Monday, July 18, 2011

Writing Part 3 (Getting Paid)

I'm going to go a little out of chronological order with this. My experience writing, drawing, and eventually self-publishing comics sort of falls into the general category of “getting paid” but it's a story in and of itself. I'll come back to that later.

I moved to Pittsburgh in the early 90's for a job. Lots of people in my life at present don't know that have a Master's Degree in Clinical Psychology. It doesn't surprise me that they don't because that feels like a lifetime ago to me, another life entirely. I had followed the path of getting a good education to get a good job and at the time I still thought that being a Psychologist of some kind was my primary vocation. I don't regret the education, or the time spent getting it. Some of my best memories are of that time period. But the jobs... well, let's just say that Psychology was not my primary vocation.

One day, in a fit of pique... rage is a better word, I walked out of my professional career and never looked back. I had some money in the bank, but not another job to go to. Not having anyone other than myself to support allowed me to make this hasty decision. It was one of the two or three best decisions of my life.

So began six or seven years of living from paycheck to paycheck from unpredictable temp jobs (including the seasonal job of department store Santa... If you saw the Pittsburgh Christmas parade around 1993 or 94, that was me that John Fedko interviewed on the float). It was stressful and maddening and free. Within the first six months of leaving my career I had sold my first freelance art and writing. Now, I want to stress, I never made enough from either to live on it. But I was doing it.

The art was mainly comics related stuff, so that belongs in the next blog.

The writing, like a lot of things in my life, seemed to fall in my lap (people say I'm lucky, and maybe so, but I believe a big part of luck is putting yourself in it's way. Make connections, reach out, let people know what you're doing. Every bit of luck I've ever had can be traced back to specific connections I've made to set things in motion). The Spirits of Independence Tour came to Pittsburgh. This was a small press comics con, featuring Dave Sim of Cerebus fame, among others. Phantom of the Attic Comics (my current employer, though not yet at that time) was one of the only retail sponsors of the show. A friend of mine, Dean Focareta, was writing an article about the con for In Pittsburgh Newsweekly, the free weekly City Paper kind of thing at the time. Another mutual friend, Chris Potocki, was working as the assistant Arts and Entertainment editor for the paper and had given Dean the assignment. Dean called me up and asked if I would introduce him to some of the comics pros at the show (I had met and befriended a number of them over the year at various conventions). I said sure. I also asked Potocki if I could write something as well. Chris said to give him a couple hundred words as a sidebar for the article.

On the Friday night of the show, Steve Bissette (artist of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, among many, many other things), was giving a slideshow lecture on the history of the Horror genre in comics. Dean was unable to attend this, and Steve is one of those artists I had befriended, so an article was born. I wrote it over the weekend and sent it to Chris. On Wednesday of the following week it was published exactly as I had written it, with no edits whatsoever. A week or so later I received a check for fifty bucks. In those days of temp work, fifty bucks was significant. I called Chris up and asked what I needed to do continue writing.

So began several years of being a fairly regular contributor to In Pittsburgh. I guess I should address that, yes, Chris was a friend of mine and he was doing me a solid. That said, he was an assistant editor with people above him who also liked my work. Chris left the paper not long after, but I kept on writing for it. I went through several editors; Margie Romero, Steve Segal and Mike Shanley. They were all very light-handed when it came to editing my work.

I wrote mostly entertainment based articles. CD reviews and concert previews for the most part, sprinkled with the occasional local comic book themed story. The pay wasn't great (though broken down to an hourly wage it wasn't bad for the time I actually spent on it), but the swag was great! I received a lot of free CD's to review. I saw a lot of free concerts. I went out to more concerts during this time when I was working as a temp and had no money than at any other time in my life. I interviewed the singer Jewel when she was 18 years old, about six months before she broke really big onto the national scene. My first cover feature was a phone interview with Frank Black, lead singer of the Pixies. The Pixies rank pretty high on my list of all-time favorite bands, so this was amazing. A couple of years later I met and hung out with him with a group of friends at the Squirrel Cage (a bar in Pittsburgh, for you out-of-towners). I met and hung out with Alt-Country star Robbie Fulks a dozen times or more. There were others. No one really, really big or famous, but in the world of Indy Rock they were people I was pretty excited about.

In Pittsburgh was eventually bought out and closed down by the City Paper. Within a year, maybe a little bit more, a new independent newsweekly called PULP came to life in Pittsburgh. Mike Shanley was Arts editor for this and called me up to see if I wanted to write for them. I did for the whole two years of the paper's existence. During this time I also sold a couple of articles to Pittsburgh Magazine, and had a few articles published in two different nationally distributed music magazines, Kulture Deluxe, and the Alt-Country bible, No Depression.

About the time PULP went out of business I was feeling a little dry. I felt like I had said pretty much all I had to say in that format and that, even though I was writing about different bands or subjects, I was writing the same old things over and over. By that time I wanted to move on to other projects.

This was a great experience for me. Getting a financial reward (as well as CD's and concerts) is always motivating. Seeing your work in print is always a good feeling as well. It's validating. For awhile I was one of the voices of Pittsburgh. Every so often someone still recognizes my name from something they read. It also taught me some discipline. I had deadlines I had to meet, and though all of my editors will tell you I pretty much always sent articles the day they were due (I had usually written them that morning), I never missed a deadline. It was good working with editors. Though they left most of my work unmolested they did occasionally ask for changes, or edit my work. I can only think of one time that I really disagreed with their choices, and even that was a good learning experience.

I'm not sure I'll ever go back to it. Nothing against it, but I just don't feel the motivation the way I did then. I might not turn down a gig if it was offered, but I'm probably going to need more than CD's and concerts at this point.


  1. I remember that slideshow that Bissette did! That was the first time I was educated on how the Comics Code came into being and its impact on the comic horror genre.

  2. Even now, that presentation had a big impact on how I structured my lectures. I saw him do it again at some kind of academic comics conference at Duquesne a couple of years later. I remember that Rick Veitch was there as well, but the specifics of it are kind of vague.