Yo! Budding artist dudes!
It’s that time of year again, when flowers bloom, snow falls in Idaho, fires rage in Colorado and the thoughts of young comics hopefuls everywhere turn toward breaking into the business.
In other words, six weeks until San Diego.
Six weeks to get those samples ready.
“A while back I mentioned that I was going to work up some sample pages as soon as I had a gap in my paying assignments and I finally have a gap! I’m waiting for a film job to kick in but that won’t happen for a couple of months and the storyboard stuff I bang out fast so it wouldn’t take me away from working up samples for more than a day or two at a time.
“The first thing I did was to look at what’s out there right now. Wow… quite a range of styles and techniques! I have noticed a big difference between the more seasoned veterans and the new guns.
“Here’s my question: I love the page designs of the veterans, each panel leading the eye to the next and the whole page working to tell the story. The have between 6 and 12 panels per page of varying sizes and are dynamic and understandable. The new artists don’t seem to bother much with designing the whole page and leading the eye from pane to panel and have everything from one huge panel and a small panel to 18-20 small panels on a page. Personally I find them muddy and confusing but there is a definite “school” for this style. If I go back to designing a page and focusing on story telling will my samples look old fashioned and dated by today’s editors? In order to get noticed and hopefully get steady work do I need to follow the newer trends?
“I plan to do four penciled pages of a Marvel character and four pages of a DC character and possibly do velum overlay inks for two of the four pages for each set. Any advice from you is appreciated and believe me… I do pay attention.”
These are fairly common questions.
So here’s your game plan this year:
I’m presuming you’ve read the last couple year’s essays on this topic and know the proper etiquette: Dress nicely and maintain good hygiene so you don’t scare anyone off out of the gate. Find out the rules for showing samples – every comics company has different ones – and don’t force your samples or yourself on editors at untoward times and places. Check your ego at the door, be polite, don’t fawn, don’t be abusive, don’t interrupt professionals if they’re in conversation with someone else. Accept criticisms of your work graciously, and don’t argue or defend your work from an editor’s criticism. (Their tastes are their tastes, and you’ll only dig yourself a deeper grave telling them their taste is bad, especially with a very good chance your work is what’s at fault.) Only show your best, most recent work; no one wants to see a bad page and get the explanation, “yeah, I did that five years ago but I’m better now.” An editor isn’t interested in the history of your creative development, only in what will enable them to produce comics books now. Any new talent constitutes a risk for an editor; your samples should help convince them that, in your case, the risk is minimal. Remember: in a face-to-face meeting, you’re selling yourself as well as your work.
The range of styles appropriate in comics today is much wider than the range five years ago, when comics companies were still scrambling all over themselves to duplicate the “Image style.” But there’s no dominant artist on the scene today, except, arguably, Alex Ross, who’s popular but whose work is too difficult to copy for a “school” to form around him. Jim Lee, John Romita Jr., Eduardo Risso, John Cassaday… if you want to do “mainstream” comics, go through as many as you can and find the storytelling style that appeals most to you. If you respond to what’s on the surface, analyze it and learn what makes it work. Or doesn’t, and don’t be surprised if you discover that. Use what you learn to augment your own tastes and abilities.
Tip #1: If you’re at the stage mentioned above, you’re not ready to show your samples.
Comics need strong art and a grasp of storytelling that’s half intuitive and half analytical. While the ’90s were dominated by an “art for art’s sake” mentality, the pendulum has swung back toward comics as vehicle for story, and if you can draw but you can’t use the art as a medium for telling a story, you’re not ready. If you want to draw but telling stories doesn’t interest you, you’re trying to get into the wrong business.
Tip #2: Start drawing now. Whatever you’ve done before this point is old. Like most entertainment media, comics is a pressure cooker business. If you can get great looking pages out between now and San Diego, it’s an indicator that you might just have it in you to get out 22 pages of TITANS in a month if you impress Andy Helfer enough to throw the job your way. (Don’t expect that’ll happen, by the way. I’m just saying.)
You don’t want to prove you can draw like Eduardo, JR Jr., Jim, or John. You want to prove you can draw like you – be as idiosyncratic as possible – and you have the potential to stand in their league.
Tip #3: Three pages is all you need.
It can’t hurt to have more, of course, but one good three page sequence that tells a “complete” story (more on this below) is all you really need to prove you grasp the concepts. Is it necessary to draw one sample for Marvel, one for DC, one for CrossGen, etc.? Probably not. The common wisdom in TV writing is to not write a spec script for any series you’d like to work on. The theory goes that the story editors for, say, FRIENDS are going to be far more aware of the details you get wrong writing a FRIENDS script that they would be a MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, whereas, reading the latter, they’ll be able to grasp the genius of your wit unencumbered. I suspect the same also goes for comics these days. I think it’s presumed that if you can draw Batman well, you can probably draw Daredevil. I doubt any editor feels particularly flattered if they’re shown samples featuring their company’s characters or miffed if they don’t. (You can also design original characters and use them in place of company-owned characters, but I’d argue against it. It creates ethical problems for an editor, and there’s an advantage to going in with established characters who carry their own emotional weight. People have baseline expectations when looking at, oh, Spider-Man pages.)
One good three page sample should be able to get your point across no matter where you show it.
Here’s what a sample needs:
1) Great art. This doesn’t mean you need to draw like Michelangelo, but the linework should be strong, confident and striking, the figures and shapes well-designed, proportions and perspectives correct (or, if not precisely correct, stylistically justified).
2) Good storytelling. The object of samples is to prove you can move characters across settings and through actions in an interesting, compelling way that catches the eye and enables the reader to easily follow the storyline. That’s storytelling. Way too many aspiring artists are only interested in proving they can do the high spots, and, while there was a time where high spots could get you through, that time is gone.
3) A good story. Way too many aspiring comics artists generate samples that just have figures moving through the page, but you can’t prove you can tell a story unless you have a story to tell. In three pages, you don’t need a “complete” story, but it helps to have a complete sequence, something with a beginning, middle and ending. Something that builds to a point, a resolution of what’s going on in the pages.
Those three things combined should add up to that indefinable something unexpected that will really grab an editor by the throat. Don’t think it’s not difficult. It’s very difficult. But if you can look at your work and you don’t see that there, chances are an editor’s not going to either. And if you don’t see it, you’ve just drastically cut your chances of breaking in. (Conversely, and I don’t mean to be snide but there’s no other way to say it, if you do see it odds are you’re deluding yourself.)
And watch out for the traps.
I recently looked at a HELLBLAZER sample from an artist. He’s a good artist, no question about that. Someone I’d like to work with, if he can just get over that hump. His HELLBLAZER sample was all wrong, though, and it was hard to explain why, because everything I said seemed to fly in the face of logic.
Which, get used to it, is pretty much par for comics.
His opening page focused on John Constantine. John arrives in a taxi, lights a cigarette, crosses a street, looks nasty and cynical. Everything you’ve ever seen Constantine do.
And horribly wrong for a sample, esp. if it’s aimed at the HELLBLAZER editor.
He was trying to show he could draw the Constantine “bits,” the stuff you always seen Constantine doing in every story. Fair enough. Except a) that’s what everyone draws in their samples, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the editor was ready to scream at the sight of it, and b) the story came to a dead halt during this sequence of Constantine doing what amounted to posing for the camera.
When you read a comic book, it has the benefit of a script. Words. Something besides the pictures to tell you what’s going on, why characters are doing what they’re doing, how they’re reacting. When you’re doing samples, you don’t have that. The pictures alone have to carry the entire burden of a story sequence.
There’s a general perception that comics stories split down into functions: action over here, character bits over there. It’s quite common; when I first started working with Marvel, an editor suggested I break the plots down into 11 pages fight scenes and 11 “character bits” – and warned if I was lucky, I’d get 17 pages of fight scenes and 5 pages of “bits” back. (Character bits were interestingly defined back then as the stuff that goes on when the hero’s not in costume. The schism got so severe at one point that when a friend and I jointly wrote a story about a character seeking, and ultimately finding, a new direction in life, we were told by a highly touted editor that we’d done it all wrong, and the story should open with the character already in his new direction so that we could focus on the fight scene, now officially considered the important part of the book. When we left, I said to my co-writer, “Wow, that was the first time anyone ever told me stories aren’t supposed to be about anything.”)
But you can’t, and shouldn’t, separate them. The sense of separation is something of a vestigial tail of superhero comics; it’s been a long time since anyone really cared what Bruce Wayne does with his spare time, and many characters have stopped having lives separate from their “action” lives altogether. Constantine may still love to down a pint at the pub, but he’s always Constantine. And it really doesn’t matter. What was forgotten, or set aside, for so long, is that action is a function of character and character is a function of action. (It’s like that light is both particle and wave thing.)
If you’re going to do character “bits” in a sample, integrate them into the action. If Constantine’s going to light a cigarette, set up a reason for it. Have it be integral to the action you’re getting across. Give it a point. Real estate is a precious commodity in comics; it’s hard enough to pack a decent story into 22 pages as it is. Wasting panels on a page is just another reason for editors to believe you don’t know what you’re doing. Building mood? Fine. Integrate it into the action. (Which, I should mention, doesn’t need to include fight scenes. Action is simply how we describe how the characters affect the course of the story.) If you can set up a scenario quickly, build it smoothly, and culminate it all in three pages, editors will think you know what you’re doing.
Now do one other thing.
That resolution? Logic out the character. Have him do something that fits with the established character logic, that demonstrates a knowledge of those character “bits,” and which has him doing something unexpected yet in keeping with the character that the editor isn’t likely to have seen before. (I’d tell you what I suggested for the HELLBLAZER sample denouement, but hopefully he’s redrawing the sequence and it’ll pay off for him, so I’ll keep it between us.)
If nothing else, this will give you a real grasp of just how difficult it actually is to write comics stories.
Mechanical stuff: work in pencil in standard comics art size bristol board (~10″x15″). (But have photocopies ready, with your name and phone number on each page, for editors to take with them.) Don’t ink your work. Inking obscures (sometimes for the better, sometimes not) pencil work. If you feel compelled to demonstrate how you ink, I like the suggestion of the correspondent above: ink on vellum overlays.
I prescribe this: using the character of your choice, draw a three page sequence between now and next Wednesday. (That’s three pages in one week. Put it in perspective: if you get a monthly comics gig, you’ll have to draw 5¼ pages per week if you want to make the deadlines. So three pages is a good warm-up.) If you’ve got time, go over the pages for flaws or things you don’t like and redraw them.
Next week, do the same thing. When you’re done, compare that week’s sample with what you drew the prior week. Look for improvement, look for where you fell back, look for areas that need improvement. Figure out where you can simplify: more lines aren’t necessarily better lines. Examine how your layout, figurework, figure positioning, etc. affects, for better or worse, your storytelling and alters the story you’re trying to tell. Be harsh on yourself. You’ll have plenty of time to be satisfied later.
Repeat every week through July 31, if you’re going to the San Diego con. (If you’re not, I suggest you do this anyway. You can always see editors at other conventions or send samples over the transom.) This will give you seven weeks worth of samples. If you’ve been doing it right, on July 31 you’ll have the best samples you’re capable of at this moment in time. Theoretically, you’ll have something you can show proudly. If you don’t, you’ll know you’re not ready yet. But there’s always next year, and another chance to get it right.
On the subject of comics for kids, there’s Waturu Yoshizumi’s MARMALADE BOY, from Tokyo Pop (5900 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90036; $9.99). Not little kids, maybe, but pre-teen and early teenage girls especially should get a kick out of this romantic comedy about a girl suddenly saddled with two sets of parents and a handsome, arrogant “brother.” A gentle, often subtle meditation on modern life and love, filled with entertaining characters. And not a fight scene in sight. I know I keep bemoaning the absence of American comics like these for girls, but I really wish we didn’t have to depend on Japan to pick up the slack.
John Q. Adams of Cryin’ Shark Studios (92 Vine St., Lockport NY 14094-3031) sent along a couple of their mini-comics ($1 @), SILVERFISH 2002 and HA. HA is the earlier of the two, with perfunctory art and an amusing (autobiographical) vignette about a couple metalheads looking to score some acid in the ’80s. SILVERFISH is somewhat better drawn tale of the eponymous vermin touring a comics convention, with some off-handed characterizations of a few alt-comics celebrities. Not great, but not bad.
Hopefully within the next couple weeks I’ll be starting a new regular feature in the column. While I can’t say much yet, I can say it’s planned to tie in with the AiT/Planetlar Books‘ publication of the BADLANDS ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY edition this month and the reissue of the BADLANDS trade paperback in July. More on that next week, and other projects, next week. Meanwhile, the second issue of my crime-horror comic MORTAL SOULS was published by Avatar Press last week, so go pester your dealer for it. Avatar has unofficially told me the MORTAL SOULS trade should be out sometime in late Winter, and there’s some interesting Hollywood-related MORTAL SOULS news on the horizon as well.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.
If you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions.
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