A couple days ago, contemporary Mike Dawson wrote an excellent piece about the frustrations of being a middle-aged cartoonist, which made me think a lot again about my own place in the “industry”. I can relate, being 45 and considered an elder statesman in some places and total nobody in others. Every once in a while I’ll go on a rant about problems with my career going down the shitter and the state of the industry. I have a lot of reasons and realize I have only myself to blame for most of them, but here are some things that haven’t helped:
1)No longer having the commercial association. I recently had a book called SCENE BUT NOT HEARD, a collection of twenty years worth of strips I did for Nickelodeon magazine. I thought it might cross over into the mainstream and people now in their twenties and thirties who read the strips as kids would find an interest. Sales have not been what I’d hoped, only 800 copies. My publisher was enthusiastic about it while the magazine was being published, but lukewarm once the magazine was canceled and they were no longer able to use that to tie in with the book. It’s not them, it’s the public outlook.
I was also a writer for SpongeBob Squarepants, probably the most popular cartoon of all time. I don’t even know why I just put in a hyperlink. The year I worked on it, conventions were rolling out the red carpet like I was the creator himself. At San Diego Comicon when I was doing a signing as “the guy from SpongeBob” people were surrounding me to get a sketch like I was the Beatles. The next year, nothing. I realized it wasn’t really me they wanted. They wanted to meet SpongeBob. Though I was able to live off what I made for three years, the show I worked on was nominated for an Emmy, and I still get royalties over a decade later, it’s not the entryway everywhere you think it is. The one show I worked on afterwards hired me based on the success of that show, then fired me a couple months later because I couldn’t draw on model or do what they thought I could do, plus other theories I have without evidence. You can have successful past experience but if you don’t currently, people could care less. It impresses at high school reunions but that and $2.50 will get you on the subway as far as getting work is concerned.
I’ve talked to people about representing me, but they want either a recurring character or a good track record. For what I do, I’M the recurring character. It isn’t so much about something you can wear on a shirt as much as what’s in my head that’s the appeal. And if I had a good track record, I could just as well do it myself and wouldn’t be talking to them in the first place.
2)The blockbuster mentality. At one time there wasn’t a “hot new toy” you had to get the day it came out like in the plot of so many movies. The average person didn’t know or care about box office grosses. It wasn’t the way it is now where a movie opens everywhere that is basically a commercial for the DVD, the release date of which has already been decided on. It’s a failure if it doesn’t make at least $100 million its first weekend, and determined a flop even before its premiere. Before Jaws if a film even made ONE million dollars that was good enough.
It’s that way with comics, too. At conventions there’s the “hot new comic” everyone needs to get. A comic can’t just build its reputation slowly anymore, it has to make a big splash as soon as it premieres.
3)The current industry as it is now. I understand publishers increasingly getting away from “floppies”, comics that are like magazines, from their point of view. Trade books are much more respectable and have a much higher profit margins. Now there are more smaller publishers like the one I’m currently with that aren’t as big as the bigger small publishers like Fantagraphics or Drawn and Quarterly but too big to be mini-comics.
Yet without floppies it’s harder to discover new talent. People don’t want to gamble on someone that might be the next Daniel Clowes or Chris Ware if that person debuts with a $20 book. There are also fewer disposable anthologies like Weirdo now. As much as I like books like Mome and Kramer’s Ergot, they’re out of the price range of the casual reader.
People under 30 don’t remember that Comicon was once actually about comics and had the name San Diego in it. You now see celebrities plugging their latest project there when only a few years ago they wouldn’t have considered it an outlet or even heard of it. It’s harder and harder to get a parking spot or a hotel room in the city limits. It’s like the bar that only you and your friends knew about, but got ruined once everyone found out about it.
San Diego Comicon was pretty much the only major convention in existence at one time. It was always more focused towards superheroes but still had something for everyone. Now there’s a small-press convention in pretty much every major city, some bigger than the San Diego one once was. At some you don’t even have the chance to see everyone you want and many are the only place to get some comics. Meeting someone who did your favorite comic used to be a bonus rather than the means of acquiring their work. Someone once calculated you’d have to spend five figures if you were to attend every regional convention.
I’m stuck in the nineties and need to get with the times.
4)Lack of self promotional prowess. That’s the best way to get ahead and I’m not very good at it. I’m learning some things gradually. Not being able to afford a gatekeeper, I worry about coming off as an asshole. I just have to find the part of my brain that cares what people think and destroy it. Hopefully it’s not the same part that allows me to talk or walk. Publicity is the thing I hate doing more than anything else but if I don’t, nobody else will.
5)Lack of motivation. Recently I was diagnosed with having had a depression for about five years, possibly triggered by setbacks in life. While it will never fully go away, it comes and goes, but that’s my own cross to bear. I think it led to my being off the grid for a while. I hereby apologize for any of my actions between 2005-2010 and if I disappointed anyone then. I’ve tried medications for social anxiety that I can’t stay on for long because they conflict with medication I take for epilepsy. It doesn’t excuse anything, just explains it.
6)Print is dying. It will go away sooner than the Earth will. People born after 9/11 will wonder what this paper thing was all about. It’s already starting with phone books. You may still prefer to hold an actual book in your hand and the smell of paper. I know I do. But the next generation will laugh at you, mark my words.
I wish computers existed when I was a teenager. They did but not as a vehicle for all your commercial art functions. Nobody has to go to a xerox shop anymore and have to explain to a clerk you want something on both sides. You don’t have to steal Kinko’s self-service counters so as not to pay so much money. You don’t have to waste time folding and stapling if you don’t want or have to worry about not having enough copies or being stuck with too many. With the internet, you can get feedback right away without having to go to the post office and waiting a week. What’s more, everything that once was costly and inconvenient is now available for free while naked in your own home. For now at least. The internet’s been the Wild West for a long time, but it’s already starting to be co-opted with paywalls and whatnot.
I keep talking along the lines of “back in my day…”. Now I know how adults felt when I was a kid.
7)Not playing ball. I’ll admit that I don’t quite fit in to the current comics model. The independent comics world now is a more fine-art and literary aesthetic overall. I tried working in animation, only to realize what I was doing was never supposed to be considered the final means, whatever you’re doing is always a stepping stone to something bigger. I’m too nice to consider contemporaries to be in my way preventing me from getting ahead, so I definitely can’t cut it in entertainment. Good on those who can, though, usually they have someone to be mean for them so they don’t have to. I know a lot and am fortunate to have met the good ones.
My comic is not commercial enough, like I’ve said it’s not about a particular property, it’s about my mind. It’s not for everyone and I’m aware of that. I’m lucky enough to have the audience I do and am touched when once in a while I find out someone I was slightly aware of is a huge fan of my work, and not in a superficial Hollywood way. Most publishers are only doing books with spines and I’m one of the few people still doing a periodical non-franchise one-person anthology. I tried doing the title as a paperback for a while but stopped because I was too desperate to produce material in order to make it come out more often, and it showed. It also wasn’t the right format for it. If anyone was told about my work and their first sight of it was one of those issues, they’d wonder what the big deal was, like when someone finally sees a TV show everyone’s raving about, and they end up seeing the worst episode.
I’m not saying I’m entitled to an audience, just a return of the one that was there.
8)Too many cartoonists. There’s more of a variety of material than ever before and I like people I meet. There are increasingly fewer “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore” articles these days and increasingly fewer collections or panels that feel the need to point out a female cartoonist as a female cartoonist. I came to terms a while ago with many cartoonists being 20 years younger. That’s a kind of condescending way to think anyway. The fact is that with more diversity comes more people, making it harder and harder to stand out. The Bible is as famous and important as it is because once it was the only book. There are too many cartoonists. Conventions need to be less like SXSW and more like The Hunger Games.
UPDATE: There are other points of view in response to Dawson’s essay about his place in cartooning. I was going to compile them but writer Tom Spurgeon beat me to it.