Saturday, July 14, 2012
Rising above the Reject Pile
The stack of letters in the photos shown here are the rejection slips from editors I've received over the years. Some were at the start of my career, some are from the mid-1990s, ten years after I'd started making a living out of cartooning.
The reason I keep them is to remind me of a basic truth about this business. That one should never become complacent or conceited. That even after you think you've "made it" there's still going to be editors who don't think your work fits their plans, or who just don't like it. I had an idea turned down just last week in fact. While it's a little frustrating to have wasted a day writing a script that was rejected, I'm not arrogant enough to expect a 100% success rate just because I've been in the business for nearly 30 years. That's how it goes in any industry. You win some, you lose some. That's life. Move on to the next idea.
In the early 1980s, when I was trying to break into comics, I drew up two A3 page samples and sent them to Bob Paynter at IPC. I was hoping to get work on Whizzer and Chips or Buster or something. Bob called me up and told me he didn't think I was ready. I thanked him for contacting me but quietly I was crushed. That was my best work, I thought. How could I hope to better it?
Looking back on those pages later I realised he was absolutely 100% right. (Bob knew his stuff.) They were too rough, too amateurish. Cut to a few years later, in 1984, when I'd improved a bit and had sold my first cartoons to Marvel UK, Bob offered me work on a new comic in the production stages called Oink! which in turn led to about eight years on Buster. Patience, and practise, paid off.
A perfect way to get your work out there and hone your craft is to self publish a small press comic. (That's how many of us started out.) Yes, it costs money, but printing, say, 50 copies of a basic A5 size black and white 16 pager wouldn't be that expensive. Even better (and free) you could set up a blog or website to publish your strips online in full colour. Neither idea would make you money, but you'd be getting exposure by promoting it on Twitter, Facebook, etc. and, hopefully, constructive feedback. Such feedback is important. Your family might tell you you're the best artist/writer ever (or, if you're an arrogant so-and-so you might think that yourself) but it's the feedback from readers that really matters.
The point I'm making is, if you want to work in comics or magazines you're going to have to accept some rejection. A lot of rejection, as the pile of letters here makes evident. (And these are only the written rejections, not the phone calls, e-mails, or the times when editors couldn't even be bothered to reply.) The thing to do is, to coin a phrase or two, Keep Calm and Carry On. Stick at it. Learn from your mistakes. Don't let rejection get you down. (Easier said than done, I know.)
If you get the breaks, and you can produce work to the required standard, and you have the imagination to carry on doing it, it'll eventually pay off. Don't expect a publisher to snap up your fantastic idea for a graphic novel straight away. Be prepared to start small. (My first professional comics work was doing single-gag cartoons for Marvel UK which paid a fiver each.) It's all experience and it's all material that you can add to your CV.
Even when you turn pro you'll still get the odd things tweaked or rejected now and then but you'll be making progress and, hopefully, a living. I know it's tough. As you can see from the letterheads here, apart from trying to break into comics I was also sending stuff to a variety of magazines from music to gardening, but it was nigh impossible to get accepted by any of them. It took me four years of submitting ideas before I sold one.
As I said earlier, feedback is important, and constructive criticism can be very helpful indeed. You can't get too precious about things. People who think they know it all can't progress, so humility is important. I know I'll never be another Leo Baxendale or Ken Reid, nor did I ever expect to be, but I'm satisfied with the work I have produced and I hope it's amused a few people.
Unfortunately at some stage of the game, whether you're starting out or established, you're going to encounter some critics who take joy in trying to tear other people down, usually hiding behind a daft online alias. Fair criticism of the work is acceptable of course (everyone's entitled to their opinion) but no one should tolerate personal insults or snide abuse from people using straw man arguments to belittle them. If you do receive such comments, perhaps this You Tube video by Clever Pie and Isabel Fay on the subject will make you smile. (Warning: Adult content!):
Remember that if those sort of critics were better than you they'd be drawin' not trollin'. Seriously though, if you want a career in comics or illustration, don't get discouraged. Good luck!