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Thursday, October 06, 2005

Fail Better

Hi. For those of you who don't know me, my name is K. Thor Jensen. I've been drawing comics professionally since I was 17. I just finished my first graphic novel, Red Eye, Black Eye, which is currently making the rounds of publishers and should be out early next year.

I want to talk about failures and fuckups here. We all make mistakes - part of being a fallible human being is recognizing and learning from them. I'm not talking about slips of the nib or clunky lines of dialogue later whited-out and replaced, I'm more concerned with greater conceptual failures - those genius ideas that wither on the vine or in the sketchbook to never see completion. Here's a few of mine - giant monster porno comic, chinese detective story, all-ages adventure book. Or the completed things that never find a home due to rejection, the publisher going out of business, or other circumstances beyond your control. Or the stuff that comes out and looks awful for one reason or another. I am almost manaically productive, so I have a lot of this to deal with.

What do you do with these? How can you redeem all this wasted work? First, you need to figure out why the work was wasted in the first place, and then put together a plan for getting something valuable out of it after all.


1) REJECTED. Sometimes you just don't hit the target, for one reason or another. I got rejected from the SPX anthology this year (I get rejected every year, really). Five pages down the proverbial drain. And with most publishers, you'll never know why.


1) LIBRARY FILE. This has been a godsend for me. Something doesn't find the home you wanted for it? Keep it in the "library file" and use it for something else. Use it for a mini-comic or send it to another anthology that might be a step below its intended home, just get it out there. It's work, you did it, other people should see it. Don't obsess over finding a place for it, but don't be shy to pawn off your rejects on people. They'll never know.

2) GET BETTER. Well, duh. But there's a lot of aspects to this. When the book comes out, look at the contents. See if you can imply an aesthetic to the editor's decisions and then really evaluate if your work fits into that aesthetic. If it doesn't, you have a decision to make: alter your work so that it does or write the editor off. You're not going to make somebody change their mind about your work by giving them the same things over and over. If it's important to you, don't be afraid to throw some curveballs in.


2) LOST ENTHUSIASM. This happens to every single cartoonist I have ever known in my life. You'll get into a project, roar through the first three or nine or twenty pages, and then it stops being fun for you and everything just looks dead on the page. This can happen in any stage of the work - from plotting to inking.


1) SCHEDULE. This works better in the later stages of a project, but can be helpful any time. In the impossibly low-stakes world of alternative comics, there's really not a lot of pressure to get your work done on time, because only a couple hundred people really give a shit in the first place. So the decision to let something slack off is hard to break. That's where a schedule can help. I'm not suggesting you go full Longstreth on the bitch, but try to make "drawing" a part of your routine like "bathing" and "brushing your teeth." Those are parts of your routine, right?

2) MIX IT UP. Yes, this contradicts #1, but what can you do? If you're not enjoying the work, do it someplace else, or sometime else. I often find that just taking it outside, to a park if it's nice or a coffee shop or bar if it isn't can work wonders. Being in your drawing space can be very claustrophobic and insular. In public, you can watch people, be exposed to other influences, and still get work done. If you do this, decide what kind of work you want to do before you go. I ink in public but I'm insane. I recommend doing drafts, ruling panel and page borders (I do this on the subway), erasing pencils, et cetera. The second part to this is do something else on the side that doesn't share the aspects of the project that is frustrating you. I've been working on a very tight, precise, full-color project for a few weeks now. To blow off steam from that, I draw Northern Robutussin Comics as loosey-goosey as possible, just for my own amusement.

3) PUT IT DOWN. Sometimes you just need to walk away from something. Maybe you're not ready to do it yet - maybe you don't have the skills. I abandoned the chinese detective story because I couldn't draw cars well enough. It's perfectly reasonable to admit that you can't do something right now, and instead of beating your head against it, you can take some time and learn what you need to learn while pursuing other work and come back to it later, whether it be days, months or years.


3) POST-PUBLISH DEPRESSION. So something you drew came out and it looks like shit. You're hyper-aware of all the fuckups and ink flubs and poor choices and it's all you can see. The work is ruined for you. You want to go beat your head on the railroad tracks until it goes away. Don't front like you don't feel this way, douche. I know you do.


1) PUT IT DOWN. Seriously, don't look at anything you have put out too much, because the longer you do the more you're going to freak out over. Put it on the shelf for a few months and come back to it with a clear eye. Realize what point you were at in your development and what the work says about you at that point.

2) LEARN YOUR LESSON. What didn't work? Why were mistakes made? What can be attributed to stylistic choices and what was other factors (time, impatience, environment, intoxication). How important was this work to you? Does that reflect in the quality of the work? What from this are you going to bring to your next project and what are you going to leave behind? Ask questions of yourself and your work - all aspects of it. Break it down into individual components - is this story well-written? Well paced? Well laid out? Well designed? Well penciled? Well inked? Find where things broke down to make you dissatisfied with the work as a whole and you'll know what to put more time into next round.

3) TEAR THE PAGES OUT OF THE BOOK AND BURN THEM. For advanced cartoonists only.

A failure can be just as valuable to an artist as a success, if you have the right perspective on it.


At 3:41 PM, Blogger Jamar said...

K Thor -

This is awesome, man. I'll be checking this out on the regular.

Jamar Nicholas
Hip-Hop Cartoonist

At 3:23 AM, Blogger Raymond T. said...

How do I join this again?

At 10:33 AM, Blogger Jenny G. said...

Ooh, number three! All the time. I'm going to go start burning comics right now!

At 7:15 AM, Blogger robyn said...

Great post, Thor! I like it when a instructional cartoonist calls me a douche.
I think a lot can be said about understanding that there is a learning curve in comics, and it's very visible. You pretty much have to fail in front of an audience. James Kochalka said, "The biggest challenge of being a good cartoonist is getting over the fear of being a bad one."


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