Only The Lonely? Webcomic Creators And Real-Life Relationships by Bill Duncan
There is a commonly-held belief that great art is the product of great suffering, and a tendency to romanticize the notion of what it means to be an artist. In order to create art of significance the artist must therefore be poor, under-fed, miserable... and alone.
Art has always been a largely solitary pursuit, and webcomics, in this regard, are no exception. In spite of this, many webcomics creators are not alone, or, at the very least have not always been so. In fact some webcomics creators are actually engaged in long-term relationships, with spouses, children, and all the pressures of the work-a-day world one would tend to see as obstacles to art.
This, of course, raises the inevitable question: How do they do it?
"While I'm not so pretentious as to subscribe to the idea that all art comes from suffering, I have to admit, it sure does help." says a young webcomic writer. "When my wife came along and solved that whole 'loneliness' thing for me," he goes on to explain, "I actually stopped writing for a while. Fortunately, I was soon able to find more sophisticated subjects to become depressed about – such as corporate disenfranchisement, unemployment, and the Bush presidency."
Tug of War
Finding new sources of inspiration beyond the impetus of "loneliness", however, is only a small part of the overall equation. Striking a balance between living life in a relationship and creating is often the most difficult challenge of all.
"There's usually too much of one and not enough of the other," writes another webcomic creator, "and I'm forever trying to compensate to get the balance right. It never works. I think the fundamental problem boils down to the fact that the day only has 24 hours in it, which can never, never be enough."
For many creators, when conflict arises between life and comics, comics inevitably lose.
"Real life usually wins," writes Fred, a webcomic creator with a wife and young daughter, "because I want a quiet one and there are too many arguments when I put my work first. Now and then it's unavoidable - deadlines are deadlines – and I put up with the arguments, but that's pretty rare."
"I try to set things up for as quiet a life as possible for myself," Fred goes on to explain. "Sometimes that means making time for my family so they don't hate me for never being around, sometimes that means working like hell on my comics to stop the nagging guilt at my lack of productivity."
Guilt is a strong motivator in the struggle for balance between relationships and comics. The creator is acutely aware of how he or she chooses to spend their time, and how those choices effect the people they share their lives with, and the productivity they are capable of.
"Keeping my productivity up requires some careful orchestration," explains Andrew. "I have trouble writing when there are other people around, especially my wife, whom I've missed all day and want to spend time with. At the same time, I'm not good at mornings, so getting up early doesn't help. The solution I've settled on is to do all my writing after she's gone to bed, and then get some sleep while she's at work. Fortunately, I've always tended toward nocturnalism anyway."
Despite one webcomic creator's rather humorous assertion that "if you alienate everyone you know, you'll find it much easier to prioritize," there is little doubt that maintaining a webcomic while remaining on speaking terms with a significant other is something that requires some difficult choices. The ability to prioritize what is most important to one's own happiness and well-being is key.
"I live my life with a clear set of priorities in my head," explains Tom. "When something needs to be done involving a higher priority item than comics, comics wait for me to get back to them. Things that trump comics include work, school, family, exercise, my faith and church, household responsibilities, sleep, and eating."
"Life has a higher priority than art," agrees Chris, "but art is necessary to keep me happy. So though I am always willing to put aside my art for whatever reason life throws at me, there is an understanding that sometimes the pendulum swings the other way, and I need time and space to lose myself in my art for awhile, and not think about life for awhile."
Though most creators place a higher priority on their flesh and blood relationships, there is no denying that making webcomics is something they have chosen to undertake, and therefore important to them. Whether webcomics are a welcome distraction or a consuming passion, the challenge then becomes finding the time for such pursuits.
"Before I was married, I did not manage my time well," says Tom. "I'd procrastinate and never get anything done because nothing was really 'pressing' in my life. Now that I'm married, I have developed very strong time-management skills out of necessity and get a lot more done in all aspects of my life, comics included, as a result. So even though I have less 'free time' to do things like draw comics, I am getting a lot more done in terms of quantity and quality because I'm more focused on my priorities in life."
"This may sound somewhat rigid," Tom goes on to explain, "but I occasionally just make out a list of everything that holds importance to me, then look at how important they are and rank them. Once I put it into practice like that, it quickly becomes habit to just work my life that way. Working on a sketch but the laundry needs to be switched to the dryer? Time for a break. My wife has had a long day and would probably like it if I was cooking dinner when she got home a lot more than if I was lounging on the couch with my sketchbook? I'm up chopping lettuce. It becomes very fluid to live this way, and I'm never stressed out because I'm always taking care of my responsibilities (responsibilities, I might add, I chose to take on)."
Choosing to make time for comics under these circumstances implies a certain degree of compromise, and an acceptance that a conventional creative routine can be hard to maintain.
"I have a calendar," writes Fred, "where I write down what has to be done on any given day; sometimes that's looking after our daughter while my wife's at work, sometimes that's getting this page or that illustration done. When it's the latter, I usually try to work until the job's done, even if that means my evening's gone – a 9 to 5 schedule isn't really an option, unfortunately."
As Andrew explains, performing this sort of balancing act requires a creator to make sacrifices: "Sleep is optional, which means there's always time for writing. I think most people place far too much importance on sleep – you'd be surprised how much more you can get done in a day once you realize that it's okay to be tired."
Of course, if being in a relationship and making webcomics meant nothing but compromise and sacrifice it would be hard to imagine anyone actually choosing to do both. There has to be some sort of reasoning behind such a choice, and that reasoning would seem to be based on the idea of support.
"My fiancé understands the importance of cartooning," says Sharon, "so my comics seldom conflict with my human relationships, such as they are."
"My relationship directly inspires my comic," explains Marshall about the advantages of being with someone. "Everything that goes on between us is potential material. And my relationship is definitely good for my productivity, because my Siginificant Other does whatever she can to ensure I make a new strip every week, and she reviews every one before I post it."
For some creators, the most supportive partner one can have is another creator.
"While doing comics," says Patrick, "I've dated a coupla different people and the most encouraging has been the latest. Since she also does comics and writes and such, she understands a lot about what that temperament can entail so it's easier to just work."
Jason, whose significant other is also a webcomics creator, does see a certain drawback to such a relationship. "On one hand, there's less 'magic' to the craft. Webcomickers are often given this sort of romanticized persona of The Artist doing a Soulful Feat – but when your Significant Other is doing the same thing, it makes what you do seem a little mundane."
"On the other hand," Jason goes on to say, "nobody will understand what you're going through like another webcomicker – something of vital importance when you work with such a time and labor-intensive medium. We've often rearranged schedules to accommodate a comic, or one of us will colorize for the other in a pinch. There's a real feeling of reciprocation that most couples don't even experience."
Whether a creator's significant other makes webcomics, produces some other form of art, or engages in a non-comic-related hobby, a respect for one another's pursuits and a degree of mutual understanding are important to keeping things in balance. It seems much easier for a creator to manage his or her time, and stave off guilt when their significant other isn't sitting idle.
Though Fred's wife is a photographer, and he acknowledges that there is relatively little overlap in their respective pursuits, he enjoys those times when they are both doing what they enjoy. "It's quite good when we're working separately on our respective things," explains Fred. "There's a nice creative buzz going on in the house, without there being any chance of us stepping on one another's creative toes, as it were."
Ultimately, it is precisely this kind of mutual respect that makes being in a relationship and being a webcomics creator possible and worthwhile.
"The foundation of our relationship," says Andrew, "is the fact that she actively supports my art, and really believes in the importance of what I'm trying to do. I wouldn't be able to make a relationship work with someone who merely tolerated my calling, without really understanding or appreciating it."
"Van Gogh tried to balance life and art and look what happened to him," writes Cameron, a creator who also happens to be single. "It's one or the other."
When faced with such a choice, it is easy to understand why some people abandon art, while others shun relationships. For some, however, it is not a matter of choosing one over the other, but finding a way to accommodate them both. Perhaps there is more that moves the creative engine than misery and loneliness. It may very well be that the tension between our various pursuits and responsibilities, our art and our relationships, is a source of inspiration in itself.
As Jason puts it: "Be honest, supportive and expressive. You can't really segregate art and life, but ideally you'll find someone who's willing to deal with both."