This past weekend the Small Press Expo (SPX) took place in Bethesda, Maryland, not far from where I live now. I enjoyed visiting with friends and cartoonists who came down for the convention, including occasional SatCom collaborators Shawn Cheng, Tom K, Bill Kartalopoulos, Jon Lewis, Karen Sneider, and Ben Towle, not to mention my buddy Isaac himself. Smart and generous minicomics artists were in full effect!
But I also enjoyed the chance to talk for a while with some major artists of the reg'lar-sized comics variety, notably Gilbert Hernandez of Love and Rockets fame and Matt Wagner of Mage, Grendel, and assorted DC Comics fame. For a while now I have felt that I might not have stopped reading comics for ten years if the proprietors of my hometown nerd store had seen fit to recommend titles like L&R, Hate, and Eightball when I began to grow restless with Detective; my introduction to Beto's work was sadly belated. But at least I was reading Matt Wagner's work back then, and I think it has had a greater influence on my cartooning than I usually recognize.
My enthusiasm for Grendel was shared with my high-school pal David, and probably it was our short-lived effort to tell our own Grendel story that shifted my cartooning ambitions from comic strips to comic books (in the long run, a smart move for this cartoon hobbyist, as the outlets for amateur minicomics seem more accessible to me than those for amateur comic strips—at least since I won't be launching any comic-strip websites). In fact, David inked my pencils before Isaac ever did, though no more than a single page of Grendel accosting the reader with a plea to "Bring back the Primer"—Comico's erstwhile showcase for fledgling cartoonists, where Wagner himself launched Grendel twenty-five years ago.
Which brings me back to this weekend. Wagner attended SPX in part to promote a silver-anniversary book dedicated to the art of Grendel, and that gave me the chance to thank him, fanboyishly, for the stirring example of his comics on my impressionable young mind. And one of the impressions that Wagner made, even back then, was that steady work can improve one's skills dramatically. Compare the first few issues of Mage with the last, and you'll see a quick development in Wagner's confidence and command. He addresses this himself in the last paragraphs of the introduction to his newly-published Grendel Archives, containing the first few stories of his flagship antihero:
It is my sincerest wish that readers will find a certain inspiration in these pages and come to feel, as I do, that they stand as a true testament to the powerful potential of the creative spirit. Despite any negative response I might have encountered in the press, my own primal urge to express myself in this medium led my efforts onward and upward. I knew that if I opened my mind both to criticism and to craftsmanship, it would lead me to new perspectives and enable me to further develop my skills. It is in the act of making art that one truly becomes an artist.If Wagner comes off as slightly pretentious toward the end, there, I'm prepared to cut him some slack: tone can be hard to manage in prose, and by his own admission he's not great at writing ("—or at art; I'm great at putting them together," to quote him from a panel yesterday afternoon). In person, Wagner impressed me with his easy affability and lack of self-importance. If I have any quibbles with his encouraging declaration that the way to become an artist is simply to make art, it's that he throws up another roadblock when he says "[n]ever falter and never look back." I think that Isaac and I have both learned a lot from our errors and failures along the way, and we've learned from them in part by gritting our teeth and looking back at them, in all their embarrassing clumsiness. Not all of the useful criticism of our work has come from outside, after all. That said, Wagner's surely right that one shouldn't dwell overmuch on past shortcomings—not when there are still more comics to be made.
If I could do it, so can you.
Never falter and never look back.
Except to regard how far you’ve come.
And on that note, I will next post when I have some thumbnails to share for page 8 of Stepan's story!