Erik Larsen On The Danger Of Giving – And Getting – Portfolio Reviews

At Lake Comic Comic Art Festival, I got to hear Frank Cho, Klaus Janson and Alan Davis talk about Neal Adams, and especially the treatment he gave to Frank Miller, ripping apart his portfolio, but that Frank kept coming back for more. On Facebook, Image Comics CFO, co-founder of Image Comics and creator of Savage Dragon, Erik Larsen gave his experience of conducting portfolio reviews.

Erik Larsen On The Danger Of Giving - And Getting - Portfolio Reviews
Portfolio review screencap

Portfolio review is the most thankless task a person can engage in at a comic book convention.
If you manage to find somebody to paw through your wretched sample pages, treasure them. They are a dying breed.
Every time–you always encounter some absolutely gobsmackingly awful artist with an overinflated ego, born of a lifetime of being told by friends and family that they're "as good as anybody in the industry" and there is no easy way to let them down.
Portfolio reviews at conventions is essentially triage. The person doing it is trying to quickly assess the degrees of urgency to wounds or illnesses to decide the order of treatment of a large number of patients or casualties. You're looking at art quickly and having to decide who's got a shot and which patient can't be saved.
It is brutal.
And it HAS to be brutal because there's a line a mile long and you need to get through all of them. Everybody wants an answer.
Made worse, is that in the midst of it all is inevitably somebody who fancies themselves as a writer/artist. So, their art was wretched–but what about their brilliant stories?
But there's no time for that. Others are waiting. It's triage! Go! Go! Go!
And while I can tell in a split second whether an artist has something–reading takes time. And reading huge walls of typo-riddled text with no paragraphs and minimal punctuation takes longer.
Everybody thinks they're a writer because everybody writes. Everybody writes posts every day and emails every day. We all talk to each other and form sentences which communicate thoughts and feelings. Most of us (present company excepted) are semi-articulate.
Determining whether a person has an actual knack for writing means reading long passages and determining if they grasp building scenes and fleshing out characters and telling compelling stories.
It's not something that can be assessed in a triage-type situation.
Most aspiring artists get it, and they just want a quick thumbs up or down. They realize that the person doing portfolio review is sticking their neck out and that there's literally nothing in it for them to provide this service. It always leads to hurt feelings and people muttering "Who does he think he is?" "I'm better than he is!" "I'll never buy his book again." Which is is why NOBODY WANTS TO DO PORTFOLIO REVIEWS ANYMORE.
The reality is that a number of people spoil it for everybody else.
And while your mom may heap you with praise and your friends may tell you that you're amazing–they're NOT working professionals and they may not be the best people to accurately assess your abilities. Also–they love you and they have to live with you and crushing your dreams is not going to improve your relationship. Sorry, mom–but you're no help in this situation.
And keep in mind–everybody wants to hire good artists. There is no conspiracy to keep excellent artists out of the industry–that's not a thing. Everybody wants the best artists to work for them. Everybody is trying to sell comic books and if you can help them sell comic books–they want you. If you are good–you WILL GET WORK. If you're NOT getting work, you may not be as good as you seem to think you are.
Portfolio review is panning for gold. If there's no gold in the pan, you toss it aside and try again until you find it. There isn't time to read every line of dialogue on every page. There's a line of people waiting and their time is every bit as valuable as your time.
So, I apologize for not treating you with the courtesy that you felt that you deserved, but I had a line of people to contend with and that simply was not possible.
End of unhinged rant.

Erik Larsen On The Danger Of Giving - And Getting - Portfolio Reviews
Portfolio review screencap

There were plenty of comic book creators to comment on Larsen's take, and provide their own stories. Such as Bill Sienkiewicz

Bill Sienkiewicz: Not unhinged at all. Cogent and spot on.

David Crockett: They all dream of a portfolio review like Bill Sienkiewicz got from Neal Adams. But Neal wasn't just being kind. He had literally just discovered Bill Sienkiewicz.

Bill Sienkiewicz: I'm aware how much of an anomaly my critique by Neal was,- I was about as blessed as anyone could possibly be. That said, I also wasn't spared Neal's unerring critical eye, so it wasn't all wine and roses and unicorns. Usually in those cases , I felt like was getting the " you should know better" encouraging response from a disappointed dad than a from a professional hit man out to either decimate or motivate a talent (that was the goa- to test the artist's mettle to see how much the person ACTUALLY WANTs – NEEDS- TO BE AN ARTIST)
If anything, the horror stories I'd heard inspired me to be as supportive and encouraging as I can be and as realistic as well- some folks may not be cut out to be a comic book artist- but that doesn't mean they won't be a terrific artist in another area- and besides art is crucial in a human therapeutic sense- so how could or wouldI DARE crush that seed of creativity in someone? that is Ijust NHUMAN

Some had specific experiences with Erik Laren giving such reviews:

James Hanson: I brought my portfolio to Baltimore and had several artists review it. And while I genuinely appreciate anyone taking a minute to look at my stuff, most of them just gave the standard, "pretty good, keep practicing" stuff.
You were the only one to seriously look at it, draw on the photocopies to show me the errors, give me advice, etc. Best experience with a pro evah.

Vinnie Billingsley If it makes you feel better, I benefitted from your portfolio review. Brutal, but it helped me work on and tighten upwhat needed to be tightened.

Howard Wong I've had one experience watching people asking you to look at their stuff at sdcc many, many moons ago. Still amazed how gracious you were, even to those who stopped listening after you started giving them pointers.

Albion Butters The pain not withstanding, honest counsel is priceless. I remember one time I shared with you the title of a series I was working on. You saw a red flag, and in the end I changed the title. Glad I did. So, thanks.

Sam Tsohonis In 2004 I brought a project Id done (one that really wasnt good enough to show off) to San Diego and asked for your feedback and you gave this unintentional but noticeable grimace, as your eyes scanned the shitty ink job Id done, and finally pointed to an area and said, "That stuff there, it looks like you mean for it to be water. You should make it look more like… Water" or something like that lol. I didnt feel like you were being rude at all or anything, but I could tell you were struggling between honesty and consideration of my feelings (which was kinda sweet). I learned in that moment what a burden that stuff must be, for pros like yourself…

Alejandro Cruz:  one of the best portfolio reviews I got was from you at a dead Javits convention in the 90's on the top of a trash can. You told me exactly what I needed to hear to make me better, and I knew you were being real with me. I've always appreciated that you took the time to help me improve and that you treated me as a professional that needed improvement and not someone blowing sunshine up my ass that would have never made me better.

While other reviewers were also praised;

Michael Alphin: Arthur Adams beat me up pretty good a couple years ago, I'm still super thankful for that! It's exactly what I needed to hear.

David Hillman Best portfolio review I've ever had was with Mark Chiarello, who at the time was an art director at DC. It was my turn, I thanked him for the opportunity and sat down.
He reviewed my work, told me what he liked, what he thought needed work and I sat there trying to take it in.
He knew I had chops, but just not there yet, I acknowledged that (didn't stage a nutty.) and we chatted for a few minutes (long line) when I got up I thanked him for his time, as I did so he turned to everyone waiting in line and said "That's how you conduct yourself in a portfolio review." Highlight of my day.

Kyle Strahm Yes, Mark Chiarello gave me a succinct portfolio review that took my work from promising amateur to pro. Best critique I ever had.

Hilary Barta The meanest, nastiest, review I ever got was from the then editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics. What an ahole.

Don Walker Best reviewer, I've ever been a part of, was Jim Shooter back in his Defiant days. He'd tear into you, no holds bared, but he'd teach you as well and end the review on your positive skills so your ego wasn't completely beaten to he'll, lol.

Michael Ray Jim Shooter gave me a portfolio review at a Convention in Indy way back when he was still EIC at Marvel. Great advice including my need to show more sequential pages of moving a story forward, using more establishing shots, and increasing my ability to draw anatomy in action and repose. Said I might have a chance in a bullpen in NY to learn the craft, but it wasn't economically feasible. Turned out to be a great decision not to move to NY. I know my limitations far better now than I did then and still made a career in Design and cartooning. And his honesty didn't hurt my feelings!

Nathen Wahl: The best portfolio review i ever got was from Jim Zub in Seattle. All weekend long the only feed back i got was my perspective was off. Jim gave me a very generous 15 minutes and walked me through my mistakes and actually showed me how to fix the panel. All his comments were constructive, and even other artists left the table and listen to him. He didn't pull his punches and i am a better artist because of it.

Jim Zub Happy to pay it forward. A looong time ago Erik Larsen gave me a harsh-but-much-needed portfolio review.

Christopher Rice: I had an eye opening interview with Peter Steigwald. He was brutal and told me my lines were great. He said I needed to think in 3D shapes and probably put way more thought into where shadows go and the blacks and how to represent the grays. I listened intently, thanked him and left and didn't draw for two weeks. About 5 years ago after a few years of independent publishing I was buying my image books from a con booth and I thanked him for the review and told him I didn't think I'd ever work for the big 2. Later that day he found me at my table and bought all four of my books. He said I probably couldn't draw for Marvel or DC but I definitely listened then he showed me where I was still missing some more detailed shading on certain muscles. He told me to practice a different muscle group each day of the week and look back on then for comparison. I thought he was just being nice. Either way, I appreciate his review/s and he helped me in those 3 minutes for the rest of my time by giving me honest critique with where to improve. That's impressive in 3 minutes.

While others shared their own experiences of giving portfolio reviews.

Andrew Farago Got ambushed into doing one once when I was trying to eat a really quick meal between panels at WonderCon. Guy sat down at my table, saw the name of my workplace on my badge, then sprung his portfolio on me while I had a mouthful of convention center pizza. Even if his work had been the best stuff I'd ever seen, it wasn't the right time or place. Spoiler: It was not the best stuff I'd ever seen.

Rantz Hoseley I did a portfolio review session at the recent Wondercon, and everything you're saying is dead on. I do them because someone took the time with me, and I feel like karmically speaking, I need to, but… Yeah.

Lebeau Underwood There is SO much truth here. I remember when I was hitting the cons, getting my portfolio reviewed. It was VERY brutal, for which I am eternally grateful to the artists/editors who reviewed my work. It helped to give me the drive to go back home and work at it, constantly. However, there are some who do truly feel that they are "ready" and now that I am on the other side or the table? I agree: which is why I have taken steps away from giving reviews, because most of what I encounter is not from a desire to improve, but from a need to say, " I 'deserve'…. Bob Schreck (when I visited DC Comics when they were located in NYC) gave me a piece of advice I have NEVER forgotten. He said, " We don't hire the WORST. We hire the BEST." That has motivated me for close to 20 years now.

Erik Larsen that's it exactly. They don't want someone as good as their worst guy–they're looking to replace their worst guy. They want more best guys.

While Colleen Doran had a warning;

Colleen Doran: I won't do them anymore, you end up gaining enemies for the next twenty years, certain your opinion of their work ruined their life. Forget it.

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About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.
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