Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Toys & Corners: Some Thoughts, Part Five...

(To be honest, I hadn't quite meant to get so autobiographical with this series of thoughts on comics, my career, and where I'm heading, but once I got started, it seems I had a lot more to say than I thought.  If you're interested in reading the other installments, you can find them here -- part one, part two, part three, part four.  And I promise, there really is a point to all this.  And I'll be getting to it shortly.)

Say what you will about the IRS, but they're the reason I have a comic book career again.  Well, them and Ben Abernathy.

I'd been out of comics for a couple of years, working full-time at Borders because, oddly, being able to draw people punching each other in black & white has limited use outside of the world of comic books, when I got a scary-looking letter from the IRS.  The only thing scarier than a letter from the IRS is reading a letter from the IRS that says you owe them a lot of money and if you don't pay it, well... there will be consequences.

(As a side note, if you're planning on a career as a freelance creative person, I highly recommend not allowing your finances -- especially your tax payments -- to fall into utter chaos.  It's harder than you might think, too, but trust me... don't let them get out of control.  Bad things happen.  Scary letter kind of bad.)

So... there I was, working full-time in a bookstore for a few cents above minimum wage, with a tax bill that I had no hope of ever being able to pay and nothing of enough value I could sell to cover it.

I was desperate.  Desperate enough to email every editor that was still around from my days as a full-time comic book artist and flat out plead for a job, any job, I didn't care what it was.  20 emails went out, but only one person responded...

...Ben Abernathy.

I'd known Ben when he was the assistant editor during my short, disastrous association with HELLBOY, where I flamed out in such epically dramatic fashion - through a deadly combination of arrogance, sheer artistic terror, and a near complete inability to function as a grown-up - that I've never quite recovered from the resulting shame.

(Now there's a blog post filled with useful career advice for you... everything I did when I was working on those HELLBOY short stories?  Don't do that.)

Anyway, Ben had moved on to WildStorm and he'd always been a big supporter of my work, so when I put out the call that I was desperate for work, he wrote back and offered me a fill-in issue of their new StormWatch: PHD series.  And then, when that issue was finished and had gone pretty well, he offered me work on a six-issue Supernatural mini-series.

Suddenly I was a full-time comic book artist again.  Not only that, but I was working more than ever before.  After the first Supernatural mini-series was over, I moved on to more projects at WildStorm, and then got an offer to work on IDW's Doctor Who comic.  Doctor Who!  I'd been a fan of Doctor Who since I was 6 years old.  I probably wouldn't be doing anything creative if it hadn't been for Doctor Who.  You have any idea how many TARDIS drawings I did when I was a kid?  Seriously, I would have drawn that book for free!

Luckily, they paid me anyways.

You'd be surprised how much of "success" is really about being in the right place at the right time.  And for whatever reason, I had been.  My buddy Ben, a stand up guy among stand up guys, needed an artist, I needed a job, and boom!  Comic book career 2.0.

I bounced back and forth between projects at WildStorm and short runs on Doctor Who for a couple of years.  It was a great time, and if I'm honest, a perfect set up for me.  I tend to do better with short runs, because even though I was thrilled to be working again, I was still struggling with trying to draw in a way that would fit in with what was going on around me in the industry, but I could hold it together just well enough on a short run to keep things from going completely off the rails.

Drawing comics is a 16 hour-a-day job.  And sometimes forcing yourself to sit at an art table and draw something is more than just a battle, it's a full scale war.  And if you're trying to draw in a way that doesn't come naturally to you, yeah... it's full scale global thermal nuclear war.  It's pretty easy for the wheels to come completely off the bus when you're struggling that hard with every line you put down on a piece of paper.

But I never had to fight that battle alone.

I know a lot of fans who define themselves by which comic book company they prefer -- DC or Marvel, or in some cases, any company that isn't DC or Marvel, because they'll only read independent comics.  They get into the kind of partisan arguments you would normally expect between supporters of rival sports teams or political parties, only with less violence and/or consequences for our global trading relationships.

To me it's always seemed like fighting over which you like better -- Coke or Pepsi.  Personally, I'm not loyal to any company... I'm loyal to my editors.

I've put out more comics in the last five years than I did in the first 13 years of my career combined, and that's thanks to people like Ben and Scott Peterson at WildStorm, and Denton Tipton, my editor on DOCTOR WHO.  Not only have they kept me working by handing me assignments like MIRROR'S EDGE and WHO, they've helped keep me on track and moved entire mountains so that I could get things done.

People like that deserve loyalty.  Lots of it.  And several beers when you see them at conventions.  And the only reason I can afford to even buy them beers is because they're such stand up guys.

And how did I reward them?  With an endless barrage of pitches.

As I mentioned before, I'd always been dissatisfied in the role of being solely an artist.  And if anything, my time away from the art table had increased my dissatisfaction with not being able to write more.  And Ben and Denton in particular bore the brunt of it.  Endless talks about how I wanted to write more comics and the ideas I had about WHICH comics I really wanted to write, and please, can I send you a pitch?

And being the stand up guys they are, they put up with my whining with superhuman patience, letting me pitch things, working through story ideas with, and generally treating my ambitions with not entirely deserved respect and thoughtfulness.

But then someone did something REALLY stupid.  They let me write something...

NEXT TIME: I at least start to drag all this rambling towards some sort of point...


Anonymous said...

I've been a huge Hellboy/Mignola fan since Day One...I wondered about your brief stay in that world. Is that a story best left untold?

matthew dow smith said...

Well, probably better left untold, but that clearly didn't stop me from mentioning how badly I flamed out on it. Taking on a book like that is a lot of responsibility, and boy, was I not ready for it.

But I'm with you, been a Hellboy/Mignola fan since day one, and getting a chance to work with him was a dream come true. And the first story we did together (the second one published), ABE SAPIEN VS. SCIENCE, remains one of the stories I most proud of having worked on.