Let’s do a final one for the year, shall we? This is the 11th newsletter this year, so I managed almost one every month. I don’t think that’s too bad, though I wish more of these were part of the Comics Creator’s Technical Handbook series. I have two of those lying half-written that I hope I can finish in the next few months.
But for now, it’s December, I’m about to close shop for the year (ten pages to go, baby!), so I thought I’d take stock of the year, and chat about The Beatles: Get Back like every chump on the internet over the age of 30.
I lettered 2800 pages this year, and, weirdly, did not burn out, even though I spectacularly burnt out last year managing just about 2600. I was thinking about this, and I realised, for one, I was far more organised this year, so I worked fewer hours, spent less time in front of my computer wondering what I was supposed to do next, and also, didn’t lose around 1.5 months because the world was ending – that sort of thing really saps productivity. For another, I didn’t hand-letter about a hundred of those pages (just about 15, this time around). And finally, I was trying to do a lot of things outside of lettering last year, while this year, I allowed myself to just work and rest.
Even so, I wanted to be doing even less work this year, and spend more time on fun stuff, and I don’t think I allowed myself much of that. In 2022, my aim is to get the final page count somewhere between 1600 and 2000, which would leave enough time for me to write a bit, practice some drawing, and get a better workout routine. Since we’re still in a pandemic year, I won’t be doing my “goals for the year” card. It’s fine if I just work and rest for another year and do nothing else.
In other professional news, I won the Ringo award for Best Letterer, and was nominated for an Eisner, both of which were very cool things. Several of the books I worked on also won awards and/or ended up on Best-of-the-Year lists, which is always gratifying.
Writing-wise, I had my first short comic in several years published in Razorblades, drawn and coloured by my buddy Rosh. I also just finished writing another story for the Doctor Who charity anthology Forgotten Lives II, and this one’s possibly the oddest little story I’ve ever written. I’ll talk more about this when it’s out.
I’m currently working on a few more stories – two on commission (one prose, one comics), and a couple of more on spec. I also had a short story rejected by three publications, which was an interesting experience – I expected this to get me down, but in fact, I just felt it was a matter of the right time and place. It wouldn’t even bother me if the story never gets published – I finished it, and I love it, and I had get it down on paper, which is what matters most.
Finally, I’ve begun scripting a long-form comic again. I spent the year toying with three different ideas in my spare time, working on one till I hit a block and then moving on to the next. The point was to get at least one of these to a place where I could go full-bore with it, and that arrived last month. I already had three issues of a rough draft, but I’ve thrown out all except … maybe three scenes, and I’ve started over with the rest, this time building the outline before I plunge into scripting again.
A new thing I did this time is decide to get an editor involved. Last month, I put out this question on Twitter:
Comics friends who’ve worked with freelance editors - I’m working on a comic that feels like it’ll need an editor. What’s the right time to bring them in? Concept stage, outline stage, or after I’ve done a draft of the script?
I got a lot of answers, all of which are in the thread there, but Kieron Gillen, as expected, had a comprehensive one, that I hope he doesn’t mind me reproducing here:
I think a lot speaks to the project. I mean, even “Outline stage” assumes certain things - not least deciding to align to a system which demands a certain kind of outline.
Of course, “What I want from an Editor” is a good conversation to have with an Editor as soon as possible. Provisional conversations lining up someone early even if the work is needed later is a good thing to do.
That “Editor” is such a broad umbrella does change a lot of things. Even the idea you hire an editor changes fundamental things about what an editor is (i.e. they are your employee, not vice versa.)
And that’s exactly what I did. I drafted a long email detailing where I am with the project, what my goals are, and what I need from an editor, and left it to the editor to figure out if they want to be involved. I’m not a natural outliner, but I don’t mind doing pitches – i.e. a short document that doesn’t actually elucidate the story (because that, for me, cooks over time), but which explains the point of the story.
And let me tell you, just the act of writing a document that explains the story to someone else made so many things about it clearer to me, and forced me to make some hard decisions that I had been delaying far too long because I was enamoured by the alternatives.
Anyway, you probably won’t hear more about this one till it’s much further along, but it’s going to be one of my focus points in 2022.
I appeared on two podcasts since we last talked.
First, I chatted with my old friends at Outside the Pages about one of my favourite Alan Moore books – Providence – and the entire Lovecraft trilogy.
I was also invited onto one of my favourite comics interview podcasts – Off Panel – to talk about my work, and my approach to comics in general. David Harper is a fantastic interviewer to listen to, and I can attest he is just as great to talk to.
That’s about it for the round-up. Now I wanna talk about one of my favourite tv experiences of the year – The Beatles: Get Back.
There’s been a lot of opinion about it online, and I don’t want to rehash it here. Personally – I listened to the Beatles as a teenager, with my friends, and that’s a cherished time in my life, but I’m not sure I’d call myself a fan. Even when I thought they were the “best band ever”, I enjoyed listening to Bob Dylan and Nick Cave far more. I don’t think I’d heard most of their catalogue before watching this series, though I’d heard their best-known stuff. I actually did a complete run-through of their studio albums after watching this, and you know what – great band, for sure. Let’s leave it at that.
What I’d like to do instead is talk about this documentary from my viewpoint as a working creative. There’s that one moment everyone went gaga over (as did I) where we see Paul McCartney pulling “Get Back” from thin air while he, George and Ringo are waiting for John to arrive. It’s magical to watch, and there was a lot of chatter online about whether it’s in fact cool or if, erm, all songs are made like that and it’s nothing special.
What I’d like to note is how, in that 7-8-minute stretch, Paul captures the entire structure of the song. And yet! You see them working on it over and over for ages. For a bit it becomes a hokey protest song, and then Paul brings it back (to where it once belonged, I guess), and they keep noodling till it’s kinda-sorta done.
That’s what I love. That even the lightning-in-a-bottle stuff still needs work, and you can mess it up if you overdo it, and sometimes you have to throw out a few days’ worth of effort and go back to the last spot that you know it worked and start again.
The other thing I noticed is the very sensible working method John mentions to George where you just plug in some placeholder nonsense and move on so you don’t lose the momentum because you couldn’t figure out one little bit (“She attracts me like a cauliflower”). You can also see this later on when Paul is working on “Let It Be”, and he just mumbles “Read the Record Mirror … Let it be” and moves on.
The thing about this is, you need everyone on the same page here – everyone should understand that a creative endeavour will involve some degree of silliness, and you have to involve your critical self where it’s needed rather than at every part of the process. Placeholders can make the thing sound weird and unfinished, but they’re fine if they get you where you’re going.
If you’re creating something from the heart, you tend to be in a vulnerable place, and having everyone a) understand that things take their time to develop and will go through some painful periods and b) include a degree of silliness in the entire process, so your brain doesn’t have to constantly defend your ideas.
I think this is why the Beatles goof around so much of the time, and sing parody versions of their own songs, or weird covers of old standards. I’m not saying they do it intentionally to foster creativity, but that it ends up being integral to the process anyway.
If I was trying to do a “Lessons from The Beatles: Get Back”-type essay here, I might additionally point out how they’re constantly playing music, whether their own or someone else, just to stay in that zone of activity rather than leave it, but I’d prefer to move on to the thing I found most interesting about being in a creative field based on collaboration.
These people started out as friends who played music together. They were teenagers when they met, and their primary relationship was not as colleagues, but as friends. The working relationship of course became important, but the reason for the collaboration was the fact that they liked each other.
This is something that happens all the time in creative fields. I have several collaborators I work with because I like them as people. And comics, like music, is a field where your professional life and your personal life is constantly mixing. I wouldn’t say I’m friends with all my collaborators, but I’ve had a drink with a majority of them, and we get along, to say the least. This can be very important when your work involves you sitting with them for hours and trying stuff out.
This is probably reduced quite a bit if you have bosses involved as mediators, e.g. editors in corporate comics, but in creator-owned comics, as in rock bands, it’s usually you and your bandmates figuring stuff out yourself.
And of course, once you gain an amount of success – in their case, once you’re the biggest band in the world – suddenly that working relationship is carrying a lot more on its shoulders than just how much you enjoy the time spent together. Suddenly money – both yours and of other people – depends on that relationship.
And it doesn’t have to be all about the money, even. Every collaborative venture involves some degree of vetoing. You’re not all always gonna agree on the right direction (paraphrasing someone likely misattributed on the internet, that would mean one of you is unnecessary), but you need to find ways to make decisions and move forward in those situations.
And if you can’t figure out where one relationship ends and the other begins, you’re in trouble. Especially if you’re, say, in your 20s and have never had another job where you just had to do things people told you.
You can see Paul struggling with this when he’s the de facto boss on the project. He talks about how Brian Epstein (referred to, rather adorably, as Mr. Epstein) would fill that function in their previous projects, and now he feels like he’s been made boss (implicitly because of John’s drug issues), and nobody involved actually likes it.
In comics, the letterer usually isn’t the person vetoing, so I’ve not had that issue much, but I’ve seen writers and artists argue endlessly about a particular decision that both feel strongly about. And you can see why seemingly small things take on titanic proportions, and sometimes wreck both the working relationship and the personal relationship, because, of course, it’s not always clear if the other person is criticising just the idea or you in the bargain.
I’ve had occasion in the past to collaborate with people whose company I thoroughly enjoyed, but we ended up making for terrible collaborators. In some cases, it makes sense to let go of the professional relationship to save the personal one, and I suppose there are times when the other way around makes more sense.
But of course, it doesn’t have to come to that, except that in high-pressure situations, you have to expect these conflicts to arise, and you have to know how to handle them without your collaboration imploding.
The final thing I want to note is all of the Beatles’ generosity in throwing ideas into the mix, regardless of who wrote the song or got the credit. Even at their most acrimonious, you see George giving John ideas, and of course, Paul and John are constantly collaborating so you don’t always know where one person’s song ends and the other’s begins.
It’s the same in any other medium. People like to think that creators stick to their lanes, and attribute all the writing decisions to the writer, art decisions to the artist, colour to the colourist and so on. But the fact of the matter is, whoever’s executing it, the idea can come from anyone. That’s the nature of collaborative projects – you’re constantly throwing ideas in, and generally you don’t maintain an ego about whether it’s used or not. It’s just a part of the churn, and it makes your collaboration richer in the long term, whether a particular idea is adopted or not.
The Beatles had a surprisingly short career given how many good songs they have, and despite the turmoil, you can see so much of why they work in this documentary.
As a quick addendum, I’d say the most valuable ancillary material on this series for me was this podcast interview in three parts with Peter Jackson by Something About the Beatles. You see a lot of his decision-making about the process, and you definitely see how much he cares about the project, if you didn’t already, given he spent four years editing and remastering this footage.
That’s it for the year. I’m glad I got to end it with a lengthy essay rather than just some updates. I’m hoping to update my website in the coming couple of months, and I have a feeling the relationship of that and this newsletter might mutate a bit, but let’s see what 2022 brings.