Creating comics can be rewarding, but also stressful. Even in a relatively low-impact environment such as a free weekly webcomic, Dawn and I feel that pressure to perform, to deliver on the unspoken contract we have with our readers. Occasionally, such as this week, we just can’t manage to put out a new page of comic. Last time it was a result of my aunt’s death— this time, a more amorphous confluence of affairs came together. Nothing too dire, mind you (don’t worry!), but enough that it became another circumstance of weighing just how much we felt able to push ourselves. There was much stress. Dawn left it ultimately up to me, so I suppose I bear the responsibility for hitting the proverbial emergency release valve and stopping production temporarily.
I’ve talked in the past of how I’ve watched several webcomics die because of creator burnout. We’ve done our best to avoid that, and I think a very important part of the process has been a willingness to bend so that we don’t break.
I don’t want to end up like Dave Sim, pushing himself to do a page of Cerebus every day until he wound up having a breakdown and being checked into a psychiatric ward. And speaking much more recently, there was the matter of Roc Upchurch being arrested for domestic abuse.
I’m not going to weigh in on the morals of the case, there’s been plenty of talk on that. It’s a tragedy for everyone involved, and I might be talking out of my ass to say so, but I would venture to say that from reading the statements from Upchurch and his wife, Roc… might not have been handling his sudden success well. Would the marriage have frayed regardless of Rat Queens becoming a critical and popular success? It’s possible. But as far as I know Upchurch was the sole artist on the book, meaning he would have been in the same position Dawn is, responsible for penciling, inking, coloring, backgrounds— every page, every panel— but instead of a page a week, he’s having to provide that work on a book that comes out on a monthly or bimonthly schedule. Sure, a lot of comics put out an issue a month, but they’re worked on by entire teams, and still most don’t measure up to the level of quality Upchurch was consistently providing. Your mileage may vary, but for my money it was pretty sweet stuff, easily comparable to the best the Big Two would be putting out with far more staff involved.
Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like keeping up with that jibed well with being a husband and father of three kids, especially once the book became a hit and brought with it the requisite convention appearances and signings. It doesn’t really excuse what happened, especially since there are some people who seem to be able to handle it fine, but not everyone has that kind of ability. In Upchurch’s case there was a cost, and that cost included being taken off the book by his co-creator, writer Kurtis Wiebe. Wiebe released a statement saying the comic will continue, but it’s clear Rat Queens won’t ever and indeed, can’t ever be the same. This is a shame, but it pales in comparison to real people hurting each other. Wiebe weighed his decision and made it, and Upchurch now has some downtime. Perhaps much too late for anyone’s good.
There’s no schadenfreude to be had, here, just sadness. As a creator, some amount of stress is inevitable, and even necessary. But this is just the latest incident to drive home to me that constantly pushing yourself or your partner(s) past the breaking point does no one any good in the long run. So better to bend from time to time, instead of letting pressure build up until someone snaps.
I once went to see the Eisner awards ceremony at San Diego Comic-Con and it seemed like every other person getting up on the stage was being introduced as “the hardest working wo/man in comics”. I’ll probably never have someone say that about me without a heavy dose of sarcasm attached, but under the circumstances, I continue to be okay with that.