SDCC: Breaking Into Comics The Marvel Way

It's become a Marvel Comics tradition at Comic-Con International, but the "Breaking Into Comics The Marvel Way" panel Thursday morning at the pop culture event proved that repeat presentations can sometimes pay off for the audience. That's because of the assembled creators who currently make comics for the House of Ideas, at least one of them had attended the breaking in panel in the past.

Marvel SVP and talent scout C.B. Cebulski led the discussion that included Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso, "Disney Kingdoms: Figment" writer Jim Zubkavich,"Legendary Star-Lord" writer Sam Humphries, "Moon Knight" artist Declan Shalvey, editor Jordan D. White and "All-New X-Men" artist Kris Anka.

"Over the last ten years, breaking into comics has changed so much," Cebulski said to start things off. "There used to be specific ways about how to do it...and now just like there are so many different ways people are getting exposed to comics, there's no single way that people are breaking in anymore."

Cebulski recalled comic writer's Devin Grayson memorable words that breaking into comics is like breaking out of jail - you can only do it the one way one time. With that, the panel turned towards relating their own stories of going from comics reader to comics pro.

Alonso related his own personal history with the medium joking that he "gave up comics when I discovered sports and girls" but came back to reading them in his 20s as he studied journalism. "One day when I was a journalist, I saw an ad in the New York Times that DC Comics was looking for editors...so I figured what the hell," he said. Though he overdressed for the interview with a suit and tie, Alonso had an instant friend in Vertigo Editor Lou Stathis. Stathis knew Alonso's work from a feature he'd written about the marijuana leaf as an object in pop culture where he interviewed - and somewhat sent up - the Editor-in-Chief of "High Times" magazine. As it turned out, Stathis had just had his girlfriend stolen by that "High Times" employee and found Alonso's work hilarious. As a result, Alonso's employment with the publisher was a lock.

After years editing at Vertigo, Alonso was recruited to Marvel after its bankruptcy, and the Editor-in-Chief said that few of the moves he made in comics were ones that he could have anticipated beforehand. "My career path was not a straight line. It went all over the map and made no sense...but I will say that I did go about looking to get education in aspects of my field. I had a little bit of art school [and] did a lot of writing and editing...so I think all of those led to me being decent at my job now," he said.

Zubkavich traced his path in comics not to his breakout Image series "Skullkickers" but his work in animation and with Toronto art studio UDON. "I'd been in the business for eight years prior to that behind the scenes," he said noting that his position at UDON was supposed to be a brief summer job. "That summer job turned into about nine years of steady work," he said as he went from colorist to manager.

"All the business stuff I learned about pre-production and art direction helped me," he said of his path into mainstream comics. Zubkavich said that "editors like working with me because I've got all my stuff organized." When he sits down to write a comic, he doesn't simply focus on the stories he has to tell but also on the role all his collaborators will play throughout the process. It's his chief goal as writer to figure "how I can make everyone's job easier."

Humphries then noted that he himself attended Marvel's breaking into comics panel at the 2011 Comic-Con. "If you want to make comics for Marvel, you've got to work your way up," he said, noting that despite having published a few short stories at the time, he knew he had nothing coming out in 2011 which would "kill the tiniest amount of momentum I'd built up for myself." So deciding that if he was going to fail, he was going to go down in flames, Humphries set out to self publish his own comics including the bizarre breakout one-shot "Our Love Is Real." "I chose that book specifically because I knew that comic would never exist if I didn't make it."

Humphries use of "micro publishing" where he sold the book directly to stores while also sending free copies to Marvel editors proved a success. Then editor Steve Wacker enjoyed the bizarre sci-fi of "Our Love Is Real" and passed it along to Alonso who reached out. "You shouldn't wait for anyone's permission to make comics or to do comics you're proud of as a creator," Humphries said.

For his part, Shalvey said that getting any kind of sequential comics work out as an artist was the most important tool in getting noticed by a big publisher, adding, "Portfolio pages don't make you a comic artist."

White spoke to breaking in on the full-time job end of the business. The current Marvel employee spent his college years producing old timey adventure serials for his college radio station, saying that the process of writing and producing content on a deadline prepared him for the job of putting monthly comics together and getting them out to the press.

Flipping the proceedings on their head, Anka said that not only did he not work to break into comics but actually tried to stay out of it for a while. "I have no idea how I got hired," admitted the artist to laughter. Despite having tried out for cover work at Marvel, Anka was turned down. Then out of the blue, he got an e-mail from editor Nick Lowe -- who had seen Anka's work online -- offering him work. Anka declined and went into the animation business, but the editor was persistent in making him not just a cover artist but a regular interior artist for the publisher. "He's the guy who offered me the 'Colbert Report' thing the night before because he knows I can't say know to him," the artist joked about his recent gig recasting the Comedy Central host as the new Falcon.

Overall, the panel agreed that the task was more than simply breaking into comics but also staying in comics. "You're only as good as your last gig," Cebulski said in a discussion of why professionals have to hit deadlines, be polite and make life easier on their editors. Alonso said that creators who show up with that professionalism mindset often get taken care of by the publisher with the offer of more work.

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