Thursday, January 16, 2014

Thoughts on a Comic Art Community

I recently mentioned the importance of an art community on Twitter, and I think that's a point that deserves some elaboration.

When I say art community, I don't necessarily mean local.  For many of us, a local art community is something we just don't have access to.  Maybe we live in the sticks.  Maybe we live in a cultural black hole.  Maybe the sort of art that is prevelant in our area isn't the sort of art we do.  Even if there is an existing art community, it doesn't necessarily mean it's conducive to the sort of art we want to make, nor will it necessarily be the community we're looking for.  It can be easy to get discouraged when opportunities for interaction seem to evaporate, but persistence can really pay off.  Finding a community that helps you grow as an artist takes time and effort.

I've had a lot of difficulty finding the comic art community that suited me. 


Growing up in Luling, there were two people I knew who wanted to do comics professionally- myself and a classmate- Chase Chauffe.  During highschool, art classes conflicted with choir, ensemble, ROTC, and honors core classes, so I was mostly self taught.  My friends professed a passing interest in comics and art, but their criticism was mostly useless for actual improvement.  I had one online friend who would critique my work, but most of her critiques ended with 'you should probably quit.'  Retrospectively, she was right- the amount of time and study I was putting in wasn't going to get me anywhere.  Although I had a DeviantArt account, I wasn't really good enough to garner any sort of attention, and my time there was before a "Request Critique" option was made available even to paying account members. 


I chose UNO because at the time, they were starting an Illustration program, and I knew that was the closest thing I was going to get to comics.  Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina destroyed UNO's budget, and the fine art department felt the scourge.  The Illustration department evaporated before I even spent a week at UNO.  I ended up picking Digital Graphics as a major, because at the time, I wanted to make web comics.

While taking my undergraduate art classes, I had to be careful to keep the style I was developing out of the majority of my work.  While I admired many of my professors, there was definitely a proclivity for abstract art or absolute realism within most of my classes.  I was fine with this- I didn't really want to open myself up to the ridicule that other classmates with cartoony styles suffered, and I knew a solid foundation would be useful later on.  Unfortunately, hiding my interests meant it was more difficult to find others who shared those interests.

 Art Community in New Orleans

I tried to get involved with the local community, but at that time, there were no local comic or anime conventions.  Comic book stores in New Orleans were pretty much the stereotype- DnD minis in the back, plastic wrapped Marvel and DC back issues in the front, everything guarded by a male nerd who wanted to check my geek card as soon as I opened the door.  The art community was the gallery community, and while I gave that a shot, I just couldn't fit in.  I did attend Drink-N-Draw figure drawing sessions, but since those were held within the local bar scene, most of my time was spent drawing rather than socializing. 

Fortunately for New Orleans natives, all this is changing.  There's a growing comic community that seems to really have some steam.  New Orleans has a couple conventions- a Wizard's World Comic Con and Mechacon, which provide comic people an opportunity to congregate.

Investigating Art Schools

While finishing my time at UNO, I began checking out art school graduate programs.  My art wasn't at the level I wanted it to be, and I'd spent years teaching myself draftsmanship.  I thought attending an art school like SCAD, particularly one that offered a degree in comics (Sequential Art) would help me improve much faster.  In addition, I figured there wasn't a whole lot I could do with a BS (UNO stopped offering BFAs after Hurricane Katrina) in Hypermedia (Digital graphics).  I did a lot of research, read a lot of blogs, and even talked to a few people before deciding to pursue an MFA at SCAD.  The fact that SCAD offered an accredited MFA in Sequential Art (the only art school that could offer that at the time) was only half the reason I applied.  Everything I had read about the school online lead me to believe that they really fostered community, and that was something I desperately craved.

 Attending SCAD

When I applied to the Sequential Art Department at SCAD, it was still a fairly small graduate program. When I moved to Savannah, I was optimistic about the future.  All comic communities I'd had access to in the past had been extremely small, a mish mash of all sorts of comic interests, and I figured SCAD's Sequential Art program would just be a larger version of that.  Unfortunately, the high stress level of my first semester meant that many of us were too busy and too stressed out to seek friendships.  DUring my second semester, I managed to forge some lasting friendships, and things really seemed to be looking up, community wise, during my time at SCAD.  I participated in extra curricular activites such as Friday figure drawing, the mini comic conventions, Comic Art Forum, Editor's Day, and Comics in the Curriculum, and was part of the group that organized an ice cream social/Q&A for the incoming group of graduate students.  I didn't want any of them to have the difficulty finding a community that I had. I also realized around this time that just because we all liked comics did not mean we could all get along, let alone be civil to one another.  This was an important lesson that's served me well since.

For about a year, I was fortunate enough to enjoy a local comic community.  A fairly small group of friends who critiqued one another's work, brainstormed together, and planned conventions together.  It was GLORIOUS.  We had art parties, we did art swaps, we made mini comics together, and stayed up late helping one another finish projects for finals.  A great comic community is a support group.  In the often discouraging world of comics, this sort of support is greatly needed.

Unfortunately, as my friends graduated, my community at SCAD evaporated. A massive increase in the class sizes meant that many people's work was ignored during in-class critiques, due to time constraints. I started to rely on my online friends (both friends I'd met online, and friendships formed in person that had gone long distance) in order to get the feedback I needed for improvement.

I should probably mention that despite online appearances, I'm actually pretty introverted and have to exert a lot of effort to come out of my shell around people I don't know very well.  Having been an ADHD kid, I've grown to fear people rejecting me for who I really am, and it's hard to break that.   Making new friends is somewhat difficult for me, and tends to take a long time, so after my initial group of friends left SCAD, I didn't really have the energy to actively pursue new friendships in my last semester.  There's a strong possibility that I was cheating myself, and I don't encourage others to rely solely on online interactions for a comic community.  If you're got a strong, fun personality, by all means, go for it in person.

Moving to Nashville

Nashville doesn't really have a comic scene, particularly not of the self publishing variety.  The comic stores here aren't really interested in buying on consignment, nor are they really interested in selling to any demographic but their usual.  Their comics are in white cardboard boxes labelled alphabetically, there's nothing really to catch the eye.  Their customers know exactly what they're looking for, so there's no need to cater to anyone else.  I still have to travel to find my community.

When I first moved here, it was in the middle of Nashville's convention season, so any chance to put in for an Artist Alley table was over for that year.  Since this is a new year, I've started applying to local artist alleys in hopes of meeting other local comic artists.

My Online Community

My community these days is online, a community that I've worked hard to foster.  I've cast a lot of lines into the water over the years, and its taken a long time to get any nibbles.  Most of these friendships were formed chatting over Twitter, cemented at conventions such as MoCCA, and maintained via texts and the occasional group Skype voice chat.  Some of these people I met while at SCAD, friendships maintained over Tumblr, Skype, and occasional conventions.  Our reunions, while sadly infrequent, are always quite enjoyable.  Taking my search for community online has allowed me to connect with comic artists of all levels and interests, from all over the country.  I've met artists who are entirely self taught, artists who've attended different art schools than I, artists who are a mixture of the two.  I've been exposed to ideas that were not encouraged at UNO, nor popular at SCAD, and I learned how to rely on myself for motivation, inspiration, and job opportunities rather than counting on a school based network that may not pan out.  Because I had difficulty finding a community in person, I reached further and further out, and took risks I might not have taken otherwise.

From this, you might assume I'm an outgoing, extroverted person.  I'm not.  Rejection has made me incredibly shy and insecure about my own work.   Self promotion is difficult for me, and I don't take as many chances as I should.  This is something I need to work on, these are skills that are valuable for artists.  If someone like me can find a community, I believe anyone can, with enough effort.

Tips for Finding Your Community:

  • Share your work often, and on a variety of sites.  Just because Tumblr isn't working for you doesn't mean Instagram won't.  Consider posting in places other comic artists DON'T.
  • Constantly strive to produce new work.  Sketches, doodles, finished pages. 
  • Reach out to other artists. 
  • Share useful information.
  • Make yourself available to others.
  • Be considerate. 
  • Try not to argue online too much.
  • Be willing to return the favor.  If you're trying to start a critique circle, you have to be available to critique the work of others with the same attention you would want given to your work.
  • Support other comic artists at your level, not just popular, published artists.
  • Try not to take percieved rejection too personally.  A lot of artists are busy and may not check their email/social networks as often as you do.
  • Attend conventions
  • Consider generating useful resources to bring a community to you
  • You are the community you participate in.  You get what you give.

Tips If You Run Into Trouble

Sometimes in your search for a community, you'll encounter some roadblocks.  Here's some tips on how to handle those.

  • Be choosy in whose opinion you trust.  When I post personal information, I tend to get a lot of flack, so I've settled on a rule of thumb:  If someone produces nothing, I don't have to listen to their unsolicited opinion.
  • It's ok to disagree, but don't argue publicly on the internet.  Never turn it into a shouting match.  It's best just to walk away and save your good name.
  • You don't have to respond to everyone, particularly people who are trying to instigate a fight.
  • Don't badmouth other artists publicly.  You probably shouldn't do so privately either.  Not only is it rude, but you never know just who is friends with whom.
  • Only you have the right to determine your worth.  And only you can limit yourself.
  • If a group doesn't want you, go elsewhere.  Not everyone is going to like you.  That's ok.
  • If things get stressful, take a break and do something fun.