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Dilettante 024: Tips on Mentoring

Steve Lieber

Way back in my 2nd column here on Toucan (click here to read it!), I called for a revival of mentorship via cartoonists working in an informal apprentice system. I've meant to return to the subject for a long time. As part of Periscope Studio, a workspace I co-founded in Portland, Oregon, I've spent a lot of time working with and around new cartoonists. Along the way, I've found myself answering a lot of questions and offering a lot of advice. I'm sometimes asked about that aspect of what I do, and so here I am, giving advice on giving advice.

Know who you're talking to.

Different artists have different needs. Some artists thrive on harsh criticism. Christina's plan for getting better might be identifying problems in her work and eliminating them, so the more time a teacher spends telling her where she messed up a page, the more grateful she'd be. Mentoring Christina, you can be a diagnostician and just start identifying symptoms and prescribing treatments. Luke might come to you with plenty of raw talent, but burdened with horrible self-doubt, unsure if he has any right to even consider making comics. Mentoring Luke, your job will be as much about reassurance as it will advising. You'll need to figure out the right balance of praise and correction to keep your criticisms from doing more harm than good. Nisi's already accumulated solid professional skills; she can tell a story, and produce clear, engaging pages. A good mentor for Nisi will probably split their time talking between business and art. A cartoonist in the early years of her career will have a thousand questions about how business works:

  • How do I handle taxes?
  • Where can I find a lawyer who understands publishing and IP?
  • How do I maintain a useful online identity?
  • How do you get a table at a convention?
  • Is this convention the right one for me?
  • What do I do if I don't have a contract from a client?
  • What if I don't like what's in a contract?
  • What do I do if I agree to a schedule and it turns out I'm not as fast as I thought I was?
  • I'm not getting along with my collaborator. How should I handle this?
  • I'm burning out on this project. How do I keep going? Or is there a way out?

Your experience can help Nisi avoid all sorts of pitfalls and put more time and energy into producing great work.

Remember that you're both in this for the long haul.

Don't info-dump. You might have an understanding of perspective that rivals Brunelleschi, but you don't have to drop a whole textbook on someone when they're struggling with getting a couple of figures to look like they belong in a background. Just show them how to do that one thing. In my experience, the things I teach that get retained are the ones that solve an immediate and painful problem.

"But ... but ... but ..." you say. "I could tell them lots more about the subject! And they're going to need to know it!" That's great. If you tell them now they're not going to retain it, so keep it to yourself. If it really is important, it'll come up again. Tell them when they need it, and they'll learn it for life.

Be aware of your own blind spots.

I know a lot about making comics and being a professional in this industry, but I certainly don't know everything. I'm ignorant of the trends and tropes in Manga and Eurocomics. I mostly work in black and white, so my eye for color is functional but nothing special. I'm the last person anyone should ask about fashion. There are publishers with which I'm completely unfamiliar, computer drawing programs I've never tried, and contract clauses I've never encountered. You're going to have blind spots of your own, and you're going to get plenty of questions on exactly those topics.

It's okay to say, "I don't know." Maybe you know someone who does, and you can perform one of the most important tasks of any mentor, expanding your mentee's network. And if you have to give an answer on the spot, you can always hedge your bets. Put aside the surety with which you'd usually respond and make sure to frame your observations as being based on general principles rather than specific knowledge. You might be totally wrong, but you'll still be communicating something of value.

Show, don't just tell.

One of the most effective ways I've found to guide a cartoonist's development has been exposing them to the right artist at the right time. One intern at my studio had a killer work ethic and spectacular drafting skills, but didn't know when to stop crowding his pages with detail, or how to organize that detail effectively. I decided to show him some work by an established master artist with a similar skill-set and inclinations—Wally Wood—and let him see the strategies Wood deployed to control all that rendering and detail. When I saw some of those lessons sinking in, I showed him some work by Alex Toth, as an introduction to what's gained by eliminating detail.

Tailor your advice to their needs, not your own.

It's easy to think that your problems are universal, but sometimes what worked for you is the exact opposite of what another artist needs. My own work in the past few years has benefited immensely from my being more diligent about shooting photo reference. It would be very easy to spin from that into telling every artist to shoot more photos. But that would be a bad idea. For many artists, the right path will be away from representational reality into greater levels of abstraction and stylization. And while your own path as a horror artist may have led to increasingly bold and flashy page layouts and panel compositions, that approach won't be very helpful to a mentee working on his deadpan boarding school comedy. Ask them lots of questions so you have a better context for the problems you're helping them solve.

Accept that the relationship will change over time.

Your relationship won't be static. For the next few years, you might be the expert, but that's going to change. They'll learn, and before long your student will be your peer and you'll find they have valuable things to teach you.

I'd love to hear some of your ideas about mentorship. Did you have a mentor that made a big difference to you? What strategies worked for you? Any horror stories? I'm @steve_lieber on Twitter and I'm on Facebook at

Steve Lieber's Dilettante appears the second Tuesday of each month here on Toucan!