Advice for the Aspiring Cartoonist

September 27, 2012 by  
Filed under Gene's Blog

I get a lot of e-mail from aspiring cartoonists asking for advice, even more so now that I’m writing the Airbender comics.  Figured I should share some of my thoughts here.  Here’s a slightly edited version of my response in a recent exchange:

Here’s what I think:  You have to decide whether self-expression is more important to you or making money from your art is more important to you.  They’re not mutually exclusive in the long run, but they are in the beginning.  If you want to make money from your art, you should go into animation.  Go get an animation major at an art school and build a portfolio.  Make connections through your school and go apply for jobs.  (Be warned– these days, it’s more difficult than it used to be.)

If you care more about self-expression, major in something practical, something that will lead to a job where you have flexible hours.  I majored in computer science and was able to get a part-time job out of college that allowed me time to work on my comics.  Then, use your extra time to hone your craft.  Work on stories that are yours, using characters that are yours in settings that are yours so you have full control.  Put them on the Web.  And keep at it.  For most of us, it takes about ten years before you get good enough to start making money.  A few talented and/or lucky ones can get there sooner, but ten years seems to be a common story.

When I was young, I wanted to make Fantastic Four comics for Marvel.  I never would’ve dreamed of doing graphic novels for the YA market or writing Airbender comics because neither the YA graphic novel market nor Avatar: The Last Airbender existed.  Now, I’ve gotten to do a short story for Marvel, but I’ve had waaay more fun working on Airbender and especially on my own stuff.  Let your dreams be flexible.

Finally, care more about your craft than your dreams, otherwise your dreams won’t come true.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, I don’t think one way is more noble than the other, or more creative.  And I probably should have said “make a living from your art” instead of “make money from your art.”  Careers in animation are, of course, intensely creative.  And if you’re good enough and work hard enough, you may eventually get to the point where you can express your own vision rather than someone else’s.  You’ll gradually get more and more control over your projects.  You just have to pay your dues first.

In indie comics, you begin with self-expression.  And if you’re good enough and work hard enough, you may eventually get to the point where you make money.  You just have to pay your dues first.

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3 Responses to “Advice for the Aspiring Cartoonist”
  1. swisstoons says:

    I’m in a somewhat different field…gag cartooning. I began writing gags for greeting card companies in the mid-1970′s and for cartoonists by the end of that decade. With some encouragement from cartoonist client, I began drawing up my own gags, eventually selling to major mags such as Penthouse, Good Housekeeping and the like.

    Do indie comics publishers pair writers with artists? If so, might that be a way to get a foot in the door…in the same way I got into gag cartooning?

    Magazine cartooning for magazines, by the way, is practically an extinct beast today. The internet killed it. But fortunately for indie comics, this is not the case, is it?

    • gene says:

      Making money off cartoons is hard all over. I think you just have to take that as a given and be ready to work your butt off. Prepare to juggle multiple projects and even a day job or two.

      Comics publishers work both ways. Some pair writers with artists, some want you to submit as a team, and some do both. I think the first step is always to produce work. Make a finished comic, even if it’s just a short story. Print it up as a mini-comic and put it on the web. Then start showing your stuff to agents and publishers.

      Good luck!

  2. Zhou jun ling says:

    I learn accounting major, especially like painting before high school, then college like paintings began to copy. But gradually produced boredom, clearly in the heart very want to draw, but my hand can not draw. Mainly to copy pictures extreme discontent, always doubt if he is a waste of time, very depressed but really want to draw a picture. I hope one day with the approval of others, but sometimes think for me this little guy that target estimate that can never be. How to handle this kind of mood?

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