John Ostrander: Why do I do this?
Back in a previous life I was a very struggling actor in Chicago. One summer I was working with a small troupe that, among other things, did children’s plays outdoors and in various venues. This particular show we were doing was called Wiley and the Hairy Man, based upon a children’s book. I played the Hairy Man – a swamp-man/boogeyman – and, while I kept getting chased offstage by the Wiley in the title, my character kept sneaking back in. It was not a part of particular subtlety but it did require some finesse. I was the monster in a children’s play which meant I couldn’t be too scary; just enough to produce the tinglies and a lot of laughs.
To be honest, I loved the role. In every venue, after Wiley would chase me away I would look for different places to come back at the required time through the audience. Even my fellow cast members were never quite sure where I would be coming from which kept it fresh for all of us. Sometimes I would pick up a child from where they were sitting in one part of the audience and deposit them somewhere else in the audience. My make-up was absurd, my costume had tatty fur glued on a work shirt, and it was a "Brian Blessed" roaring over the top performance – all in all, it may have been my finest role.
My oldest sister, Marge, came to it at one outdoor performance along with her husband Fred and their three kids — young Fred, Kathy, and the youngest, Annie — all of whom I’m still very close to despite the fact that the trio are all grown up now and the girls have kids of their own. Annie was always the quietest of the lot, sometimes seemingly off in her own world, and then she would look right at me and nail me with a question that seemingly came out of nowhere.
After the performance, we all went out for ice cream and then Fred and Marge offered to drive me home. Uncle John had very little money — being an actor — and no car at that time. I was sitting in the back seat with the kids; young Fred and Kathy and I were all having a wonderfully boisterous time. I was still running on performance adrenaline and, besides, my job as an uncle was to wind the kids up and then leave for home and let their parents pry them off the ceiling. I was good at my job as an uncle and took pride in my work. Marge has just barely forgiven me for those days.
Annie was seated right next to me and was quiet as she had been since I joined them after the performance. She was probably about eight at the time. She suddenly looked up at me and solemnly inquired of me, ‘Unca John, why do you do that?" I didn’t really have a good answer so we all laughed and glossed it over.
My acting career eventually came to an end a few years later when I was doing a period costume play in the height of summer in a non air-conditioned theater. In the climax of the show, when I was (or was supposed to be) focused on another’s actor’s dramatic speech, I suddenly became acutely aware of my surroundings and what I was doing. I was conscious that I was wearing a heavily quilted medieval costume in a room that had to be 110 degrees, sweating like a pig, saying words that someone else had written and pretending to be someone I wasn’t for a bunch of people I didn’t even know. A little sane voice that sounded like Annie spoke at the back of my head: "Why are you doing this?"
Once again, I didn’t have an answer but something changed at that moment. I continued to do the rounds of auditions, getting parts here and there, but it all came to an end one night when I was doing one of my many small roles in a version of A Christmas Carol that the Goodman Theater in Chicago was doing. By that point, I had also started writing for comics. On that night, close to the end of the run, I was doing one of my jobs, walking across the stage in character to provide visual texture to the scene along with about half the cast, and instead of being wired into the moment as a good actor is supposed to be part of my brain was saying, "You know, you could be making a LOT more money at your typewriter right now."
That’s when I knew my theater career had ended. I finished the run and haven’t done any theater since. For over twenty years now, I have been a professional writer, working largely in the field of graphic narrative or, as we usually call it, comic books. I’ve had some very successful moments and some very lean years. Now, with ComicMix, we’re entering a new phase. Technology, as it so often does, is about to change, revolutionize, even radicalize what is applied to.
That little voice still remains in the back of my head: "Why do you do this?" Given its effect on my theatrical career, I may be forgiven if I have not applied it much to my work as a writer. It is, however, a stubborn, insistent, and valid question and this is as good a point as any to address it. This is a new beginning. Time to take a look backward as we prepare to leap forward.
One reason I do this, I suppose, is that — I’m good at it. If I didn’t believe that, I shouldn’t be writing. I don’t think I could. I think that’s true of most people and most endeavors; if you don’t think you can do something to begin with, you’re unlikely in fact to begin it. It’s walking on the tightrope; if you look down, you’ll fall. Instead, you focus on where you’re going and you believe you can get there.
I do have some evidence to back up my claim. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I’ve deforested a small section of the planet with my output. I think the quality level, overall, justifies the work. I go into story conferences these days and I realize that I really do know what I’m talking about — which surprises me sometimes.
I have no idea what my ranking would be as a writer in comics and no great interest in it, either. That’s always for someone else to decide and it changes according to individual taste. What matters to me is that I’m a good writer and I’m always trying to be a better one. My best story is still somewhere unwritten and I hope it stays that way to the end of my days.
A pragmatic reason for doing this is — it’s how I pay the bills. I’m in my late 50s and have been self-employed writing comics for over twenty years. Who else would have me? Way back when I was first out of college, my mother urged me to have a "fallback" (this was still in my theater days but would apply to any of the arts, I think). Something like teaching. Let me just say that I have been a teacher now and then and greatly enjoy it but she was talking about a back-up career. My feeling is that if I’d had a back-up career, I would have fallen back on it. Sometimes you just have to work without a net.
Not that I haven’t wanted some of the security that a more stable job might have offered. Once, early in my career, I met a young corporate lawyer while flying back from a convention and we got acquainted even to comparing notes about what we did for a living. He told me he knew how much he was making not only that year, but how much he would make the following year, and five years from that point. I noted that sounded pretty nice and he agreed it was. "You, however," he said, "can get hit by lightning. I never will be."
There’s something to be said for that. Sometimes you just get drenched but — there’s always that possibility of lightning.
I had a roommate once who looked at the money I was pulling in for writing comics and said, part despairingly and part in wonder, "Ostrander, you’ve proven that there’s no money to be made in growing up." There’s some truth in this. I get to have fun while I make a living. I don’t know how true that is for other people; I hope it’s more true than not but I don’t know. There are plenty of times when writing is just hard work and days when I sit down and would rather be doing almost anything else but, by and large, I love what I do. It’s a part of who I am.
It’s that latter fact that enables me to ask myself, "Why do I do this?" without concern that results might be the same as when I asked myself that while I was acting. When my late wife, Kim, and I were looking for a house to buy, it came down to one of two and it was a difficult decision. I finally defined it to her this way — one house was the way we saw ourselves, the other house was they way we were. We went with the latter. My being an actor was how I saw myself but being a writer is more of who I am.
Even more than a writer, I’m a storyteller. I love stories. I love being told stories. Maybe a given story doesn’t make perfect sense but I don’t care so long as, while I hear it, I can get swept up in it. Does it draw me in, does it draw me on?
I can suspend a lot of disbelief if a story will just do that.
In that sense, I don’t see myself as a "fine" writer. This is not false modesty; I know how to turn a phrase, how to create engaging characters, how to plot, how to tie a theme to that plot and all those other writing skills one should have. However, I’m less concerned about with the nuances — with, say, sentence construction and dangling modifiers and all. Kim was really into that and into a story’s texture and everything else. Me? My big interest is, "Yeah, yeah… and then what happened?"
I’m like that as a reader as well. I’ve been a voracious reader since I was very young and that also forms me as a writer. In the summer, when everyone else would be off doing something, my ideal summer day was to sit in the chaise lounge on the porch with a stack of books and some lemonade. Every well told story has its own world and each book took me off into its own world and I surrendered to it. I think that’s where the desire to write was born – to imitate what I so loved, to be a part of that cycle.
I’ve always found a one-on-one connection in reading; when it’s a good story, it feels like just me and the writer. I know in my head that the writer writes for a mass market but it can only find that market one at a time. Even if a thousand people were reading the same words at the same time, it’s still a one-on-one relationship.
TV, film, theater — those are more communal in my mind. We usually experience that as a group and there is a power in that. On the page, however, even an electronic page, there is a sharing, a strange intimacy. The reader brings something to it as well as the author and the story becomes what we make of it. The reading experience is never the same for any two people.
It comes over time and distance as well. One side of the equation may not be living in the strictest sense — Charles Dickens died many many years ago but he is alive in his work, bringing himself to his side of the equation. It is still possible to share an experience with him or any of the other authors, male or female, who no longer walk among the living. In that sense, we do have a relationship and it transcends the grave. Writers who are no longer living can change my world view, writers I will never meet in person can expand my horizon.
We meet on the page. You and I will meet here and in the stories that will appear here and elsewhere. If I do my job right and we make the connection, we’ll link up.
So, why do I do this? For all the reasons above and many more – some of which I may not even be aware. One strikes me at the moment and maybe sums it all up best – for the joy of it.
Good enough for me.
Writer / actor / playwright John Ostrander is man behind the word processor on such respected comics as GrimJack, Suicide Squad, Star Wars: Legacy, Munden’s Bar and Batman. John’s column is a weekly presence here at ComicMix.