I'm sitting in a small corner of the Sails Pavilion at the San Diego Convention Center. In the thoroughfare nearby pass the best and the brightest of Comic-Con-numerous storm troopers, quite a few Batmen and lots of Japanese teenagers in schoolgirl fetish-wear.
The people nearby are more the khaki-and-cotton type. They mill around, chatting amicably, but there is a pervasive tension in the air. This is definitely a crowd on edge. At some invisible signal, all jump out of their chairs and spontaneously begin to form lines.
This isn't unusual. If you didn't know better, you'd think lines were the primary purpose of Comic-Con. Lines to get in, lines to get out, lines to get free stuff, to go to panels, to go to Starbucks, to be charged $2.50 on the house ATM.
But these lines are especially important. The people here aren't waiting to get Charlize Theron to sign body parts. All of them are artists, and they're waiting for professional editors to review their work. A very lucky, very talented few can use these sessions to start a freelancing career with the most famous names in the industry-DC, Marvel and Dark Horse.
James Nguyen and Alexander Shearer are having a platonic Comic-Con romance. They met for the first time this weekend, after collaborating together for more than two years via the Internet and the phone. Shearer writes, Nguyen draws the comics.
As I flip through Nguyen's portfolio, he explains how using a writer's script can stretch an artist.
"Look at this." He points to a panel of a bus blowing up. "I would never have drawn this on my own. Alexander said, "Bus blows up, all the windows break outwards.' I'm like, Come on. Who wants to draw four dozen breaking windows?"
But there's no question that all the flying glass creates excitement and lends an impressive realism to the picture.
For this Comic-Con portfolio review, Shearer wrote a Superman script for Nguyen. Three mini-stories, three pages each, for nine pages in Nguyen's portfolio. That's about 80 hours of work. Right now they're in the line for Dark Horse.
The Dark Horse reviewers are easily the most popular, though it's the smallest of the three major publishers. I asked Dark Horse Senior Editor Chris Warner why that might be. He chuckled a little and said, "Well, we're less Darwinian, I think. Marvel and DC have so many titles. They want people that they can toss into the X-MEN mill or whatever."
That kind of market share draws its own population of hopeful artists, of course. There is always the temptation to want to work for the best, or failing that, the biggest.
Christian Ares has an original series, a slickly drawn cartoon about an apprentice blacksmith who goes on a fantastical quest. Ares, a man's man, is interested in the mythology of masculinity and machismo in general.
He's waiting for the Marvel booth to open up. "I want to sell this," said Ares as he taps his case with his foot. "Sell this crap."
Ares has the unmistakable wounded look of a man who doesn't think the world is giving sufficient credit to his genius and is forced to do work that is beneath him-presumably things like creating a story of a medieval teenage blacksmith who discovers the power of machismo.
Not everyone is that cynical, though everyone here is on the make. Most have a genuine love for what they're doing, be it searching for freelance work, trying to sell character or story ideas or trying to launch a new franchise.
I meet a surprising number of people who are looking to use their comic-book project to break into film, which seems like trying to get into the director's chair by becoming a Hollywood starlet-tough row to hoe.
Halfway through the review, Nguyen sits down in front of Warner, who gives his portfolio a quick look-see.
"This is pretty good," Warner says. "You obviously have talent. But I don't think you're quite there yet."
He compliments Nguyen's figure drawing and recommends that he draw less-detailed architectural shots-fewer panels with 300 windows, say.
Then Warner says, "You should start working with a writer. A writer will make you draw what you don't want to draw. After a little while of drawing all those windows you will find a short hand."
I can't resist glancing over at Nguyen, since this is almost exactly what he was saying earlier. To his credit, he doesn't say a word. He thanks Warner for his time and gets up to leave.
"How did it go with DC?" I ask.
He shakes his head sadly. "Maybe next year."
Almost everyone here is a good draftsperson, by any standard. But that's not enough. A good comic-book artist has to be able to render highly detailed interior and exterior backgrounds that don't distract from the characters. They have to be able to focus the viewer's eye on the most important part of the panel while still using realistic light and shading. They have to be able to draw good figures, good facial expressions and good portrayals of things in motion.
None of this sounds terribly complex, in theory. But bear in mind that these artists have to be able to replicate that panel after panel, page after page. It's this grinding repetition that most artists seem to have a problem with.
Given the technical demands of what comic-book publishers are looking for, it isn't surprising that they only find five people out of 500 that can meet them.
Four hours after the review begins, Warner is finally able to stand and stretch. Of the 37 people he reviewed today, no more than three showed work he was seriously interested in. All those were artistic illustrators. None had work suitable for the super-hero style most associated with comics.But there's still time. Dark Horse will review about 700 portfolios this year. Warner smiles wanly. "I dream of the day I can attend one of these conventions and not be tied to a table."