I began showing my art to artists at conventions, in hopes of critiques and useful advice, when I was 14. I was lucky enough at the time to live within driving distance of several annual cons, including the San Diego Comic-Con. When I was 15, I mustered the courage to begin showing my work to editors. Though I was still years away from landing a job, the critiques and advice I received served me well, and my chances improved with each new batch of samples. By the time I was 18, I was getting some serious nibbles from editors, so when I traveled to San Diego that year, my hopes were high.
I shared the 9-hour drive with my friend Jason, a fellow cartoonist from the Bay Area, and we split a cheap room at the Super 8 Motel. On a patio in front of the motel I discovered a professional artist giving a younger artist a critique. The con hadn't even opened yet, but the action was underway! The pro's name was Denny, and he was nice enough to look over my samples as well. While we were chatting, two more aspirants arrived: Rosy and Dan. Rosy was a stocky Latino with a ready smile, and Dan was a tall, lanky redhead, full of enthusiasm. Jason and I warmed to them immediately and agreed to share a pizza in their room after getting settled.
There's something about the air in San Diego in July that promises great things. In Northern California, where I grew up, weather is either cool, or hot, or humid, but I wouldn't describe summer in San Diego as any of those things. It's a strange combination of warmth and freshness that's unfamiliar in the north. It embraces you without feeling oppressive. I stood on the landing of the motel, looking out over the palm trees, feeling that air, and wondering what the weekend would bring.
Rosy and Dan had flown down from Idaho, or Colorado, or somewhere thereabouts. They worked together at a warehouse there, I think driving forklifts, but both had been drawing since they were kids. Now they were around 30, and would probably never have made this trip had Dan's girlfriend not left him. I gathered the recent breakup was a sort of wake-up call, and Dan had decided it was time to stop letting life pass him by, time to go out and chase his dreams. Rosy had also dreamt of drawing comics for a living, so the two of them drew up some samples, took some time off work, bought plane tickets, and headed west, to the nation's largest convention.
I haven't been on the sharp end of a portfolio review in years, but back then, it was murder. If you've made the mistake of investing any of your self-worth in your art skills, a thorough portfolio review will convince you to invest elsewhere. All the artistic flaws that your friends and family are too polite or inexpert to point out are suddenly identified, directly to your face, with your reactions visible to everyone. And there's a peculiar pain in seeing your work savaged by someone who bears you no ill will. If you're insulted by an enemy, you can console yourself with the thought that they're biased against you...but being insulted by someone indifferent, who's only doing his job, is like getting a scary diagnosis from a doctor. No villains to blame; just cold, hard, awful reportage.
That year, I stood in line for 8 (eight) hours to see Marvel's submissions editor, who told me I should leave more room for speech balloons next time. The next day, I saw a DCU editor, who told me my talents would find a warmer welcome at Vertigo. Then the Vertigo editor told me my work was more suitable for the DCU, and referred me to the editor I'd just left. And so it went.
It wasn't all bad. I got positive feedback from some artists -- Erik Larsen, Dan Fraga, and Dan Panosian were especially encouraging -- and I enjoyed the chance to peruse the con. In Artist Alley, I discovered the aforementioned Denny, hawking his latest series. For some reason, instead of sitting behind his table, he was watching it from a distance while a little boy pitched his books to passers-by. "I put the kid there because people like buying from kids!" he explained. I couldn't tell where he had procured the kid, but I assume money or food had changed hands, because the kid seemed content. Whenever a potential customer approached the table, Denny would hurry over, flip through one of the comics, and exclaim,"This comic is amazing! Look at this beautiful art! What's it about?" Whereupon his young proxy would explain the series to everyone present.
Back at the Super 8 on Thursday night, Rosy came over to hang out, but Dan remained in his room. His day had not gone well. When you're used to being told you're the best artist in your family, your school, your town, it's sobering to walk into a room filled with hundreds of better artists and be told you're surplus to requirements. I suspect whatever feedback Dan got that day was especially painful, given the hopes he'd pinned on his trip, hopes that its outcome might balance out the pain of being rejected by his girlfriend. When morning came, he gruffly told us he would not be returning to the con. He bought himself a supply of beer and spent Friday in his room.
Among the enemies of the convention experience is the "contest movie." The Karate Kid, Bloodsport, The Cutting Edge -- in film after film, Hollywood loves to boil a hero's life down to one definitive, do-or-die moment. "Everything you are and ever will be is riding on this one event!" We often bring this lesson with us to conventions. Like the contests in those films, a convention is anchored at a specific time and place, it's full of pomp and fanfare, and it holds the world's attention -- such a natural occasion to expect a big payoff, the culmination of our own personal hero-journey. But as Batton Lash once explained to me, the real business of comics happens between conventions. A career in comics is less about triumphing on a single weekend, and more a result of what you do habitually, over time. You don't really "break" in, you ease in. And your ability to remain in the business depends on the lessons you learned while doing all that easing.
I didn't get a job at the con, but on the drive home, Jason and I decided to go into business together. Over the next year, we self-published five issues of a series we wrote and drew, and the experience led me to meet cartoonists who helped me land my first gigs, and who still send work my way.
Rosy's samples impressed an independent publisher enough to invite him to work on a small project. It wasn't the big leagues, but it was a step forward and Rosy seemed pleased.
Denny sold me three issues of his comic, which occasionally I still pull out to enjoy.
By Saturday, Dan had climbed out of his funk. He opted to return to the convention, not to seek critiques, but as a fan. And he fanned with a vengeance. He returned to the motel that night with a big grin and a giant sackful of swag. I can picture him now, wearing his short-brimmed Image hat, and showing off his brand new pair of Extreme Studios underwear. I hope he still owns them.
If you're at the con today, or you attend one later, I hope you'll have a great time. And remember: the encounters you have there, as rare as they may be, will not decide your future. They're merely tiles in a far bigger mosaic.