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A lil’ Q and A, part one

Hey there!  It’s question and answer time!

A few weeks ago I put out an open call for questions about the comics industry.  A penance maybe, for having so many unanswered emails on these kinds of topics.  I’m sorry!  My email is terrible.

Anyway: I said I would answer the most frequently asked questions, to the best of my ability.  This isn’t a book on how to make comics, I can only speak from my own experience (in some places this will be painfully obvious), so keep that in mind.    Questions came from all over the spectrum of artists, so if you are, say, a teenager and read an answer that seems crazy inapplicable, I possibly had another type of person in mind when I typed the answer. 

This is part one, part two will have the big two questions that I got asked most of all- “how do I get people to read my comic” and “how do I generate an income.”  Anyway I’m still talking, as usual, too much of that, let’s get going.

(hope you like my meandering answers, I love meandering like babies love their mommas)

What should I look for in a web host?

This will be trial and error for you probably!  Just look at reviews from other people about the host you’ve googled and are considering.  Don’t worry too much about which- if you have a bad experience, which many of us have had at one time or another, it’s not the end of the world.  You can always change it later if you need to, without a problem.   You should be able to find something decent for around $15 a month.

How do you set up a website? I don’t know anything about html and stuff.

Jiminy crickets!  I don’t know heck all about website design.  I paid a friend to make mine and said ‘make it SIMPLE.’  It was a good investment!  If you’re hopeless, it could be a good investment for you too.  If you’re quick on the draw, maybe you can figure out wordpress.

What about advertising?  Should I put it on my site?  Should I buy ad space on other sites?

I’ve only ever used Project Wonderful and it has been good to me!  The good thing is that it is simple, and run by the excellent, friendly knowledgable Ryan North.  I recommend it!  The bad news is that I haven’t ever used anything else, so I don’t know what to tell you about other places. 

I’ve never advertised.  God, what a help I am, with these solid gold answers!  But people I know have taken ads out on my site, and say that it brings them a decent amount of traffic.  If you’re going to advertise, be aware of audiences that will be looking at it.  A lot of ‘historical humor’ type sites advertise on mine, and things aimed at ladies, and other specialized ads I see often which tells me that the advertisers know what they are looking for and are being smart about where they put ads!

Should I use livejournal or tumblr or wordpress or what do you suggest?

We’re talking easy to use, social networking sites, ok. 

Any site you choose will have plusses and minuses!  I want to tell you right now that things change fast and I am already OLD.  When I started, Livejournal was still a big deal, and people used it to get new readers, follow new comics and become friends with other creators.  People don’t use LJ much anymore.  Ask any of my pals who got their start on it, and they’ll tell you that nothing has really come to replicate that nice mixture yet.  Google Plus isn’t as popular as it could be, blogging sites have also fallen off, tumblr is the big one right now.  So let’s talk about Tumblr as a comic site!

Tumblr is good, it will get your images around, people will share things off of there like crazy.  If absolutely no one knows who you are, it’s probably the easiest way to start a comic, test the waters, and get it out there.  Easy for people to find it and understand how the website works, and to follow it.  Good things!

But it doesn’t have a good archiving system (far as I know), which is no good for long term comic stuff, and it’s easy for your work to get separated from you, the creator, in a few steps.  I don’t really want to tell you to make it your main website, because you want your main website to be something very solid, something that is yours alone.  So, for sharing: yes, good.  For main site: no, bad.

How do I get paid jobs in comics?

Wouldn’t we all like to know!  That is a question even the pros struggle with.  Ideally we’d all be making our own graphic novels right?  Usually, when people I know fish for freelance work, they get a lot of offers to.. make a comic about someone’s wife for their birthday (is fifty dollars ok?).  It’s cute, but it’s not a real job that you can depend on to pay the bills.  And these are talented, experienced friends with resumes stacked to the roof.  If getting comic freelance work is your main deal, it’s not going to be easy to get jobs you like.  Other people I know have made comics for corporations, promotional items, that sort of thing, not always comics for the comic industry.  The way it goes, when you gots to get paid.

Here’s the biggest truth about comics that we all know is not going to change any time soon: we all wish comics had more money in it.

Should I go to conventions?

Hmm are you asking me if you should visit conventions or exhibit at them? 

The answer to the first is: sure, no harm there, you could have fun!  You can get inspired!  Remember this when you go: you’re fine. You’re not awkward, you’re fine.  I’ve had hundreds of the World’s Most Normal Humans stand in front of me at conventions and apologize for being awkward.  You’re totally fine, don’t worry, just relax and enjoy yourself.  That’s what comic shows are for! 

The second is:  Are you close to some? Can you afford it?  Why not then?  Going to conventions is a great way to meet people you admire, but even better, they are great places to meet peers who may become your great allies in the future.  I have met some of my best friends this way.  But conventions are a mixed bag, be aware that if you have a shitty time exhibiting at one, another one might be totally great, and vice versa.  Try to go with friends, try to have fun, try to figure out the best way to present your work so the casual person walking by thinks, ‘what about that one?’  No convention is make-or-break anything, they’re all just little snapshots. 

What is the best way to process criticism?

The funny thing about the internet is that it made everyone a critic, and it made everyone an expert.  Amazing right!

The first time you see someone tear your comic apart it’s like a punch in the gut.  The hundredth time you see it?  No big deal.  All the same, even when you know better, there are days when a load of people will say ‘good job!’ and then one person says something shitty and you feel like garbage.  Hey, it happens!  Don’t worry about it.  The bad things people have called my comics could fill the Salty Sailor’s Dictionary of Swear Phrases.  Not a present I’d give to my mom.  I said this before about online critics, I’ll say it again:  remember that on the internet you can go to a place that reviews Citizen Kane and underneath it someone will have written “this is the most overrated piece of shit on planet Earth.” Then remember that whoever said that doesn’t matter.

Generally, if you go on reddit or somewhere and ask for advice, people will give you an array of opinions as to how to improve your comic, and some of it will be good and a lot of it will be people just talking.  Will you know the difference?  No one should know your work better than you, no one should see the room for improvement more than you.  As always, it goes back to you.

Do I have to be consistent, only one style, or can I use different media and themes and stuff?

If it’s good, you can do whatever you want.  Even if it’s not good you can do whatever you want. 

Should I have a specific schedule for my comic?

What I know for sure about schedules is that if you have one, you’d better honor it.  You better be ready to stay with it, you better be serious about it.  Because your readers will be.  Schedules do help, I know Oglaf is coming on Sunday and I know Bad Machinery is coming every weekday and I remember to look, like many people.  BUT they are also not absolutely required.  It’s just a matter of being accountable for yourself.  So, if you can keep a schedule or you need one to push yourself to deadlines, then it’s good, but if you are busy or your brain sometimes works and sometimes is a ding-dong like mine then it ain’t the end of the world either.  But yeah they help.

How often should I update?

Up to you!  Again, there is no right or wrong, there is what You Can Do. There is only one time I think is super important to update really often (and this is only my opinion), and that is when you get noticed for the first time, or when you get one of those big hits or links from other sites.  A lot of fresh faces see your comic then, and you want them to come back right?  So, you let them know you’re serious and you keep those updates coming.  Otherwise, if there’s one person who has a short memory and will forget to come back, it’s everyone on the internet.

How  do you maintain the creative energy to finish a project? I feel that I’m always starting one project or the other and then I hit some wall and have to drop it. How do you avoid that kind of thing?

I do not have the attention span or stamina for a lot of long form comics.  You won’t see a Blankets-style graphic novel coming out from me any time soon.  People who do long stories and big projects get tired of them, sick of drawing the same faces and interiors and everything, but it’s a labor of love, and you’ve got to stick with it.  If you’re always dropping things, maybe you don’t love them enough, or maybe that isn’t the form for you.  Again, when this job is good, it’s the greatest job in the world, and when it’s hard it’s the biggest slog in the world.  But you need to take it seriously either way, and finish what you start or start something you can finish.

What about writing for comics?  How do I get into that?

You probably have to establish yourself as a writer first!  At least a little bit!  No artist is going to sign on to a giant project with someone who hasn’t proven themselves a bit at the whole thing.   There aren’t too many good artists out there super interested in drawing comics that they didn’t write, and drawing comics takes FOREVER so you’re really, really going to have to be worth it.  Harvey Pekar met Robert Crumb by way of miracle while they were looking through jazz records, but that’s probably not going to happen to you.  You don’t even listen to jazz.

The most productive answer for this is to send in your comics manuscripts to publishers.  I know that it may be a Labor Of Love and Publishers Won’t Get It or any number of things, but this is probably the most rational advice.

What do you do about writer’s block?  Do you get it?  How do you get past it?

I get writer’s block often and I get it bad.  This kind of job comes easily to some people, ideas out the wazoo, rise and shine it’s comics time.  There are days when I read and read and nothing comes, that I can sketch funny pictures but can’t write a cohesive comic to save my life, that I feel like all the ideas have run out never to return.  Being creative only looks easy from the outside, but we know better, right?  Then, against all odds, something clicks and there the idea is, finally.  Everyone works through writer’s block in different ways, just try not to let it get you down.

How do I learn to get better at drawing?

You do this by drawing, drawing, drawing, drawing, drawing.  You don’t need a special pen or paper, you don’t need a desk by a window overlooking a pastoral scene, you don’t even need to take classes, you just draw draw draw draw draw every day until you’re amazing at it. 

This is one of those questions that I feel like we both know there is no answer to.  The best I can think of is to say pay attention to your drawings.  If I wrote a book on drawing I would just call it Pay Attention To Your Drawings.  What do you draw too much of?  Too little?  What do you draw that always looks the same?  Force yourself out of the same old shortcuts, force yourself out of the style you’ve come to mimic, and work at it until what you draw is yours alone and becomes that beautiful pen line that can be mistaken for no one else’s. 

What’s the best way to arrange word balloons?

If you’re having trouble with this you’re probably trying to put too many words in a panel.  Maybe your one panel should be… three panels.

Should I keep a buffer of comic pages, comics drawn in advance?

Some people swear by this, so if it makes you more comfortable being a couple steps ahead, then by all means.  But you don’t have to.

Is there a good way to go about printing options, for self publishing?

Everyone who does this goes on the advice or suggestion of other people, reviews of places found by googling them, or because they know someone else has used it.  For a while everyone seemed to be using Quebecor and a few other places, and now they’re using.. I’m not sure what they’re using.  I am not super equipped to answer this question.  Some people will swear by a company that someone else has written off as terrible.  It’s going to be trial and error, which is scary, because yes, it’s a big investment!  Even people who’ve been doing it for years can get a bad deal they didn’t see coming.  So be as smart as you can about it, ask questions, get proofs, look at the proofs closely, read about people’s experiences with the company. There’s no right way to go about it, just look out for yourself as best you can.  It’s worth the hassle- having a book to sell makes a big difference in your life, and having a nice book is a wonderful thing to be proud of.

Is it really about quality over quantity?

Ffff!  Someone has been reading too much Aaron Diaz Art Tumblr.  Of course it’s about quality over quantity, but between you and me, he’s the only person on planet earth who can operate at the schedule he does.  You are going to have to make concessions, my little Picasso.

How can you tell if your comic is good?  Do you have advice for self editing?  What if my comic is shitty!!

This question is scary because we are all terrified that our comics are awful.  Everyone is.  Some of these questions are hard to answer because they’re coming from people on all different levels of comic making, and if you were sitting in front of me I’d scale the answer to fit your experience instead of possibly terrifying you.  But here goes:

You can’t ask “how can I tell if my comic is good,” because you can’t think about it like that.  You HAVE to know that your comic is good, that it has the potential to be good if it isn’t now, that it has good qualities, that you are not just throwing ideas onto paper and wondering if people will like it because you have no idea.  You have to know what’s good about it, or you won’t know when it’s bad, and you’ll never know how to make it better.  You don’t want to be one of those people who doesn’t have the skills to know whether what they make is good or not.  Self editing is simply something people learn over time as they strive to make their comics better, people with the skill to know the difference.  You need that skill, so don’t be shy about it, look at your comic and think to yourself about what you like and don’t like, and be honest about it.  Then, like everything else, just keep working.

Now listen - even people with the most talent and skill in the world will suck super badly when they start to make comics.  If your comic is bad right now it doesn’t mean that you are bad at making comics.  My first comics were awful.  Everyone’s are.  Some people are awful for a long time then stick with it and get good.  But you have to know you can. 

(You can.)

How do you go from putting doodles online to cartooning for things like the New Yorker and getting published by a large company?

Ah.  The New Yorker, for those who have asked, does not knock on anyone’s door.  If you want to get in, you do what everyone has done and send a package of about ten cartoons to them every week until someone buys one - no wussing out, they want to see dedication, they want to see you get shot down and come back again stronger.  Nothing is going to happen right away, so if you’re interested, get to know the feeling of rejection, because rejection is the life of a New Yorker cartoonist.  Some people pride themselves on the fact that it took them years of trying before they got in, but they stuck with it.  The real wonder of the New Yorker is that anyone can submit cartoons, so technically, anyone has a chance of getting in.  Can you say that about many other ‘prestigious’ publications?  Not really. 

For everything else, I’ve had the luck of people coming to me, because I proved myself online first.  The website has often served as a shop window to people looking for things like comics, illustration, artists.  They liked what they saw from a popular comic and they came inside to buy some more.  Not to say that you shouldn’t look for opportunities and pursue them, you should, it’s unwise to be passive and wait for things to just fall in your lap.  I’m only saying that the internet and all that comes with it is an incredible ally.

Should I collaborate with other people?

Hoo!  You should only collaborate with someone if you trust them with your newborn baby and your red beating heart and truly believe that they will hold on to them forever instead of throwing them in a drawer and letting them wither. 

Collaboration is hard, don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy.

Where do you find the time to do comics?  I’m so busy!

If your biggest deal is that you don’t have time to do comics, then you’re not like all the people I know who actually do this for a living.  When they were nowhere near getting paid for it, they were still drawing things.  They weren’t even thinking about making comics for a living half the time, they were just drawing comics because they wanted to.  This is a job where the application is one question!  Here it is:

Would you be doing this if no one was paying you, Y/N?  Circle one.  Circle ‘Yes’ or you’ve failed it!  Comics are a labor of love, because they have to be, because I sure wish we were all rich but that ain’t the way it works.  Charles Schulz’s famous quote is something we’ve all heard.  “Cartooning will destroy you, it will break your heart.”  When you understand what he meant, you also understand why he did it for most of his life all the same.

When there was a death in my family I made comics that I can’t even look at now, and if I were to go back I don’t think I’d have done it again.  We’re human, no one can be a creative machine all the time.  But if you don’t have time to make Craig Thompson’s Habibi, that’s ok, you don’t have to get hung up on the fact that there aren’t enough hours in the day.  Make smaller things, be less painstaking about it if you need to get things finished.  Yes, many of us are legitimately busy with things.  Adjust your goals.  Do anything, but don’t tell me you don’t have time, because you have time.

Should I draw traditionally or digitally?

Draw whatever way works best for you, it doesn’t really matter what kind of pencil or tablet you use, in the end.

How do I get more confidence?  Not like a crazy ego monster, but how do I help myself feel motivated to keep going when I feel like I’m not that great?

This goes back to what I was saying about knowing, in your own heart and mind, that you are good.  That you do have talent.  That if something needs to be worked on, you’re smart enough to know what it is, and the more you do it, the more you go back to it, the better you will get.  We should all be our own worst critics, because your mom and your best friend are going to tell you your comic is great all the time, and the internet is going to tell you that your comic is shitballs all of the time.  But you, you know it’s good, you know you have something, you know that if you keep going, try something different, work on figure drawing and color and expression a little bit more, that you’ll get there.  That the picture on paper will start to look a more like the one in your head, the idea that you came up with. 

I just watched a documentary about Joann Sfar and in it, he said that from the time he was 16, he sent a comic a month to publishers, and at best he would get a nice rejection letter.  Then, when he was 24, several publishers responded at once that they wanted him.  Three things here.  One: there are a lot of reasons to get down when things don’t go your way, and that’s obviously understandable. Two: just because no one is responding to your work right now doesn’t mean that you don’t have it in you to be great someday.  Three: Joann Sfar got rejected for years.  Joann.  Sfar.

And if you do become a crazy ego monster, hire an assistant to delete your weird-ass tweets.

Up next:

The questions asked the most, by far, by the farthest far far far

How do I get people to read my comic


How do I generate an income

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