My credentials: editor and writer for Dark Horse Comics, 1992-2000; former managing editor of CRACKED magazine.
One of my favorite Star Wars editing projects. Cover art by Dave Dorman.
Back in the mid 1980s, I was a young college student when I discovered comic books. Through the collections of friends and the welcome guidance of an enthusiastic local comic-shop owner, I powered through the mainstream superhero titles, witnessed the comics revolution in The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and The Swamp Thing, and moved on to the newly burgeoning black-and-white, independently-published, generally mature-audiences branch of the industry. When I wasn’t reading comics, I was illustrating my own, although aside from spending a small fortune in photocopies, I had not the slightest idea how to break into the industry, or even what was required. That selfsame comic-shop owner became my sounding board: What kinds of stories sell? What kind of artwork are publishers looking for, and in what format? Why don’t I hear back from these publishers when I send in samples of my work?
As usual, Bob, the comic-shop owner, was a font of wisdom, and years later, when I became an editor for Dark Horse Comics, I became the dispenser of the same concepts Bob taught me.
A single issue Tarzan story illustrated by Croatian artist Igor Kordey.
I should point out at this time that I never did get an illustrating gig in the comics biz, although a simple change to my typical submissions got me lots and lots of rejection letters. Painful? Of course. There are a lot of harsh realities about breaking into comics as an artist. Steel yourself for some pain, because I’d like to get the negatives on the table first.
To begin, comics publishing has fallen dramatically since those early days of the modern comics revolution. During the late ‘80s black-and-white boom, publishers sprouted like weeds, spinning out thousands of titles to compete with the “mainstream” comics from publishers like Marvel and DC. By the mid ’90s, a handful remained. What caused the precipitous drop? Market saturation, unscrupulous publishers, monopolistic distributors, and the rise of video games and blockbuster cinema all contributed to the near-demise of the industry. The publishers that remain today often survive more by licensing their characters to movie studios, or merchandising their characters as action figures or toys. The comics that are published are often published at a loss to the company (with the exception being the graphic-novel market, or market for collected trade paperback editions of comics series, which has grown dramatically in recent years). As the market for comics has inexorably dwindled, publishing comics have become something of a boutique industry, like publishing poetry.
_I sketched out this cover’s layout after watching The Usual Suspects, and Tim Bradstreet created this image._
Let’s shatter another myth, shall we? With very few exceptions, almost every artist working in comics today is not making a living by the works he or she produces. The simple reason is that comics is publishing, publishing is deadlines, and deadlines and the artistic temperament don’t mix very well. Among the three hundred or so individual titles that I edited and produced while at Dark Horse, maybe 1/3 had the same penciller completing the final page as had started the first page. To be a professional comics artist, one must be able to complete 22-24 pages per month in order to have a steady paycheck. For a lot of artists, this is the factor that puts them out of the running. Caught under a deadline, they may quickly find that the “art” has been replaced by something mechanical and chore-like.
Many would-be comics artists daydream about royalty checks rolling in. Another myth. Typically, publishers pay a page rate for artwork that is often contracted as an advance against future royalties. In truth, the artist’s percentage of the total royalty pool is miniscule (the exception being “creator-owned” properties: characters, concepts and titles that are owned specifically by the artist and not the publisher), and a comics title would have to sell hundreds of thousands of copies to realize the kind of profit that would actually generate additional royalties beyond the original page pay rate.
Another thing that often sticks in an artist’s craw is that, with the exception of the above-mentioned “creator-owned” comics, artists do not own the artwork they create. They may own the actual physical piece of art, but if they are illustrating a character owned by the publisher (examples: Batman is owned by DC Comics; Darth Vader is owned by Lucasfilm which licenses Dark Horse Comics to produce Star Wars comics), the publisher often holds all publishing rights to that artwork, and frequently, the owner of the licensed character has first refusal on the purchase of the original artwork at fair market value. There were numerous incredibly talented artists in comics I would have liked to work with, but never had the chance, because they couldn’t abide the concept of not having rights to their own original work.
Another huge and very typical mistake among would-be comics artists is the failure to understand that single, stand-alone images (called pinups in the comics biz) tell an editor nothing about an artist’s understanding (or ignorance) of basic comics storytelling. I have reviewed hundreds of portfolios of incredibly talented artists, and sent them back to the drawing board in order to show me something more than their ability to render a great full-body shot of Wonder Woman or Venom leaping off a building.
A groundbreaking publishing event, Ghost in the Shell went on to become a feature film.
One more and then we’re done with the negative (for now—you should know that I’ve only just scratched the surface!). Few would-be comics artists understand that comics are most often produced by a team consisting of writer, penciller, inker, letterer, editor, and (often) cover artist. Each member of the team relies on the skills and expertise of the others to function. A penciller relies on a writer’s ability to present a reasonable amount of material to illustrate per page just as a writer counts on the penciller to accurately illustrate the story. A letterer needs the writer to have an idea about how much wordage can effectively fit in each panel, and the letterer needs the penciller to remember to leave space for word balloons and sound effects. The penciller needs to have faith in the inker’s ability to “finish” his/her pencils, and the inker needs to count on the penciller’s ability to step away from the artwork without excessive rendering or finishing, but provide the inker with a solid foundation. The cover artist needs the interior artists to complete their work professionally so he/she can create a dynamic image that synchronizes with the interior story. And the editor? The editor needs all of this madness to flow easily and professionally so the publisher can meet the printing and shipping deadlines.
Okay, enough of the negative!
Hopefully the negatives above contain some bits of how-to that the aspiring comics artist can use constructively. There are a couple of books I’d like to recommend at this point. They are considered indispensable learning tools by many comics artists both novice and established. Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art is practically the bible of graphic storytelling. Eisner’s influence is widespread: read this book and you will see Eisner style in the works of diverse artists from Frank Miller to Mike Mignola to Todd McFarlane. Eisner really “wrote the book” on comics—it’s no wonder that the comics industry’s Academy Awards are called the Eisners. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is a more modern deconstruction of the medium. A little bit more technical (surprising since it’s all told in panel-to-panel comics format), but certainly accessible to the modern comics fan. Go buy or borrow these books. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
So, you’ve steeled yourself against the negatives, maybe took some things out of your portfolio and added some others. The photocopier is whirring and you have just spent the Gross National Product of Nepal on postage stamps. It’s time to submit!
First thing you should do is go to one or a couple of comics retailers and note the publishers who are producing works similar to your own. I’m talking broad categories here, with sample titles: superhero (any of a thousand), offbeat superhero (Doom Patrol, Marshal Law), manga-style (Adam Warren), slice-of-life (Love and Rockets, anything by Joe Sacco or Craig Thompson), alternative (most everything from publisher Fantagraphics). Don’t get bogged down trying to associate or disassociate your work from others, you’re not trying to label yourself here (uhh, except broadly!). Just look for other comics that are published the way you want yours published.
Write a note to the attention of the submissions editor requesting the publisher’s submission guidelines, and remember to include a self-addressed-stamped envelope (S.A.S.E.). But before wasting a couple of stamps, check the publisher’s website and see if they have posted their submissions guidelines online. The importance of following the guidelines from a specific company cannot be overstated. Every day, every comics publisher gets heaps of submissions, fan art, even trinkets, flowers and chocolate for a sexy comic character (true story!). Your submission will stand out if it’s in the size and format that the submissions editor is looking for.
Submissions guidelines often have a few pages of sample script for you to illustrate. They will show the editor that you are capable of interpreting the script/story onto the page. Even if the subject matter is different from what you’d like to illustrate, you need to do it. Think about it: as a professional comics artist you’ll probably have to draw lots of things that you don’t really want to draw. The sample script probably contains a couple of challenges to the artist, and it gives the editor a chance to see how different artists attack the same problem.
Many publishers have editors specifically devoted to submitted projects. Many would-be comics creators try to send proposals directly to the editors of similar titles, and a couple may even get through. But the role of the submissions editor in the office is to weed through the vast quantities of unsolicited submissions that arrive every day, and very often, your target editor might never even get to open proposals mailed directly to them.
That said, if you find a thread of nice design and good editing through titles similar to your own, go ahead and attempt a contact on an editor who you may now perceive has a good strong influence on the published work. Editors have egos; noticing their rarely-noticed influences can get you in the door. The other situation where I recommend writing directly to the editor is after you have had a portfolio review at a convention or comic shop. Frame your correspondence as a thank-you note and include some copies of your work (either what the editor reviewed, to remind them, or what you’ve done in the meantime to bring your work up to snuff).
I recommend being as professional and businesslike in your proposal/submission as possible. Treat it like a resume. Be complete with your ideas but be succinct. Think: can I review this in one minute? If you are submitting artwork, make sure the photocopies are neat and cleanly presented straight out of the envelope. Include an additional self-addressed-stamped envelope in the submission to expedite (and ensure) a reply. Your cover letter should request that the editor please keep your work on file.
As I mentioned earlier, very few comics are produced solely by an individual. Your submission should reflect which piece of the process you’d like to work. Therefore, a penciller’s submission should not contain fully rendered art or lettering (some pencillers do their own BA-BOOMS and ACK-ACK-ACKs, but letterers specialize in highly readable text for word balloons and “sound” effects). An inker’s submission should be photocopies as close as possible to “camera-ready” (finished, cleaned black-and-white artwork that is scanned for publication). Inkers and letterers may request sample pencils during that first note to the publisher requesting submission guidelines.
Another thing that a penciller should not include in a submission is work containing characters or properties that are licensed or trademarked. Comics publishing, like many other entertainment industries, can be highly litigious (lots of lawsuits flying around). As a result, some publishers specifically forbid their editors from reviewing submissions based on licensed characters, lest a similar image or storyline later appear that an artist could claim was stolen from their submission. The crafty artist can get around this: if you really want to draw the Punisher, draw a guy in tight black leather with bandoliers and big guns, just don’t draw the trademarked logo on his chest. I once hired an artist based on his rendering of the sleek-shelled appliances in the background of his sample page. The story he illustrated was heavy on Imperial stormtroopers.
An additional point: So far, I’ve been talking about good old snail-mail. I’m certain that hard copies sent through the mail still make up the bulk of submissions to publishers, and that’s a good thing: hard copies of the art, tactile in the editor’s hands is a form of “paper trail”, a reminder potentially at hand when an editor suddenly needs to find an artist. However, here we are in the 21st Century (hey, where’s my flying car?) and the internet provides an almost exponential jump in your ability to exhibit your art to potential publishers. Your cover letter included with your submissions should direct the editor to your art wherever you keep it online (RB, your own site, Flickr, etc.).
A Darth Vader series I produced, illustrated by Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons.
So the copies are sent off. Hopefully you’ve sent them to many publishers at once. You really should, since you’re already assembling all this material. Now what should you do? Keep drawing, for one. For another, prepare yourself for the worst. As talented as you may be (and right here on RB I’ve seen some incredible talent), you need to keep in mind that editors’ desks are awash in submissions ranging from “hire immediately” to “keep your day job and never pick up a pencil again”. The timing may not be right. The submissions editor is on vacation this week.
If you’ve followed the guidelines and included a S.A.S.E. You will get a response. And if you don’t, think of it this way: you probably don’t want to work with a publisher who can’t coordinate a simple response. Chances are that a mailed response will be a simple “no thanks” (I always telephoned submitters that I wanted to hire), but if you’ve made an impression, you may get some additional critique or feedback which can be helpful.
By this time you should be preparing your next go-round of submissions. I recommend including one or two pieces from the first submission to act as a visual reminder to the submissions editor or editor who may remember your previous submission, especially if you’ve included some recommended changes. Remember: editors like to be recognized, and they love to be the ones who “discover” and shepherd new talent.