This week I am doing something a little different. I am starting this post on Tuesday, March 8th. I am going to write something I am thinking about a lot lately and I am going to just…run with it, okay? I’ll take a second look at what I’ve written later this week and update. A lot of what I think about changes. Well, that’s not necessarily true. I still think about stuff, but how I feel about it can shift. Sometimes the feeling grows stronger, sometimes it fades, sometimes a different perspective can influence everything.
That being said, I am thinking about my heroes.
I think a lot of cartoonists get their start by copying and imitating the cartoonists they admire. I know that’s how I got hooked on drawing. I devoured the comics when I was a kid. I loved Peanuts, Archie, all the Harvey stuff and of course, Calvin and Hobbes. When I got older and started to draw comics, I started with an autobiographic webcomic called ‘Fake Farm Landscape’. I was really inspired by Julie Doucet, James Kochalka and Adrian Tomine. After reading Alex Robinson’s ‘Box Office Poison’ I was inspired to do something longer and more fictional which helped jumpstart Uptown Girl.
Over my career, I’ve really gone nuts with reading comics and picking out little things from so many other creators. Things like how a cartoonist will crosshatch or lay out a page or frame an action sequence or add in sound effects or… a million little things. I’ve copied and borrowed little things and looking at my work I see how my heroes inspired and shaped my artwork and comics. I can pick out how Stan Sakai inspired a background or how Kevin Cannon inspired a sound effect. I used to try to stop getting inspired and borrowing from other cartoonists but after a few conversations with other artists and writers I’ve realized that inspiration is inevitable. No one is an island.
But on the flip side, sometimes reading a comic by someone you admire kills your confidence. When I got to work on the Uptown Girl book ‘Long Forgotten Fairytale’ I avoided rereading ‘Bone’ by Jeff Smith and ‘Castle Waiting’ by Linda Medley. Both of those books take place in a similar setting and I wanted to shut myself off from those worlds to avoid subconsciously borrowing too much.
I have respect for other cartoonists and I don’t want to borrow more than I should. It’s a tricky line. However, another reason I wanted to avoid them was because I knew how much better their books are. Their worst page beats my best page any day of the week. Seeing over a thousand pages reminding me of that is not something I could handle. Even though ‘…Fairytale’ was completed years ago, I still can’t bring myself to rereading these books, even though I love them a lot.
I have the same problem with anything by Aaron Reiner, Lupi McGinty, Lucy Knisley and probably a dozen others. Their work is so good that it depresses me.
They say you should never meet your heroes and I’ve been thinking lately you could also say that one should never read your heroes, either. Seeing work by cartoonists you admire can inspire you on a good day, but can also humble and maybe even depress you on a bad day. As I write this, it is a bad day.
I know I need to not pay attention to what others are doing and to focus on what I’m doing but that is easier said than done. Right now I am juggling the last Uptown Girl book and doing the Retros. The work load between those two isn’t that much but adding in a full time, not to mention looking for a new job, having a family and sleeping it does get a little overwhelming. Lately I am doing work I am not exactly thrilled with and I end up usually redrawing it. It’s all really getting to me because I know I am better than what I draw. I can always do better. I know I can.
But you can’t avoid your heroes for very long. And you shouldn’t. You shouldn’t cut yourself off from those that inspire you. I recently re-read a few comics that I absolutely love that just really killed me. I read (for probably the 100th time) the absolute amazing ‘New Frontier’ by Darwyn Cooke and ‘Far Arden’ and Crater XV by Kevin Cannon. Although these books got me energized about drawing again, reading these incredible books really remind me of how good I could be and how good I want to be. It’s also incredibly humbling when I realize that Cooke and Cannon were both younger than I am now when they created these books. I love these books but they also make me rethink and second guess everything. Like maybe I should rethink the four panel comic strip grid for The Retros. Maybe I should keep it in black and white. Maybe I should do one more Uptown Girl and do it better than ever.
Of course, I won’t be doing anymore Uptown Girl books and I probably won’t redo the format of The Retros, but it’s hard to not get influenced by good comics. Whatever I end up doing once Uptown Girl wraps up (because I’ll do something else besides the Retros), I know it’s work by cartoonists like my heroes and a dozen others will shape what I do.
…Which, I suppose, is the definition of inspiration.
Okay, now it’s Thursday, March 10th. Let’s see how I’m doing.
Okay. Well, it’s still been a rough week but I think I am feeling a little better. And I think it’s because of two things.
-I realized (for the 100th time) that I need to play to my strengths. I tend to draw better when I am drawing smaller. I think this strength comes from drawing almost 200 pages of The Retros where each panel is 2.5 inches by 2.5 inches. Tiny. Drawing a panel that is a third the size of the page works against my strengths. Depending on what it is, of course. An action scene would be perfect for a third of the page. It would work great for The Retros if I decided (which I won’t) to change up the format. But Uptown Girl is filled with talk. I redrew a page the other night where originally it was only three panels, each panel a conversation between two people. I prefer drawing small-ish. I think the simplicity of Uptown Girl and her world works better on a smaller scale. A drawing of Rocketman’s head taking up a third of the page doesn’t really work. The new version of the page I crammed in 8 panels and you know? It looks better. Compare them below (I’ve edited out the character the mayor talks to in the interest of avoiding spoilers).
Of course, this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t push myself artistically. I do change up my style on non-Uptown Girl projects, mostly stuff no one sees but I think after over ten years on Uptown Girl changing my style wouldn’t be a good idea. I suppose it’s more appropriate to say that I need to play to the strengths of the comic maybe? Although similar on a surface level, what works for Uptown Girl doesn’t work for the Retros. For example if Uptown Girl and Ruby need to have a chat about something, having them sit and have a cup of a coffee works best for these two. They’re best friends, they’ll take the time to sit and talk. It fits the sensibility of the comic. If I need Alie and Lucky to have a talk about something, it doesn’t work if they are just standing there. I need them to talk and fight a robot at the same time. That works better in the spirit of that comic.
And to make sure that I was onto something, I drew the next page in a similar format. This time a conversation between Uptown Girl and another employee of the newspaper she works at have a chat about a story they are both covering and again, it’s just a conversation. A nine panel grid worked perfectly since the scene required the conversation to be a little quicker and more urgent. It’s not as interesting to look at art-wise as it is nine panels of talking heads but the point of the page is the conversation.
-The other thing I did this week was read 10 Rules for Drawing Comics. It’s a site where other cartoonists give ten tips for drawing. A few stuck out to me:
Don’t compare yourself and your work to others. Don’t feel like you’re a failure because you’re 5 years older than such-and-such cartoonist was when they got their six digit book deal. Or because your work never comes close to being as good as that of your idol. There will always be someone better and some other work that will always be better than anything you ever make in your entire life. Chances are, those people are different from you, and the work you make is different, and none of that makes your work any less worthwhile. –Jeffrey Brown
Take from sources. A more polite way of recommending you steal. Not plagiarize, but don’t be afraid of being derivative. Kliban begat the Far Side, Doonesbury begat Bloom County, Simpsons begat Family Guy, the influences may be blatant but whether you like them or not they’re original in their own right. Kirby is derived from Shakespeare which is derived from Greek tragedies which are in turn based on tales told by cavemen, and on and on. There’s no such thing as an original idea when it comes down to it, so you don’t have to be a major innovator to be considered unique. -Sam Henderson
NEVER forget how much you love making comic books. When a deadline is crushing in, remind yourself that you started drawing comics for free and for fun. Getting paid to behave professionally is just a sweet bonus. When you love doing something, you do it often with passion. The more you do something the better you get at it. The better you get at something the more fun it is, which increases the passion, etc., and so on. –Michael Allred
Keep Moving. Your work will have flaws. Make each page as good as you can, but don’t let the quest for perfection ruin your momentum. Figure out what mistakes you made and try to make your next page better. I vividly recall being unhappy with a page I once drew and told myself that once I completed the book I would go back and redraw that page if I had the time. I did wind up having time, but couldn’t remember which page it was I wanted to change. Keep moving. –Alex Robinson
So yeah. I guess I still feel intimidated and inspired at the same time. But the last half of the week…man, you can’t discredit how much a different perspective can help.