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Not everyone can be incredibly successful at what they do.
Not everyone can change the way the industry works. Not everyone can stand up for what they believe in. Not everyone can be Neal Adams. Comic Foundry sat down with Adams, the living comic legend that redefined Batman, Green Arrow, the X-Men and the visual medium, to talk about what it takes to be a comic artist.
A lot of people ask you to look at their work. What are some of the common problems you see?
The common problematic areas for someone who wants to be an artist in the comic book field or elsewhere is the assumption that you can become an artist without an education.
The difficulty with art is that you tend to draw at a young age. The assumption is that if you can draw, that’s what makes you an artist. Unfortunately, that’s not what makes you an artist. What makes you an artist is your general education, your point of view, your ability to tell a story, your ability to actually have stories to tell that anybody should give a darn about.
Most people who are young, first of all, they haven’t lived long enough to have stories. They usually don’t know how to tell stories. If you have a conversation with somebody you can pretty much tell if they’re a storyteller. They’ll tell you a story – and either be interested, or you won’t be interested. If I tell you a story, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll be interested. I know how to tell a story. Then you add art to it and hopefully those things can go together.
But then the art has to be learned art. It can’t just be what somebody likes to do. And there are just too many parents out there telling their kids how wonderful they are. There’re too many friends slapping their friends on the back telling that they’re as good as so and so and they ought to be in comics and they ought to do this and that. And what those people are are the enemy of the aspiring artist. Because all they do is convince this person who does not have the ability that he does have the ability, and then he starts smashing into walls. Then you go through this process of smashing into walls and then you run into somebody who is good enough and takes the time, which there generally aren’t too many of those in reality.
The reality is that you have to study perspective. You have to study light and shade. You have to go to life-drawing classes. You have to work from photographs. You have to do the hard stuff. Sorta like somebody says, “Gee, I want to be a doctor – I’m good with people.” Well, just being good with people is not going to make you a doctor. You have to understand the circulatory system and how bones work, and if you don’t understand that, then you don’t understand medicine and you’re not going to become a doctor.
In art, people fool themselves into thinking, “Well, it’s not learning medicine; I don’t have to learn all that stuff. It’s not like the law; I don’t have to learn all that stuff. I can just draw.” And so that’s what they do. That’s why every school in America, every elementary school, every high school and whatever the in between school is called nowadays, which was called junior high, I guess it’s called middle school now — every one of those schools has somebody in the school that they call the school artist. Always.
Now, considering that there are tens of thousands of those schools in America, and there only about 1,000 jobs, chances are all those guys and gals aren’t going to become artists. There is something that sets the person who’s going to succeed apart much more than “they’re the school artist.”
The bad thing is that there is no school, per se, to teach an artist to become a successful and good artist. Even the best art schools, when you have an artist who has the ability of say, Drew Struessan, or Alex Ross or people like that, there’s nothing about the school, really, that’s going to teach them what they want to be because already they’re ahead of the teachers. They can learn the tools, they can learn the techniques, they can learn some things but it’s very, very hard who’s going to become an artist and is going to become successful to deal within that fraternity.
It’s always the guys at the very top that really move off into the business and get work. And I don’t know any of them that went through a typical schooling process where they learned through school and they could get there. And I don’t know any of them that didn’t smash into walls along the way.
And when you’re talking about the 1,000 – tens of thousands of kids – what sets them apart?
Nothing. If I knew I’d be able to write a book and tell everybody. I couldn’t any more tell what people were going to be successful at than I could in high school.
When I was in high school there were lots of guys that seemed like — it was an art high school – and there were lots of guys that seemed like they were headed for success. But in the end they washed out for one reason or another. To be able to spot that thing that’s going to cause them to wash out – I don’t know how you can do that. One guy shot himself, one guy who seemed to be more advanced than everybody else became a cab driver.
Other people go into other fields – they go into art direction, a much more sensible thing to do where you can actually make a living and work eight hours a day and not have to go crazy.
There’s a certain kind of madness to doing comic books. Where you give up much of your social life, you work 10-15 hours – well, not 10. It would be a blessing to work 10 hours. You work 13 to 15 to 16 hours a day. And very often a lot of guys work seven days a week. Why would anybody expect anybody to do that? How would you be able to tell in advance that this guy’s stupid enough and loopy enough to go ahead and do that? You can’t predict it. I have no idea.
And when they happen, they’re like miracles. You know automatically what they go through – I know. I know this guy has been through hell, if he’s good. Everybody’s hell is different. But none of them ever do: You go to school, you do some drawings at home, you take some extra classes and then bingo, you’re a comic book artist.
What kind of practice would you recommend for a seasoned and for a young artist?
You should be asking these types of questions to people who will lie to you. It’s much better because they have so much better answers and they all seem to make sense. And my answers are essentially not going to make sense.
Almost every artist out there that’s going to become good does everything wrong – yet he makes it. I don’t know why. Every artist should go to life-drawing classes – they don’t. Every artist should have a sketchbook with them at all times and should be sketching things all the time – and they don’t. Every artist should be studying anatomy from medical books and from body-building books – and they don’t. They should be taking photographs and tracing photographs to find out how things really work – and they don’t. They should be studying perspective to find out perspective really works as opposed to how they think it works – and they don’t. So, the things that they should be doing are the things they often as not don’t do.
How they muddle through things is a mystery. There are things that they can do. And if I am in a position to give advice to a young artist that I think has some potential, the first thing I would tell them is to take the next three months off, if he can, or take off as much of the next three months as possible – and sometimes I say six months depending on his inability. And then to take photographs, find photographs in magazines and make Xeroxes of them – make two copies of them and then trace the photograph. This is called work. You trace the photograph and you try to make the drawing look as much like the photograph as possible.
Why do you do this? Because it’s cheating? No. You do it to learn and that will teach you. It will teach you more than an art teacher can teach you. It will teach you how things work. Well, it won’t really teach you how things work, it’ll teach you basically how shadows fall and how they fall and if you have a brain you’ll learn from that. If you don’t, all you’ll be doing is tracing photographs. So if you have a brain, that exercise will teach you a whole lot of stuff.
The next thing you should is get a sketchpad – a nice, sturdy sketchpad and you should draw in your spare time – on the subway, on Saturdays at various times and in various places and do sketchbooks. Then you should try to get to life-drawing classes, and you should draw the human figure as much as possible to get used to it. Beyond that, you have to go and buy the drawing books and learn from them.
Study and draw, study and draw, study and draw. That’s step one.
All that stuff I told you is step one. That’s basic. That’s what you have to do before you can go on and do other stuff.
Nobody does that. If they’re luck they learn it along the way. It’s sort of like you’re going down a hallway and somebody sticks a cattle prod up your ass and suddenly you go, “Maybe I should be doing this.” And you get another jolt, and, “maybe I should be doing that.” If you get prodded enough times, maybe you’ll do enough of the right things that it’ll all come out in the end and you’ll be a talented artist. Or, you’ll just be some schmuck who can sort of draw but really hasn’t got any discipline at all. It’s very hard.
Makes it sound like the wedgies I got in high school were nothing.
Yeah, too bad there wasn’t some advice each time you got ’em.
This is something I’ve always wondered. When you draw something, how do you know it’s good?
You ask your mother, she’ll always tell you it’s good.
When people do a drawing a lot of times they have a preconceived notion about them. I mean, a lot of people like their own stuff, but how can you tell something you do is good?
You don’t. You live under fool’s paradise. That’s another problem with drawing and learning to draw. You’re as blind when you look at your own work as you are when you’re doing it.
Whatever inabilities you have when you look at it are the same inabilities you have when you tried to do it. The only thing you can really count on if you’re really, really lucky, is that you will be frustrated. In other words, you will say to yourself, “I see it in my head, but I can’t get it down on paper. I see it in there, and somehow when I try and put it down, I can’t do it.” That kind of frustration will make you learn and that kind of frustration will, in the end, will cause you to recognize that it’s better.
That on the paper is the way you saw it in your head. That’s one of those magic moments. And they happen every six months if you’re working very, very hard.
You mentioned asking your mother – of course she’ll tell you it’s great. Who should you be asking, if not her?
Unfortunately there’s nobody. I mean, I can’t be around to tell everybody what a pile of shit they’re doing.
If you’re around someone like me all the time and they’re always berating you and telling you how terrible something is, you could become discouraged very quickly. So it actually is good to have encouragement.
I mean the way I started was I copied an Old Maid card at the kitchen table where my mother was having coffee and smoking cigarettes. And I showed it to her and she thought it was great. So because she thought it was great I did it again. And when she saw the second one she thought it was great so I did it a third time. So as long as she kept on saying she loved it, I kept on doing it – just to get the reward of my mother loving it. So even though your mother’s advice might be the worst advice in the world and you can’t depend on it, you really need it to be able to go on, to be appreciated - because that’s all we do it for.
You don’t really draw in a vacuum. You draw for people. And when other people say it’s great that’s a good thing. The bad thing about it is when you use that as a standard of quality. You just can’t use it as a standard of quality. You can use it as something to make you happy, just not a standard of quality. And beyond that, if you think in terms of and, this is not to denigrate high school art teachers, but, very, very few art teachers have been out there making a living doing art work in the public. There are a very limited number of artists who will actually stop doing what they’re doing and teach in an art school, like Joe Kubert’s school or the school of visual arts. And they usually pay pretty well and it becomes worth it to them do that.
To go to an art high school and sit and draw – the one thing you’ll know is that you are the school artist. That’s what you discover. Big deal. That’s a good thing, and that’s a bad thing. So your teacher pats you on the head and says, “He has a future in art.” And all the kids around you say, “Yeah, yeah, you want somebody to draw that? Joey can do it. Joey’s the school artist. He’s the best. He can beat Jack Kirby!” That kind of stuff happens all over America and all over the world. It’s good, but it’s not good.
Over the years your work has influenced so many people. Is it bad if too many replicate your style?
Replicating? Nobody’s replicating. Imitating.
Replicating means they’re as good as I am. Well, that’s not the case because if they’re replicating, they’d just be doing what I was doing – just doing it over again.
You can’t crawl into somebody’s mind to find out what he does. You can find some of the things he does. There’s certain people, if you read their stuff, and you read it 20 years later somehow you still get some big kick or some big joy out of it. Why is that? That’s the intangible intangible.
That’s not to say that people who imitate don’t have some quality of their own. But, like DC Comics is reprinting my Batman, and these volumes that sell for $50 and $75. There are people that have imitated my work. They’re not reprinting their work. They may have imitated it very well, but they’re still not getting reprinting. What is that intangible intangible that causes that to happen? Obviously they’re not replicating. Because if they replicate it, same thing would happen.
So from my point of view, I don’t have to worry about it. It’s not a problem for me. Is it a danger if people imitate too much? I think for those people who think that’s it’s a danger, it’s a danger. For those people who don’t think it’s a danger, it’s not a danger. I think it’s very nice for people to have opinions, and I think they should go around and have these opinions and really, really enjoy themselves and argue with their friends and carry on. They have nothing to do with me.
Most of the people that I help don’t imitate my work. I mean I’ve helped Howard Chaykin – doesn’t imitate my work. I’ve helped Frank Miller – doesn’t imitate my work at all. I’ve helped lots of artists and none of their work is imitative of mine. The people that imitated me are the people that sit quietly in their own place, tracing or drawing from or imitating or trying to find whatever the magical secret is – quietly, never asking me anything. Then maybe they come and show it to me or maybe they avoid showing it to me out of embarrassment. I don’t know what that is. I know when I was a kid I imitated. I imitated Mort Rucker, I imitated Joe Kubert, I imitated Russ Heath, I imitated Stan Drake. I imitated a lot of artists along the way and for a period of time my work looked like theirs, but I thought I was learning from them. I felt I was absorbing them, understanding what they did, and then moving on.
To a lesser degree, I think these other people are doing the same thing. Sometimes they cling too long. Sometimes they use it as a crutch. Sometimes who really gives a darn? If they do good work and people like it, what does it really matter?
I know you’ve done a lot to help artists with their rights, help protect themselves …
What kind of advice would you give to young artists to protect themselves?
First of all, I would not advise anybody in any school anywhere to not take a business course. If you want to be an artist, you will make more money taking a business course than you will studying art. If you can take a really good business course while you do all the good artwork that you want to do, then you’re more likely to make a better living than you are if you take all the art you ever want to do and no business course.
Most artists are very bad businessmen. I’ve held myself back from bashing the brains of young artists who don’t have the common sense to stand up for themselves. They don’t represent themselves well. The typical picture of a comic book artist, certainly in the ’50s and the ’60s — things have changed a little bit today because there are people like me around nudging them — the typical picture of a comic book artist is a guy in a closet with a drawing table and a light and a radio and a telephone and paper and ink. And the closet door is locked. And they have paper and they fill the paper with drawings and then they slide the paper out from under the closet so that people will give them more paper. Not to make money, just to get more paper to draw on.
There’s a part of the artist that has to step aside at times — and you can do it in a very pleasant way, you don’t have to be nasty or mean-tempered, in fact, you don’t do good business if you’re nasty or mean-tempered. But in a very pleasant way, say the right thing at the right time. And if you do that, you can make a living. I’ll give you an example: Put this in bold type. Let’s say you’re going for a job and they have a sliding scale of money that they’re willing to pay for this kind of a job for this book cover. Let’s say the sliding scale is between $600 and $1,200 for a book cover. Let’s say you come in, you show your work, they really like it. Now they can say to you, “For starting artists, we pay $600 a cover. Is that OK with you?”
Well, you’ve just made the first mistake. You haven’t really done anything, but you’ve made a mistake. You’ve let them dictate the terms of the agreement. What you sorta have to hope for is that they’re going to ask you how much you charge. And one of the ways you can do that is that you can lay eggs throughout the conversation as you’re talking. You can say, “Yeah, I’ve done a few jobs like this,” which will raise their eyebrows. And then they’ll want to know who for, and if you haven’t got a good lie at the tip of your tongue, you’re in trouble.
So you try and convince them you have some experience — not a lot of experience, nothing that will bother them — so that they will then say to you, “How much would you like to get for this, because we do want you to do it.” Once that happens, they’re the fool, you’re in charge. What you do is, you say in your mind: “What would I like to be paid for this?” You don’t know what their rate is. You’ve heard that it’s around $600 or $800 or $1,000 or something like that. But you say to yourself, “What would I like to get? I’d like to get $1,000.” So what you say is, “Well, the last time I did a job like this, I charged $2,000, but I want to work with you, so I’m willing to work for less.”
Now, that does a number of things. First, it puts them in a defensive posture, because they don’t pay any more than $1,200. So you’ve pretty much dropped the $600. That’s one. Their highest rate is $1,200. Are they going to pay you $1,200? Well, how are they going to pay you $1,200 if you told them your normal rate is $2,000? But you have said you’ll bring your rate down for them. Will you bring it all the way down to $1,200? Maybe – just maybe, they’ll extend themselves and say, “Well, the best we can do is $1,500.” Or maybe they’ll say, “The best we can do is $1,200.” Whatever they say, you then say, “Well, I want to work with you guys, and I think it’s a great project so I’ll go for it.”
Now what have you done? First of all, you’ve done them a favor. You’ve taken your price down. That guy will go into the next office after you leave and say, “You know what, I got this guy to bring his price down.” He’ll be very proud of himself. You’ve done him a favor — even a personal favor: helped him do his job.
Another thing you’ve done is you’ve doubled the price you were going to get. You didn’t get $600 you got $1200 and maybe if you were lucky you got more. But let’s just say you got $1,200. The fact of the matter is that you can go home and you can work on that job and maybe you can work two days on it, maybe three days on it, maybe you work four days on it, but however much time you put into that job, it was worth $600. The half a minute it took you to say what I told you to say, you earned $600. Half a minute. $600 for four days, $600 for half a minute.
These are the kinds of things you have to learn if you go into business. And this is just not for a freelance artist. If you go into other kinds of business you have to know those things like sales tax. You can’t just leap into things. You, for example, you got a Web site. You start to sell things, you need to know what taxes you have to pay, how to put your money away. You have to pay attention to these things. Not very easy.
Speaking of money, what should a young artist expect, rate-wise?
All the people that you’re talking about — of those that will try to do comic books — so few will make it that it almost doesn’t matter. And if they have common sense they’ll try and do something else. They’ll try and do storyboards for advertising agencies, they’ll try and become an art director or they’ll go out to Hollywood and try to do animation or other things like that.
To become a comic book artist … very, very difficult. Generally, the rate, because there have been people stumping for better rates for a long time, are better than what they used to be.
For a comic book penciler can expect to get $200 a page. A comic book inker, $125, $150, $175, somewhere in that range. A colorist can get $100 a page because it’s mostly computer now. It’s not bad, at the end of the week if you can do a bunch of pages you’re doing all right. It’s better than it used to be. Not tremendously long ago it used to be $50 a page. So things have changed. It is nice if they’re willing to give you work.
But because it’s gotten better, it’s gotten more competitive. There’s a lot more backstabbing going on. There’s a lot more politics. It’s a good idea to have a backup plan. Because I know guys that have been out of work for three months. They say, “What’s going on? I’ve been out of work for three months?” The response will be, “Oh really, didn’t I send you a script? Let me look through what I have here …”
If you don’t have work for three months, what do you do in the meantime? You make better money doing commercial work — doing storyboards, stuff like that. It’s much smarter. And there’s lot s of advertising agencies in all the big cities in America these days. Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit … they need storyboard people, and they pay more. You can do a storyboard frame from between $50-$200 a frame. That’s just one frame. A comic book page has six. So you can make as much doing one frame as you can, in some instances, as you can doing a whole page. It don’t seem right, but thems the facts.
And if this person were lucky enough to go on catch a break, how do you recommend someone to deal with the initial fanfare?
They get attention? Is that what happens? Hmm. That’s an interesting question. Usually those people only get attention at a comic book convention. There is no other place for them to get attention. They’re not stars. It’s not like a movie star. You don’t walk down the street and people recognize you. You work at home. So maybe somebody sends you a letter. Things are changing. There’s a lot of e-mail going on so maybe somebody will recognize you and send you e-mail. But most guys stay pretty level-headed because it’s not a kind of stardom. If it is, it’s a very low-echelon stardom.
One of the things I like about comics is that I can run my business, I can be talking to people all day — nobody knows that I’m Neal Adams the comic book guy. They think I’m Neal Adams, Continuity’s storyboard guy. Unless I go to a convention where I’m recognized, then it’s a different story. And even then, if I don’t do sketches, then everybody fades. But if you sit and do sketches, people gather around. But if you don’t do sketches and you just sign stuff, you got a certain a number of people and it’s not bad. And if you’re smart you try and do business and you try and sell properties and you try and generate interest in the things that you’re doing.
Except for idiots — if they get complimented or somebody says good things about them it inflates them and builds them up into something that they’re not. And I just feel sorry for those guys.
This idea of taking yourself seriously … I’ve always told people, look, I draw comic books. People give me money to draw pictures. It’s almost a sin if you think about it. I do what I want and they give me money. Who gets to do that? So, I don’t really expect more than that. And if people want to make a fuss over it, I think that’s really great, but that’s already enough. That’s better than what most people can expect.
It’s almost like being an actor without being bumped and pushed around. So there’s a good side to it. But then there’s this thing where certain fans will push artists because their view of the artist is that the artist is great. The artist is this, that or the other thing.
And I have seen situations where a couple of artists who let their heads get filled with this adulation and some of these fans have money and they can buy their originals and give them money and finance them. And what happens is that you get an altered perception of how the world is. And what happens then is that at some point — and I’ve watched this from the outside, I’ve never participated — is that you watch this rocket take off and after a certain point it can’t sustain itself and then crash. It’s non-sustainable. There’s no place for it go. You can’t operate in a forum of adoration. You can’t do it. You have to get real.
This happened to me in high school. I found that when people were complimenting my friends because of the work that they did, they’d be falsely humble. And when they were falsely humble, people would compliment them more. And I realized I was doing the same thing. People would compliment me, I would be falsely humble, I would say, “Oh, well, it’s not that good,” and they would say “No, no it’s great! No, really, it’s fantastic!”
And then it’s one thing when it happens to you, but when you see it happen to other people, you start realize that means they’re accepting all this appreciation but it’s not helping their work because the next job that they do is pretty much the same as the last job because they got appreciated so much on the last job, so how is that benefiting them? So then what I started to do, just for the hell of it, at first I would come in with something, I would show it to people, they’d say, “That’s great” and I’d say, “I know.” And they’d say, “Go to hell.” I’d say, “Look, you don’t think I know it’s good? It’s good. What’s the big deal?” And then they’d walk away. And then I discovered that that hurt me — but it helped me. It made me realize that if I ever really wanted to get complimented — if I got complimented in the face of that — in other words, if someone would then come up to me and say, “Look, I know you’re an asshole and I know you think it’s great, but I’ll tell you, this is better than anything you’ve ever done.” And then I can afford to say thank you. But if I do it every time I get a compliment, I’m not going to see the forest through the trees.
So, I don’t let myself have that false pleasure. It’s a bad thing. So how do people do with that? I guess it’s the way good actors deal with being complimented too much and getting too many awards — they start to go back into themselves and pay attention to what’s real. Or else, poof, crash.
I was never fortunate enough to meet or talk with Will Eisner. But everything I read there’s just this overwhelming response of how much he single-handedly changed and set the landscape for the comic world. What would you want people to say about you?
He’s a prick. I don’t think of myself as old enough for people to think about that sort of thing. Everybody has their own personality. Will is well-loved. I’m liked by tougher people. I’m not liked, necessarily, by weak people, people who are too sensitive, people who are concerned about criticism. I’m not an easy guy.
But if you fall in a puddle, I’ll help you up. If you need a buck, I’ll give you a buck. I’ll do the things that need to be done for brotherhood and all the rest of it. But if you make your way through to me and shove a piece of art under my face and demand that I criticize it, I will criticize it, and that will be bad thing. If you do that to Will, if you did that to Will, he will always have some nice thing to say and probably help you along the way because he’s a genuinely nice person.
I’m nice up to the point that I can be nice. I try to be as nice as I can, but I have trouble looking someone in the eye and not saying what I believe to be the truth. I have a lot of trouble with that. So, of the people that I think are the best people in the business like Will Eisner and Joe Kubert, I’m maybe second tier down in “good guy.” I’m first tier if you need help. I’m second tier down if you really want to like me. I don’t do that. Will was. Will did. And maybe he did it too well for whatever that doctor was that operated on him that let that blood vessel go. That pissed me off. If I were down there right now I’d punch that guy right in the face. Oh well, fuck it.
—Interview by Tim Leong
For more information on Neal Adams, check out his Web site at www.nealadams.com