As documented in prior installments, I submitted superhero samples to the nation’s premiere comic book employers upon high school graduation and created my own material that was mercifully assessed by an indie comix maven upon moving out on my own. In short, I didn’t make the cut in either scenario, but I didn’t take “please give up” as an answer.
I cleared the deck and started fresh, making new comics with no real career-centric purpose. My girlfriend and I got out of Florida as quickly as possible and landed in New Orleans to try and save enough money for a New York City move. It was 1999, I was twenty years old and holding down two part time jobs while still working on comics, keeping my eye on the NYC prize.
In the meantime, I was putting together a comic full of utter randomness. I stayed true to that non-specific theme by randomly typing on the keyboard (ala), hence: Mimisqahfeuq. That, my friends, is how to properly come up with a punchy, lasting title.
Left to my own devices at the time, I was exercising the creative duty to “make the thing you want to see in the world”. I guess what I wanted to see was pretty damn impenetrable. It’s as if I took the previous rejection as an excuse to not learn from it. (Oh, you don’t like my comics? Well, here’s something to really not like!)
Honestly, I had fun working on this. I made a bunch of copies (15 or 30, I forget) and sold a few to a local comic shop. The rest I gave to friends or mailed to publishers. I knew it was pretty atypical, clunky stuff, so I wasn’t too surprised when I started receiving notices from Slave Labor and Fantagraphics alerting me that they were going to pass on this project.
No big deal. I continued to move forward. It was finally the year 2000 and our proposed NYC move date was sneaking up on us. I had to take a hard look at my comic book possibilities if I were to progress at all, or at least have something to show the big wigs in the city. I felt like I was regressing already, the rules of the game were getting murkier the more I read about the business, and I had to realize that not every single thing I did had to be monumental. Yet, I was eager to learn, eager to take a step back and really take stock of my options.
I wasn’t going to school for comic book study; I got accepted into SVA and the The Kubert School, but I couldn’t afford to go to either one. The local comic shops were staffed up, so no retail experience for me. I didn’t know any cartoonists, aspiring or otherwise. I wasn’t really sure what a message board was then, so I remained offline. The only thing left to do was go to a convention and try to talk to editors there. The MegaCon in Orlando was the next big con listed. I had 2 months to prepare some samples. Orlando also meant a ten-hour ride back to Florida.
City backdrops, check. Acrobatics, done, son. One page sequence that shows different camera angles, pedestrians and anatomy yet is inked and colored even though editors only want to see one skill set and in this case it would be penciling, you got it.
As I worked on samples for the con, it occurred to me to contact those creators I liked (at least the ones that had addresses made public). I had burning questions about the industry, the history of comics, psychological and aesthetic concerns.
I was floored when they all wrote back.
Chris Ware, Evan Dorkin, Mike Allred… to this day I am grateful for these guys taking time out of their insane schedules to write back to an aspiring, bumbling cartoonist with advice and encouragement. Dan Clowes, bless him, wrote back about my band’s cassette recordings even.
It truly was a special thing. To think that all the creators I admired were one postcard away and that they weren’t too busy to respond. That left a profound impression on me. I wanted to crack the code of what it meant to be a cartoonist, and this was more inspiring to me than any potential employment.
Yet, I put my own comics on hold as I worked on samples. I was cranking out pin ups and story pages alike. No fancy layouts, no weird collage stuff, no blocks of text trying to be deep, no indulgent meandering. You tell a story clearly, directly, you perform a function, you develop a skill, you earn your way into the business through hard work, keep your nose down, work, work, work.
I ended up trying to incorporate that page up there into my own comic later on, which is why that’s not really Mike Mignola’s Lobster Johnson in the first panel. I like “street level” characters, especially ones who were basically nods to the old school. Alan Moore and Rick Veitch’s Greyshirt was perfect.
Before I knew it, March 31st arrived and I was on the con floor in Orlando, brand new portfolio in hand, sleep deprived but feeling confident. MegaCon was my first con and I was there for business. People, so many people, so many fans. I wondered if those people even liked the same things I did. Did they even like comic books? I didn’t think about it too much. I had a mission: talk to editors.
First up, Mike Carlin reviewing portfolios at the DC booth. Nice enough, smooth sailing critique. My style needed more work, Carlin said, as it was already too off-model and I’d have a better shot at Veritgo (but there were no Vertigo editors there). He said my Daredevil looked like he was taking a dump in that first panel. Burn!
No Marvel editors in sight which I thought was weird. I went to a booth in the “small press” area. The publisher’s name escapes me, but they were some low grade Lady Death rip off company. I was desperate to get feedback, so who was I to judge? They were straight with me: boobs and blood sell and no one cares about anything else and I should keep that in mind if I want to pay the bills doing comics. Then I went into Artists Alley, right to Dick Giordano’s table because even though I knew he wasn’t an active editor, he had a history of working with many of my favorite artists such as Ditko, Miller & Aparo. If anyone there would’ve appreciated good, solid storytelling without boobs and blood, if anyone knew the difference between moodily crouching over a city and taking a dump, it would’ve been Dick Giordano.
He ripped me a new one. He didn’t think I could draw very well, but said I had a decent sense of movement. He would flip through pages while looking away, like it was the last thing he wanted to do. I don’t blame him – portfolio reviews are a soul sucking task – but at the same time, that wasn’t what I drove ten hours for. He said he couldn’t help me anyway because he no longer edited. “Go to Mike Carlin, tell him I sent you. Tell him it’s revenge.” Ooof.
Chris Warner reviewed my stuff at the Dark Horse booth. His advice was to forget drawing superheroes because not only was I not good at it, but it was fiercely competitive, thus, I shouldn’t even waste my time on it. He suggested I just concentrate on working on defining my own voice, my own stories, and to not be a work-for-hire cookie cutter shill. Through his sobering advice, I felt as if though some sort of veil had been lifted. Something I thought I knew: cultivate your own voice. I had always wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. I wanted to be the hired gun for a living while working on whatever I wanted on the side. That was a pretty simplistic way of seeing things, but honestly, it’s a point of view I occasionally snap back into. Bad habits die slowly.
I walked around a bit more. Only a couple of hours in and I was done with MegaCon. I wanted to salvage my weekend so we drove to a pal’s house in a nearby town and had a blast. It involved 0% comics.
The drive back to New Orleans was tough. Tired, dispirited, and… well, you know the drill. We all deal with rejection in its many forms. There’s no clean, neat ending to it, no permanent reward. We take it, deal with it, and move on. We get older and develop thicker skin, but these mild body blows were devastating back then.
It wasn’t all that bad in general. Making comics, as insane as I got about them, was one of life’s pleasures. Those New Orleans days are marked by my diligence to the craft of comics rather than blacking out in the sea of flesh known as Mardi Gras. Keep your nose down, work, work, work.
We got home late that Sunday and I crashed immediately. Before going to work the next day, I checked if we got any mail during the weekend. I wasn’t expecting anything, really. I heard back from every publisher and creator I contacted. Well, there were a couple of creators I had written to but they were long shots. There was no point in expecting anything from one cartoonist in particular, but it was that one that shocked me out of my post-con blues.
There it was, in my mailbox, in cold, hard unflinching reality, as certain as the name itself:
Next: Respect the rational.