C.B. Cebulski on Marvel's Closed Open Submissions Policy
As detailed last month, Marvel Comics – the last major comic book publisher to accept open submissions from aspiring creators looking to break into the business – officially closed that door, discontinuing their practice of accepting and reviewing unsolicited work from the public.
In an interview at the weekly comic book-themed live talk show The Comic Book Club the week of the announcement, Marvel's Talent Liaison (and editor) C.B. Cebulski explained in more depth the reasoning behind the publisher's decision, and recently we got an chance to talk to Cebulski about the policy change in even a little more detail, at least as it pertains to the policy in regards to aspiring artists.
Newsarama: C.B., from the official announcement to your comments on The Comic Book Club show, it seems the primary reason for the closing of the open submission policy is Marvel just hasn't given work to any writers or artists that you first became aware of through open submissions. Is this am accurate conclusion?
C.B. Cebulski: First off, let me just say I'm going to be speaking specifically about art submissions here. I had nothing to do with writing submissions so I'm not the person to answer questions on that front. Sorry, writers!
CBC: Now to be blunt, yes, that's the main reason Marvel is ending our open submissions policy. I wish it were different but that's the conclusion we came to after much review. For as long as I can remember, during all my time at Marvel, we've been getting anywhere from 20 to 40 submissions a week.
And when I say submission here, I mean cold submission, an envelope with artwork sent to the "Submissions Editor" or "Art Director" or some other title to that effect. These are unsolicited by an editor and just sent in by hopeful artists looking for a chance to hopefully have their work reviewed by someone at Marvel.
I think I started handling submissions in 2004 sometimes, when we originally created the Talent Management department at Marvel, and have been helping out with submissions in some way, shape or form since then when I've been there. And for all that time, all those years, I can honestly say that we have made every attempt to review each piece of mail that has come through our doors, and responded to each and every artist who sent in their work.
It may have taken a little while for us to get back to people at points as there were a lot of submissions, and folks may not have liked the responses they received, but no one got ignored and nothing got simply thrown away as far as we know. (If you may have slipped through the cracks, allow me to apologize publicly here. We did try our best.)
But the cold, hard truth is that no one ever got hired to draw comics for us through open submissions, unfortunately.
NRAMA: So taking one step back, the decision to discontinue was a pragmatic one – meaning your policy required you and other editors to devote time to reviewing all submissions, time that was ultimately unproductive?
Or was it a sympathetic one – you didn’t want to continue to give false hope to aspiring creators?
CBC: It was a combination of a number of different factors. I've been doing this for so long that I'll just cut through the BS here... reviewing submissions is hard work. Harder than you could imagine. And it's thankless work, especially when it comes to cold submissions. 75 – 80% of what we get sent is not up to everyday comic book standards.
Half the time people don't know or don't care who they're submitting to. We've gotten illustrated haiku, Star Wars poems, manga, furry stories, fumetti, picture books, illustrated hardcore porn... you name it. We also get lots of pitches and artwork for original and creator-owned ideas which we just can't look at, let alone publish. It's not what we do.
And then there are the numerous letters from kids who like Spider-Man and Hulk and the FF and want to have us review their crayon art. You absolutely never know what you're gonna get when you open up one of the manila envelopes from the slush pile.
Then most of the remaining work that is drawn by competent artists who have taken the time to do their research, knew who they were submitting to, and send in sequential samples with Marvel characters just hasn't been up to Marvel standards.
Yeah, I said it. Sorry, folks, but it's better to just rip the band-aid off and tell the truth. I'm not saying it was all bad... some of it was quite good and almost there... but just it wasn't of the quality we felt we could publish.
The other thing you have to factor in is that Marvel never had a full-time submissions editor devoted to simply reviewing portfolios and submissions. I don't think any major comic publisher does. We're not like Hollywood studios that have designated script readers whose job it is to only read spec scripts. Reviewing submissions is split between many people, and it's not often the priority for any of those people.
Yes, I spear-headed submissions reviews for a while, but the reviewing was often done by a number of different people. Reply letters were written by different people depending on what we felt needed to be said. Not every reply was a standard "Thank you for submitting to Marvel..." form letter either. Far from it.
We often did take the time to review and write back with specific comments and critiques to many artists we saw potential in, which took up even more time. But if someone took the time to draw and send us their artwork, we felt it was our job to give back the same consideration and courtesy of a review and reply from us.
All this even though there were no tangible results of our efforts reflected in the pages of our comics. No pencilers were ever hired.
But we kept doing it as we wanted to give people hope. And also we held out hope. Hope that one day we'd open an envelope and there'd be that next break-out superstar's art there waiting to be discovered. But in the end, when we took a cold, hard look at where all the talent from the last few years had be hired from, and there have been a lot of new artists hired by Marvel of late, the sad truth was that not one had come from the open submissions pile.
It became pretty clear very quickly that the time and effort we were putting into just wasn't worth it so we decided we had to focus our efforts on the more effective methods of hiring new talent that were working.
We simply had to be honest to ourselves and to all the up-and-coming artists out there.
NRAMA: So why do you think open submissions failed to turn up a single new creator for you? Is it like professional sports – is the pool of people with the skills to be professional just that small that it was never a likely proposition to begin with, as open tryouts might be for the NBA?
Is there an inherent flaw to the open submission method that doesn’t serve aspiring creators well?
CBC: Those are questions I don't have answers for. But I wish I did. If I knew the answers we might have done a better job of handling our open submissions in the correct manner. It wasn't for lack of trying on our part or the submitting artists' part, I can tell you that.
Why can I go from con to con and find good artists at several of these shows, but not a single one of the people I find has ever submitted to Marvel? I don't know. Were some artists holding on to their artwork and waiting for portfolio reviews at cons? Maybe. And maybe some artists believed that the open submissions policy was all bulls**t and a Marvel PR function and there work was just being shredded and never seen. Or maybe the better artists thought they were too good for open submissions.
I could speculate all day, but all we know is that it was an unsuccessful means for us to find and recruit new talent.
NRAMA: There are no doubt people who aspire to draw stories starring their favorite Marvel characters and those who aspire to draw stories. Would it be fair or accurate to say the latter group is perhaps more motivated to work on their craft and create a body of work elsewhere, and/or attend a con to seek personal feedback, rather than just the long-shot of a wing, a prayer, and a stamp?
CBC: Yes, I think that's a definite factor. One of many possible and probable scenarios, but I could see that being the case in many instances.
Looking back on the creators who we have hired through several different ways over the years, many have indeed gotten their start self-publishing or in indy comics or in web comics, so there's clearly merit to this theory.
NRAMA: As you yourself mentioned there is a certain PR-positive “Cinderella” quality to the idea of open submissions – giving loyal fans hope that they can someday work for Marvel, particularly in frustrating times like these. How much was that considered in the decision to change this policy?
CBC: That was a consideration we did weigh heavily. You nailed that one right on the head. Everyone loves the "small town boy makes good in the big city" story. Especially in comics! We all know the stories of Jim Shooter breaking in and writing Legion when he was 14, and of Joe Mad being a 16 year-old intern when he was discovered to draw X-Men.
There's always that hope that anyone can make it in comics. And anyone still can. Just because the open submissions policy is going away, that doesn't mean Marvel is no longer reviewing portfolios or hiring new talent. We're stepping up our efforts even. We're just going to be more proactive from now on. More con appearances, more portfolio reviews at the cons we attend, more open lines of communication to editors, more reviewing of printed and online comics, more talking to our current talent pool to find out who they like that we may be missing...
Yes, artists will still have plenty of opportunities to break into Marvel, maybe more than ever, but they're just going to have to go about getting their foot in the door in different ways. And we also still have a few other new, still unannounced initiatives we're planning that will hopefully help us reach out to and discover a wider range of new talent.
And looking back, we've had our fair share of Cinderella stories in recent years too, just none of who came through the open submissions policy. Skottie Young, Adrian Alphona, and most recently Sara Pichelli are three such artists I can name off the top of my head. And there have been many, many more.
NRAMA: Okay C.B, we'll keep it brief and ask one last question which you've already touched on… as to the point as you can make it, can you run down the more effective ways to one day perhaps be considered for work at Marvel Comics?
CBC: I could go on for hours here, to be honest, and I have, on Twitter if anyone wants to go back and read through my old posts there, which is pretty easy.
Now I hate to be cliché, but there's the old saying that if you want to get published by Marvel, you need to get published somewhere else first. And there is some truth to this. There haven't been many creators who've broken in cold to Marvel with no other printed work under their belt. It's just so much easier for an editor to pick up a comic and read it to gauge your skills. It's actually the most effective way, to be honest.
Your style and storytelling come across in the manner it was meant to be presented... as a comic book. This also shows us that you've go the desire and motivation to be in comics as we now know you went out and did it on your own first and want to be in this biz, no matter what it takes.
And a few other quick bits... Be professional. Be patient. Get your work out there. Get published in any way, shape or form you can. Prove you want to be in comics and have what it takes to do so. Use the internet to you advantage to showcase your skills and build buzz. And lastly, be sure that Marvel is somewhere you want to be working. There are all kinds of opportunities for artists and creators in comics out there and you should never limit yourself. The sky's the limit in this digital day and age. But if you're going to submit to Marvel, make sure you want to be illustrating for Marvel. And if that is what you want, show us what you got!
For even more of Cebulski's misadventures in trying to find the next artistic superstar, click here for the special story How NOT to Get Into Comics: C.B. Cebulski's S.A.S.E.