SDCC '08 - So You Want to do a Graphic Novel?

SDCC - Disney & Monster Attack Network

Recognizing that many of the attendees of Comic-Con International: San Diego are there because they want to learn how to break into comics, AiT/Planet Lar set up a panel to help them do just that. A packed room of enthusiastic hopefuls spent an hour last Thursday asking questions and learning the ins and outs of the business from publisher Larry Young and a team of graphic novel creators.

The panel included Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman (Monster Attack Network, Genius, The Highwaymen), Steven Grant (Badlands, Whisper, Two Guns), Adam Beechen (Hench, The Dugout), Kirsten Baldock (Smoke and Guns), Matt Silady (The Homeless Channel) and Daniel Merlin Goodbrey (The Last Sane Cowboy & Other Stories, Necessary Monsters).

While the focus of the panel was on creating comics, at least two bits of news slipped out – as reported previously by Newsarama, Bernardin and Freeman’s Monster Attack Network has been optioned by Disney. And Young said Grant is currently working on an as-yet-unannounced Vertigo graphic novel.

The first question was on how to structure a graphic novel. The panel jokingly passed the microphone to Goodbrey, who Silady said was “our experimental comic creator.”

Goodbrey said he heard writer Garth Ennis would write down everything he wanted to happen in one big long list, then move stuff around until he had a story. “I found that’s a really good way to work within a structure,” he said.

Another approach, Baldock said, is to think about the structure of a play. “When you need to change the set, basically that’s the next scene,” she said. “So you think about the scene, and each of the things that are going to happen within that scene.” She said she’ll make an outline of the major elements of the scene, then break down each scene into panels.

Grant said he thinks structure is overrated. “I think too many people obsess over it.” He attributes that obsession to Hollywood. “George Lucas made everybody nutty about structure and sort of restricted stories as a result.”

He said writers should let the story determine the structure. For instance, he recently turned in the first 12 pages of his Vertigo graphic novel, and he said it jumps all over the place.

“I did it because that’s the main character’s mindset, and hopefully the reader will come out feeling the same way, which is extremely disoriented,” Grant said. “You have to let your story determine what your structure is, because if you go in with a pre-determined structure, yeah, you might be able to sell it to Hollywood, but it’s probably going to end up fairly boring.”

Freeman said he and Bernardin attended film school, and while structure can be overrated, “it works. In order to break the rules, you have to know the rules,” he said. He pointed out that certain patterns have emerged in stories over time, from mythology to TV today. “Some things work,” he said.

One audience member said they were a writer who couldn’t draw and asked for the panel’s thoughts on finding an artist.

“That was the trick for me, even just starting the company,” Young said. “If you describe something that you can’t drawn, you have to at least be able to visualize it to make sure your artist can draw it.”

In regards to finding an artist, Young said, “You’re in a place with 130,000 people, probably half of which are artists. So honestly, I’d just start talking to people.”

Young asked him if he had a script ready to go, and he replied that he had a screenplay. Young said he talks to a lot of people who give him a screenplay they want to turn into a graphic novel. “It’s really challenging to have that same conversation with people all the time, because screenplays aren’t comic books,” Young said. “So maybe the first place to start would be to turn your screenplay into a graphic novel script, and then find an artist.”

Baldock then suggested checking websites like Digital Webbing or deviantART.com, both of which allow writers to make connections with artists. Beechen added that he knew some writers who found artists on CraigsList and suggested looking at art schools.

Silady’s advice was to go ahead and draw the book.

“I don’t care how bad you think you’re drawing,” Silady said. “If you go out there and you look at graphic novels today, the variety of styles of art is breathtaking. That diversity is what’s making comics so special right now. I want to see other art styles, and I want to see what you come up with.”

He added that he had trouble finding an artist for The Homeless Channel, so he ended up drawing it himself. He started by tracing photographs he took.

“It was pretty rough going at first, but after awhile, there was a night where one of the photos was a little blurry and I … well, the nose,” he said, sighing. “I had to draw the nose. And after I drew it, I remember running into the other room and announcing to my fiancé, ‘I drew a nose!’ and she looked at me and said ‘Awesome.’ But the thing was, that was just like this little miracle moment for me.”

Someone else asked what they should put into the first two pages of a script to grab the audience.

Young said, “I like explosions and space suits.”

Grant said it depends on your story, but recommended giving the audience a question they want to see answered. “That’s what’s called the hook. And if you don’t give them a hook, they’re not coming back,” he said.

Bernardin said his book was called Monster Attack Network. “So on the first few pages we showed a monster attacking a network,” he said “Truth in advertising for us kind of worked out pretty well.”

Freeman said it’s crucial to grab someone in those first pages. “The best thing to do is think of a really amazing scene that’s going to grab people, and then start page one as late into that scene as you possibly can, and still have it make sense,” he said.

Silady suggested starting things “right in the thick of it,” and trust that the reader will work out what’s happening. He said the impulse to figure out what’s going on will motivate the reader to keep reading.

The next question was about how to pitch a graphic novel.

“Let’s assume you all have a great idea for a story, and you all have artists,” Young told the audience. “I can probably tell you within the first two minutes of talking to you if your idea fits our company or not.”

He suggested that they know their story well and try to condense it down to a minute and a half pitch. He said a lot of people make the mistake of trying to give too much back story before getting into the story itself.

Baldock said it’s easy to get caught up in the really small details of the story. “Sometimes it’s really hard as a writer to see the overarching part of your story because you’re so bogged down in the details,” she said. “I think it helps to have someone else read your story and tell you what they think it’s about.”

Beechen said it’s also helpful to know who you’re pitching to.

“Look at the materials of the company you know you’re going to be talking to, decide if your property is right for them, and tailor your pitch accordingly,” he said.

Grant added that it’s important to know how to pitch something.

“If you’re going to pitch something to DC, you should generally be able to sum the whole thing up in one page with a clear story. Tell them how you’re going to end it,” Grant said. “Unless you’re Frank Miller, if you send in something that’s ‘Well, here’s a cool idea, and I’ve got 15 pages for you to read on it,’ you’ll get a nice form letter back.”

Silady said he never worried about the pitch or a publisher when he started; he made mini-comics and published them himself at his local copy shop. “My mom got me a long-arm stapler for Christmas, and she said, ‘This is the worst gift I’ve ever given anyone.’ And I said, ‘No, this is the best gift you’ve ever given anyone, because it means you get it,’” he said.

Silady took his mini-comics to a small convention and sold them himself. He said before he knew it, he had half a graphic novel done in the form of mini-comics, and took that to a publisher as his pitch.

Goodbrey also started out by doing mini-comics, each of which was a single story set in a shared universe. Eventually they were collected into The Last Sane Cowboy and Other Stories. He added that it’s important to do more pages than you normally would your first time out, because publishers want to know you can produce a 100-page book. After getting published once, it’s much easier, he said, to convince them to do a second book.

“It’s the hardest thing in the world as a writer to break into comics,” Bernardin said. “Because there’s no one way to do it. I’ve heard the analogy that breaking into comics is like breaking out of prison. The minute someone makes it in, they seal up the door behind them.”

He said it’s easier for artists to break in, because they can draw five pages and show the editor they can tell a story. “Nobody has the time to read your five pages of script and make that kind of judgment,” Bernardin said.

Freeman added that it’s important to find that one “solid good person” to pitch to. “It’s really someone taking a leap of faith like Larry did on us,” he said, adding that many editors are “programmed to say no, because 99 percent of what they get is crap, so it’s almost like you’re starting from a negative place.”

In regards to how long a script should be, Silady suggested visiting the website Scryptic Studios for samples of script. “The difference in size of scripts from one author to the next can be astounding,” he said.

Bernardin said he and Freeman spent about two weeks just figuring out the logistics, like how many words go in a balloon and how many balloons can go into a panel. “It’s elastic depending on who’s writing it, it’s elastic depending on the kind of story you’re telling, and it’s elastic depending on your writing style,” Bernardin said.

Grant said a general rule of thumb is six panels to a page, 30 words to a panel. Grant said he avoids plotting if he can, because he “hates writing the same story more than once.” He only does that if the editor asks for it.

In regards to pacing, Baldock said that when she wrote Smoke and Guns, she wanted it to be a very action heavy book. Then when she actually read the book, it only took 10 minutes. “I think I learned a lot from reading my own book,” she said. “You’ll probably have this experience, too. Once you see it drawn, you’ll see how you wrote those panels really affects how fast people read and the experience of time within your story.”

Another audience member asked about the difference in format between printed comics and web comics. “Well, personally, for me, I think web comics are just comics,” Young said. “It’s just words and pictures, juxtaposed. The delivery system isn’t that big of a deal to me.”

Goodbrey said before the web, independent creators could either just work on a graphic novel or try to serialize it as a comic book first.

“What I think the web does is replace that series pamphlet, so you can serialize your graphic novel on the web for very little money,” he said. “Since you’re producing the artwork anyway, it means you can have artwork and story in front of people sooner and quicker, so you can be growing an audience for a book all the time you’re creating it, rather than spending a whole year creating a book and no one knows about it until you’re finished.”

He added that more and more publishers are going that route; he’s currently doing it with Necessary Monsters (http://www.necessarymonsters.com/). Someone asked if publishing it on the web first would hurt sales.

Baldock, who also works at Isotope Comics in San Francisco, said that web comics and printed comics don’t necessarily have the same audience. She pointed to the Perry Bible Fellowship, which is available for free on the web but “sold like gangbusters.”

A young creator asked if any of the panelists had confidence issues when making their comics and how they overcame them.

“For me personally, I’m awesome,” Young said. “That’s what I think. Just doing comics is like a dream. Nobody’s telling me don’t have that dream. So in the absence of people telling me not to do comics, I did my comic.”

Baldock added that even if her only audience was herself, “it would still be awesome to me that I did it. Do it for yourself, and if other people love it, too, that’s all the better.”

Silady said he struggled with “incredible confidence issues.” During grad school, he was drawing a panel a day, and he was worried how it would all turn out.

“It’s completely normal to have these issues,” he said. “Set the most basic, baby-step goals, and eventually whether you like it or not, you’re gonna have a book done.”

Grant said the best piece of advice he could give was, “If you don’t care, you can do anything. And that’s actually the truest thing I can tell you.”

He added, “If you’re in this business to be right, you’re in the wrong business. If you turn out great material, people will just be jealous of you, and if you turn out crap, they’ll think it’s crap. So you might as well just do what you want to do, and assume no one is going to like you and not care about you. And that takes care of confidence issues, because if you don’t care what anyone else thinks about your work, it’s not an issue.”

Beechen said every book is someone’s favorite. “It may just be you. But every book is someone’s favorite. You may never meet them, but trust me, every book is someone’s favorite.”

When asked to name the book that inspired them, Young mentioned American Flagg. Baldock mentioned Enigma by Peter Milligan, but said the book that made her want to write her own graphic novel was The Interman by Jeff Parker. Goodbrey mentioned Grant Morrison and Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, Bernardin mentioned Lone Wolf and Cub, and Grant mentioned His Name is Savage by Gil Kane. Freeman said the X-Men graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, while Beechen said Legion of Super-Heroes by Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen, as well as Cerebus.

“I love so, so many books,” Silady said. “But y’know, when we were first standing outside and saw the line going out the door here … I’m so excited by the possibilities in the room right now. I’ve got a feeling, but honestly – this is going to sound so cheesy – but there’s a good chance it’s gonna be made by someone in here in the next couple of years.”

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