What I Learned From Taking a Year off From Comics (And Why I Wish I Hadn’t)

12 Jan

Which is worse—moving in the wrong direction or not moving at all?

It’s a question that I recently heard on an episode of Scriptnotes, an amazing podcast about screenwriting (and just writing in general) and I’ve been mulling it over in my head ever since. The reason why the question struck such a chord in me is because I feel like I just spent the past year not moving at all, in lieu of accidentally moving in the wrong direction and now that I’m on the other side of it I have to wonder if it did me any good.

Probably not. But at the same time, it wasn’t completely worthless.

It’s not like I went into 2015 thinking “yeah, I deserve a break.” In fact, it was quite the opposite. I remember clearly what my emotional state was last New Year’s Eve. I had big things brewing, big opportunities on the horizon and a lot of lofty ideas about how I wasn’t even going to be the same person in a year’s time. Only one of those things ended up being true and not in the way I was imagining.

So why did I fall off the face of the comic world for a year? The answer is something that I think all comic book creators go through at some point in their careers.

happy-new-year-crappy-old-year

The Little Red Hen Syndrome

As a comic book writer, I often liken myself to the story of The Little Red Hen.  If you’ve never read the story as a kid, the Cliff Notes version is that this little red hen wants to make some bread, so she goes around the farm asking the other animals to help her out. She’s all up in their face like “Who will help me make this bread?” And nobody wants to help her.

So she goes about all of the labor by her own damn self. I mean, this chicken is straight up planting wheat for this bread. She’s harvesting and milling her own grains and shit. And every step of the way she asks the other animals if they want to help her out, but they don’t. In the end, she makes this delicious bread and all the animals want to eat it, but she’s like “Fuck off, this is my bread, I’m the only one who worked for it.”

I always liked this fable because it shows how something as simple and ordinary as a loaf of bread requires time, patience and hard work to create.  Before you can even make the dough a bunch of things have to happen: wheat has to grow, eggs have to be laid, yeast has to—yeast up or whatever it does. And as a comic book writer, I often feel like that little red hen, running around all like “Who will help me make this comic?”

Little Red Hen Syndrome

Little Red Hen Syndrome

I call this Little Red Hen Syndrome—it’s when you stall up creatively because you don’t know how in the hell your ideas are ever going to come to fruition without other people’s help. Over the past few years I’ve found myself discarding ideas almost immediately because I’m weighed down by practical matters.  It’s hard to let your imagination work its thing when you’re hampered by things like a budget.

So ideas would come and I would ask myself “Who will help me make this bread?”  And when a suitable answer didn’t immediately come to the forefront, I’d throw out the idea or tuck it away in the hopes that maybe one day conditions would be favorable enough to actually pursue the project in full.

The tricky thing about Little Red Hen Syndrome is that if I’m going to survive as a comic book writer, I have to get that bread made at some point. But doing so takes a whole team of other comic creators—at the very least a phenomenal artist who can do their own inks, colors and letters.  I don’t have the luxury of making every project that pops into my head, so I have to be choosey when it comes to figuring out which projects to pursue.

That makes for a really weird creative environment to have to work in. As I’m fiddling with new ideas I’m constantly judging the work, trying to see if it’s worthy enough to invest in. Nine times out of ten, I give up on the idea before I even get a chance to name the thing I’m giving up on.  If it doesn’t immediately feel like something I need to make right this second it usually ends up being nothing more than a page of vague notes and questions.

An abandonded project

An example of some notes from a project that was aborted too early. Thanks past self, this sure is a lot to work with if I ever wanted to try again. 

I’ve often remedied this situation by taking an artist-first approach. Instead of exploring ideas for projects that I’ve come up with, I’ll reach out to artists that I want to work with and pick their brain for ideas. Instead of asking “Who will help me make this bread?” I’m asking “What kind of bread do you like?” and then offer to help them make a loaf.

And while I’ve had fantastic creative results by taking a collaborative approach, it’s left a noticeable missing piece in my comics career—that little piece of me that has stories to tell. While I’m running around asking artists what ideas they want to do, I’m dot asking myself what ideas I want to do.  That takes its toll on your creativity after a while as you start to lose focus on what you want to even accomplish as a creative in the first place. You start to feel like you don’t have anything real to say, which makes you wonder if you should say anything at all.

When is a writer not a writer?

The other thing that sucks about having Little Red Hen Syndrome is that you’re so worried about how you’re going to make your next loaf of bread that you don’t have any time to enjoy the bread you just made. If you want to be in the business of making bread then by the time the bread comes out of the oven you’re wrapped up in tending to the wheat for the next batch and it keeps you distracted from enjoying the fruits of your labors.

Because along the way you learned something about making bread that you’ve already applied to the next batch. You know the next thing you make is going to be even better and you can’t wait for people to check it out. So while they’re gobbling down on whatever you just made, you’re saying to yourself “if you think this is good, wait till you see what I’ve got in store for next time.”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to keep moving as a creative, but sometimes you absolutely need that time to take a step back and go “oh wow, look at all this awesome stuff I created.” One of the reasons why I consider 2015 to be a “year off” is because I didn’t end up attending any comic book shows as a creator. This was partly due to a variety of circumstances that were out of my hands—budget issues, cancelled shows and so on. But another reason why I felt it was okay to take the year off was because so many of my projects had been stalled up and I didn’t have anything new to promote.

Except, you know, I totally did.

Snack Attack! vol. 2 cover by Crystal Mielcarek.

Little Red Hen Syndrome

Saturday Morning Snack Attack! Vol. 2 came out in the summer of 2014 and I only had the chance to take the book to one convention before I fell off the wagon in 2015. I should have spent the entirety of 2015 going to shows and showing off this new book, along with all the other books I’ve published over the years.

You might be asking yourself “How could he be so shortsighted?” I mean, this doesn’t seem like the behavior of a serious comic book writer or a person who has any idea what they’re doing.  I of course have my excuses, but for the most part the biggest reason why I ignored what I had already accomplished was because I was too focused on the future, to the detriment of my present.

But now that 2015 is finally in my past, I can see that it wasn’t a total loss. And even if it seems like I spent most of it encased in carbonite, in actuality it wasn’t really a “year off” at all.

What I learned from my year off

One of the biggest reasons why I had to take a break from comics was actually a good one.  I was all gearing up to launch Sugar and Spice vs. Everything Nice as a webcomic with my artist pal Brandon Williams. However, we both got an opportunity right at the start of the comic that was too good to pass up.  But it would mean having to delay the webcomic so that we could switch gears and work on this other thing.

I’m being vague because I’m not sure exactly what I’m allowed to say on the matter, but in any case we tried our best but nothing materialized from it other than some good experience and notes. But it lead to another pitching opportunity, then we decided we’d try pitching Sugar and Spice to some publishers before returning to the drawing board.  So even if I wasn’t actually at any conventions, I was pitching like crazy in 2015.

cardboard-kingdom-art-by-chad-sell

The Cardboard Kingdom – (C) Chad Sell

And I also had a chance to write a short-story for an upcoming graphic novel called The Cardboard Kingdom by artist Chad Sell.  I’ve wanted to work with Chad for years, so when I saw that he was putting this project together about kids using their imagination, I immediately jumped at the chance to pitch a story to him.  I’m really proud of what I came up with, which I can’t exactly talk about just yet, but I can say that I drew from a lot of my own childhood so there’s a lot of great personal investment in this story.  It was the kind of project I needed to help clear out the cobwebs in my head.

Working with Chad was an amazing learning experience. He really has a vision for this project, so he put me through the ringer as a writer. I wrote more drafts of this story than I think I’ve ever written for one single project, but at the same time I was thrilled to be doing it. Each new draft taught me something about my writing and helped me let go of some of my bad habits to focus on the real emotional core of the story.

As an independent comic book writer, I rarely get to work with any real editors. I’ve got a few people who I trust to look over my scripts and of course the artists I work with often have input of their own. But I realized that I like being pushed by an editor. I like the idea of writing a script as many times as I need to until it’s exactly what it needs to be.

So it may have looked like a year off on paper, but I actually learned a ton, therefore I’m not really sure I can legally call it an “off year.” I may not have been out there in the spotlight, but I was working behind the scenes.  And that has to count for something.

What about 2016?

I’m going into this new year ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work.  And everywhere I turn around, I see other people declaring the same thing. It’s as if we’re all waking up from some sort of year-long hibernation and we’re ready to get moving.

It’s natural to have these hopes and desires going into the new year, but what I’m seeing around me right now—and what I’m feeling myself—is just this  urge to start working.  It’s not going to be easy, it may in fact be harder than ever, but it’s not as hard as standing still feels.

One of the factors that motivated me to write this blog entry was the fact that I already have a comic show lined up for this year.  I’ll be making my first appearance of 2016 at the Michigan State University Comics Forum on February 27, which is an absolutely amazing show if you’re interested at all in being a comic creator. It’s a day filled with great speakers, panels and discussions about the art of creating comics.  Come check it out if you have a chance—did I mention its completely free?

MSU Comics Forum 2016 - poster art by keynote speaker Sergio Aragones

MSU Comics Forum 2016 – poster art by keynote speaker Sergio Aragones

The other reason why I wanted to write out how I’m feeling is because of a little blog entry I wrote last year about what comic book artists should know about the writers they work with. I mainly wrote that article as a way to express my own frustration about the narrative that comic book writers have to face from comic book artists.

The next thing I know, I’m getting contacted by a bunch of other writers and comic book creators who said that the article really resonated with them. I’ve been absolutely floored by the response and in a way it’s almost been intimidating. I’ve had people ask me for advice and I feel like I barely know what I’m doing myself. It’s bad enough having to be responsible for my own failures; I don’t want to lead a bunch of other creatives down the same doomed path.

But the one thing that’s always been important to me as a writer is connecting with an audience. There’s nothing more thrilling then writing something that actually triggers an emotional response in someone else. It’s even more amazing when that thing you wrote has inspired someone else to take their next step into following their dreams.

So in 2016, I’m going to try to keep doing that.

What plans do you have for 2016? Did you feel like 2015 was a total bust? Leave a comment and let’s talk about our plans for the new year or hit me up on Facebook. Let’s make 2016 the year where we start moving again.

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