I have always been a creative person. Going back to my childhood, I was constantly doodling or writing on some empty corner of paper. I eventually became a sort-of-cartoonist by the time I reached high school, when I decided to really throw myself into my artwork.
My friend Ashton and I spent hours coming up with characters and concepts for different comic books we wanted to develop. We were spurred on by a movement of creator-driven content at the time, most notably the launch of Image Comics. Ashton and I dedicated hours to character development, storylines, and concept art; we even managed to find a local comic book store (shout out to Galactic Quest!) that carried official blue-lined comic bristol boards, to make us more official.
One fateful summer, we even managed to get our work in front of some folks at DragonCon. They were kind, if not overwhelmed.
Anyway, the point is that, when I was a kid, all I did was create. In fact, before I graduated high school, I wrote and illustrated a short graphic novel featuring a character I’d created during my German class at school. His name was Stick-Boy, and he was a combination of Rush Limbaugh and Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes. I made several copies of the book and gave them away as Christmas presents to my friends.
But not to my family.
That’s because I knew the content of the book would upset some folks. You see, A Stick-Boy Christmas was a bit off-color for the community in which I was reared. It was a small community of extended family; almost all of us went to the same church and lived in the same vicinity. To put it another way, I was the first person from my community to graduate from a different high school. In such a close-knit community, we shared almost everything, including a sense of morality and values that were very conservative.
So when I published my book, I knew it wouldn’t go over well. There was violence. There was bad language. Mostly there was a kid who inexplicably saw one of the most cherished icons in American culture as a straight up villain…and, given how I wrote him, Santa more than fit the part. I knew as a teenager I was pushing the envelope, so I kept the work secret.
It was only a year ago that I dusted off my only copy of that story and turned it into a self-published book. I am still proud of my artwork, and while the words aren’t exactly Dickensian, the overall concept stands up well. I’ve sold a few copies to folks, and I’m glad to have it on my list of published works.
And yet I still didn’t encourage my the people from my community to buy one.
Then, just a few days ago, my wife posted a picture from the book. It garnered a big response from folks on Facebook; there were a lot of people surprised at the fact that I was responsible for the image. Even though no one shamed me, I realized why I didn’t share this piece of work with my family before. It wasn’t because I knew they wouldn’t like the content; it was because I feared they wouldn’t like me for producing it.
Now, my family consists of very nice people, most of whom have as demented a sense of humor as I do. But the sense that I had crossed into territory they wouldn’t approve of as a creator made me feel I had crossed into that territory as a person. I grew up believing that whatever comes out of a person is reflective of what’s really in his or her heart, so for a true square like me to produce something so different, it must’ve meant that there was something broken inside me.
A work so “wrong” must’ve meant I was “wrong” too.
Realizing that fear helped me understand why so many of my creative projects have died on the vine. Long before I ever get anything produced, I imagine the negative reception of the work – and by extension, the negative perception of me – and I abandon it.
I am not afraid of producing bad work. I’m afraid of being seen as a bad person.
But the truth is I have darkness inside me. As a human being, I am capable of almost anything. Some of the dark stories I want to tell don’t reflect on who I choose to be, but they reflect on the truth that within me lies the potential for dark things. And those stories, if artfully told, can shed light on the truth that we ALL have that potential. That none of us is a saint; and equally, none of us is a hopeless sinner. We all fall somewhere in between.
A recent job change has left me considering my legacy moving forward. I don’t want to die with a slew of unfinished projects on my laptop or in my journals. I want to get everything inside me out into the world for consideration. That means creating stories that will make people uncomfortable. That means launching projects that will make my grandmother blush. That means producing work that changes how people perceive me – some for the better, some for the worse.
It is the price I am willing to pay to be who I am.
It’s the price we all pay.