“A Poor Man’s Dave McKean” – A Two Year Long Journey To Finding A Niche

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Chris Callahan writes,

A two year long journey to finding a niche

People don’t buy mixed media digital stuff. I mean I kinda dig the cover. You’re like a poor man’s Dave McKean. But there’s only one of him, and there’s no more Sandman, you know?”

-WonderCon Portfolio Review of Misplaced preview pages April 2015

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The above (paraphrased) quote was said to me at the very first portfolio review I ever went to. I shook his hand, thanked him for his time, and offered my card. I was met with a simple, “Your style just isn’t right for us. Best of luck.”

Rejoining my wife a few minutes afterward, she looked up from the dollar bin she was digging through… “How’d it go?” she asked, terrified I’d be a total grump the rest of the weekend. But I could barely contain my excitement.

“Pretty damn good! I mean totally horrible, no chance for a job, but really good!”

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And so began one of the most interesting journeys of my life, culminating in not only a publisher and a 140-page graphic novel, but also a successful Kickstarter and, for the first time since I started doing art, satisfaction. Hopefully by sharing this, someone else will get a helpful nudge like I did that day.

So why was that portfolio review so inspiring? Perhaps I should back up for a moment.

I grew up loving comics. The gift of a Marvel Transformers issue brought me into the fandom, and I’ve been collecting ever since. However there’s one comic in particular that stands out from the rest. Without exaggeration it completely changed my view on art the second I saw it…

Sandman #38.

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I was just a little kid. Didn’t know anything about the book. Hadn’t seen, much less read, any characters beyond the typical lunchbox super-heroes. But there it was. Sandman. And that cover. Oh, that cover. With its photographic textures, abstract art, giant painted head, and that weird twisting candlestick holder. What the hell was this? “Captivated” doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings. I had no idea you were allowed to do something like that.

The cover artist, of course, was Dave McKean.

Fast-forward to after that first round of WonderCon feedback; my wife riding shotgun on the way home. “What did this guy say to you?”

“He compared me to Dave McKean,” I smirked. (I left out the “poor man’s” part.)

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Sure it was only a small morsel in the positive feedback category. But such is the weird road of inspiration. Kid sees cover, changes his view on art. Twenty years later wannabe-comic-creator gets semi-backhanded comparative compliment…and BOOM, a 140-page graphic novel gets the green light in his head.

And so I continued. Now more focused. The outline pitch of WonderCon grew into a fully written 4-issue mini-series. I pounded out pages and posted a few to social media. The small trickle of likes flowed in. No particular post went viral, but there were enough people liking it to serve as a very small proof of concept.

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More conventions and more portfolio reviews followed. I was determined to absorb any tips that’d make the book functionally better, but it was hard not to have serious questions about the intelligence of what I was doing when the main take away from every meeting was, “it’s cool, but no one’s gonna buy it.”

Enter Source Point Press.

I met Travis McIntire, the company’s EIC, while promoting a previous comic on his podcast. He had seen some of the art on his timeline and expressed an interest in checking it out when I was done. Still looking for precious feedback wherever I could find it, I sent over a copy of Issue One. He was the first to see anything completed. We ended up chatting about it on the phone that evening, and he gave me one of the best (and hopefully not wrong) comments about Misplaced I’d received to that point:

“It’s weird… but I think it’ll do really well with us.”

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Sometimes all it takes in life is one backhanded compliment to inspire…and an editor who finally says yes. They picked up the book and we immediately pressed forward with completing the graphic novel.

Four months later The Misplaced Kickstarter launched.

“If I have 14 backers and $400 at the end of the first weekend, I’ll do a backflip,” I remember telling my wife. There was a publisher attached now. I had won the 2016 Aspen Comics talent hunt, had a story published by Alterna, done design work for Image, and there was a smattering of good reviews and positive social media feedback for the book.

But when it came time to pay money, would anyone show?

The first day we raised two thousand dollars and were fully funded in four. We’re currently at 142% of our goal with 108 backers and still two days to go. Roughly $4300 in pledges.

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They showed.

More successful Kickstarters exist for sure. Misplaced is far from a viral sensation. No one has been proven wrong. However, there are 108 people that dig the book I’ve wanted to put together (at least stylistically) since I was a kid. And for that reason I’ve never had such a feeling of accomplishment.

The golden ratio can be of help in composing a piece, but ultimately as an artist the most satisfying path is to know the principles, and then do whatever you want. I like painting, using photo textures, modeling things in 3D, and then mixing it all up. It’s just how I think and enjoy telling a story. If that prevents me from finding a larger audience, so be it. I’ve done a lot of design work for clients ranging from Pixar to BET, and yet the 108-backers-strong niche I’m currently in is by far the most rewarding of my career.

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The lesson? Make the book you want to see. And make it the way you want to see it. Is there something missing on the shelf of your local comic shop? Create it. Then put it out there in a place where people can find it. The place I put mine was Twitter and Kickstarter, but there are almost infinite options these days.

Find your place, find your people, find your niche. Listen to and learn from the critiques, but let some of that praise in too. Because your mixed media digital art that “people don’t buy,” may be just exactly what some kid’s been looking for since they picked up their very first issue of Sandman.

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“A Poor Man’s Dave McKean” – A Two Year Long Journey To Finding A Niche

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