Don’t devote ten years of your life to writing the next great Spider-Man epic…
Breaking into comics is incredibly difficult anyway, so it’s critical that you’re approaching the long and frightful journey for the right reasons. When we first come into comics, it’s only natural to immediately gravitate towards certain characters or creators, and this remains with you when trying to make a transition from fan to professional. Or in my case, you can just straddle both lines until enough people demand that you stop. Anyway, it’s easy to become overly obsessed with the prospect of continuing the exploits of your favorite characters, but this by itself is not a good enough reason to start writing comics. Let me put it this way, as delicately as I can -
If you are not committed and passionate about bringing new characters and concepts into the world of comics, then you are officially wasting your and everyone else’s time.
That is not to say that it wasn’t a blessing and an honor to be able to write stories featuring Spider-Man, the FF, and Robin---quite the contrary. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to do so again very soon, but the bottom line is that Tim Drake just doesn’t require my presence to exist. He is one of my favorite characters of all time, and the man I hold responsible for most of his development started this entire mess with one of his writing seminars. Despite this, he doesn’t belong to me, any more than he belongs to you, and this is an important distinction when deciding to cross the divide. You’ll have to be honest with yourself when asking the question, “Do you want to write comics or do you want to create comics?”
Fortunately, the industry is currently built to allow most creators to effectively do both, and it could just be me, but I can’t understand anyone who has little or no interest in also creating their own original works. This is a stance that I think is pretty unique to comics, as people fighting their way into other genres of entertainment don’t often aspire to write the same characters and concepts they’ve been following for several years. It’s probably a symptom of our most popular genre, its focus on the idea of something that never ends feeding downwards into the people tasked with ensuring it never does. The Catch-22 of that is that a love for a particular character or universe can lead to some fantastic stories. Sometimes it even leads to important stories.
Every truly great writer has a great run or two under their belt---a creative tenure on some company-owned character that completely redefines them going forward, and raises the bar for the next poor creator that follows. We could name a handful of these with little effort and they are relevant not just because of the craft involved, but also the natural constraints that come from working with characters you do not own. To be able to navigate all of them and make a true and distinctive mark anyway will always be worth praise and admiration. It’s a tough job and anyone that tells you different either simply doesn’t get it, or is one of those obnoxious people that claim they can do it so much better, if only they didn’t lack the balls to try proving it.
But on top of all that, the true greats devote extensive time to creating complementary libraries of creator-owned material---one that in many cases rivals or surpasses the quality of their work-for-hire books. For the same reason that TV shows on cable networks are often the most acclaimed and celebrated, creator-owned work has an additional layer to it that’s hard to deny. Cable shows are usually allowed to go much further in terms of language, violence, and content, than their network contemporaries. Not to mention shoot significantly less material, which helps to ensure an immediacy and focus to the story, which can only leading to a stronger result. Because when all that matters is the story of that world and those characters, you’re already ahead of the game. Because without you, no part of it exists until you breathe life into it, and that is the subtle difference between aspiring to be a writer or a creator.
Comics are all about the great unknown, telling one very impossible story after another with no lines and no limits. It’s one of the only mediums where budgets and even the laws of physics are of little concern, and where the old adage is truly embraced---anything is possible. The sales charts might not agree, but what makes comics a terrific and vibrant branch of entertainment is its incredible diversity. If you’re willing to at least look, there’s a comic for anyone of any background, and that’s not something that every genre can claim. And as a future creator, you have a responsibility to endeavor to create something that no one else would, and leave it for other people to find. Something that is individual and unique to you and effectively defines you and your particular relationship with comics. Because that’s what happens when you are the true master of your own work---you take what it is that you love about comics and inject it into everyone else.
For me, it wasn’t even comics initially. It was George Lucas’ Star Wars that left me immediately driven to write, and if it takes forever, I’d be honored to instill in someone else even a fraction of the excitement and enjoyment I took from that first movie. You’ve got to pass it on whenever and wherever possible, as the creative process always forms a circle, something that exists only to perpetuate itself. Somewhere on that circle you’re going to encounter something that inspires you, that makes it imperative that you’re one day able to leave a piece of yourself behind for someone else to find and hopefully be sparked by. That’s the way it’s always worked and it’s the way it’ll continue to work as long as you keep one thing in mind.
There is only so much of yourself you can leave in work that doesn’t belong to you.
If you don’t realize that from the outset, then why even bother? It might be eternally gratifying, net you a decent paycheck, and get you on the Wizard Top Ten, but until you’re looking at a completely blank slate with few conceivable limits, how will you ever know just how good you can be? Why go through the entire process to just exclusively continue the adventures of Batman? Or the Avengers, or whoever’s book you used to read as a kid. People have worked for years and years so that it’s much easier for the next guy or girl to come through and have it both ways. The choice of having a work-for-hire and creator-owned component to your career is yours of course, but do realize that someone you’ve never met, someone who you might never meet, is counting on you. To provide that spark of creation, and the conviction not to quit when it gets tough.
One of my favorite books of all time is JMS’ Complete Book of Screenwriting, largely because of the fantastic intro, which is really one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever read. You know how you read something and don’t just enjoy, but you feel it? Like it was written specifically for you and that you were meant to find it at the specific moment you needed to? I’ll share, even though you might not get the full effect without reading the whole bit---
“But everyone knows that people like us don’t make it in Hollywood. Your parents, your friends, your teachers, meaning only the best for you, hoping to save you from disappointment and pain, will offer that piece of advice, repeating it over and over until you either accept it or go mad. Sitting at a restaurant counter in Cincinnati, standing in a bus chugging down El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego, you, the person reading this book, glance around. The people around you will take one look at the book in your hands and shake their heads. What a dreamer. No offense, but folks like you aren’t the type to make it in Hollywood, to see your name on the screen or the television tube in front of millions of viewers. Please. Get real. It doesn’t happen that way. Everybody knows that.
Except…except for one little truth, which is at the core of this book, the one singular and important truth you must keep close to your most secret heart, the truth I learned, the truth I hope to pass on to you.
Here it is. Ready?
Everybody is wrong.
Keep writing. Keep fighting. Keep dreaming.
Because sometimes, every once in a while, the dream really does come true.
Even for folks like us.”
And that’s what it is. Though he’s talking about screenwriting, the preceding really applies to anything worth doing. Because if it wasn’t, people wouldn’t be lining up to tell you how bad you’ll fail, now would they? You just have to know with every part of you that matters that they’re wrong. That for whatever reason they just don’t understand and you don’t have the time to make certain they do. Not while there’s serious work to be done, and you’re doing it not just because you want to contribute something to the characters and stories that might’ve provided inspiration, but because one day, just maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll be the one to provide that impetus for someone else standing up and deciding to use their own voice to tell stories. And that it only makes sense that the feeling comes from stories that are told through the eyes and experiences of characters that didn’t exist until you made them.
I take responsibility for doing everything in my power to keep all this going, to ultimately pass on the fuel that people like George Lucas, Chuck Dixon, J. Michael Straczynski, and many others once provided me with their work and their words. Can you say something similar? If not, then perhaps the world of comics does not need you as much as you think.
If so, then you heard the man---keep fighting. Until it’s physically and emotionally impossible for you to continue---and then go a little past that, just to be sure.
This now concludes the feature series How NOT to Break Into Comics. Hope everyone enjoyed these and found at least a little something to take away from them. If you missed one of the previous installments, check them out here and here.
Back in seven. Take care.