Note: I wrote this three years ago for a column I used to write called “Making Marks.” It was when I was working as an illustrator. It still applies today (although I’m a stronger writer now).
“What the heck is that supposed to be?”
“Those are chest muscles.”
“…they look like boobs. The Hulk looks like a girl with giant boobs. Guys, look! He drew boobs on this guy!”
I moved to a new neighborhood in the summer I turned eight. This meant switching schools, switching friends, switching over pretty much my entire life that I had built for myself as a seven-year-old. My whole world changed, and the only constant was that I kept drawing.
If the above exchange is any indication, third grade is not an encouraging environment for burgeoning artists.
I had only recently begun drawing, so my work was still crude, even by elementary school standards. My friends at my previous school were either really nice to me or easily impressed because I don’t remember any of them commenting on my artwork.
When I moved to the new school though, I noticed one thing about the kids: they were a whole lot meaner than the kids I knew at my old school. If my drawing looked even a little bit like something they could turn into a dirty joke, they would. No one oohed and aahed at my drawings as much as they turned them into the subject of schoolyard roasts. I was also being bullied at the school (it was a rough time in general), but I think the hardest part of the whole process was the fact that my drawings weren’t safe anymore. I couldn’t retreat into drawing because all of a sudden my drawings were part of my bullying.
Overreach Is Good, But Risky
My entire third-grade year was a long barrage of teasing — I ended up switching classes because it got so bad, and my new class ended up being a much better fit. Still, my drawings weren’t getting much slack. Left and right people would tell me how my drawings looked stupid, weird, unclear, or strangely shaped. The infuriating thing to me was that my drawings looked strange and misshapen because I was trying to depict poses and anatomy the way that my heroes were doing it, like George Perez on The Avengers or Ron Garney and Andy Kubert on Captain America.
I was reaching far beyond the grasp of my skills, but as a result, my drawings looked far worse than they would if I had tried to draw more conservatively. I was really trying to crack the idea of foreshortening like I was the Oppenheimer of elementary school-level superhero drawings.
Despite all of this, however, I never stopped drawing.
Mercifully, the school year ended and summer began. Both my parents worked, so my sister and I spent all day at a family friend’s house who also had kids. She knew me well enough to leave me alone, so I got to spend hours every day poring over How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way or Joe Kubert’s Wonderful World of Comics and practicing my craft. See, I had learned some important things during my third-grade year, and to this day I believe these were the most crucial lessons I needed for my development as a storyteller.
Communication Is What They Think You Said
The first lesson I learned was clarity is king. I promised myself on that first day that some kid confused “pectoral muscles” for boobs that I would never draw anything that could be misconstrued ever again. To this day, the worst thing I can hear about my artwork isn’t “that’s bad,” but “oh, I thought that was a _______.” From that day forward, I knew that I couldn’t judge my artwork only by the standard of whether I liked it, but also by a standard of clarity.
Could other people understand it?
Was it clear and legible to other readers?
That’s what made my artwork “good” — if other people could clearly see what I intended for them to see.
Be More Demanding Than Your Critics
The second lesson I learned is tied to the first: I have an audience, and I have to have a higher standard than them. What began as a deeply frustrating truth became my first lesson in improving my artwork. Everything I drew immediately became the subject of conversation between my classmates (mostly to make fun of me). I went from exclusively drawing for myself to drawing with the (dreaded) expectation that other people would be seeing my artwork, and those people were merciless critics. As a result, I began to draw to a higher and higher standard because I knew that I wanted my critics to have nothing to say when they saw my artwork.
I still drew for myself, but I drew so that no matter who saw my artwork, they would enjoy it. By some miracle of eight-year-old determination, instead of folding it up and quitting drawing (like a sane child might do), I was driven to rise above the standard of my critics, to hold myself to a higher standard than any of them could apply to me. If I was going to fail against the standard of my classmates, it would only be a result of me failing my own standard first.
Sticking It Out
These two lessons are what made me an artist, writer, and communicator. Even at eight years old, I learned about determination in the face of criticism, about having tough skin, about allowing myself to be influenced by vision and ambition than by the pressure to quit. In the end, I’m thankful for those bullies and cruel classroom critics. They were my first crucible, my first experience with the harshness of haters, and ultimately they were my first art teachers. Those kids are what drove me from “a kid who likes drawing” into “a kid who started a career drawing.”
After a whole summer spent indoors drawing, drawing, and drawing, I came back to school with a brand new sketchbook. When my classmates sat down to watch me draw something worth making fun of, they waited.
One by one, they stopped watching for mistakes and started enjoying the process. No one spoke for a while. And then something amazing happened.
“Hey…can you draw Batman?”
“No! Draw Spider-Man!’
“Naw dude, draw the Hulk!”
“Draw me Superman!”
And I’ve been making things for those kids ever since.