It’s who you know

By Kirk Chritton
©1988, 2008 Kirk Chritton. All Rights Reserved. 

Some people will try to tell you it’s not true, but let me assure you that the biggest part of getting work in this business definitely is who you know. Sure, you have to be able to do the work at a professional level, and this article will talk about getting to that point, but once you’re there, you’re going to have to have important contacts to get your first assignment. You need to start building this support network now, while you’re still developing your skills.

After all, an editor wants to have some idea that the freelancer he’s entrusting the job to is capable of doing the work. Even if the editor doesn’t know you personally, it will help if someone he trusts vouches for you.

One assistant editor got his job when a friend quit the position and recommended him as a replacement. This practice is so common that several editors and assistants who read this will probably think I’m talking about them.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that only established professionals are good contacts, however. Actually, your best contacts are probably people who aren’t established yet. When I was in high school, I was invited to a meeting of an informal comics club near my hometown. I went with some friends, and we were astounded by the new world of fandom that we’d encountered. Our idea of being a comics fan was hanging out at the grocery store on delivery day.

These people were comics experts!

At that time, I certainly wasn’t thinking about contacts, but I made a very important one. How could I have known that the woman I spent an evening talking to in 1980, Cat Yronwode, would become Editor-in-Chief of Eclipse Comics – a major force in the independent comics scene of the 80’s?

Over the years, that evening has been a blessing to me. Cat critiqued my work, gave me information for freelance articles, and spent several hours on the phone with me for her interview in Comics Career Newsletter #1.

It was important that I made a decent first impression at that club meeting. I’m not claiming that Cat thought I was the next Frank Miller, but my friends and I didn’t aggravate her too much, and our antics were probably a little amusing in a small dose. If I had made a lasting poor impression, however, I doubt that she would want to give me the time of day now.

The point is that you never know who is going to be important and you never know when you’re making an essential first impression. After all, the guy behind the register at the comics shop could be an up-and-coming penciler next year. If that’s the case, you’ll be glad that you were friendly and polite to him.

Be especially careful when dealing with people in fandom at large. When you’re exchanging e-mails with other aspiring professionals or posting to forums, take care to appear professional. Even if you’re an artist, use your dictionary. Nothing is going to turn off most contacts faster than complete abuse of the English language. You won’t be thought of as a potential professional if you appear to be illiterate.

If you’re submitting work for publication, it’s even more important to take the time to do it right and neatly. Never send messy art or manuscripts. That goes for contributing to small press, too. I’ve received many letters and submissions, where it’s obvious that the person who wrote them didn’t even bother to look for simple, obvious, easily-correctable typos.

Somewhere, in the back of my head, a tally mark is made in that person’s “unprofessional” column. You never know, folks, I may one day be editor-in-chief of The Great American Comics Corporation™. Don’t blow your shot.

It Comes Around and Goes Around

I got my first real, paying professional work in comics because I was willing to invest in my career to make the right contacts. And, also because I have a wife with god-like understanding and compassion.

It goes like this.

My wife was still in college and I was bringing in $700 a month toting boxes in a department store. We were poor and borrowing from our family like a TV neighbor with a tool fetish. Mark Runyan and I had been putting together a short humor piece that we hoped to sell to a small publishing company. Unfortunately, neither of us could letter worth beans, as if that was stopping anyone else during the black and white boom of the mid-80s.

I asked the owner of the local comics shop if he knew of any letterers in the area. Sure enough, another customer was lettering professionally for Now Comics. The comics shop owner knew his name, but not his phone number and guaranteed me that he’d forget to give him a message. The letterer’s name was Rob Davis. I knew I’d never locate him. What was I supposed to do, call every Robert Davis in the phone book?

Yes, my wife told me, that’s exactly what you’ll do.

There were five Robert Davis’. I had to embarrass myself four times before I got the right one. I introduced myself and courteously asked if he could help. He said we’d have to talk about it; we could meet at the convention that was going to be in town the next weekend.

Here’s the part where my wife’s understanding and compassion come in. Keep in mind that we were dirt poor, admission to the convention would cost us $16 – and that her birthday was on the same weekend. We went to the convention, and all she got for her birthday was a modest dinner out. I still owe major favors for that one.

The convention was pitiful, and we couldn’t locate this mysterious Rob Davis. On the last day — at the last panel — we finally met him and his wife, and we all quickly became good friends.

I’d always dreamed of being a comics professional, but somewhere in the scary corners of my mind I’d also always believed that it was unobtainable. Normal guys like me were just comics fans. This professional, however, was a real, everyday guy just like me. I was amazed. It was at this time in my life that I understood that I really could write, edit, and publish comics professionally.

Thanks, Rob.

But how did this meeting turn into my first professional comics job? A few months later, Rob was assigned to a different title, Dai Kamikaze!, as penciller. This book was in serious deadline trouble, and the publisher, Tony Caputo, knew that Rob was capable of getting the book out fast. Unfortunately for the publisher, disputes with the book’s writing team left him with nothing for Rob to draw for the issue that was scheduled to ship that month. Fortunately for me, I was standing on the sidelines ready to write the issue. Rob recommended me, and Caputo knew me from an interview I’d done with him for the fan press. He gave me a call.

“How soon can you have a script to Rob?” he asked.

“Tomorrow,” I said.

I got the job and wrote the next nine issues.

This may sound like I got the assignment on dumb luck. Well, sort of, but it’s the kind of dumb luck that I’d influenced by investing in my career. I’d invested the embarrassment of calling four bewildered Robert Davis’ to find the right one. I’d invested $16 dollars that I didn’t have to meet him face to face. I’d invested several articles for the fan press (that I was never paid for) to meet Tony Caputo (among other people). I’d made the right contacts, and it resulted in getting a paying job writing comics. Those are the types of connections that you can learn to make, too.