(This partly pertains to the post I wrote last week, more of my personal brand of professional advice.)
Let me take you down memory lane. When I was in 7th grade, this was the opening to my then-comic series, The Bubbler:
Not bad for a 12 year old, right? You can tell I had promise, but also how incredibly naive the art is (well, duh, I’m 12). But here’s the thing, even in 7th grade, I was already punishing myself for not being a professional comic artist yet. I spent restless nights staring off in my bunk bed, questioning whether or not my art was ever gonna be good enough. “If my comic isn’t good enough to be published, why bother?” I wasn’t drawing for fun at age 12, I was drawing for a career, holding myself to professional standards. I started to fall into the down-on-the-dumps, self-deprecating artist trap. Drawing for fun seemed like a distant memory.
This was partly due to my brother (you all know him as Patrick in the webcomic) who is 9 years my senior. I watched my brother receive numerous rejection letters, and it wore on him. More than that, it wore on our relationship, because he projected his insecurities onto me. When he criticized my work, he would often draw over it, showing me exactly what I did wrong (this destroyed any sense of pride or attachment I had for my art). Someone who was meant to be my mentor became my competitor. I became fueled by anger and jealousy, rather than just a pure love of the art. Anyone who criticized me immediately became my enemy (in my eyes).
I pushed myself really hard, sometimes at the expense of relationships. I learned to work harder, but also smarter (which is something my brother didn’t do). To really improve as an artist, you need to force yourself to draw things outside of your comfort zone. That’s the problem I still see with many cartoonists today, they choose to HIDE their shortcomings, rather than challenge them head on. Don’t like drawing back muscles? DRAW A WHOLE PAGE OF THEM. Hate 3 point perspective? DRAW THE MOST COMPLICATED LAYOUT YOU CAN IMAGINE OVER AND OVER AGAIN. Are you happy with that last page you just finished? Good, now do something better!
Adding tons of texture on that rock or filling that corner with superficial techno-junk won’t compensate for the fact that the anatomy is off, or that the clothing doesn’t seem to fall right. I know it takes time (God knows I still have a lot of room for improvement), but you have to commit.
The past 10 years have been kind to me. I’ve enjoyed a very successful freelance career with a sprinkling of some well-received projects. Perhaps being hard on myself was responsible for my achievements. But who knows, maybe I could’ve eased up a little. I’m still worried, in the back of my mind, that the Fraud Police will come knocking on my door and strip me of all artistic credibility (thanks, Amanda Palmer).
I’ve always said, the two easiest things is to love your work, and to hate your work. When you’re a narcissistic egomaniac, no amount of criticism will matter, because you already think you know everything. Conversely, incessant self-deprecation is just a cry for sympathy and a ploy to lower expectations. Worse than that, it’s fuckin’ dishonest. You know you don’t suck. Wanna know how I know? Because people who suck never realize they suck. That’s why they suck. (See beginning of paragraph) If you’re constantly on the frontlines bashing your own stuff — I get it — your self-esteem is low and you wanna bash it before anyone else has the chance to. I’ve been there.
But the hardest thing to do is recognizing that you’re actually good, while admitting you need to improve. That’s when you can truly accept constructive criticism and grow as a creator. You eventually learn to listen, and your defense mechanisms aren’t as necessary anymore.
Work harder AND smarter. DO push yourself too hard, but make sure it’s for yourself.
Hopefully you haven’t forgotten what it’s like to draw for fun. I’m trying to remember what it’s like.
I’m writing this because I’m concerned of a continuing trend among aspiring artists, or artists who are trying to get their first project off the ground. Are you ready for a little tough love?
It really doesn’t matter how perfect you think your first project will be. Just finish it. I learned that the long and hard way. After quitting college, I had big plans. Some were attainable, and some were just downright silly. But I wanted to finish a book, that much was clear, and I wanted my first book to make a splash. I initially dabbled with several projects (including what is now Nanjing), but the bulk of 2002 – 2003 was spent developing a teen superhero book, and I even finished an entire first issue. Then I decided to redo that issue, to make it better. Then I redid it again… and again. And now you get the point.
I was a perfectionist (and part of me still is), but constant perfectionism is also a fear of failure in disguise. Yes, I wanted to make a big splash with my first project, but let’s face it — subconsciously, I was prolonging the release, thereby prolonging the inevitable criticism (or worse, backlash) of my work. You want every line to be perfect because you want your work to be beyond reproach and beyond critique.
But it’s an impossible standard you build for yourself. And here’s the dirty little secret… say it with me… NOBODY GIVES A SHIT BUT YOU. I don’t say that to be dismissive, I say that because it’s the cold, hard truth.
Your first work will most likely go ignored (and there are very few exceptions that prove the rule). Most likely, you won’t get many freelance jobs from your first work. You’ll probably have a few professional doors open for you, but said doors are really just leading you to another waiting room.
So, all aspiring artists — all you peeps who are stressing over every line, every page, every word bubble — please, take it from me: just finish the damn book. What’s your biggest fear, a terrible review casting a dispersion on your entire legacy?
“I liked this person’s debut graphic novel, but this one scene was a tad mundane, and so I’m giving them an F!! Nobody buy this comic!”
Here’s what your first review will actually look like (if you’re meant to do comics for a living): “Pretty good debut comic. A little rough here and there, but overall good. Recommended for new readers.”
It’s simply part of paying your dues. I allowed this neurotic behavior to control me for way too long. I mean, come on, even after releasing the original Tails mini-series, I reworked ALL of the content and even scrapped an entire sequel (the sequel was 100% finished). Yeah, it made me into a better draftsman, but it also stalled my career for 2 – 3 years. It also proved a point to NOBODY. That first Tails mini is crude as crap; it was my first series, my first foray into croquill inking, my first accumulation of debt. But it was all worth it.
Yes, you get better with every page. Yes, you get better when you truly learn to evaluate your own work with a critical eye. But you wanna know how to get A LOT better? Finish a complete book.
Then finish another one.
I guess the title of this blog says it all. You can preorder from Amazon with this link. The book will be around 200 pages, and if you’re a fan of my work, you won’t be disappointed. (Why WOULDN’T you be a fan of my work, huh?)
Can you believe it’s 2015 already? Yeesh! I just turned 32 and over the weekend, I received some of the best gifts an artist could ask for: amazing press!
But what really made my weekend was this quote from my editor, Jim Gibbons, who was also surveyed by Robot 6. He wrote, “… Ethan Young’s upcoming graphic novel Nanjing: The Burning City is one of the best, most important books I’ve ever had a hand in — which is to say, I’m lucky enough to be able to chime in occasionally as Ethan produces some of the finest comics you’ll see in 2015, if not the entire next decade. Well researched, stunningly well illustrated, with a really compelling narrative, you are not gonna want to miss this book! It will inform you on a devastating historical event you may not be aware of while getting you invested in some really great characters who will definitely pull on your heartstrings. It’s the type of book you walk away from and think back on for weeks. Like I said, don’t miss it!”
This is some HIGH praise to live up to…
Around February, I was feeling a bit down. My cat, Honey (who I called my Little Peanut Butter Girl, because she loved PB), had passed away from Leukemia. Plus, the winter in upstate NY was particularly dreadful. For some reason or another, I switched over to whole grains for almost all my grain intake: brown rice, whole wheat bread, etc. I just wanted to change things up. Surprisingly, without doing much, I lost 2 – 3 pounds. “I lost weight eating bread?” Anyhoo, I decided to get back into shape. I ‘d been doing push ups on and off for a few years, but now I wanted to commit myself for a full year, at least. I started with some dumbbells at home, then graduated to the gym. Here’s a photo of my 6 month progress from February to August (I don’t have a more recent pic right now, and please pardon the toplessness):
I started at about 180 lbs. Dropped all the way down to 169 while exercising at home, then bulked back up to 185 after hitting the gym. As of last weekend, I benched 215 lbs., which is the most I’ve ever attempted. And, needless to say, being a vegan makes it tough sometimes. Not because of nutrition (unless you’re a vegan who eats nothing but french fries, a balanced vegan diet has all the nutrients you need), but because everyone pesters/scrutinizes you more. “Where do you get your protein?” Blah, blah, blah. You have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good, as the old saying goes.
There are times I’d rather skip the gym and play video games and binge-chow coconut milk ice cream. Because of work and a new baby arriving, I’ve cut down on gym visits from 3x a week to 2x. But I have to remind myself of my original plan: keep doing this for at least a year. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep yourself motivated. When you work out enough, your muscles eventually get used to all the ‘trauma’ you put your body through, and those initial results start to stagger. You don’t get the pump after doing just one set of curls. Your muscles don’t grow unless you give them a reason to grow.
Same with comics. (See, there IS a point for all this vanity) I’ve been working on NANJING: The Burning City since August of 2013. Initially, I knocked out 60 pages in 3 months. Then I started A Piggy’s Tale and produced roughly 10 pages a month or so. I took 6 months off in 2014 to shop the graphic novel around, and eventually Dark Horse (which was one of my top choices) signed me. It’s been hard to get back to that 20 page/month output. Part of that is my schedule, part of that is the excitement has dissipated a bit. Back in 2013, this was a bold new project, and I had no idea where it would land, and what the future might be. It was downright EXHILARATING! And much like exercise, I’d rather be doing other things at times. My mind starts to play games with itself. “Will anyone even read this?” “Will anyone even care?”
But I look ahead and focus on my original goal: finish a graphic novel. Being an artist seems incomprehensible to the general public because of the financial uncertainty, but what most don’t realize is that the largest struggle is simply pushing yourself to stay hungry. You can’t make good comics unless you stay hungry. The same with weight lifting. Before the year is up, I’m shooting for a 225 lbs. bench.
Wish me luck, folks.