Sometimes I get asked advice about drawing comics. The benefits you’ll get from asking are akin to shouting your own name into a bin, in so much that it’s probably not going to change anything about your current lifechoices. I can give you all the advice in the world but it’s not going to give you the heart and fire you’ll need to already have. Dancers act like they have all this passion burning through their veins which they just gotta express, but it’s no different for illustrators (granted, less dancing involved). We don’t draw this stuff because it kills time, we do it because it makes up such a large part of who we are and how we’re defined in the world. And it’s not pretentious to declare that either – if you want to do this, you better believe the HECK out of what you're doing.
So if that applies to you, and you can say ‘it defines who I am in the world’ without sounding like a proper tit (I can’t), then read on.
None. Not one. It always surprises me when people ask this, as if school has been telling them “yeah, well, if you wanna be one of them ‘artists’, you better make hella sure you have Chemistry and Spanish under your belt”. I have never, ever been asked what grades I got at school or college, and why would I? An editor/publisher won’t ask for your school record, and won’t care that you rescued an old man in a motorised wheelchair from a river for your Duke Of Edinburgh Award. All they care about is seeing what you’re showing them there and then, whether it’s your portfolio or your pitch, and if they like it they’ll take you on.
If you’re still at school and reading that, be sure to read this too. You do still need to study hard, and this is for two reasons. One, drawing comics probably isn’t going to make you rich, and even if you do earn a living out of it, it could take a decade or two before you get to that stage (no, really), so chances are you’re going to need an actual proper job to support yourself. So make sure you get the grades to find a nice one.
Two, you need the smarts. Drawing comics isn’t, contrary to idiot belief, an easy job for people who don’t know how theyr brayn wurks. If you want to draw comics well, you need an intelligence behind you, a certain level of awareness. When you’re at school, learning irrelevant minutiae does seem pointless, but when you leave you realise it was all to raise your general smarts. The best artists are the ones who have as good a brain as they do a drawing hand. I tend to use Kate Beaton as a good example of this, but really it applies to (probably) most of your favourites.
Point is, don’t be stupid. Stupid people make stupid comics, and they might end up making stupid TV shows which aren’t very good but hit the demographics, and they make the viewers stupid, and if you’re the person responsible for this then you are the worst sort of degenerate who shouldn’t be allowed to sleep at night.
A lot of the concerns I hear are from people worried about making their work public for fear of criticism. The ‘what if people don’t like it?’ self-doubt which scrapes its way across your subconscious nerves like a rusty nail and suddenly you’re face-down on the floor rather than risking the wrath of your detractors.
The only possible advice I can give to this is who gives a toss?
There are billions of people in this world, and unless you invent Spongebob again and convince everyone you did it first, most of them are never going to see your work. And of those that do, only some will like it. Of those that don’t, most will just move on and find something else they enjoy instead. The rest, the tiny proportional slither left, the very few who’ve seen your work, and dislike it, and don’t want to move on, THEY will comment on it, because they seem to believe their opinion is very important. And they, are stupid. Because art, by its very nature, is subjective. It would be impossible to create art everyone enjoys, and why would you want to? Surely it’s better to create something personal and heartfelt, and risk a few vocal detractors. At least you’ve evoked a response in them, an emotion. Better that than finding an audience and just flat-lining them with boredom.
So what I tend to say to people is, if someone doesn’t like your work, then they’re wrong. And it sounds arrogant to say out loud, but it’s more self-preservation, and it’s an attitude you’ll need to adopt if you want to forge a career doing this stuff. If your work begins to attract even an iota of attention, especially with this new-fangled internet floating around, you’re going to get people criticising you. And it’s never constructive. It will proudly say it is, but it isn’t. It’s just someone you don’t know casting judgement on something they (literally) don’t understand. If you’re going to let that knock you down every time it happens, you’re never going to be able to stand up. You’re doing what you do because it means something, and no one else has the right to take that away.
Right yeah I know, confusing innit. I’m saying one thing then the other, but this is a very important point. I said the attitude above ‘sounds’ arrogant, but it isn’t. It’s confidence and pride. Arrogance is something else entirely, and it’s very very ugly.
Most artists are the humblest breed you could hope to meet, often shy, easily startled creatures who wear glasses and tweet about tea. Some are a bit more outlandish, usually the americans, but they’re still lovely. Very few successful artists (whether they be comic artists, webcomic artists, cartoonists, whatever) are outright pricks. And the reason for this is that they’ve worked long and hard to get where they are, they’ve taken the knocks and the kicks to the crotch (oh yeah, that’s a part of this job, you’ll find out), and they’ve earned their successes. They’re probably not rich (success does not equal rich, for the love of god please stop thinking comic artists are rich), they probably have a sweet little life getting to do something they love. They’re appreciative, grateful for their lot in life, friendly. They like that you like them. That’s pretty cool of you.
There’s a very small percentage who believe their own hype and are grade-A fatballs, but lets ignore them.
Now, since the internet happened (what was that like in the 20s or something?), a lot more people have been showing their work around, whether online or print-on-demand-ing their own books, etc. And that’s brilliant, a new medium for us all to share our little corners of the world. Unfortunately it has also brought with it a species of self-entitled runt, who thinks because they have a couple of comics on deviantart, they’re top of the tits now. They’re cocky and, yeah why not, arrogant. Worst of all, they think the world owes them all the attentions.
Now I hasten to add here, again, it’s a very small percentage. Most artists online are humble and friendly however long they’ve been here, and thank god for that. This is more just a warning about that attitude, about getting too far ahead of yourself. It’s really ugly, and it’s a surefire way to bury yourself. Now the internet’s full of artists trying to show their work, it’s harder and harder to be seen, so we don’t need these big wobbly bags of ego flopping their way to the front.
Best approach? Be cool, be nice, be appreciative. Chat to your favourite artists, learn from them, support fellow artists, form your own little personal community. And most important of all, spend time on your craft. Getting a domain name doesn’t mean you’re an artist, you need to put the hours, days, months, and years in. You need to earn it.
If you get hired to do your arts all over someone’s comic, or whatever the opportunity, remind yourself why this is happening. It’s because someone wants what you’re doing, specifically your view on the world. That makes this all very personal and rewarding. As such, it’s imperative that you stick to your guns.
By that, I don’t mean be difficult. I mean learn to recognise what you’re doing, what your brain is trying to create, and follow it. Don’t get nudged one way or the other, don’t lose track of what’s at the very core of your work, what makes it so essentially you. I’ve been a full-time illustrator for 13 years (cripes), and my work always has the same essence running through it. Even though I look back and think much of my older work is pretty terrible, it is still essentially me, and it’s fascinating to watch how that’s evolved and become more distinct.
That process never ends. You’ll die and never reach the pinnacle of what you’re trying to do, but that’s irrelevant. There’s no such thing as an end point with art, you’re going to keep going and growing and that’s the fun of it. But while your art’s core should never change, remember that the world around you will. And it’s so, SO important that you keep your eyes open on this. So important I could weep while punching myself in the bum. Just, please.
You can’t sit around hoping lady luck will poink you on the head and give you a comic strip gig. You have to go looking for them, and you have to put in the legwork. Not necessarily literally, I know a lot of artists go to show their portfolios and their faces at cons and that’s how they get known, but equally the bulk of my efforts have been stuffing photocopies into envelopes and sending them to everyone I could bother. There is no right way of doing it. But the onus is a lot more on you now, the opportunities for you to create your OWN career are unimaginably bigger than they were even a few years ago, and they keep going.
In my opinion, you need to build a rich arsenal of work around you, and jump on the chances you see to develop it even/especially if that's just for your own amusement. A bit like tying a mattress around you and pouncing on a lion. If you hear of a new way to publish e-books, run at that with something. If you hear of a new twatty social networking site to connect with artists, fling yourself at it. If you have a great idea for a webcomic about elves in binbags, go away and make it because it seemed like a good idea at the time. If you hear of a TV company looking for new ideas, ROLL DOWN THE ROAD IN YOUR MATTRESS COCOON AND SHOW THEM WHAT YOU GOT. Enjoy the thrill of the chase, the chance to find new avenues, the glory of a new technology making your shiznit 79% cooler. Any opportunity that happens to you could easily take years to come to fruition (seriously) so take the reigns yourself and keep creating and creating and building your little world up IRRELEVANT OF WHY YOU’RE DOING IT OR WHO YOU’RE DOING IT FOR.
Because you’re doing it because you love it, and you’re doing it for yourself. You didn’t earn grades to do it, you didn’t listen to idiots, you stayed friendly, and you did it because it was fun, which is genuinely the only thing that will ever matter.
And we’re as lucky as you are that you’re doing it.