The Myth of the Magnum Opus


Working in comics and graphic novels, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this:

“I’m working on my first graphic novel. It’s gonna take a long time to do but it’s gonna be so great.  So EPIC.” 

Oh, goodness.

We all want to do something great.  We all want to leave our mark on the world, so it stands to reason you want to make your first graphic novel a great one.  One to be REMEMBERED.  This leads to a lot of pressure.  The artwork has to be good. The writing has to be GREAT.  But, wait, you don’t have any experience in doing a GN.  Oh, no, ego smash. You put off the project for a while.  You want to take your time with this.  The project is going to be GREAT.  Oh, wait, where’s your artist going?  He’s got other projects to finish?  Well, forget that guy. You can finish this great graphic novel yourself.  Your EPIC novel.  Crap, drawing is hard. Then you take some more time off to learn how to draw or improve your skills.  Next thing you know, you check the calendar and ten years have gone by.

Ten long years.  And your graphic novel is nowhere near done.  This is a tale more common than you’d think. 

Don’t misunderstand me.  Some of the greatest graphic novels take years or even decades to complete.  Then again, those GNs are usually not a creator’s first one.  Or it is their first project, they have a landslide of experience with storytelling in other fields such as animation or screenwriting.  It’s highly rare for a creator with no experience putting together any kind of long form story to get it right on their first try.  Let me save you a lot of time, energy, and tears.  Your first graphic novel will, in all likelihood, not be very good.

And that’s okay.

When I put together my first graphic novel series, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.  I didn’t know how long it would take or how much time to put into it.  I didn’t know boo about story organization or themes.  My art skills weren’t nearly as strong as they are now, and I definitely didn’t know how to market the damn thing.  Yeah, I finished that GN, and you know where it is now?  Pulled off the webcomics circuit and sitting in the digital equivalent of a $1 bin on my store.  I know my story is not everyone’s story, but it is a possibility. 

Since that comic, I’ve moved on to work on two other comics (not counting my freelance stuff), and explore more with my art.  I’ve started to draw a zillion birds and animals.  I started to paint more, both digitally and with natural media.  I learned from my mistakes the first time around, dusted myself off, and have gone on to create BETTER STUFF.

Jason Brubaker, creator of ReMIND and storytelling sage of our time, once said:

“Instead of thinking about your [project] as your ONLY [project], think of it as the first of 20 [projects].”

Instead of doing one great, big, thing, do more than one thing.  Do 20 things.  Maybe they’re smaller things, but they are things - finished things - you can add to your credit. 

Thus, when putting together your big project, don’t think of it as your “magnum opus.” You don’t get to call it that anyway; that’s something your readers will do with time.  Just finish a project.  Accept that it will not be perfect, but finish it anyway.  Learn from your mistakes with each pass, and over time, you will find yourself becoming a creator who does great things.  The key is not to make a magnum opus.

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