By Anthony Elio & Alex Moersen
We spoke to three major comic creators about how they got their start, changes in the industry throughout the years, and their personal advice for the next generation of writers and artists.
Best Known For: Garfield
I started playing around with drawing when I was a kid. I was asthmatic as a child and we lived on a farm, so consequently I spent a lot of time in bed. My mom used to shove a pencil and a pad of paper in my hands and tell me to “keep busy.” The drawings were so bad at first, I had to label them. But I got better in time and did some cartoon illustrations in my high school yearbook. In college, I majored in art and business (I took the business classes to appease my parents) and shortly after college I got a job in advertising. Then, I heard about a cartoonist in my hometown who needed an assistant. I went to work for T.K. Ryan (Tumbleweeds) and from that point on, making a comic strip was imprinted on my DNA.
Everywhere. TV, movies, books, stories people tell me. And yes, the occasional cat video on social media.
Evolution of Comics
The internet has effected the biggest change in the comics since the very inception of the comic strip. Thirty years ago, there were around 300 syndicated cartoonists. There are only so many newspapers and only so much space on the comics page.
Today, anyone can draw a comic strip, put it online, and be a cartoonist. So the ranks of cartoonists have swelled from 300 to, probably, 30 million! And, as cable TV heralded the end of heavily-censored programming content, the internet has freed cartoonists to address edgier and more mature subject matter. The fact of the matter is that a lot of these young cartoonists are very good, and that’s a motivator for our generation of cartoonists.
I don’t think I can boil it down to one strip. Garfield is nearly 40 now so that’s over 14,000 comic strips. I still have not written the one strip that makes everyone in the world laugh. That would be my dream come true.
Find your voice. Don’t try to copy another cartoonist’s style. Stay true to what you know.
Brian Michael Bendis
Best Known For: Ultimate Spider-Man, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Avengers
I discovered comics at a very early age and the minute I figured out it was someone’s job, I was like, “that’s a job I would like.” You don’t find out until decades later that the feeling you get reading a really good comic book, giving that feeling to someone is a million times more powerful and I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was I wanted to do that. I started pursuing it at a very early age. I never wavered or was distracted. I announced it very early and I kept going. No matter what I found out about the world and the industry.
Dig deep into yourself to find out what you have to offer that is special and unique or honest. That’s a big through line for me when you talk about what inspired me. Looking for honesty, looking for truth in my work and in people. You rarely find it in real life so you dig for it deeply in your work. Just to try to figure out the world and figure out what our place in it is.
When you’re a writer, every day it feels like you’re wrestling an alligator or a bear to the ground. I just wrote what might be my 380th issue of Spider-Man. It was my last issue and it was as hard to write as the first one. It never gets easier. Everything is a struggle of choices and truth and honesty. Every page turn you’re faced with dozens, if not hundreds, of choices.
Also, my name is on this. On top of it being really important to me and important to other people and being a shared experience, you may die tomorrow and this will be the last thing you ever did, so don’t suck.
There are so many reasons to be inspired to do well. You’re part of a legacy. The legacy is filled with excellence. You want to at least attempt to achieve that. At the same time you realize it’s your legacy and you want to do well.
Evolution of Comics
It’s the advent of digital media. When I first broke into Marvel, and all through my time in the 90s, people would write you letters. Not even emails, but old fashioned tiny letters, telling you, “My goodness, I wish I could find your comic book.” They want it so badly that they’re writing the author whose name they got off a website to tell them how badly they want to buy their comic because it’s not available to them wherever they live. “I live in Bulgaria, we don’t get comics,” we constantly hear from people.
Slowly over the course of those early 2000s, you would hear that less and less because with Amazon, and then Comixology and all kinds of digital platforms, everyone has a comic book store in their pocket. If you really want that comic book, you can get that comic book without any push and pull from us. It’s nice that you can just point to a link and go, “Here, it’s yours,” to just about anybody in the world.
I see people get lost in the, “I want to be rich and famous. I want to create the Walking Dead.” That’s kind of a fool’s errand and you can’t achieve that goal by going after that goal. It’s a very unique thing. You can’t find success in comics by eagerly pursuing success. You can find success by eagerly pursuing truth. I’m going to write something that I really believe in, that I really love, and hopefully there will be enough of an audience that believes in me.
Peter Gabriel had this great quote about success being a fickle mistress. If you run after her, she’ll run away. But if you ignore her, she may start hanging around. Really you find out that, if you keep your head screwed on straight, the pursuit of truth keeps you successful.
Best Known For: Usagi Yojimbo
I grew up reading comics—both Western and Japanese comics—and, with an art degree in drawing and painting, it was natural that I got into the field. I did freelance artwork in Hawaii and when I moved up to California. It was through friends in the industry that I heard of someone in Seattle, Washington that wanted to publish a comic and was looking for short stories. I submitted a Nilson Groundthumper story which was published in Albedo #1. The next issue cover featured the first Usagi Yojimbo story. This was in 1984.
The inspiration for Usagi Yojimbo was a real life samurai, Miyamoto Musashi. He’s quite famous in Japan with books, cinema, and manga detailing his life and legend. I had wanted to do a story on Miyamoto Musashi and, while I was playing with character designs, I drew a rabbit with his ears tied up in a chonmage (samurai topknot). The aesthetic was striking and I’ve worked with Usagi ever since.
I visualize the story in my head. Pretty much like a movie. I consider the perspectives, the pacing, the dialogue, the setting, and play it all out in my mind. Once I’m satisfied with the general flow, I write it in my journal. I travel a lot, so I use this time to conceptualize and write out my story outline. I tend to write a lot on planes. Then, I sketch them out in thumbnail format. This also acts as my final script. Then I move onto penciling where I sketch out the comics in each panel, including the word balloons. I still do hand lettering, with pens, on the original art. Finally, I ink it using various pens and a brush. As you can see, none of Usagi is digitally created. I love the craft of making comics the traditional way. The real secret is that I don’t know how to use Photoshop (just kidding).
I’m particularly fond of Kite Story that is currently included in Usagi Yojimbo Book 5: Lone Goat and Kid published by Fantagraphics Books. It required extensive research into the art of kite making. I suppose as someone who has spent years honing my skills, it was fun to examine another artisan. Perhaps I sensed a kindred spirit among the kite makers and the way they honed their craft.
Learn how to draw from life. Many aspiring creators start off mimicking and drawing their favorite manga or comic characters. This skips all of the steps that those creators honed throughout their years before they started drawing comics or manga. Take art classes, do life drawings. You have to know how a body really moves before you can put it down on paper.