The Only Game In Town

To be a fan of Colleen Doran is to be her student, because you will learn so much from her.

Recently Tom Spurgeon of the Comics Reporter interviewed Colleen, who discussed her career and her keen insights on the comic book industry.

If you have a career in the creative arts or considering a career in that arena, this interview is required reading because it demonstrates how Colleen Doran was able to succeed in a business that is known for crushing hopes and dreams before lunch.

After a momentous debut, Colleen found herself in the role of a jobber rather than the main event.

When you start out in this business, they pretty much decided whether you’re going to be a star or a journeyman. And if you get put on the journeyman track, ow. You’re going to be the poor son of a bitch who gets a two-week deadline for the full issue. The fill-in artist. You’re going to be one of those… you’re going to spend a lot of your time getting the jobs that need to be done in a short period of time, and you get the crap anchor. You can either decide to suck it up and take those jobs in the hopes that something better will come along and realize that’s how people are going to see you: you’re the crap artist that got the job while they were waiting for the good person.

For about ten years she lived in a world where failure was not an option. I would argue that this was a critical period in her career because it forced her to develop a strong work ethic and time management skills due to the insane deadlines that were imposed upon her. She was not just paying her dues or apprenticing, Colleen Doran was being put in a forge where the extreme heat and pressure of her environment was turning her into a professional.

During this period a cloudy perception developed around her that she was only good for taking journeyman assignments which created a vicious cycle of being given a steady diet of low hanging fruit without any indication of career progression. It required her to develop her mettle as an artist in order to endure that experience.

It is actually quite common for a successful person to go through a period of self-doubt where his or her dreams are put on hold. Jim Carrey bombed his first time doing stand up and did not return for almost two years. Early in Howard Stern’s career, he was told he was a horrible disc jockey and for a period of time he worked behind the scenes of a radio station. Colleen Doran was no different. In 1986 she strongly considered ending her career as an artist and applied for a job at UPS. She never started her career in the world of shipping and logistics due to an opportunity at Marvel Comics. Despite telling her agent that she was leaving comics, he asked her to give it one more shot which proved to be a career enlightening experience.

My agent was a gentleman named Spencer Beck. He took me on the rounds with my portfolio, and Marvel started hiring me again. I hadn’t worked at Marvel in a while. I was ready to chuck it. He said, “I think people just don’t know you’re available.” Because I don’t go to New York that much… which is not the brightest thing in the world. I’m just not like that. So he said, “You need to be more visible. You need to get up here more often.”

This pivotal moment in her career provided two critical lessons. The obvious one is never give up on your dreams. The second lesson was the value of face time when Colleen realized the importance of making herself accessible to her clients.

Face time is not to be underestimated. I know a well-known artist who was working for a company that had a publishing deal with DC. This business arrangement required him to bring his work to the DC office. Even when he did not have any work to drop off, he had a routine where he would visit the DC office to socialize with the staff. Those informal visits paid off when the company he worked for shut down and he started the next phase of his career at DC.

Another aspect of Colleen’s success is her understanding and application of taking the long view in her personal and professional life

I don’t think… I was concerned about this stuff when I was in my twenties. I was already thinking about what am I going to do at this age, this age and this age. Will I have enough money for retirement? Do I have a home? Is somebody going to take my house away from me?

I remember the first time I bought a home, having a cartoonist who I won’t rat out saying, “Don’t buy a home. That’s a waste of money. You should live very frugally.” I’m so glad I didn’t take that advice. I sold it for twice what I bought it for and always had a roof over my head that nobody could throw me out of at a moment’s notice.

It is in my opinion that the cartoonist’s preference toward renting was due to the unpredictable nature of his career. It was probably feast or famine in terms of getting work and renting was probably more convenient because if he could not make the rent, he could just leave and start over somewhere else without being encumbered with home ownership. Short term, it makes senses. Long term, it is a recipe for disaster.

Although frugality plays a critical role in personal finance, the cartoonist was being unrealistic in thinking that simply living below his means would ensure his financial security. The biggest challenge in maintaining a frugal lifestyle is the rising cost of living. When done correctly, home ownership can be a huge asset in establishing financial security, however Colleen’s colleague only saw the challenges not the benefits of buying a home. In exchange for convenience, the cartoonist was throwing money away by renting and not building any equity.

Unfortunately, he is not the exception.

Currently the cost of living in New York City, particularly housing, has skyrocketed which has resulted in an exodus of artists. This massive migration has led creative types to more affordable cities. However, unless they buy, they will be living a nomadic existence because their presence will cause gentrification which will raise property values, resulting in rising rents. Eventually those artists will be priced out and will be back to square one.

Regardless of what she was told, Colleen developed a realization that although home ownership would be somewhat of a challenge, it was attainable and it would provide a great deal more security than renting.

I would also argue that home ownership played a key role in Colleen Doran’s career. The capital outlays for buying a home can be significant since it requires a down payment, monthly mortgage payments, property taxes and maintenance fees. In order for Colleen to cover those costs, it meant that she had to maintain a high output of work and if that output was not adequate then she had to figure out really quickly how to increase it or else she would also find herself in the rental market.

On a professional level, taking the long view has proven quite beneficial for her career.

I’ve always thought about the long-term. In fact, a lot of the assignments that I take are with the eye for the long-term. I look at the back end. Ninety percent of the stuff I take is because of the back end. I don’t think a lot of people do that. I’m not sure if it’s because they can’t do it or don’t understand how to do it or don’t have the option.

This mentality has allowed Colleen Doran to qualify her projects, which ensures they fit her scope of work. I assume she examines prospective assignments with a fine tooth comb before accepting them because she needs to make sure the ROI is there. She is also motivated to do her best work because if the quality is sub par then she is not going to make any money. This is what is known as “putting your skin in the game”. Clients love that and they show their appreciation with repeat business.

Another key component of her success is the awareness of the changes that are taking place in her industry.

What we’ve got are people that want to be authors. They want to be lifelong creators and owners or the works they produce instead of workers for product. As somebody who thoroughly enjoys working on licensed product [laughs] and gets a kick out of a lot of it, I certainly understand the appeal, but the likelihood you’re going to have a long term career working for some of these companies is very small. Even some of these people that have been working there for decades find it’s harder and harder and harder to make that pay off.

There’s a huge pool of talent out there. Your competition in 1980s was who could get to New York with a portfolio. Your competition now is worldwide. And that is a really big deal

The bellwethers that Collen Doran discusses brings to mind of the recent announcement by DC to consolidate all of their resources and move all operations to California resulting in the closing of the New York office. Because of the changing landscape of the industry and the advances in technology, people are not required to be physically present at a specific location which means a New York City presence is unnecessary. Another added benefit of this transition is the money that would be saved since the rent and operational costs of maintaining an NYC office are astronomical. And anyone unable or unwilling to move to California could easily be replaced from that worldwide labor pool that Colleen speaks of.

DC is not the only company to experience radical shifts within their infrastructure. Since Disney bought Star Wars, that were was immense speculation that the licenses for the comics would go back to the Disney owned Marvel. Speculation became fact when it was announced that 2014 would be the last year that Dark Horse would publish their Star Wars comics. Since 1991, Dark Horse has greatly benefited from Star Wars however even they knew this day would come and the fact the Star Wars titles made up to 4 to 6 percent of their profits indicates the efforts Dark Horse put into their other revenue streams in order to lessen the impact of losing Star Wars.

It is even harsher out in the trenches. Heidi Macdonald of The Beat wrote about how 2013 was a year of struggle for some her colleagues in the comic book industry. In fact Heidi herself experienced some challenges when she wrote in detail of her computer issues which were resolved by Tom Spurgeon, who rallied the troops and was able to raise funds for Heidi’s repairs.

These changes are occurring across the board in all media industries. Huffingtonpost is considered to be one of the most profitable news aggregators, part of the reason is because a large number of people volunteer their services and forgo payment in order to be published. Hollywood looks at Youtube to find the next big thing and who will probably do it for less money. Many video game companies are outsourcing their work to South Korea to kids who are still in high school because the quality of the work is on par with professionals in the states however it can be done at a fraction of the cost.

At the end of the day, media companies are a businesses and a business exists to make a profit. Cutting overhead is a surefire way to profitably, along with having a massive and talented labor pool where some members are willing to work for free.

Because of her awareness and understanding, Colleen Doran knows that sustainability is elusive in her line of work.

But I know I can be replaced. If any creator knows what’s good for them, they need to be the commodity — not the product. You need to be the one place to go to get what you do.

Her statement reminds me of a story about Larry Hama. Back in the 1980’s when he was writing G.I.Joe for Marvel, he was hired by Hasbro to produce content for the famous file cards that were on the back of the packaging of the G.I. Joe action figures and toys. In fact Hasbro got the idea from Larry Hama because he had his own file cards to keep track of the constantly expanding cast for the comic book. During his tenure, Hasbro implemented a very brief interruption in his work which proved quite costly for the company. Hasbro, in their infinite wisdom, decided they would produce the file cards in house and politely told Larry Hama that his services were no longer needed. A short while later Hasbro realized that producing the file cards was far more difficult than they initially perceived and offered his old job back. His response was that he was available but his rate had just gone up.

Colleen Doran’s attitude may seem clinical and cold but guess what? Business is clinical and cold because everyone is expendable. The sooner you accept and adapt to that reality the better off you will be.

If there is one thing that you can learn from this interview, it is that complacency does not exist in Colleen Doran’s world. Even with her immense talents and accomplishments in art and writing, she takes nothing for granted. Which is why Colleen Doran is the only game in town.

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