As always, feel free to add your perspective in the comments!
I've had the question on my mind for a while. Out of the comics that you look over, what is it about the rejected comics that caused them not to be published? Is there a trend or a mistake to where you say to yourself "I cannot believe they just did that"? Is there a way that a author presents a project that turns you off?
The first thing that really makes me frown and prejudices me against the whole submission is seeing these words in the salutation of the cover letter: "Dear Sir." It's reasonable perhaps for someone submitting a proposal to think that perhaps the editor-in-chief of the company is not the first reader (these days I am, though), so I'm not bugged with "Dear Editor" or "Dear Sir or Madam" or stuff like that. But "Dear Sir"? It's just ridiculous.
Another thing that turns me off to a project is over-emphasis on marketing and money-making potential in the cover letter. (I really hate seeing the phrase "18- to 25-year-old males, in particular.) Yes, I admit that when I read submissions, I think about whether a project is something we can sell. However, I want to know that the work is an important expression of personal creativity to the artist. I can't get excited about promoting a book that even the creator just thinks of as a way to make money or get a movie deal (you all already know I hate that).
Something I think people need to watch out for is getting too caught up in their creation and writing weird movie-tag-style descriptions that make no sense to anyone but them, like, "It'll tear you apart from the eye of the needle to the moons of Jupiter." I made that up, but I see stuff that is just as baffling. Remember my "Think about why you want to make comics but not too much" line? Its companion is "Take your shit seriously but not too seriously." You might end up sounding like you have your head right up your comic's bum.
You've already spoke about "loser" comics and bad paneling, but could character designs change your mind? Let's say that the summary sounds awesome, but the way they present the characters is way off, what is it about the character that's not welcoming?
I'm trying to call a specific time where I've read a summary and thought, "Wow, that really sounds cool!" and then saw the character designs and went, "No, PASS!" but I don't think it has. That's not usually the mismatch I get. If I don't like the characters, it's either because I'm not digging the story as a whole or because they're characters that just exist as tools of the plot.
I guess what I am asking is what gets in and what gets kicked out when it comes to walking up to the plate and showing work to professionals. The common thing is grammar, following instructions, and even common sense, but what about smaller things that the author might not catch? I'm sitting here drawing, and I realize that comic book industries reject quite a few comics. I don't want the same mistake someone before me when I want to get something published.
All of the above, I guess. I think the best thing is to be enthusiastic about your work, to have a good work ethic and develop your creativity, but I think editors have a sense for people who have subsumed their selves into their work and only can see things in relation to that work, if that makes any sense. Honestly, I want to get the impression that your comic is important to you but it's not your whole world. That kind of intensity makes me tired and wary. Don't overthink stuff. Just be professional and friendly in your cover letter and try to do your best work in your comic.
You see a lot of comics, so what really shines, and makes you say "wow"?
Well, good art is a plus. I turn to the art the first thing when I open a submission, and if it doesn't impress, it's going to take an awfully good story to make me get past that. I like seeing art and stories that of course aren't separate from other comics that are being published -- we're all products of our culture, after all -- but have a real individual "voice."
I remember when Landry Walker was in the office, and he decided to open a submission envelope at random, declaring that we would publish whatever was inside. (I think that's how it went -- Landry, correct me if I'm wrong.) Inside the envelope he chose was Nil: A Land Beyond Belief by James Turner. And, boy, did it make us say, "Wow." It looked great, and not like anything I'd seen before in comics. And there wasn't the all-too-common crushing blow of seeing great art telling a lackluster story. It helped that the satire meshed so well with my sensibilities, seeing as I'm the kind of person who has dreams about bowling with Jacques Derrida. If Dan had been against publishing, I probably would have begged him to reconsider. Fortunately, I didn't have to do that.
Sometimes I will see a work, and, honestly, that editorial ego will set in, and I'll think, I want to be part of getting this person's work in print.