Cartoonist Drew Morrison on Pupating into the Self-Published Life
I should be inking. I could eat while I’m inking. Take a bite and ink while I’m chewing... Yes...If I do that, I’ll get one more page done tonight! One more page and I’ll feel good about this day.
These are the thoughts of a writer/artist under their own gun to hit a deadline that they created and only they can enforce. Accountability gets complicated when you’re the one keeping tabs on your own productivity each day.
Self-publishing a comic book had always been an interest of mine, and I started getting serious about my project Brokenland in 2016. This was after a number of years making art prints with the characters that would later form its cast. Deciding what my story would be about felt ominous and unknown, especially with no prior experience in narrative work.
My original idea for Brokenland was a mildly interesting exploration of the pitfalls of trying to be self-sufficient in an urban setting. Meeso, the protagonist, was going to fall from an apartment window and get trapped in a garbage-filled backyard, where they had to fend for themselves, collect water, grow food, harvest wild mushrooms, etc. That was it! The whole story would take place in this yard, a setting about as small as my mindsight in those early days of the project.
After working in a cabinet-making shop by day, I would carve out a precious hour or two in the evening to start this epic graphic novel I wanted to make. Instead of starting with a realistic page count, I wanted to do it all in one shot: an arbitrary 150 pages. I had a decent list of ideas that I wanted to incorporate into Brokenland and started thumbnailing scenes in no particular order, with no defined system of page layout. Sounds like a dubious method for writing a story? It was, and the layouts weren’t becoming any kind of tangible narrative. My doubts compounded over time and I ran out of steam.
After admitting that I didn’t have enough of a plan to begin the project properly, I decided to stop wasting energy and get myself focused on fixing our house and spending any precious spare time with my family. It felt like a failure as well as a relief coming to this decision. When I needed to unwind, I tried to read as many comics as I could. I also started reading about story structure and listening to interviews with screenwriters about their craft.
During the massive project of renovating and restoring the 1890s Victorian we had purchased, many new experiences came my way. I did demolition, crawled through debris, vacuumed mountains of mouse shit and worked physically harder than ever before. I learned about how buildings are made and how they decay. I drove countless times to the town dump and observed mountains of trash steaming in the sun, arriving day after day. I also started working through an identified personal problem of hoarding, which I had developed while living in NYC years before.
I’ll never forget the time a highway worker brought in a dead deer just ahead of me and dumped it onto the trash heap with all the dirty diapers, spent packaging and dried-up Christmas trees. A refuse worker picked it up in the jaws of a front loader and shook it around, making it dance and jerk as the limbs snapped and others looked on laughing. At that moment and in that place, something clicked and I became properly inspired, with a clear direction of Brokenland’s central theme: the insanity of modern wasteful living, only matched by a lack of foresight regarding its effects.
Now armed with a defined thematic aim and a more rounded knowledge of storytelling, I realized what had felt like procrastination or failure earlier on was very necessary. This had become a kind of creative cocoon phase for me, that would help transform Brokenland into a much broader, cathartic story.
Other important decisions came during my second approach. I would make it a "silent" comic, meaning there is no dialogue. While it does make weaving the story and expressing the character’s desires more challenging, the reader’s experience becomes a bit more special. Each person's interpretation of the narrative will be slightly different than the next, and those variations make the extra work worthwhile. I would start with a single 24-page issue and see if I could accomplish even that much. Lastly, I would design my pages based on the classic 9-panel grid, like so many of the comics I had read and loved. It still took 3 years to create, but giving myself a set of limitations to work within made all the difference.
5 years later, with 3 issues crowdfunded and the 52-page Issue 4 launching October 1st, I’m so happy I waited and gave myself time to grow. I’ll note that the new double-issue took 5 months to execute, and the work does get faster with experience! A great piece of advice I wish I had heard earlier is, "Don’t sit down to create the thing until you know what it is you’re going to be writing, scripting or drawing." That will leave you frustrated and questioning your motives in a dangerous way. If you’re not properly inspired, don’t sit there banging your head on the drafting table. Take that time and go find the life experience to fill in the areas of your story that are lacking. Earn some money in the process if you can; you’re going to need every dime to get your project off the ground. Comics is a demanding medium and requires creative stamina on a level I’ve never experienced. That makes finishing a project like Brokenland feel all the more heroic.