Find Your Voice, Ariel! An indie comic artist's individuality crisis

by JHall on December 16th, 2012

I don’t want comics to just be a hobby, I want them to be my career. I want to live and breathe comics, rub elbows with the greats, and live off of my dream. I don’t want to be the dude behind a register at Best Buy who people are surprised to hear makes his own comics. Unfortunately, I am terrible at self promotion and motivation, so I’ve kind of not quite met people’s expectations; my dad from time to time will ask, “Still getting a million views a month? Why aren’t you making a million dollars a month?” If only it were that easy.

 

But, isn’t it? If you have a high level of traffic you have a base to start building your empire. Look at what The Oatmeal did; by churning out comics that resonate with a huge audience, Matt Inman was able to bank half a million a year in ads and merchandise sales. How is that? This is where the stark difference in personalities and backgrounds becomes most apparent.

 

Matt Inman does not strike me, from what I’ve read and seen about him, as someone interested in being a “comic artist.” What we have here is someone who, brilliantly, took advantage of his knowledge in search engine optimization and psychological baiting to make a product that would appeal to the most people possible. He’s not too concerned about his artistic talents, or taking chances in subject matter, he’s just filling a niche that has rewarded him greatly.

 

This niche that Inman is filling is shared by rage comics, sites like 9gag, and memes. Their popularity is due to the shallow emotional response they elicit. “Me-too-isms.” That is not to say your goal as a comic artist should be to alienate your audience by not relating to them, but there is nothing interesting to me about simply telling your viewers what they already know. He isn’t making comics because he is interested in sharing his creativity, he does so because it’s a product he can sell. But he sells it well, certainly better than I can sell my own.

 

The question boils down to what kind of artist do you want to be? Do I want to be a household name who makes works for the lowest common denominator, or someone with passion at a dead end? The duality of this profession has pulled me every which way and finding that balance, if one can even be attained by more than a few, has caused me to yank out my hair since I got it in my head I wanted to do this.

 

I was once told it is more important for a comic artist to be able to rest on an air of intellectualism than popularity, the idea being that even if you aren't universally well received you are still making a product you can be proud of. It makes sense on paper but living it is entirely different. Not that I am a brilliant but misunderstood artist, of course. That said, it’s easy to see what will grab the most eyeballs, I'm just not sure it's worth producing art I can't be proud of for page views ("are you really proud of drawing boners, and pokemon with boobs?" Let's leave that for another day).

 

But, in the end, you will be both demonized and applauded for either.

 

It’s not always about either appealing to the lowest common denominator or being the best written comic this century, sometimes it’s just being ahead of the trends. I’m starting to see a huge influx of young artists starting to follow a unique style of cartooning, seen in Adventure Time as well as others. It’s simple, clean, kind of endearingly goofy, and most importantly easy to pick up. A lot of artists in communities like Tumblr are using this style when they want to make quick and messy comics, rarely over a few panels, that offer something relatable to the viewer. It’s clear that it is a style that resonates with people and it raises questions about my own art and how I can be better equipped to stay favorable in the public eye.

 

How do I want my comics to look? Do I want to draw in one style that will make it easier to recognize my work? Yes and no. For one, I could never pick one style; during my final year of art school I had to make a thesis, which morphed from a series of paintings, to a performance piece, and finally to a video about my indecisiveness in the process of sticking with my thesis. It was awful. Not only that, but I’m still learning and growing as an artist, I can’t just pick one and be complacent to never improve. Some artists have their webcomic constrained to a certain style and use other projects to stretch their skills, but my comics are what I want to put my energy behind, not side projects.

 

Most successful comics fill a niche; The Oatmeal fills that niche for people who want to hear things they already think and feel, XKCD fills that niche for academic and whimsical fancy, Penny Arcade fills a niche for clever and wordy gamer comics, and up until now my greatest achievement has been filling the niche for people who wanted satirical, sometimes cynical, but always striving to be more adult minded Pokemon comics (contradictions abound). But it’s a dead end; there are still Pokemon comic fans for me to reach, but that’s not going to help me realize my dreams alone.

 

I think it’s time to divide my time between my two biggest series, Pokemon and Bloop, (relationship comics), until I find my niche. The next Bloop comic you see will be in the style I used for my most popular comic to date - Movie Night - and I will try to keep it in that style moving forward, only better and more refined. That way I can have one series with a consistent feel and still have leg room in my other ventures. There will always be Unsorted comics, because even I get ideas that are about something other than boobs and Pokemon, but I think it’s time to refine them a bit; some ideas can be fleshed out in one panel but I’m a comic artist so I should at least try to squeeze a full comic out of them. You don’t come to my site to see a stupid poster, you want to see comics (and boobs and Pokemon). The Unsorted comics won’t have a cast of recurring characters but at least expect them to be more homogenous.

 

Shit, I’m excited about it, are you?

 

As I mentioned before, I have never been a motivated person. It’s cost me a lot, from jobs to relationships, but I’m finally learning how to convince myself to be the person I want to be: by accepting that it’s a choice.

 

For instance, I’m trying to lose weight. You know what has never worked for me? Inspirational quotes. Facts about health and fitness. Not even looking at my fat ass in the mirror could convince me to actually put in an effort. Here’s what has been my fire as of late, “Decide if you want to be fat or not.” Do you want to be? No? Then choose to go to the gym. Choose to maybe not eat Taco Bell every day. I’m not exactly Bruce Lee yet but it’s gotten me to begrudgingly step into my running sneakers when I’d rather be surfing reddit. I’m applying the same thing to my comics: do I want to make good comics? Then choose to do so.

 

I made three Pokemon comics recently that I’m proud of, “Strategy,” “Specialties,” and “Puppet Master.” The subject matter is pretty consistent with the rest of my catalog but during the drawing process I chose to put in effort I didn’t necessarily need to; I grabbed a mirror and studied my face to make my caricature better, I kept working on a character design until I was satisfied with it, I ignored those thoughts that told me not to try a pose or position because it would be too difficult. What resulted was three comics with no shortcuts and useful skills to add to my arsenal. I could be proud of those comics. There is a time and place for simple doodles, and even though I am well versed in getting my point across with minimal details I am an artist first and foremost and it is my job to make visually interesting comics.

 

Making a good product is step one, selling it is step two. I’ve found my inspiration to make a good product but profiting off of it has always been the hard part. While I struggle with that, please do your part in supporting Jhallcomics. Send all panties to:

 

The JHall

PO Box 69

Somewhere in NJ

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