Hustle & Flow: The Work of Comics

I make comics.

But I don’t necessarily  identify as a comics creator.

After working with the phenomenal Phoebe Gloeckner in art school, I gave up on my comics and went to grad school. But the comics wouldn’t stay dead, and I found myself staying up late to draw – even as I started research on comics in India. But going to Delhi and becoming enmeshed in the comics scene there only made it more obvious that comics was enumerated in my stars. But as a comics  academic, I feel even less comfortable claiming the title of “creator” – and not just because standards for academic works tend to fall lower but get more press. This conflict-of-selves has led me to ponder the nature of comics. In particular, what determines a comics creator?

You Gotta Make Comics to Make Comics

When I attended Chicago’s C2E2 in 2014, I attended ALL the creator-centric panels – in part to network and in part to find a place in the world. The one constant was a general sense of how to get into comics – namely that there was no one surefire way to do it, as many noted that every time someone makes it, that door or window slams shut. The best answer I heard was something like: “Just make comics. If you can’t make comics to make comics, then you probably won’t have much luck making comics.” The idea was that you could get a gig making comics by showing that you can make comics – which rung true.

Yet, there’s also a kind of boundary-policing that happens – where certain people’s comics are seen as less good than others. I definitely felt people looking at my comics that way when I was living in Chicago, as though they felt sorry for someone who just wouldn’t stop making “bad” comics. But as a comics scholar, I know that “bad” is a matter of convention – and that both I and others enjoy my comics. But negative emotions do tend to spiral by re-affirming themselves – and I found myself reading posts like a blog claiming that older (i.e. over 30) creators who had yet to find a readership should just stop  (still looking for the link). On the other hand, there was a fairly viral comic strip of an older artist giving advice to a younger one – only to turn around and express his own doubts – confirming that yep, everyone feels that way sometimes (still looking for that link too).

More recently, I was excited to see that Noah Van Sciver posted on this topic  this past October – with his #1 step for comics-making being to draw comics. As he notes: “Maybe you are great at drawing. But how long does it take you to draw the minimum 24 pages? Is it extremely difficult to do for you?  If drawing 24 pages of a story is too hard then you don’t have what it takes.” This is a great point – comics takes a LOT of work – to the extent that myself and Benjamin Woo (of Carleton University) are working on The Comics World with UMiss Press on just that topic. But boundary-marking does little to help define more than the prerequisites for starting making comics – which I’ve been doing since I was 20 or so.

But I found his step #2 far more helpful: “It takes awhile before you build an identity as an artist or you find your own voice. And finding your voice isn’t something that you can do by looking for it. You probably won’t even notice when you do!” So, being a comics artist means finding a voice and a style – but it’s not something that hits you over the head. Steps # 3 to 5 help out , too, pointing out the sacrifices of traveling and otherwise ‘showing up,’ of self-publishing and getting your work out there, and the importance of finding mentors and/or role models. Number 6, though, packs the best punch: “Comics are a very, very, very small art form for a small, tiny audience of people. You say you wanna make a living off of your comics? Forget it. Still wanna draw comics anyway? You do? Congratulations! You’re a real cartoonist!”

So, perhaps being a comics creator / cartoonist is loving the form/medium enough to sacrifice so much – just to be a part of it?

The Hard Labor of Comics

Shortly after Van Sciver’s post, John Porcellino added some further insight in response – specifically getting to the trouble with the industry itself. In particular, he noted that: “The larger problem is that on the surface comics seems like a ‘real’ industry: there are well-attended comics festivals all over the country, awards given, NY Times Bestseller lists, and on and on. Looking at it from the outside it seems like ‘Yeah, this is something to get involved in!’ The trick is that despite all that, the vast majority of people making their living solely from art-comics in this country work their asses off and still live in poverty.”

This resonated deeply with me because I always knew that my work would not lead to anything close to making a living. Furthermore, I always feel like a weirdo in contexts like the panels at C2E2 and even smaller events like CAKE where people (less so at the latter) are talking about how to get into comics and make a living from it. Believing that one can jump into comics and somehow make a living pretty much immediately is short-sighted – and ignores the history and present of the medium in the USA (and elsewhere).

But Porcellino even more astutely draws out my own reservations about identifying as a comics creator. He begins his post: “One thing I would add is that comics is still a small enough world that if you have talent, and cultivate that talent seriously, and find a unique voice and style, people will notice. There’s no secret handshake or special gimmick you need to come up with. Just do good work, keep doing good work, and keep trying to improve. And be patient.” This echoes Van Sciver’s post and advice that I’ve heard from countless others. But it’s the next bit that gets me: “Don’t let some imaginary perfect genius idea, that will take years to develop, keep you from doing hard, consistent work on what you have at hand right now. Just start somewhere and keep going.” In other words, don’t let perfection – in the form of a particular work or a particular creator – keep you from creating imperfectly awesome comics.

So perhaps being a comics creator means working – consistently and with a commitment to the medium – or tradition of comics as I see it?

Being There – or The Flow of Comics

Here is where I get into academic speak – so watch out.

I realize now that part of my hesitance stems from the tendency by academics to highlight ‘masters’ of the comics medium (see Alan Moore, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman, or, more recently, Jack Kirby) – or to frame specific works as being somehow extraordinary rather than part of a long history of visual storytelling (or arguing that graphic novels are somehow the evolution of literature rather than a continuation of comics). Folklorist Henry Glassie has expounded on the tendency of historians to over-emphasize ruptures -and comics scholars are not much different in their assumption that excellent work is a break away from what came before. But what if it isn’t? What if – as Folklore as a field tends to argue – continuity is the more remarkable phenomenon?

Approaching the question of what makes for a comics creator through continuity makes a lot of creators’ reflections make sense. Doing comics requires a respect for the history, culture, and present of the medium – rather than an up-front investment in a business – or an expectation that you work will burst forth like Athena from Zeus’ skull, but with money, fans, and celebrity. And it helps make sense of the recent speech by Eric Stephenson of Image Comics in which he briefly summarized the various patterns of rises and falls in the history of American comics. In particular, he points out the problem with the current industry’s over-emphasis on sales and gimicks – “We are misinterpreting sales spikes for long-term success, and worst of all, we are spending so much time looking at how to keep going that we’ve lost sight of where we were heading in the first place.”

Recognizing the continuity of comics makes this criticism all the more telling of Stephenson’ commitment to the medium in calling for people “…to create new characters, to explore new worlds, to tell new stories. Our industry – our medium – has a long and magnificent history, but the past isn’t going anywhere. The future is an open road.” This connects so much with comics as a tradition – it is a means to imagine the future based on the work of the past and the potential of the present.

Being a creator, then, means to “[s]top acting like interchangeable brand managers and create.” Fundamentally, I see this as a critique of comics culture in the USA – specifically of having lost a sense of flow. Within psychology, flow describes the state of being fully immersed in one’s actions; within performance theory, flow describes a similar merging of action and awareness that centers an individual, eclipses their ego, and that is its own reward (see Victor Turner’s “Liminal to Liminoid in Play, Flow, and Ritual”). Within comics, it would be something like the joy of creating, reading, or otherwise participating in the comics world for the sake of the medium or the larger comics world- versus the pursuit of profits at all costs (as many would argue the big 2 regularly do).

This points to the crux of what I am increasingly realizing: being a comics creator means entering and shaping the comics community with a sincere care for that world. Flow provides a way to enter an enhanced sense of social ties (communitas) – and breaking into comics, to be successful by the standards of the community, is to achieve an enhanced sense of one’s relationship with the medium’s history, culture, and practitioners.

Conclusion: Caring Is Cool

While I’m not entirely comfortable with Stephenson’s focus on ‘serious’ works – or the tendency to police creative identities – I do identify with the need to care. We live in a society where every cultural performance of the self is increasingly suspect, especially when it comes to consumer identities – increasing access makes it easy to take on new identities but also creates new terms for questioning them that can do real harm (see “hipster” or “fake geek girl”). But caring about the right things – namely the people, tradition, and communities that comprise your social world – seems pretty solid.

For one last perspective, let’s turn to a few recent posts by comics bad-ass Jessica Abel. She has been posting some really helpful advice about being creative (and especially in comics), including a recent post on questioning your own identity as an artist. But Abel highlights the fact that such questioning is often part of the creative process – “That feeling of being lost is what happens when your brain is working the hardest to make connections, to understand what this morass of work you’ve produced actually means. And if I’m not stretching? Maybe I’m not doing my best work.” It’s something that I think most creative folks know, but it helps to have a celebrated comics creator point it out – even if I think that I sometimes make my work hard when it need not be. In any case, in reflecting on the nature of authenticity (via her punk rock roots), Abel also asks “What is authenticity if not actually doing the things you claim you care about day in and day out?”So maybe struggling with the label of “comics creator” is part of that – caring enough about social ties to try to understand how they work

I’ve always felt like there would be a moment where I finally felt like a comics creator – I imagined there would be a cake or some such revelry. But perhaps it already happened the moment I started caring about comics and wanting a better future for it.

And perhaps, if the folks I’ve cited above are right, each of us comics folks has a none-too-small part to play in that brighter future for the form.



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