Breaking and Entering into Art and Comics
by Mark Crilley
Gene as a kid
Work from High school and college
Letter from DC
© Gene Ha 2020 by Anette Nam Design
I'm often asked what materials I use. I currently draw digitally using the Procreate app on an iPad Pro. I clean up the drawings in Photoshop on my Mac desktop. Despite my use of computers, I’m definitely not a “digital native” and it still feels a little odd for me. For young creators out there, I strongly recommend getting your hands on digital drawing tools and getting used to them early. Check out Freddie E Williams II's The DC Comics Guide to Digitally Drawing Comics for some brilliant advice that’s a little beyond what I can do. He builds many of his backgrounds in 3D CAD software like SketchUp!
Learning to Make Comics
There are many paths to learning how to draw and paint. For beginners the most useful resource is Mark Crilley. Check out his YouTube education videos, where he introduces many basic drawing concepts. He focuses on manga, but the principles apply to any comics genre. His fundamentals are sound. If you enjoy these, get his book Mastering Manga. His comics are pretty awesome too!
Some other great books are Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, Drawing Words Writing Pictures by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, and How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way by Stan Lee and John Buscema.
If you're looking for an art school, check out work from their recent graduates. If they're making work like you want to make then add them to your options. Contact some recent graduates. Ask many many questions. Don’t trust them just because the graduates from 10 or 30 years ago are brilliant, a program can quickly go downhill within that time.
Breaking in to the Comics Biz
“Breaking into comics is like breaking into a high-tech military compound; as soon as you breach their security, they scramble to make sure no one else can get in exactly the same way.” Mark Waid
You literally can’t break into comics the way I did. I sent photocopy samples to Marvel and DC. Neither company accepts mailed samples any more. Don’t depend on publishers to approve your work.
If you want to start making comics today, just start making them and posting them online. Don't worry if your early work isn't 'good enough' yet, people will be excited to see you get better. Meet other artists on sites like Deviant Art and Instagram. Start a web comic on Webtoons. Collect donations from your fans through Patreon. If you generate enough story and readers, run a Kickstarter campaign to fund a printed book and find backers. Or whatever new websites are doing the same things.
Creating your own successful comic is also the best portfolio to show publishers. Hopefully you’ll do so well you won’t need them!
I figure if you're reading this bio, you're either interested in how I got a job in comics or how to keep your kids from becoming comic book artists. Good luck either way. Anyhow, I'll try to explain how I ended up sitting alone in a small room working twelve hours a day. Living the dream!
I was born in Chicago, but raised in South Bend, Indiana. The home of Notre Dame University. My parents were well-educated Korean immigrants who hoped their three sons would get prestigious degrees and move on to prestigious jobs. Didn't happen...
I was the least social of the three Ha brothers. Being both a geek and a first generation Korean-American made me seek out escapist fantasy, especially comic books. While my brothers were both more artistically talented than me, neither of them had the patience to sit for hours on end working on one drawing. Or maybe they just had better things to do. I was the only brother not to play high school football.
I think there are a lot of parallels between my generation of Asian-American comic book artists and the generation of Jewish artists and writers who created superheroes in the 1930's. Mystery men with super powers, secret identities, and absurdly Anglo names seemed to have attracted both generations. We were all the children of immigrants struggling to fit into America, and the fantasies of 1930's Jewish geeks still held appeal to 1980's Korean geeks.
All of the typical comics names from the 80's were influences on me: Byrne, Miller, Sienkiewicz, Simonson, Moore, etc. But the most important was Matt Wagner.
Matt Wagner’s Mage took superhero tales and ancient myths, and applied them to the world I knew. Kevin Matchstick wore a t-shirt and jeans and wielded a glowing baseball bat. Reading Mage filled my life in South Bend, Indiana full of hidden magic. My life was made larger. Comic books had never done this for me before.
That’s the power of art. It changes how you see your own world. It makes the magical everyday, and the everyday magical.
Or in the words of Samuel Johnson c. 1781: “The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.”
Art appealed to me, not in and of itself, but as a way of creating comic books. South Bend public schools offered few classes in realistic drawing, so I took few elective classes in art. I mostly drew in other classes and after school. I was quite good at taking notes, then caricaturing the teachers before they moved on to a new idea.
My high school's newspaper, the Clay Colonial, was where I really began to understand the graphic arts. I won the Most Valuable Staffer award, an unusual honor for the staff artist. I don't know where my high school and college degrees are, but I know where that plaque is.
The most important thing one must do before learning is to figure out what you don't know. When it came time to go to college, I had no proper portfolio and couldn't get into any self respecting school. That’s how I ended up at the Center for Creative Studies (now the "College for Creative Studies"). In my first two years, I learned how little I knew. The last two years I tried to learn it. Art school can be incredibly useful, but the degree itself is meaningless. My art was still a mess when I graduated. I've met kids stuck on farms their whole lives who can draw better than I did then, and I've met art school grads whom I wouldn't want working on the Clay Colonial.
In my last semester at CCS, I sent out drawing samples to Marvel, and a week later to DC as an afterthought. Marvel sent an unintentionally vicious letter criticizing my perspective, anatomy, and technique, everything except my storytelling. In retrospect, they were mostly right about everything but the storytelling. Still, they were needlessly harsh.
DC was interested. They sent me a sample script, liked the results, and I've had regular gigs ever since.
I currently live in Berwyn, IL with my wife Lisa. She fills me with joy, and keeps me from going crazy.
How Gene became an Artist