In advice to an aspiring cartoonist, ABA finalist Gene Luen Yang lays out the dichotomy of career paths:
You have to decide whether self-expression is more important to you or making money from your art is more important to you.
Whaaa-at? Is there no middle ground?
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.
Yang’s own trajectory seems to be the latter—a Xeric Grant, a day job teaching high school computer science, followed by a book that has gained some level of permanent stature—AMERICAN BORN CHINESE, a painful, funny look at Chinese-American self identity and steroetype.
This seems some of the most practical advice recently offered about career choice in comics—and you’d better have that backup career ready to go, whether it’s barista or Unix administrator.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.