Everything started somewhere. When you dig down deep enough, you find the core, the DNA that keeps things ticking along. And Comic-Con, beneath all of the movie stars and TV fans in long lines and voice actors performing radio scripts and comics being sold and artists sketching commissions, started out as a simple, downright idealistic concept: If you put a bunch of aspiring artists in the same room as the professionals and the comics companies, then the amateurs will get advice from the professionals and get jobs from the companies.
But is it still that? Portfolio reviews are still a part of the Con, but they’ve been shunted off way to the side (they’re in the room everybody walks through when they’re on their way somewhere else), just like I’ve never seen a single minute of the Anime Film Festival or the role-playing game sessions that apparently exist here. (Also? Some sort of fighting pavilion. I don’t even know what that’s supposed to be.) I said the Con was a whole bunch of different events smushed together in an arranged marriage that somehow works back on day one, but it can be damned hard to find some of those events unless you know exactly where to look.
But I knew the comics portfolio stuff existed from my very first year, when a friend who’s been through the process told me all about how she was getting sicker and sicker about the commercial aspects of the Con overwhelming the idea of what it was supposed to be originally: a super networking event for people who wanted to hear honest critiques of their art (and maybe get a job).
So that’s why I tracked down Stephanie Stober.
Stephanie, you’ve probably figured out already, is the young woman who was getting the extensive critique from Phil Foglio back on day two, the one that turned weirdly, potentially embarrassingly public. People started gathering, like Foglio was a carnival barker or something, but Stober kept smiling through the whole thing, taking it all in stride, water off a duck’s back and all that. (Today, she says that she’s going to take some of his tips, but some of the suggestions he made for her are things she doesn’t like about his work, so why would she incorporate them into her own?) Her friend, Missy Pena, who’s had some success finding work via this system, even in the last two years which were apparently lean for companies looking to hire, scoffs at the notion that everything was too grey and muddy. C’mon. It was raining.
This is Stober’s first Comic-Con, and she’s sort of kicking its ass. It’s hard to say that someone exudes positivity, because that’s somehow become a negative thing in our culture, but I want to say that Stober’s relentlessly positive (in a completely good way). She takes every single critique or thing someone says to her and collapses it all down into some bright ball of energy that’s aimed solely at making everything she does better. If this were a sitcom’s opening credits, she’d be tossing a hat in the air at the end, thrilled at the prospects ahead of her. Pena shakes her head at Stober’s confidence, is sort of amazed she’s this good at the whole game at her very first big show.
Pena, for her part, has the very quiet confidence of someone who’s slightly older—she’s 23 to Stober’s 21—and is really starting to figure out who she is and what she wants to do. Where you can still see Stober’s primary influences coming out loud and clear in her portfolio (mostly drawn from her Web comic, Final Arcanum), Pena’s art blends her influences into something that’s starting to look more like her own style. Her colors are bright. Her lines are at once loopy and precise. There’s an intriguing half-cartoony, half-realistic vibe to the work, including rabbits that seem to be caught halfway between a Disney film and a kids nature text. She’s finding success here with this portfolio, and she’s already got a part-time job illustrating for Gaia Online. Her first year didn’t go as smoothly as Stober’s, but, then, she’s been here to help her friend.
We’re sitting in the portfolio review area, which is a long string of blue folding chairs sitting in a couple of rows in the middle of a wide, open room. Forming a perimeter around the chairs are a series of booths from the various companies—comics and animation—that are looking to hire or just looking to provide portfolio critiques. (Pena says that in recent years, there had been less hiring, but that seems to have picked up this year.) At 10 a.m., the reviewers filter in and sit at their booths, ready for the last day of this process. A Con volunteer starts reading out names loudly to the many people sitting here, nervously jiggling their knees or listening to their iPods to relax or flipping through their portfolios, looking for last minute saves. She says the name three times over the space of about a minute. And if you’re not there? That’s it (though you can apparently beg to get rescheduled).
While we’re sitting there talking—and a former Yale cartoonist named Reuxben Barrientes has joined our number—the volunteer calls out a woman’s name three times, receiving no response. Pena looks nervous, picks up her phone. That was her friend, see, and now her friend might not get that all-important look, the one that could lead to a big break or comics stardom or just an honest appraisal of her strengths and faults.
But, OK, what happens when you go to the booth? Well, it depends on the company. The worst, Stober says, is when someone just tells you that something is really good but doesn’t bother to elaborate and doesn’t ask for a card or anything like that. Are they just trying to let you down easily? Or do they really not have any further clue what to say? Pena bumped into someone who told her, “Everything’s perfect. Just submit something to us.” But she doesn’t script anything, and without any notion of what the company might be looking for, she’d be grasping at straws. She doesn’t plan on submitting.
DC and Marvel don’t have people up here anymore. They operate through a third-party company, Space Goat, which will occasionally find something it likes and pass it along up the chain. But for the most part, the two big guns aren’t here looking for new talent anymore. They’re the aspirational places to eventually land, not where you start out. (DC’s portfolio review literally just involves dropping a bunch of drawings in an envelope through a mail slot.) Who’s up here are smaller presses, companies that have need of illustration for other reasons (like, say, Wizards Of The Coast), and, weirdly, TV animation studios like Nickelodeon.
All around me, the reviews are starting to happen. People are sitting down with editors and reviewers and putting their hearts on the line. There aren’t any dramatic reactions. Some people walk away with glum faces, some with optimistic smiles. When I first heard about this place, I guess I pictured people throwing their hands in the air in excitement like they’d just won a Vegas jackpot, but this is quieter, a place where people can have their dreams come true, sure, but something more reverential, more earnest. Everything’s on the line here, kids. Best make a good impression.
And if nothing else—if neither could actually draw anything more than a stick figure or that turtle you used to have to draw to attend art school—Stober and Pena are great at that, at making it seem like everything you say to them is just fuel for whatever happens to them next. They’ve heard stories of people going a little nuts when their work is panned, but both of them accept it as a cool reality of the business, even when being harshly critiqued on the show floor before a small crowd. It helps, of course, that both are very good artists, that both will likely have a future in the industry should they want it.
Barrientes is in a different spot. He, too, is a good artist, but he’s out of college now, and he needs to find a job, needs to find money. Where Pena’s bobbing along with her tidy amount of illustration work (though she’ll admit she once had a day job as a waitress at a pirate-themed restaurant) and Stober’s still got a year of school left, Barrientes is taking a job teaching English overseas because, well, money. And what happens then? Does the dream go underground? Do you just give up? Do you let your employers know that if you randomly got that call from Joe Quesada in the middle of the night, you’d pack everything and go? He even asks me this question, as though I have any clue how to balance practicality and hanging onto your dreams for dear life. All I can say is that no one can fault you for having lofty dreams, and it makes as little sense to me now at 30 as it did at 20. Stober and Pena know people who have day jobs AND publish multiple Web comics AND fit in illustration commissions around the edges. But not everybody can be that. Not everybody can serve so many masters so effortlessly, and at some point, the energy just runs out.
I’m thinking about this the rest of the day, as I attend a panel for Doctor Who where fans ask the actors on the show for acting advice, as I wander the show floor, looking for last minute deals. I head over to Artist’s Alley to check in on one of my favorite Internet cartoonists, Katie Cook, just to see if she has any copies of any of her self-published books still available. She’s actually a bit swamped the whole time I’m there, quickly sketching cats in Star Wars helmets for kids attending Family Day. But she doesn’t seem tired, even at the end of the last day of a long Con. She’s successful, and this is a part of that success, always leaving that good impression. Others in Artists Alley, with smaller crowds, look more rundown, more haggard, as though it’s time for this to just be done, except for those who are constantly sketching and never look up.
Over at Top Shelf, Andy Runton, the guy who draws Owly, is doing much the same, drawing a long succession of sketches of Owly in costume for a number of people who’ve commissioned such things, including a man planning to give one to his fiancée to celebrate their impending nuptials. Runton processes credit card orders with an iPad and seems to sell more merchandise than I can keep track of in the waning minutes of the Con. But he, too, keeps up the good impression. This is what he does. This is what you have to do.
And it strikes me that Cook and Runton and Pena and Foglio and Doctor Who’s Matt Smith and the dozens of others I’ve talked to here this weekend all share one thing in common, one thing you can read on their faces as they work: They’re lucky. They’re so lucky. They know what they want to do, and they’re finding ways to make a living at it, at doing what they love. Sometimes, it’s just barely. Sometimes, it’s to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars (or pounds or Euros or whatever it is they use over in the U.K. nowadays). But they’ve all found a way to make the leap, to take the chance, to plunge into the uncertainty and come up swimming, even if that was never a guarantee. Their heads are above water as all around them people wonder whether it’s worth the effort to keep treading. You can see in Stober’s eyes that she’ll keep treading as long as it takes, even if she has to take a job at Subway or something. And Barrientes, too, seems likely to keep plugging away, even if the day job’s a little more demanding. But all around, people are slapping down portfolios on those tables and coming away thinking that maybe it would be better to just give up, that maybe this was a dumb idea in the first place. (Pena disabuses me of this notion. Plenty of people who get—and deserve—bad reviews come back year after year after year, never quite getting what it is they could do better, treating the whole thing as a kind of weird theater.)
I’ll freely admit that I went into this story expecting one narrative—Comic-Con has given up on the artists, man—and ended up with quite another. But it wasn’t until I was trying to pull all of this together that I started to figure out what that was, and I think it’s something that underlies the whole event, that makes it still worthwhile, even as the image most people see is that of a hollowed out, commercial husk of what once was: Comic-Con is an event that promises to put you in the same room as someone or something you love, surround you with other people that love it just as much as you do, then leave space for something magical or amazing to happen. Smith breaks the Con’s rules to sign a kid’s homemade Dalek. A little girl gets to meet the voices behind her favorite cartoon. A woman I sit near while waiting for a panel talks about how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles literally saved her life, allowed her to make friends, helped her stand up to bullies as a kid. Two young women put their best foot forward for people they respect and begin climbing a long, long career ladder. “Everybody has a passion here,” says the woman talking to Ninja Turtles woman, and when you get down to the core and DNA of Comic-Con, it’s that passion that keeps the show from growing stale. Hollywood would very much like to turn that passion into money, but it can’t wholly tame it and turn it to its own ends. It will exist long after Hollywood’s moved on to a live-action movie about the Wuzzles. (After all, the Browncoats are meeting in one of the smaller rooms right now.)
It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that it’s always easier to not do something than to do it. Inertia is a very powerful force. For all of Stober and Pena’s ultra-modern touches—they play Dungeons and Dragons online and meet often with a group of like-minded artists to all work on art and writing together over Skype—they’re still engaged in that oldest of human pursuits, in the idea that if you get up and try to make something of yourself, something amazing just might happen. You move to Hollywood and start auditioning. You work hard to get into the graduate program you’ve always wanted to attend. You bug the editor of your favorite pop culture publication on Facebook about a job writing random TV reviews. Sometimes, it works out. Sometimes, it doesn’t. People fall by the wayside and give up. You don’t have to pursue your lifelong dreams to be happy, after all. It just often helps.
At its best—as it is here in Portfolio Review land—Comic-Con provides a safety net, a bunch of people in the same boat as you just waiting to say, “I get it. I know what you’re going through,” and help you navigate whatever’s next. It doesn’t matter if everybody hates what you’ve come up with—a bad critique can be more helpful than a good one. It doesn’t matter if they offer you a job. All that matters is the act, the dare with yourself that you can run out to the end of the board and arc through the air, down toward whatever’s next. Because they’ve called your name two times already, and the third is just around the corner. At home, by yourself, alone, it’s always easier to stay sitting down, to let the chance pass by. But here, there’s always somebody there to push you to your feet and say, “It’s time.”