Know how, right before Thanksgiving, all the women’s magazines, all the supermarket rags, all the local TV news broadcasts run pieces on how to keep in shape during the pig-out holiday season?
Sure, it’s a cheap sales/ratings gimmick, but they time it that way for two reasons: because even though it’s the same information every time people still scour it looking for a new hot secret that will make the rest of it moot, and because there’s no point in running pieces like that after the holiday season.
Every year in the comics industry there’s a convention season. While there are exceptions, such as APE and the Orlando MegaCon, the season starts roughly in mid-April with Oakland’s Wondercon and runs through Comic-Con International in San Diego in mid-July. (It’s a sign of the distress in the comics industry that the season has been shrinking over the years. There was a time it began in mid-March with the Motor City Con and continued into September and beyond depending on what cons were in the U.K. that year. Until recently, Comic-Con International was held in August. Motor City Con still exists but no longer has major con status.)
Every year in convention season, young fans’ fancies turn to making a career for themselves in the wonderful world of comics, and every years dozens dash their own dreams by charging in half-cocked. Because they don’t understand one simple tenet: this is a business. We may come across as auteurs and artistes and condescending schmucks, so fans might be excused for thinking that’s what it takes to get into comics, but the truth is we’re all businesspeople too. Whether we want to be or not. When you’re talking about a career, about earning your livelihood doing something, you’re either a businessperson or you’re an idiot. There’s no middle ground. Even Gary Groth is a businessman.
Last year, shortly before Comic-Con International, I wrote a MOTO about how to pitch yourself at conventions. Some felt I was insulting and crude, others phrased it “refreshingly blunt.” (Read it here if you haven’t. For an alternate viewpoint, I recommend Larry Young’s Savant article from last year.) I was only chipping the iceberg. Fact is, if you want to push yourself at conventions, you have to start now. You can’t listen to only the advice you want to hear, because that may not be what you need to hear. You can’t go by your own delusions if you want to hook in any industry, and conditions in the comics industry are bleak enough you’re cutting your own throat if you don’t take as much as possible into account. As Iggy Pop put it, you got to deal with the real, living on the edge of the night.
But this is a medium largely predicated on fantasy. The real’s hard to come by. First rule, which I said last year but deserves repeating: if you want to work in the comics business, only show your work to editors because they’re the only ones who can give you an assignment. Sure, show your work to writers and artists if you like, but don’t delude yourself into think they’re likely to be so bowled over they’ll do your legwork for you. They’ve got other concerns on their minds, like how late the bar stays open. You still have to deal with editors. The really good advice editors don’t want to tell you. Not because they don’t want you to know – they do – but because it’s harsh. It’s the sort of advice that makes enemies. It’s impolitic. Editors don’t like to make enemies of anyone but freelancers. Fans buy the books. It’s important to keep fans’ hopes up because that keeps them interested. Pissing on dreams is the sort of thing that loses readers.
But it’s time you knew. It’s not just you: editors don’t even like to say these things to talent, though sometimes the best advice is the harshest. People have a bad habit of taking harsh criticism personally. I recently compared notes about an artist with an editor. “The problem,” the editor said, “is that his work is just pretty good. I can get all kinds of artists whose work is ‘pretty good.’ It’s to the point where if art doesn’t stand out and grab attention, I can’t afford to use it.” (The same goes for writers.) Discussing a second artist, he said, “He’s a great guy, everyone likes him, but I can’t use him as a lead artist in a book. The market has decided he’s not salable.” The upshot: the market is dire enough now that you only get one shot to wow ’em. Which is a lot like would-bes approaching editors at conventions: you now only get one shot to wow ’em.
And I figured if editors had a venue to say what they wanted to say, anonymously, a lot could come out without them having to be the bad guy. Me, I’m perfectly happy to be the bad guy. What follows are statements by real editors. They’re editors at major comics companies. Believe it or not, they want to help you. They’re telling you the truth.
A word of encouragement to the comics niblets? I don’t know if I want to go
on record as supporting this view, but dedication will get you further than
talent. I’ve seen lots of hot portfolio pages from guys at conventions, and
never gotten any follow up, even when I’ve called… but I’ve hired the guy
who was good (But maybe not astounding) who sent more samples, responded to
critiques by redrawing his samples and sending more in (all in a steady,
non-obsessive way, of course.)
I think the other (unpopular) thing I would say is that if you want to work
in this business, you should take responsibility for your professional
education because no one else will have the time (or likely, the skill) to do
it for you. Learn about deadlines, and work schedules, and try to gain skills
you might not have already (like use of lighting, or advanced perspective,
and of course, the ever needed life drawing. )
Writers? There I might say abandon hope all ye who enter here, but the same
advice (except in triplicate) applies — study work OUTSIDE of comics. Learn
about story structure, but don’t be hamstrung by it. Learn about art, because
while no one will care about your opinion, if you actually get to talk with
the artist, you want to be able to describe how you want aspects of the story
to look in terms other than “this awesome bad dude”.
1) Get over yourself. You score no points by whining. Yes, your stuff is SO much better than what’s in print. Whining to the person in between you and getting in print won’t get you printed.
2) To writers: no one has time or the necessary concentration available to read your proposal at a con. Mail it in; don’t make a pro carry twenty extra pounds of paper home.
3) No, life is NOT fair.
4) You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Don’t make the first impression you leave be “Look at me! I’m an asshole!”
5) If a pro has just been sitting behind a booth for several hours, you want to be in their face on the way back from the restroom, not to.
6) Do not start a conversation with “I like the way you bleach your hair, Mr. Grant.” [Cute. Don’t forget, dear: I’m heavily armed and I know where you live – SDG]
7) Every editor or pro was once on your side of the table. If you have talent, we want to see you succeed. We are on your side. (Unless you get on our bad one by violating rules 1-6.)
8) Pay attention to how pros got started. The answer is rarely “by sending in a submission.”
9) For artists getting their portfolio reviewed: It’s opinion, not fact. (Unless twenty reviewers say “you draw heads too big.” Then it’s fact.) Don’t take one reviewer’s opinion as gospel and toss out work you’re proud of. Show it to as many people as will cooperate and see what the common comments are.
10) By submitting work for review to a publisher, you are soliciting professional employment. Treat this at least as seriously as you would an interview with the representative from Sears. It’s not a joke or a game to us; it’s our livelihood.
11) We’re judging your work, not you. (If you stutter, or are nervous, we’ll look beyond that.) [If I may amplify: unless it’s made extremely clear to you that it’s meant personally, don’t take any criticism of your work as an accusation or insult. Criticism is intended to help you learn and improve. If you don’t want criticism, don’t show your work. – SDG]
12) We’re also judging you. (Don’t be a jerk–we’ll notice.)
13) Be willing to start small, but give it everything you’ve got. All jobs are worthy of your talent.
14) Know your goal. Comics are an art form and a commercial art form. Which one are you interested in? Being true to your muse and then trying to find an appropriate publisher, or having a JOB writing or penciling or inking or lettering or coloring comics? The rules and approaches are different.
15) Be persistent but not obnoxious. Try to remain aware of where the line between them falls.
16) Timing is everything. Accept the reality that you may have talent that no one can use. Comics professionals are a blend of talent, skills, ambition, professionalism, and opportunity.
17) Know your target: Do not show CrossGen your proposal for a new series because they don’t publish outside ideas. Don’t show DC Comics your porn work because they produce mainstream comics. Don’t pitch a mainstream superhero idea to Oni Press because they publish alternative, edgy things. If you can’t take the time to research the field, why should we take the time to look at inappropriate samples?
18) Learn, learn, learn. Every encounter is an opportunity to learn more about how this field works. At least act like you’re paying attention.
19) Be respectful. You may think the particular editor reviewing your work is an idiot. He just might be. You’ll get further in the field by respecting the fact that he is spending his time to review your work. Would you, as a pro, put in those hours to bring in the next new talent?
20) No one wants to review your portfolio in the elevator, at the registration desk, or at dinner. They’re just being polite. They’re not paying attention, they’re just getting through the interruption so they can get back to their room or dinner.
21) If you happen to know what room a pro is staying in, it is NEVER cool to knock and introduce yourself.
22) Godiva chocolates, specifically “creme brulee.” I can’t really be bought, but I’ll act like I can. [Now cut that out – SDG]
It’s been my observation that if you really want to do comics, you should just do comics, and not worry about writing and/or drawing BATMAN or the X-MEN, because the odds of you getting hit by lightning are probably less than the odds of landing such a gig cold at a convention. Putting out your comic shows YOU CAN PUT OUT A COMIC, and that speaks more to the folks at the dance than a plaintive plea and a doe-eyed look from an innocent white-knuckling his portfolio.
If you’ve got it in your head that you have The World’s Best Comic Book Story in you, and you’ve got talent that makes you think that you’re as-good-or-better than your favorite artists and/or writers, then I’d say you may have a SLIM chance at elbowing industry veterans with better connections (and possibly incriminating photos) out of the way of the paying gigs and getting to the head of the line.
Getting a job from a top publisher is like standing in front of Superboy, Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, and Lightning Lad, and petitioning for membership in the Legion of Superheroes. (And if you want to do the LEGION, that might not even be a metaphor.)
But you’re trying to join a club; a select few who entertain… and you better have the chops or you won’t make it. If you’ve got the power to excrete roasted coffee beans out from under your eyelids, chances are the Legion’s not going to have use for you. But human nature being what it is, my advice is to forget going to conventions with the express purpose of landing a job. It’s most unlikely.
I’d work on my social skills, if I were you. Don’t ask other creators to help you get work, because chances are they’d sidestep your dead body to just talk to an editor. Do some research on the company you want to work for: if your dream is to do illustrated Shawn Colvin lyrics, you’re wasting air if you pitch the project to AiT/Planet Lar.
Don’t assume Mike Carlin is your friend because you can quote RATBOY 2000 dialogue to him. If you don’t know what RATBOY 2000 is, don’t expect to write SUPERMAN.
Don’t think you’re gonna get work because you buy James Lucas Jones a beer. He’ll drink anyone’s beer.
People like to work with talented people. And given a choice between two sets of creators that are equally talented, the job’ll go to the guy who the editor won’t mind talking to for an hour on the phone. Go to a convention and shmooze.
That’s what Doselle Young did. He’s a talented writer, and a convention fixture. Just by dint of his compelling writing talent and peerless hail-fellow-well-met and nigh-infectious laugh, ol’ Cousin Do first landed a Frank Quitely story in GANGLAND, a WONDER WOMAN stint, and the bastard’s now writing MONARCHY.
Yep; Doselle has talent oozing out his pores and there’s not a nicer guy in comics.
And it only took him eight years to swing it. Eight. Years.
So, don’t give up, or lose heart.
‘Cause guys like Doselle are ahead of you.
Finally, Editor D:
Don’t quit your day job! Seriously, at every convention I attend, I
find myself giving most of the young wannabes a lesson in reality. To wit,
the market is hardly at its healthiest when even longtime professionals
can’t get work, so the prospects for a neophyte breaking in are dim at
best. There are some things, however, that can aid their presentation:
like studying what it is the publisher actually publishes before submitting
to them. Fantagraphics reps, for instance, are hardly likely to look upon
a portfolio featuring exclusively superheroes with a kind eye. The wannabe
artist is best served by gearing his or her submission to the specific
publisher he or she is approaching. Bring Batman samples to Bob Schreck.
Bring Aliens or Star Wars or Buffy samples to Dark Horse, etc. It’s not
essential, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. And don’t expect an editor to
sit and read your 500-page manuscript on the spot at the show!
I also often recommend that would-be writers team up with a local artist
and put together a minicomic. Those are easy to hand to an editor at a
show; they’re a quick read (on the flight home, say) and demonstrate a
great deal about both the writer’s and artist’s abilities, or lack thereof.
Other than that, just the usual stuff: storytelling samples, not pinups;
pencil samples, not just one’s own inked art, as one’s inks may be so poor
that they hide what might be strong(er) pencils underneath.
Okay, that’s my ten minutes of advice. Hope you can use it!
And that’s what editors want to say. Again, it’s not that they’re trying to piss you off. It’s that this is what you really have to know. You’ve been warned.
Next week: Convention prep concludes, probably with more editorial input, plus the importance of strategy.
First, I want to apologize to Joe Casey and Joe Kelly for misremembering Joe Casey as the writer of Joe Kelly’s Superman story in last week’s MOTO. At least it makes the story less bewildering. Sorry, Joes.
Look for X-MAN #74, from Marvel, in the shops this week. The penultimate issue, and the fate of Qabiri revealed. It ain’t pretty.
The Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: You’ve just been made editor of the existing comic book of your choice. (For the sake of this question, we won’t distinguish between company-owned and creator-owned.) What book do you choose, why, and, if applicable, what changes do you make in the book and why?
Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.
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