IN MY OPINION: The Zen of Comics. [TK:IMO]


Zen of comics

Zen of comics

The Zen of Comics.

Or How to be happy while not quite being where you want to be.


In the words of Bjork “I’m no fucking Buddhist” but I do have very keen interest in their thought system and how they approach the problems of life. The fascinating thing about Buddhism is (as many, many self help “The Zen of…” books are a testament to) that it is very easily applied to wide range of areas. I think it does indeed have something to say about making comics.

Zen Buddhism is a later form of Budhism that emerged after Buddhist thought left India and travelled to Japan and China. Whereas traditional Buddhism talks about endless cycles of death and re-birth, Zen presents a vehicle an Instant Enlightenment. For this blog post though, I will be more leaning towards the original teachings and have used The Zen of Comics as a title only as it was the best name I could come up with.

There is no need for our current purposes, to go into the history of Buddhism or any sort of long winded introduction. There are plenty of resources for that around the webs, instead I am going to jump straight to the basic teachings and the Four Noble Truths, with particular emphasis on the first two Noble Truths.



1 Life is Dukkha

2 The Cause of Dukkha is clinging

3 There is a way out of it

4 The way out of it is the 8 fold path


So what the hell is Dukkha? Well, it has been popularly translated as suffering but current thought suggests that this is a poor translation as it doesn’t give the whole picture. There are many suggestions to what it means. One is that it is the opposite of Sukkha which means sweet. So from this we could say that life is Bitter, but again we aren’t just quite there yet. Others have suggested: unsteady, disquieted, uneasy and unbalanced.

One I quite like is that it could mean Bad Axle, as in an axle of a wheel and not an 80′s rock god. This would suggest to us that, as with a bad wheel axle, things are a bit wobbly.

But, I think the best way to describe what Life is Dukkha is that like Neo, we realise that something just isn’t quite right . It’s something that we just can’t put our finger on but we know its there.

So what is the cause of this? Where does this feeling come from? Unfortunately People haven’t quite agreed on this one either. Some say the cause of Dukkha is attachment, clinging, wanting, needing or grasping. Alan Watts suggests that a better way to look at it is to use the phrase “Hang Ups”. But lets go with “wanting” for the time being.

So, you ask, what remotely has this got to do with comics or drawing or superheroes? Well, here’s the thing: are you happy as a comic creator? We all, obviously, have a need or want to create things of beauty, excitement and adventure in the form of sequential art but has any of us become any happier as a person as a result? Do you get frustrated when no one cares? Do you feel deflated when months of work go unnoticed?

The whole goal of Buddhism is to become happy. Not to find God, not to each enlightenment and not to become more powerful than others. It’s singular goal is to become happy.

Now, I am not going to suggest that all of us are depressed, suicidal or the type that just can’t out of bed to face another day of comic making. If you are anything like me, and I reckon some of you at the very least are, then we go through phases of huge motivation, followed by complete lack of motivation, followed by apathy or something similar.

On good days we’re unstoppable, on bad days we’re unstartable.

Over time, and again I have seen this mostly with myself but surely in others, the sheen and lustre of the comic process fades, as Unfortunately does the passion, the drive and the will.

So, although we are not in the bleakest dark knight of the comic soul (see what I did there) we definitely could up the happiness factor. So let’s move to the second noble truth.

I find it so amazing that so many of us continue to do our thing when quite frankly our only audience is ourselves for the most part. And how horrible an audience we are too, for we can never truly elevate your work over our own. Which is fair enough.

If our audiences is mostly our contemporaries, the chances are that our creations can only be seen as relative to our “fans” creations, with our fan’s creations always being more important in their hearts.

In simple terms, it is hard to have a fan base that are in competition with you for the lime light.

Buddhism suggests the cause of our suffering (uneasiness, unbalanced, etc.) is because we want things to be different than they are. We cling to things and demand that they are so before we can be happy. The problem being that even if all our demands are met we immediately have a new set of demands that need looking at.

We want our comics to be loved, cherished, admired and successful. When this doesn’t arise we can get frustrated, sad and demotivated.

To find happiness in a possible future event (such as “making it”) means we can never be happy. By the time we get to this future event we are already steps ahead looking at what we “need” next and the cycle continues into eternity.

So how do we not cling to our hopes and ambitions? First of all we have to see them as hopes and ambitions and not as necessities. Its is fine and worthwhile to set goals but lets not count on them to be happy. The cliché of its the journey not the destination is all well and good if the destination is assured and frankly, no destination is assured.

With no assurance of success or even that it is even likely (we work in a niche of a niche of a niche) how is it possible to become balanced, easy, at ease or most importantly content with where we are, wherever on the ladder we are?

The secret, it seems, is in not being attached to the outcome of your efforts.

So, if you spend months working on a comic and you publish it and no one cares, pay no mind. If you spend months organising a comic event and no one comes, pay no mind. If you feel you are better or equal to successful people but no one acknowledges it, pay no mind. If you feel you are not good enough and everyone will point and laugh at your comic, pay no mind.

Just do your comic.

Because, at the end of the day, being humans we will never be happy with outside reflections or acknowledge anyway. If 1000 people says your comic is the most amazing thing ever and 1 person says it sucks, what are you going to be thinking about before you go to sleep?

So have no destination, have no journey, just do something better than you did the day before. Do the comic you want, do the comic you love, do the comic that makes you happy. But do it for that reason alone.

Expect no praise, love or prestige from your efforts and you can never be hurt by not getting them. But equally don’t go into expecting nothing but hardship, criticism or ridicule. Expect and want nothing other than to make your comic.

And when you hear that someone is doing well and getting closer to their goals be happy for them and be as genuine as you can.

Someone else succeeding doesn’t mean there is less success left in the world for you. It just means their “needs” have now changed.

So, in conclusion, the first two Noble Truths of Buddhism suggest that although making comics can sometimes be a bit shitty it is probably our own rules and wants and clinging that make it so. If we can make comics for the sake of making comics, and to hell with the consequences, perhaps we might have a much better experience. If our goal is solely to make the best comics we can, and the result be damned, we can not fail to succeed and therefore be happy.


Namaste. :)

  • Gar

    I often think I’m a bit Zen but then I realise that I’m just lazy.

    When I hear some people, including myself, saying they are quitting comics (or whatever artistic field they are in) I think it’s funny because it’s a compulsion for most of us. It’s like saying “I’m quitting going to the bathroom”. You’ve no choice and probably just need to stop for a while. I only take this seriously if the person has switched to some other creative outlet that makes them as happy and there’s no harm in that.

    I think if you find yourself temporarily falling out of love with comics you should find something, or a few things, you really want to read, online etc. You should order them and you’ll be really looking forward to them arriving and getting to read them and when you’re done reading them you are usually inspired. Unless you become intimidated. That is the biggest danger. Thinking you don’t cut the mustard. That’s probably when you have to decide which is more important to you, the catharsis of creating or making a good impression.

    I often think I’m a bit zen when I don’t give much thought to the impression I make but then I realise I’m just obnoxious.

    • tommiekelly

      I've quit so many times that I had to quit quiting.

      But I think you're right that a lot of the time that I want to give up I just need to refocus or look somewhere else for awhile.

      It is a complusion, we have no choice in this at all.

      • Hilbo

        I was nodding my head enthusiastically with Gar and then I read your 'had to quit quiting' remark! HA! SO so true. It really boils down to that simple truth doesn't it? Time, Energy and Money will always be in a state of flux, and that in turn will assist or deter from your creative efforts and output. Learning to love and go with these fluxes or adapting with their flow and assisting a more balanced state, is always a bonus.
        Fun times. :)

  • tommiekelly

    We should start a quiters support group :)

  • Paddy Brown

    I had the opposite problem, but more or less the same solution. I did quit. Didn't make any comics for nearly a decade, tried to concentrate on "real life", the conventional trappings of success, day job, home ownership, all that, and ended up very depressed. Two of the things that got me out of it were cherry-picking a few Buddhist notions about letting go of unfulfilled desires that were making me unhappy, and writing, drawing, and most importantly finishing, Ness.

    I read recently in Scientific American that depressed people and creative people share a lack of "latent inhibition", the process whereby your brain filters out all the stimuli you don't need to be bothered with right now, so there's more going into our heads. Creativity is a way of processing it, depression is not being able to cope with it. Or something like that.

    • tommiekelly

      More than anything in my life people have always told me to stop thinking so much.

      I assume most of you get this too.

      My answer is always: "Well, how do you do that? This is how my brain works and there is not much I can do about it"

      But if what you are saying Paddy, then it would seem that being creative is using all that brain activity for positive use rather than letting it destroy you.

      I like that, it makes good sense.

    • John Robbins

      I've always believed that expectations are resentments under construction – if you can keep your expectations in check, mediocrity ain't so bad.

      My essay 'Closing Shots From A Grassy Knoll' touches on 'latent inhibition' and daydreams: – seven paragraphs down.

  • Deirdre

    I baked today instead of picking up a pencil. No really. Creativity, meh; calories, mmm :)
    I might even bake something for the first quitters support group meeting… If I can be arsed….

    • tommiekelly

      Haha, Make a cake but with a comic drawn on it :)

  • Hilbo

    Hey Deirdre, draw a comic about the cake and how tasty it was…I'm assuming it has been eaten already.
    That 'thinking so much' thing yer on about T, yep, I get that A LOT from other people…I like thinking, analysing, figuring out stuff…but it distracts a lot from the 'doing' part that makes a comic happen. Even asleep my brain is hyper – seriously vivid dreams too. Oh what fun. Overtired is the only time when the quiet happens…time to get meditating perhaps! (pulling zen boots on and adopting butterfly/moth pose as we speak).

  • tommiekelly

    The only I have found to stop my mind is the mindfullness meditation, or counting breaths.

    Listening to white noise is something I am using at the minute.There is (strangely enough) an app for that if anyone wants to try it out.

  • AndyLuke

    Best piece on ICN by far and I'm glad Robbins has read it and linked "Grassy Knoll" in. I've a ton of responses AND reactions on this I'd rather not go into. Bronagh Lawson was talking to me about how many creatives have a constant stream of ideas whereby, just settling on one is a problem.

    Balance is healthy though and where one is happiest allocating their efforts. I don't want to be a hub man. It's good people can find others through me, I don't want to represent or facilitate. I've done this so much, it will happen on auto-pilot (I am cyborg). I can tell you how to do it better than I did. Quitting is just another word for re-allocation of efforts. (The Discordianism of Comics?)

    I think Dukkha could be as much about loving shagging or walking too far. Think about it…why would anyone want an eight-fold path? Seriously..earthquakes and storms and roadworks out of control. No way.

    Excellent Tommie.

  • tommiekelly

    Glad you enjoyed Andy

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