wrightson in one project.  Start something, finish it, move ON. Accept the fact that nothing you do is going to be perfect, and nothing you do is going to look as good as it did in your head, and nothing you do is going to seem as good as you wanted it.  Make something, put it out there…see if people like it. More people will like it than you think. Do not let fear, or apprehension or “I’m not as good as so and so” or “This isn’t good enough, no one will want it” enter your head, and stop you.  Make something, put it out there…people will tell you if it’s good or bad, what they like or don’t like.  If Jack Kirby had the time or the mentality to sit around thinking “my women don’t look that great, and my hands suck”, he could have spent an entire life reworking Fantastic Four no.1 and NEVER learned that his true gift was in movement, and dramatic scenes and wild backgrounds.  Make something, put it out, get feedback, and improve, learn what your strong suits are.

Remember THIS, if insecurity, or fear, or simple “I don’t think this is good enough” creeps into your head- It might NOT be that good…compared to what you are comparing it to, but it is probably better than what 90% of the population could do.  The majority of them won’t be thinking “that arm is too short”  they will be thinking “wow, I could never draw that.” Most people can’t draw a straight line, simply don’t have the imagination to sit down a write a story…that’s why they pay people like me. It is a unique skill.  I said SKILL, as in something you learn and develop. 

I leave you with this… a page from Arsenic Lullaby no.1  and a page from the most recent issue, both in black and white, so you can compare them. It took over a decade to get that good.  You better get to work and stop wasting time asking people how to get started.

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