Ambidextrous: Don't Quit Your Day Job
by Brandon Thomas
Date: 03 October 2008 Time: 08:03 AM ET
The title of this particular piece means a couple things…First, it means that the long promised series of columns about how not to break into comics has officially begun. Naturally, these will be highly personal diatribes filled with potentially embarrassing anecdotes culled from almost a decade of believing that I have what it takes to write comics professionally. With any luck it’ll prevent even one of you from making similar mistakes in your respective quests, and ensure that you’re going about things a little smarter than I did. My “push” towards publication usually contained more passion than sense, and only a delicate combination of the two will allow you to actually get where you’re going without being driven insane first. That’s what this whole notion is about---helping you get out of your own way and into producing comics you’re proud to have your name on. Sound cool? All right then, now let’s move on to the real meaning of the column’s title… If you really like money, if obtaining great financial success is terribly important to you, then you shouldn’t be running full speed into comics. There are creators who have been able to attain great success in the business (and though a variety of time-intensive factors) but just to keep things honest---it’s not an industry bubbling over with loose cash, despite the now present lure of the Hollywood dollar. Every couple years another independent publisher or company initiative doesn’t work out, because sadly, success does not always follow those that deserve it. So you need to be prepared for the very real chance that if you’re fortunate, you’ll only struggle and claw your way forward for longer than you thought possible, and if you’re the opposite, you’ll fail miserably and hate every moment of it. Those are pretty much your two clear choices starting out, but they have one thing in common---you likely won’t be making much money from this for a good, long while.
So please believe me when I say that if you place a significant financial stake in this business too early, you will live to regret it. Back around 2003, I had just graduated college and started working at a Barnes & Noble. This also corresponded with me spending six months pitching for Marvel’s Epic imprint, which really was the best thing to ever happen to my development. It was exciting, informative, and demoralizing all at once, but the experience in interacting with editors, having to implement script changes, and dealing with being so close, yet so far away, was invaluable. Because I thought I knew what I was doing---I had my little column going; I’d pitched a couple things to a few editors, gotten an endorsement from Mark Miller of all people, etc. and honestly believed that I would soon be working steadily in comics. Didn’t know exactly what week or month it would happen, but I could just feel it---it had to happen soon, right? Right…? On top of that, I couldn’t move back home yet, because it was a generally miserable experience most of my childhood and hadn’t changed when I left for school. Even though I was done at that point, I just stayed another year in my apartment and in my little college town because at least there I had some peace and quiet. My mission was to get published by the time my lease was up and had to move back, so there was enough leverage in me being allowed to continue working at it. Going out and getting a full-time job, which to me meant getting up early in the morning, driving somewhere I didn’t want to go, and doing something I didn’t want to do, came to signify absolute failure. To me, cracking under the pressure and being forced to do that was the same as giving up altogether. The idea being that I would enjoy making money so much more than not making money, that fighting and pushing my way into the industry would begin to feel like an adolescent concern. One that I - all of a sudden - wouldn’t want nearly as bad anymore. I cannot type the word stupid enough or in a large enough font to convey just how short-sighted and juvenile that whole mindset was---and how it helped me to blast myself in the feet over and over again for a couple years. What I “wisely” chose to do once returning home was work part-time at another Barnes & Noble location, while using my remaining time to effectively finish breaking into comics, which was helped along by the whole Epic experience and Rob Liefeld. Since I was living at home, I figured that this was a perfect opportunity to really commit and effectively “seal the deal,” thinking that a lack of time was the main obstacle. With twenty extra hours a week, there was no reason why I couldn’t make this work through sheer force of will. But this train of thought presumes that you have complete control, which is dangerously naïve---a lesson I could only learn by moving from occasional assignment here to occasional assignment there. Barring one glorious five month stretch where I was writing FF Tales and scripting Shatterstar at the same time, I spent much of the period broke off my ass, hating going to work four days a week to shelve books and sell membership cards, and hating living at home with a newfound nearly adult fury. All of this making me generally depressing to be around, and more importantly, made it harder to do the work, which is what this approach was all about. Every single time I’d hit a wall I would become completely miserable, slowly watch my available balance bottom out, and respond by increasing the pressure on myself. This overall negative vibe can only be mined for so much material before it just starts eating away at you. I got obsessed with this one aspect of my life, and instead of building everything around it, so that I had some balance, I allowed it to dictate how I felt about myself. What I hadn’t accomplished became more important than what I had, and the worst part of it all was that this was all self-inflicted. Instead of sucking it up, getting a “real” job, and moving out of a house that was retarding my development on all fronts, I sat around, fingers crossed, that Marvel would swoop in with a couple mini-series and change my life. Again, the word stupid probably isn’t strong enough, but this is what I actually did---put every ounce of my focus into forcing my way through the strongest barrier, really believing that if I hit it that one good time, money would fall out of it and all my obsessive focus would be well and justified. My best friends in college were all football players, and they used to say that my approach to writing (and probably life in general) was to line up in a power formation and just run the ball up the middle until the game ended. Yes, it’s a reliable play-call, one that consistently moves the ball up the field two or three yards at a time, but the level of difficulty and the punishment you take along the way doesn’t make it worth doing. Still, this was how I did most things back then---find the most bruising and unforgiving obstacle and pound into it until my hands broke. I guess you could suggest that my willingness to do this for so long is the reason I’ve been able to achieve a modicum of success, but it’s hard to look back and think, “Yeah, I’d do all that ____ exactly the same way.” Sometimes you just gotta run the rock to the outside or switch to the passing game, you know? Gives you more ways to win. And that is what the title of this piece actually means to me---the vital importance of preserving and defending a state of mind that will make it easier for you to get good work done, and survive the natural setbacks that comes from needing to be involved in something like comics. Like many other entertainment mediums, it will prove unreliable, unpredictable, and will stomp and grind even the most considerable resolve into the ground. This is why you need to be incredibly prepared, patient, and smart in how you go about it. The ability to pay for your car and Discover bill cannot become even a marginal concern while breaking in. I allowed myself to be somewhat seduced by the hope and possibility that I was a lot further along than I actually was, and to be terrified that a 9-5 was going to stop me dead. The opposite is true of course, having spent almost two years waking up early and driving a few hours everyday in traffic is probably the best incentive to keep writing and keep pushing forward. It’s not giving up, and you find the time to get the work done regardless. More than that, my approach can be more precise now, and I’ve found that when you’re entering into something that could take ten years to accomplish (which is probably a good barometer for any decent “dream”), peace, quiet, and stability are your best weapons. In the same way you have to isolate yourself from people who don’t believe, you have to insulate your goal from the financial obligations everyone has to deal with or it’ll break you. What happened with Miranda Mercury would’ve crippled me a few years ago. My team and I made everything about getting this project out the door to create a foundation for 2008. After the first issue dropped, we started to make some progress in securing more projects that would’ve helped keep the book going and elevate its profile. Hell, Lee is turning down stuff to draw now, and that issue doesn’t even represent his best work. All of this was very important to us, and as frustrating as it’s been, it doesn’t even approach the level of frustration I was holding for much of 2006. I made some critical adjustments and am now settled in for the hopeful completion of this long, winding road. And at the end of it, I plan to run as hard as I can from “civilian life” and do everything possible never to come back. I expect the same from you as well, and to make it far easier on yourselves than I ever did. Thanks for listening, and when we return to this subject, we’ll address a natural extension of all this---don’t over pursue. B