Thursday, December 07, 2006

Why Did Hacks Always Seem To Get All The Work?

Before I begin, I have to say I no longer collect superhero comics like I used to. I would, if there were something good to read ... but as it stands lately there are only a select few I enjoy anymore, like Steve Rude's The Moth, Dan Slott's She Hulk, and some superhero reprint TPBs of '70s and '80s comics ... like are in Marvel's Essentials and DC's Showcase Presents. So as far as just what proportion of brand new mainstream superhero comics published lately by the big handful, are actually done by what we old school folk call "hacks", is honestly a mystery to me. So this is more of a reminiscence, and then a bit of advice for new folks who want to break into comics.

I want to talk about "hack work", because I've just gone through an interesting circumstance on the "Fine Arts" end of things lately, and it made me think on the subject.

I get into polite disagreements with my new fine artist friends about what makes an artist a professional, or of professional calibre. It's interesting, too, because I approach fine arts with a corporate and company mindset as well as an artistic one because I've worked in comics.

Professional calibre goes way beyond what is pretty to the eye or technically well-done and "accomplished". After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You can have the most beautiful artwork under the sun ... but if the artist can't meet a deadline or handle their paperwork then their professional career is kinda doomed.

Now back in the day, (late '80s) I used to hang out with a group of artists. We were all like 18 -19 and SO wanted to break into comics ... We lived in NYC which is home to the Big Two -- Marvel and DC -- so it seemed really doable back then.

We of course hung out in the back of a comics store. I found out about this place via a guy I started to date. We were both artists. We talked, liked eachother, started to hang out and one day we went downtown and he introduced me to the group.

He was part of a core group of three friends, who were learning to draw comics and who Every.Single.Day. showed up to draw in a studio space in the back of the shop. Today, twenty years later, two of them are graphic designers (& do everything from storyboards to toy packaging to even videos last I heard) and the third just released his first graphic novel through

I would go to the comic shop every day after work, and the lot of us (along with several others who'd show up during the course of the day) would sit around for HOURS drinking too much espresso with milk, eating Chinese or Cuban food, yakking about comics and life until Midnight, 6 or 7 days a week.

(Sounds like your dream come true, eh?)

Anyway, part of our usual routine was to go through our weekly reading pile to drool over our favorite artists' work and tear apart what was wrong with the art in this or that book. We were quite heartless.

What was always a mystery to us was how the "less than great artists"-- in our opinion, of course -- always seemed to get their work printed, when brilliant artists like Michael Golden or Art Adams never seemed to get enough work printed.

Fast forward several years to when I'm working for comics publishers: working on the other side of the books, I finally understand why some artists who produce gorgeous work never seem to get published as often, while artists who make just okay work (again in our artistic opinion) always seemed to be in print.

It wasn't ever about being artistically pretty or being artistically the best. It's really just about getting the job done on time.

It's called a deadline.

You'd think it'd be obvious! But it wasn't to us. Not then. We were just kids. Consumers. Wanna-be artists crabbing about the art. Who knew or cared about deadlines?

But Publishers do have what is called a monthly deadline. They publish monthly comics! That means comics artists need to draw 22 full comic pages in 30 days!

22 comics pages in 30 days? To quote Raymond's Dad: HOLY CRAP.

Have you ever tried to draw or ink 22 pages in 30 days?

And did you know colorists are on average supposed to color 22 pages in 10 days ? (When you were LUCKY you got 15. But that didn't happen much.)

Think about that next time you feel the need to tear someone's comics work up. Sobered me up right quick.

Comics are a business. When we're LUCKY it can be an art, too.

Anyway. 22 pages in 30 days. Who knew that? I mean, it's kinda obvious but wasn't exactly common knowledge that trickled down to the artist. Not until you went to a comics convention and had your portfolio reviewed by a pro. AND that is, if your stuff wasn't torn apart by the reviewer first! (Are pros nowadays are as mean as they used to be? Some sure were back then! I have a friend or two still bitter over mean-spirited portfolio feedback given to them long long ago by artists they used to admire. If you're truly a pro, seems to me there's really no need to be a jerk to a newbie at a portfolio review. But I digress.)

So since meeting the publishing deadline is the priority, then the editor's priority is to get that job DONE within the time frame given. So the writer and then the artist has to MEET the deadlines to keep the job. If you can't keep the deadlines, you get replaced.

A lot of professional artists can do a good job and meet the deadline.

Fewer professional artists can do a great job and meet the deadline. These are the exceptions and why we admire them so much.

Great professional artists KNOW exactly how much time they take and need to get a job done. Know yourself going in.

Don't make the mistake and say you can do the job in 30 days if you actually need 45. The Editor will respect you more if you're just honest.

If you need to pass on the job this time cause you know can't do it, it's okay. If they asked you this time, they will probably ask you again some other time. It may take a little while but they will remember that you were straight up with them and that goes a long way.

Think of it this way: you will not be hired again anytime soon if you do screw the deadline up.

When you take the job:

Don't make the mistake of NOT answering the phone if your editor calls to ask you how you're doing. Nothing gives us staffers more grief than people who do not communicate with us when a deadline is looming. It scares us, it makes us think "oh my gosh, what if he's sick/was in an accident/I have to replace this issue...?" Help us do our job by doing your job. Communication is part of the job of being a freelancer. Your actions (or inaction) affects the rest of the team.

If you have a smart editor and you know how long it takes you to make your part of the comic, and it's longer than 30 days then MAYBE you guys work it out and schedule things far enough in advance to accomodate everyone. In this case everybody wins. (What a rare treat that is!)

I hope my venting helps someone.


RobSchwager said...

I'm a "production artist" when it comes to the world of comics.

if I want to do stuff I consider REALLY artistic, I save that stuff for my fine art/gallery shows.

Erica Well said...

I think that approach is probably the only sane thing to do for comics!