You're Doing It Wrong
(With stage directions)
By Donna Barr for the Cartoonists Northwest 2009 Toonie Awards Banquet
First, I'd like to thank the CNW folks for asking me to address this (pause) – I almost typed “August Body.” But who wants to start with irony? I believe the official collective noun for cartoonists is – “The Usual Gang of Idiots.” And proud of it!
If you don't get it, corner Basil's granddaughter afterwards (point at her) and ask her to explain.
I had a request to talk about Women in Comics. “Women in Comics is The Panel Subject That Wouldn't Die.”
The title of this address is “You're Doing It Wrong.” It comes from a phrase that was originally used in the movie “Backdraft,” and is now rampant on the internet. It ranges in appearances from the pages of coding instructions and the titles of blogs, to a picture of a rat with the handle of a spoon in its mouth.
Since somebody always asks me why I do comic books instead of some other easier art form, here's my only answer: because I can... write and I can... draw. Okay?
That answer drives interviewers crazy. They always want a tortured history. Or influences. It's the wrong answer. It's why I'll never get a gig teaching art. My entire reply to “teach me to draw” is: Get a pencil and a pad of paper and draw everything you see – for twenty years. See? Wrong answer.
I've always done it wrong. I've drawn the wrong things, and said the wrong – read “unacceptable” – things about them. I've gone down the wrong roads and followed the wrong ideas. The Road NOT Taken for me has always been the one somebody just mowed. There aren't enough bugs and thistles and nettles on that road; you can't eat mowed grass. But you CAN deep-fry cicadas and make nettle omelets.
I don't think this audience is going to be surprised I knew that. It's the job of a cartoonist to be complete garbage brains; it's how we keep it funny. Finding a left-handed link between the unrelated is the birth of the non sequitur and the belly-laugh. Comedy is the strongest horse: nothing's sacred, not Allah's turban, not the Pope's red slippers, not even recipes for kosher bacon bombs. Unlike a lot of writers and artists, we know we're throwing snowballs at top hats.
But somebody always had to do it wrong, at least the first time. It was the wrong artists who decided it would be cool to twist the bodies on Scythia's tattoos. For all I know we're the ones carved the fat ladies and left them in the caves to confuse and awe the local shamans – or we were the shamans. Who else would have figured out how to make caricatures pay? I wouldn't be the first one to define the swimming reindeer heads on the cave wall and the Egyptian Book Of The Dead as “cartoons.”
I might have been the first to define the Stations of The Cross as a comic strip, complete with panel gutters and word balloons. Scott McCloud thought we were all going to be hit by lighting – but Jack Kirby said I was right. Well, if anybody was ever was one of the “Usual Gang,” that guy was. I'd say he was totally off the grid, except there's one named for him.
I've always done my art wrong. When I was a kid, I started drawing German soldiers. Why I did was mostly about fashion, relationships and horses. And cute guys. Girls don't ask about the politics when they've seen a cute guy, especially one who looks good in boots. The politics would come later. In spades. I could bore for England.
When you consider that my parents and their neighbors were part of the worldwide Generation That Couldn't Get Along with Anybody, you'll see why I was always hiding the drawings in the back of the underwear drawers. Who else hid their art there? (look over audience) Oh, didn't you HAVE an underwear drawer? I bet your mother dressed you funny, too. (Use this one depending on audience reaction.)
I've spent 23 years piling up pages about an impossible subject – what genre-minded publisher is going to touch my stuff? I got news for 'em – there's a whole new generation of girls now drawing the same uniforms. But with long hair and faces whiter than anything the original Aryans would have allowed to run around outside a camp for – ahem – “defectives.” It's like Prussia meets Anne Rice. I must be doing something right, because I'm getting really tired of reprinting my books every time I sell out. Which is one of the reasons I went with print-on-demand. I thought Done is DONE, but in publishing the targets keep moving. I'll keep you posted in Penstuff.
When I was asked why I drew what I drew, I answered, “When I grow up I'll find another girl drawing the same thing – and she'll be in Switzerland!” which was my idea of a really far-away place. Forty years later, I did find her – and she was from Switzerland. I also said all the world's money was controlled by a little old Japanese lady living in Switzerland – and now I'm beginning to wonder.
I also used to yell at my dad: “I'm gonna go live with the Indians!”
Now we live in Clallam Bay. We're not exactly at the butt-end of nowhere, but you can see it from there. Guess who we live next door to now? They're getting their language back. And selling t-shirts that say, “Resisting terrorists – for 500 years.” We better hope all they want is casinos – and not 40 acres and a mule.
What do we have on the Olympic Peninsula? A beach, a wood stove and two full baths. Bald eagles in the backyard and harlequin ducks practically underfoot. If you come visit and I'm smoking fish, be careful of the salmon grease on the front doorknob. We also have wireless DSL; talk about your techno-hicks.
Living that far out forced working on the internet. I'll admit the roads on the interwebs can be like navigating Highway 112 during the slide season . But that's just the briar patch for Brer Cartoonist. We can find loopholes in sites – like allowing blog catalog readers to find bookstores through the IndieBound system, even for books that don't have an ISBN number. The trick is using your publisher serial-number base, and putting a fake three-number ending on it. I use XXX like the old cartoon whisky barrels. Think of it as back-roadin' the revenooers.
No matter what you do, part of it is going to be right. The publisher may want you to sign the contract, but she also wants your copyright – even though she can't afford it. That may look good, but if you end up working for ten years without copyrights, you're the typecast Star Trek actors before Roddenberry took pity on them. Just remember: if they can't afford to pay you, they can't afford to sue you.
After watching one of my colleagues fight with Hollywood, I wrote my own animation contract:
Take my work and screw it up any way you want; I'm not going to be buying any of it, or even watching it. But first hand over six million dollars – offshore – and never talk to me again. If you do, you'll pay another million for every contact. I mean it – every time you think you need to bug me again, by any means, for any reason, it'll be another million dollars. Don't ask me if you can make t-shirts or get the wrong voiceover actress or persecute the fans for selling knickknacks; I won't care. I'll be on a beach somewhere. With tequila. And no cell phone.
I once described this contract to an animator, who said, “They'd go for it! No lawyers! And no agents!”
I posted this as part of a binding public contract on my blog. It says that anybody who signs me for a copyright owes me six figures. With its date. Any publisher doesn't find it before signing, it's his own fault for hiring lawyers on the cheap. And not surfing.
We already know how much publishers love us. To quote the Canadian Broadcasting Company's radio series Monsoon house: (Use East Indian accent) “We don't have so many authors, now; less aggravation.”
A Facebook friend and I were laughing about how the economic meltdown affecs artists. Ha! Artists are like – pardon the comparison – black people in the depression: “What economic meltdown?” Everybody should hire us as consultants for living on the edge. We must have liked college because a lot of us are still living on the same budget we had in the dorm. Ramen is your friend.
In cartooning you have a choice: money or legacy. With the first, you're gambling you can save the money for the future; the second lets you pile up owned work. Copies of my books that originally went for $6.00 are going for RS 1300 in India – about $26 bucks apiece. I still own all my stuff and no publisher is going to have to wrangle with anybody else in the negotiation. Except me. (Burt Lancaster Grin).
My legacy is nailed: a reader opened up a contact with the San Diego State University special collections department. Your readers make a great street team and they love being included. I gave Collections a bunch of sketchbooks, art, printed books and the strange toys readers send me, to seed the Donna Barr collection. I have a little glass plaque on the Love Library entry wall, and am a designated heritage member of the university. They put me up at the Hyatt when I went to speak at the opening of my collection because they wanted to emphasize that comics artists are important artists. Cool, huh?
They got collections for everybody, even a complete set of the original Wizard of Oz books. Their original print runs go back to the 15th century. It's the ultimate geek job. If you get a chance at the San Diego Comicon, go beg the Love Library to let you take a peek at the stacks. They have my Inkpot Trophy – and my Toonie. SCORE! (Arms Up)
There are two more roads: an idea nobody else ever thought of, or one everybody's thinking of. Deciding on something original can work for or against you. If it's rather original, it could require a lot of steps to relate to an audience. If it's VERY original, you need dumb luck.
Forks, the town where the Twilight series is set, got lucky when the author said she found it on Mapquest and the publishing industry was in PPD: Post-Potter-Depression. But living 30 miles from the place, I'm wondering whether Meyers wasn't using the bad teeth, living in the dark, and poaching, as a parable about the meth capitol of the Pacific Northwest.
Are we born with our luck? Chinese birth signs come in twelve-year cycles, light and dark. Late baby-boomers like me got the dark cycle. We don't just get the snake, we get the Snake In The Grass – powerful and talented, but nobody recognizes his or her gifts. We get the War Horse. I'm a dragon – but I'm The Dragon In The Rain. Rain dragons see everything as dark and stormy. They never feel at home.
But if I recognize that, I can turn a weakness into a strength. Every time I'm feeling like I don't belong, or that I'm in the wrong place in my life, I just have to remember I'm a Big Wet Lizard, and the feeling goes away.
Like I said, nothing's perfect. Then again, Zen Buddhists say EVERYTHING's perfect. So you can't really do anything incorrectly, anyway. If nothing else, it will be a learning experience. You know (quote signs) – a “Learning Experience.” (Look over glasses). Yeah, I think we've all had a few of THOSE. We still try to hide them in the back of the underwear drawer.
So there's no use waffling on whether or not it will turn out right. If there are too many choices, then there's only one way to make a decision and move forward: flip a coin. Or look at a good horoscope.
I don't necessarily believe in horoscopes – mostly because of parallax (point at sky) – but since my day usually has about 14 roads to choose from, the few sentences of instructions and suggestions – usually printed next to the comics pages, which I'm going to be reading anyway – will help me steer me onto one road. It doesn't prevent it from being a road full of nettles – it just keeps me from falling in the potholes or meeting highwaymen. Of course, if you ascribe to the belief that falling in the hole is how you learn to climb back out, you might want to be steering for the ruts, anyway. It's your road.
Like the atheist ad-boards on busses say about God– you don't know, so don't worry about it. Especially when you're lying in bed when your half of the globe is asleep and really can't do anything to you until it wakes up and has its coffee. Any road you take, one way or the other, it's going to be the wrong road.
But it will be PERFECT. (Prayer hands).