Note From The President, Cerebus 179, February 1994Copyright 1994 Dave Sim
I've been thinking that I might have to reprint these columns some time in the future (replacing the black indicia box with pithy little mantras like 'Draw a page a day' and 'don't fall in love'). At every signing and convention, I continue to get asked questions about topics I've already covered. It would be nice to be able to hand someone a little booklet instead. Anyway. Onward.
You have to strike a balance between being the biggest fan of your work and being your severest critic. I remember interviewing Berni Wrightson back in 1974 or so and him telling me that he likes to sit and look at his own work when he's finished a page that he's especially happy with. Up to that point, I was of the 'severest critic' school. I would occasionally do a piece I was happy with, but I tended to focus on those things I was dissatisfied with. Being mostly a critic of your own work leads to frustration and a sense of futility (I can't draw, so why bother). It also compels you to redo work that you've already finished and, as I've mentioned previously, there is really no time for that in the comic book field. At the same time, I have known many, many cartoonists who have had the opposite problem. They were the biggest and most uncritical fans of their own work that you could imagine. Most of these fellows (virtually all of them, in fact) were aspiring cartoonists. They achieved a certain level of mediocre proficiency and are (to this day) sitting in their studios waiting for the rest of the world to share their assessment. It's a real problem. On the one hand, being too critical of your work means that you get frustrated and give up, while being too big an admirer of your work limits your ability to improve. At essence, this is why so few amateur cartoonists become professional cartoonists: and why most professional cartoonists are of the 'skyrocket' variety. They appear out of nowhere, do a series of jobs that get better and better, reach a peak, flare briefly and then lapse into an endless regurgitation of a few stylistic tricks that verges on self-parody. Or, they vanish altogether from the scene into commercial art or animation.
The solution for me was to treat Cerebus as a process. Given that I was going to be very or somewhat dissatisfied with every page that I produced after it was done, I decided to treat each page as a learning process, accepting the fact that my progress would be of the 'four steps forward, three steps back' variety. Gerhard always remarks on the fact that he is unhappy with every page that he does. It is only in retrospect that he can see merit in a percentage of his work (once the current reprint volume comes in, we both sit, reading our copies and going 'Look at that - that's brilliant. Why can't I draw like that, now?). Over time, you will improve. Put another way, you can labour over each and every page when you are starting out. You can re-do the page a hundred times, but the odds are (unless you're Dave Stevens) you are going to hate what you did earlier after you improve (come to think of it, Dave Stevens probably feels the same way).
You also have to realize that this is a story-telling medium. It is, in Larry Marder's words, habitual entertainment. Your readers want to know what happens next. Pure and simple. I could have taken four days per page drawing High Society when I first put Astoria in the book and maybe some of those faces and hairstyles wouldn't have been so butt-ugly. It is only in the last two years, since the beginning of Mothers & Daughters that I have managed to put her on paper the way I want her to look. There are still angles that I draw her from that I am not happy with; but, over the course of ten years, I have been whittling away at the problem and I am closer to a solution now than I was then. But (and this is a big but) Astoria has consistently been one of the most popular Cerebus characters since her first appearance. Jeff Smith (I discovered after doing two Silver Snail signings with him) doesn't do sketches of Thorn for lot the same reason I don't do sketches of Astoria or Lord Julius; drawing them is hard work and they are not characters I can whip out as fast or easily as Cerebus. Jeff can do the Bones with his eyes closed, but Thorn is just not in that category. Thorn, Lord Julius and Astoria are also characters that look quite different from panel to panel. But, the fact remains that if I delayed the next issue of Cerebus trying to draw them 'right' or if Jeff wrote Thorn out of the story-line because he wasn't happy with every detail on every horn face he drew, there would be a backlash, in both cases, ofmonumental proportions.
Give your readers the next instalment of this story you have addicted them to. Do the best you can on it at the time you're producing it. Take it as an article of faith that you will improve. Then, some day, you too can be looking at a copy of your comic book from five years ago, and you, too, will be able to say like professional cartoonists the world over:
'Jeez. This looks like shit.'
Next editorial (The Notes from #180 don't deal with self-publishing so we're skipping to #181.)
Back to the DSMNFTP Archive