Bootstraps

A few months ago, a cartoonist friend retweeted some words by animator/illustrator Scott Benson. Benson was discussing the term “bootstrapping” and the inherent privilege in suggesting that someone “dream bigger” or “take more risks.” I’ve thought about these comments a number of times since:

Benson’s words made me curious about the origin of the term “bootstrapping.” The definition is: to “get (oneself or something) into or out of a situation using existing resources.” It seems that the term came into use in the US in the 1800s and meant “an absurdly impossible action,” in reference to the idea of trying to pull oneself over a fence using one’s own bootstraps.

It is certainly absurd to behave as though, if we only dream “big” enough, we are assured that things will turn out the way we wish. As Benson points out, money plays a major role in dream fulfillment. And even with endless cash, there are no guarantees.

Especially, one could add, if the big dream is to become a successful cartoonist. I thought about that while reading cartoonist Noah Van Sciver’s essay, “There is No Short Cut.

Van Sciver is a successful indie cartoonist. He’s had three books published with Fantagraphics, and others elsewhere. He’s a distinguished guest at comic conventions around the country, and is the current visiting fellow at the Center for Cartoon Studies. But as he notes in his essay:

This isn’t a career. John Porcellino once told me that every “professional” comic artist has a secret of some kind. Something like their grandparents died and left them money, or their spouse has a great job and supports them. Comics are a very, very, very small art form for a small, tiny audience of people. You say you wanna make a living off of your comics? Forget it. Still wanna draw comics anyway? You do? Congratulations! You’re a real cartoonist! Welcome!

I love Van Sciver’s work; he’s one of my favorite contemporary cartoonists. So I’m really grateful that he continues to draw comics, despite the lack of money. But it still hurts, to look at all the great cartoonists out there, and recognize that no matter how much talent and effort they pour into their art, it’s still just, by and large, not a profitable medium. It can be hard to explain that to well-meaning friends and relatives who tell you they still read the Sunday comics every week, or loved the latest Avengers movie, or hey, did you know The Walking Dead was based on a comic? As Van Sciver goes on to explain, in a conversation with a fledgling cartoonist:

I can tell you that anytime I’ve done anything with a page rate it was only about 50 bucks a page. So don’t expect Comics to get you out of working! That’s a road to heart break.

But maybe I’m just making excuses for myself. I have more resources, more “bootstraps” than many people. I don’t have a trust fund, but I could take more financial risks, if I chose. Five years ago, when Jason and I met, I was working as a barista and he was working as a paraprofessional. Neither of us had great hours, or made much money. Now, we both have cushier, white collar jobs. But we’re still misers, scared of scarcity, avoidant of unnecessary risk. The additional financial resources have not made me feel any more comfortable in this regard.

That cartoonist friend I mentioned in the beginning: back when she retweeted Scott Benson’s comments, she was working a not-so-satisfying day job in the suburbs. She has since quit and moved to a new state with a cheaper cost of living and is currently working on her art full-time. She has no spouse or trust fund to catch her. It may not be sustainable, but that’s the risk she’s taking for now. I love her work; I’m glad she’s brave enough to do it.