SDCC '09: How to Break Into Marvel Comics
Thursday afternoon, at Comic-Con International: San Diego, Marvel Comics hosted a panel for attendees of the convention who have aspirations of “breaking in” to the comic book industry. The panel was moderated by Marvel marketer-turn-writer Jim McCann; included on the panel were C.B. Cebulski, Mike Choi, Jeph Loeb, Christina Strain, Steve Wacker, Charlie Beckerman, Mike Pasciullo, Jim “Ski” Sokolowski and Joe Quesada. The large room quickly filled up with eager listeners as McCann introduced the members of the panel who were going to be interacting with the audience for one larger Q&A discussion.
McCann began the discussion in a loose fashion—reminding the audience members that there was not a set way to begin a career in the comic book industry—and how certain jobs would be more difficult to obtain than others. CB Cebulski reiterated the point and reminded people that he frequently posts information on Twitter for would-be creators with an interest in working at Marvel.
McCann directed the panel at this point and asked each of them to briefly tell the audience how they had gotten in to the industry. Starting at the far end of the table, Jim Sokolowski informed the audience that he began working with a sister company of Marvel in the 70’s that was responsible for newsstand sales and he had held a number of positions on the business side of the company. He also informed the audience that he had just recently returned to Marvel as an employee within the last two to three years.
Charlie Beckerman was up next—he actually was an intern at Marvel during his matriculation in college. He then left the country for a year and wound up at Virgin Comics. After the implosion of Virgin Comics, Beckerman was fortunate enough to have contacted Marvel the day that an editorial assistant had handed in his notice and he was hired for the position.
Joe Quesada explained that his story was one of “dumb luck”. Having started as a colorist at Valiant in the early 90’s, he was laid off only months after starting the job when Valiant hit hard times. He immediately began showing his portfolio around and he was able to get his foot in the lobby of DC Comics…literally. Jim Owsley, an editor Quesada had contacted, would only see him down in the lobby—but he hired him to do an inventory cover for a TSR licensed property of the time—Spelljammer. Hungry for work, Quesada brought him a fully rendered cover within 24 hours of their meeting and impressed Owsley. He was asked to wait in the lobby—and he continued to do so for roughly an hour when he was told that the editor wanted to see him upstairs. It turns out that in the time Quesada had come to turn in the cover artwork, an artist had argued with Owsley and quit his gig with the company—which was in turn offered to Quesada. Quesada spoke, “…and I never looked back and have had good fortune over the course of my career in the industry. I got in through sheer luck; so I consider myself the luckiest man to have ever worked in comics.”
Several of the other panel members shared their short stories of applying through proper channels and/ or becoming established at smaller publishers before trying their luck at Marvel. Jeph Loeb talked about his original involvement with the film industry and how writing comics was a side gig initially. Steve Wacker, Editor of Marvel’s Spider-Man titles, actually got his start by producing a play with containing superhuman characters. CB Cebulski got his start in the industry actually working in Japan in the Manga industry. Christina Strain networked into a position after studying art at LSU and working with Aspen.
Mike Choi’s story was one of interest because he actually didn’t start drawing comics until he had graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Business from UT and he was working at IBM before he even considered showing interest in comics. Choi briefly interned for Top Cow before becoming one of the company’s breakout pencillers. He got in with Marvel via a cross-promotion with Top Cow that he actually attempted to pass on but was assigned to regardless; he remarked, “It was the best decision I never made.”
Jim McCann also shared his story and how, at one point, he was a host at a Hard Rock Café restaurant and that he had networked with then President of Marvel Comics, Terry Stewart. He pursued a film and theater degree and luckily landed a job via posting his resume on Monster.com.
The panel’s course changed as CB Cebulski and Joe Quesada both lectured the audience on the merits of publication and how much opportunities a young creator has increase after publishing smaller projects in the independent market. Quesada cited Brian Michael Bendis as a shining example of a writer creating a body of work by “soloing” entire projects—some of which may or may not have turned a lot of heads…but Bendis’ endeavors gained him the respect of those who were interested in him as a potential hire. Cebulski reminded the audience, “You have to know your craft—study writing […] and learn how to tell stories in a sequence.”
Jeph Loeb talked about the need for young writers to learn the dynamics of the format. He stressed the importance of understanding the technical side of the creation of a comic book. Further, he urged young creators to find artists and seek out smaller publication houses to begin creating a small body of work. The panel discussed “pitching” and how important it was for young talent to not try and “recreate” working concepts—and that it can help to actually know what books an editor works on before they are approached with inappropriate projects and pitches.
The panel stressed the importance of using prepared mini-comics or prior publications to garner the attention of editors. Charlie Beckerman stated, “Put something in someone’s hands and try to spread your work around.” He explained to the audience that an editor’s time to read pitches and material was very limited—and that handing them something processed and ready to read made their job that much easier. Loeb also added, “It’s better to come up with a really great ten page story—to show editors that you have a voice.”
Several of the panelists mentioned the necessity of “being your own worst critic” and stressed the importance of understanding their chosen field with more than a working competency of the craft. Mike Choi said, “The hardest lesson I had to learn—is that you are not as good as you think you are.” To which Christina Strain added, “And don’t make excuses for your work. It’s not their fault your work didn’t get selected—it’s your own fault.” Quesada also stressed the importance of having a professional work ethic—he said, “Don’t worry about how other people got into the industry; worry about how you’re going to get into the industry.”
As the panel began to wind down, several options for publication were discussed and how the digital age was now creating more opportunities for breaking into the industry than ever before. A number of sources were mentioned—webcomics, making ashcans, and publishing anthologies seemed to be the more popular suggestions. Mike Choi spoke, “If you’re good enough and you get your work out there—it’s going to happen. You won’t have to find them—they’ll find you.”