How To Beat The Haters ( how I do it! )
It was early 2000 when I received a call from Bob Harras asking me to pinch hit a few issues on Wolverine. Steve Skroce was cutting his run short because he was being called back in to duty for The Matrix sequels. There were a number of reasons that I viewed this as a perfect exit strategy from the comics business. In short I was looking to retire from comic books. My first child was due to be born that spring and I was beyond burned out from the torrential pace of the 90’s. From New Mutants to Cable and Deadpool to X-Force to starting Image to launching Youngblood, Extreme Studios and Heroes Reborn, I ran that decade down and into the ground! The only guys who ran it as hard and as frentic were Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane, both of whom had retired from creating comic books. I had saved my money and was looking to take an extended break from a business that was going through a sizeable shift.
So the opportunity to go out writing and drawing my favorite X-Man, yes, it will always be Wolverine, was too good to pass up. Looking to make the tight deadlines, I drew pages in the back of our pregnancy classes, eagerly anticipating the Deadpool vs. Wolverine battle that opened the first issue. I packed the book full of some new villains, spotlighted Deadpool heavily and in the end turned the lights off on my career, going out #3 on the comic book charts. I was gone on my terms. Perfect.
For the next 3 years, as my wife and I started a family, I was as obsessed with the internet as I have ever been. I spent morning, noon and night watching the Quesada era begin at Marvel, the dawn of the Ultimate Universe, the tragedy of 9-11 and how the comics industry nobly embraced it and memorialized it. I followed the rise and fall of Crossgen, I watched Image comics change publishers, expand and grow their operations and watched the emergence of a young talent named Robert Kirkman. I read every single story on Newsarama, CBR and I remember when Bleeding Cool was called Lying in the Gutters. Between raising a family, following the comics business on line and my NBA/ Lakers obsession, I was doing great.
Along the way though, through my internet musings, I started to read about this guy Rob Liefeld, this hack that couldn’t draw, couldn’t create and didn’t deserve a career. What?? It was ME they were attacking, sometimes viciously, relentlessly. I’ll admit that I was a little taken back by the severity of the vitriol. Over lines on paper? Over pencils and ink? I had gone quiet and in my absence every single achievement had been altered and dismissed. I was watching as other people were re-writing my career.
Having never been a wall flower or anything remotely resembling a shrinking violet, I remember distinctly thinking ” Screw this!” and ” H-E-L-L NO!” And I formulated a plan to fight back and regain and restore my former career piece by piece.
It began with the internet and with Warren Ellis. Yes, Warren Ellis. I had followed him on line and had watched and interacted with his weekly newsletter. He had built quite a tribe on line and I felt that there was much to learn from his example. Remember, this was long before Facebook or twitter were anything even remotely resembling a reality. In short, social media did not exist. So I started by jumping on message boards and interacting with all varieties of threads, even those that were famous for bashing me. I was always calm and polite in the face of the most heinous attacks. I stood my ground and didn’t get involved on an emotional level. If you don’t like me, fine, I can only defend a fallacy about my work not how you feel about me personally. Along the way I picked up a legion of fans who were enthusiastic about my work and were excited to chat back and forth. Eventually the lot of us migrated from threads on other boards over to the official Rob Liefeld message boards. We have currently been together for over a decade and I’ve spent countless hours talking, texting and dining, basically sharing life with the friends I’ve made on line. I have their backs and they have mine. We have honest commentary about our likes and dislikes and I know that I’ve made friends for life.
As a matter of fact, it was online that I met what may be my own personal Jesus, my personal comic book messiah, Mark Millar. I had been writing an online column called “Robservations” for the website Spinnerrack.com and lo and behold, one morning I received an e-mail from a gentleman whose work I was gushing over, the one and only Mr. Mark Millar himself. It was a quick note that read “Enjoy your work, enjoy your column, Cheers!” That single note opened a line of communication that led to Youngblood:Bloodsport which is the book that got me back in front of the drawing board and returned me to publishing after a 3 year absence.
Speaking of social media, there is simply no excuse for not personally connecting with the universe of fans and consumers around the globe. Between facebook and twitter you can talk to anyone and everyone everywhere. I absolutely relish the opportunity to talk to folks with like-minded interests. If you are a professional and are engaged in social media then you know the excitement of talking to a broad spectrum of fans and retailers. Feedback is instant and you would be wise to respond to as many people as possible in order to strengthen your connections. I still fondly remember when George Perez called my house and chatted me up as a teenager. I was a member of a Teen Titans fan club and the thought of George calling me was out of this world. Social media offers us the opportunity to ring up our fan base every day. As far as haters go, they are drowned out by the 30,000 fans I speak to every day through facebook, twitter and my personal message boards. There’s no subject I like talking about more than comic books and now I can do it 24 – 7 through social media because somewhere, someone is up at all times! There’s a virtual convention on line very waking moment, how are you not taking part in it?
When you have been gone from any scene, in this case the comics scene, for any extended period of time, you should get out there and personally press the flesh and meet the fans. Back in the 90’s when I did a signing, it was never an extended practice. It was always 1-2 hours tops, sign, cap the line get up leave. Upon returning to the convention scene, and debuting a new product such as Bloodsport, I knew I had to firmly plant myself, sometimes for up to 10 hours a day and personally hand sell each and every comic book. I sat down in San Diego in 2003 and felt like a stranger in a strange land. As I’ve mentioned, my peers had all retreated from the business, mostly from fatigue, and the 90’s seemed like 2 decades past, instead of only a few years. Big splashy comics had been replaced with 8-12 panel pages, tons of talking heads and a new storytelling practice known as “compressed storytelling” and “writing for the trade”. I sat there as the opening bell rung on Thursday of Comic Con 2003 and in a panic I scribbled out ” FREE HEAD SKETCHES” on a placard and placed it on my table. I felt that with no product out in the marketplace for the past 3 years, I needed to give some sort of incentive to come by and get re-aquainted. A line of 20-25 people formed around my table and I poured myself into the very best sketches of my career. Superman, Wolverine, Cable, Deadpool, you name it, I drew it. What may have been a common practice to many artists in artists alley was brand new to me. I never, ever drew anything for free at a convention prior to that show but for the next 4 days I drew 30-35 sketches a day and we sold over 15,000 copies of Youngblood: Bloodsport as a result. Bottom line, giving a sketch was giving a piece of myself to each and every person who had invested their time and interest in me and my career. At a recent signing for the premiere of The Infinite, Robert Kirkman and I sat for 5 hours and drew at least 100 head sketches for all the fans in line. A 2 hour signing went 3 hours overtime. So this is a practice I still highly recommend. Give back.
Conventions are akin to campaigning. There are dozens of candidates on the floor, each vying for the attention of the consumer, how are you going to stand out? What are you offering the casual consumer that creator X is not? Remember, I was entering a field where I had become somewhat notorious and I couldn’t afford to act like I was some big time creator despite my career accomplishments. By doing so and staying seated for the entire show, I had become more accessible to the people who had supported my career than I had ever before. Each drawing took at least 45 minutes, so the dedicated group that had assembled for sketches were able to converse with me and I was able to listen and learn in a way I had not before. The “chatter” among fans is important to you and your career. Listen and learn is my motto. Consumers told me what they liked, what they didn’t like and what they missed in comics. Did I mention what a blast this whole experience was?
I took my extended tour on the road and sketched non-stop for 3 years. Along the way I was offered Cable/Deadpool, an X-Force revival, Teen Titans and Onslaught Reborn. After a dozen shows over 3 years I eventually had to stop the free sketches for many reasons, but the dedication to meeting and greeting fans was essential to furthering mine or any career. Also of note, I didn’t just stick to big cities, I visited many smaller markets as well, there is more to fandom than L.A. Chicago and New York.
I’ve never been good at panels at shows, but I also recommend getting on as many panels as possible in order to connect with as many fans as possible. Real quick, when I say fan, I include myself. I’m a comic fan, a Star Wars fan, a LOST fan, a Battlestar Galactica fan, a Lakers fan, etc. I don’t find the term demeaning so I hope that my use of the term is appropriate.
In short, I’ve done as many as 60 shows this past decade. Some years I do more than others, as my family gets older, my time is more limited but there are plenty of shows popping up in every region that would be happy to have you as a guest. And when you show up in person, you control the entire fan-creator experience. It’s all on your terms. Wouldn’t you rather have the chance to directly influence the consumer instead of some angry blogger or frustrated comic store clerk?
You can never rest on your laurels, award winning, record setting or otherwise. This is a “What have you done for me lately” business, and you need to deliver product and make it timely or else. I’ve learned this the hard way, after failing to deliver many books on time, I turned it around and started producing regular work starting with X-Force in 2004, Shattestar and Teen Titans in 2005 and most recently Deadpool and Deadpool Corps. my longest stint on any title or character in a decade. It may not be the gig you desire but any regular gig is an opportunity to show fans and more importantly, retailers, that you are deserving of their commitment. Without product you are the equivalent of a tribute band, playing dated tunes from another period. I love Night Ranger as much as the next guy, but I’m not buying a ticket to hear them belt out “Sister Christian” for the thousandth time. Keep the product coming and your connections will increase in every facet of the business. I’m currently producing more work than at any time in my career, pencilling 2 books a month and producing Avengelyne. I’m doing it now because I won’t be young forever and I feel that at my peak in the 90’s I failed to deliver as many comics as I could have. And I don’t hear ” Liefeld can’t deliver on time anymore.”
Remember that today’s comic book is tomorrow’s digital download and next month’s trade collection and part of a future Omnibus. But unless you produce it, forget about it.
And as to haters, yes, it undercuts their already weak position when you are producing 60 pages every month and you work with every major publisher.
HAVE THICK SKIN
Maybe the single most important item on the list. You are producing work that is consumed and judged by the public and with today’s social media and the 24 blogosphere, you better put on your big boy pants when you go outside. You are going to get poked. At some point, some where the worm will turn, it’s not a promise it’s a fact. Give me any one of your comic book sacred cows and I’ll show you the blog, the thread or the review that tears them a new one. It’s all in how you apply your perspective.
I arrived on the comic book scene in 1987, and I shot to quick fan favorite status on Hawk and Dove. How do I know this, because my editor kept reminding me that I didn’t deserve my success because I hadn’t earned it yet. What?? Anyway as I was drawing Hawk and Dove #5, my phone rang and it was Bob Harras , X-Men editor and the next thing I knew I was 19 years old and drawing X-men, X-Factor and Wolverine. I was given a chance to re-haul New Mutants and take it from the dog of the X-Men office to 1 million copies with its final issue. From there X-Force took flight, we rang the bell at 5 million copies, launched a decade long line of toys and accessories and then I launched the Image age with Youngblood #1 and 1 million copies a month. I knew what it was like to be a darling, a sure thing, guaranteed to move the proverbial needle. Youngblood #1 was my first brush with internet bashing, message boards were just emerging, but the criticism was drowned out by millions of copies flying off shelves.
Then came Heroes Reborn. I boldly stepped up to the plate with a sure-to-be-controversial Captain America reboot and made the mistake of drawing one horrible Captain America picture that drew the largest ire of my career. But more than that, I was in the middle of a Marvel Civil War. The powers that be were threatening to re-locate the Marvel offices to the west coast and the entire east coast office openly rooted our for our demise. No hard feelings, they were fighting for their jobs and we were way across the country and working in our insulated cubicles. When I went to New York for a signing shortly after Captain America launched at 150 times its previous sales, several Marvel editors in attendance and quite drunk told me they hoped we were over and out. Even Jim Lee with all his talent and charisma weren’t enough to turn that ship around for a second season. We were both sent packing with no renewal. Despite accomplishing our goal of launching those books at numbers they hadn’t seen in 30 years, Heroes Reborn had the full snark of the blogosphere. And you know what, we knew it was coming, worked through it and I remain proud of my run on Captain America. Better yet, I may have signed all 350,000 copies since then as fans regularly feed them to me at signings. But the stigma remained and I had to deal with the reality of being the new internet whipping boy.
In the late 90’s, the magazine formerly known as the Wizard came after me strong and hard, I was the brunt of jokes for an entire staff of angry fanboys, as much as can be poured on was poured on. But I kept focus as anyone in that situation should. Just because one tribe piles on you, take shelter and continue to work towards your next goal, your next project. Don’t be discouraged and remember that there are many fans of your work rooting for you to succeed.
Very recently, a longtime friend and comic book author called me in a panic. He had enjoyed a nice run of success but his recent projects had been critically lambasted. He was tasting the fanboy wrath and was clearly coming undone. “Rob, how do you cope with it?? Does it affect other areas of your life??” What? This guy had lost his mind. I distinctly remember having to work extra hard to calm him down while I watched the baseball playoffs. He chewed my ear off for an hour. ” They can;t find a single positive review or quote to put on the trade collection” he whined. I stopped it all cold with offered up some blunt talk. ” Your books are top sellers. They chart great and you are moving tons of product. I don’t get your worries here. Welcome to success” And I meant it, I went on to cite many directors and movie stars including Michael Bay and Tom Cruise that the public supposedly loathed but somehow always managed to chart and connect with the masses. Same with pop stars and all other variety of artists. ” Stop worrying. I wish I had your problems” I commented. “This will pass and your next project will be even better.” That’s how I honestly feel and I stand by that sentiment always. Get up, get back at it. That’s how its done. You have to have thick skin in this business. Period. It’s not for the weak or faint of heart. Fan is short for fanatic and we are all very passionate about our favorite characters and story lines.
” But its personal —” my buddy implored. Yep, sometimes it gets personal. Case in point–the new Hawk and Dove launched a month back and to put it bluntly, it was the single worst reviewed comic book of my career. Think about that for a minute. The blogosphere came out with knives sharpened, grilling me on a spicket. This is one short month after The Infinite, a book I produce with Robert Kirkman had debuted to the best reviews of my career. What happened?? Well, I read a few of the reviews, the really hateful one’s and they were full of personal attacks and insults. Many, if not all, believed that Hawk and Dove was the first work I had done in over a decade and asked how I could still possibly be employed after all these years? I was drawing the third issue of a sold out comic book featuring characters that had not carried their own title in 20 years, do I let these attacks get to me? Sorry, I have no time and I have deadlines to meet, and arguing with any of these bloggers would accomplish nothing. DO NOT EVER send a negative comment or engage a negative review, its pointless and takes up valuable time. I advocate moving forward and servicing your fan base. Hawk and Dove has sold 50,000 copies to date, twice as much as my last Deadpool assignment. I should focus on the fans that enjoyed the work, not the dissenters who want to distract from it. Does George Lucas really worry about the internet rage against him for the Star Wars prequels or the reboots.? Or does he look at all those Star Wars toys lining the toy shelves across the globe. I’m betting that he focuses on the fans that he is connecting with not the chorus of critics that blast his every decision. Personal or not, lift your head up high and above all else apply this last lesson.
LAUGH AT YOURSELF
Period. End of story. So many creative types are wound so tight and are so concerned with the weight of their work that they forget that we are producing periodic pop entertainment. Sometimes you hit, sometimes you miss. The LOST producers were taking it square on the chin as an uneven season 2 wound down, but has anyone ever rebounded stronger with the flash forward at the end of season 3? Talk about a come back! Then they bravely produced a polarizing series finale that is still routinely discussed and debated but through it all, they take it in stride. I don’t believe for one minute that Damon Lindelof loses one ounce of sleep as a result of the split decision on the finale. Laugh at yourself. it’s the single most important aspect of surviving this crazy business. And that’s from the man that gave Cap boob’s.