Tuesday, June 26, 2012

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

(And here's yet another in an increasingly long and annoying series of posts about comics, my career, and where I'm heading.  Clearly I enjoy the sound of my own voice a little too much, even in written form.  But for anyone who is interested, you can read the other parts here -- part one, part two, part three)

A lot has been said and written about the bold, glorious, and ultimately failed, experiment that was CrossGen Comics.  No one had set up a comic book company quite like it, at least not for a long time.  Artists, writers, business types, all working under one roof, getting regular regular paychecks, medical coverage, and retirement benefits.

When you're a freelance artist scrambling month to month to pay your rent, living under constant fear of getting sick and having to go to a doctor you can't afford, and generally existing in a constant state of near-crippling panic, you dream of a place like CrossGen.

So when I was asked if I'd be interested in joining the company, I thought my ship had finally come in.  I'd never even been a regular artist on a monthly book before (well, other than a brief stint on NIGHT FORCE, which was cancelled two days after I was offered the regular penciler position on it... yeah... not sure I can count that one), and here I was taking over for Bart Sears on THE PATH, with the promise of a small, but steady, salary and health insurance, which I hadn't had since I left Disney.

Oh, yeah... you better believe I wanted in.

The first thing they did was fly me down to Tampa to meet everybody and tour the offices.  The whole thing was overwhelming, and utterly awesome.  You wouldn't believe the sheer amount of talent that was under that one roof and what it was like to walk into that when you're young, hungry, and desperate for some kind of stability.

I made a downpayment on an apartment within easy walking distance, and got ready to settle in to a job that I had every hope of doing until the day I retired.

And then something funny happened.  I spent most of my tour with the writer I was going to be working with (Ron Marz) and one of the CrossGen artists I had known back in my days just starting out at Caliber, Mike Perkins.  At some point, Mike - one of the few people in the industry even aware that I had once been writing and drawing my own stories for NEGATIVE BURN and doing one-shots like WALK THROUGH OCTOBER -- was introducing me around and we got talking, and he said something that has haunted me ever since...

"I love your work," he said, "when you're doing your own stuff."

I doubt Mike even remembers saying that to me, but you better believe I remember it.  There isn't a day that has gone by that I don't think about what he said.  He loved my work, but what was all that about doing my own stuff?

Those words ate away at me for months, all through the process of moving down there, getting settled in and taking over a monthly comic, with all the work that goes into jumping on a monthly comic in the middle of its run, especially a book that had been drawn by a beloved artist like Bart, who had been doing the best work I'd ever seen from him on THE PATH.

Yeah... no pressure.

But there was that thought Mike had put into my head.  What did he mean by my 'own' work?  And why, when I finally had a regular job and everything I had been working for since that first mainstream comic book gig at DC, was I so miserable?

I was drawing the tightest, slickest art I was capable of in those days.  It was a cross between Mike Mignola and guys like Chris Sprouse and Adam Hughes, and it seemed to be what editors wanted from me at the time.  Lots of shadows, but none of those wonky lines, thank you very much.  That look got me a gig drawing a NIGHTCRAWLER mini-series, a spot in the big UNCANNY X-MEN 400th issue special, and my new job at CrossGen.

But after three months sitting there in my little cubicle at CrossGen, Mike's words ringing in my ears, I realized that I wasn't doing my own work.  I was trying to be something I wasn't.  I was trying to be a different kind of artist.

Now, I'm not an idiot... well, at least not ALL the time... so I went to the rest of my team on my book (Ron, Mark Pennington, and Mike Atiyeh) and declared I wanted to change the look of my art.  And to their credit, they went along with it, though I'm sure they all thought I was crazy, pretentious, or more likely, a great deal of both.

The only problem was, the boss, who had never really liked my work much to begin with (his tastes in art ran to much slicker artist like J. Scott Campbell and Michael Turner, and as far as he was concerned even my slickest art needed a lot more of the slick and a lot more 'hot chicks'), absolutely HATED it.

And thus began a very, very strange period where every creative instinct I had completely abandoned me.  Every time I sat down at the art table, I didn't know what to do.  Every page I drew was like pulling teeth.  Whatever fun I got out of drawing was completely gone.

And then things REALLY started to get fun.

It's hard to explain quite what happened to CrossGen, but the short version is that it imploded.  Dramatically, publicly, and much to the palpable pleasure of a fairly large group of nay-sayers.  It was a slow process, with a lot of good days and a lot of bad days, but while it was happening, I seemed to be having a slow motion artistic breakdown of my own.

But after CrossGen went down, it looked like that wasn't going to be much of a problem.  With so many top tier artists suddenly back on the market and being snatched up by DC and Marvel, I was scrambling for work, but no one wanted me.

There's a bit in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where one of the characters is tortured with something called the Total Perspective Vortex.  They throw you in a box which shows you the entire universe, and then it shows you your place within it... a tiny, inconsequential dot.  For me, running back and forth between comic book companies, desperately trying to line up something, anything, was like being thrown into the Vortex.

I suddenly saw my place in the comic book industry, and it wasn't exactly large, or even medium sized.  With so many A-list talents on the market again after their CrossGen contracts went up in flames, I wasn't big enough to warrant much thought at all when editors were handing out assignments.

The dream that was CrossGen was over, and so was my career...

NEXT TIME: Things get better...


Dave M! said...

Thanks for this refreshingly honest and detailed account of your CrossGen career. Similar tales should be shown to counterbalance the flimsy "success" stories we hear all the time. Your post strikes a little too close to my own 1980s flirtation with comics as a career!

Dave Marshall
"Inky Stories"

matthew dow smith said...

Thanks, Dave!