We hear from young people who feel that their lives are too boring to write about. Do you have any thoughts on the things you should pay attention to if you have a pretty routine school life?
With the first comics that I self-published, I was thinking, This is the most boring stuff from my life, but I just need an excuse to learn how to draw comics, so I’m just going to put it out there, and what I found is that, like, they’re not great comics, but the very act of filtering something as mundane as changing a flat tire in my car through my own sensibilities—not even trying to be wacky, but how I would present that to the world—made it special to someone who was reading it. It’s the idea of not discounting that just you, as a one-of-a-kind person, are the crucial ingredient that’s gonna make the work interesting. If five people were told to write a comic about the same experience, they would all be different, and they would all have different effects on the reader. I have never really put any premium on plot itself, or the subject matter or anything like that. I would probably say that if any of the artists in any media I admire were forced to just, like, make a film or a novel or a comic about some random day, like next Thursday, it would still be fantastic. And I think that I would encourage people to not get so hung up on the specific activities and details of their lives, but more on how they process it and how they would choose to present that to the world.
A Rookie reader named Naomi says, “I know this may sound cheesy, but what advice do you have for young artists who are looking to do great things and open their art up to the public but are lacking the confidence?”
So how to get over that inhibition, basically?
I think we did kind of talk about it, that it’s actually kind of useful to expect that it will be a bit of a struggle, and if you go in expecting that, you’re less likely to be discouraged right away. Also I think most artists who end up getting their stuff out there—even someone like me who likes to present himself as a person who’s very normal and self-doubting and everything, and it’s kind of creepy to think about, but if I’m honest—[there was a] 16-year-old kid who was making [stuff], and somewhere buried deep in that humility and modesty and self-doubt and everything was a pretty ambitious person who was like, “I’m pretty good, I’m gonna get this out in the world, I deserve to publish this.” You don’t want that to run amok, but I don’t think you should be ashamed of that. You should let that propel you a little bit. You can do it in a way that’s tasteful and polite, but no one’s gonna come charge you into your bedroom and say, “Your work is so great, I must present it to the world!” You have to do it yourself to some degree, and I think that it needs to be a balance. The idea of even recognizing that if you’re even just thinking, “Hmm, I think I could do something great,” means there’s a part of you that really thinks you’re capable of it, and that you should be one of those people, and I think that guides all the people who really follow through on it.
Without that, you don’t have anything.
Maybe there are a few accidental geniuses or heroes who somehow get swept up and discovered, but I think for most people you have to have a little bit of the self-confidence and think highly enough of their work, like, “Yeah, I’m gonna put this out there.” And with that comes, I would hope, a certain amount of armor against criticism. When I first started doing mini comics I was working in a fake world where my parents were reading it, like, “Good job!” and a few people in [California] liked it and everything. But when I started getting published by Drawn & Quarterly and being distributed all around the world, I got opened up to a lot more criticism than I ever had before, and a lot of it was accurate, a lot of it was true, that I really wasn’t a fully-formed artist yet, I wasn’t doing great work yet, I was kind of floundering around to find my own voice. But there was never a moment where I thought like, “So, therefore I should probably just bail on this.” I was either alternately like, “Fuck them!” or, “OK good point, let me think about how I might integrate that into my work.” Having those two responses continues to propel me, if you just get pummeled by it, then, I have to wonder if you were cut out for it.
Right. There’s kind of no way to prepare yourself mentally, you just have to do it, and you build up the muscle.
I think, like I said, low expectations are good sometimes. The success isn’t going to happen overnight, not everyone’s going to like what you do and that’s OK. You don’t need unanimous acclaim.
What should someone do if their teachers and parents aren’t very supportive?
My parents were supportive, but I didn’t have a lot of good art instruction. I went to kind of average public schools. For the most part, the art teachers were well-meaning, but maybe kind of tired-out guys who were sick of stoners smoking in the back of the art room or whatever. I don’t think I took a lot from those, and when I got to college, it was really before this shift had happened in North American culture where comics were a little more legitimate and considered an art form and all that stuff. I was very discouraged in my college art classes to do the kind of work that I was interested in doing. I never had any formal education about doing comics, but I learned so much about it outside the classroom, and that came in the indirect form of independently studying work that appealed to me and copying it and emulating it and learning in a very rigorous way, which I think anybody can do. Especially with being able to pull up images on the internet now, you don’t have to go buy an expensive book or anything. But also, to whatever degree is possible, seek out the teachers that maybe you’re not getting from your school system or at home. In school, you really have no choice about what classroom you’re gonna be assigned to, and you can’t control how your parents regard your endeavors, but in a way that is polite and respectful and everything, I think there’s a lot to be said for seeking out mentors and learning from people who are good at the thing that you want to do. That was my whole training: sitting alone and studying people’s published work and having the good luck of getting to know some of the artists who I had worshipped and getting to a point where I could ask them very specific questions and learn very technical lessons and also becoming friendly enough with them. I don’t want to tell people, “Go beat down the door of your favorite artist and force them to be your friend,” or something like that, but in some capacity I feel like there’s some way that people can learn from people who are a better teacher than the ones they’ve been handed. ♦