Writing or drawing comics is not like, say, becoming an accountant or selling mattresses for a living. Making comics is not exactly like getting an MBA and then becoming a middle manager at the local cubical farm. Becoming a comics professional is far, far riskier.
During an Oni Press-hosted panel at Emerald City Comicon, creators Jhonen Vasquez, Erika Moen, KC Green, Zander Cannon and Erica Henderson detailed how they went from "normal" jobs to more unconventional employment -- including self-publishing webcomics about sex toys.
To kick off the panel, editor Robin Herrera asked for the panelists earliest influences. "My earliest influences were newspaper comics," said Cannon, who elaborated that as he got slightly older, he also started to get into the black & white boom of the 1980s.
Green also pointed to newspaper strips for his early influences. "'Far Side' was really big for me. I watched cartoons constantly. That's why I started to draw... Cartoons are what pushed me to keep going... stuff like early-90s Nickelodeon like 'Ren and Stimpy' and 'Rocko's Modern Life.'" Green recalled a specific episode where Rocko got a juicer that he, as a kid, copied in comics form. "I did a comic strip that was just that, but replaced with my character. I guess that's technically a storyboard."
Henderson traced her interest in comics back to cartoons. "I was really into film and animation," she said. "I read comics, but I sort of assumed I wouldn't make any money. I left the film animation area because I thought, 'I need to work with, like, 500 other people,' but I wanted to be really selfish with these stories." Of print comics, Henderson named Carl Barks' Duck comics and Milk & Cheese as early favorites.
The creator of "Invader Zim" and "Johnny the Homicidal Maniac" went back even farther. "I was a baby," Vasquez declared. "My earliest influences were clouds and bees. That's not a joke! A bunch of the ships in Zim were clouds. I'd stare at a cloud and say, 'That's a cool cloud,' and then draw a ship around it." Like Green, Vasquez also mentioned black & white comics of the '80s, particularly "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." "That was a huge influence," he said. "The first Ninja Turtles series where they were all identical and covered in scars. That was fucked up! It was funny! They were these turtle men!"
Risk was a theme of the panel, and Herrera asked the various creators what the biggest leap they ever took was. For many, it was diving into comics as a full-time gig. "My entire life, I never thought that artists could support themselves," said Moen. "Then, in 2008, there was a financial crisis... I was desperately looking for any work," she recalled. "I was on unemployment... I took my savings and I self-published my own book and I sold it to the people who would read it. In six months, I sold just about a thousand copies of my book." A thousand copies of something might not be much for a major publisher, but for Moen, it was a huge payoff. She was suddenly a professional.
Henderson also talked about losing her job at video game studio and being pushed into comics. "It's a lot easier when you don't have a job anymore," she said. Green also detailed about how he quit his job at a Game Stop, moved to Massachusetts from the midwest, and began a new life as a comics creator.
For Vasquez, though, there's far more risk in moving away from his established projects. "I've never thought about it," he said of his dive into comics. "I think one of my superpowers is that I don't really worry. I've gotten very lucky in terms of work... I think I'm taking more risks now in terms of pursuing things that people don't already want." Vasquez mentioned spending four years on an animation project that ultimately went nowhere. "Trying to do new stuff when it's harder and harder to do something new is incredibly horrible, and people are incredibly horrible. It's just a fucking horrible time," he said, smiling.
Asked about rules and conventions to be followed, and others that are best broken, Henderson cautioned against simply imitating the outside veneer of a successful work. "When 'Blade Runner' comes out, people are like, 'Oh, people like dystopian stories about cops.' No, people like stories about finding humanity. No one likes 'Time Cop.'"
Herrera closed out the panel by asking how the various creators stayed motivated regarding comics.
"I suck at other things," said Green.
Likewise, Vasquez said, "I think about how utterly useless I am... I am not the guy to go to in some apocalyptic scenario. I'm not the big murder guy, I'm not the structure guy. I'm the guy who's like, 'Let me tell you a story!' I have dreams about being useful."
"When you get to be 40, you can't switch careers," Cannon said, citing family as a reason why he couldn't get out of comics. "I would have to go into something that involved writing, or drawing, or design, and I'd be miserable again."
"I have a bit of a luxurious position in that I'm at Periscope Studio," Moen said of her situation where she works in a large collaborative space with several other creators. "There's this peer pressure to show up. You don't want to be the one who's dicking around." Moen also said that the sexually explicit content of her comics made her potentially ill-suited to more conventional pursuits, such as government work. "I am unemployable," she said. "If you Google me, you'll see my comics and it's like, 'Stick it in your butt!'"