Important advice for every creative soul, discouraged or otherwise.
Martha Graham, in addition to being one of the 20th Century's most remarkable performers and choreographers, was also a wise sage. She once counseled a fellow artist who was having a crisis of confidence, saying:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”
I could have used a little of her counsel myself. In the fall of 1980, I was a foundering creative. Two years earlier, I became a 20-year old father of twins. I completed my film degree, and was hired as an apprentice at Mill Valley Animation. We were tasked with subcontract work for the The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show, and a reboot of Space Ghost. I was in my element, having grown up on this stuff.
My teacher was a stern middle-aged man with the demeanor of a drill sergeant. His career went back to the early 1950s, grinding out Popeye and Flintstones cartoons. Success in this business was measured in feet per week—that is, there are 12 drawings per second and 1.5 seconds per foot of film. So once I came up to speed, I’d be expected to hit 30 feet per week (100+ drawings per day).
Thanks to the peculiarities of Hanna-Barbera's style, “drawings” might be defined as an arm, mouth and eyes, which would be animated separately from the rest of the body. Still, we were expected to match the “model sheets” that defined each character’s appearance, making them indistinguishable from all the other artists’ work. My teacher was especially frustrated that I didn’t notice that women’s hands should always have a raised pinky—“they look more feminine that way!”
There wouldn’t be time to to learn more. An actor’s strike effectively shut down Hollywood while I was working. Production ground to a halt, the subcontract work dried up, and I was back on the street after just three days. With a family to feed, I took a seasonal job at Toys-R-Us and then accepted work at a data processing plant. It was a grim turn of events that would last five years.
Fortunately, my artistic impulse never went away. My brother Steve and I tried creating a daily newspaper strip, submitting it to a national syndicate. The odds against getting a slot on the funny pages were as high as winning the lottery—especially for a couple of amateurs peddling a strip called Uncle Eyepatch. I hoped there might be greater opportunities to find work-for-hire in comic books. There were many titles published, albeit limited to either kids’ fare (like Archie) or superhero stories (like The Avengers.)
My day job was a terrible grind, and I worked long, odd hours. That only left the late nights open for drawing, after my wife finished her college homework and we got the boys to bed. Sitting at a drawing board in our tiny living room with a cat on my lap, I struggled to create a portfolio of war stories, medieval fantasy and goofball parodies. Take note, that none of these genres were represented in the current market. Because I didn’t want to draw superheroes—I had my own stories to tell.
Eventually, I packed up my samples and bought a ticket for the annual San Francisco Comic Con. I hadn’t attended anything like this for years because I frankly couldn’t afford the ten bucks—we were living hand-to-mouth. But entering the old Jack Tar Hotel on Van Ness, I was swept up in the excitement of my fellow fans. It was a relatively small, intimate affair by today’s standards, when comic book fandom was viewed as something for kids (and men who wouldn’t grow up). I scanned the dealer’s room, wishing I could explore the dusty boxes of back issues, movie posters and action figures. Alas, there would be no shopping for me. I was on a mission.
Artist-turned-editor Dick Giordano was the objective today. A venerable illustrator for DC Comics, he had helped redefine the look of Batman in the 1970s and became editor of the line. Now he was in the position to meet and hire new talent for the company. I stood with other would-be cartoonists under the dreary fluorescent lights that cast a green tint upon our already-pasty faces. (Comic book artists don’t get out much). I attempted small talk with my neighbors, but neither posturing for status nor crippling social anxiety are conducive to conversation. Mostly, we stood silently, craning our necks to get a look at the competition.
By the time I reached Mr. G, he was halfway through a pack of Marlboros and rubbing his eyes in exhaustion. I opened my book and offered to walk him through the samples. He roughly grabbed my vinyl case and began flipping through the pages himself. He pointed to figure and grunted “You need to know your anatomy inside and out!” then continued to flip through. It didn’t feel good, and I felt my throat tightening. When he got to the end, he gathered up the pages and closed the binder. “Thanks for bringing this in. Keep up the good work and keep drawing every day. Next.”
I stepped aside to zip up my shiny new case, when a boy ten years my junior opened his makeshift cardboard folder. Even from a few feet away, I could see that his work captured the contemporary look-and-feel of superhero comics, with bold lines, fluid action and dynamic panel arrangements. Giordano could see it too, and I watched his posture straighten, his eyes widen, and his pace slow to a crawl. He looked back and forth between the kid and his pages asking questions like “How old are you?” “Are your parents with you?” and “Do you have a card?”
In that moment, I felt judged, because my artwork looked stiff, awkward and old-fashioned by comparison. There were only a couple of kinds of comic books being published, and I wasn’t prepared to do either of them. That kid had studied the artists in the business and could produce work that looked like theirs’. With such facility, his success was assured—he'd be turning out X-number of pages per month, in time for writers to add word balloons and inkers to embellish the pencils. It was an assembly line—to which I was not invited.
And that was that. I walked away from any dream of breaking into comics and concentrated on becoming a graphic designer. Unsure of my own skills, I became an art director, where I would use mechanical tools to create, and hire others to paint and draw in my stead. Occasionally I created comics as part of my job—but I spent decades believing they weren’t very good—that these drawings were a cheat. I believed I got to do the odd illustration or doodle simply because I was inexpensive and available. Not because my work had any merit. I wish that I could have heard the rest of Martha’s advice then:
“It is not your business to determine how good your work is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours—clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open ... No artist is pleased.”
It’s taken me 40 years to heed that advice. I’m not drawing to please others, and I may never please myself. But I’ve let go of the self-criticism. I have stories to tell, with my words and pictures, that no one else can tell like me. That’s reason enough to keep going.
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