Puts You There Where Things are Hollow
OK, so you are looking at a comic I did back in 1990 that changed my life in so many ways. Not the way you’re thinking of.
It taught me some very important lessons about the comics business, fame, and more importantly, how fame doesn’t rub off. And how having reasonable expectations will keep you centered and on the right path.
Many people don’t internalize this lesson. And now that our industry is no longer just Fandom Culture but is now Celebrity Culture, we see more and more creators with incredibly unrealistic expectations getting into comics, expecting the sun and moon to rise out of whatever they do, and being disappointed and frustrated when they don't.
I got occasional mainstream comics work in the early 1980’s, but I was still looking for my big break years later, especially since a major gig I was working on got shelved forever. I cannot even begin to tell you just how much being out of the eyes of the market for YEARS at a time while you work on a gig - and then the gig never coming out - can absolutely sink your brand.
Nowadays we have social media. Back then, you had no way to be seen if your work wasn’t being published. People forgot about you in about 15 minutes.
So when I got a gig working on Amazing Spider-Man, you bet I was thrilled. And even more thrilled when the darned thing sold like crazy. This issue of Amazing Spider-Man outsold previous Todd MacFarlane issues. And I knew Marvel was looking for a new artist. Huzzah! I outsold Todd! Maybe the new artist should be me!
You can imagine how pleased and excited I was to go to conventions and sign copies of a book that hundreds of thousands of fans bought. It was fun getting my first big lines of fans. I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to push my other works to them as well.
But few Spider-Man fans were interested in my other books. They could not possibly care less about Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld, that’s for sure.
The Spider-Man glow was gone in no time. And Marvel picked Erik Larsen to be the regular artist.
I might as well have never worked on Spider-Man for all the long term good it did. Were it not for that one brief shining moment of royalty check (which was darned good,) it had no effect on my prospects.
While I got more work at Marvel, I was scrambling to make a living and took on too much, doing sub-par art that didn’t please anyone.
I realized pretty quickly that Spider-Man’s fans weren’t my fans. I might as well have been a spark plug on that issue. Fans lined up, got me to sign a book, and forgot about me the next day.
(Yeah I know some people say they love that comic, but I often hear from people who tell me how much they hated my art back then and how much they grew to love it later. Thank you, I’ll take it.)
Anyway, it was all a very tough lesson. But I appreciate that I learned it early before I got to the point where I could never learn it.
Fame isn’t transitive. It doesn’t rub off.
The public needs more than your proximity to something they know to transfer their attention to you and your work.
A lot of people got a taste of this in the early 1990’s. For a while, self-publishing was The Big Thing. I self published A Distant Soil and did well for some years, at one point making more than I could in mainstream comics, until the market crashed in 1996. A lot of creators thought if they just went to Image Comics, they’d all be millionaires.
That didn’t happen for almost all of them.
An old frenemy saw how well I was doing self publishing and assumed that if they just transferred their mainstream comics fan base to their creator owned work, they’d get rich.
But that didn’t happen. Their self-published work sold a fraction of what mine did. Their project died in the red. I never got my art back, including work from an unpublished future issue of the project. I remember being with this creator at a show and enduring their fury at how fans weren’t paying attention to them and their project.
How could this happen? They were a star mainstream creator!
The mainstream cred did not transfer to the other work. The fans wanted the famous characters, not the indie project they were trying to push.
There was no point in explaining this either. I’d learned this lesson myself, but this person never learned it.
Most people never learn it.
How is it that I work on Famous This or with Famous Person and why am I not famous Too?
Because fame isn’t transitive.
I’ve worked on projects that got a lot (and I mean a lot) of buzz, but there are projects that didn’t necessarily set the world on fire that did more for me as an artist and for my finances than “big” projects did.
Reign of the Zodiac and The Book of Lost Souls, both early/mid 2000’s comics with mediocre sales set me on a solid financial footing because they are two of the few regular monthly gigs I’ve done in all my years working in comics. That monthly paycheck paid more than the projects I’d done before them. The financial and emotional stability was beyond price. I loved everything about those projects.
Except for their premature demise.
The one and only famous project that had a major transformative afterglow effect re: me and my work was Sandman. I met Neil Gaiman years before I worked on Sandman, before he was famous. I only worked on two issues. Many other artists were far more important to the project than me, of course. Then I went for nearly twenty years solid without working with Neil at all except on a pinup and short story adaptation of Troll Bridge that almost no one remembers.
I started working with Neil again when he saw some art I did for a book for Tori Amos back in 2008. Tori Amos fans didn’t flock to my side when they saw it, yet another example of how Famous People Fame Doesn’t Rub Off. But I lavished time and attention on the project, did the art on spec with a completely new style and process, and showed it to Neil. I asked Neil if he’d take a chance at working with me again after lo, these many years and let me have a go again at adapting the story Troll Bridge that I’d botched in 1998. Neil said yes.
After The Book of Lost Souls got killed back in 2006, I could barely get arrested in comics and I wasn’t sure I had a future. I was shocked that Neil said yes.
That Tori Amos job reestablished my working relationship with Neil and brought me to Dark Horse Comics, a publisher which had shown little prior interest in my stuff.
It took me years to complete Troll Bridge and during that time, Peter David contacted me to ask if I’d work on Stan Lee’s autobiography. That came out of the blue, and boy did I appreciate it. It sold like crazy, which was unexpected, really.
So I went from Not Being Able to Get Arrested in Comics in 2008, doing 1$ sketch cards and working for page rates I worked for in 1986, to Not Being Able to Remember What I am Doing Because I have Too Much To Do in 2022. I mean literally couldn’t remember I did a pinup for a gig back in February, and I not only forgot about it, I didn’t know it was published last June.
It looks like I had a super fast and fun run up if you’re just looking at my highlight reel. But it wasn’t. I’ve had peaks and valleys, (a few very fine peaks, the best being around 1993 and the other now), and sometimes the “big time” projects I thought would make my career held me back worse than the “small time” ones. “Big time” projects got shelved or came and went, quickly forgotten, and I said no to other projects while I was busy, and the one that got away ended up getting made into a multi-million dollar film franchise that would have set me up for life.
If just being next to a famous person or working on a famous project was a guarantor of success, than I’d have been hugely successful every day of my adult life.
That is not how it works.
Even the famous people are not as all that as you think, otherwise you wouldn’t see so many actors with haunted looks on their faces at conventions.
I met Neil before he was famous, but it took over thirty years for me to establish a solid working relationship with him.
I’ve worked with famous wrestlers, actors, musicians, politicians, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, and on almost every single major licensed character there is. And I’m not super-famous or rich. I mean, I never wanted to be famous in the first place, but I’m not completely unknown in my field, and I’m not poor (anymore). Still, seriously, folks. I’m not going to movie premieres and living in Hollywood.
I actually get asked about that, and I think it’s so funny.
I was watching some recent art auctions, and I was absolutely shocked to see original pages by an Eisner-nominated creator go for rock bottom prices, mainstream interiors at around $50 per page. I could not believe it. This artist is over 40 years old. I wonder if things will turn around for them.
Time will tell.
In the end, it’s not all about the people you’re standing next to. Or the character. Or the company. Or the award. And it's certainly not all about you.
Fans are here for you one minute, and forget about you tomorrow. Then you get $50 for your Eisner nominated art.
Art either takes off or it doesn’t. You either take off or you don’t.
And then you can fly too close to the sun and fall.
Worse yet…you just fade and no one even notices that you crashed beautifully into the surf.
If people knew what the magic formula was, they’d be selling it and everyone would have what they want out of their art life.
But there is no magic formula. There just isn’t.
Everyone wants to be special to someone. Especially artists. Everything you create is special to you.
But it is extremely rare that what you create is as special to others as it is to you. Sometimes artists are just like everyone else.
Here and gone.
Fame and success is not transitive. And they're not forever.
That’s the lesson.