Without artists, comics are just words on a page. Every artist has their own process, unique style, a story about how they started doing professional work, and the steps they took to get to where they are in the industry today. At Emerald City Comicon this year, four artists working for DC Comics took the stage to talk about their creative process in an exclusive look at what it's like drawing for comics, and their personal journeys as artists in the industry. DC's Fletcher Chu-Fong moderated with "Gotham By Midnight" artist Ben Templesmith, artist of "Batgirl" Babs Tarr, "Justice League United" artist Mike McKone and artist of "Gotham Underground" Jim Calafiore who all talked through their early years as artists and how they ended up working for DC, as well as some insight into how to best draw Batman's ears.
In honor of the reality-mashing "Convergence" #0, things kicked off by all the panelists being asked to draw a Bat character that they like from any period in DC history while the moderator and audience asked them questions. Templesmith was asked how he felt about Batman's ears, while he began sketching out his preferred version of the Batman. "They're very sensitive. The reason the Batman is Batman is because he dresses up as a rather intimidating Bat figure. That's why he's not dressed as a panda. He's the Batman. So his idea of encapsulating the darkness and scaring villains and that stuff, and he's always in the shadows and all of that. He's a bat," the artist said.
Templesmith then went on to talk more about the technical side of the different bat characteristics and why Batman fits more into one class than the other. "There are many kinds of bats. They're a very common mammal, actually. There's two main classes of bats, and I forget the technical names, but there's the big ones with small ears that eat fruit and then there's the little ones that use sonar with big ears and big horseshoe noses."
Declaring his preference for the latter, Templesmith added, "Batman is often drawn with ears like the first. I don't do Batman like that, I grew up with Kelley Jones. Kelley Jones draws ears like this. If you're going to draw Batman, for my money, draw him like a vampire bat, the sonar bat, the one that's blind and uses sound." He then moved on to talk about how he started out as an artist posting his work online and eventually getting a job. "There used to be these things called internet message boards. I was on them because I wanted to get into comics, and I was just a kid down in Australia, so I'd meet a lot of other kids trying to get into comics and we'd all show each other our work, I got to know a lot of people. Someone else saw some of the work I posted, and that happened to be the art director for Todd McFarlane productions."
When asked what is the one piece of advice they would give to people wanting to break into comics, Templesmith first asked the audience how many people want to break into comics, and then followed that up by asking who comes to these conventions with actual pages to show. He said, "If you want to do comics, do comics. It's pen and paper. Telling a story is a discipline, and you learn a lot. You have to show people you can actually do it if you want to do comics."
Once it was her turn to sketch, Tarr began drawing her already beloved version of Batgirl while she talked about her unique start in taking the industry by storm, majoring in illustration in art school and holding a job designing iPhone and Facebook game art before Cameron Stewart reached out to her about drawing "Batgirl" after he saw her work on Tumblr. "I did the opposite of Ben's advice, where I didn't do any comics, and then Cameron Stewart e-mailed and asked me if I'd be interested in doing a comic with DC," she explained.
Short of approaching people at conventions, using social media to self-promote appears to be one of the major ways for your work to gain some sort of notice. As Tarr explained, every person is different, and there is no guarantee that you will achieve success through the same route as another artist, but it is already clear that the paths are there. You just have to figure out what works for you, and which path to take that makes the most sense for you and your art. It's just as important to put your work out there for other people to see as it is to constantly practice your craft and get better as an artist.
Tarr said, "I started making my own work after my job day was over. I think that's really important. You have to not go out and drink with your friends every night. You have to stay at home and put in the hours. You can't party all the time. I spent a lot of time working on my art instead of going out and goofing off. You have to remember, someone else is at home and they're putting in the hours you're not putting in, so you have to be really dedicated."
The panelists were then asked when they knew they wanted to make being an artist into a career rather than just a hobby. McKone said, "I've been doing this since I was nineteen, I went straight from art college to drawing comics. I didn't have a chance to think that there was anything else. I'm from a very blue collar, working class small town in England where there are coal mines and steel mills, so I didn't want to do any of that."
After a short pause to consider the question, Templesmith joked, "The moment I realized I had to pay rent." He went on to add, "Art chose me. I didn't choose it. I had to do something creative, so I had a design degree, which means if I wasn't doing this I'd be designing K-Mart catalogs or something like that -- or selling my body in the streets. I used to work as a janitor so, art is way better than that." Tarr cut in with a laugh, "This is all out of a necessity for us not to have regular jobs."
The panelists were then asked if they had always been into comics. Tarr, a newcomer to comics as a reader and as an artist, said she has been branching out from Manga since getting the job at DC. "Cameron's been recommending really great books with great layouts like Chris Samnee's 'Daredevil' and 'Deadly Class' and 'Saga,' and I really love those. Those have been really fun to get into. 'Squirrel Girl,' those kind of things. I'm getting into more comics now that I'm in the field." She deadpanned, "So I know my competition."
Calafiore said, "I was always into comics, I remember the first comic I bought -- you know instead of my mother or father or grandparents buying me a comic. It was the first comic I picked out. I remember picking out 'Hulk' #127. So I was always into comics, really heavy into comics, and then the big thing was in junior high when I discovered 'Heavy Metal' magazine and European artists like Moebius, that was a big moment for me."
While drawing his take on Batman, McKone talked a little about how he sees the Dark Knight. "I never really considered Batman to be scary until Ben pointed it out. I'm old enough to remember the Batman TV show from re-runs. When I was growing up he wasn't the terrifying Batman that he's become where he's essentially a psychopath." Tarr asked him how he felt about that, and he said, "I think the great thing about Batman is that he's so open to interpretation. He can be anything you want him to be."
McKone went on to talk about how he got started in the industry by taking his portfolio with him to a convention in London. He showed his work to Dick Giordano, who gave him a chance, and afterward DC just kept giving him jobs. McKone said, "The full story is that the year before I was in line to show him my work, and the people in line were better than me, and he was just tearing them apart. So I just kind of stepped out of line and went away for a year and came back."
In asking the panelists how they knew what art to include in their portfolios as the best representation of their work, Calafiore answers, "When I see people for portfolio reviews I tend to go with a lot of technical stuff because there's a lot of it that people miss with their portfolios." If you ink yourself, he stresses making copies of your pencils so they can see how you are at it, and to definitely have some sequential pages to show the storytelling.
Tarr said, "I built my portfolio on editorial assignments from school, concepts, a lot of stuff that I enjoy drawing. You put that stuff out there, you're going to get more jobs related to that. Don't draw what you think you should be doing, draw what you love once you've got all the technical stuff handled. Draw what you're passionate about and people will respond to it in a positive way because you're excited about it. They'll be into it because you're into it. More clients will hire you to do the kind of work that you enjoy."
Templesmith adds, "Another thing about being an artist is you never stop learning. No one's completely right. It's subjective. Try to figure out what your strengths are, [and] identify your weaknesses. We never stop learning, we don't know everything."
The panel wrapped with Calafiore starting on a sketch of Batman villain, the Penguin, and talking about how he first got into comics. "I went to a few conventions, took my portfolio around a little bit. The actual way I got in was there used to be a free little rag to the comic shops, Comic Shop News. It used to have ads in the back. I sent off some samples to a company that actually closed immediately, but they passed my stuff along to Gary Reed, the publisher at Caliber Comics." In his last few words, he delivered some simplistic, but sound advice. "Draw as much as you can."