This week was very educational for me. I learned a couple of important life lessons. First, if you’re going to schedule an interview at a restaurant, perhaps you should eat something at home before you leave. Attempting to make meaningful conversation with a mouth full of bacon and eggs, while your guest carefully nurses a blueberry muffin, is enough to make a girl feel like a slob. For future reference, order light—if at all—and you can always swing through a drive through on the ride home.
The second lesson came multi-layered. It was all about accomplishing great things through hard work and perseverance. It was about imagination, creativity and passion fueling a dream—not THE dream, but A dream. It was about the need to learn. It was about taking chances. It was about being in the right place at the right time.
Someone once said, “Shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” That’s exactly what Writer/Artist, Austin Light did. Little did he know that the ‘stars’ in question would be Chris Hardwick and Robert Downey, Jr.
If you’ve been on the internet at all in the last 3 months, it is likely that you have seen some of Austin Light’s handiwork. The overnight social media sensation of his drawings made national headlines. Now, Austin’s name is about to shine brighter with the impending release of his first published book, Movie Title Typos, due in the fall of 2015. I had the pleasure of talking with Austin about his sudden success. Let’s be honest…he did most of the talking. I had a mouth full of bacon.
You’re from a Navy family?
I am. I grew up all over the country. My dad retired from the navy in Charleston in 2003 when I was in college. And, after college I went to Arkansas, my wife and I decided to open up a map and looked at places that would be an interesting spot to live. And, we picked Charlotte. We’ve been here for 6.5 years.
Just totally random?
Yeah. Well, we looked at a couple of places. I really wanted to go to San Francisco. I interviewed for a job out there, but it didn’t work out. And so we just moved up here, with no jobs or anything. Which, in hindsight, wasn’t a smart move because as soon as we got here the economy crashed. It was kind of a bad move, but it was fun and ridiculous and scary. Everything worked out eventually. But yeah, 6.5 years and two kids later. My oldest is 3.5 and my youngest is 9 months, two boys and they are a handful!
Do you work in Charlotte?
I work in Fort Mill at a company called Red Ventures, which is a marketing company. I am a Content Lead and Senior Copywriter there. So, I write advertising and marketing copy for brands like Verizon, AT&T, DIRECTV, and stuff like that. Chances are, if you’ve Googled Verizon Vios or AT&T UVerse, you might have read something that I wrote.
How did you make the jump from writing to illustrating?
Illustrating has always been a thing I’ve done on the side. I have a Bachelor’s in Print Journalism and a Master’s in English Education. So, I’m a completely self-taught artist.
Yeah, it’s just something I’ve always done on the side and that I really liked. After Grad school, I was working for this company that was a non-profit and they wanted to write an illustrated children’s book. And, I’m the guy who can’t go to a meeting without doodling. My boss at the time was like, “We need an illustrator. You do it!” He just pointed at me and I was like okay! He bought me a $1,000 Cintiq tablet with this screen that you can draw right on. I couldn’t believe he got it for me. That really kind of reignited my passion for drawing, when I knew I could take this seriously rather than just doodle during meetings and stuff. So, I did that book for them and when I left Arkansas I was like, “You know…no one else in the office uses this tablet thing…do you care if I take it?” And my boss said he didn’t care. Hahaha. No take backs!
Haha. That’s not cheap!
You’re right, it’s not cheap. But, that piece of technology enabled me to do so much. Not to say you can’t be an artist without a $1,000 Cintiq tablet, but it really did help me a lot. From there, I just continued to draw. I’m obsessive about learning, tutorials, online classes and things. It’s probably that I’m overcompensating for not having a classically trained background. In 2009, I took a course on line at Schoolism.com with Bobby Chiu. He runs Imaginism, which is a studio that you’d probably know best from their work on Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. They designed all of the creatures and they are really imaginative folks. So, I took the online course with him. Basically, he would teach a course for like an hour and then give you an assignment. You had to do the assignment and turn it in and the next week he would give you a video of him drawing over your assignment to give you critiques and pointers. It’s really awesome that a master artist was doing that. When I took that class, my art grew leaps and bounds. I knew I wanted to keep pursuing this. During that time, I illustrated a children’s book for a non-profit in Yuma, Arizona. It was all about a little firefly named Fuddle who wanted to visit all the parts of Yuma. It was done on an extremely tight budget and timeline, but when they had it printed they flew my wife and I out to Yuma. They treated me like a celebrity. It was ridiculous, haha. They put me on the front of their newspaper and had me on a bunch of different news stations. I was like, this is crazy; I’ve never even been here, I just illustrated a book and it’s not even very good. Hahaha. It’s natural artist insecurity.
You mentioned that you love to doodle, but you also do a lot of digital art. Which medium do you prefer?
I like experimenting with all kinds of stuff. I predominantly work digitally, because if the finished piece is going to be digital I might as well just start it there. Obviously, what blew up the internet were my ink drawings in a sketch book. I kind of rediscovered my love for that over the summer. I turned 30 back in June and my parents, ever supportive, bought me a set of markers, just this giant thing of really nice art markers. I really feel like if you’re doing all digital, you should go back and work with a medium that doesn’t have an undo button. It’s kind of thrilling and exciting to work on something and think, well I can screw this up with just a turn of my wrist. And, it’s all done. That helps you to not get married to every single thing you draw. Also, it’s fun. So, I started drawing more with ink and pens a lot for the fun of it. And, at the time the Centiq that I had needed to be plugged into a computer by three cords, so I could only use it in front of a desk. And, having two children meant I could only draw digitally when they were in bed. I started using my sketchbook more and more because I could draw when they were playing.
So you owe this all to them?
Haha, Right? I do. I could draw more when they’re around, because I really like drawing. It’s my favorite thing to do. I want to do it whenever I can.
Does your son like drawing with you?
He likes drawing with my wife. He draws with her and they draw things together. He gets really frustrated, actually, when he draws things with me. Mainly because I try to encourage him to get better and let’s draw circles and stuff. And, he just wants me to draw Pixar characters. He is not interested in me helping him get better, but he does that with my wife. With me, he’s all “Draw Buzz Lightyear…Draw Sully and Mike.” And, I’m like “Alright, whatever you say.”
How did the ‘Movie Title Typos’ come about?
I had wanted to do Inktober, which is a month-long drawing event. Anybody can do it. It was started by an artist named Jake Parker, who is super talented. He started this a couple of years ago. Basically, anybody that wants to do it that has a pen and some paper can draw an ink drawing every day and then post the image to social media with the hashtag #Inktober, and they are participating. And, I’d done a couple of projects before called Doodle a Day, when I wanted to spend 25-40 minutes drawing every day. Each time I did one—I did one in 2011 and another in 2013—I felt like I learned a lot and I had a lot of fun. I got to push myself to do things that I normally wouldn’t draw.
So, it’s like the equivalent of the online writing sprints?
Yeah, like NanoWriMo. It’s just like that. The hardest part is coming up with something to draw every day. It can take up a significant amount of time. So, right around that same time I was trying to figure out if I wanted to do a theme for the whole month, a co-worker—this web designer that sits diagonally across from me—sent me this post from Reddit. It was from 2012 and it was about all of these movie titles with a letter removed. Me, him and another guy were just looking at them and laughing. We wasted a good 20 minutes reading them out to each other. And he was just like, “Man, you should draw these for Inktober. I found out later it was an idea he’d already had and he’s told lots of people they should do. But, no one actually did it. I thought that sounded like a great idea. I wouldn’t have to actually think about anything, just draw. So, I did the very first one on the first day, which was Obo Cop. After I drew it, I wrote a little description just off the top of my head and posted it to Instagram. I got to work the next day and showed the guys and we all laughed. I was like, okay, I want to do this the rest of the month. This is really fun. Nearing the end of the month, that same guy was like “When you’re done with this, you should make a gallery and then put them all on Reddit. I’m telling you, it’ll be huge.”
No one had really paid attention to the drawings up to that point?
No. I had about 200 followers on Instagram. They got maybe 20 ‘Likes’ a piece, some more or less. So, when he tells me to put in on Reddit because “it’ll be huge” I was thinking maybe a couple of hundred people will like it. That would be cool. I don’t know how to work Reddit and I was intimidated. I’d lurked on Reddit before, I’d read things. It’s a big community. There is a learning curve as to how you post things there. So, I worked with another guy from work who has a lot of experience on Reddit, and he actually posted it for me as I sat over his shoulder and told him what to type out. He posted it in two places on Reddit. It just started blowing up immediately. At first, because I’m not a Reddit pro, I had no context for what it meant. They were like “You’ve got this much Karma now!” and I thought, okay…great? But, when it got to the front page, I knew. I mean, I know enough about Reddit to know that that’s a big deal. It was totally and completely unexpected. People were immediately asking for T-shirts and pulling down some of my art and making it nicer so that they could use it for backgrounds and wallpaper and stuff. I had no idea people wanted to wear some of this goofy stuff. This is insane! So, I’m trying frantically to open up PhotoShop and make nicer versions.
Literally, in just a matter of days this took over everything?
No, I mean, this happened within just a couple of hours. I was rushing before lunch to make a PhotoShop version of ‘Pup Fiction’, because that’s the one everyone was scrambling for. Finally, that same guy that showed it to me said, “Just chill out. Make a pre-order page. People are going to take your art and some people are going to make things from it, and that’s fine. But, the people that really want to pay for it or make T-shirts, they’ll ask for them. So, just make a pre-order page and have them fill out a form. Then, when you’re ready in your own time, you can reach out to them.” And, that was brilliant. By the end of that week, I had over 2,000 emails sent through that page, all people wanting shirts, prints, and commissions. It took over my life for a full two weeks. It was really hard to get any work done. I would get home and my wife and I would sort through this giant inbox. We were sending all the emails through this spread sheet so we could sort through and try to organize it. We tried to figure out, okay, which thing comes next? It was crazy.
How long did it take before your pictures were in the hands of celebrities? I’ve seen acknowledgements from the likes of Robert Downey, Jr., Molly Ringwald, Chris Hardwick, etc. One minute you’re doodling and the next, RDJ is posting to social media about you. What was that like?
I still can’t really wrap my mind around it. It’s just so surreal.
Did you discover it, or did someone else point it out to you?
Someone has always pointed it out to me, and it’s usually my mom. She likes Googling my name every night. So does my wife. I’m just trying to keep my head down and make nicer versions of things. I poured myself back into working on it because that way I wouldn’t get overwhelmed. I woke up one morning and had all these Tweets on my phone that said things like, “Congratulations on making it on @midnight.” What? What are you talking about? Haha. So, in the morning, I’m washing bottles, as I do, for my baby. And, I have my tablet up, streaming @midnight and there at the end, they used my art as the whole final segment. I was freaking out. I’m a fan of Chris Hardwick and the Nerdist podcast and the people he had on the show. It was really exciting and surreal. The RDJ thing actually came a little late, at least a month or so after it all went big. Somebody messaged me on Google Chat sitting at my desk at work, like Whoa! Look at this! They linked to it and I looked at his page. I just stood up in the middle of the office and shouted something ridiculous like “I won the internet!” That was really cool. And, Molly Ringwald Tweeted out the one about her [‘Pretty in Ink’]. This is just weird because this is stuff I was going to do anyway. It’s not like I was shooting for this to blow up or trying to get famous off of it. But, I can’t NOT make things. It drives me crazy to just sit and watch TV or something. I have to be making something at all times. It was exciting for this to blow up, but I would have been doing it either way. There was really no goal in this project other than to amuse myself and my friends.
You’re just passionate about creating?
Yeah, I mean, success is definitely awesome. It’s funny, though. I have a book coming out. And, when I was 24, I promised myself that by age 30 I would have a book on the shelf in bookstores. At that time, it was a novel. I’ve written two novels, neither of which have been published. I’ve shopped them around to agents, and I’m a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and I’ve been in writing groups. Over the years, I got really close with both of my books. Both of them received the same feedback, like “These are boy books” and “Teen boys don’t read. Can you make it into a graphic novel?”
Isn’t that a shame for them to be so discouraging? I mean, what if yours was the story that got teenage boys to read more? Look at what JK Rowling did with Harry Potter. All of a sudden, kids wanted to read and adults wanted to read, and it brought on an influx of Young Adult novels. Yours could have been it.
I hold on to that. I have a day job. I know this is a long-game. I know when the first Harry Potter book was picked up, JK Rowling had been rejected like 18 times before that. I just kept plugging away. That’s why I made the goal for age 30. And now, my first book comes out this fall. I’ll be 31 by then, and it’s for my stupid doodles. Hahaha.
This is not self-publishing or vanity publishing; this is the real deal. Were you approached by a publisher?
Everyone was asking for a book of them [the drawings] on Reddit. So, my plan was to go to a service like Blurb and make my own book. I’d sell it myself to people that wanted it. Since they print on demand, I wouldn’t have to have any stock or inventory. While I was looking into that, someone mentioned Chronicle Books; they print a lot of coffee table books and books based off of stuff on the internet, things like that. I went to their website and they had an open submission page. It said it could take about 3 months for someone to get back to you. My friend said, “What do you have to lose?” So I sent an email, about a day and half after everything first blew up. I told them this has had 1.5 million views.
You showed them the potential…
I was like, “I don’t know if this is interesting to you, but I just wanted to know.” I got an email back within an hour that said “Yes, this is interesting…Let’s get on a phone call tomorrow.” I took the call the next day with my editor, Steve. He said they saw the sketches and liked them, but that it’s not really something that they publish. But, they went to my website and saw that I’m capable of doing really nice, finished artwork. They asked me to redraw a couple of them really nice and they would take them in to their approval committee, or whatever, and we’ll see. So, I did that. I redrew several of them. About 2.5 weeks later it was like, it’s a Go! Let’s make a book of these! Which is a bucket list item I am stupid excited about. This book is ruling my life right now.
You’ve already touched a little on something that I wanted to talk about, as far as being an artist in the traditional sense versus the great influx we have nowadays of self-taught digital and graphic artists. There are a lot of people who only respect a certain pedigree. They turn their nose down at others’ success. I know from experience the particular opinions many stage actors have about Hollywood actors, or that Journalists have about bloggers. What do you say to that? What do you do if/when someone approaches you and says, well, you’re not an artist?
Um…I don’t know. I mean, for the longest time I didn’t feel right and didn’t think it was okay for me to call myself an artist. It really wasn’t until I started seeing my name all over headlines on the internet that were like “Artist: Austin Light” “Illustrator: Austin Light” because I’ve always been a writer. I’m a writer who draws in his free time. I started seeing that and thought, that’s what I am. It blew my mind a little bit. To me, all creators suffer from irrational and completely ridiculous insecurities. And, I am no different from that. I am constantly almost 100% sure that I suck at all times. I think that’s something a lot of creators deal with. To be told that you aren’t doing it right because you didn’t go to a certain school or something like that, I mean, that’s bullshit. It’s not true.
It doesn’t make you any less of an artist…
No. I mean, I’m proof of that. I’ve had success doing this. But even before all of this, I was taking steady commissions from people I’d never met, just over the internet. They’d seen my artwork and wanted to buy something or have me draw their family or something. And, that was great. I didn’t go to art school. I don’t work in art full time. I think it’s kind of ridiculous for people to hate on others for that. I mean, I’m all for everyone making things. I love Indie comics and Indie video games, all the stuff that’s driven by people that are just totally passionate about it.
So, it doesn’t matter how you got here, so long as you keep learning and are passionate about what you are doing?
Yeah. I mean, you need to… Don’t live inside of a bubble. I see a lot of kids’ movies and there is a theme that runs through them that if you just believe hard enough, you’ll get anything you want. I mean…eh…that’s sort of true. You also have to work really hard. You need to find people that will tell you when your shit stinks. And, you need to be open to that feedback. You can always get better at it, but you can’t get there just on belief. I think it’s a strange quirk of the American Dream that we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that all you have to do is think it real hard and it comes true. It also involves a lot of hustling. For me, it involves always taking online courses. I means, skip going to that movie and work on your art.
Like a good musician; practice, practice, practice, right?
What do you have to lose? Just work on your art. You’re behind on whatever show, fine, but you’ll be happier in the end that you spent that time getting better at your craft. So, yeah, I think that people that are working hard will get what they’re working toward. It might take longer than you want it to; I’ve certainly been doing this for a long time.
I feel that, with any of the arts, a certain level of success is a blessing, but, if it’s something you have a passion for doing, then that should be the main focus; the creating and the doing simply for the love of doing it. So many young kids today say that they want to do something, but it’s because they
[Spoken simultaneously] …want to get famous.
Right! Famous; what does that even mean? I’m not doing this to get famous. The success is awesome and to get paid for the work I do is also awesome. But, I’m not quitting my day job over this, haha. Facebook ‘Likes’ don’t translate into dollars. I’m super happy with it, but I’m not chasing some kind of celebrity out of all of this. I’m just going to keep on making things because that’s who I am; it’s part of my DNA that I must make things. If I can segue that into some sort of financial success that helps my family or pays off some of my student loans, then awesome.
Do you have any advice for young kids that want to become artists or writers?
I would say keep working at it. Be open to criticism. That’s really hard because art and writing is so personal. You put a little of yourself into everything. I just experienced it yesterday. At work, I’m often asked to draw little one-off projects and side things. I drew a guy at work for a poster. He was going to speak at UNC. I showed it to another guy and he said, “That doesn’t look anything like him at all.” Immediately I was like, “Yeah? Well you suck.” Hahaha. You’re going to have those knee-jerk reactions and it’s really hard to share that sort of stuff. But, the sooner you can get better about doing that…I’ve been in the creative field professionally for over a decade and criticism is part of the job. You have to be open to people saying that they don’t like your work; people that you think aren’t qualified. That’s the thing about art and writing; anybody can critique it. Just by looking at it they can say I like it or I don’t like it. If you can work really hard and be open to that, of somebody telling you what you need to improve on, you will get better.
You are going to be joining us at the Charlotte Comicon Spring Show on May 3, 2015. Were you a big comic book fan growing up?
I grew up in the time of the 90s XMEN shows and Spiderman. It was a weird time where I didn’t exactly read a lot of comics, but sort of by osmosis sort of learned everything. I soaked in a lot of DC and a lot of Marvel. I’ve been a life-long fan of Spiderman, to a ridiculous degree. My first son’s name is Parker [laughs with a wink] When we announced what we were naming him, a lot of friends I’d known for years were like hmmm. .. I swear it has nothing to do with that…
Um…okay. And Kevin Smith’s daughter Harley Quinn has nothing to do with Batman. Continue.
I’ve always loved Spiderman because he was a nerd and I was a nerd. And, I had a really weird obsession with Gambit for a while. I try to read some now, when I can. I’m almost all caught up on the Walking Dead. It’s tough to balance consuming content when you are creating content.
I might be paraphrasing, but Stephen King once said that if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write. So…bone up on your comic books. Hahaha.
I preach that to my writer’s at work all the time. Good writers read, and they read a lot. I always have a book. I read on my phone on the Kindle app every night before I go to sleep. I definitely agree with that. If you’re not consuming the stuff that you want to be able to do… I’ve had people ask me “Have you done a comic?” “Do you want to do a comic?” Yeah! I definitely want to. I have a trillion ideas; I’m not starving for those. It’s just finding the time to do them.
Tell me a little more about the upcoming ‘Movie Title Typos’ book.
The book has to be done by the end of this month. It’s why I’ve grown out a homeless-man beard, because I’m just feverishly working on that. In my mentorship with Sarah Marino, she said if the book people come to you and ask if you can get this done in time by X date, “you always say yes.” They have pretty flexible schedules with the whole printing process and you never know what an opportunity like that will bring. Say YES, even if it means drawing on Christmas, which I did this year. First they wanted to get the book out for spring 2016 and I thought that I’d have until April or May to get all of the art done. Then a couple of weeks later they came back and said they’d like to have it out by the fall of 2015. I was like, okay, but that means getting all of the art done by the end of February. I said YES! No problem. And, then I hung up the phone and thought Oh God, what have I done? It’s meant working 45 hours a week on top of my full-time job and two kids to get it all done. In a weird way it’s validating. I had all of this sudden internet success and now, I’m working my ass off. I’m pretty proud of it. I think it’s going to be really fun. Some of the things that were on the internet will be included in there and everything has been redrawn. I think there are 52 or 53 images in it, and over half of those are brand new, so based on new movies [not on the original Reddit list]. There are new jokes, written by me, for each one. I’ve started seeding it a little bit online. I know I need to be out there communicating on social media to keep people interested, but I really have to get this done. Then I’ll work with Chronicle on their marketing plan and see what I can share and what we can get done. Going through the system of working with a publisher and working with an editor is really valuable. I’m working with a senior designer for the cover at Chronicle Books and he knows what makes an attractive book cover, way better than I do. That is this man’s job. Steve, my editor, it’s his job to make books as marketable and readable and attractive as they can be. On the one hand, I could have Indie published these. But, I truly believe that going through the system with them, these are as good as these images are going to get. They are really sharp. They are funny jokes. And, I am really proud of them.
You’ve been putting your original work out there for people to see. I’m sure there is a trust issue involved when it comes to fans. Where do you stand on the line between thievery and flattery?
People are gonna steal your artwork. It’s just what happens. Mostly, it’s flattery. If it comes to where someone has taken my art and they are making money off of it, that’s when I have to step in and say Hey, don’t do that. That’s what I’m trying to do here. But, if you spend all of your time scouring the internet to see who is using your art, when are you going to have time to create new stuff? It was about 50/50 between websites that asked permission before posting my gallery and those who didn’t. Any of them, I was excited about it. But, I appreciate the ones who reached out and asked if it was okay first.
Honest and humble answers from an honest and humble guy. You can meet Austin Light at the Charlotte Comicon on Sunday May 3, 2015. He’ll be there from 10am-4pm. Be sure to visit austindlight.com to learn more about Austin and get updates on his upcoming book, Movie Title Typos.