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Dilettante 029: Sustaining Career Momentum

Steve Lieber

Breaking into comics is tough; no one will disagree with that. But if you're an artist getting ready for your first job, you've had literally your entire life up to that moment to prepare for that job, to assemble that portfolio, to think about what you want your work to look like. That could mean years of preparation, all with the goal of getting your foot in the door at a publisher, or launching that webcomic.

Then you've only got a few weeks to do the next one. And the one after that. And the one after that. A few years pass and you're keeping up with the deadlines, but your work isn't eliciting the sort of delighted, surprised reactions it used to. You find you've dug through your bag of tricks, and the clever stuff that had gotten raves on Twitter is being greeted with polite acknowledgment. The editor that loved your work has been promoted to marketing, and her replacement is slow to return your emails. Sales are down, and the publisher won't say the book is cancelled, but admits they are "reevaluating some plans." Or maybe that Kickstarter barely made its funding. What's going on? You thought breaking in was the hard part. Turns out staying in is even harder.

What you've run into is something that a lot of cartoonists face. A career isn't just one project, it can span decades. And it can be tremendously difficult to sustain momentum throughout it. I'd like to share some thoughts about ways to keep a career going. It's important to note that what I, or any "expert," tells you about topics like these will be riddled with survivorship bias. Still, with 20 years in comics, and a lot of conversations with peers under my belt, I think I can offer some worthwhile suggestions.

1. Change What You Do

People have a lot of decisions to make. Creators, readers, journalists, editors, publishers, they're all flooded with demands on their time and attention, and it can get exhausting. One of the ways we cope with this is to assign a label to something or someone, and let that label do the thinking for us. If that's happening to you, if you've been typecast, it's time to show them what else you've got. Known for dark horror? Do an all-ages story. Your readers expect frothy escapism? Show them something grounded and personal. Most creators I've spoken to have more than one approach in them. I know you've probably heard lots of advice about how important it is to "maintain your brand." And it is! But if you've built your brand doing one sort of work, and it's not finding an audience, you're going to have to expand your brand.

2. Change Where You Do It

Has all your work been at traditional venues? It's time to take the web seriously. Have you stuck with one publisher for a long time? You might find that you're more appreciated elsewhere. An artist I know had been under exclusive contract with a big publisher. After several years of terrific work, they declined to renew his exclusive, and wouldn't offer any reason why. He accepted a couple of short assignments at a competing publisher and when these were announced, the old publisher quickly offered him a new exclusive with better terms than he had before.

A sad fact: It's hard to generate interest and discussion when you've been consistent and reliable. "Jane Doe continues to do good stuff" just isn't a compelling news hook. A maxim you'll sometimes hear: "There are only four positive stories they can write about you: 1. You've arrived. 2 You're the next big thing. 3. You're making a comeback with something new. 4. You're returning to some previous success."

3. Expand Your Reach

You know a lot of people, but you don't know enough. The people who make, market, review, and publish comics are all on social media. Take an interest in the conversations that are going on. Share your ideas and expertise, and listen to what they have to say. Invest the time to build acquaintances and friendships. Don't think of this as work—these are people who love a lot of the same stuff you do. And don't approach the venues like you're just placing a bunch of free ads. I've said this elsewhere, but it bears repeating: you don't want to act like some kind of sociopathic promoto-bot. You're there to be an interesting person engaging with other interesting people. A helpful side effect of this is that in a business and artform like comics that runs on personal connections, you'll be in a better position to learn about emerging opportunities. And readers who find you interesting as a person are more likely to want to investigate your work.

You'll also be exposed to a much broader selection of material. Making comics takes so much work it's easy to fall into a rut just to get the work done on time. You want to keep filling your eyes and ears with other ideas and possibilities, and the people you meet via social media can introduce you to tons of great stuff you'd never otherwise see.

Finally, I can't stress this enough: you'll want to get to know these people in real life too. If you live in a town with other comics people, meet them! Organize a drink & draw or a weekly coffee meet-up. Show your work and see what they're up to.

4. Learn Some New Techniques

There are so many more techniques for making comics now than there were 25 years ago. The only rule is "whatever works." If you've been mostly pen and paper, try doing a story or a sequence digitally. If you already have a computer and graphics tablet, adding Manga Studio 5-EX to your workflow is incredibly cheap, and very easy to learn. (I'm not a fast learner, but with a friend nearby to answer a few questions, I was getting professional work done with Manga Studio half an hour after installing it.) Are you one of those artists who has problems with complex things like cars or architecture? Look into what incorporating 3D models can do for you. In the pen and ink days, drawing with white on black was kind of a pain. Digitally it's easy. Maybe try drawing your next nighttime sequence that way? Or drop black altogether and find out what you can do with line art in a digital palette of one warm and one cool color. If you've never worked with models before, see what it does for you to shoot photo reference. If you always use reference, try cartooning without any.

And don't wait until it's crunch time to try these. I've spoken before about how valuable it is to keep a sketchbook and try different things. Devote some time to developing your eye for other approaches, other possibilities.

5. New Business Strategies

Sometimes you have to regroup completely. There's no shame in leaving a project that isn't working, and there is nothing, NOTHING, wrong with getting a day job, or taking on non-comics freelance work and making comics in your off-time. A lot of terrific artists have found that tremendously freeing creatively. Once commercial constraints are off the table, you're free to do exactly what you want, the way you want it. My biggest breakthroughs as an artist have generally come on projects with minimal editorial control, or even input. And most of the work that I've paid the bills with over the years came to me because of the enthusiastic reception those non-commercial projects received.

And be sure to look into all the many, many ways to market what you do. There are multiple worthwhile conventions just about every week now, crowdfunding platforms, affordable print-on-demand options like Amazon Createspace. You can sell through eBay, Etsy, Gumroad shops, Big Cartel stores. New possibilities are constantly arriving. Talk to your peers and find out what's working for them.

And I'm eager to hear what's working for you too. Get in touch and let me know! You can reach me on Twitter @steve_lieber or Facebook. Or talk to me in person at San Diego Comic-Con International July 9-12.

Steve Lieber's Dilettante appears the second Tuesday of each month here on Toucan!