“Learn your craft. Learn it, learn it, learn it. Because comic’s are an extremely tough business. Not just to break into, but to stay in for the long haul. And everyday guys are coming up in the ranks who are better than you are, work harder, and want it a whole lot more than you do. You can’t just pick up a comic book and copy one of its pages and think that that’s gonna cut it. You really gotta get out there and learn your shit, look around you at what’s going on in the world, take some pictures, study everything. And think about what you’re trying to do. Before you can even get near the concept of ‘storytelling’ you first need to learn how to draw.”
Those were the words of industry legend Neal Adams to an enthralled crowd late Sunday afternoon in the Special Event Hall of the Jacob Javits Center on day three of the first annual New York Comic-Con. This was his response when asked what he personally thought it took to achieve lasting success as an artist in the medium. “You want to work in this business, then you gotta be good. Don’t say, ‘Hey, I’m at least as good as that guy who’s doing that book for DC. No, you gotta be better than that guy. If you want to work, there’s no question about it.”
Adams was joined on the panel by fellow Comic-Con Guest’s of Honor Jim Lee and Jim Steranko for a two-hour forum on a subject near and dear to all three men’s hearts: storytelling.
The panel was moderated by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s Executive Director Charles Brownstein.
“I don’t care what anyone else might tell you, but storytelling, the ability to move the readers eye across the page in a compelling, exciting, dynamic manner is the heart and soul of this business,” Steranko said. “Yeah, I learned to draw from comic books and all those strips [that appeared] in newspapers while I was growing up…but I didn’t learn to tell stories from them. Comics back then were blocky, unimaginative, all the panels were the same shape and size. You just followed a grid. I learned to tell stories from films, which, in my opinion, is still the best medium for telling a compelling story to this day.”
Steranko went on to break all artists down into two separate categories: analytical and intuitive. The industry legend then went on to site Jack Kirby as a perfect example of an “intuitive” artist. “Kirby was a superb designer with a sensibility that was idiosyncratic. He’d draw a shadow across a ceiling when there was nothing in the room to cast the shadow, just to balance the page with blacks. He just knew what needed to go in. I’m more intuitive. I have to break down every page before I can even think about starting to draw.”
Lee, who joked that his main role on the panel would be to try and not act like a drooling fanboy while sitting sandwiched between two of the industries unquestioned giants, said, “I grew up admiring both you guys’ stuff. I’m here more as a fan today, to hear what you have to say, and hopefully learn something, than anything else.”
Adams said that Lee’s stuff, “Wasn’t too bad.”
Lee also joked that he and the other Image founders were probably responsible for a lot more “bad comic storytelling” than good in the early nineties.
“There’s nothing harder to do than good storytelling,” Lee said. “It’s real easy to cut every page up into four or six panel blocks and have the reader’s eye move over the thing staccato-like. But that’s not good storytelling. That’s not interesting. And, after a while, the reader’s going to lose interest. But you can’t draw a full-page splash on every page either. There has to be a balance.”
Lee went on to cite the work of both his fellow panelists, as well as Frank Miller’s, as being major influences on him while he was still developing as an artist. “What’s storytelling? Is it perspective, good anatomy, level of detail? Probably not. If you’re working with superheroes, it’s all about making things look larger than they seem in real life.”
When asked for an example of “good comics storytelling,” Lee cited the technique that Miller employed in his “Dark Knight Returns” series, “You want a perfect example of ‘good comic storytelling,’ look at what Frank [Miller] does with ‘Dark Knight Returns.’ For these whole series of like eight to ten pages Frank’ll cut the [pages] up into sixteen panel grids, compress everything, make it feel claustrophobic, closed in and then all of a sudden the book will seem to explode into this full-page splash of Batman swinging over Gotham City while a lightning bolt’s exploding in the background behind him.”
Lee went on to say that when he was reading “Dark Knight Returns” for the first time, he felt it more on a visceral, gut level than cognitively. “I don’t know about all of you guys [sitting in the audience], but when I was reading ‘Dark Knight’ for the first time, my heart was pounding. I was completely and totally and entirely in the world of the story that Frank was telling me.”
All three artists agreed that it is the goal of any good storyteller to enter into an unspoken contract with the reader.
“It’s like the audience and the artist get together and make this deal,” Adams said. “‘Okay,’ [the artist says] ‘sit back and I’m going to take you on a ride.’ Now, through [how the artist] then designs his pages, that ride can either turn out to be nice and easy, or real hard and fast.”
All three panelists agreed that the problem with many of today’s artists is that, as Adams said, “They’re not doing their homework. They draw from other comic books, not real life.”
“You know when you stop reading a comic book?” Adams went on to say. “When the guy who’s drawing it has made enough mistakes that you’re noticing them instead of following what’s supposed to be going on in the story. That’s just somebody not knowing their shit.”
Steranko recommended that all artists study Cognitive Theory, which he explained. “It deals with how we absorb information and what our brains notice first and why,” said Steranko. “I think that everybody should learn more about it.”
Jim Lee said that his exploration of Magna over the past few years has really helped him advance as a storyteller.
But later in the panel, Adams then bashed most of today’s Magna artists as being perfect examples of “not doing your homework,” saying that, at least to him, the work didn’t seem very polished.
Adams cited Lee, Mike Mignola, Andy & Adam Kubert and Bryan Hitch as examples of artists whose current work is “blowing me away at the moment.”
“Did either of you guys think we’d ever see the day where an artist can get the amount of detail into one single page that a guy like Bryan Hitch is doing?” Adams asked of his fellow panelists. “I don’t care how long his stuff takes to draw, that guy’s amazing!”
But when the discussion then turned towards levels of detail, and whether or not it is actually a positive, Steranko asserted that, at least in his opinion, he found the opposite to be more often true: “It’s not the number of lines you can put on a page, but the emotional response you can elicit from the reader out of it. The guy who can do it in the least amount of lines is to me the better artist.”
Both Adams and Lee could do nothing but nod their heads in a stupefied agreement to Steranko’s frank, adroit summation of the entire topic, thus ending the debate before it could even start.
Adams lamented the fact that Terry Austin and Dick Giordano– two pencilers whom Adams ascended the industry ranks with and both still very close personal friends of the artist– are each having difficulty finding steady work at the moment. He blamed “industry trends” as the problem.
“I think it doesn’t speak well for an industry when guys like Terry and Dick can’t get work. These guys are still great artists, but the stuff that they do is not the stuff that’s ‘in’ at the moment.”
“I’m saying this not just as an example, but because if there’s somebody sitting in this auditorium in a position to hire either of these guys – hire them!”
The panelists then took questions from the audience.
“Can any of you recommend a good Art School?” one fan asked.
Steranko said, “I never went to Art School….Reform School was the closest I got.”
Adams offered this piece of advice on the question, “Learn the shit that you need to learn, hope that the teacher will teach you something useful, and understand that the teacher is going to get paid whether you learn anything or not. So you have to want to dig it out of him…there’s no real path in this thing. No matter what anyone might tell you, we’re all just flailing around in the dark. Learn as much as you can, however you can.”
When asked how he “made the step to the next level,” Jim Lee told the fan, “After college I moved back in with my parents. I put a drawing table next to my bed, literally right next to it, so the first thing in the morning I would roll out of bed, sit at that table, and start drawing. I drew for like eight to ten hours a day, every day, for seven straight months. I drew until I pinched a nerve in my back and my hands cramped up so much that I had to soak them in warm water every night.”
“Oh, stop crying,” Adams then told Lee.
When the topic turned to Alpha Flight’s off-panel death in a recent issue of “New Avengers” and whether or not that was a good example of storytelling (the fan asking the question seemed to vehemently believe it was not), Adams said, “I don’t think they’re dead. Do any of you guys think they’re dead?”
More than a dozen audience members muttered responses in the negative.
“Seriously, my son comes running into the living room the other day and says, ‘Dad, dad, Brian Michael Bendis is going to ruin the comic industry! Look, he just killed the Alpha Flight in two pages.’ And I went, ‘Really? Wow! I gotta see that.'”
When a fan asked for tips on producing quality work in a relatively timely fashion, Adams responded, “Don’t sleep, eat, see your girlfriend, that kind of stuff.”
Lee stressed the “need to be disciplined.”
All three artists agreed that, ultimately, quality of work should out weight the quantity of it.
At the commencement of the presentation, when all three Guests of Honor briefly introduced themselves to the audience, Adams introduced himself by saying, “Hi, I’m Neal Adams…and I’m going to be doing some work for DC soon.”
CBR’s coverage of the New York Comic-Con is Sponsored by Comics Unlimited.