Dreamkeepers Decade: Ten Tips From Ten Years of Business & Art

Happy New Year, and thank you everyone!

Dave & Liz have attained the first stage of our ambitions:  Devoting our labor towards breathing life into the series.  For over a decade, that has been the dream.

Thanks to the best readership on earth, we are now there.  Working full-time on our original graphic novel saga, with absolute creative freedom as CEOs of a company we founded, gathering a coalition of talent with which to advance.

Vivid Publishing is poised to occupy new territory in 2020, leveraging creative firepower that exceeds the limits of our own two sets of hands.  Comics, games, animation...  

Before we sound the charge and share the year’s battle plan, how did we attain this vantage point?  Even professional industry artists dream of having the prerogative to pursue their own projects full time.  

Here at the juncture of decades, it’s as good a time as any to share some war stories.  So before we reveal our 2020 plans, reflect with us.

Vivid Publishing and Dreamkeepers started with nothing.  No investors, no ritzy business loans or trust funds, absolutely zero online following, and not a helping hand from anyone in media or publishing.   

Young David paid his way through art college with scholarships and work programs, graduating with debt and bills. No parental basement, no help with rent or food, just an immediate obligation to keep the lights on using one tool:

A pencil.

So how did we get from poverty and a blank sheet of paper to here?  When 96% of businesses fail within ten years, what explains Vivid?

A decade provides a lot of survival lessons- I’ll try to distill some here, in the hopes that others can benefit from our experience.  

So without further ado- here are ten tips from ten years of business and art.

1) Maintain your health.

Don’t break the only tool in your box.  

In early 2006 Vivid did not yet exist, another company was slated to publish Dreamkeepers, and I was scrambling to finish Volume 1 for their deadline.  I took four days off from my movie theater job- which if you’ve ever worked minimum wage, you will realize that means risking termination.  I also took four days off from sleeping.

I nailed the comic deadline and immediately crumpled with a devastating fever that resulted in days of delirium.  Despite the timely submission, the publisher decided to push our release date back for over a year.  Their deadline proved pointless, I experienced unnecessary misery, and my net productivity was down after accounting for recovery time.   

To cover distance in your career, think like a marathon runner and not a sprinter.  Diet, exercise, and sleep will magnify your energy levels and result in consistently better output.

2) Get a job- a smart one.

If you have financial problems, swallow that pride and get a job.  Advice that nobody wants to hear.  More enticing to be the next crowdfunding superstar, stepping out of school and directly onto a landmine of automatic internet fame.  

To those fortunate lottery winners of the artistic world, good!  Onwards and upwards, and let’s hope it happens to more of us.  But it’s not smart to assume it’ll happen to you, and it sure didn’t happen for me.

Most of us have to work our way up the old-fashioned way.  Our customer base is like a precious baby that has to be nurtured so that it can grow and become stronger.  Feed it consistent, superior value.

If you’re being eaten alive by bills, it’ll be tempting to hit the emergency-commission self-destruct button, or find other ways to squeeze money from that baby in the crib.  Extract more value than you provide, and you can kiss your crowdfunding career goodbye.  The only thing harder than building trust is rebuilding it.   

I wasn’t above getting a joe-job, and if you need one, then neither are you.  But finding the right type of job makes a huge difference.

Fresh out of art college, I felt it was mandatory to earn income with art.  Otherwise what was the point of all that education?   

Working at a little animation studio and prolific freelancing (kind of) paid the bills, but left me spent.   

I added a movie theater job to the mix, leaving me with more artistic energy to spare.  But it was suboptimal, so I upgraded to a security guard job.  That was easier, paid enough for me to drop freelance, and let me brainstorm stories at work.  Then a further upgrade, when I moved to a night-shift position that allowed me to draw Dreamkeepers discretely between foot patrols.

There were some downsides.  They turned the heat off in the building at night, when all the people who mattered were gone.  They also banned plug-in space heaters for the guards at the desk.  Some Volume 2 and 3 art was drawn through gloved hands in a parka.  But the important part was, it got drawn.

I could work on Dreamkeepers, pay the bills, and nurture our fledgling readership in the hopes that one day it would grow to take care of us in return.   

It took seven years.   

Maybe you can pay the bills with a trust fund, or magic guardian-angel boomers, or maybe you’ll be the one-in-a-million that stumbles upon instant fame.  But if not, resist the temptation to squeeze the baby.  Just get a job.  A smart one.

3) No More Video Games.

You can’t get something for nothing- there are going to be sacrifices.  I heard the phrase recently- ‘Find out what the cost of success is, and then pay it.’

Working to get Dreamkeepers off the ground, while working to pay the bills, left no time for messing around.  I gave up video games, vacations, a social life…  In my head, I figured I was quite literally gambling away my twenties, in the hopes that I might secure the career of my dreams in the next decade.

Even holidays were forfeit.  The security job had time-off limitations.  I had to choose between seeing family over the holidays, or dealing at Anthrocon and other events to promote our comic.

Holidays were thrown onto the fire during my time as a security guard.

Now do you, personally, really need to give up video games entirely?  Maybe, maybe not.  I think of it as a vice, like alcohol or sugar.  If you’re achieving your goals and you can indulge, then good.  But too much can derail your life, and ‘too much’ is different for everyone.   

All I know is, I had to give up video games to get where I am now, and I’ve never known someone who attained greatness by investing half their waking hours in World of Warcraft.  Is it more important to be a consumer or a creator?   

4) Don’t stop.

Sometimes life hits you with a truck.

During Volume 3, Liz and I had one car and two jobs.  My work site was only a couple miles away, which meant I could sling on a backpack with my lunch and a guard uniform and hoof it.  Knock out exercise and transportation needs in one fell swoop, not bad.  Being in Ohio meant occasionally jogging through freezing rain or snow, but it beat waiting for a bus.  Who has time for a bus when there are Volume Three pages waiting at home?  Every footfall was taking me towards a better future, and there was no reason to delay that process.  

The route home was a straight shot sidewalk alongside Broad Street, the busiest road in downtown Columbus.  One day- incidentally, the last time I would need to run that route- was particularly slushy, with rush hour traffic blazing the lanes to my right as I numbly lurched home.

Darting between cars to make a left turn, a truck zipped at me just as I was crossing a side road.  After a mile in the frozen rain, my legs were lead.  No tricky ninja dodging, but I could choose under or over.  I chose over, hopped up a bit, and got punted about 20 feet through the air by the truck.  The pavement came up like a midnight slap in the face, but I managed to roll like a drunk octopus.  Between that, the backpack, and the kevlar, my hide was intact.

A woman popped out of the truck horrified, asking if I was alright.  I had no idea, so I thought, ‘well let’s test everything out.’  I stood up, tried out all the limbs, and was happy to report no pain.  But the hood of her truck had an ugly David-shaped dent.  As long as she was worried about me, maybe she wouldn’t notice that dent…

I calmed her down, and we parted on friendly terms before she realized there was a new birdbath on her hood.  I strapped everything back on, and started walking the rest of the way home.  And then picked up speed, and got back to running.  Because I could, and because why not?

The moral of the story is, life will throw trucks at you in one form or another.  Bet on it.  Sometimes they will cause damage, but if they don’t, then why break stride?  Something truly harmful will happen soon enough, so if an event doesn’t stop you, keep going while you can.

5) Take help, but not for granted.

How about a change of pace from the pious self-reliance sermons?  At one point we received a life-changing boost not because of any trace of manly virtue, but rather because it was so manifestly obvious how pathetic my struggles were.  Buckle up, and I will tell you another tale.

This was a Tennessee convention, and my rolling collection of spare parts got tuckered out just as we pulled in to Memphis.  At first I thought the city had curiously loud pavement, but discovered later it was my car doing a half-baked transformers impression, and dragging it’s guts along the pavement.  Dealing at the convention gave me time to solve the riddle of how to arrive home in time for my Tuesday work shift.

Without the funds to pay a local repairman, I was left to my own devices.  Later I proudly told Liz’s parents how I discovered that duct tape wouldn’t work.  The muffler would get too hot and melt through it.  But when I tore the duct tape into strips and wove them into a makeshift rope, I was able to keep everything together long enough to get home.

Liz’s parents were super impressed and happy with this story, and in an unrelated decision later, opted to put us into a real car, with all the bells and wheels.  The only reasonable response to that generosity was, ‘thank you.’

Previously I had no choice but to haggle for the cheapest possible junkers and drive them into the ground, trying to balance repair costs against the need for the next mechanical liferaft.  Outside kindness broke us out of that cycle.  It may be unexpected, but you never know when someone will give you a helping hand.  Take it, and respect their goodwill by ensuring it does not go to waste.   

6) Kaizen.

Get better.  If you’re not good enough now, maybe you can get that way over time.  It’s easy to see visually, compare early Volume 1 and Prelude art to our current comic pages.  Hone your skills whether it’s storycraft, dialogue, penciling, coloring & lighting, layout, storyboarding, game design, marketing & branding, finance, you name it.  Things do not stay the same- if you’re not getting better, you’re probably getting worse.   

So always keep your eyes and ears open for new techniques, keep your brain turned on while working, and seek small ways to continually improve.  Combining ‘Kaizen’ with ‘Don’t stop’ organically leads to tip seven.

7) Adapt.

The world doesn’t stay still- just ask any professional Youtuber.  Algorithm changes and “adpocalypses” constantly  distort the landscape, and a failure to adapt can mean extinction.  Adaptation sounds good in general, but it has become an acute requirement within our corporate silicon-valley dystopia.   

2004-2008 was the ‘Golden Age’ of webcomics.  Internet users wanted their daily hit of dopamine, and frequent comic updates were a favorite nostrum. Sites would sport ‘link exchange’ pages or ‘webrings,’ and accessible ad platforms like ‘Project Wonderful’ augmented the ecosystem.  Jokes were nonfatal.

By 2009-2015, times had changed.  Internet users broadly abandoned websites in favor of interacting within social media environments, during what I call the ‘Open Social Media Age.’  Instead of visiting websites, now every user WAS a website.  Dopamine was easier to get by indulging in tribal slapfights and endless videos, so comics faded in prominence, and old promotional techniques no longer had the same punch.  Mobile phones meant smaller screens, smaller attention spans, and increasingly users did not explore their world, but had it presented to them by algorithms.  Crowdfunding became a tool, with many demonetized youtubers fleeing to Patreon as a refuge.

2016 initiated what I call the ‘Closed Social Media Age.’  Tribal pettiness was enthusiastically adopted by silicon valley staff, feverishly infecting the internet’s brain with a distorting pus of shame and hate.  Blacklisting, whitelisting, algorithms, pay-to-play and brute bias now control what consumers in the social media sphere see and think.  Patreon betrayed its users at the behest of Mastercard, while Paypal and other financial institutions swung a sledgehammer at the knees of competing crowdfunding platforms.   

Who knows where things will go from here?  Consumer habits, silicon valley financial cartels, cultish political blacklisting, it all impacts the landscape for normal artists and authors.

My advice at this point is, diversify.  Investing your time and presence on a social media platform, crowdfunding service, or website should be treated like a literal investment.  If you only have a following on Twitter and one deranged employee decides to erase you (or worse, blacklist you) there is no recourse.  That investment is damaged or gone.  So put your eggs in more than one basket.  Things change fast and bystanders can get crushed in the gears.   

8) Judge people by actions, not words.

Simple, but powerful.  Pay attention to what people do, rather than what they say, and you will see past the mask.  If you remember this quote at the right time, it’s a social superpower.   

9) Stick to your Guns.

Doormats get stepped on. Well-meaning appeasement is blood in the water to a belligerent zealot.  How many times have you seen a celebrity apologize publicly, and how does that usually work out for them?

Say what you want in your work.  It can be inappropriate, violent, funny, horrific, it’s fiction.  Don’t let anyone stab their handle into your cherry red sports car and tell you how to drive- because even if they knew what a steering wheel looked like, they’d crush your beautiful ride into a ditch.

If you’re telling a story that is fun or matters, expect people to try and co-opt or destroy it.  The Comics Code mutilated artistic expression in the 50’s, the conservatives tried to stamp out sex and violence in the 90’s, the left is having their decade of fear and hatred presently.  Pander to it at your risk.

Down that path you become the quivering hostage of your own inquisitorial readership.  One wrong tweet, one political view that was updated a little too slow, and they’ll be roaring with glee waving your head on a pike.  Another flapping scalp to fuel their open-mouthed purity.

Discretion is one thing, but don’t ever bend the knee because they will never permit you to stand straight ever again.  A good rule of thumb- don’t let fear make your creative decisions.  To achieve authenticity in your work, you must be fearless. That’s what your true audience craves.

A note on constructive critique- it’s very rare, and often a disguise for passive aggression.  But a critic’s intent doesn’t really matter.  Listen if you want, and use anything that can make your work more true to itself.   

Know the target you want to hit with your story.  Anything that improves your aim, use it.  But when people tell you to choose a different target, let them write their own story.

10) Delegate.

This is the last tip, because it’s the one I need to finally get right in order to tackle what we have planned.  I’ve gotten delegation wrong the following ways:

A)  In art college, I learned that the only person I could rely on in a group project was myself.  Every other person would drop the ball and fail to provide anything.  But I learned the wrong lesson. I thought the problem was that nobody was being paid for their work.  Proper compensation, surely, would correct everything.

B)  Freelancing color blocking has been very helpful- but at times Vivid would run thin on funds, so we couldn’t procure it consistently, and so I would stop offering work to people that probably still wanted to help.

C) I finally had an opportunity to pull in helpers on a major project, and since I wanted things to go better than college, of course I paid the contributors.  Imagine my surprise when that made no difference whatsoever, and they vanished without a word, leaving me to my own devices.  The lesson here:  Proper compensation doesn’t guarantee anything.

D) I HAVE run into a handful of spectacular folks over the years, who- despite our inability to provide financial compensation- have been astronomically helpful.   So I think at last I have the proper lesson on how to delegate:

Learn to rely on good people, and see where that takes all of us.   

Then & Now.

In 2010 Dreamkeepers had Volume 1 and Volume 2 graphic novels, with a few hundred readers.  There were no public pages, and Prelude was just getting rolling.

Now we have Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 nearing completion, Prelude Collection 1, thousands of print editions and tens of thousands of digital books sold, a manufactured plush, a full orchestral album for Volumes 1 through 4 and Volume 5, the tabletop game Skirmish with the ‘Ruthless’ expansion, the award winning spinoff novel Wayward Astronomer, and a talented coalition of new authors signed with Vivid Publishing and ready to join us for the next steps forward.   

Stage 1 of success was for Liz and I to have our full time available:  Time for Stage 2.   

Did you really think we’d rest here?

It’s time to get the Dreamkeepers Animated Series rolling.

Hazbin Hotel has blazed the trail, showing that there’s a market for independent animation- if you can produce it first.

We don’t have the budget or the team for a full pilot, but that I bet we can get there if we start smart.

We’ll begin with a two-minute animated short, placed as a stretch goal in the Dreamkeepers Volume 5 campaign.  The short will feature unseen storyline that takes place between Prelude and Volume 1 of the series.  Fresh content for veteran readers, and also a punchy introduction to the series for new fans.   

With two minutes of knock-your-socks-off traditional animation, I think we can spike awareness of the DK franchise, and use that to crowdfund the pilot episode.

To aid in the process, we’re doing a Custom Wallscroll Drive during 2020’s Couchcon (our online annual convention.)  If you’ve ever gotten a commission from David, or Skidd & Phuufy, or Boneitis or any other Vivid Publishing author- you’ll have a chance to get your personal commission printed and delivered to you on a full size wallscroll.

Uberquest wallscroll proceeds will go towards fulfilling & closing out their Volume 2 Kickstarter, and Dreamkeepers wallscroll proceeds will go into the war-chest for funding animation.

Vivid’s False Start is launching in 2020 as well, with the first book release of the World’s Greatest Furry Artist, Boneitis.  Another author with an intrepid story of personal fortitude.

In addition, the Dreamkeepers sidescroller video game is officially moving onto the front-burner.  To solidify our animation techniques I’ll be completing the asset library for the primary playable character, Mace.  Then we’ll launch playtesting modules to begin refining the combat, stealth, puzzle, and platforming elements of the game.  If all goes well, we can share a sample environment to explore this summer.

Volume 5, False Start 1, the Couchcon wallscroll campaign, the Dreamkeepers animated short, and the video game.

Oh, and Vivid will be showcasing all of this in a brand-new Toonami-style animated content block, featuring our very own interstellar battle cruiser.

We never would have come this far without you- but together, we’re about to go even further.

Thank you for being along on the adventure, things are about to get wild.

Stay tuned via our newsletter: http://www.dreamkeeperscomic.com/EmailNewsletter.htm   

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