Workshop Mailbag: Throwing In The Towel

In our efforts to get more feedback from everyone – we’re clearly not the definitive experts – we’re opening up our mailbag to you.

This will be a weekly feature this summer so if you have questions you want answered head over to the contact form and give us the isssssuuuue. If we don’t cover it on the podcasts, we’ll get to it here.

Each week you’ll get a reader issue covered by one of our Workshop gang – this week it’s Ken Drab from Rick the Stick.

Today’s issue is from Keith C. Smith of Karmic Debt:

Is there a point at which someone should just stop pursuing the crazy dream of comics? I mean after years and years of just not making it should they just throw in the towel?

Ken’s thoughts:

Aaaah, this is interesting to everyone because inevitably if you’re in this game long enough, you’re going to ask yourself the very same question. But the answer is actually very simple. The point at which you stop pursuing the crazy dream of comics is… when you stop. Honestly and truly, only you can answer that. Because you’re the one that has set your own milestones for success. You’re the one that’s pushing yourself to pursue that crazy dream.

But that type of answer usually never helps – does it?

So, I’ll chime in with my thoughts as to when I think it’s time to hang it up. Frankly, when it stops becoming fun and you get to the point where you have to force yourself to make a comic. When the frustration from not achieving your steps to success are not being met. When you’d rather be doing something else.

You know, no one ever really brings this up, but it’s not a crime to put down the pen for a week. A month. Even a year. There are no rules that say you can’t take the time to step away and get that creative spark back. Sure you may lose some audience and momentum, but stepping away and coming back with a different perspective and the knowledge of just what you’re in for (because most of us jumped into comics not knowing full well what the investment was). Which leads me back to…

You. You’ll know.

Now that I’ve babbled on, what do you guys say? Do you have better advice? I’d love to hear it and I’m sure Keith would too! Help us out!

Posted in Featured News, Helpful Hints.


  1. I am married to a musician who aspires to one day do concert arrangements professionally and to maybe one day work in the video game field as a musician. I am good friends with a short story author that hopes to one day get a decent book deal. We have all been doing our art for YEARS. Before we went online with our work, we did it via offline means and the whole while we did it for the love. I know that’s corny or whatever, but I think you gotta love this art form enough to be willing to stick it out and continuously learn.

    I know there are plenty of examples of people out there who have made huge impacts in the web comic and comic book field who are complete sharks and only love the art form enough to make money off of it. More power to them. I am from the school of thought that believes that your audience can sense when you are a money grubber and when you are the real deal. I choose to believe that the real deal gets you better results than money grubbing.

    So I agree with the above and will only add that if you find yourself frustrated because you aren’t making more than pizza and beer money after a year instead of being frustrated with yourself because you want to learn a new technique or idea or style but it isn’t happening yet, then maybe it is time to throw it in. Otherwise, keep working, keep growing and learning. Keep advertising and networking and one day it will all pay off. It may be tomorrow, or ten years from now. But eventually, it will pay off.

    If nothing else, your readers will always appreciate your work. Now if only they would leave comments more often! :-/

  2. Read Seth Godin’s ‘The Dip.’ It talks about this human phenomenon in great detail. It doesn’t just happen to cartoonists – apparently it happens to everyone at some point in their professional lives.

    You start a business venture and you’re motivated and things appear to be starting out well. Then all of a sudden you hit a plateau when you only have the same number of customers/subscribers/etc. for an extended period of time. You start questioning your abilities and whether or not your great idea is worth maintaining. You’ve hit the dip. That is the point where you have to make an analysis of your good idea and figure out if it is worth pursuing from a financial and physical workday standpoint.

    You could love what you do to death, but if your efforts are fruitless, perhaps you should focus that love and creative energy elsewhere. Put a spin on the idea in order to make it have the success that you feel it should have.

    Another option is to set some measurable goals for yourself. Don’t just look at the big picture and fret that you haven’t hit Penny Arcade type status as a webcomic creator. Break it down by year, month, week. Set a reasonable goal, try something new to attract more followers, boost more sales of your merch, etc. You’ll start to see what works and what doesn’t, and over a period of time you’ll have way more knowledge about the buying and support habits of your fans.

  3. I think whether a comic is made from the passion to create or the passion to get a small piece of your hard earned cash, if there is a passion, or a drive to succeed, then these comics will rise above the fray. If you make a mediocre comic, but your passion and attempts at creativity are strong, you WILL do better than the creator who has a stronger, well presented comic, but lacks the passion and drive to make it succeed. It’s how you market yourself and your comic and the enthusiasm tied behind it. Some people find the right formula and soar, while the rest sit back and scratch their heads in wonder.

    For me personally, I’ll draw until it no longer amuses me and those who wish to come along for that ride are certainly welcome. I’m not doing my comic for the readers, I’m selfishly doing it for me. It’s a great past time and gives me a creative outlet I’d not have otherwise. I love my dysfunctional cast of characters, even if others look at them and say “what the hell is this trainwreck of a comic”! (and I’ve gotten e-mails saying just that. However, for that opinion to matter, I have to care and frankly, I don’t give a rats arse! It just makes me try harder!)

  4. Is this an issue of expression, or business, that makes you ask the question?

    If it’s expression that you’re struggling with, then I think the only time one should throw in the towel is if you no longer have anything you want to create. If you’re feeling burned out, perhaps you’re in a rut and need to do something drastic to break out. Change your art style, or make a drastic and serious change to your universe. This isn’t without risks. On SoG I felt in an artistic rut and decided to experiment with styles, and I lost about 1/3 of my readers. If I had been thinking of it as a business, that would have been crippling.

    Speaking of business…I’m not going to go artsy-fartsy on you and tell you “ya gotta just love the Ahhhhhrt, man!” I want to be able to someday make a living off this too! Will that ever happen? The statistics say “probably no,” and I’ve had to ask myself if that’s a reality I’m willing to live with. If I spend a decade pouring time and effort and money into LeyLines, and I never even break even, will it be worth it?

    For me, the answer is “yes,” because I still find value in the work itself and the experience and friendships that come of the process. (And I haven’t yet released my delusional grip on the possibility of success.) However, the answer may not be the same for you. You have to decide what’s right for your life and passions.

  5. The question was actually one I asked myself a little over a year ago when my dad died. It just struck me that I had been pursuing this goal for over 10 years (in webcomic form, before that it was mini-comics and/or comic strips) and I was no closer to “making it”* after some soul searching I decided a hiatus was needed. I used that time to work on other creative pursuits and that helped regenerate an interest in returning to comics. That break was something I think that was tremendously necessary, even though it cost most of my momentum in terms of readership.

    Now I am back to a weekly comic schedule and working on something I like to call “The Super Secret Project” which is driving me to be the best cartoonist I can be.

    My attitude is similar to Jynksie, I do this because I love it. I wager that is why most of us do it.

    *”Making it” is one of those hard things to define, does making it mean earning a living from my art? Or does it mean getting some recognition from my peers? Or is it just getting the little voice in your head to stop telling you that you aren’t good enough. See AFP’s speech at the Art Institute for more info on that

    • Keith – Wanted to post a quick thank you for sharing this. It made me see a different perspective that I hadn’t considered, which is the importance of sometimes taking a calculated step back.

      I tend to push too hard and approach every bit of resistance like it’s a wall that needs a good wrecking ball. Taking a break, but still working on creative things, seems like a much better approach than “Press on Regardless, and damn the consequences.”

      • Sometimes stepping back and getting a fresh perspective is one of the best things you can do. It keeps your mind fresh and it can even give you time to build a buffer with your comic.

  6. It’s hard for some of us to see this question in the same way that you do Keith. Ten years is a long time to pursue something without seeing some sort of dividend develop for your time invested. The answer is so subjective. I mean, for instance, I’m just coming up at one year with my strip with a slow (did I say slow), but steady climb of readers. If I were to multiply that by 10, putting that much energy into this with nothing concrete to substantiate my efforts, I really don’t think I would keep doing it. Ten years is a hell of a long time to do something just for the love of it, my hat’s off to you.

    I have a good friend who has been pursuing a self-published comic book for going on 20 years now. He has been relatively successful, his concept has been optioned numerous times to no great success. Recently, he confessed to me that his wife has lost all faith in his efforts, and didn’t believe that he would ever be able to justify the years he has sacrificed for it. He had tears in his eyes when he told me that. It really broke my heart to see him so disheartened. This thing had become such a part of him, it would be severing a limb for him to let go. I don’t think he would, even if he could. It would be like abandoning his child. In his case, it wasn’t a matter of whether it ever became successful in the way the world might view success, it was successful simple because he believed it worthwhile, and he enjoyed the process of creating it. And too, he does have an audience.

    Let’s be honest, I don’t think there is one cartoonist among us who just puts it out there for the love of it. Sure, we love to do it, but more than that we want to be validated for doing it. For some that might be an occasional nice comment (imagine that!), for others it might be “Show me the money!” and justify my hard work by supporting me, career-wise. There has to be more to it than just doing it. Especially doing it for ten solid years!

    So what would I tell myself if I were you, and I had ten years worth of something, but not exactly what I want. If I weren’t seeing some kind of financial success from it, I would definitely pursue other options. Cartoonists can make money in a lot of ways. I’d ask: Did you have a goal in mind when you began your artistic trek? Do you currently have a goal of where you are going? Do you want to make a living off your strip, or are you happy doing it for fun? Have you made any concentrated effort to elevate your presence outside of the webcomic universe? Are there things you can do to move you to the place you want to be? Little successes add up to bigger successes. Maybe setting some goals might get you to a better place (if you don’t already have them). And in the end, like Ken said, there may come a time when you decide it is not what you want, and you might make some big changes. If you are committed to your strip, and you enjoy doing it, then stick with it. There’s something to be said about perseverance, but making a calculated decision to fold up if necessary is just as important.

    For me this is not a game, this is a career choice. After ten years, if I could make better money doing something else, I certainly will.

    • “There’s something to be said about perseverance, but making a calculated decision to fold up if necessary is just as important.”

      I am too stubborn to fold up shop entirely I think.

      “Have you made any concentrated effort to elevate your presence outside of the webcomic universe?”

      My presence is actually better known in the New England Renaissance Faire community and they count as a decent portion of my readers. And they show a great deal of support when I ask for it. For instance they are the reason I have a new Intuos 4 tablet.

      “Did you have a goal in mind when you began your artistic trek?”

      My artistic trek began quite a while ago. But the goal has always been simply to make comics and have folks read them.

      “Do you currently have a goal of where you are going?”

      I do indeed have a goal, it will take about a year to finish. But I do gave a goal. Whether it brings financial success or not is another story. It has potential to reach a decent size audience, so that might help.

      I think I am similar to your friend, I keep doing this because I think what I am doing is worthwhile. Fortunately my wife still supports my work, even though it doesn’t bring in money, she knows it helps with my mental health.

    • “Let’s be honest, I don’t think there is one cartoonist among us who just puts it out there for the love of it.”

      Well put. I know when I started, I was actually trying to push people to build an audience who would see that I also had an online store and buy oodles of stuff there. Then I started seeing some numbers and thought OMG, I have to post more often.

      Working full time and trying to post 3 days a week was killing me and started to be no fun especially when my numbers plateaued. So I went down to two days a week and so no loss in readership (ok no gain either haha).

      But along the way, I got something else out of it. I learned about blog development, SEO, utilizing social media to drive traffic. And while I am no expert, it actually has given me an edge in my day job to be able to speak intelligently about all of those aspects. Something I never would have had, if I didn’t start.

      Now I look at my stuff as a personal cartoon diary and care more about whether or not people comment than if tons of people visit or ever buy stuff. That has become my own validation.

  7. If you’re enjoying it and earning a buck somewhere else that puts food on your table and keeps a roof over your head, then keep doing it.

    If you’re not enjoying it, find something else that you do.

    I enjoy it enough to still be here years later working on the same single project I started way back when. I’ve got no interest in throwing in the towel because I don’t have oodles of an audience. I’m content for those who do like my work. I earn my money teaching, a webcomic is just a fun hobby that keeps my drawing hand in.

  8. I came into this webcomic game with no predisposed notions of getting rich quick. I started an online comic strip to see if I could keep a promise to myself and to my readers to post when I say I’m gonna post and keep that schedule going for as long as I can.

    I’ve spent years sketching and drawing, and the majority of those drawings just went into a drawer unless I sold them. Most of my freelance work is long gone (I was drawing before everyone had digital cameras and stuff). I don’t have many photos of all of the things I’ve created over the years. With the internet, my work will always be somewhere. And it’s growing every day.

    Drawing my webcomic gives me discipline. Do I have what it takes to be a syndicated cartoonist? Can I tell my friends and family to go ahead to the party without me cuz I have to draw tomorrow’s comic? Will I get bored aftr six months and pack it in for greener pastures?

    I’ve done so plenty of times in the past. I just wanted to see if I’ve matured any now that I’m older and, hopefully, more focused. So far, things are going good. I’m not the only one reading my comic. I’ve made connections from all across the world. It’s taught me what’s funny from different regions.

    And what do i love most about this zany webcomic world? It feels like I’m just having fun playing with my toys as a kid, but the whole world gets to watch if they want to. 😀

    • I’m intrigued – you say “It’s taught me what’s funny from different regions.” I’m REALLY curious about this, because the sensibilities of other cultures in relation to humor fascinates me. Do you have any examples you could share?

      Hmm…I wonder if culture impacts drama, too…I’m sure it does, I’m just now sure how.

      • Hi Robin,

        I can’t recall any certain key instances, but I have had a few comics that I “just knew” were hilarious that didn’t do so well in foreign lands. And there were some jokes that I hated or thought would bomb, but were extremely popular elsewhere.

        Puns and funny English wordplay don’t seem to jab the funny bones of other regions. The stereotypical idiocy of “American” characters seem to be popular also.

        I try to set up funny scenarios that anyone, regardless of location, can identify with. I listen to my readers to see what axioms, old wives tales, urban legends, and other information they may have heard of. A lot of my readers from other countries will tell me whether they’re familiar with something or not.

        Reader interaction is great because you can learn what works and what doesn’t. You don’t have to change up your entire game plan, but it pays to pay attention to your viewership to find out what they will accept or deny.

        • The quest for universal humor can’t be an easy one! It sounds like you’ve got a fairly responsive group, which must be very helpful! Have you cultivated that over time, or have your readers always been good at communicating with you? How do you gauge if something bombs/does well in one region and not another?

          • I try to ask questions of my readers. I have a very open-door policy with them. I want to know what they think. If I know what they find funny, it gives me an idea of what to focus on. TV and movies do that all the time, so why not us comic folk.

            I understand if you have a specific story you want to tell, but sometimes my readers have even guided the direction of my story once I know there’s certain aspects that are entertaining them or if I find out that they have an affinity for certain characters.

            If you don’t want to ask key questions, you can just merely listen to the things that they like or dislike. Also, try some surveys to gauge reader’s opinions.

  9. Pingback: Sequential Underground #18 – Giving Up - AudioShocker

  10. Pingback: The Comics Podcast Network » Sequential Underground #18

  11. “Stop pursuing the crazy dream” or “MODIFY the dream”?

    This whole question of giving up has always been a crucial one for me because of how my life has interacted with it. I started off doing comics, knowing that some day I wanted to make my living doing them. Decades went by and it never happened, it never even looked likely. I despaired, took a break, started earning a living some other way… and eventually realized that I really missed cartooning.

    So I went back to it without the expectation of making money, just doing it because I wanted to. And I learned some things:

    – cartooning is good for my soul. It is the most fulfilling thing I know how to do. That alone is reason enough for me to do it.

    – I gave serious thought to what my life would really be like if cartooning were my livelihood… I thought about the stresses and insecurities and burdens… and I realized that I didn’t want that kind of life, and never really did want it. I had never questioned my initial young assumption that I wanted to earn a living from cartooning. Why had I always been so sure that was what I wanted? Turns out, what I REALLY wanted was what I have NOW.

    I’m not trying to suggest that my answer is the answer for everybody, far from it. But I do think that we all need to be careful to examine ourselves, to know ourselves — which can be harder than it sounds.

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