Interview with Morgan Beem: Sequential Artist extraordinaire

This week in my Escape Tribe course, we were talking about the hustle. How do we escape our unfulfilling job and get ourselves into a new industry? What’s it like to actually live the creative life?

Morgan is a kindred spirit who I met during our university exchange to Tokyo, Japan. We lived in the same building, bonding over communally cooked curry-udon and watching Japanese TV dramas. There were countless nights where we would draw in Mister Donut, drinking cups of bottomless coffee.

Nearly 10 years on, she is now a sequential artist (a fancy term for a comic book artist), having studied her masters at SCAD in Georgia. She now lives in Denver, Colorado — and regularly makes trips to comic conventions across the country. She has been featured in Kickstarter campaigns, the Goners comic book series and is working on some exciting big things. She’s the first to admit that it hasn’t easy and still admits there’s a long way to go.

I gave Morgan a call on Whatsapp to catch up and interrogate her about her hustling skills in the creative industry.

Did you ever feel stuck in your past career or life? If so, how did you get yourself unstuck?

I never felt any stuckness because I never had any past ‘career’, it was something I always wanted to do. My undergrad wasn’t my real goal. I took survival jobs at the mall. But I had no real connection to them and that they wouldn’t be forever. I would have died. Feeling uncomfortable in these jobs meant I actively looked for escape.

What I wanted to do takes time. So I have to make time and create some forward momentum. Even if my day job made me drained and tired, I do what makes me passionate.

How did you identify yourself as a sequential artist and not by your day job?

When people asked me “What do you do?” I trained myself to think about where I devote my time, even if I’m not paid to do it. It took time to be able to say “…and I have a day job on the side.” But be honest — don’t be ashamed to say it. A creative career doesn’t happen straight off the bat.

Was there one starter that got you going down this pathway?

I was working at the mall, but knew I wanted to go to grad school [for sequential art]. It gave me the network, the skills, the identity, the clear pathway.

And having the community helped, right?

Yeah — it’s easier to have people in the same boat as you — you understand each other. You can compare stories, share examples, have people to look to and admire. They are your role models.

And it’s a bonus to interact with these role models!

At comic conventions you get to know them and hear their anecdotal stories. Everyone in the comic world is very encouraging, it’s not a dog-eat-dog world. The people above you are supportive too.

A page from her comic, ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’. You can read the rest of it here.

Do you feel like you’ve had to reinvent yourself?

For me, it’s about growing and building. And I never need to trash the old me.

How long has it taken to feel secure in your new career?

Does anybody feel secure? laughs. There are boosters, for sure. Tabling at comic conventions made me feel more professional. Submitting pitches gave me positive feedback. But sometimes I did get the “imposter syndrome,” thinking I’m not that good. Art is always about self expression. And you can see the flaws in your own work.

So sort of like Frankenstein and his monster.

Except Frankenstein didn’t find much positive in his monster.

Morgan reguarly attends comic conventions all across the USA to meet other creatives and build her network.

How have you made this career path your business?

Conventions, pitches and social media. The more people who follow you the better — it’s important to have an active social media following. Which is hard for me. I’m extroverted, so prefer connecting in person.

Tell me more about your networks then.

So I build my network at comic conventions; including socializing afterwards. And I have to remember the idea of loose ties — you need to be invited and build your network with those in your loose fringe. Your immediate friends are great and all at the same level. But having them alone as your network won’t make you succeed.

I use the loose ties actively to make friends genuinely. You build a meaningful connection and that way they are more willing to recommend you. Don’t disregard your peer category. You don’t know when the others will do well. It’s important to rise with your peer group.

And have an outside group too. Be supportive of those beyond your niche market. You can still do valuable work for those outside your industry.

Morgan’s classmate Jorge Corona illustrated image’s GONERS series — the story of two siblings coming to terms with the supernatural world after the death of their parents. She was invited to be guest colourer for the variant cover and the dream sequences of the series.

What traits or characteristics do you feel people need to adopt in order to survive and thrive in the 21st century?

Have at least some handle on social media. PR is important. Every company has a twitter, so it’s important to be active and build a following.Sometimes employers want proof of your homebase, and you could say “I have X number of people, this number would actively follow and listen.”

Also, it’s important to be genuine. People can smell fakeness from a mile away. Keep your word or else you’ll be black-posted. Meet your deadlines. Follow through on a project. It’s all about integrity and being reliable.

What role did building relationships play in your transition?

Like all of it! In comics, you can’t just submit comics these days. You can’t email them, you can’t cold-call them. You just have to get in there and eventually they will like you enough. It’s all about getting people to like you so they can take a chance on you.

How long does this process take? One minute? One year?

It takes a bit longer than a minute. Remember that their reputation is on the line too — so you don’t want to make them look bad.

Was there a moment when you had to push yourself into sharing what you were doing with the world? Was there a resistance to share your work?

Yes and no. When I was starting, my work wasn’t as good. But I never shied away. Critiques helps to you improve. I am a storyteller. I want to share, it’s my drive.

Morgan takes her sketchbook with her everywhere to give herself chances to practice new points-of-view. While she was waiting for her friend in urgent care, she spent her time drawing to pass the time.

Does it make you feel vulnerable to share it? Do you feel like that people have to be worthy to hear your stories?

There’s a difference between the whole you and the stories you choose to share. The stories that I make are for everyone. It can be hard to protect yourself from hostility. With stories, you don’t get to make the call of how and who gets affected.

It’s also now your business. Being creative is part of you but you have a business, you have clients. It’s about the number of people, not worthiness.

What is it that makes you/your thing different from others?

Everyone will always be different- your art style is like your handwriting. Personally, I use entirely traditional media. It was a not a conscious decision — it came to me more naturally. I’ve always struggled with digital art.

And as for my storytelling, I am different to others. I have different outlooks, emotional reactions. So we can read stories about radically different lives from all sorts of different viewpoints.

Do you have any last tips?

Have a life outside of your passion. Grow outside of your industry helps you to grow as a storyteller. In the USA it’s a norm to work hard, which is OK. But have a hobby, spend time with your family and friends — otherwise you’ll be a one-note. And this will limit you as a person.

Morgan and I bonded over many karaoke nights in Tokyo, Japan. We were both university exchange students in 2008.

Travel. Go to new cities for adventures. For comic conventions, I stay an extra day to explore. This means going out with friends, visiting museums, watching movies, reading books. They are never money makers, but it’s fun to indulge in.

You can find examples of Morgan’s work here and follow her on Twitter at @morganbeem.

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