Saturday, March 20, 2010

Perfect from Now On

When I was a kid, I had this recurring dream in which I'd get into a fight with a bully, but the air between us would somehow slow down my punches. Like an animal trapped in tar, the harder I pushed my fist toward my adversary, the greater the invisible opposing force. That dream pretty accurately presaged the experience of creating a comic. The harder I've pushed for perfection, the more things have tended to bog down.

The painful lesson that's headed for my forehead like a Tomahawk missile is this: comics are compromise. An artist's ability to finish a comic is proportional to her willingness to tolerate imperfection. This sounds simple enough, but it's a real bear if you're at all invested in the world you're creating (which, if you've decided to make a comic on your own, you probably are). Then there's the added burden of knowing that even if you manage to complete a "perfect" comic, you'll look at it again after a year of further artistic growth and be unimpressed by what you see.

To offer one example of the sort of drastic compromise that's lurking out there: most people come to comics from one of two directions -- you either like to draw, or you like to tell stories. To make a comic, you have to do both. This, frankly, is ridiculous. Think about how divergent and how deep those two skill sets are. Invent a new type of art -- let's call it "shmizzling."  To shmizzle well, you have to bat .400 or better in Major League baseball, and you must also master the tenor role in the opera, La fille du régiment.  Shmizzling is exactly as difficult as creating comics. You're either Darryl Strawberry in a ruffled shirt trying to hit the high Cs of Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!, or you're Pavarotti trying to get his bat on Hideo Nomo's forkball. How do you move forward from that position without compromising?

I've seen three kinds of comic creators: those who are so uninvested in their work that compromise comes easily, those who care deeply but succumb to the apparent futility of the process before they can finish anything, and those few who keep chasing the mirage of perfection even as they understand that it can never be attained.

There's an infinite gulf separating the first kind of artist from the other two, but there's much less distance between types two and three. I don't know what ingredient makes the difference -- for a lot of people, it just comes down to money and time. Still, I wonder if the biggest distinction may be a willingness to recognize and improve upon your own shortcomings, and to be able to repeat this process for decades. It gets worse -- you have to be okay with putting all that imperfect stuff out in the world for other people to see. And some of those people are going to say mean things about you on the internet.  

Anyway, when the molasses of perfectionism drags especially hard on my drawing hand, I try to remember the words of Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything--
That's how the light gets in.

Man, this post is disjointed. I could either spend all night editing it, or I can just hit "publish post." See lesson above.

Page 20 in progress. Four to go.

Oh, before I forget -- Project Waldo got a page in the April issue of ImagineFX! Seeing it in print (even in tiny form) has gotten me excited to see the rest of it on glossy paper. The colors look way, way better on good paper than they do in my desktop test prints (surprise). Exciting stuff!


  1. To break it down further, perfection is a different thing to different folks, and it could even change for the same person over time... I feel like aligning oneself with a fitting but uncompromised ambition is a big, big key.

  2. Man this post just makes me want to stand up and do a slow clap. Thank you for writing this stuff.

  3. Perfect is the enemy of good!

  4. Perfect is unattainable. For me it is all about the process. Think about how long it takes to labor over your creative work, and then think about how long it takes to enjoy that project once its finished. Especially when you will always nitpick the results. The two are points are drastically disproportionate.

    And of course once you are finished with something you move onto the next project (unless that one project takes a full lifetime).

    I think that you have to come to gripes that you will never achieve perfection. Sure your work can be amazing, grand and inspiring. Perfect? No. The lack of perfection is what keeps us driven. Knowing something is not perfect no matter how much we labor just means we care. We want to do the best. We want to develop as artists and writers and constantly improve. This lends legitimacy to our craft.

    It means you were probably meant to do what you are doing. If you were not nitpicking it or concerned with perfection it would mean you don't care enough about your medium to bother over it coming out well.

    So enjoy the process of your work. Enjoy laboring over your graphic novel. Thats what you will spend the most time doing. When you finish one issue or book review it and apply what you have learned to your process of creating the next installment or book.

  5. Ha! nice.

    I think it was either Michael Jordan or Dr. J who (when asked about what it takes to be a great basketball player) said something like, 'You have to be smart enough to really understand the game, and dumb enough to think it's important.'
    To me this contradiction applies to comics as well.

    Anyway, I don't really know where I was going with that, but your post got me thinking about great comics.

  6. Damn you, Mr. Simpson. This concern about what other people think will be your undoing, and if you let it get the better of you then we, the people who love what you do, will miss out on the enjoyment your work brings us.

    Yes, people say unkind things on the internet. Of those who would be negatively criticising work of your standard, not one is qualified to do so. Not one. I am not cajoling you - this is the truth. Anybody of your standard would never dream of bitching about someone as good as you. Only dullards who could never achieve your level will waste their time trying to pull you down.

    The opinions of people who don't like your work (and make a noise about it on the INTERNET, mind you) are of limited value. Sure, don't ignore them completely because sometimes they'll have a point but it's unlikely they'll have a point that couldn't be made by an honest supporter with truly constructive criticism, and the comments on your posts here show you've got plenty of those.

  7. I think it was Kazu Kibuishi who referred to making comics as working on the slowest typewriter in the world. He started using a team in order to accomplish his goals, have you thought about getting some sort of intern? Somebody to at least do flats and scans (well, I guess you work straight in PS)and all the mundane stuff that takes valuable time away from the creative process? I think its important that while you strive to be perfect, like any good artist, to not fall into the "duke nukem black hole" and endlessly tweak a project until you burn out with nothing to show for it. Your stuff is gorgeous, you aren't going to be embarrassed by it in 5 years, you'll just have learned from it. AND, people who say mean things on the internet are cowards and don't create. If they want to critique something, thats fine, but it should be done in a setting where they put their own work up for display.

  8. I don't know, perfection in this context is kind of subjective. But my impression of the matter is that even when one cares deeply about one's work and wants to do their very best on it, there are always areas within the same comic where perfection/integrity is more important than in others, and that's what makes possible the apparent paradox of caring yet making (conscious) concessions.

    Despite everything, though, you will never ever be entirely free of negative reactions towards your work. First, because there are a lot of morons out there, many of which would crap on someone's work for no other reason than because nobody's done it before. Second because even smart, knowledgeable critics are vastly different individuals and it's just not possible to produce work that doesn't bother anybody without ending up with something as bland as baby food.

    I just think one shouldn't feel guilty of taking time into account while creating. That too is a skill and a challenge. Want to spend 10 years on a page so it's everything you want it to be? That's perfectly fine. Want to find a way to produce a full comic in a week? That's fine too – only if the motivation is money or laziness as opposed to artistic drive, then one is probably in the wrong profession, that's all.

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  10. I agree with that last comment! Just joking, I don't have a clue what it says. Anyway, I love how you break down your thoughts. You are a great writer by the way. I wish I could write posts as good as you. Oh yeah and your a great artist too! Looks to me like you are a master "shmizzler" already.

    Do people really bag on your stuff? That's great! It just means you are a celebrity artist! The only ways to avoid getting negative comments is to either really suck or only show your friends and family. ha

    Congrats on getting published in that magazine! How exciting.

  11. You've spoken a Noble Truth. Literally. The First Noble Truth of the Buddha (albeit in altered form): All Suffering Is Caused By Desire. Even a personal, private desire to excel can be the cause of a great deal of trouble for the artistic mind - more so than other people's criticism, since living up to your own expectations is inevitably impossible.

    On the other hand, you should take the magazine hit (no matter how you may play it down, blogwise) as a major endorsement! Congratulations!


  12. Whoops. Second Noble Truth of the Buddha.

    Aw, hell, what do I know? I'm a Catholic.


  13. I think you've hit on something crucial here. It's not about what you can achieve today, it's about the lessons you learn which enable you to do better work tomorrow.

    When I started doing my webcomic it was to teach myself how to tell stories in comics form. For me, the only way to do it is to do it. I could have filled a hundred sketchbooks with preliminary drawings and made story notes for years, but until I actually produced a page, I wouldn't have had anything. My pages aren't perfect, but my books exist. I can pick them up and hold them, people can read them and I can see my own progress as an artist and storyteller. Yes, there are things I would do differently now, but if I had dwelled on the flaws I wouldn't have a body of work to look back on.

    My comic has opened many doors to me professionally and provided a wonderful outlet for my personal creativity when working on other people's projects has become stifling. There's really no downside to putting your work out there. Just have the attitude that you're only going to get better.

    Steve LeCouilliard

  14. I've had to compromise. I work all day, at a normal job. I'm tired in the evenings. There's lot's of other things in the way that I don't want to go into too much.
    I get a lift into work every morning, and that's when I draw 90 percent of the stuff I do. Hence the wobbly lines. Roads in England are so wiggly and full of holes.
    Who knows what I'd be able to do if I had the time and space to draw for hours at a table.
    But if I waited till I did have time, well then I wouldn't get anything done.

  15. Weekend before last, I was helping my mother - who works at a large book publisher - number a signed, limited run of 1100 books for a VIP customer by hand.

    One of the things we discovered was that the less we thought about it and the faster we inked the numbers, the better they turned out.

    When we took our time and obsessed over getting it 'just right', the paper would soak up the ink and bleed or we would stop a stroke halfway through and end up with an ugly number.

  16. What a wonderful, insightful post; comments as well. I think many artists come to this same crossroad Nate. I know I have. I remember starting out trying to do comics wanting to be the next, Adam Hughes, Jim Lee, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Gaijin Studio artists, etc. They were my idols at the time. I spent lots of time trying to perfect my drawings often hating the process (see not measuring up to) and only liking the end result somewhat. Not to mention this labor intensive exercise in futility took gobs of time. Time I really didn’t have. Some where along the way I realized it was not fun. So my passion for any given self-imposed project didn’t last past 2 or 3 pages or a pinup or two.

    One shift in my thinking changed when I read Mckean’s Cages. I think the main thing was that I realized that the “subjective” quality of the art had no direct correlation with my enjoyment of the story. I ventured to read more things I normally didn’t give a chance before and started reading manga. After a while I thought about many of the artists whose work I used to use as a gauge, 1. Didn’t appeal to me as much. 2. I could not remember the stories they worked on. I only remembered the art, that it was gorgeous or course, but the stories had no emotional resonance with me.

    I want someone reading my book, to remember the story. This thought helps guide my art making decisions instead of ghosts of past critiques from peers, professors and artists I admire. It also helps me to focus more on the invisible art of storytelling. A good story is good no matter how realistic the fabric I place on my figures or perfect their proportions.

    Now I just want to tell a good story not so much draw a masterpiece.


  17. Interesting take on things. I guess I'm a little more of an optimist maybe, because I think of storytelling and drawing as being inexorably linked - illustration especially sequential illustration being thought of as visual storytelling.

    In this sense, drawing and writing are more like singing and dancing - two very different skills, that everyone has one which comes more naturally than the other, and every minute you spend practicing one you're not practicing the other. But, if what you really wanna do is be in a Broadway musical, you just have to practice really hard at whatever one you're weaker at until you're competent at both, right? And if you want to become masterful at one or the other or both, there are plenty of years ahead. It's not a 'compromise' to choose to be Barbra Streisand instead of Maria Callas or Martha Graham - the art form exists for people who love both. If you strongly prefer one over the other, maybe it's not for you.

    Plus, sometimes it's nice to have a creative outlet that you haven't spent quite so long getting good at. I find I am extremely rewarded by the small but frequent gains in my writing as I've been working on my comic, as compared to my art where the quality seems to have plateaued rather discouragingly. It's certainly not as easy to get compliments on the writing, but somehow they feel more sincere Good luck with everything :)

    - Mitch V.

  18. I was super excited to see your work in ImagineFX. It definitely belongs in there. Congrats on the coverage. The write-up was really positive, too.

  19. These comments are amazing. If people insist on being so smart around here, I'm going to start getting nervous about writing anything of my own on this blog.

    Okay, it may take me a while to respond to all of these, but here goes:

    JP - Good point. I was flipping through and Arthur Rackham book the other day and thinking about how his style got looser and less dense as he got older. When I was in high school, I'd have sworn up and down that his earlier work was objectively superior to his later stuff, but as I get older I begin to appreciate his late-era stuff more and more. It's got lots of breathing room. More perfect? Less perfect? Differently perfect.

  20. root - Really? Thanks!

    Sandra - Yeah, I wish I could take those words to heart! I remember hearing students say that in art school: "the perfect is the enemy of the good." That phrase is sometimes a bit of a double-edged sword, though. I feel like I often heard it used as a justification for mediocrity. It's too easy for some people to reinterpret the words as "if you phone it in, your work is good." Meanwhile, I had a painting teacher who had been working on a still life of some fruit for something like a year. Clearly, his notion of perfection was close to paralyzing. But I still admire his tenacity!

  21. CEDE - Right on! I love the way you said this.

    Sam - That's a great quote. There's something universal in it. Succeeding at this stuff has as much to do with unplugging parts of the brain as it does with focusing other parts. Sort of like scraping clean the hull of a boat -- some kinds of thought may actually increase drag. I guess this means we all need to become yogis.

  22. Doubleclick - Well, thanks. I think that's probably the nicest message I've ever receceived that began with the words "Damn you, Mr. Simpson." I'm going to go ahead and predict that that record will hold for the rest of my life! Congratulations!

    Mike Lawrence - I recently watched a documentary about Urasawa where they showed his studio at work -- with some of the highest-profile manga, the "author" doesn't do much more than writing and rough breakdowns. It's kind of like bunraku puppetry, where the master controls the face and one hand while assistants handle the rest. I'm not sure I'd want to get that separated from the final product (see video game career), but I'll definitely be outsourcing my flats. The rest of the process is just too fun to share. I don't mean that to sound like sarcasm. It really is fun. Especially the color stuff. It's like going to the ice cream shop every day and discovering a new favorite flavor each time.

  23. Joumana - You're absolutely right. Weirdly, I've actually dodged the internet criticism bullet for the most part (the worst I've gotten are folks calling me a Darrow or Moebius wannabe, a statement that is completely true and to which I have no problem 'fessing up). When I talk about people being mean on the net, it's more speculative than anything else. I'm just dramatic. I'm so Emo, I'm Emo Phillips.

    Anyway, keep up the great work, Joumana!

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  25. Jason - Thanks, man. The latest from ReMIND is looking spectacular as always. I'm happy to see you're taking no prisoners (and your blog is looking pretty darn spiffy, too!). I know you work at Dreamworks -- did you work on How to Train Your Dragon? If so, that's sweet. I loved that movie. Really loved it. Keep up the radness.

    Mathieu - I remember reading something very similar in the Bhagavad Gita. About how you need to eliminate desire if you want to be totally awesome (Krishna's exact words). It's strange how the process of improving as an artist keeps revealing this need to improve as a person. With any luck, I'll write a post about achieving Nirvana sometime before the end of the year. It's great for getting coloring done faster.

  26. Steve - Much the Miller's Son is amazing. You're a true shmizzler -- you've got incredible drawing chops AND hilarious writing. I really admire the pacing, too. There's a great rhythm to the way you deliver jokes. Anyway, your work is a perfect illustration of the process you've described -- just do it to do it and the improvements will come. Thanks for your comment!

  27. spleenal - I like a lot of webcomics, but yours is the only one I read immediately when it's posted. There's never been a bad one. I don't know how you do it (and to hear that you draw them in the f***ing CAR just proves how much of a genius you are). Seriously, you're going to get "discovered" and you're going to be huge, and you're going to have to quit your day job. I will sing your praises everywhere I go until then.

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  30. kingworks - Yeah, it's kind of a leap of faith. You have to really believe that by fussing less you'll end up with something better. I frequently hit "problem panels," where I just can't get a gesture or facial expression right, and I'll draw and redraw a 1cm x 1cm area for three or four hours and end up with something unsatisfying. The next morning, I erase all the work I did the previous day and nail it on the first try. I really need to learn to detect when I'm up against that wall and to move on before getting sucked into a quagmire.

  31. Myron - First off, you've got some really beautiful art in your portfolio. I love the boldness of your inks -- all that line variation and the little scratchy edges make it feel so physical, give it so much punch. I wish I could do that!

    As to your point about storytelling being the key, I couldn't agree more. That's the depressing part about coming to comics from the art side -- it's like you've come to the big race with a Lamborghini, but you don't have an engine. There are a lot of artists who I think of as virtuoso guitarists. There are these guitarists who can play better than ANYBODY, just do insane things with an axe. The kinds of people who get millions of hits on YouTube. And among guitarists, they are often worshiped. It's really easy to fall into a logic trap: these guys are kings of their instrument, so they should be the most famous guitarists, right? But they're not. And a big part of that, I think, is that the whole spectacle is about them, it's not about the music. It's definitely impressive to see really fast arpeggios, but it doesn't do much for your soul. One of my big worries is that I'm becoming this kind of artist. Where I'll make stuff that makes random high school kids go "whoa," but that may not actually say anything more than "look, I'm a good artist."

    Thanks for your post!

  32. Mitch - "It's not a 'compromise' to choose to be Barbra Streisand instead of Maria Callas or Martha Graham..."

    I love that stuff like this gets said here. Taken out of context, that's just about the most non-comicky thing I can imagine, but it illustrates your point so well! Maybe art and story aren't as distant from one another as I've made them out to be. I guess I should have clarified that some artists learn to draw to tell stories -- for my part, I spent my first twenty years or so drawing superheroes in poses, which didn't do much for my storytelling chops.

    I completely agree that the most gratifying gains occur outside of your area of expertise. I'm not exactly sure if my writing is working at all, but I definitely get a special little buzz when somebody says they like the story so far. That's a big win for me.

    The area where I'm growing the fastest is with coloring -- I get such a thrill when I add the first color, because I have no idea how I'm going to dig myself out of the hole. I just have no idea what I'm doing, and it's so great to finally arrive somewhere I didn't expect. It feels like finding something, rather than making it. That's the best.

    By the way, your portfolio is wonderful. "Buy these damn biscuits -- I'm the fucking Pope." HA! And the figure studies on your blog are tops. Really, really nice stuff. I don't know what you're talking about with this "plateau" business. Looks like a meteoric rise to me.

    Thanks for the comment!

  33. Shpydir - Thanks, Dave! I haven't seen the issue yet at my local Barnes and Noble. Do you subscribe to ImagineFX, or did you find it at a store? My parents have been hitting their bookstore about once a week to search for it, too. They seem much more excited about me getting a page in a magazine than about anything that happens with this blog.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  34. Made me think of a quote by Salvador Dali - "Have no fear of perfection, you'll never reach it".
    And some of those people will say good things about you too. I love your comic so far and am looking forward to seeing it in print.

  35. Linda - Thanks! I'll be happy to see it in print, too. I think I'll just lay down on the ground once I've got it in my hand. Sort of soak in the overwhelming sense of relief.