Recently I finished reading actor Ron Perlman‘s excellent memoir EASY STREET (THE HARD WAY), a book so fascinating and insightful it sparked several ephiphanies. Ron’s book isn’t just the story of an actor’s roller-coaster career over four decades. It’s just as much about Ron’s inner journey as a human being—a slow and painful process of learning to accept himself without any outside approval. This problem is common to those with what is often called “the artistic temperament.”
Something I’ve realized, thanks to The Perl’s book, is how much this makes sense. Consider what Art truly is: An escape from mundane reality that increases our ability to appreciate that reality and often helps to define (or redefine) the lives of those who experience it. For some of us, an unhappiness with ourselves can be replaced with immersion in the imagino-sphere of Art itself. Ron talks in his book about getting into the drama program in high school almost accidentally because he wasn’t that good on the swim team. As soon as he discovered the thrill of delivering lines on the stage and getting that blessed audience response, he was hooked for life.
Man, do I get this. I grew up with low self-esteem like a lot of writers do. Hell, a lot of people in general have low self-esteem issues. They can plague you your whole life if you don’t eventually face up to and wrestle down those inner demons. The Perl pointed out how so many talented artists in music, drama, and other fields end up being consumed by those demons. It’s obvious from looking at case after case of overdoses, suicides, and tragedies that escaping into the world of Art can be a way of soothing that inner pain. But it never lasts because eventually the show is over, the book ends, or what-have-you, and you have to come back “down to earth.” So many artistic folks turn to drugs at this point to extend that high, but any performer will tell you that drugs can NEVER reproduce the high you get from an appreciative and grateful audience response. It feels good when people cheer for you.
The first comic book I ever remember reading–before I could actually read, that is. I got the story from John Buscema’s amazing pictures. It was a pivotal moment and the beginning of my life-long love of comics.
What transformed my life in my early 20s (i.e. the early 90s) was music. I grew up reading comics and fantasy/horror/sci-fi fiction. As a pre-teen all I ever wanted to be was a comic book artist, an unlikely goal for a kid from Eastern Kentucky (and boy did everybody let me know it). It wasn’t exactly an environment that encouraged you to “pursue the arts”—it was more about “get a job.” I grew up in a very down-to-earth environment full of loving but practical people. The only artists in my immediate family were my grandfather, who played guitar and banjo, and his son (my Uncle Johnny) who also played country-style guitar. I used to stay with my grandparents every summer, at least a month or two every year.
Once or twice a week my grandfather would get out his old, battered acoustic guitar with the strings that smelled like oiled bronze. He’d play and sing Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis tunes on the porch. His only audience was my grandmother and us grandkids—later I realized he was too shy to perform for anybody else. My grandfather and uncle were working men, so Art for them wasn’t something serious to pay the bills. They had “real” jobs for that.
I got my first guitar at 15 when I was a sophomore in high school. I was a bona fide MetalHead, and I taught myself to play by listening to records and jamming with friends. Music got me through the living Hell that was the first three years of high school. My first band, Badly Bent, played one show and broke up. Most of us went off to college, where I studied creative writing and started submitting stories to WEIRD TALES.
My writing instructors at U of K were very down-to-earth literary guys. I learned a lot from them, but I learned more about fantasy and science fiction from Robert Silverberg thanks to this book. Not only does it take you through a history of The Great Sci-Fi Writers, it analyzes their stories to illuminate a set of principles essential for writers to master. I read lots of how-to-write books, but this one was The King. Thank you, Bob.
Robert Silverberg’s WORLDS OF WONDER was my new Bible for awhile, and the precious rejection feedback from WT’s Darrell Schweitzer set me on a path to getting my writing up to professional standards. I wrote an entire post-apocalyptic novel while I was going to college—in longhand script that filled five spiral-bound notebooks. It wasn’t very good, but I was happy to complete a novel-length story.
Music and Writing have always been parallel forces in my life. After graduating from the University of Kentucky in ’91, I formed Wild Love Rebellion with a fellow unemployed college graduate. We had come out of the higher education system at the peak of a massive recession and the job market was shit at the time.
One of many flyers I designed and distributed for my band in the early 90s, mostly on the telephone poles of Lexington, KY. I used to recreate art from old 70s issues of HEAVY METAL, but this one was inspired by a Jim Starlin panel in an old WARLOCK comic. This particular flyer was an acknowledged high point that represents the band’s last phase, when we finally had perfected our sound–right before we self-destructed. Ain’t rock’n’roll grand?
We were part of an entire generation that said “Fuck this, I’m gonna form a band and make music.” So the music dream consumed my life for the next three years or so. Wild Love Rebellion called itself “love punk” but evolved into “psychedelic hard rock.” We hated the terms “grunge” and “metal” but we had a heavy dose of each in our DNA. Man, we had some good times. There’s nothing like making loud-ass music when you’re young and pissed off at the world.
While Wild Love Rebellion played the same three clubs in Lexington, KY, for three wild years, a guy named Brian Warner was playing clubs around Florida fronting a band called Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids. Brian grew up in Ohio (just north of my home state) and graduated from high school the same year as my friends and I (’87). His band went on to fame and fortune in ’94 with the classic “Portrait of an American Family,” while Wild Love Rebellion imploded before we could even release our debut album. And that’s the way rock’n’roll goes.
I played in a couple other bands after the death of Wild Love, but I also came back to writing. After moving to Chicago and going through a divorce a few years later, I got even more serious about writing. Remember what I said about Art as an antidote to inner pain? I see it now, clearly, since hindsight is always 20/20. All my life I’ve immersed myself in the world of Art—from the time I was 10 years old drawing Master of Kung Fu comics at my grandparents’ dinner table, to the blazing guitar solos and pyschedelic thunder of Wild Love Rebellion, and back to my ultimate calling as a storyteller.
Ken Meyer, Jr.’s terrific cover for the first issue of my self-published comic NECROMANCY: A DARK ROMANCE. This dates back to the year 2000. Damn, that was 14 years ago!
I moved to California and for two years labored with pencil and inks to create a self-published graphic novel NECROMANCY, which years later I revised into an online comic called SKULLS (published at BlackGate.com). But after that experience—which was invaluable—I realized I was primarily a Writer, and I’d never be a professional comics artist. If I had focused on my comics art skills since I was 9 years old, I’d have been pretty damn good. But I had given that dream up at the age of 15 and replaced it with an electric guitar.
Ten years I worked on breaking into comics. I started hitting the San Diego Comicon every year. I constantly networked with potential artists between long shifts at my Day Job (editing trade magazines). I had no budget for hiring artists, so I got nowhere. I decided to draw PRIMORDIA (my follow-up to NECROMANCY) myself, but gave up after 8 pages or so—losing a Day Job in ’02 didn’t help. However, I did hit a jackpot of artistic success when I teamed up with the mighty Roel Wielinga, whose Sirius comic THE SEVENTH SYSTEM was an indie favorite of mine.
Roel’s amazing wrap-around cover for the PRIMORDIA hardcover collection.
Roel and I worked on PRIMORDIA for a year solid and completed the 96-page graphic novel. “We’ll get it published SOMEHOW,” was our only mantra. After a few aborted starts, Archaia Comics’ Mark Smylie jumped at the chance to bring PRIMORDIA into the Archaia family. And he hired Joel Chua to color it—a genius move that trumped the original vision of a black-and-white novel. Did I mention Mark Smylie is a genius?
Success with PRIMORDIA led me to a couple of script-writing gigs for the great Mark Waid, who was editing for Boom! Studios at the time. I wrote 8-pagers for CTHULHU TALES and ZOMBIE TALES, which was a hellva lotta fun. I was working with Mark friggin’ Waid! “We’ll do more of these,” Mark told me in San Diego. I was psyched. And wouldn’t you know it, things fell apart once again. To paraphrase what Ron Perlman was saying about his own career, every step forward seemed to be followed by two steps back.
Mark Waid left Boom! Studios and both books were cancelled. Then the Great Recession of 2008 hit like a ton of bricks–Wall Street and Big Banking had almost destroyed our economy. Jobs were lost in the hundreds of thousands. I was so very lucky to have a full-time teaching position in Sunnyvale, CA, during that time. Everybody was afraid of getting laid off, and the comics industry seemed to “close ranks”–all the established writers were scrambling for assignments. It became ten times harder for a relatively unknown, up-and-coming comics writer to get any attention at all.
The cover of WEIRD TALES #340, which published my first professional sale “The Persecution of Artifice the Quill,” and began the Zang Cycle of stories. The cover evokes the faceless Vizarchs who drag Artifice toward execution in the story.
All this time I had been publishing fantasy short stories in WEIRD TALES and BLACK GATE. I saw my writing career as a two-pronged approach: comics and fiction. But comics had dried up and it was time to make the next leap. Time for me to write my Big Fantasy Novel. I had completed a cycle of 12 interrelated tales (the Zang Cycle, now collected in THE REVELATIONS OF ZANG), but that wasn’t a novel. I decided “Fuck comics, I’ll write a novel.” Yeah, it was that easy. Not.
The first version of my Big Fantasy Novel got no response from agents, although I shopped it around for three years. Finally, I joined the Scribes workshop in San Jose and started getting feedback from the early chapters. Immediately I realized what was wrong with my first attempt at the B.F.N. So I moved the story twenty years into the future and wrote ANOTHER Big Fantasy Novel, with everything I had dreamed up before serving as background. This second attempt I decided to call SEVEN PRINCES.
The cover of BLACK GATE #12, which contains my story “Oblivion Is the Sweetest Wine.”
About this time I got to attend my first WORLD FANTASY CONVENTION, when the con came to San Jose. More networking with potential agents got me nothing until my friend Howard Andrew Jones (then Managing Editor of BLACK GATE magazine) referred me to his agent Bob Mecoy. Bob liked the SEVEN PRINCES manuscript enough that he offered to represent me. After three years of wooing every agent in the book with no success, I finally got one! And just in time: Once again my Day Job dried up.
I moved to Napa to start a new job at another school. I would have been crushed that after three years in Sunnyvale they weren’t going to give me permanent status. But I had a muthafuggin’ AGENT now, so I smiled when I realized that my three years at this school amounted to nothing. However, it all worked out for the best as I ended up with a permanent position at a high school in the Napa Valley district.
My first year teaching in Napa, eleven months after finding an agent, he called with news that Orbit Books was offering me a three-book deal. THE BOOKS OF THE SHAPER was finally becoming a reality. SEVEN PRINCES was already written, and I’d write two more to complete the trilogy.
What an experience.
Now the trilogy is all done. Out there.
Winning hearts and minds. And shelves.
Someone once said that success is more dangerous than failure. I never understood that completely until I read Ron Perlman’s memoir. Artistic success has little to do with personal self-worth. The most important thing an artist can do is learn to accept himself and rise above the stifling need for external validation (from readers, publishers, reviewers, peers, etc.). True happiness, honest peace-of-mind, NEVER comes from outside yourself. Externally driven happiness is fleeting, a cloud dissolving into the ether even as you look at it.
Artists must learn to separate external validation from internal peace. You might say “Well, every person has to do that.” But artists, I believe, have an even harder time with it because they have such an intimate relationship with Art. It often defines them to the point where they are “nothing without it.” This explains why great talented artists sometimes completely abandon their artistic careers to embrace a simpler lifestyle, and why ALL artists contemplate the abandoning of their trade from time to time.
I used to tell my ex-wife: “I wish I wasn’t creative and had no ideas because I’d be happier as a dumb brute.” She didn’t agree, and she was probably right. I cannot separate my Creativity from my Self, and I quit trying to do so a long time ago. They say if you love something you should set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with. The same rule applies, whether you’re talking bout a love affair or an art form.
Humans are complex creatures. Artists, I’ve observed, are even more complex. They usually have some kind of inner conflict that expresses itself artistically. A demon that drives them, or several demons. Art can be therapy, but it can also be an addiction. An artist can never let his Art define him. Only his Humanity can do that.
It’s easy to be an artist, but it’s never easy to be a human. That difficulty (whatever form it takes) is what drives people to the sanctuary of Art, where they find balm for a wounded soul.
The most important Art of all is the Art of Living. We craft our own lives to a set of aesthetic principles. Or let them be sculpted by forces beyond our control. Or perhaps a little of both.
The trick is to look inward for peace and security, never out to the inconstant and fickle world.
Look inward with meditation, with music, with silent contemplation.
The only approval you need is your own.