Today’s post takes a bit of a departure from the usual stuff found here. I’m lucky enough to know
Nate Bellegarde who happens to be a very talented comic book artist. Nate is the artist behind Nowhere Men, a comic that was gaining a lot of traction, but also very late. He decided to explain why and he reveals his issues with depression. Hopefully by sharing this it might help someone else out who is suffering the same afflictions
Where are the Nowhere Men?
On December 12, 2003, Will Eisner gave a talk at Umass Amherst and I drew this while seated in the auditorium. I don’t know why I felt the impulse to draw him, but I did. I was able to come earlier in the day and meet him because my girlfriend at the time knew whoever had organized the engagement. I shook his hand and told him how great it was to meet him and he signed my 2001 reprint of A Contract with God. It felt significant.
Never did I ever once think I would be nominated for an Eisner Award for anything I would do in my comics career. It feels like an out of body experience, like it isn’t even happening to me. Why would a bunch of people nominate me for something I do by myself at a desk in the privacy of a tiny room in a basement? Honestly, all I was doing was drawing a comic book, I didn’t even know people could get nominated for that.
The silence is tacit endorsement.
Did you know that the system of the electoral college no longer served a purpose after people stopped riding horses for transportation? But rather than being abolished and replaced with a more democratic system, it has survived into the age of instantaneous information. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” one might say, but it is probably more apt to say “if it benefits the status quo, don’t change it, and also teach everyone that it is for their best interests to keep it that way.” It’s been long considered to be unprofessional to tell tales out of school. Every so often something will lift a pleasant looking log and expose the unseemly, damp underside and all the wriggling and skittering conducted there on a regular basis. The idiom, “how the sausage is made” implies that seeing the way that something enjoyable is made will turn you off of it. But why are nice things made from bad stuff? What if the sausage was made of skateboards and rainbows and finding a five dollar bill in the pocket of your winter jacket? The idea is that bad things go on behind closed doors, and there is a system in place to punish anyone that might speak out against it. It’s called professionalism. Granted, it is really only the aspect of professionalism that involves keeping your head down and toeing the line. How convenient for the people doing the bad things, that such a system protects them and allows them to carry on doing bad things with impunity for as long as they care to do so, what luck. Don’t mention the casual racism and sexism around the office. Don’t talk about how an artist bollocksed your script forcing an editor to write absurdist dialog to clarify the indecipherable mess left behind. Don’t discuss the rampant cronyism that shelved an innovative storyline in place of an insultingly, condescendingly boring one. The silence is tacit endorsement.
My hope is that eventually, the number of people that are serviced by such practices will fritter away and be replaced with a new guard of, I don’t know, people who watched a lot more Star Trek. I feel like this present generation of young whippersnappers is growing up in an age of social transparency. In the past you used to hear rumors whispered about the horrible, demoralizing, bigoted things people did, but now you can see the video of it happening right there on your phone. There is less of a barrier now than ever between a creator and those that take in their creations. People reach across from both sides to communicate and help each other, and it’s been fascinating to see develop. A web comic creator can let readers in on their personal life to engender a stronger bond between them or maybe just to explain recent activity on their work (“I’ve reached out to a fill-in artist this week because I’ve had to take my dog to the vet,” “I’ve put a sale on a number of merchandise in my shop to fund my dog’s surgical operation,” “I’m now selling the original art from strips to pay for a dog coffin,” etc, etc.).
I’ve always preferred to be frank and honest whenever possible, I feel that the more people try to hide the truth, the more things just get trashed up in the long run. In that vein, I’m also in favor of calling people on their shit and holding them accountable, and just shit-calling in general. If someone puts their foot in their mouth, call them on that shit and give them the opportunity to apologize and/or clarify, and if someone else overreacts to the situation, call them on their shit. If a company keeps giving work to human filth, call them on their shit and suggest they give work to someone who deserves to be in the human gene pool, nevermind the comic book industry. People won’t stop being terrible and doing terrible things unless everyone else makes that a very unpleasant experience for them. Sometimes good jobs go to bad people, and that’s just the way things are, people will say. Yes, that’s the way things are in a structure that is held up by a scaffolding of lies and dishonesty. Sincerity is the only cleaner with scrubbing bubbles that can cut through the sarcasm, deflection, avoidance, denial, regret, and posturing to reveal that sparkling shine beneath. It is in this spirit that I must come clean.
If Nowhere Men is going to be an Eisner-nominated work, then it deserves better than what it’s been getting. Its readers deserve more than to have their generosity and patience answered with foreboding silence. So I am breaking the silence and attempting to set the record straight, and in doing so I must throw someone under the bus: myself.
Any time a friend asks how work on the book is going, my immediate panicked thought is “why, what have you heard?” Rumors crop up. Every now and then I will see someone attribute the delays in Nowhere Men to the writer, Eric Stephenson. If you don’t know, Eric is also the publisher at Image Comics. People assume he is a very busy man and that he just doesn’t have time to write Nowhere Men on the side, or that it simply isn’t one of his priorities. Neither of these could be further from the truth. Yes, being the publisher is a demanding job, one assumes, but there are hours after work and weekends, and this book is something Eric is very passionate about. It took him over ten years of work for it to finally see print, this is no mere dalliance here. It is beyond unfair for Eric to be the target of anyone’s presuppositions.
Dudes! Dudettes! It is pretty much always the artist! Come on! Art is the step that takes the longest to complete and it’s also the step where the most things can be bungled up. I recently looked up what the difference between an excuse and a reason is and I found that they are both essentially the same, but an excuse attempts to excuse one from blame. The things I will tell here are not meant to be excuses. I am to blame and I do not expect clemency or absolution. I only want to answer the many questions asked about this book by its steadfast supporters. Now, this is a story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down.
I could shrivel up and the wind could just blow me wherever it wanted.
Over a year ago, a couple of total bros decided to detonate a couple bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. It was around that night, listening to the police radio and watching the news as a car chase and gun battle that would tumesce any Wal*Militia member east of the muddy Mississip’ tore through the streets of Cambridge, that I started to feel the twinge that something was wrong. I wasn’t upset about the chaos, really. If anything I was proud of my city for being important enough to be the target of a terrorist action, and that it attracted terrorists that were smart enough to know that Boston is where America and all its best ideas were invented. I was already behind on work, and getting wrapped up in the unfolding events made it worse. Things were becoming grim. I ignored my health, rarely saw the sun, neglected friends, all to work every minute I could. Panels took days. Pages took weeks. It felt like my collaborators on the book were sick of me. There was no joy in anything I was doing, even finishing a page didn’t feel like an accomplishment because it felt like the hole I was in was too deep. I didn’t even know if I wanted to keep drawing comic books or what I even liked about doing it. Other problems regarding my family, my living situation, my relationship, plans for the future, all bore down on me. It got so bleak that the only thing keeping me going was the thought that I could finish Nowhere Men #6, throw it into Mount Doom, collapse on its slope, and wait to for the inevitable pyroclastic eruption to obliterate me. I didn’t know what was going to happen after I was done, but I didn’t care. I could shrivel up and the wind could just blow me wherever it wanted. This was the point when I realized that people probably don’t normally feel like this.
I’d never had health insurance. In most of the places I’ve lived I didn’t make any money and assumed it was something expensive that employee-employed people had. Luckily, I live in a bombably-progressive state and they had a program to keep poor sods with pittance-level incomes from dying from easily treatable diseases. Once I was accepted I got every kind of check up I could and I learned quite a bit about myself. It was oddly comforting, to be able to put a name to the causes of a long list of problems throughout my life. I mean, it was also helpful in a practical way to identify, address and correct those problems.
There’s the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which makes a lot of sense in the context of most of my childhood. Finally it made sense why I was clever enough to be enrolled in gifted classes while finishing homework every night was like trying to pull out one of those spaghetti worm foot parasites. Maybe I wasn’t just an immense idiot with intermittent strokes of brilliant good fortune!
…my mind is like Nanny coming into the nursery and lighting it and all the Muppet Babies on fire.
Then there is the autism spectrum disorder, something closer to the high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome end of the spectrum. This one I had suspected for a little while and had already developed some methods with which to cope. Like a lot of similarly-born others, I found ways to adapt and fit in around average people. I’ve affected a repertoire of quirks to carry some of the load in social situations to the point that they’re generally not uncomfortable. But, if I ever get cornered and find myself trapped in some scenario I haven’t prepared for, the artifice falls sloughs off and my mind is like Nanny coming into the nursery and lighting it and all the Muppet Babies on fire. Little to no empathy. Meet people and don’t ask anything about them. Irrational incapability to talk to strangers on the phone unless I initiate the call and have rehearsed what to say. Won’t correct someone if they misunderstood me even if they’re a waiter. Would rather think about how to draw someone crying in microgravity than be in the present moment during a conversation about some topic that doesn’t affect me. And so on. Fun stuff.
The big one is major depressive disorder and was hardest with which to come to terms. It’s hard to say how long it’s been there. Ten years at least, maybe half my life, maybe my whole life. I never thought I was depressed, I never thought I could be depressed, but guess what, I was depressed like gangbusters. After trying everything, anything to fix what I thought was wrong, new chair, new desk, new tablet, new paper, new computer, new home, new schedule, new techniques, new tricks, the only factor remaining was me. The problem was inside me.
There have been so many times when I told Eric that everything is finally going to run smoothly, this time I’m positive, only to be immediately proven wrong. I would set some deadline for myself and when it became clear that I wasn’t going to meet it, I would email Eric, Jordie and Steven and tell them I had hit a snag and send them the progress I had made. No, just kidding, got you there. Instead of doing the sensible thing, I would double down on the stupid. First, the deadline would whoosh by and I would say nothing. If anyone asked for the whiff of a clue of an update, I ignored it. How can I be expected to reply to emails if I am frantically trying to deliver on more than I promised for the deadline as a consolation for having let everyone down? Obviously, this always worked out. Wait, that’s not right. Obviously this would blow up in my face. Having failed twice at my own goals and let days pass since contacting anyone, I did what anyone would do. Grow more and more desperate to finish anything, forgoing sleep for as long as possible, and start ignoring emails and texts from friends. People would start to worry if I was okay, like if something had happened to me and I was in a hospital or dead, and it would finally seem like continuing to drag this out was probably a terrible idea and maybe there was no way this lemon was going to make lemonade. As I said, there have been so many times when I did this.
I told Eric that I needed some time away from work to focus on fixing myself, some proper “me time” so that I could put things right and hopefully return to work. I wanted this to be different, to finally be in a position to put Nowhere Men out consistently, to be, as a person, consistent. After a few months of antidepressants and therapy, I thought it would be safe to start work again. I talked to Eric a great deal about starting fresh, about adopting a more relaxed Saga-style schedule, I even made a chart to go with it! Nowhere Men #7 was half-finished, it was going to be so easy to jump back on the horse. I was ready to start cranking out pages like someone who is paid to do what they love, right as soon as things settled down after New Year’s.
No, you didn’t miss it, do not adjust your set. If you’ve already put two and two together, you might have figured out that things didn’t work out quite the way I wanted them to. This was a considerable blow for me. Not only did I repeat a behavior that existed before treatment, but there was the fact that I screwed up even during treatment as well as having told a lot of people at Emerald City Comic Con that it would be out by September that made it particularly demoralizing. Brohs, brohettes, I am in a super vulnerable position here, trying to be the best person I can be, and right out the gate I get knocked on my ass. To say my confidence was shaken would be an entirely appropriate and concise way to put things, actually, right on the head with that one.
Once you’re loaded up on mind-restructuring chemicals, you are only part-way to stability or functionality or whatever you want to call it. The rest of the way involves what is called cognitive behavior therapy or “cogiorherap” (edit: also “therapy” in some circles [edit: most circles]) for short. Treating depression involves a lot of relearning how to interact with and process things properly. Receiving a gift isn’t supposed to make you feel guilty for tricking someone to believe you deserve nice things. Being complimented isn’t supposed to make you think the person is a soft-headed imbecile with terrible judgement that can’t see you are secretly the owner of a half-dried shit pile in the place of a soul. There is no quick fix to reverse these behaviors, the change is work. It’s hard and there are times when you will mess up and feel like you are slipping and nothing will ever help.
This stuff involves a lot of cleaning house. Along the way I have made a lot of miniature self-discoveries, and it feels like going through the attic and finding a box of Ninja Turtles you thought your mom had sold at a garage sale when you were 13. But the most significant revelation involved guilt, shame and how I trap myself in a loop of negative and self-destructive behaviors. I’ve already described it, but the structure of it is as so:
1. Feel good about self, develop over-inflated idea of your realistic capabilities
2. Make outlandish promises you can’t fulfill
3. Stress, overwork fueled by fear and panic, inevitable crash
4. Fail to fulfill promises
5. Feel worthless, crawl into hole to hide and/or die
6. Netflix binge, play vidjagaems, feverishly masturbate to make yourself feel awesome
7. Shame yourself into recommiting and redoubling your efforts
Although a lot of the emotional roots of my depression are gone, and it is harder for me to flat-out feel worthless, I am still aware of all the reasons I could or should feel worthless. I have talents that I don’t use to their full potential, because of them, opportunities are laid before my feet without earning or working for them, I’m letting down my family and my friends. Bruce Brown was the writer of the Brit series I drew, but I knew him for ten years as Kimo, his username on the Penciljack message boards. Like a lot of the professionals that came out of Penciljack, he owed part of his career to Robert Kirkman, but Kimo was brilliant. His best work was still to come. He died of cancer, the world never got what he had to offer. He is dead and I am alive and I am wasting the time I have by not producing work, and oh by the way, I unquestionably owe the entirety of my career to the kindness and generosity of Robert Kirkman, and Eric Stephenson, and my friends within the field and without, and my family, did I mention the part about letting down my friends and family? I’m constantly aware of all these things only now instead of sleeping to stop feeling things, I just give a dry swallow in a flop sweat.
So where am I at now? Now I am on two different antidepressants, still seeing a therapist every few weeks. I still haven’t finished Nowhere Men #7, though my foremost concern has been getting better. I do still work on it but when I do, I’ve been letting myself dive too hard and too deep into elaborate and excessive designs and redrawing everything I deem unfit for publication. There is a lot of unconscious and unintentional stammering and stalling, and I think it’s because I am worried about what will happen if I do actually finish. Namely, that nothing will happen, that there won’t be anyone left who cares or wants it anymore. I am still figuring things out but I need to start acting on these new understandings. ADHD and ASD both have their drawbacks, ADHD forces me to pursue every thought that comes into my head regardless of what I’m already doing, and ASD makes it hard for me to multitask and prioritize what is important. But they both have helped me in many ways, my mind is constantly being filled with new ideas and because I am detail-oriented and would rather spend time in my own head than in reality, world-building is perfect and enthralling. Nowhere Men is the ideal outlet for me. My entire life I have been struggling against my natural inclinations instead of using them to my advantage, turning my weaknesses into strengths. I just have to find my square hole.
What does that mean for the future? Well, that’s where you come in, you, whoever-is-still-reading-this. Apparently I am the victim of something called Terry Richardson Syndrome, and my creative powers will continue to wither and wane unless I can stuff my genitals inside as many 19-year-olds as possible. Jeez, the worst part about that is that if it really were the case, things would be dire. But I do need help. It is hard to do this alone or with few people, the more help, the better off things will be I figure, and there are things you, virile and adroit reader, can do.
First off, stop going so easy on me. Did you know that two years ago this week Nowhere Men was announced? Pretty cool, huh? No! Persons, get with it! That means in two years only six issues have come out! Also, I was working on the book for two years before it was even published, so really it means that I’ve only made six issue in four years. Four years. It doesn’t matter how you fricassee that chicken, Mr. Lincoln isn’t going to eat it. So stop saying that the book is worth waiting for, even if you think it is. Also stop saying that the art is so detailed that it must take a long time to draw. It does, yes, but I could take longer and never stop drawing details, heck, I am doing that, but I shouldn’t be. The idea is to take as little time as possible without sacrificing any of the quality. This doesn’t mean that I want anyone to be a jackoff about it, either. I know you have waited a long time and are disappointed, but your scorn is not going to make me feel worse than I already have, so take that time and energy and redirect it into something useful, like brainstorming on a more efficient way to fold laundry (do socks really need to be paired if they all match?). I’m sure there is a constructive middle ground that both shows support and encourages me to try harder, and if I knew what that was I guess we probably wouldn’t be here to begin with.
…a lot of the time it feels like posting something online is just tossing it into a bottomless pit…
Secondly, I want to rap with you persons. Remember how I was going on about transparency in the age of blah blah sausages whatever? Well, I want to be more transparent about my working process and day-to-day progress. I like pulling back the curtain and seeing the inner workings of things. I think this would help me stay on track and hold myself accountable for what I do. But there are a couple obstacles to this idea. One, secrecy was and is still a large element to Nowhere Men. Being able to keep things under wraps and have readers piece things together on their own is, I assume, one of the appealing aspects of the book. Eric has asked me to refrain from posting any behind the scenes work in the past and I can appreciate why, so there will have to be some work-around for that. Two, I hate to say it, but some direct feedback would be cool. I know, from looking at the numbers, that quite a bit of people have read Nowhere Men, but I don’t think a lot of them know that I am on the internet? To be very honest a lot of the time it feels like posting something online is just tossing it into a bottomless pit and waiting to hear it hit the ground. When it looks like nobody notices what I do, or worse they do notice it but don’t care, it makes it hard to justify taking the time to post it, and so on, you see where this is going. I’m not asking back-patting or coddling, I’m not even saying you have to be complimentary. Just for there to be a back and forth, some interaction, a connection, would go a long way. I would put up videos of me drawing stuff if I could figure out how to do that, it would be fun maybe. Right? Whoops, where is this page’s picture? Ah, there we go.
So that’s what happened to Nowhere Men. When it comes back out again, we might try to make a big to-do and hooplah regarding to try and coax people back into being interested again. Realize also that this would only be when there is a modest cache of issues ready to prevent further delays and such. I can’t say when that will be but we can all figure it out together. I’m sorry that this got so long but this was all something I needed to get out in the open and I hope that I have managed in some way to settle concerns and doubts. I want to thank everyone who continued to be patient and supportive and apologize for mucking things up so much. I’ve been a terrible collaborator and a frustrating let down and I hope I can make things right. And hey, if you recognize any of yourself in the problems I described it could help to know you’re not alone and that everyone has something they struggle with. Depression makes you feel unwanted and rejected even while causing you to alienate friends and push people away. Artists and creative people in particular can naturally feel alone because taking something from inside yourself and making it tangible is a very solitary undertaking and by presenting it to the world you open yourself up wide for judgement, and all this can make you feel like there is no one to whom you can turn. I used to think it was a blemish of weakness to admit you had a problem and you needed help, but the real weakness is in refusing to ask for help. I hope that’s not something you can only learn the hard way.
When I was younger I thought the Eisner Awards, and a lot of other awards like them, were a load of hooey. How can you turn artistic expression into a competition? That degrades and lowers the entire field and turns everything into an attempt to win an art pageant. But I eventually “ma-toored” and realized that the Eisner Awards aren’t prizes given to the winners of a best comic book contest. They are intended to give recognition to good work. Since we unfortunately don’t live in a world where you can punish people for making bad work, yet, that is all we can do, recognize good work. Sell outs, reprints, downloads, two reviews in the New York Times, and Eisner Award nominations. The only way I’m going to start thinking any of this recognition is deserved is if I start living up to it.
Sources: All images found on the internet. Learn more at http://www.internet.co.uk