I’m My Own Worst Enemy
Earlier this week I wrote a frank account of my cartooning career. I laid out the current sales figures for the three original graphic novels that I’ve written (I actually have a fourth book of short stories, Ace-Face: The Mod With the Metal Arms, published by AdHouse Books, that - surprise! - also sold very poorly), and talked openly about how it feels to have been working hard for so long, but yet be seemingly connecting with a smaller and smaller readership.
The main point of this essay was to discuss my own shortcomings as person unable to build “an audience” for his work. I didn’t even bring up in the original post that I co-hosted a well-known comics-podcast every week for five years, as well as another show on and off over at The Comics Journal. The thing I’m failing at, is taking the dim name-recognition and modest track record that I have, and converting that into future readers for my future work.
I knew very well that my post would interest people, but I definitely didn’t expect it to blow up and become an Actual Internet Freak-Out. It ballooned when Abhay Khosla responded to my post with one of his trademarked withering dressing-downs. I joked on twitter that I now know how the producers of Pacific Rim must feel.
I did read the first Khosla post, but am not going to bother with the followup. Seriously, there are thousands of words there - all from a guy who hasn’t actually read my comics. Surely I’m not obligated to wade through all of that from a fellow who thinks $20 is too much money to pay for a book that’s worth $20?
But, I have gathered through solemn heading-nodding this-is-the-Real-Talk-comics-needs-more-of reactions elsewhere on the Internet that buried beneath Khosla’s “style”, are many Good Points, having to do with marketing, price point, cover design, book titles, business plans, and so on.
I have no doubt that everything written there is likely a point at least worth considering, some of them even seriously. If my books are failing to reach an audience, then there must be reasons, and it’s entirely appropriate for people to share their thoughts on what those reasons could be.
So have at it, comics internet, I hope you figure it out, and I look forward to reading all of the bestselling books that you’ll be writing now. The next time I finish a full-length graphic novel, I will go back and jot down a lot of those tips myself.
What was I writing about?
I think there are a few misconceptions about where I was coming from with my original post. The main one being, that I was lamenting my inability to make a living from comics.
I was not. If you re-read the piece, look at the sixth section more carefully. Especially the fifth paragraph:
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.
I have a lot of questions for myself. My priority is to continue expressing myself in this medium. I am very driven to do so. I don’t think it’s an option for me to walk away, as appealing as that thought can often be.
I know the answer isn’t money. I have a day job. I feel very fortunate to have it. It enables me to have many luxuries in my life. One of which is the luxury to not be concerned about earning a living as a writer.
But I do want something more than personal growth/I don’t feel prepared to have no audience whatsoever. Herein lays the conflict.
I’m not an outsider artist. I’m not a mark-maker. I’m not making anything that’s so pure as that. I’m attempting to construct complex narratives. I’m imagining characters and situations. I’m thinking about crafting a coherent story. I’m drawing and then scrapping entire drafts. I’m spending time trying to make books that feel whole, that I think can reward the right readers.
The above points can be, and are often, at odds with each other. I write for me, but I also write to be read, because I want a reader to engage with what I have written, and through that, connect with me. I have ideas, and I put them into my comics. I then want to feel like people can encounter those comics, and through them, my ideas.
So much of what I have to figure out for myself has to do with can I be OK with my limited (shrinking) audience when I’m insisting on making comics on my own terms?
If I am so adamant about writing comics that I know won’t have much widespread appeal, how upset can I be when it turns out that the books have very little widespread appeal?
I honestly don’t have the answer. This is the dilemma I was writing about.
A lot of cartoonists have contacted me privately and publicly, letting me know that they know how I feel. This isn’t just me. This is a generation of artists believing in the notion that The Work is What Matters, but having that bang up against cold hard book publishing realities.
For me personally, I have found that recently turning to Tumblr and allowing myself to embrace short-form comics has been a partial solution. Currently I’ve been making comics for the web, and being happy, which is what I want. It might not last. Who knows?
^This. This was the intent of the essay. Trying to find a way to make comics (non-negotiable) and be happy (tricky).
Honestly, I am my own worst enemy most of the time. Sometimes I think it’s just dumb-stubbornness that prevents me from attempting to broaden the appeal of my work. Or, I honestly don’t have the chops. I don’t know. I want to do this, and I only want to do it on my own terms. I don’t think I can change that.
Despite opening myself up to harsh criticism, I can’t say I’m entirely unhappy about how this week is playing out. Prior to me posting my essay, nobody was talking about my book. A lot of people talked about it afterwards. Not exactly in the way I’d choose - almost nobody involved in the discussion had actually read the work - but maybe some people will take a look now.
And, I can’t complain any longer that not enough people know it exists. If some reviews and feedback come out of this hubbub, and even if it turns out that the consensus is that it’s a shitty book that I should be ashamed to have written, at least I no longer have to feel like it’s failing because of a lack of awareness. And that’s all I can ask.