This column is directed specifically towards all the artists out there, posting their work on the various comic book message boards, hoping to break into comics. I have something very important to tell you. Are you listening?
No one cares about your pin-ups and “draw-offs.”
I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s true. For those of you reading this who aren’t sure what I’m talking about, let me back up a bit. I love watching new artists develop. Billy Dallas Patton, Patrick Gleason, Damon Hacker, and John Wycough – the pencillers and inkers I’ve worked with on Noble Causes – are all very new, largely untested artists, and watching their learning curve is something I find fascinating. So, I spend a good deal of time surfing the web, looking at various artists’ online portfolios, and the like.
This past year, I’ve come across a number of artist-centric message boards out there, designed for (and usually maintained by) artists who want to break into comics. These boards are places for them to post their work and critique one another, engage in some friendly competition, and get some moral support in their quest to get paid to draw comics. Sounds great, right? In theory, it is. But from what I’ve seen, all too often these message boards have a nasty habit of morphing from “support groups” to “enabling groups.” Most of the “criticism” is of the “Dude, you rock!!!” variety, so these promising artists start to thrive on the “quick fix” – the almost-guaranteed praise they get from a quickie pin-up, or the incestuous rivalry in their “draw-offs” (competitions where numerous artists submit pieces featuring a pre-determined subject, and then everyone votes on which one is best). Of course, in between the pin-ups and the draw-offs, there’s lots of bitching about why these guys aren’t getting professional gigs, and how they’re so much better than the guy who just landed a new assignment at Marvel.
Let me point out that I realize not every guy posting his artwork on these message boards wants to be a professional. For some people, drawing pin-ups and stuff is a just a hobby, and I think that’s fantastic. In an industry where everyone who reads comics wants to create them, I always enjoy coming across people who don’t want to be on the creative end, and are content to just read the finished product. But I’m getting off the track, here.
I want to talk to the guys who do want to make comics for a living, and if it sounds like I’m riled up about this, it’s because I am. A lot of these guys have a lot of talent, and with enough practice and discipline, they would be getting work. But pin-ups don’t make a comic. Sequential pages do. And sequential pages featuring nothing but fight scenes don’t make a comic, either.
In order to get an editor or writer to really take you seriously, you’ve gotta show that you can tell a story … and more and more these days, stories are hinging on something other than two guys punching each other. This means you’ve gotta be able to take even the most (visually) boring scene – say, two characters sitting at a dinner table, talking – and make it sparkle. One would hope that the writer you’re working with will do his (or her) fair share, and supply some snappy dialogue and helpful panel descriptions. But just the same, it’s your job to bring that page to life, and it’s going to take work. That’s right, work.
While working in the comics industry is a helluva lot of fun, it’s also work. That means it takes discipline. That means you’ll have to draw even when you’re not “inspired,” and even when there’s not a busty chick or a monster for five pages straight.
When I was in college, and still struggling to hone my writing skills, it became obvious to me that plotting was my weak point. Dialogue came sort of naturally – it’s not something I had to really agonize over. But my plots just wouldn’t hold water. Knowing this, it would’ve made sense for me to just really emphasize my dialogue, right? That’s what my teachers and peers seemed to like, so it’d be easy to just keep shoving it at them, and hope they don’t notice I can’t plot. But instead, I started accenting my plots. I really spent a lot of time outlining them, and coming at them from every angle, to see what did – and didn’t – make sense. I’ve been doing this for about five years now, and plotting still doesn’t come naturally to me – it’s still the thing that takes the longest when writing a story. I spend more time on my initial outline than I do on the actual script. But the results are usually satisfying. So it’s probably worth your time to try a similar approach. Are you great at drawing people, but can’t draw cars to save your life? Then draw a 5-page sequence with no people whatsoever, featuring nothing but cars. What about buildings? If you suck at drawing buildings, then stop doing sequences set in the desert, and let’s see a sequence set it midtown Manhattan. It’ll be miserable, and you’ll hate it, but the more you do it, the better at it you’ll become, and it’ll absolutely make you a better artist.
Now, before I wrap this thing up, let me just say that these artists’ message boards aren’t necessarily bad things. Far from it. If everyone keeps their heads on straight, these places can be real nurturing environments, where you can complain to – and get support from – other guys in your situation. The key is to remember what your goal is. It’s not to impress your pals with a cool pin-up. It’s to get to a point where you can be handed a script – any script, depicting any situation – and bring it to life. Once you can do that, it’s just a matter of time before you start getting work. Oh, look. There’s that word again.