Saturday, 27 April 2013

Advice For The Would-Be Cartoonist

In 1995 Dave Sim spent two days at the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) teaching sequential art, via workshops, portfolio reviews and lectures. (He summarised the experience in his essay 'Misunderstanding Comics' printed in Cerebus #194, May 1995).  The text of one of his lectures from that visit appears below and was originally posted online by ex-SCAD student M Alice Legrow from a text provided by SCAD lecturer Mark Kneece -- and thanks are due to Eddie Khanna for bring it to my attention. Before posting it here, I thought it'd be prudent to check with Dave that it was indeed his lecture and I received the following reply:
"Tim, I'm glad you and Eddie Khanna found my talk inspiring. I think in today's political climate -- and even at the time -- it would be considered child abuse and bullying. It might have been delivered at SCAD and would certainly account for why I was never invited back." -- Dave Sim, 4 April 2013
Cerebus #195 (June 1995)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
(text of a lecture given at Savannah College Of Art & Design, 1995)
I remember just starting out in the comic book field. You know you're getting old when you start a sentence with, "I remember." Fortunately I'm not quite old enough to see those days through the rose-coloured glasses of deluded retrospect. For the most part it was a terrifying time. I was living under my parents' roof. I was doing some freelance drawing and writing. I had dropped out of high school. I was virtually unemployable. I was getting better at drawing but I still wasn't very good. I was intermittently productive. I was a comic book fan and collector. I tried every type of cartoon art--political cartoons, childrens' books, animation, scripting, pencilling, lettering, writing, magazine cartoons, a weekly newspaper strip, caricatures, super-heroes, single illustrations, logo designs, storyboards. As I was fond of saying in the first few years I did Cerebus, no one would let me sell out to them so I decided to try integrity.

There comes a moment in the early career of any would-be cartoonist when he or she gets serious about a career. Or he or she doesn't. It's really that simple. My moment came in the fall of 1975. I came to the sudden and horrible realization that I was kidding myself, lying to myself. I was not productive. My efforts were half-hearted. I was not, as the football coaches say, giving one hundred and ten percent. I was giving about ten percent. Sometimes twenty. I was getting out of my fledgling comics career exactly what I was putting into it. Ten percent. Sometimes twenty. And I got angry. I got angry not in the self-destructive way so endemic to almost all would-be comics creators -- which is to say, angry at the world, angry at the art directors who wouldn't see my genius, angry at the morons who bought comics written and drawn by people with talent inferior to my own, angry at the doors that wouldn't open just because I wanted them to. I got angry at myself. I got angry at the lazy, shiftless bastard I saw in the mirror. I got angry at the egomaniac who looked at his third and fourth -rate efforts and results and contented himself that he was better than 'a lot of the hacks out there' and expected that that attitude would carry him, someday, into the pantheon of creators whose work excited his interest -- Neal Adam, Berni Wrightson, Barry Smith, Mike Kaluta, Jeff Jones and others. Angry doesn't quite sum  it up. Rage comes close. I raged at myself. I called myself every name in the book. I looked at every piece of artwork in my basement studio and decided that, if it wasn't shit it was certainly a lot closer to shit than it was to anything else.

At that juncture there really are only two ways to go. You either throw everything out and get a job at McDonald's or you decide to make something of yourself. The angry me, the enraged me, the me who was disgusted with every lie and rationalisation and excuse that formed the underpinnings of my 'career' ran out of steam. Any level of high emotion can only be maintained for so long before it exhausts itself. And then, fortunately, there was a voice inside my head which was cold, dispassionate, cutting to the heart of the matter with the precision of a neurosurgeon's scalpel.

"Fine." the voice said. "Now what are you going to do about it?"
Cerebus #195 (June 1995)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard

The totality of myself was boxed in by the implications of the question. As disgusted as I was with the lies I used on myself they yet roiled beneath the surface. I was facing a troika of potentials. I had defined the problem: lies, rationalisations and excuses. Disgust with them could serve two purposes -- it could imprison, isolate and segregate the lies, rationalisations and excuses or it could become, in itself, another lie (I'm no good, I should just give up), another rationalisation (Why bother? I'll never be good enough) or another excuse (since I'm not good enough there's no reason for me to try). None of these options were, in any way shape or form, an answer to the question and I knew that. There was an even more dispassionate me who could view the conflict with the equanimity of Mars surveying a battlefield. Self-disgust, lies, excuses and rationalisations could overwhelm Reason. Reason could be wiped out in the nanosecond it would take for the synapses in my brain to vocalize, "I give up."

We all know what we should do. No matter how insurmountable a problem may seem, there is always something we can do. There are always things we know we should do and yet we don't do them.

Write them down. Make a list.

That was what I did. That's what everyone in this room can do.

There is not a single good or great idea that cannot be defeated by a lie, rationalisation or excuse. Let me give you an example. Let's say I'm you. I'm young and unknown and I want to be in the comic book field. Let's say the first thing I write on my list is 'do a comic strip on spec for the Comics Buyer's Guide.'  First the lie: I'm not good enough, they get hundreds of submissions -- why would they pick mine? I hate the Comics Buyer's Guide. I can't come up with an idea. They'll lose my artwork. They'll steal my artwork. It's not what you know, it's who you know and I don't know anyone at the Comics Buyer's Guide. I don't know where to send it. I don't know who to send it to. It's too much work. I don't know how to ink. I don't know how to letter.

If these are the thoughts that go through your head as you contemplate the first steps in building a career, I've got news for you: the lying, rationalising, whining part of you is in charge. You're going nowhere, and furthermore you DESERVE to go nowhere.

Maybe the second thing on your list is 'do a comic strip on spec for the local entertainment weekly newspaper.' Again: I'm not good at meeting people. I don't know who to call. I don't know where to send it. They'll laugh at me. I don't know what they want.

Probability is against you. Probability is always against you. Probability is always against everyone. Let's say you do a comic strip on spec and the editor looks at it and says 'yeah, this is okay, but we had a guy do a strip for us for three months and then he quit because he got bored. You'd probably do the same thing.' This actually happened to me... one of the first things that happened after I asked myself, "Yeah. But what are you going to do about it?' So what did I do? Did I go home and say 'I give up, it didn't work'?


I sat down and did a year's worth of weekly strips, fifty-two of them, in about three weeks. If his only reservation was that I would get bored and give up, there was only one way to prove to him that that was not the case. The strip ran for two years. I got five dollars each for them.
Cerebus #195 (June 1995)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard

Make a list. Make a long list. Write everything down that you can do -- EVERYTHING.  Leave no stone unturned. Sure things, long shots, one-in-a-million chances. Draw sample pages, finished stories, mini-comics, ashcans, posters, prints. Photocopy them and get them out to anyone, anywhere with whom you might connect. Five dollars, ten dollars, free. And when you finish the list, when you've got everything in the mail to every possible market with a self-addressed stamped envelope for its return, make another list. Don't sit watching your mailbox. Forget what you sent out and get on to the next thing. When submissions come back with rejection slips, pack them up again and send them out to someone else.

There is no shame in rejection if you have at least tried. The only shame is indulging in defeatism, lies, rationalisations and excuses.

Learn as you go along. Learn not only how to pencil better, how to ink better, how to improve your lettering; learn how to take rejection in stride, learn how to deal with clients and intended clients in a calm, rational, reasonable way. Learn how to push yourself to work harder, work better, work more effectively. In the last half of the twentieth century most of the population expends most of its efforts in trying to find the maximum return for the minimum effort. Learn to get over your disappointments in the shortest possible time. If not in seconds, then in minutes. Have the same attitude with your successes. Time wasted in celebration is the same as time wasted in needless discouragement. Enjoy the moment of achievement, the letter of acceptance, the unexpected cheque, the opportune windfall for exactly a moment and no more. Unproductive exhilaration is a wasted resource. A spirit of optimism above the norm should be fuel for the creative fire and the fire of career ambition. Don't sit thumbing through a comic book you've been published in, daydreaming of being the guest of honor at some future comic convention. Go down to Kinko's, get it photocopied and have it out in the mail to every possible market within forty-eight hours. Use every small success to generate other small successes and then larger successes. Be reliable. Whatever they want done, however unreasonable the deadline, push yourself past your perceptions of your own limitations. Build creative muscle instead of feeding the flab of lies, rationalisations and excuses.

Deep down, deep deep down inside of you in the guts of your creative instincts, how do you think you're doing? Are you giving a hundred and ten percent three hundred and sixty-five days a year? Or are you giving seventy-five percent of your best efforts for a period of a week or two and then five or three or NO percent for a month after that? You were sick. That's a lie and you know it. You had a cold for two days that you stretched into three weeks. Your spine wasn't broken. You had a cold. Draw with one hand and blow your nose with the other.

From the home office in Sioux City, Iowa, here's a list of the top ten lies, rationalisations and excuses.

Number 10: Writer's block or artist's block.
This is a failure of will, compounded by fear of failure, centered on laziness. Shut up and draw something.

Number 9: Strategy and development of a concept.
Stop doodling in your little sketchpad and produce something useful.

Number8: Recharging your batteries.
Failure of will, compounded by fear of failure, centered on laziness as an excuse to read comic books and watch television all day.

Number 7: Communing with other artists.
Bitching and whining with other lazy, unproductive people and sharing their lies, rationalisations and excuses as well as a few beers and a joint if any of you are holding.

Number 6: Getting organized.
Shifting piles of useless letters, comic books and fanzines from one side of the room to the other, one at a time so you can read them all and avoid doing any drawing.

Number 5: Collaborating.
Having someone to talk to after you've read all your comics, about pages you aren't drawing until your television show comes on.

Number 4: Consulting/[Critiquing].
Showing the three pages you drew six months ago to the fortieth person and asking them what they think so you won't have to draw the fourth page until Christmas.

Number 3: The Telephone [or Internet].
Productive artists don't have a phone or if they have a phone they unplug it. Unproductive artists take a phone call no matter what they're doing, from anyone. Really unproductive artists take phone calls and MAKE phone calls. The hopeless cases have call waiting so they never have to hang up, swinging from caller to caller through their work day like Tarzan moving up the jungle.

Number 2: Heartbreak.
Get over it. You will get laid again. There are a lot of fish in the sea, blah blah blah blah. Right now, you're right. No one loves you. Lucky you. Get to work.

And drum roll please---

The Number 1 lie, excuse and rationalisation: Electronic media.
Computer games, computer nets, video games, radio, CD players, and the Galactus of electronic media...television. Video games and computer nets are abominable time wasters. They accomplish nothing.  They are the black holes of intellectual and creative life. That giant sucking sound you hear is time and attention disappearing into the ether. Take a short cut and strip mine your frontal lobes by shoving an industrial vacuum cleaner up your nose.
Cerebus #195 (June 1995)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard

Now here's where I'm going to alienate everyone in the room. Television is bad for creativity. So is music.  Not small 'b' bad.  Capital 'b' Bad. A professional golfer does not catch up on the Young and the Restless while he walks up to the fairway to take his second shot. Football players on the sidelines are not listening to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon on their walkmans. A concert pianist does not listen to Terminator 2 while he practises a concerto. If you would even suggest such a thing to any of these individuals they would tell you that you're two fries short of a happy meal. Divided focus is no focus. All of you disagree with me but that's okay, because I'm right and you're wrong. Divided focus is no focus. Focus precludes both companionship and the illusion of companionship. Isolation, silence and the training of all of your faculties so that all that exists for you is the feel of the pencil or the pen, the subtleties of pressure of that pencil point or that pen point, to the exclusion of all other stimuli, is a universally ignored but self-evident route to improvement. It's not easy at first. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy at first. But the inner voice that craves instant gratification, stimulation, diversion and distraction is a destructive voice which is better contained than capitulated to. 'This is a cool song. I wonder what's on TV? I wanna read a comic book. I'm hungry. I'm thirsty. Yay! The phone! I wonder who that is? Wrong number? Wah! I wanna phone somebody I wanna phone somebody. I'm all alone. I need someone to talk to.'

With the phone unplugged, the radio, TV and CD player off, with all stimuli apart from the page in front of you eliminated, you will focus better and you will see better results. The inner voice which craves instant gratification will do one of two thing after it stops whining and crying. It will drift off to sleep leaving your creative aspects to do their work without distraction or it will join in the focus.  It will derive its gratification from the perfectly executed curve of the brush stroke. The innovative development of a new page design. The gradual and gratifying emergence of a "personal best" page.  A page which represents a quantum leap from your previous personal best into a new, unexplored and exciting realm which is the clarification, the refinement and the spontaneous next step on the ladder of creative improvement that is yours and yours alone to climb.

There is a difference between the artist who constantly challenges himself or herself, who experiments, who is always focused on that painful lifelong climb up his or her personal ladder of achievement...and the artist who hits a peak and then retreats to workmanlike efficiency and then declines into bad self-parody.  And you wonder to yourself, why is that? Why was it that this artist got better and better and better and then just seemed not to care enough to keep climbing?

Two words.

Divided focus.

Something else became more important to them. Could be the wife and kids. Could be the fame. Could be material possessions. Could be a film deal or merchandising. Could be drugs. Could be alcohol, an affair, sickness, death of a friend or family member.

Or it could just be that they learned how to turn out a passable product competent enough to satisfy enough people to maintain their income. When they were climbing, maybe ten percent of their attention was on the television or the music in their studio and ninety percent on their work. Maybe now, it's fifty percent on the TV and fifty percent on their work. And in those moments when they look back at their old work, they have a sudden pang of recognition and they tell themselves a lie (my style just changed a bit, that's all), invent a rationalisation (I've got a lot more obligations, I can't spend a whole day on a page anymore) or find an excuse (the art materials have gotten worse, I just can't find a decent india ink anymore).

The war on lies, rationalisations and excuses is lifelong. They are the enemy of every novice, every journeyman, every veteran in this or any other field. Once you give in just a bit, it's that much easier to give in the next time. And the time after that.

Be honest with yourself. Always push yourself to climb that next run. Never take a step down or cut a corner knowingly. When you take a break, indulge your need for gratification. Reward yourself for pushing the boundaries of your limitations. And then get right back to pushing the boundaries of your limitations.

In the short term, you can achieve a great deal with a divided focus, intermittent bursts of energy and enthusiasm, luck, natural talent and knowing the right people. But in the long term it's only through relentless dedication, hard work and always testing and expanding the boundaries of your limitations day-in and day-out that you will have even the remotest possibility of becoming a Jack Kirby or a Will Eisner or whomever you consider to be the person who climbed the highest, produced the best, achieved the most and shined the brightest.

Thank you.
Cerebus #195 (June 1995)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard


Anonymous said...

"It might have been delivered at SCAD and would certainly account for why I was never invited back."

HA! Good one!

Btw... did anyone graduate from SCAD and do sth on professional level?

Anonymous said...

"No matter what I did it never seemed enough
He said I was lazy, I said I was young
He said, "How many songs did you write?"
I'd written zero, I'd lied and said, "Ten."
"You won't be young forever
You should have written fifteen"
It's work, the most important thing is work
It's work, the most important thing is work"

Lou Reed "Songs For Drella" (1990)

Dave would have agreed!

ChrisW said...

I'm a John Cale fan, but that's always been one of my personal favorite Lou Reed lyrics. As long as you work as hard as you can for as long as you can as much as you can, things do tend to work out all right.