A Chinese fortune teller once read me. He said it was my lot in life to suffer. I REFUSE to accept that. I refused to accept it before I met my teacher, and I refuse to accept it now. Priests were no spiritual help whatsoever. At my mom's behest when she saw I was sulking some time ago, I agreed to talk with a priest for spiritual guidance. I picked one about an hour and a half away. (I was going to be at least partially opening up, so I didn't want to surrender my Cloak Of Anonymity.) As I explained my frustrations, including a crash course in how the entertainment industry works so that he understood what obstacles I was facing ("Well, are you far enough along you can get an agent?" "Yeah, if I had $10,000 up front or more credits for the ones who work on spec."), the priest said, "Well, you know, most writers aren't well known when they're alive." Oh, really? J.K. Rowling. Michael Crichton. Dan Brown. Neil Gaiman. David Herbert. J.D. Salinger. Peter David. Brian Michael Bendis. Mark Millar. Alan Moore. Sarah Paretski. Sue Graton. Mary Higgins Clark. Bill Waterson. Charles Schultz. It's not a question of being well known, it's a question of being allowed to do the thing you know you're good at. I don't have to be a rock star in the writing world, I just want to know that I can do something and at least have a chance of getting it out there, of finding an appreciative audience for what I've created. I know chances are almost nil that I'm going to be able to write a book and then start pricing yachts. The success I want is based on achievement, not money or fame. As the Pet Shop Boys sing in "Opportunities", "You can see I'm single minded, I know what I could be." I'm just having trouble figuring out how to make the opportunities that no one is willing to provide.
The priest was sort of guiding the conversation to one of my mantras. My teacher apparently disagrees with it, but isn't up to arguing with me about it. Either that, or it's one of those Important Life Lessons that I need to learn for myself, no amount of teaching for her will make it sink in until I'm ready. I try not to bitch. I really do. I know I have no real problems. There are people homeless in the streets. There are kids starving. There are people with cancer or AIDS living with death every day, knowing that each heartbeat is another step closer by the Grim Reaper. There are soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan in body bags. I know I shouldn't complain and do everything I can to force my frustrations and anger underground. I don't see where I have the right. Even when my teacher would drag my frustrations out of me and get me to vent, I felt horrible afterwards. My mantra in life is simple -- "Life always sucks, some days it just bothers you less than others." The priest's advice was basically that I should accept that fame is elusive (which has nothing to do with my frustration) and that my complaints are simply "high class problems." While I fundamentally agree, the simplicity he reduced everything to doesn't sit well with me. He's basically saying I should accept my social caste. Never.
The very simple problem is this: ten years ago, I would have been thrilled with what I've achieved. I was in a small press book. I've done several online projects. I did a book that was in national comic shops. I'm not only doing video game reviews for a magazine, but they keep approaching me to do articles because they know I do quality work and get the job done on a tight deadline. I am self-publishing a comic book that may not have cracked triple digits yet, but the people who are following it love it. One reader works as an attorney for an indie record company. He was having a bad day and was about to do his taxes when Sound Waves #4 arrived. He put off doing his taxes so he could read it. Didn't take long, it's only 16 pages, but it gave him a real lift to read the book. My comic strip recently became Xeroxlore. These are all measures of success I would loved only ten years ago. Now, I just look and go, shouldn't I be further along than this? I had a book out in the stores, for Christ's sake! The remaining four should have been out, and I should be well on my way to a project being carryied by a mid-tier publisher, right? Why am I taking so fucking long?!?
I update my blog, and surprise, there's an e-mail back from my teacher. Forgot about the time difference, I thought she was meditating by then. She wanted to know if I was still online, if so, jump on my chat program RIGHT NOW! Great. I really didn't feel like getting set straight, I wanted to wallow in my frustration and self-doubt for a while and could have waited to send a response e-mail in the morning saying I'd already gone to bed. But she's my teacher, and when she says, "Frog," I jump. That's just how it is between us.
She starts off with, "Well, on the bright side, at least you are hating the world instead of yourself."
There's a lot of jawwing. I tell her I'm getting fed up with being hemmed in. I'm sick of the world's conspiracy to keep anyone they don't deem worthy from achieving anything. The Apple iPhone app store used to be a great place for indie coders, and knew a bunch who were earning supplemental income from the sales of their apps there. Then big houses like EA discovered there was money to be made there and are crowding the indies out. Movie theaters used to have openings for indie filmmakers like Roger Corman. Then studios discovered opening weekends, multiplexes, and deals tying up screens, and those without major studio backing got frozen out. Home video was their savior, and it wasn't unusual for someone to make a movie for $100K and make ten times that on the rights sales. Then the studios saw they could market their movies themselves instead of letting these guys handle it, and they could adjust the release schedule to suit themselves instead of what the stores or distributors would bear. There is not a single home video distributor from the era that is still around. Sell through was the next option, those el cheapo video tapes from Goodtimes or whatever. But the studios got into that, too, and all of them are gone. You make an indie movie, you need someone with an established channel or you'll never get in the shops. Because competition is now so cutthroat thanks to the Bigs co-opting "indie films", you now need visceral thrills to get the audience's attention. My movie Firewater! was rejected because there was no sex, no nudity, no violence, no dopey comedy, just a bunch of working stiff trying to keep from being screwed. "How are we supposed to sell something like this?" If it had been some lame comedy like what Adam Sandler or David Spade do, no problem. Tits are shown? Sign here! Gutwrenching violence? If it bleeds, it leads! Indies have to become mercenary to survive. Doing things the right way is dead. You'll never get anywhere that way.
Which, naturally, brings us to Diamond and its selective elimination of the indie field. The order can be challenged, but the people who can challenge it either aren't interested because they'll never sell as many books or they won't make enough money. Usually, it's the latter. Even for companies that offer creator owned outlets, no one creates anything truly different. Just "accepted different." A comic about supernatural control for the planet is considered different. Other than Jonah Hex (who has a movie coming out), is anyone doing a western? Is anyone doing a romance comic? Is anyone doing anything truly different? No. Why bother? Even though readers are clearly looking for something different, as evidenced by the revivals of big names like Jon Sable and Grimjack and the Valiant archives getting collected. Sales of books are actually lower than they were in the 80's. But, hey, we can package these into movie deals! Which means that the current audience will continue to shrink with no new blood coming in to fill it. And it will eventually go neutron star and collapse in on itself. Everyone is looking at Longbox as the future of the comic industry. It won't be. There will be a bigger profit margin, sure. But people are not refusing to buy comics because they like their stuff on the computer. That's not why people do illegal downloads. They do the downloads because the publishers are not providing value for the money. The big event stories in comics lately have been a series of plot points to keep up with. People don't reread the books. They have no reason to. They bag 'em, board 'em, then forget them. Steve Purcell, the genius behind Sam And Max -- Freelance Police, said he loves to sign comic books "that look like they were rolled up and put in someone's back pocket during a war. There's nothing sadder than a comic that hasn't been loved." For the industry to survive, for it to return to those lofty sales of the early 80's, you need people who want to make good comic books, not things that people just buy and as long as you got their money, that's all that matters. Celebrities are getting deals to create comics. Trace Adkins "stars" in a comic. Tyrese Gibson "stars" in a comic. Jennifer Love Hewitt doesn't star, but the book would have had a one-way ticket to the slush pile without her name. These people aren't interested in creating good comics starring them, they are just interested in creating comics starring them. It won't save the industry, it will only make things worse. And that's just from a story-creation perspective. If Longbox is a hit, there'll be exclusive deals and industry jockeying, and any indie that was looking at Longbox as the new Promised Land for comic creators will get shafted there as well, then where will they go?
My teacher told me that my compulsive overachieving and my fierce determination were great assets, in that they enable me to power through learning curves and stumbling blocks quickly. But there's a downside -- if I don't see myself making continual measurable progress, I don't think I'm doing enough or that I'm just not up to it and will consider giving up. This is bad enough when I'm doing something personal and don't think I'm measuring up (my artwork, playing the drums, etc.), like I'm supposed to achieve instant mastery of anything I set out to do and anything less than that is unacceptable and failure. I don't think I'm subject to a learning curve. This is made even worse when it is something beyond my control. There are ways to get the books out and build my following. But she points out, "How long have you really been trying? Sound Waves hasn't even been out for a year yet. And you are talking about an area of comics, trade shows and approaching stores, you've never had to deal with before. And you've never done any schmoozing or selling before, you've never developed the skills. You are still learning. Are you really surprised you haven't found the answers yet?"
It shouldn't be this tough for me.
"It shouldn't be this tough for anyone. But it is. Did you learn anything from this?"
Sort of. It might have been the right kind of show. It wasn't something underpromoted and just not done right like the Tinley Park show was.
"Good. Then you learned something from it. Take that knowledge and build on it."
Gee, thanks, Pollyanna.
"Well, if you'd rather stumble around the field and be willfully ignorant of what you can do to get better, that's up to you."
* facepalm *
She gave me the rah-rah pep talk. My diversity is going to be the key to my success. I am not restricted to only superheroes, I can write things that bring in new readers. I'm what the comic industry needs. I'm what readers want. I can do regular comics and run those at comic book shows. I can write stuff like Head Above Water and sell that at fantasy conventions. I can write Sound Waves and market that at family events. My new Project X, she's loving and says can be huge if I handle it right. And with the curiosity comes the chance of everything making people aware of other stuff or at least being open to trying it, even if they ultimately decide they aren't interested. My strength is in how I don't fit in with the norm, and I need to keep that in mind. But that means learning the best approach. What works for the norm, by definition, will not work for me. So don't get hung up. There's no guide, no map, nothing. I need to blaze my own trail. And I'm too determined to not make it happen.
I was getting tired and told her I'd mull it over. She seemed to think she'd made her point and she trusted that I would, so she let me go.
I woke up this morning, and I actually felt better. Still some anger and resentment towards the world, but it's at normal levels again. I spent a little bit of time working on Sound Waves. Rhapsody is like cheap therapy for me. I could be having a horrible day, but just a half hour drawing her and Melody, and I feel better.
And my mind starts wandering and coming up with potential Plan B's.
Looks like I'll be continuing my quest sooner than I thought. Shit. She was right again.