What are the real lessons about going pro?

One thing I’ve learned from interviewing a lot of comics creators is that there’s no single path to breaking into the comics business. Art school experiences are a great example. Here are some quotes from our book Tales from the Titans: Top Comics Pros Reveal How to Create a Career in Comic Books. (The book is available on Amazon.)

Dave McKean (Sandman, Arkham Asylum) recommends art school for a perhaps unexpected reason. McKean told me:

A lot of people think you just go to art college to learn how to draw things, whereas the most important things you learn are the basic human skills you need to survive. How to observe. How to think through problems. How to solve problems.

On the other hand, John “Derf” Backderf (My Friend Dahmer, Kent State) had a miserable art school experience:

I went to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh to learn how to be a comic book artist. It was a huge disappointment. I spent more time learning fashion illustration and how to render motorcycle parts in airbrush than I did on comics. Finally, in my third semester, I got to take a comics and cartooning class. I told the instructor of my dream and he proceeded to shit all over it, telling me what a crappy, low-paying job it was. “You should draw greeting cards,” he advised. “That’s a great career!” I was absolutely crushed. And for some reason, I listened to that guy. I gave up the dream and, at the end of the semester, dropped out of art school. It was the only time in my life I’ve listened to discouraging advice.

What’s the real lesson? I can think of takeaways that apply equally for writers.

  1. Your path is your own. In the end, we each walk in our own footsteps. That’s our only choice.
  2. Art school or a writing program can be an amazing, formative experience, but the lessons you learn may not be directly on the syllabus. Many lessons may be accredited by the “School of Hard Knocks.”
  3. Be aware of McKean’s “basic human skills” that you need to learn and appreciate them learning them.
  4. Now more than ever, college is a huge expense. It’s worth choosing your school carefully. One of the keys factors is picking a school where a reasonable number of instructors are aligned with your sensibility and can be effective mentors.
  5. There is no college degree required to become a writer or artist. That said, each young creator must learn a lot to reach professional quality. Have you studied your techniques? Have you spent the time to get your worst work out of the way so that you can do good—perhaps great—work? Have you mastered the structure and “rules” of story and art enough that you can bend them to your own voice? Once you can produce compelling stories and/or artwork there will be a market for your work.
  6. Drawing gift cards was the ultimate insult for Derf. That said, it can be rewarding work if fits you. Just ask Kerry Callen.
  7. Don’t listen to the jerks who tell you to give up your dreams.

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