What’s Wrong With You? You’re Not Good Enough Yet

Not so fast, Tex.

One of the great things about making comics today is the ability to reach out to the rest of the world with such ease about this comic book that you have made. Every single day, I get many, many requests for me to look at and review comics from hopeful creators. It’s many more comics than I would ever have time to read, but beyond that, there’s a problem.

A great deal of these comics aren’t good.

People think that because they ensconce themselves in the world of comics, and read about them, and listen to podcasts, or even do their own podcasts, that they have the ability to make comics. And they might, but it’s not an either/or proposition.

Picture your talent like this. It is a big block of granite. The larger the granite, the bigger the talent. When you start off, the rock is large and formless, not shiny, rough edges and cracks. Reading comics, and understanding comics can shave off some of the more offensive edges and bring the shape into control. But only making comics, and actually doing the work can grind it into something attractive, something useful. There’s a chance that you will arrive fully formed. There’s a chance that you will appear to be fully formed, and only later discover a number of imperfections that will have to be dealt with. But if you’re not a complete genius, there is a massive learning curve, and doing the work is the only way to sort it out.

I was at New York Comic-Con, and a guy came up to me and asked if I thought he should make his comic book in a 120 page manga style format. I asked him if he’d actually written anything. He said no. I asked him if he had an artist he was working with. No. Written any comics before? No. Then I suggested he go with a 4-pager. Hell, try a 1-pager. You don’t want to waste 120 pages on something you’re not good enough to do well. Walk before you can run. Crawl at first!

So your first graphic novel, that you either drew, or you got someone to draw, either by luck or payment, has a very good chance of being downright awful, despite whatever fine skills you might have hidden in your future. As a writer, there are going to be things you don’t see in the art that are outright mistakes. As an artist, there’s a lifetime of learning to be done about storytelling in comic books, aside from just how to draw correctly in terms of anatomy, perspective, and lighting. But you have no way of knowing that stuff, and you put this book together, and you send out PDFs or you plunk a bunch of money into publishing, and there you are. It’s the best you can do as of now, and that is great. But it’s also probably not good enough.

I’m not saying this to be mean, but the most important thing you can do for your art (whatever that art may be) is to be honest of where you are in this craft. A lot of times, your skillset isn’t even honed enough to know where you stand in the first place. It’s only after the fact, after you’ve said “I can do that!” and went ahead and did it, that you can look at your work later, and see the flaws.

At that point, you have two choices. You can either get mad about it, and be angry that the world does not yet appreciate your genius, or you can take that lesson and apply it to the next thing you do, and hope to get better, until you find out what other thing you’re doing wrong that you didn’t even know about.

You’ll probably get better, but maybe, and this could be harsh, maybe you’re just not good enough. Wanting to do something, having the confidence and fortitude to try, and then following through still doesn’t mean the product will be very good. After all that, it’s kind of a crap shoot really. But this is the challenge of all who make art, and you’re just going to have to accept that.

There’s another side to making art, one that probably gets more press, where confidence, ego, and raw talent are enough to push you through, and that does certainly happen. But it doesn’t seem like the recipe for a long or fruitful career. You’re free to go that way, but my advice would be to play it smart, and be self aware.

Comics are complicated, even though they don’t seem like it. Art and words have to mix with this strange thing we call comic book storytelling. Depending on how hardcore you’re going, the ball can be dropped at all sorts of places along the route. The script can have a great story, but bad dialog, or characterization, or pacing can wreck everything before you start. Then there are the pencils, inks, colors, letters, cover, production, and distribution. It’s a damned maze is what it is, and only the strong survive. If you want to make comics, and a whole lot of you do, get good at it, and accept that you’re probably not going to start off nearly as good as you wish you were.

Here’s one final piece of post script advice. Get someone to help you. Find someone who knows what they’re talking about (this isn’t easy), to tell you what you’re doing wrong. If you ask friends to look over your stuff, and they’re all saying it’s good, you’re not learning a damn thing. Most people don’t have the time or skills to ably evaluate your work, and you’re not going to get very much helpful feedback. I recently had a conversation with an artist friend who told me about his chance meeting with a comic book legend who savaged his portfolio for anatomy problems. My friend told me it was the best thing that ever happened to his art. The same thing happened to me, where I asked a pro to take a look at a script I’d written. He warned me that if he did, he’d tear the hell out of it, and he did. There’s nothing more helpful, and I’ll always appreciate that.

Good luck. It’s a long road.

Comments

  1. Nice work as usual, Josh.

    Curious. Are there any comic book creator workshops out there?

    There are plenty of these for fiction writers. Wondering if the same couldn’t be done for the funnies papers.

  2. I wouldn’t ask you guys to read or review something of mine until I actually got it published and it was being sold in stores. The iFanboy opinion would mean a lot to me, but I’m patient and I will wait until I have an entire finished PRODUCT to hand you guys.

    I’m glad I have some friends that are assholes, because they will give me honest opinions on my writing, which is always a nice breath of fresh air compared to the people who just said they “enjoyed it.”

    I’m also lucky to be friends with someone who has a Doctorate in English.

  3. Consistently my favorite column on the site. Thanks.

  4. I would argue that even if you don’t succeed and become the next Alan Moore or Steve Ditko, the lessons you’ll learn along the way might prove invaluable in other aspects of your professional life. What career doesn’t require you to set realistic goals for yourself, put in the necessary time to improve your skill-set, seek the advice of others in your field and listen to what they have to say, and put the quality of your work ahead of your ego?

    Great topic and great article.

  5. Tough message, Josh, but good for all of us to hear, I think. Hard work is definitely required…but also some perspective. You can’t really get that from your family or friends. You need people who know what they’re talking about AND will tell you the truth about your work. That’s not an easy combination to find.

  6. The toughest part of all creative endeavors is learning not to fall in love with the little pieces and have the courage to throw out something that you are really proud of, if it doesn’t work as a piece of the whole thing.

  7. Great article Josh and great advice you gave the guy at NYCC. I recently worked on a single page piece for a competition and I can attest that even that was hard to do. I showed my first pass to a colleague and he helped me realise its problems. I went home that night and rehashed the whole thing. I ended up with a stronger page but sadly missed the deadline for entry to the competition. I wasn’t disheartened though as I’d learn’t loads from doing it. I can always enter it next time or make something even better but importantly I felt I’d made progress and feel encouraged to keep going.

  8. Well said, Josh. And especially pointed coming from you, someone who has also tried to break into the business.

    It’s a fascinating relationship that exists between the fans and creators. On one level, comic book fans are some of the most appreciative and enthusiastic of any medium. Comic creators get to almost live like rock stars when it comes to their work. Not that they don’t deserve it. But how many screenwriters or novelists get heaped with praise and have people line up to meet them, like comic creators do at conventions? So it’s not that comic book fans don’t appreciate the work that they consume. But there’s also a very prevalent, “I could do that” that exists. One that’s much larger than in any other medium or fandom I’ve encountered.

    I think Josh nailed it with the line, “Comics are complicated, even though they don’t seem like it.” I don’t say this as an intended knock on all aspiring comic creators. Just some of them. I really think there are a lot of comic book fans who truly do not appreciate the level of skill and craft that goes into making good books. And I guess that’s the whole point of Josh’s well thought out article. So all I’m really saying is that I agree. 😉

  9. Yep, positive feedback may boost your ego, but it will never teach you anything. Criticism is definitely the best ingredient for improvement. A lot of people may not want to hear that, but youve gotta have thick skin. Last year I went to Comic con and got a very positive portfolio review from an artist I admire so I felt that maybe I;m ready, but it wasnt until this year that I talked to other artists that pointed out some things that were wrong with my work that I realized all the things where I needed to improve on, and in the last few months after being very conscious of those criticisms I feel like I have grown and ‘m doing my best work yet.

  10. Great article. I know it is not aimed at me because I know that I wouldn’t be able to create anything… I’m more of a reader!
    I do have a question for Josh. I know you have comic book aspirations. And I remember reading a mini comic that you did with a comic book pro (that I am ashamed to say I do not remember the name of). But have you had any other work published… maybe under a pen name?

    • Look up Dixon’s Notch in Graphic.ly. It’s a pretty good first issue.

    • I’ve never had anything published. I’ve pitched a few series, but nothing that went ahead. Like the dude says (and thank you) I’m slowly publishing the mini-series Dixon’s Notch on Graphicly.

      That short story I did with Alex Robinson a while back is “Career Move”. Other work of mine can be found here: http://www.jaflanagan.com/comic-book-work

      Some of it is, as promised above, not too great. Some of it, I like a lot.

  11. no-one’s going to argue with that, right?

  12. writing is a talent. It can be forcefully created through cunning but it takes a certain initial spark. That spark does not automatically let you get away with a lack of cultivation. If you start of crap that doesn’t mean you don’t have talent it simply means you don’t yet have experience, technique and know-how. I think artistic forms these days are presented in a slightly unrealistic light where the idea of hard work is removed and replaced by the idea that the ‘artist’ has a superhuman drive that means he channels this other worldly force to create his art and though it is a struggle his gifts are a life-blood that drive him. We are often not told about the amount of time people have to drag their asses to the desk/drawing board because, goddamit, sometimes getting your thoughts out of your system is the bloody boring bit of the whole process and takes a lot of effort that can be better spent watching TV.

    • Umm yeah what was my point? Ah thats right, I like your article that reminds us about the trial and error, practice makes halfwaydecent, practical human side of the artistic process.

  13. It’s safe to say that this article applies to anything creative. A big part of these people’s jobs is to make what they do look simple; if you think you can do what they do, the writer or the artist or the glass-blower needs a raise.

    As a sidenote, I do stand-up comedy, and the absolute best thing I can recommend to anyone looking to break in on a creative job is to be hard on yourself. Get to know the industry so well that you can tell what works and what doesn’t and don’t be afraid to apply that knowledge to whatever you’re doing.

  14. Another excellent article. Thanks Josh.

  15. Good article and something very close to my heart. I write and draw my own comic in an arts and humour magazine called Tiny Dancing that me and a friend publish. We’ve done 6 issues now and its going pretty well. We’ve now launched a second title called Reads which is a comics anthology. It’s hard work, I feel I have some talent as a writer but I’m never going to be an artist. I can draw pretty pictures but motion, expressions, storytelling…that stuff is hard work and isn’t just about drawing pretty. But I’m getting better. And that’s the thing, you have to keep doing it to get better. You’ve got a script in your drawer that you think is great? Just the one? You haven’t done anything else? Then I can tell you now, you’re not going to get anywhere. Chuck that script in the bin and write another one. Then chuck that away and write another. Keep moving, learn, and don’t look back. Don’t keep re-writing the same thing over and over, do something new. Or publish what you’re doing online (pretty much the same thing as chucking it way). Noone’s going to ead it, not even your mum, but t’s free and it’ll force you to keep producing something. No one can stop you from being a writer except yourself. Sure, they may not give you the keys to Spiderman or Batman, but thy can’t stop you creating your own work. I have a full-time demanding job in the finance industry, I’m doing an MA in Classical Studies and I have a girlfriend, but I still get it done. I just cut out a couple of evenings down the pub. Noone gives you the job of being an artist, you have to take it for yourself.

  16. Good article, Josh. This was your tough love bit, huh?

    I understand the tone of the piece, but, it seemed a bit defeating and I was hoping it’d be a little more uplifting and hopeful, but, really, those are just based on my own personal tastes.

    You’re right, tho, you gotta raise your game if you wanna play.

  17. I’ve got so many ideas banging around in my head, I don’t know which ones to let be my guinea pigs. There are two or three I am utterly in love with, and I want those to be given the best treatment I can. I know I can’t just write up a script, do some storyboards, and get going with an artist for those. I gotta treat ’em right.

    Two though…maybe I can get working on a webcomic for them. Get my practice in. I look at Jeph Jaques work then http://www.questionablecontent.net/view.php?comic=1 and now http://www.questionablecontent.net/view.php?comic=2056 and I am inspired. Danielle Corsetto even more. http://www.girlswithslingshots.com/ I loooooove what her style has evolved into. (As an aside, I would love to see a periodic iFanboy webcomic piece.)

    Because currently, I fuckin’ suck. The Scott McCloud books are a great resource and all, but they can’t fix awful.

    Love these articles. Thanks for the kick in the pants, Josh.