Tools of the Trade
I ain’t a special case. If anything I’m probably a bit too “basic”.
Like many young comic book fans, I dreamt of one day writing and drawing amazing stories… publishing my genius works of sequential art, and adding to the overflowingly rich industry I held so dear. Thing of it was (and is), I can neither write nor draw. You sit me down in front of a blank sheet of paper, and the only thing I’m going to add to it are speckles of nervous sweat.
I used to (and still do) lie to myself about my ability… pretending like I actually had some… all the while, concocting countless excuses to postpone actually doing anything. Rationalizing and justifying my incessant inactivity as some form of “preparing”. Biding my time until everything was in place. It’s a mental trap… and one I still, thirty-odd years later, can’t seem to escape from.
When I first found myself captivated by comics and the glory that is storytelling via sequential art, it was as though I was struck by a bolt of lightning. The clouds parted and, sad as it may sound, my reason for living was suddenly made clear. I was put here… to tell stories, to draw… to make comics.
Only, again… I’m not very good at stuff. I could draw passably well enough… good enough for a junior high school student. I could write stories that were good… again, for a junior high school student. Only, I never put in the effort to improve. Even back then, as a know-nothing 12 year old, I was too scared to find out that I couldn’t. As a know-nothing 43 year old, I still am.
And so, I made excuses for why I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) draw… or plot… or sketch… or, well, anything.
I borrowed half-a-copy of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way from the public library. I say “half-a-copy”, because the thing was absolutely destroyed when I found it. Pages missing, cover held together with masking tape. It was one of the very few comic-related books on the shelf… as such, I’m sure it got a lotta love over the years. I borrowed the book in hopes that I’d learn something… all it did was give me even more ammunition (as if I needed any) for putting off actually trying.
Unsatisfied with the few pages that were included in this dilapidated tome, I told myself that… if I was to be serious about this dream, I’d need to buy my own copy… a complete copy. As if the “real secrets” to becoming a true comic book creator were only on those missing pages. Problem was, How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way carried a price tag of… thirteen dollars. As a poor kid, who might get lunch money once or twice a week… who already earmarked those funds for actual comics… thirteen bucks may as well be a hundred.
It took some time, but I would finally save up the cash. I remember trudging down Sunrise Highway to the Bassett Books (before Borders took them over) to make my big, would-be life-changing purchase.
I tell ya what… I absolutely tore through this book. Reading it over and over again until I could pretty much cite it chapter and verse. I learned how many “heads” tall Reed Richards is… what Hank Pym’s “ant’s-eye view” might look like… ya know, all that stuff. The sort of stuff that was meant to help the reader improve in their craft. My problem was (and still is), these weren’t the pages I focused on.
The pages my stupid ass became enamored with were… these:
The “tools”. The things I’d convinced myself I absolutely needed to own before I even put pencil-to-paper. I didn’t realize it then (or maybe I did), but the trap was set. A trap that, thirty-plus years later, I still can’t escape from. I made my “shopping list”, and as this was before the days of wider-internet… I had to resort to making phone calls to local art supply stores I found in the yellow pages to price out these “gotta have” items. Almost feels like I keep adding unnecessary steps to this process, doesn’t it? What’s so hard about dragging a friggin’ #2 pencil across a piece of notebook paper? Why should my lack of tools stop me from writing a script? Why couldn’t I bring myself to DO IT? To do ANYTHING? Why can’t I do anything… even today?!
The thing with art supplies, and I’m not blowing any minds here, they were (and are) pricy. Especially when you’ve convinced yourself that only the best supplies would suffice for your artistic vision and goals. You might think that, in finally purchasing these supplies, that I’d be able to bring myself to, ya know… drag a mother-effing pencil across a piece of paper… but, you’d be wrong. Ya see, when one buys a (relatively) expensive “tool of the trade”, it’s sort of intimidating. Especially when you’re as creatively limited and untalented as your humble host. You (or I) become afraid that I’m going to, I dunno “misuse” the $5 pencil. At least that’s what you might tell yourself.
The truth is… and, this is where the “trap” widens a bit… when I’d doodle in class, using a garbage pencil and lined spiral notebook paper… I could kind of, I dunno, “excuse away” any lack of quality. After all, I was using sub-par tools, and doodling only when the teacher wasn’t looking in my direction… so, if whatever I was drawing looked crappy, it wasn’t an actual indictment on my “talent”.
But… now that I have the proper gear… if my work still sucked, I could no longer blame my tools. Does that make sense? I spent the entirety of my high school years with an empty sketchbook (several empty sketchbooks)… and (relatively) pricy pens that all but dried out before I even bothered to run ’em across a piece of paper.
But, ya know what? Kids are fickle with their interests… and, might have a penchant for losing focus… especially when it comes to “putting in the work”. Not trying to make a blanket statement, per say… perhaps I’m just trying to make my own lazy ass feel better about squandering so much time.
What happens when the wannabe artist/writer/creator becomes a young adult?
Well, in most cases… they truly begin to explore their creative passion, and start making things happen. In my case… well, I bought a gigantic drafting table (like almost cartoonishly big), a bunch of art how-to books, and had the same blank piece of Bristol masking-taped up ready to be drawn on… forrrrr, probably two years. For me, it was almost as though appearing to be an artist (by having all the cool/expensive art shit) would somehow make me one.
When I finally caved in and tried drawing something… it became painfully clear to me that, I hadn’t improved since junior high school… which, totally stood to reason, since I hadn’t practiced at all since then. Thing was, I was now in my early-20s… having wasted near a decade of my formative years on pipe dreams, fear, “playing the part”, and inaction.
I made the difficult… well, maybe not-so difficult, decision to move away from art… to focus my “talents” on the other side of the table… writing. Only, I ain’t good at that either! Okay, I’ll give myself a bit of uncharacteristic credit. I think I can be a decent “idea guy”… I’ve got some ideas that I feel have potential… it’s just that, turning those ideas into stories… with a world, characters, and dialogue… is something that reaches far beyond my limited talent.
What’s more… some unknown writer trying to break into the comics industry has a far tougher time than an unknown artist. Art kind of speaks for itself. At a glance, you can tell whether or not an artist has talent, skill, or just plain “it”. A writer though? Well, if you’re a writer trying to get noticed… you need to actually get people to read the words you’re spitting out. As someone who has spit out a couple of million on this very website, trust me when I say, that’s far easier said than done. And so, this “writer only” deal proved to be a short-lived diversion/distraction.
If I wanted to actually do this… I’d need to stop being a punk, and draw something.
I didn’t know then… and, I still don’t today.
And so, I went back to faking it (to myself) til I made it (which I never did). I bought even more art how-tos… I started buying things like SKETCH, Comic Book Artist, DRAW! and Write Now! Magazines thinking they’d cause something to finally “click” in my head… or, maybe that I’d one day hit that tipping-point, where I realized how much money I was spending on these “tools” without even a single panel of art to show for it.
The only things these magazines did was… add to my shopping list. I think it was in an issue of SKETCH where I learned that George Perez used a 0.03 pencil and would usually sketch out pages using a lap-board. I also learned how a lot of pros used blue lead for initial layouts. Ya know, I’d never compare myself to any actual comics pro, let alone comic book royalty like George Perez… but, damned if my stupid ass didn’t spend weeks scouring the city looking for a 0.03 mechanical pencil. I got to keep up the illuuuuusion of being a “creative” while not actually creating anything. After all, it wasn’t my fault that a damned 0.03 pencil was so hard to track down!
But, it wasn’t just the art tools that kept me inactive. It was also, of all things, finding the “right” notebook. Now, if you’ll pardon my preciosity and pretension… it was in an issue of Write Now! where I learned that… well, I can’t remember which writer it was (might’ve been Bendis… but, don’t quote me), used a Moleskine notebook for their scripts and notes. Not just any Moleskine (which was already a not-so-easy to track down – and also quite expensive notebook), but a specific, I dunno, “model” of Moleskine (which I can’t remember the specifics of). And so, it went on the never-ending shopping list… and I wasted more time and money procuring one than I’d like to admit… though, I suppose I kinda just did.
Around this time, I was approaching my mid-20s… and I made a “deal” with myself… wherein, if I didn’t have anything done by the time I turned 25, I would give up. And, lemme tell ya… in those final months leading up to my twenty-fifth birthday I… well, I didn’t actually do anything… but, I thought about it an awful lot. Well, that’s not entirely true… I did draw a LITTLE bit… enough to where, I was able to print up my own two-sheet “ashcan” of some very lazy work. I also spent $500 on a “tabloid-sized” scanner so I could digitize my work!
I deemed this sad, last-ditch attempt a failure. And so, at the ripe old age of 25, I pulled the plug. It was honestly more of a relief than anything. I focused on my day job… and kind of resigned myself to living a life where I didn’t actually create anything. Where I didn’t try and leave a mark.
I’d dabble a bit here and there… did a NaNoWriMo before I turned 30. But, that was the extent of my creative output… if I can even call it that. Then I spent the better part of a decade writing and talking about the works of actual creative people. I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: “Those who can… do. Those who can’t… review.”
So, why in all hells am I sharing this?
Well, as I sit here today… it’s as though I’ve been shifted back to my early 20s. I’m not an old man by any stretch, but I can’t help but to feel as though life is rapidly passing me by. I’m in a position now where I can dedicate more and more time to creative pursuits… and, with my wonderful wife’s support and blessing, decided to give it one more “go”.
But… I still find myself in the same trap.
It’s been every bit of 20 years since I last sat down to draw… and, while “art” in and of itself hasn’t changed… the way in which art is made has. Everything’s easier now… but, also so much harder. If I were afforded the current-year perks back when I was starting out… well, I probably still wouldn’t have done anything, but — had I actually decided to? It would have been SO much easier. Every art supply one might need is part of drawing software. Self-publishing is just an upload… not scanning a page (usually in pieces), saving to a disc, and running down to Kinko’s where you’d pay for every single sheet to be printed.
With all these “current year” perks… I once again found myself focusing more on the “shopping list” than actual creation. Ordered myself a pretty bad-ass (and wildly overpriced) “artist” laptop… which, nearly a year later, I’m still far too intimidated to actually use. Bought some bad-ass (and overpriced) artist software… which, goes on sale like twice a year… so, I “had to” wait about six months before pulling the trigger on. Similarly, found some highly-regarded writing software (which was reasonably priced… but, does go on deep discount a couple times a year) that I had to wait for. Months just keep piling up… while my productivity remains at zero.
It’s pathetic. Seeing all of this written out here for the first time… what’s my problem?
I used to think I had a “fear of failure”… I’m starting to realize that’s not true at all. I now understand that… I’m scared that I can’t even manage to fail. Failure would be a wonderful option at this point… it would certainly beat the hell out of inactivity and procrastination. And, I say this as someone who’s spent the past two and a half hours writing this sad-sack journal entry in lieu of actually “creating” anything.
Anyway… brain-dump over (for now). Thank you for reading.
4 thoughts on “Tools of the Trade”
I consider myself rather than an artist, a maker. I make podcasts. That seems to satisfy my creative urge. Your voice is missed in the podcast-o-sphere. Still get comments about our one episode of Mazelighting.
Thanks very much, Ed! I think I needed to hear/read that!
I kind of disconnected from the creative-sphere completely when I took my step back. Haven’t been hearing any other voices besides my own… and my own has been wildly negative and self-defeating of late!
Like you I once had the dream of being a comic book writer. Like most other kids I would invent my own characters and mentally come up with my own stories about my favorite characters. Yet I would never put pen to paper and actually write something down. The thing is that according to multiple teachers I have had at different levels of education I am a pretty good writer. I just have a kind of mental block where I never see what I have written a good. I think of it as like when someone sees themselves as fat no matter how slender they are. I don’t know if there is a name for it but that’s the way I feel. I have found that I have less a fear of failing and just a fear of not being good enough so I don’t do anything to see just how good I am. I have found that I need to be pushed into doing something and trust in my ability. Usually when I’m finished I’m satisfied with my accomplishment if not actually happy with the outcome. But I really need that push to get me started.
So enough of my therapy session.
You don’t give yourself enough credit for what you have accomplished with the blog and podcasts. I have recommended your works to many other people who wanted to know more about comics. You may think reviewing is less creative but to be able to write commentary about something that is both informative and engaging to a reader is not something that everyone can do. I know, I have been looking for quality content about comics on the internet for years. I have only a half dozen sites that I go to regularly because those creators have hooked me with their style. You were one of the first on that list.
So don’t be a comics writer, or a comics artist. Just be the best comic book reviewer you can be. (If that is something you still want to do.) Or as i tell most everyone, just be the best you you can be.
Hope to hear from you again soon.
Just one of an Infinite number of Chrises
Thanks so much, Chris! I really appreciate hearing from you.
Still trying to work out what’s next here… wish WordPress was a little bit more, I dunno, “passive” to use (if that makes any sense)? Back on Blagger/Blogspot, it felt like I was just writing to write… and, (for the most part) it was a lot of fun. Here on WordPress though, there are a lot of (TOO MANY) “bells and whistles”. Everything here is about optimizing THIS, or SEO’ing THAT. There are just too many moving parts and doo-dads “under the hood”. It makes the entire endeavor feel like actual work.
Speaking of “work”, I’ve been buckling down to “Remaster” the archives so that they’re actually readable/linkable/whateverable here. In the past three days, I managed to fix up all the posts from January-April, 2016… so, at this rate, I’ll be “current” in… ya know, awhile. Still have things I wanna talk about… have dozens of posts “half-written”, it’s just a matter of becoming comfortable enough with the WordPress UI to where it doesn’t feel like I’m a monkey with a Palm Pilot!
Thanks again, brother!