I'm Joseph Silver and I have the distinction of being able to say that I'm a freelance comic illustrator published by DC Comics. I can't begin to tell you how many years I've been waiting to write that sentence (or one like it, Marvel's name would be just as awesome here) and have it actually be true. But, with the Animal Man annual #1 hitting the stands last year, I became just that: a pro freelance inker.
|Animal Man annual #1 page 24. Pencils by Timothy Green II. Inks by Joseph Silver|
But once that happens, there are a lot of realities you need to be aware of that you would likely have no way of knowing otherwise:
Understand the reality of self employment
I have worked in the retail industry most of my adult life, so getting an opportunity to work my dream job was not only a dream come true but also a complete change in the way I made money and my work environment. I was not ready for that change.
If you're not accustomed to self-employment, you don't really understand how hard it can be to work from home. This means being productive in the same environment that you generally relax in and to work around all the stuff you bought to be comfortable. After all, that's what home is—your comfort zone. Many artists work out of studios with other artists because working at home can be too much of a hassle if you live with family or have made a family of your own.
Another one of the trickiest parts of the process of being a comic pro, though certainly not the only one, is that you file taxes quite differently. This means there is no one deducting taxes from your check, reimbursing you for supplies, or often as you're starting out, paying for you to get to conventions to promote your work and do more networking. You have essentially become your own business agent, tax preparer and travel agent.
Stay ahead of your current project
Until you've built a base of customers (in this case editors) and creators that want to work with you once an assignment is done, you have to have more work to maintain a regular income. You have to be looking for work as you're doing assignments, regardless of how much you love working on it or how solid your creative team is. Creative teams turn over in comics on a very regular basis and if you can't adapt to the environment, you will starve.
Work with your editor, not for just yourself
Regardless of the public perception, the comics industry is very much a business, and the editor has one of the hardest jobs in that business: keeping artists on a monthly schedule. This is in addition to maintaining the story plots in numerous capacities. It's about creating synergy with all parties (writers, pencillers, inkers, letterers, and colorists) and when an editor gives the new guy a chance, he's taking a risk on his title based not just on the quality of your work, but how reliable you are. This isn't to say disagreements and such will never happen with an editor, but it should never be a reflection of an inability to do the work. The more you can be counted on and the easier you are to work with, the more opportunities you will be afforded. The editors are the people you need to deal with when looking for work.
So I guess what I'm saying is….
It's not just about how good you are
Obviously, to even get a foot in the door you must be a capable storyteller, illustrator and have a solid grasp on working from a script (or writing one as the case may be). But everyone already in the business already has talent in those areas. When you get into comics, you're competing for work with everyone else and they have the benefit of a working relationship with others in the business. In many cases, they have many years of a head start. So when you land that first assignment, ask yourself how well you communicate with your team. How well do you understand what is being asked of you? And most importantly, how well can you make that deadline? Reliability in comics is your lifeline and can be a huge part of your reputation.
These are the things an editor will want to know about you as you're working on that first job. It will make or break you, regardless of how well you draw. You have to be at least as reliable as every other person on that book.
You are on the ground level
I am going to say this as nicely as I can: no one owes you anything just because you landed a job in the business. When you finally get that first break, it is your responsibility to make the best of it. To make the absolute best first impression you can. If for whatever reason you don't immediately start getting more work, it in no way reflects whether you deserve an assignment or not. The first thing you have to realize is how competitive this business is. People that have been doing this professionally for years don't always land the assignments they want, and as this is work for hire, you really are only as good as your last assignment and the reputation you get as an artist.
The most successful guys—regardless of your opinions of them—worked their asses off in the trenches sometimes for decades to make the careers they have. Greg Capullo, Mark Bagley, Mike McKone, Paul Pelletier…these guys worked a long time to get the distinction and reputations they have in the business, and rightly deserve them.
You have to be at least as hungry as they were to get in and stay there. And at least as respectful of the business you're entering. It is in no way easy, and not everyone gets to be a star. Make the most of your first opportunity and be ready to work like never before.