[I found this while cleaning out an old laptop. It was written back in 2012 and detailed my journey to starting my first comic book. I’ve made a few changes for the sake of clarity and grammar, but I thought it would be interesting to share.]
As a kid, I always wanted to be a comic book artist. I was the type of kid who would sit and doodle on my papers, trace pictures out of my Spider-Man comics, and try to make original art. For all of my practicing, I never seemed to improve but it didn’t stop me from happily drawing my disproportionate characters on the manila paper. I’m actually certain that I went through several stacks of the classes manila paper on my own.
In school, I was not as excited about drawing and I began to focus more on writing. I still doodled, but I found writing to be more satisfying. Of course, it was bolstered by my 7th English grade Creative Writing teacher sitting me down and telling me:
“You wrote one story and a bunch of crappy sequels.“
I was maybe eleven or twelve years old and it was the first time someone basically told me that my stories sucked. True, every story I’d written up to that point had been a sequel to my first story for the class but I had put a lot of thought into them and enjoyed making them. No kid wants to be told that their work sucks. I decided to continue writing stories after I left her class, if only out of spite and to prove her wrong.
Over time, I found myself writing more and more ambitious stories. The biggest of which was a space epic that I ended up writing between middle school and high school, Lance and the Scythe. It was a three book novel about a young man named Lance who ends up traveling through space with the current incarnation of the Grim Reaper. I promise that makes it sound way cooler than it was. In reality it was riddled with cliches and was heavily influenced by Dragon Ball Z. The characters flew for no reason, shot beams out of their hands, and would essentially go Super Saiyan. Of course, it was awesome to me as a preteen, but looking back now is almost cringe-worthy.
Then I saw Cowboy Bebop and it changed everything. It was the first time I’d seen a mature anime and everything about it was so cool, so slick, and so stylish. It made me look at the story and completely rework it. I made it darker, made the characters use guns (and katanas, duh), and tackled heavier themes like drug abuse, corruption, and death. I mean, I handled them as well as a sheltered preteen could tackle them but when I look back I find my ideas more cliche than offensive.
I would run home after school every day, sit down at the family computer (I didn’t get my own computer until my senior year of high school), and write. I felt like I was writing my greatest work. When I showed it to my friends, they acted like it was the greatest thing of all time. They even talked about how much money ‘we’ would make.
And then I lost it all.
I still don’t know how it happened, but my original files for the story ended up getting corrupted. I remember practicing writing comic scripts and going to check my LatS files, only to find they were all unusable. I couldn’t access the files with the writing program and when I tried opening the files in Word, the pages were now filled with unintelligible symbols. It was soul-crushing. I remember sitting in front of the computer, crying for a good half hour because three years of writing was gone. I ended up finding older files of the story and doing my best to restore it, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it all over again. I just moved on from them. To this day, I still don’t know what happened.
I was burned out on writing prose and it was shortly after this that I began focusing more on writing comic book scripts. They were shorter and it felt easier to remember than paragraphs upon paragraphs. For the next few years, I would write nothing but comic book scripts (with one exception). I wrote three comic book different stories: The Black Assassin, Misfits of Justice, and In Satan’s Shadow. The first story was a revenge story, second was a superhero comedy (that eventually became Further From the Sun / Secrets & Shadows), and final story was a western that would have fit comfortably with Django Unchained. I would work on all three series constantly, but I had no idea of what I was supposed to do with them. I didn’t know how to approach artists and I soon learned that I couldn’t afford most of them anyway. A couple of instances where artists hired me, but really just wanted to trick me into paying for their projects put me off. However, I kept writing and posting my scripts.
During high school, I began writing The Table. It began as a way to let off steam about things that happened at school but it slowly morphed into its own world. I used to share is with two of my friends (whom the characters were based off of). Looking back, it was embarrassingly edgy (joking about teen pregnancy, prostitution, and school shootings) and reads like a South Park clone, but my friends always laughed so I didn’t think anyone would take it seriously.
Until this one time a girl in class swiped my newest chapter off of my desk. She had a problem with invading personal space or taking my things and stuffing them down her bra so I couldn’t get them. I’ll never forget seeing her eyes get wide and a look of disgust form across her face.
“What the hell?! Jon’s writing about shooting up the school!”
I remember being terrified that they would take it seriously and I’d get in trouble. Columbine had only been a couple of years prior and the last thing I needed was the principal calling the police (or my parents). The whole thing was based off of an in joke with my two friends after a kid stated that people thought I’d be the one to shoot up the school. I just played it up. Luckily, the teacher was young and knew I had a weird sense of humor. I ended up not getting in trouble and, as an added bonus, the girl stopped swiping things from my desk. To be safe, I stopped bringing the stories to class and kept them in my locker. The funny thing is that two of the main characters would eventually become the protagonists of Clusterf@#k, a story I’m currently working on that isn’t nearly as offensive as it the title suggests. Looking back my two friends were my first real readers/fans.
Despite the fact I was working on scripts, I still liked to draw. I took a couple of art classes and even joined art club. My art was horrible but the teacher must have respected my passion because she gave me a pamphlet for a summer class at the American Academy of Art. She saw that Alex Ross had studied there, which peaked my interest. I immediately got the money and prepared to learn the craft.
I was able to meet a lot of talented kids and make friends, but it became very apparent that the kids in the class were on a completely different level than I was. They were kids who studied art and went to high school academies. I just happened to do it because I enjoyed it. The students in my classes were just so intense about it that it made me miss writing. I wasn’t having fun and I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. I was also tired of people staring over my shoulder. For me, writing felt more free and a lot less expensive. I didn’t need easels, brushes, or fancy pens. All I needed was a Bic, a composition notebook, and some free time.
Before my high school graduation, I remember wanting to become an English major. Of course, my guidance counselor basically told me that I was better of being a Journalism Major. My only experience with Journalism was that I’d worked on the school paper and I’d hated it. Not only had I hated it, I really fucking hated it. But, I assumed that things would be better in college and I trusted my counselor’s judgement.
I was wrong on both counts.
Franklin College’s School of Journalism was kind of a big deal (at least to the people there). Like the summer art course in Chicago, it was meant for kids who were serious about working in the field. Not some kid who picked the major because people told him to. I remember the professor giving a speech on the first day basically saying his job was to weed out the weak links and slackers. He promised that half the kids in the class would probably change majors by the time the year was up. It was brutal and I was a bit scared, but I decided to give it a shot. I ended up failing nearly every Journalism course I took.
It was obvious that it wasn’t for me, but my mother told me to stick with it. She seemed to be so against me being an English major for reasons I didn’t understand at the time so I promised I’d stick it out, but I hated every second of it. My biggest problem was that it was so intrusive and they wanted me to insert myself into places I didn’t feel comfortable going to. For the other kids, it was a piece of cake and they loved it. I had already been called a n*gger twice while off-campus so sitting in town hall meetings didn’t sound like a fun or safe time to me. I continued to fail my classes and became incredibly depressed.
After a particularly rough spring and summer vacation, I ended up taking the semester off. I failing all of the classes for my major and my boss ended up getting arrested, leaving me without a summer job. On top of everything else, I wasn’t even getting to write the stories I wanted to write. It all just felt like a major waste of time.
When I finally decided to come back, I immediately went and changed my major to English. I had been simultaneously taking the classes required for an English major which made it easy to switch. Despite the fact that it meant that I wouldn’t graduate in four years, it was the best decision I’d made. Everything seemed to turn around immediately. I understood and myself actually enjoying my classes. In one class I made it a point to bring three pages of notes to prove I’d read the chapter when only one was required. Even in the classes I wasn’t doing amazingly at, I wasn’t in danger of failing. It also put me around more theater kids who convinced me to get into acting which was a blast. It was such a great feeling and a departure from my first two years.
During this time, I remember sitting in class towards the end of my final semester. We’d been reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce when an idea hit me. It took the characters from my superhero comedy Misfits of Justice and reworked them into a more serious story called Further from the Sun. I was so excited about the idea that I set everything aside and began writing the story out. Now, I’d written scripts before but I felt very serious about getting this one made. So much so that I reached out to Steven Forbes to see if he would edit it. This might have been sometime around graduation, but I was that serious about it.
Roughly four years, three deaths, two jobs, and one tsunami later, I finally have the entire series finished and printed as Secrets & Shadows.
The journey to get this far hasn’t been easy and making a comic book was even less so. However, I find myself with a compulsion to write even when I don’t want to. I may never make Sandman or Watchmen, but I write because I enjoy it. I make comics because I enjoy it. And as long as I enjoy it, I will continue to do it.
In 1999, I wrote a story that made me think “Huh, this could be something big”.
And I haven’t looked back.