Sunday, May 17, 2009

Comedy isn't pretty

A number of years ago, I was invited to speak to a college writing class on the topic of freelancing. I brought along a stack of rejection slips from my novel-writing years and said, "If you decide to go into freelancing, your lives will be punctuated the way my talk today will be punctuated."

Then I proceeded to talk to them about the business of freelancing, but, every five minutes or so, I'd stop and read them another, "While we admire your writing skills, we don't feel this manuscript ..." and, as the lecture went on, I could see them sinking lower and lower in their chairs as the reality began to sink in.

Today, I got to see more or less the same effect at the Maine Comics Arts Festival in Portland.

The above panel is (from left) Corey Pandolph (Barkeater Lake, Toby: Robot Satan, The Elderberries), Norm Feuti (Retail, Gill) and Lincoln Peirce (Big Nate), under the leadership, at far right, of Mike Lynch, who sells cartoons to a variety of magazines. Their topic was "Surviving as a Print Cartoonist," which is right up there with "How To Be A Successful Pontiac Dealer."

It was an interesting group, because Corey is pursuing a mix of print and web, Lincoln has a couple of ventures going in writing for animation and licensing Big Nate to an on-line kids' gaming site, and Norm has just begun dipping a toe into the web world with "Gill," so, while each of them has a syndicated feature, they had a good deal more to talk about than simply "How to get syndicated."

And that's a good thing, because the number of new strips coming out this year is just about none. Universal is launching a strip called "Sticks" that has been in development for several years, and I think there's another somewhere, maybe out of the Washington Post Writers Group, but I forget what it is. That's down from about a dozen a year in the past, which still isn't very good odds but at least it was something.

They weren't trying to discourage people from giving it a try, and Mike, who works with editors regularly as a freelancer, did a nice job of directing the conversation into helpful areas and adding his own advice, but there just isn't that much positive vibe to share, and it was a somewhat grim presentation.

What saved it was this: Towards the end, they got away from nuts-and-bolts and began talking more about how, discouraging as the prospects are, it's still something they want to do. Hard as he scrambles to make a living, Corey said, "I still can't believe I get paid to do this," and both Norm and Lincoln delivered variations on that same theme.

My own take on art-as-a-career is that it's hard to make a living in the creative arts even in the best of times, and that anybody who can be discouraged probably should be, sooner rather than later. If you can walk away from it, go ahead. But then don't talk about what you could have done or should have done or are going to do some day. Scratch the itch so you can put it away and move on.

If somebody in the audience today got discouraged and saved himself some heartache and wasted years, more power to him. On the other hand, the years I tried to be a novelist helped me perfect my craft and led me into some interesting and even mildly profitable areas, though not specifically in novel writing.

And I think their passion and drive was clear, along with the message that, if you want to do this, then you should. Just don't count on making money doing it.

That's a pretty good message for young artists of any medium.

(PS -- don't miss Mike Lynch's more complete report on the gathering.)

9 comments:

Brian Fies said...

I think I'll have more to say about your advice later, after it digests a bit. Just wanted to let you know right away that I appreciated the post. I didn't know you were planning to attend the Maine festival. Mike Lynch is a friend of mine--great guy, very knowledgable. I wish I'd been there. If you wanted to post more about the festival, I'd enjoy that.

Mike said...

Actually, not much more to report. Since I don't follow comic books, I didn't know any of the other exhibitors, but I got the impression they were mostly regional and the vast majority were pretty young. Some of their stuff looked good, but most of it also looked pretty derivative, even if it was well-executed.

I got there about an hour before the panel; Wiley Miller showed up a few minutes later, and we walked around and talked to a few people, including the folks from the Center from Cartoon Studies, who were pleased to hear Wiley's thoughts, since he's been making a living at this longer than most of them have been alive. Then we went to the panel and that was pretty much it.

However, the place had a constant crowd throughout the day -- a lot of parents with kids, though they weren't the demographic target of most of the comics. I'd say it was probably a good success overall. I'm hoping Mike will blog on it, because his perspective would be different, I'm sure.

Mike said...

Oh -- One more exhibitor not on the panel was John Klossner, who was at Mike Lynch's table. I knew the name but couldn't place it until I saw the Mason Darrow books he had. Quite a flashback -- "Mason Darrow, non-profit lawyer" was linked from the "Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet" page back in the glory days of that strip. We had a very interesting conversation. Good guy.

Mike said...

Okay, one more -- Mike had also brought in Juana Medina to sit his booth with him. She's a student at the Rhode Island School of Design and the winner of the Jay Kennedy scholarship.

Neurotic Chic said...

The message is definitely true for social workers, too. ;)

Kim

Brian Fies said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Fies said...

(Reposted to put in some line breaks...)

What saved it was this: Towards the end, they got away from nuts-and-bolts and began talking more about how, discouraging as the prospects are, it's still something they want to do. Hard as he scrambles to make a living, Corey said, "I still can't believe I get paid to do this," and both Norm and Lincoln delivered variations on that same theme.

It's a good theme to reiterate--I'm firmly in the "can't believe I get paid to do this" camp myself--but there's gloom imbedded in that as well. Time was when a syndication contract, steady magazine gig, or a book deal really was a golden ticket to, if not riches, then at least a stable middle class. But these days, very few people I know in the business can afford to do it full time (Mike Lynch is one of them, which earns my admiration and makes him a good moderator for this discussion). Even syndicated cartoonists with a few hundred papers, which once would've been enough to get by respectably, have day jobs. People are sometimes surprised to learn that I have a day job I don't foresee leaving. They look so disappointed--as if you sign a contract and the money truck pulls into the driveway. Not so now, if it ever was.

My own take on art-as-a-career is that it's hard to make a living in the creative arts even in the best of times, and that anybody who can be discouraged probably should be, sooner rather than later. If you can walk away from it, go ahead.

That's a tough, tough line to toe. Yeah, making a living in the creative arts has always been hard; otherwise everyone would do it. People who succeed often advise, "Never give up! Winners don't quit!" What they forget is that, for every winner that didn't quit, there are a hundred losers who didn't quit that nobody ever hears from. At least some of them should have quit because they just aren't good, are blind to their own faults, and never had anyone in their lives honest or cruel enough to crush their dreams. Sometimes, through no fault of the artists' own, it just mathematically can't work out for them. How do you know if you're that guy, or the one whose big break is coming tomorrow?

But then don't talk about what you could have done or should have done or are going to do some day. Scratch the itch so you can put it away and move on.

See, in theory I'm a big advocate of giving a dream a fair shot and then, for your own happiness and sanity, walking away. Very hard to do in practice, though. That's kind of what I'd done with cartooning through much of my thirties--took a shot now and then, worked on my skills in private, but basically put it on the back shelf of my life. Then I did a little webcomic that led to a second half-career (or half-assed career). So you just never know.

And I think their passion and drive was clear, along with the message that, if you want to do this, then you should. Just don't count on making money doing it. That's a pretty good message for young artists of any medium.

That's probably as good a take-away as any, though I'm sure it's unsatisfying or unconvincing for many. They say that successful cartoonists are the ones who don't have a choice; they'd do it no matter what.

I rhetorically asked earlier how you know if you're "that guy" who ought to find a new ambition. It's hard to have a clear-eyed view of one's own talent, and you can't trust the opinion of your mother. The only advice I have is to look for external evidence of improvement. It's normal for people starting out to get rote rejection slips or nothing at all. But then, maybe one day your rejection has a hand-written note on it. Then maybe a personalized letter. Then maybe somebody asks to see a few more samples before they turn you down. Or maybe you get a very tiny job that becomes a reference to get you a slightly less tiny job.

I sort of believe that cream eventually rises to the top, though rarely in a fair fashion (everyone's dark heart harbors a secret list of colleagues who are much less talented and more successful than they are). If you don't see signs of rising, maybe you're not the cream.

THAT'S what I know about building a freelance career (which I've had more success at as a writer than cartoonist). Be alert to new opportunities, sow a thousand seeds to get one or two to blossom, and parlay small successes into larger opportunities.

But I might be wrong.

richardcthompson said...

What Brian said. Though I might be wrong too.

Mike said...

As the host of this confab, I should now say something wise, but Brian has said it and Richard has seconded it, and I can't argue with either of them.

(And I hope Richard has a new piece of Lucite to show off by the end of this weekend.)