Full disclosure: Morgan is a good friend and someone I’ve known for years, which is why I asked if she’d contribute on the Finding Your Dream series. Ever since I met her on the second day(!!) of high school, she’s wanted to be a comic artist and creator, and through better and worse she’s made it happen. I’ll let her talk about her experience in her own words!
All bolding is added by me.
My name is Morgan and I am an American comic book artist. I’m here to share with you what the path to my dream job has looked like up until now, and what all I did for, before, and around to get where I am.
I am one of those people who has always known what I wanted to do for a living. I won’t drone on about this, but since I was young, I was obsessed with comics. Reading them, making them, entering contests (who remember’s Tokyo Pop’s Rising Stars of Manga??)—I was pretty focused.
You would think being the type of person who has always had a clear idea of their dream job would also mean my path there was pretty clear, but I did my share of other things before ending up where I am now. At eighteen, I was very naive and not too confident in my ability to make big and decisive life choices. I (and my parents) saw art school as too much of a closed/niche opportunity. What if I changed my mind? What if it limited my opportunities too greatly? So I ended up going to a liberal-arts college instead.
Now, full disclosure, I grew up with a lot of privileges, and attending college was something that was always expected of me. To be honest, part of the problem was at eighteen, I didn’t really understand deep down that one goes to college in order to get a job (whoops). We have been put on the school conveyor belt for so long—finish one level, move onto the next, that I didn’t really question much about moving onto this next level. I thought more about the things I was interested in learning, and less how those things could be a building block to a future career (if you are starting to look at colleges for the first time now, don’t be like me, kids). That being said, I did love my time at undergrad. The education I received (and people I met) helped me grow up a lot, and shaped me into the adult I am today.
Another thing that I was doing throughout high school and college that helped shape who I am was working various day jobs. The list of jobs I have had over my life ranges anywhere from cleaning houses to selling booze and hotdogs out of a golf cart. I am mentioning this now because, at the time, these job were just to earn a paycheck, and I considered them having no bearing on what I actually wanted to do. Much like my college degree (I was an Cultural Anthropology major with a focus in Asia), I thought none of these things had anything to do with being a comic artist, but that turned out not to be true. You need a lot of life experiences to be a good storyteller, and all these things have come to together to give me a unique angle that others don’t have. I am telling you this because if you feel like you have chosen poorly up until this point, or wasted time and are “starting late,” don’t. I promise in one way or another the things you have done up until now have nourished the parts of you that will succeed in what you want to do in the future.
I graduated college still pretty naive, and simply started working full time at the part-time job I was working while in my last year of college, as a commissioned-based, high-end watch saleswoman. This job, in hindsight, was a blessing in disguise. It was by far the WORST job I have ever had. It was truly miserable—a toxic work environment; angry, angry high-powered customers; and a poorly-managed…well, everything. This job was so stressful that I would literally cry every morning while talking myself into going to work, and sometimes (a lot of the time) the stress of going made me physically ill. The blessing part of this (other than just being lucky enough to have a job in San Francisco during the recession, no matter how bad), is I KNEW I had to do something else—and soon.
I knew that deep down in my heart, I still wanted to make comics as a profession, and that there was really nothing else I could picture myself doing everyday that would make me happy. I also knew that I had no idea how to even start making this dream a reality. And so it was around this time I began to look into comic (or sequential art, as it were) graduate programs. This search introduced me to the Sequential Art Department at The Savannah College of Art and Design
Attending grad school was not an easy choice. SCAD is not a cheap school by any means, and I was terrified by how much debt going there would incur—debt I would probably never pay off—and how much of a gamble it was to make it in comics even with proper training. But I knew that if I didn’t do this, I would never work in comics (now I want to add here this is something I knew about myself, lots of people make it in comics without school), and I knew if I never tried, that “what if” would haunt me.
I can say now, some five years out of grad school, that attending SCAD was the best thing I ever did. It was also the hardest (and most expensive) thing I ever did. The program at this school pushed us incredibly hard, which in turn prepared us for an equally demanding industry. I was very lucky that my peer-class at SCAD was also exceptional. Everyone in my group wanted to work hard, and push themselves to make the best books they could, and they are still some of my closest friends to this day.
The program at SCAD not only taught me the craft of making comics, but it also taught me how to network and get ahead in the business. Working in comics, for better or worse, is ALL about networking, and most of that networking happens at comic conventions. To break into one of the traditional publishing houses (DC, Marvel, Image, etc.) you really have to hit the floor running. Print samples of your work to leave with editors, stay out late buying drinks and getting to know people. It doesn’t have to be forced and aggressive, but you do have to get yourself out there and start meeting people to get ahead in comics. You have to hustle. SCAD has a great event called Editor’s Day, where once a year they invite editors from different publishing houses to sit down and give portfolio reviews. This was a really golden opportunity to get ahead in networking, and one that has given me lasting relationships with people in my industry to this day.
People often, especially in creative careers, seem to have an expectation of starting in their field right after they graduate. If you have graduated and are still working a retail or whatever kind of job, DON’T WORRY—that is the norm. I was told on average it takes about five years of consistently working professionally towards your goal to break in. I would say five years is about true to my experience, and I’ve had some luckier breaks than most.
After grad school I started out taking any small freelance gig I could: pitches, anthologies, commissions, etc. I worked for cheap, but never for free, unless working for free greatly advanced me in some other way. I also worked part time at an art supply store in Denver. Again, this day job turned out to be greatly beneficial to my growth as an artist and storyteller, due mainly to my co-workers—other very talented artists working to break into their own fields. Being artists, but not in comics, they were able to teach me about and expose me to a vast number of things I had missed artistically by being so focused in my field, and I am much better today, for it.
If the job you want to do is a freelance or creative job, having to work a day job does not mean you have failed, and doesn’t mean that you are not still a person working in the creative field. For the majority of us, it is just one step in the process, do not let it discourage you. But do not get trapped either. You must keep going—you must keep creating. This is where is can be really hard; I know it was for me. You come home from your day job, you are tired and fussy and just want to read something or sleep, or see some friends over a drink, but you have to prioritize your real career. It’s hard, my social life definitely suffered, but I made sure that my nights were dedicated to life-stuff (paying bills, laundry, etc) so that on my days off I could sit in a cafe from 8 am-8 pm and work all day on making comics (I would work at a cafe because there it was just me and my work, and it helped me not get distracted). I am finding more and more that the people who eventually make it in are the ones who just didn’t give up. Who went home and continually and consistently make things and put them out there, day after day.
I love my job, and I feel very lucky to be able to do the work I do, but it can be very tough. It is a lot of long hours and not a huge amount of pay. And being freelance, sometimes the work dries up all together, and you have to go back to a whatever-kind of day job. But to me, I have loved the process, and the times when it is good are so good, they make all the hard times worth it.
Hey, Lauren again.
First — thank you, Morgan!!!! I appreciate you sharing your wealth of experience, and I hope my readers do, too!
I wanted to quickly expand on a few things Morgan wrote:
Morgan realized two things about school: that for her, college may not have been necessary, and that art school absolutely was. I think many people get pulled along on a life track that’s expected of them, without taking the time to think about the practical returns of the choices they’re being told to make. Of course, as a teenager it might be hard to be so self-aware, especially enough to argue against a set path that’s been laid out for you by people you trust, who have more power, wealth, and life experience than you. Honestly, this is a dynamic that will be true all your life, so it’s important early on to start making informed, conscious decisions about how you spend your time and money, especially in pursuit of professional qualifications. Research on how schools, certificate programs, internships, and work-study programs benefit their graduates, as well as deep introspection on how school and other programs work for you personally, will help you get the most out of any one you decide to attend (and will help you avoid things not worth your time, no matter how well they work for others!).
Non-Career Related Work and Other Experiences:
Morgan has worked a ton of jobs. Morgan’s made jobs work for her needs in the moment. She’s part-timed a lot of places. She’s worked terrible jobs much longer than any reasonable person might. But the important thing is that she took something from these experiences. She learned lessons from them, and applied those lessons to her next job, and to her real career.
I can’t tell you how much I love that she used the phrase “real career.” We live in a world here in 2018 in the U.S. where “side-hustle” has become a common term, where the expectation is that there may be jobs you need in order to pay rent, but they also might be to support your passion project or personal calling, on which you devote your intentional time and energy. Your real career is what I’m trying to help you zero in on with this blog, and what I want you to keep in mind as you go through your life. Every experience, as Morgan demonstrates, can get you closer to that real career, and hopefully get that real career to pay your rent, too.
Networking and Peer-Group Friends:
Here is an area in which Morgan has truly excelled. I’ll get more into it in future blog posts, but the importance of networking cannot be understated. Morgan started networking with her peers in grad school, which is an especially valuable group, as they’ll be alongside her at similar levels as they all continue to improve and advance within the comics industry. They can support each other creatively and provide congratulations and consolation; but they also refer each other to jobs and potential employers, champion each other’s works, and help each other grow when the professors and mentors are no longer around. These peers help broaden her network as they broaden their own, and she returns the favor by introducing them to her own connections.
Not only did Morgan network with her comics friends, though — she also made friends and connections in different parts of the fine arts world through her job at the art store. These connections are also awesome: They’re people with whom she’ll never be in direct competition, and have exposed her to art forms that are not inherently a part of what she does, but are adjacent and related. These connections may find out about neat opportunities open to fine artists that comics artists might not know about, and they can be a sounding board when her peers and chosen industry drive her crazy (not a small thing!).
The point I’m trying to make is that peer groups and networking are important not only through your own industry, but through adjacent pursuits, and even in life as well. You never know when someone’s skills or expertise will be handy, and having more good, reliable people in your life can never hurt (we’ll go into making and keeping the right connections later, too).
Hard, Dedicated Work in Pursuit of a Goal:
I hope its clear that Morgan is a hard, hard worker. She made the choice to go back to school, and after, to put in the work on her real career around the time she spends on immediate paying work and the time and emotional labor she puts into her non-work life and relationships.
But her callout to the time it takes to succeed is critical. I’ll be covering how time relates to success as well in the future, but for now, it’s enough to know and realize that, as much as the American Dream would have us believe overnight success through one’s own efforts is achievable…it’s actually a rare fluke, and true, lasting success takes time and repeated, intentional, peer- and connection-supported effort. If you’re looking for a magic wand, this is not the blog for you (but best of luck!).
Finally, why I asked Morgan to contribute in the first place: Morgan knows who she is. She’s known forever that she’s wanted to be a comic artist, but for her, knowing was the easy part. Getting from having a dream to achieving the dream was convoluted and took many years of trying and failing, but she kept her goal in sight the whole time, and knew enough about herself to make decisions that would get her ever closer to that final goal. She evaluated each step (and got better at evaluating her pivots and next steps!) and figured out whether or not it would work for her and how she operates.
This is the hardest thing to know, but the most critical. Knowing how you work, what makes you happiest, what you absolutely cannot tolerate — these things will help you get closer to your best career.