The Comic, The Experiment, The Whole Story

Quick Links:
The Experiment Overview |  The Whole HE Story |  The “Digital Age” Artist’s Manifesto  |
4 Year Experimentiversary, 5 Year Anniversary And More Experimenting

Recap: What is “The Experiment?The Experiment is the chronicling of my attempt to make a full time living from my webcomic, HijiNKS Ensue. In keeping track of my attempts, successes and failures I hope to create a road map for other creative individuals (artists, writers, bloggers, film makers, musicians, etc.) to more easily turn their passion into a full time job.

[Originally Published June 2, 2008]

The Beginning: Life Altering Cliches

Other than music, art was the only constant in my life. I had been drawing since age 5. I focused almost exclusively on art through my teenage years, despite flirtations with dreams of rock stardom. At 18 I left the small town where I grew up, moved to Dallas, TX and got a job. A year or two into the “real world” I realized I would never actually get to be a cartoonist. The internet was young and newspapers were still the only real “in” you could have in professional cartooning. Newspaper comic syndicates only picked up a handful of new comics a year out of 1000’s of submissions.

Based on these cruel truths I talked myself out of my lifelong goal of professional cartooning and settled into working life. I still pursued music, but just as a hobby. I gave up on art entirely. I was 19 years old and I already felt like I had lost the battle.

The Turning Point

Seven years later I was working in management and sales for a web design company. I was very good at my job and well paid, but I found none of it rewarding. When I would have lunch with my friends who were game designers, or writers, or artists I was ashamed to talk about what I did for a living.

I was a sales and customer service professional. I had been trained in these fields and I was an expert. For some people this would be an accomplishment worthy of pride and praise. For me it was a burden. Without a college degree “Sales and Service” were the only things I could prove that I could do. I was a closet artist wearing a business man disguise. I had actually convinced myself that this life was best for everyone. I could provide for my family financially and give them the stability I lacked as a child. I had admitted defeat and accepted my fate.

In March of 2007 our daughter was born. I realized the moment I first saw her that if she had been able to ask me what I did for a living, what I spent my days doing in order to provide for her, I would have been too ashamed to tell her. The answer would have gone something like, “I spend the waking hours of each day miserable, unchallenged, unfulfilled and bored because it is safe and it is the socially acceptable thing to do. It leaves me drained, dull and depressed.”

My biggest problem was that I had the unfortunate luxury of knowing EXACTLY what I was supposed to be doing with my life, but I was too scared to pursue it. I realized that I was wasting my young life, and hers by ignoring my heart and listening to my head.

It was time for a change.

Starting Over

I had been toying with an idea about turning conversations with my friends Josh and Eli into comic. This turned ou to be the perfect vehicle with which to rediscover my creativity. Starting HijiNKS Ensue was the turning point in this bleak cycle. Almost overnight I rediscovered my love of art and cartooning. I hadn’t gotten any better during the 7 year hiatus, but I settled back into a decent comfort level pretty quickly. Once I started writing and drawing comics, I couldn’t stop. My wallet was full of post-its used to jot down ideas. I spent all day at work emailing myself ideas for jokes and parodies. I saved funny IM’s with my friends and recalled them later for punch lines. For the first time since high school I was creating something that I was excited about. At first I didn’t have any designs on turning HijiNKS Ensue into my full time job, but as more and more people started to take notice the notion began to sound less and less ridiculous.

Inspiration Wears a Beard

A few months into my comic venture my friend Corn Mo emailed me, asking if I had ever heard of Jonathan Coulton. He sent me a link to an article that had run in NY Times Magazine about this guy that ditched his soul eating job as a programmer to make music full time. A spark went off in my brain. Someone had taken the first step. I devoured the article and any others that I could find about Coulton. His story fascinated me. He was succeeding on his own terms, selling his own music, recording it when he wanted to and playing shows where he wanted to. The best part was when I finally found out what gave him the courage to risk everything he had worked for his whole life for a chance at happiness. It was the birth of his daughter. To say I could relate to his situation would be an understatement. I decided right then and there that HijiNKS Ensue would be my job within 2 years.

Making comics became my second full time job. I worked 9 hours a day for “the man” and another 6 at night, every night. Sleep was a luxury I could not afford. I even gave up time with my family in order to make the dream a reality. I focused equally on improving the comic, releasing more each week (first 1, then 2 and now 3) and on building a community around it. The most important thing I had learned from Jonathan Coulton was that I didn’t need to be famous to the world in order to succeed. I just needed a few thousand loyal readers who cared enough about what I was doing to support me. The community was as important as the comic, if not more so. I spent virtually no effort on making money from the comic during this time. Instead I just continued making timely regular comic updates and finding ways to expose the comic to readers that would enjoy it. I spent hours each night on forums, and social networks and doing research on how to reach an audience of comic-thirsty geeks.

The idea was that once I had 30,000 to 40,000 regular readers, I would shift my focus from building the audience to earning a living. Once I had reached enough people then I could start selling books and shirts and taking donations. Maybe I could even sell advertising. The key was taking it slow.

Then I got fired.

Unexpected Motivation

Ten months into creating HijiNKS Ensue I was let go from my job. In the previous 4 months or so I had shifted nearly all of my focus to the comic. At work I was 1000 miles away. I was bitter that I couldn’t work on the comic during the day, so I spent my work hours writing jokes, responding to reader comments and emails, and researching ways to grow the audience. Out of a 9 hour work day, I probably spent at least 5 hours thinking only of HijiNKS Ensue. As my comic was on the rise, my actual paying job was in a slow decline. My “performance” was suffering as was my paycheck (I was %100 commission at the time) which, oddly enough, didn’t phase me in the least. I didn’t care if I got fired. Secretly I welcomed it, because it would save me from the decision of when to quit. Quitting would mean it was my choice to leave stability behind. Getting fired was the best thing that could have happened to me. Sure it accelerated my plans by at least a year, but it gave me the kick in the ass I needed to take the risks necessary to turn my passion into my job.

I decided to redouble my efforts to take HijiNKS Ensue to the next level. I spent a week brainstorming with my wife, then on March 31st, 2008  I announced to my readers what had happened and what to expect from the coming months. I was giving myself 4-6 months to see how viable the comic would be as a source of income. In order to keep the readers apprised of my progress, I started a video blog that documented the successes and failures of “The Experiment” as it would come to be called.

So How is it Going?

At the time of this writing I am still within the “test period” of The Experiment. The comic is not yet making me a full time income, but I am remaining positive. Every day something amazing happens to let me know that this is EXACTLY what I am supposed to be doing with my life. Either I see a link comparing my comic (favorably) against Penny-Arcade or PVP, I get am email from a reader saying how much they enjoy the comic, another “Experimenter” lets me know how I’ve inspired them or a reach a new readership milestone. In some way I am reminded every single day that what I am doing is right.

Is it scary?

Absolutely. I have nearly NO income to support my wife, child, mortgage and bills, we don’t have health insurance, our savings are quickly depleting and the future is completely uncertain. There is NO guarantee this will work. I may be slinging coffee in 2 months i have no idea. Regardless, this is the happiest I have ever been in my entire life. Instead of fighting my destiny, I am embracing it. I am taking risks, and having fun and making the most of each day. I enjoy my work (not just the end result, also the process!) and I am making people happy. How do I know? They tell me. What the hell, right? How many people finish a days work then get direct feedback and appreciation for their efforts? This is an amazing job. It is certainly the best I’ve ever had (and I’ve had a lot), and hopefully the last one I will ever have.

In the end, whether I succeed or fail is up to you as much as it is up to me. I will continue to put my all into this silly comic regardless of compensation, but at some point I will have to make a decision: Keep pressing on, or scale back and take another job?

If you enjoyed this story, enjoy the comic or podcast, or are in any way inspired by what I am trying to do please consider visiting the HijiNKS Ensue Store, making a donation, or telling more people about the site, the comic and The Experiment.

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Quick Links:
The Experiment Overview |  The Whole HE Story |  The “Digital Age” Artist’s Manifesto  |
4 Year Experimentiversary, 5 Year Anniversary And More Experimenting