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Fzd School Experience Essay

Hi Stephen,

I’ve been (quietly) following your cartoon essays for a while–I adore them and appreciate you sharing them.

I imagine you get a lot of emails from people asking about creative direction, their meaning in life, existential angst, etc. And I know you’re a cartoonist and not a licensed therapist (although hey, I never claimed to know everything about you), but I was hoping you’d be able to help me.

I’m pursuing a career in comics. I *wish* I could say that I was attending the School of Visual Arts, the Art Center College of Design, etc., but those are rather cost-prohibitive. Instead my soul is being sucked out of me at a public university.

I’m aware that where I attend school isn’t the end-all of what career I have and what level of success I reach, but I’m not learning what I want to learn. Currently in my drawing class, we’re working on still lifes that relate to the five senses, and I made mine a narrative and styled as comic panels. The next project is a collage with a predetermined found image incorporating mixed media. And they just changed the illustration class to “digital image design” because “illustration is a dying art and there are no jobs for illustrators.”

My main questions are, if I’m not enjoying this kind of art-making, will I enjoy a career in comics? How can I study comics independently without being burnt out from the workload I’m already trudging through? I don’t think you’ll be able to answer these too well because you don’t know me, but if you could give me some advice I would really appreciate it.

Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to read this. Even if you never get around to answering this, your essays have been of tremendous help to me already.

Thanks,
Katie K.

Hey Katie,

Thanks for the letter!

How can I study comics independently without being burnt out from the workload I’m already trudging through?

One principle that really helped me in college was: “Do what you want to do.” Too often you’ll be tempted to do things because you feel like you ought to do them instead of because you want to do them. I think that in order to maximize your learning at college you should make sure that everything you do is passion-based, if possible. In my case, I stopped taking honors classes, because, even though it felt like I ought to graduate “with honors” I didn’t really care for any of the classes.

But then there are always those classes that you have to take in order to graduate. Classes that make you question why you’re in college at all.

There’s this incredible poet in my town who works as a stock boy for a grocery store. Everyday he’d go stack fruit and let his mind wander and think about poetry and God and life. Once, there was a fire that burnt part of our town. During the evacuation, I heard the poet only brought two grocery bags of things with him. One bag was filled with spare underwear, and the other was filled with multiple tomes of Thomas Aquinas’ Suma Theologica. That was the kind of guy he was. And I thought it was so cool what he was doing, and before I went to college I really considered the idea of working some easy job and drawing my comics at night– or, even better, on the job!

But I am glad I went to college.

And I didn’t go to an art college– I went to a state college with not-the-best art program.

The way I continued to study comics without burning out on all my classes is that, whenever I went to a class, no matter what it was, I’d always be asking the question, “What does this teach me about comics?” And if I didn’t find anything, it meant I wasn’t looking hard enough. Having that voice inside of you that is always asking, “What makes great comics?” is almost more important than what you study. I’ve learned how to draw comics from a sculpture class before– and the best comics class I ever took was a screenwriting class for film majors.

Sometimes this is hard to do. As soon as you think you’re smarter than your teachers, you’ve already lost the battle, because by assuming they have nothing to teach you, you undermine your own hunger to learn. It’s better to be humble and do the assignments and keep waiting and watching for something that’s relevant to cartooning to pop up. Besides, you can’t legitimately say your teachers have nothing to teach you, because you don’t know exactly what you have left to learn– maybe they’re going to teach you something that’ll be a foundation for your comics, but how will you know unless you learn it?

My next comics essay is about this actually, ha ha, so I’m kind of warmed up to talk about it.

“illustration is a dying art and there are no jobs for illustrators.”

“Comics is a dying art, and there are no jobs for cartoonists.” …is something I find myself discovering all the time. A better way to put it is that there are few jobs for cartoonists, and those who get them were in the right place at the right time and had already logged a lot of hours drawing comics.

But here’s what you have in a state college that most cartoonists hopefuls would die to get:

1) Money. I was just talking to an artist who attended one of the Art Colleges– he told me he had $70,000 dollars of debt! After 3 years as a professional cartoonist, I have yet to make that much from all the books I’ve sold! Furthermore, the guy I was talking to said he had dropped out of school early! Had he actually finished the program, he’d now be more than $100,000 dollars in debt. One of the reasons I was so thankful I went to state college is because I graduated nearly debt free. That has been a huge boon to my career.

2) Time: My friend Michael Regina wants to make comics for living, but he has to stick with his day job to support his family. In order to work on his graphic novel he cuts out a lot of sleep. It’s hard! I feel sorry for the guy sometimes, but that’s the price he’s got to pay to make comics, and he’s willing to do it, because he has to tell his stories.

During college though, you have four years to do nearly whatever you want! You can arrange your schedule whatever way you want, take whatever classes you want– it’s this amazing time to grow and pursue that career.

It takes a long time to get a job in the industry. The first couple hundred pages of comics probably won’t make you any money, it’s only after you break past a certain threshold in your skill level that people will begin to even take interest. Let’s be honest, cartooning is not like computer programming. For most computer programming majors, when they graduate, they can reasonably expect to have a job waiting for them. But that is not a reasonable expectation for you and me. One of the things I realized in college was that a 2 month long job hunt after graduation probably wouldn’t turn up any leads– so I’d better start looking for a job now. When you look at it from that perspective– you’ve got 4 years to try and find your dream job! That’s a huge amount of time! So start now!

My main questions are, if I’m not enjoying this kind of art-making, will I enjoy a career in comics?

You might not enjoy that kind of art-making– but you enjoy cartooning, right? Are you drawing comics? It seems like such a basic question– but a lot of people miss it.

In baseball, when a coach goes and looks for more players, he doesn’t put an ad in the newspaper, he goes to the minor leagues to recruit– he looks at the people who are already playing baseball. It’s the same with comics– a publisher will go and look at the people who are already making comics– that way they know what kind of product they can expect from the creator. If you’re not making lots of comics, you can’t expect a job.

If you’re having trouble getting yourself to draw comics on a regular basis, one thing you might consider is starting a webcomic with an update schedule. Or, something that I did was make comic strips for my school newspaper. And my newspaper payed me 15 bucks a strip! One semester, I actually enrolled the comic as an independent study class, and got college credit and money for the endeavor. There’s lots of great options.

A career in comics is wonderful; I love it. But let me tell you it does not make me happy or fulfill me as a person, and often when I try to derive my happiness from it, I become insecure and fearful about all kinds of things.

Don’t worry through! You are young! If ever there was a time to pursue your dream job, it’s now. Even if everything falls to pieces in the end, which, granted, would be a huge disappointment, you’ll still have plenty of time to recover, to go find a regular job, or a new career path, because you’re young, and time is on your side. And at that point, at least you’ll know you made a stab at doing what you wanted to do.

I hope that helps. Feel free to email me any other questions you might have.

best,

stephen

PS– Could I publish this letter exchange on my website? I think other people might benefit from the great questions you posed here.

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