Like most comic book artists [ or working artists in any capacity ] I get a lot of “How can I break into comics?” questions. Regardless of how talented you are the answers are all very much universal.
I’m going to write a series of Journals that address this question. Step by Step. From the day an artist makes that crucial career defining decision to getting and maintaining steady work flow.
PART ONE: Developing your Inner Critic
You’ve been drawing for a while and all of your friends and family think you could “do this for a living”. And, at long last, you’ve decided that drawing for a paycheck is going to make you happy and pay the bills. Okay, now what? How do you get your first paying job and set the world on fire?
The first thing you need to do is critically examine your own work. This is the most important step. Is your art ready to be published or do you need more work? Well, contrary to your first impulse – which is to get the opinion of a working professional or that of your best friend/biggest fan – you need to look within. You actually know the answer. I hope you do. I mean, you want to make a career of this, right? So, ideally, you’ve practiced drawing for hours on end. Maybe you’ve attended an art school. Regardless of how you’ve acquired your drawing skills, I’m hoping you have a level of artistic taste.
Here’s what you do: Draw FIVE comic book pages. If you can’t get a hold of a script – use your imagination or rip one off an old story you remember. No one is going to hire you based on how well you draw a mock cover or pin-up. You need to draw some sample pages. Maybe you don’t know what tools to use? Uh-oh… Guess what? You need to draw more. Because you’ll figure out which ones work best for you. Asking your favorite professional which pencil or pen they use is not the answer. Because it’s not the pencil – it’s who’s pushing that pencil that makes it sing. You need to develop your own style and that means you need to grow as an artist and experiment with tools until you have a look that you, personally, are satisfied with.
Are you done? Good. Now, pick up a typical comic book. Not one drawn by Alex Ross, Mike Mignola or Sean Murphy. And not one drawn by an artist that is widely thought of as a “terrible artist”. Nope. Pick up a typical comic book. Pick up a few of them. Regular Marvel or DC titles that are selling decently. That’s your benchmark. Your answer is right there. Take a look at the comic book in front of you and ask yourself: “Can I draw as well as this guy?” Can you draw everything he or she has drawn just as competently? Not necessarily in the same style but with the same level of professionalism? That’s the key. Can you draw cars well? Can you draw backgrounds? Can you draw a dog, a cat or an elephant? How about a telephone? Because the scripts you get will require you to draw just about everything. Your level of drawing is not based on your ability to draw Batman perched on a gargoyle above Gotham City.
So, now you’ve asked yourself the tough question. If you answered “Yes” then you’re ready to move on to Part Two. If you answered “No” [ which requires a great deal of maturity on your behalf ] then you’re going to have to ask: Why? What skills are you lacking? Is it storytelling? Is it your anatomy? Maybe you’ve only drawn figures but never a background. Maybe you only draw figures facing forward.
Basically you need to address your weaknesses. But “how”, you might ask. Good news. There’s a book for you. It’s called How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way. “Oh noooooo!” you might say, “That book looks like it was made over thirty years ago! No one draws like that anymore! I wanna draw like Jim Lee or Jeffery Scott Campbell!”
Everything you need to know is in-between those pages. Everything. If you can master that book [ and few people can ] you’ll become a top artist. Don’t worry, you won’t end up drawing like John Buscema when you’re done. You’ll be influenced by him but influenced in a good way. Your style is going to come through [ unless you consciously try to draw just like him, it's not going to happen ]. It’s like people that say they don’t want to lift weights because they don’t want their arms to get too big… If only it were that easy. No, going through that book will give you the strong foundation you need to become a solid comic book artist. Whether you like Manga or abstract storytelling/art like Ted McKeever. It doesn’t matter. You don’t need a fancy book on Perspective or on Figure Drawing.
Also, it never hurts to attend Life Drawing classes. Even if you cartoon your work, drawing from life will improve your craft in ways you never imagined. All the best cartoonists have practiced Life Drawing. Don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise. Here’s the trick: Don’t worry about being terrible at first. And don’t go to Life Drawing classes and stay within your comfort zone. Try earnestly to draw the human form using tone. Using shadow. Drawing the figure like a cartoon is not going to help you understand form better. Drawing what you see, realistically, will. Then, take what you learn and apply it to your cartooned style later. You’ll be blown away by the results. On a side note: I’ve seen more than my fair share of “professional artists” that are too intimidated to attempt Life Drawing. It’s a real shame. They make every excuse in the book too. It’s pathetic and they wonder why their abilities remain stagnant. Don’t be a coward and fall back on things you already know. If you want to improve, dare to fail. Each time you attempt it, the results will improve. I have miles and miles to go as an artist and resisted Life Drawing for many years. Finally, I took the leap! Guess what – I sucked. It was so embarrassing. But, each time I improved, little by little and I’m still improving. Nothing has helped my drawing more.
NEXT: Part Two – Knocking On That Door
Like most comic book artists [ or working artists in any capacity ] I get a lot of “How can I break into comics?” questions. Regardless of how talented you are the answers are all pretty similar.
PART TWO: Baby Steps
Let’s get you a job. Let’s say you don’t have an opportunity to go to NYC [ or wherever it is that the comic book or graphic album company you wish to work for is located ] – how do you get hired? Samples. You need great samples to get noticed.
Every working comic book editor has a wealth of talent at his/her disposal. If an artist can’t complete his deadline and they have to find another artist or they have a new book that needs drawing – they have a Phone Book filled with numbers to call. Ideally, you want to be in that Rolodex. So how do you do that? You have to impress them. You have to impress them so much that they want to call you instead of another working artist. The problem is: You don’t have the experience that these other guys do. That makes it kinda tough….
So let’s rewind a bit. Maybe starting with Marvel, DC, Dark Horse or Image isn’t the first thing you do. You need samples and your samples only get better by creating more and more of them. All of us have at least a hundred “bad” pages in us. Yep, they’re in there and there’s only one way to get them out. It’s not by drawing more pin-ups of Power Girl. You actually have to draw comic book pages. Comic book pages force you to draw things you’re not familiar with. Pages help you see things in a different way and explore and expand your talent base in ways that drawing a “hot chick” or “Wolverine flexing his muscles and showing off his claws” can’t. Drawing a page with an underground hi-tech secret headquarters in one panel and Alfred the Butler in a normal kitchen in the next… The initial ones will look okay upon first inspection – but chances are – they’ll be “bad”. Don’t despair. Practice really does make perfect. You need to start small and build. You might have to start very small. But no matter how small the assignment – you’ll be taking a step in the right direction. That’s the key element here. Baby steps. One step leading to another. One small job to another.
Only your work can take you to the next level. If your work doesn’t merit advancement or a better job, it means you need to apply yourself more. Here’s my advice to you: When you’re starting out – take that terrible job – no matter what it pays. Do your absolute best work on it. If the job pays $5 – treat it like you’re being paid $5,000! Because, at the end of the assignment you can take that work and get a better paying job with it. You’ll have samples in your hand that will hopefully impress another editor at a bigger company. You’ll have working experience. You’ll know how long it takes you to draw a page. You’ll learn so many lessons from that one crummy job that you would of paid them if you could have!
Depending on your growth curve, you may need several of these jobs. You may need to draw, ink or color several issues in a row at a smaller company before developing your talent to move to a larger company. But here’s the thing, when you’re ready – you’ll be ready. If your samples aren’t up to par, you’ll know. You’ll know because you won’t be hired. Which is why I said, always do your best work – every chance you get.
Doing enough to get the assignment finished doesn’t help you in the long run. Forcing yourself to work harder forces you to grow and improve. I knew an artist that NEVER did his best work. He was always waiting for someone to pay him what he believed he deserved. To this day, he hasn’t done his best work. It’s in him somewhere, waiting… But here’s funny part about that: What publisher is going to pay you an astronomical amount of money for something they’ve never seen evidence of. Where is this “Best Work”? It doesn’t exist because you haven’t been paid enough to draw it… But an editor can’t guess what you’re capable of and therefore pay you accordingly. They have to see some your best work. If your work is excellent, your rate will reflect that. But until you deliver excellent work, you’re going to be paid based on what you’re currently handing in. That old saying, “you’re only as good as your last job” is very true. And it’s also very important that every job you do, you show improvement.
So, always draw to the best of your ability. The next time your draw something, you’ll have that experience on your side. It’ll be easier. And, of course, you’ll have terrific samples to show around which will lead to bigger and better things!
So how do you get in to the Big Three [ or Four ]? You have to kiss a lot of frogs along the way. And those kisses need to be dripping with love! You can’t fake them. Otherwise, you can’t expect any magic.
Next week, I’ll discuss how to submit samples and in what quantities. See you then.
PART THREE: Submitting samples
Okay, we’ve already discussed that breaking into the comic book market [ or any art based market for that matter ] takes a self conscious – critical eye and, generally speaking, you can’t just draw 3-6 sample comic book pages for the first time and nail a job with the top publishers. Even though that sounds reasonable enough, some artists simply don’t understand that you need to baby step your way into a comic book career.
Let’s put it this way: You may want to be a lawyer. Perhaps you have received high marks in school and consider yourself very intelligent. In fact, you might be very intelligent – but that doesn’t mean you can pass the Law Exam for your state [ country, etc ]. It’s true you don’t need to go to law school to be a lawyer. But you have to pass the exam. So, technically, if by some miracle you taught yourself to pass the exam, yes – you could be a lawyer. But, most law firms want to hire a lawyer with a degree. It tells them you’ve covered all the bases and are familiar with all the basics. Luckily, you don’t need an art degree to become a successful artist. But you do need to develop your artistic chops to become a valid consideration in the eyes of comic book fans and, more importantly, comic book editors.
After reading Part Two you realize it’s probably necessary to start on the bottom and work your way up. It’s also probably a good idea to make a lot of your artistic mistakes at the expense of smaller publishers. Think of the smaller publishers as Gladiator School. They get you ready for that big battle in the coliseum. So… let’s get you published.
The first thing you need to do is assess your talent level. Where do you fit in the current industry? You need to look at your talent level realistically and answer that question. Aiming high isn’t a bad thing but if your ego can’t take rejection – you’re probably better off starting with a publisher that puts out books befitting your current state of ability. Remember, think of it as a training ground. You might even get some offers to work on “spec”, which is short for speculation. We’ll discuss that in a bit. But right now let’s say you’ve assessed your talent and believe that a company we’ll call Dreadful Comics would consider hiring you.
So what does Dreadful Comics publish? Hopefully Dreadful Comics isn’t a comic book company that publishes only one comic book. If they do, it probably means they’re self publishing. If they’re self publishing, meaning it’s just a writer and an artist [ or a writer/artist ] publishing his or her own comic book, they’re not going to have the funds to pay you to draw a comic book for them. Even if you would draw a comic book for them for free – they probably aren’t interested in doing all the leg work required to make your dreams come true. So you need to find a comic book company that publishes at least a few comic books.
Pretend that company is called Capital Comics. They publish at least five titles a month. Some are just mini-series but they have a few ongoing titles. They’re going to need to find artists to draw these books. Trust me. Small publishers always need new talent because a lot of their artists get better and move on to more lucrative work. Or, in some cases, they’ll hire a new artist that can’t deliver work on time. Missing deadlines causes a trickle down effect that costs publishers money because distributors also have delivery deadlines. Penalties and other costs will bleed a small company dry [ and a big company ]. So, you’ll always find some opportunity at a smaller company. Maybe not every single one but if you’ve assessed your talent well, you’ll be on your way to a comic book career. So, now that you’ve found a company – you need to draw some sample pages. I suggest picking a title of theirs that you could see yourself drawing and come up with a 5 page short story that incorporates their character[s]. Can’t come up with a story? C’mon, try! Alright, for some reason, even though you’re creative enough to draw comic books you’ve decided you can’t write… Fine. Here’s what you do: find a five page [ or six or eight, whatever ] story with, say Batman or whoever, and adapt it to their character. Your samples don’t need lettering, they just need to look like they tell a story.
Now, since you’ve studied the medium and you’re familiar with comic book page layouts you know you want to give them some variety. Show some “regular people” in your sample pages. Not just super heroes or the beautiful girl detective – this is very important. You may not need more than a panel that shows some bystanders reacting to the action or a situation you’re illustrating. But, show the editor or publisher that you can draw a wide range of things well. You’ll want to show the exterior of a building or buildings and the inside office or room where the story takes place [ remember, you don't have to take me literally. Maybe your story takes place on a ship. Which means you'll want to show the ship on the water and from the cabin, etc. ]. Give them some range. Just drawing muscular super heroes won’t make for good samples. Show as much as the story allows and as much as your skill set can handle.
You may have hundreds of drawings you would like to submit [ in person at a show or via email or snail mail ] but don’t. Too much is never a good thing. Inevitably, if you have hundreds of drawings or sample pages that means that they vary in degrees of quality. You only want to show your best work. And you don’t to give them too much because the more you send the more chances they’ll have to see something they don’t like. Leave them wanting more. To be honest, if you draw 5 nice pages, that’s all you need. Maybe throw in a faux cover and make it six! But that should be enough. If they want to see more then that’s a good thing. Ask them for a sample script at that point. It means you’re building a rapport.
To reiterate, you never need to show a publisher, editor or an artist at a convention more than 5 to 10 pages of samples. No one really wants to look at more than that. 5 to 10 pages is plenty for an editor to assess your talent level and give you an assignment.
What about including pieces of art that aren’t comic book pages? Well, let’s think about that for a minute. What exactly will they be hiring you to do? Draw pictures of their character posing without backgrounds? Headshots? Nope. They’re going to hire you to draw comic book pages. So why would they want to see stuff that looks like it could belong in a sketch book? They wouldn’t. So don’t waste their time. You may want to include a faux cover but it’s really not necessary. Editors are smart enough to know that if you can draw a comic book page that you can probably draw a single image for a cover.
With your comic book page samples ready to go, make some clean copies of them or scan them. Email or mail them to the editor you wish to work for. Never send originals. If your pages are fairly general and you’ve come up with a generic hero to fill your story – you may be able to get away with submitting samples to many publishers at once. Excellent! Keep the opening email short and sweet. Introduce yourself and get to the point. No sob story. No, “I want this so bad!”. Nope. Just make it professional and let your work do the talking. If you’re emailing your samples [ provided you've found the editor's email address, of course ] make sure the files aren’t too large. I know you’re proud of your work, but don’t send huge files. Nothing more than 150 DPI is necessary via email [ in fact, 72 is probably fine ]. At 100% viewing size the pages shouldn’t take too much scrolling to see them in their entirety.
Less is more when it comes to art samples.
Next week we’ll discuss the option of self publishing and working on spec. The following week we’ll discuss what to do when an editor agrees to give you an assignment.
PART FOUR: Self Publishing and Working on Spec
One way to get noticed by bigger publishers is to self publish your own comic book. Obviously, this requires quite a bit of work. A story needs to be written, penciled, inked [ optional ], colored [ optional ] and lettered. You also need some capital to pay for printing costs and some type of game plan when approaching distribution. But the biggest factor is the time it takes to create enough of a story to publish. If you’re out of school, most likely you’re working at some kind of job to pay your bills. Managing your time properly to put a book out requires discipline and passion. It’s obviously not impossible. People do it all the time with varied degrees of success. The amount of experience gained from such an endeavor is probably the equivalent to a year’s worth of schooling.
But if you’ve decided to skip the Portfolio Review aspect route to gain employment at one of the larger comic book companies you have to be willing to accept the pros and cons of the experience. Because this is most likely your first foray into sequential storytelling, the chances of critical acclaim are fairly slim. It’s probably a good idea to go into it knowing that the venture is one big learning experience. It certainly is. And, of course, there’s always a chance that your self publishing will catch on and actually be a success. It happens and it could happen for you. However, in most cases, the experience will help you to create samples an editor can assess. Like I mentioned, the more pages you draw – the more you should improve your craft. Publishing a comic book will force you to draw things you probably would have never drawn before [ even if you write the story yourself ].
The downside of publishing a comic book, without prior work experience, is the extra time and energy required. To be honest, you probably won’t recoup your costs. That said, you may want to consider working on spec[ulation]. Also, it should be noted that a professional artist that decides to self publish has a much greater chance of success both monetarily and career-wise. What we’re discussing here is only the Pros and Cons for the amateur or budding artist.
Working on Spec means working with the “speculation” that [ in this case ] the comic book you draw for free will make a profit and the publisher can eventually pay you. You must understand that working for spec, 99 out of 100 times, means simply working for free. After over twenty years in the art business I have only been paid for a Spec Project once. I have done so many spec projects [ like most artists ] that I generally have a rule that I NEVER work on spec. And if you’re a professional artist, I highly recommend you never work on spec. Just like a barber wouldn’t cut your hair for free. You shouldn’t draw something for someone for free. Your talent has value.
Early in your career is, however, not a bad time to work on spec – provided you understand that, even with the promise of later payment, you will almost never be paid. The reason to accept Spec Work is simple: Published Work Experience. It’s as simple as that. Just like Self Publishing, the experience you will gain from illustrating an actual comic book is priceless. By the end of the process you will not be the same artist. You may learn you don’t ever want to draw a comic book again. But most likely you’ll learn what you need to improve. You’ll learn what you do well. You’ll discover how you work when confronted with an artistic obstacle you had not previously encountered.
If you’re considering either of these options, I would personally go the Spec Route [ with the understanding that Spec really means Free ]. In both cases you gain tremendous work experience and solid samples to show publishers. The advantage of Spec Work is that you aren’t coughing up any of your own money for publishing costs. Drawing a comic book for free is hard enough, paying a printer to publish it is an expense I would do my best to avoid if I could.
The other option is to work harder on your samples. Deviant Art, your own blog or website can be used to promote your efforts and build recognition. There are so many tools at your disposal today. Most of them free. Take full advantage of them and take control of your artistic success. You might want to set up a Internet Destination Point [ Deviant Art, a blog or website... ] where you publish one new page of a story a week. By the end of 22 weeks you would have an entire issue’s worth of content and plenty of viable samples to show a publisher. You would also be building a Web Presence. What’s nice is that you would basically be self publishing without the printing costs. Something to think about.
In the end, the idea is that you won’t be hire-able until your work improves. And your work won’t improve unless you draw more sequential pages. The saying popularized in the film, Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come” has real power. The trick is building something worth coming to.