Views from the Middle with Van Jensen

I’ve interviewed a number of friends, who are professionals in different creative industries (comics, music, film), asking them the same five questions that explore “life in the middle.”  That is, they’ve found some success, but haven’t yet reached their ultimate goals.  The idea was first brought up in this post exposing the myth of a lottery-style “breaking in” to these creative industries.  Here’s the first of those interviews:

Van Jensen is the writer of the Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer series of graphic novels published by Slave Labor Graphics.  The first volume was named to American Library Association’s Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens.  In addition to living in the great city of Atlanta, GA, Van is also an amazingly smart and hard-working dude.  Be sure to look for him and his life-sized wooden Pinocchio (not a euphemism) at a convention near you.

At what point did you consider yourself a success?

I think I’ve enjoyed a decent amount of success at the different things I’ve done. I was the editor of my college paper, I was the lead crime reporter at a major metro daily paper, I’m the editor of a magazine that just went through a widely praised redesign, I’ll have my fourth graphic novel out this month, and they’ve done well for indie comics. But I won’t think of myself as a success until I’m one of the top writers in comics/prose, which depends more on how others view me and my work than on my opinion of myself.

I tend to be really self-critical, so I have to remind myself from time to time that I’m not a complete failure.

How long did it take you to get there?

I always wanted to be a published author by 25, but it took till I was 27 for my first book to come out. I’m 30 now, and I’m guessing it’ll take another four to five years at least before I start to really gain any traction as a writer in comics. You never know. A lot of it is luck. You just grind away and try to keep getting better, day after day. Sometimes I hope that I never consider myself a success, that on my death bed I’m still fighting to improve.

Who do you look at in the comics industry as someone you respect, that is “doing it right?”

I’m fortunate to have a lot of good friends in comics who are good people. Matt Kindt is a brilliant artist and writer, and he’s ridiculously nice and funny. Andy Runton is a comics genius, and he turns out perfect story after perfect story. Rob Venditti has long been someone I’ve regarded as the smartest writer in comics, and he’s in the past year really been gaining widespread recognition for his excellent work.

All of those guys are nice, honest and above all hard-working. That’s a trait I respect above any other.

What’s the biggest surprise for how you expected life to be at your level vs. how it actually is?

Money is probably the obvious answer. I thought that the amount of success I’ve had would translate to something nearing a living wage. It has not, to put it mildly. I still work full time and have no plans to leave my job. For one, I really like my job. But there’s also not a lot of money in comics until you start to have big mainstream success.

On a slightly more positive note, I’m frankly just surprised by how well the books have done so far. I didn’t expect them to gain much of an audience, and it’s really been a pleasant surprise to actually have a fan base and to get to meet so many of them. That’s by far the best part of working in comics.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to break in to the comics industry?

Work hard. Go to conventions. Meet people. Ask questions. Be nice. Don’t ask favors. Buy lots of books. Know the industry. Work some more. Study your craft. Ask for critiques. Take the criticism to heart. Don’t be a jerk about it. Be patient. Have faith. Most importantly, just make comics.

Be sure to keep up with Van and his future successes on twitter and tumblr

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