So today I broke a girl’s heart.

It’s not the first, despite my ‘delicate’ nature, and it probably won’t be the last. But this one was different, because the girl in question was only… 17.

“Do you want to see my sketchbook?” She asked me. “I don’t care, I’ll show you anyway.”

PopImage Volume 1 Book Cover - By Aman ChaudharyBefore I worked for The Beguiling, my job title at the last comic book store could more appropriately be described as “Comic Book Bartender” rather than “clerk”. This is because, in addition to dispensing the poison of the customer’s choice–Pokemon Cards, Action Figures, Warhammer, T-Shirts, Anime, or somtimes even comics–I was also the guy behind the counter that listened to your problems, offered you open-ended, non-comittal advice, and was a friendly face in a world that hated and feared you. Customers would spend quite a bit more time at that store, just hanging out. The boss didn’t mind as long as they spent money, and I provided a wonderful little co-dependent service for them. Did I mention I wasn’t very happy, in general, back then? Anyway.

Every once in a while, I would get marginally more involved with someone’s life. Either I would ‘make friends’ with select individuals at the store, or I’d actually give the tough advice that would be helpful, in the end, but probably a little harder to hear in the short-term. Sometimes I even picked up! At the comic store! Whoo! I’ve got a few really good friends from those days, people who I really love and treasure, but many of them? I feel like an asshole for saying this, but many of the people I spent hours and hours and hours talking to, I wouldn’t recognize if I passed them on the street. But yeah, I put a lot of time in with people, and one of the big areas of discussion was “how do I break into comics?”

At that time I had the excellent cache of being ‘an expert’. I’d been published as a colourist, I’d interviewed a bunch of big-name creators for PopImage, and I could draw. Not great, but a hell of a lot better than I can draw now. So, knowing this, people would show me their art, or story pitches, or whatever, and say “What do you think?”

  • Rule #1: No one ever wants to know what you actually think.
  • Rule #2: Only 1 in a 1000 artists is going to break into the comics industry without any formal training. It won’t be the person I’m talking to.

I never met an artist who ‘broke in’ without formal training. Most of the artists who showed me their stuff were convinced that they were going to be that one though, which was harrowing. So I did a lot of tip-toeing around the issues. I recommended post-secondary education, a lot. Life-drawing. Specific areas of improvement (“Draw Feet. And Hands. And Backgrounds.”) I tried to put people in touch with other people when I could. I tried to be open, and friendly, and supportive, but honest. And I was trying to steal as much as I could because I wanted to draw for a living too. :)

I never sent anyone out of the store unhappy, we always had a good conversation and, like I said, I developed friendships with some of them. Alex Milne and James Raiz were both friends from that time, and they’re both working professionally in comics today, which is great. We see each other at conventions every once in a while, and catch up on how things are going, career-wise. Let’s just say that the pages Alex was doing that Pat Lee was signing his name to, they didn’t come as much of a surprise to me, but unfortunately it wasn’t my place to say anything. I do have good memories from my employment there, mostly the time spent interacting with customers, and it did help me develop a lot of the skills I’d need for later in life. People-skills, mostly…

So against my will this girl flashes her sketchbook at me.

“I only need to learn to draw hands,” she says, handing me the book. “They’re hard. I’m really great otherwise.”

I’ve posted about fangirl entitlement before. Mostly it comes up in relation to yaoi, and the fans therof. Straight girls and women deciding to boldy stake a claim on homosexual sex, logic or cultural appropriation be damned. But I invite all of my non-manga readers to really spend a day visiting anime and manga fandom: It’s fucking monstrous. You’ll find many of the most reprehensible children imaginable, running wild across forae that encourage their stupidity and encouraging a sort of fake-drama-based high school clique system that rules every facet of their lives. I hate to say this, but the Newsarama commenters, as attrocious as they are, don’t hold a candle to some of the bullshit I’ve seen.

To say that this girl had an air of entitlement about her work would be something of an understatement.

The thing is, she was very good at what she was doing; she’d refined her one very cartoony character design with different hair styles bleeding off the bottom edge of the page so as not to draw feet/legs to a “T”. She did that for roughly 200 pages, actually, venturing outside of her niche to attempt a more realistic figure three times, and to do 4 or 5 pages of heads floating in space. True to her word, she could not draw hands, as they were most often circles at the end of arm-tubes. When she initially said she couldn’t draw hands, I recommended she check out the Bridgeman DRAWING DYNAMIC HANDS on the main floor. This was a mistake, as I should’ve just told her to try drawing her hand 4 or 500 times, just to get a start.

So, where did I begin? By flipping through every page without saying anything at all. Honestly, I wanted to see how long she’d had the book, and if she showed any development or variation at all, before I opened my mouth. She took that differentlt, as while this happened, her opinion of her work changed dramatically.

I draw cartoons for my school newspaper.”

“Uh, you don’t like these do you?”

“I’m not very good at faces.”

I didn’t get up this morning, looking to break some girl’s heart. She’s even a nice kid, a regular customer. But she’s really into the yaoi, and the online thing, and when she and a few friends are in the store the squealing and the decibel levels rise, and I realise the kind of fan community that she’s a part of. It’s one that is all-supporting, all-encompasing, and completely unlikely to give her any constructive feedback whatsoever. Obviously.

So I decided, then and there, that this would be the first customer in quite some time that I would actually help, like I used to. So I did. I offered constructive criticism along the following lines that I think might be helpful to most artists:

  • “You look like you’re Drawing all of the surface elements of manga and anime, without thinking about WHY you’re drawing them. Specifically, highlights in anime-style eyes, blush/form lines on cheeks, etc.”
  • “You’re not doing any under-drawing at all. No guidelines, no skeletons, nothing. That’s a huge problem.”
  • “You’ve totally written off your art classes as not teaching you anything, but it looks like you’re not doing any figure drawing, or backgrounds, or characters in a three dimensional space, or any non-people objects. All of that stuff is what art class is good for.”
  • “You’re not pushing yourself to get better. You’re comfortable drawing what you’re drawing, and you’ve done it for 200 pages here, but if you want to draw what you see in your head, you need to try and actually draw it.”
  • I then re-drew a picture in her book on a piece of scrap paper with a ballpoint pen in 30 seconds to show her how she could easily improve her drawings with a little bit more planning, and it was better than most of her work.

How to Draw Anime and Game Characters Volume 1I didn’t break her heart at that point, but I may have destroyed her whole world.

I motioned her to follow me over to the ‘How To Draw Manga’ books. She was nowhere near any of the advanced stuff, so instead I showed her How To Draw Anime and Game Characters Volume 1, which is probably the best intro-to-manga book on the market. Translated from the Japanese, and featuring all of the basics of figure-drawing, anime stylization, perspective, faces, posture, and design detail. It’s a solid book, and the only thing you really need to put into it is practice; it’s not teaching you anything wrong. I showed her how the under-drawings worked, how to use guidelines, how to move characters around three dimensionally. She seemed to be ‘getting’ it, and finally connecting the dots between what she was taught in art class, and what she actually liked to do with art. This is a HUGE chasm, by the way, for most artists.

“My parents really want me to go to Sheridan. I always thought I’d study history, but I really want to go!”

Sheridan College is a local school that has one of the top five computer animation programs in the world. They also have a highly-regarded illustration program. It’s a pretty top-notch school.

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “But I don’t think you’re ready for Sheridan right now. If you work really, really hard for the next 7 months, you could get in to their Art Fundimentals course, on the road to illustration, but I don’t think if you applied now, you would get in.”

Actually, I knew she wouldn’t get in. I was being nice. Her face dropped.

My friend Jim Zubkavich is the director of the Animation Program at Seneca College, another highly-regarded local school. Every six months or so, he posts his reaction to the portolios of work submitted to get into the Animation program. Every six months or so, we are treated to a truly hilarious, cringe-inducing post that makes you wonder how in the hell these people got as far as they did in life without anyone opening a window and letting the blinding rays of truth shine on their work. Selections from Jim’s most recent post include:

  • Having letters of reference from your high school art teacher, your school librarian, the manager at your part-time job and your family doctor is all well and good I guess, but when the actual artwork is extremely poor after delving through all that rah-rah cheerleading, it’s a bit comical.
  • Disproportionate limbed anime fantasy katana-wielding caped screaming Dragonball-headed dude: It’s a genre all its own.
  • I know you want your shoujo winged angel anime dude to look relaxed but the sword lazily slung over his shoulder looks like it’s impaling him in the head.
  • Writing ‘I have trouble with perspective drawing’ on your room drawings is honest, and I appreciate honesty, but it doesn’t bolster your case.
  • Tracing hand pictures from a sign language book doesn’t show me that you can draw hands.
  • I almost thought I was going to get through a whole batch of applications without seeing a bad drawing of a crying girl holding a rose while floating in empty space. Unfortunately not.

Heh. You really oughtta check those posts out for yourself. But the best part is in his post from a month or so earlier, where he talks about what the submission process is really like:

“The tough part comes in understanding how much hard work that will be for some people. If you work hard and you still aren’t making it, then a lot more hard work is required. There is no motto that states “Your hard work will be the same or less than anyone else who has ever succeeded”… Do the research, look at your work and be honest about where it’s at. I’m not saying this to be mean. I don’t think I know everything, but I have a decent idea of where my skill falls on the ladder and what I can and can’t do at this point. I wish my skills were stronger, but wishing alone doesn’t make them better. Blaming someone else doesn’t improve them either. It’s not like a I sit around cackling like Doctor Doom raising up or destroying people’s lives as they apply to get into this course.” - Jim Zubkavich

Once Upon A Time I Used To DrawSo I totally broke her heart. Lower-lip quivvering and everything.

“Yeah, I know,” she said. “I know my stuff isn’t good enough to get in.”

I’m not the devil you know. I’m not. I could see that, despite giving her the same talk I’d given dozens of times about paying attention and working hard, about the realities of being a working professional in art or illustration, gleaned from having roughly 250 friends currently making a living from art or illustration, not to mention knowing lots of people employed in art instruction, despite all of that, she’d just never heard it before and she was not taking it well.

Change in strategy!

“I don’t think your work isn’t good enough to get in right now,” I said. “You’ve shown a lot of dedication here, filled up hundreds of sketchbook pages in no time and the stuff that you like to draw, you do pretty well! You’re just not pushing yourself as an artist. You’ve got the dedication, now you really need to concentrate on improving all of the stuff that needs to be improved. I think that if you put the same energy into learning and improving as you do on drawing already, you’d be ready to apply for Sheridan’s art fundementals course by the winter, and that’s a good first step.”

“You think so?” Fighting back a tear.

“Yeah, I really do. You have lots of friends, get them to pose for you. Draw from life more, and see if it’s not too late to get back into your highschool art class, and learn whatever they’ll teach you, it’s a lot more useful than you think.”

“Okay, yeah,” she said, and I started to feel a little better. She even cracked a smile.

We chatted a little as she packed up her sketchbook, about things to work on in general and places to talk about art online, social circles and the like. I told her that I’d more-or-less given up on my artistic dreams, but she had about 12 years on me and could do whatever she wanted with her life, as long as she was prepared to work for it. She seemed in better spirits, and when I went to put the How To Draw Anime and Game Characters Volume 1 back on the shelf, and she actually snatched it from my hand, and then paid for it. That’s a pretty good sign, I think. Her heart might just be on the mend.

So how was your day at work?

- Christopher

References: PopImage Volume 1, How To Draw Anime & Game Characters 1.
Bottom art: I drew that 4 years ago.

25 Comments on “On Entitlement”

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  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Mar. 28, 2007: Sexual predators and Indian food says:

    [...] In a lengthy and astute essay, Christopher Butcher discusses mediocre art drawn by aspiring cartoonists, and why they seem to always go together. [...]

  2. Jonathan Ellis says:

    Lovely… but you forgot to mention the owl’s

    BTW – You. Me. Dinner. Soon.

  3. Gus says:

    Man, reading that just about broke *my* heart. Poor kid. But that was absolutely the right way to handle it…

  4. Paul Bazinet says:

    Chris, that was a great, you rock man!

  5. Ray Cornwall says:

    Actually, I thought you helped a young person with drive but no education start on the path to get better. If you didn’t force her to come to terms with her current skills, someone else would have, and it might have come too late to do her any good.

  6. Keath007 says:

    This reminds me of the time I took my portfolio to the first ImageCon in California back when I was in college. I pounded out a couple pages of Cerebus and some generic action/spy type character and managed to get several artists to look at it. Most of them were encouraging (one agent even expressed interest but I lacked the dedication to follow up with him) but I don’t remember what any of them said. I do, however, vividly remember one of Leifeld’s house artists tearing into my pages (respectfully though). He told me flat out “You’re going to walk away hating me but I want to help” and then proceeded to call me on pretty much every fault on the page, some I knew about and some I didn’t (despite years of reading comics, that day was the first I’d ever heard of an “establishing shot”). It was brutal but it was the most beneficial thing that I’ve ever done.

    So yeah this girl will probably hate you for a long, long time but what you did was a lot more important and meaningful than if you just said it was great and moved on.

  7. I Like To Do Drawerings « ÃŽles du Désappointement says:

    [...] And Christopher Butcher relating a case of delivering the harsh, critical truth is as sympathetic as anyone could be, but it still has those elements – the artists’ hubris, the terror of subpar-to-terrible art (with the animation portfolio links), criticism of a stylistic influence. Butcher, though, sounds like the best kind of critic you can run into though, given how much he still constructively helped the girl. And I know it’s hard to give honest criticism if it hurts, I had trouble commenting on the work of my peers in all the workshops and classes, trying to be as nice and supportive as I could. [...]

  8. Brian says:

    That’s great Chris! A lot of people are just bitter or smarmy about doing portfolio reviews (which can be entertaining when you’re not on the receiving end). But you’ve gone and given us the layered humanity behind this with a touch of hope too. Very nicely done!

  9. Michael May says:

    Awesome story, Chris. Thanks for sharing it.

  10. Joe Infurnari says:

    As difficult as it was to hear at the time, the people who’ve been honest with me about my work have helped me the most and I really am thankful now for their input. It’s great that you did that for this aspiring artist, Chris. That was a good post. As an aside, I really DO want to hear what you actually think. ;)

  11. Kat Kan says:

    Hey, she didn’t leave in tears, she bought the book you suggested, she actually listened to you. You just may have done her the best favor anyone could have.

  12. Bitter Matt says:

    Well-done. Really well-done. I am a graphic designer, the same age as you, and last year I found myself giving portfolio reviews to college students for a day. Some of them, as it happened, were awesome, and left me with a haunted feeling of thankfulness for whatever connections and experience-advantages I may have, since their portfolios looked significantly better than my own.

    A few students, however, from the smaller colleges, needed a lot of work; one poor little young woman from the community college had a portfolio that was probably on par with an average self-taught high school student. I felt like a complete brute as I attempted to allude to that reality and gently point out some areas to work on.

    The portfolio reviews are coming up again next month, actually, and I will probably be thinking of this post.

  13. Scott Bieser says:

    You did that girl a huge favor. She was at a point a lot of young would-be artists get stuck at, and often don’t ever get past. She needed a kick in the pants, just hard enough to knock down her defenses, followed by a bit of encouragement and some constructive advice.

  14. Stuart Immonen says:

    A great and tragic tale, well told, Chris.

    I recognized it immediately as typical (!) of a convention portfolio review, of which I’ve certainly conducted my share. You’re absolutely right in that most people do not actually want to hear anything but praise. You did well by this young person.

    Oh, and you’ve met me– apart from a year a York, mostly spent at the pub, I’ve never had formal training– so maybe it’s 1 in 2000.

  15. Mike says:

    and the moral of the store?


    I’m proud :)

  16. Jim Munroe says:

    Nice narrative structure to this piece — the slow reveal of her unravelling confidence. Engaging even to someone who’s never struggled with drawing hands or had a portfolio review.

  17. JohnnyZito says:

    Well done.

    A comic shop owner did the same for me when I was 13. While I’ll never be a comic pro; I do get paid to pen to paper (or its modern digital equivalent.)

    I shudder to think what might have been if someone didn’t tell me I sucked.

  18. ADD says:

    There are many great pieces of wisdom in this — I printed it out and gave it to my daughter, who wants to draw manga, and who I think will have her mind expanded a bit by the good information you passed on here, Chris. Thanks.

  19. yaoipress says:

    Y-you’re not supposed to tell people who submit to you how awful they are? Well. I learned something today.

  20. Ian Daffern says:

    I’m with Jim here man. That was really nice.
    You might want to hang onto this one for the memoirs.

  21. Amy Kim Ganter says:

    Good job, Chris! The earlier you can tell them the truth the better, I think. I still remember the day in 7th grade when my high school art teacher told me “you can’t copy The Little Mermaid forever, you know.” I don’t remember being hurt, but just confused for a bit while genuinely focusing on improving afterwards. I think when you’re still a growing teenager, your attitudes are pretty malliable. I’m sure she’ll look back on her encounter with you fondly. =)

    Also, this is a good reminder for pros that having an open-minded attitude about improving your craft is a good thing. I just really enjoyed this post all around.

  22. Rob C. says:

    Great story Chris. Have you seen her since your critique?
    Did she buy vol.2?

  23. Anonymous says:

    “I never met an artist who ‘broke in’ without formal training.”

    Jhonen Vasquez.

  24. Robert says:

    Be fair, Anonymous, he’s probably never MET Vasquez.

    The closest I’ve come to this (yet) on the receiving end, was visiting a local cartoonist during Open Studio week, and asking him if he recommended that I take Basic Anatomy classes after I finished the Line Drawing and Composition four semester series. He advised that it would be helpful if I intended to use anything close to a realistic style.

    The idea of just picking up a pencil/pen and DRAWING without taking any formal training or classes baffles me. That would be like ‘I really enjoy eating hollandaise sauce, so I’ll get some butter, eggs and lemons and make some! Recipe? Cookbook? What are these strange words you’re using?’ Scott McCloud touched on this briefly at the end of Understanding Comics, when he described young fans who attempt to replicate the surface appeal of their favorite superhero comix without knowing anything of how they’re actually _made_.

  25. Recommended reading | who can pass the courvoisier like Busta Rhymes? says:

    [...] Finally, Comics 212 is a blog by store-owner Christopher Butcher of The Beguiling; it’s a knowledgeable regular blog that’ another worthy waste of your time – even if he does break fangirl’s hearts. [...]

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