Brian Douglas Ahern

January 6, 2005

Without question, I think the most worthless piece of advice I've ever heard is "Expect the unexpected."  By definition alone you can't do this, because if something were truly unexpected, you cannot possibly anticipate it.  "Be prepared" may be, as they say, the boy scout's marching song, but again is of little use when you haven't the faintest idea what to prepare for.  So I'd like to extend to you out there in comic book land a bit of advice I think you can put to good use.  Here it is.

Brace yourself.

That's it, just the two words.  Brace yourself.  Write it down, say it ten times if you have to. 

I've been working at this whole comic book/cartooning/writing thing for over a dozen years now, and although for the most part I still languish in obscurity (with occasional brief moments of notoriety), I have had sufficient experiences in this business to pass on a little of what I've learned from which I hope you'll benefit.  And the best advice I can impart is summed up in those two vitally important words.

Brace yourself.

At age 37 I have seen more dreams, more goals, more well-thought-out plans and aspirations go down in flames and up in smoke than the average comics reader can shake a stick at.  In all the time I've spent sweating and straining, networking, promoting, and pulling late nights and long hours, I have never seen a single one come to fruition.  Not one.  Quick recap of twelve years.

The non-beginning of my comic book career began while I was still in college and I wrote as my senior thesis project the script for a six-issue series called "Return of the Ghost Rider".  The story was incredible, and even my PhD professor was on the edge of her seat waiting for each new issue.  I had no doubt that with enough polish, this story could land me in the big leagues as well as bring back one of my cancelled favorites.  I was writing issue #4 when Marvel announced GR's return in a new monthly series. 

Strike one.

Skipping forward by vast amounts of time, I was later at a financial low when I was picked up by Wizard magazine and landed the job of creating a monthly superhero calendar, then humor spreads, scavenger hunt puzzles, and various other fun tasks.  All was going full steam ahead when in 1998, everything stopped.  The calendar was discontinued, the requests for humor spreads stopped, and after being relegated for a while to work on children's magazines, the phone stopped ringing.  I knew my career with Wizard was all over when I saw new scavenger hunt pages appearing by new artist Ryan Dunlavey.  Wizard still wanted the cartoons, they just didn't want me.  Near as I can tell, the only reason for that is the trendy Wizard magazine's need to be constantly hip.  They need to be forever renewing themselves or they will appear to stagnate.  I know my relationships with all their editors was excellent and I was always treated very well.  Mr. Dunlavey's work is not necessarily better or worse than mine, just different.  And they need to look different, new, evolving if they want to stay on top.  Consistency and quality of my work doesn't enter into it.  I didn't know that going in.  Guess I do now.

I wrote one hell of a good limited series all about Shazam! and approached DC Comics' Mike Carlin at a convention to present it to
him.  Always the gentlemen, Mike did his best in breaking the news that he couldn't even look at my work.  Jerry Ordway was currently doing Power of Shazam! and under terms of his contract, no one else could do a work in which Captain Marvel was the main character.  Kablam, I was struck down by legal lightning.

I had an incredible experience around 1997 in which I worked with hairband rock legend Dee Snider in creating a cast of cartoon
characters for a major theme park (no, not Disney).  We hit it off well and made a good team with his concepts and my artwork execution.   The project had made great strides at the park in California and things had gone so far that molds were being cast for statues of my characters to be placed around the main entrance of our cartoon-based attraction.  Then the plug got pulled.  Dee went off to do a straight-to-video horror flick and that was that.  Unconfirmed reports finally reached me that a higher up at the theme park decided it would be too embarrassing to admit that a hairband star and a freelance cartoonist could create in two months what their corporate art department couldn't do in two years.  I never even learned the name of the man who gave our work the thumbs-down.

This past summer I had a fabulous opportunity fall into my lap and was flown out to California near L.A. to shoot a photo book featuring three young celebrities whom I am not at liberty to name.  I stayed in their home for a week and a half and we shot photos day and night.  In the end, I had prepared a 150-page book complete with text, original stories about the celebs, logo design, page layout, the works.  Only to find that no publisher would talk to me about it.  Since I was not the young celebs' official agent, everyone from Simon & Schuster to Time Warner hung up on me.  Their official business manager was a relative, whose knuckle-dragging, blustering, backwoods manner has very effectively buried the project and burned every bridge possible.   That was a sudden detour in my summer trip I hadn't penciled into my itinerary.

Just today, I got off the phone with the ones whom I thought would be my new publisher.  That call is what prompted this whole dreary recollection.  In addition to my comic book work (or lack thereof) I have been spending a good deal of time over the last several years working in photography.  A self publishing company of good repute optioned my most recent portrait book.  Only today, as I wrap up the final design package to ship off to the production department, do I find that one detail had been left out.  There is a considerable fee for every image scanned in for the book, which is separate from all other fees I've paid.  And unless I can magically produce an additional grand from somewhere to cover this new expense, the book deal is off.

It seems there's always something.  Some totally unexpected monkey wrench that comes flying out of left field to crash the machinery and halt the works.  This is only a small sampling of what seems to be an endless parade of failed ventures, all of which have one thing in common.  That being an unknown quantity that has derailed each project on the brink of success.  I could not ever have planned for, much less expected, any of these events.  But now it's become second nature when a project appears to be nearing a successful outcome to brace myself.  Somethin's coming, and it's not somethin' good.  Every time.  Every time thus far, anyway.

Here's one last thing before I make my final point.

My cartoon series Bumpkin Buzz died a slow and painful death after eight years on the printed page and an aborted trade paperback collection. (The printer involved used an inferior spine glue, causing it and its Kabuki predecessor to fall apart in the reader's hands, unbeknownst to myself or the fine and supportive folks at Caliber Press.  Whoops, didn't see that one coming.)    The final nail in Buzz's coffin came with the format change at the Comics Buyer's Guide, bringing about the unfortunate editorial decision of choosing between a page of cartoon satire and valuable ad space for which companies had shelled out hundreds of dollars to advertise their products and services.  Bye-bye, bumpkin.  At this point, I'd be honestly surprised if ten people reading this even recognize the character's name.   Editorial staff don't count.

Now you can find a Buzz-like humor strip in the back pages of the now magazine-sized CBG called "Who Are You And Who Are You With?"  The smarmy little one-off gags were not, however, the original basis for that title.

The original "Who Are You--?" lies unfinished in my file folders, a cartoon trade paperback done in the Bumpkin Buzz style and written autobiographically.  It chronicles the aforementioned calamitous failures and a host of others in humorous, if sometimes snide, fashion.  Much like the brilliantly funny work Fortune and Glory by Mister Brian Michael Bendis in which he attempts to secure a movie deal for one of his comics.  But the outlined volume of "Who Are You--?" lies unfinished because unlike Mister Bendis's volume, it has no conclusion.  An endless stream of listed disasters, regardless how funny, is still nothing more than an excessive bitchfest one can get for free by listening in at the local coffee counter rather than forking over hard-earned cash for a trade paperback.

Well, maybe this is my conclusion right here.  Because in addition to "Brace yourself" I'm going to extend one last bit of advice I hope you'll take equally to heart.  You ready?  Brace yourself, cause here it comes.

Try anyway.

Yeah, you heard me right.  Whatever it is you want to do, that you dream of spending your days working on, try to do it anyway.  Will something totally unexpected come along and mess up your plans?  It's highly possible.  Can a bizarre set of circumstances upset years of hard work and fondest dreams?  Damn straight.  Might an unforeseen third party make himself known to pull the rug out from under you and knock you on your keister?  You better believe it.
So what.  Try anyway.  Draw that comic book, write that novel.  Shoot that photo book.  Design that video game.  Script that movie.  If there's anything twelve years of nonstop professional catastrophe have taught me, it's that the striving is all that makes life worth living.  Otherwise, you aren't living at all, you're merely existing.  And the only ones who aren't failing at anything are the ones who don't bother to try.

Something will stick at some point, I promise.  But only if you keep getting up every time you're knocked flatly on your ass.  Two of the final three unseen strips I created for Bumpkin Buzz were dual chapters of a two-part strip entitled "Bigger Than They Are", in which Buzz learns that his dreams of being a comic book creator will always be bigger than all the nay sayers, both professional and layperson, put together.  The dream of achievement, of creating something worthwhile, will always dwarf any opposition, no matter how unexpected and apparently devastating.  You must believe that, even at times when success looks to be on the scaffold and utter failure is on the throne.

You have within you that story, that image, that vision that will come from behind and dazzle all who behold it.  You can unleash that thing of wonder so unexpected it will confound and amaze your audience.  So keep at it and let the competition brace themselves.  Let them expect the unexpected, 'cause when you arrive, they won't know what hit 'em.

And you won't know either, unless you try.

Text is copyright 2005 Brian Douglas Ahern

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