By Bon Alimagno
Oni editor Randall Jarell wrote a provocative column last week asking readers if they were the “William Hung of Comics.” I don’t want to put words in his mouth but I read the column as a warning of sorts for artists to be realistic about the quality of their work, especially when approaching a comic book editor with their portfolios. In the comments there were a few asking how they could actually know ahead of time whether their work was any good. How do they know they are not so blinded by their passion that they view their work with the proverbial rose-colored glasses?
I’d like to share some very common issues that come up time and time again in my portfolio reviews. For many artists these are obvious, but they would be shocked how many portfolios I still see that have these issues. I usually welcome any request for a portfolio review at the cons Harris attends. In my mind if you had the guts to approach me, a complete stranger who could rip your heart out with a scathing critique, you’re already a step ahead of nine out of ten people out there who want to do comics for a living. I appreciate the energy and passion coming from these artists and hope they’ll take my advice to heart.
*Draw the Most Exciting Millisecond: The magic of comics lies between the panels. But that magic dies if the panels themselves are stale and uninteresting. You need to make the reader not just want but need to imagine what happened from panel to panel. Say you’re drawing a car going through the front window of an office building. You should ask yourself not just what the most exciting moment of that action sequence is, but what the most exciting MILLISECOND is. You see artists like Bryan Hitch and Frank Quitely do this in their finest work: everything seems to be moving. They dot the panel with all kinds of details like floating spit and blood droplets, broken teeth careening away at every angle, buttons torn off of clothing, etc, etc. Little things like that convey the sheer ferocity of the impact, it’s direction and it’s aftermath. There’s a sense of chaos to the positioning of objects in the frame indicating that without a doubt there’s going to be a hell of mess to clean up afterwards. This makes the reader want to imagine what happens next, where all that blood and gristle, all the splintered wood and shattered glass will end up. But you don’t need to draw all of that. The readers will do it for you in their own imaginations. It’s this engagement that the very best artists create, making reading a comic book not a passive experience but a creative, active partnership between the artist and the fan.
*The Conversation: For some, drawing action sequences can be easy. But two people just talking: that can be hard. When rendering conversations far too many portfolios feature heads facing in only three directions: exactly left, exactly right or perfectly straight at the reader. This immediately tells me you have some fundamental trouble with anatomy and perspective, because these are the safest and most boring angles you could ever draw a head. Vary your angles. I should almost never be looking directly at a character’s face since that immediately triggers the subconscious signal that I’m being directly spoken to. And even if I am, it should not be so straight-on that I can’t see a little of the side of a head and much of an ear. As with the previous point, draw a head position and facial expression that makes the reader want to reconstruct how the head and face got there and where it will go next. Capture only the most exciting and interesting milliseconds of that conversation. I told at least two people at NY Comic-Con to look up Ultimate Spider-Man #13 by Brian Bendis and Mark Bagley. For my money it may be the single best issue of their entire legendary run. Why? It takes place almost entirely within Peter Parker’s bedroom. Think about that: how hard is it to contain twenty-two pages of action within a single confined setting, a teenager’s bedroom in Queens. This isn’t the bridge of the Enterprise we’re talking about here. This is a place where the most exciting thing in the room will have to be the facial expressions and body language of the two people talking. It worked, so brilliantly I doubt many realized the action of the comic never left the room”.
*Less is More: A lot of critics when talking about the works of certain artists concentrate on their attention to detail. What I tend to observe though is what was left out: did you draw so much detail that I can’t tell what’s going on? Maybe you just drew something that compels me to linger on it for so long that I get thrown out of the story. Worse, maybe the background of a panel is so overdone I don’t care what happens to the characters in the foreground. Your job is to sustain the reader’s interest and make them want to turn the page. There’s another professional aspect to this too: if I hire you I need to count on you to stay on schedule. If you spent a week drawing the most detailed two page spread anyone’s ever seen, it just delays the book. And anyway the reader may look at that spread for all of five seconds before they move on. People often tell me with pride how long they took to draw a single panel. I almost always end up asking why they spent so much time on it.
*Kill your Idol: I see a lot of portfolios trying to emulate certain styles, particularly the Image founders and especially Jim Lee. Yet these artists seem to think Lee’s style can be reduced to an overabundance of crosshatching and musculature only possible through an insane abuse of steroids. What Lee has done though is perfect a style that’s distinctly his. He knows how far to take the crosshatching and musculature and he never crosses that line. You need to find your own voice, you need to understand your own strengths and weaknesses and play up to those. The portfolios that always strike me are the ones presenting such a personal and fresh style I can’t even imagine what story I would put it on. They’re ahead of the curve. I usually take a card or a leave behind and put it away in case the opportunity arose to hire the person.
Hope this helps. If anyone has any more specific portfolio issues they’d like me to address feel free to leave them in the comments.
Bon Alimagno is Director – Publishing & Editorial for Harris Comics, publishers of Vampirella.