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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Don't Get Married to an Idea!

Don't get married to an idea.

I wasn't quite sure what Charles Schulz meant when I first heard that. That's because gag, or magazine, cartoons are often recast with a brand new punchline, so you never really have to kill-off the entire idea, just come at it from a different angle. I know Michael Shaw has rewritten a punchline for a cartoon that the New Yorker didn't like, and then liked, in its new version. I've done it myself, when it suddenly occurred to me that I could completely remake a cartoon I had drawn years before, by changing the punchline to suit a new market, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Truth be told, cartoonists do it all the time. That's not to say though, that you can't ever come up with a completely unusable cartoon, you can - at least I can; but it is never as difficult to kill off a cartoon idea as it is to kill off an idea for a comic book, or comic strip, or a graphic panel. Those often represent a larger investment of time, energy, materials, and hope, and I suppose they also represent a larger degree of emotional attachment than the single cartoon idea.

Maybe it helps to think about it in purely economic terms, especially in this day and age, and add that given the current economic climate, when you are in the 'ideas business', and that is essentially the business cartoonists are in, you just can't afford to wed yourself to an unprofitable idea. I know that maybe goes against your artistic sensibilities, but you know, you have to make a living, and the best way for a cartoonist to make a living is to churn out as many ideas as possible.

Now, I came up with these twin characters a few years back, and I wrote a few one-page stories around them. And then I wrote a larger story, and then started to plan strips and entire comic books. Every so often I would admit to myself that maybe I was wasting my time, they were, after all, a bit of an odd concept, but I just kept devoting more and more time to the idea of creating, exclusively, stories about these characters. In time, I realised that they should have stayed on the doodle-board because they were very self-indulgent; but not before I had created comics and paintings and even a sculpture or two, to the exclusion of all my other work.

The Little Cherubs idea was another that I found hard to let go. I really designed it with a middle-of-the-road parent-type magazine in mind, but pretty soon I was designing cards and posters and promo-pages, and in no time at all I had almost 20 adventures ready for print and I could readily imagine the things being successful, even when the returns were telling me a different story.

Eventually, as you must, I divorced myself from those ideas, perhaps simply because I couldn't think of a way to make them pay, which makes them a costly lesson, but a valuable one. At least, in one way or another, I did manage to 'unwed' myself from these ideas, and they now sit in a folder in my archive, and I hope that just knowing they are there will remind me of the lesson I have begun to learn (you are never too old).

The extract here from Sunshine on Leith might surprise one or two of you, but it should be here under the 'bad ideas' section. Not because the book itself is a bad idea, it's not, it's just that the idea of creating a very big book was an idea that really very quickly started to get out of control. The section of the book that took place in Leith was very small, and really should have been made into a good small book, that still tackled the same big subject of sectarianism in Scotland, but the idea started to grow and grow, and as a result the story began to stretch too thin.

The section below is by far the largest section of Sunshine on Leith, and it grew from a story called Tommy Apple, which was in itself a charming little story about my friend Tom getting stuck in an apple tree in the Convent of Poor Saint Clars in Liberton, by a bunch of nuns with a German shepherd. By adding this section to Sunshine on Leith, I started to change the subject of the story to fit the overall arch of the longer narrative, and I robbed this major part of the book of all its charm. It was becoming clear to me that the idea of the book, of what it should 'say', was killing the story, so I killed the book and split the story up into three smaller stories, and as a result it is all starting to look, and to read, a lot better.

The Gnomes project really takes me back. The Gnomes was almost a career disaster for me because the project took up about a year of my life, and I did it while I was working on a weekly comic and trying to draw cartoons. I teamed up with a friend who was a salesman, and together we approached the Scottish Development Agency about setting up an animation studio in a proposed film production studio to be established in the old slaughter house building in Chesser, in Edinburgh. The idea of establishing a movie studio there had been on the table for a while, and it looked to have legs, even Sean Connery was interested, along with a number of politicians and business folks. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I created the characters and put them on a show reel and in book form and comic page form and designed the merchandise and strips and all the assorted paraphernalia over the period of time we were 'in talks'. When those talks finally got down to the bottom-line, the proposed deal was that I would have a teeny little stake in the business, and I would still be expected to invest money. Of course I walked, and took The Gnomes with me. That was an idea it was much easier to divorce myself from because by the end of the business process I was as poor as a church mouse and I needed to start drawing and selling cartoons as quickly as possible. I must say though, although I have no happy memories of drawing through the night like a maniac to make the things, they are not that bad.

This strip struck me as an obvious idea, a sort of female Calvin, but without Hobbes. I started it right away, without designing the characters and I just sat down and drew about five episodes, and then I kept going. I think I have about twenty finished strips, but I think I lost interest by about strip fourteen. There was no way I was going to draw and write the thing for twenty years, so there was no point in it going in, so it went in the archive. I think, to this day, only Aussie cartoonist Nik Scott has seen the strip. It had a cool name, Reindeer in the Attic (RITA), but it was a very slight idea.

Okay, this is really a good example of what Schulz meant by 'don't get married to an idea', because it should never have been drawn at all. In this case the strip didn't even have a name, I just thought it would be cool to draw characters in animal skins. But not just that, I kind of had an animal spirit kind of idea going on, so there was going to be another layer of meaning to this seemingly simple idea. Well, it lasted two strips before I realised that I just had no idea what I was on about. I had an idea that I would like to draw this scenario, and I could have created one hundred episodes and sent it out there and sulked when it didn't get taken and kept refining it and you know, I would have been married to the idea. It's just not a healthy choice.

So today, I am in a happier place, I think. I have been writing and drawing a strip and it is going well. I'm pretty sure I'm doing it for all the right reasons and I'm not just married to the idea - at least, I hope that's the case.


Bren said...

That's a very interesting post Rod, and a useful cautionary tale. I know I go off at a tanget with a crazy idea sometimes but I'd never thought about it like that.

Last year I had an amazing, multi-million pound animation idea in an area nobody has hit on before. The only problem was that I didn't know how to animate so I spent a LOT of time last year learning to do that and working on mini (crazy)projects to get up to strength. Eventually it dawned on me that it was going to take another year to get this thing off the ground and I gave up and went back to the stuff I do well.

What do you do with the ideas that didn't make it? Do you manage to keep them in view to give them a chance, or are they in the back of a drawer? I hope something comes of them, I really like the RITA strip, it's a gorgeous idea and beautifully drawn.

I'm going to try to see my crazy ideas for what they are now, but that animation idea really is a good one...

Rod McKie said...

Hey Bren,

you'll be pleased to know it wasn't you; I had to login to comment, the page kept knocking me back.

I think you made the right decision about shelving the animation idea for now, it will pay off in the long run because it means you still have 100% control of your idea and the direction the project will take.

Believe it or not, I keep them in sight all the time. I got a bunch of really strong, A3-size, clear, button-over folders from Viking and I keep each project in its own folder. I go through all the ideas every so often and move those I'm not convinced with, to a drawer prior to shredding (it's like I've deleted them to the waste bin, but haven't yet decided to empty it).

Thank you for the kind words about RITA. I was happy with the look of the character because I wanted her to be sort of iconic. Her overall shape is very close to the shape of her bunny. A couple of the later episode are quite a challenge because I lost the scripts and so I have empty word balloons and no idea what the characters' are saying. That was really the point that convinced me I couldn't go on with it.

You must keep even the craziest of your ideas until you are utterly convinced you can't use them, or merge them in with another idea. Remember that Calvin and Hobbes were originally minor characters in that strip. In the first submission Calvin had a brother and that brother was the main character. Later on, another character from a strip that was knocked back, Spaceman Spiff, was introduced, with Calvin imagining himself as the interpid space explorer.

Anonymous said...

"Maybe it helps to think about it in purely economic terms, especially in this day and age, and add that given the current economic climate, when you are in the 'ideas business', and that is essentially the business cartoonists are in, you just can't afford to wed yourself to an unprofitable idea. I know that maybe goes against your artistic sensibilities, but you know, you have to make a living, and the best way for a cartoonist to make a living is to churn out as many ideas as possible."

I don't know about this section. It seems to me that if you're making your own comics you're probably not in it for the money. That's part of the beauty of working in a marginal media field. Artistic freedom. You can sweat over rather or not people will connect with your comic so you can make enough to cover your airfare, or you can take a risk and turn out a book that means something to you. If you're going to spend all that time creating it, it damn well better mean something to you. Chasing those ever shrinking comic book dollars leads to mediocre bullshit that already clogs the racks. "Zombies (or whatever) are hot, I'm going to make a zombie (or whatever) comic," is the kind of thinking that we should avoid marrying. I'd certainly rather read about someone's oddball characters that are different and new than some funny book that was made by assaying the interests of potential audiences.

will barnes
2nd Place Comics

Rod McKie said...

Oh, I wouldn't disagree with you there Will, I don't think we are coming from opposite points. I think you have to make a distinction though between disiplines.

If I create mini-comics, which I do for me and I do for free (often making a loss on them), I may work on an idea or a theme over a period of years. But I'm not letting that interfere with the real business of my commercial art endevours. I do it with the same attitude as someone with any other job who somehow fits it into their schedule. Sometimes I view it as an altruistic activity, but I'm also aware it serves as a promo-piece and allows me to practise drawing and writing in a more avant-barde fashion than the mainstream also allows me.

In seperating those areas of my life and work, I can create the cartoon work that sells, and still, albeit a little more slowly, work on projects that I love.

The obbsession I'm trying to avoid, and remember Schulz was one of the few cartoonists to acknowledge that cartoonists need to be single-minded and obsessive, is that obsession with pushing an idea over and over again in the hope that one day everyone will realise you were right and they were all wrong.

I can think of two cartoonists who are still doing this, in fact I can now think of three. Two of them, without changing the look of their drawings, or even the name of their 'graphic panels', have been submitting their 'idea' (the same idea) to the syndicates every year for over a decade.

To be fair it is a typical cartoonist mindset because you do have to take on the world with your work and believe in what you do. On the other hand, I he had stuck obsessively to his first idea, regardless, Bill Watterson would never have gone on to create Calvin and Hobbes.

Anonymous said...

Sure Watterson may not have gone on to create Calvin and Hobbes, but how do we know he wouldn't have come up with something is just as great. Conversly what if Picasso had dropped his personal vision for a more commercially sucessful paintings.
I completely understand whet you're saying though, and truth be told, you are more correct than I in aknowledging the real need to balance these two worlds in order to make it in the
art world.
On the other hand, I couldn't pass up stating my opinion, what with this being the internet and all.
I wish I had time to work in both worlds. Failing that, I guess I'll just have to tell people what the like. And they all like me.

2nd Place Comics

Rod McKie said...

I love the cover with Picasso punching out Joyce, Will. I have to say you'd fancy Picasso in a square-go there, he was pretty muscular.

Of course there is a way to solve the problem, and a friend of mine from Scandanavia recently let the cat out of the bag about it. You can talk the governments in one or two countries over there into funding a graphic novel or comic book, or at least paying a salary while you work on it. It's a bit like a countrywide Xeric scheme or the Arts Council here, if it actually worked.

Failing that, working in small studio set-ups like the Mangaka do and like the French, Belgian and Italian cartoonists do, seems to work, allowing a bunch of cartoonists to pull in a wage from commercially successful ideas whilst creating new ones.

If only...

jesus said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


TobiasTak said...

Hi Rod
I totally LOVE your twin characters.. did you never do a longer story than 1 page about them?
greetings Tobias (Tak) (

Rod McKie said...

Hi Tobias. Thank you. How are you these days?

I've made a note of your email address and I'll drop you a note this weekend. Nice to hear from you.

TobiasTak said...

hi Rod
yes... would be great to hear from you!
I've just finished another long story of 120 now in the colouring process..
just looked at your briliant and funny cartoons, inspiring stuff..
hope to hear from you, Tobias