How to Become a Comic Book Artist

By TACP Staff on June 24, 2019

The comic book, graphic novel, manga, and anime industries are some of the fastest-growing areas in all of literature, and the demand for great artists continues to grow with each passing year. If you can draw and spend much of your day reading Peanuts and The Hulk, or Tank Girl and Scott Pilgrim, a career as a comic book artist is for you!

1. Learn the Basics of Comic Book Art

CNBC, the Washington Post, Business Insider and even comic book geeks like Seth Meyers agree, the comic book market is hot. With the rise in comic-book-based movies over the past decade like Deadpool, Ant Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy, the comic book industry has witnessed an all-time high not seen since 1997, with an increase in sales during each of the past five years. Even webcomics like Twokinds, Replay, and Not A Villain have become increasingly popular in the last several years.

A comic book or graphic novel artist produces work in comic form and may produce the whole strip, or contribute to only a part of the comic. They convey humor or tell a story about everyday situations, recent trends, current events, and made-up worlds. It’s not uncommon for a team to be involved in the creation of a comic. One artist may create only the key figures in the comic, while another artist or artists create the backgrounds, and a writer or writers write the script. It’s also worth noting that these roles can be interchangeable, and an artist that draws a character may be brought in to write a part or the whole script.

Like the fields of illustration and design, the comic book and graphic novel industry is very competitive, and you must be extremely talented to succeed. And, your first job just starting out may not be as a comic book artist. However, an entry-level job with a publishing firm or film production house can still offer valuable skill-building opportunities you can use later.

2. Learn the Essential Skills & Techniques to Succeed

Although most anyone can become a comic book artist, there are several essential skills you’ll need to make it in this industry. Obviously, the most important skill to have is artistic ability and a natural talent for drawing, followed closely by the ability to conceptualize. Creativity, imagination, interpersonal skills, and manual dexterity are also skills every comic book artist should possess. And, since a lot of comic book art is generated digitally, even for printed comics in newspapers or other publications, artists must know and master a variety of graphic software, such as Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator, and Mac’s Made with Mischief. A Wacom tablet is also a must-have. But, the process of creating comics usually starts with a pencil in the form of rough sketches and drawings on paper, so owning an arsenal of pencils from 6H to 2B is important.

Since most (if not all) comics have a main character and a few or many minor characters, a comic book artist must know how to draw the human body accurately. Over-exaggeration can only take an artist so far, unless the specific comic calls for it, so making characters look believable is imperative in this field. Artists must also be able to tell a story that takes readers (or viewers) on a journey through sequential panels of artwork. You may not be the best writer in the world and may have a writer as part of the team, but you still must have a story in mind; from start to finish.

There are probably a couple dozen ways to break into the comic book industry, and earning a degree is one of the most valuable. Although a degree is not mandatory, the level of training you will receive can help when looking for a job, advancing in this field, or branching out on your own. Most comic book artists will earn an art degree with an emphasis in drawing or illustration, where they learn various techniques of studio or fine art and graphic design. An alternative to attending a two-year or four-year college or university is attending and earning a degree from a private art school. Art schools often offer specialized programs in drawing and illustration with an emphasis on graphic novel and comic book art, and more and more on webcomics, manga, and anime.

Webcomics, also known as Internet or online comics, are published on a website; often an artist’s personal site, but also on sites like Reddit, Imgur, Tapastic, or Webtoons, just to name a few. They are typically published on a regular schedule (Monday – Friday, 3X a week, or on weekends) and are free to view, although most webcomic artists make money via advertisements on the site, or even by selling t-shirts with imprinted artwork. Two to the most popular webcomics today are xkcd and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. These comics are in strip form or single-panel format and usually written by the artist. Typically, the subject matter of most (not all) webcomics is a bit more niche than most printed newspaper or magazine comics, and the subject matter is usually much darker, yet the artwork and subject matter varies greatly. Although most webcomic artists stick to a simple presentation; just artwork and words, some will add animations, music, and motion.

3. Build a Strong Portfolio

One of the most important tools for any comic book artist is a strong portfolio and website. But, as not all comics are the same, neither should all portfolios be identical, and a successful artist will have a variety of artwork to show depending on the client, agency, or company. The main point of a comic book artist’s portfolio, whether printed or available online as part of a personal website, is to show you can draw well and consistently in a variety of styles.

A personal brand is also essential. You may be able to draw fabulous characters and write amazing copy, but if it looks and sounds the same as last year’s comics, your work won’t get a second glance. Developing your personal brand can take months or even years, and includes hours and hours of drawing and honing your brand. This is crushingly important if you freelance.

If you decide to freelance and try entering the market solo, the lack of regular paychecks, long hours drawing and re-drawing, finding clients, and simply learning how to run your business can take a toll. But, many comic book artists are very successful freelancers. Posting samples and your profile on one of the many freelance sites, like UpWork or Guru, can get you started. But, you won’t get rich right away. As in most art fields, you must prove yourself first, often earning very little money starting out. In fact, a comic book artist who is new to the field may only make $10 per page. But, as you gain experience and strengthen your reputation you can make as much as $200 per page.

Most comic artists work for newspaper syndicates, they freelance, or are employed by comic book companies. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has no specific salary information for comic book artists/cartoonists. But, the job outlook for multimedia artists and animators (which loosely includes graphic novel artists) is expected to grow six percent between 2014 and 2024, with a typical median salary of about $64,000. The amount an artist (or writer) gets paid depends on many variables, such as company size, location, medium (printed or online), and whether you are a company employee or working freelance.

Because the field of comic book artist is so specific, gaining professional experience while still in school can help. This may include internships, drawing a comic strip for your college newspaper, or freelancing on the side. Joining associations and organizations can also benefit an artist just starting out, as well as attending conventions – with your portfolio in tow. To advance as a comic book artist, you need persistence and dedication. By networking while at school and at conventions and other events, you can make life-long industry connections, which can often lead to a job.

Helpful Organizations & Resources for Comic Book Artists

Additional Guides 

Are you considering a career in Digital Arts? Check out these how-to-become guides for similar occupations in the field.