By Erika Moen on October 18, 2013
This past September 21st, I was absolutely honored to be a speaker at XOXO Fest. They invited me to come talk about my “origin story” as a full time comic creator and how I used the internet to make this happen.
Here is my talk, as recorded by the high quality XOXO staff:
And here’s my lecture notes:
My name is Erika Moen and I’m a cartoonist.
For fifteen years, I’ve been creating comics and posting them online. This year I turned 30, which means I’ve officially been doing this for half of my lifetime. When I began posting my comics online as a little fifteen year old teenager, I was just sharing my drawings and comics and Batman: The Animated Series fan art for my internet friends to see. Today, this is my full time career.
I’m best known for my autobiographical series, DAR! Which was my six year long journal comic about being a lesbian who falls in love with a man, and a whole bunch of dick and fart jokes. After that wrapped in 2009 I wanted to take a break from autobio so I teamed up with Marvel writer Jeff Parker to create Bucko, a dick and fart joke murder-mystery, which was published by Dark Horse Comics last year. Currently I’m working on Oh Joy, Sex Toy with my husband, which is a comic that covers some subject in the world of sex each week. It’s got a focus on sex toy reviews but we also sneak in some interviews with professionals in the sex industry and some general sex education, basically any topic is on the table. (So to speak)
XOXO asked me to share my origin story with you guys, about how I turned my little funsies web comics hobby into a full time job. So, I’m going to read to you the final strip I drew for my autobio comic, DAR. It’s a crash course through my life between the ages of 20-26
[And then I read that comic to the audience]
Being self-employed is NOT something I ever wanted growing up. When I was a senior in high school applying for colleges, I didn’t even look at any of the art departments of those universities because I knew “artists can’t support themselves” and I wanted to have a stable job when I graduated. Of course, after my first semester I realized I couldn’t go four years and not spend it studying art, so I created my own major called Illustrated Storytelling— I was afraid calling it “Comics” wouldn’t sound academic enough. It was half of an English degree and half of an Art degree and I worked with a faculty advisor from each department to create a lesson plan with them and I had to stay accountable to them so they knew I wasn’t just making up a fluff degree.
Intellectually, I knew studying comics was a mistake, that I was wasting my college tuition on an education that wouldn’t help me get a Real Job in the Real world. But my stomach and heart compelled me to do it anyway and deal with the consequences later. Which is kind of a running theme in my life.
I’d been doing short, little autobio comics as a teen, but it was when I was a 20 year old in college that I started my series DAR! It was a way for me to document my college experience, process and embrace my fresh new lesbian identity and also just to make people laugh.
When I graduated in 2006, I moved here to Portland and immediately got to work at some Normal, Stable jobs where you clock in, do your task and get paid the same amount each day. I landed work at two different animation/website design studios, where I was hired to do production-assistanty, administrative-y things, nothing relating to art. Although, the second one was such a small studio that I did wind up taking on many art tasks because everyone had to wear many hats, but that was just an unexpected bonus, it’s not what I was hired to do.
In the mean time, I was continuing to update DAR! each week as a hobby. I’ve used comics my entire life much like everybody else uses Facebook or Twitter. I created comics to document something in my life that I found worth sharing and to help me understand events and how I perceive myself and generally process my life. When I fell in love with the man who would become my husband while I identified as a lesbian, I sorted out my conflicting thoughts and shifting sexual identity by making comics about it. At the time, there weren’t really that many queer cartoonists on the web, so my work was kind of like a beacon to other queer people who could relate to my personal story and would then tell their friends to check my stuff out. My audience grew entirely from word of mouth.
Now, a footnote, the guy that I fell in love with? He lived in England. We had an eight hour time difference between us. Being in a relationship with someone so far away is SUPER EXPENSIVE, with all the phone cards, long-distance texts and flights to visit each other. So while I was working at my day job, I would save ALL my money just to see him. I would pay for my living expenses, and then every last penny went into my savings account so that we could visit each other. I was so cheap. My friends would want to meet up at food places and I’d be that asshole who’d just drink water or order toast. That was me.
So then the recession hit in 2008 and everyone at my studio was laid off. I FREAKED OUT. I need stability, I need to know what my schedule is every day, so of course I immediately started applying for all these other normal, stable jobs to replace the one I lost.
I had NEVER wanted to be a freelance artist, because that sounded absolutely unstable and like a quick path to financial ruin. But, I was freaking out, so I went to visit my friend, Dylan Meconis (at the time a part-time freelance artist) , at Periscope Studio (the largest collective of freelancer comic artists in the English speaking world) to freak out at her about losing my job and try to figure out where am I going to make money and she and Steve Lieber suggested to me, “Haven’t you been doing this comic DAR! every week for a few years now? Why don’t you collect it into a book and sell that?” And because of all the saving I’d done for my long-distance-relationship, I had this nice little nest egg to draw on to print my first book. This was before Kickstarter. Around this time, this amazing, well-paying job to illustrate a children’s book was just handed to me with a bow wrapped around it because a friend of mine recommended me for the job. So I took my first freelance gig, just to keep my head above water.
Here’s the thing about keeping up a weekly comic: not only do you develop an audience of readers who enjoy your work, but you’re also proving weekly that you’re reliable, that you can deliver on time, that you can act like a professional. Because people had been reading my comic for years, they WANTED to support me by buying DAR! Volume One and, unintentionally, through my weekly webcomic I’d been advertising that I’m a reliable artist that people should hire. So I kept taking on more and more freelance work and selling my self-published book until about six months after I’d been laid off, I realized that I had accidentally stopped looking for a replacement stable job because I was SO BUSY with all this self-employed work. Around this time, Periscope Studio invited me to become a member and I’ve been doing my own thing ever since.
So that’s how I accidentally became a fully-time artist.
And it’s now, this year, my 30th, that I feel like I’m doing the work that I was born to do.
This year my husband and I started Oh Joy, Sex Toy and it is the most fulfilling and rewarding job I’ve ever hard.
I care a lot about sex. And not just the “act of”– I care about how it makes people feel, about all the rules and regulations society puts on it, about the different cultures and industries that grow up around it, kinks and fetishes, birth control, I care a LOT about sex education. The subject of sex is a fascinating world.
In all my previous years, I had incorporate sex stuff into my comics, but it was always a secondary topic. Now, this year was a turning point and I decided to full on dive into using comics to talk about sex.
Comics are one of the most powerful teaching tools for education that exist, especially sex education. They’re so much more accessible than dry walls of academic or medical text that are explaining unfamiliar concepts and are accompanied by these alien diagrams, it’s so hard to relate them to your own body and social interactions. A comic combines text and image together in a really, attractive, appealing way. Plus, with a couple jokes thrown in, your audience feels like they’re included in a friendly conversation instead of being lectured at. It’s impossible to not read a comic when it’s in front of you.
So, this is my story. I never set out to be a full-time, self-employed sex cartoonist, but here I am and I’m doing work that I’m proud of, that’s important to me and helping people learn about a subject that I’m in love with. I’m pretty stoked.
To anyone that’s interested in creating comics, or any method of storytelling really, my one piece of advice is to tell the story that only YOU can tell. Every subject matter has already been covered, so it’s up to use your unique voice to engage your audience. Readers can tell when you’re being genuine, when you’re truly passionate about a subject. Even on topics that have been done a million time, you can still bring that fresh spark to it by telling it in the way that only YOU can.
Over the last fifteen years I’ve been telling MY stories with MY voice and by doing that my audience found me. They support me because they like what I have to say and the way I say it. So that’s why I think the best thing you can possibly do is to tell the story that only you can tell.