Help me get my comics/graphic-storytelling career started.
March 22, 2010 12:46 PM   Subscribe

Help me figure out if my dream comics career is worth pursuing. No wait, that's too easy to answer.

I own a successful web design business. It's neat and it pays the bills.

To be honest though, I would like to wake up one day and realize that I am Georges Remi. However, mental blocks and fears of all sorts stand in my way.

My past with comics:

My Dad used to offer me money to look at my sketchbook. He used to tell me I should make $MILLIONS like Charles Schultz and give half to him (ha ha).

However much pressure that became, I also really want it to happen. I love comics. I almost pursued a career in Illustration but decided on a CS degree instead, because it seemed to pay better. :-( I do regret that now. I eventually transferred out of CS and into Media Arts, which was slightly more comfy but still completely avoidant of Illustration/Comics as a career.

Some comics background:

1. I've always drawn caricatures. Heck, always drawn everything.
2. Was comic artist for school newspaper.
3. Have drawn comics in letters I've written to people.
4. Started a web comic that got very good feedback considering it provided maybe 10 minutes of entertainment. I stopped working on it because I built it up to be this huge thing in my head. "Let's make two lines, one for signatures, the other for handshakes"...gah, embarrassing.
Semi-related 5. I have done paying illustration work.

My future with comics:

1. I work best by myself. I wanna be a solo comics artist/storyteller.
2. I would like to have one of these. I already own a model airplane.

I have a slight "you will fail" complex when it comes to comics. I'm either usually afraid I'll be TOO successful (lol) or afraid I'll wake up tomorrow and not have made any progress toward this goal...again. I find myself analyzing successful comics artists and telling myself why I lack some critical attribute that they have.

My Happy, Positive Thoughts:
Technically, I think my work has potential. I can draw. I can compose a picture.

I'm good at telling stories.

I'm good at buying how-to-make-comics books. :-/

I suck at planned, long-form anything. I suck at planning a plot out. By the time I've got it planned out, it feels like one big dumb cliche that even I wouldn't want to read, and all of my energy is gone.

But, if I just see the scenes in my head, somehow things come together. I seem to excel at just winging it. Starting somewhere and ending up who-knows-where. Is this...ok? Are there people who have told (well...sold) stories this way?

Also, where do comics artists hang out who don't want to be James Kochalka but don't idolize Stan Lee either? I mean, websites/forums?

Also #2, when I want to get in shape, I go out and hire a coach. I am really good with coaches, I think because I really care about making people think I'm capable. Is there some equivalent to a coach in comics-land?

I already have a good business consultant for my web design biz, and one day he was saying, "one of my clients let it slip that she has a secret dream career that has nothing to do with her business. I told her we could make it happen, and she started to cry." At this point I blurted out "I HAVE A DREAM OF BEING A COMICS ARTIST!!!" and he changed the subject.

Are my prospects that bad?

Do I need to hire ANOTHER consultant?

Thanks for your help, especially I've-been-there or I-am-there-already sorts of helps.
posted by circular to Work & Money (19 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I don’t get it. You’re obviously not afraid to put yourself and your work out there, so why don’t you just do it and stop trying to predict the future?
posted by Think_Long at 12:51 PM on March 22, 2010

And your artwork is nice by the way. I mean to say, why are you so hung up on the business end of things? Buy a domain, publish a web comic, and see where it goes.
posted by Think_Long at 12:52 PM on March 22, 2010

Best answer: But, if I just see the scenes in my head, somehow things come together. I seem to excel at just winging it. Starting somewhere and ending up who-knows-where. Is this...ok? Are there people who have told (well...sold) stories this way?

I recently finished reading Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, which is a very well regarded graphic novel made from a collection of comic books. The author, Chris Ware, basically said that he started writing it without any definitive end goal or plan in mind.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:54 PM on March 22, 2010

Best answer: You mentioned Charles Schultz. I recently read his biography, and his early career was spent teaching other people how to draw while he faield and failed and FAILED at being a cartoonist. He sent out comics to every available editor, and got shot down, got a small break, only to be shot down, went to New York in order to be shot down, all the while still drawing his comics with the express purpose of sending them to the next publisher.

You have it a little bit easier than that, in that you can start a web comic right now, and build an audience without needing a middleman. Will it be successful, especially in these days where the future of all comics is kind of in the balance for even established comics? No idea. But you said yourself that you know how to draw and you want to do it, so you might as well spend the time you'd normally spend worrying over how to start this by drawing and posting your comics, and then see what happens.
posted by xingcat at 12:55 PM on March 22, 2010

Response by poster: Buy a domain, publish a web comic, and see where it goes.

Thanks. You see, I already did that, and it didn't work. That is like the path-of-most-resistance for me, which is why I asked questions about comics coaches, whether it's worth pursuing, etc.

I wish I could convince myself to just power through it, but in this case that looks like a surefire way to get the same results I've already had.
posted by circular at 12:57 PM on March 22, 2010

Best answer: I don't know anything about the comics business, but if you "suck at planned, long-form anything," it might help you to study creative writing. The result be text instead of drawings, but it's mainly about how to create believable, interesting characters and stories—the same as in long-form comics. You're already good at drawing, so it seems like the writing part is all you need to work on. If it improves the dialogue part of your comics, that wouldn't hurt either.
posted by k. at 1:04 PM on March 22, 2010

Response by poster: >I recently finished reading Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, which is a very well regarded graphic novel made from a collection of comic books.

Whaaatt? I had no idea that started out as serialized work. And here I thought he just sat down and hammered that huge book out.

It helps to know that! Also helps to know he didn't have an ending in mind. Phew. Thanks.
posted by circular at 1:05 PM on March 22, 2010

Best answer: I think reading The War of Art by Steven Pressfield might help you.
posted by sharkfu at 1:19 PM on March 22, 2010

Best answer: There's a wonderful book that I read the other day by the name of "Leap" it talks about how nothing should stop you from following your dream much less a existing job. Because of what you do for a living it should be much easier for you to build your comic book business on the side why you have a guarantee income from your full time job......Go for it and also read the book.
posted by The1andonly at 1:23 PM on March 22, 2010

A couple ideas:
1) find someone to collaborate on your efforts, to help with the story/ scripting/ timeline
2) scrap the cohesive storyline all-together, and do whatever you feel like doing, but keeping on a schedule for putting out material
3) pitch your art to any and all publishing houses, offering your talents as someone who can compliment an author

1 and 2 could let you work on web comics, and build up a following. 3 is if you're really set on getting paid for your efforts sooner than later. Note that building up a following (and in turn getting paid for your efforts) takes time, and that most folks who are currently paid by their comic efforts alone (be they in terms of ad revenue, merch sales, book sales, or whatever else) have done it for the sheer love of the thing for years first, then quit their day jobs. If you're looking to quit what you're doing now and get paid, you'll have to do a lot of selling yourself.

As for finding other comic artists, check out the forums behind (web) comics, especially one(s) you like. You should be able to find some like-minded folks, or at least find resources they use.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:30 PM on March 22, 2010

It doesn't sound like you actually want to create comics. It sounds like you want to have created comics, as a means to becoming famous/successful/rich/whatever.

You see, if you actually wanted to do it, you would just go ahead and do it. Instead you sit around and fantasize about being "TOO successful" -- whatever the hell that means.

Try to separate in your head what it is that appeals to you about actually creating comics from what it would be like to reap the rewards of having done so. Because as far as I can tell you're entirely focused on the reaping-the-rewards part, and not at all on the creating part.

2. I would like to have one of these. I already own a model airplane.

You want to have.... your own personal Milton Caniff? You want to have a cluttered but productive-looking office? You want... seriously, I'm stumped here. What does this photo represent to you?

I think because I really care about making people think I'm capable

Yeah. You do. Think about why that is.

I'm pretty good at talking myself out of creative pursuits, too. Here's the thing: if there's something about the act of creating comics that you love, which you just haven't explained here, then focus on doing it solely for the sake of that thing. Let that be the reward. Set all the rest -- the comparing yourself to others, the will it sell, the how will I cope with my wild success -- aside. It's not under your control, and thinking about it won't help you achieve it.

If it turns out that what you actually want is the trappings of success, then forget about comics; you've frankly got a far better chance of achieving that as a web designer.
posted by ook at 1:35 PM on March 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a working cartoonist, like in newspaper comics and for whomever else will buy them. Here are some thoughts:

• It takes time. Be ready for that. It took me drawing a cartoon a day for about five years before I could look at them without cringing. It's taken about ten years for it to throw off any kind of money. Even then, I never quit my day job. But people always want to know you have some kind of cred. Once you get that first breakthrough, you have to work doubly hard because that gets you in the door for other projects. Expand from there.

• It takes discipline. People – whether an employer, a syndicate, or just your audience – expect a regularity of delivery. Or at least that's what they expect if they're going to pay for it. If you're going to go for it, go for it. And don't let up. You don't have the luxury of taking days off. I've done 4,000 cartoons and I'm wowed until I consider that Sparky did 28,000 Peanuts. Do you have that discipline?

• It can happen. Here's a story similar to yours. Okay, like 20 years ago I'm working on a TV commercial I'd written and at the post-production facility I sit down to work with a young editor. I notice his doodles hanging around and ask about them. He says yeah, he likes his day job but he really really really wants to be a successful cartoonist. I'm mean you could see it in his eyes. That was Mark Tatulli whose Lio garnered the Best Comic Strip Award at last year's National Cartoonist Society Reuben Awards. He has a second strip as well. (Oh yeah, Mark hasn't quit his day job either.) The second "it can happen" story ... the writer sitting there was me. No idea I ever wanted to be a cartoonist. Especially, since, well, I didn't know how to draw. I learned. I didn't stop and somehow I've found myself in this business. Mark and I and many others will be drinking together at this year's Reuben Awards.

• The comics business is in serious flux. That's good and bad. Comics tied to newspapers are taking a hit. But some web cartoonists are flourishing with a combination of comics sales, merchandising, books, appearances and whatever. In my opinion, it seems to be a mostly single guy thing. I'm not sure I know anybody who does comics, runs the business online and is able to have the income, and time, to have a family. I hope that changes. I hope you change it.

• I'm glad to see you emphasized storytelling skills. There are lots of talented artists. It's the ideas that make them successful in comics. But again, to make a career out of this, you can't have just a few ideas, you need idea after idea after idea after idea ...

• Looking for a site? Try The Daily Cartoonist. Lots of cartoonists, myself included, hang there.

Sorry, I don't know if there are coaches. But the cartoonists I've known seem to be a generous and helpful bunch. I don't swim in the precise waters you want to excel in, but feel free to email me and I'll offer up anything else I can.

Good luck.
posted by lpsguy at 1:35 PM on March 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hey. I'm a creative type that has spent most of the last 20 years getting paid for graphic design... but at heart, I've always wanted to make fine art. Got a couple degrees in fine art, I've always had a studio going.. but my production and progress have been intermittent and very slow. It can be very frustrating. I'll share some thoughts that may, or may not, apply to your situation:

~ There are two ways at looking at having a "day job" that is related to your interest - a) it's nice to be doing something you are suited to, or b) it can sap your creative energy and time.

~ Perhaps you need a creative partner. Sounds like you love the drawing, but not so much the plotting/writing. (re: I suck at planning a plot out.) A creative team might be the approach for you... I'll bet there are plenty of "I can write great stories, but can't draw worth a damn" types out there.

~ It's a hell of lot easier to experiment and try and fail and move and change etc when you are young. Do it now! Don't wait.

~ Don't try to make it all "perfect"... the studio, the process, the work... just do the work and get it out there. I know a bunch of creative types who have squandered years and years because they just didn't have it "right" yet.

~ Leverage your skills in other ways - do the comics, do the illustration, make and sell stuff... as long as it is based in what you really want to be doing. You'll find success, but it'll take some work and time.

~ Use every resource you can... set aside time to market, promote, use the web to your advantage etc.

Your drawings are very nice (I've got a BFA and an MBA, and you top me). You can do it. And if it don't fly... you'll be glad you tried.
posted by ecorrocio at 1:40 PM on March 22, 2010

Best answer: I read tons o' comics and I know some local folks who have found moderate success in illustration. My advice to you is the same advice that people give to those who want to be writers: work on your artwork EVERY SINGLE DAY. Set aside a little bit of time and draw every day, even if you don't feel like it, even if it sucks. Sketch on the bus, on your front porch, whatever. Practice and repetition are going to make you a better, more versatile artist. Plus, you can't just sit down at the desk & bang out a masterwork in one go. You've got to make a lot of crap in order to create the gems.

Get involved in your local artists' community. You may be lucky and be able to meet people in person who share your interests. Attend open life drawing sessions or Dr. Sketchy If there aren't any near you, see if you can start one! Look into drawing classes at local universities--not necessarily because you need to develop your skills, but because they're great places to meet people with similar interests, plus a class structure pushes you to create stuff.

Read a lot about the artists & writers you really like, or whose careers you'd really like. There are probably interviews or blogs out there about how they got started, how they work, and life in the industry. The Comics Journal has great articles just like that. These days with blogs and webcomics, people have lots of different stories of how they became successful comics creators. Learn about those inroads & figure out which ones might work best for you.

The most important thing, though, is just to sit down and, as they say around here, "git 'er done." I know many wonderful, talented people who are such perfectionists that they can't even get started on their art because they're afraid of failure. Well, doing nothing and wasting your talent is more of a shame than a bad piece of art could ever be. This is what I have learned from years of interaction with all kinds of artists, including illustrators. Good luck!
posted by Fui Non Sum at 1:49 PM on March 22, 2010

Best answer: My creds: I've been an on-again off-again comic artist for some years. Currently I'm not working on a regular comics project, but I do draw cartoons as part of my job as a freelance columnist.

Starting somewhere and ending up who-knows-where. Is this...ok? Are there people who have told (well...sold) stories this way?

Yes, this happens all the time. Some people work best with strict outlines, some work best by winging it page to page.

More to the point, you shouldn't be asking if a given approach is okay. You should be trying it, and seeing if it's okay for you. Frankly, every weird approach you can come up with has probably been used successfully by someone, somewhere. Worrying about whether you're doing something the official, approved way is a distraction.

Also, where do comics artists hang out who don't want to be James Kochalka but don't idolize Stan Lee either? I mean, websites/forums?

Most webcomics forums are at most 5% people who are actually making comics, and at least 95% people who like to talk about making comics and their excuses for not making comics. It's not, in my opinion, conducive to actual work.

Many actual working webcomics artists, in my experience, "hang out" on Twitter as much as anyplace else. It's something they can pop into and out of while actually, you know, making comics.

But really, worrying about the best forums and websites to go to is also a distraction.

Is there some equivalent to a coach in comics-land?

Here's what the equivalent of a coach in comics land would tell you: Quit coming up with distractions and create comics. A comics coach would not buy your excuse that you tried and it didn't work. A comics coach would not allow you to buy books and read forums and worry about whether you're allowed to do certain things instead of creating comics. A comics coach would not let you dither about whether you're going to be able to make a career out of it. A comics coach would make sure you drew comics every freaking day whether you felt like it or not.

If you need to pay someone to yell at you until you make comics, I'm sure any dominatrix on Craigslist would be glad to take your money.
posted by lore at 1:58 PM on March 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm not sure I know anybody who does comics, runs the business online and is able to have the income, and time, to have a family.

For what it's worth, I know several. Jon Rosenberg of Goats and Gabe and Tycho of Penny Arcade leap to mind, if "kids" are required for a family. If you just mean married people making a living at comics, I know a bunch.
posted by lore at 2:23 PM on March 22, 2010

There was a web comic contest a few years ago, the rule was something like, the winner was the last artist to not miss a publication day. Not sure if anything like that is going on but it might give you the extra nudge to keep the site going. Also look at the early xkcd, some are kinda lame but he kept going.
posted by sammyo at 6:54 PM on March 22, 2010

First read this list. Read it carefully:

How To Be Miserable As an Artist

I know a lot about both working and about not working, and if you're not working, I suspect your psyche is trying to protect you from some of the stuff on that list, and with good reason. Basing your happiness on the results of your work is a terrible, terrible idea. It's hard enough to keep those thoughts at bay lying awake at night but if they're infesting your head while you should be working they are poison. Your mind will protect you from them by simply not allowing you to work, same as pain will prevent you from using a strained muscle.

What everyone else said, but it bears repeating: don't pursue a dream of being a comics artist. Live a reality of drawing comics. Be about the practice, not the results. The reality can be kind of a slog to be honest but drawing comics because you really love drawing comics will make you much happier than imagining doing something because you imagine it will result in imaginary Fame and Fortune. Success is merely a by-product of the love you put into your work, and it's not a necessary by-product, just a possible one.

That part where your webcomic didn't work for you? That's a really important part. Keep failing until you fail in a more interesting way. Winging it is totally, totally fine, most webcomics that I've seen start out by exploring a possibility. Show your process! People love process and that should get you some feedback. But always remember they are reacting TO THE WORK, not to you, so your job is to make THE WORK interesting.

Sorry.. kind of ranty, that was. I think we all have this conversation with ourselves in our heads a bit.

But damn you're right I totally want Milton Caniff's studio!
posted by Erasmouse at 8:03 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

First thing is, don't fear that you'll become too successful as a cartoonist of all things. It's not like Frank Miller or Jim Davis can't buy a gallon of milk at the store without getting mobbed.

And I'm sure any syndicate chief will tell you there are tons of would-be cartoonists who are convinced they're the next Bill Watterson, but in reality aren't even close. So... stay grounded in assessing your own abilities.

I'm more familiar with newspaper comics (and I'd kinda like to see what your college work was like), but I'd imagine any paid cartooning gig would require you to be persistent and disciplined... which is why I'm sure I'm not cut out for pro work. If someone's gonna pay you, you can't just produce when you feel like it. There's deadlines and certain levels of quality to be met.

Also, I think writing skills are more important than drawing skills. You can have a really unique artistic style, but if there's no substance to it, people aren't gonna keep coming back for more. And I do think there's some amount of innate talent required for good cartoon writing. You need to have a sense for pacing, timing, and flow (and brevity, which I lack)... Natural and lifelike dialogue... And strong, interesting, unique characters.

As for planning out a long, single story, you can't make it up as you're actually drawing up the finished product. In order for it to be coherent, you have to already know how it ends. That allows you to set things up in the beginning that results in a payoff at the end. And it prevents you from writing yourself into a corner, or nullifying what could've been a great scene in one part because it would contradict what happened earlier.

And while drawing and writing for practice is good, you have to do it the right way. As they say, "practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect." Putting or free throw shooting day and night won't make you good at it if your technique sucks. So you need to study other cartoonists (and writers and artists and filmmakers) and learn what makes them successful.

And you need to get honest feedback from others. You can't just dismiss their negative criticisms, because they're your potential customers. Some people say they just do what entertains them, but that only gets you so far if no one else is entertained by it. By definition your work has to have mass appeal if you want to be a commercial success.

That was more than kind of ranty, but hey, the funnies are serious business!
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 11:01 PM on March 23, 2010

« Older Help me find/remember this "odd" fairy tale short...   |   Toilet trouble Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.