Since this article was first published, Gary has set up Indie Comics Magazine to offer independent comic book writers and illustrators a place to show their work and gain some name recognition in print. Find out more about it at IndieComicsMagazine.com.
"The analogy we use is it's like a military compound," said Devin Grayson (Titans, Catwoman) at a Motor City Comic Con writer's panel. "Every time someone finds a way to break in, they run over to fortify the gap." Consequently, professionals have all kinds of stories about how they ended up in the comic book business. No one, it seems, accomplished it the same way. Devin's story is not the norm. A student at UC Berkeley, a prestigious university, she fell in love with the characters on the Batman animated series. Not knowledgeable enough to be intimidated, she said, she called "the guy in charge of these bat books," Editor Denny O'Neil. Some time later, she was writing comic books, and is one of the most prolific writers in the industry today.
Anyone who has tried to talk to industry professionals knows how unusual it was for Devin to even get through on the phone. "I think they had a lot of comic people who wrote. They wanted a writer who could learn comics." One can only imagine her first trip to a comic book store, leaving with Sandman and Watchman. The titles recommended to her by her new boss opened her eyes to what comic writing could be.
So how do you break into the comic business? "Usually our answer is 'with a crowbar through the skylight in the dead of night,'" said John Ostrander (The Kents, Spectre, Martian Manhunter, Hawkworld, Suicide Squad, Deadshot, Blaze of Glory, creator of Grimjack). "There is no one way that works for any two people."
John was a playwright and actor when friend Mike Gold hired him for First Comics, a comic company Gold was just starting. "He knew my abiding interest in comics," said John. "He decided to give me a chance."
Being hand-picked from the crowd is great when hopefuls make that all-important contact in the business. But how did professionals get editors to think of them when opportunity opened up? All mention "networking" -- attending comic book conventions and making themselves known again and again.
"Certainly the way I broke in was to network, to get to know the editors, writers and artists," said Mark Waid (Captain America, Kingdom, JLA, Flash, Impulse). "The best way to do that, frankly, is to work for the fan press."
Mark was once editor of Amazing Heroes, "the Wizard of its day." That eventually lead to an editorship at DC. He interviewed many potential employers for the magazine. "It allowed me to network with them. They could then put a face with a name. If they get to know you as a person they're more likely to entertain your submissions."
There are many ways to network. "Back when I was in college in the late '70s and early '80s I used to write letters to the editors of every comic book I read," said Beau Smith, Director of Publishing and Marketing for Todd McFarlane Productions and comic writer (Black Terror, Guy Gardner Warrior, Spawn, Batman/Wildcat, Catwoman/Wildcat, Wolverine/Shi, Parts Unknown, Undertaker). "I bought about 10 comic books a week, and as soon as I read the comics 10 letters were out. I tried to make them entertaining and I always signed all four of my names, which was Steven Scott Beau Smith, to set myself apart from the regular guys who were sending letters."
Eventually Beau got to know editors on a one to one basis. If they had a new comic coming out they'd send him advance copies and ask him to write a letter so they could have a letter column in the first issue.
"Then I'd go to conventions and make a face to face meeting with these guys and they'd go, 'Oh, yeah, you're the guy with four names. You ever think about writing comics, Beau? Your letters are entertaining, you might want to give it a shot.'"
Artist Tim Truman (Jonah Hex), who was at Eclipse doing Scout, suggested he interview for a sales manager position at Eclipse, knowing Beau was a sales administrator for an audio/video chain. He worked for Eclipse for six years, going to conventions with the company, making more network connections. "I've been writing for 13 years now because of that."
"You've got to talk to people," said Beau. "You've got to promote yourself, you've got to make yourself remembered. Plus, you've got to be able to back it up with some good work."
Beau "broke in" because he could be hired as a sales manager. Devin could write but didn't know comics. Many of the professionals interviewed for this article stressed the importance of developing skills beyond comic books. Portfolio reviews are filled with people who learned drawing by imitating comic book artists, instead of receiving professional instruction and studying illustrators from all fields.
Eddy Newell (Black Lightening, JSA Secret Files, painted covers for Now Comics) took a vocational course in commercial art and painted portraits and murals for officers when he was in the Air Force. It was as an art student in Pittsburgh after the service that he discovered "fandom."
"Comics was just something I always did, I was just never aware of the whole world of fandom, going to conventions and the whole bit. So that was a revelation," said Eddy.
He was amazed at the willing instruction from comic pros. "It's a unique situation. You can go where you can actually meet the people who are doing this stuff and they'll tell you how to do it. I've had a lot of 'gorilla instruction' going to conventions. I'd pick people's brains, go home, practice on doing samples, take those back to the next one, get another critique and I just progressed from there.
"If you just persevere and don't get discouraged along the way, eventually you'll end up doing something in comics," said Eddy. Scott Rosema (Space Ghost, August, X-Men Adventures, Tiny Toons, Dragon Magazine) agrees. "I did a lot of submitting. I had a really tenacious attitude of constantly submitting, regardless of the rejections."
Scott says he sees many artists start with good skills and give up when it becomes tough. "What's important is the ability to work your way past the rejection letters and just resubmit."
Being published is important. Even with a small independent you can be noticed by the industry. "By the time I had done three issues of Journey, a book which almost no one was even seeing, a black and white independent comic book, I was getting job offers from it," said William Messner-Loebs (Flash, Dr. Fate, The Maxx, Thor, Wonder Woman, Requiem, Impulse, Jonny Quest, Bliss Alley), "because people could look at it and see that I knew how to do a deadline. Not even comic book work, I was getting offers from newspapers and that sort of thing. Showing them my portfolio, I was never able to get in through the door."
Bill says DC has referred to the independents as their farm team. "They used to hire people out of portfolios and they would give them whole books to do. Unless you've actually had the experience of drawing a comic you don't realize how many lines there are that you have to put in there. It takes a while to get that experience."
A career can be built as one job leads to the next, said Bill. "I was hired because of the work that I did in Nucleus, Abortion Stew and others to do Welcome to Heaven, Doctor Franklin in the back of Cerebus. That got a lot of comment from readers and I was offered a regular gig which turned into Journey. I landed Jonny Quest from Journey and then Jonny Quest got me Flash."
So the common elements of most breakthrough stories are perseverance, networking, skills to offer beyond comics, professional instruction and published samples. But mixing these elements together in different degrees produces diverse stories and no clearcut path to follow to build a successful career! Maybe the best explanation came from artist Vince Locke (many Vertigo series, inker on the new Spectre).
"I just got lucky."