Secret Origin part 2: Plan B

2007 and 2008 were the years comics took over my life. Before then, I had evolved from reluctant comic store visitor to hardcore fan (covered in Secret Origin part 1), but in those two years I interned at Top Shelf, took a series of comics theory and comics making classes, taught my own class, began working with the Stumptown Comics Fest planning committee, launched this blog, and ultimately landed my current position at Dark Horse.

There was a time in my life when people would ask me if I wanted to work in comics and I didn’t hesitate to say no. Not because I didn’t love comics, but because I was coming down off of another passion and didn’t want to screw this up too. For so long I’d intentionally left a job in comics out of my plans for the future, precisely because I loved comics, and I was convinced that it was a mistake to turn a hobby into a career, fearful of the damage letting the twain meet would do to both. But plan A, film, for which I had gone to school, was fizzling both due to my mistake of pursuing it in Portland and my growing distaste for the business, which if I am honest took hold even before I finished my degree.

In retrospect I think moving back home with a vague notion that film in Portland would take off in the next few years was deliberate self-sabotage. Sure, I sort of worked in the Portland film business for a little under a year, gripping on corporate films and car commercials, and flirted with storyboarding and teleprompting. During the year I was listed in the local directory as a storyboard artist I was contacted only once and never got a second call after submitting samples. Teleprompting never took off at all. With that dead end reached, I realized I hadn’t made a plan B, a fine strategy if you’re backing yourself into a corner in order to make failure not an option, but no good if you realize you no longer want to succeed.

For a while I got into what proved to be my most lucrative career option, paralegal research, which earned me considerably more money at the age of 23 than I had ever made before and a good deal more than I make four years into my comics career. It was fascinating work, and I threw myself into it. Immersing myself is the only way I know how to work. My first case involved a massive offshore bank fraud case that was essentially a Ponzi scheme. In addition to logging long hours in front of the computer I was lent for the job, I enrolled in an investigation class (though I didn’t stick with it long) and even read a biography of Charles Ponzi.

Eventually the case ended. I got another similar one later, but by then I’d started thinking about a job in comics, as it seemed to offer a lot of the creativity of film without the same stakes and type-A personalities that come with the money involved. (In some ways that was wishful thinking, but the type of money and status-obsessed person I’ve met a few times in comics is far less common and generally less capable of destruction than the similar types I avoided working with in film.)

At first it was just a vague notion. I wrote first to Jamie S. Rich, whom I’d met when I was 16 and my high school set me up with a job shadow at Oni Press, where he was then editor in chief. I’d kept in occasional touch with Jamie since then, and he recommended a few local publishers I might contact. I wrote letters to Oni, Top Shelf, and Cellar Door. After a month or so I received an e-mail from Brett Warnock, Top Shelf’s copublisher, who was impressed that I’d actually mailed something rather than just send an e-mail. We arranged a time to meet for coffee, and at the meeting he offered me a marketing internship.

The position involved basic packing and shipping, researching likely venues to publicize projects like Jeffrey Brown’s Incredible Change-Bots and Renée French’s Micrographica and getting in contact with them, the barest pretense of helping lay out books, and working the Top Shelf booth at Stumptown. Truth be told, I wasn’t very good at it, but it got my foot in the door, and Brett generously allowed me to list him as a reference when I looked for work going forward.

The same day I started at Top Shelf I also began Art 217: Understanding Comics Art at Portland Community College. Taught by Dark Horse editor Diana Schutz, whose name I knew from Sin City and Usagi Yojimbo, the class is a largely introductory course, but I had little experience hearing the concepts involved anywhere but in print and was happy to get to take it in in a classroom context. There were definitely ideas that were new to me as well. I think Diana explicitly said in the first session that we shouldn’t be there looking for jobs, but it really was an opportunity too good to pass up.

One of the final sessions included a tour of Dark Horse, the second time I’d been there after a visit to hand-deliver an application for a marketing position, but the first that I’d seen anything beyond reception. As one of our final assignments, we created 8-page minicomics. Mine was an autobio story about the perils of visiting a church for clueless types like me who didn’t know what goes on there. It went over well, and I just recently learned it was the first thing connected to me that Dark Horse’s editorial director ever saw.

After the term ended, Diana and I got lunch, and I asked her advice on what I should be doing next, as I’d settled on a job in editorial as my goal. This went back to one of the films I made while at USC. Shot in Portland but planned while I was in LA, the film required me to coordinate shooting times and casting from a distance, delegating to people I’d barely met and overseeing preparations for the shoot date in a different city over the phone. I found it more exciting and more gratifying than actually writing and directing the film or any of the others I made during that time. (Though, as a fan of winging it, I did get a kick out of a film where I wrote the key scene in the stands during halftime of a Trojan football game and then rushed back to the soundstage to shoot it when the game finished. My favorite filming technique has always been to meticulously storyboard a scene and then, upon arriving on set, chuck the storyboard.) If I’d stayed in film, my skills better fit producing than writing or directing, and in comics they best fit editing.

Diana gave me several ideas, the best of which was starting this blog, which in its earliest days served as a writing sample generator. When I first met DH editor Scott Allie at the Portland Comic Book Show, I was able to give him not just a resume but a folder containing some of my stronger reviews and interviews. As more interviews accumulated on the site, I continued sending them to him. I count my interview with Brian Michael Bendis, conducted at Stumptown 2008, as one of a series of turning points in getting me the attention that made me a strong job candidate, especially once it was reprinted in the back of Powers vol. 2 #29 and I was able to hand people the comic instead of a printout.

All this time I was familiarizing myself with the Portland comics scene through the interviews I was doing for the site and through the Stumptown planning committee, in which I would eventually develop a role (see yesterday’s Stumptown post), and just becoming a face that people recognized at events. I took another class from Diana, this time at Portland State University, where she taught the more rigorous Art History 399: Contemporary Comics Theory. I also attended Jesse Reklaw’s PCC course Cartooning: Tricks of the Trade to keep my hand in drawing and work on storytelling, which editors should obviously try to know as well as the talent, even if we may lack the actual creative writing and drawing ability.

Around this time I ended up teaching my own class at the high school level. My old high school, the Northwest Academy of Art, prides itself on staffing its art classes with professionals working in each field (which I kind of was, a little) and doesn’t require teaching degrees for its electives teachers, so I was able to make a little extra money and solidify some of my thoughts on comics. A few years earlier I pitched a class on pop culture, which combined semiotics, a look at the way movies, television, etc., reflect and reinforce cultural norms, and an excuse to talk about silly crap. I distinctly remember one student making a beeline for my table at open registration and telling me my class was their first choice, but due to a scheduling snafu, my class was at the same time as a few required classes, leaving fewer available students than were needed for the class to run (it’s a small school).

This time I’d been asked if I’d be available to teach animation, as another teacher had had to change plans. I admitted that I lacked the expertise in animation but would be happy to teach comics if the opportunity ever arose. Soon, it did, and I found myself teaching a mix of basic drawing lessons, storytelling, and comics history. It was a very small group, but an appreciative one, as the school’s focus was more on college prep and less on art than when I attended, and it was a pleasure to see the students pick up drawing and storytelling principles. When one told me a quarter of the way through the year that they already saw their drawing improve, it was among the more gratifying professional experiences I’ve had to date.

One day after class at PSU, Diana mentioned that an assistant editor position would be opening up at Dark Horse. I guess this is how editorial jobs largely come about here, as they’ve hired assistant editors on a few occasions since I’ve been at the company, but none of those positions were ever listed on the jobs portion of DH’s website that I know of. I don’t recall writing a cover letter, but I did have a newly updated resume to show.

Earlier in the year I had attended the New York Comic Con and visited the table of Marvel’s C.B. Cebulski, who was doing portfolio reviews. I wasn’t trying to be an artist, but I went to C.B.’s table anyway and handed him my resume, asking him to give his opinion on it and notes on how it could be better. He struck some information, suggested how other parts could be more prominent, and generally gave guidance on how to make it impressive in as specifically a comics was as possible. As this is the resume that I used for my Dark Horse application, I put a healthy portion of the credit for my hiring on this incident.

I interviewed mainly with Scott and with DH’s editorial director, as well as a brief visit with VP of Publishing Randy Stradley. My understanding is that it was between me and one other applicant, and at one point I was told that we would both be hired, one sooner and one later, with me as the likely candidate for the later position. Sensing the prevailing economic winds (this was August of 2008), I agitated to be the first person hired, which paid off when I was called and told I had the job and the other candidate was never actually hired (shed no tears for them, though—they eventually got a job in a different department at DH and now have a cushier position in animation).

My initial assignment was to assist Diana and her previous assistant, then recently promoted to associate editor, Dave Marshall. By weird coincidence, both were out of the office my first week, and I spent the time reading up on the series I’d be working on and doing small odd jobs for other editors. My first day was September 2, 2008, the day after Labor Day, which in Oregon is when school starts, so it took about a month before the whole thing stopped feeling like an extended school field trip.

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