Learning From Failure #1 — What Trying To Make A Comic Strip Taught Me

Otto and Maurice from my strip “Otto and Mootie”, updated for 2018

In the late 1990’s, fresh from having lived a year in the US learning, I decided I wanted to become a comic strip artist. There I discovered classics like Calvin and Hobbes, and Peanuts in their original language.

I thought it would be easy.

I also remember reading less popular strips that still managed to have a huge influence on me. Strips like the whimsical James by Mark Tonra, and the always accurate Bliss by Stephen Hersh.

James, by Mark Tonra

“Otto and Mootie” was a comic that dealt with the complications of monogamous life. Otto was a bat, Mootie was his mate. Otto would often fly to a nearby farm/field/pasture to visit Maurice, a bull he wouldn’t feed on. Instead, Maurice would act as a sort of therapist to Otto.

The conversations they had together regarding life, beauty, and the pursuit of individuality echoed the beginnings of what I’m finally beginning to understand 20 years later.

I was a 19 year old child back then. My experience in the area of monogamous relationships and therapy was limited (can’t imagine why). But “Otto and Mootie” wasn’t my pet project, so I thought it could work as a dry run before tackling ideas closer to my heart.

The goal was simple. Write, ink, and submit a package of 30 strips to a newspaper.

Lesson 1: Be Prepared

I can’t say that phrase without thinking of Jeremy Irons.

Chris Voss, in his book Never Split The Difference, says:

When the pressure is on, you don’t rise to the occasion; you fall to your highest level of preparation

He was talking about negotiating with armed criminals in hostage situations.

The lesson still works though.

As a potential comic artist, I had been reading and practising my skills for years. I wasn’t good by any means, but the art was passable. I was even doing it with actual ink and a quill, which I thought added to professionalism.

I had the supplies, I visited art shops, I even had an enormous drawing table my parents got me that took up half the room. I loved that table.

I had spent a few days sketching the main characters. I’d committed their shapes to muscle memory, which I figured would speed up production.

I had a goal. The mere fact that I had a set number of strips to draw (30), as opposed to some abstract quantity, was already a big win for me. It helped me focus.

So the first thing I did was I sat down and knocked out about half those scripts in a few hours.

I wanted to draw, though. That was the original motivation. So after writing 15 scripts, I decided to sit down at my big drawing table and get started on the art right away.

My highest level of preparation at this point was “halfway done”.

Lesson 1: Don’t be caught unawares.

Lesson #2: Don’t celebrate too early

It’s 9 am Becky, what are you doing? — Photo by Marion Michele on Unsplash

I was so proud of myself for finishing half the work, that I unconsciously flipped the switch to “Done”, in my brain.

At 15 scripts, I figured I could go back and forth between writing and drawing to complete the project.

It should’ve been easy to do. Comic artists do it all the time. They write a bunch of strips, then they illustrate them, rinse, repeat.

It created a lot of problems for me down the line, though.

By cracking open the champagne and believing “writing was easy”, I set myself up for failure. I never edited the scripts. I never checked the message was still on target. I never gave the writing a chance to grow.

I rushed it out the door while it was still screaming “Hold on what about the other 15 strips! They might change the tone of the strip!”

By not giving the second half of the scripts a chance, I didn’t realise that the initial message had already run dry. If I had taken the time to go back and mercilessly remove strips, I would’ve noticed I needed to expand on its narrow vision.

But I needed to get to 30. And it would be easier to get to 30 if I just “approved” any writing that came across my desk.

Step 1 of creating a strip was already tainted, even if I didn’t see it.

Lesson 2: Patience.

Lesson #3: Your dream job is gonna get boring

Photo by maique madeira on Unsplash

I used to have a “dream”. I never called it my dream job, it was just my dream.

I kept cutting out the job part from it. Subconsciously I was fighting the fact that I would need to work for it.

How does that quote go?

Find something you love to do, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life

I wish someone had told me that was bullshit.

It might not feel like a job, in the sense that you’re not mindlessly slogging away for a paycheck.

But it’s work. And it’s hard work. And if it isn’t, then you’re doing it wrong.

Most success stories have an element of luck to them, but what they all have in common is the amount of hard work behind them. I often go back to J.K. Rowling as the example to follow.

The reasons and conditions under which Harry Potter became such a great success can be up for debate. What isn’t disputable is the amount of work she put into it.

So after drawing and painting 8 strips, I realised “Oh man, this is a grindy job isn’t it?”.

Almost immediately, the strip became boring to me. I was drawing the same characters, with the same backgrounds, in the same positions.

And that’s just the thing. Your dream job will become a grind. Your skills and your success will become commonplace.

Embrace the grind. If you still have stories to tell, then you need to wade through that mind-numbing quicksand to tell them.

Lesson 3: Discipline.

Lesson #4: Doubt

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Crippling, fulminating self-doubt.

The kind that kills projects, which in this case it did.

Sometimes the characters wouldn’t look right, or a joke wouldn’t work, or the project’s entire premise would come into question. I didn’t understand that only by repetition can someone get good at something.

Of course the strip was bad. I was rushing it out the door. I wasn’t making a comic strip, instead, I was doing a “30 comic strips challenge” thing. The strip was doomed from the start because I never believed in it.

And that’s exactly the sort of environment self-doubt needs to thrive.

“Otto and Mootie” was dead on arrival. I wanted to work on an easy project I could get some practice with, while at the same time giving it all the responsibility of a passion project.

I wanted to rush it out the door, but at the same time, I was measuring my artistic abilities with it.

It was contradictory. I built a structure for a throwaway comic and then hung my entire dream career from it.

It came crashing down within weeks.

Lesson 4: Believe in what you’re doing.

Lesson #5: Find a teacher

Photo by Christian Joudrey on Unsplash

I showed “Otto and Mootie” to anyone unlucky enough to wander into my social circle. To this day I don’t remember anyone going “Yikes, that’s bad”.

I could’ve used a “Yikes, that’s bad”.

When it came to comics, and crafting them, I made sure I was always the “smartest” person in the room. That way I avoided criticism, cause no one else even knew where to begin criticising it!

Without a “Yikes, that’s bad” I was never able to get better. I thought I was already as good as I was going to get.

Again, the project became boring to me, as I was no longer “learning”.

I often wonder where I would be if I’d just had the courage to look for a mentor.

I don’t have kids, but I often hear parents say how difficult and exhausting it is. They always say how it’s all worth it, though. I consider them my “parenthood mentors”, in case I ever undertake that project.

I wish I had someone back then who could’ve told me how comics are difficult, ungrateful, and will test the limits of your mental endurance.

And how it would all be worth it in the end.

I couldn’t do it alone. Case in point, I didn’t. The problem is I was doing the right thing. I was grinding. I was drawing. I was writing.

Badly, sure. But I was doing it.

I would’ve made it a little bit further if I’d just sought out someone better at it than me. Someone who could’ve told me “Yikes, that’s bad. But you’re on the right track”.

Lesson 5: Find mentors.

Lesson #6: Start from scratch

Photo by Tim Arterbury on Unsplash

It’s been almost 20 years after I stopped drawing “Otto and Mootie”. I made the header image specifically for this post, without any illusion that it would kickstart the project in my head again.

Yet it somewhat did.

The original strips are 8000 miles away in storage. The scripts I wrote are lost to the angry god of failing hard drives. I haven’t owned a pot of India ink in decades.

Painting a quick sketch for this article felt like starting all over again.

The hook sounds different in my head. Maybe the story is not about Otto and his mate. Maybe it’s about Otto trying to find himself in this crazy world.

While talking to a bull/therapist at nights.

It feels like the strip has rebooted itself. Like there’s a project in there somewhere.

I should’ve done this sooner though. The thinking. The analysing. Figuring out what works, and what exactly should the strip’s message be.

There’s no shame in restarting a project from scratch. Sometimes creative projects need room to breathe and grow in an entirely different direction. Sometimes forcing them into the frame you’ve set out for them smothers and ends them.

Lesson 6: Start over.

I am not sure I’m picking up a new project, after the other 15,000 I have in the backlog. “Otto and Mootie” might never see the light of day again.

However, 20 years after I stopped drawing them, I finally had the clarity of mind to sit down and ask “Why?”. What happened? Why did it not grow legs and run?

And why did I spend most of the early 00’s telling people I was a comics artist when my work did not reflect that?

It’s never too late to learn the lessons the past tried to teach you.

But you do need to sit down and have an honest one on one with the past if you’re going to learn anything.

Learning From Failure will be an ongoing series that I will use to explore my past projects. I’ll be doing post-mortems of projects that never took off, to figure out what I learned from them.

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