You Don't Matter

When it comes to building your career in comics, you don’t matter.

Okay, I’m exagerating a little. But hopefully I’ve got your attention. Many creators are so focused on their craft they can lose sight on an extremely important skill every professional creator needs - collaboration.

Yes, collaboration isn’t just a stumbling block for those of you having trouble finding artists or reliable writers, it’s an essential skill that you have to develop.

It’s about learning to work with your collaborators (writers, artists, colorists, letterers, designers - even printers!) in order to make a comic that’s better than the sum of its parts.

Now, of course craft matters, too. But if you take two amazing creators who are terrible collaborators - they clash at every step of the way - you’ll likely get a muddled comic, at best. But take two “lesser” creators whose sensibilities match, and know how to communicate and elevate each other and they can make a much better comic - one neither of them could’ve made alone, that tells a story in a third voice that clearly belongs to both of them, but not each of them individually.

If you can accept that collaboration is a skill, then this isn’t out of reach for you. Even if you disagree, you should be able to at least recognize that collaboration is an essential step in making comics. Your understanding of it - from how to best work and communicate with your collaborators to how to read contracts - will be a major determining factor of whether you succeed or fail in building your career.

Typically, the only way to become a better collaborator is to keep collaborating. Make as many comics with different kinds of people as you can. But there are some massively useful steps you can take, and resources you can study, to help you along this path.

Read the Collaboration Topic Guide to find out more. Good luck!

The Artist as Entrepreneur

Like it or not, being an artist today also means being an entrepreneur.

It means understanding how business works - both how it can work against you and how you can work with it.

You need to understand how to set your page rates, work with publishers, or take advantage of funding sources like Kickstarter. How to do taxes, how to read contracts, and how to track your expenses.

Well, you don’t have to. But you should. Especially if you want to give yourself the best chance of building a career in comics - whether as an independent creator or while working with publishers.

Those of you who think you can ignore the business side of your work will find yourselves sorely mistaken. You’ll be taken advantage of or, at best, fail to make the most of your successes. Maybe you’ll still manage to build a career. But probably not. If anything, it’ll be a lot harder.

But if you take business seriously. If you realize that you should learn about the other half of your industry (the non-creative side), you’re going to stand a much better chance of succeeding.

And if you do make that decision you won’t be taken by surprise. You’ll understand when you’re presented with a bad offer - or a great one. And you’ll be able to make informed decisions about your career. Informed decisions that will help you avoid the pitfalls many artists - both in comics and beyond - typically fall into.

When creators talk about business, they tend to focus on the limits business realities impose upon them. How much it costs to produce a comic, the difficulties of starting new series, etc. These are all reasonable concerns.

But they’re based off an incorrect assumption. Business isn’t the foil to your creativity. It’s not an imposition or a limit. It doesn’t have to be the devil on your shoulder trying to get you to shy away from your ambitions “non-marketable” project.

Instead, it can - and should - be the foundation for making that crazy, creative passion project a reality.

You don’t learn about marketing to decide whether the project you're considering is “marketable enough” to deserve your time. You learn about marketing to find the marketable elements in whatever you decide to work on.

You don’t learn about finances to be discouraged when you want to make something that’s beyond your capabilities. You learn about finances so you can create a plan to get to the point you need to get to, and fund that dream project.

Business isn't about keeping you from being creative, it's about making your most creative ambitions a reality.

That's why I like it so much. That's why I think it's so important for you to understand. I realize it’s a lot to ask. That it’s a whole other discipline. But even if you don’t master it, you need to at least become literate enough to share the burden - whether with a partner or a publisher.

If you take this “slow and steady” approach you won’t be overwhelmed and you won’t have to fear taking the art out of your craft. I’ve always lived at the intersection of business & art and the perspective I have on each of those has helped me in the other in ways I could never imagine.

I’m a more confident creator because of my understanding of the business side. I’m a more effective entrepreneur, because I don’t undervalue the art that goes into creative work.

The comic book industry is, ultimately, a business. If you create a great comic, but don’t have a great way to sell it, you have a bad busines - no matter how good the comic. And bad businesses fail. Constantly.

But you don’t have to.

Lasting success requires excellence both on the business side and the creative. Brilliant work with no business plan can take off on its own, but more often fades away. Bad work with a great business plan can mimic success, but will never endure and drumming up a lot of support for a project that fails to deliver can cost you the trust of your audience.

Work on improving your approaches to both the business and creative - or work with people who can complement your skills in one, with aptitude for the other.

Fight both sides of the battle. Not just half of it.

How Fear Is Holding You Back

I’m not as far in my career as I hoped to be by this time.

I imagine that’s true for most of you reading this.

The reasons why are pretty clear to me now. I’ve had plenty of chances to reflect on them. Mostly, it comes back to a fear of failure. While that fear can help propel you forward it can also hold you back. It has for me. And I know it has for you - I’ve received enough emails to be sure of it.

Right now, you’re letting it control you - even if you don’t think you are. And it can kill any chance you have of building a career for yourself.

By the end of this post, hopefully you’ll recognize how that fear can manifest in you and take action to free yourself from its grasp.

How Fear Manifests

We don’t always know it when it’s there. But it is always there, to varying degrees. Unfortunately, we’re great at justifying whatever fear we hold, and working against ourselves in ways too subtle for us to really notice.

But if we start by accepting that fear is there, regardless of what else might be there, too, we can stay a step ahead of what just might be the worst part of ourselves.

I know it seems dramatic, but as creators there’s always something to be afraid of. Failure, as I mentioned, is just one of the many things we might fear. As freelancers we lack financial security. As creators we often lack emotional security, making ourselves vulnerable with every story we tell.

We fear that we’ll never make a career for ourselves, never tell a story worth caring about, or that we’re being left out of an industry, of a life, we know we could be a part of.

And it can cause us to become perfectionists, grow arrogant, or become reticent to even act at all. To stop even before we’ve taken our first step towards making the kinds of comics we know, or dream, we can.

The fear itself is what will keep us form ever making great comics. But the understanding of the fear, and how it manifests in us, specifically, can free us - can free you - from that fate.

Perfectionism

Right now, I’m writing this after a long period of not having written anything on this site. It’s not a big deal, but it’s still slightly terrifying.

I want this post to be great. I want everything I do to be great. And, as a result, that perfectionism is causing me to take way too long in writing this post.

Ultimately, it’s unlikely that this’ll be a masterpiece. I continue to write with the hope that it will be useful to you, but I have to come to terms with the fact that this probably won’t be the most amazing thing I’ve ever written.

If anything, the chances are low.

But after I’ve written this, I’ll move onto the next post. And my chances will be slightly better of writing something that’s not just useful, not just entertaining, but really great.

It’s a catch-22 of sorts. The best way to make something great, and satiate your perfectionism, is to be willing to make something - lots of somethings - that are less then, as you continue to bridge the gap between the idea in your head and the quality of what you’re actually able to create.

Of course, there’s a balance to be found. You should still be rigorous with yourself - there’s no point letting yourself off easily. But if you spend too much time on a single project, a single page or panel, you’ll end up costing yourself. In the end, it’s often better to move on and work on something new, rather than stay stuck in a cycle of improving pieces of one project that will never be reflective of the quality you feel you’re capable of.

Don’t allow your desire to be great hold you back from being at all.

Arrogance

On the other end of the spectrum from perfectionism is arrogance. It’s an overconfident response to that same fear of failure, where you convince yourself that “my first project will be great.”

Your first at-bat won’t be a home run. In fact, most of us will never hit any “home-runs.” Though such mega-hits aren’t necessary to build a career, many of us still shoot for them, even if only subconsciously.

And the worst afflicted among us think that the first stories we tell will end up being these mega-hits.

If this is you. Stop. Do you realize what you’re expecting? There are talented creators that go entire careers without ever experiencing the kind of success you think you’ll get with your first project.

Just doing 60 issues of a story isn’t enough to make a mega-hit. It’s the kind of burden you should only attempt to take on after years of experience. And even then, it’s a challenge unlike any other.

Doesn’t it make more sense to work on smaller projects and get better before trying something so difficult? Committing to something that will suck up so much of your time, money, and energy?

“But I know what I’m doing,” you say. “It’s different!”

It’s really not. I know, I’m as stubborn as it gets. I’ve routinely overcommitted to long projects and slowly, painstakingly, learned from this.

Your first project probably sucks. And maybe it doesn’t suck objectively, but it will suck relative to what you’ll be able to make by the end of the year, or next year, or five years from now.

Especially if you spend that time telling one story after another.

And if you’re focused on making a great comic, rather than making a “hit” because you’re confident you’re already good enough, you’re much more likely to succeed, in the long run.

You don’t need a hit to be successful. Not being a megastar doesn’t mean you’re failure. If you stop holding yourself to those standards then, over time, you can try to be content finding your voice, telling the stories you want to tell, rather than expecting or hoping to be “successful” and falling prey to your own arrogance as a result.

Reticence

Between arrogance and perfectionism is reticence. Maybe you’re already telling stories. You know that it’s a long road and that you have a lot to learn a long way.

But you hesitate to share your work, to stand behind it. Precisely because of your awareness of how much further you have to go.

It’s a more subtle kind of self-sabotage than the others. A quieter reaction to the fear. In this case it’s less about your own perspective on your failings, but how others might see you if they also come to the conclusion you’ve failed.

Rather than risk that, you stay quiet. You don’t go out of your way to promote yourself. You never give yourself the chance to shine that you deserve.

Ultimately, it’s cowardly. That might be a harsh way to put it, but it’s the truth. An understandable truth.

None of us want to be embarassed. But by sparing yourself in the short-term you end up hurting yourself a lot more. Let’s say, worst case scenario, you share your work and it’s terrible. Maybe you’re lucky and people tell you. Maybe you’re unlucky and people don’t. Hopefully that’s not the case, but even if it is, it’s usually pretty clear when people are just being polite. Besides, there’s always more you can do. You can always get better.

So, you make something really bad. And you feel terrible. And maybe it lingers. But eventually it passes, because you move onto the next project and, if you learned your lesson, you make something a little less bad. And so on!

That’s the path. If you never show your work, you’re going to grow a lot more slowly. Eventually, if you want to make a career or have readers, you will have to show your work. In fact, eventually, people will even find your work without you knowing! Before that happens you should take advantage of your anonymity and get as much feedback as you can from the people you trust.

A creative career is a public career. Otherwise, it’s a hobby.

You aren’t doing yourself any favors by being too afraid to stand behind your work, flaws and all.

Breaking Free From Your Fear

Whatever your fear, there’s a way out. In fact, if you’ve been reading closely, you may have noticed that it’s usually the same way:

Make comics, share those comics, and make more comics.

When you’re training to swim, the only way forward is to dive into the deep end.

You have to start somewhere, and you have to be willing to keep going, to accept that you will fail along the way.

You’re only as good as your last project. Just keep creating.

What are you afraid of?

Creators for Creators with C. Spike Trotman

If you haven't heard of it before, Creators for Creators, is a newly-founded non-profit with an all-star founding group of comic creators - many of whom come from Image.

Here's a quick look at the creators involved.

 

Charlie Adlard, Jordie Bellaire, David Brothers, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Nick Dragotta, Leila del Duca, Matt Fraction, Kieron Gillen, Jonathan Hickman, Joe Keatinge, Robert Kirkman, Jamie McKelvie, Rick Remender, Declan Shalvey, Fiona Staples, Eric Stephenson, C. Spike Trotman, and Brian K. Vaughan.

 

It's stated goal is to "help pave the way for the next generation of comics creators by supporting their work financially and through mentorship, as well as providing opportunities for their creations to reach a wide audience."

To this end, they'll be providing $30,000 to one creator (or a writer / artist duo) to finance a "new and original work... between sixty-four and one hundred pages..."

I encourage you to read more about it here before you check out this post.

Spike Trotman

I've been really excited about the grant - and one of these reasons is the involvement of prolific indie creator / self-publisher Spike Trotman, who founded Iron Circus Comics.

I wanted to talk to her about her involvement with Creators for Creators and learn more about the grant.


Hey! Happy to be talking to you today.

So, to dive right in, when news of the grant came out a lot of people got really excited about it. I wanted to kick this off by discussing how the project came together. How did you get involved?

I was asked! By David Brothers of Image Comics, specifically. He knew how I felt about the state of the industry, and what I felt the best choices young creators could make were - namely, to work on their own material as much as possible and establish a body of work independent of superhero work-for-hire gigs, be it self-published or not - and knew I would be down to do something formal if it ever came along and I felt it was a good idea.

In my mind, your career in comics has really shown creators a different way of building a career. I’m all about that and often cite you as a great example of how creators can engage with the evolving comics industry.

I felt that your inclusion in Creators for Creators - as somebody deeply involved with self-publishing and independent publishing - was an extremely important addition. Coming from that perspective, what merit do you see in providing a more formal opportunity like this?

Well, here's the thing. I'm a huge, huge proponent of Kickstarter, but Kickstarter requires an audience to really be a functional part of any independent operator's business model. and building that audience can take years, years that not all creators can afford to sacrifice to the slog through obscurity.

Compounding that, not all artists are good at marketing themselves, or producing material that can easily find an audience online, regardless of how masterful it might be. C4C gets that; it's a leg-up for someone. Someone who might not have the opportunity to produce comics otherwise. It let's someone spend a year or so totally focused on their book; no day job, no worry about reblogs or relatability.

It's a fast-forward button to someone's first book.

This may be a tangent, but I think that the focus you mentioned is pretty essential to creating something great.

Do you feel that the effort involved in building an audience and exploring the business side of comics can detract from the eventual quality of the creative work?

The quality, no, not necessarily. Some of the greatest artists of the modern age were/are salespeople of the highest order. They sell their image, their work, their opinions, their politics. But the time one can devote to creative work of quality can definitely suffer. I know I have less and less time for it myself, which is why I kinda can't wait until 2017; I resolve to hire an assistant editor that year to help share the load and give me more time to write and draw.

That’s a massive milestone for any endeavor! 

To dive back into Creators for Creators, a while ago I wrote a post called “Why Image is Not For You” - which explored the number of new creators Image actually broke in in the previous year. I wrote it to make the case that it’s not Image’s job to break in new creators, as nice as that would be - since I was getting tired of creators feeling like they were owed a chance - as much as I wished more chances were available, despite the open avenue to self-publishing.

I’m happy to admit that the Creators for Creators grant is a step exactly in that direction and it’s great that it seems driven more by the collective will of the individual creators than by an institutional agenda. Do you see value in that distinction?

Definitely. And I agree: Image isn't for greenhorns and newbies. These days, the New Kids are basically expected to make their comics online, and come to publishers with a dowry of a pre-existing audience and a few years of experience under their belt. And that's not necessarily bad, Image has every right to be selective about who and what they publish.

But it can catch creators in that horrible paradox: Not enough experience to land the gig, but not enough gigs to become experienced. Not everyone has a forgiving dayjob or an understanding spouse content to hold down the fort while they break in and become Image-worthy.

Right. I think providing creators a way out of that Catch-22 is one of the reasons this grant has impressed me. There’s also the talent involved, yourself included, and the mentorship opportunity, too.

And then there’s the flexibility provided to the creator in deciding where to publish. That seems essential to setting the right kind of tone for a grant like this. What do you see as the ideal outcome of this grant?

Ideally? An unpublished creator who might have otherwise never had the opportunity to "go pro" gets the opportunity to do so, years ahead of schedule. They buckle down and show up at the doors of Iron Circus or Oni Press or First Second (or Kickstarter!) with their very first graphic novel finished, something that might have otherwise taken three years of their divided attention, finished in one. And the mentorship C4C offers guides them through self-promotion, sending out review copies, doing the con circuit. and maybe you're interviewing them in a year or two.

[C4C] is a fast-forward button to someone’s first book.

I’d love that!

On the grant page it says that the creator who’s chosen will have been selected according to a rigorous criteria - can you comment on this criteria and what the selection committee (separate from the founding board?) is hoping to see?

Mmmmn I dunno. It's tough. We've talked about this as a group and the only thing we're solid on is we want to help publish an unheard voice.

Naturally, I'm biased in favor of a single creator or small team, maybe a writer and an artist. But if someone submitted a proposal with a classic Big Two assembly line line-up, a writer and penciller and inker and colorist and letterer, we wouldn't NOT look at it. (We'd wonder how they planned on making the $30,000 last a year under those circumstances, but maybe they'd have an answer for that.)

Subject matter is open, so long as it's original.

Is the $30,000 grant then predicated on taking that time to focus fully on the comic? So those with commitments would need to leave their jobs or otherwise make themselves available to commit “enough” time?

I understand the importance of that, if that’s the case, I’d just like to clarify.

They wouldn't be REQUIRED to quit their day job or anything, but the point of the money is to provide flexibility. Time is such a valuable resource. When I was young, I quit my cashier job at an art supply store to focus full-time on my webcomic. That could have blown up in my face easily. but I felt I had to; I wanted to be a cartoonist, and I came home from work every day too exhausted to draw. I'd just lie on the couch, totally wiped. If I'd only had to work, say,  every other day instead of every day, because I'd been given a 30k grant? That would have made a world of difference.

That makes a lot of sense. I think one struggle a lot of creators definitely do deal with is exactly that… time.

Definitely. that's honestly been a guiding principle for me: "What do I wish had been available when I was starting out?"

That’s a key principle for me at Creator At Large, too.

Another part of the application requirements that I’d like to bring up is one that people have been discussing: “Any non-anthology industry publication is unacceptable.”

A lot of the concerns I’ve read seemed to figure that this ruled out a lot of creators who were still “new” but may have been published by small publishers and still don’t feel like they’ve had their chance.

Can you elaborate on the decision to go in that direction? 

The group has been talking about this a lot, actually. We've been getting a lot of good, fair questions about it.  A guy who was a Big Two inker ten years ago, but left the industry, he wants to know: Can he apply? And what about the woman with a comic on Tapastic? or the person who signed on with a small publisher, but the book run was unsellable or lost or pulped? And the publisher's gone under? There are so many things we didn't think about.

And honestly, the best response we can give is "We'll play it by ear." We're not looking to rules-lawyer anyone out of a chance. We won't pull and toss your submission if we find out you have some forgettable credit in a long-lost work somewhere. We just want to make it clear; this is to give someone who hasn't had a big chance, a big chance.

Their own, independent work.

We don't want established folks - and calling someone "established" is like the Supreme Court defining pornography, "Y'know it when you see it" - grabbing this grant. It's not for them, because they don't NEED it. And folks who don't need it / by and large, they KNOW they don't.

So we're hoping everyone can be a good sport about this. if you have some wibbly, forgettable credit years back, that will NOT disqualify you.

I think that’s a great way to put it.

Another piece that caught my eye was that CreatorsforCreators.org will become a resource to “educate creators by way of testimonials, advice, and more from established creators.” That seems to refer to additional education opportunities for creators on the website besides the mentorship of the winning creator. Is that right?

That's completely right. That bit is still in the planning stages, so I can't go into detail right now, but I'm excited!

I’m excited to hear more about it, though. I’m glad more information will be put out.

So, as we start to wind this down, I understand the submission period is open now and will last until November 1st. For those interested in submitting do you have any advice or input to offer?

Be as complete as possible, submission-wise. Follow the rules. Have a friend or two read over your submission before you send it. SPELLCHECK. Don't submit something you don't feel passionate about spending a whole year on or seeing through until the end, just because you assume it's more likely to get the win. And DON'T TAKE THE RESULTS PERSONALLY. Rejection is part of making comics. It's something everyone on the C4C board has contended with in their career. It didn't stop us, and it shouldn't stop you.

Persevere!

Persevere!

I think that’s a great note to end on! Thanks for taking the time!

No problem, thank YOU!


Applications for the Creators for Creators grant are open through November 1st. You can submit, or learn more about the process, by clicking here.

If you're applying, I wish you the best of luck! This is not only a great opportunity, but C4C also seems like the start of a really fantastic resource for creators looking to build their career in comics and I'm excited to see what comes of it.


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