(This is the long overdue final installment in a long, rambling series of posts outlining my thoughts on comics, my career, and where I'm heading next. You can read the previous installments here -- part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven.)
I'm thrilled whenever someone offers me a comic book job. Sometimes I'm excited because the job will give me a certain amount of security (which, if I'm honest, is never quite enough security when you're a freelance artist or writer), and sometimes it's because the project really excites me creatively.
And you can always tell which way I'm excited about a new gig by who it is that I want to tell first -- my parents or my best friend, Dan.
If it's the security thing, I call my parents, who are the only people who worry about my financial well being more than I do, and are usually relieved to just know that I have a job, any job. And if the project is something that really excites me creatively, it's Dan, an excellent writer in his own right who somehow managed to be born with the other half of my brain despite his birth taking place a couple of years before mine and on the complete other side of the country.
(You think YOU have it bad slogging your way through all of these thoughts? Dan's had to listen to me kick them back and forth endlessly over the course of the last seven years. A feat of such great friendship that it deserves countless plugs for his own creative endeavors -- like his brand new novel, BREAK MY HEART 1000 TIMES. I got an advance copy. It's good. Real good. Seriously. Comes out in October. Go buy it. Daniel Waters. Hyperion Press. Oh, look... here it is up for pre-order on Amazon.)
But when Chris Roberson asked if I'd be interested in doing something through a new digital comic book company he was putting together called Monkey Brain Comics, I didn't know who I wanted to tell first...
Mom and Dad, or Dan?
As I worked out the details with Chris and his partner, Allison Baker, it got even harder to decide. Was there the security of something regular? Yep. As regular as I wanted it to be. Monthly, weekly, anything I liked. And was I going to have the opportunity to tell the story I wanted to tell, the way I wanted to tell it? Most definitely. I was so overwhelmed with the creative freedom they were willing to give me that I pitched them on a whole bunch of things I wanted to do. Their response?
"Sounds cool. Go for it."
Of course, all of this was Top Secret, in big, GIANT letters, so who I wanted to tell first was pretty much a moot point. Everything about the deal was under a cone of silence until Chris and Allison were ready to make the big announcement.
(I did tell my parents, though. Sorry. You have to tell your parents when something like this comes along or you have to turn in your family membership card, or at least, suffer the withering glares you receive at the next holiday dinner. Parents don't like to find things out about your life from your Twitter feed or your blog. Trust me on that one.)
But the point is, I wanted to tell my parents AND Dan, and right away.
When I turned 40, I celebrated that uncomfortable milestone by using Kickstarter to fund work on my first novel, NIGHT FOLK. That story was one of three ideas (four if you count Johnny Chaos which came a little bit later) that I'd been carrying around in my head since the day I started in comics. Work on NIGHT FOLK has taken a lot longer than I had planned, partly because the middle bit needed some major revisions, but mostly, if I'm honest, because of the weird, unpredictable life of a freelance comic book artist.
The hardest thing for a freelancer to do is to say, 'no'. When someone offers you work, you just HAVE to take it, because if you don't, you might not be eating that month. Or if you ARE eating, your menu options run exclusively to which kind of Ramen noodles would you prefer -- chicken or beef?
The second hardest thing for a freelancer to do is to say, 'I don't care what you think'. As a comic book creator, your career lives or dies by what other people think -- editors, reviewers, fans, and the higher ups who decide whether a comic book should continue or if somebody should pull the plug. You need to keep these people happy, because these are the people who keep you working.
But in my case, 'I don't care what you think' translates roughly to 'I don't care if what I'm doing fits in with what you or anyone else thinks a comic book should be'.
And that's been nearly impossible for me to say.
If you've been following this series of posts you'll know how much I've struggled to fit in with what was going on in the rest of the mainstream comic book world over the last 18 years, whether it was trying to make my art 'slicker' and more 'superhero-y' or pitching stories that were closer to what I thought other people wanted instead of the stories I wanted to tell.
But now, with digital comics (as with their digital predecessor, webcomics), creators like me have a chance to do the kind of work we feel compelled to do, whether it fits in with what Marvel, DC, or even Image are doing.
Nothing fundamentally wrong with those companies or the kinds of comics the produce, mind you, but the stories I have to tell are definitely outside of the boxes they've established for themselves.
And now, after all this time, I've finally learned to say, that's just fine.
I've never regretted trying to fit in with the crazy, fun, vibrant world of mainstream comics. Gotten frustrated, sure. And definitely dissatisfied with the work I was producing from time to time. But I've never regretted trying, and I'd like to think I've never been bitter about not quite succeeding at fitting in.
But I have to admit I've been jealous of other creators, the ones who stuck to their guns and produced the work the way they wanted to. The Michael Gaydoses and the Ashley Woods, the Teddy Kristiansens and Mike Mignolas. They make comics that no one could make but them, who found their own path and stuck with it. That's the kind of work I like to read, and it's the kind of work I've always wished I had the courage to do.
My experience working on NIGHT FOLK and writing those WHO stories for IDW and BPE in the UK finally gave me the courage to say, "I'm doing something I really like here and I want to do more stuff like it". But as I've outlined over WAY too many posts, the more I thought about it, the more I realized the only way I was going to be able to do that is if I took a break from mainstream, work for hire comics.
And so here I am, taking a break from mainstream, work for hire comics.
Am I done with work for hire comics? Not quite yet and I doubt 'done' forever. I still have a digital comic book project with my friend Ron Marz to wrap up for Amazon, and as we speak, I'm finishing work on my last Doctor Who story (written by one of my childhood comic book idols, Len Wein, which seemed kind of fitting for my last WHO story, to me, at least). And I'd sure like to think I'm not completely done with the Doctor, either. There are still some things I'd like to say with the character if I ever get the chance, but yes, these are the last work for hire assignments I'll be taking, at least for a while.
Every work for hire comic book is a compromise in one way or another, creatively. And believe me, it's good to compromise sometimes. There are few things more fun than collaborating with a good writer or a good artist when you're making something as intricate and complicated as a comic book. And more often than not, that collaboration leads to a MUCH better book.
But there's something to be said for doing it all yourself, too. Compromise is fine and good, but it can also be good NOT to compromise sometimes.
If digital comics offer me the opportunity to tell stories in my own idiosyncratic way, then Monkey Brain Comics offers me a way to get those stories to the marketplace with a bigger splash than I could make on my own.
Comics is a business, after all. I do want to sell books. I just want to try making those books in my own weird way for a little while and see what happens.
That means it's time to take my toys into a corner and see what I can come up with. But thanks to Chris and Allison, and the other talented creators they've lined up for Monkey Brain, I don't have to sit in the corner alone.
NEXT TIME: You'll be relieved to hear there is no 'next time'. Yep. The long ramble is over, though I do plan to share some more thoughts about digital comics, the industry in general, and my career in specific, over the coming months. But I promise to be slightly less long-winded about it. If that's at all possible. But I'll try. I'll really, really try.