Write or Wrong #71: Why HELLBLAZER Matters

Write or Wrong: Define Yourself

So… I’m back.

Yes, really. Really-really back. Monthly again, at last.

For those of you know me and/or Write or Wrong, hopefully you’ve missed reading new installments of this column over the last year (give or take) as much as I’ve missed writing them. The reasons for my hiatus are multiple (and largely positive), but as I said, I’m back, and Write or Wrong will be monthly again here at Newsarama for as long as I’ve got advice, guidance, or entertainment to provide.

As for those of you who are checking this column out for the first time… welcome! In short, Write or Wrong is a column in which I primarily talk to writers about how to not just write comics, but create comics.

 

For both you new and returning readers out there, in case you missed the news, last month saw the release of Write or Wrong: A Writer’s Guide to Creating Comics from Transfuzion Publishing. The book is a 216 page collection of a bulk of the earlier Write or Wrong columns that center primarily on the nuts-and-bolts of comic creation for writers, and it’s now available for purchase from your local comic shop and/or from Amazon.com by clicking right HERE. Along with collecting “remastered” versions of a bulk of the early columns (most of which disappeared from the Internet during the great Newsarama server migration a few years back), the book also contains a lot of new content exclusive to the book that has never appeared online, including a really nice introduction by Matt Brady to boot.

So, if you’re one of those countless people who have been waiting years for Write or Wrong to go to print in a nice bookshelf-ready form, and/or if you’re looking to buy yourself an early birthday/Christmas/Hanukkah/Festivus present… now you can.

Shameless self-promotion aside, let’s get to talking about creating comics, shall we?

Specifically, I want to talk to you all about knowing the role, niche, and/or target audience you want to focus on with the comics you’re looking to create.

And no, your target audience can’t be “everyone.”

Good try, though.

In fact, one of the biggest mistakes a lot of aspiring writers make when creating comics is trying to make work that will appeal to everyone, and it pains me to see this happen, since it is one of most sure-fire ways to set yourself up for complete and total failure, both creatively and financially.

Yes, really.

Here’s why.

Creatively speaking, as I’ve spoken about at length in previous editions of this column, making a comic book is a long and laborious process in and of itself. Considering this, it pains me to see people successfully navigate the long, winding and obstacle-laden path from “aspiring creator” to “comic creator” only to see them set themselves up for a painful defeat by putting all that effort into a comic that, in a desperate attempt to try to appeal to “everyone,” ends-up being bland (at best) and/or a convoluted and unreadable mess (at worst).

I mean, if you’ve ever walked through Artist Alley at a comic convention, you’ve probably had someone – most likely a small-press/indie comic creator – pitch a comic to you like this:

 “This is my comic titled ____________. It’s a superhero-romance-action/adventure comic with a touch of horror and a tiny bit of romance splashed in there for good measure.”

Uhhh… what?

Remember that old line about how you can’t be everything to everyone? It applies to the comics you want to create, too, folks.

Sure, sure: many great comics do indeed incorporate many subgenres into their main story at one point or another… but should a drawn-out and ultimately overly-adjective-laden-yet-completely-meaningless description be the pitch for your comic to people who don’t know anything about it?

REALLY?

Or, to be more blunt, do you want your comic to stand for nothing other than a desperate attempt to be everything to everyone?

A lot of up-and-coming creators create – or at least try to pitch – comics like this – comics that will appeal to “everyone” by incorporating five or six subgenres – to artists, readers and publishers alike because they think that in doing so they’re creating a book that will appeal to the widest swath of potential readers possible… which is a devastating logical fallacy.

Admittedly, it’s easy to understand this approach, at least, considering how hungry and desperate most comic creators are to get people to read their comics.

After all, who doesn’t want as many people to consider checking-out their work as possible, right?

However, allowing this hunger/desperation to prompt you to cast a wide net in hopes of snagging as many potential readers as possible in you pitch by including various genre-based buzz-words that you hope will pique the attention/interest of artists/readers/publishers will never, ever, ever work – especially on any large scale.

Ever.

Why?

 

The answer, as is the case with a lot of things (in my life, at least), can best be found via ice cream.

When eating ice cream, you can mix two “flavors” and occasionally come up with something really awesome… but anything past two – or maybe three – flavors usually just settles into becoming a pile of bland and unappetizing goo.

(The one exception to this, interestingly enough for the sake of this conversation, is “Superman” flavored ice cream – a true rarity in the world of frozen delicacies given how it manages to combine so many independent flavors into one delightfully unique new flavor.)

Gosh… I really do love ice cream.

A lot.

*Ahem*

Sorry. Got lost in thought for a moment there.

Getting back to comics, the point here is that creating and/or pitching a comic (or a story in any medium, for that matter) that’s based on a hodge-podge of every genre under the sun will not entice more people to check out your story.

Rather, it will both smack of desperation for attention and result in, as is the case with ice cream, a pile of bland and unappetizing goo.

Considering this, instead of trying to make your comic be everything to everyone, you – as the writer – need to decide to tell the type of story that you want to tell… and then tell it confidently and boldly without adding in aspects that are only in there in hopes that it will allow you to appeal to anyone past your core demographic.

After all, my friends, the bottom line is that you will never, ever be able to make anyone read your comic, no matter how hard you try to cater it to their whims, tastes and/or desires.

Your best chance at success is to create a comic that you (and your team) are passionate about, and then “market” it as exactly what it is, be it a superhero comic, a romance comic, a horror comic, a funny comic, a war comic… whatever.

Whatever kind of comic you decide to create, decide what it’s really about – and then  own it, be it about own it, whether it be about anthropomorphic jellyfish or dead baby jokes.

(Yes, I’m lovingly looking in your direction with that last reference, Douglas Paszkiewicz of Arsenic Lullaby. Lord knows you own your genre better than anyone, eh?)

Once you distill your story down to what it’s really about (again, even if it’s dead baby jokes), people will either “get it” or they won’t… but at least you won’t be wasting time trying to pitch your comic to everyone under the sun (or on the Internet, or at the comic convention you’re set-up at) in hopes of them checking it out because it just might kinda-sorta have something to do with something they kinda-sorta like.

Which, in a round-about sort of way, leads me to the financial aspect of things.

If you want to sell your comic – again, be it to publishers or readers – you need to know your audience.

 

Over the last few years I’ve had several opportunities to work the Shadowline Comics table with Jim Valentino, and it’s with more than a little pride that I tell you now how he’s repeatedly said I’m the best person he’s ever seen “work a table” in regards to moving books into the hands of people who may like them.

While, admittedly, my gregarious nature and good-hearted personality may be part of my key to success in this area, my real secret is this: I direct people’s attention to the books they’re most likely to enjoy without trying to hard-sell them on a book they won’t like.

For example, let’s say I’m set-up at a convention and someone walks-up to my table (or, if I’m set-up with Jim, the Shadowline Comics table) and s/he starts looking at the books on display/for sale. Upon striking-up small-talk with him/her (which I always do in an non-obtrusive fashion), I will usually ask what kind of comics s/he likes and then try to direct him/her to such a type of book – if I have one on the table.

Specifically, if someone tells me they’re not a fan of horror-comics on any level, well, I’m not going to try and hard-sell him/her on Nightmare World, for example, despite the fact that it could potentially put a few extra bucks in  my pocket.

Because it won’t.

Because this particular person doesn’t like horror comics, and given this fact there’s no real reason to try and foist a horror-comic into his/her hands, you know?

It’s all about personal and professional integrity when trying to get people to check out your work, folks.

When I tell people about Nightmare World, I pitch it to them as exactly what it is: a horror anthology-style series of stand-alone stories all written by me and each illustrated by a different artist or art team that, over the course of the trilogy of graphic novels, all weave together into one giant story.

Based on that description people will either decide to check it out… or they won’t.

 

Sure, sure, there’s plenty of people I’ve talked to (both online and in person) who I know would really enjoy Nightmare World if they actually checked it out, but that doesn’t mean that I should try to foist it onto people or otherwise misrepresent what the book is about in order to get them to buy it.

Yeah, throughout the 39 stories of the Nightmare World trilogy there are some stories that are funny, for example, but I don’t pitch the book as a “comedy” book to people who tell me they like “funny” comics, you know?

Ditto – on both fronts – when people tell me they like superhero comics, romance comics, slice-of-life comics, western comics, war comics, etc.

Again, yeah, Nightmare World does have some of all of that sprinkled through the 39 stories… but first, foremost and utmost it’s a horror comic, and that’s how I “pitch” it.

Admittedly, while I know of a lot of people who don’t normally like horror comics (or horror at all, for that matter) who have gone on to read the book and enjoy it, I would be doing myself and the people I talk to about the book by marketing it as anything other than a horror book.

Which, in a roundabout sort of way, brings me to DC Comics and their recent announcement that they’re cancelling the loooooooooong-running Vertigo series Hellblazer and replacing it with a DCnU book about the same character under the moniker Constantine.

 

For those of you not familiar with Hellblazer, as I mentioned, it’s a very long-running comic from DC’s mature-readers Vertigo imprint that DC will be cancelling with Issue #300 in a few short months. As Hellblazer, the series follows the (very) R-Rated exploits of John Constantine, a street-level occult specialist who – depending on the writer – ranges from callously-calculating to woefully-in-over-his-head, yet somehow always manages to save the day while saving his own skin… usually at a high cost to those around him.

Based on a character created by Alan Moore, Rick Veitch and John Totleben in the pages of Swamp Thing in the 1980’s, the list of writers on the series is a virtual who’s-who of top (and, admittedly, mainly British) talent, including (but not limited to) Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, Paul Jenkins, Warren Ellis, Brian Azzarello, Mike Carey, Denise Mina, Andy Diggle, Jason Aaron, Peter Milligan, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Dave Gibbons and China Mieville.

Go ahead and take the time to admire that list or writers for another moment or two if you must. I understand, as it’s a helluva list.

While the book is (was?) by no means a top-selling title month after month, nor is it one to ever grab many (any?) headlines among the biggest of the comic new websites, Hellblazer existed in its own little niche as a mature-readers horror comic that consistently offered fans of non-superhero characters a nice alternative comic reading experience about a rather seedy protagonist who gets involved in all kinds of nasty and vile business that would never, ever fly in a non-Vertigo book at DC.

 

Sadly, for the longest time the Hellblazer back catalogue of TPBs was hit-and-miss at best (which is at least semi-understandable, given that the series is almost 300 issues long), and while DC’s recent attention to going back and reformatting/re-releasing TPB collections of the series chronologically over the last year or so was a glimmer of hope to people like me who hoped to someday have the full Hellblazer library lining my bookshelf, it seems it is now only happening only as a consolation prize in exchange for us losing the title on a monthly basis.

As can be expected, there was the requisite Internet uproar when DC announced the cancellation/replacement of the title, but what interested me most about this situation was how much of the uproar came from industry professionals.

Why was this the case?

Again, it’s because Hellblazer is a comic that for over 20 years has filled a nice little niche for both creators as well as readers alike in the comic book industry, especially those who like long-form “Mature Readers” horror comics.

As anyone who’s ever spent any amount of time reading Hellblazer can tell you, he’s a character that’s very easy to get to know, and after having him around for so long, it’s as if we’re losing an old friend… or at least being forced to watch him get the “Clockwork Orange” treatment as he’s repackaged and pranced out to the masses as a cleaner-cut PG-Rated version of the man we all knew and loved.

While whether or not the new, more white-washed version of the character can live-up to the potential of his predecessor remains to be seen (the new creative team has assured readers that they recognize the importance of the task ahead of them), to me that’s secondary to how one more niche that was once amply-provided-for by DC Comics is being made even smaller with the removal of Hellblazer from the shelves.

 

While I have no empirical evidence to back this up, I can’t help but feel that the decision to replace Hellblazer with Constantine was ultimately a financial one, though, which makes it all the harder to argue with the reasons for the decision (if that it indeed the case).

After all, relaunching the book will almost inevitably cause DC to start making more money on the intellectual property that is John Constantine for at least the first year of so that Constantine is published, given that a lot of store-owners and readers alike will support the Constantine title with their dollars out of a sense of curiosity or “shiny new toy” syndrome if nothing else…

My question, though, is this:

What then?

Sure, maybe this new white-washed version of John Constantine will be just what the character needed to “break-through” to the mainstream comic reading audience – and given the strong and iconic nature of the character, with the right creators assigned to the book (as well as proper editorial control/direction) I believe that this could very well be the case, making DC (and their parent company Warner Brothers) very happy.

It pains me, though, that it was deemed necessary to take Hellblazer off the table to make that happen, though.

After all, does not a look across the (proverbial) street show that books containing more than one version of the same character can exist?

(Yes, I’m looking at you, Punisher plus Punisher: Max and The Amazing Spider-Man plus Ultimate Spider-Man.)

(That being said, though, the less said about Ultimate X-Men and whatever form The Ultimates is taking right these days, the better.)

Although I realize it is most likely overly-optimistic of me, I do dream of a scenario where Constantine does so well that, in a year or two, the Hellblazer comic (proper) is revived at Vertigo (complete with the original numbering intact)… but I just don’t see that happening.

Why?

Because DC isn’t in the business of providing diverse non-superhero reading experiences nearly as much as they are in the business of making money… and even if it’s only in the short-term, Constantine will undoubtedly make money via an (at least) initial spike in sales.

 

I guess this should come as no surprise to me or anyone else, though, eh? After all, it’s exactly what they did with the rest of their characters via the DCnU reboot a little over a year ago… a move that I applauded in this very column, as a matter of fact.

Heh.

Unlike the case of rebooting Batman, Superman and the like, though – which was done primarily to make the comics accessible to new readers (which, again, is something I applauded and still applause – at least in intent, if not always in delivery), the case of Hellblazer vs. Constantine really is different, as the two books, had they been allowed to co-exist, would have catered to two totally different audiences… and dare I say even gained some synergy off one-another.

Considering this, the final lesson to be learned from this scenario is this:

When crafting your stories and your characters, know the role you want your book to play in the grand pantheon of comics, my friends.

Do this by creating a book that you’re truly passionate about, even if it means it may not get you mainstream press or legions of fans.

After all, by following that raw, undiluted, and uncompromising passion, you will be filling the most important niche of all in the industry:

The niche that only you and your unique stories and characters can fill…

Just like the one Hellblazer did, the nasty, vile, R-Rated bastard that he was.

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Dirk Manning is the writer/creator of Write or Wrong: A Writer’s Guide to Creating Comics and the Nightmare World trilogy, all of which are available for purchase from your local comic shop and/or from Amazon.com. He’s also the writer of Tales of Mr. Rhee and Love Stories About Death, both of which are available to read at online for free at www.ShadowlineOnline.com. He is also a longtime contributing columnist for Newsarama and a staunch advocate for comic creators everywhere. He lives on the Internet and can usually be found lurking around Facebook and Twitter on a fairly regular basis… when he’s not busy writing, of course.

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Did you know that Newsarama now has a page solely dedicated to archiving the previous Write or Wrong columns and other Dirk Manning related articles? It’s true! You can check it out (and bookmark it) HERE: http://www.newsarama.com/topic/write-or-wrong

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