The quick and dirty is a somewhat unsatisfying answer: IT DEPENDS.
For your specific case, if you know in your heart you wanna do comics, conduct some research on what you’d specifically want out of school, and if any school provides that. If you aren’t certain any place does (frankly I don’t know of any colleges that have a sterling record of both affordability and being conducive to budding cartoonists), you do not need to go to college to be a terrific cartoonist, in my opinion.
The long and sticky answer is as follows! This is all just what I have to say as someone who went to art school and THEN figured out who she was and changed her mind back and forth a bunch and ultimately landed in the career track I always wanted to anyway.
Here are, in my opinion, some great reasons to go to college:
- TO MEET PEOPLE. It’s a cliche but it’s true. I got my first decent job, my first professional freelance gigs, and my post-school internship because I knew the right people and they trusted the abilities I demonstrated in class. These smaller gigs and jobs were important stepping stones. Especially if you are from a remote area, this is important.
- TO GET EXPOSED TO A LOT OF STUFF. College is a safe time to try on many hats, both personally and professionally. You could encounter something and fall madly in love with it because of the exposure college affords you. If you do go to school, you will have to do a lot of stuff that seems irrelevant. A lot of it totally is. But if you have to do it, soak up all you can. If you’re making art for the rest of your life, you’ll want as much stuff as possible to talk about with your work. College is a cool time to whet some of those appetites and broaden your horizons whether or not you want it to, so take advantage of that.
- YOU KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO DO. This sort of contradicts what I last said, but I highly recommend knowing what it is you want to do before you go. DO NOT go into college going “gosh I hope I find something I like.” You will waste your time and money. I did that! I was too afraid to pursue being a cartoonist. I wound up wasting my time studying English for a year, and then art education for 4, when I wound up eventually, in the real world, just pursuing what I had secretly always wanted to do: make cartoons. Go in knowing what you want. It’s ok to change your mind, but don’t waffle, don’t lie to yourself, and if you plan on incurring debt, have a plan for how to make a living doing it. ANY PLAN IS BETTER THAN NO PLAN, EVEN IF IT SEEMS FAR-FETCHED. If I had had the confidence to pursue SPECIFIC and USEFUL career paths like character design, storyboarding, etc. I would have been far more prepared and I’d be a way better artist today. It is FAR better to pursue your pipe dream with vigor than to halfass something you took as a compromise. You are more likely to succeed, and if you do succeed, it won’t be something you have to live with the rest of your life.
- YOU CAN GO CHEAP. If you have parents who will help you or you get a great scholarship, do it. It’s a luxury, and if you can afford the luxury, well, it’s a nice opportunity to grow. But it’s still a luxury, especially and increasingly so for people who come from families that are lower-middle class or lower.
PERSONALLY, I wouldn’t go again unless I were incurring less than, say, $10k of student debt. Maybe $15k. At a not-absurd interest rate. I graduated with over 50k in student debt. IT SUCKS, but believe it or not, some people have it way, way worse. It’s really not possible to understand how much money that is when you’re 18.
THAT SAID, I’ve had work. I’ve been able to make great strides in paying off my debt. I am down to about $28k in student debt. But I do things like plop down $1k at a time because I simply have the money. I live cheap. I don’t eat out all that much. But I am one of the EXTREMELY lucky ones. Most people I went to school with did not find solid jobs, nevertheless relevant ones. I am trapped with this debt until it is gone. If I were paying the minimum I’d have $400+ dollars to pay every month. It’s a lot. You don’t know what interest on a high-principle loan feels like until you see your interest tick up in real-time, and you realize you are paying hundreds of dollars a month in the long-run just to have the luxury of having taken out a loan. It’s murderous, it’s criminal, it’s trapping.
If I were faced with doing it all over again, here’s some stuff that I would do instead— which you will STILL have to do even if you go to college:
- RESEARCH. Research what people are doing now. Find out what you might be interested in. Write it all out. Here is a sampling of art-related careers that I know, personally, in real life, people doing and making good livings off of it:
Visual development artists/concept artists (note: this is a really popular field to pursue among young artists and not everyone can make it— but the skills you’d hone prepping to be one would make you a KILLER artist)
Graphic design, especially web-related
User interface design/User experience design
Video editing software like AfterEffects, often animating in it
Something I recommend doing is looking for what people are looking for. Conduct a mock job hunt and look at the skills people are looking for. Make yourself an ace and teach yourself Adobe CreativeSuite, or any other program you’re interested in using for your career. Buy them if you can, but if you’re a poor teenager stuck in the boondocks like I was, pirate them and pay for them after you know how to use them to make money. I can’t tell you how many doors I opened by downloading Photoshop in 8th grade. You can teach yourself virtually any program or skill with all the resources available online.
- GET GOOD. If you want to be a cartoonist, the best and cheapest thing you can get yourself is the Preston Blair book (http://animationresources.org/?p=2091 just print it out!) People say it all the time but it’s true. It’s an incredible launching point for people who don’t know where to start. LEARN LIFE DRAWING (but everyone says that so I won’t hammer it). STUDY art you like. Copying is a GREAT way to understand new things. Copy a variety of things across many genres and periods of art (NOT JUST INTERNET ARTISTS). Give yourself the muscle memory. Don’t put your studies of other peoples’ work on the internet, though, without clearly labeling them. People will crucify you and you want as many friends and as stellar a rep as you can get.
There are a lot of other great books and resources out there for people who decide they want to get into cartooning seriously— there are tons of lists out there that already exist for reference so I won’t get into it, but my point is YOU CAN TEACH YOURSELF A LOT. You just have to devote your time to it and be fiercely on-task. If I had to do it all over again I would probably just sit my ass down and draw for 4 years instead and it would have been cheaper. I would have wound up drawing a lot more.
- MAKE STUFF.
- GET OUT THERE. Put your stuff on the internet. You don’t need to be a celebrity but you need to be accessible. People need to be seeing you or else they won’t know to recommend you for work, or seek you out themselves. If you’re going the self-starter route as a comic artist or even as an illustrator/animation artist, do not neglect meeting people. GO TO CONVENTIONS, GO TO CONVENTIONS, GO TO CONVENTIONS. If you make comics, Show up with mini-comics to give out (or trade with people who offer). Make friends with people in the same boat as you. If you make something really cool and fun and are nice, people will come to recognize you. If you’re already good or gettin’ there, a network of people who know your work is crucial. Plus it’s fun! I’ve made some of the best friends I’ve made by just throwing minicomics at people.
If you want to do comics specifically… I’m afraid I am not the person exactly to ask, because that isn’t how I make my bread and butter. But all the self-teaching stuff applies doubly since it is not easy to make money doing comics alone. Even Meredith Gran, who is highly successful, does not use her wonderful comic, Octopus Pie (http://octopuspie.com), as her main source of income. I find being in debt while trying to make independent productions is a terror. I’d love to do more of my own small stuff but I can’t afford to just not work for a few months while I work on something that might make me money later. I have way too much debt for me to feel comfortable doing that.
ANYWAY, this turned into a manifesto that might have raised more questions than they answered, but frankly, no one can decide if college is right for you but you. There are a lot of factors to consider. I don’t want to make it out that college is a Big Mistake, but to show that there are alternatives. I wound up doing basically college AND all the extra crap I would have done if I hadn’t gone to school, because if I had just left it up to the baseline curriculum, I would not have been prepared for my career.
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