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Guest Underblog


By Neil Kapit, creator of the webcomic Ruby Nation.


The most common question that creative people get asked by “normal” people may well be, “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s a difficult question to answer, because it assumes there is an easy answer, some kind of tangible oasis that transforms visitors into brilliant artists. In my experience, ideas for comics (and other art forms) aren’t found in one place, but in EVERY place. And if one wants to be a creator, then one should constantly be seeking out new experiences in life and art alike, actively seeking inspiration instead of expecting it to arrive.

For many creators, this is much easier as a lofty statement than it is as a daily practice. Most people, whether they create art and fiction or not, tend to have a comfort zone when it comes to their media. For some people, it’s a genre, such as science fiction or detective novels. For others it’s a medium, like video games or manga. People find a style of story they like and stick to it; it’s why a disproportionate amount of webcomics are gaming themed, often about two men on a couch.

It’s understandable that people would have a comfort zone, especially regarding how they spend their leisure time. I can easily point to my own intellectual “comfort foods”, usually involving Marvel superheroes and spiky-haired anime boys. However, I was taught in creative writing classes that the greatest writers are also the greatest readers. I realize that my education doesn’t have to be limited to school, so I try to read and watch as diversely as I can, making it a point to try new things in the hopes of learning something that I could work into my comics.

This doesn’t even demand that I go too far way out of my way to find this illusive inspiration. We live in an age where an incalculable amount of information is available to anyone with an internet connection. If you see an interesting link on your Facebook feed, don’t hesitate to click it. If you see something you’ve never thought of reading on a Kindle book sale or something you’ve never thought of watching on Netflix’s streaming service, try it. Hell, if you’re stuck in traffic, you can listen to an unusual NPR segment instead of the same CDs you’ve heard a thousand times. If it doesn’t work for you, just move on to the next thing until you find something interesting. The important thing is to keep moving and keep learning.

In the words of T.S. Eliot, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”. The implication is that the mature poet improves upon their inspiration, as opposed to blandly restating it. But it’s impossible to improve upon your inspiration without knowledge of everything else that’s out there. Thankfully, Webcomic Underdogs has connected me with plenty of brilliant new ideas for my overall base of knowledge. Between office drones from the darkest corners of the Dungeons and Dragons Monstrous Manual, LGBTI culture within 1980s Russia, or polyamorous relationships in the a future straight out of Archie comics, the Underdogs prove that webcomics need not start and end with sprites from childhood video games.

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  1. Excellent points, Neil. You don’t have to go too far out of your comfort zone to find inspiration.
    My reading skips between text (mostly history) and comics/graphic novels. Recently I picked up a collection of the newspaper comic “Zits.”
    Newspaper comic? How bland can you get?
    Imagine my surprise. Not only was it beautifully drawn and solidly written, but it opened up a whole new world of graphic storytelling to me.
    I discovered that I could go even deeper into my character’s fantasies, insecurities, and imagination that I’d ever considered. And that opened up the floodgates of inspiration.
    Plus, it really helped freshen things up. Sometimes we get too close to our work, and it can feel stale or repetitive (to us, anyway). Stepping outside our zone for a breath of fresh air can open up a whole new world of inspiration.

  2. Thank you for the reply Charlie. That’s a great personal example of finding inspiration in an unexpected place. I haven’t bothered to really follow newspaper comics since The Boondocks left the pages, but I’m glad you found so much material from there.

  3. I’ve been making myself push out of my comfort zone in media consumption lately. Most specifically I’ve been going through a bunch of manga, which is pretty much terra incognito to me. Gotten some new thoughts, seen some new things, we’ll see how they integrate into my work down the line.

    The other day I was in the library, poking through their graphic novel holdings (which is where I’m getting all this manga). I picked up a book that had an interesting title, flipped through it, and said “nah this doesn’t look like a thing I’ll like” and started to put it back. Them I stopped, and decided that was a damn good reason to take it out. Don’t know if I learnt anything from it but it was definitely out of my normal fare.

    In general I tend to say that if you steal from one creator, or one set of tightly related creators, everyone will call you a clone. Steal from eight widely separated places that seem like they’re incompatible, all in the same time, and you’re a Strikingly Original Creator. If you can make it work.

  4. Before I say what I really want to, I want to say that Zits is one of my favorite newspaper comics. It makes me laugh.

    Now back to the topic…To get out of my comfort zone, sometimes I take a break from reading graphic novels and manga and start reading traditional novels instead. I’ve found that the regular novel is great way for me to get new ideas because the artwork isn’t given to me–I have to make pictures in my head. What I imagine while reading a novel sometimes impacts what I draw. It’s not unusual for me to pause a moment while reading a novel and think, “How would I draw that?”

    And sometimes novels cover topics that I haven’t seen yet in any comics that I’ve read.

  5. Great article, Neil. A good reminder that sometimes it’s a good thing to step outside your comfort zone. Inspiration is everywhere.

  6. Creativity is a voluble lover, constantly teasing us, and making us suffer thru dry spells, then appearing in an instant of illumination.
    I agree with everyone above: read, read a lot, observe, watch. Then copy shamelessly until you make that your own.
    Yes, I do have a comfort zone made of sci-fi films and books, but a lot of my stories come from my dreams. Always write your dreams! And then there are the stories that were born while drinking alone in a bar thousands of miles away from home, or by watching a nondescript man paying his parking ticket, thinking about how a grasshopper came to be in my garden or recently by contemplating a piece of fan art!
    Thanks for the drop of inspiration, Neil.

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