I get a lot of e-mail from aspiring cartoonists asking for advice, even more so now that I’m writing the Airbender comics. Figured I should share some of my thoughts here. Here’s a slightly edited version of my response in a recent exchange:
Here’s what I think: You have to decide whether self-expression is more important to you or making money from your art is more important to you. They’re not mutually exclusive in the long run, but they are in the beginning. If you want to make money from your art, you should go into animation. Go get an animation major at an art school and build a portfolio. Make connections through your school and go apply for jobs. (Be warned– these days, it’s more difficult than it used to be.)
If you care more about self-expression, major in something practical, something that will lead to a job where you have flexible hours. I majored in computer science and was able to get a part-time job out of college that allowed me time to work on my comics. Then, use your extra time to hone your craft. Work on stories that are yours, using characters that are yours in settings that are yours so you have full control. Put them on the Web. And keep at it. For most of us, it takes about ten years before you get good enough to start making money. A few talented and/or lucky ones can get there sooner, but ten years seems to be a common story.
When I was young, I wanted to make Fantastic Four comics for Marvel. I never would’ve dreamed of doing graphic novels for the YA market or writing Airbender comics because neither the YA graphic novel market nor Avatar: The Last Airbender existed. Now, I’ve gotten to do a short story for Marvel, but I’ve had waaay more fun working on Airbender and especially on my own stuff. Let your dreams be flexible.
Finally, care more about your craft than your dreams, otherwise your dreams won’t come true.
UPDATE: Just to be clear, I don’t think one way is more noble than the other, or more creative. And I probably should have said “make a living from your art” instead of “make money from your art.” Careers in animation are, of course, intensely creative. And if you’re good enough and work hard enough, you may eventually get to the point where you can express your own vision rather than someone else’s. You’ll gradually get more and more control over your projects. You just have to pay your dues first.
In indie comics, you begin with self-expression. And if you’re good enough and work hard enough, you may eventually get to the point where you make money. You just have to pay your dues first.