I want to talk about something that’s difficult to pin down in ourselves, painful to examine when we do and often leads to a ton of Discourse, infighting and straight-up denial when it’s mentioned online: validation.
There are two kinds of people in this industry: people who want to tell their stories as comics, and people who want to be comics creators.
There’s a massive difference between them. Let’s unpack it.
Yes, obviously, people who want to make comics most likely want to be comics creators and not have day jobs. We’d all like to get our work out there, make a living and build an audience for our work. However, these folks’ primary motivation is tied to making the art, and the value and permeability of the stories themselves.
Generally, things I hear from folks with this mindset go like this:
“I’ve got this idea and I’m so excited to get it out in the world!”
“Don’t you love when you get art back and realize your story is coming to life?”
The second kind of person is harder to describe, because their behavior can take many forms. Maybe they can fund and produce a volume of work that’s impressive in its execution, but somewhat lackluster in its content. Maybe they’re embittered and tweet about no one wanting to buy their books all the time. Maybe they’re arrogant, aloof and industry know-it-alls. Maybe they treat their co-creators and creative teams like shit. Maybe they’re all over their favorite creator’s accounts. Maybe they DM people their Kickstarters 24/7.
The common thread here is the not-so-hidden chip on the shoulder. The harsh truth is that we can all smell it – in each other, and in ourselves if we take a second to be honest. The vibe that this industry, our peers and the fans owe us something merely because we are here. Whether we have one book or 15 books on our con table, we’re expectant. And what do we expect? Validation.
Not of the comics. Of our identities as comics creators.
Making Art vs. Being an Artist
I spent a decade wanting to be a writer, and I wrote self-important trash. Everything I got out on the page was tinged with the self-consciousness of being the thing I was doing. It was uniformly shallow, uninteresting and derivative. I referred to this as “my output,” which is a real soul-withering way to talk about our own creations.
When I got over myself, disengaged my creative process from my identity and rediscovered my sense of humor and joy in the doing of the thing for the sake of it, I managed to write stuff that was ok. I was able to detach and see what I needed to do better, and practice those things. I’m not some genius now, but I am better than I was, and I enjoy what I do so thoroughly I can’t stop doing it.
While creative endeavors might shore up our identities, that’s not really what they’re for. They can give you juice, joy, depth and a ton of other delicious and deep things, and they can enrich your life immeasurably. Our human drive to be creative comes from having stories to tell and things to show people, and we have to get them out.
Industries are another beast altogether. Industries will smash you flat in a hot second the moment they catch wind of an ego, an expectation or a need for validation. Especially entertainment industries, and especially the comics industry.
Comics Doesn’t Want Us Here
We’re the weird carnie stepchild of publishing. We have a small pot of money to go around and it’s a cutthroat place to be. We’re seeing more predatory practices and contracts come to light than ever before, corporations strip-mining the Big 2 for IP without valuing its creation and distribution issues galore.
If you’re here to make comics, you likely love the medium and the kinds of stories we tell here. I encourage you all to center this feeling first, and work on yourselves in the meantime. Examine that ego tether and personal need to be a comics creator (our specific version of wanting to be a writer, artist, etc.) This need to “be” what we’re doing isn’t unique to this medium or industry, after all.
However, the need may preclude a lot of joyful, innovative and generative things in your career. It might prevent you from seeing the value in different methods of distribution, or stop you from taking a chance on a new story that’s not in line with your “brand.” It might limit where you pitch, how often and to whom, or your ability to absorb the feedback you receive. It might force you to sign the first contract you’re offered, just because it was offered. It might sour your sales pitch or general demeanor with fans at conventions, or bleed into your online interactions. It might limit your friendships with peers because you spend more time talking about yourself than making real connections.
And it might just bum you the fuck out all the time. That’s no good either.
It also might anger the weird, esoteric energy that threads through our industry, and cause it to slam the door in your face forever.
The point: if you want to be here, be here for the making. Creating art is a ritual, and I encourage you to stretch out of your materialist comfort zones for a second and get weird with it. Put your whole ass into what you’re making. Spend the time you need to spend to make it good, and ditch your personal benchmarks, timelines, etc.
Offer comics something. It’s got plenty of egos and nonsense already. Give it a kick-ass story, and give it with a smile. It might not rocket you to superstardom and trans-media deals right off the bat. You’ll still have to grind it out on multiple levels, but you’d be surprised how much better it feels to be here for the love of the stories rather than the need to be loved.