Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Career in Three Acts: A Kind of Declaration

As any writer knows, the best (or at least most accessible) stories follow a three act structure. There are a wide range of opinions about what those three acts need to have to make a good story, but for me the three acts at their most basic boil down to "Introduction", "Development", and "Conclusion".

And as most writers also know, real life is rarely story-shaped. Real events almost never fit into a neat, tidy, three-act structure that will satisfy an audience.

But looking at my career so far, it does seem to have at least two acts, as well as a short prologue.

I started out writing and drawing at Caliber Comics, doing stories for NEGATIVE BURN and occasionally providing art for other writers' projects like DOMINIQUE. I've come to think of this as my Prologue. Act One began when I moved up to doing art at companies like DC, Marvel, and Dark Horse, starting with a fill-in on STARMAN, running through working on HELLBOY and drawing NIGHTCRAWLER at Marvel, and eventually leading to me getting hired on as a staff artist at Crossgen. This period of my career ran about 8 or 9 years and ended with Crossgen declaring bankruptcy and me leaving comics. End of Act One.

I spent a lot of energy during this part of my career trying to convince people to let me write something. I was annoyingly persistent about it, even in the face of constant rejection. It was partly pure ego, but also a feeling that I had something to say. But after a couple of years as a writer/artist at the start of this whole story, I'd become known as an artist alone, and while I got close to launching a few projects I could write myself, I never quite got the chance.

After Crossgen, I stayed away from the industry for a few years, licking my wounds and starting the long, strange process of learning how to write prose. I thought if I couldn't write a comic, maybe I could write a novel. Talk about pure ego.

Then, as I've said before, life intervened and I found myself drawing comics again, first at Wildstorm, and then at IDW. I came back with a different attitude towards the industry and to drawing in general. The idea that drawing was a job had finally gotten through my thick skull and I put more effort into getting the work done. What can I say? I'm a slow learner.

Suddenly, Act Two of my career was underway and I was busier than ever, going from amazing project to amazing project until I found myself drawing my dream book, DOCTOR WHO. I was still pitching story ideas, but most of my writing energy was spent developing what eventually became the FADE novel, which I'm working on as we speak. Learning WHAT to write was just as hard, if not harder, than learning HOW to write, and in the end I went back to my earliest stories at Caliber, dusted them off, and started re-developing a few that had gotten lost in the shuffle when I started working as an artist for DC.

(A side-note: The Evan Fade character was actually one of the first characters I ever created back in the early days of my career. I'd even written a Fade story for issue 2 of my WALK THROUGH OCTOBER mini-series at Caliber, but sales on the first one were so weak we never got another. Eventually I did get a chance to do that story, with only minimal changes, for the relaunch of the NEGATIVE BURN anthology a few years ago.)

Most creative people don't get a second act. We come on the scene, do our thing, and either become stars of various sizes or disappear back into obscurity. I count myself pretty damn lucky to have had a second act at all, especially considering some of the huge mistakes I made in my first act. And boy, did I make some mistakes.

Act Two has been going on for about 6 years now, and in a funny way, drawing DOCTOR WHO got me thinking about a third and final act for my career. When I finished the "Fugitive" storyline with Tony Lee (issues #3-6), I joked that I wasn't sure how I could possibly top it as an assignment. I've been a Doctor Who fan since I was 6 years old, and as I see it, after getting a chance to work with that character, my only options were to draw more WHO or start writing and drawing my own material again. Anything else would feel like a step backwards.

In the end I got to draw more WHO, even getting a chance to write and draw my own WHO story for IDW's DOCTOR WHO ANNUAL, and while I'm slated to return for even more issues next year (and have promised to draw DOCTOR WHO any time they want me on the book), I am starting to lay the groundwork now for what's going to come after that.

As pretentious as it might sound, I've decided to give myself a third act, and it involves picking up the threads from my prologue and tying them up in a neat little bow. When I started working in this industry, I didn't really have a plan, but after drawing comics off and on for 17 years, I think it might be time to actually come up with one. For me that means returning to the kind of stories I got into comics to do and building a foundation for more writing in the future, leading up to the FADE novel and hopefully beyond.

I've still got a number of projects on tap for Act Two (including re-teaming with my long-time friend and former Crossgen collaborator, Ron Marz), but I've started laying the groundwork for Act Three, beginning with developing a personal project I'll be working on on top of or during the downtime between my other assignments. In the coming weeks, I'll be posting the ideas I've been developing over the last few months and getting your feedback on them. For now I'm calling it the "Act Three Project", and I'll need your help picking which idea to carry to fruition, but in the meantime, all I can say is that it's going to be an interesting (and very busy) year.


Gary Fitzgerald said...

onwards and upwards..

good luck with it..

Lura said...

I don't think you sound pretentious at all, just self-actualizing. I loved the story that you wrote and drew for the Doctor Who Annual, so I am very much looking forward to seeing what you create when your time and talent are applied to your own projects.

... You are still going to GallifreyOne this year though, right? :D

matthew dow smith said...

Thanks, Gary. And I'll be at Gally again this year, Lura. And I appreciate the kind words on the Annual story. Glad you liked it!