“People who can’t draw are stunned by those who can.” — Scott Peterson, editor at the La Jolla–based comic imprint WildStorm.
When Peterson said that, it struck me as being a pretty good explanation for the appeal of Comic-Con, the massive annual celebration of “the popular arts” held each year in and around the San Diego Convention Center. It’s probably why people will pay $20–$35 a day for the privilege of paying $40 more for a signed lithograph of Batman by WildStorm founder (and celebrated artist) Jim Lee. Or, failing that, why they’ll stand in line for over an hour just to have Lee sign a copy of All-Star Batman & Robin, which he drew for WildStorm’s parent company, DC. It’s certainly why my brother happily paid $50 to stand in Artist’s Alley and watch Gene Colan — the guy who drew Howard the Duck, and Dr. Strange at his very strangest — whip off a small sketch of the good Doctor. (It’s also why I happily accepted said sketch as a birthday present.)
I mean, Monty Python taught us that it’s not exactly thrilling to watch a writer slave over his latest manuscript, and even the sexy business of making movies gets old after the 15th take of the same minor scene. But give a comic book artist a sheet of paper and five or ten minutes, and he can give you a very fine Batman.
Best of all, you get to watch your prize take shape, marveling as your man busts out his pencils (his brush-tipped pens, his markers…) and sets to work. (I say “he” because they’re mostly guys, but there are plenty of exceptions. Stay tuned.) Big, faint, swirling lines that might or might not be a cape, or an outstretched arm, or — is that a dragon? Yes, yes it is. The whole taking shape as the sure hand lays down layer upon enhancing layer: pencil, outline, color, shadow. So much cooler (and a good bit more personal) than a straight autograph.
Case in point: this particular rendition of the Dark Knight, as rendered by Daxiong Guo, artist on WildStorm’s Top 10 Special #1. Daxiong is Chinese and was at one point a celebrated teacher, producer, and publisher of comic illustration in his home country. (You learn this from his translator, who tells the story while the artist plies his trade.) He won awards at home and abroad, but it wasn’t enough to keep him out of trouble with the authorities. A follower of the quasi-religious practice of Falun Gong, he grew increasingly critical of the government as it carried out its infamous crackdown on the movement.
“I believe the reason for China’s disaster in humanity is because of the dirty evil acts of the Chinese leader Jiang Zemin,” he writes in the self-illustrated apologia given me by his translator. “The Chinese Communist Party is dragging people down into the pits of the underworld.” (The booklet includes a cartoon depicting Zemin as a puppet operated by a Communist devil, delivering a scolding to Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and bin Laden.) “In 2008,” he continues, “the Chinese Communist Party convicted me of lies and slander, so again I was arrested” and, according to his translator, tortured. But “with the help of friends overseas, I was able to escape to the United States and find my freedom.” Part of that escape involved being invited to Comic-Con 2008. (When he inscribes his sketch with the slogan “Justice and courage in the face of evil,” it gets a little easier to take seriously the notion that Batman & Co. are called superheroes.)
Naturally, it’s not all, or even mostly, politics and nobility. A little later, comic-book writer Marc Bernardin hits up Kody Chamberlain, another artist fortunate enough to park himself at the WildStorm table in the DC pavilion. (The pavilion is demarcated by enormous banners above, cushy purple carpet below, and a near-constant parade of DC-costumed fans all around — hello, Joker!)
“Gimme something I know,” advises Chamberlain. “I’m not very good at remembering things — like with superheroes, I can never remember where Batman’s cape connects to his shirt.”
“How about Ripley from Aliens?” asks Bernardin. “You got Sigourney Weaver in your head?”
“See, that’s a likeness problem,” complains Chamberlain.
“How about a Terminator?”
“I can do a Terminator. Of course, the first drawing of the day always sucks.”
“Awesome!” replies Bernardin. “Yay me!”
This sort of professional banter, says editor Peterson, is one of the reasons WildStorm is here at the Con. Sure, it’s a giant meat market, held in a cavernous hall that, despite its size, still winds up feeling overstuffed (one attendee told me to “write about the smells”). But, he says, “I’m still surprised by how many deals get made because people actually get to meet face to face. We meet with a lot of movie people, game people, foreign publishers…and it’s one of our biggest chances to actually meet with our creators, our freelancers.” And for creators to meet each other. And even for dreamers, amateurs, and the self-published to meet with the Powers That Be.
Like many of the larger comics publishers, DC does not accept unsolicited submissions — except here, they do. Here’s how it works: you attend a DC Talent Search Orientation Session at the convention. You submit photocopies of your work at the DC Comics booth. At the end of the day, says Peterson, “We stick them all in a bin and something like ten of us, from different departments around DC, will go through and look at every single entry. Then we each decide if we want to see someone the next day for a face-to-face portfolio review. I’m on the high end —
I might sign off on as many as ten percent. A lot of others are as low as one percent.” (It’s not surprising to learn that Peterson has a rep for cultivating new talent.)
Peterson did his first look-through on Thursday. At the WildStorm karaoke party, held in the Whiskey Girl’s basement on Friday evening, Peterson said that he’d signed off on something like 5 out of 50 submissions. “On Thursday, I was thinking along the lines of ‘I encourage you to keep going; you’re not there yet, but if you work really hard, in two or three years, you will be.’” But when Friday morning came, he reconsidered. “Now, I think a couple of them are more like six months away from getting work at a smaller publisher — they either have a wicked cool style or a lot of energy. I told pretty much all of them the same thing: I want to see faces. Dozens and dozens of faces, from all angles. Prove to me you can draw faces, and draw them consistently, and at least a few of you will have some sort of career in comics.”