On death and workaholicism and how being an artist of intention requires time not creating.
So the comics and animation and manga industries have been hit by a string of sudden deaths lately – like Jesse Hamm (a comics craft educator), who I had followed passively for a long time… he was chilling on my timeline not that long ago before the news came out that he passed from a lung clot. It’s a cold-handed slap just thinking about it, from a distance, to see someone’s face one day and the next day never having the opportunity to do so again (I mean… we’re in a pandemic, that’s been happening everywhere to thousands of people, which is infuriating).
Yesterday, we got the news that a beloved mangaka just died from a sudden (?) heart disease, leaving behind his grand epic unfinished. Now everyone is talking about how stressed mangakas are in general with their tight schedules and how it contributes to that culture of burning out and death from overwork – which is a thing in Japan. Though… it’s a very common aspect of East Asian work culture, as can be read in the Wikipedia link. I shudder when I’m told stories by my non-artist friends about how they are underpaid and working overtime and being on call 24/7 and never getting boundaries because going beyond for your boss is such a huge part of being respectful and maintaining integrity/pride in one’s work.
If I wasn’t already on my way to retiring from workaholicism, this would be the Twitter thread that would steel chair punch me into finally unsubscribing from that life. In fact, it’s already frightening me. Like!! As if we don’t have carpal tunnel and back pain etc to worry about, we can get a seizure from overworking in a creative job?? My god, who knew being an artist would come with so many occupational hazards…
Obviously with the discourse on mangakas being overworked and how readers shouldn’t be so mean/entitled/annoying/sarcastic whenever someone goes on hiatus and that creators need to REST, there are people coming out with bad takes. I don’t have to tell you what the bad takes are; basically they exist on the wavelength of ‘I’d give anything including my health and happiness to get my work noticed by a corp or be famous/popular’ and ‘lol sure but capitalism’. And there are the unspoken takes, said by action alone, and entirely unblameable, since the offending party is not the worker but the company imposing exploitative conditions.
There was a tweet the other day (oh god I am too on Twitter) complaining about the poor perception by readers re: webcomics drawn under a tight, overwork schedule had to take shortcuts – which often results in a certain visual style or output. And while I generally agree with the argument, that comics and manga and whatever + using tools to streamline the process shouldn’t be seen as lesser, because artists and other professionals have been using technology to make work easier since technology was invented…
I feel that at a certain point, craft suffers because of overwork, or the demand to produce more more more faster. And this is not the fault of the artist, or an indictment of their skills – it’s just the reality of physical/mental limits and inhumanely impossible work conditions. As this Spiderman speed challenge shows:
So if you have to draw fast and in the act of drawing you have no time to process your thoughts, what your eyes are seeing, what your brain is feeling, etc – then the result tends to come out… less thoughtful. And I don’t mean that scribbles are bad or less thoughtful, especially if it’s intentional or optimised to look like that. Well-done scribbles take time and thought too. But what I am getting at is… It’s less about what the resulting drawing looks like from a crunch and more on… the vibe. Like, the presence of the artist.
One of the things that surprised me when I made the Carpet Merchant was how readers could feel the love behind the art. And it was true – I put a lot of myself into the pages, and I enjoyed the experience of drawing the story, and I love love love Zeynel and Ayse… but I didn’t know it was a vibe that strangers could pick up on. I don’t know if the vibe would be as strong or present if I was drawing the pages under a crunch, or extremely fast. And mind you, I am one of those people who already draw fast, so you can’t argue that I had the luxury of working slow and so I can inject the comic with my sappiness and carpet detailing and that I am expecting other creators who need to work fast to conform to my “slowness”. I made 336 pages of Volume One in under a year while juggling my BSc. And it’s not a one-time phenomenon, because I keep making 250+ pages a year for different books since……… (lol time to slow down) (also I am not humble-bragging, I am just being real and telling you my output for transparency). Which shows that speed isn’t indicative of a lack of thoughtfulness, or bad art. Or that in order to make art that is detailed you have to be slow and laborous. (Though having time to draw helps, regardless)
The difference is that I was drawing at my natural pace and not rushing myself to fulfill some sort of deadline… not crunching. Plus even now with deadlines, I am still not sacrificing anything important to maintain my speed: I sleep 8 hours every day, I eat my three meals a day consistently, I always walk around every so often, when I am sick/tired I don’t work and when my hand starts to feel even a microfeeling of pain I immediately stop all work until the pain is gone (plus one day extra for good measure), when I don’t want to draw I do something else, I improve my ergonomics, I take hours long breaks in between, I tell my editors when I need more time etc. I listen to my body and I respect it and work below my limits, and so far, this attitude has preserved me even when I am juggling multiple projects. I have not had carpal tunnel or any preventable bodily pain, and I INTEND TO KEEP IT THIS WAY.
With so many comics creators, it’s the crunch and overworking and going beyond your individual bodily limits that strangulates the vibe and damages their craft. I see so many creatives disregard their natural limits and just push, push, push, force their wrists into strange shapes, stretching their brain to keep going even when it screams to rest, sacrificing their sleep… and so the work suffers, even with the shortcuts/tools. Art becomes sloppy, the pleasure of the act of drawing a line is lost, accidental surprises disappear, etc. There is no space to breathe to consume other media, to process one’s experience during and after drawing, to learn, to enjoy the interactive experience of creating. There is no software or AI or copy-paste hack for this problem.
And worse, the body suffers. And if there’s one thing artists always forget, it’s that their body is connected to their art.
Lynda Barry said something about how the act of drawing a line, or rather the line itself, is often a source of ideas.
I admire artists who work with intention, who consider how their lived experiences and their bodily senses contribute to the creation of their craft. From Ursula K Le Guin to Mary Oliver, creating is not just in the output, the drawing or sketch or poem or whatever, but their tastes, influences, schedules, house chores, nature, bodily movements, thought processes, observations, external and internal limits… basically, a life lived. Art made like this is art that’s not disembodied from the artist. It’s not Content, or a Product, or Entertainment. It’s just stuff a creative human does to process their life. Sometimes they share that stuff with the world.
And the one thing I noticed with this type of artist is how they are never overworked. (Oftentimes they rail against modern capitalistic lifestyles of workworkwork) Mary Oliver always found time to walk in the woods and forage and look at birds. Le Guin was always open about how life as a woman/mother affected her craft, and her schedule is goals.
The more I think about it, the more certain I am that I want a life that is well-lived and a career that is sustainable.
When I was younger, closer to my teens, I dreamed of fame and popularity. Of making a book that would catapult me to forever fame, of having a big audience, of being known by a single work, Hollywood, adaptations, a fandom. Start early, burn bright, fireworks all at once.
Now I only want to see myself at age 70 or 80, looking back at a lifetime’s worth of storytelling. Books of modest success (enough to pay me royalties), each one building from the last, each one a token of who I was at that time in my life.
And no, not just books. I want a lifetime’s worth of interesting experiences and sightseeing. The world is so big, full of things to learn, and I don’t want to be cooped up at home missing out on it as I draw. I want my books to be doing something that isn’t keeping me inside, I need them to take me outside.
I don’t recall from whom I heard this (maybe Lynda Barry from that podcast episode), but the gist of it was ‘All the art I have done has led me to opportunities and people I wouldn’t have met without the art’.
I think about my consultant who gets to travel to Japan and France and whatnot to give conference speeches because of the work he does. I think about Chris Riddell who was just having fun making poetry sketches and all of a sudden he is commissioned to make books illustrating poems. Or Lynda Barry who became a teacher and meets with children and scholars from other disciplines because of her comics.
With TCM, it gave me the opportunity to travel to places I could only dream of going long ago. And it could have given me more too if it were not for 2020… but that’s alright. It did its main purpose of opening up the first and important doors. So many full circle moments.
But like, I can’t live the ideal future of my 80 year old self if I burn out. If I break my hand and reduce my opportunities moving forward. Not to say that personal injury or disability robs someone of a full life… just that it forces one to renegotiate the original plans or pivot away from them. Especially if it’s an injury that is preventable and could be prevented now.
I really have to plan who gets to handle my creative/digital inheritance when I kick the bucket. Obviously it would be my agent or publisher who will use the royalties to keep this blog/website existing, and my immediate family gets the earnings. My emails and other accounts would be another thing, haha. Imagine having to unsubscribe to all these services.
I am not afraid of death as a concept, but what I am afraid of is leaving my stories hanging (this is up there with dying in an embarrassing and/or horrible way). But that’s what life is, isn’t it? It ends so suddenly.
The only thing anyone who’s alive can control now is to make sure they live well, and that’s mostly taking care of oneself, and making sure the transition from life to death is as painless for everyone in the aftermath.
Reimena Yee is a graphic novelist, artist and flamingo enthusiast.
She writes and illustrates quite a few webcomics and graphic novels. When not making books, she lulls away her time with essays on craft, life and experiences in the publishing industry. Some of her thoughts of art and life are rather unstructured and will evolve over time as this blog matures, as they should be.
Currently committed to being Alexander the Great's death doula. Is a nerd for all things spooky and historical.
Melbourne / Kuala Lumpur