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Archive for February, 2005
Mike Carey’s Last Writes
AS A COMIC BOOK WRITER, MIKE CAREY has been one of the few talents to explore the fan-favorite character John Constantine. Following such notable scribes as Garth Ennis, Jamie Delano and Brian Azarello, Carey is currently leaving an indelible mark as writer on the character’s monthly title Hellblazer — a book which should see a boost in readership in response to this month’s Constantine movie. But Carey will be the first to admit that he’s made just about every mistake in the book on his way to eventual success. Comic Foundry recently caught up with Carey, and the now-veteran author shares his best — and his worst — from a storied comic book career.
What were some of your early successes in getting your comic strips on the market? What made them successful? What markets worked well for you in the United Kingdom? Conversely, can you describe a few mistakes you made?
I can certainly talk an awful lot about things I did wrong. But there’s a sense in which doing something is always better than doing nothing. I hemmed and hawed and hesitated for literally years before I ever got around to throwing a pitch at a publisher, and all of that time was dead time.
Writing is one of these things where you get better at it by doing it, like sex, say, and especially by doing it publicly — OK, not that much like sex, after all. I mean, the actual process of writing is one that you get more skilled in as you get stuck in and hammer away at it, but feedback is also really useful, and you’re not going to get any feedback if you hide everything you write in your sock drawer.
To begin with, everything that I did seemed like a miserable failure and a complete waste of time. I pitched some story ideas to a UK publisher, Trident, and got them accepted, but then Trident went bankrupt without paying me a penny or printing a single page of my stuff. I felt really despressed about it at the time, but through that short maiden voyage I met Ken Meyer Jr., who introduced me first to Lurene Haines and then to the Pruett brothers. Lurene got me work with Malibu, and the Pruetts got me onto the roster at Caliber.
That was the pattern for me, over about five or six years. I’d seem to get a break, it would fall apart, but it would turn out to be a sort of stepping stone to something else. I did a whole lot of work for Caliber – a mini-series called Inferno, a short for Negative Burn, a graphic novella, and so on. The pay was appalling, but that really wasn’t the point; they had good production values and they got stuff out there, which is all you can ask for when you’re starting out. You need a calling card; getting paid, when it happens, is just icing on the cake.
Anyway, throughout that time I was pitching stuff to every publisher in the book: DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, various U.S. independents and short-lived U.K. wannabes, the whole works. This is where I could have done myself some favors by sitting down and working out a game plan, instead of just going at it in a scattershot, haphazard sort of way. I didn’t do the basic research. I’d send stuff in without an editor’s name attached — like, addressed just to Dark Horse, or whatever. Or I’d choose an editor because I knew the name but didn’t bother to check out what sort of material that editor was already associated with. I mean, I sent superhero pitches in to Karen Berger — after she’d been made group editor for Vertigo! I didn’t read submission guidelines, I didn’t bother to think about formatting a pitch properly … If there was something I could screw up, I found the way.
But I was writing and getting published, and that was my saving grace. I sent copies of all my Caliber stuff in to Vertigo editor Alisa Kwitney because she edited a lot of books that I really enjoyed and respected. And one day she called me and invited me to pitch. Everything grew out of that, although it still didn’t happen overnight and there was nothing inevitable about it.
I think I’d sum up my experience like this. In the end, it was just dumb luck that got me where I wanted to be, but I slogged for years to learn the skills that allowed me to use the luck when I got it. Nothing was wasted, in the end. It all helped, even when it seemed like I was getting nowhere.
Your starting point has got to be one of respect for what’s been done before and for the definition of the character that’s already been laid down.
You’ve worked with established comic book characters - Constantine, Elektra, among others. How do you take into account an already-rich mythos while still striving to leave your mark on the book and explore new story ideas?
The first thing is that you’ve just got to do your research. When I took over Hellblazer I was already well up on John Constantine’s past because I was a long-term reader, but I went back and re-read the whole run and took my own notes as I went along on things I might want to re-visit and characters I might want to use. Your starting point has got to be one of respect for what’s been done before and for the definition of the character that’s already been laid down.
That doesn’t mean you don’t make changes, but your changes can’t be what Chesterton would call “moral miracles.” For example, having John Constantine father three children with a demoness was within the parameters of the character we knew: Having him, say, father three children through acts of rape wouldn’t be. It’s a moral miracle: There are no circumstances, barring lame devices like mind control, where the character we know would do that.
At rock bottom, I guess you’ve just got to have a feel for the characters and the world they inhabit. If that basic sympathy isn’t there, and if you don’t really get what the core of the character is, you’re not going to know when you’ve taken them beyond their center of balance. In Hellblazer No. 206 I’ve got a scene in which Chas Chandler beats up his wife. I think it’s a scene that works in context: It’s stomach-churning and repellent and shocking, but it does the things I set out to do. For some, though, it might seem like too big a jump, like a moral miracle. It’s subjective.
How do you approach your scripting duties? Do you operate over short story arcs, to account for real-world changes in plotting, or do you draft an expansive story and then narrow it down for each monthly installment?
There are really four stages to how I work, most of the time, anyway. The first stage is an overall plan which covers either an entire arc or perhaps six months or so of an ongoing title. I got into the habit of doing this when I was working with Shelly Bond on Lucifer, and it was a useful discipline. You can still change your mind about things if a better idea occurs to you, but you’ve got a broad plan, a broad sense of direction, which you’ve agreed with your editor up front.
Then I do a page breakdown or scene breakdown for each issue, which is where all the important decisions about structure get made. It’s typically about a couple of sides of A4, and it’s mostly for my benefit as I write. I treat it more as a budget than anything else: I can give this scene two pages at most because I want to really give that other scene enough room to breathe. It’s pretty rare for me to deviate substantially from this breakdown.
Then when I’m actually scripting I do it on a pass-repass basis. First of all, I rough out the entire issue in the form of crude, simple sketches for each panel, with full dialogue attached. The sketches allow me to make decisions about point of view and pacing, and along with the dialogue that’s sort of the warp and woof of the scene.
Once that’s done, actually typing out the script is quick and easy because it’s just a matter of transcribing. I’ve tried on occasion to do without the rough sketches: It doesn’t work. For whatever reason, I don’t have the sort of mind that will allow me to script directly from a plan. I have to draw pictures first, even though my drawings can only be called “pictures” by stretching the word to breaking point.
How can burgeoning writers avoid getting too far ahead of themselves as far as deadlines and projects are concerned? How much was too much for you when you first started out?
When I first started out, I could manage one script per month, and that was that. I was working full-time as a teacher, of course, and just writing in the evenings, but I think even if I’d been writing full-time I’d still have had to take it slow and steady. I was still learning the craft, both in terms of the mechanical side of scripting and in terms of the possibilities of graphic storytelling. When Lucifer went from mini to monthly, that felt like a huge, dizzying leap into the unknown — terrifying and exhilarating. And I can remember initially saying no when I was offered Hellblazer because how can you do two monthly books? That was just too scary to contemplate.
But gradually I got more confident and developed a better sense of what I could and couldn’t do in a given time frame. Looking back, writing a monthly actually was the huge step that it felt like at the time. That’s when you knuckle down to it and start working to the rhythm, because you’ve got to hit that deadline and get that script out there — otherwise you’re taking money directly out of your art team’s pockets, screwing up shipping schedules and God alone knows what else. You learn to be professional, and to be less forgiving with yourself when you want to play Resident Evil or watch a bit of daytime TV.
But there’s no hard and fast rule, and I’m not sure whether I’m in a position to lay down rules or even guidelines for other writers. One thing is for sure: Until you’ve written on a monthly book, you can’t know what it’s like. Your sense of your capacity and your limitations will come once you’re in that situation.
Many up-and-coming writers have little or no idea on how to work with a group of professional artists on a comic book. What tips can you offer writers on how to deal with the art side of comic publishing?
In a lot of my early ventures, I had no direct contact with the art team at all. I submitted a script to the editor, who took me through rewrites and polishes and whatever, and then handed it on to the penciler. Then somewhere down the line, a set of finished pages would drop onto my doormat. Or not. Some stories I never saw until they appeared in print.
So the most important thing for me was to specify art direction clearly and effectively because it was a one-way process, and the artist wouldn’t be coming back to me to say, “What the hell is that about?”
At first, I took the view that more was always better, and I wrote scripts that were ludicrously, impossibly over-specified. The example I always give, which is a true example, is that if two characters were drinking coffee I’d describe the design of the coffee mugs. (”Fran is drinking out of a mug that says NICARAGUA TEN YEARS OF FREEDOM, and her sister Sally out of one that reads NO PASARAN.”) This is bad for a lot of reasons. One, it’s unnecessary work for you. Two, it’s insulting to the artist, who is a lot more than a robotic amanuensis. And three, worst of all, if you specify everything then the artist has no way of telling which details are significant and will at some point have a plot function and which are just you blathering on for the sake of it.
Specifying everything is ultimately the same as specifying nothing: The artist will have to ignore some of what you’re telling him, and he may well end up ignoring stuff that really matters. So you should concentrate on what matters in the first place and explicitly set things up in the art direction. “We need this wooden chest to be in the corner of the room because he’s going to hide the body in it later.”
In a way it’s a lot easier now than it was 15 or 20 years ago because so many trade paperback collections come with scripts as “value-added” features, and there are scripts available online, too. The full script for Lucifer No. 4, “Born With the Dead,” is available at Matt Peckham’s Lucifermorningstar.com Web site, for example.
Were you involved at all with the creative process for the “Constantine” movie?
No, I wasn’t involved at any stage, and I don’t think anyone else related to the comic book was, either. From what little I know of it, it should be a fun movie in its own right. It’s not John Constantine as we know him, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to work well on its own terms. You can see it as being the John Constantine of a parallel universe kind of thing.
Your movie “Frost Flowers” is in pre-production. How involved are you in the creative process in that movie?
At the moment we’ve got production art coming through and Andrea, the director, is heavily involved in casting. He’s bringing me in on all decisions, which is hugely exciting. He’s also made it clear that I’ll be welcome on set, and I’m definitely going to be turning up for some of the shooting if only to convince myself that it’s really happening. This isn’t my first movie, but it’s my first live action movie, and that makes it real in a whole lot of ways that my animated features weren’t.
Do you have any plans for “The Barker” after the four-part story is finished in Detective Comics?
“Plans” would be overstating it, but John Lucas and I love the characters and the way they interact. If there was an opening to do another Barker story, I can’t see either of us saying no. Personally, I’d like to write a story in which Painted Rose, the tattooed contortionist, plays a more active role. As I wrote her, I came to appreciate her unexpected gentleness and the way she plays off the short-tempered, often brutal Calahan.
Are there any other helpful tidbits you’d like to add to help out the next generation of comic writers and artists out there?
Don’t give up. If you love it, keep plugging and plugging and plugging away at it until it comes together. Show your stuff to as many people as you can, and listen to what they tell you, especially what they say you’re doing wrong.
If you’re a writer, use your spell checker and take care with the boring, mechanical stuff like correct pagination, formatting, consistent fonts and so on: It gives the impression that you’re a professional and makes people more likely to trust you. Put your contact details on every bit of paper you send out, something I didn’t do the first time I wrote to Alisa Kwitney, and boy did she rib me about it later; I almost fell at the first hurdle. Be persistent but never pushy or rude or obnoxious. Carry a condom at all times, and address bishops as “your grace” rather than “your reverence.” Never type your credit card number onto a Web page that isn’t secure. And would it hurt to call your mother once in a while?
And good luck.
- Interivew by Patrick RollensPosted by Tim Leong on February 24th, 2005 filed in Story Archive |
How to Draw this Cover
Acclaimed 30 Days of Night and Singularity 7 artist BEN TEMPLESMITH allowed Comic Foundry a behind the scenes look at how he created the cover of the book Nothingface.
In Ben’s Words:
“First, here’s the drawing I did with marker and a bit of paint, based off a photo I posed for. (And no, I will not show the photo.)…Then … I jiggled and dropped bits of the photo back in over the drawing…Some more progression images … adding textures and stuff, and at the end, a little bit of the dodge tool in (Photoshop). I probably had about 15 layers going for the image as a whole. Flattening them as I went every time I got more than four or so…Added color…And then the type where I intended it to go. Would stand out on a shelf I hope. Enlarged and distorted the mouth a little to make the type fit.”
Also check out CF’s in-depth interview with Ben HERE.
all images courtesy of Ben Templesmith and www.templesmitharts.comPosted by Tim Leong on February 19th, 2005 filed in Story Archive |
Get Shredded? Put Yourself Back Together
Q: I just had my stuff critiqued, and the editor shredded it. He might be right, but I’m done and don’t feel like going back.
-Mike W, New York
A: WHEN EUROPEANS WANTED TO CONFIRM DEATHS in the days before stethoscopes, they shoved a blazing hot stoker up a cadaver’s ass. This is what editing often feels like, but get used to it. Even J.D. Salinger had a hard time getting anyone to publish “Catcher in the Rye,” for God’s sake, as editors said it was too crude. Half of any critique is the critic trying to put his or her mark on your work and has little to do with improving the piece. The rest are probably ideas worth considering, such as “spell this word correctly.” The trick is to change what needs fixing while retaining the personality of the piece. Trust your gut. Consider each suggested change, but make only those you feel help your piece. You don’t want to improve your blueberry pie by baking an apple pie just because somebody personally hates the former. And don’t take editing so personally. Words and images are your trade; it’s what you sell. As I write this, someone outside my window at a neighboring bar is fighting five men trying to put him on a stretcher and haul him to the hospital. That’s a fact. It strikes me that this is a fitting image for what a good, hard edit can feel like.
Ask Terp the Bartender about your dire needs at firstname.lastname@example.org or catch him in the message boardsPosted by Tim Leong on February 18th, 2005 filed in Story Archive |
Do You Have the Write Stuff?
I HATE WRITING. I hate it. I put it off as long as possible; just ask my editor, or old friends whom I haven’t talked to in years who got a call from me tonight. You can always tell I have an assignment due if my house is clean.
And you know what I do as soon as I’m done? Rewrite. And the first time I see my piece in print? Rewrite again in my head. Well, cringe first, maybe. The problem is that it’s an addiction. I love what I hate. My thoughts are bouncing around, and I have to make sense of them. I don’t mean to leave you adrift in a black sea of hopelessness. (That’s what’s called “overwriting.” Don’t. There’s your first lesson.) Perhaps your strength is drawing, or maybe the ideas. In any case, you have a story to tell. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this — though I do agree that the columnist mug shot is irresistible.
How, then? As Sammy Klayman said, “The question is why.” When Michael Chabon’s character told his cousin that the best comic book creations are those with the best motivations, he could have been talking to you or any other writer. He hit on what makes stories move. Every word must advance the plot. Even if it’s not obvious at first, everything must come to an end. Waste no words, especially in the sparsely worded format of comic books. The classic explanation comes from Strunk and White:
“Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Apply that to all parts of your story, not just the writing. What purpose does each character serve? Could this new character be folded into another? How does this serve the reader? Cry all you want about your artistry, but assuring your message is heard requires readers. That said, don’t write to please them; write to say what you want, write to make them think, write because no one’s ever said it that way before. I always search for the perfect sentence — or, when it comes to my own work, usually a phrase — whether I’m writing or reading, one that will roll around my mouth and stick with me for the rest of the day, the month, the winter.
That’s a challenge, but well worth it. The goal of writing well can be intimidating, but seek the satisfaction it offers, even if comes just from a few words. That’s why I keep coming back. And when I finish, I get to run downstairs on a rush of adrenaline, shout out that I’m done — about time! will be the reply — crack open a beer and let my mind wander. To the second sentence in the third paragraph, most likely.
Got a gerund to grind? E-mail email@example.com or catch her in the message boardsPosted by Tim Leong on February 18th, 2005 filed in Story Archive |
I’m an Aspiring Comic Book Writer
ONE NIGHT ON THE JOHN, I made a decision that has had a profound impact upon my life. It was the spring of my 17th year, and like many a high school junior across this great nation of ours, I’d been charged with the task of reading “The Grapes of Wrath” by my English teacher. And, like many a young man with a Nintendo 64 and a belief that Smash Bros. is the finest game ever created, I’d fallen behind in my reading.
And so, on a beautiful April afternoon, it fell to me to plow through the last 300 pages of Steinbeck’s magnum opus before a test on the text on the following day. During a crucial potty break, it occurred to me that I had a choice to make, and when I stepped out of that bathroom, rather than returning to one of the seminal works of American literature, I opted to spend the rest of the night scribbling a cracked-out, 16-page narrative that I illustrated with stick figures. I entitled it “Clarky Clarkington III vs. the Bunny-Bun-Bunnies” and claimed it was a children’s story.
And that was the day I became The Weird Guy Who Does Stick-Figure Graphic Novels. I’ve completed 11 such self-indulgent and crudely rendered volumes, totaling 2500-plus pages in the five years since that strange night, and I’ve made one thing abundantly clear to myself:
I’m an aspiring comic book writer.
It looks so uncomplicated typed out like that. Six simple words that are dirt-dumb easy to spell, strung together in a sentence even the paste-guzzling kid at the back of the class could have diagramed with relative ease. But despite how straightforward that tiny declaration might seem on a page, I believe that the reality of those six words stands at the heart of every frustration I’ve faced over the past half-decade.
Why don’t I have any money? Because I’m an aspiring comic book writer.
Why can’t I sleep at night? Because I’m an aspiring comic book writer.
Why am I a 22-year-old virgin? Well, that’s a complicated and disturbingly personal question, but I tell you, a good chunk of the answer has something to do with me being an aspiring comic book writer.
Now, you’d think that all of this would beg the question of just why am I an aspiring comic book writer, but apparently it doesn’t because I hadn’t given it much thought — not until the day I finally decided to send that query letter to Marvel Comics in which you’re supposed to answer the central question of just why you want to work for them in the first place. If memory serves, I wrote some long-winded and rambling response about my desire to “work in a medium that’s still yet to tap the vastness of its own potential,” which may or may not have included an odd personal aside about my belief that strong parallels can be drawn between Joe Kelly’s work on Deadpool and the Sermon on the Mount (I went to Catholic school for 12 years; I’m still working through some things) but I’ve had several months to reflect on this, and I now realize the truth.
I’m an aspiring comic book writer because in my heart of hearts, I believe that there needs to be a company-wide crossover event in which the Carnage symbiote bonds with Wolverine and he goes on a kill-crazy rampage through the Marvel Universe. In the end, he’d kill Reed Richards, and Dazzler could finally take her rightful place as the new leader of the Fantastic Four. I believe this needs to happen to save the comic book industry, and it’s obvious to me that I’m the only guy with the guts and chutzpa to see this done.
Of course, I’m joking. I’m sorry if you don’t find any of that nearly as funny as I do. I’ve got a pretty warped sense of humor. Why? That’s simple.
Because I’m an aspiring comic book writer.
Want to break Clark’s fall? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or catch him in the message boardsPosted by Tim Leong on February 18th, 2005 filed in Story Archive |
Get Moore From Your Writing
B. CLAY MOORE’S FIRST BOOK, HAWAIIAN DICK, was an instant success. Now’s he’s the head of Public Relations at Image Comics. Clay talked with CF about how he molded his career and what he learned along the way.
Any advice for the upstarts?
My advice is always pretty much the same, and it’s to start off by attempting to tell the stories you want to tell without a) trying to pander to the market or b) — actually, I would say that’s the main thing. Don’t pander to the market, and just try to put together something original that’s going to attract people’s attention. That’s either self-publishing. Trying to push an original concept to Image or a smaller publisher is a good way to start.
Did you pander when you started out?
I didn’t. I pretty much knew exactly what I wanted to do. So I eased my way in, and after working on a small press anthology for Slave Labor Graphics with a writer named J. Torres, who’s a good friend of mine who now writes “Teen Titans Go” and does a bunch of stuff for Oni Press, kinda got a feel for the market and knew that I wanted to do something that was an original concept that would attract people’s attention and give myself the room to grow on my own terms.
So I put together the pitch for Hawaiian Dick over the process of a few months, and it ended up being an image that wasn’t initially where I thought it would be, but that was fine with me. That sort of got me going out of the gate and opened a bunch of doors for me and put me in a much better position to at least pursue whatever direction I wanted to pursue.
What’s the difference between a good story and a story that will work in a comic?
I think with the right visual approach, you can make almost any good story work in comics. There are stories that maybe I think are better suited for other media.
You’ve got to keep audiences’ attention, and you’ve got to work within whatever limitations there are in the medium. They have an epic, sort of slowly developing saga that… is better suited to a large graphic novel and, you know, that puts limitations on the production process because you’ve got to take the time…A big graphic novel together is a time-consuming process. You’ve got to worry about finding the right market for it and everything.
I had a kid in Texas last year – he had a written pitch for a small-town serial killer, and he had sort of plotted it out so that it really unfolded slowly and it was designed as a mini-series. It was the kind of thing that, I think, if he wrote it effectively and put together a 10-issue mini-series – if you could get people to read all 10 issues and see how the whole thing unfolded – it would be pretty interesting.
But in the first 10 issues there’s one small hint as to what was to come, and that sort of kills any momentum you’re going to gain with the readership. It just really makes it difficult to do in comics. It’s probably something that would have been better suited toward a novelization or even a screenplay or something where you’ve got people committed to read a whole book or watch a whole movie so that you can draw them in slowly.
So I guess it all stems from what you want to do. I do think there is a way to tell any good story in comics, but you have to consider the market and the limitations of the format.
Best not to be overly ambitious on the first try?
Probably not. If it’s something like “From Hell,” it’s a book that right out of the gate, told in installments as it was, might be hard to hook people on because it’s kind of a complex story that drew you in. Those guys have a track record and people are willing to stick with them until they get where they’re going. But I would probably say right out of the gate that [it’s a bad idea].
But you’ve got to sort of make caveats. I’m coming from the perspective of genre storytelling. You can make different arguments for indie comics and genre mainstream books. In indie comics, a lot of guys are more than content to tell the story they want to tell no matter what the pacing is or how visceral it is for a reader. They don’t care as long as they reach a certain population that connects with the book.
In genre storytelling or mainstream comics, you really have to make sure that you sell the books as well. I mean, you can do anything you want in comics – that’s sort of the great thing about ’em. You can do any story you want to. You might tell an ambitious story that unfolds slowly and not make much money at it but hook a certain segment of the readership – and that’s fine if that’s what you want to do.
But if you want to make an impact on the mainstream, you probably should try to come out of the gate with something that people will remember.
What are some of the more common mistakes made in writing, both amateur and pro?
I dunno. There’s a pretty fine line between amateurism and professionalism.
I think the difference is – in a lot of cases – is that professionals can box their stories into the 22 pages or 24 pages they need more effectively than amateurs can and can sell themselves a little more effectively.
I mean, I’m sure there are a ton of great amateur writers out there who just can’t quite figure out how to put it all together and how to sell themselves.
But the first mistake that a lot of guys make is … A lot of guys have figured out that their best entry into the business is to take a really good idea or concept, match it up with an artist and, like I said, either self-publish or pitch it to one company or another.
What I see tons of writers do is find an artist who, quite frankly, isn’t of professional caliber. But because the artist says, ‘Yeah, I’ll draw it,’ they hook up with ’em anyway and it ends up being a really lousy pitch for what may be a pretty engaging story, and they fool themselves into thinking that the guys they’re working with are the right guys for their stories just because they’re willing to work with them.
That happens all the time, and you have to have a critical eye and be self–aware when you’re trying to break into the business.
Ninety percent of everything pitched is pretty awful. Most of it is pretty badly written, most of it is pretty badly conceived, and most of it is pretty badly drawn. But almost all those guys will tell you they don’t think that – that this is the stuff.
The people you’re pitching to will give you a cold rejection. The problem is that some guys will sit there and scratch their heads, and that’s because they’ve fooled themselves into believing their stuff is the caliber of the stuff that’s pitched all the time. And you see that with artists.
I mean, guys will go on message boards and pitch really amateurish art and get pretty negative critiques and then get really defensive about it. You cannot get defensive about your work if you’re not where you want to be. You have to listen to what people tell you because that’s who you’re trying to reach.
And the guys who aren’t willing to listen to criticism or who make excuses, who say, ‘Well, I didn’t have that much time to put this together,’ – they’re screwed. It’s not going to happen for them.
And another piece of advice to aspiring writers is, if you’ve got a story that you’re looking for an artist for and you’ve shopped this story to countless artists and can’t find anybody to draw the story, maybe you should look at the story. I think a lot of guys blame their troubles on an inability to find an artist or what have you, but if you have a really engaging story with a great hook and a cool idea, sooner or later you’ll find somebody who wants to draw it because there are a lot of artists out there looking for stuff to work with. But if nobody wants to touch your story, then maybe the problem is with the story. I think that’s something that a lot of aspiring writers don’t grasp either.
What makes a good pitch?
My theory on what makes a good pitch is something that I’ve gone ’round and ’round with people on recently, but you’ve got to have a strong hook, something that grabs people right away, a really cool and unique idea. There’s no harm in putting it in movie terms, something that’s ‘high concept.’ You know, ‘This is X meets X with this twist.’
If you’re actually pitching something to a company, it’s got to be pretty brief. I mean, guys send 20-page pitches with scripts included, and you’ve got to realize that no editor is going to sit down and read your script. It’s just not going to happen. If you’ve got a pitch with an artist attached, the key is to put some pages together that show them what the comic book is going to look like. Give them a really brief, concise idea of where the story is going.
If you’ve got five pages of a comic book that are effectively written, well-drawn and then your hook is strong and I can see that you’re headed in the right direction, then that’s a good pitch. But if you send a meandering, wandering pitch that doesn’t ever get to the point, that doesn’t start off with – like in English class, they used to talk about ‘You summarize things right at the top.’ To make a journalism analogy, you write stories in an inverted pyramid.
That’s kinda how you should approach a pitch. Grab ’em up front, fill in the details later. But you’ve got to hook ’em right away because any editor at any company is gonna … I mean, I don’t care if you’re reaching a thousand readers with your bestselling book and publishing three books, you’re going to get a ton of pitches from people because everybody is trying to break in. They don’t have time to wade through all that stuff, then get back to people and tell them what’s wrong with their pitch, so you better nail it right away.
What’s the protocol for following up?
Once you’ve pitched, you should expect to hear back from someone in about a month or two. There’s no harm in when you pitch to somebody – assuming that they’re accepting submissions – asking them when to expect a response.
If you don’t hear back from them in that time, then there’s no harm in dropping them a line or giving them a call politely, because reading and accepting submissions is never the top priority for anyone because they’ve got to deal with the day-to-day aspects of running a business.
But sometimes pitches get lost…The best idea is to have your contact information on every page. I can think of books that were approved where they didn’t know who had done the book because they had lost the first page with the contact information, and it wasn’t until the guy contacted months later wondering where the response was that they were like, ‘We didn’t know you did this.’
I had pitched a company that I knew very well a book that I knew I could take elsewhere. They had gotten to my pitch right away; they had put it at the top of their pile and looked at it. I waited a month and a half to bother them about it even though I had talked to them in the meantime just because they were friends and didn’t want to be rude about it and knew how things had worked. Turns out, he had e-mailed me like a week after he had gotten the pitch about it. There was a problem with the e-mail, and I never got the e-mail. My just sitting on my hands for two months had delayed the whole process.
So, you know, don’t badger people. Another thing is if your pitch is rejected, that’s it. If you want to ask for criticism, that’s fine. If you don’t get it, walk away.
There’s nothing worse, and I’ve seen this happen recently, than e-mailing someone and trying to work your way back into the pitch: ‘This is a great pitch. Why didn’t you like it? I don’t understand. Can I submit it? Yadda yadda.’
That’s someone in denial. I can think of a recent example of that. Once you’re at that point, you’re pretty much screwed in the future because nobody wants to deal with you.
Where do your ideas come from?
I’m a big fan of pop culture. Obviously I’m a huge comic book fan. I’ve been writing them since I was a kid. I’ve got thousands and thousands of them. But most of my inspirations have come from outside of comics. Just whatever inspires me or whatever interests me I’m always sort of interested in trying to figure out how to adapt it to comic books.
And that’s one reason most of my stuff is set in other time periods. “Hawaiian Dick” is set in the ’50s. “Battle Hymn” … is a World War II superhero book. I’m doing this book, “The Expatriate,” which will be my first ongoing series from Image in February, and that’s set in the ’60s. Then I’ve got a graphic novel called “Clean Living,” which is supposed to come out some time next year and split between the present and the ’60s.
I think we as a society look back on certain eras and have them well-defined in our minds – whether it’s an accurate definition or not. It’s kind of fun to play with people’s perceptions of those eras and either twist them a little bit or use those perceptions to help drive the story.
So “Hawaiian Dick” is set in the mid-’50s, and the inspiration for that? I’m a big fan of jazz. I’m a big fan of film noir. I’m a big fan of kitschy TV culture, which I understand is not really Hawaiian. I’ve taken some heat from a few people on that.
Aren’t you supposed to be able to take some liberties in a comic?
That’s my theory, but some people don’t agree with me. I mean, New York City in “Spider-Man” doesn’t look like the real New York City. But New Yorkers don’t freak out about it.
So I thought, ‘Let’s throw all this stuff into a big mix and see what I come up with.’ And so that was my first major project and, like I said, it opened a lot of doors and we ended up optioning it to New Line. It’s been the cornerstone of what I’ve tried to do since then. I guess it’s sort of a stew of pop culture, music, movies, literature, whatever.
But I have a lot of trouble with that question (of inspiration). A lot of people I know sort of cop out and say, ‘Everything’s been done. There’s no original inspiration, so I’m just going to do a new twist on an old story.’ And I just don’t think that way. I couldn’t tell you what my stuff is a twist on, except for “Battle Hymn,” which is clearly a twist on World War II superhero groups – but that’s intentional.
How’d you learn to write for comics?
Intuitively, I guess. From reading and always being a writer. Being a journalism major didn’t help.
I guess when I finally got serious about writing comics, which was about ’98 or so when Jay Torres (who I mentioned earlier) dragged me into it – it doesn’t take much to figure out the conventions of the form and what specifically to do.
Most people are familiar with how scripts work, whether it’s movie, TV or comic. The nice thing about comics is there’s no set format. You can pretty much learn them however you want to. And once someone tells you that, it really opens up the possibilities.
A lot of aspiring writers ask: ‘What format should I use?’ Whatever you want to. It’s not like a movie script where people want to see stuff in a final draft. And a lot of guys do write their comics in a final draft like a movie script. I mean, however you want to do it is fine.
The nice thing about creating your own work at a place like Image is you can talk to an artist directly and do it however you guys want to do it. You’ve got a lot of back-and-forth. There’s no editorial process. Whatever your artists are comfortable with is what you can do. So think that sort of gives you more creative freedom.
But one thing I am serious about is, I kinda started thinking about the guys who impressed me as writers and I tried to pick up tricks from them.
Well, I think Alan Moore is the best writer in the history of comics. His ability to take any genre, no matter how cheesy it is, and make it his, write within the boundaries of that genre and make it fun, capture all the original spirit of that genre.
Whether it’s the golden age of superhero comics or horror comics or silver age Superman stories, he can write the story so that fans of that genre will still get the same feel for that story, but he also makes it so extremely intelligent and literate and it’s impossible to pull off. He’s the only guy that does it as effectively as he does.
That’s sort of inspiring, realizing that people piss on superhero stories or detective fiction or whatever, but I don’t buy that. I think you can tell intelligent, literate stories in any genre using any conventions or whatever. You can do it effectively and make it engaging, and I think that Alan Moore is proof of that. He’s at the top of my list.
A guy who had the biggest direct impact on my writing is a guy named Warren Ellis, with his “Authority” and “Stormwatch” books. Just the way he communicated character through dialogue was amazing to me. I think he’s one of the best dialogue writers in comics. You can tell that he really has a grasp for who his characters are and the dialogue just sounds really natural. It doesn’t sound forged.
I don’t know that he’d want to hear this, but I’m a bigger fan of his superhero work because his characters are better defined. And also he managed to communicate just these huge, massive, ridiculous action scenes. He sort of gave an indication that you can do anything on a comic book page, so there’s no reason not to do it. I mean there’s no budget, there’s no director. If you want to a city to blow up, you can have a city blow up. Reading his stuff kind of opened my eyes to the lack of limitations on what you were doing.
So those two guys, and then James Robinson. His Starman for DC I thought was just a terrific example for mainstream comics written intelligently. Those are probably my three biggest influences in those terms.
And I’m a huge fan of independent comics, but I can’t say that I’ve had a lot of influence from alternative or independent creators in what I’m doing right now because so much of it is genre storytelling. But I would put those three guys at the top of the list.
How do you know when you’re improving?
I guess when you look back at your earlier stuff, and you see things that you think you could have done better. I think that’s the key. Like, I can look back at an early story – even the first issues of “Hawaiian Dick” and see things that I wish I had done differently.
I think it’s just learning as you go and seeing what stuff looks like once it’s out there. If somebody tells you a book that you did was fantastic and gives it a 10 out of 10, four stars, that’s bullshit. It really has no basis in reality. It doesn’t mean you’re a great writer, it doesn’t mean it’s a great book, it just means that’s the immediate reaction that one guy had.
Another thing is once your book is reviewed really well, odds are most other people are going to review it really well regardless of what they think of it. There are a lot of creators out there I’m imagining some reviewers and some fans don’t really get, but they’re afraid to say so because everyone else says they’re so awesome.
So don’t ever listen to reviews or your own press. Critical reviews are a lot more helpful. Sometimes critical reviews are nitpicky, and they clearly don’t get what you’re doing. Just don’t be insulted when somebody says, ‘Oh, it could use a little work in this area.’ Whoever is saying that is a reader, and that’s the reaction that they’re having. So it doesn’t hurt to kind of assess your work and assess, ‘How can I communicate this better next time?’
What’s the best way to get better?
Just doing it, in my opinion, is the best way to do it. I know a lot of guys do writing exercises. They journal. Maybe that’s an effective way to do it.
My day is pretty much as full as I want it to be every day, so I don’t have a lot of time to do exercises or muse on the nature of writing. I’ve got seven or eight books that I’m trying to put together right now on top of working with Image as Image’s marketing guy, and also having a family. Sometimes I think just needing to get something done and sometimes facing a deadline and just letting it pour out and not going back and rewriting and cutting and chopping and rethinking are the best ways to do stuff. I don’t do much rewriting. I think you can get bogged down in all of that.
I think the better option is to just sort of let it come out, soldier on, and then look back at what you did earlier and look at what you did now and see if the process of writing and writing has helped your growth.
So I don’t know. I guess writing and thinking. As you’re reading comics, read them critically and think to yourself: If you don’t enjoy a book, go back and reread it and figure out why you didn’t enjoy it. “What was done here that I didn’t think was done effectively”?
On the flip side of that, if you really love something, go back and figure out what they did that really turned you on and see if it’s something you can incorporate in your own writing.
And also always think in visual terms if you’re a comic book writer. Pay attention to what artists do that is really effective and see if there’s some way you can adapt that if you’re going to write a comic book script for an artist. So I guess just keep your eyes open and don’t hesitate to ask questions of guys you really like.
Most writers like talking about themselves.
—Interview by Andrew LawrencePosted by Tim Leong on February 18th, 2005 filed in Story Archive |
Member of the Week: MATTLEONG
St. Louis-based artist MATTLEONG is a graduate of the pretigious Joe Kubert School of Art. He helped started an indie comic publishing company, Exit 126 Comics that is into their fourth issue. Besides running Exit 126 Comics, MATTLEONG experiments with digital video and is available for freelance illustration work.
Want to be the Member of the Week? Better your chances by uploading to your portfolio…Posted by Tim Leong on February 14th, 2005 filed in Story Archive |
What Image Says:
Image Comics accepts only PROPOSALS for new comic series (please read the numbered items below for what this means). We do not accept writing (that is plots, scripts, whatever), inking, penciling, lettering, or coloring samples. Image publishes ONLY creator owned/creator generated properties (what this means is that we do not hire writers, artists, letterers, colorists and hook them up with one another REGARDLESS how “good” you might be–we do NOT have the facilities for this. If ALL you can do is write–or draw–we cannot help you. DO NOT send your script, your plot, your pencil sketches, your cover paintings, etc.)
A PROPOSAL should contain the following:
1. A type-written cover letter with all contact information (name, e-mail address, address, phone and fax numbers) clearly printed on the TOP of the page. Introduce yourself. Please remember this is a job interview, politeness, professionalism, and spelling/punctuation count. We do not want to see your resume.
2. A typed ONE PAGE synopsis of the over-all STORY. We DO NOT want a single-issue synopsis we want a synopsis of the entire series or story arc. As concisely and as succinctly as you are able, TELL US THE STORY, make us interested. Please avoid hyperbole – avoid questions as plot points (”what will Alex do when confronted with…?), etc. We are the PUBLISHER, not the audience–TELL US WHAT HAPPENS!
3. Tell us whether you see it as a full color or a black and white book, a mini or on-going series, a Prestige book or an Original Graphic Novel. Explain why we (or anyone else) would be interested in this series. Tell us what sets it apart from other comics and who the target audience is (”Everyone” is NOT acceptable).
4. 8 1/2″ x 11″ photocopies of fully INKED and LETTERED pages DO NOT SEND ORIGINALS OR OVERSIZED PHOTOCOPIES OR PACKAGES. How much? Five fully inked and lettered pages are MINIMUM! If you have MORE than 5 finished pages, fine. Five is the minimum we want to see. We want to READ it! (We believe comics should be read).
5. Color is OPTIONAL. If you have a colorist and can provide color pages — great! This means you CAN send in colored pages you just don’t HAVE to (although, if you want a color book, it would be advisable).
6. A cover mock-up (this lets us know whether or not you understand the market and gives us a good barometer on your design sense). Do not put the Image “i” on your mock-up — just give us your cover with a logo. NOTE: A good logo can be EASILY read from across the room. We DO make people change their logos OFTEN. Don’t be “fancy”–be CLEAR.
DO NOT send character sketches/bios. DO NOT send script pages. DO NOT send pin-ups.
BECAUSE WE RECEIVE SUCH A HIGH VOLUME OF SUBMISSIONS, NO UNSOLICITED PROPOSALS/SUBMISSIONS WILL BE RETURNED. DO NOT INCLUDE A SELF-ADDRESSED STAMPED ENVELOPE.
Please do not try to “impress” us with all the deals you’ve lined up or testimonials from your Aunt Matilda. We are only interested in the comic.
We are not looking for any specific genre or type of comic book—we are looking for comics that are well-written and well-drawn, by people who are dedicated and can meet deadlines.
Finally, since Image Comics, Inc. owns no intellectual properties, you can be assured, accepted or not, your property will remain yours.
WHERE TO SEND THEM:Posted by Tim Leong on February 13th, 2005 filed in Story Archive |
c/o Image Comics
1942 University Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94704
DC Comics Submissions
Currently, DC Comics doesn’t accept unsolicited submissions.
What DC Says:
Like many creative fields, breaking into the comic book business as an artist can be an exciting, but challenging process. It takes proper training, making the right contacts, learning to sell your talents, building a strong portfolio and at times, lots of patience. However, time and time again, the best advice we can offer aspiring artists is usually the easiest place to start: Come to a Comics CONVENTION.
Comic Book Conventions happen year round, all across the United States, as well as overseas. They provide a unique opportunity for publishing companies, such as DC Comics, to meet and exchange ideas with comic book readers, distributors, professional artists and writers, retailers and anyone curious about the industry. Conventions also offer, in one place, the best resources for aspiring talent to explore a career in comics.
For most comic book artists, the convention is an ideal forum for meeting working professionals and publishers in the same location. It’s also a great place to get feedback on your portfolio, attend informative lectures, speak to editors, purchase books about getting into the business, and ask lots of questions. The only catch is being realistic about the process — not everyone is ready to work in comics. However, with the right investment in the process, your convention experience will undoubtedly provide an exciting look at the many possibilities of working in the industry.Story Archive | 3 Comments »