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So You Want to Be a Comic Artist?

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This post is part of a series called Careers in Design & Illustration.
So You Want to Be a Convention Artist?
So You Want to Be a Children's Illustrator?

Whether it's a web comic, comic book, or graphic novel, the artists of the comic world have a variety of roles within a comic's creation, and all of them are pretty fantastic.

Jem and the Hologramsart by Sophie Campbell
Jem and the Holograms art by Sophie Campbell.

I interviewed several comic creators and artists whose roles vary from self-produced comic artist to penciler to colorist and more! From web to print, consider this article your guide to working as a comic artist.

What Do Comic Artists Do?

Let's start with a breakdown, in no particular order, of some of the roles artists within the world of comics may take on:

  • Penciler: The artwork inside (and often on the cover) of comic books is done primarily by the penciler. It's their work that sets the style and design of the comic, and it's often what readers connect with most aside from the writing itself (of course).
  • Inker: Whether working traditionally or digitally, inkers need a steady hand and good grasp of light and shadow. They're more than just tracing the pencil lines: they're defining the work and bringing it a bit closer to life.
  • Colorist: They work with the penciler and inker to kick the artwork into glorious Technicolor. Keen color theory skills, rendering skills, and an eye for design are the name of the game for colorists. 
  • Letterer: A letterer is usually a graphic designer who's contributing to the layout of the writer's copy.
  • Creator / Writer: Not all comics have multiple artists working on them, and some have artists in multiple roles. This includes creators and writers. Many well-loved web comics, for instance, are run by a single person, only involving others in marketing or sales.
  • Cover Artist: Much like being an illustrator for book covers, doing cover art for comics is a pretty exciting role, since your work will be seen by consumers first in a comic book store and may entice them to open it on up or purchase. Similar to the comic itself, it may be a collaborative effort of the artistic roles listed above.
  • And More... So many other roles, including product designer, layout designer, marketer, salesperson, and on and on and on. As with other print media and products, artists often find themselves wearing all sorts of hats in order to get an idea to the page and then to the consumer.
Star Trek Starfleet Academy Cover by George Caltsoudas for IDW Publishing
Star Trek: Starfleet Academy Cover by George Caltsoudas for IDW Publishing.
"I was the last person in line to have Matt Gagnon (Editor-in-Chief of Boom! Studios) review my portfolio and he loved it. So I got to do two covers for Steven Universe and one for Bee & Puppycat, though that issue still has not come out even though it was supposed to release back in March.
"Then at last year’s New York Comic Con I got to meet Sarah Gaydos, who is an editor at IDW. She’s such an amazing person to work with and thanks to her, I got to do covers for Powerpuff Girls, Edward Scissorhands, and the new Star Trek: Starfleet Academy series. I really enjoy doing art for her." — George Caltsoudas, Illustrator, on working as a cover artist.

What Kind of Comics Are There?

What do you think of when you think about comics? Books? Novels? Web comics? Comic strips in a newspaper? The list is pretty long for types of comics and places to read and enjoy them. Walk into a book store and you have walls filled with monthly comics, graphic novels, manga, and compilations of Sunday morning funnies previously printed in newspapers around the country (and in some cases, the world).

Comic Books

Most often printed in a vertical orientation (7 inches by 10 inches), the western comic book comes out monthly from publishers like DC, Marvel, and Dark Horse. They feature everything from well-loved super heroes and heroines to funny little stories about a kid and his dog in a rainbow candy land

Artists working for comic books for major and independent publishers often do so in a collaborative manner. Pencilers may work on a title or two, depending on the publisher and their need for consistency from issue to issue. Colorists, letterers, and inkers, however, may work on more than one title or not be bound to a single comic and work with multiple publishers or teams.

When working in a collaborative manner, it's important everyone involved is punctual and works quickly in order to meet deadlines together, as a team. One weak link in that chain, and an issue may be behind the publishing schedule. The same goes for our next subject, graphic novels.

The Adventures of Dr McNinja by Christopher Hastings
The Adventures of Dr. McNinja by Christopher Hastings.
"Pretty much all of my work at Marvel so far has come through editor, Jordan White. Jordan reads Dr. McNinja, and we'd spoken at conventions a couple times, and he knew I wanted to write Deadpool.
"When Marvel ran the crossover event, Fear Itself, they scheduled a Deadpool tie-in, but none of the other regular Deadpool writers could do it, so I got called in. Since then I've been called in similarly for other small projects, one shots, mini-series, etc." — Christopher Hastings, creator of The Adventures of Doctor McNinja

Graphic Novels

For the purposes of this article, let's say that by graphic novels we don't mean compilations of monthly issues. We mean books created as a graphic novel from the get-go, often as a contained story or serialized story done similar to a regular novel. It's intended to be consumed as a book and not chapter by chapter.

Artists may contribute collaboratively, or work with a publisher to get their own story and creations out into the world. Like other book deals, artists may need to pitch their work to the publisher or be approached by the publisher in order to see their work reach the shelves. Some artists have agents that help them with such tasks, while others take their pitch to art directors or editors at a publisher directly.

Regardless of how an artist or creator gets their deal with a publisher or creates their novel, they need to be self-motivated, good with deadlines, and be on the ball with creating their artwork and story so it's able to go from idea to completed product in a timely manner, likely set by the publisher or within the deal itself.

Artwork from Wet Moon by Sophie Campbell
Artwork from Wet Moon by Sophie Campbell.
"For my own stories, I usually start with a bunch of ideas jotted down a bit randomly, just pouring out all my ideas in one place, and then I go through all that and narrow it down to the stuff I like the best. Then I turn that into an outline, and then I prune that even more and go through a couple versions of it, then eventually I have an outline that I like. Then I transcribe the outline into a script, which then becomes thumbnails.
"When I work with a writer, I generally like to be involved with them on some level, like suggesting ideas or coming up with things together. I like it being more collaborative so I can become more invested in it, rather than simply being handed a script and being expected to mechanically draw it as-is." — Sophie Campbell, creator of Wet Moon and penciler on IDW's Jem comics.

Web Comics

Often self-produced, web comics have the most freedom, not being print media, being the most cost effective, and having a different type of deadline. Some are done in a chapter-by-chapter or page-by-page style, while others are similar to the comics found in newspapers and are published online strip-by-strip. Depending on the creator, they may update weekly, bi-weekly, or even monthly. 

Interestingly, there's an assortment of platforms for creators to publish their work: their own domain, Tumblr, WordPress, or even websites that serve as a comic portal. Sometimes those comic portals simply link to the content, while others employ the comic creators as contract workers, giving them a place to publish their work on a weekly or monthly basis and working together in marketing and distribution.

Quite fantastically these days, many professional comic artists began with their own small web comic, learning the ins and outs of graphic story telling, and graduated to working with publishers and other clients.

A comic from Nedroid by Anthony Clark
A comic from Nedroid by Anthony Clark.
"For my own comics, I generally just start with a funny situation or line and try to work up a good comic from that. I don’t tend to outline or thumbnail unless the comic is complicated or I’m afraid I’ll forget it before I have a chance to draw it." — Anthony Clark, creator of Nedroid

Self-Published Comics

All of these above may lead to self-published works. Whether they're a compilation of web comics, graphic novels, or comic books, artists may work with various publishers, large corporations or independent companies to print and distribute their work.

Alternatively, they may crowd-source the funding to print a book, working with printers directly and doing the marketing and distribution themselves, or even fund the whole process themselves. In the case of self-published works, those involved may have to work with various retailers, often small comic and book shops, to sell their work either wholesale or on consignment, depending on how the shop functions and works with their suppliers.

A page from Fragile by Mara Victoria Robado
A page from Fragile by María Victoria Robado.
"I write, draw and publish my own comics on web and print. Self-publishing means that you do everything; not only you’re the writer/artist, but also the web developer, marketing, advertisement, merchandise, promoter, content manager, social media expert." — María Victoria Robado, comic creator and colorist.

And More!

There are always other types of content to be created beyond what I can list in an article like this. I chose the above categories based on the artists and creators I interviewed. 

Whatever you may want to do, the first step is to get drawing and or writing. Creating stories starts with whatever is in your head, and there's no way you can work for fantastic companies like Marvel or find your graphic novel on the shelves of your local comic shop without putting the proverbial pencil to paper.

Comic panels by Sergey Gudkov
Comic panels by Sergey Gudkov.
"Comics that I do are usually a short story of about 5-8 pages. They are published in magazines of small independent publishers. Or it is a story for the comic festivals which are then printed in the catalogs of these events." — Sergey Gudkov, Illustrator

What's It Like Collaborating?

Organization is key. If you're working with a publisher, other writers, and/or other artists, you'd receive a script (or the pencils, inked work, or layout briefs) and run through whatever notes and instructions you're given, often by email.

Pencilers run through thumbnails first. There can be a lot of back and forth to make sure everyone's literally and figuratively on the same page. Inkers typically get to inking pages, traditionally or digitally, and colorists discuss color palettes or work from various notes and emails to bring comic pages to life.

A good deal of comics are done digitally these days, much like most illustration and design work. There are and will always be exceptions to this, but being able to create collaboratively in a medium that easily transfers from person to person has made it possible to create comics remotely where members of a team may not be in the same city or even country, but they all work together wonderfully because our current technology allows for it.

Collaborating takes organization on everyone's part as well as drive and motivation to work together and tell a fantastic story. 

What's the Process of Creating a Comic Like?

Some of the process was explored above where we discussed collaborating. Let's explore what it's like for several artists to create comics in their own words:

Scuba Space Comic by Leigh Jeffery
Scuba Space Comic by Leigh Jeffery.
"Once I have an idea of the book, I look through the images and read the writers/editors notes. I’ll make my own notes and then I start thumb-nailing panels. I create a photoshop file; 11x17 @350dpi and I just rough out each page really quickly. I try not to think too much at this point. I just want a general feeling and layout." — Leigh Jeffery, Illustrator
"For me, it is a lot easier to head up my own creative production. I have a lot more fun when I get to do everything – the concept, the writing, the art, etc.  When I do my own writing (which is most of my comics work) it flows pretty freely. I’ll start with a vague idea or five, build it up from there.
Monster Pop panels by Maya Kern
Monster Pop panels by Maya Kern.
"[...]After I’ve made my script, I sketch pages. Since the script is all words I never really have the dialogue 100% nailed down until I’m actually drawing.  There’s something so much more flowing and emotive when I’m drawing, it gives me a chance to make dialogue feel more genuine and to change up the rhythm to suite the size of my pages. After that it’s all pretty cut and dry, I just finish up strips and post them when it’s time." — Maya Kern, creator of Monster Pop!
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal by Zach Weinersmith
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal by Zach Weinersmith.
"I read a lot, then every morning I try to write at least six scripts. Hopefully one or two are good. Then, later in the day, I draw." — Zach Weinersmith, creator of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

How Do Web Comics and Self-Published Artists Promote Their Work?

Social media is huge for artists promoting their work. Every time a comic updates you can expect a tweet, Facebook post, image previews on Instagram, and more. If the artist's comic is a part of a larger website or if they have a marketing team or person working with them, they may be able to reach a different, established audience versus the one that specifically follows them and their work (which would allow their own reader and follower count to grow).

The aim for self-promotion is not only to get more people reading their work, but also to support the comic and related media in some way. For some that may include monthly donations to their Patreon account, buying a hard copy of their comic book, or maybe purchasing a t-shirt or mug with their favorite comic panel or character emblazoned on it.

Additionally, some artists might purchase ad space on related websites, with blogs, or through various publications that would garner an audience from similar media. Like many businesses, some use promoted media (paid-for ads) through social media like Facebook, Tumblr, and more. The downside of these, however, is they're not as targeted to a consumer as ad space in the back of a comic, magazine, or in a comic shop would be.

Panels from Midnight Run by Kelly Bull
Panels from Midnight Run by Kelly Bull.
"I still consider myself very new to the comics scene but so far, Twitter has been the best platform for promoting myself and my works. Self-produced artists can’t rely on an audience finding them, so they need to actively seek out readers and peers. Twitter makes it very easy to get in contact with the comics community." — Kelly Bull, creator of Midnight Run

What Sort of Merchandise or Products Relate to Comics?

Aside from print media, which tend to be the main merchandise any comic creator would want to create, apparel, accessories, and home goods tend to be the most produced—things like t-shirts, mugs, mouse pads, bags, and more. 

Whether artists and creators license their work to another company to manufacture and distribute their work or create their products themselves is up to them. Products like these are something to bring, in addition to copies of the comics themselves, to conventions and other events that they may do in order to promote their work.

Concierto de Medianoche by Borja Gonzlez
Concierto de Medianoche by Borja González
"At illustration fairs and stuff, I do sell drawings. And I keep doing fanzines, which is something that I really like. You can make 20 to 30 copies and sell them in hand." — Borja González, Illustrator

Web shops linked within a comic's site are also very common. Some produce all of their work with a third-party shop and printer like RedBubble or Society6, while others go the self-produced route and create a shop on Etsy or through something like BigCartel.

Powerpuff Girls Cover by George Caltsoudas
Powerpuff Girls Cover by George Caltsoudas
"Don’t splurge or overdo it. Everyone tends to do this. Just make one product or sell one print at first and then take it slow and steady. If you spend too much effort and money and then don’t end up selling much, you get really disappointed and scared of gambling in any future endeavors." — George Caltsoudas

What About Other Revenue?

Aside from products and merchandise, there are other ways to gain revenue from a comic. Firstly, there's the support of a publisher. If you're an artist creating comic covers, you're paid for it outright. The same goes for working for companies like IDW, Marvel, and more, doing pencils, coloring, inking, etc. If you have a book deal with a publisher, your revenue would be subject to the terms of your contract and varies from company to company.

For self-published creators and artists, you'd be selling your artwork, products (the comics themselves) and anything else mentioned in the previous section. Additionally, you might use advertising on your website to support yourself. 

The same goes for web comics. They're self-published, though not necessarily something that will appear in print form. That said, ad space (as discussed in the self-promotion section) as well as ad space on their own website to generate revenue may be used in addition to having a small online shop.

Finally, some artists work with websites that have pay walls for most of their comic content. Depending on the website, said paywall may contribute to a monthly fee they're paid, or they may have a deal for revenue sharing with the website themselves.

Advice for Artists From Artists

Page from Jem and the Holograms with Pencils by Sophie Campbell and Color by Mara Victoria Robado
Page from Jem and the Holograms with Pencils by Sophie Campbell and Color by María Victoria Robado.
"Have someone who knows what they’re doing critique your work. It’s the only way to improve. You could be writing or drawing every day, but if you always make the same mistakes without identifying them, you won’t grow. 
"You don’t have to be perfect, but you have to be on time. Remember, if someone critiques your work, they’re not attacking you as a person. And if they are indeed attacking you as a person, then they’re not the kind of critique you need to get better." — María Victoria Robado
A page from The Adventures of Dr McNinja by Christopher Hastings published by Dark Horse Comics
A page from The Adventures of Dr. McNinja by Christopher Hastings published by Dark Horse Comics.
"If you can live a happy life without making comics, then I suggest you don't make comics. The industry is brutal and soul crushing. The pay sucks. You could work for months or years on a project only to be met with a resounding "Meh" from the public.
"I love making comics because I am compelled to write stories and jokes, and comics is an art form that allows me to do it without much of a budget, (largely as opposed to film) and the internet gives me a platform to publish that material to A LOT of people instantly." — Christopher Hastings
Adventure Time comic cover by Maya Kern for Boom Studios
Adventure Time comic cover by Maya Kern for Boom! Studios.
"Above everything else, take care of yourself. Don’t let people step on you and devalue your work. If you are working freelance, charge a working wage.  Don’t work 'for exposure.'
"It’s easier to make your own comic that you love and build an audience that way and you’ll probably get more exposure than you would drawing someone’s Really Great Story Idea That’s Totally Going To Make You Both Famous As Long As You Work On It For Free." — Maya Kern

Conclusion

The experience of comic artists may vary, but the desire to tell stories in a visual form is what unites all of them, regardless of their role or the story's length. 

As in other art fields, organization, punctuality, and development of skill are all major keys in making it as a comic artist. No one can predict whether their stories will want to be read or if a web comic will be popular and gain the following you'd need for it to be a full-time job, but if you love creating content like this then the work will be well worth it.

The artists I interviewed above had so much to say about their experiences working with publishers, writers, other artists, and creating their own comics. While I couldn't include every anecdote and bit of information they sent to me, I hope their words and the information I've written above are something you find to be informative and inspirational.

Many thanks to the brilliant artists who took time out of their busy schedules to answer my questions. You can, and definitely should, check out their work and comics in the links below!

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