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“It’s okay to suck": Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran on failure (and what comes next)

Neil Gaiman and Collen Doran speak at MoCCA Fest about growing in your abilities as an artist.

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Image credit: Colleen Doran

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"It's okay to suck," says Neil Gaiman. "But then write the next story."

That was the advice Gaiman and artist/writer Colleen Doran had to share recently at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art’s Arts Fest (MoCCA) recently in a panel about thier 35-year collaboration.

As the duo talked in front of a live MoCCa audience at a panel moderated by Kim Munson, they recounted their first meeting back in 1989 inside the then-New York City offices of DC Comics. That meeting led to Doran working with Gaiman on the acclaime Sandman arcs 'Dream Country' an 'A Game of You'. Years later, she reached out about adapting the 1998 Gaiman short story 'Troll Bridge' - a story about a boy haunted into manhood by his fears and regrets.

What was intended to be a chance to turn one of her favorite stories by one of her closest friends turned intoa regretable experience.

"[It] was terrible. I was so horrified," Doran admits to the udience.

Gaiman, a friend (the best kind, one that'll tell you the honest truth even when it hurts), agreed. “It wasn’t very good.”

The two had a phone conversation about the situation. And as Gaiman recalls, Doran said, “One day I’ll be ready. Can I do it when I’m ready?” He agreed.

A decade went by.

“I just wasn’t ready earlier on," says Doran. "It took me a long time to learn the skills, to hone the skills.”

She ended up eventually learning a whole new way of doing art for the book, and that, too, came with plenty of complications.

“That’s when I went to digital painting,” she recalls. “And I did everything the wrong way. I didn’t know anything about flatting. It took me like a week to do a page sometimes.”

But to her amazement, Gaiman and the book's intended publisher Dark Horse Comics never rushed her.

>“I did everything wrong, but everyone was super patient," she explains.

Gaiman remembers that the book's editor Diana Schutz updated him about the project occassionally, including at least one time where he was told Doran had been out of touch for a year.

"But you came through."

“Eventually!” Doran replies. “They took the time to stand back and ‘let her do what she needs to do.’ That just doesn’t happen.”

The book finally came out in 2016. It became a New York Times bestseller.

The struggle of being an artist (or a creator of any kind), is real.

“It’s okay to suck,” Gaiman sai in response to a question from the audience. “That’s the only way you get better.”

“There’s a weird kind of thing that we expect from artists that we don’t expect from anyone else, which is that you have to be good straight out of the gate," says Gaiman. "You wouldn’t say, 'Here’s a piano, amaze us.' You want your brain surgeon to have screwed up an awful lot on things that were inanimate before she ever gets to operating on you.”

Doran agreed.

“I’ve done a lot of poor quality work,” she says. “I have sucked, and I don’t know, maybe I still suck now. But I’ve learned.”

“We beat ourselves up when we’re not perfect,” Gaiman acknowledges. “We write a story and we screw up the ending or whatever and then we’re the worst things in the world. But that’s what you’re meant to be doing. You’re meant to be telling stories and making your mistakes and learning how to do things and getting better.”


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Jim McDermott avatar

Jim McDermott

Contributing writer

Jim is a magazine and screenwriter based in New York. He loves the work of Stephen Sondheim and cannot take a decent selfie.

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