Over two months ago, I quit my job at an advertising agency and decided to pursue a writing career full-time. More specifically, I wanted to work with pictures — like, hand-drawn pictures. Doodles. You know.
So I decided to write comics.
It was a suicidal move in many respects: I’d gotten a deal with a monthly comics publisher, but my monthly advances, although they would be able to pay rent, was a meager fifth of my office salary.
It doesn’t help that the comics industry — especially in Indonesia — isn’t exactly a multimillion-dollar one. Despite the glamorous conventions, there isn’t much going around. We are already very grateful of the existence of comic book publishers willing to pay any kind of advance at all.
It doesn’t help that the genre I most associate with are US/Canada female-driven comics — you know, Kate Leth, Noelle Stevenson, Jillian & Mariko Tamaki, Sam Maggs, Paulina Ganucheau, and so on. In Indonesia, most people don’t know these names — it’s either manga or Marvel. “What kind of comics do you read?” has always been a hard question for me.
It doesn’t help that I still haven’t gotten those advances at all, since I’m still working on the comics.
I spent the bulk of the past two years working on a novel. I had published one back in June 2012 almost by accident. It was a spin-off of my original web series project. The publisher liked the series and was wondering if I could write a novel adaptation of it. So I did.
The book got a lot of positive reviews on Goodreads. But I didn’t feel like it was any kind of masterpiece. To me, the story belonged on the screen. With words, there was so much more I could do.
So I wrote a surreal coming-of-age story of a genius young woman haunted by the disappearance and mental breakdowns of her mentors, dealing with hard-boiled themes of quantum cosmology, technological singularity, police states, schizophrenia, and a complex, messy web of love and sex. Something I felt only great novels could do.
I would slave away at the book for hours on end each day, refusing to connect to the outside world whenever I needed to get into character, drinking lots of coffee and falling into depression every now and then. You know, just your typical writer.
And I actually finished the piece. Several hundreds of pages’ worth. A story told through prose, letters, a film script, and a children’s book all weaved together in one narrative. I still consider it one of my best works to date.
Nobody picked it up. It won no awards when I entered it into competitions. They sell romance these days, preferrably with a tinge of historical conspiracies and cultural clashes. A publisher said the novel was neither “pop” nor “literary” enough, and the complexity of it just made them roll their eyes.
I asked, but never really found out what that meant.
Some time last year, I decided to do comics. Comics was my obsession as a kid, and I just felt that I had to pick it up again. I’ve been a freelance illustrator for a number of years, so I figured I’d be able to do some sequentials.
The above was for a “Silent Manga Audition”. I looked to the masters of manga, such as Osamu Tezuka, and tried to make my own after having left the world for so long. It felt good, although it took me over a month to finish the eight-page one-shot.
It didn’t win. It didn’t even get into the honorable mentions. But it felt good to have made something.
My main work of comics that did get picked up by a publisher, though (a few, really, but I settled on one), was a piece called Not My Hero.
“A superhero quits his team and joins forces with an investigative journalist when he finds out that his much-lauded institution is corrupt with profit-making schemes.”
The logline sold it. I was thrilled.
Also: I got faster. Eight pages took me two weeks instead of a month, sometimes even less. I will probably be working on this for just the next year and a half to get the entire book finished instead of three.
During the time, I also went and joined the LINE Webtoon Contest to create yet another serialized comic. This time, it’s a comedic, uber-feminist romp of two fangirls who got transported into the future and must fight for the well-being of Earth and its queer creatures from the hands of racist, sexist, classist cis-male-dominated space haters using nothing but their powers of fanfiction and drama. It was called, appropriately, Fangirls in Futureland.
It didn’t win, although it did manage to get into the Top 40. The fangirls world was too much of a niche for the Indonesian market — or so they say. It wasn’t what they were looking for. A simple romance story would have worked better.
Throughout all this, I kept experimenting with the form. I did a comic strip of Maggie Mayhem’s story, printed it, and filmed the thing to be included in Johannes Grenzfurthner’s film, TRACEROUTE — a short gig which landed me an actual IMDB entry (an amusing fact, because my year of experience in a TV station and production house earned me nothing in IMDB — thanks, studios).
An interesting fact to note: That color comics at the corner got close to 600 hits and became really popular with the ISIS_chan community, even spawning some Japanese subs and getting covered on Buzzfeed.
More interestingly, though, is this: The B&W illustrated essays both got me over 1K hits. My 30-minute doodle? 4.3K hits. On Medium, it often seems like the more effort I put into an article — comics, especially — the least hits it will get.
Nothing exemplifies this better than my Narrative Design series on Medium, which not only has comics, but also an hour-long podcast in every installment. Again, click on each image to go to its respective page. They’ll help me with the views, too — each of these got less than 200.
But here’s the thing: Narrative Design is something that I would not want to stop doing. I invest hours and hundreds of dollars in it for a reason: It’s something that I believe only I could do. Something that connects me with people best. Something that I put my whole heart and brains into.
Just like that novel I slaved on for two years (which, by the way, is now still sitting at a publisher’s desk somewhere to be “read again”).
Which brings us back to where we started. Quitting your job isn’t easy, especially for something that would pay you a mere 20% of what you used to earn in an industry chock-full of uncertainty. What sane person would do that?
It certainly has not been easy for me. It helped, of course, that I worked in such a toxic, degrading environment (an advertising industry), so the choice had been clear-cut from the beginning — if I’d gotten too comfortable in an office job, I suspect would have been just another salaryman making excuses to compromise with my own passion.
But making close to no money for months on end just to do what you love can be jarring. It’s too easy to fall into depression, especially when faced with rejection after rejection, or with dismal view counts for god knows what reason.
“You’re a total fraud.”
The thought always lingers in my mind. People would praise my work, and in my bad days, I would hang my head and say, in some form or another, something like this: “Yeah, but that’s not really what the industry wants. What have I published? How many people know my name? Do you see me in a best-seller’s list anywhere?”
Uninspired, I would stare at a wall and ponder whether I have made the correct life decisions. Is it really worth it? Should I really have sacrificed this much to a career that I’m not even sure would pan out? I have a Patreon page that nobody bothers to give a cent to, for goodness’ sake! Who am I to be so confident that I would friggin’ make it?
Here’s the thing: I’m not confident that I will make it. I’m scared shitless. I’m really, very scared that someday I would be forced to quit all this, that I would have to get a real job and settle down some place quiet, become a boring old Indonesian in a batik shirt and a pair of leather sandals.
But I also realize that, to varying degrees, so is everyone. Aspiring writers, artists, musicians. Making art doesn’t get easier. Sure, you can churn out more pages per week, but that’s efficiency, not quality. In crafting truly honest stories, things don’t get easier. You just go for your 10,000 hours and hope it pans out.
It’s a helpful realization, though. In the same way that making comics allows me to explore vastly different body types and make them all charming through clever use of character and dialogue, writing stories has allowed — nay, required — me to explore that magic when you realize that your problems are universal problems, that your fears are universal fears.
I don’t believe in the narrative that, if you work hard, you’ll get it. It’s a nice narrative, one that I used to repeat a lot before I realize how privileged I am to be born as an upper middle class with supportive friends and an access to technology and the media.
But the world is not like that. Our culture is a star system in which only few can succeed — and it mostly requires an earlier form of success, like how the rich naturally get richer and how some people are famous for being famous.
It’s a very natural thing to be scared. If the thought that you’re a fraud never crossed your mind, you’re probably a delusional asshole.
Celebrities kill themselves over this. Because it just doesn’t get easier.
So I’ll keep writing. I’ll be poor and I’ll be sick and I’ll have to fight my way through the occasional waves of depression and self-doubt, but I’ll keep writing with words and pictures that only I can make, churning out cultural critiques that only I can say.
I’ll get those occasional dismal view counts and wonder if this has all been worth it. I’ll get rage threads and resentment directed against me from here and there.
But I’ll probably keep doing it, anyway. Because I see no other way to live.
P.S. If you like what I do, please do consider a Patreon support. It would mean a lot to me. Really.