Comic Art Portfolio Critique

Art critique is hard.

We create art as a form of expression and, because we put ourselves into the work, receiving critical feedback is a difficult process. Everyone wants to be complimented on their hard work, especially by working professionals in the field they aspire to be a part of.

Part of my job for the past 15 years has been to give portfolio critique. I’ve done it as an art instructor (teaching at Seneca College), as a project manager (when I organized creative services projects at UDON for ten years), and now as a comic professional (looking for possible artists to collaborate with on future creator-owned projects).

In that moment when you’re looking at someone’s artwork and they’re waiting for feedback you have to make a crucial value judgement:

What kind of feedback is going to be most useful to their development?
and
Does this person need kind encouragement or intense critique?

I’ve gotten pretty good at making that snap second decision but sometimes I still get it wrong. Every so often someone comes up to my table excited to show their work and they leave frustrated or angry at me. It’s pretty demoralizing for everyone involved.

The safe bet would be to just happily encourage everyone (even if that means they’re left with a false impression of the quality of their work) or refuse to give feedback at all (they can’t get angry at you if you don’t criticize their work) but I feel that’s disingenuous. I understand what it’s like wanting real evaluation and hoping you can use it to better your skills. I want to help artists improve their work.

At this point I try to limit myself to giving critique in person at conventions. It’s way easier to get a sense of what the right approach is when someone is right there in front of me. Also, if I tried to give proper feedback to everyone who asked online I wouldn’t have enough time to work on my own projects or have a social life (what little social life I have right now thanks to cascading deadlines).

All that said, I’m going to show you an example of an online critique I recently gave because I think the advice applies to a lot of comic art portfolios I see online and in person. The mistakes made were pretty common. This person has formal art training and isn’t a beginner. They specifically asked for critique so I didn’t hold back.

(Note: Everything I cover below relates to a portfolio built around modern/big two-style comic art. I don’t think every artist should draw the same or needs intensely detailed artwork in order to be considered professional, but the basics I talk about are helpful for almost any style, especially when you’re first getting established.)


• On many pages you’re not leaving enough room for dialogue or sound effects. Adding lettering would make those pages claustrophobic and cover up important elements that are part of the storytelling. Always draw pages with dialogue in mind and, whenever possible, work from an actual script rather than just illustrating silent scenes from your head.

• Your use of shadows and light is inconsistent from page to page, which comes across like you don’t have a strong understanding of light direction and volume. Your light sources are all over the place (except for when they’re coming from a very clear source like magic or a superpower) and your use of thicker or thinner lines has very little consistency. For many of your pages an inker would have a difficult time translating the pencils into any kind of a consistent look. You’re using lots of pencil shading to add texture and cover up weak drawing but that doesn’t help an inker who usually needs something more substantial to work with.

• Your anatomy looks like it’s kit-bashed from reference material (especially other comic artists and body builder photos) instead of being informed by actual drawing from life and a knowledge of anatomy. In some panels you’re exaggerating anatomy and other times you’re using photo ref or different comic artists as your inspiration and it shows. There are some panels that look good, but the other weak ones make it clear that you don’t have the innate knowledge or, if you do, it’s not coming through in your drawings.

• Your backgrounds are also quite inconsistent and I don’t get the sense that you have a strong understanding of perspective drawing. Don’t get me wrong, you have some perspective in your scenes, but it’s basic with a bunch of random detail-texture lines thrown on top of flat boxy walls. You’re rushing through the backgrounds and because of that most of them look poorly defined, both in terms of construction and a sense of depth. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not all about the characters. You’re adding all kinds of inconsistent shading to try and cover the page in ‘stuff’, but the actual sense of space is not clearly established. I don’t get a solid sense of the environments because, as far as I can tell, you don’t have a clear understanding of how they’re constructed. When I want to tell the difference between an amateur and a professional most of the time I can see it in their backgrounds. Yours aren’t coming across strongly.

• Watch out for line tangents, parts of a drawing where lines at different depths intersect and they look like they’re interacting with each other when they shouldn’t be. They confuse the viewer and flatten the sense of depth in your drawing. The best explanation/tutorial I’ve ever seen on line tangents was put together by Chris Schweizer. Read it!

• Leave more space on the edge of your pages. Storytelling should never be pushed right to the edge since it may end of up getting cut off during the printing process. Even if the sample pages you sent already have the bleed cropped and there’s extra breathing room on your originals I’m not seeing here, some of your panels are crushed in far too close to the page edge.

• Your page layouts are flashy, which is not necessarily good or bad, but accompanied with inconsistency it looks like you’re breaking panel borders and using odd panel arrangements to cover up a lack of understanding of the basics. That said, your left to right reading flow is pretty good. My eyes move through each page in the proper order and I know what’s happening, so your overall storytelling is okay.

I can tell you worked hard on these sample pages and most casual observers would be impressed with them but, in my opinion, they’re not professional quality. I don’t think they’ll move the needle at a larger publisher and you still have a lot of work to do to get to that level.


That’s comic portfolio feedback focused on intense critique rather than encouragement. Hopefully the person receiving it doesn’t want to punch me in the face or burn all my comics.

In broader terms, here are the most common problems I see with comic art portfolios:

PERSPECTIVE and VOLUME: Learning to visually ‘build’ with proper perspective, draw characters, scenes, and objects with a consistent sense of volume, and showcase a thorough understanding of depth and form is tough, but it will make a huge difference in the quality of your work.

ANATOMY and CONSISTENCY: Understanding how the human body works and being able to draw from life with a sense of gesture, structure, and clarity is a lifelong pursuit. A lot of beginners think this doesn’t apply when they’re drawing stylized figures but I, and most art directors/editors, would strongly disagree. Even when you’re stylizing your work there should be a consistent approach to the figure, even if it doesn’t conform to realistic anatomy.

CLARITY and COMMUNICATION: Comics are about storytelling. If the reader can’t follow the action and the story isn’t coming across clearly then the artist isn’t doing their job. Well defined panel to panel flow, good staging, clear storytelling, and strong body language are an important part of the craft.


I know there are exceptions. Yes, there are artists who ignore the above and still get work. Showing me dozens of examples of artwork that ‘break the rules’ doesn’t change the critique I’d give and here’s why:
If you want to consistently impress with your work and stand out in a field where thousands of other artists want to break in and ‘go pro’, concentrating on improving your perspective, anatomy, and clarity will always be beneficial.

If you want to get a better sense of how much/little detail is on a professional comic page, take one of your favorite comics to a local photocopy place and get them to blow up a few of your favorite pages 150% on to 11″ x 17″ paper. That’s approximately the size the artist was originally working at on most North American comics. At that full size you’ll get a better sense of how large each panel really is as its drawn, how much space is left for dialogue, how detailed the figures/environments are, and overall line thickness/line quality.

As you work to improve your skills, understand that it will probably take years and lots of mucked up pages before you approach anything resembling ‘professional quality’. There’s a term in animation we use called ‘pencil mileage’. No matter how many tutorials you read or critiques you receive a good chunk of your learning in art takes place by putting in the time and creating thousands of drawings.

If you found this post interesting or helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter) and share the post with your friends. Please consider buying some of my comics online, from your local retailer or from me in person if you see me at a convention. Also, please don’t ask me for a portfolio critique if you’re not prepared for critical feedback.

We Be Geeks Interview

We-Be-Geeks

I sat down and recorded a pretty extensive interview with the trio at We Be Geeks. We cover Wayward, Baldur’s Gate, samurai Jack, Figment, and a whole lot more. The interview starts at the 44 minute mark of the podcast. Give it a listen!

Forces of Geek Interview: Conan, SK, and D&D

ForcesOfGeek

The gang at Forces of Geek asked me all about Conan Red Sonja, Skullkickers, and Dungeons & Dragons: Legends of Baldur’s Gate, so we talk fantasy fun.

Don’t Forget a Towel Interview

Don'tForgetATowel

Casey Bowker at Don’t Forget A Towel talks to me about Wayward, Japanese lore, and putting together our creative team. Click on through to check it out.

Creator-Owned Economics: The Changing Market

It’s been two and half years since I posted up my ‘Reality of Mainstream Creator-Owned Comics’ article that kicked off a furious online discussion about where money goes in the retail market and what creators are paid on small print run creator-owned comics. There’s rarely a week that goes by where someone isn’t linking to that article, tweeting at me about it, or otherwise asking for clarification about ‘how things work’.

Even when some people pointed to that article as ‘proof’ that Image Comics wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, Image stuck with me, kept publishing Skullkickers, and continued to make incredible strides in expanding the market for creator-owned comics. I’ve always been thrilled to have my creator-owned books published by Image because I knew why the company was formed and how it’s always worked: Creators are in complete control of their comics and they’re compensated based on its success.

The comic industry in 2015 is a very, very different place and a big part of that is thanks to Image Comics’s tireless efforts to show retailers and readers the strength of new ideas and new stories.

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SKULLKICKERS #1 (September 2010) and WAYWARD #1 (August 2014).

The Image model has always been about investing in yourself and reaping the benefits of that investment if sales are strong. I knew that going in with Skullkickers back in 2010 and, even when our sales were borderline unprofitable, I stuck with the series as a way to establish myself as a writer and show people our team could produce a high quality comic month after month. Now, four and a half years later, I’m seeing the benefits of that consistency and the growing creator-owned market with my new Image series called Wayward.

How much of a benefit? Well, let me show you…

ComparativeSalesFull

Wayward’s first five print issues have sold more than two and a half times as many as Skullkickers did over the same period 4 years earlier. As you might imagine, that’s an impressive jump and I think there are a bunch of reasons for that climb:

• Improved Visibility for Comics: Comics sales are growing in print and online, graphic novels are the buzz-worthy darlings of the book market, and comic-related movie and TV shows are more mainstream than ever. The ripple effect of that is a greater acceptance of comics from the general public and a more diverse fanbase looking for new stories.

• Image’s Success and Subsequent Growth: The success of the Walking Dead, Saga, Sex Criminals, and a host of other incredible titles have increased visibility and market share for Image. This is especially true with launch titles as readers and retailers look to these new series with excitement, hoping they’ll be on the ground floor for something special.

• My Career Growth: In 2010 I was practically an unknown creator in the mainstream comic market. Four years later I have quite a few other comic titles under my belt – Samurai Jack, Figment, Legends of the Dark Knight, Pathfinder, and a bunch of others. I’m not an industry powerhouse by any means, but the readers from those series seemed curious about what my next creator-owned title would be and jumped on board Wayward to check it out.

• Retailer Outreach: I’ve also done a ton of retailer outreach over the past four years. Having well regarded work is wonderful but only if retailers feel confident they can sell the books. As we headed towards the launch of Wayward, the crew at Image and I did a lot of communicating with retailers about the series, showing them exclusive artwork and previews, doing everything we could to prove to them that this was a series they could confidently sell to their customers. That lead to several comic shop and convention-exclusive variant covers for Wayward #1, bolstering our launch numbers by thousands of copies while creating extra interest in the series.

• Press Outreach: In the same vein, it’s a heck of a lot easier to get press coverage when you’re more established and we (Image’s PR crew and I) did a lot of press outreach as well to make sure Wayward was visible on every comic news and review site we could muster. The last couple months before the launch of issue one was a dizzying promotional tour of interviews, podcasts, exclusive sneak peeks, and more.

• The Series: Wayward is a very different series than Skullkickers. I love them both, but I’d be foolish not to note that Wayward as a concept is more inclusive and taps into a much larger potential readership than Skullkickers does. Cute supernatural teenage girls (surrounded by cats) kicking the shit out of monsters on the street of Tokyo plays to a bigger audience than a bro-centric slapstick violent D&D tale, especially in 2014-2015.

Okay, sale numbers are spiffy but how does that translate into relative profitability? Wait ‘til you see this…

ComparativeProfitsFull

I know you’re looking at that bar chart and can’t fathom how 2.5 times the sales magically turns into 7.5 times the profit. Trust me, I’ll explain.

Here’s the real beauty of the Image model when it’s running at full steam and, as far as I know, it’s something no other creator-owned publisher can match: Image has a flat administrative fee for soliciting and releasing each issue of a series. That amount does not change no matter how much the issue sells. On a relatively low selling comic (like back in 2010 with Skullkickers #1) that base fee can eat up most of what’s left over after the printer, distributor, and retailer take their cut but, on a strong selling comic that amount stays the same and the issue becomes a lot more profitable. A lot.

This is why that pie chart from my original retail post doesn’t scale well to different print runs and doesn’t perfectly sync up with the Image model. A 5000 copy comic has a very, very different money breakdown than one that sells 10k or more. Printing large quantities of something vastly decreases the cost per copy. The “price per unit” drops and the profitability per copy increases, but Image’s base fee doesn’t change.

Each issue and cover breaks down differently in terms of percentages/costs, but here is an approximate rundown of how our best one fared, WAYWARD #1 Cover A:
PieChart

As you can see, it’s a seismic difference from the chart I posted in 2012 based on a much lower print run/lower sales.

Skullkickers #1 went through three printings, but each one was a small run, which made the “per unit” cost quite high on each issue. Wayward #1’s first printing was a much, much larger run done all at once and, in turn, the profitability of that first issue was geometrically larger. A lot more copies printed, a lot more sold, and each one cost a lot less to produce, making us a lot more money when it was all said and done.

Cranking up that profitability even further, Image has been able to leverage their increased market share and larger print runs to aggressively keep their printing and shipping costs low even as their sales increase, leaving even more money for creators after the fees are covered.

You might look at that chart and imagine Steve Cummings (the artist and co-creator of Wayward) and I pelting each other with giant wads of cash, but it’s not like that. What those numbers mean is that we’re thankfully in the black right from our first issue, which is obviously where we want to be. Steve gets to make drawing Wayward his full time job (I’m still teaching at a local art college and freelance writing), and the color flatter, colorist, and letterer all get paid without me having to dig into my personal savings (like I do on Skullkickers). On top of that I can finally put some money into my “war chest” for convention travel and future creator-owned projects. If sales continue strongly I’ll make extra payments on my mortgage so I can be debt free that much faster.

It’s a solid start and miles ahead of where I was in 2010, but that doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. Strong launch numbers are one thing, but finding a loyal sustained readership is our long term goal and that requires a lot of work. By the time our first arc ended, Wayward seemed to be settling into a reasonable sales bracket, now we have to do everything we can to try and stay in that stable sales range over the long haul.

Image is bolstering our chances by releasing Wayward Vol. 1: String Theory on March 25th as a value-priced $9.99 trade paperback. We’ll make less money per copy on that first volume, but it’s a very smart way to increase our readership as retailers up their orders, new readers give the series a shot at a sweet price point, and current readers ideally pick up the collection for themselves or buy it as a gift for their friends (Pssst~ Have you pre-ordered your copy yet?).

WaywardVol01Cover-FRONTWaywardVol01Cover-FRONT-HC
Our standard TPB cover and the Emerald City Comicon exclusive hardcover.

We’re also releasing Wayward #6, the first issue of our second story arc, on the same day as our volume 1 trade paperback as a way to create extra sales synergy. Savvy retailers can bundle both together to get readers on board the new storyline, hopefully leading to additional subscriptions for their pull files.

On top of that, Steve suggested we create a series of connecting covers for our second story arc and I happily went along with the idea (leaving the logistics of that artistic monstrosity to him and Tamra, our kick ass colorist). We’re hoping fans will want to keep buying the single issues to create a sweeping 5 issue cover panorama. Here’s how the first three covers (issues #6-8) look when they’re connected together:

Wayward06-08Combined

Quality, consistency, and outreach. With a bit of luck those three things will convince retailers and readers to stick with us.

At the same time, Skullkickers is heading into its final story arc. Financially it’s always been a bit rocky but it’s proving robust with a long tail of digital and collection sales and has a strong audience online as a serialized webcomic. It’s the project that pushed my comic writing career to the next level and I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve done. Nothing else I’ve worked on since then would have happened without it.

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If we maintain our current production schedule on Wayward we’ll have two trade paperbacks out and be starting our third story arc in time for Christmas 2015. Skulkickers’ final arc, final trade paperback, and final deluxe hardcover will arrive before Christmas as well.

At each step we’ll be juggling solicitations 5-6 months ahead, scripting 3-4 months ahead, line art 2-3 months ahead, coloring 1-2 months ahead and letter proofing a few weeks before each issue heads to print. It’s a relentless game of “Scheduling Tetris” but, when the momentum is rolling, I actually enjoy it. There’s a constant influx of inspiration as line art and coloring samples pop into my inbox almost every morning. It reminds me that all of us on the team are working hard to create something that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for our efforts and the support of amazing retailers and readers like you. I love creating comics and want to keep this dream rolling as long as I can, learning more about the craft and business, year after year.

In the end, I think that’s what creator-owned comics are all about – charting your own destiny and growing creatively with each new project.

If you found this post interesting or helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter) and share the post with your friends. Please consider buying some of my comics online, from your local retailer or from me in person if you see me at a convention.

Wayward Interview on Under the Comic Covers

UTCC

I had a great audio interview with the team from Under the Comic Covers all about Wayward.

We talk at length about how the series came to be, Japanese cultural influences and creatures, storytelling, character development, and hints at where the series is heading. Click on through and check it out!

Geek Nerd Net Interview

GeekNerdNet

Chris Doucher at GeekNerdNet interviewed me about comic writing, Conan-Red Sonja, my upcoming Vertigo short story, convention season, tutorials, and more, all in 15 minutes. click on through and give it a listen.

Totoro-Inspired Wayward Variant Cover

Our pals at Third Eye Comics in Annapolis, Maryland are putting together a special event to celebrate International Tabletop Day on April 11th and I’ll be there signing and sketching up a storm. To help commemorate the event they’re also putting together a store-specific variant cover of WAYWARD #6 you can only get at their shop.

When Steve at Third Eye contacted me about the event and variant, he had a specific concept in mind – Since Wayward is focused on Japan, let’s do a playful riff on a Studio Ghibli image using Wayward. As soon as he suggested it, I knew what we should do.

TotoroPoster

The original My Neighbor Totoro poster is beautiful, iconic, and wonderfully cute. I asked Steve Cummings and Tamra Bonvillain to do up a version with Ayane and a giant cat waiting at a bus stop in the city and here’s the amazing result:

Wayward06-00-3rdEyeVariant

The Japanese on our cover loosely reads “My Neighbour Wayward”.

If you live anywhere near Annapolis, Maryland make sure you mark Tabletop Day on your calendar and come out for the big event. You can get this Ghibli-inspired special cover, meet me, and try out board games and card games aplenty. A day full of games, comics, and tons of fun!

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And, if you’re unable to attend the event in person, you can pre-Order WAYWARD Vol. 1 from Third Eye Comics and get their Totoro variant cover for FREE!
http://www.thirdeyecomics.com/product/wayward-vol-1-string-theory-tp/

Skullkickers Interview on Dynamic Forces

The gang at Dynamic Forces interview me about the final arc of SKULLKICKERS. We talk a bit about five years of fantasy fun and what comes next.

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Samurai Jack #20 Solicitation

Arriving in May. Pre-order now!

You can read more about my thoughts on the comic series ending HERE.

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SAMURAI JACK #20
Jim Zub (w)
Andy Suriano (a & c)

FINAL ISSUE.

A scribe named Mako has heard many strange stories of the great hero known only as “Jack.” Mako’s journey to record the truth of the samurai reveals a fascinating look at his legacy and possible future: Jack the King. Jack the General. Jack the Legend.

FC • 32 pages • $3.99