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How do you take on the art duties for books
by Alan Moore and Warren Ellis? SCAD graduate Jacen Burrows explains to Comic Foundry how he did it and what the secret is.
What made you want to pursue a career as a comic book artist?
I’ve been drawing all my life. It was always the one standout talent I had among my classmates, and it was clear from an early age, like 7 or 8, that I would be in an art-related field. I had some comics as a kid, but I was never a collector of anything but maybe Mad Magazine and I didn’t really think about the comic scene until I turned 12 and a friend dragged me to the comic shop because of the G.I.Joe cartoon ads for the old Marvel comic. At the time I was all about G.I.Joe and Ninjas and typical boy stuff, and I remember looking at the racks and spotting the Elektra Saga. On the cover, in the background, were a bunch of tiny ninjas jumping around, so I bought it and loved it, which led me to Ronin and then back to Daredevil and from there I was hooked.
I was living in Connecticut at the time and I went to a tiny convention where I meat Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, who had just released their second oversized issue of TMNT, and talking to them made me realize that anyone with a little talent and some hard work could make comics. It wasn’t just superstar artists in New York doing this stuff, so I started drawing my own derivative, silly vigilante comics and just stuck with it till I got better. I even had a two- to three-page comic that would run in the back of my school newspaper when I was in junior high, so I was focused pretty early on and even then I leaned toward pretty graphic material.
I’m still amazed the teachers let me print that stuff. Nowadays a kid would be suspended and hauled off to therapy for drawing the stuff I was publishing in the school paper, but my classmates loved it and my teachers were very supportive. It usually consisted of a vigilante in a cape and metal face mask slaughtering criminals in an alley with Mac-10’s and a sword. It was hyper-violent and goofy, but everyone seemed to enjoy it.
You graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design in 1996. How did your time there prepare you for your career?
The main thing you get at art school is an opportunity to constantly do art. You are surrounded by it at all times. Art history, appreciation, technical lessons, theory, mediums, criticism and deadlines. All of those things are vital to developing a mentality as a professional artist, and it is a world of difference from just drawing in your spare time between jobs or treating it like a hobby.
Drawing stops being something you do for fun when the impulse hits and becomes a technical skill you can tap into whenever you need. People talk about lazy artists all the time, and (the) real problem is that lack of discipline. They are waiting for inspiration or motivation. SCAD taught me that a professional doesn’t have that option. You have to be able to do your work no matter what you are feeling because this is a job. At the same time, the more you make yourself work through those bouts of low motivation, the easier it becomes to get into the zone every day.
SCAD was also incredibly supportive of experiments and different styles and, through the work of other students and their particular direction in art, you are exposed to all kinds of new influences. It helped created a much more broad definition of what comics are, and that is a lesson that is becoming more and more vital in this market.
But the most important thing you learn in art school is the ability to take criticism. It is the most vital thing a working artist can learn. If you take things personally, you will never improve and you’ll give off an attitude that will ruin your career. If you want to be a pro, you can’t be that socially inept, introverted kid that gets pissed off every time someone points out that they don’t use perspective properly or that their “style” isn’t a good enough excuse for a lack of knowledge in anatomy. Some of those critiques were just plain harsh, and that was great. You really learn from that.
During school, did you ever feel like you weren’t learning anything? How did you get around that?
The way I looked at it, I was being given tools and opportunities to learn, but it required a lot of personal effort for it to have any effect at all. You can’t expect to get better simply by going to class and doing the minimal amount of work required for the assignments. You have to seriously want to be better and be willing to work your ass off to get there. Certainly, there were classes that just didn’t seem to be useful to me in the long run — 3-D design and the incredibly elementary music appreciation requirements come to mind — but that is just part of any sort of bachelors program.
The best way to improve is simply to draw as many pages as you can, and the professors know that. They can’t give you tricks that will suddenly make you a professional level penciler. You draw pages, you get constant critiques, you apply the criticism and improve with the next batch of pages. That’s all there is to it so if you feel like you aren’t learning, it is likely because you aren’t drawing enough.
If there was ever a problem in the sequential art department for me, it was that it was too easy to drift through without much effort, and I know a lot of guys who got degrees who really never did work all that hard. Of course they weren’t able to find work in comics after school was over, so it all comes back to you in the end. Yeah, if anything, the curriculum should have been much more brutal and demanding, focusing more on professional discipline and output, more like a good Illustration program.
What didn’t your studies prepare you for?
Well, when I was getting out of school, the entire industry was collapsing inward. There was simply no work. Well, not for a low-end beginner, anyway. Even the indies that were still publishing had stopped looking at submissions, which is a pretty harsh reality for a guy getting out of college with $25K in student loan debt.
Artistically, I wish we’d had more discussion about different masters of the medium and how they approached the work. There was a history class, but it had to go through a lot of material so there wasn’t a whole lot of deep discussion beyond titles, companies and landmarks. I would have liked a whole semester on just the old masters like Wally Wood, Gil Kane, Alex Toth, Angelo Torres and Roy Krenkel, all those EC era masters.
How did you break into the industry?
Since there were nothing but closed doors in comics, I went to the role-playing game industry for work. I could work within my own style, get some experience and get paid a moderate amount for the work. It was actually a lot of fun, but unfortunately, that industry is even more unstable than comics and in the course of a couple of years I had two major publishers go under owing large amounts of money. It was a harsh lesson but it was really out of my control.
Financially, I’d have been better off working at 7-Eleven than TSR or West End Games, but I was prepared to have to “pay my dues” so I just kept working. So then I got work with London Night Studios. They went out of business owing me money. Then on to Caliber, and yes, they went out of business owing me money as well. I’ve paid serious dues here. It wasn’t until I got to Avatar that things stabilized.
How would you advise aspiring artists to compile their portfolio?
Style is a minimal concern to editors and publishers despite what artistic ego tells us. Clear, concise storytelling is the most important thing along with a strong knowledge of the fundamentals. You need to prove you can draw anything using proper perspective and a good knowledge of anatomy and rendering mass. Splash pages and cover images are virtually worthless in a submission unless you just plan to be a cover artist, which is a pipe dream itself.
I read somewhere what the perfect submission would be once: four to eight consecutive pages. Start out someplace mundane like an office full of people in regular, everyday clothes. Make sure you draw all the props and build a believable scene. Make sure you have different body types, sexes, races, etc. Show that you can draw anyone.
Then bring in some action, some big superhero or superhero team (it really doesn’t matter if you show X-men pages to a DC editor as long as the samples are strong) busts through a wall fighting. Show all that destruction dynamically and show off your superhero proportions and anatomy but remember that they are looking for clear, readable storytelling, not pointless splash images.
Don’t skimp on backgrounds. Move the fight outside and draw a realistic city scene with cars and buildings. Then move the fight into a nearby park to show nature, maybe a mounted police officer.
With all this, an editor will be able to see your versatility, storytelling ability and consistency or, just as important, the areas you need to work on. If you aren’t concerned with working in the mainstream, then you have a whole other set of sensibilities to deal with. It’s all kind of moot though since I don’t think anyone but the mainstream (publishers) are even willing to look at freelancers.
If you are going into indie or small press, you generally have to have your own book and creative team, and you’ll be judged as a whole. That’s a different game altogether. Know the publishers. Check their Web sites for submission suggestions. For instance, you can’t just apply for a penciler job at Slave Labor. They publish creator-owned material, and while they might be able to pair you with a writer looking for an artist, odds are your submission won’t lead anywhere.
What’s a typical work day like for you?
I tend to sleep whenever I’m tired. I don’t really adhere to a specific schedule, but I tend to be nocturnal. Any given day, I’ll wake up at noon, take care of e-mail, bills, errands, etc. then work till around prime time. Then I usually break for a few hours to hang out with friends or just relax or do me stuff (movies, reading, video games, etc). Then, when 9 or 10 rolls around I start my serious push and draw through the night till 5 or 6 in the morning, taking small breaks to keep my sanity. It can be a bit weird for friends and loved ones to deal with, but you just have to do what works for you.
What’s your thought process when you approach a project?
I read through the script several times without a pencil or paper. I want to get a feel for the flow and vision of the writer before I start doing any paneling at all. It runs like a movie in my head and when I sit down to do thumbs, the angles and settings are already sort of defined for me. The story is everything and I’m simply trying to translate the writer’s vision as clearly as I can, which sounds pretty basic, but talk to some writers. They’ll tell you the average penciler is really out to serve themselves over the project, sacrificing flow and tone in favor of big splashy show-off panels. Granted, those kinds of pages have a place, but my focus is very writer-centric.
You’ve done a lot of work with Warren Ellis. How can an artist develop a strong rapport with collaborators?
When Warren started his Avatar work he had already seen some of my samples and thought I showed a lot of potential, but he hardly trusted me yet. The scripts for Dark Blue were full of angle suggestions and paneling ideas, which was great. I was still learning my storytelling aesthetic and a writer with a strong vision and a deep knowledge of what really works can teach a lot, but after he saw how I handled the denser scripts, things became gradually more shorthanded.
He trusts me now to make the right decision for the story. The writers I’ve worked with know I’ll put every effort I can into improving my own abilities while handling their proverbial babies with the utmost respect. Like them, I’m not just looking for a paycheck. I want to do memorable comics and be proud of a collection of self-contained, creator-owned, cross-genre graphic novels in the end. They understand that I am passionate about this stuff, and I’ve been incredibly lucky to get paired with writers who really care about their ideas. I think when your writer trusts your devotion to a project, that rapport will develop automatically.
Any advice for aspiring writers on how to tailor their scripts to cater to an artist?
It really depends on the level of the artist as well. If they are starting out, don’t be afraid to give them more info. The bits of a script that the readers will never see is essentially a letter to your artist. Explain your vision. Don’t just go with the minimal “Man walks into a room.” Describe the ambience of the scene, the style of the people, the stuff cluttering the room within reason. Maybe it won’t all make it onto the page, but you are building the scene up.
A beginning artist might not go that extra mile if he/she is worried it will stray from your idea. Give them some meat to work with, and you’ll get more results. And as you grow as a writer, you’ll find yourself needing less and less to convey exactly what you want to the artist. Paneling and angle suggestions are fine if you have specific ideas, but don’t hamstring your artist either. I’ve had scripts where panel one is a small, vertical headshot panel and panel two is a page length horizontal establishing shot. That doesn’t make sense unless you inset panel one or leave a lot of blank space.
Let your artist figure out how the page will flow. When you get to scenes where you really think the artist can cut loose, back away and let them. Let them know it is their chance to shine, let them know what needs to be conveyed and then let them at it. If you are working with a more seasoned artist, let them do their thing but be clear about what your vision is for the story.
What’s the one thing every aspiring artist needs to know but probably doesn’t?
In most ways I am still an aspiring artist myself! If it is one thing it is this: Perspective is the whole game. Every time something looks odd or awkward, odds are the perspective is screwed up or you aren’t thinking three-dimensionally enough.
Even the most organic thing has to adhere to perspective. You might be drawing a face and the eye axis isn’t lined up parallel to the mouth axis relative to the vanishing point, and suddenly the whole face is wonky. The more you use it properly, the more your work will improve.
Most comic artists, particularly the ones who learned to draw by looking at other comic artists, tend to approach things very two dimensionally. They develop tricks to quickly represent folds in fabric or faces from certain angles that repeat through the books constantly instead of thinking about things in 3-D and being free to draw anything from any angle conceivable.
When you understand viewpoints and picture planes you can line up panels that look so much more believable you’ll shock yourself. Everything becomes easier and with time this stuff becomes second nature. Go over to Amazon and pick up some basic perspective books on the cheap or sign up for a perspective class, and you will see some serious improvement. Start applying perspective as much as possible to your pieces and you’ll start noticing things like grounding your figures on the picture plane, getting the scale of props and settings right all improving.
Never skimp on perspective. It may seem like the most tedious and dull part of drawing, but I promise the results will inspire you and improve your overall satisfaction with drawing.
You can check out Jacen’s work on 303 here and look for his upcoming Texas Chainsaw Massacre series.
—Interview by Lenar Clark