I Didn’t Come Here to Make Enemies

I’ll say it: I’ve been stuck.

In some ways I’m always stuck and just engaged in various stages of trying to wrestle myself free, but lately I’ve felt really stuck.

I cracked James Kochalka’s The Cute Manifesto in the studio a couple weeks ago because I’ve been trying to revisit formative reads from my early years of making comics and I couldn’t remember anything about it beyond a vague sense that it had been Important to me (although I was never really a dedicated reader of American Elf). The first piece is this:

Craft is the Enemy. I'm not exactly sure why I'm writing this letter, but I've been reading TCJ #188 for a couple hours now and my mind has just been racing and blood pounding. My excitement with the power and possibilities of comics mixed with the fear of a royally screwed-up marketplace... well, let's just say I've got a weird, shaky adrenaline rush.

I just felt suddenly like I had to write and say craft is the enemy! You could labor your whole life perfecting your "craft," struggling to draw better, hoping one day to have the skills to produce a truly great comic. If this is how you're thinking, you will never produce this great comic, this powerful work of art, that you dream of. There's nothing wrong with trying to draw well, but that is not of primary importance.

What every creator should do, must do, is use the skills they have right now. A great masterpiece is within reach if only your will power is strong enough (just like Green Lantern). Just look within yourself and say what you have to say. Cezanne and Jackson Pollock (and many other great painters) were horrible draughtsmen! It was only through sheer will power to be great that they were great. The fire they had inside eclipsed their lack of technical skill. Although they started out shaky and even laughable, they went on to create staggering works of art.

This letter is not for the established creators... they're hopeless. This letter is for the young bucks and does... let's kick some fucking ass!

“Craft is the Enemy” was originally published as a letter to The Comics Journal in 1996. It sparked a textual brawl between several readers and cartoonists (all, as far as I can tell, men) that lasted for months afterward. TCJ published an archive of all the letters on their blog, Blood and Thunder: Craft is the Enemy.

The debate exhausted me just skimming it.

I didn’t know about the fight when I opened the book. I just knew that somehow, a quarter of a century later, I was still the target audience for certain parts of this message: someone so prone to getting sidetracked by her own perfectionism that she was forgetting why she’d even walked into the room.

I am fucking petrified of starting work on my next project. I feel convinced that it won’t measure up to the standards of professionalism I’ve been cultivating from my own internal scripts and the constant barrage of everyone’s best selves on social media. I am someone who desperately needs the reminder that I have the tools I need to make comics RIGHT NOW, even if they don’t turn out the way I imagine they “should”. 

And look, before anyone brings it up, yes, I’ve been the person giving this reminder to others in the past. But it’s a role that’s hard for me to occupy right now. I needed to hear it from someone else. I needed it because I have plenty of proof that I’ll do well if I turn my attention to a project or task at hand, and that knowledge becomes a prison. Every project must be bigger and better than the one before. The line must go up and to the right. If you did well before you must do better now. The practice gets harder, not easier.

I fret and pace and gnaw my fingernails thinking about how much work it will take to cultivate the craft I think I need to make the thing I want to make the way I imagine making it, but no amount of craft will save me from the truth: nothing has EVER come out exactly the way I picture it in my brain. Not once. Every single time it’s a surprise. And I know from reading other artists’ accounts of their practice that this will continue to be true for the rest of my life. 

This is the struggle, but it’s also the joy of the work. It’s endemic to the practice. It’s a liberation.

Why do I keep forgetting?

I don’t want to obsess about what will make my work perfect. That’s an impossible benchmark. I want to engage with the parts of the process that bring me joy. I want to tell stories. I want to explore with words and pictures. I want to get closer while still knowing I’ll never reach the finish line. A lot of the time this goal makes me think of Hokusai:

[…] all I have done before the age of seventy is not worth bothering with. At seventy-five I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am eighty you will see real progress. At ninety I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At one hundred, I shall be a marvellous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before.

And yet, even he fell prey to it—right to the end.

If heaven had granted me five more years, I could have become a real painter.

I’m trying to keep skipping back and forth between dedication and gentleness, discipline and play. That’s what makes it a practice. Ním recently finished writing his Theory of Conceptual Labor after years of exploration and refinement. There’s a lot of craft at work there, but the text itself is also about this nebulous space of flitting from adherence to exploration and back again. (Writing about the Theory is a whole post in itself, so I’ll leave it for now, but I couldn’t not throw it in here.)

Years ago, on Twitter, I polled people on how they’d describe their relationship to creativity. I asked whether it felt like a job or an obsession or a calling. Everyone who responded to that poll had their own suggestions to include. I’ve thrown them all together into a loose mind map below:

A mind map of terms for creative practice gathered around color coded sections called Compulsion, Religion, Hobby, and Business.

This whole map feels true.

I have, at varying times, thought of myself as a craftsperson, a business owner, a religious zealot, a hack. I’ve pored over pages and relished the presence of thoughtful choices in composition and line weight. I’ve also seen the toll a dedication to craft can take on someone who’s being crushed in the vice of a traditional publishing deadline. I’ve copied and pasted and traced. I’ve insisted on using an Ames guide. I’ve worked digitally. I’ve worked traditionally. I want all of it. Is that so bad?

The roundup of letters from TCJ feels so deeply, seriously (and often cruelly and condescendingly) concerned with Rightness. Who is going to win in this fight? I wonder whether there’s more room these days for “This advice is exactly what some people need to hear, and for some other people thinking of comics as a craft is what THEY need to hear”.

Like…why fight about it? The relationship is between you and your work. What works FOR YOU in THIS MOMENT?

And then I realize where I’ve seen this pattern before. It reminds me of the ways I see queerness operating in our culture right now—working as a verb. There is, of course, still a lot of Discourse about identity and rulesets and gender and all the rest of it. The same patterns of policing abound. But I also feel like the increasing queerness of these spaces makes more room for a mentality of Yes, And instead of Either/Or

A trippy mess of overlapping circles labeled with things like ownership, mindfulness, kid self, hula hoop, trickster, ecosystem, low tide, and interdependence. The background is colored in with blues and greens.

When I look at the immeasurable wealth of queer identities and relationships and backgrounds at play in my circles, I see an enormous field of willingness to accept paradox. I see people engaging deeply and earnestly with the question of how they want to be seen and what they want to be called and who they want to get into bed with and how they want to love and where they want to fit in, but really, far more importantly, what makes them happy.  

And I see people supporting each other by applying a simple metric: 

“Does this nourish you? If so, I celebrate it.”

It makes so much sense to me.

When Tom Spurgeon interviewed Kochalka in 2008, he closed by asking whether craft was still the enemy. Kochalka replied:

Yes. However, because I draw so much, so hard, I almost can’t help but to improve my chops and solidify my craft. I have to purposefully cultivate a situation where I can still be surprised, where the new and unexpected sneaks in and overpowers my years of experience. 

Some people are very concerned about mapping and naming, plotting and quantifying. I run the risk of being that kind of person from time to time, too. Someone asked me the other day how long I’d been in unconventional relationships and I struggled to answer. I felt that pressure to be able to explain. To know.

But I never felt like I had a good name for what I wanted, so I just kept stumbling along a path without a map, until one day I looked up and found myself somewhere that felt like home. These are the ways queerness operates: by circumventing the boundaries of the expected. By overpowering experience.

Anyway, craft and queerness. Yes, And. Forage for what feeds you, leave the rest.

Let’s go make comics.

Compound

Back in February (oh, those heady, pre-COVID days…) I rewarded myself for bashing through my eighth tax filing as a self-employed artist by meeting a friend for tea. She listened patiently as I rambled about estimated quarterly payments and Roth IRA maximums, but when I bemoaned how much I still had to learn, she scoffed.

“I always think of you as someone who has this all figured out. You must’ve been into it as a kid or something.”

I laughed.

I did not like math as a child. I struggled with rules and numbers. Even today I have to fight to stay present when learning a new board game or trying to parse any kind of technical data. So it’s always a shock when someone thinks I’ve got this figured out. And from childhood? Yeah, right.

But as the conversation flowed on I realized there was something that had given me an understanding of how this practice could be pleasurable. I’d just never joined up the dots.

When I was about eight, I started receiving pocket money. Two dollars a week. Enough, if I saved for two weeks, for one of the smallest LEGO sets at the local toy shop. They were $2.95 a pop, the tiny, round-cornered price tags handwritten in loopy script. I’d generally save for two weeks and then blow my savings on a pirate brandishing a miniature blunderbuss or a deep sea diver sporting weighted shoes.

It was a peaceful time—until my mother introduced me to the concept of compound interest.

It started with a safe: squat and glossy and cherry red, with a tiny combination lock on the door. I can still feel the catch of the latch as the dial spun—this way, that way, click, open.

“You’re going to have an account with the Bank of Mummy and Daddy,” she explained. I was busy caressing the smooth red box, but I tried to pay attention. She handed me a narrow booklet. “This is your check deposit book. You write down all the money that comes in and all the money that goes out. Every week, when we give you your pocket money, you’ll put $2 in the deposit column, like this. Then you add up your new total over here.”

An unfolded checkbook with columns for Number, Date, Transaction Description, Debit, Credit, and Balance.

“If you buy a LEGO set,” she went on, “you write $2.95 in the withdrawal column and subtract that from the total.”

So far, so good. I could handle basic arithmetic.

But then she dropped the bomb:

“The account also has a weekly compound interest rate of 10%.”

I gave her a blank stare. Brave woman, she soldiered on.

“Earning compound interest means that the more money you save, the more you’re rewarded for saving. Every week we’ll see how much you have in your account and then take ten percent of that number and add it to your pocket money.”

I can’t imagine that I took to percentages like a duck to water, but after a few weeks the equation had become very clear. If I didn’t spend any money, I earned more money. Fast.

In ten weeks I’d saved $20—enough to double my weekly allowance. Then it became $50. Then $100. The entries in the withdrawal column thinned. The total balance went up by leaps and bounds.

Often, I would open the safe just to pull out the stack of bills and smack the soft, dense bundle against my palm. A tangible accumulation of patience. I remember how proud it made me feel. Secure and in control.

This went on for a long time—perhaps indulgently long—until I’d saved so much that my mother called a moratorium.

“The bank,” she declared, “has gone under. Let’s go get you a real account.”

While I was horrified at my new interest rate—a paltry 0.01% per year—the lesson had stuck. I was saving religiously, perhaps even a little compulsively. Over the next few years I started working lighting design gigs in my tiny hometown, socking away cash for international travel rather than bigger and better LEGO sets. When I finally felt ready to spend my savings, I had eight thousand dollars at my disposal—more than enough to cover the solo journey I’d planned around Europe for my gap year.

When I think about my drive to understand retirement accounts, investments, and budgeting, I think about that little red safe. The neat columns in the balance book made me feel like there was logic and order to this process. The increasing weekly deposits gave me a dopamine rush every time I resisted the temptation to spend. Even if I still struggled in high school math classes, I got a taste for the power and pleasure of making my money work for me.

I may never find a bank with rates to rival that first account, but now I can point to the thing that started me down this road. And if I ever have a child of my own, I will absolutely buy her another one of these.

A squat red safe with a piggy bank slot in the top and a black combination lock on the door.

Your Book Tour

Here’s what happens when you tell people you’re going on book tour:

Their eyes widen like they’re picturing private jets and limousines, booksellers laying stock to be signed at your feet, adoring fans queued up out the door. They congratulate you—assuming you have “made it.” You try not to let the lunatic edge invade your laughter as you thank them, unable to explain that they are wrong.

The truth is, you’re about to spend two months sleeping on couches and washing your underwear in the sink. You’re three months past the date any “real” author would’ve had their tour stops booked by a publisher, but you’re emailing venues anyway because you got yourself into this glorious mess, and you love it, and it’s time to go big or go home.

You fill pads of paper with train times and bus lines—an endless game of Cheap Travel Tetris.
You schedule posts on every social media platform known to man, but still manage to avoid updating your own website.
You learn that the barcode doesn’t scan properly on your entire print run of books. You make a lot of phone calls and hope you can fix everything before the ship date.

You whoop with delight whenever a venue confirms, then falter when you see all the other, more impressive authors on the week’s lineup.

You realize those authors may feel just as fraudulent as you do.

You set up endless Facebook events, cripplingly aware of how often you ignore invites from everyone else.
You find out exactly how many of your friends live in Minneapolis.
You worry nobody will come.
You worry everybody will come.

You throw yourself on the kindness of the Internet—your people, your tribe, your network. They offer rides, couches, venues, connections. You recognize, again and again, that you are nothing without them.

It will feel like a miracle any time you meet a flesh and blood human being who knows your work. These moments of connection will pile up behind your sternum. They will turn your abstract Twitter followers into live heartbeats.

Two months from now you know you’ll come home changed.

Distro for Dummies

Hi readers! This blog has been relegated to acting as an occasional announcement board for the last few years as I’ve focused my attention on other platforms, but I have some educational tidbits I’d love to share somewhere more permanent. So let’s try something new!

I’ve assembled this not-so-brief essay introduction to a couple common methods of comics distribution AKA “Getting Your Stuff Where People Can See It in the Retail World” that I’d love to share with you. I wrote it in response to an email from a comics friend I’d mentored some months ago, which contained the following conundrum:

I tabled at DC Zinefest today (my first fest!) and a couple of people from a comic book store (Big Planet on U st) and a record store approached me about buying some copies to sell in their stores. They threw around words like “wholesale” and “consignment” and I have no idea what any of this means!  Could I ask you some questions about the business end of making/selling comics? I honestly did not expect any of this and I am a little overwhelmed by it all!

When I sat down to answer I accidentally wrote a substantial primer on the subject, so I reproduce it here in the hopes that it will prove useful to some of you down the line!

Eh-HEM.

Section 1: Wholesale vs. Consignment

So when a retailer (like a comic shop or record store) buys stuff to sell, they’re generally buying it in bulk from a distributor (someone who handles sales for a wide variety of titles) at wholesale prices. This can mean a variety of things, but as far as you (an independent creator) are concerned, it’s generally around 50% of the retail or “cover” price on anywhere from two to ten copies of your work. Often a professional distributor (the big one in our industry is called Diamond Comics) is dealing with such a wide variety of stock and such large numbers that the discount is much deeper, but for smaller folks like us 50% is a decent shorthand. A retailer asking to buy from you wholesale is a good thing, because money changes hands up front, your comics get to go somewhere you don’t personally have to sell them, and you don’t have to keep tabs on how many copies you’ve got hanging around the shop on consignment.

There’s that word! What the heck is it. 

Consignment is a slightly different process where a retailer will take some copies of your book for a set period of time (anywhere from a few weeks to six months or more) and see if they sell in the shop. At the end of that time period, they’ll cut you a check for the goods that sold (if any), generally splitting it 60/40 with the greater share going to you. Not every retailer is the same, though! Some have a 70/30 split, others 50/50. They’re basically avoiding the gamble of paying for something up front when they don’t know if it’ll sell.

Now: as you may’ve noticed, consignment leaves a far broader range of opportunities for things to go squirrelly. Retailers can lose track of how many copies you game them. They can forget to follow up with you after the set period of time. I myself recently received a check for a whopping six dollars and eighty cents four years after leaving some copies of my Baggywrinkles minicomics at a comic shop in Chicago. (Their contract technically said that if I hadn’t been in touch after eight months I forfeited ownership of my books, so I actually thought it was pretty big of them to get back in touch and pay me.)

Anyway. Point being: if a store has a wholesale option in place, go for it. It’s a huge pain to keep track of all the moving parts involved in consignment stuff, and I’ve found it way simpler to just know that my comics will be going somewhere new and I’ve got a little money up front.

Section 2: DIY Distribution

What happens if you don’t get approached by retailers at conventions? ASK THEM FIRST! You can go into any comic shop, bookstore, or other neat emporium and ask the person at the register “Hey, do you have a consignment or wholesale program for small press publications? Could I ask about the terms?” A surprising number of shops do! Some places have a specific buyer who will need to take a look at your stuff and see if it’ll be a good fit, other places will just take any old thing from folks who come in.

Full disclosure: consigning my stuff at a comic shop for the first time was easily one of the Top Ten Most Horrifying Moments of My Entire Career Thus Far. I stood in front of this very kind cashier trembling like a leaf while they looked over my itty bitty comics and eventually, after a stretch of silence in which I’d decided I really was garbage and no one in their right mind would ever want to sell my work in any professional capacity, agreed to take six copies for the store. It was purgatory. It was dreadful. It is still dreadful. I’m a published author and I was still almost too shy to offer to sign the copies of my book they had at Powell’s because I didn’t want to make a fuss. THAT IS OKAY. FEAR IS NATURAL. DO IT ANYWAY.

It never hurts to ask a retailer if they’d like to carry your work.And don’t limit yourself to comic shops! If you make work that has a particular audience (horticulturists) check out local shops that cater to that crowd (nurseries).

Section 3: Professional (Indie) Distribution

Diamond Comics aside, there are rare, excellent humans who take it upon themselves to run distro companies specifically for small press people (and take a cut, obviously). The newest is Emerald Comics Distro up in Seattle. Anne Bean, who launched the operation earlier this year, has been doing an incredible job working with a wide variety of creators to get their work into comic shops in the Pacific Northwest. She’s got plans to take her operation national down the line, but for now she’s fine-tuning it in the region and it seems to be going really well. I started selling mini comics with her a couple months ago and it’s been a total pleasure at every turn.

She works with shops that do wholesale and consignment, but here’s the great part: she keeps track of all the fiddly details. With spreadsheets. It’s a thing of goddamn beauty. This is really the only situation in which consignment makes sense for me, because I’d forget my own head if it wasn’t screwed on and it’s just nonsensical otherwise.

Section 4: Profit Margins

The downside to all of this from a pricing perspective is that making minicomics is a pretty rough sell if you’re looking to turn any kind of significant profit.

Here are some numbers to demonstrate:

The little 24-page color travelogue minis I make here in Portland cost about $3 a copy to produce. (Note: this is because I am a big ol’ stuffypants about things like paper quality and color fidelity, so I could likely get them for cheaper, but I like making things that really look and feel good.) My rule of thumb for pricing is to triple to production cost. I used to sell them for $10 each, but dropped the price to $8 after they weren’t so new and shiny anymore. If a retailer buys those for $4 (50% of the cover price), I profit $1 per issue. If I make that sale through a distributor who takes a percentage of every sale, I’m looking at more like eighty cents. Sobering, huh?

Contrast that with Baggywrinkles, which (being printed overseas on an offset press where thousands of copies can be made swiftly) cost about $1.12 PER BOOK. It’s mind-boggling. Those copies retail for $20! Of course: when the distributor and the store and everyone else have taken their cut, every copy sold through Amazon or Barnes & Noble only nets me about $5.50, so let’s not get carried away, but still. Copies I sell myself have a much better profit margin.

Basically: it’s always worth crunching the numbers to make sure you know what kind of money you stand to make.

Section 5: Conclusion

So where does that leave us? Personally, I think making and distributing minicomics is a great way to get your work out there and connect with fans, but not a massive money-maker in the long run. And that’s okay! Tabling at conventions for my first few years in comics wasn’t a consistent exercise in turning a profit either, but it demonstrated to my fellow creators (and to the fans I picked up along the way) that I was in it for the long haul, and that I’d keep making new work and sharing it with people. There is a lot to be said for showing up consistently and sharing your work.

Plus: once people are into your minicomics, you can build a fanbase that will support you making a book! And after that, a plush toy! And after that A ROCKET SHIP THAT IS ALSO AN 18TH-CENTURY NAVAL VESSEL.

…if I’m lucky.

Now go make some minis!

New Essay: “Sexy Lucy”

Nude-Workup

“So, I have a challenge for you.”

I’m sitting on the couch scarfing pomegranate seeds and ice cream while my gentleman friend looks up from doing the crossword.

“I’d love to see you draw Sexy Lucy. I mean, if you want to. If you think it would be fun.”

I laugh through a mouthful of dessert. “What? Why?”

“Well, I saw you draw Happy Lucy today and that was really adorable, and I’ve seen Grumpy Lucy and Goofy Lucy and Tired Lucy, but you never seem to draw Sexy Lucy.”

Some of you may’ve already seen the essay I posted last week on Medium about setting boundaries in autobio comics, but I figured I’d post a link here too just in case you missed it. This is a question I’m always navigating in my own work, but it took a particular conversation to get me to articulate my feelings on the subject. How do we skew our lives in their presentation online? Can I craft an alternative reality in my work that alters who I am in the physical world? What right do my readers have to my innermost thoughts?

Give the whole thing a read and let me know what you think. I’d be really curious to hear from any of you (especially women) who handle questions of intimacy in your autobiographical work. Where do you draw the line and why?