Sunday, October 30, 2011

Creating a Comic Book Portfolio: The Ramblings of an Artist

New York Comicon this year was a fun experience.  I got to meet some new friends, hung out with old friends, met comic fans, and also go to spend some time with the top brass at DC comics.  It was literally a whirl wind of activity and 5 days quickly flew by in a flash!
  But one part of a convention that seems to drag by is when an aspiring artist asks for a portfolio review.  I don't mean that to sound like I hate looking at portfolios because I really don't.  But what's frustrating is the fact that out of maybe 20 portfolios that you see, one person actually took the time to research what goes into a good portfolio.  In fact, it's very mentally taxing to look through portfolio after portfolio to simply give the same advice, over and over again.
  A few days ago I read my friend and Editor Vince Hernandez's blog on how to break into comics as a writer. I would suggest you read this first. I really liked the info he gave and felt that maybe I could help a few people by giving my advice as to how to make a comic book portfolio.
  Now, just a disclaimer, when you read on I may sound very blunt and almost rude but if you can take what I say as constructive criticism and work it into your portfolio, it will give you a better overall product.  I don't mean to sound mean, or like a jerk, but sometimes this kind of article can come off sounding that way.  Remember, I'm on your side and trying to help make a dream a reality.

Things to get into your head:

  First, let me say, it's almost impossible to break into comics.  Think about it.  You are literally going up against hundreds, no, THOUSANDS of others all around the country all trying to get a shot with a company.  Not only that, but you are also going up against people from all over the world.  With the internet, new talent can be discovered from around the world at any time.  You need to go into your portfolio preparation with that in mind.  You need to be better than everyone else if you want to get a job.  And even then, you may never get work professionally.  It's a tough reality, it's not fair, but thats how it goes.
  Second.  You need to put the time, and years of work necessary to make a professional portfolio.  It took me my entire life of hard work to get a job.  Over 20 years of focussing on art.  As a kid I took art classes, I studied films, made my own films, read books, sought wisdom from artists I knew and generally was never satisfied with what I was doing.  I always wanted to get better.  I made a decision when I was 20 that I wanted to shoot for comics as a took me another 5 years of hard work to finally get a job.  During those 5 years I busted my butt eating up all the information I could about art.  I took 3 years of art training in college focusing on Animation, and after graduating spent another 2 years worked on anatomy, storytelling and all the other bells and whistles of comic art.  Then I got the biggest break of my life when David Finch, my favorite comic book artist decided to teach me one-on-one.  You may call it a lucky break, but the fact of the matter is the hard work I put into the craft paid off.  Dave saw something in my work that impressed him.  6 months later I was working for DC comics.  It took me a total of close to 25 years to get to where I am now.  How much time have you put into it?
  Third, are you willing to learn?  I'll touch on some of these things in the next sections, but the worst is when you start to point out things an artist is doing wrong, or is generally bad at and they get defensive.  The worst is when someone defends their work saying, "Well, I didn't get to spend as much time on that page as I would have liked."  Really?  Then why is it even in your portfolio?  Instead, come prepared with a pad of paper and a pen and write down everything the person looking at you work points out.  You must have a heart to learn.  You must have a soul that is never satisfied with your achievements and wants to strive for more!  To be better with every drawing!  You need to put the time into learning everything about art.  Not just comics, but everything.  You never stop learning so embrace that and get to work!

The Meat and Potatoes:

The Portfolio:

  The first thing you need to do is to create a portfolio of your work to show your employers.  Unlike other jobs where you simply put your credentials and work experience on a resume, in comics you need to prove you can actually do the job with hand drawn work.

Some companies will list what they are looking for in a portfolio but for the most part, it's not how many pieces you have but the quality in which the pages are done.  For example, my portfolio simply consisted of 6 pages.  6 well done story pages.  In fact I spent over a month working on 6 pages.  It took me a week per page because I wanted every page to really scream, "Look what I can do."  I knew that when I got work, I would have to pump out a page every day or so and that I would lose some of my quality but that doesn't matter at this point.  I knew I could do the work very quick if I needed to and over time I would develop speed as well as quality.
  Most of the time I see portfolios filled with everything from pages to covers, to concept sketches to inks, to colors to everything.  I can't stress it enough: If all those pieces are junk it doesn't matter if you have 100 pages, it's still junk.  In fact, I can immediatly tell if a portfolio is something worth looking at or something worth giving back simply by looking at the first page.  So if your work isn't up to par with the top artists working at DC or Marvel from the first page, you've literally killed your chances.  5 or 6 pages of a comic book story is what you need, but it also needs to be 5 or 6 pages of killer, mindblowing, professonal art.  Does it have to be perfect?  Nope.  Mine wasn't.  But it showed the publisher what I could do and that I have the seeds of talent that could grow into something more.   You can also throw a few pinups and covers, but for the most part it should be a great story to really show off your work!  Also, focus on ONE thing. If you want to be a penciler, only show pencils.  If you want to be an inker, just show inks.

  Back to Basics:

  This is the information that I repeat for all of the portfolio reviews I look at either over the internet or at a con.  Take this information seriously and get to work on it!
FUNDAMENTALS.  This is the word you need to focus on for years and years before trying to put together a portfolio for serious consideration.  This means going back and learning the fundamentals of art.  Everything from pose, anatomy, perspective, composition, storytelling, lighting and shadows, line quality, line weight, buildings, cars, trees, plants, faces, dogs, cats, everything.  The best way to learn these things is to take a course.  Try getting into a local college, or art program that goes into heavy detail on all the subjects of art.  I took the tradigital animation program at St. Clair College in Windsor Ontario. Even though it wasn't a comic book course, I still learned all of the fundamentals as well as using computers and 3d programs to create art.  I also learned storytelling, storyboarding, page flow, action, and movement from the course.  In the end it still took me 2 years of heavy research to learn even more.  On top of that it took 6 month of hardcore work to let Dave Finch mould my skills into something further.  Am I getting the point takes hard, long work.

There are some options as well for people who can't take a course.  But I am warning you, learning by yourself is very tough and only the strongly motivated will survive.  A good thing to do is get some books, read them front to back, then draw them out, front to back 4 or 5 times.  You need to learn everything you can.  Here are my book suggestions:
Bridgeman's Guide to Drawing from Life.  Literally draw this book out 2 or 3 times until you can memorize every system of muscles and anatomy.
Drawing Comics the Marvel Way.  This has everything you need to know about drawing comics.  Read it, draw it, study it.
As for perspective, look online on Amazon for a good perspective book.  I have this book:

Vanishing Point: Perspective For Comics From The Ground Up.  It's a pretty good book with everything you need to know about perspective.  

Another good suggestion is to pick up David Finch's Gnoman DVD tutorials .  This is pretty much what I did with Dave but over the course of 6 months.  

Again, from here it's what you are willing to put into your art that is going to help you become a better artists.  

Also, try to pick a style that is popular.  Jim Lee, David Finch, Olivier Coipel, Michael Turner ect.  sell books simply because of their art.  They are the guys with the longest lines at comic conventions.  They are the guys you want to be.  If you can draw like these guys, comic companies will want you because their style will sell.  I was taught by Finch and because of this my work resembles his.  When I told Dave I felt like a rip off, he told me that it was a good thing and because of it, my career would go far fast.  He was right.  Now, I am able to branch out and try to create my own thing but I will always follow the style he taught me.    What artists do you like?  A good thing to do is simply get some of their work and try to draw like them.  For myself, it was Dave Finch, Ivan Reis, and Alan Davis.  Copying their work for a month is a good exercise. From this I learned anatomy better, their storytelling style and how to incorperate their styles into my own.  Do it.  
  Sometimes you'll hear that comic companies only want someone that looks unique.  Thats not entirely true.  Let your style turn into it's own over time.  For now focus on the artists who sell.

The Portfolio Review:

  Once you have a portfolio and have gathered up the courage to take it to a con, remember these few things.

BE HUMBLE.  You need to realize you are not a professional.  Even after working this last year as a comic professional, I still feel like an amateur with lots to learn.  Go into a review looking to ask questions and learn, never to get a job.  This is an opportunity to show your work and get critiques.  Again, being a jerk and acting like you're the best will not help.  Write down what the professionals tell you, go home and work on that for another year.  

DON'T hand in a portfolio that showcases your home made character.  Sadly, however great you think your creation is, the reviewer will think it's crap.  I don't want to see "metal armor man" fighting mutant rats as your professional sample.  Pick a good story (there are tons online you can find) change it up a bit and incorporate a character like Batman, Superman, Wolverine, or Daredevil into the work.  You want to show a company you can draw their characters.  If your version of Batman is something great, they will notice that and you will have a better chance at work.  In fact, everyone has seen Batman and can tell if you got the chops simply by seeing you draw such a well known character.

BE REALISTIC.  You may never work in comics, ever.  I took the animation program because I wasn't going to take the gamble of putting all my eggs in one basket.  If you buy stocks it's not good to plunk down $1000 on one stock.  Instead you may buy 1000 stocks at $10 each in order to diversify.  I knew that if my comic book dreams would have never come true, I could fall back on my animation training, or graphic design, advertising art or something of the sort.  Thats why taking a strong college course is a good idea.  You may be able to break into something else.  Maybe you're meant to work in comics, maybe you aren't.  If you find that years and years and years have gone by and you've never landed one good comic job, maybe its not for you.  If you hear from guys that you have the talent, it's just going to take some more work, than that's a sign that maybe it's for you.  Get your work out to every company possible.  Working for a small comic company (and I mean those small, small, indie companies) making $20 a page is better experience than doing nothing.  I planned on doing my own book with a buddy if things didn't work out.  Find an aspiring writer and come up with an indie book.  Maybe publish it online.  Do what you can to get your work out there.

Remember, taking a good, long, realistic look at your work can really help.  Pick up a modern comic, maybe something that isn't a top selling book or with the best art, and hold it up to your own.  Is your work better?  Are you a stronger artist then they are?  Stop listening to your mom, girlfriend, or friends who tell you that you are amazing, and look at your work with a critical eye.  Is your work at the same quality as a DC comics or Marvel comics artist?  Thats where you need to be.  WORK hard and get to that point.

Also, don't draw manga...

Lastly, a little spiritual wisdom.  Being a christian, I believe that God has a plan for my life.  I was actually going to a bible college when I felt that God wanted me to chase the comic book dream again.  I prayed about it day and night asking Him to show me what he wanted me to do.  Was it any coincidence that I got to learn one-on-one with my hero?  I don't think so.  It was all God.  Is it any coincidence that in only a year and a half of working in comics I've been able to accumulate a resume that includes working on characters like Superman, Animal Man and Batman?  No, it's God.  Being a christian puts life in a very different perspective.  It gives me contentment with my life.  If God chose to bless me with a career in comics, or not, was all up to Him and not me.  I would just follow where He led me.  Even today I'm being faced with some HUGE career decisions but it all comes down to prayer and seeking His council.  God is my secret weapon in my career and I believe it's my Faith in Christ that has allowed me to get to where I am.  If God takes it away tomorrow than I have no worries because He's always come through for me.  He's Faithful even when I am not.  I give him the glory for my career.  My talents are His and not mine.  What a difference it makes in life when you have the God of the universe driving the car instead of yourself.  
Lastly, my final piece of advice: your hard work and a hard work ethic can pay off where you lack talent.  When I got my first job on Superman/Batman #70, I BOMBED the book.  The deadlines were tight, I was sick and throwing up from the stress, and my work sucked.  It was the worst thing I ever did in my life.  BUT I hit my deadline against all odds.  I got every page done on time.  Even when my inker bailed on me, I called DC, told them what happened and they helped to get the book done.  Because of my work ethic and my passion to get the job done, they gave me another job...and another... and another...  Even though my worked sucked at first, I still got work because I was reliable.  I showed them I could hit deadline and save the day.  It's moments like that that lead up to getting the chance to draw two issues of Batman: The Dark Knight.  Two issues that needed to be done in 8 weeks.  Two issues that I finished and rocketed my career to a place I never dreamed it could be.  HARD WORK PAYS OFF!!!!

I hope this little write-up can help.  I'm sure there is a bunch of other things I could talk about or forgot to touch on, but maybe I'll add to this the next time I head to a con.  Good luck, work hard and do things right!

Below are scans of my portfolio samples.  First editor I showed them to at DC gave me a job.  They aren't the best, but they showed what I could do.  Notice I tried to put one of every element I would need to be able to draw... City, cars, stores, people, smoke, Batman (anatomy vs. clothing), Men, Women, bad guys, different scenery, children, guns, special effects and shadows.

-Jason Fabok
Oct 30, 2011


Cameron Durgin said...

Wow. Great post. You touched on a lot of points and honestly I really wish I had read something like this a few years earlier. I look up to your work and David's so much and really want to get to your levels. I'm glad you put things in a lot of perspective. I'm hoping with hard work and dedication I can work in comics. It is a dream. Regardless if that dream comes true I appreciate your honesty and I'm glad you wrote this piece. Thanks Jason. I hope our paths cross one day. This was very inspiring.

juliozor said...

Jason, you are so right. I am fourteen year old and all I want is to work on the comic industry, I have never took classes, cuz' my parents never thought it necessary, but I know my drawings aren't the best, but I'm not mad with them, but with me. I sometimes start getting lazy and stop a drawing at the half or at the beginning because I don't like it. I really appreciate all the information you gave in this post, and all the rudeness, because you only talk to losers with sweet words (no offense to everyone who has done that), because sweet works do not help you, they make you even weaker.
And thanks for the section in which you talked about learning alone, cuz' that is what I do, I bought all the David Finch's tutorials of Gnomon and I have studied them from back to forth, but I think I need to practice a little more, y'know.
I also chose the Davdi Finch's style, but it is very complicated, but I will follow every advise you told us in this post.
Also, you are right.
Everyone tells me: you are the best drawer I've ever seen. That guy draws better cuz' they ar edifferent styles. But I know they are all lying.
But forgetting everything else, the end is my favorite part. Where you talk about god. When I read that part I felt like the post was made to fit my shoe, completely. I'm also christian, and I every day I pray to god to help me get in the comic industry when I grow up, but I couldn't stop smiling when I read that, it was like god was trying to tell me: "leave it all to me, you don't have to worry." In that moment I really couldn't believe it, the advice about learning alone, working hard, not to listen to your friends, take the style of one of your favorite artrists and then, like the cherry on top of the ice ream, the message form god. That message, you really changed my perspective of life, of everything. I thank to god, and to everyone, and I want to tell it to everybody in the world, that god sent me a message through one of my favorite comic artist, but I know they will laugh, but I don't care, I'm really so excited that I wanna get to work now and thank a lot to God.
My hands are shaking and I can barely control them, well I need to finish this, hope you read it.
Think, Juliozor.

Steph Weatherson said...

Thank you for the reality check Jason. This was a really down to earth post to read. Very blunt regarding the industry, but helpful.

I'm currently a first year Animation student at St. Clair, but illustration is something that I'm growing more and more interested in. I don't know if you remember this, but back in September this past year you had stopped in at the school and ended up talking to our class briefly about your career story. This was like our second week of school.

I cannot tell you how important that was. I'm a slightly older student, and Christian, and going into the program I really was motivated to work my butt off, but I didn't know if illustration was even an option when I was done, but it was something I wanted. Seriously, your story hit me so hard at home. Between talking about your faith and your experience in school, I felt like I could relate to so much of it.

You said so many things I needed to hear, and I don't know if anyones ever motivated me that much. After you left Ron described some of your diligent work habits you had while you were in school, and collectively I've kept all that advice in mind.

This post, while slightly discouraging, is also something I needed to read. Its a blunt reality check. I'll admit, some of that was hard to take in because the truth is harsh, but theres value to that. I know I have a long way to go in learning, a VERY long way to go. And I don't even know if comic books are somewhere that I'll want to end up, but this was good to read. You offer a very good perspective on the real world for artists, that its not simple to get into.

Thank you for both the inspiration and the harsh truth. Because it's never good to be naive when it comes to preparing for the real world. =)

juliozor said...

Jason, did you took this from the sample script of glass house graphics?
Cuz' I was looking for a sample and I found it. Just for curiosity, 'know.
Think, Juliozor.

Aaron Benton said...


Wow man! I read this post today and feel so humbled yet encouraged. I want to pursue comics as a career and I am not even close to being close to ready. My artwork sucks compared to yours or finch's or other artists that are big right now. thank you for sharing what level of skill i need to be at before i show my work. Also being a brother in Christ I was uplifted to hear that another believer is working on such big heroes for one of the biggest companies.

God gave me a passion for drawing and I will not give up. thats all i've ever wanted to do with my life. Thank your for being real and helping me know what my goals should be. I have the Gnomon DVDs and i'm going to really start studying them hard. I have 3 sketchbooks full of almost empty pages. I know what to do with them now.

Thank you so much.

nomzam said...

Im about to redesign my portfolio and this has gave me many pointers,

Manuel Lopez said...

Great article and inspiring too. As a aspiring comic book penciler this helped me put things in perspective a lot. Thank you Jason Fabok.

Manuel Lopez

Manuel Lopez said...

Great article and inspiring too. As a aspiring comic book penciler this helped me put things in perspective a lot. Thank you Jason Fabok.

Manuel Lopez

Amber Olsen said...


I mean, wow.

I've been struggling with figuring how to go about this difficult task of getting to pro, racking my brain...and I find this. You see, I've been wanting to yell stories through art since I was a child. Of course, when I was younger, everything I loved about life was manga so.....I have a lot of habits to break.

Over the past two years I've really been trying to develop my American comic style. Oy! For years, and hundred of dollars worth of money, I've learnt the Japanese comic form. To be honest, I still prefer the emotional expressions and exagerations of manga over American comics.

My husband is a writer. He studied it in college where we met. Me...I started to study art, but someone I looked up to in church said I couldn't serve God with art. So now I have a degree in music with some music ed masters under my belt.

And I know now I'm supposed to be an artist. Something I think I knew all along.

I was praying today that God would grant me some encouragement. I've been a bit down about my art endeavors...after watching a portfolio review last night on tv (didn't know they existed), I was excited to know about this opportunity. After much research, I also know that I don't have what it takes - yet. It's in me, it just doesn't make it on paper yet.

My husband could get into comics the first time simeone reads his work. It's awesome. My manga-influenced style now is not the paying style. But it's so rooted into everything I know about illustration, it's in everything I do.

We're starting the webcomic. I've penciled 7 or so pages and have only inked one. My question for you is: should I abandon what I know and go for a more American feel before we publish online? I want my work to be noticed, but I'm not sure how I can conceivably get this "out of my system" and replace it with another 20+ years of study....I'll be too old! Haha.

Lillian Killlingbeck said...

Hi Amber Olsen,

Though I am not the OP, I do want to tell you this.

I myself am an aspiring artists and I also prefer the expressive Japanese comics over the hum-drum American DC comics. (Marvel is an exception to American.)

I would not abandon all what you have learned concerning manga as it is your preference art style.

I would however highly recommend drawing realistically as well. This was told me when I was completely immersed in manga (especially CLAMP's work), I didn't heed people's suggestions at drawing realism.

The best books for poses are poses that aren't cartoons posing. And there are excellent reference books out there with photos of people. One I'm hoping to get soon is Buddy Scalera's "Comic Artist's Photo Reference" series.

Also, if you plan going with manga style, I would highly suggest you try to self-publish your work.

To me, it wouldn't matter if my name is big in the comic world, nor making big money off of some company.

What matters is publishing my work and getting it out there.

There are many fine mangaka who have published their work through kindle.

Try networking with other artists/writers who have successfully published their work.

I've tried contacting several. Some artists/writers would be gladly to help.

But beware. As you'll have some who will see you as a competition and won't even bother with you. Which I think is stupid and rude and ruins the chance of me wanting to support them in any way.

Continue to press on with your dream and try to make it a reality.

Publish your work even if it's not going to be famous because it's not DC Marvel style or whatever.

God Bless you in all that you do! :)

Bauerman24 said...

Thanks for this post. I am a Christian as well, and sometimes it's hard to find work outside of mainstream publishers, because some of the jobs ask for content that I would really struggle with spiritually to draw.

One question: are you presenting the actual pages, and do you just carry them around in a case? I've never seen a "professional" portfolio, so I don't know how one looks physically. Of course, the work INSIDE should be top-notch, but how do you present this in physical form?

Again, thanks for your time and this great post!

Joseph Catapano said...

Thank you, Jason, for this rambling. There are not too many artists that are this forthcoming with this type of advice. And, also, thank you for including the portfolio submission. It helps.

Tkm Check said...

Just found this post Jason. This is the best post I've found on pursuing work in comics in a long time. I appreciate the honesty and candor.

I follow Him, as well. My current career (software developer) has been totally and completely funded and made possible by God. I have been unable to do anything but PROSPER, even through one of the worst recessions/depressions in our country's history, all because of His grace. Hopefully, Brother, I will be able to meet you one day at a Con, when my table is setup next to yours. God bless you and yours.

Tony Mullins

Tazia Hall said...

I also believe God called me to comics. It was just a media that rang so deep in me ever since youth. Things happened in recent years that nearly made me give up art all together but I'm just too wired for it it's like a fire in my bones.

That being said I am now trying to put together a comic art portfolio. It's more along the lines of Archie or Manga though, not Marvel and DC like yours (in fact those companies seem to be taking cues from Japanese media). I'm actually not a fan of the typical Japanese manga that gets by on big eyes, panty shots, and giant robots. I actually like to dig for the more innovative and unique Japanese works, some very dynamic, compelling and realistic like Miyazaki's work. Those will always be an inspiration. Your insight was very helpful and even if I don't land a big company maybe I can create my own published work independently and with other creative teams. In God's sight, a big company is not the end all be all. People have made things in the shadows that have become timeless works.

My ideal is to also work with other creative believers of Christ because I believe we would be an unstoppable force.

Liwia Dzierżawa said...

Hi, nice post, I am glad I found it, but I want to make a comment to your statement that an artist should show only sketches if he or she wants to be a peciller. I am from Poland where is no such market of comics and I always had to do everything, ink and colour, and letters by myself, so it is impossible to show only pencils :P

jim jimenez said...

thanks for the pointers, will do my best to have the same motivation that you have, sometimes your own self is your enemy, when boredom strikes then it's all the way down hill to no success.....thanks again

jim jimenez said...

thanks for the pointers, will do my best to have the same motivation that you have, sometimes your own self is your enemy, when boredom strikes then it's all the way down hill to no success.....thanks again

Ruben said...

I also believe that with God on your side everything is possible. Your Blog is truly appreciated, Thank You.

Michael Ibarra said...

Glad I found this blog. I’m starting my portfolio story right now, I did the years of prep work and feel ready to go for it. I’m actually going to copy your story but do things my own way. I hope to make it in comics then tell you in person how you guided me

Amanda said...

This blog was such a blessing to me. I am not an artist, but my husband is. This was so enlightening and helpful. Thank you.

Rani Anggraeni said...

Thank you for another fantastic posting. Where else could anyone get that kind of information in such a perfect way of writing? I have a speech next week, and I was looking for more info ;)

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Ogbru Evidence said...

Thank You so much Jason for this beautiful piece. It has open my eyes to various ways to improve my art and I love your faith as a christian. Like you said being a Christian puts life on a different perspective, a perspective of anything is possible, no limitations, all I need is the willingness to work.