The funny thing is I’ve never — never ever — met an overly confident artist whose work I admired. There is amidst every amazing creator I’ve met, a commonality that becomes clearer with each passing year I make and sell my own work. The ideology and belief in one’s self, while remaining wholly humble in the face of admiration and well-wishes from passersby. With that being said, our penultimate lesson for those who wish to make their way into the indie scene is simple enough:
Grow a thick skin and learn the importance of humility.
The old adage fake it til you make it holds water when you’re initially breaking into comics. The truth is that not many schools specifically teach sequential art, proper lettering, coloring, or the ins and outs of publishing and printing. For many starting out, the road is bumpy — paved by the cracked skulls of quitters and posers alike. When you table at a con with a barely passable rag printed at the local kinkos slapped with a $10 price tag and a dream, you’ll quickly find out where the wheat breaks with the chaff. For those that survive their initial failures with class, the indie scene will open its arms and share its charitable bounty of resources. More succinctly, for those who show that they are new to the industry and are wanting to learn, there’s no shortage of mentors awaiting a ward or two.
It’s all there… in the want.
My grandfather was a very wise man. A survivor of prejudice based on his religion and culture. A driven learner who worked his way through school to become a doctor. He was one who always chose his words wisely — allowing my grandmother and their children (my mother, and uncles) to fill the space around him with a constant dialogue. But every now and again he’d lean back in his wing chair, stare into the middle distance, and extol a virtue into the wild, awaiting anyone in the room to pluck it down for themselves. One such bon mot? “You never truly ever stop learning. That is to say, if you want more from the world, you should choose to never stop seeking knowledge in all its forms.”
Sage advice I took to heart — even if it took the better part of a decade to mature into a fine wine to sip at the foot of several wise old coots willing to impart their wisdom on myself and Unshaven Comics.
When one makes a work of art — be it visual, musical, literary, or some combination of all-of-the-above — there is an opening of the heart. Even a pinup of an anime character you don’t even know that you complete for a random commission comes with a few shreds of the artist’s soul attached. Why? Because art (even as a commodity) is often regarded first and foremost as a subjective piece. We consume art to validate our personal identity. Think about it: the music you love, movies you watch, TV you binge, and even the food you eat all are consumed in part to present yourself to the world at large. I like 3rd wave ska, a good poutine, and the comics of Daniel Clowes says something far different than I’m way into Finnish Death Metal, charred flesh, and any comic with blood, zombies, and the word FUCK at least ten times per issue. Hence, when we create and sell a comic book, what we’re really doing is attempting to validate shared identity.
Focus on the comic book itself; Most people picking up one will do so based on a subjective response to the visuals provided. Rarely can one sell a comic book to a would-be connoisseur based solely on the plot or narrative on its own. In short, if a customer doesn’t like the art they are unlikely to make a purchase regardless of the quality of the written content or specifically engaging storyline. With that in mind, when you put your book into the hand of a passerby and read their face for an opinion, if you’re anything like literally any artist I’ve ever known you tense up like you accidently heard the first notes to Dueling Banjos. Because just as a stand up comic fears a laughless room… so too does the comic book artist who is terrified of a disappointed face.
The way artists are typically trained to receive criticism (in Art School, or any ole’ art class, I suppose), is to seek constructive feedback. Nothing is ever just “good” or “bad”. It’s “good” because it has a strong focal point, an engaging composition, or a masterful use of light and shading. It’s “bad” because it is unharmonious in color choice, or the figures aren’t properly proportioned. You see, behind every opinion comes something objective that lends itself to the subjective assessment. The same way one could dissect a Pixies tune and wind up with Nirvana? So too could one see how the linework of Brian Bolland might one day lead them to Mike Allred. But the thing is, fans aren’t apt to speak the same language as your figure drawing instructor might. Instead, the subjective feeling is the only thing you get. “It looks amazing!” or “This isn’t my thing.”
Simply put: learning to roll with the punches of your potential customers is a necessary skill to survive in the trenches of working creators. Over the course of ten years putting out comics, my studio has been subjected to the following (specifically speaking to me, commenting on my work):
I feel like the quality of the paper this comic is printed on is nicer than the actual art that’s printed on it.
I guess it’s OK, but it looks fake.
I hate the look where it’s all, like, you know… photoshopped or whatever.
How did I take it? Well, I did what I had to do: Took solace that my chosen printer produced a high quality product I should continue to strive to present the best work possible on. That my personal style, as presented, may not vibe with every customer, and that my leaning on digital trickery was getting in the way of my linework. In short, I removed the negativity from the criticism and sought a tangible lesson to cull from it. And here I stand ten years later, a better — but never fully satisfied — artist. I continue to remain humble in the face of every would-be buyer and cherish any and all feedback I receive as keys to breaking down barriers to purchase from future fans. “Always look on the bright side of life” as one might sing.
At the end of the day, the best we can hope for is a person coming to our table, picking up our book, and staring back with an unbroken smile as they exclaim “How much?!” Because we take the time to never stop learning, and always accept feedback as means to improve our final product… We can revel in that sale as validation for putting in the work that we should.
Next week: we wrap it all up and put a bow on the top ten things you need to know when you’re ready to make comics.