I wrote this originally on my blog back in 2007, but since we’re heading into the convention season it seemed a really good time to dust this off and post it somewhere more public. I hope you all find it useful.
I don’t know where I first heard someone say “everyone at cons not already in the industry is trying to break in”, but it definitely feels that way. Attend any of the How-To panels at a con and they’re always packed full. Go to any panel and invariably the question gets asked:
“How do you break in to the industry?”
What they really mean is:
“How do you break in with a major publisher like Marvel, DC, Dark Horse or Image?”
Editors and creators should just have their answer to that question on a photocopied hand-out so they can save themselves endless repetition and add 10 minutes of better questions to the panel. I know that sounds callous and cocky, but hear me out.
Every time I hear this question get asked the answer is almost always the same: hard work, time and determination mixed with a bit of luck and good social skills. It’s almost always a letdown to the person asking because they already know that. They wanted the ultimate secret, some kind of industry handshake or way to stand out from the rest of the submissions. So barring just saying “hard work, time and determination mixed with a bit of luck and good social skills”, here’s some important things to keep in mind:
Just like any other occupation, you’ve got to have enough skill to take on the job and be a part of a company’s work flow as seamlessly as possible. So…
A) Have you worked on a comic before?
If the answer is “No”, you need to do so, even if it’s a web comic or simple photocopied pages stapled together, to show that you can actually do the job.
If the answer is “Yes”, you need to ensure that it has a similar level of quality to the company you’re showing it to. Remember, you want to show them that you can near-seamlessly become a part of what they already do and be an asset. If your comic isn’t up to par with what they’re already doing, they’re not even going to consider you… in which case you need to create more comics until your samples are good enough.
I used to think that 3-6 pages of sequential art would be enough to get a job as an artist (and I wrote about this in a series of How-To articles on Newsarama called ‘One Step’), but I’m less convinced of that now. Doing a small number of pages doesn’t show the full spectrum of what the job entails. It may sound like a lot of work to draw a full 18-22 page story but if you can’t/won’t do that, how do you expect to do it day-in and day-out once you break in? If doing that all at once seems too intimidating, start with 6-8 page short stories.
If you create comics on your own, you’ll improve creatively and build up your work ethic. You’ll also get a chance to see if this is what you want to do with your career. Think of it as the minor leagues before you make your way up to pro. Once you have a body of work, it’s much easier to convince smaller publishers to take you on for new work or possibly publish the stories you’ve already created. The more you create, the better you’ll get and the more material you’ll have to show larger publishers.
Writers write, artists illustrate.
If you’re not working on it, you’re not growing.
B) Are you applying to the right place?
Does your artwork/writing/coloring/etc fit the publishers you’re sending submissions to? Again, this is about integrating with what a company does. Be selective and choose publishers that mesh with your style/mindset. A handful of targeted submissions are far more effective than shotgunning every publisher out there. Also, make sure you know the name of the person who will be receiving your submission so your cover letter doesn’t say “Dear Sir/Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern”. That personal touch can go a long way.
Do your research. You’ll save yourself embarrassment and an undue amount of rejection letters.
C) Are you getting socially involved in the industry?
In my experience, even if you have a great portfolio submission it won’t necessarily translate in to a job. Reread that. I know it sounds impossible and depressing but I’ll explain.
These jobs have an important social component. Editors and Art Directors prefer to work with people they know or people recommended by folks they trust – PERIOD. Major publishers generally accept submissions as a PR tactic. They don’t want to appear ungrateful to their fans, so they open the floodgates to submissions but ignore 99.99% of them. With so many experienced and skilled freelancers on the market they have NO reason to hire strangers who send samples out of the blue, no matter how talented they are. Untested talent almost always proves to be more trouble than they’re worth. You need experience and a push from friends on the inside to make it through that barrier.
People talk about being in the “right place at the right time“. What they don’t tell you is if you’re around for enough social interactions with industry people, you’ll create those right places and right times.
Attend a convention. Be friendly, accessible and professional. It’s easy to chat about comics, video games, RPGs and movies with folks at a con built off of those hobbies. Keep your art/writing portfolio stashed away and just interact with people. The industry is small enough that the more people you meet, invariably, the better chance you’ll get some kind of social hook-up to a publisher you’d like to work with. You can’t force it. Just be a friendly person and don’t snub any one. You’ll make some lifelong friends who love the same things you do and slowly but surely get closer to your goal. It can take a while, but it works. Seriously.
So… after all that blah-blah this is the kicker, the most important sentence in this post:
Having great work and a recommendation/social connection with other people already working in the field is a rock solid way to break in.
This holds true for comics, RPGs, video games, animation… you name it. There are other ways and outright lucky breaks but you can’t count on those. A good and appropriate body of work coupled with a few solid social contacts is the killer combo. Once your foot is in the door, you can leverage that with more work/credits and contacts to climb up to where you want to be. Along the way you may realize that a smaller publisher fits your work and gives you the creative fulfillment you always wanted. Your needs will constantly change as you learn and grow.
So, in brief: Go make stuff and go make friends.