Before I get into the meat of this column’s topic, I’d just like to point out that NIGHTMARE WORLD Volume Two: “Leave the Light On” from Image Comics/Shadowline is currently available for pre-order from your local comic shop (with PREVIEWS/Diamond Order Code AUG10 0455), Amazon.com (who’s offering the book at a pre-order price of 33% off) and my friends at Discount Comic Book Service (who are offering the book for only $8.24 – that’s a whopping 45% off cover price for a 128 page full color graphic novel – with an exclusive *signed* book plate to boot). If this column has helped you over the years, pre-ordering a copy of the book would be a very appreciated way of saying “Thank you.”
If you’re on the fence, think of it this way: If you order the book through Discount Comic Book Service you’re getting six times the amount of full color comic book goodness in TPB form for only twice the price of your standard single comic.
Food for thought, eh?
That being said… let’s talk about making comics.
I can say with little reservation that the goals of most writers who want to create their own comics go a little something like this:
1) Find a great and dependable artist.
2) Get picked-up by a major publisher.
3) Attain critical and commercial success among readers and other working professionals alike.
4) Have a Hollywood blockbuster film made based-on above-referenced comic.
Well, my friends… I’m here to tell you that this approach – from top to bottom – is wrong and will not help you in you be a successful comic book creator.
Go ahead and get mad at me for a moment if you need to… but I encourage you to then come back and hear out what I have to say once you’ve calmed down a bit.
Good. Allow me to explain this all in a little more detail…
What NOT to Do #1: Find a Great Artist for Your Script
First off, your number one goal as a writer should not be to find a great artist.
I know this may initially sound like heresy and completely counterproductive… but allow me to explain.
First off, you need to understand that – contrary to what some futile online searches may lead you to believe – there are indeed a lot of good comic artists out there.
There are a lot of talented artists out there… but before you go rushing off script in hand (which I suspect a good portion of the aspiring writers reading just did), allow me to tell you right now that desperately throwing yourself at artists is not the way to approach them, let alone woo them into considering working with you.
Great comic artists are like the most beautiful women in the clubs: They know they’re hot, you know they’re hot, and they know that you know it. To make matters worse (for you), they constantly have aspiring writers throwing themselves at them 24/7. Considering this, you doing the same will not help endear them to you at all… even if your have the “BEST SCRIPT EVER JUST WAITING FOR THE RIGHT ARTIST JUST LIKE YOU TO BRING IT TO LIFE.”
Quite frankly, they’ve heard it all before and are most likely going to ignore you if you send them a blind e-mail asking them to work with you.
Instead, as creepy as it may sound, you need to “court” prospective artists just like you would anybody you’re interested in forming a relationship with… because make no mistake, creating a comic with someone – even if it’s just a short story – is indeed a relationship.
If you really like the work of a certain artist, post comments on the work they post online to let them know it. Get to know them and their work and determine if they’d even be likely to consider working with you. After all, some artists just like to draw pin-ups (rather than sequential work) and some artists want to write and draw their own stuff… making you useless to them.
After all, everyone has a story they want to tell and a lot of people – especially comic fans who can already draw well – may not feel that not they’ll need a writer to help them bring their own stories to life.
Considering all of this, rather than first trying to find a great artist so you can make it big, try this:
HOW TO SUCCEED #1: Hone Your Craft.
Study the comics and prose novels you like (but NOT movies – they use a whole different set of tools than both prose and comic books) and ask yourself: Why do you like these particular works? What is it about them that speaks to you? What, if any, special techniques your favorite authors bring to their work that makes them unique?
Study your favorite literary works (both comic-based and otherwise) and then ask yourself how you can use some of the advanced story-telling techniques used therein to help you develop and tell your own stories.
Mind you, I’m not condoning or encouraging copying other writers’ style… but rather encouraging you to discover what you like about the work you like so you can use this newly discovered self-actualized knowledge to help you create stories that will best reflect the unique stories that you want to tell.
For example: What is it you like about Robert Kirkman? His ear for dialogue, perhaps? What about Mike Mignola? Maybe his pacing? Is it Alan Moore’s ability to use juxtaposition of text and images so effectively that dazzles you? Do you like Savage Dragon because of the seeming reckless abandon that Erik Larsen brings to every story?
Find those things that you like most about established creators and storytellers and study how these creators tell their stories so you can then consider applying what you like about your idols to your own work. Again, don’t copy their style, though. Rather, like I said in a much earlier column in this series: Seek not to imitate the masters. Seek what the masters sought.
By honing your craft to the point where you can write a strong, compelling, and well-polished short story script that’s unique and says something (rather than just being about two guys in spandex punching each other) you’re much more likely to gain the consideration of talented artists.
Yes, it’s still an uphill battle… but at least now you’re a well-dressed, well-spoken and attractive guy trying to hit on the most beautiful girls in the bar rather than an overly-aggressive and desperate scrub doing the same.
Hone your craft to the point where you can write short stories that combine substance and style in a way that will be fun for the artists you want to work with to draw.
What NOT to Do #2: Try to Immediately Get Picked-Up By a Major Publisher
It’s the dream of everyone doing creator owned work to get their book picked-up by Image or Dark Horse, as they’re the two biggest players in the game in regards to creator-owned work… and as a result, everyone pitches their stuff there first… especially to Image.
The truth of the matter, though, is that very, very few of the properties pitched to the major publishers get picked-up. A lot of it has to do with a lack of quality, sure, but additionally, there are only so many books that any given publisher can comfortably produce at any one time – and given this, only the best of the best books (as determined not by your peers, but rather by the editors at these publishers) get the nod of approval.
That’s the way the business works, folks.
What continues to frustrate me is how so many aspiring creators keep trying to “jump to the front of the line” by having their first published work appear at a major publisher. Yes, it’s a nice dream, and hey, pitch away – but do so knowing that Image and Dark Horse are most likely going to pass on your proposal.
If you truly believe in your property, though, don’t give up on it quite yet…
HOW TO SUCCEED #2: Start Small When You Move into Publishing
If you really believe in your comic and your team – consider pitching to some smaller publishers that will let you maintain 100% ownership of your work or – better yet – use a D.I.Y. (“Do It Yourself”) approach in which you publish online and then in print via a Print-On-Demand publisher such as Ka-Blam! or Comixpress.
Is self-publishing glamorous? Absolutely-freaking-not… but what it lacks in glamour it makes up for in practical application and hands-on learning experiences.
Among other things, self-publishing will teach you the ropes in regards to creating and promoting your own comics – something you’ll have to learn to do even if/when you eventually make it to a larger publisher such as Image or Dark Horse.
Remember: The only fan-base your self-created comic will have is the one you help build, and that means not only putting a finished product out there for the masses to read (or reject), but also learning how to aggressively promote it without annoying and alienating the same people you want to support it. It’s a fine line to walk… and one that is learned only by doing it.
There is no substitute for experience, and you will learn the ins-and-outs of being a bonafide comic creator who actually writes, publishes and promotes a comic from top to bottom – even if it’s “only” an online one – and this will pay major dividends in the long run.
Many of the top-tier creators in comics today started in the trenches of self-publishing and small press work, folks, and that’s not a coincidence.
What NOT to Do #3: Try to Attain Critical and/or Commercial Success Among Readers and Other Working Professionals Alike.
First and foremost, I’d like to point out that for this to happen you’ll have to actually, you know, have a fully-realized comic story to show people.
Most professional writers and editors will not look at – let alone read – your script samples for a host of legal reasons... but they might just read your comic if you give it to them.
Heck, maybe they’ll even e-mail you their thoughts if you include contact information with it.
The idea of getting critical praise for your script writing skills or your pile of unfinished and incomplete five-page pitches, though, is ridiculous… so if you really think that you’re going to “break in” by pitching script samples to editors and other working professionals… with all due respect… get real.
If it was that easy we’d all be doing it.
HOW TO SUCCEED #3: Create Short and Complete Comic Stories You Can Publish Online and/or In Print
I talked about this at length a few columns ago, but here’s the short version: Your potential audience of readers and professionals alike are more likely to read and/or invest-in a short story – or even a series of short stories – by an unknown author/creator such as yourself rather than a full-length and/or unfinished magnum opus.
Write some fantastic short stories that deal with theme more than plot, get them illustrated, and then show them off online and in print.
That’s how you’ll get noticed… and perhaps, in time, even accolades.
You will not win anyone over by being a “Pitch Machine” who continues to unsuccessfully pitch idea after to potential publishers and editors.
Think of it this way: Remember some of those great short stories you read back in Junior High or High School? Imagine if you could then go Google that author and find a website with a bunch of other short stories s/he wrote already published – or being published – online and ready to be read in one or two easy clicks.
That’s the world we now live in, my friends, and that’s the author you want to be when you’re getting started.
Don’t be the guy who always pitches potential story ideas to every publisher under the sun. Rather, be the guy who writes and publishes complete compelling short stories while also pitching to publishers at the same time.
After all, there are plenty of great comics out there that started-off in the realm of self-publishing because no publishers would pick them up… at first.
What NOT to Do #4: Try to Write a Comic That Could Make a Great Hollywood Blockbuster
As I alluded to earlier, good comics and good movies use two completely different sets of tools... and trying to write a good comic that could also serve as a good movie is, more often than not, like trying to build a deck for your pool using a spoon and fork.
Besides, your day of getting noticed by Hollywood is most likely years away, at least… and that’s only if you actually make enough a successful enough comic – or enough successful comics – to gain movie studio executives’ attention.
HOW TO SUCCEED #4: Forget About Hollywood
A man cannot serve two masters. If you want to write a Hollywood blockbuster, do that… and hey, good luck to you. If you want to create good comics, focus on that and forget about Hollywood for now.
After all, even if you do create a comic that one day gets optioned by Hollywood you’ll most-likely just end-up selling the rights for someone to make a comic based on the concept and characters in it, anyway… so just focus on making a good comic and leave the dreams of wagon-hitching your way to success behind.
Ahhh yes… “wagon hitching.” That’s exactly what all of the above-mentioned bad practices boil down to.
As an aspiring creator, you don’t want to be one of those people who tries to get successful by hitching your wagon onto someone else who is likely to succeed.
Why? Because – along with the inherent sliminess of it – it just doesn’t work.
For example, let’s say that you do end-up working with an uber-talented artist – an artist who’s a better artist then you are a writer – and that his or her work brings your combined product a lot of success.
Guess what will happen next? An editor at a big publisher – or perhaps even just a higher-paying writer – is going to come along and offer “your” artist higher-paying (or otherwise more beneficial/rewarding) work.
The best case scenario for you – as a wagon-hitching writer – is that “your” artist will finish a limited obligation to you before moving on to the now-offered greener pastures. After all, your artistic collaborator is trying to make it big in this business too, and if a higher profile job comes along that will help him or her to do just that, why wouldn’t s/he jump at it?
Given this, you need to make sure that you bring your “A-Game” to each and every script or short story you write, because, hey, at the end of the day everyone is looking out for themselves in this business. After all, we all have our own bills to pay and mouths to feed, you know?
That’s not to say that there’s no loyalty in comics, mind you, because there is… but as is the case everywhere in the world, loyalty is something that has to be both earned and maintained.
I’ve worked with over two dozen different artists over the years on NIGHTMARE WORLD and I’m lucky to still call most of them my friends. However, as a friend I’ve also had to tell many of these very same artists – my friends with whom I was actively working with creating NIGHTMARE WORLD – “Dude, if [Publisher X or Creator Y] is offering you that much money, take THAT job instead of mine.”
As a friend I’ve always been happy to see my artistic cohorts such as Josh Ross, Len O’Grady, Erich Owen, Ray Dillon, Renae De Liz, Jeff Welborn, Mark Winters, Jason Meek, Austin McKinley, Kristen Perry, Seth Damoose and others land big gigs… even if it meant that we couldn’t do another story together for a time… or sometimes even ever again.
The bittersweet reality of being lucky enough to work with very talented people – something I’ve been able to do time and time again – is that other people will notice their talent too… and this means that any working relationship you have with them – especially on a work-for-hire basis – could be finite or otherwise short lived if you’re not a more appealing writer to work with (or continue concurrently working with).
This is why, as a writer, you can’t try to get successful by somehow “wagon hitching” with extremely talented artists, because this is a practice I see a lot of writers trying to do whether they realize it or not.
Yes, of course you’re going to be a fan of your own work… but are you doing the absolute best you can on every single script you write? Are you pushing yourself as a creator to top the last script you wrote every time you sit down at the keyboard?
These are not only the questions you need to ask yourself and truthfully answer… but also the principles you need to adhere to in order to make yourself the best writer you can be.
After all, with a lot of effort and a little luck creating a good comic or two is very possible (as the legions of webcomics and P.O.D. comics out there are a testament to)…
But having a long and successful career as a comic book creator is something that can only be done if you, as a writer, have dedication and work ethic necessary to become a top-tier talent rather than being a mediocre writer who manages to work with top-tier artists…
After all, in the end talent will be recognized… and the last thing you want to be seen as is the weakest link of a comic-creating team, a mediocre hanger-on amongst a group of potential superstars.
Push yourself not to work with the best, but to be the best.
Next Time: Branding
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 artists 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.
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