Let’s play a quick word-association game, shall we?
Make a mental note (at least) of what you think of when you hear the following names…
All ten of those are the names of comic book writers, of course… and arguably ten of the most currently successful ones currently working in the business, at that.
They’re also all writers who have made their names genuine “name brands” in this business… which is something any aspiring comic book writer should look to start doing from the start.
Of course there’s no substitute for simply getting out there and creating such an impressive body of work that your name becomes synonymous with greatness (or at least great comics)… and if you possess the right combination of skill and reader appeal that’s exactly what will happen over time.
However, especially in the day and age of the Internet and social networking, making a “name” for your “name” is something that can and should be happening even before your first comic is released online and/or in-print.
After all, people are a lot more likely to read a comic created by someone they’ve heard of and/or heard about rather than someone they haven’t, right?
Considering this, you need to ask yourself: What does your name stand for… if anything?
Or, conversely, what does your work say about your name and your name-brand?
Working backwards with these two questions, let’s use Garth Ennis as an example of the latter.
Garth Ennis is a writer who has practically no “web-presence.” He doesn’t have his own website and is never seen posting at any message boards. However, despite this fact he has a very distinctive “image” among comic readers due to the body of work he’s created.
I mean, hey, with all due respect to Mr. Ennis (who’s easily one of my personal favorite comic book writer – and someone whose nack for dialogue is oftentimes sorely overlooked) you can play “Garth Ennis Bingo” with practically anything he’s written.
If you want to play “Garth Ennis Bingo,” pick up any collection of his work and look for:
1) A physically deformed/malformed villain
2) A mentally retarded henchman (and yes, that’s the proper terminology)
3) A war veteran
4) Someone with a weird sexual fetish
5) A parody of a superhero
6) A relationship that hits rock bottom only to bounce back at the end
7) An overriding theme about the importance friendship and/or loyalty
As much as I love Garth’s work, I fully embrace it knowing that when I pick-up a book by him it’s most likely going to have at least five of those seven items in it… hence making a perfect “BINGO!”
I’ve heard some detractors of Ennis’s work call him a one-trick pony because of this, but, hey, even if that’s the case I’d argue that he’s made the trick (or, in this case, series of tricks) his own by doing all seven of them better than anyone else in the business.
Of course, I’m not just trying to pick on Ennis here, as I’d argue that you can boil what any of the ten writers I listed at the beginning of this column down to one particular “trick” or pronounced writing trait:
Alan Moore: Takes pre-existing concepts and puts masterful new spins on ’em.
Warren Ellis: Hard-boiled sci-fi – usually with a tough female lead who smokes cigarettes.
Mark Millar: Overly-self-hyped nihilist deconstructionalism.
Brian Bendis: Tons of dialogue.
Stan Lee: The ultimate old-school hype-man.
Grant Morrison (Earth One): Giant and cerebral high concepts oftentimes hindered by subpar execution.
Grant Morrison (Earth Two): Old-school superhero comics with an invigorating new-school flair.
And on… and on… and on.
Heck, you can even do it with popular prose authors, too. (I bet any of you out there who are or were avid Stephen King readers could make a “Stephen King Bingo” game without too much effort…)
Now… is it fair to boil these extremely talented creators – all of whom are already more successful than any of us reading (or writing) this have any right to hope to be?
No, it’s not.
But we all do it whether we consciously realize it or not.
As comic book readers, most of us will pick-up a comic book (or graphic novel) off the shelf based on one of two factors:
1) We think the art looks good
2) We like (or have heard good things about) the title or writer
Obviously as a writer (or even prospective writer) each and every one of us is going to do all we can to work with the best artists possible, but as I mentioned in an earlier column, you can’t make a career for yourself just by hooking-up with great artists.
(God help me… I’m already counting the seconds until someone in the “Talkback” section makes a cheap joke about of Jeph Loeb.)
As a writer you need to give your prospective readers something they can use to “connect” your name to your work.
Are you the guy who writes great female lead characters? Are you the guy who puts a great new spins on classic characters? Are you the guy who writes amazing wide-screen action comics?
You need to create an image for yourself – and your work – without becoming a parody of yourself.
Yes, yes… this is advice coming from a guy who’s best known for writing horror comics and wearing a black scarf and top hat.
Heck, since we’re on the topic, let’s talk about that little picture of me that’s associated with everything I write, shall we?
First and foremost – at the risk of busting some bubbles here – no, I don’t “dress up” like my profile picture all the time –even at conventions. I did it a few times early on (once at a publisher’s request and once for a Halloween signing)… but all it did was make me very sweaty and muffle my ability to talk to people… causing me to come to the realization that it just wasn’t worth the hassle.
However, that image of me with the scarf and the top hat has taken on a life of its own over the years – to the point where the most common comment I heard from people at conventions involves my lack of top hat (at least) and scarf when they meet me in person.
(I do own the top hat and have busted it out – along with the glasses – for photo ops on occasion… but it’s not the norm, as the hat box is large and cumbersome to tote around.)
Given the dilemma of people familiar with my work connecting me to a certain image, this past year I finally “acquiesced” and spent a some money on both a seven-foot tall “Dirk Manning Display” and a vinyl table runner that both feature my name and my profile picture on them.
(After shopping and talking to several other professionals who also use such stand-up banners and table runners at conventions, I went with Ballyhoo Banners and was extremely pleased with my dealings with them and the end results. If/When you get to the point that you need such materials, I’d highly recommend checking them out – and feel free to tell ’em Dirk Manning sent ya’!)
While purchasing these materials did require a certain amount of financial investment on my part, I did find that the materials paid for themselves during my most recent stint of conventions and signings this past October during a book store signing and then Mid-Ohio Con and Detroit Fanfare..
Because of the large stand-up banner and table-runner both displaying my picture (wearing the hat, glasses and scarf) I had dozens upon dozens of people, upon seeing the picture, approach my table saying “Oh! You’re Dirk Manning!”… something they may not have done had I not had the giant “Dirk Manning” picture displayed so prominently behind me.
(In fact, at Mid-Ohio Con renowned comic book artist Tony Moore approached my table and started talking to me because he recognized the giant “Dirk Manning” picture of me as the same one I used back at the old Warren Ellis Boards when we used to talk there back in the day.)
Neat how that works, huh?
It’s all about branding, folks.
As a writer you need to do all you can to make a name for yourself – and then make your name stand for something – to as many people as possible.
As much as we’d all like to think otherwise, the likelihood of anyone reading your work just because you’ve posted a link to it in your signature at a Message Board is nil (I mean, honestly, how many comics have YOU checked out a stranger’s comic just because he/she had a link to it in their signature?)… but the more you – and your online name/avatar – becomes familiar to people, the more likely it is that they will look you up on something like Facebook, start conversing with you or maybe even check out your work.
(By the way, if any of you want to “connect” with me on Facebook that’s cool with me – but please include a note so I know you’re a real person and not a “Friend Collector” or something, OK?)
So… name recognition and association. Considering how important it is, there are some things you should keep in mind as you set forth in creating your own “name brand” for yourself as an aspiring/up-and-coming writer:
1) Use the same screen-name (and, if applicable, picture/avatar/logo) across all social media platforms and message boards that you’d like publically associated with your work. In this regard, I can’t stress enough how important it is to use… nay, MARRY a name that you want associated with you, your work and your online presence FOREVER. Considering this, I’d really recommend thinking twice before identifying yourself online as “MetalliFan69” and making your avatar a GIF of fat kid playing the drums on his belly… especially if you want other readers, editors and other professionals to take you seriously from the get-go.
2) This should go without saying, but don’t brand yourself as a constantly negative/snarky person on Message Boards and online. Think of it this way: No one liked that kid in high school… so why would anyone suddenly like him now that we’re adults?
3) Similarly, don’t air your dirty laundry in public. Ever. Even if it involves someone screwing you over in regards to your comic work. There are ways to handle these things – dare I say even publically – without drama and grandstanding. Learn them.
4) Don’t be a “spammer” who only goes online to promote your own work. If that’s all you’re using Message Boards – or even your Facebook page – for, people will quickly stop paying attention to you.
5) Conversely, don’t be the writer (or “writer”) who’s always talking about projects that never seem to materialize. Again, people will quickly quit paying attention to what you have to say.
6) Don’t be the writer who uses the glory of the Internet to ask other established writers to read your unpublished work. Most won’t do it (for obvious reasons) and start avoiding you if you continue to do so.
Believe me, I know just as well as anyone how hard it is to build a “name” for yourself in this industry… but as hard as it is, it’s crucial to remember that there are no shortcuts to just consistently making good comics and non-obtrusively but consistently letting people know they’re out there.
When you commit yourself to doing that, though – even though it means great sacrifices of your time and finances, you’ll increase your chances of success.
Again, if I’ve said it once I’ve said it a hundred times: There are no guarantees to success… but there are certainly things you can do to help increase your chances of attaining it, and creating a good “brand name” for yourself (literally) is one way to do that.
Remember: Garth Ennis didn’t start off as GARTH ENNIS, did he?
Next Time: Con etiquette and looking the part at shows… or the importance of personal wellness on writing. I guess it really depends how I feel when I sit down to write it. Get it?
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 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 Facebook and Twitter on a fairly regular basis… when he’s not busy creating comics, of course.
Want to read Write or Wrong from the beginning? Here ya’ go!