Mike Dawwwson

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Comics and artwork created by cartoonist Mike Dawson, as well as podcast stuff, and other things too.

Advice to the mid-career cartoonist who has failed to build an audience

Advice to the mid-career cartoonist who has failed to build an audience

I’ve been publishing comics for coming on twenty years now. It’s hard to pinpoint a start-date, as like many cartoonists I’ve just been drawing my whole life, but sometime around ‘95 would be when I began putting out ‘zines regularly, along with a daily strip for the college paper.

My first “graphic novel”, my three hundred page debut memoir Freddie & Me, was published by BloomsburyUSA in 2008. The final sales tally (the book is now technically out of print) was 4,805 gross and 2,748 net. I think that means I sold 2,748 copies. Not great by Bloomsbury’s standards, but by my standards, that’s my bestseller.

My second book, Troop 142 was published in 2011 by Brooklyn based boutique publisher Secret Acres. I serialized the story online as I wrote. It was nominated for four Ignatz awards at the 2010 Small Press Expo, and won for Outstanding Online Comic. The book got nice attention from NPR and the American Library Association. It got another Ignatz nomination in 2012 for Outstanding Graphic Novel. To date, the book has sold 1,435 copies.

My third graphic novel, Angie Bongiolatti, was also published by Secret Acres. It debuted at the MoCCA Festival in NYC this past April. Last week I got my first quarterly sales report.

106 copies.

Holy fucking shit! One hundred and six copies??? How has this happened?

Well, it’s not a completely accurate picture. I sold about 20 of my own comp copies at CAKE. And my publisher tells me that there were roughly 40 other copies sold last quarter that hadn’t yet been paid for. Also, the book didn’t get into the PREVIEWS catalogue until this past July, so those order weren’t reflected. They came in this morning: 120 copies.

But still, we’re talking about a book that’s been out since April, that I’ve hyped about, spoken about in interviews, promoted on podcasts, done release parties and readings for, all of those things… By comparison, Troop 142 sold 438 copies in it’s first quarter and 211 in it’s second.

This isn’t great. This isn’t how I anticipated things going. I’ve been at this for a long time now, and my expectations are that my comics career should be improving the longer I keep at it, not declining from book to book.

Selling my work should get easier, shouldn’t it? Shouldn’t it become less of a struggle?

I’ve done pretty good on the making things part of being a writer. But I have completely shit the bed on the part where you get people who read your previous work to stick around and buy your new stuff. Y’know, that mythical thing that I’ve heard men tell tales of, that elusive thing called “an audience”.

Here’s my advice to people like me, mid-career indy cartoonists who are failing to build an audience for their work.

1. Don’t Ask Me, I Don’t Know What I’m Doing

Or, I wouldn’t be writing this embarrassing essay. I don’t know how to make a comic that people want to read. I mean, I’ve had my moments where it felt like maybe there was a teensy bit of buzz about my work - I felt pretty good in 2010 when I got four Ignatz nominations - but I don’t have a clue about how to sit down and consciously write something that has a decent shot of clicking with readers.

If I did, that first sales report would have looked a whole lot less anemic. 106… yeesh. Where do I go from here?

2. Give Up

Oh, Holy Lord, doesn’t that sound like The Best?

Just think, I could enjoy my life, instead of constantly fretting about whether or not I’m putting in the time at the drawing table. I could take up a new hobby. Instead of spending lonely Saturdays in my basement studio staring at the drawing board, I could become a triathlete, or a deep-water swimmer. I could join a Rugby team, and be one of those guys you see in movies out at bars having loud laughter-y drinks after they’ve just played a game of Rugby on their Rugby team. That’s a thing, right? I could do that.

But, sadly, as much as I’ve contemplated it recently, I just don’t feel like I can give up. I’m stuck with cartooning. I’m a lifer.

3. Take Your Time

Alright, I’ve had three books published in the past six years. And after the first two, before they’d even hit the shelves, I was fretting and stressing about not being knee-deep in something new already. I lunged from one long-term project to another.

The same thing started to happen this last time around. I sent off the final files, and then started neurotically floundering around to find my “next book”.

Luckily, I hadn’t quite figured out what that thing would be before it started to dawn on me that this new book might not be off to the strongest start. It wasn’t a complete surprise to me that the sales figures were low. I could already sense the book had no buzz. It had barely gotten any reviews, nobody was talking about it. Nobody had added it to their Goodreads page. The only person showing up in the “Angie Bongiolatti” vanity search column on my Tweetdeck was me.

My frantic floundering and splashing about to find a new project slowed, and became an easy tread. Eventually I hoisted myself out of the water. What’s the point? Why rush straight into a new long-term project, something that’s going to take me 2-3 years to complete, if nobody’s looking at the last thing I attempted? What’s the rush?

I’m stuck making comics, but maybe there are some other things I can rethink.

4. Social Media

Ugh, fucking Social Media.

To date, my attempts to leverage social media to build my “brand” have been absolutely horrendous. An abysmal track record.

I’m on Facebook, but I don’t really add any friends who I don’t know IRL, since all I ever post are pictures of my kids doing the darndest things.

I was on twitter. I was pretty active for a few years, but only managed about 1,200 followers at my peak. And I enjoyed the parts where it felt like a chat-room where I could banter back and forth with folks I knew through cartooning. But the other parts of it, where it felt like I was working in the marketing department of the brand known as me, constantly banging the drum of self-promotion… The never-ending hype machine. It made me unhappy.

I wisely deleted my twitter account in May 2013, thinking it’d be better for me to spend less time online and more time working on my book. That decision felt less wise when I signed back up for the service a few months ago and wondered where all my followers had gone.

I recently spoke to a prominent literary agent, who asked me what my social media audience was like. According to her, this has now become a major factor “big book publishers” take into account when considering a project. They like the idea of signing writers who can bring with them a sizable built-in audience. I felt like a fool explaining that well, yes, I had been on twitter, but it had felt bad for my mental health, so I deleted my account, and I am on Facebook, but that’s really for friends only, and well, I did recently start an Instagram…

5. Figure Out A Way To Be Happy on Social Media

Being on Social Media with my self-promotional drum-set, like a one man band, constantly banging it, with very little to actually call attention to, it all just brings me down.

Being on Social Media, making things specifically for Social Media, and then sharing that stuff, has turned out to be the best.

I got on Tumblr about nine months ago. For a little while I was just posting old comic pages and drawings from my archives.

Over Christmas, there was a thing that happened in my household where my wife and I decided to start letting our daughter celebrate Christmas. It was a wonderful little thing, and I drew a short comic about it in my sketchbook while we were on vacation. I took photos of the comic, and posted the sequence to Tumblr.

A few weeks later I drew another sketchbook comic about something else that had happened on vacation and posted that. Then I wrote another and another. These comics started to get some notes. One of them got republished at Slate magazine. I drew a Cartoonist’s Diary for The Comics Journal. A more recent comic essay got me into arguments with guns-rights people, and I was named The Idiot Extraordinaire of the week on some libertarian podcast.

Oh my god this was a satisfying way new way for me to make comics.

6. Figure Out A Way to Make Comics and Be Happy

This is the way I write: I have an idea I want to explore, so I make a comic about it. Cartooning is a way of thinking for me like no other. I am able to articulate myself most clearly in comics form. My ideas come together in a way that satisfies me that I’m not capable of in any other medium (except maybe podcasting).

Writing books has been a way for me to fixate on an idea for a long period of time, and examine it from many angles. The act of writing long-form work has been a way for me to learn about myself and grow as a person.

Writing short comic essays is a different beast. I have an idea, and instead of stretching it into something big, I attempt to articulate the thought efficiently. And then I move on. And I get to think about other ideas. It’s nice.

Neither one is better than the other. But, this new approach is certainly refreshing. It’s something I’d never allowed myself to do in the past. I have been making comics one way for so long, it’s exhilarating to be doing something different.

I have a lot of questions for myself about what I want to get out of cartooning. I know the answer isn’t money. But, I do want something more than just personal growth. I long ago came to terms with having a limited audience (around the time I only sold 2,748 copies of Freddie & Me), but I don’t feel prepared to have no audience whatsoever.

Lately, writing a book feels like I’m taking my ideas, spending years building something elaborate with them, putting them in a nice box, and then burying them in the yard. Then I’m asking everyone I know to find a shovel and hunt around and see if they can dig them up. (a.k.a. ask your Local Comics Shop to order this book from PREVIEWS).

At least with Tumblr, the comics get in front of people.

I’d like to write another book, but I’m going to take my time figuring out what that next big project will be. Why rush it? For the audience? Haha. They’re not going anywhere.

— 4 weeks ago with 1092 notes
Spike from My Little Pony reads a scroll

fan art by my daughter

Spike from My Little Pony reads a scroll

fan art by my daughter

— 1 month ago with 7 notes
#my litte pony friendship is magic 
http://cogitamusergosum.tumblr.com/post/93508817554/10-scheherazade-01-mikedawwwson →

10-scheherazade-01:

mikedawwwson:

10-scheherazade-01:

One line is sticking out to me, one I specifically don’t agree with. “….Exercising their rights, but what about my right not to feel terrorized?” I understand that he’s making a point, and obviously he’s not referring to an…

(Source: mikedawwwson)

— 1 month ago with 963 notes

NSFW: Angie Bongiolatti sex scene. An erotic excerpt from Angie Bongiolatti.

As I’ve been conducting Book Club discussions for The Comics Journal podcast over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about the kinds of so-called “alternative comics” that have influenced me. I’m real heavy on the 1980’s/1990’s black and white indy stuff, a lot of which I realized has this same seedy grimy approach to sex and sexuality that I find a lot of in my own work.

I’m always reminded of a review I received years ago for the sixth issue of my self-published humor series, Gabagool!

It’s not porn. Porn is intended to arouse. It’s not erotic, either — erotic art succeeds in arousing. On the other hand, here’s an erection, there’s an erection…here are a whole bunch of breasts…here’s a hideous hot tub orgy! If it’s not porn and it’s not erotic, what is this stuff?

Oh, of course. It’s alternative comics.


I’m never not going to laugh at that apt description.

— 1 month ago with 23 notes
#angie bongiolatti  #sexuality 
Shelfie.

Some of the books I read while working on Angie Bongiolatti

Shelfie.

Some of the books I read while working on Angie Bongiolatti

— 1 month ago with 11 notes
#george orwell  #langston hughes  #arthur koestler 
About to step inside the Talkie Hutt

About to step inside the Talkie Hutt

— 1 month ago with 12 notes
Julia Wertz on Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? and Spent | The Comics Journal →

juliawertz:

mikedawwwson:

Mike Dawson and I talked about Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? and Joe Matt’s Spent on the latest TCJ Talkies podcast. I’m a fan of both those books, but I really can’t recommend Roz Chast’s new book enough, it’s poignantly depressing, which is the highest compliment I can give. I think the best books aren’t ones that are pleasant and uplifting, but rather the ones that get in your head and just ruin you for days. But are also funny. 

(Source: mikedawwwson)

— 1 month ago with 18 notes
Photoreference for tricky foreshortening drawing

Photoreference for tricky foreshortening drawing

— 1 month ago with 5 notes

10-scheherazade-01:

mikedawwwson:

The Wrong Side of History

There was a small incident that occurred when I was at the CAKE comics festival a few weeks back: basically my friend Barry pointed out what seemed to be a guy with a gun inside the convention hall - which caused me to have a few moments of WTF panic, before he seemingly disappeared - and it prompted me to write this little comic.

Mike Dawson is the author of the graphic novel Angie Bongiolatti, a story about sex, socialism, and online learning.

One line is sticking out to me, one I specifically don’t agree with. “….Exercising their rights, but what about my right not to feel terrorized?” I understand that he’s making a point, and obviously he’s not referring to an actual right but still. To keep and bear arms is a right and my right to protect myself is something I don’t want infringed upon by the government. I know people who conceal carry and nobody ever knows about it, no one is bothered. The people who open carry to make a point are also not people I agree with, as that just causes panic and floods the 911 lines. However, it is their right, they don’t need to flaunt it but it’s still their constitutional right. If guns make you upset or uncomfortable I’m very sorry but why is it necessary to infringe upon my rights and ability to defend myself for your peace of mind? Sorry if that sounds cruel but that the way I see it. If you could please explain your reasoning I will be more than happy to listen.

If you’re really interested, I can share what seems to me like solid reasoning on the subject which came out of a discussion another Tumblr user was having with someone who was asking similar questions to what you’re asking.

hound-actual:

cogitamusergosum:

hound-actual:

"Right to not be terrified." What? Show me where that is written down.

That would be in the UN’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” To which the United States are a signatory, btw.

http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/

After reading through all of that, I still see nothing that has to do with people wanting the government to cater to their every fear even if it is as ridiculous as someone carrying a gun around them. Could you please point it out to me?

Now you’ve now gone and changed the question. Which is alright, I can try to answer the new one, but I just want to mention that that’s happened.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes “freedom from fear” within the preamble as the highest aspiration of the common people, and one of the reasons for which we have human rights. This is, again, a statement to which the United States government has subscribed. The language is borrowed from Franklin Roosevelt, who stated freedom from fear as one of his famous and much-lauded “Four Freedoms.”

The more specific mention is in Article 3, which identifies as a human right “life, liberty and security of person.” The word security is important, because it has a different meaning from safety. Security does not mean actual safety, it means an belief or feeling of safety. A right to security is synonymous with a right to freedom from reasonable fear.

I suspect you believe that fear of guns is not a reasonable fear. As another commenter earlier on this post said “Why would you be afraid of an inanimate object? Are you afraid of a rock?”

Speaking for myself, I’m not afraid of a rock. But I am afraid of a large rock hurtling toward my head. I’m not afraid of a tall cliff, but I’m afraid if I’m teetering on the edge of one. I’m not afraid of a gun, but I’m afraid of a stranger holding an assault weapon in a crowded place, like the comic shows.

Moreover, I put to you that even when guns— handguns and assault weapons; I consider hunting tools a different category— aren’t instruments of pain and death, they are instruments of fear. And as every gun advocate who claims that gun ownership is a deterrent to crime knows, that’s the point. Having a gun says “You should be afraid of me. If you mess with me, I have the power to kill you.” That message seems to me to be a major purpose— perhaps THE major purpose— of gun ownership.

So, to tie it all together (and to remove a little of the contempt from your language) you ask some people think the US government should act to protect them from their fear of guns. The answer is twofold:

1. The right to freedom from fear is well understood in American and global politics. While it may not be codified in American federal law at this time, it is recognized by America as a fundamental human right and a universal shared goal. I’m not sure, but I bet you could find reference to that right in any number of speeches by American presidents and presidential hopefuls in opposition to the goals of terrorism.

2. Fear of guns is reasonable. While gun violence only claims about three American lives per hundred thousand per year, it’s hard to argue that guns are designed and purchased primarily for the purpose of causing fear.

Now, this is a complex issue, I’m not denying that. For one thing, while buying a gun may make other people feel afraid of me, it might help me and my family to not feel afraid. I don’t think there’s any reliable way of measuring whether the widespread availability of guns and concealed carry licenses causes more fear than it prevents, or the other way around. I’ve got my own beliefs, but that’s not the same thing as knowing what’s best for the country.

But ultimately, that’s not what this conversation has been about. You asked where the right to be free from terror was written down, and I answered. You asked what gives people the sense that they can ask the government to control the thing that frightens them, and now I’ve answered that to the best of my knowledge. Thanks for your interest in this conversation!

(Source: mikedawwwson)

— 1 month ago with 963 notes
10 years from now meeting my daughter’s teenage boyfriend #wip

10 years from now meeting my daughter’s teenage boyfriend #wip

— 1 month ago with 12 notes
#wip 

My night last night.

These images and videos coming out of Gaza. So many dead and severely injured children. Panicked men frantically digging babies out from under rubble. Mothers howling. These are the things we usually see after a massive natural disaster. Our hearts collectively break. Afterwards we implore one another to help, to donate to the Red Cross, to do anything to help.

— 1 month ago with 125 notes
#diary comic  #gaza  #parenting 
Julia Wertz on Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? and Spent | The Comics Journal →


A NNNEEEWWWWWW episode of TCJ Talkies is up at The Comics Journal. Julia Wertz came on the show to talk about Roz Chast’s “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?” and Joe Matt’s SPENT. I’ve been wanting to discuss SPENT with someone for a long time. It’s a book I think about a lot, and probably could have devoted even more time to it than we did.
— 1 month ago with 18 notes
#TCJ Talkies  #joe matt  #roz chast  #julia wertz 
Episode 38: Mike Dawson →

comicsforgrownups:

Comics for Grownups Episode 37 with Joshua Malbin, Alex Rothman, and Andrea Tsurumi is now out on iTunes. Direct RSS link for Android users here, or listen on the Web here.

In this episode we talk with Mike Dawson about his work in general, his new book Angie Bongiolatti, and his…

I had a fantastic time talking to the folks from Comics For Grownups. This chat was a lot of fun, and I learned some things from it.

— 1 month ago with 10 notes