“How did you break into comics?”
It’s a question that any of us who’ve wanted to create comics has inevitably asked – or at least wanted to ask – the established pros we admire (whether we admire them for their body of work or their ability to get work).
We ask this question to the “pros” because, hey, when you’re working a crappy 9 to 5 job out in the middle of nowhere with no real “industry contacts” to speak of the idea of “breaking in” to the industry seems like an impossible task.
Make no mistake, though, it may be very difficult… but it is not as impossible as many people (including some pros) make it out to be.
Now more than ever the bigger companies are keeping their eyes peeled for potential up-and-coming creators to offer work (read: work-for-hire opportunities) to… but to be noticed by the major players – or to even appear as a blip on their radar – you’ll first need to create some comics that will show them what you have to offer.
Not scripts, mind you, but comics.
(Don’t believe me? Read any of the creator-centric panel reports posted here at Newsrama and you’ll find everyone saying the exact same thing: If you want to get a job in the comic industry, you’re going to have to make comics of your own to show editors and publishers first.)
Of course this is the part that frustrates so many hopeful creators and proves to be a seemingly insurmountable stumbling block for so many aspiring creators – especially writers.
After all, how the heck are you supposed to make comics if you can’t find any artists to work with, right?
Throughout the previous fifty-four installments of this column I’ve talked at length about how to create comics – or at least how I managed to do so starting without even so much as an Internet connection at my own home – so if you want some advice on how to meet artists and such, well, the links to all of the previous columns are at the bottom of this page… at least until I get around to collecting them in book form for all ya’ll, anyway.
(If you are new to this column and don’t know how to even so much as find artists, perhaps you may want to start at the beginning and work yourself up to this point. It’s fine… go ahead. I’ll still be here when you get done. I promise.)
Some of you, though, are ahead of where I was when I started: Maybe you’ve already formed a good working relationship with an artist (or an art team), a decent potential audience via your various social networks such as Facebook and/or Twitterand a blog or website where you can post and promote your work. Heck, maybe you’ve even gone that extra mile and checked into the various Print-On-Demand options out there.
OK… you’ve got all your pieces in play… but now comes the important part:
YOU NEED TO MAKE SURE YOU DON’T SABOTAGE YOURSELF.
There are a couple ways to do this… with perhaps the most common way being treating your artistic collaborator(s) as art machines or “means to an end” rather than fellow aspiring creators with their own hopes, struggles and dreams, too.
Writers oftentimes seem to forget this fact and get so excited that an artist is willing to work with them that they fall into the trap of “using” their new artistic partners. Don’t do that. It’s called “wagon hitching” and I’ll be talking more about that at length in one of the upcoming installments of this column.
This aside, perhaps the other biggest self-set trap I see aspiring writers falling into is immediately trying to jump into creating the huge, epic, sweeping 12-to-50 issue proposed maxi-series that they’ve been dreaming about creating since they were knee-high to a toad-stool.
Admit it, folks… you have one in you that you’re dying to tell. All writers do, myself included.
However, trying to dive right into such a project – especially if you’re not the one writing and drawing it yourself, is most going to be an exercise in futility for three main reasons:
WHY YOU SHOULDN’T START YOUR WRITING CAREER TRYING TO CREATE A SWEEPING, MASSIVE, MULTI-PART “EPIC” OF A STORY
1) While your massive “epic” story may be very important and personal to you, it most likely will not be nearly as important to the artist you plan on trying to woo into drawing it. Think about it like a math problem: If you try to approach a potential artistic collaborator with the idea of working on a story that will take hundreds of pages and thousands of hours of commitment from them to complete, well… most artists will simply start ignoring your e-mails unless you’re willing to offer them a pretty substantial page rate. After all, a lot of artists have their own stories they want to tell, too, and dedicating thousands of artists to your project will not only deny them the opportunity to work on their own projects, but also the opportunity to work with other writers who might also be able to help them gain further exposure.
2) No publisher is going to seriously consider committing their time, money, resources and/or reputation to anything more than a three to four issue mini-series from an unknown creator’s unknown property. Period. If you find one that is, I’d be willing to bet my hat on the fact that you’ve found one run by a guy who’s trying to take advantage of you and your desire for too much too soon… and trust me, they are out there in much greater numbers than you might suspect. In regards to pitching to established publishers, remember this rule of thumb: Bigger is rarely better. They just want to see a sample of what you’re pitching them, and even then they are usually very specific about what they want to see and what they’re willing to publish by “unknown” creators… which in both cases usually ain’t much.
3) Unless you’ve been working with professional caliber artists and/or editors for a while, the blunt truth if that you’re probably not ready to properly execute a “massive, sweeping epic” with efficiency or effectiveness necessary for such a comic to be successful – especially in today’s market. Yes, Jeff Smith, Eric Powell and a few others managed to pull it off relatively quickly in the grand scheme of things, but they’re the major exceptions to the rule. I’m sorry if that’s a bitter pill for you too swallow – and I’m certainly not trying to attack your talent – but the simple fact of the matter is this: If you want to create professional caliber comics you’re most likely going to have to actually create a lot of comics to get to that point. Remember: There is no substitute for experience.
OK… so if it’s not a good idea to go around pitching anything “big” to publishers or artists, what’s the solution? How can you go about creating fully-realized comics that can be published both online and in-print?
The solution is so easy that many writers simply overlook it:
WRITE SHORT STORIES.
Here that sound in the distance? It’s a sound of thousands of little light-bulbs going off over the heads of the thousands of other aspiring creators out there who are also reading this column right now.
Mind you, I understand why writing short comic-based stories isn’t considered by (or even appealing to) a lot of potential creators, as for the last decade or so short stories have been by-and-large used as little more than vehicles for throw-away ideas or filler material.
To be fair, the short story has been seeing a bit of a resurgence as of late, but the sad fact of the matter is that, by and large, short stories are often used for throw-away concepts or filler material by a lot of publishers, which is infuriating to me, as I’m a HUGE fan of short stories both in prose and comics.
An old adage when it comes to writing successfully is to start as late in the action as possible and to get out as early as possible, and this is never easier than it is in a short story… and this is a practice that not nearly enough potential writers use when writing their comic scripts.
Here’s a little practice exercise for you: Let’s say that you have a standard 22-page script or perhaps even a plotted-out proposal for a three-issue mini-series sitting on your harddrive right now. After backing it up on an external drive of some sort (which you REALLY need to make a point of doing often), I want you to open it up, read it and try to chop it down to a five-to-eight page short story.
And yes, it is possible, so quit being so negative.
If you’re not sure where to start, try at the climax of your whole story or proposed mini-series. After all, that’s the high point of the action, right?
Take that scene and find a way to encapsulate it into a stand-alone series that’s a maximum of eight pages long.
Yes, yes… I know you put a lot of work into creating a compelling back story and strong character development into these characters. Remember, though, that no one else out there cares about these characters as much as you do, and for the sake of this exercise you really need to remind yourself of that… and now make us care about these characters and their dilemma/drama in eight pages or less.
Then, once you’ve done that I want you to do it again with another one of your ideas…
And then another…
And then another…
And another after that…
And then start pitching these new short stories to artists to create with you.
Trust me, this approach can and will work for you if you stick with it… and I know this because it’s the exact approach I used to create NIGHTMARE WORLD, a series of over 52 different (yet ultimately) interconnected eight-page short stories that I self-published online for years before getting picked-up by Image Comics.
In other words… give some love to the shorties, my friends.
Remember, though, that writing a short story involves more than taking a big story and smashing it down into an eight-page space.
Rather, as I alluded to a moment ago, you must instead create an interesting characters and put them in an interesting situation that can then be successfully resolved (preferably in an interesting or surprising fashion) in eight pages or less.
If you haven’t dabbled with short stories much, I’d highly recommend heading over to your local library and reading not only some good short story anthologies, but also collections of short stories all written by one author.
(My personal favorite authors who are “masters” of the short story are Harlan Ellison, Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft and Joe Hill…but your tastes might vary. Talk to your local librarians and see if they can point you in the right – or perhaps even a pleasantly unexpected – direction.)
If you’re not the type of writer who can run with a series of different concepts and instead is a lot better writing about one particular character or group of characters… that’s OK too.
If you fall into this category simply try to create a series of short stories or adventures about the same cast of characters and give the different stories to different artists.
Of course, in order to maintain a consistency in their looks you may have to fork over a few bucks to a really good artist who can create some character sketches for a “Reference Bible” for you to give them all first… but that’s OK. If you are going to take this approach it will be money will spent, I assure you.
(You could also get similar results by commissioning pros at cons to sketch out designs your original characters as a paid commission, but in order to do this you’ll need to put together a basic sketch for him or her to improve upon first… such as “This is my simple crappy sketch of my character Lizard Man. Could I pay you $50 to give me a sketch of him that looks cool?” You can then show THAT pic to other potential artists that you want to work with for reference… but of course, be upfront with the professionals that you’re hiring that this is you intention, too. I can’t imagine many of them saying “No” regardless, but honestly is always the best policy. Remember: The comic industry is a pool too small to pee in without getting caught.)
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I want to specifically mention that you are NOT, pardon the pun here, selling yourself short by dedicating some time and energy to short stories.
Specifically, I know a lot of writers who have trepidation about writing short stories because they feel that in doing so they are “throwing away” or otherwise “wasting” ideas that could (and, in their mind, should) be saved for bigger projects.
If this is your mindset, please consider this: Isn’t it better to have your idea brought to life as a short story than not at all?
Besides, who’s to say that you can’t then one-day go back and flesh-out the full version of the short story should it piqué the interest on an online reading audience or a major publisher?
In conclusion, it all boils down to this:
WHY YOU SHOULD CONSIDER STARTING YOUR WRITING CAREER FOCUSING ON SHORT STORIES
1) Artists are much more likely to consider working with you on a short story than some proposed mega-story.
2) Publishers, talent scouts and editors will look much more favorably on you presenting them with a complete short story that demonstrates your skills as a writer than they will a proposal for some big mega-story that you claim you have the skills to write. (NOTE: Make sure that you do NOT pitch to a publisher using a short story about one of their corporately-owned characters (such as Spider-Man, Batman, etc) as they will more likely than not refuse to accept it – or even look at it – in order to avoid a potential complaint/lawsuit from you should they later happen to publish a similar story.
3) Practice makes perfect, folks. If you want to improve your ability to write well, you need to write often, and writing good comic scripts requires a completely different skill set than any other type of writing. By writing a variety of short stories you’ll be giving yourself the ability to “play” with new styles, new characters and new story telling techniques among other things… and all of this will pay dividends in the long run, especially when try to start showing your work to editors and publishers.
Oh… and this may sound like odd advice coming from a guy who’s mainly known for writing short horror stories/comics (even though my non-horror comic property FARSEEKER with Len O’Grady was recently picked-up by ACT-I-VATE and has been getting rave reviews)… but all short stories don’t have to be horror stories with “surprise” twist endings. Seriously.
In fact, any stories you write – be them short or long –should be stories that resonate of YOU… something I’ll be talking about a lot more in the next column.
Next Week(!!!): Be Yourself
The Week After That: Wagon Hitchin’
WRITER’S NOTE: Hey all! I just wanted to add that my second graphic novel from Image Comics/Shadowline, NIGHTMARE WORLD Volume Two: “Leave the Light On” is in this month’s edition of PREVIEWS and available for pre-order with Order Code AUG10 0455. These days us “smaller” creators live or die based on pre-orders, so if you feel that “Write or Wrong” has helped you out over the years I be obliged if you’d consider pre-ordering a copy via your local comic shop or Amazon.com. After all, as you’ll soon learn for yourself, every single sale helps! Thanks, everyone!
Dirk Manning is the writer/creator of NIGHTMARE WORLD a web-to-print comic now being loudly and proudly published by Image Comics/Shadowline and FARSEEKER, a fantasy-esque series with Len O’Grady updated every Friday at ACT-I-VATE. He is also a longtime contributing writer for Newsarama and a staunch advocate for comic creators everywhere. He lives on the Internet and can usually be found lurking around Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and SoulGeek in that order.
Want to read Write or Wrong from the beginning? Here ya’ go!