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Comic Book Artist

You should be flexible and patient if you're interested in a career as a self-employed comic book artist.

These artists work overtime to perfect their drawings. Then they turn their energy to promoting their work. Many use comic conventions, advertising and websites for this. But some of them take a more direct route and choose to self-publish.

Comic book publisher Mark Shainblum says it's a boom-and-bust industry. And, he says, it is currently coming out of an extremely bad period.

"I've found that comic book artists are usually flexible enough to work as illustrators, graphic designers, animators, web designers -- you name it. And they must be, because the business tends to have that feast-or-famine cycle. You should always have something to fall back on."

Freelance artist Mike Zeck agrees. He has drawn for major comic book companies such as Marvel and DC.

"The comic book industry has always been a small niche in the art world as a whole. And only a small number of full-time freelance jobs exist," says Zeck. "Over the last decade, the industry has shrunk. [This has left] even longtime comic book artists without the amount of assignments that they normally require."

Most comic book artists say that going to an illustration and design school is a good start. But they say that you should also learn marketing, accounting and salesmanship.

"[This is] because you are a one-person business. And no business is successful without competence in these areas," says Gary Beatty. He is a graphics professional who does comic book coloring and lettering.

"I've always given the advice: 'Don't put all your eggs into one basket.' And that's truer now than ever before," says Zeck.

Part-time comic book artist Cal Slayton uses the Internet to have his artwork seen by more people than ever before. "There are a lot of talented artists out there trying to break into the comic book business right now. So it's very hard to get noticed," says Slayton.

Through the Internet, he's found work in many fields. These include comics, graphic design, web design and even an online comic strip.

Like Slayton, most comic book artists do a variety of work to make money. Some turn to self-publishing, like Lou Manna did. He worked for several major comic book companies and did illustration work before choosing self-employment.

"I decided to get back into comics. And I had this idea for Salem [a comic book character]. I knew that going to the big companies would be a futile exercise. So, instead of getting the runaround from them,...I did the entire thing myself. And I felt it was the best thing I could do for me," he says.

But self-publishing isn't for everyone.

"If you're going to publish your own work, you have to be brutally honest with yourself. Is it professional? Is it up to par? Am I telling a story worth telling? Do I know who my characters are? Can I tell a story in words and pictures? Because nothing will die quicker on the shelf than badly [done] work," says Shainblum.

The other route is to find a comic book company interested in your work.

"It requires amazing patience and...thousands of hours of honing and perfecting...your art," says artist Sandy Carruthers. "You [have to] convince people that a man can really fly, or a bogeyman exists, or space travel is old hat, or that bullet entering that body is actually causing harm."

Any artist will tell you that the best place to make contacts is at industry conventions.

"Comic book conventions are the single most useful resource for new and established creators alike," says Beatty. "You can have your work critiqued by big-time pros, and talk to editors, artists and writers at the comic company booths. And [you can] quiz dealers on what they look for when they take a chance on a new comic book."

Breaking into the comic book business will likely cost more time than money.

"As a penciller, my initial costs were nil," says Zeck. "A pack of number two pencils was the only necessity. The art board and plots were supplied by publishers. So with pencil in hand, I was ready to turn pro."

"There are always more tools and supplies that you may wish to stock up on [later]," says freelance artist Scott Story. "But it is possible to begin your career as a comic artist on a shoestring budget."

Self-publishing costs can be high due to advertising and printing. But Manna says they can be controlled.

"The start-up cost is mostly energy, and plenty of devotion to the product. The other cost is the printing. But these days, you could find several printers who will work within a budget that you set. Shipping the books can cost you some, and you do have to advertise to let the people know your characters. But other than that, if you do everything yourself, you can keep the cost down," he says.

Manna also says he knew he wouldn't make much money at it. "I was doing it to prove to myself that I could do something from the ground up and tell an interesting story as well."

Earnings for self-employed artists vary widely.

"The comic industry is really not great at this point," says Carruthers. "Unless you do your own thing and not expect to make any money at it. To get with the bigger companies is really tough unless you are [extremely] talented and skilled. They pay good money, but you have no ownership of your art."

One thing that's true for all of these artists is that they had an early passion for comic books.

"I have drawings of Superman I did back in kindergarten," says Slayton. "My brother and I would sit for hours creating our own characters and drawing these epic battles and adventures."

"[I was] a lover of comics from when I was eight years old," says Manna. "I started to copy them and make my own characters and comics."

"My earliest childhood memories include comic books," recalls Zeck. "And my love for the medium only grew stronger as the years passed. I was talking about becoming a comic book artist while still in elementary school. And I never strayed from that path.

"If it's your dream, follow it. But please leave other avenues open as well. The art world is vast, and the more multitalented you are, the better you'll be able to exist within it as a freelancer."


How to Be a Comic Book Artist
Information on preparing a portfolio, attending conventions and publishing your stuff

The National Cartoonist
Online magazine featuring the works of cartoon and comic book artists

DC Comics
Another major comic book company

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