First course. Ouch.

March 8, 2010

Even during my years in college I was showing my work at comic shows, firstly for input, but always in the hope of getting work. Luckily, I was in Atlanta, and Gaijin studios was in the area where Brian Stelfreeze, Cully Hamner, and Adam Hughes, were extremely helpful to me. Brain taught me more about perspective in an afternoon, than I learned all the years in school, and the guys gave me points on how to build a portfolio of work. From the start I thought I was ahead of the rest because other amateurs were still showing endless pin-ups of Wolverine, while I was showing sequential pages. Regardless, I was nervous, and if not for a friend named Micah, I’d have given up on showing my work. On the trip to my first con, Charlotte’s Heroescon, I was wavering about showing my work, but with Micah’s encouragement (basically saying “Shut up you wimp and show your stuff”) I dragged my portfolio from review to review. Lets take a walk down memory lane- this ought to open up some old wounds.

These samples were late in my college career, and obviously they didn’t score me any work. This first one was a Blue Beetle sample page I did after the fantastic run Adam Hughes had on Justice League. The inspiration from him is obvious in this, but matching his skill wasn’t. I believe one review ended with- “What’s all this stuff? Cotton Candy?” No- dust clouds.

There's this thing called anatomy- look into it

I fooled myself into thinking I could do decent likenesses, and after seeing Adam’s work on Star Trek, I thought I’d give that a shot. I was so pleased with myself on these until the great Brian Bolland gave me his opinion. He summed it up with “Wow, you really captured the boredom of the series”

Talking heads, MORE talking heads!

From there I went back to basics and tried to do some straight hero samples. Keep in mind that this was all during the domination of the Image style, so I tried to bring in a bit more dynamic flair. With that my attention to the basics seemed to waiver, something pointed out by the legend Dick Giordano when he told me “All your characters’ fingers look like bananas”

When in doubt- add a bunch of lines

So when did I get any good responses? The first was this set of Valor samples for DC. The late Neal Pozner seemed to like these and passed them along to editors, which lead to my first work on Showcase.

From there I did work for Dark Horse on Cross, Jonny Quest, and the movie adaptation of Solo. As I mentioned in my last post, I thought I was on the road to success and a life in comics. There was even a brief discussion that DH might be doing a Wallace & Gromit comic, a cartoon series I love, so I cranked out these samples.

To the Wallace mobile ole chum!

This was about the time the comic industry tanked from the down turn in collector purchases. Companies folded and the work available disappeared. On the way out I had smaller gigs with secondary companies like Malibu, and although I thought I was improving, it wasn’t enough to keep me working in comics.

This page didn't appear in the book, but I always liked the street shot

For the next few years I would still do samples based on scripts that the big two were handing out to anyone still trying to get work. The idea they had was to streamline the process by having everyone draw the same story, then it would be easier to see if artists did it well or not.

Deadpool Sample script splash page

The problem for me was that I would burn through those scripts faster than they came out. There’s never been a reason in my head for redrawing the same set of pages again. I never saw any benefit from it, and the energy level always seemed to drop no matter how much improvement there was on the overall page design. There was still the occasional job from a small company, but not often, and usually for no pay- if any.

Sometimes the paper costs more than what you make

I was working, and earning a living by drawing, but not in comics. So I kept cranking out samples, and around this time I changed cities. With more time to myself I tried working up extra samples, and posting on comic boards for feedback. Seeing what other artists were doing with the same sample scripts really helped me to see what I was doing wrong and doing right.

Another sample script based on Spiderman

It was when I moved that things started to change. I was drawing on my own a lot more, but having run out of samples scripts I started to make up excuses to draw what I wanted to. I think this brought a new energy to my work, and started getting me a bit more of attention. Next time, I’ll show how I started to get a stronger sense of where I was going with my work, and stopped trying to have a “style” to impress editors.

Brian Stelfreeze once told me, “Getting the first gig isn’t the hardest part… it’s getting the second one.” How right he was. When I graduated college I actually got my first work published by a small company within a year, not bad. Then I got my first big shot with DC within two years, and while working for them I lined up my next book with Dark Horse. I saw this as my “second” job, according to the formula laid out by Brain. I thought I’d made it, but no, it didn’t work out that way. From there I was away from the comic industry for almost ten years. There were a lot of reasons, the industry had taken a hard hit in 95 with collectors abandoning the industry, smaller companies closed their doors, and for a while people were talking about the survival of the industry as a whole. To eat, I shifted to working in advertising as an on-staff illustrator, drawing Kool-Aid Man® and Cheeseasaurus Rex® for Kraft Foods‘ business to business projects. I was making ok money and I was drawing for a living, so that was good. From there I moved into public relations, story boarding TV spots and doing brochure illustrations. Most of that was educational material for the public, but soon I was thinking, “If I draw one more TV spot with old people talking about how glad they were they got tested for colon cancer- I’ll shoot myself”. I can delude myself by saying I was “using the time to develop”, but the reality is, I was complacent. I wasn’t getting comic work because I wasn’t pursuing it. There were odd jobs here and there, but a lot of it was independent stuff that didn’t pay, and I was doing it for the practice and fun.

Where am I going with this?  The fact is, when I go to a show, or meet with other artists who aren’t working in the industry, the question is always “How do you get in?”. There’s no magic bullet, that I know of. It’s even more difficult for writers than for artists, because it takes longer to evaluate writing than art. A person familiar with professional quality art can assess things quickly. I can tell you after looking at a couple of pages if someone has the skill set to draw comics, usually it’s apparent in a single page as the second is really to get a sense of their storytelling. One sequence can show if they have an understanding of anatomy, perspective, and composition. The first two are the biggest hurdles for most artists, and if they can’t command those, then everything else doesn’t matter. The rest just separates the professionals from the aspiring artists by their understanding of character design, page composition, storytelling, panel/page design, shading/spotting blacks, line variation, and dynamics. Is that all they look for? No, there are still smaller, technical issues like leaving enough room for word balloons, changing camera angles properly, etc. But it’s still easier to see it, than to read it. For the writers let me give the standard answer of – write where you can, for whoever you can, get it published, and send/show those published examples to editors. For artists the same is true as well, however, editors won’t read samples but they will look at art samples. Most cons have art review times set up, and editors only look at work in those situations. The reason? Sure, it may not take long to look over samples, but the second they start looking at one person’s work, 15 guys will jump up and make a line to get their art reviewed. It’s even annoying to those of us who are talking to editors we know and have worked with, because we may not be showing stuff in the pursuit of a job, but just to chat and catch up on what we’re both working on. Guys in pursuit of work don’t see that, and a lot of them don’t care, they’re so focused on their desires.

So what does a guy do? You exercise patience and get your samples together. Lurene Haines wrote a good book on the subject with a simple check list of “Dos” and “Don’ts”, most of which are common sense. The biggest of these is your overall presentation. Don’t be a slob– Bathe and brush your teeth! Too many guys show up in torn shirts, unwashed jeans, and smell- and I mean smell BAD. They don’t seem to own a tooth brush, and carry their art in a big manilla envelope that’s been to hell and back. You’re trying to sell something visual, so clean yours up! I know the industry is relaxed compared to corporate life, but come ON! No need to wear a suit, but put in some effort to be taken seriously. Get your hair cut, brush your teeth, and wear clean clothes, and get your portfolio up to snuff. Pay up, or ask that your birthday/holiday gift be a portfolio to present your work in.

Pencillers, keep the number of pages low to no more than 10 pages. Inkers can push this a bit by having the original pencils next to the inks, but limit it to about 7 spreads. Interior artists should only show sequences, for which I’d recommend two scenes of five pages, or make it three scenes with three pages each. In those show establishing shots, men and women, heroes and ordinary people, environments (buildings, furniture), and when possible- some type of vehicle. You want to show you can do it all! If you’re looking for cover work, you need to have published covers under your belt. Remember, even guys working in the industry don’t get to do covers, because that platform sells books, so it’s usually saved for established names. The odds of you getting cover work fresh out of the gate is slim.

Don’t show old work, all your pages should be recent. If you only have four recent pages and the rest are years old, then drop the old and just show the four. Editors won’t focus on the good art, just the bad. Get into the habit of drawing one complete page per day, and that means fully shaded in blacks. Editors don’t know your work, so indicating blacks with those little “x” notes doesn’t cut it. They want a full sense of what your work will look like in the end, so make sure you fill those in for now. Set a weekend aside to train yourself to do one page in a day. Get  it done in a realistic amount of time, say from 9am-6pm with an hour lunch break. If you want to do this for a living you need to treat it like a job by giving yourself working hours, producing pages within that, and having time for yourself.

When showing your work to an editor keep your mouth shut, and listen to the reviewer. They don’t want to hear excuses about why something doesn’t look right, or how you planned something else, but failed to. If you’re good, let the work show itself. Editors assume that you’ve had forever to get pages together, and in reality you’ll only turn in something 60-70% of the quality you’re showing. They’ll likely ask you “How long does it take you to do a page?”, so when you answer- “These were all drawn on a page-a-day pace”, you’ll see a visual cue on their face of “Good.” – believe me. Editors will put up with a lot from artists who are reliable, and very little from guys who drop the ball. They have schedules, and books only sell when they’re on the shelves, so they want guys who can meet deadlines.

Have business cards with you, and xeroxed samples of what you’re showing, collected into a packet. It doesn’t have to be full color, or elaborate, just clean with your contact info on each page. Do not automatically start handing either of these over, if the editor wants them- they’ll ask! If you want to include a little extra, like a pin up in the packet, fine, but make it a single, strong image. If they don’t ask for your packet, don’t be offended or let down. You’re learning something every time you show your work, so just thank them for their time and move on. Don’t just show your work to editors, but to artists for their input! I would never have gotten to a professional level, if not for the guys at Gaijin studios being so free with their advice and criticism. I learned more about anatomy and perspective from them than all the time in art school.

Next time-  I’ll show some embarrassing samples of my own, and some comments I got that cut to the bone!