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My Comic Life Column 003: Building Up 001: Getting Serious!
Last week we broke down the myth of “Breaking Into Comics.” There was weeping and gnashing of teeth, ashes, and sackcloth, rending of flesh and bone. Fun for everyone, and something you should check out here if you were lucky enough to miss it.
This week I promised I would start a small series on developing a much more realistic approach to building a career in comics, one aimed at providing the fundamental necessities and important steps to help improve your odds. Far be it from me to let you down on that.
And again, I want to stress, this isn’t a how-to on making comics and being a comics creator, it’s about shooting for a part-time or full-time career of creating them. Worlds apart, but we’ll get to the fun of creating the little buggers soon, promise.
Are You Serious?
Comics are cool; we get it; which means that 99% of folks who enjoy comics have, at least once, thought about how great it would be to work in comics. For a majority of those folks, it never really moves past that fanciful thought; they simply get back to life and move on. For many others, unfortunately, when it does go beyond a mere fancy, it leaps straight to dreams of the big time, giving no thought of how to get there. Everyone wants to create the next “Walking Dead,” but most folks have no real sense of what it takes to do that, or the odds against it happening.
As a professional who runs my own studio, and a professor of comics for non-credit college-level courses, it amazes me how many people express a desire to work in comics, and yet have obviously never seriously considered just what exactly that entails. Chalk it up to the “breaking in” myth we talked about last time, or the challenge many creative types have with being practical, but still…. Yes, it’s comics, not rocket science, but any pursuit you plan to dedicate a majority of your waking life to, and hope to be able to support yourself and possibly a family doing, much less one with such intense competition, is one that you should really come to understand if you plan to pursue it seriously.
I say this, first, as someone who has proven I have that level of commitment and who made it happen for myself, so I know the importance. But I also say it as someone who has had the opportunity to be that gateway for others to start their journeys as professional creators, so I know the importance of those considerations, and how challenging it can be when someone doesn’t.
Beyond raw talent and skill, the next biggest filter most talent scouts and editors use in deciding what aspiring creators are worth the time to invest in, is if those candidates are serious about their intent. I’ve had many promising, talented people approach me at conventions, or via email, show me their work, and tell me their hopes for working in comics. Sometimes, by the second sentence, I can already tell they aren’t taking it seriously, which means no matter how great the portfolio, I’m not interested in working with them, and most likely no one else who knows what they are doing will want to, either. When I hear a stream of serious misconceptions and unrealistic expectations, I know they have no idea what they are getting into and very possibly will disappear as soon as reality sets in.
I’d much rather work with someone whose portfolio is rough, and needs definite improvement, but who shows a strong, well thought-out and intentional plan to pursue a career in comics and is genuinely seeking the kinds of critical feedback they need to grow. Why do you think recruiters for comics use that grooming process I outlined last time? Again, we don’t look for just a spark of talent, but for the makings of a true professional.
Okay, So How Do You Get Serious?
Whether you feel you’ve been serious about it or not, here are some critical first steps to take.
First, Step Back and Check Yourself
I think the biggest and most challenging stumbling blocks for many creators are personal issues involving their perceptions of themselves and their work as well as the relationship between the two. I’ve seen it go to both extremes, positive and negative, and neither extreme is going to help you make it.
On the negative side, I know there are creators who have the talent, and could develop the skills to do great work, but because of their low self-esteem, and them seeing any critical feedback as a total rejection of themselves as a person, they aren’t able to handle the process. I feel for those folks because that can be a huge challenge in life, and one that will impact a lot more than just a hopeful comics career. But, the simple fact is that any creator who can’t take criticism, sometimes harsh criticism, and not step back, separate themselves from their work, and take it as an opportunity to push themselves to improve, isn’t going to cut it in the industry.
If you’re one of those who wrestle with this end of the spectrum, the first step is to realize and acknowledge it. The next step may be to focus on that underlying low self-esteem and its causes, then work to realign your relationship with your craft. It can be a big challenge, but an important one on so many fronts.
On the flip side – and these are the folks we in the industry deal with more often because they keep coming back – you get folks who are overly enamored of or invested in their work. They can’t step back from it and put it and themselves in any real context or perspective, sometimes to ridiculous extremes. Yes, I’ve had potential creators present themselves to me as my good fortune they are giving me the shot to work with them, and in doing so, I should pay for everything, all in order for them to develop their ideas into mega-series telling their magnum opus. Seriously?
Now, most aren’t that bad, but yes, I’ve had folks approach me with pretty out there requests. Writers want to write prose or loose outlines for some lowly editor to adapt into script; artists expect production folks to massage their page art to the right specs, all of whom are genuinely stunned when I say ‘not interested.’ I’ve also had portfolios put in front of me and the second I start offering critical feedback on challenges and areas of weakness, they either zone me out or argue with me. Others I’ve offered to try and help, who, when I send critiques for them to review and incorporate into their work, instead send me new material, as if maybe this round, I will see the perfection in it.
If you truly want a shot at a career in comics, you need to step back from your work and be able to view it objectively. You need to recognize you, more than likely, still have a long way to go in developing your skills and talent and be willing to work on doing just that. If you’re the exception to that rule? We need to tell YOU that, not the other way around.
Second, Step Back and Check Your Expectations
Yes, there have been creators who have done extremely well and made a lot of money in comics. Yes, there have been plenty of folks who have made full-time careers of comics, working for publishers, selling their own work, etc. But one doesn’t get to the top of those mountains by only focusing on the peak itself.
You need to do some serious reflection on what your goals are in comics. You may also need to step back in order to provide yourself the opportunity to find other goals, or to achieve all the goals in between to get there. For example, a writer, or artist who is determined to write or draw the top-selling book from the top publisher, and keeps submitting pitches and portfolios solely for that position, is going to be disappointed, because that’s not how it works. Likewise, any creator who develops their own project and thinks it will surely be the next MEGA success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and getting the movie and TV deals right out the gate, are going to learn otherwise very quickly.
You first need to reach a whole host of goals in between!
These range from very simple, initial goals, like actually learning the process and mechanics of the job itself in order to produce work in the right formats and specs. From there, to actually producing a body of work on your own or with collaborators, all with no pay so that you can get it out there yourself, on a webcomic, blog or copies you print up directly and sell at local shows.
From there working your way up to getting your work published anywhere (other than FedEx Kinkos) and having any company invest anything in your work at all, and by that, I mean working with you, putting their brand on your work, shepherding you, etc. not necessarily paying you money. Most comic publishers do not pay creators unless they are working on properties the publisher owns. Marvel and DC being the most obvious, but smaller companies with in-house properties and licenses also pay creators. But no smaller publisher is going to pay you to produce your creator-owned series, especially if you’re untried in the market.
Push hard enough, long enough, and you might start getting shorter term gigs on much lower profile books from smaller publishers or studios, or getting out some of your own projects in a finished form, for the digital, or small press markets. Keep pushing and you might then level up, getting steadier and actual decent paying work, maybe even finally getting your foot in the door at the company of choice, or getting a project that starts building a little buzz, then slowly moving your way up further, to MAYBE finally hitting that peak.
All along the way, you have to work hard on improving your skills, finding multiple opportunities to gain practical experience and training. Hopefully, some of those will include working with those more experienced than you who will push you to up your game. Through it all, you’ll be taking a lot of beatings, disappointments and stall-outs along the way.
You may even realize, on this particular odyssey, that you want to do something else entirely than what you started out to do. I’ve known plenty of folks who started out wanting that big job with the top two, only to find they really enjoyed the little niche they carved out for themselves along the way. Others I’ve known, and many you can point to in the industry, have reached that goal of working for the big boys, and then decided to leave that to blaze their own trails back in creator-owned.
When I originally thought about getting into comics, I wanted to be a writer for Marvel or DC. Since writers have such a hard time getting noticed, I worked on my art skills, thinking that would be my ticket. Later, I found since I had pretty solid business acumen, I was able to get my foot in the door of the industry by offering management, marketing, and business work to smaller (often desperate) publishers. That then turned into what has become Visionary, my own creative production studio, where I get to do everything I’ve ever wanted to do in comics, on my own terms. It’s been the best possible outcome for my journey, and one I never imagined when I started.
Keeping an open mind, looking for opportunities, and working steadily on improving your comic skills, including some you may not have known you had, will open doors for you moving forward that you would miss otherwise. Stay too focused on one goal and you will miss a ton of opportunities that may end up being a better fit.
Truthfully? Once you’ve gone through the above steps, you may change your mind about working in comics – period! You certainly may change your mind about the specific goals you want to pursue. You may find opportunities you didn’t know existed. Heck, you may even find yourself far more invested, intent, and willing to do what it takes to make it, and now, having a better understanding of what that means, having a better shot at being able to do just that.
This is a good thing, it means you’re seriously coming to terms with your overall goal of working in comics, it means you’re processing the various factors it impacts, and specifically how it will impact your life. It means you’re serious!
This week, while you all are waiting for my next pearls of wisdom, feel free to discuss this column. Start doing some serious reflection on your own goals in working in comics, and maybe ways you now realize you need to make some changes. Feel free to share your stories and revelations, and let’s see where it takes us!
Now that we’ve got that out the way, next time we’ll start laying the foundations for this career we’re building. Get practical, real-world resources to help you reach your goals! Right here!
About C. Edward Sellner
A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Comics, one of the best known comic studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycomics.com!