Getting into comics is something a lot of people want to know how to do, but there's a lot of questions you want to ask yourself first. There is such a vast array of genre and subgenre, technique, approach, and so on, that its important to be clear on where you want to go with your work at the outset and you have to be REALLY honest and tough with yourself at this stage!
If youre into the capes and tights and you want to go mainstream youre going to have to want it incredibly badly, as the competition is the most extreme Ive ever known it right now. There seems to be more titles than ever - and with the digital revolution more people are capable of producing sleek, mainstream art - but right across the industry there's an enormous amount of competition.
One thing I'm NOT seeing at cons is break-the-mould, edgy and accomplished new types of comic art. Invariably it's by-numbers superhero fare of a fairly similar standard - what I would typify as three or four years off pro-standard but showing promise. I often wonder when we're going to see the next Sienkewicz, the next great stylist. Originality is not only becoming rarer, it seems less desired - either by the industry or the fans, who want above all else consistency.
You might be interested to know that very few artist or writers are discovered, becoming over-night sensations. Most UK writers will have cut their teeth in 2000ad, and thats certainly the case for many artists too even though the art in 2000ad isnt necessarily done in a US mainstream technique. If you cant get in to the industry through a break in 2000ad, or you're US based, then you have to go direct to the US editors at DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and so on. Youll most likely find one of them at a con at which point you can pester them, endure any criticism or advice they might make about your work, and get the details you need to submit work. Its not easy, and its fraught with disappointment even as a pro of 20+ years, Im lucky if one in maybe ten pitches gets off the ground! I have pitches right now at several publishers. It's a lottery.
Another thing nobody tells you about the mainstream is that, as an artist, youll almost certainly be drawing stuff youre NOT prepared for, and dont really have any desire to do or passion for. You won't generally get the book you're most suited too (I've been trying to get a Conan gig my whole career - a book I'm so clearly suited to it's not true - but so far I've been passed over.) Your portfolio which should be mostly pencil art, half as big again as regular comic pages on high quality paper, and not inked with ball-point pens or felt tips will be stuffed with things you LIKE drawing. Nobody practices the stuff they dont! Im pretty good at monsters, barbarians, trees, natural landscapes, organic alien technology, and yet early on I found myself struggling to strips packed full of things I'm not so good at - such as cars, house interiors, buildings, all things I find uninspiring and tough to work out. And its not fun for me doing that work, even when its on a great book like The Hulk! So be warned!
Your other alternative is the indi route, which is the route for committed auteurs doing comics for love. This is much more flexible, though you still have to find a company that fits your vision and buys into your work and you absolutely will not make any money out of it 99.9% of the time. If you cant find a publisher, you might as well just go ahead and publish it yourself far more easily achieved than ever before with print on demand outlets like Lulu, etc.
If youve decided to go down the self-publishing or indi route, then you need to be very honest with yourself, and you need to know how unbelievably hard it is to get your stuff seen and sold right now. It has never been so easy to create comics and produce printable files, it has never been so cheap, and subsequently neither have there been so many people doing it.
With the advent of platforms like MySpace and reality TV, Warhols assertion that everybody would be famous for 15 minutes seems to be coming true. Were seeing everybody selling themselves everywhere often with absolutely nothing to sell BUT themselves. Thats what youre up against everybody else selling something. So you have to have a good idea WHO is likely to buy it, and why, and where youre going to sell it to them. Youve also got to know why youre doing it because if you honestly think itll be a good business venture youre almost certainly in for a shock. The only way to succeed as an independent is to do it for nothing else than the love of the medium, and belief in your product.
But then again - you MIGHT get lucky!
Also, be sure you really know what it is that you have. Youll need a pretty accomplished and experienced eye casting over most work to genuinely know if its pro-quality. Theres an awful lot of self-delusion in the indi publishing world!
At cons youll need funds for tables, hotel rooms, etc, and youll most likely not cover your costs with sales. If you get a distribution deal, youll be in the long shadow cast by the big companies, buried in a dark corner of a vast monthly catalogue.
If youve no marketing budget, then your only option is messageboards, MySpace, indi-driven sites like Warren Ellis's late, great The Engine, and getting hold of a list of internet comics news sites theyre available, you just have to find them.
If you have created your own book, and your dream is to see it printed, but you have literally no funds, and nobody is willing to publish it, there are other great options, such as the afore mentioned Lulu www.lulu.com. Here you can upload your entire book having placed it into one of the templates they provide, and you can then order a printed, bound copy direct from them for the price you set for it. Print on demand is an incredible innovation, and like Amazon, they will list your book for anybody to buy, theyll even generate an isbn number and barcode, and provide editorial services if you wish. This is completely free, and they will take a small percentage of any book sold. The downside is you have no stock you can sell and show at cons, (unless you order a bunch as samples, but they will cost you the full price,) and you have to find a way to market them sight-unseen online which is bloody hard if nobody has heard of you, and not easy even when they have!
If you accept all of this, I can promise you theres nothing more rewarding than seeing it through. Its amazingly satisfying and cathartic.
Most of what Ive outlined above we found out at Mam Tor Publishing, and in my career in general, along the way. The first book Mam Tor produced, about six years ago, was really a glorified convention sketchbook. These had become the thing to do in the US, and every artist had a pulpy black and white A5 booklet with a colour photocopy cover, that progressed to an A4 book with a card stock cover the following year. By the time I did mine, which ended up being Sharpenings: the Art of Liam Sharp, we found it could be on glossy paper, with a colour section and cardstock cover. It had become - almost by accident - a real book. At around the time we were printing this, which was also a fallow work period for me (another reason for producing a showcase title) I met a group of highly talented artists at the Bristol Comic Expo Dave Kendall, Kev Crossley, Emma Simcock-Tooth, Cardinal, and Emily Hare, to name a few. We had met on my old messageboard, but it was the first time we had come together face to face. John Bamber (old friend, and long-time art collector) and myself simultaneously and entirely separately came up with the notion of an anthology showcasing their work. When we discovered this it became obvious we should unite our efforts, and put it out under the MamTor banner, as we had my artbook. I thought it might help to get some pros involved, and started asking around to see if anybody had any personal work theyd like to see in print. Some had, but as it turns out, most creators are desperate for a chance to do something for the hell of it, and without the usual editorial constraints. Event Horizon slowly started to give birth to itself.
We also received a few pieces that literally stunned us, such as Matt Coyles unprecedented Worry Doll (still available here: www.mamtor.com) which has been hailed in the Australian press as a landmark, and is getting its author TV and radio spots, major exhibitions, and international attention. Work like that comes along once or twice in a decade I think. Its hard to recall the last time I saw something so unique and technically awe-inspiring, and it set a new standard for us as a publisher.
The biggest issue of all concerning new publishers, indi publishers, and publishers of niche material in general, is promotion, distribution, and printing. Securing a distributor in the first place can prove extremely difficult. Many book buyers simply wont take you seriously. Some require you to have published 10 books before they will even take a look at your material. Im still coming up against barriers on an almost weekly level, and weve been established for almost six years now. But lets say you get a deal with a distributor; immediately youll be losing 62% of your revenue and thats excluding advertising and printing costs. To get seen in the catalogue will cost you an arm and a leg if its going to compete, and therell be no concessions in the price. Big companies receive huge discounts for advertising space because they buy so much. You, on the other hand, will have to pay the going rate.
You will also have to pay top dollar for your printing, as unlike the big companies who get good deals for huge print runs youll most likely be involved in one generally tiny print run.
Promotion is an endless cycle of head-scratching and frustration, and it often doesnt seem to be reflected in sales. You can win awards, receive great reviews and endorsements, even get yourself in national or even international papers and magazines, and you still wont be able to get decent orders, the trust and faith of the retailer, and the full backing of the distributor. Its the most talked about subject of any indi comic publisher, and it can break hearts and bank accounts. Be warned!
If you really want to hear it as it is, you have to network within the industry and be prepared to listen! Its a tiny business, so you really DON'T want to make enemies!!! THAT MEANS - BE CIVIL!!!. Do not, on any account, force yourself into conversations, or make demands on pros. DO NOT BE RUDE OR SUGGEST YOU KNOW BETTER. A bad rep, once it gets hold, is near impossible to shake, and in such a navel-gazing industry it can be remembered for a very long time indeed. Look long and hard before asking a question, but if you do, youll find there are a lot of people willing to give you answers and fill you in on how things work. Again, civility is the key-word.
If you think you know it all youll be laughed out of the industry
If you can build up a good raport online, youll find that pros are more open to you at cons, once theyve established who you are - dont hide behind online pseudonyms, they dont help you. People want to know theyre talking to real people, not Frag Gor the Battle Rat! There's a lot of vitriol being spawned because people hiding behind their avatars feel they can say what they please - and creators feelings and emotions are seldom spared!
Having said all this, something inside me drives me to continue, and thankfully my partner in all of this my wife Christina understands completely, and gets as much out of it as I do. I love what we do, and I will keep on doing it as long as Im able. Few art-forms are so labour intensive - if any - but few can transport us so readily to the places we imagine. Comics have the potential to be pretty much anything, as a fusion of words and pictures, and the more people who see and understand this the better. It's important we learn to be broad-minded in the things we're interested in, both as creators and readers, so that this evolution in the art-form can take place. We're in a time where the whole medium could really explode, but only if we let it - and that's something we're all a part of and responsible for.