5 Killer Mistakes Beginner Cartoonists Make
We all make mistakes—I know I’ve made my share in this crazy business of comics! This is an article I put together based on some questions and concerns that aspiring comic artists have asked me over the years. I've narrowed the list down to five mistakes that I think are the most important. Hope you can get something out of it.
1. Have something to “fall back on.” You’ve heard this line before from family and friends, and it comes from a good place. Your loved ones care about you, and they want you to live a happy life, and that’s a good thing. The unfortunate thing is that this may be the worst piece of advice to follow if you’re geniunely passionate about drawing comics professionally. I must admit there are some pro cartoonists that keep a “day job.” But if you’re someone who would like to have comics be your day job, then this bit of advice may actually hurt your chances of “making it.” Set aside for a moment the time and energy wasted on the pursuance of an alternate career, and let’s turn this bit of advice upside down, and really look at what it means. If you agree to have something to “fall back on” then you are willing to concede that falling is an option. Let’s face it, a plan B career is the safety net that, in times of frustration (and a creative career involves plenty of angst, as you know) you just may let yourself fall, instead of working a little harder to get over what may be a mere hurdle in your path. The truth is, safety nets are sensible to individuals who may be unwilling to do whatever it takes for their art. But if you’re someone who wants to make comics more than you want, or need, anything else in life, then consider how much harder you would push yourself if you knew there was no safety net beneath you. When you’re in survival mode, you do whatever it takes to keep going, and that extra bit of drive is oftentimes the difference between falling, and soaring.
2. Seek the opinion of friends, family, and social media in place of professional feedback. The one thing you can do right now to increase your chances of improving yourself as a cartoonist, is to stop listening to your mother, your BFF, or your Facebook friends, when they tell you what you want to hear: that your comics rock. I don’t have to elaborate on this; it’s pretty obvious. You know that feedback from friends —or anyone who cares about your feelings—will always be glowing, no matter what. The not-so-obvious reason you should take the opinions from loved ones lightly is because they may not know enough about the artform to give you the type of constructive criticism that your work can benefit from. So, your BFF thinks your work is pure genius, and that’s great if you wish to draw comics as a hobby. But if you want to make it your life’s work, then I would encourage you to seek feedback from professionals in the business. By this I don’t mean criticism from comment threads. You already know how unreliabe, and often vitriolic, comments from strangers can be. (I should note, however, that if you’ve got a gazilion strangers following your work, and eating up everything you post, then that’s a pretty good litmus test of how the public sees your work. You’re already there. On the flipside, if you’ve got a gazilion readers, then you most likely know more about this stuff than I do!)
3. Write and draw what you think people will like. And that includes writing and drawing what you think editors will like—editors are people! One hard truth about creating anything is this: you can’t please everybody. Trust me I’ve tried, and what I created was garbage. I hated it; it wasn’t me. Another hard truth is that there is very little chance that you can know what people—or editors—will like, and that’s because nobody really knows what people like until people like it. I know that sounds messed up, but it’s true. (Editors don’t like to admit this, but there is no “formula” for what’s good and popular, and oftentimes they really don’t know what they want until they see it.) One thing that you can do right now to set your work apart from the work of amateurs is to begin writing and drawing to please yourself. Ah, fun. Fullfillment. Self expression! Isn’t that what cartooning is all about? The other side to this wonderful truth is that the more you write and draw to entertain yourself, the closer you’ll get to discovering your own unique voice --which is good because it’s unlikely you’ll attract a following without one.
4. Place too much importance on money. This is a biggy. Obviously, aspiring cartoonists want to drive Mercedes Benz, eat platters of diamonds for dinner, and wear two hundred dollar designer headbands while sailing their floating ocean jet, or whatever. If this describes you, then you should get a job in law, or finance. But if you’d rather die than not make art, then you’ll be perfectly okay with living modestly. The key here is to embrace frugality. Be a tightwad and get good at it! Be like a squirrel and save those nuts for the inevitable winter, because whether you’re willing to admit it or not, making money selling comics is damn hard. Few professional cartoonists are wealthy, or even financially stable. If earning lots of cash is important to you, then I don’t have to tell you, do I? It’s easier to just get a “real” job.
5. Place too much importance on “ideas.” I’m talking about story ideas here. Much emphasis is placed on “good story ideas,” and not enough on voice, or style. I hear too many aspiring cartoonists say that they’re worried someone will steal their idea. (What? You have only one? Better get working!) Having your idea stolen may be a real concern if you’re an entrepreneur, an inventor set on a patent, or a Hollywood exec. But for graphic novelists, and visual artists in general, ideas are not supremely important. Incidentally, as a working professional you’ll need to generate hundreds of them on a regular basis. The best ideas are simple ideas, and they’ve all been done before. You may even say ideas are inherently valueless. What’s valuable is how those ideas are executed, and with what voice they are delivered. There are seven basic story lines in existence, and it’s very unlikely that your idea falls outside of the seven. Very unlikely. The only thing new under the sun is your unique and particular voice, and the personal style with which you re-hash—and refresh—the old tried and true story lines. If you do it properly, an old idea will appear spectacularly original. Now there’s an idea. Go ahead, steal it.