This essay was originally published in the fourth and final issue of OKTANE. It was transcribed by the amazing Elayne Wechsler-Chaput (email@example.com), and is included on this web page with Mr. Jones' kind permission.
This is a goodbye of sorts, and not just to these four OKTANE issues. This week I gave notice on JUSTICE LEAGUE AMERICA and took an indefinite sabbatical from PRIME, marking the end of over seven years' continuous labor on the plantation of monthly, mainstream comics. For most of that time it was an all-consuming job, with me writing as many as five series and seemingly endless miniseries and specials simultaneously, while still trying to nudge along a nascent screenwriting career. It was thrilling for a while - the adrenaline starts pumping and the work takes on a momentum of its own that whips the poor writer along like a stick in a river with nothing to do but watch his life and his literary aspirations zoom by in a blur - but when the fatigue hit and I allowed a few *thoughts* to slip into my schedule, I suddenly found myself asking two questions: first, "Is this all there is?" and then, "Oh, my God... what have I *DONE*?!?!"
Now, I'll never be one to put down superheroes. They entered my life at a crucial development juncture when I was about thirteen and were loyal teammates in my pulse-pounding battle for individuation, empowerment, and gender identity, and I've been grateful to them ever since. But that's a topic for a book (which I expect to start writing next year... really). Let's just say it was fun to revisit the heroes of my youth and get paid pretty well for it, and I certainly don't think I'm saying good-bye to comics in general or even superheroes in particular; I'm even now working on new ideas with some of my favorite artists (including the lovely Mr. Ha [E's note: Gene Ha is the artist for OKTANE]). But looking back, I can see the creative and emotional costs of writing other people's characters, under other people's guidelines, on other people's schedules.
The best kind of writing - or art or music or teaching or cooking or whatever - gives back more than it takes. It makes you deeper and fuller, more complex and interesting, helps you along that big growth arc that doesn't stop until you flatline. The other kind - and I say this not just from internal experience but from watching many of my peers and elders in this business - sucks the juice out of you and gives you nothing back but cash. Your creative rhythms become the rhythms of deadlines, your thought processes shape themselves around formulas. You judge yourself by whether you're "hot" or not. All you can talk about is damned editors, damned artists, damned workload. You get cranky.
The bottom line for me is this: OKTANE #1 didn't sell worth dooky, and the odds are against us being able to continue the series. But blowing off more commercial work inf avor of these four issues was the best decision I made in the last two years. And realizing that has given me the nerve to blow off the rest of it and fling myself into the void.
I've learned a few little things from all this. Nothing we haven't all heard before, but every life gives a new twist to the old lessons, right?
*Follow Your Bliss*
Yeah, yeah, I know. This Joseph Campbell catch phrase became a rallying cry for saucer-eyed, fruity-ass New Age geeks in the death throes of the Yup Decade. But Campbell himself lived it with cojones: telling the American higher-ed circuit to pork itself when he couldn't dissertate in his chosen subject, hanging out with bums in Monterey until he got a professorship that let him *teach* instead of publish papers nobody would ever read, and spent his last days shocking his sensitive hippie followers by drinking Canadian Club sours, eating prime rib, and pouring out the loudest, most politically incorrect social opinions any of them had ever heard. If you don't like "bliss," you can think of this as Doing What You Know Is Right. You know: "In brightest day, in blackest night..."
Whenever possible, write *only* the stories that make your heart sing. When creating or taking on a project, ask yourself if it's going to make those stories possible. If you're doing what you should be doing, the money will take care of itself. There are times when "money jobs" come in handy, but separate them from the heart jobs. Never let them push the heart jobs out of your life. I've seen too many casualties in comics and Hollywood: aging hustlers with nice big houses and nothing to put in them but their cranky, sour, anxiety-ridden asses.
Don't chase gigs because other people think they're "hot." If a job bores you... walk away from it.
*Beware the Dream Job*
An important caveat in following your bliss. Let me give you an example: My single favorite hero in my pre-pro days was Green Lantern. I desperately wanted to take him over and reclaim him from what I saw as maudlin, directionless years of abuse. Then I got my chance. I got halfway there... but ran smack into continuity constraints, thirty years of backstory, and editorial requirements at odds with my own desires. Increasingly frustrated, I fought endlessly with one of my editors. We compromised on some stories that neither of us liked. We tried to pull a revamp together, but by then our relationship had been poisoned. As a result, GREEN LANTERN, my "dream job," became the single most unpleasant experience and least satisfying work of my whole comic book career.
And even if I'd pulled off the rehabilitation of Hal Jordan as I saw it: then what? I know other people who've gotten "dream jobs," and done fairly well, and kept them; but soon enough I see the frustration building. Where do you go from a dream? How do you grow with it? These "dreams" are usually based on fond memories, and we comics people tend to armor ourselves with the icons of our childhoods. They will soothe you for a time, but they'll also hold you in place.
There are exceptions, of course. My pal Mark Waid, for instance, still seems to be having a swell time writing FLASH. But my advice is this: If you love the early SPIDER-MAN, or the late NEW MUTANTS, or middle-period ROM, pull out of it whatever you loved - and bring *that* to a creation of your own. Because the thing you love and dream of saving will never be new again, never be able to surprise you like it did when you were a reader. It will never be *you*.
Oh, and when you do create that perfect thing: *own* it. DC's MOSAIC was another dream job for me, a world of my own to explore whatever possessed me. Then it was canceled, not because of sales (which were around 70,000 at the time of cancellation), but because it was "too weird" for the new DC aesthetic. And there was no place I could take it. To keep it alive as long as I did, I even compromised on an ending I now regret. No dream is a dream if it isn't completely yours.
*If You Eat Shit, They'll Just Feed You More*
This is a basic rule of life in the workplace, not just in comics. The people who hire you - themselves only terrified low-level managers trying to ease the fears of their terrified mid-level bosses - will encourage you to play the game, pay your dues, be a team player, keep it quiet. Well, employers *never* reward you for "playing the game." It's just not the way people are. Mutual respect and professional conduct are virtues in any work situation, but you've got to push for what you know is best - best for your talents, best for *you* - from the minute you start, or no one will respect you. If you've got something they want, they won't fire you. If they do fire you, then all they wanted was a machine-cog anyway and you'd have been miserable there no matter what.
This is an easy place to get stuck if you're locked into the "dream job" mentality. I know a couple of editors, friends of mine, who convinced themselves that editing at one particular comics publisher or another was the only job they could ever stand to have. Once you feel like you can't quit, you start radiating helpless, passive, frightened vibes in every direction. Your bosses smell fear and start picking on you. You start throwing your own standards out the window, so what you're doing may be *safe*, but not *good*. Pretty soon you're alienating people who respected you. In place of joy or bliss, all you've got is relief when the heat shifts off you for a minute. I may be wrong, but my editor friends don't seem anywhere close to fulfilled, and I want better for them.
*Don't Take Their Word For It*
They say it's your baby, the direction of the series is yours to command. They say their new universe is based on the writers and - even though it's not in the contract - they'll get your approval before taking any editorial action. Uh-uh. They may intend to do everything they say, but the wind in this business can shift in an instant. The comics industry is mostly run from offices that stink of fear, full of people who are afraid they can't get - or couldn't stand - a job anywhere else. The minute the market dips, all promises are off. Like I say: own it.
*Don't Write Bad*
Sounds obvious, yeah? But it's amazing how easy it is to convince yourself that your work is "good enough," and you just have to keep the pot boiling until you have the energy or the opportunity to make it good again. I went almost a year on GREEN LANTERN, hammering scripts out of ideas that were handed to me from above, figuring to bide my time until the big "revamp" brought me back to life. When we got to revamp time, it was too late. I'm not sure my mainstream writing has ever bounced back from that: The weariness, and laziness, got into my blood, and it'll take a hiatus - or a sanitorium - to get them out.
Basic rule, to keep your head from fooling you: How does the work *feel*? If the fire's not there, the quality's not there, no matter how superficially well crafted the stuff looks. Working without the fire will only dampen all your fires, make everything else a little duller. And there's no greater shame than looking back on bad work. THe money gets spent pretty quickly. The bad work just sits there forever.
Again, the minute a project goes dead for you, or feels wrong: walk away from it. There's something else, something better, just out of sight.
* * * * *
So that's what I took away from seven years of comics writing (yeah, well, that and a complete set of DC ARCHIVE EDITIONS). I'm not saying I regret a thing. I've got some good friendships with editors, artists, and other writers that I'll take with me. And the high points made the whole ride worthwhile: my commitment to EL DIABLO, my self-indulgent histroricizing on THE SHADOW STRIKES, the early days of WONDER MAN when it was okay just to have fun, the first year of GREEN LANTERN, the wide- open terrain of MOSAIC, the camaraderie and adventure of the founding of the Ultraverse, the intense personal investment of BATMAN: JAZZ. But those all feel like something I did and had to leave behind, where OKTANE and THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS, my books THE BEAVER PAPERS and HONEY I'M HOME, even a couple of my screenplays, feel like they're still part of me now. Ownership is much more than a legal matter.
I hope these notes can be of use to someone in negotiating that treacherous interface of creativity and the working world. Writing them out was good for me, anyway, and maybe that's wher all writing has to start.
Thanks to everybody who helped make this and every comic book I've worked on possible, and everybody who ever picked up a comic to read one of my stories... or one of my text pages.
- Gerard Jones
San Francisco, CA
Entire essay (c) 1995 Gerard Jones