Oh the sweet brambles and peaceable meadows of collaboration…
I have done this right and also so SO very wrong. Working in a creative partnership is tricky business indeed and yet it can yield incredible rewards if you manage to navigate it’s pitfalls and successes well enough. The scale of that partnership can range from the cooperation between Editors & Art Directors to writing partners and even the wild and rare lands of co-painters. Each carries it’s own set of rules, laws of physics and pitfalls, but they all share commonalities that I wish to impart from my many errors to you, so that you may be lucky enough to avoid them. That may be impossible, and most lessons, like the actuality of fire burning your finger when you touch it, require doing it to truly learn it… but sometimes one can be saved. I have two major poles of success and failure to talk over,
one with a creative partner of almost ten years that blew to bits and another, my current
partnership on INDEH that could not be more successful and healthy, so we’ll get into
that as well. 9 easy steps to avoid most of the calamities, but no money-back guarantee included. Okay, ready set… speed-date go!
Walt and his Dad at the breakfast table (from THE LOST BOY)
Like all marriages and the closest of friendships, t’s all about communication. This is easy when things are fine and smooth, but are more difficult when the opposite is in effect. Thing is, communication is even more essential when things are sour. Better to talk it out asap, keep everything open and honest and up front. Most working relationships collapse under the weight of suspicion and presupposed ideas about one another rather than what;’s really going on. At the very least it’s a place to affirm the them, and make sure your goals remain synched. Talk. It. Out. It’s not a sin to look out for your own self interest in a partnership- the problem comes when you do so at the expense of the relationship. It’s you and you two, and you’ll be better off servicing all of you to talk through your wants needs and desires. This will also help establish and reveal fault lines and disagreements early so they don’t sneak up on you later.
Set the Laws and Rules Early, and Stick To Them.
You don’t have to organize a Magna Carta, but you do need to layout ground rules and you must do this right away. You don’t necessarily have to craft a formal contract, thought that shouldn’t e out of the question. Uncomfortable subjects are either going to come up early when they’re speculative and small or they’re going to come up when they are real and large and harder to deal with. Try to talk with others who’ve been through this kind of thing and hear about what worked and what didn’t. You can’t predict everything that can transpire, but you can set up a rulebook to help manage the unknowns in a way that keeps the partnership thriving. For example, agree to always discuss with each other any proposal that comes before making a decision. Set times to talk and connect and check in especially if you and your creative partner aren’t necessarily in the same city or area. Set up rules for dealing with a crisis as in a specific set of procedures to keep things cool… knowing the ground rules and the firmament of your relationship early will promote confidence and a sense of calm when things get hot. It will also help to keep decisions based on thoughtfulness rather than emotion, and sometimes either from excitement or terror, things can get emotional.
Making plans for tomorrow (from A PIRATE’S GUIDE TO RECESS)
Another major aspect is to be certain your extant partners, your respective agents, managers or even spouses are known clearly and their sides clearly lined out. Your partner’s wife or husband is going to be on his or her side before yours, for example. That’s not a betrayal, that’s just natural, so make sure to not expect him/her to side for your partner’s interest over yours. You partner’s agent has to become yours otherwise he too will be naturally focused on your partner’s interest primarily. The bigger your thing gets, the more people will come in to act in supporting roles, whether it;s a team of production staff on that end, or the presence of lawyers, agents or business managers. Make sure to neutralize as many close to the situation as possible from being on one side versus the other. Those that can’t won’t or shouldn’t be made to choose the partnership over the individual, must be identified as such so that when they don’t want you to go on a long book tour because you’ll be leaving them alone with the kids for a month… you know where that’s coming from and why. The more people in the dance the more complicated the dance gets, but the movements and actions are always stilled ruled by simpler basic goals and forces. Keep those identified and in check and you can juggle an army of players. Get caught int he confusion the situation can bring and you have the other thing.
Personal v Professional
(from ALABSTER: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE BIRD)
These are the rocky shoals upon which most partnerships collapse into chaos, fights and collapse. I have had one of my longest termed partnerships collapse under this difficulty. And frankly it is clearly tricky to do. He saw distinguishing between these two poles as antithetical to the partnership whereas I saw it as essential and not getting that sorted out early doomed us. From my own experience, keeping these two more or less separated is key. There will always be overlap, and that kind of overlap is good. For example- you’re in a pitch meeting, and essentially professional environment, you personal relationship and its strength can be a real energizer int he room. It can make the production people there feel like they have a strong marriage in front of them and can be electrifying. The trouble comes largely when one or the other responds in a personal way to a professional situation. Say, taking personal umbrage that can build to resentment and a narrative of aggression for a practice or event that was about a line of a contract or arguing for a particular direction in a project. It’s one of the most important two-way streets around and requires both your ability to separate your personal emotions and prejudices from the professional job in front of you, and for the other to do the same. The secret beast in all of this is being able to be empathetic and personally generous to the other- to know even in the most intimate moments of your creative partnership, that the other person is a different person and may behave in a way that seems inexplicable without context. Your partner not calling you back as soon as you like could easily not be about you at all, but his/her own life circumstances- don’t make it about you. Defer to the professional first as a moderating forum before going personal.
The overal dynamics of this arena are hugely different if you’re coming into a creative partnership as pre-existing friends, than when you become friends via the professional partnership. Overall I have found the latter to be a stronger fit that the former. There’s less imported baggage and the former only requires more clear eyed communication going in to ameliorate that. But suddenly making a professional argument over contracts can feel cold or off putting in a pre-exisitng personal relationship. It gets tricky and is something made all the more functional by sticking close to rule #2.
It’s not your partner’s job to know who you are, what you want and where you want to go.
Get in front a mirror and figure your shit out, pronto. Not knowing can lead to real trouble. Your goals and your partner’s may not be the same- and that’s fine. A major component of my first meeting with Ethan to discuss INDEH was setting our goals- I was steadfast in making sure we focused on making the best book we could ever make and worry about the expanded opportunities later. I wasn’t against a film or tv thing after, I just didn’t want that to be the goal, and the book a mere means to that end. It turned out he felt entirely the same, and so we were off and running. It’s helped and come up a few times as we move closer to the production aspect of the book and even though we may find ourselves in a position to have to discuss this even before the book is done, having set that bar and come to it exactly from the same perspective early on, has made navigating these circumstances a snap.
Dr. Auget sees truth of himself at last (from SUDDEN GRAVITY)
Another thing to consider is that your differences whether in terms of outlook or
professional goals don’t necessarily have to be deficits. Being in lock step with each other can ring on trouble too- especially in terms of presumptions in a given situation. Your partner’s gregariousness in a pitch meeting or an interview situation can be a boon to balance your more quiet and shy approach to such environments. If that’s the case, talk it through, identify this and let the other guy do his dance, because he dances better than you at this and in the end, it’s less about you than it is about you two. If one of you is better at detailed narrative structure, trust that person in those circumstances. Don’t force the plumber to be a good carpenter and vice versa. Know what your strengths and weaknesses are, and know your partners. Shore each other up in the weak areas and strengthen each other in the strong and you’ll be unstoppable.
Two Pirates together (from A PIRATE’S GUIDE TO RECESS)
It’s about you two. Sometimes there’s more in the partnership, but the rules
of two apply to three or more so let’s just keep it simple. When you are in the partnership, of the partnership and involved in work via the partnership, you are not a lone wolf, you are a pair. Think along the lines of the pair. Check with your partner before major decisions appointments and the like, just like you would with your wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend. This is not to say that you must subjugate your personal goals and feelings to the group as a whole, that would only build up resentment. And believe me unchecked resentment is the biggest killer to partnerships. Be able to get outside your own concerns and even take it further if you need to bring in an outside arbitrator to manage a dispute. Sometimes it’s just too hard to divest yourself of yourself and a third perspective can save the day. Many times an editor or AD can be a great resource for this as there is a natural distance built into that system. As friendly as you may be with your art director or editor, there is an obvious professional tinge to your relationship that can provide essential perspective. Use it. Recognize when you’re making something about you rather than about the thing. Know where your ego is informing your professionalism and your time together.
Sometimes your partner may be more known or publicly powerful than you are, and that’s fine.
When people come clawing over to get a selfie with Ethan or want to talk about Prince and I am merely an obvious agent to their star-crossed goal or impediment, I don’t make it personal. I’m fine with that because I know I don’t want that for myself anyway, and so don’t care when I am ignored for the other. I prefer it to be honest because for me personally I find fame to be a dangerous dance to move into and I’d rather just opt out thank you very much. I don’t get jealous about it or mistake it as a judgement because it isn’t and that keeps it in perspective. My partner’s fame can be a real asset for our project and I aim to use it as he does to make our thing more successful. It’s about the thing we do together not about the ego of needing to find acclaim. Now to be fair this also requires the other to keep his adoration in check as well. If he were all about this aspect we’d have trouble, if he used it as a way to keep me in a subordinate position, we’d have trouble. Because it’s never that it flows over and past us like a breeze. It can be distracting and sometimes irritating, but the outside forces trying to pick favorites don’t mean you have to.
Success can be the Most Dangerous Influence
Difficulties, money stress, too long trying to make it are hard times to go through and they can really fortify or dissolve a partnership depending on whether you use each other for support or try to use each other for food. Think of it like you two on a skiff bobbing around int he ocean alone. You either work together to survive the storms and sharks or you have an enemy in the boat you also have to fight. For all the difficulty in these areas, they are nothing compared to the dangers of a partnership that meets success. In a fight or failure, the enemy is obvious. the foe is before you, in times of success, this is far less clear. When notoriety or large amounts of money show up, people’s worst tendencies tend to emerge. A big movie deal, or its promise, a high ranking meeting or a giant advance on a book can really get inside your head and feed your worst and most selfish aspects. This is where much of the previous rules above can be used for shelter and problem solving. Try to keep your position int he middle, moderate your joys and tragedies and take every extreme with hefty grains of salt so that you don’t lose yourself. I had a partner once ring me from a limo in LA adrenalized to the moon over having made a big deal for a project we were working on whilst int he car with the producers in a moment of celebration. Thing is I never had a chance to question whether or not it was a good deal or not. Turned out it was a disaster. It’s hard as hell when you have outside forces trying to get you to commit who are offering huge promises of success, money and fame to stop that train and have a calm and rational discussion about it with your partner, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Whether your a rock band who just got offered a major contract if you dump your drummer, or a comics publishing deal that loves the story but not the artist, the moment you make a decision like that without first consulting the partner, you have just effectively ended the partnership. Recognizing that might come later… painfully later, but the break happens at that moment. So take a breath and step back. Sleep on it, avoid making any kind of decision without your partner. Even if you’re both there, take a step back, get a sleep on it and then come back together. We all process victories differently and we shouldn’t operate from our furthest extremes in making big life changing commitments. If you feel overwhelmed, go to talk with your lawyer or agent together. If the deal has to happen right that second, it’s a bad deal no matter how sweet it sounds. Sometimes there are worms in the apple.
Don’t forget to enjoy the good stuff
Naiches and Geronimo affirm their relationship (from INDEH)
A successful creative partnership can be a deeply fulfilling and joyful thing. To be equally engaged in a creative moment is a deeply intimate thing and can leave you kind of breathless. Sitting in a room with my partner, or driving through the desert in New Mexico or on the floor of my studio and having a breakthrough on a story point or a narrative development is one of the most exciting things ever. I love that stuff like you wouldn’t believe creatively this can be the fuel that drives the ship. They are also the times where you ferment and solidify the trust and cohesiveness of your working relationship, and your project. Taking a quick weekend research trip with Ethan showed us in fact that we can be isolated together, all day and night, crash in a cramped motel room and do the same the next day and have fun doing it means that when we have to go on longer trips when the book tour unfolds, we’re solid. Give yourselves the opportunities to test the weaknesses and strengths of your partnership, get your families together when you can. Meeting each other’s other relationships, their kids or agents or spouses will help keep them human and someone to invest in rather than abstract exterior elements. In these creative moments together you will find a intellectual and creative moment that is something altogether different from one you may have with your spouse, but no less powerful. Making stuff up and convincing others to give you money and means to continue playing pretend is a total joy. Don’t forget to call that out to each other, compliment each other on it and celebrate it together when it sings. Playing int he sandbox and working on the same castle together you both see and construct is really a wonderful thing, and in the end whether the project succeeds or fails when out in the world doesn’t mean squat to these precious times. Don’t forget to enjoy them and treasure them. They never last but they stay with you forever.
Make your relationship about more than just the one thing.
As you grow older and work on start putting more and more projects under your belt, you will gather a wealth of experience and wisdom and perspective you can’t begin to guess at until you have it. A really successful partnership on a particular project can likewise mean you will work well on another. It helps to develop those next steps while in the middle of the first one. Sometimes it takes ending and walking away from each other for a time to recognize its utility and value so that you may come together again and making another thing. But it’s a lot like running a decent freelance career- the more legs on your table the stronger the table will stand. One legged tables never hold anything of weight and value. It can be silly things like enjoying movies together, or sharing good whiskey or sports. If you can make time to indulge in your shared interests that may be outside the normal arena of your project, you can become more than just working partners. You can be friends. When the project is done even if you don’t find yourselves necessarily working together again, your friendship can remain. I am now friends with editors I have worked with long ago, one in particular from way back during the Matrix days remains someone I see at least once a year, and are as close as we ever were when working together daily on a project. you can become old war buddies, survivors of heady times. This is a good thing, and who knows? You may well find yourselves back in business again soon too. And all that time you spent apart you spent growing something, feeding and watering your deepest roots and your next thing will be more smooth and natural than ever before.
9. Know when it’s time to walk away.
Whether you’ve incurred scars that overwhelm the host and kill the relationship from a thousand different little cuts, you’ve grown apart from each other and don’t share the same goals, or the project is simply over, be able to be clear headed about the end times and handle them well. It’s a lot harder to do this in a clear way with you creative partner than with your editor as there’s an inherent end date to most relationships with your editor or AD. Leave well and on good terms and like as not you’ll both be back together again on another project. Sometimes a creative relationship ends when the project’s over, and that’s all right. Be okay with that. When I was working on the Prince video me the director and Prince were on the phone several times a day for weeks on end. I probably spoke to them more than my own friends and family at times and now, it’s been years since we’ve even spoken. That’s totally cool. That doesn’t mean we’re mad or betraying something, our time was finite and centered around that video and now we’ve all gotten back to our lives and other things. Personal intimate and creative partnerships sometimes have a basic end date as well. I may become enamored with the idea of becoming a cellist and as such my partner may want to continue making books, or return to making movies or whatever. We don’t always grow together- we can sometimes change and remain together as this is the benchmark of any long term marriage or relationship- but sometimes you just grow apart. Be cool with that. It can be sad and mourning is never out of the question, but that doesn’t mean it has to be someone’s fault.
Nate and Tabitha part ways for their respective homes (from THE LOST BOY)
Other times it totally is, and the relationship has become toxic, imbalanced or otherwise totally unhealthy. Trust evaporating, the tiny snipes and backhanded moves that hint at a decaying relationship should be noticed early and taken seriously. The presence of some of these don’t mean you are doomed, but these things left unattended will guarantee doom. Try not to be a stand-by-your-man type- really what you’re doing is not sacrificing your happiness or self for the partnership, you’re just slowing to an agonizing crawl your inevitable break up. You don’t want to be hasty about cutting to the end of course. Always make such a determination whilst calm and cool and reflective. Talk about your troubles with your other comrades and if you start hearing the same reports on the situation, take them seriously. It’s always better to unwind the inevitable entanglements of a partnership in a calm and calculated way than while throwing lamps and ashtrays at each other. Sometimes these things can collapse while int he middle of the project you are partnered up on, and that’s a super bummer. It’s rare but it happens. In that case, try to temper your emotions and complete the assignment in a professional way agreeing to p[art ways after. To have a meltdown in public or in the midst of a project really only harms your ability to work again there or anywhere later. Smile and nod and be gracious to each other and put own your best it of victorian fakery in public and then walk away from each other respectfully in private after. Even if you’re fumingly mad at each other, respect the partnership that once was and the baby you share together enough to be civil in front of it. At the end what brought you together deserves being a place of solace when you part. Forgetting this can backfill-poison all your time together and fill your life with regret. Once split don’t use your newfound singularity to troll on the other for your own gain or to exact revenges you couldn’t muster while together. Keep it as private as your most intimate moments were when things were good, and they could be good again later when some time has passed. If not, then you can still feel those previous joys without the bitter pill of regret or unresolved anger to darken and warp them. Let it go, as they say. Thing is sometimes these things happen because they happen and sometimes it’s someone’s fault. Use the end to examine what went down so you can be a better partner next time, fault or no. As long as there’s life there’s more that’s coming so try to keep an eye on the horizon and not your tear soaked hanky. Everything comes and goes, the lifelong partners are a golden ring rarely achieved, but that doesn’t mean the shorter terms ones can’t share a similar shine.
Greg Ruth has been working in comics since 1993 and has published work for The New York Times, DC Comics, Fantagraphics Books, Dark Horse Comics, Harper Collins, Hyperion, Macmillan and Simon and Schuster amongst many others.
He has shown his paintings in New York, Houston, and Baltimore, and exhibited a series of murals at New York's Grand Central Terminal.
He has also helped craft music videos for Rob Thomas, and Prince, and has illustrated children's pictures books including; Our Enduring Spirit (with President Barack Obama), A Pirate's Guide to First Grade (with James Preller) and Red Kite, Blue Kite (with Ji Li Jiang), as well as many illustrated novels.
Greg currently lives and works in Western Massachusetts.