I was thinking about doing a web-comic when I left Los Angeles. I was telling people then that a web-comic was my next project. In Los Angeles, when people ask, you have to tell them you’re working on something. So I told them that.
It wasn’t entirely a lie.
I’d struggled with a theatre over ownership of some of my plays, and I had written for television briefly. I had failed to make any headway as an actor, as a theatrical director or as a stand-up comic. I’d begun to feel that even if I were successful, that my work would always be controlled by someone else and in the end it would never matter that I was the one doing it. I was a cog.
So I decided to leave.
Probably a year or so before that, someone had introduced me to Achewood. (If you haven’t read it, do yourself the favor.) I was impressed by the content of course, but also by the business model. I am not very good at making myself jump through hoops, so making a living at my craft has never been easy for me. Here looked like a way to get my work directly in front of an audience with no gatekeepers. I’d be free to just dive in and go.
Free to fuck up in any way I happened to. Which is the bug of it, of course. But more on that later.
So, in my last days in Los Angeles, I was telling everyone I was going to do a web-comic. And then I returned to my home town, expecting it to be exactly as I had left it. (It wasn’t, of course. Screw you Thomas Wolfe.)
And I did actually do some work on the comic. I was developing a storyline about a space soldier and a young prince having adventures across the galaxy. Vorto had not yet taken over the strip and it lumbered under the overly long working title,”Dromo Antiphilus of the Royal Galactic Praetorian Guard.” I had always thought my protagonists would meet up with a pirate and travel with him for a while, but in my mind at the time he was cut more from the Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks cloth. And he was definitely a secondary character.
I struggled for some time with the project, filling notebook after notebook with ideas, but never getting anywhere with it. In the meantime I worked at a restaurant, met a girl, had a life. I kept shelving the project and coming back to it only to shelve it again when it refused to be what I wanted it to be.
And I returned to my first love, which is doing nothing.
That had actually been the other idea I returned home with. Living in L.A., I had come to fear that I might spend my whole life struggling and chasing and never allow myself to experience life as it came. And I had this notion of belligerent laziness. That I would flatly refuse to make anything of myself. That I would defy the protestant work ethic and live like a combination of a Buddhist monk and a recalcitrant teenager. Turns out even that kind of life requires a certain commitment that I found difficult. Without my work, I grew depressed and discontented. Giving up your ambition is not as easy as it sounds.
So I kept coming back to the strip idea. I would struggle with it for a while and then give up, figuring that all the stuff I had written before was just a fluke.
My dad used to tell me that he wrote because he couldn’t not write, which always seemed like bullshit to me, since not writing is like the easiest thing that I do. It turns out that I have no problem not writing, but I am absolutely incapable of turning off the stream of daydreams in which my characters develop. They would live in my head, slowly forming and reforming themselves over time. And knowing that they would suffocate in there, that I was condemning them to be stillborn, was causing me quiet agony. They wanted to live, the contentious fuckers. And they wouldn’t leave me alone. They kept nagging me.
Still, I diligently ignored them, until I visited my brother and his family in Los Angeles one Christmas and his two year old son started calling me “Robot” for reasons that are still unclear. The next year I brought him a tee-shirt that I’d made, bearing a robot head logo with the words “Uncle Robot Loves Me.”
And then I made an Uncle Robot shirt for my girlfriend at the time. Then I made one for myself. Turned out making t-shirts was fun. And it occurred to me that I was really enjoying working in a visual and design medium, and if you combine that with narrative you have a comic, and maybe it was time to dust off “Dromo Antiphilus of the Royal galactic Praetorian guard” once again.
And with the help of a friend, I got myself a copy of Adobe Illustrator and immediately gave up when I discovered how hard Adobe Illustrator is.
And that was that until one day, for no reason I can name, I sat down and drew a sketch of the space pirate I had intended the boys to meet. This time he refused to turn out dashing. I kept changing details here or there, trying to find the character that was in my head. Bit by bit I tinkered with the details until the finished drawing looked nothing like I had intended. He came out looking like Jackie Gleason with a beard. (You will notice, he’s changed a bit since then, too.)
I looked at him for a long time before I drew him a logo. “Vorto the pirate.” I don’t know why I did that. I thought I was just playing around. But the pirate bastard kept bugging me. It was as if Sir John Falstaff had a baby with Captain Nemo, and then Popeye raised him. I found myself going back to my comic strip with the vague notion that maybe this new Vorto would play a bigger role. Maybe even spin off from the strip when the time came.
But he wasn’t content with that. Every time I started to write, Vorto kept demanding a bigger part. He’d show up and steal the hero’s spaceship, or pop in in the background of scenes and steal old ladies’ jewelry while winking at the the audience. And I’d go ahead and write it that way and then edit him back out again. Over and over again. But he wouldn’t go away. I kept plodding away at the story idea over and over again. I’d configure and reconfigure it, giving Vorto ground little by little until the obstinate pirate finally took the whole strip over. I barely even know where he came from.
But he’s here. Emile Vorto, the insufferable prick who made me give up my coveted laziness. Now I meet a strict weekly deadline and carry a workload equivalent to a second full-time job so he can antagonize the noble and heroic protagonists I had originally intended to write about.
Oh well. When life give you lemons, make lemon sandwiches, I guess.