At this year’s SCAD Comics Forum, held by the Savannah College of Art and Design on February 13 and 14, the school’s sequential-art program brought a passel of its graduates and other luminaries to Georgia to do what it’s been doing for more than a quarter century: teach its students how to break into the graphic novel and comics market.
The forum, run this year by SCAD professors John Lowe and Robert Atkins (organizers change yearly), included a panel on Thursday night, two-hour workshops on Friday morning, and portfolio reviews for students. It’s the first of two industry-focused events held each year by the college, with Editors’ Day following in the spring, for which SCAD brings down editors from publishers of comics and graphic novels to review students’ portfolios and answer questions about the publishing business. This spring, that event will include editors from Scholastic, First Second, Marvel, DC, IDW, Boom, and Random House, among other book publishers, Lowe said
This year’s panel, a casual affair moderated by professor Brian Ralph, brought creators Jonathan Hill, Corin Howell, Heath Foley, Wook Jin Clark, Kristine Houston, Andrew MacLean, and Joey Weiser—all of whom also ran workshops and performed portfolio reviews—to the college to discuss what kind of jobs to take and which to pass up, how to handle rejections, and how to “stay in love” with the art form and avoid burnout. The panel included examinations of the practical side of the business and focused on aspects of the comics world that, while less glamorous, are as necessary for budding writers and artists as doing actual writing and illustrating. Topics discussed included time management for meeting deadlines, how much to charge for your time, which comics conventions to attend (Emerald City Comic Con, New York Comic Con, and San Diego Comic-Con being the big ones), understanding distribution and marketing, taking advantage of social media and self-publishing, how to break into ancillary industries like tabletop gaming and clothing design, and what kind of side gigs help pay the bills.
“When I first started out, I thought I had to say yes to everything,” Hill said. “As you do more work, you realize that’s totally not the case and people say no all the time.” While that’s true, Weiser noted, part of the job is knowing when to take whatever work you can get. “Freelance coloring is a big chunk of my income, as far as art is concerned,” he said. “I don’t get credit on the cover—it’s on the copyright page or something—so it’s not super glamorous, but it is a good source of income.”
Howell’s workshop doubled down on helping students learn the ropes of the business. Among her advice: “Go to a shit-ton of conventions” (but don’t go to San Diego “more than twice”), take the jobs that you can, read contracts thoroughly, learn who owns the companies you’re working for so you know where the money comes from, know when to refuse to turn over pages when you’re not being paid on time, and above all, know who your audience is—but don't be afraid to work to grow it.
“Most of the people who buy comics are straight white males,” she said. “I hate that fact, but it’s true. That is the reality of this industry, and it sucks. The good news is that you can change it—you can make stories about characters that will change the views of the readers to where there can be a profit.”
That said, while comics readership has long been overwhelmingly white, the market—especially in the middle grade, young adult, and graphic novel sectors—is changing, and SCAD’s enrollment is something of a bellwether for that change. “One of the most exciting things for me as a professor, because I’ve been here for 18 years, is seeing the numbers almost reverse,” Lowe said. “When I began in 2002, it was 80% male, 20% female, and now that number has changed to about 80% female, or identifying female, and 20% male.”
Those changes, Atkins said, are marked. “In the past 10 years, we have really seen a boom in graphic novels for all ages,” he said. “Now there’s a wider variety of subject matter than ever. And you see those trends in student interests, mirroring the trends in the market. And because of the new technology and social media, students are now coming into class with a higher level of skill and draftsmanship.”
Learning aside, Lowe stressed that both events give students the chance not only to learn about the business but to meet people who can help them get a foot in the door. “It’s a more relaxed environment for them to make that professional connection,” he said—especially so with Editors’ Day: “It always results in students getting jobs.”
This article has been updated with further information.