Back Yourself – A Study in Gambling, Hope, Diligence, and Luck

by ryankl

In every journey there is an event horizon where it might just be easier to scarper back home and forget the horizon whose milky skies you thought you were chasing. This is true in relationships, in careers, in actual travel, and most definitely while breaking into comics.

For some, crossing that threshold of doubt and worry is all about backing yourself. For others, it’s about having someone back you through it, but I think for most it is fundamentally about backing yourself first to really get into the game seriously. In any creative endeavour, if you can’t back yourself, you’re screwed. The mental gremlins of doubt and fear will shred your abilities in seconds.

The act of backing yourself sometimes means finally finishing a script, or posting a story online, or paying that rad artist to complete the mini and making it a real thing at cons/ComiXology Submit/your LCS/Kickstarter. People have different ways of backing themselves to the point of being comfortable making comics and feeling alright, and I think that gesture comes down to how far out your horizon is. And sometimes you’ll have to back yourself more than once. Doing it in incremental segments is smart because it’s achievable. My first backing of the RKL brand was finishing an 18k short story/novella in 2005 and self-publishing it at a local independent book store. I finally sacked up and put words into the world. But that wasn’t enough, I continued to do this for a while, then I needed to level up. You only level up by backing yourself, however that might look to you at the time.

For me, in 2013, I had to travel to a US con.

As 2013 started, I had published a few comic shorts, I had lined up some pitches, I was hosting The Process podcast (which seems grandly arrogant in retrospect because what the hell did I know…or do I even know now?), and I was enjoying making comics very much on the side. To get to the next level, I had to back myself. I put together a one-shot and a pitch and I flew halfway around the world to see if I could level up.

When I flew to Seattle for ECCC 2013, my comic making career was bubbling along nicely but it was all low level. To fly across with an unknown one-shot and pitch, with two unknown artists, and hope to get any sort of productive attention at all was a gamble.

And this is the hard truth of the matter, backing yourself is a complete gamble.

There is no certainty your gambit will yield results. You might not be good enough, you might be a dick, or you might just be unlucky (all possible key contributing factors to not levelling up). There is no science to extending your reach into the darkness, you don’t know where the next handhold is, and even more excitingly you don’t even know if there is another handhold, and yet you still leap.

I spent let’s say ~$3k on my con experience. Probably less but let’s really round to take into account printing costs, all the food and fine liquids I consumed, everything. You don’t make the trip to go small. So, automatically, I’m gambling some serious coin. Which is hard to do. I had a 2yo son at the time, and my daughter was about 10 days old. 10 DAYS OLD and I’m leaving her, man, talk about some serious internal conversations. I was gambling money they could use, and gambling time to be with my daughter as well as help my wife with her. It was a big call. Luckily for me, my wife is crazy supportive and demanded I go through with the trip – I cannot tell you how long I hovered over the button to buy the flight tickets. It was more than one night, I’ll say that much.

So there I am, gambling money, time, and what feels like love. On what? The chance to meet some people? That’s about all that was guaranteed, that I’d maybe meet some people.

I can tell you, I was excited for the trip, but holy cats did I feel like a monumental idiot/screw up/terrible father/fool as my plane took off out of Sydney. I was certain this was the worst idea ever. Especially because, in new situations, I become an introvert. I have no idea what to do. It’s terrible.

So I flew over the Pacific and landed in Seattle with my books and my hopes and my worries and my goddamn perseverance. I was not going to miss this opportunity.

This was all in March of 2013. And here we sit in June 2014, and was it worth it?

Aw, hell yeah.

I’m not writing Daredevil yet, or Iron Fist, and nor has any publisher offered me a THEY LIVE or HANNIBAL comic, but I went into this gamble with my eyes open. I knew the meagre rewards that awaited me from my trip. To be honest, I gambled on the hopes of just making some connections. That was my realistic goal. Connections. People who knew my face, one of my stories, and were thus more likely to open future emails.

Cut to now, just over a year later, and I have a book with Monkeybrain Comics and a short coming up in a Vertigo anthology and I can trace both of those occurrences back to that weekend. I can remember the exact conversations that led – through more chat, email, and a lot of hopes and luck – to these two publishing experiences I’m in now. I would not have these things in my life if I didn’t pay to strap into a flying tin can to escape the loves of my life for a very long weekend. I wouldn’t have them but I do because I backed myself.

It was a difficult decision, but I’m immensely glad I did. And I’m glad I did it at that time. Any earlier and I was not ready, my work sucked. Any later, and two kids would have drained the bank account so it wouldn’t have been feasible or responsible. I hit the sweet spot and for that I can mostly contribute it to luck. Though I am partial to the definition of luck being preparation meeting opportunity.

From this leap, I got a creator owned book off the ground – seriously, Monkeybrain was a dream, one I didn’t think I’d even get near, but thanks to timing and Christopher Sebela, I got the in. A true dream project and every issue of HEADSPACE that lands confirms what a crazy dream this book is and how much I love it beyond belief. Then the Vertigo short, godsdamn, VERTIGO. Wanna talk about feeling out of your league, man, Vertigo. Never honestly thought I’d be near this imprint for another decade. Decade being friendly. But here I am with 8 pages of my best game, game lifted by great editorial, and then insane finishes by Tommy Lee Edwards and John Workman. All this because I backed myself. To stress the point, I would not have these two things in my life without that trip.

Well, that trip and the years of work I put in before feeling ready to back myself with that trip. Years of crappy scripts, critiques taken seriously, comics studied, books read, online article dissected, scripts getting less crappy, podcasts soaked up, and so many lessons learned. I didn’t go to Seattle with my first stuff, hell, I showed none of it. It was all current work, my best stuff, the stories standing on the shoulders of older dead stories who fell trying to hit summit and couldn’t but provided lessons and knowledge through the scrutiny of their frozen corpses. I spent my years creating, learning, and working my ass off to get into the crosshairs and be worth the pause of attention. That’s why I took the trip when I did.

And from the trip, I’ve spun out more editorial meetings, a handful more pitches, some one-shots and shorts to come, and it all takes time but it’s coming along. Because of these breaks, and because I treat this like a day job now. This is something I do every day, for hours, and there is always more coming.

Now I’m not the greatest success story, others have broken into the Big Two in the time it took myself to get good and back myself to hit the minor leagues, but my point is that you do need to back yourself at times.

You need to believe you are good enough, and believe because you know, because the proof is on the page. Open up the last thing you wrote, you’ll see it if it’s there. And once it is, back yourself, take the plunge – all those hack sayings. Push yourself to the next level because it’s all on you to do anything. You have to be your hardest worker, your own taskmaster, and your biggest fan. It is all on you. So go do it, when you know the time is right.