Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Comic Creator's Nemesis

I'm sure you've heard some version of this story before. A writer sits down to write a story. He's got a looming deadline and needs to have something to turn in soon. Staring back at him is a blank page. And the writer? He's got nothing.

It's actually a problem that hits everyone in any creative endeavor at some point. With an infinite number of possibilities, how can you even begin to narrow that down into something manageable? Words can be combined in an endless array of stories. Lines can be drawn to convey the full breadth of human emotion. Music can be arranged to evoke any mood imaginable. What is it that the creator really wants to say with their art?

Interestingly, there are two sides to this coin, each having its own positives and negatives. On one side is the "artiste" who is not bound by any "normal" conventions like deadlines or censorship or anything. They can create anything that's physically within their power to do. As such, the blank page is truly about what they want to say or express as individuals. And if they find themselves staring a blank page, they have the luxury of assuming they don't really have anything to say at that moment and can step away until such time as their muse strikes. A lot of your self-publishing comic creators fall into this category -- they can make a comic exactly to their liking with absolutely no creative hindrances whatsoever. Their art, when it's complete, is uniquely their own. The down-side to this is that the very "luxury" they take with their creation does not generally pay the rent, put clothes on their back, or get food in their stomach. They then have to subsidize their art by working temp jobs or at a fast food restaurant or whatever. Harvey Pekar famously kept his job as a file clerk in a V.A. hospital while working on American Splendor in his free time.

The other side of the coin is commercial art -- art that is specifically created at the request of an outside party who is willing to compensate the artist for their time. While many people tend to think of advertising when they hear "commercial art" a good chunk of comic books are created under the same banner. Right now, DC is paying Mark Waid and George Perez to come up with 20-some pages Brave and the Bold on a monthly basis. If they don't do that work, they don't get paid. More to the point for this discussion, if DC is unhappy with the work that gets turned in or they feel it is not what they asked for, they can demand changes from Waid and/or Perez. While this stifles creativity somewhat and places (often) artificial hindrances on the art Waid and Perez are creating, they do not have to subsidize their art -- DC is subsidizing it for them.

And here's where the blank page comes to be a nemesis for the comic creator.

Regardless of whether or not a creator has a muse to inspire her, the people paying for a "finished" product (whether that's just a script or penciled art boards or whatever) have dictated a deadline as a condition of payment. By a certain time and date, the creator has to turn something in irrespective of how well-crafted or original it is. They don't have the luxury of stepping away from the blank page when they don't have anything artistically to say. They have to say something; they have to express something. Otherwise they won't get paid and they have to work at McDonald's so they can afford to eat. (And I can't think of anyone who would want to see Perez flipping burgers for a living!)

So how do comic creators solve the dilemma of the blank page if they don't have the luxury of walking away from it periodically?

Well, if you asked me, I'd say that's where the REAL talent comes in.

I'm not a great artist. I know enough about drawing to make something that looks reasonably like what I want it to look it, but I couldn't make a living at it. That said, though, I can actually turn out a really good illustration that would be almost impressive -- but it takes me an inordinate amount of time to do it. I have to be very careful and meticulous with my work and spend a lot of time focusing directly on every piece of it to make it look good.

But that's not talent, so much as it's stubbornness and/or determination. There's something to be said for that, I suppose, but it's not going to pay my bills, as I said.

By contrast, take someone like Jack Kirby. It's been said (repeatedly) that he didn't actually draw comics -- he just traced what was in his head. I've heard many stories from individuals who watched him work, and they've all said the artwork just flowed out of him. There was no conscious thought to layout or perspective or anatomy or any objective measure of his work -- it just... happened in front of him. He didn't think about how to draw Captain America leaping across a room to whack Hitler on the jaw, his hand just instinctively knew where to put his pencil to create that image.

I've heard people who engage in specific physical activities talk about "muscle memory." The idea is that, if you do something enough times or have a natural proclivity towards something, you can repeat that movement without much conscious thought. Scientists have actually determined that this is, in fact, a reality -- a golfer like Tiger Woods goes into an almost trance-like state when he's actively golfing. I caught an interview with Orlando Bloom a little while back who said that, after the Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean trilogies, he's developed an almost innate sense of sword-fighting. Their bodies are attuned to the movements needed to swing a nine iron or a rapier and, by letting those natural reactions take place somewhat automatically, they can repeat those movements extremely well on an ongoing basis.

I think the same is true for folks in creative jobs, as well. If you draw Spider-Man six times a day, every day, you're bound to get pretty good at drawing him well without a lot of conscious thought. If you write a 22-page comic book script for Batman every week, sooner or later, it will become like second nature. And, while those are specific examples, that holds true in a broader context as well. If you spend every day drawing for two or three hours -- whatever you happen to see: cars, computers, people, buildings, trees, etc. -- you're going to become talented at drawing in general. And if you spend a few hours a day writing -- whether it's a comic script, a journal, a blog, etc. -- you're going to become better overall at putting words together to form complete thoughts.

Part of the reason I started this blog was to "force" myself to write more regularly. I don't need to write much for my day job, and this gives me an outlet to put thoughts down in a (hopefully) cohesive fashion. (This is an idea I shamelessly stole from Mark Evanier, by the way.) I was actually a little proud of myself in 2007 for getting at least one blog post for every day of the year. But I'm exercising my mental muscle (indeed, the brain is just another muscle) for writing every time I sit down to bang out another post here. Theoretically, this will make that book I keep threatening to write that much easier once I get around to starting it, because I will have gotten used to putting words together to articulate my thoughts.

How many of you have guessed how I landed on the subject of this post? Yup. I was sitting here staring at a blank page asking myself, "What the heck am I going to write about today?"

So, for as much as I might say that I dislike a certain writer or artist, I have to give them credit for having things together enough to even create a comic book under the auspices of a large corporation. That they're able to put together something even remotely cohesive on a regular basis is impressive, and I have a HUGE amount of respect for the folks who can do it well. Whether it stems from natural talent or the diligence of ongoing practice over the course of years, I commend everyone who's able to make a living working past that perpetually blank page.

That being said, though, I still don't understand how Rob Liefeld can still get work.

1 comment:

plok said...

By the way, I think your writing's improving, Sean.