Friday, June 29, 2012

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

(This is the next to last installment in this long, rambling series of posts outlining my thoughts on comics, my career, and where I'm heading next.  Really, it's almost over.  I promise.  But if you have some time to kill, you can read the previous installments here -- part onepart twopart threepart fourpart five, part six.)

The first full length comic book I ever wrote -- Walk Through October: The Storyteller -- came out in in 1995.  The second full length comic book I ever wrote -- the Doctor Who San Diego Comic Con special -- came out in 2011, 16 years later.

I've written short comic stories here and there between those two projects, and drawn more comics than I can quite believe during that time, but those are the only two full 22-page comics I have to my name.

A lot changed in the 16 years between those two projects.  When I started out, all I wanted was to get a chance to do comics for DC and Marvel.  That was pretty much what everyone wanted.  We used to call it, 'stepping up to play in the Majors', which I've been told is a sports reference.  I don't do sports, so I'll take other people's word for it.

These days, the goal seems to be making a name for yourself in the 'Majors' and then striking out to do projects at places like Image, where you can own the properties you create.  But even that isn't really the final goal for a large group of creators now.  Their final goal is to create a comic book that will be made into a movie or TV show.

I have mixed feelings about that whole idea.  And yeah, it's probably because I'm getting older and take myself too seriously...

I don't have a problem with anyone optioning their comic book to a movie studio.  More power to 'em.  And if it helps expand the comic book audience... even better!  But it bugs me that anyone would spend the time and effort to make a comic book if what they really want to do is have someone make a movie out of their idea.

Just write it as a movie, people.  It's called being a screenwriter.  And it pays a LOT better than writing comic books.  Trust me, I got to do it once.

Sorry.  Got off on a tangent there.  Not a huge surprise, I know.  Now... where was I?  Oh, right...

So, things have changed a lot in the comic book industry.  Between an ever shrinking audience of devoted comic book readers (which is a whole other tangent I'm struggling bravely to avoid following), and the incredible potential for profit if one of those comics gets turned into a hit movie, there's not a lot of room for taking too many risks.  You have to go with what works, what you know has the best chance to sell, and if you play your cards right, you'll end up with a Batman Begins or an Avengers or even a Walking Dead.

And the pressure can be insane; on creators, on editors, on anyone who's job it is to figure out how to sell enough comics to keep this whole crazy machine running.  It's the same old story... any time Art and Commerce bump into each other in a dark alley, there's gonna' be a fight, and most of the time, they're both going to get bloody.

And, yeah... commerce usually wins in the end.  It pretty much HAS to win.  Comic books are a business, after all.  And at the end of the day, it's about selling some books and making money off of them.  That's not a bad thing, not a good thing.  It's just the way things are.

I've said before that comics, like most industries where Art and Commerce try to find a way to play nice with each other, is all about perception.  The only way to survive and thrive is if you're perceived to have value in one way or another.  If people perceive you as 'a hot creator', you're golden.  If they don't happen to see you that way... for whatEVER reason... well, then things can get a bit tougher, especially if you do comics to pay your bills.

You have no control over whether you're 'hot' or not, no matter how much time you put into promoting yourself, or crafting a public persona, or sitting behind a table at conventions.  Really.  Trust me.  You have NO control.  At all.  And if anyone tells you otherwise, they're wrong.

Granted, you might be able to give things a nudge here or there, but there's really only one thing you can do -- the best work you're capable of.  Make every chance you get count.  And learn to be okay if that job you just handed in turns out to be your last.

I'm not a 'hot' creator.  Never was one, and there's next to no chance I'll ever be considered one.  And believe me, that would be absolutely fine as far as I was concerned if it wasn't for one, simple reality of the comic book industry.  The only way to do the things I wanted to do was if I somehow became scorchingly hot.

I got a taste of doing things that way when I was given the chance to write and draw my own Doctor Who story.  And then write two more Doctor Who stories.  And then write and draw four Doctor Who stories for a company in the UK.

It felt good.  And I wanted more.

But the hardest truth to face was that I just wasn't a big enough name to get too many assignments like that.  If I wanted to write more, to draw in the wonky way that comes naturally to me, I was going to have to find a different way to do things.

Remember how I started this rambling series of posts?  That immediate, immature impulse I feel whenever someone tells me I can't do the thing I want to do?  How I basically want to say, "I'm going to take my toys and go over there now"?

Well, that's exactly what I've decided to do.  Take an extended break from work-for-hire comics and go off to work on my own projects.  I already knew which stories I was going to tell... the same ones I got into comics to do in the first place, the ones I'm always talking about on this blog and with my poor, long-suffering friends.  Projects like Fade, Night Folk, and the October Girl.  The only question was how I was going to do them...

And on Monday, I'll tell you...

NEXT TIME:  The ever-loving, long overdue end.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Toys & Corners, Some Thoughts, Part Six...

(Yeah... this was originally going to be a short series of posts about comics, my career, and where I'm heading.  Clearly it's gotten a lot less short and a lot more long-winded than I had planned.  You can see just how less short and more long-winded it's gotten in the other five - jeez, is this really the SIXTH one of these that I've written?! - installments -- part onepart twopart threepart four, part five.)

I played bass in one band or another from the time I was in high school until my early 30s.  All through that time, my biggest fantasy was that I'd go to a U2 concert and someone would come and say they were going to have to cancel the show because Adam Clayton had gotten sick and couldn't go on.  The band couldn't play, unless...

...there was a bass player in the audience who knew all of Adam's bass lines.

You can see where this fantasy is heading, right?

(Amusingly, I was watching a documentary where Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters confessed he'd had a similar fantasy about the drummer of one of HIS favorite bands when he was growing up.  See?  I'm not alone!)

It's a fun dream.  Would never happen, of course, but I do still pull out the bass and run through U2 songs every once and a while to keep them fresh in my mind.  Just in case.

I had a similar adolescent fantasy when I was out of comics and working full-time at Borders.  Around that time, I started playing with the idea of writing a novel.  My comic book career was over at that point, but the urge to do something creative had never really gone away, and considering my strong desire to write more, novels were a logical direction to move in, for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that it turned out I didn't suck at it.

But somewhere in the back of my mind, there was a little dream that I clung to... that I'd write a book, it would sell really well, and all those editors who had rejected my stories for years would be knocking on my door, begging me to write comic books for them.

I'm not proud of that, but there it is.

Luckily, my motivations to write prose ran a lot deeper than just wanting editors to finally notice that I could write and welcome me back into the warm embrace of comics, the only career I'd ever really known.  But the funny thing is... the more prose I wrote, the less I wanted to write comics.

Yeah... let me explain...

I've said before that the hardest thing about learning to write isn't learning HOW to write but learning WHAT to write.  The mechanics of writing are straightforward enough, and anyone can learn them if they're motivated enough and willing to put in the time.  Seriously... THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE is like, what?  A 100 pages or something?  What do you have to do to learn that many rules... read it 3 or 4 times... 5 at most?  Seriously, this isn't rocket surgery.

Okay, maybe it's just a little more complicated than that, but anyone who has spent their entire life reading books or comics already knows most of the rules purely by osmosis, the rest is just sitting down and learning how to pay close attention to what you're actually doing and fine-tuning the details.

But once you're familiar with the mechanics, you have to figure out what it is you're actually going to write about, and what, if anything, you have to say...

I'd actually figured that part out long before any of the mechanics.  Not sure why it happened that way with me, but when I started out at Caliber, I already had a crystal clear idea about what I wanted to say, the kinds of stories I wanted to tell, and more importantly, I'd worked out a stack of actual stories I COULD tell.  I had a long way to go towards being a good writer -- still do, I'm sure -- but I at least had a starting point.

I had barely made a dent in that stack of stories when I made the jump to being an artists for DC and Marvel.  And when I eventually started pitching stories to the editors I was working with, I soon learned that the stories I wanted to tell -- much like my art --  just didn't fit in with what was going on at the time in comics.

Man, I tried to come up with something that WOULD fit in.  I twisted myself into knots trying to come up with a superhero story that someone would let me do.  And while I got pretty close a few times, I never quite succeeded.

And in a way, I'm glad.

Nothing I came up with during those years was a 'Matt Smith' story.  They were just pale imitations of the same superhero stories everyone else was writing.  There was nothing uniquely 'me' about those stories.  Anyone could have come up with them.  Anyone could have written them.

If I'd gotten a chance to do them, I'd like to think they would have been good stories, but they wouldn't have said anything new or interesting about the world.

I've talked before about the process of re-discovering the kind of stories I wanted to write, and how I dusted off the ideas I'd developed during my time at Caliber and discovered they still had life in them.  And as I started to rework some of those ideas into prose projects, I stumbled onto my voice again, and it was stronger than before, thanks to an endless series of writing workshops and conferences, and long conversations about the the craft of writing with other writers.

And when I returned to comics and started pitching stories again, I found I couldn't pitch the same old stories any more.  I just didn't have it in me to pitch anything other than 'Matt Smith' stories.  And boy, they STILL didn't fit in with anything else going on in comics.  If anything, they fit in even less than before, because the mainstream comic book industry was even more dependent on the superhero genre than before, and that's saying something.

Nothing wrong with superheroes, of course, but looking at it as a writer, there's not a lot I want to 'say' with them, and they don't make very good vehicles for the kinds of stories I like to tell.  There's a certain tone to my stories, and they don't feel like 'my' stories until I get that tone.  Throw a superhero into the mix, and that tone goes right out the window.

Yep.  There I was again.  A square peg in a round hole.  I didn't want to just write a comic book anymore, I wanted to write 'my' kind of comic book.  And since the kinds of stories I wanted to do didn't fit in, there wasn't going to be much chance of that unless something changed.

Sure, there were creator-owned avenues like Image I could have explored, but to be blunt, I had bills to pay, and the only way I could pay them was to do projects that had money attached.  I couldn't afford to take the time away from paying work to do something that had no guarantee of making a single cent.  If I was going to keep a roof over my head, I needed to do things like draw Doctor Who.

Have I mentioned I like Doctor Who before?  Yeah... I know... I almost never shut up about it.

And that brings me to one last cherished fantasy -- that my editor on Doctor Who, would call me up one day and say, "I need a Doctor Who story right away and everyone else is busy.  Can you write it?"

And then he did call.  And he did need a story.  And for whatever reason, he wanted me to write it.

So I wrote and drew a Doctor Who story.  And it felt amazing.  I was able to say some things about the character I'd always wanted to say, and do it in a way that felt like a 'Matt Smith' story AND a Doctor Who story at the same time.  And people genuinely seemed to enjoy it, especially hardcore WHO fans like me, which, I have to admit, was a huge relief.

I'd put everything I'd learned about writing and story and the kinds of things I wanted to say into a single story.  And after years of trying to convince people to let me write something, I'd finally gotten a chance to do it, and somehow managed not to embarrass myself.

So how do you go back to being just an artist after something like that?  The answer?  You don't...

NEXT TIME: No, really... the slow torture is almost over...

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sneak Peek: Secret Project Panel 2...

Another quick sneak peek at a panel from my upcoming secret project, including a look at some of the stages...

First, the inks.  No scan of my pencils, I'm afraid.  Not that you're missing much.  You can barely call what I do 'pencils.  They're very quick and loose with the bare minimum of detail.  Most of the work is done in the ink stage, where I take the shapes I've sketched out and start to pull them together.

Now, the 'colors'.  For this project, I decided to go with a single mid-tone color, like I'd done on F. Paul Wilson's THE KEEP.  Partially because I wanted to do everything on this project myself but haven't developed my coloring skills to the point where I felt confident enough to handle interior pages, but mostly because I genuinely like the look of this approach.  It suits the emotional tone I'm going for.

And finally, the letters, done in Adobe Illustrator with Comicraft's Richard Starkings font.  And a lot of help from the Comicraft incredibly useful tutorial blog.

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...

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...

Sneak Peek: Secret Project, Page 4

Another sneak peek at a page from my upcoming secret project.

Monday, June 25, 2012

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

(This is the third in a series of, let's be honest... increasingly long-winded and rambling posts outlining some thoughts on the comic book industry, my career, and my future plans.  You can read the first part here, and the second part here.)

In the mid-90s, I worked for Disney's video game division.  Not for very long, mind you.  To be honest, I'm not sure Disney ever really knew what to do with me.  Even I -- stock full of the arrogance of youth and utter confidence in my unparalleled genius -- wasn't sure what I was doing there, but I did feel incredibly lucky to have an actual, honest-to-god, real job in the entertainment industry, especially when you consider I'd been kicked out of college and never graduated.

(I was too busy making my own comics in my dorm room to do anything else... like, you know, going to class or doing any homework.  Yeah... not my proudest moment...  Stay in school, kids!)

I left Disney after about a year, just as I was starting to do more work for DC Comics.  It was an amicable split, and I've always been grateful for them giving me a chance to work there.  It's freakin' DISNEY!  Who doesn't want to work there?!  To this day, my mother brags about me having worked at Disney to anyone who will listen.

But in the end, I just didn't fit in there.  The people were great, the company treated me well, and we put out some fun games, but my creative interests and instincts weren't particularly useful for the kind of work we were doing.

The best thing about that job, though, was that there was a little group of aspiring comic book artists working there with me, and we would often hang out together, hatch schemes to dominate the world of comics, and generally be incredibly supportive of each other.

Now, remember... this was the 90s, and most of the artists in comics were following in the footsteps of Jim Lee and George Perez -- slick art with a lot of linework and lots of big, dramatic action poses.  But my Disney Interactive buddies and I were more into guys like Kent Williams and Dave McKean, people whose influences were from the fine art world and who did comic books in an odd, more painterly style.

We came up with a name for that kind of art... we called it, "wonky."

My art at the time was in the same vein -- "wonky" -- just nowhere near as good as Williams and McKean.  To be honest, it's an approach I was attracted to because of my shortcomings as an artist.  In my own deeply naive way, I looked at their loose lines and abstract figure work and said, "Oh, even I can draw like that."

Ah... there's that arrogance of youth again.

Don't forget, I thought of myself as a writer, not an artist.  I used to draw all the time when I was a kid, but I didn't have a whole lot of formal training.  What little I knew about drawing, I'd figured out for myself over years and years, looking at the art in my favorite comic books and copying the things I liked, so that I could draw just well enough to do something with the stories I was dreaming about.

It was all about getting the stories I wanted to tell out there where people could read them, and if that meant I had to figure out how to draw, then I guess I had to figure out how to draw.

Somehow, even with my wonky, untrained art style, I started getting work at DC, and then Marvel.  And I liked working for DC and Marvel, there was only one problem... my wonky, untrained art style.  Not much call for people who draw like that in the mainstream superhero market.

So I started trying to figure out how to draw less wonky.

I'm not sure I've ever quite succeeded at that.  While it's true my art got tighter and I got better at drawing action poses, I can't really say my work ever quite fit in with what was going on in the DC and Marvel books at the time.  Still doesn't.

And just like at Disney, I was a square peg trying to fit himself into a round hole.  There were enough editors and art directors who liked my work and gave me jobs, things where I could get away with being less slick and dynamic than the Jim Lees and George Perezes.  And each job I got, I tried harder and harder to fit in, making adjustments, learning new tricks, trying to play to the tastes of the comic book audience.

There's some of my work from that period that I'm really proud of, and some that I'm not, but there were many, many times I desperately wanted to throw away my pens and my ruler and just let myself be wonky again.  But that would have severely limited my career possibilities.  And comics WAS my career.  If I wanted to pay my bills, I needed to work.  So no pens in the trash, no rulers broken in half, just lots of long, dark days thinking my art was never going to be as good as the guys who got the really great assignments like Batman and Superman.

I spent years bouncing from job to job, never quite fitting in with what was going on around me, never quite satisfied with the work I was doing, never quite happy.

Eventually I ended up being hired on as an artist at Crossgen Comics, and everything fell apart...

NEXT TIME: Everything falls apart...

Sneak Peek: Secret Project Panel

Another quick and spoiler-free sneak peek at a piece of art from my upcoming, but still secret (for now) project.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

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

(This is the second in a series of posts outlining some thoughts on the comic book industry, my career, and my future plans.  You can read the first part here.)

I started working in the comic book industry in 1994, which is longer ago than I can comfortably wrap my head around.  Seriously... I've been doing this for 18 years?!  How is that even possible?! Where did all that time go, and can I get any of it back?!

Anyway, things have changed a lot since then.  Back when I started we still did everything by hand.  We drew it by hand, lettered it by hand, and colored everything by hand, and then we shipped the pages overnight to our editors or our collaborators in other parts of the country or even the world.  Countless numbers of Fed Ex and Airborne Express boxes criss-crossing the globe, a Herculean feat of coordination that must have made editors' heads explode on a daily basis.

These days... not so much.  Now we do everything on computers to varying degrees.  Those pages we used to ship all over the place?  Now they're scanned into our computers and emailed all over the place.  Some artists even do all their drawing on the computer, which is almost as hard for me to wrap my head around as the length of time I've been drawing comics.

To be honest, I resisted this at first.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not a Luddite... And if you don't know what a Luddite is, go look it up on your computing machine, and if you're under the age of 40... get off my lawn, you whippersnappers!

So... where was I, again?  Oh, right... resisting change.  And that's what I was doing.  I didn't have a problem with computers, I had a problem with having to do things in a new way.  It was scary and I didn't understand it, so I just refused to do it...

...until I had no choice but to do it that way, because that was the only way the companies I was working for would accept the artwork.

If I wanted to keep working in comics, I had to scan my pages into a computer.

And that's the point.  A new technological innovation comes along, people find ways to use it to save money or just make things easier, and no matter how much you try to resist it, that innovation becomes the standard and you have to either adapt or get out of the game.

I've mentioned before that I maintained a part time job at Borders on top of my comic book work for about 10 years, off and on.  Keeping a job that gets you out of the house is a whole other topic, but it meant that I was working in a bookstore when Sony introduced one of the first mass-marketed e-readers, and then later, when Amazon introduced the Kindle.

My reaction?  Hated them, thought the whole idea of reading on a little handheld device was stupid and would never catch on, I'll stick with my nice printed books, thank you very much.  And excuse me while I go obsessively alphabetize them on the bookshelves in my office, 'cause I'm THAT much of a book nerd.

Cut to several years later and not only do I consume 99% of my media (including books and comics) on an iPad, but I'm even writing this blogpost on it.

My point?  The technological advance is in place, people are starting to apply it in their every day lives, and it's only a matter of time before reading or watching media on your mobile device will be the primary way people consume their entertainment.

And now, thanks to the iPad, the Kindle Fire, a hundred different comic book reading apps, and countless other important innovations, the writing is on the wall.  Or more precisely, on the iPad or iPhone, or whatever mobile device you prefer...

...comics are going to be digital, whether we like it or not.

Now, I'm not saying printed comic books are going to completely disappear.  For the sake of several of my close friends who run comic book shops, I dearly hope that there will always be a market for printed comics, just as there will always be a market for printed books despite the explosion in ebook sales.  But it will most likely be more of a niche thing, which is yet another idea that's hard to wrap my head around, considering comics are already a niche thing.  So that means printed comics will be a niche within a niche, but yeah... they're not going anywhere any time soon.

Mention digital comics on Twitter and you'll quickly discover that not everyone is on board with this idea.  There are many different and complicated reasons for people to resist digital comics, and there are valid concerns about the sale and marketing of digital media of any kind, but in the end, most of the arguments boil down to the same attitude I had towards scanning my artwork...

...I don't like it when things change.

I don't mean to sound like I'm mocking anyone's concerns about digital comics or the perfectly natural resistance to such radical changes, and it's important these issues be addressed, but I think we have to recognize the direction things are heading in -- there's no way this story ends without digital comics becoming the standard.  Two years, five years, ten years... it doesn't matter how long the transition will take, it's going to happen.  And most likely sooner, rather than later.

So... what does the inevitability of digital as the dominant form of comics mean for the comic book industry, and more importantly- in my house, at least - what does it all mean for the people who write and draw comics?

The short answer?  If digital comics are inevitable, it's time to figure out how to make some digital comics...

Next Time: No, really... I'll talk about some secret projects soon, I promise.

Sneak Peek: Secret Project

Another (redacted) sneak peek at a page from the secret project I've been working on, this time with the color treatment in place.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Toys & Corners: Some Thoughts, Part One

Whenever someone tells me I can't do something, my first impulse is to say, "Okay, I'm going to take my toys over there and do it without you."  Not saying it's the most mature reaction, but it is my first thought in those situations.

It's alway been a open secret (to anyone who reads this blog or knows me, at least) that I never meant to end up being a comic book artist.  I had originally intended to be a comic book writer, and since I had some basic art skills I was able to draw the stories I was writing when I was in college.  And later, after writing and drawing a few things at Caliber in the early 90s, I started getting offers to work at Marvel and DC, but not as a writer, or a writer/artist, but as an artist, full stop.

Like any ambitious young comic book creator, I leapt at the chance, and in a funny way I've always kind of regretted making that leap so early in my career, before I'd had a chance to establish myself as an artist AND a writer.  And I've always felt a little guilty about that regret.

Truth is, I'm incredibly lucky to have been given the chance to work in comics at all - a medium I have loved since my mother brought home a Star Wars comic from the grocery store when I was 6 years old - and I feel fortunate to have been asked to work on so many great books.  I mean, if you'd told me when I was a kid that I'd draw a major DC crossover with every character I've ever loved in it, I would have laughed in your face and gone back to reading my Doctor Who comic.  And if you'd told me I'd get to draw a Doctor Who comic... well... not to be crude, but I probably would have wet myself.

I've always been grateful to work in comics in any capacity, and especially grateful to still be making a living at it after 18 years, a longer career life-span than most comic book creators get, no matter how talented they are.  But I have to admit I've spent far less of my time in those 18 years actually drawing, and far more of my time trying to convince people at all of the companies I was working for to let me write something.

See, I'd always thought that if I got my foot in the door as an artist, I'd have a much easier time selling people on my writing.  Only it didn't turn out that way.  For whatever reason - whether I just wasn't as good a writer as I thought (probably true), or editors had come to believe that comic book artists couldn't be very good at writing comic (possibly true), or simply that I had been typecast as an artist and no one was particularly interested in me writing when they had so many other writers to choose form (most definitely true) - I just wasn't able to get anyone to take my writing ambitions seriously.

There have been notable exceptions to this, of course.  Mark Chiarello at DC, Ben Abernathy at Wildstorm, and most recently, Denton Tipton at IDW, have all gone above and beyond to help me try to get some writing projects off the ground.  And in Denton's case, it led to me getting to write some actual Doctor Who stories.  Yeah... that younger version of me just wet himself again.

But even now, after 18 years in the industry, when I'm lucky enough to be offered work from places like IDW, it's still as an artist.  And believe me, I'm happy to get it.  At the end of the day, no matter how big a fan I am of Doctor Who, drawing projects like that are first and foremost how I pay my bills.  I'm thrilled to do them, and happy for the paycheck attached to ANY work for hire project.  But there's always been a part of me - the part that sits and writes notes on all the Doctor Who story ideas I have bouncing around in my head, or the things I would do if anyone let me write a Blue Devil comic, or an issue of Hellblazer, or even the SeaQuest comic book reboot I've always wanted to do - that's never quite satisfied.

And that's why every editor I've worked with has gotten an endless stream of pitches, carefully worded pleas to write the books they've assigned me to draw, and in some cases, outright begging to let me write something, anything, I didn't care what it was, just so long as I could write it.

But the answer is always the same -- sorry, but no.

And that's when the impulse to take my toys and find a comfortable corner of my own kicks in.  Well, if YOU don't think my super-awesome story is worth doing, I'm just going to go over there and do it anyways.  Without you.  THAT'LL show you!

Yeah... I've never acted on that impulse, of course.  My career would have gone up in flames if I stomped my feet and threw a temper tantrum every time someone wouldn't let me write something.  Instead I've always tried my best to take the rejections in stride and keep plugging away with the drawing, all while planning out the next thing I'm going to pitch at them.

Until now...

NEXT TIME: Secret Projects and Changing Industries

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sneak Peek: Secret Personal Project

Don't tell anyone, but here's a sneak peek at a page from my upcoming, super secret personal project.  Shhhh...

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Coming Soon: Doctor Who, Vol. 4

Out tomorrow, the collected 'As Time Goes By' trade paperback from IDW Publishing's latest series of DOCTOR WHO comics.  Story by Joshua Hale Fialkov, art by me, and colors by Charlie Kirchoff.

Click here for a preview!