by Bon Alimagno
New York Comic-Con has arrived and hundreds of aspiring comic book artists are putting the final touches to their portfolios, eager to meet editors and wow them with their work. If you are reading this there’s a very good chance you’re one of those. From my time doing portfolio reviews at Marvel (and before that at Harris Comics and since then as #Tweetfolio Reviews) I learned a lot about how to get the best out of a review.
A lot of artists treat these portfolio reviews like they are pass/fail. Worse, many artists treat them like being selected means they’ve won the lottery. This is not a competition. This is not a lottery. This is not the moment your life will change.
THIS IS A SNAPSHOT of where you are as an artist, at this time – Nothing more and nothing less. My most common advice at portfolio reviews involves telling an artist where I think they are in their development and how much further they need to go to catch the attentions of editors. I aim to be as practical as possible so the artists walk away with concrete points to address and concrete next steps to take. Timing is everything here and the best you can do, no matter how talented, is put yourself in position to take advantage when that perfect marriage of luck and opportunity arrives for you.
The unwelcome truth is 99 out of a 100 of you will likely walk away from the show not with a job, but with a new perspective. You will come to understand that comics is just like every other industry, with the same scarcity of jobs, the same demands of professionalism to acquire those jobs, and the same respect for seniority and qualifications and experience that you may lack. This isn’t a wall erected against you. It’s A CHALLENGE – and how you respond to that challenge will dictate the course of your future. Will you keep going in the face of these odds or do you believe in yourself enough to keep fighting?
The lay of the land at someplace like, say, Marvel is that they already employ well over a hundred artists on a regular basis, and there’s a few hundred more on their “bench” who could step in and take an open slot easily and immediately. To get a job at Marvel you will need to be better than someone they’re already working with. That could mean an editor will need to break a relationship with one artist to start one with you. Are you good enough to do that? No matter what you tell them about how fast and reliable you are, they KNOW that many of the ones they already work with are just as fast, just as reliable and much more well known and popular with their fanbase. This is what you are competing with, not just against talent but against history. Are you ready for that?
The best case scenario is there’s an opening that wasn’t there before. Perhaps artists are cycling off one series and onto another and the series they’re leaving behind needs a fill-in artist. Perhaps there’s a Point One issue or Villains Month type one-shot that needs a pinch hitter artist. Perhaps an event has a mini-series tie-in but no one available fits the artistic needs of that particular storyline. This is where calibrating your portfolio to the needs of a publisher will make or break you. Again: timing is everything, but can you take advantage of it?
If you’re not selected for a portfolio review don’t take it as a sign of failure. It’s just that you may not be what a publisher is looking for at this specific time. This is important: know thyself and know your publishers. Know that publishers’ editors by name and face and the artists they historically like to work with. Do not think your awesome art is the awesome art every publisher is looking for.
Craft a portfolio with work that speaks to their particular needs: Dynamite is launching James Bond comics and have revived the Gold Key characters with Solar and Turok. Dark Horse is reinvigorating their superhero line and launching Prometheus, Aliens and Predator comics. Valiant has imported former Marvel and DC talent of diverse styles and matched them with their diverse properties (from the grittier noir styling of Roberto de la Torre on Shadowman and the fun and organic lifework of Tom Fowler on Quantum and Woody). DC lately has brought in industry keystones like Dale Eaglesham, Paul Pelletier and Patrick Zircher. Marvel’s pushing newer talent like Dave Marquez, Valerio Schiti, Andre Lima Araujo, Gerado Sandoval, Kim Jacinto and Kris Anka and cover artists like Mike Del Mundo, Mukesh Singh and Alexander Lozano. And on and on. Ask yourself: Where can I find a home?
The last time I did portfolio reviews at New York Comic-Con I looked through 200 portfolios and selected just twenty for review. Of those twenty I thought only two ought to get Marvel work immediately and it turned out one had years back but fell off the radar and the other was always selected for portfolio reviews but the timing never worked out to find him an assignment. Can’t say it enough: timing is everything.
What set these particular two artists apart was they had crafted a unique and refined artistic voice — that fusion of storytelling skills, artistic style and an intangible spark. It would be difficult mistaking anyone else’s work for theirs. That’s special, that’s what allows you to literally stand out from the pile. Publishers aren’t looking for the next John Romita Jr, the next Jim Lee, the next Neal Adams. They are looking for the next YOU. Be honest with yourself: is your work too reverential to artists you grew up admiring? Is your work trying too hard to be something that it isn’t? Do you feel you are investing the full weight of your creativity in the layouts, the character design, the execution of the storytelling? If you are not honest with yourself on these points whoever reviews your portfolio will be.
Now for some final but important points:
*Don’t Poke the Bear:
I’ve been stopped running to the bathroom by aspiring artists and asked to look at portfolio. I am not kidding. I can understand the mentality: an artist is thinking this is the one chance they have to get a hold of an editor or talent scout, and running into one is a stroke of luck. Do not do this. You will smell of desperation. And though comic conventions are known to be full of all kinds of odors the smell of desperation is the smell that lingers most. This is why publishers have a set place, timeframe and procedure for these things so those on their staffs who want to review can do so when they want to and those who don’t won’t be harassed into doing something they don’t want to do. Do not force the choice on them by cornering them.
*Your Portfolio and Leave-Behind:
I have rarely seen a portfolio that matches this configuration but in my mind this is the bare minimum I’d need to give you a meaningful review.
-Three covers, each with a different character. This shows variety. Don’t just show the characters posed and clearly framed. Show them active, tell a story, and in the case of superhero characters show them strong, intimidating and powerful. It’s not enough that you drew a pretty picture. This is an ad for a comic book and it needs to be a highly effective one. Catch and arrest the readers’ attention. Sell some books.
–Three sets of sequential samples, with three to five pages of consecutive storytelling.
I want to see this many to know you’re capable of not just diversity of subject matter, but consistency as well, especially when it comes to anatomy. I’ll question your choices to get at the root of your storytelling philosophy. Can I follow the story? Can my eye flow from one panel to another easily? Am I confused by what’s going on? Does your storytelling get me to go from one page to the next as if I’m carried along by a wave of excitement?
Always include your full name and email address on every page.
Your leave-behind should be printed no larger than on 8.5” x 11” standard paper – no need for anything glossy or fancy. There’s no need to put them in a fancy binder either. The fancier the package the more I would think you’re trying to compensate for shortcomings in your work. I prefer paper stapled in one corner – that’s it. I don’t need to see a cover letter or resume. THE WORK WILL SPEAK FOR ITSELF.
I used to get asked all the time if I wanted to see samples printed on 11” x 17” and there’s no reason for that. If you think your pages need to be that large to see the full quality of your work, then you need to understand your work will not be printed at that size anyway. If I can’t fully appreciate your work at regular size then enlarging it won’t help things. You may think it’s too important to clearly show me detail, crosshatching and rendering, but I will always prioritize your storytelling. Storytelling is king.
If you have a leave-behind that is ashcan size I would prefer to take that home with me. This applies to anything you leave behind with any editor, agent or scout you meet: they’ll likely be going out right after the con for dinner and drinks with their fellow professionals. They don’t want to carry a lot with them. If you can leave behind something conveniently sized then it’ll be easier to carry and file away, and leave the impression that you care about not inconveniencing them. OR: leave a card with a link to your digital portfolio and some key art that allows editors to remember you.
Don’t drop originals in the drop box. That tells me you don’t know what you’re doing. You might as well take a $20 bill out of your wallet and submit that instead. Please don’t sadden me by doing that.
I used to always give my email to everyone I reviewed. Whether or not they reached out to me was their first test. Almost always only a few wrote back, even if I gave what I thought was a favorable review. Always follow-up. You can’t be in the right place at the right time without moving forward.
Good luck to everyone and have fun at your shows!
Feel free to leave feedback and ask questions below or tweet me @karma_thief. #Tweetfolio banner by Jeremy Treece (@JeremyTreece).