The Aging Artist
Submitted by Scott Reed on April 18, 2007 - 10:46
Most people seem to agree that we live in a youth-driven culture, and this perception spills over into nearly every aspect of it, including comics, and by default, webcomics. But since I don't honestly know what the demographic age is for today's webcartoonist, I'll resort to writing about the aging artist in general. Before I do that, though, I have to let everyone know that I'm technically reaching 'middle-age' status. I'll be 37 years old in July, so I guess that means I'm writing with a bias. Let me tell you, it's a bizarre notion to me, in knowing that I'm 'middle-aged.' I don't feel old. I may not even look that old, although that's probably just a combination of wishful thinking, stubborn egotism and an unwavering conviction that I stopped having birthdays when I turned 29.
While t.v and film continues to exploit the youth culture (or help manipulate it, depending on your level of distrust of the media), our planet population continues to live longer. So there's some strange dichotomy happening around us, where our society is growing older, and yet we glorify youth. And I'm stuck in the middle of it. I've read on forums here and there about the frustrations of cartoonists that are approaching the 40-year mark and cry that they haven't reached certain goals in their careers. Or worse, they have no career in comics yet, and are desperately looking for a way to speed up the development of their talents. And if that's not bad enough, there might be a common perception amongst publishers and editors that innovation must come from the young cartoonist, as opposed to the grizzled veteran whose Windsor Newton brushes are older than the average person in line at a convention portfolio review.
The question comes up time and again, 'When is it too late to break into comics', or 'When does a creator reach his/her prime?' As with most things, every situation is different. There are plenty of examples where comic creators made their mark earlier or later in life. Many of the Image Comics founders were in their early twenties, If I recall, bringing with them only a combined decade or so of experience in the field. Jim Shooter was writing for DC when he was 13 years old. Can you imagine when his friends asked him to come over to play ball? 'Sorry guys. I've got this Legion Of Super Heroes deadline looming. Maybe next time.' Hal Foster, famous illustrator for Prince Valiant and Tarzan, was, according to stories I've read, 40 when he was 'discovered'. Jack Kirby was in his 50's when he was producing his most popular and groundbreaking work for Marvel, although the King already had decades of successful comic's credits under his belt. Regardless of that, here was a guy nearing AARP status, and he decides to co-create the Marvel Universe.
Beyond the comics arena, artists in general can reach their creative peak in their 40's or even later. That Picasso guy? Some of his final work, when he was well into his 70's, represents his most colorful and expressive efforts, as he discovered neo-expressionistic art well before the rest of the world was ready for it. The Beatles may have peaked when they were in their twenties, but The Rolling Stones, despite the ageism jokes, still manage to produce relevant, top selling albums, and record breaking tours every few years. Come to think of it, most of my favorite actors are also middle-aged or older. Clint Eastwood, for instance, still entertains audiences as an actor and director. His most important film work has been produced in the last 15 years or so. He's almost 80. So regardless of the tools (or of their superstar status), these are all artists who share the same planet as you and I. If you're a cartoonist or web cartoonist, you can still reasonably count yourself among this crowd.
There is no set rule that forces anyone to give up his or her dreams at a certain age, or come to the conclusion that their best work is behind them. True, the older you get, the more life seems to compete with your ambitions. It does get harder as we get older, both physically and otherwise. But with age comes wisdom.
Or so I've heard.