Wizard World 2003 – An Artist’s Journey

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“I know this is Chicago but, where are the tall buildings?” I said upon arriving at the Rosemont Hotel and Convention Center. I had never been to Chicago, or any city larger than Detroit in my life. The reason I was there? Wizard World Chicago, the largest comic book convention in the eastern United States. Unlike most of the attendees of this gigantic pop culture festival, I wasn’t there to buy anything, or to get a picture with Kevin Smith. I was there to show my comic book work to industry professionals and learn what I can do to improve and get a feel for the industry that I have fantasized about working in for half of my life.

The buildings that I was so curious about are about a half-hour’s drive from Rosemont in downtown Chicago. Rosemont is a suburban village that is still considered to be in the city, but is better suited for a large convention due to the myriad of hotels and access to the airport. Coming from another city with hundreds of miles of urban sprawl I felt very comfortable in Rosemont and I found my way around quite easily.

The Prequel

I had been preparing for this con for six months. During the weeks before the show, I didn’t sleep, I drank coffee all day and night, and had to pass on most every bar night, movie, and good time that was offered. My girlfriend had to spend time with me by looking at my back as I scribbled on Bristol board and worked on the computer. I wanted to have some work done for the Motor City Comic Con in May, but it just wasn’t possible, so I decided that Chicago would be the best place to show my stuff.

Although I’ve been drawing all of my life, I had never shown my work to an editor or art director before. I read just every artist interview I could find on the net for hints on breaking in. Some things I learned are:
- It’s a tough business and you probably won’t get any hits or interest your first time.
- Draw sequential pages.
- Know what your goal is. Do you want to be a writer? A penciler? An inker? I want to do it all, but a beginner should pick one discipline and go with it. I ignored this totally.
-Be polite, take criticism like a man, and remember what you’re told.

From this I decided to do a full length, twenty page story that I would write, draw, ink, color, and letter. It was a giant leap from drawing small black and white comic strips and pin-ups, but I knew that if anything, I would learn a lot in the process.

Day 1

My friend Dennis Barger of Men In Black Toys came over around three o’clock on Thursday (our designated time to leave), but I wasn’t ready. I had been up for over thirty hours finishing the color on the last few pages. I was beginning to realize that lettering and coloring is much harder than it appears to be. I wasn’t going to get it ready and printed at the copy shop in time for us to check into our hotel. My CD burner decided to shit on me so I had to burn the whole book to a DVD+R. I prayed that the Kinko’s in Rosemont would be able to read it.

We arrived in the Windy City in about four hours and checked in. Dennis wanted to head down to the convention center bar and make connections for the weekend. The drinks were overpriced and the service was awful, but I’ll admit that it was cool to hang out so much comic book talent. Of course, this being a comic book show, you don’t know who you’re talking to until you’re introduced. I probably had the most fun talking with up and comers who were in town for the same reason I was. Dennis and I were about to give Michael Turner and his partner (whose name I didn’t catch) a rematch at pool when the bartenders turned off the lights at 12:30. Needless to say, we didn’t go back to that bar again.

We found a little dive down the street that sold us a six pack for our room and we headed back. After being awake for two days it took about two minutes of laying on the king-size bed for me to crash.

Day 2

I decided that Saturday would be my big portfolio review day, so Friday was to be my fun day. Dennis, being a toy dealer, had to check out all of the toy sellers’ booths. I was surprised that toys are such a big deal now. The Mattel Batman and He-Man giveaways were probably the biggest draws. By “give-away” I mean that for three days you get your name tag punched for the privilege of buying a Batman or He-Man exclusive figure. I think they went for about forty dollars. Apparently they go for over a hundred bucks on ebay. Who knew?

I said hi to some people in Artist’s Alley - like Jane Irwin, who was kind enough to put one of my drawings on the back cover of an issue of her comic Vogelein. Looking at all of the great work in the Alley made me eager as ever to get to the copy shop.

Dennis dropped me off at Kinko’s around five, and thank God, they had a DVD drive. I hop on one of the computers, put in my credit card, and go to open Photoshop. Guess what? No Photoshop. There was only one machine that had the program – it was twice as expensive ($.40 a minute) and someone was using it. I never got his full name, but this guy was very cool and let me use the computer while he printed his black and white comic on a Xerox.

To make a long, long story short, the machine kept kicking out my credit card, thus freezing my work so I couldn’t see it. The Kinko’s guys had to unplug the card reader and put in another one. By some miracle, all of the work that was open was safe. If the computer had crashed, I would have lost hours worth of lettering. I finally got the whole thing ready to print out full color 11 x 17 pages that would be used to make black and white ashcans. I would use the color prints in my portfolio. This was another insane hurdle as the computer I was working on wasn’t talking to the color printer. I had to get a zip disk and transfer the 40 megabyte pages, three at a time, physically to another computer. The rest of the process went by fairly quickly as I figured out pagination and got the copies all put together. It was nice to finally see the book come together, but it was a painful experience. The Kinko’s guy was very cool about the screw-ups I had to endure and took $70 off of my bill. Now it was time to party.

Dennis picked me up just as I was settling up and we went down to the same bar we went to the night before. We closed the place out and then went back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Day 3

Saturday was the day I would finally get to show what I can do to the comic book world. We started off around 11:00 and the con was in full swing. Dennis introduced me to David Campiti of Glass House Graphics, who gave me the best portfolio review of the show. Commenting on what was wrong with my stuff instead of what was right was of course a bit hard to take, but it was extremely educational. It was the kind of criticism I needed to hear. He took me around to the back of his booth and showed me samples that got artists professional work. Indeed, the samples he showed me made my pages look like they had been drawn by a ten-year old.

Some things Mr. Campiti emphasized:

Character Interaction – draw characters as though they’re interacting in real life. Show them looking at each other. What expression can best tell what they’re feeling at that moment? What can they be doing with their hands or feet that would give away something about their character?

Action! – Don’t take a snapshot in your mind of a character looking down, arms at their side, not doing anything! This is comic books, after all, so hair and clothing should have some kind of movement, even if the character is not. A good example he gave me is Batman on a rooftop, overlooking Gotham City. Is he just looking, enjoying the scenery? Or is he getting ready to spring into action as he most certainly is? He should reaching for something, his batrope, or binoculars. Something to lead the eye into the next panel.

Camera – In comics, you can put the camera anywhere you want. A crutch of mine is that I put the camera at eye level so I can draw everything straight on. It’s easier that way. But comic fans don’t want that. The whole joy of looking at comic book art is the fact that a movie version – shot for shot – is either impossible to replicate or would be incredibly expensive. The main thing is drama. What is the most dramatic way to show action, or inaction for that matter?

I like to think of myself as a writer and an artist, but the reality is this: this was my first comic book. Therefore it was the first comic book that I wrote, drew, inked, colored, and lettered. If I only had drawing to worry about, my samples would have shined. But hindsight being 20/20 I decided to dedicate myself to working on my pencils by drawing from professional scripts.

I noticed that artists were kinder in their reviews than writers or editors. Writers spoke more for the comic fan - they commented on what they would like to see as a reader. Eyes and hands were given special attention. That’s why I worked the hardest on those features. Hands are probably the hardest thing to draw besides faces. Pay close attention to those. Show different kinds of faces in your samples. I only used two main characters in Jen Electric. That doesn’t show an editor that I have range. With sample scripts you can draw exactly what an art director wants to see.

My inspiration for the coloring was Jonathan D. Smith, who works primarily with Top Cow, but will also be coloring Namor for Marvel. He happened to be at the show and I made a faux pas when I thought he was Top Cow inker Jonathan Sibal. Oops! He graciously looked at my stuff anyway and made some good points. The stuff that blatantly ripped him off, like water and skies, didn’t impress him. He liked the stuff in my portfolio that differed the most from his own work. It made me realize that copying the best isn’t necessarily going to get you anywhere. Like all of artists who tried so hard to copy Rob Liefeld’s rendering style without learning to draw anatomy first. Speaking of Rob Liefeld, I must have stopped by the Arcade Comics table ten times over the weekend, looking for SBC’s own Brandon Thomas but he was always away at one panel or another. Better luck next time.

Saturday was a long day, but we finished it off right with a few parties. First was the Wizard party upstairs in the convention center. They were giving away Miss Piggy PVC figurines that apparently were the hot collector’s item. I gave mine to Dennis for getting me into the party. They served wine, which made me happy. I was getting sick of beer. I’ll admit that I was starstruck seeing Alex Ross, Jim Lee, and Joe Quesada all hanging out around the bar. I resisted the temptation to say hi. These guys were up there to have fun, not to be bothered by wannabes. They stopped serving drinks at eleven so it was time to go.

The next party was the Art Asylum shindig at the Spy Bar in downtown Chicago. Dennis, being a toy dealer got us in once again. Did you know that bars in Chicago are open to five o’clock in the morning? We didn’t stay that long though. After they stopped serving free drinks it was off to Echo Gallery, also downtown. This was actually the highlight of the night. Copious amounts of wine, friendly artists, and a gracious host, made this party a fine nightcap. Echo’s slogan is “Chicago’s Most Provocative Gallery” and living up to it, featured wall to wall erotic art. One humongous piece that seemed to fascinate everybody featured a naked prostitute in the early morning, flushing out the evening’s DNA. Most of the art was not this graphic and would probably be classified as gothic pin-up art. If you read my comic, you’ll know that it was my kind of stuff.

Day 4

On Sunday, my only mission was to try and meet Brandon Thomas and the creators of Rex Mundi, Arvid Nelson and Eric J. Neither was accomplished. However, I managed to sneak in a few more portfolio reviews (including one from David Mack – my only real mark out moment), and hang out with some folks in Artist’s Alley. Honestly, I was just trying not to look as sick as I felt. All of the wine I drank on Saturday was chased with a supper of “sliders” (that’s White Castle to those not down with the lingo), and my body was making me pay big time.

Dennis finally got his He-Man toy and a limited edition Star Wars bust that he flipped in about five minutes for four times what he paid for it. We then said our good-byes and were off on our way back to Michigan.

Thinking that the weekend might have gone too smoothly, despite the Kinko’s catastrophe, I realized that I’d left my portfolio (original pages and all) in the hotel room. We were already miles from Rosemont and turning around would have cost us at least an hour. Dennis called back and luckily Spat who had shared the room with us, agreed to take my portfolio with him back to New York and then send it to me. I have to give a shout out to Spat for saving my ass on that one. Check out his website. He’s already got some great pictures from the con up. None of my friend’s call me Matt, by the way. Crow is who you’re looking for if you want to see me.

So, what did I learn at my first Chicago Con? A guy from DC marketing probably put it best when he said, what you’re doing is trying to take work away from professional, established artists with more experience than you. There are only so many comic books out there and thousands of not only competent, but amazingly talented artists out there vying for those assignments. Think about what you can do to stand out and produce work that fans would like to read. After all, you wouldn’t want to hire a plumber who only half-assed fixed one leaky pipe in his life, right? I’m no master, or even a journeyman at this point, but by next year, I’ll have a portfolio that blows this year’s work away.

My biggest worry going into Chicago was that I’d be disenfranchised with drawing comics. I realized that I have a long way to go, but an artist never stops improving if he or she keeps at it. My trip to Wizard World strengthened my resolve to work in this medium that I love and I’m glad that I took the chance. You can’t live out your dreams if dreaming is the only thing you’re willing to do.

Matt Cash is a freelance artist living in Ypsilanti, Michigan. His one-shot story “Jen Electric” is available from his website: www.crowboy.com.

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