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The Fear I Found in Success


Something happened when I found success. Though mine was more critical than financial, nonetheless, in the world of indy comics what happened with Axe Cop was undeniably big. In indy comics, simply making enough money to pay the rent while doing what you love is significant. It's the kind of big event you hope and pray for every day when you are trying to make it as an artist but you know the chances are it will never happen. I could go on about how "success" as we often define it is a total mirage, but true as that is, that is not what this post is about. This is about an unforeseen side effect of success: a powerful fear that came with it.

I originally wrote this post in a sort of personal journal entry, never intending to share it with others. I was promising myself to write exactly what I was thinking, without fear. So, what you are about to read is pretty personal stuff but I figure if I have experienced this fear, maybe others have as well, and for those who are seeking success it can serve as a warning.

Up until I made my hit webcomic, I created with a lot less fear. At least that is how it feels when I look back at those days. My goal was just to make stuff. Make it the way I like it and hope someone out there loves it. Then the day came that someone did. A LOT of people did.

It is incredibly surreal creating something out of complete sincerity and having it go viral. Your exposed soul becomes clickbait. Your special moment in time becomes a cool blog post or trendy story for a podcast or TV show. Even though you know that the whole reason they are coming to you is because you found something real, something about the whole experience makes you start thinking like they do. It’s like you suddenly reached a new, high level. And with that high level comes a fear of falling off the ledge. You cling to trying to hold onto being the hot thing.

When my work went viral, my email inbox became like a daily Christmas tree of affirmation. Fan letters, praise from blogs, Google alerts with tons of results, people talking about me and my art, praising me for being a great big brother, conventions inviting me, paying for my travel, celebrities tweeting about me, wanting to shake my hand, talent agencies calling me, Hollywood execs wanting to meet with me. All of them chasers of the hot thing of the moment and, when you are that, they love you, while it lasts. Then, as anyone who knows anything about real life is aware, it fizzles.


San Diego Comic Con, the year Malachai and I were special guests.

To this day, I still check my email obsessively like a man checking the Christmas tree for missed gifts in the middle of July. The experience has changed me. I find myself tapping refresh on Twitter, begging for another exciting rush of adoration. It’s a fulfilling feeling when it arrives out of the blue. You begin to wonder how you ever survived without it. The thought of losing it becomes paralyzing. That fear tames you. It seeps into everything you create. Things you used to do with wild abandon, you now do with caution. No longer are you creating in the closet with little hope of ever being seen. Instead, you are being watched, there are eyes on you. They all want to know if you can live up to the freak success you achieved with that last thing you made, and since you have no idea why that thing among all your creations put you on the map, you live unsure of how to ever do it again.

Perhaps this is why people with massive egos do so well in entertainment. They believe they deserved it all along. They don’t sit around fearing that it will go away. They are in their element when they are being praised and adored. For me, it’s incredibly awkward. It awakens a loneliness in me that always hoped but never really believed I deserved to be praised for my work. It creates a need in me I have come to despise. A need that amplifies my insecurity. Insecurity I thought I had overcome, and never did I expect success to be the thing that caused it to resurface.

I can feel the tight grip of that fear on my work. I find myself creating with this dread that if I don’t come up with another viral sensation soon, I will dwindle into irrelevance and go right back where I was before this all happened. It also affects my honesty. I rarely talk about my own faith or opinions because they don't tow the line of what this industry demands, so I lock away who I really am. I used to share myself without abandon, and now I share my art but hide myself, hoping something sticks. Like a man in a canoe, lost on a river, just floating along wondering if he’ll ever come to shore. I used to paddle like mad, but now I'm waiting for another big tugboat to come give me a free ride.

A similar fear seems to have taken over much of Hollywood with the neverendng remakes of remakes of remakes. A paranoia permeates the whole industry. I feel it when I pitch, a tenseness about new ideas. Maybe it was always like that, but even in the relatively short time I have been here it feels like things have changed. Like all of Hollywood is living in a post-success paralysis.

The irony is that the scary past I so fear returning to—the irrelevance, being unknown and unwatched—is exactly what got me success in the first place. Creating without anyone’s approval. Without a big online following. Just me and my art. It’s odd how terrifying the thought of going back to that place is to me but it’s clear that is where I must go. I must let go of the fear that came with success if I ever want to create anything I am truly proud of. I must create as if my success never happened.

I often roll my eyes at the idea that creatives and artists are "brave". But I am realizing that creativity really does require a form of bravery. Not the kind people usually insist on, like that artists are supposed to shock and upset authority. No, I think you can be a shock-artist out of the same kind of fear,and cling to it as a safety net just as badly as any other form of art. Creativity requires the real kind of bravery—not the kind that points the finger at others, but that points the finger inward—that forces you to dig into who you really are and be that person whether or not anyone likes it. You have to create from a real place or the whole thing is a big waste of time.

In this realization, I have made a vow to be more honest with myself and to make every attempt to put that honesty into my work. I want to make stuff as if nobody will ever know about it, and I want to be honest about who I am and what is really important to me, regardless of what everybody thinks. I'm a husband, a father, a Christian. In some way, my work is a refection of everything I hold dear. I want to create that way.

And, just to be clear, I am not making the case that art is done for the self and is only rewarding as a form of self expression. I believe it is bigger than that. Art is a reflection the Creator in the creation. It's between you and your very meaning. As I often say, it is a thing we find as a gift to us, not as a thing we can take credit for. But that is a whole other essay.

If you have experienced some form of success and found this fear in the aftermath, I encourage you to seek out the person you were before that success came. Don't deny your growth, but remember who that person is and don't lock them away. Why were you creating in the first place?

And to those striving for success, just remember that it comes and goes. Who you are, deep down, never goes away, and it is up to you to hold onto that through each of life's storms, whether it's raining praise or bad luck.

Ethan


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