After Being An Educator For 17 years, Professor Switches Career As A Creative Writer For DC Comics

His debut story features the superhero Icon during the Cambodian Civil War.

By Hannah Liza Tapan

March 30, 2023

Nathaniel “Nathan” Cayanan is a Filipino-American currently working as a lecturer at Cal State Fullerton part-time, where he teaches business communication. He has been teaching English composition and academic writing for almost a decade and has been in education for 17 years, 8 of those years in college. He studied creative writing and screenwriting at USC and earned a master’s in writing because he wanted to be a filmmaker, but found himself teaching English comp – which he loved for a time.

On a whim last year, Nathan applied for DC Comics Milestone Initiative, a talent development program created in partnership with groundbreaking publisher Milestone Media and Ally Financial for marginalized writers and artists who want to break into the industry. It was highly competitive, but, somehow, the story he wrote for the application caught their eye, and he was officially accepted into their inaugural class. He took part in a program that mentored them as they tried to advance in the comic book industry.

He’s putting more effort into his creative career, not only writing some comics or graphic novels but drawing too. Now, he will be making his DC Comics debut as a writer. His story features the superhero Icon during the Cambodian Civil War.

With his first story to release in just a few months, Nathan’s career is on the rise. But how did he get to this point? Let’s explore the decisions and experiences that brought him here.

I APPLIED BELIEVING THAT I WOULD FAIL

I’ve always loved stories, be they in movies, books, or comics. I have read comics ever since I was about eight years old, my first comic being Batman #416. I watched movies as much as I could growing up, falling in love with not only the stories, but also the craft of telling them. 

I studied creative writing and screenwriting, but as most people know, it’s not a career rife with opportunities, so I found a day job teaching while I tried to develop my creative career. But teaching was a job that took a lot of time and energy, so the amount of effort into my writing career was relatively low. I loved teaching, so I was okay with this for a while, especially since I constantly got rejections for stories I wrote. In short, I settled.

However, about 5-6 years into my college teaching career, I started to feel pigeonholed. Despite earning stellar reviews and even winning Teacher of the Year in 2018, I wasn’t getting consistent opportunities. I was passed up for full-time positions several times. And even though it’s common for adjuncts to make up for a lack of full-time work by finding employment at multiple colleges, many community colleges would not hire me to teach part-time despite me having more experience and qualifications than other candidates they did hire.

So, I realized I needed to let go of this career and go back to school in 2019 for something more practical and get an MBA to pursue opportunities outside higher ed. My logic was that I would continue to teach part-time at only one school and leave my admin job at another school, while I went to graduate school (again).

Then the pandemic happened, and I started to also lose some of the classes at that school because of low enrollment and cut hours. Simultaneously, while I was doing well in my business program (I was earning a 4.0 at the time), I was a bit depressed. The world was collapsing, people were just very unpleasant, student-teacher dynamics changed, and I felt like a failure in TWO careers I pursued.

I applied for the Milestone Initiative, thinking that I’m going to just go work in an office if I give up my passions completely, so I might as well make one last effort and “die trying,” knowing that I fought until the bitter end. I actually applied believing that I would fail and that I just needed one more rejection letter to make it official. But, instead, I was accepted, and that really changed things moving forward.

The world was collapsing, people were just very unpleasant, student-teacher dynamics changed, and I felt like a failure in TWO careers I pursued.

nathan cayanan

CREATIVE INFLUENCES

I have so many creative influences. In film, there are Wong Kar Wai, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and Aaron Sorkin.

If we’re talking literature: Haruki Marakami, Juno Diaz, Amy Tan, Lan Samantha Chang, Edgar Allan Poe, Cormac McCarthy. Comics, Tom King (who was my mentor in the Milestone Initiative), Scott Snyder, Jim Lee, Alan Moore, and Frank Miller. I mean, this list can go on and on, and they all have different influences on my creative voice and eye.

Digital illustration of Sugar Pie DeSant, Filipina jazz singer in the mid-1900s. Drawn by Nathan Cayanan. Colors by Lala Narita.

CHALLENGES OF TRANSITIONING INTO THE CAREER

Most of my work so far is indie and still in the process of being made. I have one comic I’m writing and drawing and any money I get will come after it’s printed, and assuming that it sells enough.

Similarly, I have a graphic novel I’m writing, and an artist is drawing it, and we’ve been offered the opportunity to publish it when it’s finished, but we won’t see a dime until we see units sold in the future. This is why many of us have day jobs. I still teach, just less than I did, and only at a university closer to home. But we do this because we love the art of telling stories.

Drawn by Nathan Cayanan: Ninoy Aquino, a Filipino politician who was assassinated during Ferdinand Marcos’ rule in the Philippines. This illustration depicts Aquino and his wife, future president Cory Aquino, when they lived in Boston, after he was exiled for standing against Marcos.

ADVICE FOR ASPIRING WRITERS OR ARTISTS

It’s not easy, and I think admitting that first is important. Too many young aspiring artists ask for advice, but what I feel like they’re asking is how they make this a career where the opportunities are plentiful, the money is endless, they can do it only from 9-to-5, get a 401K, and feel happy 24/7.

Every person I’ve met in the creative world (especially in comics) has said the same thing. It’s a grind. But, if you love the art, I mean genuinely love it (as opposed to the potential for fame and money), then go for it. But, as many writers and artists have told me, 90% of us have a day job. So, prepare to work, even if you make it. And even when you do, enjoy it, because it may not last.

Also, while it may not feel like it should be important, your ability to work and communicate with others is highly important. VERY few people are talented enough to never have to interact with others. Instead, most must be able to work with each other.

Editors have told me that they don’t care if you’re talented. If you’re not professional, no one’s going to give you the opportunity, especially if you’re rude, always late, flakey, or overly stubborn. You don’t have to be the life of the party or admired by the masses. But surely, you have to be reliable and don’t be a d*&k. 

Drawn by Nathan Cayanan speaking to the times as we see Asian hate crimes on the rise.

Website: nathanielcayanan.com

Instagram: @nathan_a.k.a