So You Wanna Be a Webcartoonist? Part 2

Author’s note: This one doesn’t have a huge amount of comicking, since it covers a period where I didn’t do very much. But, hopefully it’s still fun to read and sets up what’s to come.

***

Chapter 2: Zach Goes to Hollywood

At this time, there was some non-awesome stuff happening in my personal life that I won’t delve into. So, there I was, having a bad time, living on my parents’ dime in a crummy apartment in Claremont, with no money, and no direction.

I applied to go to CGU as a grad student in English, and was actually admitted with a decent scholarship. I had a fairly long dialogue with thei representative about what I’d be allowed to do. I had recently read Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics,” and was completely sold on the idea of comics as an underappreciated medium. I thought pursuing comics in an academic might be fun and interesting.

However, it soon became clear that, if I wanted to do that, I’d first have to spend a year or two doing the kind of work I have never really appreciated: literary theory. I won’t digress here into my opinions on the field. But, suffice it to say it is my opinion that if you want to be a writer, spend your time reading great books, not parsing them in an academic manner. You have a limited amount of time to consume as much good media as possible, and I’m just not certain analysis falls under that category. I remember knowing a number of students who had read plenty on how to analyze Shakespeare without having actually read the entire corpus of his work!

Since I had graduated a year early, my parents agreed to float me as I left for LA in an attempt to get into the entertainment business. Soon, I was living in a studio apartment in Koreatown. For the unaware, a studio apartment in Koreatown costs about a thousand dollars, has no kitchen, and is smaller than a typical 7-year-old’s room.

As anyone who’s ever tried to get a paying gig in Hollywood without having relatives in high places knows, it’s pretty much impossible. So, I started casting around for unpaid jobs and internships. Meanwhile, I got back into doing the comic with renewed vigor. I started drawing it in color for the first time.* And, I started writing spec scripts. As I recall, I had a packet with one spec for “Family Guy,” one for “Scrubs,” and an original pilot.

I got a book of agents and managers and spent an afternoon watching Kung Fu movies and addressing envelopes to the 200 or so who were foolish enough not to note that they don’t take open submissions. Oddly enough, I actually heard back from someone, who must’ve been a junior agent or something at one of the major companies. I think it might’ve been CAA, but I don’t remember. I don’t even remember who it was, but I personally dropped off my scripts and never heard from them again. Over the next six months I received over 100 rejection letters.

For better or worse, I started getting more unpaid movie work. I worked for a company called The Asylum, which was recently responsible for “Megashark vs. Giant Octopus.” Believe it or not, they made even worse movies than that back then. Oh, and if you wanna see me in a movie, go rent “The Way of the Vampire.” James is in there too, God help us.

Unfortunately, these jobs meant the comics languished. Being a PA on a movie set is like being everyone’s trained monkey. You work 12-16 hours a day, do what anyone wants you to do, and only get paid if you’re lucky. It was a good lesson in hard work after all those soft years in college, though, and in a weird way probably prepared me for doing comics.

I made a small reputation among some people as being a very hard worker who was willing to put in crazy hours. This soon led to a few paying gigs. I even landed an actual job working as a PA on the ill-fated Fran Drescher Show. No, not that one, the one from 2004 that nobody watched.

This taught me an important lesson, so let me digress for a moment.

It’s easy to get ahead – all you have to do is be willing to suffer a lot. That sounds non-easy, right? But think of it like this: There isn’t a magic trick. Yes, there are people who get lucky breaks or have connections. But, most people around you aren’t willing to work as hard as possible. They aren’t willing to lose sleep to get a job done. They aren’t willing to suck up abuse from crazy people for the sake of their careers. They aren’t willing to work nights and weekends, even if it is leading toward something they love. That’s where you have an advantage over everyone.

I knew other PAs as smart as me and with more training than me. But, nobody worked as hard as I did. Hard work doesn’t guarantee success, but lack of hard work almost certainly guarantees failure. This is probably true in many areas, but is certainly true in cartooning. It’s a fun (and very goofy) job, but it requires a lot of mental stamina.

End of digression!

Around this time a lot of crazy shit happened in my personal life. I won’t go into the details because it’s not relevant to the discussion and, well, I’d rather not get into it.

Suffice it to say that around the middle of 2005, I felt like I’d had a huge setback in my life. My girlfriend had left me, I wasn’t sure what I wanted anymore, and I was living in a crummy and expensive apartment near Hollywood and Vine. I had recently gotten a job working for two talent agents, and it sucked. As anyone who’s ever worked for talent agents (especially the breed of agent who came of age in the 70s) knows, it’s damn hard. The hours are crazy, the pay is bad, and you work for insane people. Again, I don’t want to get too into it, but let’s leave it at this: I’m a generally happy guy. If you meet me in person sometime, I’ll probably have a big smile on my face. Around mid 2005, I was miserable. Constantly. I woke up with a frown, puttered through the day, spent a few hours playing video games, then slept. At one point, I started waking up 2 hours before I needed to go to work just to make sure I had enough time to convince myself to go in for another damn day.

I also hadn’t drawn my comic in months.

A person works for talent agents for one of two reasons. Either he wants to become a talent agent, or has a talent he wants the agent to represent. I fell into the latter category. And one day, during lunch, I finally convinced the bosses to look at my strip. They actually kinda liked it, though not enough to represent me.

What happened next was pretty critical in my life. I was standing there at my computer talking to one of the bosses later that day. I mentioned that I had done the comic for a while and gotten an okay readership, but decided to stop. She said that was the problem with my generation. “Imagine,” she said, “if you’d done this for the last 5 years? Where would you be now?”

This stuck with me. And the fact that it stuck with me was surprising, since this woman (nice though she was) was not someone whom I valued for her insight or intellect. But, she had nailed it this time. Whatever I had told myself about why it was smart to quit was bullshit, and this person (whom I considered myself to be vastly intellectually superior to) had called it out.

I realized the answer to her question. Where would I be? I’d be somewhere else, and happy.

Soon, I was drawing again.

Next Chapter: The New Beginning

*The pre-2004 comics on the site right now were all redrawn years later on the advice of my manager.

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6 Responses to So You Wanna Be a Webcartoonist? Part 2

  1. Jason says:

    Hey, I’m an English major turned recent econ PhD, 30, father, husband, nerd with the cred you can only earn from having been pantsed in front of the girl of your dreams at the tender age of 8.

    I really enjoy the comic, the videos, etc, and I like les inaccrochables, so thanks for those. I also really enjoy hearing the thoughts of people who are successful in whatsoever they set aside as a goal. While reading this one, I thought, “hmm. I’m not really willing to work long hours, evenings and weekends,” and then realized that I am–I just want to spend them working on my relationships with my family, which is, fortunately, do-able, because really enjoying teaching and research in economics is not so popular a vocation that you really have to claw your way to the top just to pay the bills. And then I also realized that I worked for several hours this afternoon and I spend my free time pondering the crap out of my research topics.

    It reminds me of the “Inside the Actor’s Studio” with Dave Chappelle, which if you haven’t see you totally should. His father taught middle school, I believe, and Chappelle’s goal was to do comedy well enough to earn a decent middle class wage. Finding and doing what you love well enough to get by seems like a pretty noble goal, so thanks for setting a good example and working your ass off.

    • This all reminds me of a video I saw. “A night with Don Hertzfeldt.” I’m a huge fan of his work and his main message that night to up-and-coming animators was that it all comes down to hard work and lots of it. The same could be said of Dave Chappelle, Zach or Jason here.

      Hard and consistent work is the only way to become successful, plus an inclining to take a chance once and a while. I’m curious to know what drove you to go to LA to jump start your comic business.

  2. Chason says:

    And to think.. Civilization almost ruined it all.

  3. Dave says:

    This is really cool! I can’t wait to read the next one. As someone who is also pretty deep in academia (currently finishing my masters and applying to PhD programs) who has a ton of other projects/interests (my comic, my band) it’s great to read about someone who’s managed to make it all work!

  4. Faker says:

    “I remember knowing a number of students who had read plenty on how to analyze Shakespeare without having actually read the entire corpus of his work!”

    Stupid half life of reality. Why does it keep on diluting itself?

    Not that I’ve read all the Shakespeare. I’m 16 and I don’t have time for this.

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