Indie Wars: The Chronicles of Etherington — Episode I — Indie Comic Success in the Absence of Industry Space
Chapter 1: An Early Frame of Reference
(Why you need to read this)
All right you barmy kings and queens of comic-country. Is indie-ink’s wonky industry leaving you gutted, gormless and creatively absent? More importantly, do you STILL doubt your story-sketching skills will ever pay the bills? Well, budge up and prepare to get gobsmacked by the ace dynamic duo of art known as the Etherington Brothers.
Born to be a beacon of brilliance for all comic fans and creators, Lorenzo and Robin Etherington grew up with piles of stapled-story paper by their bedside. They grew up on classics like Asterix (French comic), The Beano (a weekly U.K. comic for kids) and, of course, Calvin and Hobbes. The brothers started early making comics for their schoolmates. From the beginning, the hustle was real.
Soon they would cut their teeth on a super-indie comic called Malcolm Magic, but that was only the beginning. Still doubt me you do, hmmm? Google comic brothers U.K. you must and take a gander at all the graphic grandeur my friends. They’re the #1 result for a reason. These paladins of the panel have been marching across the graphic-novel globe for 15 years and counting–leaving behind a cartoon conquest of genre-bending proportions. They climbed the fantasy ladder with dramatic dedication, eventually landing clients like Dreamworks, and Disney.
Their advice is indeed worthy of any future Skywalkers (see what I did there). Together, we’ll Star-Wars our way through a step-by-step galactic conquest of the indie-comic empire U.K. style. That’s right, Star Wars is a verb now. We’ll take a trench run through trepidation. We’ll dodge the lasers of laziness and inadequacy. We’ll learn the ways of the force using fellowship and grit. We’ll Obi-wan our community of rebel readers, and in the end, with the wave of a pen (or stroke of a key), we’ll make our panel-planet cry out in a loud, united voice these ARE the comics you’re looking for. Stay in formation. Let’s do this.
Chapter 2: Find Your Own Jedi Master
(The Power of a Mentor)
In the beginning, the U.K. comic scene was starving for aspiration. According to the brothers Etherington, the English cavalcade of cartoon creativity was running rampant with hobby loving heroes. There seemed to be lots of talent caught in a war between apathy and ambition. It’s important to remember that there’s nothing at all wrong with being a hobbyist. Cartoon careers are not for the faint of heart. The “successful” artist path has always been a dark-wooded maze and some would much prefer a direct line to the dollar sign. Early on, being guided by the light of our own hopes and dreams feels a bit like a torch that gets heavier and heavier under the weight of life experience.
Artistic success also means lots of twists and turns that hobbyists have the luxury of avoiding. If you’re more like the Etherington’s however than being a hero maker is probably one of those “never or forever” kinds of things. It’s the moment I should do this becomes I must do this. We mustn’t forget to lighten the load by learning on the masters that came before us. This means reaching out to those who have found success in the business of art and becoming students in both mind and spirit. Learning practical advice is one thing, but developing a mindset of creative courage is even more important.
The Indie Jedi of the past tend to be especially available if your passion happens to be comics. The point: Find a master that is both skilled and driven. In internet land, there’s no excuse not to reach out. You need a leader in passion as much as you need one in knowledge if not more so.
While many masters have already been mentioned, the creative bro-pendulum known as Etherington had yet to find the full swing. That is until the comic Jedi Jeff Smith (creator of the popular comic Bone) landed his spacecraft of creative awesomeness at a con the brothers happened to be attending. All true creators know that certain destinies are meant to meet despite the vastness of time and space and this was no exception.
Jeff spits comic truth the likes of which the brothers had never heard. He spoke about doing comics for yourself–doing comics for the love of doing comics. Most importantly, he reminded his audience that if you make it WELL… they will come. Jeff had both social proof and passion to back up his success. It was only a matter of time before Jeff’s energy gave our Jedi companions the gumption they needed to hit the reset-my-skills button and get to work on their first lightsaber of
Chapter 3: Train Like You Mean It
Working hard is harder (and easier) than you think.
There was a time during their Indie Jedi training when our axis of awesome across the pond dabbled in other jobs. Robin is actually a musician, and the brothers were even in a wedding band together. Even so, the symphonic sound of mutual comic greatness still loomed at the forefront of their minds. Nothing was going to stop them from winning, even in a market as fledging as the U.K. comic scene circa early 2000’s. Here’s a pro tip from our companions during this seed of their comic career. If you’ve got a 9 to 5 job, make sure it’s one where you can schedule meetings outside the office. Then, make meetings with fictional people. Use that time to work on your script or your illustration, and tell your boss the meeting was a wash. It’s the ultimate Indie Jedi mind trick. It also allows you to train and make money at the same time. Our masters admit this tactic is risky and certainly not for everyone.
White lies to avoid mediocrity can sometimes be forgiven in creativity land, but they will always give way to our truest intentions. A comic warrior knows that craft comes first, especially when compared to the safety net-type job that’s totally not your highest excitement. Obi-wan was a great mentor to Luke, but we loved him most when he used his “mind powers” to bend the rules. If creativity is the journey, there’s no reason you shouldn’t use creativity to find the path in the first place. It’s easier to take pride in “the grind” when you can turn challenge into joy.
The bros teach us to be alchemists in the making regardless of circumstance. Keep in mind, they spent 3 years making Malcolm Magic without the internet. They still managed to have a new 30-page black and white comic for every convention (they did about 6 cons a year), and they did it with intention. Everything was creator-owned and generated. They even made their own book press! Truly dedicated, are you? These Yoda’s of the youth market may question your skill. They had a hand in every aspect of the business in order to work rooms with a knowledge base as close to infinity as they could muster and somehow still made time to eat.
The Etherington Brothers were and are voracious learners of all things comics and business. They learned publishing. They learned writing and illustrating. They learned conventions and the circuit. They learned creative flow. They learned selling. They learned editing. O.K. you get it. They learned stuff. So, what does it all mean? Well, in my eyes and the eyes of many others, they’re successful at doing what they love- comics. So, to me it’s simply intellectual proof that success happens when comic passion transcends the simple nature of stories on panel and page, becoming an appreciation for every aspect of the business.
The Etherington brothers teach us to examine the outside of our comfortable world building in order to create a magnet powerful enough to pay the bills. This is what the mentors mean when they say, “if you build it well, they will come.”
Before I forget, when the internet came along, they learned that too (obviously), taking communication, giving and art to the edges of creative space. The point: Learn a little bit of everything, and outwork everyone. As our Etheringtonian companions might say, it’s (somewhat sadly) much easier than you think. This dedication lead to a short story of theirs being picked up by a small American publisher eventually setting off a chain reaction that forged opportunities with Dreamworks, and Disney. Soon enough they were working on iconic stories like Transformers, and yes (writer takes gasp), Star Wars. Don’t worry indie die-hards. The Etherington’s are still very much grassroots at heart, and we are just getting started.
Chapter 4: Mastery Requires Sacrifice
(an editor’s note on editing)
If you think our wonder boys rose to prominence on grit and knowledge alone, you’re still missing a crucial piece of the puzzle young Padawan. Like any skill, storytelling requires patience and drive yes, but also, flexibility. The editing process is constant, whether you like it or not. Editing may be a little easier when your writing partner happens to be your brother, most creators are not that lucky.
The key to successful editing for the brothers and for us is simply having an open heart around your creation. In comics, the world may be everything, but don’t let its gravitational pull keep you from exploring the galaxy of artistic industry in your own mind. This exploration requires a certain courageous questioning on our part. The answers may be difficult to stomach from time to time. It would behoove you to find a fellow world maker that makes you ask these questions and tell you like it is. A true master doesn’t run from hard questions or the sometimes destructive answers that may befall his worldly darling as a result.
Let’s take a look at some of these tough questions
- How fertile, expansive and compelling is your planet made of paper?
- How much time have you spent walking among your own genius?
- Can you ask yourself these questions without impeding your own progress?
- If you refuse to find these solutions within yourself or others than success in comics is going to be one Jabba of an immovable Hut if you know what I mean.
- So, how does someone as skilled as an Etherington allow creativity to flow despite the dangers editing can have on the creative ego?
See if you fancy any of these alternatives to hardship.
Firstly, have multiple projects.
The mind is always more capable than it thinks. This kind of discipline will allow you to actually fall in love with projects falling through. Weird, isn’t? Being a little happy that an arrangement didn’t work out. It’ll decrease stress more than you know. Also, try having at least one project without an end date in mind. This way, you will always have something to look forward to.
As contrary as it sounds, be careful about being too happy with a project. You can still treat a project like a million dollar deal without letting the project own you. If you can maintain a feeling of relative happiness (not perfection), as Robin would
Lastly, being an indie Jedi is fun for sure but who doesn’t enjoy a little villainy from time to time. We’ve been over this. You love every star you take part in growing. You want it to shine as bright as it can. Seriously though, don’t you ever just want to hop aboard an evil space station and blow your story-star to smithereens. You’d be amazed at the masterful inventions that may be floating on the outer rim of the destruction show. My point: We’re going back the age-old adage here. Good writers and storytellers aren’t afraid to kill their darlings.
Chapter 5: Epilogue: Far Far Away
(We’re not done yet)
I hope you’ve enjoyed episode 1 of my Etherington Brothers breakdown. If you’re still brave enough to learn from the best story swordsman in the galaxy than stay with me.
Next time we learn how to navigate new angles of success in comics by exploring other industries like film. We learn how to force-divide our characters and make a hero worthy of the journeys ahead. We learn how to avoid imperial entanglements such as trends and fads. We explore the golden age of social media, as it remains an elegant weapon for good to the Indie Jedi, but for how long my friends?
Perhaps most importantly, we learn how to do a Kickstarter run in less than 12.5 parsecs by treating it as a business all its own.
Stay tuned for Episode II: The Social Media Empire Strikes Back.
Mark my words Padawan’s of the panel- a new hope of illustrated awesomeness is waiting in the wings for each of us as we ride our indie X-wing to glory.
If we can only learn to give first, as the Etherington Brothers have, that hope will lead us to a new republic of united indie industry paying all the bills in the galaxy with passion, drive