|Andy Schmidt (left) leads a panel on breaking-in to comics at Big Apple Con|
It often seems there are as many aspiring comic book creators as there are comic book fans. Those lucky few who do manage to gain fame and fortune in the industry are then left to answer the ceaseless question: how did you do it? How did you break in to comics?
Last Saturday afternoon at the Big Apple Con in Manhattan, Comics Experience’s Andy Schmidt led a panel addressing (if not quite answering) this question. Schmidt, a former editor at Marvel Comics, was joined by former Marvel editor Danny Fingeroth, writer Peter David, emergent artist Khoi Pham, and “Marvel Comics Presents” editor John Barber.
Schmidt introduced himself and his new company, promoting Comics Experience’s classes in writing and illustrating. Schmidt said these courses will also include advice on the business end of the industry, helping students both with craft and attaining the skills necessary to build a career in comics. Fingeroth helpfully pointed out that the organization’s URL, www.comicsexperience.com, contains the word “sex” right in the middle. Schmidt seemed to be aware of this already, and warned that his classes offer “no guarantee that you will get laid.”
After each of the panelists gave their own breaking-in stories (none of which are likely to be replicated), Schmidt said the three things a person really needs are talent, luck, and persistence–or at least two of the three. He told prospective creators to “write or draw what you care about,” without worrying what the publisher might be looking for. Barber echoed this comment, saying a strong, recognizable style was more important than matching exactly the kind of story a publisher would want.
“Bendis sounds like Bendis, Millar sounds like Millar, Peter David over here, you know when you’re reading one of his books,” Barber said. Moreover, he added, the author’s “voice” is important to ensure a continuing career in comics. “As hard as it is to land that first gig, the second gig is ten times harder.”
Khoi Pham’s advice focused on the practical side of trying to forge ahead in the comics field. “Have a steady job,” Pham said. “Be a lawyer, so you have something to fall back on.” The artist, who began drawing comics during a year off from practicing law, found the process of breaking-in took longer than expected, spending three years on the convention circuit before Marvel finally invited him for a portfolio review. He said that self-promotion was vital, and that artists should maintain a presence online or wherever they can. “They are watching,” Pham said. “They might see your work and think, that’s interesting, but that person is a few years away. If you keep your name out there, though, they’ll see you’re keeping at it.”
Pham also said that illustrators–a term he prefers to “artists” because it connotes craftsmanship–should never be satisfied with their own work. “Nobody wants to hear that, that you’re a few years away. And sometimes you put your work out there, and somebody’s going to say you suck. Chances are, you probably do suck.” Pham said to take criticism on board, to consider the source, and to work to improve rather than become defensive about things like “personal style.”
Peter David disagreed–or, rather, demanded a qualifier. “It’s impossible to please everybody,” David said. “At the original ‘Star Wars’ premiere, Brian DePalma turned to George Lucas and told him it was this horrible piece of crap, that it sucked–and it kind of didn’t.”
David went on to discuss what he called a “reflex among readers to denigrate” any new announcement, such as Robert Downey, Jr. playing Tony Stark in the upcoming “Iron Man” movie. He also related an anecdote about his own unpopular defense of Tim Burton and Michael Keaton’s pairing prior to 1989’s “Batman,” and how he was ultimately vindicated. There were two further stories about the Madeleine L’Engle’s difficulty publishing “A Wrinkle in Time,” J.K. Toole’s ultimately posthumous, Pulitzer-winning “Confederacy of Dunces,” and a final word of advice allegedly given to J. Michael Straczynski by his friend and mentor Harlan Ellison. According to David, Ellison told Straczynski, “When your work stops sucking, someone will buy it.”
Andy Schmidt gave a bit of advice on how artists can reduce the amount of sucking in their work. “First, you need to be able to tell a story, as effectively as you can,” he explained. “The second goal is to entertain.” The suggestion was that form should follow function; once the basics are mastered, then it’s time to raise the bar on what can be skillfully drawn. “Nice and flashy is great for three pages, but after that you start to realize you don’t know what’s going on in the story.”
Peter David joked, “Marvel had to beat that out of [Todd] MacFarlane. We called it the ‘Giant Dice Age,'” David said. “When MacFarlane came to ‘Hulk,’ he was just off DC’s ‘Infinity Inc.’ In that book, he would have these big, big panels, and he hid some bizarre storytelling stuff things like drawing giant dice.” David laughed that editor Bob Harris told MacFarlane to calm it down, “and turned McFarlane into a fairly decent storyteller who then faded out into oblivion, or something.”
Other tips given during the panel included publishing online; submitting a printed comic rather than script-only; submitting the script with the printed comic if you wrote it; and to not shy away from presenting material that might not ultimately fit a publisher’s catalogue. Danny Fingeroth said that if the concept and delivery are strong, Marvel or DC may be able to see other opportunities that would match the artist’s talent. “They’ll look at and say, this is great! We don’t want it, but what else can you do?”
Peter David also addressed the idea of creators who consider themselves “indie” taking an assignment on a mainstream book. “Writing ‘Spider-man’ can give you an audience,” David said. “I do these projects for Marvel, which are somewhat controlled because they’re company-owned, but then at IDW I get to steer the boat on ‘Fallen Angel.'” He compared his situation to film directors who work on major movies to gain name recognition to support their more personal projects. “On the other hand, there’s Woody Allen” David conceded. “You’re not going to get Woody Allen to do ‘Transformers 2.'”
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