The Old Dog

The Old Dog: Good Comic-Book Artists Need Confidence

Good comic-book artists need confidence. This assurance helps an artist to develop their skills over time and to establish new contacts within the comic-book industry. However, it’s foolhardy for any comic-book artist to be over-confident.

The following are two different scenes that highlight the extremities of both:

First scene:

James stifled a yawn. He hadn’t gotten much sleep last night.   Eight of them in one hotel room.  He drew the short straw and was one of half that ended up on the floor.  What was worse was that he was on the path to the bathroom and it seemed every ten minutes someone was stepping over him, and to be honest  sometimes not quite making that step, on the way to the facilities.

Still James didn’t care.  He was here. Even after the six-hour drive, it didn’t matter, he was here, at the closet Comic-Con to where he lived for the last he couldn’t even remember how many years.  And he was in line to show his portfolio to a real editor of a real comic-book company.

It sounded like the editor was being pretty positive to the guy in front of him James thought. He felt some relief.  He had heard stories of editors that just liked to make you feel like crap when you showed them your artwork.  Sounded like this guy was a nice guy.  James held his portfolio with both hands to try to stop any trembling from the thought of what he was about to do. The editor gave the guy his card and shook his hand and now it was James turn.

They exchanged introductions and James put his portfolio down on the table in front of him.  The editor took a quick glance at the first page and then flipped it to the next page.  He didn’t say anything and James all but held his breath as he waited.   Another quick flip and before James knew is the editor was finished looking at his portfolio.

 “Most of what you have here are pin-ups. You only have two pages that show continuity and that’s only a big fight scene with seven panels between the two pages.”  The voice tried to be kind as he spoke to him, but James was remembering how positive the editor had been to the guy in front of him.

“Well, I want to draw superheroes.”  The editor tried a patient smile.  “I understand that, James.  But superheroes don’t spend 24/7 in their costumers.  We need to see how you can draw normal people.  We need to see if you can draw cars and houses and the inside of a building.  We need to see how you handle pacing a page.  All you show here are two characters punching each other.”

James felt a crushing sensation in his chest.  “And you need some work with your anatomy.”

Before the editor could say anymore James cut him off.  “My anatomy is as good as half the guys you got drawing for you now. You got guys that can’t draw crap.”

The editor shook his head.  His patience was wearing  thin.  “If that was true, and I’m not saying it is, why would I want to hire someone who can draw just as good as guys I have already that draw like, in your words, crap.  You don’t need to be better than my worst artist, James.”

“I know I’m a good artist.”  James was getting upset now.   “I didn’t say you were a bad artist, James.  I was trying to point out some problems I see.  I’m sure all your friends tell you that you’re a great artist.”

“They do!  Everyone tells me I’m really good!”   The editor wanted to smile but he knew that wouldn’t go over right.  “You just need to work on your art.  Show us more than just two guys punching each other.  And show us different characters.  All you’ve shown me here is Batman.  And we don’t even publish him.”

“He’s my favorite character.”

The editor closed James’ portfolio.   He smiled and held his hand out.   “Thanks for your interest, James.  Try to work on what I suggested and come back again.”

James grabbed his portfolio without shaking the editor’s hand.  He didn’t even get a card.   The editor was a fool!  He was as good as half the guys drawing now.  He should be drawing.   It wasn’t fair!

Scene Two:

Frank shuffled his feet.  Could he be any more nervous?  He doubted it.  He rubbed at his eyes with his free hand, the other one clutched the handle to his portfolio in a vise like grip.  He had been up almost all night drawing, trying to get a few more things to add to his portfolio.   He just couldn’t seem to get it right no matter how many times he kept trying.   He had not put his pencil down until four in the morning and now he was here standing in line at ten, only six hours in between for sleep, eating and driving to the Comic-Con.

The guy in front of him didn’t seem to be having a good time as the editor talked to him.   He was getting red in the face as he listened to the editor.  Frank couldn’t hear what they were saying, but eventually it wasn’t what the guy wanted to hear.   This just made Frank’s stomach clinch even tighter.   He was going to have to find the bathroom as soon as this was done.  Frank watched as the guy snatched his portfolio up from the table, not even closing it properly and storming off.  The editor took a minute to watch the guy walk off and then turned towards Frank and motioned him forward.

He almost stumbled as he walked up to the table.  Wow, a real editor for a big time comic company!  Frank couldn’t believe that he was about to show his artwork to him.  He laid the portfolio on top of the table, his hands trembling.  He tried to unzip it and the zipper got stuck.   He was blowing it before he even showed his art.  Stupid he thought to himself.  He was sweating and just knew he was not making a good first impression.

The editor put his hand out.  He introduced himself.  “Oh, I’m sorry, heh, I’m Frank.  I just love your comics.   I want to work for you so much.”  The editor shook his hand and smiled at him.

“That’s nice, Frank.  Now calm down.  There’s no rush here.   Let’s see what you got.”   Finally the zipper worked and Frank opened his portfolio up and turned it towards the editor, almost spilling it in his lap.  Pages where just sitting loose in the portfolio, some slide towards the editor who grabbed them in time and placed them back atop the others.

“I’m sorry, sir.   I was up late last night and didn’t get everything together like I wanted.”

The editor smiled at Frank.  “No problem.   Let’s take a look.”

He flipped the first page up and took a look at it.   He turned it over and looked at the next page.  “This really isn’t my best work.  I was just in such a rush to get something done for you to see.”

The editor continued looking at the pages.  “Well we have been advertising that we’re going to be at this con for the last six months.”

Frank could feel his face flushing.  “Yes sir.   It’s just that the other pages weren’t good enough and then I was in a rush to get these done and I know they’re not as good as they could be.  But I can really draw better than this.   I was just in a rush.”

The editor turned all the art back over and closed the portfolio.  He looked up at Frank and smiled.  “Ok, then do me a favor, Frank.”

“When you get what you think is your best work, than come back and show it to me.   This isn’t bad, but I don’t want to see work that you don’t think is your best.  I want to see your best.  Can you do that for me?”

Frank nodded his head in agreement.  He was too afraid to talk and instead, picked his portfolio and turned away as the editor called out for the applicant in the line.

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We put a lot of ourselves in our work and it’s hard when others don’t see the same level of accomplishment that we do. You need a healthy ego to be a good comic-book creator, writer or artist.  You have to believe in yourself. At the same time, how often have you looked back at something you’ve finished and think  of all the different ways that it could have been made better?   Do you get nervous when someone is reading your work, start thinking of all the mistakes you’ve made, and look for a rock to crawl under?

My trusty online dictionary defines confidence as:

“self-assurance or a belief in your ability to succeed”.

Good comic-book artists need confidence in what they do. You have to believe in what you do. When you sit down and put pen to paper (or fingers on the keypad) you should be thinking that what you’re about to create is the best of your ability and always be thinking what you’re going to be working on will turn out great.

However, we also have to be realistic and while we need confidence in what we create, we need to be confident enough to know when something isn’t good enough. I know that all of your friends think you’re better than Stephen King or that your mom thinks that you’re going to be the next James Patterson… Do you think they may have a reason to be a little prejudiced towards you?

When you get the opportunity to have a professional give you their opinion on your work, you need to listen to what they say. If they tell you that your perspective is off, your anatomy needs work, that your character development isn’t there or the ending needs to be changed: let their words soak in and take the time to think about what they said.

comic-book portfolioAn editor at a portfolio review is hoping to discover new talent. They’re there to look for people that they can hire and they don’t want to turn anyone away. However, if they are not impressed with your work then hopefully they will give constructive criticism that you can use to make your work better.

Just because someone tells you that you’re not good enough doesn’t mean you can’t get good enough.  Listen to what they say and use it to make your work better.  You have to have the confidence that you can get better as a comic-book artist.

I’ve seen both of the above scenarios with the scene involving Frank being the most common. While James has way too much confidence, Frank could certainly do with borrowing some! Don’t ever apologize for your work. Whatever you’re showing me should be the best of your ability and that is nothing to be ashamed of.

I can’t say this enough: DON’T APOLOGZIE FOR YOUR WORK. If flaws are pointed out then you can agree with them, but always believe that it is the best work that you can produce. Don’t worry if your artwork isn’t good enough yet as very few of us appeared at the top of our game without doing a lot of bad work. It takes a lot of words and a lot of drawings before you begin to figure out all of the kinks and start producing your best work.

Remember: good comic-book artists need confidence.



John Holland

John Holland's first professional work in comics was a backup story drawn by Sam Kieth and published in William Messener Loebs JOURNEY. He went on to write a continuing series for Fantagraphics CRITTERS comic and work with Kitchen Sink, Innovation, Malibu, Comic Zone and others. He wrote the Christmas issue of the QUANTUM LEAP comic based on the popular TV show. For COMIC CAREER NEWSLETTER he wrote an ongoing column. He self published two issues of DIEBOLD with artist Brian Clifton with covers by Sam Keith and Mike Zeck. All this was just as the internet was getting off the ground. He remembers the comic professional group on Compuserve, but today who even remembers Compuserve? There was no Facebook, at that time there wasn't even a My Space. Than he quietly disappeared from the comic book scene. Now many years later, and with the addition of Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and a thousand and one other social networks, he is trying to prove that there can be second acts. He's hoping that the saying you can't teach an old dog new tricks is not always true. With his new try at making a go at this industry of comic making he is embracing all the new platforms and is trying to learn all the new tricks. He is currently writing the webcomic Skye Bleu (found at www.skyebleu.co) and Diebold (www.diebold.ws) and working on a few more that are in various stages of development.