Establishing a Career in Comics

Richard Starkings replies to University design student Ryan Scales’ questions on breaking into the field, establishing a personal style and more.

Ryan Scales is an art & design student at Wingate University in North Carolina. Given an assignment to interview an established professional in his chosen field, he asked Richard Starkings to be the subject. Here are Richard’s replies to his questions on breaking into the field, establishing a personal style and more…

Ryan: Over the years it’s become more and more difficult to break into the business. How would you compare the industry to your early years?

Rich: If you really want to enter the comic book industry, or any field of entertainment for that matter, you can’t afford to let yourself believe that it’s difficult to do so. There are even more opportunities than ever right now — more comics are being published, there is an even greater demand for content and there are more publishers prepared to give creators either full ownership or partial ownership of their properties. The difference between today and, say, twenty or thirty years ago is that sales are lower because competition is fiercer. Consequently top talent is better paid and new talent and auxiliary creators are forced to work harder for less.

When I started working at Marvel UK in the mid-eighties, there were more “boys adventure” comics being published (and therefore more opportunities to work in England) but fewer British creators working (for better money) in American comics. Today there are more British creators working (for better money) in American comics and fewer British “boys adventure” comics being published, so by and large I’d say that the industry is in better shape. There are more opportunities, better money and more creators owning their own properties.

I consider myself an ‘old school’ artist meaning much of my work is done in pencil and ink; I have little experience in graphic design. I am aware that could limit the amount of work I receive, but how much of a detriment could it be to my career?

There aren’t THAT many artists producing ALL their work on the computer — Brian Bolland is the only artist I know personally who rarely picks up a pencil any more. Your ability to tell a story will always be more important than the tools you use to do so.

When you first began your career, when did you finally feel that you found your own personal style?

Style is always secondary to Craft. Once I’d stopped worrying about my personal style and got to the point whereby I could meet deadlines and produce work of professional quality, my personal style became self evident. It’s important to be inspired by the work of artists you admire, but if you’re constantly concerned about polishing your work and meeting certain self-imposed expectations regarding the presentation of your work, your storytelling will suffer.

Everyone is taking the self-publishing route these day. Do you feel this is good for a fledgling artist’s career, or do you think creators should start out working with an established company or title in order to have some experience under their belt?

No, not everyone is taking the self-publishing route, otherwise the mainstream publishers (Marvel, DC and Dark Horse in the US) would collapse and the direct sale system they support would quickly follow. There are more independent publishers around these days, prepared to offer creators better deals, and in many ways they are the orphaned children of the mainstream companies who don’t want to — or can’t — offer creators a place to create new ideas and new characters. If you want to work at Marvel, they’ll want you to work on their characters, ditto DC Comics. You just need to get clear on what YOU want to do — would you be happy drawing licensed characters for your entire career or do you want to create your own?

How do you interact with your fellow creators (those with whom you work)?

I prefer to work with creators with whom I feel a connection and a kinship. I’m very fortunate in that I have been able to work alongside top talents such as John Wagner, Alan Moore, Ian Gibson, Brian Bolland, Chris Bachalo, Joe Madureira, J Scott Campbell, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. In doing so, I’ve acquired a unique perspective which fuels my own projects.

Explain the relationship between the letterer and the editor and/or publisher.

The best editors get the best out of the letterers, artists and writers they work with. the best editors tend to be the ones who communicate well and regard everyone who works on their books as integral to their projects.

What memorable experiences have you had in this business? What have you learned from them?

I think my most memorable experience is the one that led me to the practise of Buddhism.

When I was given the task of editing a comic based on The Real Ghostbusters cartoon series back in London, I found myself having to cast around for new writers in order to generate the large amount of material that was needed in the book. I bought a number of scripts that were okay but they seemed to lack something which I couldn’t quite put my finger on. They didn’t seem truthful. I may just have been a young turk trying to prove something, but I really wanted to read and publish stories that were both fun and meaningful!

I had hired Andy Lanning to draw Ghostbusters, and he recommended the work of his old schoolfriend, John Carnell, and brought him to meet me. Generally I avoided hiring friends of friends but there was something mercurial about John that inspired me to give him a chance. John was quick with a joke and earnest in his desire to write entertaining stories. The scripts he turned in proved to be witty and vibrant and eagerly sought after by the artists working for me. I struggled in vain to understand what exactly it was that they contained so that I could communicate “the formula” to other writers.

I soon learned from Andy that John was a Buddhist and after he and I had come to know each other, I asked him about his practice. From time to time he would suggest that I probably couldn’t handle Buddhist practice and instead read to me from Rilke’s Letter To A Young Poet when he was drunk. Most of all I remember the question posed by Rilke: “Must I write”?

One night I sat with John and his wife as they chanted and leafed through a book called Guidelines Of Faith. Pretending not to be very interested, I asked John if I could borrow the book. Halfway through my reading I came across the phrase “turning poison into medicine.” Suddenly, a penny dropped. All John’s Ghostbusters stories turned negatives into positives. The Ghostbusters would be called to bust a ghost in a hotel, but would persuade the ghost and the hotel manager to work together so that people would visit the hotel BECAUSE it was haunted; or the Ghostbusters would trap two mischievous electrical sprites in a battery, thereby creating a source of everlasting power.

I called John the next day and confronted him with my realization. “Gotcha!” I told him. “You’re propagating Buddhism in your stories, aren’t you? Admit it! ”

“Um, No, not deliberately,” John told me, “but I have been practicing for over four years and I guess that Buddhist philosophy is starting to bubble up out of my life into my work.”

I never quite believed John’s denial, but regardless of his intent, I decided I wanted to get me some Buddhist wisdom. I started chanting and encouraged the other writers working for me to consider the concept of “turning poison into medicine” as an alternative to the “this ghost is toast” philosophy our licensor encouraged. Subsequently The Real Ghostbusters comic became one of Marvel UK’s most successful publications.

To cut a longer story short, even when I was at the top of my game, winning awards, I was never truly happy just being the guy that lettered comics. Years after I started practicing Buddhism, I realized that I didn’t have to wait for other writers to produce meaningful stories for me; I could write them myself! I finally had the answer to the question posed by Rilke: “Must I write?” Hip Flask and Elephantmen are the answers to that question.

Rilke said: “A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge itÉ go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take the destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside.”

How can one advance their career in such a job specific industry?

That’s very simple. Do a good job on the project that’s right in front of you. In Buddhism this is called “Hon’nin myo” — From This Moment On.

What art related work do you do outside of comics?

None. Comics are a passion that consume all my creative energies.

What do you enjoy most about the business?

It’s hard to single out one thing — I don’t regard myself as a writer, designer, letterer or publisher. What I love about the comic book industry is putting comic books together. Sometimes they’re comics I’ve created myself, sometimes graphic novels produced by friends and sometimes they’re high-profile books for mainstream publishers. If you’re doing it right, and working with people who are doing it right as well, you can have some incredible experiences.

Do you work out of your home or an actual studio?

I work out of an actual studio at home!

Describe a typical workday in your profession.

There isn’t one. Not for me. One day I may be writing, another lettering, another designing a cover, a title page or polishing the lettering on CONAN or RED SONJA. I enjoy variety and would get easily bored if the work became repetitive.

What expectations should a new artist have about the industry (i.e. money, travel, etc.)

None! Anything is possible and finding out about the limitations other people have experienced shouldn’t color your own highest hopes.

There isn’t a publisher out there that doesn’t know the Comicraft name. What prompted you to establish your company? What are some of the qualifications one must have before starting up and running their own business?

A thick skin, a big heart and brass balls.

Once an artist has been hired how does one go about negotiating salaries or work rates?

By producing your best work and hustling on a fairly regular basis.

Any advice for a college graduate pursuing a career in comics?

Burn your passion into white ash. Use your work to tell your own personal truths. Create your own characters and don’t think that working on characters created by other creators is any kind of Holy Grail — it isn’t. Make your own contribution!

With the advances being made in home entertainment (DVD’s, Videogames, Internet, etc.), would you say the medium of comics is becoming somewhat antiquated?

Not at all. People said the same thing about novels when movies became popular. People will always like ink on paper. No batteries are required.