KC: How NOT to Break Into Comics

Ever wonder what you could do to hurt your chances of getting into comics? Read on as KC explains.

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by KC Carlson

It's been a long time since I've been in the position to actually hire someone to write and draw comics (a little over 10 years now), but it's still a popular topic once people meet me at conventions. "How does someone break into comics, anyway?" they inevitably ask. I'm always a bit surprised at hearing the question, as it seems that there are somewhere close to a million articles on that very subject (I think Wizard runs one about every five minutes), and it seems that everyone should have encountered at least one or two of them by now. I suspect what they're really asking is, "How can I break into comics?" Or, more to the point, "What can you do to get me into comics?" Those, of course, are totally different questions.

The answer to the last question is obvious - I can't do anything to get you into comics. I don't work for anyone who is hiring artists or writers; since leaving DC in 1997, I'm merely a somewhat bemused observer of the industry. In fact, I don't even think I'm still qualified to offer up helpful tips about how one would gain employment in the field, since a lot of stuff has changed since I was an editor, not the least of which is how the companies deal (or not deal at all) with submissions. Besides, there's about a million articles on the subject. Wait a bit longer and one will be along any minute now.

What I can tell you, as a series of cautionary tales, I guess, are some of the, uh... dumber things folks have said or done around me in an effort to get hired. I apologize in advance if some of my recommendations seem overly obvious or just good common sense - apparently the drive and focus it takes to show your work for critical appraisal often override things like manners. Also, since I'm not doing this to embarrass anybody, to disguise any identities, I'm going to refer to my imaginary prospective talent by the non de plume Edgar Brokenfingers. (My apologies to any real Edgar Brokenfingers who happen to be reading this. And may I suggest that you'd probably get a lot more work if you change your name to something like Edgar Drawsthreepagesaday.)

(And a quick note: This column will mostly deal with artists and the portfolio review. I always feel bad for writers because there isn't an institutionalized process - like the portfolio review - for writers to follow, as breaking in as a writer is, unfortunately, a somewhat more difficult process. And one that would require a totally different column...)

Here are some basic things that don't work at the portfolio review table. (To quote Dave Barry, I am not making this up. These all have happened to me.)

  1. Throwing your portfolio on the table and saying, "Gimme a job" in a menacing tone.
  2. Coming up to the table with just three art boards, all unfinished. When asked "What's this?" Edgar replied, "I just found out about the convention on Wednesday." I actually got applause from the line when I told Edgar to go away.
  3. Eating your lunch while I'm looking at your portfolio. Especially if I've been sitting there for three hours and missed lunch.
  4. Presenting a portfolio that takes two people to lift onto the table. Nobody wants to see the drawings that were on your Mom's refrigerator from grade school. Keep your portfolio current to the past few months.
  5. Staring at me, in an intense and menacing way, while I'm looking through your portfolio. Just leave the menacing at home, okay?
  6. Making out with your girlfriend while I'm looking at your portfolio. Especially if I've been sitting there for three hours and missed making out with your girlfriend.
  7. Demonstrating too much ego. Edgar's opening line: "I'm better than the guy that's drawing your book." My usual response: "I hired that guy. What does that make me?" Or (pantomiming a phone call): "Hi, Bob. Yeah, this guy Edgar Brokenfingers says he's a better draw-er* than you. So I guess you're fired. Sorry you won't be able to feed your kids next month...
    (* secret editor lingo for "artist")
  8. Presenting a portfolio that consists of nothing but pin-up pages. No one gets hired to do pin-up pages. Most comics consist of many pages of sequential art that tell a story. Check it out, dude.
  9. Asking me what my favorite movies or bands are. Sorry, I'm just not that into you.
  10. Telling me that "my Mom thinks I'm a really good artist." Everybody's Mom thinks that. It's their job, for Pete's sake! And especially since I've been sitting there for three hours and she's already been by to tell me that (while staring at me, in an intense and menacing way)!

Once I was presented with a portfolio of page after page of not even fully fleshed-out stick figures, but each panel was carefully lettered with well-written dialog. After reading a page or two, I suggested that Edgar might have better luck being a writer. Not noticing him starting to shake, I continued heaping praise on his dialog, only to have him explode, screaming, "That's what everyone tells me!" before running out of the room, yelling his head off. Stunned and taken aback by this, I then noticed that no one else in the line seemed fazed. Confused, I asked, "What's up with that guy?" and somebody in line said "Oh, him? He does that at every show..."

***************

I understand how tough it is to screw up your confidence to show your work to someone to try and get a job as an artist. The portfolio review has gotta be one of the worst job interviews ever, and one with little to no chance of getting you hired, at least in the "right now." It's just as hard from the editor's point of view -- or at least one with a conscience, like I tried to be. I mean, I have seen some editors chew up and spit out guys, some just for fun, I suspect. And maybe that's what some folks need, but I couldn't do it. I always tried to be upbeat and positive about my criticism as much as possible, without giving the real "not ready" guys any false hope.

One of the techniques I quickly developed was to get artists talking a bit about their backgrounds: what kind of training, job experience, education, etc. Basic nuts and bolts interview stuff. This gave me time to flip through the portfolio, to make an overall judgment and find some things we could talk about. If the portfolio was really hopeless, I'd also need the time to find something positive to say while making suggestions for areas for the artist to work on.

One review has haunted me a bit ever since I did it, because I handled it radically and I'm still not sure if I did the right thing. It was an older guy, and his portfolio was frankly, really bad. While the guy was telling me his background, I kept hearing things like "father of four" and "the wife doesn't work" and "comics is all I ever wanted to do," and my heart kept sinking and sinking. Finally I stood up, closed my line and told everybody to come back in an hour. Then I turned to him and said "Can I buy you a beer? Let's go talk in the bar." Then, for the next 30 minutes or so, two people had the worst time of their lives.

What I had to tell this poor guy - whose only dream was to work in comics - was that his portfolio was not good enough to get work in comics (or at least at DC) and that I suspected that it would probably never be good enough. I asked him how long he had tried to break in, and the answer was "9 or 10 years." I looked right at him and said, "You have a family to support. Being a freelancer for comic books at your artistic level will not be enough to support your family. There are dozens and dozens of artists who are better than you, and it will be hard for you to find jobs. You can keep trying to get better, but I think it will take a very long time, and you have your family to think of."

He was quiet for a while and then asked about other jobs in comics. I told them that there were plenty, but for most of them, he would probably have to move to New York City. I think I suggested lettering, as he could take a drafting class to teach him the basics, and I also mentioned working for a comics distributor, like I had. He was quiet for a very long time. Finally he stood up and shook my hand. "I can tell by your face that it wasn't easy telling me this, but I appreciate your honesty." Then he shrugged his shoulders and said quietly, "I think my wife will appreciate it, too." Then he picked up his portfolio and slowly walked out of the bar and out of the hotel.

***************

There's a little game that I occasionally played with aspiring artists when I was looking at portfolios. I would first find some elaborate full-page pin-up shot (because every portfolio has at least one), and I would ask, "How long did it take you to do that?" And here's where most artists always stumble - inevitably, they would puff themselves up a little and say something like, "Oh, I really put a lot of effort into that one. It took three or four days!"

BZZT! Wrong answer. The correct answer is one day. Or even better, just a few hours. And then the conversation would turn to math:

"Okay, Edgar," I'd say. "You want to be a comic book artist. That means that your first job will most likely be a monthly comic book. And a monthly comic book is around 22 story pages per issue, right?"

Edgar nods in agreement.

"Okay, and there are about 30 days in a month, right? "

More nodding.

"Now, you have to take some time off to spend with your significant other or family or friends, or you'll drive yourself crazy. Plus, you're a freelancer, so you need to budget time to do your finances and banking and go shopping for supplies and a million other things that you haven't thought about yet. And you might want food once in a while. So, you need to take away the four weekends in a month - or a total of 8 days."

"But I..." starts Edgar.

"NO. You can't work every day. You think you can, but you can't. Your work will eventually suffer. And if you don't take breaks, your mental and physical health will suffer. And if you suffer that much, you will eventually die. And if you die, you will miss your deadlines."

"Are comics worth dying over?" I ask.

Thankfully, most people say no.

"Okay, then. So, there's roughly 30 days in a month, and you take away 8 of them to rest and play and get some exercise, that means you have 22 working days left in a month. How long is a comic book story again?"

"22 pages."

"What an amazing coincidence!" I say. "That's why you have to be able to do a page a day if you want to do monthly comic books."

Most of them get it, and they go back and work harder so they can improve their speed. Or they don't.

This is why those constant "It's so easy to break into comics!" articles drive me crazy. It's not easy. It's hard work. Especially for artists.

The bottom line is, if you can't draw 22 pages of art in a month, you can't do monthly comics.

I know, I know, everyone waits for Jim Lee. You're not Jim Lee. If you want to break into comics, you have to demonstrate a work ethic of 22 pages a month. You don't get to be a superstar without earning it (although, rudely, I can think of a couple of exceptions...).

There's a old saying that goes that you only need two of these three things to keep getting work: be fast, be good, or be nice. If your art is good and you work quick, it doesn't matter if you're a jerk. If your art needs improvement, but you beat your deadlines and you're fun to talk to, then you'll keep getting work. And if you're skilled and good to work with, then the deadlines aren't as important. But you have to demonstrate that you're talented, and for that, you have to get in the door.

***************

Probably my favorite portfolio review experience involved someone whom I couldn't possibly have hired. It was after a long session at the table (where my relief never showed up, and there was a long line). Bleary-eyed, I looked up to see my next "victim" and was surprised that no one was there. Until I looked down... and there was a young boy, maybe 10 years old, quietly holding a spiral notebook. Behind him stood a young woman whom I quickly realized was "Mom." I wearily shot her a look that said "Really?" and she smiled and said, "Trust me. It will be worth your time."

Mom and I talked for a moment while the kid continued to stand there quietly, but I noticed that his head was in constant motion: looking around the convention hall, looking at the submissions that had piled up on the table, looking at me. I began to wonder if this kid was okay... and then Mom and I were done talking and she gently nudged her son that it was his turn to talk. Later, I realized that she was actually flipping the "On" switch on this kid...

Suddenly this kid had his notebook open and on the table in front of me as he launched into a non-stop monologue of what the story was about (including all the sound effects). He started pacing back-and-forth in front of the table, telling his story as fast as he could, barely stopping to take a breath. His hands were a constant blur of motion and he would occasionally punch the air to emphasize a sound effect as well as giving me hand signs when it was time for me to turn to the next page.

It was hard to tear myself away from this "performance" but somehow I managed to start looking at the notebook pages of artwork, while this kid continued to provide constant commentary. The artwork was typical Calvinesque kid-type stuff: rockets and dinosaurs and ray guns and dinosaurs eating rockets and what have you. And make no mistake, the artwork was crude and childish (he was 10, after all), but damn, this kid had already figured out rudimentary storytelling! I suddenly realized that I was looking at Jack Kirby at age 10!

As the kid kept talking, I looked up to Mom and she had that "Can you believe this kid?" look on her face that only Moms can do. And unbeknownst to the kid, he was now drawing an audience as everybody in line stopped talking and started watching this, as well as a few convention-goers who just happened to walk by.

Finally, I caught the kid in a plot problem and challenged him, but this barely slowed him down. He finished his current sentence, stopped only to say "and... and... and..." and then he continued on, solving the plot and taking the story in a totally new direction. And he continued, completely off the top of his little head, for another couple of minutes. Jeez, I thought, not only is he Kid Kirby, he's also a pint-sized Stan Lee!

Finally he wound down a bit and, without thinking, I said, "Wow! That's great! Do you have any more stories?" Of course he did. "Yeah! I've got one about cowboys who live in the ocean..." And then Mom slowly slid her hand over his mouth (effectively activating his "off" switch) and said something like "Oh yeah, he's got a lot of stories..."

Mom and I started to talk and I told her that her son had a tremendous amount of potential and that she needed to keep encouraging him to tell stories. I told her that he was pretty young to start working and she agreed. "I just wanted to share him with people who might appreciate him," she said. And I told her the story of Jim Shooter and how he broke in at the age of 13 and eventually became the creative head at Marvel. "Stranger things have happened," I said.

(Behind her, I was amused to see that the girlfriend of one of the portfolio hopefuls had started talking to the kid, and he was now telling her a story, his arms gesticulating wildly.)

I apologized that I couldn't do anything to immediately help her son (I had left DC at that point and was only doing portfolio reviews as a favor to the Con promoter), but that if I had their contact info I would try to get it to DC's Kids line editor. I did with a note saying "even if you can't use him right now, this will be the most entertaining 10 minutes of your day." I also pointed out some artist friends of mine at the show who would know exactly what to tell this kid to encourage him further, and I especially hope he got a chance to talk to 'Ringo.

Unfortunately, I lost my copy of the contact info in the bustle of the convention, and sadly, I now don't even remember his name. He'd probably be old enough now to be doing the portfolio thing himself (if he wasn't already in as a writer - that's the weirdest thing about doing portfolio reviews. I could have been looking at "tomorrow's superstars" without really knowing it.)

All I know, is that I'll probably always remember that kid, because I saw in him a little bit of all the remarkably talented people who have worked in this industry over the years. And that he represented the reason why everyone in comics works so hard.

Got a question or comment for KC? You can contact him at AuntieKC@WestfieldComics.com.