- In this Issue
- Kristen Bell
- Not Comics
- Press Release
- Story Archive
- Video Games
- March 2009
- February 2009
- December 2008
- November 2008
- October 2008
- September 2008
- August 2008
- July 2008
- June 2008
- May 2008
- April 2008
- March 2008
- February 2008
- January 2008
- December 2007
- November 2007
- October 2007
- September 2007
- August 2007
- July 2007
- June 2007
- May 2007
- April 2007
- March 2007
- February 2007
- January 2007
- December 2006
- November 2006
- October 2006
- September 2006
- August 2006
- July 2006
- June 2006
- May 2006
- April 2006
- October 2005
- September 2005
- August 2005
- June 2005
- May 2005
- April 2005
- March 2005
- February 2005
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 Lawrence