Happy Friday the 13th! In celebration of today let’s talk about one of the scariest things I have found is part of this here job: saying YES or NO and making sure it’s the right answer. Whether to take the job offered or not, whether to make the choice to go there or here or not, to commit to a character’s design or a plot point or a compositional approach, a sketched plucked from a zillion other concepts… Yes & Nos are going to be the most common decisions of your career if you’re doing it right. and the most consequential. There is sadly no golden rule, no algorithm to steer you through the tough ones… it’s always situational, contextual and also to confuse matters more, depending on when in your life that the big ones come to you. The right decision can create new pathways, new exposure to more clients, new directions for your work and surprising outcomes, the wrong answer can do the same or have the opposite effect. In the long scope the value of either can be reversed as a choice made that benefits the moment comes to a harsh payback in the later times.
The stakes are that high. SO… what do you do about it?
Firstly, for the new blood out there- When you’re just starting out, like that proverb of being lost int he wilderness, EVERY direction is the right one, or at least, better than just standing there lost or at the beginning. SO this is the easy time really. YES, it is when you are most vulnerable to being taken advantage of professionally, but know to be perfectly honest, we all have been and to sometimes great benefit down the road. Basically unless it’s something really gross, obviously terrible or just plain ludicrous, when you’re just coming out of the gate, say YES to ALL THE THINGS. You’re there to get things rolling, and most of the time you don’t really have a firm idea of where your career is headed. If you do, that’s going to change hard in the next few years anyway, so best to be ready flush those expectations where the dead goldfish go.
NONE of us who have been lucky enough to have careers that seem to keep rolling knew wtf we were doing back in these early days. Anyone that tells you they were following a plan is full of the brown things. We are all of us swinging through vines reaching out from one leap hoping there’s another vine waiting for us there or else we get the drop. So don’t sweat feeling like you’re leaping from a tall bldg in the dark hoping for a net. The superpower the young have is the hubris to forget they too are mortal. The old turks like us don’t have that armor.
Getting a MAJOR yes or no job at this time isn’t really ideal because it’s probably too early. You not only need time to grow your own vision and method in your art, you also need time to grow your ability to make wise and professional decisions about your work and career, and that takes time. I was offered a big Batman series at DC years back- once considered the golden ring of comics jobs. I mean all the greats cut their teeth here on these things, Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz, Dave McKean, Neil Gaiman, Teddy Kristiansen, on and on… you say YES to Batman, right? I declined. It was a massive 30-40 character crossover event, hugely high profiled and deep DEEP into the lore of the DCU and all the details for the hyperfine and I was nowhere near qualified to take on a project for that many issues across the sphere of all those titles and helm such a massive marquee event. This would make or break a career but I had alarm bells going off from the start. It came down to me recognizing I was not ready for this, could not stick this landing without making it my daily life’s mission for a year or more at the exclusion of all else, and that book I had been working on THE LOST BOY for Scholastic would have to be shelved indefinitely. My heart wasn’t in it to boot. That was the big fatal problem. I love Batman but Nightwing and maybe thirty of these heroes I had never heard of… not so much. I needed to draw them to their expected standards, make them human and tangible according to mine, and it felt like being asked to win a drag car race with my pogo stick. I could smell the car crash of it and opted out. It was surprisingly quick to get there as decisions go. Obviously really and I don’t regret it to this day. Instead of being my coming out party for high society it was most certainly going to be a spy cam in my bathroom while after I ate bad shellfish. That I was at least ready enough to KNOW I wasn’t ready for this saved my ass- and DC a lot of embarrassment.
As you get on in your career the incoming fore should keep coming, and as stressful/exciting as that might be, it’s the goal really- the first goal: make this your day job. IF you desire this. Otherwise if not, pick and chose as you please take only those that light your fire, ignore the rest. you are in it for the pleasure and art making, period.
There are FOUR essential questions to ask yourself when these crossroads come:
WHAT IS THE GOOD/BAD IN THIS FOR ME NOW?
This is obvious first question to ask. What does this do for me today? pay some bills, get some credit or recognition and exposure? Provide an opportunity to flex some new muscles? Do I have time for this? Work with an author or creative you would love to work with? There could be a million of these things to ask yourself. And it’s all valued in context. So say… David Bowie has a poster he’d like you to do for his new concert next week but it’s for charity so can only pay you 10 bucks. I would take that mess on in a heartbeat, and celebrate the hell out of it every chance I got. Being asked the same for an unknown up and coming speed metal band and you’re a country girl at heart… maybe you say no to this one.
There’s no shame in needing to feed yourself or make a living. Anyone who holds to that dementedly silly idea that artists are required to suffer in obscurity and pay is always evil for their sweet angelic souls… has no idea what they’re talking about and needs to watch LESS daytime tv. At best. I for example was asked to draw a Conan series. The current artist was falling behind on the monthly schedule, (I have no idea how anyone produces at that pace for long without that happening. I mean MY GOD), and they wanted to fill in between certain releases to pad out his schedule and tell a story of Conan in six issues to be interspersed between the regular issues. Sounds fun and is actually a smart idea right? I did not care much for Conan the Barbarian myself and didn’t feel qualified in the fantasy realm to take this on. I was just in the beginning of Freaks of the Heartland and I could not imagine a more absurd left turn than this. I passed. At first. THEN I got more calls to do it, Kurt Busiek got on the phone with me to push me into it in his special brutal bullying way: he painted a fantastic emotional and narrative arc, was open to ideas and partnering to make this something you’d never expect and tell a story about Conan no one ever had done before. Conan the Barbarian was just a dull horny murder machine, and didn’t feel there was a lot there to talk about. Telling a story of how a child becomes that creature in the end… well that’s when the lights came on. I hung up the phone convinced. The pay was superb, but I had said no that alone as a reason. The subject became better and to work with Kurt Busiek, one of the gods of mainstream comics writing, and get in good by being a saving force in my publisher’s eyes? Whatever mysteries were left to ponder there’s was enough bridge to risk spanning the chasm. I’m glad I got to yes, and I am glad I got there how I did. It was essential to the final outcome. I learned more on Conan than on any other comics project in my life. What I feared was a terrible idea was a gift. Who knew?
WHAT IS THE GOOD/BAD IN FOR ME LONG TERM?
This is harder answer because most of it is about predicting the future. A talent to this day, I lack. The questions and issues are far more speculative and mostly become about limiting damage if any are to be had. Would I get to ingratiate myself to an editor/AD/Publisher you are already hoping to get a shot and creating a relationship with? Could this teach me something about the medium that will make me better at it later? Is the high exposure from this real and worthwhile as a value? Is there enough immediate good to pave over the weaknesses and questions for later? Let’s go back to Conan Born on the Battlefield, because like many projects, but especially this one, it’s what came after it BECAUSE of it, that I hold the project in the highest of esteems. For if I had not done this, Ethan Hawke would not have bought it while perusing Forbidden Comics in NYC and, INDEH, our a graphic novel epic would never have happened. Conan sold it to him, got him to reach out and set a meeting. I had no intention of saying yes but thought it’d be fun to squeeze an hour two and free coffee out of a lunch meeting with an actor I have always admired tremendously. And then say thanks but no thanks and get back to my current 6 issue mini series I was doing at DC/Vertigo called EDENTOWN (which would later get assassinated midway because a publisher wanted to dance on the grave of my editor… so even when you have a thing a bigger thing can eat it and kill it with no fault of your own). We got on like instant brothers in arms, I walked out of a nearly 4 hour lunch in Chelsea, five years later INDEH hit the stands at #1 on the NYTimes bestseller list, and I had found a friendship and creative partner I never knew I needed that I still love and work with today. The long term real goals and benefits aren’t really predictable. YES the high profile gigs up the odds of a big name seeing the work and contacting you no doubt. If I had done this as a private zine I only sold at SPX and self published I am certain this would not happen.
The lesson here is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS do your very best work no matter what the job is. If you say YES to that job, give it your all as you would your most treasured secret joy. Hacking is for losers and makes losers out of everyone who does it. You do not ever match your input to your personal feelings about a project. Otherwise say no if it comes to that. You just never know who is watching and even a project that turns south on you the way you handle yourself and stay professional can birth the greatest opportunity you will ever know. Dance like Barishnakov as if EVERYONE was looking. That’s the best way to secure a chance at future gifts. And in the short run, not grow the dark bleak hole in your heart that phoning it in creates.
DO I WANT TO DO THIS KIND OF WORK AGAIN?
Because as Jeffery Catherine Jones used to warn, “You say yes to a job you hate but do it well enough, be prepared to get two more just like it”. I like to take on weird work in odd areas as a means to push away from falling into genre/craft traps. I think it’s a wise way to keep nimble and say not be the guy who draws elves really well when the entire culture turns away from fantasy and wants cowboys now… so you starve. But sometimes there’s a job that comes that just makes you feel… uncomfortable doing. Full confession I did an ill for Playboy many years ago for an article about the toxics adventures of shock jocks and what they were doing to us as a culture. I didn’t compromise my own ethics and the article was a smart and thoughtful one that I was glad to have the opportunity to tackle… it was just wedged in between tittle pics for men’s pleasure centers. And I never felt okay about that part. I still do not and in retrospect it means that if that came in today, I would pass on it. That said, I can pass on it without a bump in my daily road. On the other hand I passed on a project that was of astronomical proportions. I did it four times too. Each time they came back with more money more perks, had the super famous superstar creator phone me personally to get me on board and we got on great. I still passed on it in the end. Was that a wise thing to do? I still don’t know to be honest… I still get made fun of for doing it by those who knew… all I do know is I chose MEADOWLARK with Ethan instead, and I’m glad I did. This kind of work I could do again. The job I passed?It may have led to another branch in life that could have been also terrific, or not, and like many of these things they are good well paying localized events that pass and you just kind of keep going without burden or benefit. Working with Prince to illustrate a music video, for example, and a politically touchy and risky one to boot seems like it would vastly alter one’s entire life forever. In some ways it did, in other ways it really just led to another one with another musician and that was that. You never know the thing you say yes to is the thing that changes everything until you say yes. It’s the game show dynamic of what’s behind door #2. But in the end, saying yes to Prince? That was a good yes I treasure now more than ever, even if it didn’t itself become some kind of career exploder.
WHAT FOUL VENGEANCE WILL COME UPON ME IF I SAY NO?
There are rarely gun to the head jobs like this. If I had said NO to Ethan’s INDEH and stood firm on my book at Vertigo… two months after that meeting I’d have had neither. Now to be fair I couldn’t predict either of the two outcomes, but I could go with where my heart sang and that lucked me through a potential disaster. YES, sometimes, more often than anyone of us would like to admit, saying NO to a client could lose you the client over all. Or be relegated to an inactive section of the rolodex so you would;ldn;t get the plumb assignments that might follow. I’ve been on jobs that got killed fee’d in full due to no cause on my part despite having done all the work well and more so… sometimes things just die on you. I’ve passed on cover jobs for publishers that I’ve never heard from again or editors I couldn’t help out of a scrape. It’s not vindictive necessarily- sometimes it is but very rarely. Mostly it’s because these folk have a job to do and its their job to deliver the art and artist on time, and you just became a little more complicated than say, Johnny Yesyoubetcha who may not be as good as you, but is always there when needed. In the case of that Batman project… saying yes would have I am more sure than ever, have resulted in a hot mess for me that would have been just terrible for all. It took over twenty years for DC to reach out and ask me to work on something after that. Saying No ides take you off the board and sometimes you stay there. Sometimes you say no to playing Harry Potter when offered and then well… everyone knows the name Daniel Radcliff and not Stuart Bonethistle. Sometimes a YES and a NO can be the same or worse. But at least when you make these calls know that dimension, and accept it if you’re going through with it. That said I had a job I dropped out of due to some terrible conditions from the licensor of the property that made it the only wise decision to do… and while it did birth a mule year silence from that publisher after… we worked together again and planned to do so ongoing. SO you never know. I’m not big on regret as a principle, especially in art. So I don’t look back on a left turn where a right turn could have done this or that because I never dismiss the other and after effects of a choice and how it made me who I am today.
In the end it would be really lovely to have some form of magic diving rod that could always point to the best possible outcomes from any YES or NO… (the ones where there’s just too much scheduled and no time to do it don’t count. Those are easy and really you’re admitting to an outward fact you cannot control. And let’s face it as heartbreaking as those jobs can be, these are uptown problems). You can only make the choices you can make, but I find it’s really important to try and think them through fully, even if your first instinct is to say YES MR BOWIE WHATEVER YOU SAY SIR. Take a breath, consort with colleagues and get good advice from better people. Sleep on it. Time can punish or preserve you depending on how you use it. If you can buy time denying a needed yes and get there eventually when they need you too, you are in far better standing than if you’d leapt at yes from day 1. If you have the opportunity to take time and skim the landscape you should do it. No one ever got an arrow through their cheek making sure the bushes were empty of enemies. For my part I have always found, weirdly as a constant, that the universe or whatever it is, rewards the right calls I make. When I’ve sweated and frighteningly passed on a job that even intellectually my brain was screaming to take…. some other gig lands a day or two later that I would have had to pass on because I had said yes.
I have committed two of these sins this week alone as I type this and I am as uncertain and nervous about the outcome of both of those choices as I have ever been. More really, because at this stage in my career these choices are a LOT more consequential and can have much more lasting issues in any direction than before. Sometimes all you have is the power to give yourself permission to make the best choice you can. Sometimes you fuck it up and choose poorly like that poor bastard who drank from the wrong goblet in the Last Crusade and became a skeleton. Other times you are the guy that accidentally bought the lost Vermeer at a tag sale for ten bucks. I have enjoyed a years long collaboration on over a dozen book covers with Nnedi Okorafor because I said yes to an obscure German publisher with a modest budget for a cover to a book I fell in love with for an author who at the time I’d never heard of. You just never know.
The point is, making the decisions and getting the opportunity to do that is the real gift here. What you can predict and manage and control, try to… the rest, let it go and see what happens. Usually that’s the fun part. Most catastrophes broadcast themselves in some form. Trust your inner voice and guts… even if as was the case for that mega GN project that almost tempted me away from Meadowlark… everything about it was a green light except for my gut, I went with the gut and am SO glad I did. Not everything is for everybody and sometimes getting out of the way let’s the right person find the spot. Sometimes that’s you getting the spot sometimes it’s your responsibility to step aside for another. The gift is getting to make the choice, Yes or No again, later. Since and repeat until you cannot.
But all this is just saying we can only comfort each other in this enterprise. Since any bad turn can birth a good thing later or vice vera, that your gut is always right except when it isn’t… I got nothing in terms of advice here to avoid saying yes or no at the wrong time. Nothing so far in my career shows me there’s any sort of navigable pattern here to share. Really you gather as much data and advice you can, pinch your nose, close your eyes and jump hoping there’s a pool there to catch you safely. To be honest it’d be a dull world if it were any other way.