The Slap in the Face Known As Artists’ Alley by Damonk

I am of the opinion that all webtoonist wannabes could greatly improve their skills if only they took ONE stroll up and down the aisles of the San Diego Comic-Con’s Artists’ Alley.

Seriously. The majority of artists who are dedicated enough to put down some of their own coin for a tiny little table space in a section that gets only minimal-to-moderate attention by the general masses of Con-goers are GOOD. I mean, verging on the PROFESSIONAL good. They are people who have skills that should get them some sort of entry-level position at most of the pro arthouses in the industry. And some of them DO get the odd job or two.

Have I mentioned that they are GOOD?

They have clearly been working at their craft for YEARS, and, as one can deduce by the copious packing boxes filled with inked bristol boards and colorful canvasses that they desperately try to hawk to a mass of mostly-uninterested passers-by, these artists work at it CONSTANTLY. As you flip through their stacks, you can’t help but compare some of the art to anyone from a Curt Swan to a Terry Moore to a Jim Lee to a Frazetti. Sure, they may not be perfect under the scrutiny of an experienced eye – a tiny perspective skew here, an awkward panel composition there, but to an untrained pair of people peekers, or to your average young comics reader, you’d swear that these guys were the big guns themselves.

Place their work next to the output of your average webcomic artist, however, and suddenly even your least-trained fanboy eye will be able to see a chasm of difference between the two. I won’t lie to you – most of these craftspeople would make about 97% of webcomic artists collectively lower their heads in shame and embarrassment.

These convention ground-pounders – the infantry of the art world army – may make it one day, and there are always tales of the one or two who started out as an Artists’ Alley Anonypuss one year only to be discovered and rocket to fame and pseudo-fortune (we all KNOW that riches and comics are NOT synonymous) the next. Still, most of them are just lovers of the craft, and continue working away at it, despite already knowing that their chances of "making it big" are as remote as seeing Alex Ross sitting in Artists’ Alley anytime soon. They get the little gigs as inkers or colorists, or collectible card game artists and so on, but they never get that prestige, that celebrity.

And yet they are GOOD.

Meanwhile, most of us webcomickers, having only dabbled for a few years with pen and paper and wacom and MS-Paint, sit here and whine and wonder why we’re not famous and popular already. And we fool ourselves into thinking that our chosen art is DELIBERATELY “unpolished” because it is our “signature style,” our artist’s stylistic prerogative.

As opposed to just admitting that we are NOT good. At least not yet.

This is not meant to be a rant saying that all webcomics suck, or that all webtoonists are lazy and unprofessional. I am definitely NOT saying that everyone’s art should look like Lee’s or Ross’ or Moore’s. This is simply an observation, based on what I see constantly being posted on message boards and in chat rooms, and felt each of the three years I walked down Artists’ Alley in San Diego.

I, at least, was humbled each time.

If can you walk through Artists’ Alley and then look me in the eye and say that you still don’t need to work on your skills in one way or another, then you are either Alex Ross or Terry Moore.

Or you’re grossly delusional.

Instead of trying to make it by expecting the rest of the world to come to accept OUR terms, we have to realize that a professional is more than someone who just slaps together a few doodles, puts them on the web, and waits for the micro-money to roll in. Or, to rephrase that slightly: while we SHOULD want to make it on OUR terms, we first have to reach a certain level of adeptness and skill that shows the world that we aren’t just drawing different ’cause we don’t KNOW any better.

We have to look at these weathered vets of the Alley, those who may sell only a few hundred dollars’ worth of stuff at each convention they attend – barely enough to cover the costs of their table, food and lodging at the same convention. Those who refuse to give up year after year, because they are GENUINELY obsessed with their art, with their chosen medium of expression. Those who are GOOD because they have WORKED at being good. Those who may one day be GREAT.

We have to look at what Artists’ Alley has to show us, to teach us.

If only to show us how to take a good long hard look at what WE are producing by comparison, and what we COULD produce, if only we too worked hard enough at it. And I mean REALLY hard at it, not just doodling something a few times a week.

If only to teach us an invaluable skill, indeed:


Damonk is the Editor in Chief and the Executive Editor for Reviews.

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Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.


  1. While I tend to agree with the premise of this piece (that the webcomics aren’t immune to the general 99% of everything is crap rule – and that many webcartoonists who fall in that 99% are unaware of the fact— which isn’t at all a deviation from any other field), I would like to add a couple of observations.

    Does any artist ever stop learning? I’ve worked with a good number of professional artists, and I don’t know a single one who was worth their salt who was also perfectly happy with their work. If you’re not always improving on your work, it’s time to get into a new field; you aren’t an artist, you’re a doodler.

    Just look at Gabe on Penny Arcade. Have you seen his old strips? Their visual quality is somewhere between “amateurish” and “a waste of hard drive space”. If you look at his strips today, they aren’t technically perfect, but they’re a lot better. If you’ve followed the strip you’ve seen his skill improve and watched him experiment with different styles. This experimentation with styles is evidence that he has been paying attention to his own work. He hasn’t just said “good enough” and left it at that. He has had a lot of practice (almost 5 years worth of web comics), and while he has been exercising his craft, he has done it with his eyes open. To me, that is the sign of a true artist.

    Compare this with Pete at Sluggy Freelance, a comic that is about a year older than Penny Arcade, but looks the same today as it did in 1997. I don’t know, maybe Pete Abrams can do wonderful photo-realistic canvases in his spare time, but my guess is that the hubris of his early success told him that his art was “good enough”, and he concentrated on duplicating what he had already done rather than moving forward with his skills. (I like reading Sluggy, don’t get me wrong, but I wouldn’t hang it on my wall.)

    Unfortnatly, in the age of photography, many people just don’t see the value in mastering realism before moving on to abstraction. This is folly. Bruce Timm’s art is an excellent example of someone who has created a signature style that is informed in every way. Most web comics are examples of the “skip realism” school of abstraction. They might work to convey a story, but they often lack the visceral qualities that make art great.

    The reason that most web comics don’t look that good is because they aren’t drawn by artists, but just by people who like to draw. There’s never been a better illustration of the difference. I’d challenge you all to be artists.

  2. Abraham Lincoln once said, “If an webcomicker thinks he can no longer grow as an artist, he might as well give up the trade.”

    There’s wisdom in those words, friends.

  3. I’ve long thought that it’s a mistake to think that questioning yourself is the same thing as doubting yourself.

    There’s no doubt that I will continue to do what I’m doing and that right now I can do good work. I’m confident enough to show my work and take criticism.

    That confidence means I’ll question how I’m doing it, and that I accept that I’m deficient in areas.

    What I won’t accept is staying that way.

    Sometimes I wonder if it’s just a lack of confidence that keeps artists from improving.

  4. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s just a lack of confidence that keeps artists from improving.”

    That theory makes a lot more sense to me, as I can’t relate to this idea that most webcomic artists can’t see just how bad they really are. I talk to two or three other comic artists on a regular basis, and all of them are perfectly aware of their limitations. None of them are expecting a big publisher to be knocking at their door anytime soon. Maybe they’ve just been hanging around me too much, since I am nothing if not self-depreciating. :p Heck, I got into webcomics not because I thought I was so good, but because I knew I was bad, and I figured the demands of having to do a webcomic would force me to get better. Maybe that makes me a ‘special case’ though, I dunno. (shrug)

    Don’t get me wrong… I know there are some artists who have a self-inflated view of themselves, who refuse to accept they still have a long way to go. I’d like to think they’re the exception rather than the rule, though.

  5. I wasn’t advocating changing style all the time or anything like that. I was just saying that Gabe’s experimentation was evidence of a “behind-the-scenes” thought process. (A thought process that has driven his achievement.) Also, while consistency is important I can’t think of a single daily comic strip that if you go back to the older printed collections doesn’t show significant skill improvement. Just look at Cho’s older work (pictures of Brandy are good to focus on because he’s been drawing the same character for so long) – his skill has obviously been improving over time. (His character designs and style are consistant, but his skill has improved.)

    If I sound harsh it’s because, as I said, I’ve worked with a lot of artists and while they’ll always jump to point out good aspects of a particular piece, they’re also very realistic about people’s abilities. (Including their own.) You have to be very realistic when you’re choosing who should do what in terms of art. Good art can’t be micromanaged into existance.

  6. I’m not sure what you mean by this. Can you give some examples of “good” art vs. “polished” art? I’m afraid you might be equating “highly rendered, detailed, realistic” art with “good” art. Would you be equating Bill Watterson’s “Calvin & Hobbes” with art that is not “good” but that is “polished?”

  7. Frank:

    An interesting article as always. And yes, I have to agree that the art in Artists’ Alley–and I’ve been going to San Diego since before they even had an Artists’ Alley–is always lovely to look at. But what I don’t see much of–and didn’t see much of again this year–is storytelling ability.

    Maybe it’s just because I’m a writer–my bona fides, if anyone’s interested, are available at–but storytelling is what draws me to a comic. And while I’ve seen plenty of very nice Alex Ross covers, I’ll admit I’ve never sought out a comic that he’s drawn to see if his storytelling abilities match suit.

    I completely agree with your point that “we first have to reach a certain level of adeptness and skill that shows the world that we aren’t just drawing different ’cause we don’t KNOW any better,” but, well, the thing is, my own artistic ideal, the guy whose work I stare at in rapt fascination, trying to figure out how he did that perfect dance of word and picture, is George Herriman, the writer/artist of the “Krazy Kat” comic strip from 1913 till his death in 1944–check out for some examples if your not familiar with his stuff. And Herriman’s work is so different from anything else…


  8. But there’s no way I would call the art found in Clan of the Cats “polished” but not “good.” That’s what I call good art. It also happens to look nice and clean.

    I’d also say that “a basic grasp of anatomy, and understanding of composition of the panel and at least a modicum of inking knowledge” contribute more to “good” than “polished” art.

    I think the original post included an unfortunate choice of wording, so that rather than saying, “how good your art [is] isn’t important, its just how POLISHED it is,” perhaps the intent was to say something like:

    How accomplished your drafting skills are isn’t as important as how appropriate your style is to your subject matter and how consistantly you can create it.

  9. I remember going there last year, Damonk, and they are truly spectacular there. I wished I had more money so I could purchase some of their art. They are what I wish I could do with my meager talent… for I know I’m not a gifted artist. I struggle to do what I can, and hate everything I do as inferior. Of course, I also am trying to work with the realistic style, so… *chuckle*

    I think there is one other thing you should look at, however. What is a web-comic? A web comic, at its core, is a comic strip put onto the Internet. We can actually find Peanuts, For Better or For Worse (in my opinion the best of the regular newspaper comics because of the continual on-going storyline), Foxtrot, and others. In fact, some web cartoonists started their strips on-line because they dreamed of becoming professional syndicated cartoonists.

    In around 85% (if not higher, the newspaper I intermittently read doesn’t have *that* many cartoon strips in it) of the comics, you will find an exaggerated style, sometimes with huge heads and tiny bodies, sometimes with thin bodies that have a bare representation to what humanity (or caninity or felinity) have.

    Or in other words, syndicated cartoons more often than not will not have anything going for them outside of the characters not changing in appearance from day to day (with a few exceptions again, For Better or For Worse will have the characters with different outfits and hair styles, but then FBoFW is more a story set to images than a cartoon strip).

    You yourself have worked on the strengths of the internet and web-format for web comics with Framed!!!. You have done things that broke many “rules” and showed people that the comics are, in fact, just a form of telling a story. I remember sideways scrolling, then scrolling down, and back, and around in a spiral to read one day’s strip (I swear, you’re insane, Damonk, but I think that’s why we love you so much *grin*). In fact, you inspired others to follow your path and step away from “normal” means of telling a story, breaking the sideways-scrolling barrier and so forth.

    So, yes, the artists in Artists’ Alley may be technically superior to you and other cartoonists (and definitely even the least of them is still a thousand times better than myself, but I’m a hack, a writer who found he can doodle). However, we are the storytellers, and the dreamers. We take elements that would escape many of the artists in Artists’ Alley and turn them into something beautiful.

    I’ve seen some of the best that you, Damonk, can draw. I’ve seen beautiful drawings from your wife, I’ve seen Glych draw pictures that make me sigh and wish I had a millionth of her talent (and the girl has the audacity to claim she’s not a good artist! Ha!), and so forth. Yes, they might not be as “good” as those other artists… but you not only have heart behind this talent of yours… but you also have a storyteller’s mind.

    To me, the skills of a storyteller are more important than those of the artist. Any hack can with enough practice draw really well. But how many can tell a good story? Look at Spawn for an example… yes, it looks good… but there’s not much of a story there, or at least at the beginning. Other Image titles, the early ones, suffered the similar fate of all style, no story.

    We are the storytellers, Damonk. That gives us something that those in Artists’ Alley lack… which is why they are in their Alley… and we are out on the floor trying to lure people to our stories and our comics away from the Alley of ComicCon. And it is that which is why someone may buy a print or two from those artists… and in time not even remember the face of the person they bought the print from… but years from now will laugh and enjoy our comic strips on-line.

    Robert A. Howard

  10. Tangent said: “We are the storytellers, Damonk. That gives us something that those in Artists’ Alley lack… which is why they are in their Alley… and we are out on the floor trying to lure people to our stories and our comics away from the Alley of ComicCon.”

    Uh, gee, what about those of us that set up in Artists’ Alley and do a weekly web comic?

    I like to think that I’m a bit of a storyteller and that I am working on my craft.

    –Steve Bryant
    artist/co-creator, Athena Voltaire
    Updated every Tuesday at

  11. Yeah, but how good your art isn’t important, its just how POLISHED it is. Some comics have a certain mood, and if you want to draw a children’s comic, you are not going to be doing big muscular or toned children and rabbits. Same as if your making something designed for humor. You use a different style. All that matter is that its polished.

    Plus, just because someone can draw good doesn’t mean they are a great webcartoonist…

  12. Ooo, burn. You seem to be forgetting something VERY important in cartoon art – consistency. Sure, it’s great to experiment and evolve over time, but changing styles with every strip (or even every panel) alienates viewers. They relate to the characters and their never changing world. The majority of cartoon characters today even wear the same outfit every day. Though this staleness isn’t a great thing, it carves that little niche out for the strip. Penny Arcade may have evolved, but it happened slowly. Gabe didn’t just decide “Ok, my art’s good enough.” He went through phases and responded to viewers. Are you forgetting the “new style” fiasco that alienated readers? And then there’s PVP. Kurtz traces from templates and prides himself on consistency. But the characters still change over time. That’s how it works. I highly doubt all webcartoonists consider their strip the best of their art. Heck, we all know “cartooning” basically means to simplify. Frank Cho is a perfect example. He can draw a realistic human better than many fine artists today, but he also draws consistent, simple cartoony animals. Any artist will evolve as they get better at what they’re doing. Compare the first Sluggy to the stuff out today. You may think it’s the same, but you can’t draw several hundred strips of the same characters and not start to refine them and know them better over time. His changes were just more subtle than Gabe’s and less obvious – it doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.

  13. Most polished artists have a basic grasp of anatomy, and understanding of composition of the panel and at least a modicum of inking knowledge (ie: they’ve studied it).

    Clan of the Cats would be an excellent example of a superpolished strip.

    Still, not all strips rely on their art for the main enjoyment factor. Sluggy Freelance is well written (funny) with great comedic timing. The art doesn’t have to be CrossGen quality.

    But still, most webartists could use some study time with the greats.

    For anyone seeking to improve, here’s a good hub resource…

    Clint Hollingsworth

  14. Yeah, Abe was one of the best respected webcomic artists of his time. Hell, of any time.

    Damonk’s article pretty much summed up what I said about my brief stroll down an “artist’s alley”.

    “Wow, did that ever make me feel like a complete talentless hack.”

  15. I think Mike is on the right track here. The thing I key in on is his Krazy Kat reference, because 2003 may be more similar to 1913 then any other time in comics history. What makes webcomics great is not the fact that all webcomics are good (in storytelling or art), but for the first time in a century or so comics is really drawing in a diverse group of voices interested in using the form in new, exciting, and ecentric ways.

    I actually feel sad about the draftsman in artist alley. Everytime I’ve been down to San Diego I see people trying to get work without really trying to do anything new or different from what the superhero stuff that marvel and DC primarily publish. Nothing wrong with that and good luck to them in their job hunt, however maybe their time would be better spent drawing webcomics. At least they’d have half a chance of someone reading their work. Sorry about the ramble


  16. Honestly I rather be the artist who is self concious of his work and thus knows he still needs to learn more rather than an artist thinks he is hot stuff, and chances are, refuse to refine and imporve his skills

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