Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Newbie Advice

I like to hang out at a couple of Internet watering holes dedicated to cartooning. The discussions are often interesting even when I don't have much to contribute. At one such site, a self-described total newbie just popped in to ask, "What does it take to sell your comic strip?" He/she has "no drawing skills" but "a funny take on the world," and wants to see his/her comics in the newspaper. Not all the replies were warmly encouraging. I was happy enough with mine to repeat some of it here:

Enthusiasm is important and I don't want to crush it. Nevertheless, you have a lot to learn (and you know that, and you have the guts to ask, so good for you).

The further I get in my own cartooning career, the more I'm convinced it's one of those situations where "when the student is ready, the master will appear." In other words, when you're ready to learn something, it'll happen. It sounds a little mystical mumbo-jumbo, but I've experienced it too much to dismiss it. So my first advice would be to just start cartooning knowing you don't have all the answers and see what turns up.

In brief, I'd encourage you to develop your own drawing skills that will express your unique perspective in a way that no one else could possibly duplicate . . . Besides, the fact is that you don't have to be a great artist to be a very good and successful cartoonist. That used to be a prerequisite, and I'm often sad it isn't anymore, but it's a fact of the modern market. Cathy, The Far Side, Dilbert, and Pearls Before Swine are examples of great comics by people who (no disrespect intended, really) aren't great artists but whose styles work perfectly for the tone and subject of their strips. So my advice is, don't wuss out on the art.

Regarding possible avenues to selling your strip, if you're talking newspaper comics there is only one avenue: draw a bunch of samples and submit them to a newspaper syndicate--along with thousands of other people hoping for the one or two opportunities available every year.

Here are some things I think you're missing: The competition to syndicate a comic strip to newspapers is enormous, and you'd be up against professionals who've been doing it for decades; the odds are very long. Newspaper syndication is only one outlet for your cartooning, and some would argue it's not even the most important or rewarding one anymore. You didn't mention, but must be aware of, webcomics. If I were you, I'd look seriously at the possibility of doing a webcomic. You'd learn a ton and get your work in front of an audience, which is important. The magazine market has shrunken enormously, but I know people who make a decent living selling single-panel cartoons to periodicals. There are graphic novels, which I've written two of. All kinds of ways to get your funny take out into the world and maybe make a buck or two.

A very tiny number of people become very successful, but fair warning: even if you beat the odds and get a syndicate contract or book deal, you probably won't be able to quit your day job. The money truck will not back up to your front door and fill your living room with gold coins like Uncle Scrooge's money vault. If you don't do it for love, don't do it.

But if you love it, go for it. Everybody starts somewhere, and some of the best stuff gets done by people who didn't know what they were up against but just went ahead and did it anyway.

* * *

Back again. I just wanted to add a couple of thoughts on the above. This "when the student is ready, the master will appear" thing got me thinking. I'm the most reductive rationalist I know, but I can't tell you how often I had a question or hit a problem while doing Mom's Cancer and WHTTWOT only to have the solution magically materialize within a day or two. I remember trying to figure out a technical issue with CMYK printing when BOOM! someone posted the answer on one of my Internet watering holes. I had just started coloring the Cap Crater comic book pages in WHTTWOT when BOOM! veteran comic book letterer Todd Klein wrote an amazingly detailed essay about the techniques and palettes the old colorists used. It was uncanny!

I think this is similar to the idea that "luck" mostly means being prepared for opportunities that others aren't ready for or don't recognize. I was lucky that my proposal for Mom's Cancer landed on Editor Charlie's desk and he wanted to publish it, but it was luck backed up by a lifetime of practice drawing and writing. I was lucky that solutions to my CMYK and comic book coloring problems arrived when they did, but I was also ready to hear them. If they'd come two weeks earlier, I probably would've paid no attention.

What I take away is that the hurdles faced by "total newbies" aren't there to deliberately thwart their ambitions, destroy their dreams, or protect the lucky few who succeeded ahead of them. Not all the hurdles, anyway. Most of the time, they're just things you need to learn and put behind you, and if you're "lucky" you'll look back someday and wonder how such an insignificant bump in the track ever slowed you down.


ronnie said...

Pierre Elliot Trudeau famously said, "Luck, that's when preparation and opportunity meet". I think that is what you are describing in a nutshell - and it is oh, so true.

Namowal (Jennifer Bourne) said...

And Louis Pasteur said (or is said to have said) "Luck Favors the Prepared Mind"

Sherwood Harrington said...

Just to complete ronnie's quote: "... but Maggie, that's when opportunity overcame preparation and all common sense."

Wonderful post and advice, Brian, and, as usual, with applications well beyond the drawing of pictures.

Sarah said...

too true. like when i was wondering how to get a publisher for my book and i thought, hey, i'm gonna write that guy who did mom's cancer. he will know! and then you turned out to be so nice and helpful and yay now i have a publisher and eek i have a crazy deadline for getting my edits done!!! but seriously, it was so fortuitous to connect with you!

Mike Lynch said...

Great advice, my friend! There is something about the serendipity of the cartooning business. And, like Sarah says, the people (creators, writers, editors) are the best.