Sometimes artists have a tough life.
At least, people who want to make a living off of their art do.
The most recent example of this is Cullen Bunn’s departure from Aquaman.
For those who are not Aquafans, Arthur Curry (AKA Aquaman), has jokingly been referred to as the least interesting superhero in DC comics. His powers always seem to pale in comparison to the Trinity (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman), and even the writers have maltreated him at times. He’s been bearded, had a harpoon for a hand, and generally spent more time swimming with the fishes than walking on land. It’s made him a difficult character for fans to relate to.
Then Flashpoint happened and Aquaman, along with everyone else, got the reboot. Yet for as disastrous as the New52, as it was called, may or may not have been, fans were united in their zeal for Geoff John’s taking over the Aquaman title. In the blink of an eye, he took a character from the outskirts and meshed him with forgotten DC lore and mythos to create one of the best-selling and most beloved titles.
Aquaman was popular.
I still can’t wrap my head around that fact.
But, as with many good things, it didn’t last. DC, in its painfully finite wisdom, decided to reboot the entire DC universe again after 4 short years to fix the multitude of “problems” generated from the New52. And, like it’d done with every reboot before Convergence, it threw the baby out with the bath water. With the DCYou (yes, that’s what they called it), every single hero in the lineup was headed in a “Bold New Direction”. For Aquaman, that new direction had Cullen Bunn at the helm.
I don’t envy Mr. Bunn. Aquaman wasn’t his creation, it was a legacy character he inherited. He was tasked with perpetuating that legacy, but as an artist, also wanted to leave his unique mark on the character. Those stipulations painted into a corner from Day 1. The DC execs were pushing for Bold New Directions, so Bunn gave them one. One that fell flat almost immediately with fans.
Bunn lasted less than a year and is now headed onto new ventures*. His and DC's vision didn’t work for the masses and both paid the price. Geoff Johns returned to Aquaman and DC was forced to return to writers and plot lines from the New52 story arcs.
Cullen Bunn may be a high-profile case, and in a slightly different predicament than the average artist, but at his core, he’s no different than you or me. All of us, writers, artists, dreamers, we’re all simply trying to make it in this world. We have creative ideas that we want the mass market to love and buy. We want our craft to sell. But where is the line between the purity of our art and the appeal to a mass market?
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the Grand Dilemma. Therein resides the eternal struggle between Art and Money.
That’s not to say you can’t have your cake and stuff it with cash too, but the reality is that we authors have a story we want to tell. We pour their heart and soul into our flash, short, novella, novel, etc., then polish it till it shines. Finally, we take it to agents and publishers, hoping that both will love it as much as we do. Even if they do, we still have to convince readers to feel the same. For every Harry Potter or Hunger Games, there are tens of thousands of excellent books that simply don’t sell. And behind each one is a writer trying to figure out what separates them from the Big Leagues.
The short answer is, no one really knows. Some artists make it big out of the starting gates. Others take time to be discovered, if ever.
At the heart of the war between Art and Money is the driving factor for our need to write. Are we in it for the purity of the art? For the royalty checks? For the readership? For fun?
It’s a personal question and one that each and every author eventually faces. What gives us a leg up over the Cullen Bunns of this world is that, for most of us, our creations are unique. We are the genesis of literary worlds rather than perpetuating the legacy of someone else’s creation. That gives us a lot more room to determine what we consider successful.
Sometimes that's a point in-between the two extremes.
When I first pitched Undead Chaos to agents, the general response was “Zombies are dead”**. Rejections rolled in by the dozens, but I liked my story. Didn’t want to change it. Against all odds, it eventually found a home. Would it have sold sooner or better if I’d chased the market? Perhaps, but even if I had tweaked it to match what was hot at the time, there was no guarantee it would have had greater appeal. Just because Zombie-Erotica-Historical-Western-Self-Help-Memoirs are selling like crazy today doesn’t mean they will be a year from now. Or even a month from now.
And yet, if we don’t watch the market, don’t worry about trends, we may find ourselves writing stories for ourselves and no one else. Yes, our art is important to us, but the chances of us selling that Horror-Comedy-YA-Cookbook sitting in our drawer may be slim, no matter what.
So what’s a writer to do?
I wish I had answer, but I don’t. The market does what it does and we writers either chase it, hoping for sales, or buck it, accepting the risk that our story may not see the light of day. Sometimes we hit it big on both counts. Other times, we’re left shaking our fist at the wind.
That said, let me offer some personal advice:
1) Figure out your motivation, whether it be sticking to your vision, pleasing the public, or something in between. Note that all three are viable goals, but being honest with yourself about what you want can help avoid some frustration along the way. If you’re about big book sales, maybe a closer study of the market and what’s working is called for. If you’re more concerned about protecting your vision, then industry expectations be damned. And if you’re somewhere in between, well then, figure out where that fits in your grand plan.
2) Go big and love every minute. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing, painting, or being the show-runner for Aquaman. If you’re truly passionate about what you’re doing and if you’re in it for the right reasons (whatever those might be), then success will come. Maybe it won’t be in the form of sales, but it will be something measurable The very first book I ever wrote still sits in a drawer, collecting dust. It’s terrible, long, and too raw for me to consider editing. It will never find its way to print, but that’s okay. I thumb through it from time to time because it’s a measurement of success. Not by money or purity of art, but by internal pride. After all, I’d never completed a manuscript before.
In the end, writing, like all forms of art, is defined by what drives you. For some, it’s winning awards and seeing their name on the Best Seller list. For others, it’s keeping their work pure, no matter what the masses think. Yet somewhere in between is a happy middle-ground where many of us can thrive. Where for us, success is defined by something more than a check or an unedited beauty.
But no matter where you wind up on the spectrum, just remember that while we might not all have the same goals, but we can find happiness in reaching for them.
The first step is simply to figure out what those are, then go from there.
*For more on The Bunn Run with Aquaman, I highly recommend checking out my Dragon Brother’s blog, The Absorbascon.
**I kid you not, that was one of the responses. I still hold that agent in VERY high regard for such an epically punny rejection.
Joshua Roots is a car collector, beekeeper, and storyteller. He enjoys singing with his a cappella chorus, golf, and all facets of Sci-Fi/Fantasy. He's still waiting for his acceptance letter to Hogwarts and Rogue Squadron. He and his wife will talk your ear off about their bees if you let them.
Paranormal Chaos, the final book in The Shifter Chronicles, is available for pre-order wherever digital books are sold.