In the summer of 2021, I was strongly considering pulling the plug on my ailing comics career. While I had technically endured the rigidity of the sequential storytelling milieu spasmodically since 2009 with my first self-published title, it wasn’t until 2015 that I shed all superfluous ventures and prioritized the requisite steely resolve to transform passion into occupation. Establishing myself as a full-time cartoonist demanded not only countless hours but a Kevlar skin, and as I trudged into my forties, said prime directive remained an odd peep show for which I had run out of quarters.
The preceding paragraph may have already elicited some trepidation regarding whether or not to continue down the ensuing rabbit hole of self-reflection, but to coax your continued engagement, I’ll inform you at the outset that this will provide a gratifying ending. In fact, as you may already know my debut middle-grade graphic novel was recently announced! The Ill-Effects of Pickled Herring is slated for a September 2023 release from the magnificent West Margin Press.
While the road to becoming a published author can be a winding and harrowing journey, filled with rejections, setbacks, landmines, and heartbreak, I wanted to use this platform to focus on the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. It may seem as though I’m regaling you all with some of the less glamorous aspects of finding one’s way, but I also aim to possibly disabuse readers of the notion that success and youth are intrinsically linked. Accomplishments at any age are to be celebrated and respected. Watching contemporaries speed past as you’ve seemingly stalled on the highway to a fruitful career can be disheartening. Moreover, using the flight path of others in your chosen field—specifically those who are lauded as wunderkinds from a tender age—as a metric for your own advancement is self-sabotage at best.
I would like to share this Jason Mantzoukas quote I recently stumbled across while listening to one of his interviews:
I had a casting director say to me once, very early on, like in 2003 or 2004, probably one of my first pilot seasons out here, she was like, “You’re not going to work for at least another ten years.” She was like, “You’re really funny, but nobody’s looking for you. Nobody’s looking for what you’ve got. So, just keep going, don’t get discouraged, but it’s going to take a while for someone to take a shot on you,” and it really was about eight or so years later that I got The League. It really was once that one job happened then it was a cascade of other things. It took that show for people to be like, “Oh, I know how to use him.”
The reality of pursuing a career in any creative capacity is that it may well take years, if not decades, for an audience to inadvertently discover your outwardly overlooked efforts. Sometimes, it merely requires the insistence of one influential voice to toss a life preserver your way and reel you in from the tumultuous waters of obscurity. Either way, there is only one truth behind every artist’s pilgrimage to the promised land, and that is no two experiences are identical. Every writer, illustrator, musician, actor, etc. must forge their own path and endeavoring to demystify some of the more furtive (i.e., mundane) aspects of this process. I’ll share my personal expedition as succinctly as possible.
It was around 22 that I gravitated back to what was then still a somewhat maligned and unassuming domain of funny books. The reason for my protracted absence from comics has been covered in a previously posted Comic Book Yeti interview and an essay for the June 2021 edition of Monkeys Fighting Robots Magazine. The impulsive decision to forego college was made as my uneventful high school days came to a close in the dark ages of the late nineties, long before MFAs in comics were even an itch in Joe Kubert’s pants. I ignorantly waltzed into my intended arena with a dearth of the foundational elements essential to honing one’s craft, starting from square one when the majority of others in my generation were graduating and diving headfirst into their burgeoning careers. Again, diverging tracks.
Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I hopscotched from one creative aspiration to another, including music, animated series, children’s literature, and, of course, comics. The issue that bubbled to the surface of my boiling cauldron of ambition was that each individual venture required 100% of my free time. Due to my fractured dedication, any opportunity to make headway eluded me. Drowning what would later be diagnosed as O.C.D. with copious amounts of alcohol severely hobbled any artistic advancement as well.
This isn’t a sob story though, nor is it to say I was completely unmoored from the comics landscape during those less-than-exemplary years. From the ages of 24-29, I was intent in securing a coveted position on the funny page as a syndicated cartoonist influenced by Berke Breathed, Roy Crane, Walt Kelly, Carlos Castellanos, Lynn Johnston, Chester Gould, Jan Elliot, Frank King, George Herriman, et al. Though in the early aughts, as everything including periodicals migrated to online platforms, print media was a vehicle spiraling in a fiery nosedive, and what was once an already competitive field became a virtually impregnable vocation.
As I approached my thirties with little more to show than a few rudimentary submissions to the newspaper syndicates and innumerable demos from various musical outfits, I made the decision to switch tracks. I hopped aboard the direct market train and acquired my first graphic novel contract in 2013 from Arcana Studios. The Unemployment Adventures of Aqualung did little to propel my ascent into the upper echelon of comics professionals as I naively hoped, but it was a fantastic learning experience and led to a few other gigs. When the trail of breadcrumbs ended in 2014, I found myself stranded, and at a crossroads.
So how does an uneducated (now recovering) alcoholic turn the tide on a flailing course to become a professional graphic novelist? If your first impulse would be to say, “quit drinking,” you would be correct. However, this is not the initial measure I adopted. The first step towards entering my desired métier was an evaluation of the isolated arena in which I would have the most likely chance of succeeding, and abandoning other temporarily superfluous pursuits. For better or worse, I opted to hedge my bets on comics.
I’ll avoid further obfuscating my point by omitting a prosaic montage of the year and a half I spent sharpening my writing prowess by crafting a number of short stories—some of which were accepted by one journal or another—and one unbelievably atrocious novel which will never see the light of day. There was also an inordinate amount of time spent reading as any writer worth their salt will advise is necessary to the structural integrity of the scribbling skillset. All that said, it was from my amassed pile of execrable narrative manure that the seed of competence sprouted.
With the assistance, and insistence, of my editor friend Francis Lombard, I veered back to my first love of illustrated storytelling with the webcomic Decades of (in)Experience shortly after turning 35 in October of 2015. Six months after Decades debuted, the online literary magazine Drunk Monkeys offered me the opportunity to launch a second webcomic, and Mr. Butterchips was born! As much as I’d love to proclaim a brilliant moment of artistic immaculate conception, this curmudgeonly capuchin was a compelling holdover from one of my failed comic strip submissions.
Finding an audience was a challenge during this time, especially with my deficiency of connections or a track record, but I pressed forward. It goes without saying that I wasn’t earning much more than chump change from my two main features during these lean years. As such, I found it necessary to remain a full-time cog in order to cover life’s nettlesome expenses like food and rent. This meant that between the years of 2015-2018 I was balancing two webcomics, contributing short pieces to a handful of online publications, and toiling away in a thankless day job all while doing my best to promote my work and retain the favor of the bare minimum of admirers I was able to attract.
Curating an online network of contemporaries, including those in the press arena, was integral. The support and encouragement mutually provided emboldened my development even when I believed my motivational reserves to be depleted. Bolstered by the camaraderie, I persevered and waded into the murky waters of querying literary agents. Again, I’ll spare you the gut-wrenching details. The result was securing a vindicating contract with Peter Ryan of the venerable Stimola Literary Studio in April of 2019. One could easily be lulled into a false sense of security now that a respected literary agent seemingly plucked me from insignificance to broker the deal which would catapult me into the stratosphere.
If only it were so easy.
Upon exhausting all publishing houses, the manuscript which won me an agent would now languish in literary purgatory for the foreseeable future. I licked my wounds and found solace in the composing of a brand-new work of personal resonance. Sadly, our involvement was severed due to some upheaval in Peter’s life before there was a chance to embark on the submission expedition for what was to become The Ill-Effects of Pickled Herring. All was not lost though as Allison Hellegers, a Stimola colleague, discovered the story of b’nai mitzvah mishegas and saved the day with an offer of representation.
Allison and I set about polishing the Jewish-themed opus and our first round of proposals were dispatched to the email wilds of editors’ inboxes in February of 2021. This energetic burst was followed by deafening silence. Then passes trickled in. Some were ambiguous. Others conveyed objections to my writing and/or art style. Then there were the frustrating third or so of responses that delivered apologies, as they adored the project yet were not in a position to accept further graphic novels at the time.
When it appeared that all had been in vain yet again, West Margin Press sent word in November of 2021 of their intentions to acquire my book. Some six years and one month after truly dedicating myself, it would appear as though I finally caught my break. The mind reels when pondering what could have been accomplished had I gotten my act together ten years earlier or was never disabused of the notion that I had even a smidgeon of talent when I was a child.
But I digress.
As posited at the outset of this epistle, there is no set course or time limit for successfully instituting a career in the arts. While some creators are acknowledged and revered before they’re legally permitted to buy booze, most need the courtesy of a wide berth to mature and find their unique voice. The motif I mean to convey is that of dogged perseverance. Had I submitted to my doubts and dismissals from professed arbiters of the trade, I would have extinguished my attempts some time ago and always wondered, “what if…?”
Jack Kirby famously said that comics will break your heart. He wasn’t speaking of the act of creation, mind you. On the contrary, he fervently advocated for artists' rights and recognition within the field. When King Kirby uttered these hallowed words, he was referring to the business of comics. This industry has an innate ability to cause creators to feel invisible or worthless. Gatekeepers continually invite the aspiring scribe and/or illustrator to concede defeat in the face of overwhelming odds and move on. The only way you allow the naysayers to win is by capitulating and surrendering. At 41, I’ve been given the opportunity to avoid waving the white flag for a while longer, and that’s more than enough for now.