Mark’s Remarks – Solo Avengers #2 (January 1988)

Seeing as how I won’t have any mail on our premiere issue of SOLO AVENGERS for another month or two (and I’d feel guilty running a blank page here), I thought I’d respond to some of the mail that my Mark’s Remarks column running in my other books (AVENGERS, WEST COAST AVENGERS, and IRON MAN) has been getting in recent months. The most controversial column I’ve done since my “Death of the No-Prize” essay in my very first M’s Rems has certainly been “How Not To Break Into the Comics Industry” which ran in WEST COAST AVENGERS #22. It seems that a number of you took my listing of seven things you can do that will hurt your chances of landing an assignment in professional comics the wrong way. In the words of one correspondent, “I’m amazed that you could publish these commandment without realizing that you sound a bit arrogant yourself, or at best, supremely disdainful.” It was not my intent, in writing that particular column, of course, to be arrogant or disdainful.  If I were truly arrogant or disdainful I wouldn’t have even addressed the subject at all, preferring to keep the process of “going pro” as mysterious and foreboding as possible.

But before I delve into a point by point analysis of what I said, why I said it, and what I meant by it, let’s review those seven points so we all know what I’m talking about. In brief, they were: 1) Have a whole bunch of different career goals, not just comics. 2) Don’t get good at any one thing first…be a little good at a lot of things. 3) Don’t be willing to sacrifice or put yourself out in any way. 4) Submit a million things at the same time. 5) Submit material that isn’t quite comics to be evaluated. 6) When an editor criticizes some aspect of your work, argue with him or her. And 7) Develop arrogance, smugness, and obnoxiousness in your dealings with the person you want to get work from. Now then, one correspondent (you’ll note that I’m not identifying my critics by name – it’s not my intent to pick on anybody’s opinions in a forum where I get the last word) wonders why I took the negative approach to the essay. Why didn’t I write “How To Break Into the Comics Industry” instead of “How Not To”? The reason for that is tha there’s not just one way to break into comics, and I felt it would be misleading to list what might be construed as the recipe for going pro.

All right then, on to the specific points. First, the career goals issue. When I first began investigating how to make comics my career, I was asked by a renowned comics artist who I showed my art samples to, “If you couldn’t do comics for a living, what would you do?” I said, “I don’t know…go into advertising, teach art, something like that.” He said, “To make it into professional comics, you must have no viable career alternatives to fall back on. If you do, you won’t be hungry, desperate, or motivated enough to do whatever it takes to become a professional.” Now this seemed like pretty extreme advice to take at the time. On the other hand, I followed it, and look where I am today, passing along the same advice. I truly believe that it takes drive and determination to make it in this business, and there’s no greater drive than survival. I wanted to get into comics and I was willing to do whatever it took. (This invokes my third top: be willing to make sacrifices.) I left my comfortable home in the midwest to move to New York (where the main publishers are headquartered), having no job (not even a job offer), few acquaintances, and but $600 in savings to live on. I struggled for six months, depleting my savings, living in a one room garret, and trying to get a job with one of the comics companies, before I finally had to take a file clerk job with a major bank to put food on the table. Did I compromise my career goals by taking that clerk job? Was I ruining my motivation to get in the comics industry? No, “file clerk” was never a career, it was just a job to tide my over till I could get into my career. One correspondent writes, “Only a fool pulls up roots and faces an uncertain financial future without a firm job offer in hand.” He’s write. And I was a fool to take the chance on my talent as I did, but it was a gamble I was willing to take, and one that I was determined to make work. The same correspondent goes on to say that an editor should “give someone an offer in writing before you expect them to go to the expense of relocation.” I agree, that sure would be nice, but that’s not the way the business works. Nobody wanted me to be in the comics industry except me. No one would have missed me had I not gotten in. It was up to me to prove myself to the people I wanted to hire me. Moving to where the jobs are was necessary, I felt, to put myself in a position to so prove myself. The comics industry owes no one a living.

In my second point, I cautioned against not specializing in any one of the various disciplines in comics. Again, I pulled this caveat straight from my own experience. My own early submissions portfolios showed I could do all of the various disciplines in comics – writing, penciling, inking, lettering, coloring, editing – halfway decent. But the industry does not want people halfway good at something, it wants someone who is all the way good at something. You don’t get an assignment until you have mastered the minimal professional standards of the particular discipline (and even that is no guarantee). All my half-skills did not add up to one full skill at anything I could be expected to be hired for. Virtually no one breaks in by being hired to do more than one discipline at a time. For example, John Byrne and Frank Miller were hired by Marvel as pencilers. Only after demonstrating their mastery of the one discipline did they branch out into others (inking and writing). But if a person is halfway good at something, is it too much to expect that a company will hire you and work with your to bring your half-skills up to full-skills? Yes, that is too much to expect. Unlike certain other professions where there is on the job training, the comics industry owes no one an education.

My third point, about the willingness to make sacrifices, was pretty well covered in my discussion of the first point, so I’ll move one.

My fourth point was about the counter productiveness of bombarding an editor with so many samples at once that it would take a great deal of patience and perseverance to wade through them all. This is no idle gripe. An editor has only so much time to devote to screening samples, and if one person tries to make too big a presumption on an editor’s time, that person has a strike against him or her before the editor even looks at the work. One should submit only a representative sample of his or her work, not the collected body of it. The object is to get the editor to want to look at your work, not scare him or her off. Sending samples through the mail is a very impersonal way of breaking in the business, but most editors I know don’t want to give anyone a personal interview unless he or she’s previewed the person’s work in advance. It is important to remember that editors don’t want to edit your samples to get to the good stuff buried in there. Editors owe no one a disproportionate amount of their time.

My fifth point was about only submitting material appropriate to the various comics disciplines in your samples. While I exaggerated the type of inappropriate material to submit (poems and record reviews for writing samples, still life watercolors and charcoal portraits for art samples), I continue to be amazed at the not-quite-comics material I am shown. Prose short stories do not demonstrate to me that a person can write a comic book synopsis. Full page pin-ups do not demonstrate to me that a person can tell a story through a sequence of panels. (Marvel’s needs for prose short stories and single page pin-ups is very minimal.) I am also shown comic book plots that don’t have Marvel characters in it, and sample comic pages that don’t have Marvel characters on them. How am I supposed to know if a person understands the Marvel characters enough to write about them or can draw Marvel characters to look like they’re supposed to from samples like that? An aspiring professional has to demonstrate his or her ability to handle the characters the company published in the format the company publishes them. Editors can only judge your ability and suitability by what you give them.

My sixth point concerned justifying, apologizing for, or arguing on behalf of your submissions. None of that will get you anywhere. You must assume that the editor is always right in knowing just what it is he or she is looking for. Explaining why a certain piece of work is not your best (“My hand hurt the day I drew it.”) won’t make it any better or make the editor want to buy it any more. Your work should speak for itself. If it doesn’t, you’re in trouble.

My seventh point is closely related to the sixth, and concerns attitude. It always amazes me when people who want me to hire them demonstrate discourteousness or obnoxiousness (“cop an attitude”). Do these aspiring professionals really expect me to hire someone who gets on my nerves? I try to treat people as fairly as I can, but I’m human, and I can be as aggravating as the next man. On the other hand, I’m not the one looking for the job. Anyone who maligns one of the people I’m currently using makes no points with me. In essence, that person is criticizing my judgement for hiring who I did. If anyone questions my qualifications to judge his or her work, I feel no need to list them. If someone doesn’t know my qualifications or doesn’t recognize the authority of my position, then why in the world is he submitting his work to me? They’d do better to submit to a person whose qualifications they know, whose authority they recognize.

The correspondent who gave my previous column the most trouncing asks me in light of the “grouchiness” of “How Not to Break Into the Comics Industry” if I truly am looking for new writers and artists. The truth of the matter is no, I am not personally on a great quest to find new talent for the comics industry. After all I’ve got top professionals doing all the books I edit at present. Certain other editors devote more of their time to hunting and cultivating tomorrow’s talent than I do, while certain other editors devote even less. On the other hand, Marvel, as a company, is committed to finding and hiring all the top talents there are. That’s why we have a Submissions Editor whose full-time job it is to review the work of would-bes. But me personally? No, my great quest is to put out great books. If new talent can do what my old talent can’t, then I’m interested. My personal goal is the product of top talent, not the process of finding them. I’m willing to bet that most people who are in the position hire new people would admit the same if pressed for an answer. You see, while I’m not looking for new talent, I’m confident that new talent is looking for me (or someone like me). And if my tips on how not to break in were helpful (either in my original short-winded exaggerated version or this long-winded soft-sell version), I feel like I’ve done something to put all you aspiring top talents a little more “in the know.”

More of Mark’s Remarks to Reader Mail on Mark’s Remarks next month!

–Mark Gruenwald­­