I’ve been told that breaking into the comics industry is easy, it’s the staying in that’s hard..
I’ve been working in comics since 1989, so I thought I would share what I’ve learned over those years that helped me keep working. Some seem obvious and others outright stupid, but some people don’t seem to know them.
This advice applies to not just pencilers, writers and other credited comics-makers, but all freelancers and staff people. In fact, it’s pretty good advice for anyone in business.
•Be good at your job. Now, that sounds like a “duh” moment, but some people starting out think the lower-level positions aren’t worth their time. Wrong. If you are sitting in the production department dreaming of being a professional penciler and slag off on your current job, people notice. If someone sees you putting pride into all that you do, they will believe you’d do the same in the job you really want.
•Don’t be a jerk. Obvious, yes. But in the stressful environment of periodical publishing, things can get tense. Don’t take out your frustration on others. People talk and if you become known as a jerk to one person, expect everyone to hear it.
•Don’t lie. Again, obvious, but hear me out. You’re a colorist and you have a crushing deadline. Do you tell your editor that you’ll have it done in time when you damn well know you won’t, or do you tell them honestly that it’s not going to happen? Editors are jugglers. They have a lot going on at once and if you screw them over, they drop the balls. They’d much rather you be honest and work with them. More than likely they can give you more time, but more importantly, they know that you’ll be honest with them in the future. I’ve seen too many people no longer in the business over-promise.
•Answer questions, don’t ask them. What? What I mean by that is be a problem-solver. Be helpful, take charge of a problem. Do your best and then take it to an editor. Even if it’s not exactly what they want, they will appreciate the effort and it may help them solve the problem.
•You’re a pro, not a fan anymore. Don’t geek out on your childhood idol. Within professional circles, the fan geek stands out. You are their equal, act like it. Don’t ask for a sketch, don’t try to be their friend, don’t ask them to critique your work. There may come a time when a fellow pro will ask to check out your work, but remember don’t take advantage of their courtesy. And don’t start sending out samples to everyone you work with. It makes them feel uncomfortable to work with you if they feel your stuff is not up to snuff.
•Keep your mouth shut. Don’t gossip, don’t listen to gossip, don’t assume anything to be true. Freelancers are old washer women. We like to talk. I’m guilty of it. I try not to, but it happens. For your sake, just keep out of it. No one likes a busy-body. Don’t go on Twitter or Facebook and talk about other creators in a negative way. Remember, bad talk about someone could influence people into not hiring them or you.
•Get better. Don’t rest on your laurels. Always try to improve or try new things. Even in the most mundane jobs. When I was on-staff at Marvel, I went from letterer to senior letterer in a year because I always tried to get better and people noticed. I came in early, I worked through lunch, I stayed late. Editors began noticing I’d come in early and they wanted me to do their corrections, so they began coming in early to ensure I did their work. Even now, I try new things and push to improve.
•If you’re good enough, you’re not good enough. I hear so many people wanting to be writers or pencilers. And usually, their first remark is, “Well, if that guy can get work, I should. My work is better than theirs.” Wrong. You don’t know why they get work and comparing yourself to the “least talented” person is not where you should be going. You, as a penciler, need to be better than Jim Lee or Greg Capullo or the Kuberts. As a writer, work to achieve to be better than Bendis or Miller or Moore. Strive for that. Make publishers need to have you. Why work to be just good enough?
•Be friendly even when you don’t want to. Be nice to people. Be cheerful and upbeat. No one wants to work with a person who complains all the time (like me), when the next guy over who does the same job equally well is pleasant and a joy to work with. I know it’s hard sometimes to feel that way, but a quick call or an e-mail that is nice is much better than having the person on the other end want to work with anyone but you.
•Promote your work. This one I’ve always had trouble with. It’s okay to get online and promote your work. It’s your work, not you. If someone doesn’t like your work, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you. And, even if they don’t, who cares? You can’t make everyone happy. And don’t be shy. Go on Twitter and Facebook and promote. I’ve found that the people who self-promote most, tend to do better and get more work over time. Perception is reality. You tell enough people that the work is good and exciting and it will be those things.
•Don’t procrastinate. Get things done because who knows if someone will come along with another assignment. Maybe even that dream assignment, but you insisted on playing X-Box and still have to finish that first job.
•You can say no. This is another one I’ve had trouble with. Be honest with people. If you can’t or don’t want to do a job (freelance, I mean. Staff, you do what you’re asked to do)say no to it. The fear as a freelancer is once you say no, that editor or publisher will never ask you again. And that may happen, but at a later date send the editor a friendly note saying that you’re looking for work. People appreciate when you don’t waste their time. Don’t say yes, then bail on a job halfway through because you had no time or interest.
•Respect your elders. I see so many newcomers in the business for five minutes telling everyone the way things should be done. They rip people who have been in the business much longer but have no clue what they’re talking about. Instead of bashing, how about contacting them and telling them how much you like their work? There are so many tips and tricks that people in the industry have gained over their years. Show them the respect they’ve earned.
Okay. There are plenty more, but I have a deadline to make. If you have any other tips, be sure to share them. After you get your work done!
How do you write about someone you barely knew, but had a greater impact on you than people you’ve known your whole life?
Most people came to know Gene Colan on the vibrant four-color comics of their youth. I met Gene in a dingy, dimly-lit classroom on 28th and 7th in Manhattan. It was the Fall of 1988 and I was studying graphic design with a minor in illustration. Secretly, I was hoping to be a cartoonist. I had a choice whether to take a fashion illustration course or another one called, “Graphic Storytelling.” I chose the latter.
I had not grown up reading comic books as so many of my peers have. I was into Peanuts and Bloom County, not Spider-Man and Daredevil, so this was a bit of a departure for me, but one that seemed closer to my passion than drawing fashion. He normally taught at the School of Visual Arts, but was now also teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Unfortunately, the students he had that semester where not the future comic legends a teacher would hope for.
The fact that combined, the entire class had less talent than Gene had, didn’t matter to him. He loved story and loved showing others his passion. I will always remember that passion based on one event that I still think about to this day. In order to teach us visual storytelling, one class he brought in To Kill A Mockingbird on videocassette. He prefaced the viewing by informing us that it was his favorite movie and he watched it once a week and had been for a very long time. Towards the end of the movie, Gene was so moved by the film that he started to cry. He left the classroom and returned a few minutes later. That story that he watched every week still moved him to tears. I was amazed. Gene was passionate…especially about story.
As most people now know, my art is very cartoony. I would draw pages in that cartoony style and he would just shake his head. “No one buys that style of cartooning these days, you know.”, he’d say to me. I’m sure I was another lost cause to him, but he still was passionate about teaching story—even to me.
One day during that semester, I was informed that I needed to get an internship somewhere as a requirement of my college workload for my final semester. That night, Gene told us that he was taking us on a field trip to Marvel Comics. A couple days later, we went and it looked like a fun place to work…and maybe intern at. So, I sent in an application and was accepted. That began my long career at Marvel.
A few years later I was offered a job lettering a Dracula mini-series that Gene was penciling. I jumped at the chance. I got to work on pages that Gene drew and Al Williamson inked. Somewhere out there are original pages where I got to share my time with greatness. It was that book that I got introduced to Al. I would always letter with a paper towel under my arm, so as to not smudge the pencils. Al appreciated that, especially with Gene’s soft pencil lines which easily smudged.He thanked me.
A few years ago, while I was working on Franklin Richards, I ran into Gene at the New York Comic Con. I reminded him of the class, the field trip, the Dracula story and the fact that I would “never get work drawing cartoony.” I then handed him a copy of Marvel Comics’ Franklin Richards and he burst out laughing. I told him I took to heart his lessons from all those years ago. I thanked him for my career and wished him the best. I hope I made him proud.
I didn’t know Gene that well, but without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Rest in Peace, Gene and thank you for teaching me to love story like you.
DC comics is planning a reboot of their core titles. I think it’s a brave move and I hope they find success trying to attract new readers. In one promo image, Superman is shown in a new costume, which appears armor-like. Some people freaked out, but I say, try anything. So, I just had a little fun drawing Beppo, the Super Monkey in his new armored costume.
Recently, I started selling my first Misery Loves Sherman book as a $2 download and it did remarkably well, so I’ve now completed my second collection which I am now offering as a digital download as well.
You can check out the website to see some of the strips, but this digital PDF that you download collects them in an easy-to-read format that’s great for iPads, iPhones or even on the computer!
Give them a try!