Master Of The Obvious: Issue #50

Wed, July 12th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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[Comic-Con]There's a theory that the only remaining audience for comic books is those who want to break into the field. With publishers telling me that, despite desperate cries of market recovery, things continue to slide, that their sales are still sinking yet their market share remains the same so everyone else's must be sinking too (this is an exact conversation I recently had, and while market share and sales aren't necessarily directly correlative, they remain indicative), there's some reason to at least consider that possibility.

It's not unusual for comics today to sell in the 15,000-20,000 range.

Which roughly corresponds to the number of people who attend the San Diego Convention each year. And since nine-tenths of the people attending San Diego seem to want to break into the business…

Okay, I'm exaggerating. San Diego attendance figures are regularly questioned; it's unclear whether they count each ticket or each ticket holder, a crucial difference since the same person attending four days running is four tickets but only one attendee. Which, if the case, means everyone attending San Diego wants to break into the business.

No, I'm kidding. It's no more than 80% tops.

Ha. I could keep this up for pages.

But there are a lot, as any attending professional could tell you. San Diego is the king of comics conventions. While companies strapped for cash send fewer and fewer editors and talent out to promote their books, it's still the only place most of those wanting to break in can meet professionals face to face.

True, there's always New York. But in New York you have to make appointments and get past snooty receptionists who eye you like you're working for Hezbollah. Or, worse, you could sit in an overpriced hotel room making phone calls to editors, getting answering machines, and never once making contact. In San Diego, where the hotel rooms are also overpriced, you can ambush Stan Lee in the bathroom.

I wouldn't advise it, but you can do it.

So every year they trundle down, portfolios and samples stuffed in duffle bags or stuck under arms, visions of glory in their eyes, knowing in their hearts that their work is so brilliant companies will snatch them up if only they can get their work seen. Hundreds of them. Literally hundreds. Living in fantasy land.

Which is good, because it gives them somewhere to go back to when reality slaps them in the face.

As a business, we're not very good at staring reality in the eye. (Obviously not, or we'd be doing things differently instead of - like Detroit at the height of the 70s oil crisis insisting the only cars Americans are willing to buy are costly gas guzzlers while small, cheap Japanese imports gutted their business - clinging to fantasies of how good things worked in the good old days.) (And, yes, for those picayunes in the audience, I did mangle that grammar on purpose.) This isn't surprising, as we've evolved into largely a medium of fantasy, where unreal beings do impossible things despite natural law and not only get away with it, but it is considered good. Okay on the page, but fight reality in the real world and the real world usually wins.

But fans and professionals alike continue to expect that the comics industry exists under special conditions. No group seems to believe this more about themselves than would-be professionals, whose behavior perhaps smacks more of desperation than fantasy, as they try to get anyone at all to notice them. Also not surprising. I even sympathize. I've been there. We all have, and to some extent we all sympathize with the poor sods.

But sympathy doesn't go very far.

The fact is: you have to be a little crazy to want to work in comics, particularly under the current conditions. That's okay: we're all a little crazy. The market is so far south we can look north and see Antarctica. The available slots for work are filled and shrinking and there are several thousand people already in the business trying to be the next to fill them. Companies aren't particularly interested in discussing creator-owned material. Failure is rampant in a business predicated on stories of success against all odds.

"The fact is: you have to be a little crazy to want to work in comics, particularly under the current conditions."

And every year more people come to the convention convinced (and, perhaps, secretly terrified they may be wrong) that they can put out work far more spectacular, more captivating, more able to appeal to a mass audience, that that of those who already work in the field. Believe me, there's nothing wrong with this. It's something else we all go through, at least at the start. (Some are still going through it, despite years of opposing evidence; this is an aspect of the theory of cognitive dissonance, that a firmly held irrational belief will only grow stronger in the face of contradictory factual information.) You have to have that much faith in your work just to have the guts to step up to the plate.

Because those three balls whiz by you awfully quickly, and the vast majority find themselves back in the showers before they can blink, wondering what happened. Wondering how their genius could possibly have been overlooked. Some give up after the first try. Some nurse their wounds, convincing themselves they're way too advanced for the industry to appreciate, and a tiny fraction of those might even be right. A very, very tiny fraction. Far too few will understand it's way too easy to be impressed by your own work, and that most work is just mediocre. Not great, not terrible, just mediocre. Virtually no one erupts full blown from their own skull; careers are a long process of creative evolution. Would-be pros seem to rarely factor in the need for perseverance, self-criticism and dedication to improvement, or consider that their behavior might be what spells the difference between a career in comics and a day job giving out cocktail wiener samples at Costco.

When you send samples over the transom, your samples are what an editor judges. The problem is they might take months to even open the envelope. The problem with meeting them face to face in a venue like San Diego is that you're your own competitor for their attention; they are now judging you as well as your work. In a convention setting, it's not so important that you sell your work as that you sell yourself. I can't guarantee anyone will get a job in comics, but if you're going to take a shot, here's a way to improve your chances: do it right.

This is the absolute first thing you must do: bathe. (Showers are acceptable.) Wash your hair. Comb it. Use a deodorant. Every day you're there. You'd be amazed how many people don't seem to know this. San Diego is hot in July and August. The convention is crowded and stuffy. An editor remembering you for your body odor is the last thing you want, 'cause you're never going to see the inside of his office.

Dress decently. You can be comfortable, you don't have to wear a suit, but anyone approaching an editor while wearing nothing but bikini underwear held up by suspenders with Pokemon stickers all over them is going to be viewed as several buffalo short of a herd. Your work's got to be pretty damn good to overcome that sort of first impression.

And a lot of people seem to think that being obnoxious or critical is a good way to score points. When I started working for Marvel, a friend called wanting me to take him up to the offices so he could tell them everything wrong with their books so that they'd hire him to fix them. I figured just putting a gun to my head and pulling the trigger would do my own career a lot less harm. There are good modes of behavior when dealing with comics professionals, and this applies to all fans, not just would-bes: we don't like snotty, we don't like obsequious. Pleasant is fine. Mildly polite is fine. Don't offer us things. Don't try to buy professionals drinks. Even if it's just a friendly gesture, it makes us wonder what you're up to and when the other shoe's going to drop. If you're a would-be buying pros a drink and your work isn't good enough to get you in, you're just going to end up feeling betrayed anyway because, despite your largesse, we still didn't cut you any slack.

"There are good modes of behavior when dealing with comics professionals, and this applies to all fans, not just would-bes: we don't like snotty, we don't like obsequious."

I emphasize editor in most cases because many people take their samples around to every professional writer and artist they see. (And letterer and colorist.) Don't bother. While once in a blue moon a professional will usher a would-be toward an editor - when Matt Haley showed me his work at a Portland convention a few years ago I aimed him at Archie Goodwin - it doesn't happen very often. If you're an artist just looking for tips on what you're doing wrong, that's one thing. But professionals have no incentive to give you an honest appraisal if your work sucks. We're not there to alienate fans (most of us aren't, anyway) and that's about the quickest way to do it. Most professionals say non-committal things like "You're a little rough yet, but keep practicing" just so they can get out of there graciously. Problem is many bad artists go away all cocky because Mr. Big Name just gave them a stamp of approval. They feel vindicated. They stop trying to improve. They never get work, and wish that Big was an editor so they could get work from him, overlooking that the only reason MBN could say it is that he's not an editor.

It's also a bad idea for would-be writers to ask other writers to read their unpublished samples. Lawyers make whole careers out of civil prosecutions over things like that.

But here's the real reason it's only worthwhile to show your work to editors: editors are the only ones who can make you a professional. They're the only ones who can give you work (unless an artist is fishing for an assistant, which doesn't happen often). They're the only ones, for your purposes, whose opinions matter. (Even if you self-publish and are your own editor, this is true.) They're the ones who will remember the longest if you or your work stinks.

Artists, of course, have an easier time of it. Editors can usually judge art at a glance; very few pre-professional samples are so sophisticated or original they're outside the criteria for quick assessment. Most editors are fairly relaxed about being approached at conventions, but avoid accosting them in toilets or at meal tables. If you see them on the town with a crowd of people, or at a party, or chatting it up with Mr. Big Name at the hotel bar, discretion would dictate keeping your portfolio to yourself. Most companies now have set times during which editors look at portfolios, and these are still your best bet. Don't be shy about signing up, though, as most cap the list at a certain number.

Artists shouldn't try to prove they're jacks of all trades, particularly if they want to work for companies like Marvel or DC. Most artists begin as pencilers or inkers and slowly work their way to full discipline. If you want to pencil comics, here's what you do: five pages of samples, comprising a single story sequence. Don't ink the pages. Most people don't know how to ink properly even if they pencil well, and inking weakens their samples and obliterates their pencils. Don't letter the samples. Don't color them. Editors want to know what your pencils look like. Anything else obscures them. If you need lettering to connote a general sense of what's happening on the pages, your storytelling is crap. Do a sequence because individual pages - or, worse, full page pinup shots - don't tell an editor what he needs to know to give you a chance: can you draw, and can you tell a story with your drawings?

This is what you want to prove. So don't dick around. Do it. On regulation size paper (Bristol board, 11x17, with art borders approximately 10x15; don't bother with tricky stuff like art bleeds). Anything else looks unprofessional, which means nothing scrawled on 8.5x11" typing paper. That's for the set of sharp, clear downsized photocopies of your samples, each page notated with your name and phone number, that you'll give the editor to take with him. And aside from that bathing thing, if there is one bit of advice you must not ignore, it's this: must only show your absolute best and most recent work. Don't wander around with five years worth of material and explain how you did this one eight months ago and that one in January of '95, and how you've learned so much since then. Editors want to know how you draw right now. You don't need to show them a lot of work (just enough - which is how we arrive at five pages - to indicate what you're showing isn't a fluke), you need to show your best work. Period.

"Don't wander around with five years worth of material and explain how you did this one eight months ago and that one in January of '95, and how you've learned so much since then."

For everyone besides pencilers, here are two magic words: business cards.

Inkers should prepare a couple inking samples, but the smart thing to do is ask an editor if you can write him for Xeroxes of penciled pages to ink for professional samples. Give him your business card so he has an excuse to remember who you are. Then, when you have permission, send a stamped self-addressed flat manila envelope so he or she can send you pages. Make it as easy for them as possible.

Letterers and colorists have a much tougher time because these disciplines are being increasingly computerized so fewer people can do more and more of the work. My guess is it won't be long before most writers are lettering their own books and most artists are coloring them. My best suggestion is - sorry - find another line of work. Again, if you have samples, in addition to originals, have brief Xeroxed sample packets for editors to take with them. Notated with your name and number, of course. Business cards couldn't hurt.

As for would-be writers… frankly, you're screwed. Conventions aren't conducive to reading. Unlike art, which can be assessed at a glance, writing takes lots of time to judge, and time is something editors don't have. Particularly when they're working for their companies, meeting their freelancers, making deals, vamping on panel discussions, signing autographs and greeting an ocean of fans. Don't waste your time giving editors sample plots. Give them a business card by way of introduction, and sell yourself, not your work. Ask for permission to send samples to the editor's office. Most editors don't read when they get back to their rooms. (If they get back; drinks can flow nonstop) some do a little reading on the red-eye home, but usually they're dead tired. But, if you make an editor anticipate your samples, nine times out of ten they'll read them fairly quickly.

If they have the time, which is a big if.

If this is depressing you, good. Welcome to the bitter taste of reality. Wash it down with a shot of ambition and a pinch of hope.

One editor did ask me to pass on this bit of advice: always remember, different editors have different opinions. If you don't like what an editor has to say about your work, there's always the chance you're right and he's wrong. Talk to a different editor, you might get a different response. There's always a very slender chance you're an evolved genius who's just ahead of their time. But probably not. If many editors tell you the same thing, you might want to reconsider your position.

Most would-bes aren't going to come out of the convention with work. As I said earlier, the market's still contracting, and unless you can bring something to it of potentially great interest that it hasn't seen before, it's harder than ever getting noticed. If you're really lucky, the first seeds of a professional relationship were planted. Don't take rejection as a dead end. Be patient. Listen to why the work was rejected. Learn. Think of rejection as another chance to get it right.

There'll be another San Diego Con next year.

Speaking of which, I'll be there from late Thursday through Sunday. I have no scheduled appearances so I'll be floating. Look for me around the Dark Horse, DC, Chaos and Marvel booths, and you might also find me around Artist Alley hanging out with guys like Matt Haley. And bring you copies of X-MAN #67 for me to sign, since it should be out next Wednesday.

Right after San Diego, @VENTURE should kick back into high gear, with more Hodag by Mike Baron, Anna Passenger by Adi Tantimedh, Comeback by Michel Lacombe, and a little thing I like to call Tequila. And much more.

Also, the Alleged Fictions website will receive a new home on August 1. More about that next week.

And a San Diego themed Question Of The Week: which comics professional (besides me, of course) would you most like to meet at San Diego, and why? (For those going to San Diego, I'd prefer the unvarnished truth. Those not attending are welcome to indulge in flights of fancy, as a consolation prize.) Discussions on the evils of cults of personality are also welcome. (I know they'll show up anyway, so I may as well invite them in.) Post your answers at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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