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Practical Matters:
The Home Office
By Colleen Doran


Itís been months since I updated my column. Iíve been sticking to my own time management goals and keeping the essentials up front (meeting deadlines) and the unessentials in the back (writing columns for which I donít get paid.)

After a lengthy summer convention tour circuit, I thought I had avoided the convention crud (that flu bug that all the professionals seem to get after weeks of flying, staying in hotels with questionable goo in the air vents and long meet and greet lines). However, by the time I got home from San Diego, I was so sick I didnít get out of bed for almost an entire month, especially after I tried to go to the grocery and passed out in front of the cheese counter, only to awaken surrounded by a gang of firemen and paramedics (which, in retrospect, is not such a bad thing).

Unfortunately, trying to make up a monthís worth of lost work is a nasty business that took three months of seven-day-work-weeks. Not fun. But I was able to do it and now have almost two more months of the same to look forward to, since I have no cushion in my schedule any more and if I want to avoid getting behind again, I had better pull ahead a few weeks, just in case.

However, I am giving myself a few days off each holiday and here I am typing this on Thanksgiving weekend, which is not exactly taking a vacation, but itís not exactly working myself to the bone, either.

This time, I thought I would go over some ideas for the Home Office that worked for me. I gave this lecture at a Friends of Lulu meeting in October and many people indicated that they had gotten some good ideas out of the information. I hope you get some use out of them, too.

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Living and Working in the Same Space

When I was a girl, fifteen years old, I snagged my first professional assignment. This changed the course of my life. It also changed the way that I lived. I dove headfirst into my work and I quickly outfitted my living space to reflect that. I discarded my French Provincial bedroom set and in short order was sleeping on a fold out futon chair. The dominant feature in my bedroom was the drawing board and the bookcase that was soon overwhelmed with supplies, records and reference, followed by the obligatory boxes of comic books. I had no bedroom any more. I was sleeping in the place I worked.

Eventually, I pulled together enough money to buy my first home, a modest condominium. It looked cavernous to me since I had nothing but work stuff, and no furniture to live on. This was fine, for a while. I always put off getting a couch or a decent bed because I was too busy or couldnít find what I wanted. Before long, I realized I had been living in my condo for some years and was still living out of boxes, my whole life subordinated to my work.

That really sucked.

The girl that gave away everything that wasnít work related learned to hate the sight of anything work related. I ate, breathed and slept near my job. I couldnít get away from it. I learned to resent it.

Most creators reach this point, eventually. When you have no choice but to live and work in the same place, youíd rather gnaw off your own arm than look at that drawing board another minute. You wonít find a book on living and working from home that doesnít advise you to separate your workspace and living space as much as possible because the constant wear and tear of never being able to get away from the work will drive you a little batty. It is very important that you make the effort to separate your space and if it is at all possible, confine the work area to a room that you can close and lock away when the workday is over.

Since not everyone lives in a home large enough to have that luxury (especially if you are an artist in a big city like New York where rents are sky-high) there are all kinds of things you can do to minimize the encroachment of the workspace into the home.

The Home Office Armoire

I havenít found a better solution to clearing that computer clutter and getting a handle on the paper pile than the Home Office Armoire. This handy item is similar to a big entertainment center that it is made to hold your computer equipment, books, cds, and other items and may also come with a handy, built-in file cabinet. As you can see from this illustration, (Office 1) closed, it completely hides the office away. When a dayís work is done, just lock the doors and the work disappears. Open (illustration Office 2) you can see how much stuff this handy item holds. You can see my Mac, some of my printing equipment, over 100 books, countless discs, files, paper, equipment, etc, all clutter items that I am glad to say goodbye to at the end of my workday. It is amazing how much stuff this thing holds and how easily they disappear when not in use. You can put your entire self publishing office in your living room and no one would ever know it. In fact, thatís exactly where mine is.

You may have seen these at furniture stores or in catalogues for $1,500 and up. There is no reason to pay that kind of money. Sauder manufactures a do-it-yourself kit for between $300 and $400. Check out www.sauder.com. I made mine (with the help of a friend) in one weekend.

It is inadvisable to try this project unless you are handy with tools. It also weighs at least $150 lbs. You will need help to set it up though, if your helper is not handy with tools, you are probably better off doing it yourself anyway. I have had some nightmare experiences with people who have no idea what to do with their power tools and end up scratching, chipping and breaking the wood (which is what happened on this project until I directed my ďhelpĒ out of the house and finished it off myself). However, if you can pull it off, you will save over $1,000 and you will have a very useful piece of furniture. This item also matches bookcases and files from the same company. I also bought and built the bookcases and together they make a great wall unit that cost me about $600. Similar quality furniture, ready made, would run upwards of $2,000. You can attractively furnish your office for a very reasonable price so it doesnít look like the nightmare of small presses and self-employed people everywhere.


You can buy those nasty looking, overpriced metal file cabinets that make your home look like your school guidance councilorís office, or you can use a little imagination and come up with something that will pull double duty and not look bad while doing it. This is my living room coffee table (illustration Table 1). It is also my morgue file. Morgue files are reference files that artists keep on hand because you never know when you will need a picture of a train or of Mount Everest. I have hundreds of clippings in here. The thought of housing these things in yet another putty colored cabinet is something I canít live with, so instead, I bought this rattan chest for $79 at Samís Club, which was a bargain. Then I had a beveled glass top cut for it at a local glass shop. The cost for that was about $30, including some little felt stickers to place on it to keep the downside glass from scratching. So, for about $100 I got a coffee table as well as a storage system that encases my entire morgue file that used to fit into three drawers of an ugly, putty colored metal thing. A brand new, hideous file cabinet usually retails for about $120.00. I save money and get two items of furniture for the price of one.

Hereís another file cabinet idea. This is the zen corner of my house (illustration Cabinet 1). Looks peaceful, doesnít it? It is also another file cabinet. When open, (illustration file3.jpeg) it holds more than a drawerís worth of files. This is intended for files and was only $29.00 at Samís club. It is solid wood and much more attractive and useful than those metal files. Again, itís something that can fit into any room in the house and still do the job without rubbing you the wrong way.

Flat Files

For an artist, nothing is more frustrating than storing and organizing art. I know. I hate it. I also hate the outrageous prices art supply stores charge for flat files, those big cabinets with narrow drawers for storing art. Just one set of ten drawers averages about $1,500. Thatís simply ridiculous.

For me, the simplest and most cost effective method for storing art is to purchase do-it-yourself modular bookcases and buy extra shelves for them. They are very easy to build and average about $100, though I have bought them for as low as $60. They should take no more than an hour to construct and you need no special skills or tools to do so. They are readily available at stores like Home Depot. The extra shelves cost about $10 each and because the cases have many extra holes drilled into the sides for moving shelves up and down, you can buy a five shelf unit that can hold as many as twelve shelves. These narrow pockets are the perfect width and depth for comic book art. For roughly $150 (only 10% of the cost of those fancy flat files) you should be able to house most of your comic book art in only one unit. Even better, you can buy large manila envelopes and store each book neatly in one envelope (illustration Flat File 1). The three shelves you see in this illustration hold more than twenty complete books, and as you can see, there is plenty of room left. You can organize the shelves to hold anything you like and combine them or move them easily.

This is the simplest, most economical solution to the flat file problem I have ever been able to come up with. These modular, laminated bookcases are very easy to find and quite common. Donít forget to check out garage sales, the Goodwill store and other places first for bookshelf bargains. I once helped furnish a destitute friendís entire apartment in one weekend of bin diving, so donít rule that out either.

If youíve got a little more extra cash and still want the convenience of store made flat files, may I suggest that you buy a map chest instead?

Now, you may ask, what is the difference between a map chest and flat files? The price, my friend, the price! This handsome flat file system, a.k.a. a map chest (illustration Flat File 2), cost only $495, 1/3 the price of the same unit of flat files and is solid oak. Furniture stores carry map chests. Art supply stores carry flat files. Avoid art supply stores if you want the best prices for furniture for your home studio.

Storing Art Supplies

Second only to storing art, storing art supplies is the misery of every artist I know. Few have coordinated systems for storing their supplies. Now, a little clutter shouldnít be a misery, but most artists live in a mountain of clutter. This wastes time and money. It also wastes supplies since many of them deteriorate with time. I donít know of any artist that isnít always losing some tube of paint or other and goes out to buy it again and again, only to realize one day that they have six of the same color and three dried out over the last five years. Paints and tools are expensive. After helping one artist clean out his clutter, more than fifty tubes of oil paint had to be discarded. At roughly $7 per tube, thatís a waste of $350. And that was just the oil paint! I canít even calculate how many tubes of other paints, as well as now-useless cans of fixative and other pricey items had to be tossed out. I am sure the art supply waste was well in excess of $1,500.

After getting a load of that, I decided to take much better care of my own tools. Now I treat them like the expensive items they are.

Hereís a great solution for storing art supplies. This handsome oak toolbox cost me $69 at Samís Club (illustration Supply 1). It was the display copy, so it was about $20 off retail. It is also big, measuring over 2 1/2 feet wide with ten drawers, a lock and a top-opening cabinet. It is far less expensive, and in every way a better value, than those ugly cheap plastic storage things you find in art supply catalogues. If you are thinking of buying one of those, just buy a fishing tackle box instead.

Look how much my oak chest holds! (Supply 2 and Supply 3) Almost every tube of paint I own fits very neatly into these felt lined drawers. The dust stays off the supplies. No goopy mess at the top of the paint tube and I have the tubes arranged by color. Everything is very simple to find.

You see that I almost always buy furniture and tools made with natural materials. I rarely buy plastic because it generates a static charge that attracts dust. The dust motes and skin oils grab onto it and hold onto it for dear life and cleaning is very difficult. Stick to wood and natural fibers when furnishing your studio.

If you canít afford one of these nice boxes, then it should be no problem to buy baskets or wine crates that will do the job. I get wine crates from wineries for only a few dollars a box. Put your tools in the crate, slip a cloth over them to keep the dust off, and then slip them onto a bookshelf. Itís important to cover your tools. It is much easier to slip off a top cloth and toss it into the laundry than it is to have to dust all the nooks and crannies of a box or basket and everything in it.

Organizing Your Life

I am not a naturally organized person at all. I have had to learn how to be organized the hard way. Being disorganized has made me miss deadlines. It makes me pay bills late. It makes me waste time.

According to time management experts, the average person takes in 300 pieces of paper a day. That includes thing like catalogue junk mail. If youíre like me, you tend to let the paperwork get out of hand. The papers pile up when I am away on tour or on a work jag. I may go for weeks without even looking at the mail.

After 3 weeks of collecting 300 pieces of paper a day, I am now faced with the unenviable task of dealing with 6,300 pieces of unfilled paper (and for someone in the publishing business, this is a very conservative estimate). These last few weeks, I worked about 14 hours a day and didnít even read most of my mail. Now I have to spend the better part of a day dealing with it.

Most people just canít seem to keep a handle on the important papers like bills and invoices. If you are self-publishing, this can ruin your business. If you are on deadline, important matters slip by and cost you money. Late bills and late deliveries are hurtful to your reputation.

There is only one thing I have ever been able to find that has helped me to get a handle on the mountain of paper I have to deal with on a daily basis. I call this, the Prompter File. It is a perpetual calendar, a file system, a bill payment system, an invoice system, an everything system.

The Prompter File is something you can make yourself. It is very simple and inexpensive to do.

All you need are 43 files and a place to put them, either a cabinet or a box.

The first 31 files you will tag with the numbers 1-31. This will represent all the days of the months. The last 12 files you will tag January through December.

Congratulations. You have now created your Prompter File. Wasnít that easy?

Now, what do you do with it? Simple. Say, your rent bill is always due on the 15 of every month. It takes seven days to mail it. Simply place that bill into the slot marked the 8th and your rent bill is always where it has to be. Keep it there.

Say you have an invoice that is due on the 30th. Put your invoice in the file marked 30. You have something that must be done on the twelfth. Place it in the file marked 12. Your bills are always at the ready, your invoices are at your fingertips, notes for deadlines, parties, whatever you need, transitory items like notes about phone calls you must make or plane tickets can be plopped into the file and removed on the days they are needed.

Upcoming events in later months are simply filed in the month they are required. The quarterly tax forms can be filed under April, June, September and January. Momís birthday gets filed under June, too. When June comes along, I empty the June file, then I put the notes and other items under the day they are needed. I never lose airline tickets or convention information with this system. If I know I am traveling somewhere on the 20th, everything that pertains to that trip is filed under 20. If the trip is two months hence, I file it under that month then move it to the day it will be needed.

Say you have an important task that must be completed and delivered on the 13th of the month. But you want to give yourself a reminder that the due date is coming so it doesnít creep up on you. Simply make a note to yourself about the task and drop it into the files marked 5, 7 and 10. That way, every couple of days, you give yourself a reminder.

The one drawback to this system is you must stay on top of it and update daily. Thatís easy to do, but some people just canít seem to manage the habit. I highly recommend getting into this system because it is much easier, cheaper and more effective than any computer organizer, Day Timer, or any other fancy organizing tricks I have tried.

I have put my system into a Mead Organizer because it is portable, but most people prefer the file cabinet idea. I guarantee that if you can learn this system, you will not pay your bills late or miss important deadlines again, assuming you have the money and have done the work! As I wrote before, I am not naturally organized, but this Prompter File system goes a long way toward making me look that way!

I hope youíve gotten some good ideas for your own home office from this column and I look forward to hearing from you.

Colleen Doran is the creator, writer, and artist behind the popular series, A DISTANT SOIL, published by Image Comics. Having cumulatively sold over 500,000 copies of ADS, Colleen has been featured in such books and publications as Comic Book Rebels and Sassy. Colleen's work has also appeared in X-FACTOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA, WONDER WOMAN, and X-MEN UNLIMITED. Her upcoming work includes ORBITER, written by Warren Ellis, and EPOCH OF ZODIAC, by Keith Giffen. Both will be published by DC Comics.


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