Never Professional: The Life and Times of an Amateur Cartoon Artist
by Chloe Spencer
Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving break. Cancelled classes. No pressing obligations.
Just me, my laptop, and my Bamboo tablet, sitting alone in the brightly lit open spaces of Allen Hall.
As I begin to sketch layouts, I feel a sense of calm wash over me. This is profoundly different from what I’m used to—the late Friday and Saturday nights, sometimes stretching into the earliest hours of the morning, I spend in front of my desk at home. Usually I turn on older 80s rock music to keep me awake—the classic and enjoyable sounds of Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, and Journey—as I carefully craft my comic pages.
Since the fall of my freshman year, I have managed and run my own comics site, called “Cross X Comix.” Initially, I had started with a small Facebook page and Tumblr account, posting pages of the one series that I was working on rewriting and publishing.
Over the course of the two years that I’ve been active, I have started work on four other series, and that Tumblr account has since been swapped with a Deviantart account, which has grown to almost 300 watchers.
I had always been interested in comics since I was little. Since the age of eight, I had constantly been writing stories. But it wasn’t until I was about twelve that I combined the two passions and tried to write and draw my own comics.
Admittedly—and I write this while wincing—they were rough. Chins were pointy enough to stab, shoulders and bodies were square, straight-lined, and unnatural. Pupils, swimming in giant heads, looked in different directions. Dialogue was, though original in some places, ultimately corny and disconnected from the main storyline. Looking back on it now, I cringe that I let my friends read some of this material.
Despite all these imperfections and flaws, my friends seemed to like what I was writing—and I think that it’s thanks to their encouragement that my passion was fueled. In high school I filled every notebook I had with comics, drawings, and story ideas. I worked on pages in the middle of class, and passed them to my friends across the lunch table or in the mornings before school started.
I never took an art class in high school—I grew to hate art classes from my time in elementary and middle school, because I only wanted to draw and instead, I was constantly forced to make tacky knick-knacks that took up space on the bulletin board in the basement, or were only brought out during the holiday season. Instead, I taught myself how to draw through books and pictures. Though my art style has always remained amateurish, it has improved considerably from my days of giant heads and boxy bodies.
After I finished these stories, I would store them away in boxes, only to be reread in my spare time. I figured that by the time I reached college, I wouldn’t have time to pursue this hobby, and it would become a distant memory of my childhood past times.
However, when I came to the University of Oregon, I realized that my urge to write and draw didn’t stop. Still, I found myself doodling in the margins of my notebooks, and eventually, returning to my old habit of crafting entire stories on the back pages and tearing them out to use later.
No longer was I an angsty teenager (well, technically still a teenager, but also an adult) whose Internet time was monitored. In high school, my parents would have recoiled at the thought of me posting anything online—I didn’t have a Facebook account until I was seventeen, and my secret Fanfiction account was carefully guarded by deleting browser history and using complicated passwords.
At this point in my life, I realized it was finally time to post my comics online, no matter how terrible they were. I needed an outlet for creating, and I loved receiving feedback from readers. Not the typical “Oh the writing is so good” comments, but the “I hate this character and everything he stands for” comments–the comments that inspire you to keep writing, keep going, and keep evoking emotion from people. So I created my Facebook page, invited a small group of friends, and began editing my comic pages and posting them to the site.
I hadn’t had much experience with my Bamboo tablet at this point in my life—so the first page that I produced looked terrible. Squiggly, thick black lines formed shapes on the page. Some parts weren’t erased. I forgot to add layers, so I had to erase the notebook paper lines digitally—and I forgot to erase a huge chunk of them.
But I suppose, if I wanted to get anywhere, I had to have my beginning—even if it was an atrocious one.
Gradually the art improved: I removed the thick black and white designs and replaced them with bright and vibrant colors. I attempted to use shading and other special effects; I focused even more attention on my layouts. I would never be at the level of a professional artist, but I aimed to be good enough to tell the stories I wanted to tell.
The thing that helped me the most was the feedback I would get from my readers and close friends. I incorporated many of their edits into both the design and writing of the comics. I craved more readers and more feedback, so I started my Deviantart account.
Now, I learned quickly how much harder it would be to work with Deviantart, which was ironic to me: instead of talking to a group of friends, I was interacting with people across the world wide web. I was largely unnoticed for months: posting my art and waiting for feedback eagerly. Fanart and fan-made comics get attention, not original work. I was becoming discouraged—this was the exact same climate I had encountered on Tumblr.
Were there no spaces for original work anymore?
I redirected my efforts into research, and after learning what I needed to do, invested hundreds of time-consuming hours spent joining groups, submitting portfolios, and surfing forums. I responded to every comment and question; I interacted with others and looked at their galleries and read their material and offered feedback. My role expanded beyond that of the random comic artist on the Internet—I wanted to create a sense of community and be a role model for others that were aspiring to do the same as I was. Slowly, I was able to grow my readership to what it is today.
Long ago, when I first started publishing my comics, I understood how unlikely it would be that this would be my main job in life, given my skill level as an artist. I don’t think I will ever work for a company like Marvel or DC, nor do I think I will be able to expand beyond my self-publishing operation. My comics remain as my hobby, and I can only hope that I will be able to continue this hobby as the years pass.
I just love being able to create.