Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Lowlife: Creation Part Seven: Work-Life Balance

One of the perks of the job: I do my page layouts in the local café

I've talked before about loving the lifestyle of a comic artist. You certainly wouldn't do it just for the money, at least not at my end of the market. Not that I'm complaining about how much I make relative to others in comics, it's just that from a financial point of view, almost any other form of illustration pays better for the number of hours worked.

So why do it? I love storytelling, I love world-building, and yes, I love the connection with an art form that's captivated me since childhood. Comics are cheap to produce and so offer the creator the possibility of total control. I used to say I could spin a whole world out of a few pounds worth of paper and ink; these days a Mac, a Wacom tablet and the necessary software pushes that budget up a bit, but still, the principle holds. Even on high-profile work for 2000AD, I enjoy a surprising amount of control over what I do; as an artist I have to follow the writer's script, but within that I'm free to make decisions about page layout, framing and viewpoint. 2000AD editorial has always been very hands-off - unlike many other publishers, they don't demand to see roughs or pencils; they just send me the scripts and I deliver the artwork.

The various stages of a comic panel. I know exactly how long I should be taking on each of these steps
Lowlife: Creation © 2009 Rebellion Developments/2000AD
Lowlife created by Rob Williams and Henry Flint

One great thing about the freelance life is that no-one cares how, when or where you work, so long as you deliver the goods on time. It does require a certain discipline, though. I always keep careful track of each job, sub-dividing it into different tasks (roughs, pencils, inks etc) and giving each task a sub-deadline within the overall schedule. So when I start work each day I'll know how much I should have completed by the time I break for lunch, and how much needs doing in the afternoon and evening. This kind of breakdown has a further benefit; it means I never need look more than a few hours ahead, which is useful when I'm starting a long project. If, at the start of the first episode, I'd really thought about the amount of work required to finish Lowlife: Creation, I'd have found it more than a bit off-putting, even with twenty years experience under my belt.

Something I've started looking at recently is the timing of my day. When I first began life as a comic artist I was dependent on my family to help support me, and one strategy for persuading them I was serious about my bizarre choice of career was by starting my day at 6am. Though there's no real logic to it, there's an unbreakable association between hard work and starting early. When you get up for work and discover your offspring has been up for a couple of hours already, it creates a strong positive impression.
The problem came once I became established; there was no longer a need to impress anyone, but despite my hatred of early starts, I was hooked on them - at least, I found I didn't get anything done if I woke at a more reasonable hour. Winters were horrendous because I'd get up every morning to 2-3 hours of cold and blackness. Also, even starting at 6am, I found I couldn't get to sleep before midnight, limiting me to 6 hours sleep a night, which I had to augment with siestas to keep myself going.
Finally, I took myself in hand, largely because I was feeling permanently tired, and now that I'm past 40, living in a constant state of sleep-deprived stress was seeming more and more like a bad idea (the number of comic artists from earlier generations who pegged out at their drawing boards in their 50's is truly frightening.)

Supreme Dalek Rally

These days I have less time for this kind of thing
Daleks © 1963 Terry Nation

So, starting in January I made a concerted effort to shift my day round to a schedule that suits my body clock, and to get eight hours sleep a night. I now get up between nine and ten every day and work until at least 1.30am. Much to my surprise, I'm keeping on top of the work, and feeling much better for it (in January I was losing an hour's daylight by getting up later, but the morale-boosting effect of getting up in daylight was incalculable). There are a few drawbacks - losing another two hours a day to sleep constrains activities like blogging and Dalek photography, and it's not that much fun going back to work at 11pm when your body's telling you to go to bed - but still, I feel better in myself and there is a deep satisfaction, after twenty years, in finally getting to live the bohemian lifestyle :-)


james corcoran said...

Hello Matt
Another great piece you really should take up those other suggestions to do a book or bigger article,will you be going to Bristol this year?

Best wishes James

Graeme Neil Reid said...

Afternoon naps for me! I've fallen into a routine dictated by having children but that seems to follow almost a normal working day (8ish to 5 with an hour for lunch) but then a couple more hours at night. But like you now I do seem to need a good eight hours sleep and glorious daylight :)

luke f said...

I was reading an issue of "Comics Forum"from 1997 that I picked up at the local 2nd hand comic shop and as it happens,there was a great article by yourself about why people like comics that are seen to be "bad" and don`t like comics that are seen to be "good" and it blew my socks off.
you really should collect some of your articles into a book.It would fly off the shelves,Matt!