My Route Into the Comics Industry (via Philosophy)

My Route Into the Comics Industry (via Philosophy)

Prentis Rollins is a veteran of the American comics industry, having contributed pencils and/or inks to Hardware, DC: One Million, JLA: Incarnations, Batman: The Ultimate Evil, Green Lantern: Rebirth, Green Lantern Corps, New X-Men, Flash: Iron Heights, The Power Company, and many other titles.  He is the author of The Furnace (A Graphic Novel) (Tor Books), Survival Machine (Stories) (Monkeysuit Press), How to Draw Sci-fi Utopias, and Dystopias (The Monacelli Press), and The Making of a Graphic Novel (Watson Guptill Books).  He is the featured artist of Volume 3 of the award-winning graphic novel series ‘Jekyll Island Chronicles’ (forthcoming from IDW/Topshelf, summer 2021).  He lives with his wife and three children in London.

I started drawing when I was about 6 and started drawing comics when I was 11.  The thing that got me started drawing comics was not actually comic books, but movies—the original ‘Star Wars’ came out when I was 11, and I wanted to tell my own Star Wars stories.  I continued drawing comics through my teen years just for my own pleasure.  At age 18, I enrolled at the University of Southern California.  During my four years there, I actually drew very little—I developed a passion for philosophy, majored in it, and then enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Rutgers University, having decided on a career in academia.  But after three years at Rutgers, I decided to go to becoming a professional comics artist.

My skills were good but not at the pro level.  For two years, I worked part-time as an office temp (my wife and I lived in New York City at the time), and in my spare time took art courses at the School of Visual Arts and The Art Students League, both in Manhattan.  Most of the classes I took were in figure drawing, which is the essence of comics art.  Eventually, I started assembling a portfolio of finished comics pieces—pages drawn on Bristol board, at the industry-standard size (10” by 15”), using professional tools (India ink, brush, dip pen).  I started going to comics conventions in NYC to get appraisals of my work from working pros and editors—in 1992. I got my first paying job as an inker for the now-defunct Personality Comics, a Long Island-based company.  I worked for them for 6 months until they went out of business.  I then started working as a colorist, then inker, finally penciller for Milestone Media, a comics company that was partnered with DC Comics. That carried both the Milestone and DC bullets on their covers.  I worked steadily for Milestone for 4 years, then for DC proper as an inker for another 10 years (until about 2012).  I had many fine relationships with many fellow artists and editors; it was relatively easy since I lived in Manhattan. Both DC and Marvel were headquartered there (DC has since moved to Los Angeles). 

A lot has changed since those days.  When I was breaking into the comics industry, the internet didn’t exist, nor websites, nor even e-mail.  Introducing yourself to another flesh-and-blood person and showing them your physical work was pretty much your only shot at getting into the comics industry, and it was a nerve-wracking ordeal.  I would imagine that it still represents your best chance (not at the moment, of course, due to covid!).  Having a slick website where your work is on display helps, of course (and this is easy to do thanks to Wix.com, e.g.), and having your work on social media also helps.  But meeting someone face-to-face will always be the best option, and conventions are where this happens.  My best advice for these encounters is: be normal, be personable, and don’t argue.  Be well-dressed and groomed.  Some people think the way to make an impact is to look like the Road Warrior.  Editors are looking for dependable creators whose insanity shows only in their work.  Let your work speak for itself; you’re there to learn, not to argue.  Show your strongest work first—none of this ‘save the best for last’ business.  Have a business card listing your e-mail and social media handles and a small printout pack of samples to leave with it. 

Another big change that has occurred since my early days is the advent of digital art.  It took me a long time to get with the program—but I am now comfortable working either digitally or with traditional tools.  I just completed the art for a 186-page graphic novel—‘Jekyll Island Chronicles, Vol 3’ (summer 2021 from IDW/Topshelf)—using a Cintiq tablet and the art software Clip Studio Paint.  It took a few weeks to get versatile making digital pages, but I find it a pleasure now (the main drawback is: there’s no original art to show for your efforts).  I am old school in this department; I think it’s crucial to learn to draw/make art using paper and traditional tools.  But at this point, it’s also crucial at a certain point to become fluent with digital media—whether you’re planning a career in comics, animation, concept art, advertising, or all of the above.  Art produced on paper is only going to become more obsolete with time.  How comics, and all other art, are being produced, distributed, and consumed are in massive flux right now—we are in the midst of the digital revolution, and the dust won’t settle for a long time, if ever.  The more flexible you are regarding how you can produce work, the better off you’ll be. 

In recent years I’ve focused more on getting my own original work published.  One book of which I’m especially proud is my sci-fi graphic novel ‘The Furnace’ (Tor Books, 2018).  I drew all 192 pages on paper and colored them using Clip Studio.  It was a literary graphic novel for mature audiences, and I had no idea how to get it published or who to approach.  On the advice of a friend who is also an author, I used the website Querytracker.com to find a literary agent—an excellent agent named Bob Mecoy.  He landed me a fine deal with Tor Books (the sci-fi arm of MacMillan Publishing)—this was above and beyond anything I’d imagined.  I’m finishing up the digital color on another hand-drawn graphic novel, which Bob will be shopping around for me soon.  I’d strongly recommend using Querytracker to find an agent if you think you have a comics project demanding a more sophisticated audience.  The biggest problem is:  producing a full-length graphic novel on your own is a laborious, time-consuming affair (I worked on ‘The Furnace’ off-and-on for 7 years!).  The more of it you have done by the time you approach an agent or publisher, the better.  They are mainly interested in backing a project if they see that you and they are more or less in spitting distance of completion.  In every instance, comics are a labor of love; producing a graphic novel must be a labor of passion.

The education I received in philosophy at USC was not wasted time, even though it doesn’t feed directly into my work as an illustrator.  It awakened in me a love of metaphysics and ideas in general.  I read widely, indiscriminately, omnivorously—and this is where all my ideas come from (at least as regards the writing of my own work).  I read science fiction, regular fiction, history, philosophy, psychology, and all of it feeds into my writing and art, in one way or another.  I’m very much an advocate of exposing yourself to and learning from as many other creators as possible.  Regarding the production of comics, there are two books that I would recommend.  The first is ‘How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way,’ by Stan Lee and John Buscema.  Many books on how to draw comics, but this seminal classic from the 1970s said it all and said it best, as far as the brass tacks are concerned.  The other one is ‘The Making of a Graphic Novel’ (Watson-Guptill Books, 2005) by a fellow named Prentis Rollins.  This book features a self-contained 100-page sci-fi graphic novel (‘The Resonator’) and an exhaustive walk-through of what went into making it.

Also read From Hobby To Becoming An Illustrator – Here’s My Story

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