It’s super easy to be edgy about the work you do, to look down your snout at some goofy periodical portrait, and up at some exalted lofty mountain peak opportunity and see them as different… but you really shouldn’t. There are no small jobs, no matter how clearly goofy they may seem. You just can’t know how or who may receive them at just the right time that leads you to your own better opportunity down the road. That’s the secret revenge of these small opportunities that laugh at you when you laugh at them. I’ve been doing this work long enough now to be unable to list all the book covers and illustration gigs I have done in my career, and one of the key truths I’ve found is in looking back, it’s not always the big high profile gigs that have been the most advancing. Sometimes the little weirdoes, or the ones I dismissed take that power and run with it. Whether it’s a brand new little thing with some new publisher or another in a long line of ongoing work with an regular client, the one truth remains: you cannot guess at how or where they may lead you. So bust your rump, kick all the asses as if every gig you do is last job you will ever do. Bring %1000 to each opportunity, and don’t try and outguess their benefits.
Our thing is like planting a garden with seeds from a brown bag we cannot identify: We don’t know what we’re dropping and certainly can’t know what may grow from it. Here below is a guide to avoid making silly mistakes and making sure you maximize you career centered around one single notion that is true for every career vet as it is for every recently graduated newbie: Treat every job as if it were your first job, because it could be your last.
MONKEY WITH AN AK
When you’re starting out, it’s an easy ethos to hug: take all jobs and opportunities as they come in. Say yes to everything. When you’re starting out, it’s all about climbing up the ladder to get seen, known and for yourself more importantly, to hone your skillset and professional experience. In that vein, every gig no matter how last minute, local or small, is a rung on that ladder. If you get hired to make mastheads for the local paper in your one-horse town, take it, and kill it. If no one on this earth aside from the farmer down the road sees it, it is at the very least an opportunity to work your craft. For that reason alone, and I would argue the most important of all the reasons, put all you have into it and do it well. There is no job that will ever come to you that is worth you phoning it in. NEVER HACK. Doing so speaks more to your own lack of integrity as an artist or creative than to the low mark of it’s own self. Hacking just leads to more hacking, and phoning in work is just a drag. Sure that might get you back to your time on the Xbox sooner, but it broadcasts far and wide that you are not serious, don’t take yourself or your work seriously.
Also important to truly recognize that past the inherent bravado and confidence of your vision being the new unique power entering the world stage, that you are but a sapling and not in a diminutive or bad way. As any new sprout can tell you, there’s often nowhere to go but up, and not even they know where they may branch out. I had absolutely zero idea of where I am now in my current career as a definable goal or plan. Hopes maybe, but hopes are not a plan, and the world has drastically changed at least six times from the day I started officially doing this as a job back in the early 1990’s. Know your power in these early days, but also know your limits and your weaknesses. Get the muscle in your system that can take critical hits to be used as an opportunity for growth and improvement so that muscle can continue to work for you as you get older in your art life when sitting on your laurels is a growing whisper.
Avoid the pigeon holing by your own hands. Sometimes the rules are simple: If you want to have work in children books, avoid any connection to racy gigs or porny jobs. The more you do anything the more you do that thing, and the more people will come to you to do that very same thing for them. Pivtoing from some locked in style, is hard and an uphill bramble bush- that isn’t to say it’s impossible, but my advice is while it’s certainly okay to do adult level work if you also want to pursue kid lit, be mindful of your choices and do both. Set a wide table with a cornucopia of the types of work you aspire to do. It’s great if you do dragons really well, and that could certainly get you some awesome dragon based jobs… and maybe not much else. I know I’m sinning by suggesting a diverse portfolio as most reviewers and art directors who look through them want to see a consistency of vision… but this isn’t necessarily in conflict what that. You can be consistent in your particular vision, and still proffer a wide range of subjects and arenas to play in. Dragons, kids playing, editorial portraits, comics work, adventure art, abstract designs… they can all sing from the same orchestra but like any good orchestra of various different instruments, the best concerts are when they all play the same song.
That song is your own style and vision, and here’s a further irony: When you’re just starting out, you won’t know what that looks like in yourself, nor should you. Let someone else see that “style” of yours that’s a unique voice, because they will before you do. Wylie Beckert has grown immensely over the years but you can go all the way back to her early work and see the Wylie in there that you know today. SO don’t worry about pinning down that nonsense yet- your style is far less important than your substance. And often as your career develops, your style should be a thing you fight against to keep fresh and alert than a warm blanket to clothe yourself in.
It’s also tricky and sometimes dangerous to have stumbled into a high profile gig too early. It can be disastrous actually. You wouldn’t;t give a toddler an AK-47 and tell it to go invade a roost of terrorists boarded up in a compound. They will blow that baby away the moment it waddles up the front door. We love the A-list Actor-discovered-in-a-diner fairy tale, but the reality tends to be a good bit darker. I for one find anyone under that age of 25 getting a major art trophy to be nothing bit a potentially abusive event, and almost always terrible to their long game and career. Affirmation on that scale tend sot lock one down to an idea of themselves, and often puts them in front of professional forces they aren’t ready to dance with yet. Sometimes you simply do not know what you can handle until you stress test it, but you don’t want your biggest opportunity to be that first time test. Getting the cover of New Yorker as your second or third ever gig can wreck your overall path forward, and have you losing time in your life chasing a past gig desperately trying to repeat it’s opportune magic. The big gigs are great, and sticking their landing can be career changing, but they can and do sometimes come too early. If you find yourself in this position, reach out to your friends and mentors for shelter support and the internal voices you lack that you will need. A prime opportunity can also be the thing that kills your career. Just ask Kerry Conran how that shook out for him when he made Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow with a gaggle of A-list Hollywood actors as his first feature film. Name me one thing he’s done since that particular car crash.
THERE IS NO PRIVACY
These days more than ever, your work will likely get seen. With social media and the sharing frenzy out there, I am sometimes horrified by the old clumsy work I did ten years ago suddenly popping up on the twitter feed. It is a thing that happens, and while that particular dynamic is more about my art ego than anything else, the point I want to drive home here is that, in this world of the interwebs, there is no dark corner where your work won’t get seen. Jeff Kinney famously was just making some online web comic with stick figures that happened to get seen by an editor at Abrams, and then grew that into the juggernaut known as the Wimpy Kid series, movies and everything. There has never before been a time when one can be seen more than our time now. So present your best self whether it’s how you interact on social media, whose work you put forward and how and what you post online as a means to grow your base. There’s in this as well a new power for authors and artists in this multimedia internet dynamic too- for many publishers, either stated aloud or not, the number of followers on your dang Instagram can mean the difference between your pitch getting approved or rejected. Silly I know, but it’s true. So as you interact with this new platform, ask yourself if the seeds you’re tossing are apt to grow up, or salt the earth you intend to enrich. I know an artist who drew some nudey scenes in a story, based on actual facts and documented truth, that was nevertheless barred from working on certain kid lit books because he was seen as lewd or too sexualized as an artist to do so. Is it fair? not always, and certainly not for him, but it’s what happens. You cannot always control the name you make for yourself, but you can limit the scope of the blowback by the work you put out there.
I for instance don’t do a lot of sexy nude art or fantasy gigs as a choice. I think the objectification of women in art makes it too complex and ultimately I’m not that interested in it on its own as a thing, so I tend to operate from a do-no-harm approach with a simple self-check mechanism: Is the thing I am drawing or painting something I would share freely with my wife or daughter? if there’s any answer other than an immediate yes, then rethink, and do it fast. This kind of art might get you short term sales online, your Betty Page fan paintings might sell at cons, but it will absolutely limit your options when it comes to larger scale gigs and publishers. ESPECIALLY these days.
THE BIG EARLY GIGS AND THE HIDDEN GEMS WITHIN
One of the reasons I resisted my own six issue run on Conan was this dynamic. One of my biggest hangups, aside from my initial idea that Conan was a flat one note muscle bound action event, was the inherent hyper reductive sexuality within its pages as a thing. It’s the most ultimate image of male power fantasy, and I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with that on its own outside of any context as a notion… but we live in nothing but context now. If you’re going to dance with that kind of thing, know what you’re doing. For me it wasn’t;t until I get on the phone with the writer, Kurt Busiek, that I got convinced it was a potentially exciting project: Sure the adult Conan is a flat one-noted barbarian that makes the Incredible Hulk look like a character from Nabakov, but chronicling that origins, telling us how a child becomes that kind of creature… that is interesting to me. And with Conan as he gets older, there’s going to be a fair amount of the sexy too, but how that gets portrayed is what makes those moments sing or not. A post-coital couple rising from their beds popping out inflated pecs, boos and butts in a centerfold kind of way is a different thing than showing it for the awkward complexity it can be. Once can elevate and humanize your story, the other can titillate. One can set the stage for you chance to humanize sexuality in some other opportunity later, the other can get you more sexy pinups. Whichever you chose my only advice is to make that choice yourself, consciously and fully aware of what that will entail, before someone else does that for you.
As sidebar note and an example of a job you think is just about its immediate self- Conan: Born on the Battlelfied was for me at the time a job more than a work of art. It was a calculation, and an extremely well paying gig that could stabilize my young family’s income, and creatively force me to make work a genre I don’t have an automatic penchant for. The result though after the fact, was seeing my own work show up for the first time on a movie screen and seen in a lonesome NY bookshop by my current dear friend and creative partner, Ethan Hawke, which has since led me to uncountable opportunities and most importantly, our shared graphic novels INDEH and now MEADOWLARK, which to me represent everything I wanted to get into comics in the first place. I didn’t and could not have known that at the time of working on Conan, but this is what I mean about unpredictable outcomes from tossed seeds. Regardless of my own inherent lack of core fandom for the series, I threw every ounce of myself into that book, left nothing on the bench or in my pockets. And while I look back now at some of the clunky painting or my own novice storytelling glitches I would now improve upon if I could or would, it was an act of love and devotion while I was there. It made for a strong rung in my ladder not for the opportunity it provided, but for the work I imbued it with. None of that would existed had I snobbishly hacked it out for the paycheck. Once you take on a gig- you are married and make that marriage work as much as possible because it’s got lifelong effects you can’t even know. Yes it has sprouted occasional offers for more sword and sorcery work, but that’s not really my main thing and so I made a conscious effort not to do too too much of that work lest it brand me as that guy.
DON’T RELAX. ALWAYS SELF CHECK
We are culturally attuned, or at least we were more in the past, to the idea of working, hitting big and retiring wealthy as a promise. For us in this thing we do, that is a fantasy. For every Kevin Eastmans out there there are literally six hundred thousand schlubs like me, still busting their rumps on a daily basis to support their families and selves. Our goal is not to have a heart attack chasing after our grandchildren int he orchards of our retirement- ours is to flop over dead of old age at our drawing tables. And frankly, you don’t ever retire from work you love. Nor should you want to. This is all to say that there no ONE job, no single firework that buys your yacht to paradise. We work and if we do good work we work again. Round and round. The high ideal for us is getting to do this through decades of change and fads and fashions and still get the opportunity to do it again. I myself am a bit manic and almost a prohibitively self-critiquing neurotic freako. I think I may have done seven or eight jobs for my friends The Criterion Collection, and regardless, months after any of them I become sure I will never get to do another again. Same goes for my graphic novel work, even after the dozen or so book covers for Nnedi Okorafor, Tor Books, MONDO, Netflix or any of my regular clients that to my ongoing astonishment, return to offer me another chance to sink or swim. Yes it may be growing a massive elder I’ll never survive, but it also keeps me frosty and creatively sharp. One is at their most astute when dancing on the edge of the volcano- ideally you want to FEEL like you’re on the edge of disaster without actually being there in reality. There’s a fine line between keeping yourself sharp and agile, and driving yourself insane. I myself dip in and out of both sides of that knife’s edge weekly. (Keep a bottle of forgiveness and permission to fail next your adderall crack juice is all I’m sayin’).
This goes too for those of you looking to say, draw Spider-,man for a living. YES it’s a regular and high opportunity gig. Regular comics covers made James Jean’s career as much as it made Paolo Rivera or Alex Ross’. It is not an insane destination to make for, and remember that it’s not the subjects of these gigs that did it for them, but their excellence during that opportunity. There is however a potential trap to it in that it can often invite only more of that work. There is an immense and impossible to understate value to the crucible of making comics gives to your craft and thinking. No other work has more advanced my own understanding of my work in all areas or sharpened my tools and draftsmanship than comics. Not by miles. But I never just wanted to make comic books and graphic novels, and so, I made sure to take wrong turns down new side roads and other gigs I wouldn’t;t have normally though of, be them children’s picture book opportunities or magazine cover jobs to keep my portfolio diverse and my skills sharpened by outside forces from new places. You can always return to a medium, style, genre of passion and choice… but stay too long in one and you may not escape it. And it gets harder the older you get. The more entrenched in regular gigs painting dragons, and for longer, the harder it will be to be free from them. (Sorry I keep bringing up dragons, and I’m not being racist to dragon lovers at all- they just epitomize in a single form a particular singular genre). Eventually some young turk with paint a dragon n a new way and THEY will be the rising dragon master and you will be chasing diminishing returns later. Remain fresh by being fresh and being open to wild new opportunities even if they seem far fetched and a little nuts.
Getting into Spectrum will not seal the deal of your career. Having a Chesley, or SOI medal or an Emmy doesn’t mean you’re done fighting for your career. Winning and Eisner can have zero effect on your business in the field, and usually does aside from being able to use it as a qualifier on your next book. Maybe. Doing a successful poster for MONDO or in my case recently a high profile gig that blew up, got me in touch with a huge director who bought the art and am in a conversation with to do even more with. Regardless, in a few months or a year… it’ll be like it never happened except as a recently historical anecdote at best. These days more than ever, the cycle of the new pushes past single successful moments for the next thing, the next opportunity. To quote Forest from Alex Garland’s DEVS “These people lived in the same caves for five thousand years, and didn’t change a thing. Their world didn’t change at all… When I was a kid the world changed every few months… these days every few weeks or even minutes, the world changes”. Certainly by all means enjoy your moment, cherish it, suck it all in and use it to advance yourself as much as is appropriate to do so. Applause for a dinner well made fades fast and is forgotten especially the next time you cook. And there’s no sense in chasing repeating moments of success like it’s a formula. Seeing these three joyous in front of a giant ass billboard of one of my pieces will warm my heart for the rest of my life, and is indeed a qualifier for me that for a moment at least, I was at the top of my game. But it doesn’t mean I will see such a thing again, or more importantly… deserve it. Not all of us get to be The Beatles cranking out historical lifelong era-defining hits on repeat. Most of us get a single 15 minutes and then we move on. Even if you sustain it for a few years… there’s ALWAYS an after. The best way to plan for that sweet hereafter is to never cease doing your best work. I have a lifelong thing for samurai stories and one of the principles in that genre is the notion that as each fight you get into may very well be your last. Eventually for sure, one of them will be. That’s the life. Living long enough to die from it at a ripe old age is the only success story you should worry about and reach for. It sounds morbid but it isn’t really.
The final and essential point here is to know that my best and ongoing advice to all of you young whippersnappers is actually the same advice I would give in the second part of this long article to my aged career folk: Every job could be the thing that leads you to the mountaintop. No matter how small, or for whatever reason behind its inception, treat each job for the opportunity it is. If you get a chance to dance on stage before the right people, dancing your heart out beats standing there farting every single time. Yes no one job is the only thing to hang your hat on or be condemned for, but patterns form, opportunities are missed or taken advantage from based upon how much work time effort and passion you devote to this. This ain’t like a salary office job. Our thing doesn’t reward or allow for kicking your feet up and playing Tetris on your boss’s dime. Every gig is a chance to shine or fade, and no matter how your or old, treat everyone like it’s the last job you’ll ever get.