Thursday, October 06, 2005

Stop me if you heard this one before...

I'll tell you a secret... I practice buddhism, specifically the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin. Y'know, chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. Twice a day "to my heart's content," whether I need to or not.

Despite occasional lapses, Buddhism has made, and continues to make, an enormous difference in my life.

I was introduced to the practice by a comic book writer in 1988.

Since I was young I always wanted to work in comic books and, as a teenager, developed an interest in lettering, a largely unregarded but essential art without which comics cannot be read. Pen lettering is an arduous task but I enjoyed the challenge and, after graduating from college, I picked up lettering work for various comic book publishers in London.

In a very short period of time I was hired by Marvel Comics on staff in London and eventually rose to the position of editor of boys adventure comics when I was just 25. I continued to letter comics on the side to earn extra money, but I loved editing comics, it paid well and London is a great place to spend your mid-twenties and your income. I thought I was perfectly happy.

Unfortunately, no one at Marvel UK seemed capable of teaching other editors how to create good comic books. It was clear to me that enthusiasm and love of comics did not qualify me to help the young writers who wanted to work at Marvel HOW to tell good stories any more than it enabled them to PRODUCE good stories. Older and more experienced writers were either too expensive for us, or preferred not to work on the licensed properties we published, such as TRANSFORMERS, THUNDERCATS or GI JOE.

When I was given the task of editing a comic based on the GHOSTBUSTERS cartoon series, I found myself having to cast around for new writers in order to generate the large amount of material that was needed in the book. I bought a number of scripts that were okay but they seemed to lack something which I couldn’t quite put my finger on. They didn’t seem truthful. I wanted to read and publish stories that were both fun and meaningful!

A young artist I had hired to draw comic strips for GHOSTBUSTERS recommended the work of his old schoolfriend, John, and brought him to meet me. Generally I avoided hiring friends of friends but there was something mercurial about John that inspired me to give him a chance. John was quick with a joke and earnest in his desire to write entertaining stories. The scripts he turned in proved to be witty and vibrant and eagerly sought after by the artists working for me. I struggled in vain to understand what exactly it was that they contained so that I could communicate “the formula” to other writers.

I soon learned from John’s friend that he was a Buddhist and after he and I had come to know each other, I asked him about his practice. I sat with him and his wife as they performed gongyo and leafed through a book called GUIDELINES OF FAITH. Pretending not to be very interested, I asked John if I could borrow the book.

Halfway through my reading I came across the phrase “turning poison into medicine.” Suddenly, a penny dropped. All John’s GHOSTBUSTERS stories turned negatives into positives. The Ghostbusters would be called to bust a ghost in a hotel, but would persuade the ghost and the hotel manager to work together so that people would visit the hotel BECAUSE it was haunted; or the Ghostbusters would trap two mischievous electrical sprites in a battery, thereby creating a source of everlasting power.

I called John the next day and confronted him with my realization. “Gotcha!” I told him. “You’re propagating Buddhism in your stories, aren’t you? Admit it!”

“Um, No, not deliberately,” John told me, “but I have been practicing for over four years and I guess that Buddhist philosophy is starting to bubble up out of my life into my work.”

I never quite believed John’s denial, but regardless of his intent, I decided I wanted to get me some Buddhist wisdom. I started chanting daimoku and encouraged the other writers working for me to consider the concept of “turning poison into medicine” as an alternative to the “this ghost is toast” philosophy our licensor encouraged. Subsequently THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS comic became one of Marvel UK’s most successful publications.

However, my personal success at Marvel was short lived. Shortly after embracing Buddhist practice, I initiated a series of workshops to train editors in the basics of storytelling and comics production. Suddenly my editor in chief grew jealous and suspicious of my intent and accused me of making a power play. Stunned by her accusations, I stepped out of the office at lunchtime and chanted daimoku for one hour. I decided I wanted no part of petty office politics and when I got home that evening wrote a letter of resignation. I had some money saved and decided I would use it to take a year off to travel round the world.

To cut a long story short, my savings ran out in California about eight months later. I had spent a long summer in New York where friends at the central offices of Marvel Comics gave me as much freelance lettering work as I could handle, and I continued to work for Marvel and DC Comics when I moved to LA.

Nevertheless, I now found myself struggling to enjoy the task of pen lettering which years earlier I had enjoyed struggling to learn. It had provided me with a way in to comics but now seemed like a chore and a penance. I was free but there was still a life to live and bills to pay.

Even in sunny California the consequences of my decision to quit my comfortable job at Marvel UK became more and more painful and I would often spend three hours chanting simply for the strength to get through the day. I felt completely directionless and lettering was agony. I produced only the minimum amount of work I needed to get by.

At several meetings at the SGI culture center in New York a gentleman by the name of David Kasahara often told us that a dishwasher in a restaurant can choose to be totally unhappy with his lot because basically he's just cleaning up dirty plates. Or he could take it upon himself to make the plates and glasses shine so brightly that the customers come back to the restaurant just because the crockery is so clean! I really took those words to heart. Generally, you don't pick up a comic book and rave about the lettering any more than you would sit in a restaurant and say: "Wow! These knives and forks are shiny!" But neither can you properly appreciate a meal if your plate isn't clean.

I had also picked up a bookmark at a district meeting in LA which carried President Ikeda’s encouragement:

"A great revolution of character in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a society, and further, will enable a change in the destiny of humankind."

I placed the bookmark on my altar and often wondered exactly what it meant to me.

In the depths of my misery I decided that my only way out was to make my lettering look so good that readers would regard it as an important part of the artwork. I decided to be the best letterer in the business!

But I was living and working in the US illegally, and the work that was sent to me from New York was always due the next day. Producing work of a high quality under the gun all the time seemed to be impossible and I realized that making a living this way while at the same time setting a high standard for myself were almost mutually exclusive goals.

In 1990, as I entered a second year of suffering and struggle, I bumped into a former Marvel editor who proposed to me that I digitize my lettering styles on a Macintosh computer. This seemed to me to offer a solution to the dilemma of quality versus quantity.

After a certain amount of trial and error, I produced a workable digital version of my pen lettering style and convinced a couple of editors at Marvel to let me letter their books electronically. I hired an assistant, and with him developed a number of fonts which allowed us to become a tireless team of comic book letterers. We called ourselves Comicraft.

The quality of the digital work we were producing soon attracted offers of more work and we were able to move out of the back of my apartment and into studios in Santa Monica. I hired another assistant, and another, and another. At the peak of my studio’s success, I had sixteen employees on payroll and we won more than a dozen awards for our work.

Although we were still dependent on Marvel and DC comics for income, we slowly developed a secondary online business publishing and selling the font software we developed for lettering. Ten years on, that secondary business,, offers over two hundred fonts in its catalog and is supporting a third business, my own publishing imprint.

As an editor of comic books, my desire was to find a way of encouraging writers to produce meaningful stories. That desire led me to this Buddhism which led me to California and back to lettering comic books.

My determination to become the best lettering artist in the business precipitated a complete change not only in the manner in which I worked, but also the entire comic book industry. The digital methods and processes developed by Comicraft are now the global standard for lettering comics. Comicraft fonts are used in comics. movies and advertising throughout the world; I have seen them on billboards alongside the freeway, on the cover of Newsweek and Time magazine and in movies such as TOY STORY 2 and THE INCREDIBLES. Last year I co-wrote and published a How-To book about our work.

I overcame a multitude of problems and struggles along the way -– as a consequence of the earthquake in 1994 thieves broke into my studio and stole all my computer equipment; in 1995 one of my employees made a deal with one of my clients to work for them directly, taking thousands of dollars of work with him; in 2001, our biggest client, Marvel Comics, informed me that they would no longer require Comicraft’s services. But every time I got knocked down, I got up again, chanted and polished the knives and forks again

In the course of my struggles, I acquired a work permit, a green card, created a family with my wife Youshka -- who started practicing Buddhism last year -- bought a house and started my own publishing imprint.

But that’s nothing. The greater success I accomplished is the deep seated, sure and certain knowledge that anything is possible. My experiences taught me to realize that I was the most powerful person in my life and I finally realized that I didn’t have to wait for other writers to produce meaningful stories for me; I could write them myself!

In 1999, I approached a top artist with whom I had developed a close friendship to bring to life my comic book character, Hip Flask, which I also determined to publish myself. We are currently putting the finishing touches to the third issue. The first issue was named by the mainstream British style magazine THE FACE as one of the top ten hottest comic books of 2001, and the second issue was nominated for two top industry awards. Hardcover editions of the first issue are currently on sale in France, Spain, Germany and Italy. The story of Hip Flask touches upon issues that range from ethnic cleansing, genetic engineering to racism. It also has a mutant hippo, time travel and a robotic frog, because it is a comic after all!


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