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before i’d even sat down to work on my first comic, i met jeff nicholson at comicon in ’03.  i was a big fan of COLONIA (still am) and had recently got my hands on a hard-to-find copy of THROUGH THE HABITRAILS, which is still one of my favorite fucking comics of all time.  i dragged a buddy with me and bugged jeff over the whole weekend, talking to him about his plans for COLONIA and asking him tons and tons of questions.  jeff was obliging and kind–certainly more shy than i am but obviously up for long talks about comics, which we had.  now that i’ve had so much convention experience, i really hope, looking back, that i bought a some shit off him, but i can’t remember if i did.  in any case, we left the show as friends and have stayed in touch ever since.

i really admire jeff’s work.  when he made he the decision to leave comics after his last run on COLONIA, it was hard to fault him, since he was from a generation of cartoonists that profited from the so-called ‘black and white boom’ and he knew what it was like to make a living self-publishing.  but i knew i was gonna miss him, and i felt like comics would suffer for his loss.  jeff wasn’t just a face in the crowd with his work; he was a standout with the indies, a six-time eisner nominee.  he plugged away on ULTRA KLUTZ for years, taking it from a goofy ultra man spoof to an awesome, complex yarn you just have to read to understand.  he serialized THROUGH THE HABITRAILS in the hallowed pages of TABOO and busted out eleven issues of COLONIA, an innocent time-travel romp with fun, memorable characters.  it’s a book that shows off just how much he was able to teach himself about comics in his career.  i look at the covers now and i feel like something’s absolutely missing from comics.

when i started my first book in may ’04, i was in touch with jeff, and for a while we were working at the same time.  it was so badass to get emails from him while he worked that final, three-issue stretch of COLONIA.  it was clear he was happy doing the work and was pushing himself in way he hadn’t for a while.  he was getting home from working his serious dayjob and getting down to business on his pages. i felt happy for him and was excited to see where he was taking COLONIA.  we worked off each other.

it’s only because he stayed in progress with comics for so long that he made it to an era in comics where the way he’d always done things wasn’t making him money anymore.  the death of the serialized floppy has been hard for the old-school, i think.  jeff’s had to deal with not being able to make ends meet doing what he loved after having really done it for a while.  jeff is one of the main reasons–if not THE main reason–that i told myself from the outset that i wasn’t going to let the money in comics decide anything for me.  i know that jeff’s heart was broken when the bottom fell out of the market, and i know it felt personal to him that the sales were less on every individual issue he put out.  but that was just comics.  his audience may have been just what it was, just with new expectations of the publishing strategy.  maybe?  who knows what could’ve happened if he’d started with a new GN.

anyway, i love jeff’s work because it’s fun, it’s dark, it’s different and it always takes you somewhere.  but i identify with jeff, too.  i look back on his initial run of ULTRA KLUTZ and then at how his work ended up, and i can see a dude who showed up with a sharp pencil and the will to smash heads and used that enthusiasm to hone his raw drawings into a tasteful, beautiful, controlled, mature style.  he taught himself how to make comics while in progress, and he got fucking good at it.  among other credits i’d give him, THROUGH THE HABITRAILS could be a fucking textbook for how to pace words with pictures, not using too much or too little, and letting both truly sing.  jeff had an ear and eye for that stuff, and i think of how tasteful THROUGH THE HABITRAILS was in that regard all the fucking time.

i’ll end with a question i asked him in an interview i did with him the month i published my very first comic.  he’d been there for me the whole way and would coach me through a lot of the diamond shit.  the question was about success, and it rings in my head much differently now that i have some struggle of my own under my belt.  keep in mind that dude plugged away in the small press for about 20 years just because he was that pumped for comics.
______________________

Alex Cahill: What does success mean for you as a comics-maker? Do you consider yourself successful?

Jeff Nicholson: Great question, which needs a long answer. It keeps changing. As the comics market evolves, and I age, my measure of success evolves as well. In the beginning, I wanted my book to be racked along side the underground comics I admired. A few years later, my goal was to sell 5,000 copies so I could actually make a living off of it. I actually achieved that one, but it slowly slipped away as the market dwindled. Then my measure of success became to only work on projects where I was offered a page rate. That worked for a while, but it was still a tenuous living, so I still seemed be using a living wage to define whether I was good enough, or if the market was being good enough to me for me to participate. After enough years of it not being good enough to me, I realized I was still born to make comics and couldn’t stop. This was when I started Colonia, and I wanted my success to be my ability to out-perform myself, and stop worrying about the money as a barometer of acceptance.

***Now I consider myself successful simply out of tenacity and the ability to adapt, and to not let my creative side get crushed. ***  Things like low sales still affect me emotionally, because those are old wounds, but not intellectually. I know it’s not my fault that the thing I was born to do offers very, very few people a living wage.

_________

jeff, buddy, you’re the real deal.  i miss your shit a lot.

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