I had the opportunity of a lifetime when I was 17. I met two major comic-book artists of note. I was in Montreal for a small show—all shows were small back in 1994—and I faced my destiny square in the eyes.
The first artist was Jae Lee, superstar, who was releasing his new book Hellshock. I would later become dear friends with his colourist, José Villarrubia, whom I met at TCAF in 2004. Jae Lee loved my artwork in the Marvel/Image house style and offered to recommend me should I want to submit to Marvel Comics right away. Secretly, I wanted to work with the Image founders and the superstar exodus from Marvel Comics, but I did not say so. Finally, I never sent anything to Marvel. And that’s when the 90s boom started to fade. Also, I wanted to finish high school.The other artist I met was then Marvel’s Excalibur artist, Ken Lashley, whom I had previously encountered at another tiny show in my hometown of Ottawa a couple of years prior, and he had been impressed with my work at the time. He would later hire me to do backgrounds for his comics for Chaos, Image, Dark Horse, and Top Cow—comics you might even have read, like Joss Whedon’s Angel at Dark Horse, J. Michael Straczynski’s Rising Stars at Top Cow, and Rena Mero as 10th Muse, at Image. But I’m getting ahead of myself. At age 19, in 1996, I made the trip to San Diego Comic Con to try to get work. I met Moebius, who loved my work, but I did not ask him for a job. I met Dave McKean, with whom I had an in-depth portfolio review. He agreed I could get work as a penciler, but he strongly urged me to accept my invitation to art school and to become a “real artist” instead. So, in the late summer of ’96, I shipped myself off to post-secondary education in Toronto.
What’s weird is that I had just gone through an intensive five-year arts training at an advanced HS program. I did not need the technical training. I struggled with the essays. I was bleeding student-loan money on books I did not read, and I was nowhere near getting into comics, as was my original goal in high school. In 1998 I saw an ad in the school halls. Superstar Artist X—we will call him—needed an assistant-penciler. I ended up working with him on books for Rob Liefeld a few times, then one late night after working long hours, I criticized his shoulder anatomy, and never heard from him again. Lesson to young artists: Don’t be an ass.Finally, around the year 2000, I was drawing backgrounds for Christian Zanier and Ken Lashley in their beautiful downtown studio. I even split my last year of art school into two years, just so I could work in the studio full-time. But it was not to last. Being Franco-Ontarian, there were certain English language words I did not fully understand, and, long story short, I was fired over a misunderstanding. The atmosphere had become tense, and I just wanted an out.
I got married in 2001, started exhibiting signs of stress, anxiety, depression and mania, and within two years, my marriage dissolved on a hospital bed.
You have to understand. Before I went to college, I could draw like the best of them, I really could! But the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) practically destroyed me. I was torn into a hundred directions, I was suicidal, and I was depressed. I would later learn that a huge percentage of OCAD students fall prey to mental illness, stress and suicidal thoughts, and, I must say, I understand why. The teachings are too broad-based, thorough to a fault, intense, and demanding. I worked through so many all-nighters I can’t even count. By the end of it, I was run ragged, and barely graduated. I got faster and looser at drawing but could no longer recognise my own style—I was all over the map. One would say versatile, I would say I was “lost at sea” between all of the styles that comics have to offer.In 2003, I moved back to Ottawa and soon after got divorced. I was a mess. The onset of bipolar disorder was ravaging my mind and behaviour. By that time, I had taken to posting art pages all over my walls and drawing beyond the paper—think John Nash’s shed in A Beautiful Mind. Seriously. I felt electrified and energised. I had never felt so alive. After some time off, I needed work. I applied to be a waiter at several restaurants, but they didn’t want a well-behaved “A” student; they wanted the class clown. Desperate, I applied to work in a grocery store, and was (tragically) awarded a cashier position right away. I went through training, and by the third day I had redesigned their entire codes list cheat sheet and promptly offered my two weeks’ notice. It was funny to see their reaction as I worked the extra two weeks without complaint, as most previous employees had just walked off the job. It gave them time to adjust, and they were so grateful.
I then set my sights on design jobs, which I figured were more in line with my sensibilities, plus I could do the work on autopilot, no problem. Over the next five years I developed a cycle, or pattern. I worked on three major design jobs in newspapers, magazines, and advertising. Each job was pretty mindless and easy, but as I started exhibiting signs of stress and mania, I would promptly get fired. At the end of the third position, I left with a doctor’s note, as my physician agreed the cycle would not end, and my life would repeat the cycle until I was dead. I haven’t worked a standard position since 2007.
But that’s not to say I haven’t been working. The time off (and base government disability income) allowed me to work on my comics. But at the time, I still didn’t have a clue. In 2007, I went to Baltimore Comiccon with some samples, including Ghost Kingillustrations, eight of them, and the 24-hour comic I had created the year before. This is when and where everything changed for me.
My friend José Villarrubia introduced me to his colleague Chris Staros at Top Shelf Comix. Chris clearly saw that I had skills, variety, and potential, but no clue how to finish the job. So, he took me under his wing for a few months, and, by 2008, I had finished Ghost King. Yay!There was another chance meeting. Years prior, during that fateful 1996 San Diego trip, I had almost thrown myself in front of Jim Lee. He was exactly the person I wanted to reach the most. But I had been afraid, too afraid, to show him my work then. I’m almost certain it would have made a difference—he was my main influence after all. Eleven years later, at last I found myself in an exclusive workshop with Jim Lee himself. He lauded me for my samples, and I asked him if anything piqued his interest. There was! SIGNAL samples were something that intrigued him. But I could not compile a complete story quickly enough to see him publish it at his Image Comics imprint, WildStorm Studios.
By the time I was ready, he had sold WS to DC Comics, became its co-publisher, and WildStorm was later shut down. I did notice one difference however since my meeting with the master. I had told him that his long-time collaborator, inker extraordinaire Scott Williams, was the man. Jim-Lee did not seem to like that at all. I have since seen Jim Lee double down on inking his own work, and I sometimes wonder if it was my comment that had made the difference.
From 2007 to 2010, I found myself victim to manic breakdowns several times, and ultimately visited the hospital for weeks or even month-long stays. By the time it was over, I had gained over a hundred pounds on my medicine, but I was finally publishing my own books. I even did a television interview on a day pass, to paint you a picture.In 2009, I had met Allan Isfan, entrepreneur and web 2.0 guru, through a mutual business associate, and he helped me set up the infrastructure for Mirror Comics’ first official iteration. From 2010 to 2015, I hired dozens of young creators, kick-started their careers through almost 30 projects, and it was a huge hit in Canada. But I did not want to be a publisher. I wanted to be pure writer-artist-designer.
So, in 2015, I closed up shop and set up Mirror Comics Studios, where I sought freelance opportunities, thinking it might lead to a proper publishing agreement with a larger outfit. I worked for half a dozen publishers and/or cultural groups in Canada. The releases were successful, and it built my street cred to have worked with the likes of Planches and Chapterhouse. But I had a saga to finish . . .I applied for a grant to publish SIGNAL Saga and did not get it. Having approached over a dozen publishers that were almost interested, I finally decided to return to publishing with my tail between my legs. But I still wanted more.
Finally, I secured an agent in New York, but I just could not fathom working under the idea that a publisher would give themselves the license to change my work. I moved on with the agent’s blessings.
It took the love of friends and family for me to recover (and rediscover) my love of controlling everything. By then my friends had given me enough pep talks and kindness that I was moved to action and started to relish the freedom of self-publishing all over again. And now I’m like . . . heck yeah!SIGNAL Saga started when I was 14. I was sure I’d have created it within the next few summer breaks, but never did. In my late 20s, I started writing novellas of the story I knew so far, but they were strange and infused with schizophrenic ideas—pretty, but not the original comic book epic I had in mind.
In 2015, I took a definite stance after at least a hundred or so failed attempts at creating it, some of them beautiful, some of them weird, all of them useless in and of themselves, but turning out to really mesh together as one whole thing. I collected all of my abandoned projects, mashed them together, and saw that I had built a huge and interesting world that gelled together beautifully. I was home.
For the next 14 months, I drew 200 pages. Then I hummed and hawed as to what to do with it. But I should simply have kept drawing. However, I could not. The rest of the story wasn’t ready in my mind yet.By 2017-2018, I had a clear idea of where I was going, decided to do this through MCS [Mirror Comics Studios], my own imprint, and was off to the races. The prequel #0 was released in November 2017, and SIGNAL Saga #1is scheduled as a webcomic for June 6, 2018, which happens to be the third anniversary of Mirror Comics Studios after its rebranding.
What I hold dear from all of this is that you can put your life into small squares and rectangles on a page, and make of your life a story worth telling. I also learned a lot about myself while going through bouts of pronounced depression and mania. Perhaps I was wiser for it in the end.Do I wish I could have taken up the opportunity I had when I was 17? I think I’d be much happier, in a way, but then I don’t know if SIGNAL would be as good, and I’m a better person for all of my trials and tribulations. Before one has something to say, one has to have lived, and I’m not sure my teenaged self had anything going for him except raw talent and blind bravado. Suffice it to say that I was almost a part of the 90s boom’s tail-end, and screwed it all up, only to wonder every time I think about it. But I’ve also created something great in the wake of that failure. Sometimes all there is to do is get back up!
If I had to speak with my younger self, I think I would say these things:
- Take your opportunities even if you are not ready.
- Don’t go to school for something you’re already highly skilled at.
- Have the courage to say no when you are not in love.
- All-nighters are fool’s gold—get your sleep! Sleep is more important than grades.
- Simplify your life until you have what is essential, and to hell with the rest and what others think.
- Learn to know who you really are, not who you’ve been brought up to be.
- Don’t criticize your superiors. They will not understand, despite your best intentions.
- If you’re going to trip out on mental illness, then start to understand how the mind and soul really work. It will cut you in half but you can become twice the human you once were.
- Everything is overrated—everything—so, learn to know what makes you happy, and go with that.
- As much as the past is full of life, you have to move on. Don’t look back.
- Remember that hope is always there, even if you cannot see it, like the sun at night or the stars at noon.
- Life is hard, get out of your own way.
SIGNAL Saga #1 will be released as a webcomic on June 6, 2018. Visit signalsaga.com for details.
Classically-trained artist Dominic Bercier is the writer-artist-designer behind Mirror Comics Studios, a boutique comic book and graphic novel production and publishing entity from Ottawa, Canada. He produces stories of young heroes losing, longing, striving for and restoring the things they’ve lost, be they love, lives or souls, plunging characters into emotionally charged magical initiations that test their wits and their hearts. You can follow @DominicBercier, @mirrorcomics and @SIGNALsaga on Twitter or visit www.dominicbercier.com, www.mirrorcomics.com, and www.signalsaga.com.