Chapter 5: College and Comics
Going back to college was awesome. The biggest thing that changed was my attitude toward math.
In high school, I was literally a D student in Calculus. I still remember a friend thinking I was joking when I said I got a 1 on a Calculus AB practice AP. I wouldn’t say I was convinced I was bad at math – I just really wasn’t interested.
Then, I started college level Calculus, and it was awesome. Concepts that I utterly failed to grasp in high school seemed easy and intuitive, and I got the first A in a math course I’d had since middle school. I believe the following things were meaningfully different between college and high school:
1) I was more motivated. I was paying for this, and I wanted to be able to do it. In high school, neither of these things were true.
2) The educational attitude was better. In high school, much of the training was bad word problems and repetition. We didn’t get the underlying principles. Because the class had us focus more on the book, I exposed myself to proofs. This made everything more appealing.
3) The utility of this all was clear. I wanted to be able to do advanced physics, so I needed advanced math. I think this is a very fundamental problem in some education systems. I remember in high school watching a “fun” video that shows a cop determining that a man has been speeding by using Calculus. Even at the time, I remember thinking “But I know he’s speeding just using the time it took him to travel a certain distance!” I think it’s better to entice kids with what they could do someday rather than with forced applications to their real lives.
4) Shame. If you’re 18 and in prep school, failing at math isn’t a huge deal. If you’re 25 and surrounded by 18-year-olds, most of whom are the first in their family to attend college, you better feel bad if you blow it.
With all that, my mind began to change. If I could do Calculus easily, whereas it had been very hard some years earlier, it stood to reason that I could do just about anything if I worked hard.
You may remember me talking about working hard in the film business and getting a bit ahead doing that. Well, I applied that attitude to my schoolwork, with good results. I spent my days in class, my nights at the library, and my late nights drawing comics. It was great! Stressful, crazy, strange, and great. To this day, when people are in their mid 20s and directionless, I encourage them to try the same thing. Pick a subject because they can imagine loving it, and go back to college. At state schools, it’s relatively cheap everywhere, and you’ll have a life-changing experience.
Oh, and BONUS, my comics started to improve. I think since about 2007, each year I’ve done a better job than the last. You can see the progression from comics that are hopefully somewhat clever (what Phil Plait called proto-Weiner) to comics that tend to be broader in scope, more interesting, and with a strong perspective. I credit that mostly to my SJSU experience.
It also benefited my dating life. This was a good lesson too. A few years prior I had resolved to improve myself to where I could get an awesome girlfriend, rather than just to keep trying and hoping. I enrolled in a science degree, exercised, wrote, read a lot of books (mostly fiction and history to balance out the science), and developed my business. By late 2007, I was dating the person who’d become my wife a few years later. And, I’m preeeeetty sure she’d have had no interest in 2005 me.
So, the hard work really was starting to pay off. Mind you, it wasn’t always easy. As I mentioned earlier, I always had the parents’ credit card, but out of pride I didn’t want to use it, if possible. As I also mentioned, this meant some lean times, but it was also fun. There’s something very conducive to good work about knowing you’re suffering for something awesome. The main two things I wanted in life were to be a professional writer, and to have a deep understanding of science. Knowing that I was eating lentils again today gave me more pride in those goals. I often hear from people who want to be professional artists, but aren’t willing to suffer for that goal. Here’s the one rule that is true in every field of endeavor: If you aren’t willing to suffer for it, you won’t succeed.
You might not suffer for it, and you might not succeed, but I believe the above rule is true. Take your hard times as a source of pride, and you’ll have a better chance at success.
As my comic was growing, I also got to meet more of my peers. When you start to do well, more people want to talk to you. I don’t think this is cynical so much as sensible. If I see someone getting a lot of acclaim, I want to know what he’s up to. Also, I may expect to meet this person regularly online or at conventions, so he’s a good person to know. If you want to make connections in life, the best way to go about it is to first do the hard work of self-cultivation.
Sometime in 2007 I decided to switch from a biochem focus to a straight physics focus. This was probably because I was very happy to have defeated a hard subject, so I wanted to focus on the hardest thing available. In fairness, all fields are hard at the highest level. But, at the undergrad level, biology was like day care (I mean like “Write me an essay on why you like cnidarians!” day care), chemistry was tough but the students and teachers treated simple math like a boogeyman, but physics refused to be dumbed down. Even the lower level non-calc physics I took was still pretty damn hard. I found that appealing, mostly for pride’s sake, but hey, that’s about as good a reason as any.
I think it was a good choice. I loved the classes, I thrived on the challenge, and I got to make some even more dorktastic jokes. Business really started to blossom
Unfortunately, this had the perverse result of giving me less time for physics! I still remember in late 2008 how it really started to freak me out. Thanks to some friendly links, regular traffic growth, and a better ad setup, money was suddenly coming in a lot better than ever before.
I remember one day, sitting in the SJSU library on one of Kelly and my “library dates.” In the last year, my income had gone up by 3 or 4x as had my audience. On this particular day, the stats were so good, I found I couldn’t focus. I suddenly felt shaky – encumbered with responsibility. If I make this much money, will it make me a worse writer? If I make this much money, what new responsibilities do I have? If this many people are reading every freakin’ day, how good do I have to make the comics?
She noticed I was getting jittery, and we quit for the evening to talk it over at the Carrow’s up the street. I believe I’ve stood by my resolution at the time. That, if I get more money or more audience, I wouldn’t let it affect the work, and I would try to use it responsibly.
That semester I decided to leave SJSU, somewhat reluctantly. This was because during that finals season, I had missed a lot of comics and underperformed on finals, since managing SMBC was getting difficult as it grew. Also, I reasoned (correctly), that now that I had a basic foundation in math and physics, I could teach myself more stuff at a better rate and with better comprehension than the professors could.
At this point, things seemed impossibly good. I was a professional artist well-paid for his work. I had an awesome girlfriend. And, I spent all my time learning!
However, things weren’t going to be so simple. My comics revenue was about to fall off a cliff.
Next Chapter: THE GREAT PURGE OF ’08