Be a Multi-InstrumentalistA column article, Z.E.I.T.G.E.I.S.T. by: Danny Djeljosevic
Danny Djeljosevic doesn't stop thinking about comics. All comics: crackling cosmic punches, subdued glances from art-school girls, high-concept pop, intricate European breasts, Japanese speedlined inner monologue, cartoon teenagers eating hamburgers. He loves them all.
He writes them. He draws them. He writes about them. He talks about them.
This is what his brain sounds like.
One of the many things I love about comics is how many people are involved on the creative side. I don't just mean the legions of guys and gals actively employed in the industry. I'm thinking about the people who aren't necessarily "professionals" but are creating comics anyway -- the journalists, critics and even the fans. It gives me a sense of a massified, democratized medium where a large number of participants in various capacities are also taking part and contributing to the art form itself. It's sort of like putting your money where your mouth is.
Even here at Comics Bulletin we have a bunch of staffers past and present who make comics, used to make comics, will make comics or are making comics right now. Myself included, of course -- I wanted to draw comics back in my single digit years until I realized that they also hire people to write the things.
Over the years, however, I realized I wanted to do everything and be the comics equivalent of a multi-instrumentalist.
Being exclusively a comics scribe is a foolish endeavor, in my opinion -- there are a lot of 'em in existence, humans who aspire to be the next Grant Morrison or Brian Michael Bendis. Go check out the Digital Webbing job posting forums and see just how many subject lines are some self-aware variation on "Surprise! Writer Seeking Artist." I've been that guy before, and it sucks being so dime-a-dozen nobody wants you. What's worse is that writer-driven comics culture just fosters a sense of self-centeredness where you start believing that, since Morrison and Bendis comics have such distinct voices, then the writer's word is gospel and the artist is simply a conduit for your genius ideas. Yeah, well, if you're so great, why won't anyone work with you?
Here's a revelation: both Grant Morrison and Brian Michael Bendis started out drawing their own comics. Moz had a daily strip and drew comics himself, working his way into the major UK publishers and eventually getting discovered by DC. Bendis wrote and drew a ton of shit for both Caliber and Image, including his major early works like Torso, Jinx and A.K.A. Goldfish before becoming the Daredevil guy. They proved they could make comics themselves, which led to increasingly successful gigs in more specialized capacities.
Yeah, yeah, I know -- it's the sort of thing they always say at those convention panels about breaking into comics. Make your own comic, build an audience, and then the majors will pretty much beg you to come work for them! That's relatively true, considering finished, unrealized works impress nobody unless you're talking about somebody who's already finished and realized a bunch of works. Anyway, I'm not too interested in that aspect for the purposes of this column.
I want to talk about being a multi-instrumentalist.
In my younger, lazier days, I bought into that belief of a writer's importance, writing X-Statix rip-offs that expressed an open distrust for the non-existent artist I thought would one day draw my amazing ideas. But then you grow up a little and get advice from other writers and artists and realize that everyone's vital to the process, so don't discount anybody's contribution. I should know -- in high school the film production club was shooting a movie and I was the boom mic operator, an important member of production who makes sure all those sounds the actors are saying actually get recorded so that, y'know, there's a movie. Some of the more dickish club members called me "mic boy" and I was too nice to sabotage production out of spite by unplugging the microphone when nobody was looking. Either way, my point is, trust and respect your collaborators.
As a writer, it's easy to forget that there are other human beings that have to process your ideas into tangible art, so you get overly ambitious and write some ludicrous 15-panel page that could only result in hurt feelings and attempted murder. Again, I'm totally guilty of this, but what's important is that you learn, and the best way to learn is to draw something yourself. I love drawing comics when I get the chance, so I regularly ask friends to write scripts for me to actually draw. It's a great challenge, for a couple of reasons.
First of all, it helps me draw things I wouldn't normally draw. When you're drawing for yourself, it's really easy to work in your comfort zone and remain kinda stagnant -- "I know I can't do action scenes, so this murder is going to happen off-screen." But when someone else is feeding you ideas, you get a different perspective and end up venturing outside of that comfort zone, possibly with great results. When CB's very own Rafael Gaitan and I worked on a 24-Hour Comic last year, he Tweeted me short page descriptions and I drew them out, putting my own spin on his ideas. The result is The Last Gumshoe Funny, an arty meta-detective story that's almost exclusively up for interpretation. The art can be crude at times, as I was drawing for speed and not for quality, but there are some moments in there that I'm really proud of that I wouldn't have necessarily come up with myself.
It's also a good reminder to respect your artists, and to remember that they're responsible for drawing what you come up with. Which isn't to say that you should never challenge an artist, but you should realize whether you're setting up flaming hoops to jump through because it's important to the story or just because you're being a bit of a dick and a control freak. Raf's written a couple other things for me, and some of the earlier ones made some really difficult requests that I had to ask him to change for one reason or another -- too many panels on a page, a perspective that doesn't quite work, stuff like that. It's always good to see how the other side lives and know what you're inflicting on others.
But you should also go beyond drawing and try out inking, lettering, coloring and editing comics so that you understand the entire process. When a collaborator and I had an unfinished comic that didn't get past the pencil stage, I went ahead and tried to finish it up by lettering the whole thing and goofing around with Photoshop to give the pages a noisy Xeroxed, four-track demo vibe. While it was cool to finish a comic, I also got a real pleasure out of directly adding to the visuals of a comic by placing word balloons and typing up the words I had written. Directly contributing to the page is a decidedly different feel from just sending some words down the conveyor belt and seeing it come to fruition by other people's hands.
Right now I'm working on a six-pager from a script by Alison Stevenson (also CB's very own) and making the entire thing myself -- penciling, inking, lettering by hand (!) and even some editing. So far I'm finding hand lettering to be the most stressful part of the process due to the constant worry that my letters are going to look like crap if I rush too much or take it too slowly or forget to make it legible. As many of us are aware, lettering is a relatively invisible art and if you're noticing it, there might be a problem, so I'm trying my hardest to... be invisible? Either way, it's a learning process, and I'm stoked to be doing it.
Hence the multi-instrumentalist comparison. If you can play all the instruments you'd conceivably need to record a song, you can do it all by yourself. And if you're looking for employment in the industry, I suppose your chances are a whole lot better if they're not so specialized you can only be the frontman. Everybody needs a drummer, y'know? If you look at some pre-Scott Pilgrim Oni Press titles, you'll see that Bryan Lee O'Malley used to draw, ink and letter other people's work like Hopeless Savages. It's like finding out your favorite solo artist used to play bass in another awesome band.
Trying out all the different aspects of comic book production can make you a more well-rounded creator, which can surely help you better understand whatever instrument you want to specialize in. Hell, it might even reveal talents you didn't even know you had. Most importantly, it will make you more independent and capable of creating comics without being completely at the mercy of finding interested people who are willing to work with you.
Basically, if you can't form a band, be the band.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine (drawn by Eric Zawadzski) will debut in Spring 2012.