WORDS FOR PICTURES: Making and Writing Comics with BRIAN MICHAEL BENDIS Part 2
Words for Pictures by Brian Bendis
In the first part of our interview with Brian Michael Bendis – author of the making comics for writers textbook – the discussion centered on his experience as a comics writing course professor as well as giving some glimpses into the roundtables that comprise part of his book. In this second part, we begin by looking into some of the more practical concerns comic creators need to be aware of as they begin writing.
Newsarama: Shifting gears a bit Brian, you talk about the need for a certain amount of business acumen when it comes to the "business of comics." You even turn the tables and interview your wife, Alisa, who is also your business manager. Why did you think this was something essential to book on writing?
Brian Michael Bendis: THANK YOU for bringing this up! It is SUCH an important part of everything that is right and wrong in comics. Creators do not protect themselves in comics. They don't know how, and they don't even know where to begin. Even when they figure it out, they get lazy about it because they just want to make comics. They don't want to talk to a lawyer or worry about signing contracts. This is when they get immature. This is arrested development. They may be an excellent creator, but it can all blow up in your face.
We talk about in the book no matter how many horror stories – going back this whole century – of comic creators hearing about others getting fucked over, they still don't take care of themselves. And now it's easier than ever. Now you can look back at the creators of the past and say "Oh, how could they sign that away!" But those creators couldn't even imagine. But now we can imagine it.
Nrama: The last ten to fifteen years have done a lot to change the comics landscape.
Bendis: Literally, every single network have comic book TV shows and comic book movies. You can imagine whatever the next form of entertainment… they're coming for us! So protect yourself. Yet, they still don't do it.
Nrama:And this is where your wife Alisa comes into the picture?
Bendis: This is where I married very well. She is someone who not only excels in this field, she loves it as much as I hate it. She would talk to our lawyer all day! Over the course of the years, when other creators would see how much we have our shit together – and by "we" I mean "her" – they would travel to sit here with my wife and ask "What are we not doing? What are we doing wrong?" It's funny. She's like the "Ancient One" whom everyone climbs a mountain to come and get answers from. They even come all the way here, and when Alisa starts talking about corporations, they glaze over. [laughter]
It is the hardest thing for creators. We're not wired that way in general. Some are, but many aren't prepared to run a business. If you are a writer or creator of any kind, you are running a business. And the business is that thing you do – writing. That thing that you write has value and that value must be protected. You have rights, and those rights must be protected. There are ways to very simply and easily protect yourself. Just by the definition of protecting yourself, you're already winning half the battle. Most of the weasels who come around looking to be weasels, well, when those weasels see you protecting yourself, they keep moving. Think of it like this: When people looking to rob your house see that sign out front that says the house is protected by an alarm, they're not going to try and rob you. They're going to move along.
It frustrated me to no end that some of my peers to this day in my life still try to take the easy way out and still shoot themselves in the foot. They do all this work and still don't protect themselves. If anybody reads this book, and makes a conscious effort to not be a cautionary tale, my whole life will have been worthwhile. I'm that serious.
Nrama:You seem to have it laid out pretty explicitly, too, in terms of everything that really needs to go into a contract.
Bendis: And this only the beginning part. You hire a manager or a lawyer if you can't do it – and honestly, most of you can't. So you hire someone who can. That money you're spending will come back to you tenfold. I promise. You need it. You're not invincible. You're in a world of weasels surrounded by weasels. We're in a lucrative world now where there is a billion dollars on the table. The weasels, some high class weasels, mean you need to take care of yourself. I don't want to hear anymore cautionary tales. There are things you guys don't even hear about, and only when it blows up do you get a whiff of it. It's horrific. If I didn't marry my wife, I'd be a cautionary tales! It is the thing you never hear talked about because most creators aren't experts in the field.
Nrama: For people who are on the ground level, do you find having a contract between two people who are just up-and-comers can be a positive step towards making comics?
Bendis: COMPLETELY. I make comics with some of my best friends on the planet. Mike Oeming is my brother. We will be together forever. David Mack. These are people that I love with my whole heart, and I can't imagine not being friends with them. Alright? Literally, I would give them the book if they wanted it. But we have contracts. And you know what those contracts do? We don't even have to worry about it. I've had books that have gone nowhere. That's where the contract doesn't matter. The book makes $200 – you take your $100 and I'll take mine. But now, here I am with Powers about to go into production. That's is the highest thing you can achieve, right? Well, our contracts are rock solid. Whatever money comes in, 50-50, boom boom boom! No one has to worry about it. It's all in writing. We get to hug each other and yell "Yay! We have a show!" It's a lovely experience. Whatever tiny, paranoid experience you might have, you don't have to worry about it – done!
Now, you might be sitting there making comics with your friends wondering "What could possibly go wrong?" says EVERY horror story ever. [laughter] You're protecting yourself for success – not failure. Having had both, nothing is more freeing to the relationship. It's like a marriage contract: Here, this is what we do. Shake hands, sign the contract, and away we go!
This is a business that breeds flaky behavior, but every field has it. You just want to protect yourself. Put it in writing and then you never have to think about it again. Don't assume that with success, everyone is going to behave. Memories have a funny way of changing things. Get it down on paper and no one has to worry about remembering.
Nrama: So this is a "must read" chapter for people just getting into the business of making comics?
Bendis: The book isn't just for amateurs looking to go pro either. This is also to help make sure pros are going pro. They have the most difficult time with the business end of it. The publishers, in general, are set up to take advantage of that. But they won't if they can't. It's not just creator-owned, it's also reading the contract from the publisher to make sure everyone understands what everyone is getting. No matter how deep into the relationship you are, there are times you need to pull out the contract to see who is supposed to get what.
Nrama: In your conclusion, you opted to address a certain "controversy" –
Bendis: [Laughter] Yes, the "controversy"! I think a controversy should last more than 40 minutes, but I'll give you that since I don't know what the other word is."
Nrama: So this controversytook place due to your response to a fan on Tumblr that essentially stated real writers write. And as internet commentators are wont to do, a heated hullabaloo ensued. Why was it important for you to take this online and short-form discussion and use it as a platform for your closing remarks?
Bendis: It's funny because I had a different closing chapter. I did. But … it wasn't as pointed. I answer questions every day on Tumblr – every day. Some silly ones, some serious ones. This one person told me: "I haven't written in five years. Am I writer?" and I responded "Probably not." I didn't mean it as any kind of insult, but if he fashioned himself a writer, he probably needs to get down and write even if it's about why he hadn't been writing. That's writing. But if you're not, then maaaaybe let's come to terms with what's going on, you know what I mean? And I'm talking specifically to this specific guy who asked this specific question that said "I haven't written in five years." Then I went out to play with my kids on the lawn.
Nrama: And then it all broke loose…
Bendis: I came back and "What the hell!" Then something came up with Greg Rucka, who came on after me, who feels just as passionate about this as I do but is more colorful in his description about bleeding ink out of our veins and we're heroin addicts who can't stop. And some people couldn't tell who said what because Tumblr wasn't built for that type of conversation.
So people were very upset and yelling and screaming "How dare we!" and all that. I wasn't even clear why people were so upset. I didn't understand it. I took a couple of days away from it, and then came back to take a look, and I noticed I was hearing the word "fear" over and over again. "I don't want rejection … I'm afraid of doing this …" They were afraid of rejection, their craft, and putting themselves out there. It was a lot of fear…but they still wanted to be called a writer.
Nrama: So you found your hook?
Bendis: Ah! I knew then it was fear. That's it. That's the big enemy. If someone is looking for an "antagonist" in Words for Pictures, there it is. It just solidified for me that fear is the last thing someone has to get past. There are things to be afraid of, but your writing should not be one of them. If it is, then you have let it defeat you. So choose not to let it overcome you. Think about all of the people who've created in spite of truly horrific struggles and were still able to express themselves. Yes, there are people who struggle with depression, bi-polar, and other situations that make it very hard … but there are also people who had those problems and used with their creativity to a magnificent degree.
And I don't mean to say that to belittle anyone who has any sort of those problems. I look to those people to achieve, and they inspire me. It could be the thing that inspires you to not be afraid, to not let something hold you back anymore. That's something that hovers around a lot of people. Sometimes it's the difference between them and someone who is a creative success. There's nothing to be afraid of.
Nrama:The message of "tough love" is one that does seem to come across pretty clearly.
Bendis:I'm hoping so! Some people get very, very perturbed about such things when you're kind of gently telling them "You're out of excuses," when all they really want to do is hide. When you take away their excuses, they get angry. So I hope they know I'm coming from the place of wanting everyone to be able to put their thoughts and imagination down on paper and be fulfilled by it. I'm hoping that gets across without judgment. This is a book with a bunch of people in it who've managed to do it, and maybe that will inspire others to just get out there and push forward.
When I went back to Cleveland to do my TED talk, I swung by my old alma mater – the Cleveland Institute of Art – to do a talk. I spoke to a couple hundred students, which was surreal since I wasn't all that great of a student, and now I was before them. Ay any rate, towards the end of the speech I'm telling them that the difference in the world between the people who make and those who don't is someone told the successful person to just sit down and get it done and they did it. When I got home, I got an email from almost every single faculty member that was there saying "THANK YOU! That's all we've been saying ALL semester! Sit down and work." [laughter] I guess this is an on-going thing, people not getting their work done. Each of the faculty were saying the exact same thing like it was some kind of form letter! I was glad I was able to hit the button! [laughter].
Nrama: I'm sure that has to feel good though, no?
Bendis: I will tell you on a personal, selfish level that I love it when I get a letter and someone says "Look at what I did because you and Matt [Fraction] were yelling at me." I love it. Because I've never heard anyone say "I worked my ass off for this finished it, and I don't love it." They're always happy.
Nrama: It seems like one of those scenarios where people might hear this message from their professors or even peers, and not pay much heed; however, when it's coming from someone at the pinnacle of their game, the response is received much differently.
Bendis: I try not to be "cutesily" self-deprecating. Yes, there are more talented people in the world than me. But I have achieved more than some of these people who are more talented. And I admit, some of it has to do with luck. But it was luck while I was working my ass off. Getting paid for it is lovely, but I was doing it anyhow, and I know that's the difference. I've seen it in every one of my peers. They were doing it anyhow.
Nrama: So what's keeping people from getting out there and doing the work?
Bendis: We're talking fear, and we're talking how easy it is to get your work out there. Everyone who is in mainstream comics got there by making their own books. Not only because it made them better, but it showed professional publishers they could do it themselves. I've never spoken down to in comics because editors know I made comics myself for ten years. I know how to do it, they know I know how to do it, and we can raise the level of the conversation.
If you make your own comics, they become your calling card to achieve these things you say you want…and you may find you don't want those things any more. You just want to make your own comics. Even if they don't become a calling card and get you to be the thing of the week for these editors, here's the good news: You still made comics. It doesn't matter if Marvel of DC find you. You're in!
Nrama:Brian, you've been more than generous with your time. Do you have any final parting thoughts you'd like to share?
Bendis: I'm uncharacteristically very proud of this book. I'm relieved that it's out there so I can point to it for all of the people out there who come to me and my friends and ask for the answer to questions that are not a three-sentence answer. It's a chapter of a book answer. It's a very complicated idea or emotion and sometimes, Tumblr is not enough. So this book allows all of the facets of these questions to be answered in a colorful way by colorful people, and nothing is more important. The idea was to write a book that I wish I was reading in college and I started writing down the questions that I didn't have the answers to. This book gives a bunch of answers to those questions, and you can pick which answers best applies to you and the work you're doing right now.
Words for Pictures goes on sale July 22 from Random House Publishing at 24.99 retail or $11.99 on Kindle. Fans can also learn more on Bendis' Tumblr dedicated to the craft of making comics on http://bendiswordsforpictures.tumblr.com/. Readers can also read the introduction to the book on official listingon Random House's website.