When Your Hate Mail Is Right

We get letters. Or, I used to get them, when I did a comic book. Most of them were full of thanks and praise, liking the book, saying who their favorite character was, impressed by the progress from issue-to-issue. A couple of times they thought it was crap.

I don’t believe in working by inspiration. That is, to turn a sneering negative into a t-shirt positive, I believe you should just work, and inspiration will follow. Inspiration Is Work’s Bitch, to be internet about it. This isn’t my idea. I saw it in action all the times I went back to school, in my most productive colleagues. It’s a central pillar in Art & Fear, part of an art canon I refer to often and venerate. But I’m also lazy. I’m pathologically prone to long bouts of self-doubt, sullen depressions, existential apathy, hesitation, scorn for yesterday’s trays of half-baked and now stale ideas, disgust with my own abilities—it’s here that self-defeating habits really become starkly obvious, because how the hell can I avoid further disparagement of my lack of deftness and facility if not to practice more, but, then, that’s a cudgel with which to beat myself into torpor again so it is entirely apropos—and, hey, plain old giving up. So it’s weird to keep starting up every time. The trick I’d like to conjure is to start quicker and more often, until the previous bouts of inertia are the rarity and I’m making as the habit.

But that’s just more internal cheerleading via navel-gazing. That’s not what I’m posting about.

Yesterday, I was going through a stack of old comics I’d placed on a lower shelf in the bedroom bookcase when moving into the new apartment, because they couldn’t stay in my hand and the shelf was empty. They were close to the bed, and I had noticed them peripherally now and then, a few fat, brightly colored spines stuffed into a row of bagged-and-boarded slim issues. THB. Paul Pope.

I started thumbing through them. Paul was a colleague and a hero of mine (still is the latter 1) when I was publishing Greymatter, the comics series I did in the early 90s with my cousin. We did our first signing with Paul and a few other up-and-comers, and even then his work was stunningly different. He was confidence personified, a lean, scruffy rock star minus the adoring fan base, which had to come later. Or not, he didn’t seem to care. So cool. Had I more training, or wisdom, or maybe asked more questions, I might have understood what he was trying to do a bit better. He brought a fine artist’s sensibility and daring to the medium, and he always remembered how to relate to the giants of the past. I was mostly following what I could see in the comics I read, particularly Cerebus. It’s fine. I did what I was able to do.

But so 2 we would get these letters. Most of the time it was nice to know someone out there was buying my work and liking it. It was harder than anything I’ve ever done to keep making that comic book, spending nearly every hour we were awake of every day of every week of every month at respective drawing tables, hunched and making black marks on white illustration board. Appreciation kept me going, at least for a few years. Every so often, a review would appear, usually disparaging. A few times, hate mail. Hate e-mail, specifically. Maybe people who disliked the work didn’t go to the trouble of sending physical letters.3 Usually, I tried to ignore it. It still hurts to have someone, even a random anonymous someone, shit on the thing you worked on so long and carefully—I mean literally full of care. Art school has hardened me to criticism, but not enough.

Around issue 3 or 4, I got an email. It said, in part, “You guys need to get off Dave Sim’s lame jock and look at what people like Lapham and Paul Pope are doing.” And that hurt. But it hurt more because I thought it was a valid point. Sure, it was phrased in an assaholic way, but I agreed with them. I really did lean on Cerebus for most of my technique, if not as much for storytelling. And then I despaired. And then I went back to work, because I had to finish an already late issue, and wanted to get away from painful taunting. I never forgot it, though. I tried to find a style of my own, and as I went along, I got better and more different, but I never felt it was different enough. Me enough. Seven issues and over a year later, we were tired of being broke, of living on five bucks a day, and we quit. My cousin was in a new relationship and had bowed out a few months earlier to move down to L.A. I was in one, too, and overwhelmed trying to do everything by myself, and the work still wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be.

I didn’t have an epiphanic moment that turned the series around, sales-wise, and propelled us to the heights of industry success. But. It was useful to get such a harsh metaphorical slap in the face. I did things differently, in a conscious way. The trick was, as always, to not let one obsession take over. Hate mail isn’t so bad, sometimes. If you’re going to read the praise, there are jewels to accept that show things you’re doing right. But the nuggets thumping you in the head from haters sometimes have a little gem, too.

  1. It was unimaginably giddying to have someone I thought was the cool kid like me and my work. One of the most flattering things in my comics career was being included in a small circle of recipients who received a massive photocopied set of Alex Toth model sheets and sketches, which Paul, as a vocal fan, had been asked if he wanted, and he said he’d put a word in for me to get the same. That’s the way I remember it, anyway. If I’m wrong, apologies to Scott Allie, who sent it when he was working at Dark Horse. This one:  ↩︎

    Toth Model Sheets

  2. It’s been way too obvious in my writing that I’m reading Infinite Jest. If you’re a fan of DFW—and that’s only too clear for adopting this kind of impromptu, roaming footnoting and unpunctuated conjunction strings, not to mention pretentiously initialing his full name but maybe not because saying his *full* name every time makes the former an apt, even humbly affectionate reference—it’s dangerous to assume you can appropriate these cool quirks. Because one is never as smart as DFW and with, I mean, reasons for doing it. ↩︎

  3. A few times, fans sent packages, and oh, what joy lay within. Someone made little painted clay busts of the main characters, another sent a mixtape of Curve tracks, many sent their own books or minicomics. Amazon can only dream of the emotional impact of unexpected boxes and padded envelopes appearing, sent by people who Want to Give You Something↩︎

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