*Because I'll be teaching in about a week at SCAD, I've been thinking a lot about what to tell the students. And I wrote it out so that I could solidify it in my head. This stuff is for younger artists mostly, so feel free to skip.
When I spend time with another comic artist, sometimes I'll ask, "What's your 5 year plan?" In other words, what steps is he taking in order to gain control over his career in order to move up the ladder? Usually I don't get much of an answer.
The reason I think many comic artists aren't forward-thinking has to do with the way our industry is set up. Whether by conscious design or through the neglect of its participants, younger freelancers get into a habit of complacency while hoping for a chance to suckle from the teet of a major publisher. Waiting around for a career doesn't promote the idea of freelancers taking active control of their OWN careers.
If I had to sum up the 5 Year Plan of newer freelancers, it would sound like this: "I'm always working on my craft and trying to get to shows. Maybe I'll put a sketchbook together. I tweet with a lot of other artists during the day, and I kind of have this story of my own that I'd kind of like to work on someday. Then again, I also have back-end offers from writers who seem like they know what they're doing. I don't know yet--mostly I'm just going to hang in there and hope that Marvel or DC will take notice and offer me something good. Then I'll have a fan base. I don't know, but I'd like to be the next Jim Lee."
This kind of ho-hum approach drives me crazy. The sit-around-and-wait-for-opportunity-of-comics has retarded freelancers into submission. But there are other reasons why I think this happens.
Think about all the stuff you've heard about "comic industry protocol". You've been told to wait in line at a show in order to get an editor to review your work. Sometimes they'll even dangle a "last person in line" sign around your neck (a real badge of respect, that one). Or you heard somewhere that the best way to work for Marvel is to work for DC first. Or you're told that you have to submit Marvel samples because they don't want to look at Batman samples. Or maybe they want you to try out on a cover--unpaid, of course. Or maybe they want to see pencils and inks separately.
As much as we fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, there often IS no protocol. I did none of these things and still found a way in. If you want to jump through these hoops then be my guest--I'm sure some people have had success. But just because you're being shown hurdles doesn't mean you have to jump them. And just because they mark the line to the front door doesn't mean you can't find a side entrance. You just need to utilize a talent that you already have: being creative.
Here's my list of suggestions to help evolve your 5 Year Plan:
I've heard that there are 3 things found in successful artists, and as long as you have 2 of them you'll be fine: talent, respecting deadlines, and being nice to work with. I agree with this, but it could use an adjustment: 10% being nice, 10% being on time, 80% talent. Proof? If Travis Charest was always late and always an asshole (I hear he's a really nice guy BTW), he'd still get work. Because his stuff is SO GOOD that it would trump the other two. My point is that you should always be working and drawing and improving. It's obvious, I know. But it can't be stated enough: the backbone to your entire career is your ability. Your ability creates your demand, and being in demand gives you options. Options is control.
3 THINGS AT ONCE
You should get more than one project going at a time. Each project increases your chances of having a hit. And when work on one project is delayed (happens a lot), you can switch gears and remain more productive. Suggested side projects? Work on another book that's your own or co-written by someone you like and trust. Or plan a sketchbook for the con season. Or look for video game work. Or venture into cover design. Or create a Wolverine alphabet to keep you busy. Get creative and think out of the box. 3 at once is good, but maybe you can handle more. And even if most side projects fail, at least you're in control of them.
I'm guessing that most people would give most comics a grade C or lower. Not because we think of comic writing as being inferior to other forms of writing, but pick a group of ANYTHING and most things will be average, or C level. It's the Law of Averages. Therefor, you probably buy a couple titles a month that you'd give an A to and a few more that you'd give a B to. So if most comics are C or lower, why not give writing a stab? With a little bit of effort, could you write a C+ story? Of course you could! C+ is better than most comics. We deal in an industry where characters fight crime in their underwear--don't be intimidated into thinking you couldn't put together a half decent script if you tried. Yes, there are a lot of awesome writers who use the format for ground breaking material that you and I could never achieve. On the other hand, it's heroes in their underwear--we're not exactly looking for Philip K. Dick here.
Writing isn't just another asset, writers are planners. Planners deal with tomorrow. Having one hand in the future means you have more control.
And if writing's not for you, consider yourself in the role of Director/Producer. Figure out what kind of story you want to tell, and work on it with a writer you trust. Pitch it to Marvel. Even if it's material you don't own, at least you're more in control. Or pitch it to Image and own the rights. The digital age is an exciting time to be dealing in new content.
I'll use my friend Scott Snyder as an example here (and I'm about to repeat his name a lot). Scott's first hit was on American Vampire with Stephen King. Immediately, Scott is labeled as a horror writer because that's what Stephen is. As Vampire continued without Stephen (it's Scott's book, after all), Scott's branding went from "working with King" to "Scott is a horror writer in his own right". Aware of his branding, Scott has been careful to select projects that fit his brand. Swamp Thing, Severed, and Batman are all books with a horror twist. It's easier for him to get these books because DC and Scott know what Scott's brand is. His brand is so clear, in fact, that he has to be careful of what he works on in the future. Skipping around without regard to what books suit him would hurt Scott. I suppose Scott could write Spider Man one day (Scott can do anything well), and if it ever comes time for him to tackle the web-slinger, I think Scott knows that he has to approach it very carefully because Spidey's not known as a horror book. Scott isn't doing well because he's lucky--Scott also pays attention.
As artists, we still have a brand. And even though we all need to pay bills, we shouldn't say yes to everything. Your brand is built by the titles you produce, the characters you've drawn, the writers you're associated with, the vibe of your art, and by your blogs and tweets. Figure out what your brand is and use that to dictate your decisions. Even if you're on a book that's not quite "you", perhaps you can suggest something to the writer to help inject your brand into the story. I didn't think of Joe the Barbarian as being within my brand, but making it really dark helped me move it closer to my brand. American Vampire SOTF is totally my brand; PRJ will be the purist form of my brand.
Let's tweak a line from JFK: don't ask what you can do for comics, ask what comics can do for you. Thinking in this way helps build confidence, I find. Carry this with you whenever dealing with editors and writers. They're not doing you a favor, you're doing one for them. You'll spend WAY longer drawing a script than it took the writer to write. You have more to give and more to lose with these projects, so keep that in mind. I'm not telling you to be arrogant, just don't act submissive.
CONNECT THE DOTS
Whatever you decide to do with these tidbits, try and mold them into a grand design. One successful project should segue into the next. When one project is coming to an end, plan the next. There is no finish line, because a finish line means you've stopped.