Main Course- choke on it

March 15, 2010

After moving to a new city and job, I had a lot more time on my hands to sketch and focus on my work. I started visiting museums, painting, and even hitting figure drawing classes held at local art centers. As I spoke before, I was running through samples scripts and I decided to start drawing what I wanted to, and not worrying about it so much. Around this time the Authority comic series caught my attention. For once, I didn’t feel guilty for my love of detail. Adam Hughes was always a huge influence, but I could never minimize the line work in my own to the level of simplicity and elegance that he has in his.

I decided to “go with it”, and allow myself to fill the page as much as I wanted. The recent Birds of Prey TV series had pulled my attention back to the books and I tried my hand at a series that I loved when Jackson Guice was on it.

Showing the ladies a little love

I really enjoyed doing that set of samples, and I took it even further with my Aquaman samples. I loved the old Challenge of the Super Friends cartoon as a kid, and at the time they had recently been released on DVD, so those inspired this sample set. I wanted to take the excitement I had for the old series, but amp up the cinematic nature of it. This was something that everyone was talking about when discussing Bryan Hitch’s work on the Ultimates. I loved the whole concept of it, and although not wanting to mimic his style, I enjoyed the approach of not holding back on details.

No more playing nice.

At this point I had decided, no, this is too much. I wanted to pull back a bit. Everyone looking at those pages said they couldn’t focus on anything, that there was too much going on, so I wanted to bring it down a notch. Again I was out of scripts, but I didn’t want to bother coming up with anything. I turned to a set of books that I had finally gotten into, Harry Potter. There were rumors that Rowan Atkinson was being considered for the role of Voldemort in the movie, which I thought would be fantastic considering the sadistic nature he showed in Black Adder. That didn’t happen, but my Potter samples did.


My friend Micah had said that he thought my work would fit in well on JSA, so it was then I did some pages with Black Adam and Solomon Grundy. I had always loved Shazam on TV as a kid, and those characters appealed to me. The idea of carrying on with the Challenge of the Super Friends theme still interested me, and I thought why not have the super villains get back to the basics by just stealing stuff? With a recent trip to the National Gallery fresh in my head, that’s what I decided to have them do. For fun, I snuck in one of my favorite  paintings from the gallery.

If we can't have it, no one can!

This set of pages must have done something right, for it was from these that Mark Paniccia at Marvel called. He had been my editor on my Malibu work, and from that I ended up doing a fill in issue of Death’s Head 3.0 on the Amazing Fantasy relaunch. After that he asked me to do some samples for a kids line version of the Fantastic Four he was editing.

Clobberin TIme!

These didn’t seem to work for him, so I did another set of sample pages with the Avengers. These must have been more appealing as I got a four issue stint on Marvel Adventures: The Avengers.

Yes, I'm Iron Man.

I only had the chance of doing those four issues, for there were some stressful points on that series. Not only did I have some disagreements with the inker, but my wife and I were in the process of buying a house, and I had recently switched day jobs. It was obvious before the end of it that I wouldn’t be working on any more Marvel books with Mark, so I started looking around a bit. I saw an ad on Newsarama for Titan books in the UK who was planning on doing a Shrek comic, so did a couple of samples pages for them. Lucky for me as this was right when my Marvel work dried up. This was really the first cartoon styled work I had done in comic pages for a while, so it was a challenge at first. What I did was go back to the approach I had with the Wallace & Gromit pages and not treat it as a flat comic strip, as adaptations often do. The cartoon themselves have tons of detail in the backgrounds, and the lighting style has even approached classic film noir at times. I wanted to capture that in my Shrek samples by treating the characters as they are in the movies, by giving them the same mass and amount of details.

Not my gum drops!

It was during this that the Marvel work really evaporated, so to replace it I started checking out other companies. Since the Shrek opportunity had worked out so well, I looked into who else was adapting CGI animated films to comics. IDW had recently announced that they were putting together a comic of the film Igor, so I sent them my Shrek pages. They replied with a stronger interest in my Marvel work and after sending them  samples from my run on those books they offered me the Executioner starring the character Mack Bolan. This was great challenger, but a good experience for me. The mix of heroics with normal people really capitalized on my ability to draw realistic figures and situations.

Luckily for me, I’m starting to get to a point where all editors want are sketches to see how I would interpret the characters. This is how I got work on the Titan Books version of BBC’s Torchwood based on the Doctor Who spin-off, and from IDW on their GI Joe title.

How I managed to get into comics still eludes me. I can’t say one thing helped above all others, but it really seems to come down to just showing pages when you can and always having something new in your hands to display. Ultimately it comes down to a lot of things, your work, being in the right place at the right time, people recommending you, persistence, and a bit of luck. For those still trying, I wish you the best of luck, but there’s never an end point. There are guys who worked for years and suddenly aren’t getting any, why? I don’t honestly know. For some it might be that they didn’t turn in work on time. Others, it’s simply because their style goes out of fashion, but you have to keep pushing and sending stuff off. I’m lucky right now, I know that, and I hope it keeps up. For now, I just want to enjoy waking up, and doing what I love.

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!