Here’s another installment of our question-and-answer series. Remember: You can ask your own questions in the comments section and Rick will provide follow-up answers!
With serial comics, you’re often working on a fairly tight deadline, and I imagine that there are considerations you have to make about which visual aspects of storytelling — panels, moments, expressions, methods, etc. — to prioritize, just for the sake of time and sanity. Do you get a script and say, “These are the areas I need to really focus on,” or does that come naturally as you compose the page?
If you’re an artist working in the field of comics your archenemy isn’t a bad inker, or an insensitive editor, or even a scathing review of your work. No, your Big Bad is always there, hanging over your shoulder like a vulture, just waiting for you to slip up. Your enemy is Time and there’s never enough of it. Ever.
Comics are periodical publications. They are issued on a regular basis, usually monthly, to the consumer. The content of those magazines has to be produced in a timely manner so the publisher can go to press in time to make the on sale date. If they don’t keep to this schedule they create bad feelings with their customers and incur financial penalties from the printer. Things have to keep moving. The people who create the content for these magazines have to work to a schedule so that the comics can move along the production chain to completion. That means everyone works to a deadline.
One of the things a comics professional has to have to be successful is the ability to work to a deadline. This is something an editor takes a chance on when they hand out assignments to new artists. An artist may have beautiful work in their portfolio, but the unseen quality is the willingness to work on schedule. You just don’t know until you try, and this has proven to be the Achilles’ Heel of many a potentially great comic artist.
Working as a comic artist, you can live pretty much wherever you want and work whatever hours suit you. If you’re more productive working at night, you can. If you have to take time out of your day to attend to a personal matter, no problem. It’s all up to you. There’s no supervisor in the next office or across the room making sure you’re not wasting company time. While this is a very desirable situation, it is fraught with possible danger.
You’re at work on an assignment and you decide to take a break. You just bought the new DVD release of season 5 of your favorite TV show. Maybe you’ll sit down and watch an episode. Or two. Maybe three. Before you know it, you’ve watched half the season and burned up 3 or 4 hours. Whoops! You have work to do, but it’s late and you’re really tired. You’ll make up the time lost today, tomorrow. You’ll work a little longer. Things can get out of hand pretty quick.
You have to put the work first. This doesn’t mean that all you do is work, but you have to balance everything else in your life to that deadline. You know when the deadline is. You know how much work needs to be done. You need to find some way to make sure you stay on schedule. Luckily, it’s a schedule you devise for yourself. You have the option of finding the way that works best for you.
There are probably dozens of ways for an individual artist to meet the deadline comfortably. Some will go through the script and draw thumbnail layouts of the entire issue. This enables them to work out page deigns and storytelling in an economic way. The thumbnails may be the size of a sheet of copy paper, half that size, or even smaller. Depending on the tightness of the drawing, they may just blow the thumbnails up and use them as an underlay to trace onto the board. Or they may just use the layouts as guidelines to the finished page, realizing they may change what they’ve done to make the actual art work better. This method speeds up the process and saves a lot of redrawing later on.
Some artists (including yours truly), work to a segmented schedule. I know how much time I have and how many pages need to be done. I break that into days. How many pages do I need to finish each day to accommodate the deadline. Obviously, all pages are not created equal. Some will require more time than others. You can address this by jumping around in the book. If there’s a page you know is going to eat into your daily schedule, set aside the time necessary to give the page its due, and jump around to find pages in the assignment that should take less time and bunch them together in the schedule. You know how fast you work. You know the drawing problems that take the most time. With a little thought and personal scheduling, you can work to a deadline and not feel too much pressure.
There will always be the unexpected. I can guarantee it. Plan on it. The script comes in two weeks late. The deadline doesn’t change. It just means you have two weeks less than you thought you’d have to do the job. A good editor will build a cushion into the schedule to account for things like this, but you can’t always depend on it. You have to find a way to reassess the amount of work and the shorter time until it’s due. You say, I’ll take as much time as I need to do this job, it’s not my fault it’s late. But what does that do to the inker, the letterer, the colorist, the production people who have to get the book ready to go to press? This is a team. And not only do you want to do the best job you can, you also want to make sure you don’t cause problems for the rest of the team. It’s just common courtesy and solid professionalism. Another guarantee I can make: you will hardly ever have more time than you need to do the job.
Sometimes things get way out of hand. You’ll be faced with an impossible deadline. There’s no way you can finish the amount of work needed in the time allotted. But you have to. They’re depending on you. Either that, or they’ll have to find someone else who can do the job.
Early in my career, part of my reputation was built on being someone who could pull a job out of the fire and turn work around in a timely manner. I was DC’s “Go To” guy when something was running late. I had experience as both a penciller and an inker, so I was offered a number of those assignments. In situations like that, you find ways to do the best job you can in the time allotted. Sometimes the work that you turn in is less than your best. You have to live with that and hope that, down the line, the editor will remember how you saved the project and will offer you a plum assignment with enough time to do your best work. Don’t count on it, though.
When you find yourself in a situation like this you have to immediately clear the decks of everything else and prioritize the work. Where can you save time? Can you bring in someone to help? Maybe they can lay pages out or do backgrounds. Just remember, you’ll need to pay them and you’re not getting paid extra for this rush job. This is when scheduling is of the utmost importance. This is when being confident of your strengths and weaknesses really comes into play. You know where you need to put most of your time. The one place you never cut corners is on the characters. That’s what the readers pay their money to see. You can cut back on backgrounds, maybe simplify props, use suggestion to indicate a crowd scene. You might find a way to streamline your storytelling. But you definitely need to spend the most time on the characters.
Something else to consider: don’t take on more work than you can handle. I speak from experience on this one. I’ve made this mistake more times than I care to admit. If you take two jobs and schedule them so you can turn them around in time, inevitably, something will happen that tosses that planning out the window. You receive an offer and you don’t want to turn it down. It’s work. You have bills to pay and as a freelance artist, you have no way of knowing when the next offer will come along. Or maybe you have an assignment and you receive a call. It’s an offer to work on your dream project, or to work with a writer you’ve always wanted to work with. Do you turn that down? No. You try to find a way to make it work. And it usually ends up being a nightmare. Tread carefully.
The freedom to be your own boss comes with a price tag. There are no sick days. There are no paid holidays or vacations. You have to be willing to work when the work is there, not when you feel like it. Your friends are all going to see the latest big budget super hero movie at the Cineplex and you have to get 6 pages done by Monday. What do you choose and how does it impact your future? There are a number of words for it: Responsibilty, Professionalism, Personal Integrity. It’s only part of what it takes to work in the business of Comics. It’s an important part. You might be excused for turning in a sub-standard job because you were facing an unreasonable deadline, but if you turn the work in late, or not at all, you may not have to worry about deadlines ever again.