Friday, November 7, 2008

Diamonds Always Shine or Reviewing Art Submissions by the Ton

When I was trying to break into the comicbook business as an artist, I was frustrated by the responses, or lack thereof, to the submissions I mailed to the various editors. My submissions consisted of Xeroxes of story pages and character pin-ups.

I couldn’t see it at the time but my drawing was weak and the visual storytelling even weaker.

In some cases I’d get no response at all from the editor. Others would eventually send a “thanks but no thanks” form letter that contained no information on why the work wasn’t up to snuff, or what I could do to improve it.

That’s not surprising. Editors are generally very busy and are under no obligation to give detailed responses (or any response) to unsolicited submissions.

Years later, I joined Marvel Comics’ editorial staff. Due to the frustration I experienced when I was mailing samples to editors, I decided to respond to every submission I received. The office I inherited contained a large stack of unopened submissions, so I started there.

Envelope after envelope after envelope contained samples of very weak work. However, in that stack I found Art Adams’ samples.*

It was like going through a mountain of coal and finding a diamond.

Adams was the first of a number of talents I discovered in the submissions that poured into Marvel daily.

Since many of the submissions had similar weaknesses, I worked out a set of response letters to cover most situations. The letters were easily customizable so each response could be quickly tailored.

The responses basically thanked the artist for making the submission, told them that they needed to do a lot of work if they wanted to have a chance of improving to a professional level. The letter then outlined some drawing exercises to help them improve. The suggested exercises varied depending on what weaknesses the samples showed.**

The letter also recommended that the artists go to their library or otherwise try to hunt up these books:
For drawing skills—
-Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
-Successful Drawing by Andrew Loomis (Also released under the title Three-Dimensional Drawing)

For visual storytelling techniques—
-The Five C's of Cinematography by Joseph V. Mascelli

When Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics - The Invisible Art was released, that title was added to the list.

There are Amazon links to all of these tiles along the right side of this blog.

Years after I left Marvel’s staff, artists still come up to me at conventions and express thanks for the drawing exercise and book recommendations they received when they sent submissions to Marvel.

My office became known as the place to send your samples if you wanted to get a response. So, the number of unsolicited submissions increased dramatically.

More mountains of coal with the occasional diamond mixed in.

I was careful not to tell artists of even the weakest work to give up drawing, even if I felt pretty sure they’d never be good enough to be hired.

Some editors and established artists sometimes bluntly told would-be comics artists to give up drawing and go into some other pursuit. A menial job (digging ditches, pumping gas) was often suggested as an alternative career.

These harsh reviewers had an interesting rationalization for their approach. Supposedly, if the would-be artist had the determination needed to improve his/her work to a professional level, he/she would get mad at the insulting remarks and try their best to prove the reviewer wrong.

That approach can work with some personality types but not others. It’s very possible that some extremely talented artists with very meek personalities were emotionally crushed by such comments and gave up drawing. In such cases, a more nurturing approach would have been more productive.

Insightful constructive criticism combined with targeted drawing exercises and research suggestions should do the trick for most personality types.

When Barry Smith (aka Barry Windsor Smith) began drawing comics for Marvel in the late 1960s, his work looked extremely amateurish to me. At the time, I thought that Smith would never amount to anything and would probably disappear from the scenes as soon as Marvel found someone else who could hold a pencil. Smith, however, continued getting assignments from Marvel.

Over a year or so, Smith’s work didn’t improve much. He finally kicked into high gear when he was assigned to the Conan comic where he rapidly developed into one of the better artists of his generation. The change in the quality of Smith’s work was amazing.

A lump of coal turned into a diamond. (Or, a very rough diamond that needed time to get polished.)

Smith’s dramatic example makes it almost impossible for me to tell an artist of even the weakest work that they should give up their dream of ever drawing professionally.

Instead, when confronted with very weak art executed by an under-motivated artist, I’d tell them—
-The odds of him/her making it to a professional level were extremely poor.
-Their only chance of reaching that goal will require hard work every day for years.
-They must decide if they have the dedication to put in all of that hard for just a small chance of making it.

Sometimes a little bit of knowledge is worse than no knowledge. This is true when reviewing art samples. One editor in particular comes to mind. He’d been observing me giving reviews at the Marvel’s booth at the San Diego Con and picked up on some catch phrases I used. He then began reviewing portfolios at the other end of the table I was sitting at.

As I continued to review portfolios, I occasionally heard snippets of what the other editor was saying to the artists lined up in front of him. At first, it sounded like he knew what he was talking about. I was pleasantly surprised because I’d never known this editor to have a sense of visual storytelling or any drawing knowledge. (How he came to be a comicbook editor is another story.)
However, when I stopped to observe him more closely, it was clear that the editor was using my terminology and phrases out of context, giving the artists some confusing and very bad advice in the process.

The young artists had just been given criticism and advice by a Marvel editor and I was worried that they might not know enough to dismiss the editor’s bad advice. So, I memorized the faces of some of these poor artists and later tried to track them down and “deprogram” them.

The work involved in reviewing and responding to all of the submissions the mailman dropped of daily was considerable, but then so were the rewards. Many talented diamonds turned up. Helping people to improve their work and begin successful careers was very satisfying for me.

I wonder what would have happened to my own artistic progress if someone had responded to my early submissions with solid criticism, advice and reference.

As always, your comments are welcome!

*I showed Art’s samples to my assistant editor, Ann Nocenti. She had been working on a new character and was looking for an artist to work with. Ann and Art eventually produced the Longshot limited series that helped launch both of their creative careers.

**I’ll go into some of these exercises in a future entry.

11 comments:

D.G. Chichester said...

Would that parroting editor have had the initials DD?

Prof. Roy Richardson said...

I currently teach part time at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Atlanta branch, and I'll be forwarding this blog to my students and fellow instructors. Your next column really should try to explain how people with no knowledge of writing or drawing comics become editors. I have my theories, but I think we'd all like to hear an insiders view.

Carl Potts said...

DGC, you must be psychic!

Richard Starkings said...

The initials DD came immediately to my mind too. Very likeable guy though.

Marie said...

Roy, they just hang around long enough.

Like me. :)

ROZAGY said...

This blog entry is fantastic! I am autistic and I've been drawing and painting for years and I know of many other artists with autism out there. But Autistic people tend to take things literally so if someone had told me to give up art I probably would. As I just drew without anyone knowing, I stuck at it and had a few professional exhibitions now. I'd still like to go into comic art but there are so many great artists out there, I'd prefer them to do a good job on my storylines instead of me doing it because sometimes, you should find what your strengths are and stick with it to get very good at something. David Mack rocks, by the way. I love his comic art.

Prof. Roy Richardson said...

Marie, I know you're just too darn modest to toot your own horn, so I'll do it for you: not only are you one of the best editors June & I have ever worked for, you're also a top-notch colorist, a writer, and now a teacher as well. You certainly don't belong in the "know-nothing, fake-it-til-you-make-it" category we're talking about here. Hold that chin high, girl!

Carl Potts said...

Roy,

Keep in mind that the comments below generally refer to the period I was on staff at Marvel (1983 – 1996). The staff grew to be quite large over that period and there was also a fair amount of staff turnover. So, the total number of people who were part of the Marvel editorial staff during that time was quite high (anyone want to hazard a guess?).

Also, despite the problems outlined below, I believe that, during my 13 years there, for the most part, Marvel’s editorial staff was filled with good people doing a good job. Out of the many dozens of people who served on staff during that time, there were only a few I’d classify as being highly unprofessional (either not possessing the necessary aptitude or skills and/or having negative attitudes).

From the early 80’s on, most of Marvel’s Editors were promoted up through the ranks of the editorial department. Many began as high school or college interns.*

Antioch College in particular always had students interning at Marvel. I believe Antioch was the alma mater of Marvel’s president at the time, Jim Galton.

In theory, the best interns were then considered for Assistant Editor positions when a slot for an Assist. Ed. became available. Again, in theory, the best of those Assist. Eds. became Associate Editors and, eventually, were promoted to full Editors. (Sometime in the early ‘90s, Marvel added the Associate Editor title as an intermediate step between Assistant Editor and Editor.)

This was, in general, a good system. It meant Marvel’s editorial staff was a nice mix of experienced vets who could oversee the development of new editorial staffers. The new editorial staffers brought new (often naive!) enthusiasm, ideas and aesthetics with them.

In addition to whatever day-to-day hands on experience Assist. Eds got in the editorial office they worked in, they attended weekly Assistant Editor classes. Mark Grunewald ran those classes and sometimes had guest speakers present to the class (including Tom DeFalco, Bob Budiansky and me.) When Marvel added the Associate Editor position, I ran the weekly training classes for that position.

I think Mark’s classes helped a lot of people get a quick grasp on essential skills. For those Assistant Editors stuck working in offices run by an Editor who lacked essential skills or professionalism (the blind leading the blind), Mark’s classes were a godsend.

Despite the training safety net provided by Mark’s Assistant Editor classes, things occasionally went wrong—

- As Marvel and the comics industry in general grew through the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Marvel had to expand its editorial ranks to accommodate the additional publishing workload. I believe a few people were promoted before they were ready due to this expansion.
Some people who were promoted before they were ready could have made fine editors if they had been allowed to grow more at a lower editorial position.
However, there was also a mistaken assumption that anyone who made a good Assistant Editor would automatically be a good Editor. In many industries, people are sometimes promoted beyond their level of ability or comfort. Each position up the editorial chain (Assistant Ed., Assoc. Ed, Editor, Group Editor, Executive Editor, EIC) had additional creative and management responsibilities attached to it. Just because someone made a good Assist. Ed. din’t always mean they had what it took to become a good Editor (although it does in most cases).

-There was a period when Shooter decided that he wanted to bring in some “blank slates”, non-fan boys that he could train to do things his way. This approach yielded disappointing results for Shooter and everyone else.
In a somewhat related approach, during the early/mid ‘80s, DC hired some experienced prose novel editors with the idea that they could be trained to become comicbook editors. Editing a visual storytelling medium is very different from editing prose (and vice versa) and I don’t believe any of those editors lasted very long in the comics field. That doesn’t mean this approach couldn’t work. It just means that the candidates should have been screened for having an aptitude for visual storytelling.

-Most of those who joined the Marvel staff were comics fans, sometimes highly-opinionated and naive comics fans. With experience and maturing over time, their love for comics could be combined with best practices and professionalism. Occasionally, someone who came in with a know-it-all attitude that they could not back up, never woke up to the fact that they didn’t know it all.

-Some editorial staffers had their sense of aesthetics stuck at a certain time period. There were a lot of people who got into the business during the ‘70s and early ‘80s who maintained their ’70s aesthetic sensibilities as the world, and comics audience changed around them. Ideally, an editor should be aware that the audience’s aesthetics are changing and ride that fine line between being contemporary without trying to be too trendy (anyone old enough to remember Stan’s attempts at “hippie speak”?).

-Except for the latter part of Shooter’s reign as EIC, it was actually pretty hard to get yourself fired from the Marvel editorial staff. I witnessed one editor repeatedly make major screw-ups and get “taken to the woodshed” by his superior many times over an extended period of time. That editor was finally fired but was then rehired by a different department within Marvel.
I was also reluctant to end anyone’s career so I have to take the heat for not pulling the trigger quickly on a couple of situations. I had to be pushed hard by one editor’s long series of major professional blunders to finally put that editor on probation, a probation the editor ultimately failed. In another case, an Assistant Editor showed such bad judgment, immoral conduct and insubordination that I should have axed him/her. However, the Assistant’s pleas and the support of their Editor stayed my hand, allowing the Assistant to repeat the offenses.

-Some editors were very strong in certain skill areas and almost useless in others. Someone could be great at plot and dialogue editor but couldn’t give an artist useful feedback on how to execute clear visual storytelling.
Or, they might have great creative editing skills but were weak when it came to managing projects and teams. I was amazed that some editors had to be harassed by a traffic manager to get their books done on time. Why on Earth would anyone take on the responsibilities of being a periodical editor if they didn’t or couldn’t manage to get their stable of publications out on time? **

Hmm. When on far longer that I anticipated.

I’d be very interested in getting comments on the above from all of you!

*Shooter hired some editors from “outside” the company around 1980. By outside, I mean they did not work their way up Marvels’ editorial ranks. They were hired as full editors. These included Denny O’Neil, Al Milgrom, Louise “Weezie” Simonson, Larry Hama and, in 1983, me. Right before Shooter became EIC, Archie Goodwin stepped down from being Marvel’s EIC in order to run Epic Illustrated. Denny had a long editing and writing resume in the comics business. Al and Larry, both artist/writers, had served short stints as editors at DC. I’d spent a lot of time in the advertising biz which, combined with my limited comics creative output and endorsements by Bill Sienkiewicz and Milgrom, impressed Shooter enough to ask me to join the staff.
There were also a few cases of former Marvel Assistant Editors leaving staff to go freelance but later returned to become staff Editors. Bob Budiansky and Danny Fingeroth come to mind.

**This really hit me when I got into interactive marketing. There, instead of making sure all of the Creative Directors were professional enough to make sure their teams delivered on time, Project Managers where attached to ride shotgun over the CDs. This promoted a culture of unprofessional conduct with many CDs. Since keeping schedules was not a CD’s direct responsibility, some of them didn’t pay close attention to delivery dates and blamed the extra level of bureaucracy that came with the Project Managers for miscommunications that resulted in missed dates.

Carl Potts said...

Richard,

DD is indeed a nice guy but had little aptitude for the Editorial position he held.

Steve Buccellato said...

Just read this today, Carl. Funny thing--DD immediately came to my mind, too. I wonder if you knew how obvious it was when you were writing this!

surlyh said...

Carl,

I still remember what you told me when you were critiquing my inking years ago: Loosen up and tighten up. At first this Zen like mantra had me flustered, but I soon saw the wisdom of "loosen your hand, but tighten your skills and technique."

Hilary