Drezz Rodriguez: Put in the work and go get it
Drezz Rodriguez is busy, working as an illustrator and comics artist. His Webcomic El Cuervo, the Latin Assassin, has attracted plenty of readers on Tapastic, more than 45,000 views as of late October. He also draws the Webcomic Bison Bay on its own site, and maintains his own blog, drezzworks.
Rodriguez recently spoke with Careers in Comics about the stresses, rewards and hurdles of working as an illustrator and about building an audience in the crowded Webcomics world. Here is some of what he had to say:
Can you tell me a bit about the illustration work you do?
Drezz Rodriguez: I’ve been an illustrator for 18 years. I’ve done everything from comics, to animation, storyboards, technical drawings and diagrams, packaging, kids storybooks and more.
I’ve done work in the indie comics industries. I’ve done medical drawings for the health and wellness industries, structural, concept and vehicle drawings for heavy industry, food and drink, book illustrations and presentations, portraiture, financial, tech, sports teams (hockey primarily), race graphics for motocross and snow-cross, and many more.
Drawing was always something I enjoyed, even from an early age. It wasn’t until my final years of high school that I realized I wanted to pursue a job in the arts in some manner, preferably in the comics or illustration industry. I eventually settled on graphic design, and I’ve been working for a branding agency for the last 18 years, serving as the principal creative director for 11 years. It was close enough to a field in the arts with steady employment that I could get (at the time) and I still enjoy it.
What are some of the bigger challenges with creating comics and working in the illustration business?
Rodriguez: Typically, the education aspect. A lot of what I do is intangible. It’s expertise and knowledge. I could present a document with a strategy as a concrete physical item, but when someone comes to me for advice and expertise, it’s difficult to explain that thinking actually has a value associated with it.
Creating art is exactly the same. A finished piece from someone with tremendous skill looks effortless if it has been done well. And by effortless, I mean the ease of the precision and the skill put INTO the work, not the end result of the work.
The frustration in lack of education comes from people who don’t understand that the action is what makes the piece great and that action has value – people can’t seem to respect or appreciate the work that goes into art in the same way a carpenter frames a house or builds something. It is the same thing, but there’s a negative perception that creating art is an easy thing, that there’s magic and simplicity behind it all, and it can’t be equaled to actual labor.
If anything, the precision and detail and rendering is harder than hammering in nails and measuring. But folks can’t wrap their heads around it, and that is basically the common frustrations all artists have, not just me.
You do have a full-time job in addition to your illustration work. Is this a fact of life? Do illustrators, in your opinion, usually need to take on other jobs to supplement their income?
Honestly, no. It’s all about putting in the hard work and the hours and sacrificing. I’m of the Tony Montana belief (from Scarface) – the world is yours.
It’s up to you to take it, and you take it by working your ass off to reach a point where it is yours to take. No shortcuts, no expectation. If you want to be a full-time illustrator, you have to work. You need to create good work. You need to show people your good work, so they are confident enough in enlisting your services. And you need to find people that need your services. You also need to charge appropriately for your time, and be confident (and reasonable) in your rates.
That’s it. Put in the work and go get it. If you are stumbling and don’t have a physical limitation preventing you from getting work and contacting people, there’s really no valid excuse. Anxiety, depression, awkwardness, etc – these aren’t physical limitations, they’re mental barriers you need to bust through or find a way to get over.
They’re serious issues and illnesses, no question. But just like low self-esteem, shyness and other negative thoughts, these are things that prevent you from doing what you want, and you need to find a way to overcome them in order to get what you want. Most folks give up and get beaten. It takes a lot of help to push forward. I suffer from it, too, but encouragement and positive gains help inch you forward.
We get too caught up in time-frames (shoulda started sooner) and use excuses to not do things when we should flip it and find ways to dispel myths and erase the excuses and just do things.
Sorry for the rant – I see a lot of artists get down on themselves and let themselves believe they can’t be successful. It’s a mind trick. You can be successful. You just can’t be afraid.
Now to answer the proper question … I could easily be a full time illustrator. I have no desire to or need to. The need often drives everything. “If I don’t work, I don’t get paid, I don’t eat/have a home, etc.”
There’s a fine line between going for a dream and being realistic. Right now I’m on the side of the line where I need to be more realistic. I have a good job, stable income and a family to support. If I up and quit, I jeopardize many things I’ve worked hard at in order to achieve this level of comfort. That’s not something I’m willing to do.
If something were to happen at my job where it was affecting my mental/physical health and well-being, then something would need to change and I’d have to re-evaluate and see if my job search would permit me to move towards the “dream” side of the line to see if it is a feasible prospect for maintaining the level of comfort for me and my family, from a financial standpoint.
What inspired you to create the graphic novel El Cuervo that you posted a few years back on Tapastic?
I had a dream of being a comic book artist. Those dreams were sidetracked. I was empowered by the movement toward self-published works online, and I had a story I wanted to put to paper. It was a big project, and at times it felt pointless, but I powered through and refined it and now I’m happy to see that boat drifting in the ocean of the internet.
It’s part of my legacy, I suppose. I set out to do something. I had a goal, and I achieved it. And it may not be a good finished piece, but I enjoyed the journey and the experience, and that is what I’m most proud of.
Are you happy with the results you’ve gotten on Tapastic? Your views seem quite high?
I’ll be perfectly honest . When Tapastic first came out, I was an early adopter. I had visions of being a featured creator, and I set out to reformat El Cuervo to be more mobile-friendly, since that was the emerging trend and not many creators had embraced it. I thought I was going to be this overnight success and it was going to be my ticket.
Those greedy dreams never materialized, and I just left the comic there. At that point I realized that if I didn’t put in the excruciating amount of hours into promotion and selling (things I wasn’t interested in doing) that I wasn’t going to be seen or successful. So I moved on.
I didn’t go back for a while, and I was surprised to see that people still found the work and still enjoy it. That’s good enough for me. I could care less about the number of views or money it generated. All I care about is someone read and enjoyed it, and for those folks who reached out to say thanks. That’s it. No more expectations. That ship has sailed.
How did you promote your graphic novel on Tapastic? What seemed to work best for you?
As I mentioned in the previous question, I didn’t promote it. At least, not enough to create a meaningful response. It was ‘set it and forget it,’ and that is NOT the proper way to do it. I worked with the Webcomic Alliance dispensing advice on how to get your name out there and such, but I’ll be honest, I was crippled with this feeling of fear, for being seen as being a hypocrite. I had a comic and I wasn’t doing any of the things I said you should do.
It was because I didn’t want to dedicate the time to them, and I knew that well in advance. This was a hobby project, not a necessary item for sustaining me.
Now, if I were to do it again, here’s how I’d approach it.
Keep quiet and grind. Do all the work ahead of time, and build a crazy big buffer. So many artists get too overexcited and post things before they’re ready. Patience is huge, but it comes from experience. Try and create a comic and see how long you last before the temptation to post what you have overcomes you.
But if you tough it out and have 50 finished pages before you post your first page for the world to see, you will establish a pattern of behavior that people will trust if you release pages consistently. And that is why you build the buffer, so you can create a schedule that is consistent.
You are training people to follow a pattern, and like the idiot dogs we are sometimes, we’ll follow along.
Create the schedule, and create some desire. I advise against pages every day and prefer the trickled release. 3 days a week, max. This creates desire in the reader, wanting to read more, but giving them enough to not feel ripped off. This also protects you from blowing through your buffer faster than you can make the pages.
Then automate the release of the pages while you continue to work on pages in the background. Make sure your work schedule is enough to support your release schedule. Every single artist gets this wrong. They are constantly playing catch-up and making pages the day of release. If you do this, you’re wrong and you’re gonna screw yourself.
Find folks you trust, and have them take some time and read a bulk section of your work. If they can vouch for you, you’ll have a solid ally when it comes time to promote your work.
Engage with other creators who do similar stories like you on their comic pages, and get in conversations with their fans. Show them you’re interested and knowledgeable, and they’ll pay attention to you… and eventually find out, hey, you make a comic, too.
Make yourself known in the community. Be interesting and helpful on social media.
Notice I haven’t said anything about promoting the comic?
Because that’s how it works now. You gotta’ give before you can expect to receive. Especially now that the online comics community is super loud and congested. It’s all about small gains and attrition. Those small gains get big fast, but you need to be patient in your acquisitions. And in order to acquire, you need trust. And once folks trust you, they are loyal AF.
Once you’ve built a buffer, made some new allies, got some constructive feedback from your peers and have set up a release schedule, then you can start to promote. Everywhere.
Facebook is good for connecting with closer friends and family. They can help amplify the message if you ask them (not too frequently).
Twitter. This one is dependent on time of day and audience. Use hashtags (don’t create your own, yet) and get allies to help RT. Do not overdo it. After promoting on Twitter, you need to go back into engagement mode for at least one week before hitting folks up for another read my new page.
Think of it like an energy container, and every time you ask, it gets depleted immediately and can only be refilled by helping other folks out and engaging in other ways with fans and friends.
YouTube. This one is overlooked, and takes a long time to build up, but it’s a good way of getting eyeballs on your work. But the thing is, you have to create something of value that people are looking for.
So, you create an artist series on how to make comics. And you use your work as the basis, and you can do time-lapses or still images with text explanations, etc. The point is, you’re making video content that people are searching for (how to make comics, etc) and you are able to direct them to your comic page to see more, etc.
Promotion should be just as much work as the creation of pages. If it isn’t, you’re doing it wrong.
Do you have plans for any other graphic novels in the future?
I absolutely do. But I’m busy churning out pages to create that buffer. Gotta practice what you preach.
In the meantime, I’m releasing steady content on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Instagram. I also illustrate Bison Bay (a 40s noir webcomic) with writer Ed Cidade. We’re on hiatus currently, but that’s my most recent comic-related work. I’ve also revived my blog, so the latest on what I’m up to will be found there.