Note: I wrote this piece back in 2009 for my old Blogspot blog. Again, it’s one of those questions I get asked about a lot: “How did you break into Comics?” So this is sort of a long-story-short. Maybe I’ll wrote a longer version down the road.
C.B. Cebulski just posted a six-page short we collaborated on a few years back, which was published in the HERO Initiative’s Charity Anthology for that year. I’m slightly blushing over the age of the work, but feel free to check that out.
For those that don’t know, C.B. is a writer and Talent Scout for Marvel Comics and has been doing a series of Twitter posts on Breaking into Comics. His posting of our short inspired me to share a bit of my experiences breaking in, a pretty long, but interesting ride.
I began making the push into comics around 2001, and it all started with a pretty simple plan. Now, I’m not saying this is the “Breaking-In-Plan-to-End-All-Plans”. This is just what worked for me as the 20-year-old, no-money-having, south Louisiana artist that I was at the time. My Break-In plan was cyclical and had a few different legs, as complex as that sounds. It went like this:
1) Hit a con. Walked the alleys, working past my own general awkwardness to meet, greet and get portfolio reviews from artists, editors and the occasional writer. Take note of whatever feedback I got in a sketchbook. Be polite and not too self-deprecating. Ask questions. Trade business cards for instant connection. Network!
2) Go home and Follow up. I’d email almost all of the creators that I’d meet, just as a thank-you and as a way of saying “I’m serious about doing this for a living”. Oftentimes, creators would encourage me to send them new work, and they’d respond with invaluable advice. Jim Mahfood was the first creator that did this for me, and it was a huge boost to me when things got hard. And since we’re on the subject of using the Net…
3) Post Work Online. I posted new work at least twice a week on at least five different message boards. Sometimes, people would respond. Sometimes, they wouldn’t. Sometimes, they were flaming assholes, but whatever. This was a priceless way to getting my work seen, getting feedback, and meeting people. I can’t count the number of professional contacts I’ve made just because the right person was surfing my site at the right time. This is how Marvel Talent Coordinator/Writer C.B. Cebulski found me via MySpace, of all places. I was just minding my own business when he messaged me one day, saying he dug my work, and asking if I’d be interested in working with him. Crazy. You’ll be amazed.
4) Work my Tail off. Apply what I’d learned at the last con and try some new things. Build a new portfolio and get ready for the next one.
5) Hit another con. I’d hit two conventions a year. Once every six months, roughly. Being from the south, going to these shows usually required an expensive trek out of state, so this gave me plenty of time to save the necessary cash, as well as produce a whole new portfolio of work for each con. Simple enough idea. Added bonus of hitting these cons regularly was that I became a face to creators. People remembered me and my work, often to the point that many of those folks are now good friends.
And that was it, really. I paid some dues by doing a bunch of non-paying indy stuff for guys I’d meet at the cons. Eventually, there was a snowball effect, and that free work became paying gigs as my work got better. Simple as that. Approaches and results may vary.
It’s very odd how this stuff comes back around.
FYI: C.B. was the guy that introduced me to Tokyopop President Jeremy Ross at a San Diego bar. Of course, Ross then hired me to work with Brandon Jerwa on a never-released pilot called Jason Mason. Jerwa, in turn, was the guy that referred me to John Layman, who hired me to draw CHEW.
You just never know…
Note: I originally wrote this piece back in 2011 for my old Blogspot site. Four years later, I think it’s still timely, as I still get asked about developing my art style more than anything else. So I hope this is helpful to young artists.
“How’d you come up with your style?”
I get this question more than anything else. And it’s funny because my “style” was a pretty big hindrance to my career up till about 4 or 5 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I got work. But getting editors to really invest in me fully used to be pretty friggin hard. I just figured it was all me. “I must not be good enough.” So it’s really odd when young artists wanna know how I developed the look of my work.
Of course, I don’t have a set formula for this stuff, really. And I certainly don’t have the secret to becoming a great artist. It works different for everyone, I think. As it should. I think the key is finding the place where you’re most comfortable. And by “place”, I mean a visual vocabulary. For me, I’m most at home in a place that’s bright, silly and manic with just a hint of darkness under the surface. Unfortunately, it took me something like 10 years to find it. Sorry. There are no shortcuts.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
Circa 1991, my first official mini-comic. I was 9 at the time, and I ended up doing dozens of these between then and high school. No focus on “style” or anything. Hell, the thing was done in Bic pen on pink construction paper. Not much to discuss here, really. I just loved comics even then, and my motives for making it were pure. I just wanted to entertain the few friends I let read it. I may even revamp this later, so don’t steal it.
Jump to around 10 years later, 2000-ish. A young Rob was just starting college as a Computer Animation major (because how the Hell does one just become a pro comic artist anyway?). I was still dabbling in comics between classes, still trying to draw “serious” comics that “mattered”. I’d always been a Marvel kid, and stylistically, I’d always tried to attempt that look.
Except for the fact that I totally sucked at it, as the above images show. This was about the time I was discovering Photoshop (Ooooh, lookit the colors!). I had a decent grasp of what color grabbed the eye, but still had no friggin idea what to do with the program.
Cut to 2001, the above page changed the course of my career, and I suppose, my life. I did this autobiographical comic on a whim, just trying something different. Angsty, right? OH, it gets much, much worse.
I sent this page to an old artist friend of mine along with the page above it (the one with the fire). I think I even did both in the same day. Anyway, I sent them to this older, wiser artist pal, expecting him to tell me how friggin AWESOME the angsty “serious” stuff was. But what’d he say?
“Hey, what was that other thing you sent me? That cartoony thing? That was great. I think that might be your style.”
“Really?”, I thought. How could he like that page? It was just me messing around. I didn’t even break too much of a sweat on the damn thing.
But being the glutton for affirmation that I am, I pursued it, deciding to try a stripped down, elastic style to learn the finer points of storytelling. After all, I sucked at drawing backgrounds. And I hadn’t done a whole lot in the way of composing a page. If I wasn’t focusing on “the cool stuff” (like drawing veins and abs that showed THROUGH clothing), maybe I could learn these rudimentary comicbook principles that had eluded me. What a concept.
Cut to 2002. Simple style, it was. Not a lot of frills, but I was learning. Also, I was pumping out art by the buttload. I didn’t even remember half of this stuff existed until I found it today. A lot of these were failures, but I still see seeds of things that I still draw from today. Most of my vocabulary for character expression came from this period. Learned a lot about color, too.
More 2002. Young Rob was full of angst, hormones, philosophy and loneliness. I’m posting this because it shows some pretty neat experimentation with transition, storytelling and page layout. Also, I was getting better with Photoshop.
2003. I was doing a weekly strip for my college paper, getting the hang of this nifty simple look. As I got the visual language down, I started experimenting with texture, adding more detail to the art and testing Photoshop’s capabilities.
All autobiographical, by the way. The bottom one was a cathartic documentary of how I was let go from my job at Office Depot. Upon seeing the strip in print, my old manager sent a letter of warning to the University’s Dean. I stand by my decision, since the rival Office Depot found it hilariously accurate.
2004. This shows nothing, other than I still had a hell of a sense of humor.
More 2004. Slowly adding more and more detail. I was getting confident with the simpler style. I was learning a lot about Photoshop, too.
Now 2005-2006 was weird. I’d gotten the rules of the simpler style down, so what’d I do? I started breaking them. I started bending things that shouldn’t be bent, twisting shit around, and I loved it. Another really important time for my development. Also started working on line quality and inking after Erik Larsen thumped me during a critique for having shitty line variation. He probably wouldn’t even remember it.
2006-2008 was a blur. Having graduated from college, I basically got a real job and barely drew for a good year and a half. Yep. I just stepped away from it and paid some bills. Here are a few pieces I came up with for various projects once I decided to return to comics. By this point, I knew how to navigate a comic page pretty well.
2008-NOW. You know how this story ends.
Anyway, I’m hoping this was somewhat encouraging to young artists unsure of their direction. Every creator starts somewhere, and every creator makes ugly art on their way to finding their voice (as I hope this post illustrates).
Now get to work.