Been Spending Most My Life Livin’ in a Cartoonist Paradise

by | Feb 23, 2020 | Making Comics | 1 comment

I wanted to get back into blogging proper. And first up I wanted to talk about why I formed 7×7 Comics with a group of like-minded cartoonists in the Pittsburgh area. In order to tell that story, I need to lay down some background. By the way it’s pronounced “seven by seven”, get it? Although SEVEN-X-SEVEN sounds pretty neat too. Some of it is a little personal, but I hope that anyone out there making comics, whatever level you’re currently at can relate.

The first thing you need to know is I love the Pittsburgh area, and I love all the awesome talent we have here. It really IS a cartoonist’s paradise and I’m grateful to live in this neck of the woods every day.

Pittsburgh: More cartoonists per capita than any friggin city... FIGHT ME!
Pittsburgh: More cartoonists per capita than any friggin city… FIGHT ME!

While most people think of New York or Portland as the main comic creator / cartoonists capitals of the country, Pittsburgh is a truly magical place for comics creators in general. It must be something in the waters here? Or maybe it’s just the friendly neighborhood filled with affordable rent and cost of living compared to those other places. We have probably more comic conventions than ANY city i the country (at least 5 big ones a year!) And tons of awesome comic shops, from megastores like New Dimension Comic’s chain of shops all over the dang place, to old time favorites like Eide’s Entertainment downtown and cool more indy-friendly shops like Copacetic Comics over in Polish Hill. The Pittsburgh region has more comic & collectibles shops per capita than any other in the country (maybe the world!)

Left to right: Ron Frenz, Don Simpson, Scott McDaniel, Ernie Stiner
Left to right: Ron Frenz, Don Simpson, Scott McDaniel, Ernie Stiner

We have living legends from the comic book world like Ron Frenz (Spider-Man), Don Simpson (Megaton Man), Scott McDaniel (Batman, Nightwing), Ernie Stiner (S.H.I.E.L.D., GI JOE)

Jim Rugg, Ed Piskor, Tom Scioli, Dave Wachter
Left to right: Jim Rugg, Ed Piskor, Tom Scioli, Dave Wachter

And we have the hip new class of award winning & innovative indy creators like Jim Rugg (Street Angel), Ed Piskor (Hip-Hop Family Tree / X-Men Grand Design) and Tom Scioli (Fantastic Four Grand Design), and Dave Wachter (Ninja Turtles) making their mark in the mainstream comics world.

The Pittsburgh Cartoonists group has monthly lunch meetups open for all to attend...
The Pittsburgh Cartoonists group has monthly lunch meetups open for all to attend…

Outside of comic book artists, we have our own little chapter of the National Cartoonist Society and Pittsburgh is full of award winning cartoonists and comic strip artists like Wayno (Bizarro), Teresa Roberts Logan, Pat Lewis, Mark Zingarelli, Rob Rogers, Joe Wos and Vince Dorse… seriously, the list goes on and on. We have great comic/cartoonist educators like Frank Sontoro and Marcel Walker helping to keep the fire burning and bringing new cartoonists into the fold.

I really count myself lucky to call many of them friends or at least friendly acquaintances whom I admire from afar.

Barry Linck, Mikey Wood, Shawn Atkins, Angela Oddling.
Left to right: Barry Linck, Mikey Wood, Shawn Atkins, Angela Oddling.

Beyond the nationally known names, tucked away within the scene are some who have been making comics locally and regularly for more than 20 years, and some talented newcomers. The “old regulars” of the old comicon days, people like Barry Linck with his self-published Phineus Magician comics. Or Shawn Atkins of Workshop13, Explorers of the Unknown . Mikey Wood’s “Hate Your Friends” . Then more newcomer powerhouses like Angela Oddling who seemed to come out of nowhere and is everywhere with webcomics, childrens books and more. It never seemed like any of this circle was looking to “break out” or become a big big name, they just seemed to make comics because they loved to make comics and maybe a few bucks at shows or pay some bills. Truly hidden gems of the Pittsburgh comic scene.

Me? Well, I guess I’ve been around the block too.

Left: A City Paper Cover. Right: My 15 minutes of comics fame, Hero By Night.

From chugging my mini-comics around to shops in the mid 90’s, to 13 years of full time freelancing drawing almost any paying gigs that I could get my hands on. Worked with tons of awesome writers and publishers, and even self-published my own stuff on the side, leading up to 15 minutes of fame on that one project I don’t like to talk about much. One thing is for dang sure, I was always super pumped about the internet, and I’m proud to say I was one of the first handful of cartoonists to publish “webcomics” regularly on the internet, back when it was un-cool to give away free comics. Webcomic Pioneers!”, we used to joke. Turns out it was true.

I would constantly share what I learned with other creator friends (and strangers!) because I really wanted ALL cartoonists to succeed. I felt that cartoonists primarily lived in a world that wasn’t very supportive of drawing comics being a “real job”. It’s an uphill battle for most and the few who “make it”.

Sharing my process for publishing on Webtoon

I’ve never stopped beating the webcomics drum…. and I could talk your ear off about publishing strategies and I’m constantly learning and adapting. No, I mean, I could literally talk about this for hours at a time if you get me going. I believe that companies like Marvel, DC, & IMAGE comics could reinvent themselves and reinvigorate the direct comics market with daily webcomics. DAILY! They’ve never quite got “webcomics” right, if at all. Meanwhile, sites like Webtoon have been CRUSHING IT, but still struggle to become relevant in the US comics market. It’s a super fascinating topic to me, one I’ll probably write more about here as we experiment with 7×7.

Nowadays, and for the past 7 years, or so, I hung up my full-time comics making hat, and took on a full-time day job with benefits over at Spreadshirt, Inc. I had grown pretty tired of the “chasing people down” to pay me what they owed me, or countless “hollywood” people being, well, hollywood people.  I always said I would never work a “day job” again, but Spreadshirt was actually a perfect fit for me because I was not only able to use my creative skills but I also knew it was helping other creative people earn money. Something I understood very well as an original webcomics hustler. Whether it was a shirt I drew for a top youtuber, or helping to better the quality of the product behind the scenes to make merch even better for creators, I truly enjoy the work.

Hey look, some of my comic friends use Spreadshop, imagine that!

“Comics is a harsh mistress.”

There’s no doubt that that creative comics making life was rough on my marriage of 16 years, and while it wasn’t the main contributing factor to my divorce, it definitely didn’t help matters when this job of making comics takes a lot of time spent in other worlds and with your back to your friends and family. Did you know that the normal probability of divorce rate in America is 40-50%? For creatives it’s a 80% divorce rate. That’s sad.

For the first couple years of my new job, I didn’t draw all that much at all outside of work. NO COMICS. No shows. I just wanted to be forgotten. I was definitely going through some sort creative depression, maybe even resenting these skills thinking they’d helped to turn my life upside down. But that was silly. I had some big perceived failures and it was hard to pick myself back up out of it.

In 2014 I was living with my new girlfriend (now my wife!) and she was curious about my comics past and quizzed me as to why I wasn’t making comics anymore? I explained just how bad the direct comics market was. It’s pretty much an illusion that anyone was really “successful”, when the reality is that most creators are one step away from a medical emergency, losing their homes, families, and publishers are racking up debt like you wouldn’t believe. Not a very smart “business” to get into. And it’s funny they call it an “industry” still. It’s definitely a land of make-believe.

When people in and around comics are honest and shed the bullshit, many are struggling. Even those you perceive as being successful are struggling with many things. After applying a lot of self awareness and reflection, there was only one thing true about comics for me…. I loved making them. And I didn’t want to stop. So in 2014 I picked myself back up…

D.J. Coffman and Secret Forces
Left: Pointing out my cool logo I did. Right: My fun little sci-fi comic table setup.

These days, I draw comics “on the side” and pretty much out of the sheer joy and NEED to create. My primary project the past couple years has been Secret Forces, which also appeared regularly in the weekly Pittsburgh Current newspaper. I used the little world I had built with my own characters to experiment and play with new formats. Tried out the Webtoon “scroll down” method, which is neat, but leads to a lot of wasted and boring storytelling.

For me at least, GOOD comics storytelling has to be without gimmicks or bells and whistles. No sound. No animated panel bullshit. Just good old fashioned solid panel to panel storytelling.

The real magic of “comics” happens between the “gutters” in the reader’s mind. I also feel that the years of decompressed storytelling in comics have actually hurt the medium. The ones that make you think “I read a whole issue and nothing happened!” – Or just a bunch of talking heads. Many webtoons make this mistake as well. That’s what rules the day in current comics… but the numbers show this has helped HURT the industry in the long run. Gone are the days of single issue adventures or not needing to collect a giant “event” or multiple re-launches. The attention span has moved on.

This is why many Hollywood folks can sell a big movie with just a pitch and a poster. They only use the comic “industry” as an intellectual property goldmine to steal from or get materials VERY cheaply. We did it to ourselves. But we can do better…

The big idea…

(Nice logo!)

“Hell Yeah I’m down with that plan.”

– Shawn Atkins, creator of Hard Lemonade.

The only show I committed to doing regularly was 3 Rivers Comicon, mostly because I drew the logo for owner Todd McDevitt of New Dimension Comics fame, but also because these dudes who run this show all REALLY LOVE COMICS. 3 Rivers feels like a “real” comic book show with a focus on comic creators and celebrating the makers. We need more shows like this all over! It’s important to educate the public that all these awesome things they watch in theaters actually come from REAL people, and you might even find something even cooler in a book or be the first to find something super cool that will never make it to big screens.

A couple weeks after the 2019 3 Rivers Comicon, after having great nerdy conversations about the craft of comics with a bunch of local creators, I had a crazy idea. Many of my friends were approaching me saying “how do you find time to make comics with a full time job?” – I could tell that many were “stuck” that situation of creative limbo. I had the idea to pull together 7 or so creator friends, all of us with similar situations but that were passionate about comic making. We’d motivate each other to stay at it, share anything that come back equally and most of all HAVE FUN MAKING COMICS without insane deadlines or financial pressure.

I put a rough “big idea” together and fired it off this message…

With that confident answer from Shawn, I then hit up Mikey Wood…

Want to read the “BIG IDEA” pdf pitch? Download the submissions pack here

I reached out to about 10 creators in the area, basically my personal wishlist of folks I wanted to work with, and cartoonists I really admire. I got pretty fast “YES”‘s and “HELL YES”s from: Ian Sharpley, Angela Oddling, Scott Hedlund, Mikey Wood, Shawn Atkins.

Here’s the announcement video I filmed before our very first meeting…

We left the 7th spot open for submissions hoping we’d find someone we didn’t know and shine some light on their work too. We put the submissions to a vote and Sienna Cittadino quickly picked up the 7th spot for our “Season 1” which debuted last fall…

7x7 Comics Season One Lineup
The first 7×7 Lineup for Season 1, August 2019.

The big thing about 7×7 Comics is… we all have day jobs. Comics aren’t a full time living for us. We do it because we love it. I don’t think anyone is actively trying to submit or “break into” anything. Many of the creators here have busy family lives and balance all these things and still want to make comics. For many, this project has helped them to “get back on the horse” or to put something out regularly.

This is something I fully understand from all of my years of experience in balancing these things, failing, getting back up again. It brings me a lot of personal joy to hear that this project is helping others keep themselves “making comics.” And keeping that creative fire burning.

7x7 Comics First Meetup
They first 7×7 Meetup at New Dimension Comics. From left to right: Shawn Atkins, D.J. Coffman, Mikey Wood, Scott Hedlund, Angela Oddling.

I was asked recently how things were going with 7×7, but it felt like more of a “Are you guys making money?” question. The answer there is pretty much NO. I think the last divy up between the 7 of us was $16.28 a piece. And $25 of that is from my uncle who’s a super patreon backer. (thanks David!) – But the truth is, this was never started as a financial endeavor at all. The Patreon was sort of an afterthought to be honest.

Yeah, we may expand into some merch or books for sale…. but when I recently took a poll of our members asking what they wanted most out of 7×7, nobody picked the “Increase Patrons” option, they all overwhelmingly chose the options: “A better website and Webcomic galleries” (which we just launched here!) and “More get togethers and group events” –

YES, we want you to read our comics! But ultimately the camaraderie and positive energy we have is priceless.

That’s what success looks like for us here at 7×7.

As I talk to other cartoonists around the globe, I see we’re also tapping into a bigger conversation about what “success” means in and around comics, and how that false narrative out there is really holding many back, even paralyzing them creatively.

Some think if you’re not doing this full time, you’re a failure. If you tried and failed, you weren’t good enough. You didn’t make your money back on a book you printed or a show you tried. Even worse, maybe you’re in a bad relationship where your family doesn’t support what you want to do and you hear “that’s not a real job!!!” – Maybe your art caused your life to fall apart and you fell into a deep depression without it, so you put away your art tools and think “why bother”. That’s not acceptable!

I hope for any creators out there that 7×7 Comics shows you that you CAN do it all. You can have that stable day job, busy personal life, and you can still do what you love… make comics!

We’re currently in the middle of season 3 of 7×7. And if you didn’t know already, each season is 8 weeks of comics from 7 different creators. You can always read the latest comics over on the HOME PAGE, or each comic has its own feature page with previous seasons available to read.

7x7 Comics Season 3 Creators - Meetup at New Dimension Comics
Season 3 Lineup from left to right: Shawn Atkins, Jared Catherine, Scott Hedlund, Barry Linck, Ian Sharpley, D.J. Coffman, and photoshopped in below is Mikey Wood.

How can you REALLY support us?! There are two big things you can do to support us absolutely FREE!

  1. READ the comics, and leave a comment for the creator if you like something!
  2. Share the comics with your friends on social media! Link to this blog post even!

And if you’re interested in joining up with us and launching your own comics… stay tuned. We have a fun surprise in the works behind the scenes. Thanks for reading!

Back to the drawing board!

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1 Comment

  1. Mikey

    All the love for this.

    I’m so glad to be a part of the dream.

    Reply

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