Monday, February 12, 2018


An Airing of Grievances: Last week I had a piece at Slate talking about tokenism and Franรงoise Mouly's hiring practices at the New Yorker, which I've been complaining about now for, oh let's see, two years? Three? Feels like forever. Now you know.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

let's fix your promotional photos: a special guide for men in comics

Yes, I know you could care less about self-promotion. You are an artist! An artist, and moreover a man (a white man) (a straight white man) who imagines that not caring about your appearance is a virtue rather than the inevitable product of the way in which you were socialized. You bristle at the very notion that anyone expects you to put any effort or thought whatsoever into selling this thing that you spent an absolutely obscene amount of your time putting together. When no one buys into your new project, why point fingers at your "promotions" (one broken link in a tweet and an instagram stacked with actual pictures of someone's puke) when you could blame "the system," like a real artist. Like a man

Probably the idea of taking more than one terrible selfie in the deadening glare of your computer’s camera for the profile that website will be running next week strikes you as absurd. Insulting, even. (Let me guess: you're fundamentally opposed to the very idea of selfies anyway.) You're incapable of comprehending why anyone wouldn't just repurpose some random photo of himself at a con, seated behind a table, staring like a glassy-eyed criminal awaiting his sentence in a courtroom, as his promotional photograph. Well, I'm not here to change your mind. Nor am I here to teach you photography. I'm just here to tell you how bad you look, and give you a few tips on looking better.

First I suggest you take a look around. Have you ever noticed how the women of comics look incredible in their promotional photos? Their most tossed-off selfies on twitter are old skool mall-grade glamour shots, and you would do well to study them. (Every time I see Katie Skelly’s perfectly manicured nails I wonder where it all went wrong for me.) Honestly, most of the time, you can do whatever you want with your twitter—but when you’re promoting a new comic, doing a Kickstarter, inviting the public to visit your table or your panel at a show, or sending an author photo to a website, you really owe it to yourself and to your work to put in a little bit of effort.

OK. So generally speaking, the men of comics favor promotional photos that fall into five or six main categories. Your first task is to assess your type, which should be very easy.  

Type 1: The Serial Killer

There’s a real epidemic of men in comics whose photos give the distinct impression that, if the opportunity arose, they would choose to eat human flesh. I assume you guys are just trying too hard to look serious? But I can’t discount the possibility that at least some of you are actual murderers. Either way, it would behoove you to try to look more normal. Here are some things you can try:

           Smize. To smize is to smile with your eyes, and you're probably going to have to practice. Look, I'm not sure exactly what's wrong with you, but I do know your regular eyes are cold and dead and weird. One strategy you might try is to talk to whoever’s taking the photo so you appear a little more animated. Think about something exciting (e.g., cookies). Look alive, son.
           Do not gaze into the middle distance. Unfocused staring is not attractive, and it definitely doesn’t make you look smart. It is creepy or, perhaps worse, ridiculous. Try looking into the camera, or just a little bit off to the side.
           Ask at least two human women who care about you to vet your photo. This is good advice for everyone, but it is particularly important if you choose not to smile. 

Type 2: The Cool Dude

When my nephew was a baby, he didn’t know the word for sunglasses. To compensate, whenever he wanted to wear them, he said he “want[ed] to be a cool dude.” It was so stinking cute! But the thing you have to understand is that he was under two years old. You’re a grown-ass man so it should go without saying: You are not a cool dude. Take your sunglasses off. You look fucking stupid.

           Pretending not to care is not a personality. You do care about this thing you’re promoting, right? 
           Are you making a little joke? OK, we can work with this, but you are probably overconfident. Tread carefully. Workshop this photo.
           Do not stand in front of some dumb building or sign. You look like an amateur. In a wedding photo. On a road trip. From a 10-year-old Facebook post.
           Try harder. I can see that you’re already trying very hard! You’re just doing it wrong. Redirect that energy into making an actual effort.

Type 3: The Comics Bro

A Comics Bro is a sentient energy drink with a hair situation who insists on some variation on jazz hands or double guns in all photos. 

These people cannot be helped. I’m very sorry.

Type 4: Mr. Tough Guy
This is complicated, because Tough Guys are really a subtype, and they can skew Serial Killer, Cool Dude, or even Comics Bro. Serial killer-type tough guys, let me reiterate that no one’s saying you have to smile.  But you really must try not to glower, even if you’re doing the irony. Literally the only person in comics who can pull off glowering in his promotional materials is Alan Moore. You are not Alan Moore.

Fake Alan Moore

Let me put it another way. An old friend of mine from high school had this amazing family portrait where his mom, dad, and sister were all smiling and happy and wholesome and he was wearing a metal tee and the most profound scowl you’ve ever seen in your life. It is possibly the best picture I’ve ever seen, and it perfectly captures the exact flavor of ridiculousness that is roughly 30-40% of men’s promotional photographs at Fantagraphics. The main difference is that my friend was like 15.

A more difficult subset to address is the Cool Dude type tough guy. (These are basically all the other guys at Fantagraphics.) To be clear, these are not actually tough guys. These are men who wear hoodies and have read Fight Club four times. They insist upon black and white photographs, and they’ve been working on a comic about William Burroughs and/or sex murder for a minimum of six years. 

Here's a few things you can try:

           Ask yourself if your photo could be mistaken for a mug shot. Be really, really honest with yourself. If the answer is yes, start over.
           Try flexing that face you're pulling into an actual smile. You don't have to smile in the photo itself. But hopefully this will help relax your facial muscles into a more becoming expression.
           You're probably dressing about 10 years too young. I'm not asking you to wear a costume. Simple adjustments can be effective. Launder your t-shirt, for instance.

Type 5: Literally a Bunch of Paint Splatters

Does your promotional photo vaguely resemble a screensaver? Unfortunately, I can only draw one conclusion, and that is that you are catastrophically ugly. Here’s the good news: there's no way you look as bad as I'm thinking. Quit being so hard on yourself! There’s a decent chance you’re “comics hot.” Suck it up and do the photo.

           Or…consider using a portrait. It’s perfectly acceptable for you to draw yourself, or even use someone else’s drawing of you (though in certain situations the latter might be awkward or misleading). The portrait doesn’t have to be realistic, but it should be human-ish and recognizably you.

Ivan Brunetti drew Hillary Chute's "author photo" for Outside the Box.

  • Create a distraction. Do you have a puppy, or a shirt with a crazy pattern? Are your surroundings super interesting? You might feel more comfortable if you feel like you’re sharing the attention with (but not completely shifting the focus to) something else. Please note, however, that your photograph should not feature any other people.
  • People are not shallow for wanting to put a face with a name. Unless you feel that it compromises your safety or something like that, it’s just best practice to honor this basic facet of human nature. Show your face, particularly if the photo is for a festival type situation. 
  •  Know that your art, however awesome it looks in real life, will look like dentist office art as a thumbnail. If you want to use something you've made, again, consider a self-portrait. Or, bare minimum, something with a face.

Special Challenges: You Are Bald

Are you a bald guy? Cool, nothing wrong with that. It’s just that sometimes bald guys - and especially pale 50+ bald guys - need to take special care to avoid looking terminally ill in their promotional photographs. You have one job, and that’s to convince people that you’re not a warlock.
  • Pay special attention to lighting. This is good advice for everyone, but it’s especially important for you. Consider going outside, maybe near some plants. Good vibes! Warm tones. That’s what we’re going for. Avoid black and white at all costs.
  • Do not indulge in the temptation to wear a hat, particularly any sort of period hat. Please take my word on this.
  • Try to look 20% more put together than usual. You know who always looks nice? Daniel Clowes. His shirts look pressed; he has interesting glasses. His pants fit. We aren’t talking about his style, which is sort of nondescript. We’re talking about a feeling: Daniel Clowes is ready. He's just a really sharp version of his somewhat boring personal style. Whatever your thing is, up your game by 20%.

Clowes can get it

  • Engage with the camera. Bald people need to be extra careful about gazing into the distance, for nerd reasons. Work the camera. Patrick Stewart is the absolute master of this. (Just look at that smize, my god.) Compare and contrast:

In conclusion, staging a decent promotional photo is not rocket science. Your photo doesn't even have to be that good, is the thing. It just shouldn't be off-putting.