In his book THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES, Jules Feiffer describes the real difference between Superman and Batman in the 40s. Superman couldn’t be hurt. Batman? As Feiffer put it, all you had to do was prick him and he bled. Buckets.
Turns out the same applies to comic book editors. Last week, to help –- let’s think up a new politically correct term for this, since “wannabees” is so unflattering — how about “the pre-hired”? — to help the pre-hired maximize their chances of using cons to enter the comics business this convention season, I decided to canvas some of the top editors in the business for their advice on pitching your work. Much advice is impolitic – when representing their companies, editors often have to put an artificially cheery face on things, though that’s less common in the current market where there’s little to be cheery about – so I offered to run their comments anonymously. This way you can focus on the information, not who’s providing it.
Well, guess what? When you prick editors, they bleed buckets too. Pay attention.
My advice to writers: don’t expect to get anyone from a major publisher to review your work at a large convention. It’s almost impossible to tell if someone can really write from a brief review of written samples, and the proper time and environment needed to actually read and analyze something of any length just isn’t likely to be available in the frenzied, noisy atmosphere of a convention. Bring some stuff just in case and network, network, network, particularly among other writers, small publishers, and talented young artists, with whom one might be able to put a project together. In comics, it’s far easier for a writer to get the ball rolling as part of a writer/artist team (providing the artist doesn’t suck, of course). It’s much more difficult to break into comics as a writer than as an artist. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Act accordingly. Don’t push too hard, but always be ready. Prepare to take low-pay or no-pay writing work at small publishers or even to self-publish to get some of your work in print. And, God help you, consider trying to get in the door at a publisher as a staffer. Many comics writers have broken in from the inside.
For artists, before you hit the convention floor, be totally realistic about your level of craft. Be your own harshest critic. If your work isn’t of professional quality, don’t waste your time showing it to editors at large shows. You won’t get work, and they don’t have time to give you a quality critique. Why spend two hours sitting in a line for nothing? If you want to find out whether your skills are ready for prime time, show your stuff first to other artists and ask them “Am I ready?” If the consensus is positive, get in line and let it all hang out; if you’re voted off the island, spend your time getting critiques from other artists. At the big shows, there are dozens of pencil-pushers sitting at tables all day long, many of whom will be more than happy to take a look at your wares and give you the kind of feedback you need. BTW, if twenty artists and/or editors tell you your figure drawing needs work, guess what? Your figure drawing needs work. Follow their advice.
Now, what should an artist show? First and foremost, have a recent four to six pages of continuity; i.e., story pages, preferably from the same story, unlettered, tight pencils and copies of the original pencils if you’re going to inks. That’s all you need to show, providing the work is finished (never ever show an unfinished page) and the best you have to offer. I don’t know how many times I’ve been shown second-rate work and then offered some sort of qualifying statement that the six crummy pages I’m seeing were drawn in two days. What do I care? As an editor, I’m far more interested in finding work that knocks my eyes out than dogfood that’s ground out at lightspeed. Believe it or not, there are about a thousand artists out there already to whom an editor can turn for fast, crappy work. There really isn’t much of a market for that anymore. Editors are looking for artists who draw better than the next guy, not faster. Speed helps, but not without adequate talent. Plus, as an editor who’s been around the block a few times, I won’t believe your claim that you can pencil three pages a day anyway.
Now, while you should make sure that what you show is the best you can possibly do, don’t overdo it. Artists sometimes feel that to impress an editor, they must draw every brick in the wall, every window in the building, every book on the shelf. Don’t: that just shows inexperience. Look at how other professionals handle pages and backgrounds and storytelling and make sure your pages tell a story clearly, dynamically, and economically. Go to town on the images that really benefit from detail and rendering and let the peripheral stuff show only as much as you really need to show. Be tight, but don’t have every square inch of space competing with each other. And sell your skills by selecting scenes that offer variety: the fantastic and the mundane, the real and the imagined, the range of human expression, explosive action and reflective silence. Range is the key.
Outside of that four to six pages of storytelling, it’s a good idea to bring along some extra stuff to show–pinups, design work, additional stories–but only in reserve in case an editor wants to see it. Don’t expect an editor to dig through a foot-high pile of artwork, and please don’t ask them to look at more of your work if they show no interest in doing so. Buy a nice presentation portfolio and make it on the smaller side, just large enough to hold full-size 11×17 copies. Nothing is more irritating than dealing with portfolios the size of a picnic table. Put your story pages up front, followed by (if anything) a few finished kickass cover-quality illustrations and/or an example of your storytelling in a totally different visual style (if you actually have one) or in a vastly different genre, and that’s all you’ll ever need to show. Get a folio with a back pocket of some kind to hold a few other items in reserve (preferably just extra copies of what you’ve shown should an editor want to take them), but believe me, less is more. The more stuff I see, the more likely I am to find something I don’t like. And for God’s sake, if you’ve just put together a dynamite new set of samples, do not show inferior work from three years ago alongside it — in fact, don’t show it at all, much less as the first thing in your portfolio, which, believe it or not, I’ve seen from dozens of artists who are, for some reason, intent on showing how much they’ve improved over the years. How much you’ve improved is utterly irrelevant, and you don’t get bonus points. All editors care about is how good you are right now, today. Put you best and newest work up front and if you haven’t had time to work up good samples, then spend your time networking and jawing with other artists and leave the editors for another time. I can’t stress this enough: don’t put anything in your portfolio that doesn’t represent you at your absolute best. If your work isn’t absolute dynamite, you don’t have a prayer of getting work with a top publisher these days. These ain’t the good old days of 1992.
And here’s a helpful bit of advice in terms of protocol: don’t try to fob off your copies or even your business card on an editor. If an editor wants ’em, he’ll ask for ’em. If he doesn’t ask (or doesn’t ask you to send them to him at his office), he doesn’t want them–the request or lack thereof is the life and death of the coal-mine canary in regard to that editor’s opinion of your work. The editor may be polite and take your proffered card or copies, but they’ll likely end up in a trash can about thirty seconds after you’re out of eyeshot. If an editor really wants copies or your card, he’ll ask, trust me, and adding up the asking/not asking tote board is the surest may to tell if you’re there, short of an editor actually begging you to come to work for him. If nine of ten editors ask for copies, you’re going to get work sooner than later. If none ask, get ready to roll up your sleeves. P.S., make sure your address, phone number, and/or email are clearly printed on every page of every copy you give an editor. An attached business card or addressed envelope alone won’t cut it, particularly when the card falls off or the envelope gets consigned, sans copies, to the inevitable knee-deep slush pile in the editor’s hotel room while he’s in a mad scramble to pack his dirty clothes and Powerpuff Girls toys and get the hell out of Dodge. Cards get lost, copies get mixed up. Maximize your chances for success, minimize your chances for failure.
Your mission, though, is to not get discouraged if you don’t break through right away. Hardly anyone ever does, and there are brigades of established professionals foraging for work every day. Relax. The elevator will get here when it gets here. And don’t be crestfallen if an editor or favorite artist gives you the bum’s rush or acts brusquely or even rudely. There’s no excuse for rude behavior — unless you really asked for it, buddy! — but conventions are often exhausting experiences for professionals. We’re not always at our best — particularly if someone else was buying the night before — so don’t take it personally. Try it from our side sometime, and despair! Excuses notwithstanding, let’s face it, some people — not me, of course! — are just assholes. That’s not your fault, let it go. Conversely, don’t be an asshole. Or a pest. And don’t think that a three-minute conversation with a professional makes you friends for life (buying a thousand bucks worth of original art, however, does — bear that in mind). All things being equal, editors and creators really don’t owe you anything, even if you’ve dutifully bought their books and worshipped (without reason, frankly) the ground on which they tread. Bottom line, they’re doing you a favor by looking at your stuff and by (hopefully) imparting some serious, vital knowledge to you on their dime. That’s all gravy. Show them your stuff, listen to what they have to say, thank ’em and move on. Even if you don’t get a job, you’ll get your money’s worth if you play your cards right. And then some. If an editor hires you, then you’re owed something: it’s called money and beats second place by a couple of laps.
And good luck to you. The more talent the industry finds, the better off the industry will be. That story never changes.
It pains me to admit, but never do I feel like more of a fraud than when I am doing portfolio reviews. I know what I like, and I know what I don’t like, but I don’t consider myself any sort of art expert, and take great pain to avoid portfolio reviews. I can tell if somebody is good or bad, but the biggest problem I have is talking to the people who are close, because I never feel like I have the vocabulary to really get somebody close to the “next level.” Therefore, I urge anyway looking for my advice to take it with a big grain of salt.
But here goes:
This might be basic, but a pin-up tells a person next to nothing. We need to see evidence of storytelling, so concentrate on sequential pages. A few head shots or pin-ups are really as good as useless.
11×17 copies are vastly preferable to 8½x11.
Concentrate on one thing. If you want to be a penciler, don’t ink your stuff. It just gets in the way. Sometimes a promising penciler will do tremendous damage to their work if they are a substandard inker.
Excuses are bad. The worst thing somebody can do is come up to me and say “well, I didn’t have a lot of time last night, so it’s not very good.” If it’s not very good, it’s not going to get anybody a job and is just going to waste everybody’s time. Don’t show work you are not 100% satisfied with, and for god’s sake don’t make apologies for it.
And my favorite: while an editor may hold some of the cards when it comes to hiring, I do not consider them art experts in the same way artists are. Keep in mind the editor’s opinion is just that. If they had more art expertise it’s likely they would be artists. That being said, if you can get a portfolio review from a penciler or even an inker, it’s likely to go a lot farther in actually improving one’s work.
Writers: get published. You won’t usually start your careers on Spider-Man or Superman or at MAD magazine. In the current marketplace this is less a problem than it used to be. There are literally hundreds of publishers (plus self-publishing) — the pay may not be great, but the experience is! And the published sample is key: with the world becoming more and more litigious many bigger companies (and not just in comics) have policies of not reading unsolicited submissions for fear of accidental duplications of ideas. Odds are that if you’re working from the same starting point (either a baby is rocketed from a doomed planet or a teen is bitten by a radioactive spider or anything established) there will be some duplication.
Artists: The situation is less confusing. Simply be good. Be a good artist. Draw people good (muscle-men and fatsos). Draw buildings good. Draw cars good. Draw horses good. Draw textures good. Draw drama good. We can always use GOOD artists.
There’s a lot of competition for spots these days… so being good in a unique, eye-catching way is better!
Remember “good” is subjective… so that leads to the general comment for all:
Don’t take any criticism or rejection (or, more likely, simply not being hired) personally. There is no way everyone who wants to do comics can at any given time. And your work won’t match the tastes of every person who could hire you. And timing does factor in: if your style of writing or art is perfect for a series that has a regular writer or artist who hasn’t missed an issue in 25 or 50 issues — even though you’re perfect for the gig, you probably won’t get it. Nothing personal and not a criticism in any way… just reality.
Keep a realistic perspective on things… try to be aware of your real objectives and limitations and the grand scheme of things (easier said than done, I know) and someday your talent will get you in… if you’re lucky!
Talent AND luck. A lethal combo.
I want to thank those editors who took time from their incredibly busy schedules (trust me, these are among the busiest editors in the business) to take part in my little survey. Leaving me to tie it all together into a convention game plan for pre-hireds. Next week.
After last week’s column, I received an e-mail from Michael Goldman, a nice guy and organizer of Detroit’s Motor City Con, wondering why I’d referred to MCC as a “minor con.” I should have defined my terms. It has nothing to do with the quality of the con, or the guests, or even in terms of attendance, and MCC generally scores high points on all those. For the matter under discussion, major and minor is defined by what level of official presence companies have at shows. My apologies if Motor City gets a higher company presence than I assumed, or if my comments led anyone to believe the show is substandard. It isn’t. As regional shows go, it stacks up to anyone’s, and if you’re a pro and get invited, go. They’ve got a hot fan base up there in Michigan.
I’m in the midst of a heavy work binge, so announcements will have to wait. I’m still waiting for several deals to finalize, as well as doing a total redesign on the @VENTURE site. And don’t believe anything you might read on AIN’T IT COOL NEWS about “Master Of The Obvious: The Movie.” I’ve never even spoken to Mel’s people, and he doesn’t look anything like me. (I have been mistaken for both David McCallum and Andy Warhol, though. Unfortunately, I was mistaken for Andy several years after he died, so I didn’t take it as a compliment.)
If you haven’t popped over there lately, don’t miss Larry Young’s continuing comics column LOOSE CANNON. A completely different perspective on comics from mine, and that’s what perspective is all about, innit? And if you haven’t been reading Gail Simone’s laugh riot YOU’LL ALL BE SORRY, you’re missing the funniest column on the web. If that leaves you in the mood for real wackiness, there’s always Scott Shaw’s ODDBALL COMICS. Is this site just like a comics amusement park, or what?
Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: What was the last comic you were attracted to by the title or cover alone (meaning: you knew nothing about it prior to that exposure) and what was it about the title or cover that attracted you? Did you but it?
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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