Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Starting Out In Comics

I'm frequently asked by aspiring artists how to get started in comics. For many years I felt borderline uncomfortable doling out advice to those asking. One reason I had for feeling reluctant was that it took me about ten years of working at making comics to actually feel like I had "made it". Another reason was that my path was unique, as everyone's is, and spelling out a sure-footed route to success in comics that was specific to me would feel dishonest and unhelpful. I know a lot of terrific creators who grind and put great effort into getting their stories made and seen. It can be a long road, and a very personal one. Anyway, I get asked a lot, and I guess since doing some Marvel work for a short spell, I've noticed I'm asked more frequently than before. I hate to ignore or half-ass advice or, quite frankly, take time out of my day to repeat myself. So I thought I'd type up an evergreen post about "breaking in". I do this with no feeling of authority. I can only speak from my own experience and what insights I've gleaned from other creators. Some of this will seem very obvious and boilerplate, but those tend to be the most important things to nail. Let's dive in...


There's no secret to start making comics. Like making breakfast, you do it because you're hungry for it. I don't think it hurts to set goals for yourself very early. Likely they'll be amended over time, but having an honest conversation with yourself about what you'd like to achieve in comics early on will help guide you along your way. Do you want to write and draw your own material and pitch it to publishers? Do you want to self-publish or start a small press? Do you want to do work-for-hire gigs? Those are all super exciting ambitions, and you can tackle all of them. My point is, knowing what you're about can help inform your choices down the road. But never at any point do you need anyone's permission to start creating. That power is literally at your fingertips.

Draw every day; your reflection, objects in your home, pets, people and objects and places outdoors. Take advantage of any Life Drawing classes if you can. On top of that, draw things from your imagination. Draw what makes you happy and challenge yourself often.

Read comics. Read anything that inspires you and makes you happy, whether it's novels, manga, zines, webcomics, Archie digests, anything. But if you want to work in monthly comics, read them any way you can get them. If money is tight, libraries carry graphic novels and often single issues too.

Learn from your favourite artists without emulating or homaging them; there's nothing wrong with trying on a style and seeing how it fits, but I believe it's more fruitful for beginners to study what their fav comic artists are doing well and understanding why their work is successful rather than trying to be that artist.

Take it upon yourself to draw sequential pages that tell a simple story. I'm talking 1-5 pages that have a beginning, middle and end. Plot it yourself. Don't skimp on backgrounds. Establish settings and environments. Include panels that emote. It's tempting to want to begin by telling your magnum opus, but you can't do that until you learn to tell a basic story through sequential panels.

Don't be precious about your art. A real turning point for me was when I became willing to completely scrap something I had already put time into if I realized some element could be greatly improved upon. This is also why drafting is extremely important. Your first idea is rarely your best and your instincts will sharpen as you take pass after pass at things you're creating. In the process, remember to take a step back (literally, from your table) and review your work as a whole. Does it look right? How are the proportions or perspective? How's that composition overall? If you spot something you should fix, do what needs to be done. Never fear! Your best has yet to come. 

If you can find the opportunity, I encourage artists to ink another artist. I personally learned so much about my own work from inking several artists I really admire. It taught me that inking is a skill set separate from drawing, and that doing it well requires patience, forethought, and precision. Amazingly, those are virtues I didn't bring to my own pages before having to treat someone else's pencils with great care (I still ink my own my pages like the family's sloppy-drunk uncle though).

Find and participate in your local comic scene. That might be easy for me to say since Toronto has one of the richest comic scenes in North America, but it's so important to get yourself out there. Go to conventions, festivals, art shows. Meet people, ask questions, make friends. Support people if you can. I really regret not getting involved with the scene much earlier than I did. Don't hold yourself back and be the best you you can be.

Beyond that, get your work online where the world can see it. There's many platforms available. If you can hack a regular output of sketches, drawings, strips, anything--awesome. Make use of hashtags. Join and participate in sketch groups. Be kind and respectful to others online. 


This is where I usually get lost in the weeds when I answer these questions at shows or via e-mail.

Working professionally, there's a lot of different avenues to take and you navigate them as best you can. To me, "breaking in" means you're either making comics in some form or you aren't. Look, success in comics is relative. Any time you get to make money or have something published or have your work embraced by an audience is a big victory. Things rarely come easy, so when you succeed, it's pretty sweet. 

Now, when I'm asked about how a person can get work in comics, they're typically asking how they can get work with either Marvel or DC. That's a terrific ambition, but the comics industry is more than two superhero universes. Like I said up top, take time and think about what you ultimately would like to achieve and plan accordingly. If your goal is to some day draw for the Big Two, you'd be doing yourself a huge favour by looking at what's on comic stands right now and asking yourself whether your work is as good as what's being printed, because that's what you're up against. Mainstream comics is a world stage. You're in direct competition with the most exciting talent on planet Earth. Take stock of how you measure up. Don't be discouraged when you realize you have further to go. You will never reach a point where you aren't trying to improve. If you want to rest on a plateau, you'll eventually die there. So learn what you can and work at it. You'll be glad you did.

Again, you can write and draw your own material or collaborate with a writer and pitch your own property, or post online and develop a following. If you're making comics from a place of passion and love for the medium, there's no one way. Do as many as you fancy. As I continue, let's assume we're talking about pursuing freelance/work-for-hire opportunities to earn a living.

Paraphrasing Steve Martin, the key to finding work in mainstream comics is being so good that someone wants to hire you. That isn't meant to be glib. Speaking for the most the part, the comics industry doesn't have co-op or training programs for aspiring creators or anything like that, so entry points often feel elusive. Publishers hire you largely in good faith that you can deliver the goods. Your qualifications are usually the quality of your work, the credits under your belt, and your established ability to work in a timely fashion. Being polite and friendly goes a long way, too. Normally, to be in the position where editors are considering you for work, you'll have done something to show off your chops. If you haven't done credited work already, that could be comics you created yourself, with a collaborator, from a sample script, etc.

Comics is a business of relationships. You create relationships through networking, and that shit gets started at conventions. Go to conventions. I love them. I rarely break even from them and they do a lot of damage to me on several levels, but my career began to flourish when I started doing large conventions. Plus they can be a real blast. Make friends, expose yourself to the work of others, meet writers, do your best to put yourself in front of an editor at the show. There's a lot of etiquette I'm not interested in getting into here, but the bottom line is there's no harm in approaching a writer or editor to say you're a creative interested in finding work with them or their publication and asking for a card to contact them in the future with samples. Then leave them alone about the prospect. I'm just saying don't be a barnacle and don't hassle anyone unless its initiated. Honestly, it can be inconvenient to review portfolios or hear pitches at shows. Be friendly. Follow up with people after the show, and when the time comes, get to work and deliver.

One last thing. I haven't done it alone. Far from it. I had the love and support from friends and family to keep me going. I had help from peers who vouched for me, got my foot in a door, introduced me to so-and-so, and gave me opportunities. I had some solid formal training at an art school and learned invaluable lessons about comic storytelling mechanics from Ty Templeton at his Comic Book Bootcamp (which I recommend if you're in the GTA). All of those things have been instrumental. If you're lucky enough to develop a support network, please do not take it for granted. But remember that it all begins with you putting in your work.

That's all I got. I hope you find this useful. I wish you the very best.

No comments:

Post a Comment