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.