Old Masters and Young Geniuses
Our culture celebrates young, brash geniuses, and can’t get enough of innovators who create something spectacular before age 30, even if they never do another thing their entire lives.
When I first published A Distant Soil, I remember having a very revealing conversation with Dave Sim who urged me to make absolutely certain that I finished up my series before I turned 30 because creativity dies by then and my work wouldn’t be any good after I hit middle age. I don’t know that he still holds this view, but many people seem to think innovation dies as we mature, even when there are creators like Will Eisner as our examples. He was vital and interesting and working in comics until the day he died at a ripe old age.
A late-blooming economist named David Galenson has spent years studying the nature of creativity and genius, and has determined that the creative life isn’t limited to teen wonders. He postulates that there are two types of innovators – of a tortoise and hare duality – and that the continuum of creativity peaks early for conceptualists who usually do their most important work by age 30, and experimentalists, who often peak quite late into middle age, such as Frank Lloyd Wright (who created his architectual masterpiece Fallingwater when he was 70) or Mark Twain (who didn’t find his unique writer’s voice until well into adulthood).
There’s a lot of interesting food for thought in this article from Wired magazine.
I have spoken with a number of aspiring creators about how hard it is to become a comics pro after a certain age. It’s possible this doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of the artist, but with the realities of the economics of starting a difficult art career without a steady paycheck, health benefits, or disability benefits. To many young people, these are not major considerations. After a certain age they are necessities.
When you are a kid, you live at home with your folks and can tolerate a period of economic disadvantage while you endure years of career apprenticeship. You do not have to support yourself or a family. Adults do not have this advantage, nor do they usually have the advantage to take time to conceptualize and take personal risks.
I credit most of my career success to the advantage of this early start (I began sending out samples when I was 12 and nailed my first paying job at -according to the lady who hired me, a woman named Linda Wesley – 14. As in advertising agency work, not making an extra $20 selling a picture to a friend of the family). It took me about three years of slogging about before I made any decent money. Then early publishers walked off with about $250,000 of my royalties. It was a good decade before I began to get some sound financial footing, and that was after a couple of lawsuits, too! (EDIT: I was looking at my old sales figures, and think the $250,000 is a high estimate. I think this is the number my lawyer came up with, and may be a combination of unpaid royalties and damages. It’s so long ago, I can no longer confirm this.)
How many 30 year-olds are going to have the ability to lose a couple hundred thousand dollars in income and recover? Especially if they have acquired families and mortgages along the way. How do you find the time to draw and paint when you have a day job and family obligations?
Anyway, when I was a kid, I admired a lot of folks like Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, Jeff Jones, etc, and kept their book The Studio close at hand. I wanted to be just like these guys, and when I was still sleeping on a couch in my parent’s house at the ripe old age of 19, I thought I was a loser. Didn’t all the cool artists have great work under their belts by then and studios in New York?
I later realized that The Studio and the works in it were created by men who were in their 30’s and 40’s, they had each spent nearly two decades in the trenches, slogging away until they developed their own visual sense. Jeff Jones’ earliest drawings and paintings were full of swipes and Frazetta riffs, and he did a lot of fanzine work before he was ever taken seriously.
So, delays are not denials. If you’re not a conceptualist, maybe you’re an experimenter, and your best work is in your future.