I don’t remember the exact date, but I do know this: In July of 1997, I took a collection of comics that I made, went down to the local Staples, and printed my very first mini-comic (or comic-zine), TEN FOOT RULE #1. It was a pretty humble start, just twelve pages, all that I had at that point. Even though I intended for the comic to be “digest” sized–8 1/2″ x 5 1/2″, half a letter sheet of paper, my incompetence with drawing the comics at the correct dimensions meant that the finished project ended up “half-legal” instead–8 1/2″ x 7″, half a legal sheet.1
Inside the comic was a collection of mostly one page comics. They tended to be “loud and sarcastic” and referenced many Gen-X pop-culture touchstones, as it was the nineties and I was about to turn 22. Nothing in the comic I’d consider a keeper nowadays, but I had to start somewhere.
I got into the world of self-published comics and zines in May of 1996. Everything seemed so inspiring and awesome–it was like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door and everything goes from black and white to Technicolor. I got as many comics and zines as I could get my hands on. There were so many great comics. There were also some bad ones too. Sometime around the fall, a lightbulb went off:
Why don’t I make my own comic?
I had wanted to make my own comic for years. I planned to go to art school and then break into the comics industry. But that was all about asking permission–I couldn’t barge into the offices of Marvel Comics and demand that I be published. Unless the Bristol boards that I dropped onto the confused editor’s desk were so mind-blowing that my tactic worked, most likely I’d just get booted out by security. But all of the people doing the comics I was getting, they were just doing them–drawing them at home, printing off at Kinko’s, then mailing them off to various corners of the world. If they could do it, why couldn’t I?
Of course the problem now was that I had to actually draw the damn thing. And I hadn’t been drawing much in the three years since getting out of high school. Oh sure, I had promised myself that despite not heading off to art school like I hoped, I would still draw. But besides a few pen and ink works that I didn’t finish, or some “character studies” in sketchbooks, my art went nowhere. What I needed was motivation. I had done a flyer for my friend’s band earlier in 1996, and that helped a bit. But having an actual goal would motivate me a lot better than telling myself “I should draw something”.
And in the three years since I drew regularly my art atrophied. I thought I was pretty okay by the end of senior year, okay enough to actually get accepted to art school, but now it was like I was starting over. And now my point-of-reference wasn’t Marvel or DC, it was the punk-rock comic books I had been reading. My aesthetic changed, first parroting a bit some of the artists I liked, then finally becoming my own thing.
My comic needed a name, but the only one I could think of for awhile was the admittedly not great RAWK! Illustrated. Cryptic names were big in the nineties, so I figured I should use one. What could be more cryptic than TEN FOOT RULE? It was a “customer service” principle at Kmart, where I worked–if a customer approaches within ten feet (3 metres) of you, you are supposed to acknowledge them, ask them if they need help. It was something you could get graded on by a “secret shopper” so it was constantly hammered in by management. I hated that stupid Ten Foot Rule, and I figured I should take something back from a job that took so much from me.
Even with the motivation of making a comic, it took longer to get that first one done. I started sometime in fall, and had a paltry amount of pages by summer 1997. 2 But I figured now or never. I took what I had to that Staples, printed a small amount, 25 or less. I sent off one to Factsheet Five, the “bible” of the zine world. I got a small two-line review, and saw a few orders trickle in. I got reviewed in a few other places, most notably one who commented that while my comics were amusing, a buck was “quite a bit” to pay for such a small zine. Oh well.
But more importantly, I sent copies of TEN FOOT RULE to other comics and zines that I liked, and I got feedback, some of it constructive, much of it positive. It was enough to keep me motivated. I also found a friend in Mike, another local mini-comic artist, and started to hang out with him a bunch. Just two months after printing my first comic, we headed down to the DC suburbs to attend SPX, the Small Press Expo. We found a place full of other alternative comics artists and enthusiasts. It made us realize that we weren’t weirdos. I started to draw more and more. We went cross-country to attend Alternative Press Expo. It was all upwards from there, for awhile.
By “comics career” has ebbed and flowed over the years. I was really serious about it from 1996 to about 2004, when I felt like I hit a wall. Everyone was getting into making graphic novels vs. the “pamphlet” style comics I was about. I was told by many folks to make a graphic novel, but despite assurances by a few that “I had it in me”, I didn’t feel like I did. Instead I got more into the Portland bicycle scene, creating this here Urban Adventure League in 2004. I poured more energy into that than comics. But I still did comics, just at a slower pace, my own pace. I decided to try my hand at more diary-style comics in 2007, then more bike-focused comics with NEW OLD STOCK in 2012.
There’s a part of me that wonders what would have happened if I stayed more focused on comic books. A lot of fellow cartoonists who I knew would treat comics like a full-time job, which is probably the only real way to pump out graphic novels. Many of those folks have had their comics published by major book publishers. Me? I still make pamphlets on my own. Would I have had graphic novels reviewed by the New York Times Book Review if I stuck to it? Who knows.
But I like having multiple interests and doing many different things. Comics is a part of my life. It’s not my only thing anymore, but it’s still a big part of who I am and what I do. Here’s to another quarter century!
1 For those outside of North America, legal sized paper is a pretty much dead format, 8 1/2″ x 14″ (216 mm × 356 mm), initially used for legal documents, hence the name.
2 I actually managed to meet up with another semi-local mini-comics cartoonist before I published the first issue. They asked me to bring some work, so I brought everything I had. They were not that thrilled with my material. And they were even less thrilled when I said I was going to be publishing soon. They subscribed to the theory that one should draw 1,000 pages before any see the light of day. I don’t subscribe to that thinking. Hell, I may be dead before that happens!