Friday, May 24, 2013

So You Wanna' Be a Comic Book Artist, Part One...

There are two questions people ask me at conventions more than any others -- "Is it weird drawing Matt Smith as the Doctor?" and "How do I break into comics?".

I usually answer the first question with a joke about how funny people at the BBC think it is to have Matt Smith drawing Matt Smith, but the more honest answer is simply, "No weirder than being a life-long Doctor Who fan who wakes up one day and discovers the actor now playing the Doctor has the same name as you do".

And believe me, that's a little weird. But then it's also weird to me that anyone let me draw Doctor Who at all (and occasionally write him), so the fact that the character is being played by another Matt Smith just adds to the general background weirdness.

The answer to the second question is a little more complicated. What I normally tell people is that the best way to break into comics is by networking. And the truth is that's a major part of it. You have to meet working comic book people -- whether online, at conventions, or in some random social setting where working comic book people are present -- hang out with them, get to know them, and eventually someday, if you're lucky, you'll be in the right place at the right time and fall into a job drawing (or writing) a comic. Turning your lucky break into a full-time career is a whole other story.

But the thing I really want to say when people ask me how to break into comics isn't "do A, B or C", it's a question -- "Why do you want to work in comics?"

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to be a jerk or take a swipe at an industry that has kept a roof over my head for almost 20 years now. But there's more to being a comic book artist than just being able to draw well, and for most people, the reality of doing it for a living is a lot different than the fantasy most people seem to have in their heads.

The industry has changed a lot in the last twenty years. When I started out, you still did everything by hand. All the art, all the coloring, all the lettering. By hand.

Nowadays, any artist with some basic computer skills and a lot of initiative can do it all themselves, including all of the arcane production work that was once impossible without years of training in publishing layout and techniques.

In those days, the only way to make an actual living as a comic book artist was to work for one of the big companies -- DC or Marvel, and to a lesser degree, smaller established companies like Dark Horse or one of the Image studios. It's that last one - Image - that changed everything about comics and about creating comics.

These were the places that paid you page rates to draw comics. Granted, some paid better than others, but they paid actual money, money you could live off of. There were other publishers of course, places like Caliber Comics and Now Comics, smaller companies that couldn't pay you much, if anything. They mostly paid you in royalties, and those royalties were usually pretty tiny.

(The largest royalty check I ever got from Caliber was for $25, which to be honest was less than I'd spent on the art supplies to draw the book, but I'm not complaining. I'd drawn lots of things for them where we didn't sell enough to get any royalties AT ALL.)

But when you worked for DC or Marvel (getting to play in the Majors, as we called it back then), you could make an actual living. You weren't going to be swimming in money or driving a Porsche or anything, but if you were working regularly, you weren't going to starve.

People seem to forget that when I broke into comics it was pretty impossible to get rich making comics. There were exceptions, of course. Every generation has its Alan Moores and Frank Millers, people who create seminal works and almost accidentally get rich from it, either in royalties or being able to ask for higher page rates for future work. They were the superstars of the industry, but it was a different time.

Back then, no one expected to get rich making comics. You made comics because you loved comics, and the idea that someone would pay you to do it was the most amazing thing ever. And then Image happened. And everything changed...

NEXT TIME: Rockstars and Millionaires...

1 comment:

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