How one budding artist became a pro comic illustrator

Yishan Li went from teenage fan-artist to DC Comics

Being a comic artist is basically the dream job for any geeky person out there who loves to draw. After all that time spent thinking about the stories their favorite characters live out, bringing those stories and characters to life makes the connection that much stronger.

Yishan Li is one of those fans who made the jump from drawing for fun to drawing for a job. She spoke to us about how she made it, and her advice for others hoping to work in the creative industry.


How did you get your start in the industry?
I started drawing manga [Japanese-style comics] because I was growing up in Tianjin and everyone was reading manga - Sailor Moon, Dragonball - and you want to draw the characters, and that’s how everyone started. At that time China had those magazines, shao nian man hua [youth comics]. So I was drawing stories for them. Because I was based in Tianjin I'd just knock on the door of the publishers. At that time, everyone had just started.

And then I went to the UK. I didn’t study drawing, so I studied business and stuff. When I graduated, I wanted to go to HSBC. But it’s hard, so [I thought] why don’t I give it a try, and I sent some of the work I did to publishers. A small American publisher actually accepted my work and said 'why don't you draw something for us, start with a short story'.

Artists often change their styles to fit the demands of a project, publisher, or audience. Your work has been published in several countries with different styles.
Over the years my style has changed from pure manga to more in-between, comic and manga. In Europe and America, there's not a lot of pure manga work. It's mostly comic publishers wanting to attract a younger audience so they want something between comic and manga.

When I was working with DC, because it was a superhero story, I had to draw muscular men. Their faces were still a little bit manga because I cannot bear to draw ugly faces - they still looked pretty-ish, but their body types were all realistic and American-style.

You've switched from traditional art to digital art. What was it like?
I took two days to get used to it. I find it hard to draw traditional now because it doesn't allow mistakes.

What advice do you have for aspiring professional comic artists?
My suggestion is: don’t think about doing this as a career to start with. Just do it as something you like to do. You like drawing anyway so you don’t feel like it is a burden on you. Do your daily life, go study whatever subject you said you wanted your career to be in first, and do this thing as a hobby. Let's face it: not everyone can be a professional artist in the end. To be a professional artist is a lot of risk, and you may never get to the level it takes to get published. So my suggestion is to do a normal job. Especially for Chinese kids, your parents tell you to be a doctor, to go to the office. Do that, don’t just dismiss it. But keep your hobby. If one day you think your art is good enough you can go to a publisher or go to professionals and ask if your art is good enough. And over a couple of years you might find yourself good enough. You never know, it might take off from there. But before that there's no point in giving up everything you have and just going 'I love art.' It’s very tough, very tough to be an artist.

Li's art credits include Batwoman Annual 2 (DC Comics), Convergence: Blue Beetle #1 (DC Comics) and Girl 1 (Titan Comics). Currently, she's working for Dark Horse Comics on Buffy: The High School Years - Freaks & Geeks. Li will be a guest at Shanghai Comic Con 2016 on November 5-6 at the Shanghai Convention & Exhibition Center of International Sourcing. Get your tickets through Time Out Tickets.