Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Lessons In Four Colors, Part Two: The Care and Feeding of Editors...

Back in the day, before we all had email addresses and cell phones, I used to have an answering machine. It was a gray and black plastic thing, with a tiny cassette, a 'play' button, and a little red light that would blink when you had a message.

For most of the 1990s, I lived in fear of that light. When it was flashing, it usually meant one thing -- there was a message from an editor asking me why they hadn't gotten any pages from me yet.

I hated that light.

And then there was the phone. If it rang, it meant the same thing. There was an editor out there who was upset with me. They needed to get a book out and I was letting them down. Every time the phone rang, my heart stopped.

In the darkest times of my career, when I was barely functioning as an adult, much less as a freelance creator - an incredibly precarious career littered with traps and pitfalls that I either pretended weren't there or just couldn't bring myself to face - when I was screwing up badly, I'd turn the ringer off and leave it to the answering machine to deal with.

Like I said, barely functioning. In any way. I'm not proud of it, but it's the truth.

It took me many years and many potentially career-destroying mistakes to learn the single most important thing a freelance comic book creator needs to know...

Your editor is your best friend, your ally, your backstop. When you're having trouble, they'll move heaven and earth to help you. Yeah, sometimes they'll be angry at you, and sometimes they'll yell at you, but they've got your back.

So, rule #1 of being a professional comic book creator: When your editor calls (or these days, emails) you take the call.

Rule #2: Never lie to your editor. Ever. Not done, yet? You tell them. Falling behind schedule? You tell them. Not going to be done on time? You tell them RIGHT AWAY!

Listen, I've lied to editors, told them what they wanted to hear, promised them things I can never deliver in a million years. It has never EVER worked out well for me. Even now, I sometimes make the mistake of telling someone the best case scenario and not facing what the worst case scenario is. Being creative isn't like turning on a faucet, and sometimes things come up. Often times things come up. The sooner you recognize and find ways to address that, the better. But I'll talk about that in a later post. For now, just remember...

Never lie to your editor.

Here's the thing. After all the mistakes I've made, one of the reasons I still have a career is that there are a handful of editors who never gave up on me -- Ben Abernathy, Denton Tipton, and Kristy Quinn chief among them. And Ben in particular was there for the biggest screwup in my entire career of screwups, which led to me being fired off of my dream book before we even got started -- Hellboy.

I work because these people think of me when jobs come up. Editors are your best friend, but they're also your first, most important audience. You're working for them, they're not working for you. Don't let your ego get in the way, try not to let your personal problems interfere with your work, and if they are interfering, see the above -- if you're going to be late, tell them IMMEDIATELY.

I've often joked with Denton about how sometimes being an editor means having to be a bit of a therapist, figuring out the best way to get a writer or artist to get the job done. Carrot or stick, stroke their ego or read them the riot act, all in the name of getting them at the desk doing the work. And while I do think that's true -- creators are delicate psychological creatures, after all -- it really shouldn't be.

If editors are the creator's best friend, you as a creator have to do your best to be their best friend. Don't make problems for them. If you're difficult to work with, if you can't deliver on your promises, it gets around. FAST. You want to keep working in the business, it's in your best interest to be good to your editors. They can make or break you.

How do you care and feed an editor? Deliver the work. Be upfront and honest. Give them your BEST work. Don't be a jerk. Also, some of them like beer. If you both like beer, buy them one when you see them.

Come through for your editor and more likely than not, the next time the right project comes along, your name is going to cross their mind. When it does, you want to make sure your name isn't followed with the thought, "Oh, they're a flake, I can't give this to them."


Lessons In Four Colors, Part One: An Introduction, Of Sorts....

As of this year, I've been drawing comics professionally for 21 years. The ongoing joke around my house is that my comic book career is old enough to drink. Which for some reason amuses me, but let's be honest, probably only me.

It hasn't been a smooth road, as anyone who has followed my career knows. Lots of ups and downs. Good years, dismal years, years where I wanted to chuck it all in and get a normal job, even years where I actually did go and get a normal job. But for one reason or another, I always end up back behind an art table, or now, a Cintiq.

I've made mistakes, plenty of them. Some derailed my career a bit, some nearly destroyed it, and yet, somehow, I'm busier now than I've ever been. In fact, I seem to have stumbled on to the career I expected to have when I started out 21 years ago - with a regular gig, a sea of side gigs to fill up my spare time, and personal projects to fill any extra time I might have considered using for sleep or hanging out or any of the normal stuff of life that is rarely an option when you're freelance creative person with bills to pay and deadlines to meet.

There's no secret to my survival, at least not a simple, easy to explain one, but I have learned some things over the years, things I thought I'd share on the off chance that they might help other people looking at comics as a career or a hobby; rules you should follow, or at least some mistakes to avoid.

I've talked before about the realities of making comics in the current marketplace, and between the time I wrote about it and now, things have continued to change. It's a hard way to make a living, and while many people still think comic book creators are all rich and famous, the truth is an ever smaller group of people are making what most people would think of as 'good money' much less a stack of cash they can sleep on.

I don't say this to scare anyone. The related fact is that it's so much easier to get a comic book out now than it has ever been. If you can finish it, you can publish it, either yourself or through someone else. But as always, finding an audience for it isn't easy and making money at it is even harder still.

For a while now, I've been thinking that we're fast approaching an age where the professional creative class - people who make their living solely through making comics or writing books or making music - will be an incredibly rare species. Lots of people will still be making things, but only a few will be supporting themselves with it.

And that's okay. As we often say in my family when something we're not wild about happens, "It is what it is." Like the move to digital in most creative media, the writing is on the walls (or the iPad) and you have to adjust and plan for it as best you can or get left behind.

But say you do find yourself in the position of creating comics for a publisher - big or small, digital or print - and you'd like to keep doing it. Well, let me give you a few pointers...