The Norman Transcript

January 26, 2014

Comic book writer inspires art students with life story

By Katherine Parker
The Norman Transcript

Fruit Loops — cereal box after cereal box lined the kitchen cabinets. And box after box he ate. Lacking confidence and depressed, Sterling Gates sat on his couch with spoon in hand, thinking moving to Los Angeles was the worst mistake of his life.

Now a well-known comic book writer for DC Comics, the path to Gates’ success was full of challenging writing critiques and self doubt.

“I felt like I failed the memory of my father, failed my mother’s expectations and failed as an artist,” Gates said about the depression that encapsulated him after he moved to Los Angeles and couldn’t find a job.

But Gates said that sometimes luck changes at a moment’s notice and encouraged University of Oklahoma art students to do what makes them happy during his presentation Thursday night at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

“Good things can happen to you at your lowest — even when you’re sitting around eating Fruit Loops.”

From an early age, Gates’ life was about superhero comic books because running a comic book store was his dad’s business. Gates said his father would keep the back stock in their garage and boxes of 20,000 comic books would line the wall floor to ceiling.

“Comic books were the outlet for the trials and tribulations I had as a young man,” he said. “Bullies are mean ... I sought solace in my comics.”

After Gates’ father died in June 1998, his family got rid of the comic book store, but Gates’ love of comics never left him. Later, when Gates attended the University of Oklahoma School of Art and Art History, he began to think intellectually about comics and ask “What makes a good story?” and “How can I make it the most impactful?”

After graduating in 2005, Gates took a chance that he could start a career with gumption and his art degree and moved to Los Angeles.

But the transition from collegiate life to the real world was more difficult than Gates expected until a comic book convention in San Franciso and luck turned his disheartened perspective to hopeful.

After a day of comic book convention fun, a heavy night of drinking ensued and Gates and his friend ran into two of their idols, Geoff Johns and Steve Wacker, three times.

Small talk ensued and mid-scoop of a banana split, Johns offered Gates a job and gave him his card. Yet, Gates’ self-doubt prevented him from sending Johns a resume until Gates’ then-girlfriend forced him to type up a cover letter while she hovered over his shoulder drying her hair.

“Sometimes we, as artists, self-sabotage,” Gates said. “On Tuesday, I got a call. They wanted to interview me in 20 minutes,” he said.

Gates was offered a job with the TV series “Blade” on Spike TV, and that’s when his real education in having confidence as an artist began. Gates had to do the grunt work, buying cases of water and making copies of scripts, but he also was asked to write a spec script for the TV series’ second season.

“I thought it was gold,” Gates said, but the critique was not pretty. “It was the first time I got a critique from the real world. I was crushed. It was a humbling experience. I mean, I misspelled the word ‘episode.’”

After “Blade” was canceled, Gates became Johns’ assistant. One day, Johns asked Gates if he had ever written a comic book.

Gates turned over his OU capstone project, which was a 20-page comic book about his first kiss, and for 25 minutes, Gates sweated bullets while he waited to see what his idol would think of his work.

“He said, ‘You know comics, but you don’t know how to write them like I would,’ and then he taught me,” Gates said. “Every night, I’d go home and my writing looked like it was covered in blood from all the markings. Some nights, I thought I’d never be good enough.”

A year’s worth of training led to Gates being asked to write Supergirl, and from 2008 to 2011, Gates wrote for the comic.

“Sometimes I feel like my entire life has been a happy accident,” he said.

Gates said that from menial labor to writing his own stories, he has realized he needs to do what makes him happy and encouraged OU art students to embrace their talent and face challenges head on.

“The work you do doesn’t always have to follow in the footsteps of those before you,” he said.

Katherine Parker


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