By Hannah Means-Shannon
I sit with all the requisite equipment and I seem to go around in circles. Every line is wrong. Retracing them several times, I go back and erase all but the least wrong ones, making everything look sketchy and faded. It’s a far cry from what’s in my head, and after enough of this shambles, I ask myself again, “Why I’m doing this?” I write comics, and I know more artists than I can easily count who are so astonishingly talented that it blows my mind. With a little encouragement they’d draw my stories for me. But, that seems like the easy way out.
I have typical teen angst stories of why I stopped drawing, despite showing some ability in childhood and focused on writing instead. Though I made that decision, I was never able to fully move on because I knew I had taken a wrong turn back then, or at least an oblique one. It left me with a kind of “block” in my twenties when I occasionally tried to start drawing again; a feeling of fatigue would hit me holding the pencil until I’d just stop trying and go write a story at breakneck speed. It was so much easier for me to write.
Taking Danny Fingeroth’s comics writing class last spring, I was thrown for a loop when I was asked to do thumbnailed layouts to go with my script. The fact that everyone else in the class was a talented artist and actually drawing the comics they were writing made me feel like the odd one out. I convinced myself I needed to do the thumbnails just to prove I could. I did. They were terrible but no worse than Harvey Pekar’s stick figure men. Shortly thereafter, I coaxed myself into going to a comics “storytelling” workshop that Dean Haspiel taught, knowing there would be some drawing involved. Suddenly something changed when we students were put on a clock. Ten minutes to do a page. The pressure knocked down reservations and I jumped in without thinking. The outcomes were pretty indecipherable by objective standards, but for me this was a massive shift. I had drawn some comics pages. This was really happening.
I took a bigger leap. I signed up for an anatomy of cartooning class with Kriota Willberg and R. Sikoryak. I warned the instructors that I was only at a “prison art” level, but I dutifully put myself in a chair each week to see what would happen. This took working on the clock to a new level. Two minutes, five minutes, ten – if we were lucky – to hammer out sketches. It was perfect for my situation. There was no time to get neurotic about anything and I couldn’t believe how much improvement I saw. To anyone else it probably looked like chicken scratch but knowing my own history, the outcome was astonishing.
When the class ended, I was on a high about drawing. The following week I sat down and: nothing. Or, nearly nothing. Disjointed lines that resembled my first attempts at sketching again. I couldn’t figure it out. I showed other people the drawings from my class and the new sketches. They thought the new ones were more interesting. A possibility dawned on me, one which I have yet to fully confirm: I was seeing things differently now. I was seeing everything that wasn’t on the page. The frustration wasn’t going away, it was amplifying in an intense way, despite the possibility that I actually had made progress but just couldn’t see it. Exhausted, fed up, I asked myself, again, “Why am I doing this?”
Helpful friends had recently made comments like, “So that must have been your plan all along. Very smart. You’re taking all these classes so you can draw your own comics.” My honest answer to them was “No”, which only confused them. That wasn’t why I was doing it. I was doing it because I had given up on myself at a time when I shouldn’t have. Even my vague attempts at making that right had set off a kind of chain reaction. I was starting to get shocking impulses to draw all the time. It was a monstrous transformation because I wasn’t producing gold, just page after page of chaotic graphic static. I may never draw my own comics. If I know that a story can be told better visually by someone else, my impulse is going to be to hand it off to them but I am signing up for another art class. Everyone works differently, and for me I’ve seen some glimmers of hope when I’m under the gun and getting feedback from knowledgeable people. I’m willing to pursue glimmers.
It’s the current wave of internet-induced self-production to draw your own comics. A vast number of the people doing that have highly skilled training from art schools and mentors. Some spend years self-teaching until they find their own style and then break out of that into seemingly limitless possibilities. Some spend years breaking down their art school training until they can fully exercise the freedom they need. But talking to cartoonists in the past year has taught me something very important: everyone deals with frustration of some kind or another. Everyone has their blocks and hang-ups and moments when even a beautiful page is simply not good enough, somehow lacking in something they want to convey. Even the most nuanced and visually dazzling artist has long struggles with him or herself because they simply don’t want to sit down in that chair again and take up that battle for another night. And, I think everyone who attempts to make comics asks themselves, repeatedly: do I draw or not draw? Thankfully, for many people, time and again the answer is “Draw!”
Hannah Means-Shannon is a contributing editor at the Comics Beat and writes chronicles for TripCity.net. She is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart and is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.