Freelance Year One recap

The last time I got so drunk I threw up was Monday, August 31, 2015. People just kept buying me drinks, and I didn’t think to ask any of them to buy me food, or to buy it myself. My office had already been completely cleaned out the previous week, and I had spent the day handing off the last of my projects and negotiating the terms of the freelance arrangement by which I would finish a handful of them. The only thing I was responsible for getting home that night was myself, and the 33 bus line, not yet replaced by the MAX Orange Line, went almost all the way there.

My going-away party took place at Duffy’s, an Irish pub a few blocks from Dark Horse, chosen because in seven years of working in Milwaukie, I’d somehow never set foot inside. I headed over after shutting down my company computer for the last time and was soon joined by a steady stream of people from different departments coming in and out for the next several hours, one of the pre-press team dealing blackjack on the other side of the bar. We reminisced, gossiped, talked about my future plans, and drank the whiskeys that didn’t stop coming. Eventually a few of us found our way back to Portland and stopped at my local bar for sandwiches, the first and only time I’ve ever been there and not gotten a drink, and also the first and only time I’ve urgently excused myself to its bathroom to kneel in front of a toilet.

On September 1, I woke up badly hungover on my couch, having surrendered the bed to a friend who ended the night as blind drunk as I did, the fact that it was her first day on the job somewhere else scoring her as many free drinks as I got. The hangover passed as my blog post about my new freelance career and a few articles about it went up and congratulations began to pour in on Twitter. I had written the post in Los Angeles the week before, while visiting animation studio Starburns Industries, the makers of Rick and Morty and Anomalisa, about developing a freelance relationship with their nascent comics line. The trip was hastily planned after I let them know I had given my two-weeks’ notice at Dark Horse, since I was the connection between the two companies. There I also registered my domain name, applied for a credit card that accrued frequent flyer miles, and generally began to think of myself as a business.

I fielded the Twitter congratulations for an hour or so, then got to work on my very first freelance gig, proofreading an issue of Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s Descender, an opportunity that arose when I informed Lemire, whose Black Hammer I had brought to Dark Horse and edited the first batch of issues of, that I was moving on. By the time the proofing was done, my new editing@brendanhwright.com email address had begun to receive inquiries about my rates and services, and I thought, Everything’s going to be fine.

The sentiment continued at Rose City Comic Con, where my badge, though I had obtained it on my own, still identified me as a Dark Horse employee, and the following month at New York Comic Con the following month, both of which I came home from with new gigs and more congrats. I had included pitch consulting—reading the pitch materials of both pro and amateur comics makers with an editor’s eye and helping rewrite them to better sell the projects—as an afterthought in my announcement, but it quickly became clear that it was what would pay my rent while the slower-going work of editing comics series and graphic novels paid in increments over many months.

From the beginning I was working on Alex de Campi and Tony Parker’s Image series Mayday, recently announced by the publisher, a Kickstarted followup to de Campi and Jerry Ordway’s Semiautomagic series I had edited at Dark Horse, a new series entitled Graves for Starburns, a New Talent Mentoring Anthology for the nonprofit Dare2Draw, and the graphic novel A Letter to Jo, based on the true story of writer Joe Sierecki’s grandparents, which we eventually brought in Kelly Williams to draw and R.M. Guéra to produce the cover for. I flirted with a contributing editor position at Heavy Metal magazine, but it ultimately proved not to be the right fit, and I declined with regrets. I finished up my Dark Horse responsibilities—primarily Makoto Yukimura’s Planetes vol. 2, Matt Kindt and Brian Hurtt’s Poppy!, and the Dark Horse Presents serialization of Semiautomagic and Brendan McCarthy’s Dream Gang—and closed that chapter of my career.

As 2016 began, I remained lucky, with new work coming in just as projects finished. The feast and famine of freelance life is exactly as they tell you, and it worked out for me primarily because my expenses are low—I have lived in the same rent-controlled apartment since 2005, I don’t own a car, and I don’t really buy things. I immediately applied for food stamps to help save money as I entered a period where my income would be uncertain, and it allowed me to keep my focus on my rent and other basic expenses, while encouraging me to cook more and therefore eat healthier. In recent months, my income has stabilized somewhat, thanks to the beginning of some new series and to some freelance work outside of comics, and I’ve been able to discontinue the benefit. So far the fact that I am paying for my groceries again has not led to a too-dramatic backslide in my eating habits.

Eating better was soon accompanied by more exercise, as my more-flexible schedule allowed me to break up the day with an hour of biking if I decided. Soon biking became a daily hobby, and, at the urging of a friend, jogging followed. Money aside, being my own boss proved to be far less stressful than the office environment I was used to, and between that and the exercise, I found myself losing weight, having an easier time getting up in the morning, and generally feeling healthier. Ironically, I have had a lot of difficulty with the Affordable Care Act, receiving different information in scary mailings than I have on the reassuring website, getting rejected a couple times based on failing to provide information that healthcare.gov says I provided, and generally being frustrated enough to procrastinate. Finally addressing this in a serious way is high on my to-do list for September.

As the months went on, the thing I found most difficult was maintaining a web presence and promoting myself. It doesn’t come naturally to me, and I tend to feel editors should be invisible. But paying the rent supersedes such notions, and I took to periodically posting essays about editing and pitching, as well as hypey posts about how books I edited came to be. Sometimes I would forget or not find the time or not feel up to it, and important books would come out without an accompanying post, but I’m trying not to let that happen too often. I have also, a year later and with Rose City Comic Con coming up again in a week, failed to create a business card. At NYCC 2015 I used my Dark Horse Comics business cards, using a Sharpie to shorten the name to “Comics” and writing in my new email address, which amused enough people that I ran out of the stash I brought, but I don’t think I can get away with that at this late a date. However, I did manage to get this website off the ground and to get kind testimonials from many of comics’ best and brightest.

New projects came in, including John Nadeau’s Vector, Ben Kahn and Bruno Hidalgo’s Heavenly Blues—which I had consulted on the pitch for and took over the editing of when Lauren Sankovitch moved on—some new Starburns projects I pitched, a project with Matt Miner and Jonathan Brandon Sawyer that isn’t ready to announce, and a custom project for a tech company. Alex de Campi and I worked out an arrangement for the new Semiautomagic volume to be the first book to come out under my own imprint, Illicit Press, and I have two projects I hope to launch through it next year. Now that I have a Comixology Submit account, I am also on the lookout for projects in need of a digital distributor to fill out Illicit Press’s online presence.

At a certain point, I realized I was okay with comics not being my full-time job anymore. I had incredible opportunities at Dark Horse, and accomplished enough in those seven years that if all I’d ever be able to point at from my comics career was the shelves of books I edited there, it would be plenty to be proud of, and when I let go of the fear that there wouldn’t be more, a huge weight was lifted from me. I left for a lot of reasons, but the main one was that there were more new things I wanted to do that I could do in a new environment than new things I wanted to do that I could do where I was. Now I’m content to make comics a part of my life, but not my whole life.

I was used to working on as many as ten books a month, most of which I loved, but some of which I inevitably had to take on for some reason other than my own enthusiasm. I realized that if I no longer worked on comics 50 hours a week, but instead put in 20 hours and did something a little more remunerative with the other half of the week. This, as I understand it, is called having a day job. Right now my day job is as a freelance paralegal for a criminal defense attorney on a truly fascinating case, a throwback to the work I was doing before starting at Dark Horse. The job helps pay my bills and leaves me free to say no to comics projects I don’t want to work on, a true luxury after years on staff. More recently I’ve also taken on project management work at Amazon’s Jet City Comics imprint, a role that largely involves maintaining a line-wide schedule and coordinating between the project management and editorial offices but has come to include some editorial pinch-hitting, primarily when Jet City’s acquisitions editor is out of the office, but also when an additional voice is valuable. It’s my first experience doing something like an office job remotely, and the learning curve was intimidating, but the books have been fun and the team at Jet City turns out to be warm and inviting. Finally, I’m returning to teaching, spending mornings this week attending inservice week meetings to prepare for my Comics Storytelling class for high schoolers. I previously taught comics in the 2007-2008 school year and was prepared to do so again before getting the job at Dark Horse, which I began September 2, 2008, the same day school started in Oregon.

The summer is when it finally looked like things had been too easy, and I did have to borrow a small amount of money to keep myself afloat while the first paralegal and Amazon checks came in. Now that they’re moving I’ve got momentum back, and am preparing for this year’s RCCC and NYCC and gearing up for a 2017 where the books I’ve worked on this year finally see the light of day. It’s been unfamiliar not having people see much of what I’m doing every day, and the consulting gigs will, by design, never be something people know I had anything to do with. I can only imagine how lonely working in comics must be if you live anywhere other than Portland, where I run into fellow comics editors while on dates or have book release parties taking place within walking distance of my apartment many nights a month. Sometimes I fear I’ll be forgotten and that will be the end of my work, while other times my heart is warmed by the people who do still seek me out and want to work with me. And the people who come back for another project or for me to give feedback on an additional round of consulting. It’s something I never had to worry about on staff, and it is the most professionally gratified I’ve ever felt. One thing that has definitely helped is how far ahead I was on my work at Dark Horse, meaning books I was working on a year ago are still coming out, so my name is going to be in comics that come out from them up even past the point it begins appearing in books for other publishers.

Which is not to suggest that everything’s been roses. This last year has been shaped as well by the mistakes I’ve made. I’ve learned the hard way I’m not ready to have employees, and I have let my feelings dictate my online responses to comics news a little too often. Being my own boss has required me to change my work habits, with varying levels of success. I’ve neglected people who matter to me while I’ve thrown myself into this new endeavor, and I’ve stumbled badly as I’ve tried to reestablish who I am. I’m happier, healthier, and more driven, but I have also had to confront a lot of what I did when I wasn’t those things, and in trying to correct them I’ve often gone too far in the other direction. I’m sure I’m forgetting people, but off the top of my head I owe apologies to Juliana Arrighi, Charles Chenet, Martha Grover, Stephen Pitcher, Philip Simon, Patrick Thorpe, and Dylan Wright. I’m sorry.

So, yes, this anniversary has led to a lot of introspection. I’m doing better than at any time in memory, I’m finally making nearly as much money as I made before, I’m proud of my work, and I’m excited about 2017. But I am also constantly striving to do better. I love comics and I always will, and the years I put in at Dark Horse were essential to who I am, what I accomplished, and the opportunities that present themselves to me now, and what I am doing now is shaping what my role in this business will ultimately be. I’m 32 years old and making a new path. It’s a lot more work than I’m used to, and there are parts of it I’m only okay at so far, but I am going to keep at it. Though tomorrow I’ll put that aside for a night to celebrate once again, because one year as a freelancer deserves a party just as much as leaving a formative job does. This time I think we can skip the throwing up, though. See you all in Year Two!

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