Happy Friday, dearests, and welcome to the Open Mic! After last week’s wonderful and heartfelt discussion, I am overjoyed to introduce you to Chad Sell, who takes us behind the scenes of his recent graphic novel Shadow Play.
Since Lisa’s blog features such a wonderful combination of both art and the creative process behind it, I wanted to share some of my own experiences as a graphic novelist–particularly, what I learned when I undertook a new direction after suffering some serious setbacks and disappointment with my work.
My graphic novel Shadow Play took shape last summer, when I was in a really rough spot–I had spent the last few years running myself ragged on two ambitious graphic novels, but neither snagged me the giant book deal I’d been hoping for. And even worse, the criticism I got from editors about those two projects undermined my confidence in both of them, and so I chose not to finish either book. It had been a harrowing process, strung out over months as rejection letters slowly trickled in.
There’s nothing worse in the life of an artist than looking back at the labors of your love, and seeing that they’re ugly and misshapen, full of poorly realized characters and tepid plotlines.
I was especially disgusted by my over-reliance on stark line, stiff anatomy, and suffocating page layouts. I had spent months and months fussing over dialogue and tiny details in the artwork, but despite some pretty and playful exceptions, I couldn’t help but feel that the work was stale and soulless.
I told myself that I needed a break–like a jilted lover, I needed time to recuperate before jumping back into the dating pool. So rather than throwing myself back into another overly-ambitious project, I decided to try something… smaller.
No dialogue to fuss over, or panel structure to tweak, and no lines at all. No shading to second guess, no editors to appease.
And thus, Shadow Play was born!
Shadow Play first came to me as a simple little story of a boy on a lonely playground, depicted in stark silhouettes. I wanted it to be a small, short book that I could easily self-publish, even print it myself on my black and white laser printer! Whatever this strange book of shadows became, it would be entirely my own.
And so, it started. Rather than slowly and methodically working through drafts and outlines, I took a more intuitive, see-where-it-goes approach.
I soon found myself channeling childhood memories, the oddly poignant images of a swingset, how I was transfixed on the single magical moment of weightlessness as you jump off at full speed and reach the apex of your flight. You think, just maybe, you’ve taught yourself to fly.
As I kept adding scenes and exploring new avenues, the book blossomed into a full graphic novel. After a few months of creative revelry, of delighted play, I was done. It was my first book to have ever actually finished, and it was all mine.
It didn’t matter what my agent thought (I was sure he’d hate it) or what the editors might say (surely it wasn’t marketable!). This strange, fever-dream of a book stood on its own.
Shadow Play had exceeded my expectations–for better, and for worse. Although it had revitalized my creativity and confidence, it had also grown to be a book much heftier than I could put together myself (unless I picked up some badass bindery skills!). So what to do?
Well, I let it sit for a while. Despite posting it online, I really wasn’t sure how to promote it. And given the track record with my previous book projects, I fully expected to look back at Shadow Play with disgust in a few months.
I started yet another book pitch for publishers, though I also began a weekly webcomic to serve as a counterweight–at least I’d get my work out there in some way or another, regardless of book deals or profitability.
And last month, I allowed myself to revisit Shadow Play. I braced myself, fully expecting to see all of its glaring weaknesses, to second-guess the enthusiasm and excitement I’d previously felt about it.
But… as I raced through it, I was shocked to find that I still liked it! Not only that, I was moved, compelled to finally see this project through.
It took some work–formatting, lots of layout, a few calls to local printers. But I was hellbent: I would publish this book. And so, this very week, I picked up the first copies of Shadow Play.
I’ve already signed up to exhibit at my first comics conventions this year, and Shadow Play will be my flagship title, my tiny little treasure. After years of false starts, this very graphic novelist finally has a graphic novel of his own to send out into the world.
I think we as creative people can be stymied by external forces: trends in the market, fickle editors, the constant uphill battle to get your work in front of interested eyes. But we also tend to cripple ourselves with doubt and second-guessing.
It’s important to recognize when you’re feeling stagnant and to make a course correction. For me, it was embarking on an experimental little side-project. Setting limits and constraints (like those I set for myself with Shadow Play) will force you to try things you’d never imagined before, and you just might like what you discover in your work and yourself.
Chad Sell is a full-time graphic novelist and part-time caretaker of the elderly. His personal website is The Sellout and his weekly webcomic Manta-Man can be read here: www.mantamancomics.com. His graphic novel Shadow Play can be found in its entirety here. You can also look him up on Twitter as @panja57 if you’re into that kind of thing. And feel free to e-mail him! firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you so much, Chad! And now — the comments are open. Go to it!