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Who knew that when Terry Moore started Strangers in Paradise back in 1993 he would set the model - and standard - for the self-publishing industry? Comic Foundry talked to Moore about how he launched his comic and how you can become a better writer.
How did you first get Strangers in Paradise published?
Basically what I did was, I sent out samples to all of the publishers’ addresses. Some of them sent back rejections, some of them never replied. The only people that called me was Antarctic Press. They took a chance on me. They liked the one book that I submitted and they said they were doing a mini-series and asked if I could do three of them. And, I said OK. I didn’t have any of those written or anything, I just had that one. I knew that I wanted to do something like that so I was very excited for the offer and I thought “Great, now I’m in the business.” And I let them publish the first three issues of the series.
And then you broke off and did your own imprint?
Yeah, well at that time it was the self-publishing boom and there were a lot of people with names that you could read about. And they had their stories and their speech “This is great, this is how you do it,” so I liked all that. It all fit nicely with me. I used that as my role model to figure out how to do it myself. I’m glad I did, it turned out to be the right thing for me to do.
Is that something you would recommend to someone starting out right now?
Right now? I don’t know if I’d recommend it anymore, to be honest. When I did it, it was the same thing as a rock ’n’ roll music explosion. The more people that do it, the easier it is to get work. So when I started self-publishing, there were a lot of self-publishers. The reason that’s good is that there was a lot of material out there and the retailers were really open to buying books they’d never heard of, but that’s not the case anymore. Now, business is so tight. Retailers can’t gamble on comics they’ve never heard of and they don’t know if there’s ever going to be another issue. So, the reception from the retailers of self-published material is not as easy nowadays, and they’re very selective about what they want. I think it’s very hard to come in out of the blue and say “I have a new book. You haven’t heard of it, but I promise you I’ll make the next issue and it’ll be on time.” It’s just very hard to talk them into it right now. It helps, of course, if your book looks great. And if you can talk them into sitting down and reading it, hopefully it reads great, but you have to win those first people over one at a time, but it takes a while. It’s tough right now. If you wanted a serious career, it’d be easier to start out at an established publisher and work your way up the food chain.
What are some of the other pros and cons in working with the indie press versus the established press?
The biggest pro is the complete freedom. I’m completely free to help myself or ruin myself. I can write whatever I want, I can draw whatever I want, I can take the story in whatever direction I want, I don’t have to worry about working by committee and creating by committee, which I’m not a fan of. Also, if the book does well, or moderately well, you can make a good living off it. And if you self-publish a book at 10,000 copies a month, it’s the same thing as working for a publishing house and them selling 50,000 copies and (the publisher) giving you a small percentage of that. So, if you can self-publish, you run off much smaller numbers because you have no middle man. It’s just you, the printer and the distributor. It’s not like you have to work with a big publishing house and your take is 15 percent after cost, which you’ll probably never see.
What other types of business information would someone need to know?
Well, what I’ve found is … the more successful your book is, the harder it becomes, and most people who have been in it beyond a certain stage, beyond a certain level, they need help. Mostly it comes from your partner, your husband or your wife or whatever. It takes at least two people to do it. Because the business aspect of keeping up with the inventory and the printers and the distributors and all the stuff they need – it’s just too much for an artist and a writer to deal with. I find it very difficult to deal with the business and then try and be creative and go to lala land in my head. When I went to Homage (Comics) back in the mid-90s, that was the reason why. I was self-publishing alone and it got to be too much for me, and then Homage offered me a place in their lineup and they would take care of the business side and all I had to do was draw. I thought, “That sounds good.” When I left them it was because I talked my wife into coming in and running the business. And she is a very good businessperson. She’s always been in management in her other careers, so now she runs Abstract Studio and I just do the creative stuff. So, I recommend that. You can start self-publishing on your own, but when it gets to a certain level, you need a partner.
When you first launched the series, how did you go about marketing it?
The best way to market your series is interviews. Because you get as much page space as if you run an ad, and it’s free. And you’re able to plug more info in an interview than you are in an ad. It was easy to get interviews, the first few years, and that got a lot of page space in magazines and trades, so it was great. I got a three-page interview, and they sold those pages for $6,000 a piece for ads. So, that’s the best way in the world – No. 1, with anybody and everybody that would ask. Almost no self-publisher that I’ve ever known has had an advertising budget. Some of them have had sponsors, like Billy Tucci, he started off with sponsors. No one else I know did. What I have found is that my readership tends to start with the college group on up. We try hard to make sure that Strangers in Paradise is noticeable among college people and places they would go and all that. We’ve got a Web site, which is the No. 1 marketing tool of today. And we also go to not only a lot of comic book conventions, but also to librarian conventions and the book industry conventions. That makes a big difference – it helps us get into a lot of libraries. Those are things that don’t cost and arm and a leg, it’s just trying to talk to the right people. You kinda want a pyramid effect. You try to always try to talk to one person who will talk to ten more. One of the things I did the first year was call retail stores. And I only called stores that were chains and I’d only talk to the buyer or the owner of the chain. Because if I talk to one guy and win him over then I sell the book into five stores. The bigger chains were all over the East Coast, so I just spent the first year talking to the East Coast the whole time, calling all the comic stores up there and the chains and everything. Then the second year I started working the California coast and up and down the West Coast, and I never really bothered calling anyone in between because I just figured they would follow the lead they read about from the East Coast and West Coast. And it worked out really well. I got all the chains on the East Coast and then I got chains on the West Coast, the East Coast being from Chicago on out. And that kind of built up my retail base. By the time I’d spent the first few years doing that, in my third year, I’d spent most of the time calling my distributor and reworking and renegotiating our deal. Then they started promoting the book more. Now I work very closely with the distributor at Diamond (Comic Distributors) on many, many things.
How long does it take you to do a whole issue, start to finish?
It’s about six weeks of work, so I’m supposed to have about six weeks to do it. I never get the full amount of time. I usually spend about two-three weeks between each issue catching up on other commitments, covers and upcoming books and things I’ve promised other people. Then I end up doing my book in three-four weeks and just binge and lock the door.
How do you practice your writing?
Well, what I tend to do is live like a writer, but work like an artist. By that, I mean I go to a bagel shop every morning and I have my little writer’s book and make all my notes and write down my ideas and dreams from the night before. And I’ll take my laptop in there and work on the next script or tweak a script, but I’ve always got a little notebook with me to make notes in. And I keep one by the bed and I don’t stop going until I’ve got a script I like. So basically I live like a writer and I’m writing things all the time. Then when it’s time to actually make the book, for me the idea of production of the book is when I’m drawing it. I’m always writing it, but the binge period is the drawing stuff. When I get a script I like I sit down at the drawing board and that’s what I do all day, every day, for three weeks in a row, just draw, draw, draw, draw, draw. So that’s kind of a split personality in that sense. I’m either a writer or an artist that day, which is kind of strange, it’s not like cartooning. In cartooning, you’re writing and drawing all at the same time – if you’re drawing editorial cartoons or spot cartoons or whatever. In this comic book, I try to write a good story first, and then I draw it.
Being a man, how do you write from a woman’s perspective? How do you get in the mind of the opposite sex?
Well, I’ve grown up in a house full of women. When I grew up it was by two sisters and my mother – my dad was never around. Then I got married really young, and spent years and years of marriage going through all the usual conversations and trying to understand how I was messing up – why I was always in trouble. And that made me really try and look at things from a woman’s point of view. But I never really thought about getting into their heads until it dawned on me one day that when men are not around, women talk, and the way they talk about men and relationships would make a man blush. We guys tend to put them on pedestals and think they’re dainty flowers. Well, they’re not. They’re just human beings, just like us. They do everything we do. The femininity thing has a limit, and then after that, they’re just people like everybody else. Emotions, their body organs work the same way – I’m kind of generalizing here, but at the time it was kind of an epiphany. They’re not angels and princesses on a pedestal, they’re just people. And most of them have the same buttons we have. That was a revelation for me when I realized that, because I spent the first 25 years of my life thinking that, I don’t know, they were from another planet. And then when I realized that I started thinking about it for another year or so, it dawned on me after that how victimized they are in male society. Realize that all these crimes of violence, stalking, serial killers, it’s all preying on women. And I realized that they’re living in a very dangerous society and it’s hard for them. They’re being stared at all the time, which makes them feel like victims, and then they are victimized when things go wrong, and it’s a very unfair world, in that respect. And then they have all that workplace stuff to deal with and social things to deal with, and I became more aware of that. Once I started looking at it, it was just everywhere. I became to realize how angry many women are underneath the surface. Bring up the right subject, and you’ll get an earful. That was it. That’s when I felt like I was tapped in and I couldn’t get unplugged. And now I just see it everywhere I go. It’s a strange syndrome. The closest I can compare it to is that if you had a recent death in the family, someone you really care about and you’re upset about it, and then it seems like everything on TV, every sitcom, or somebody has some comment about someone dying or being buried. And you’re very sensitive to it.
A lot of people seem like they’re able to relate to all these characters – how are you able to create such strong character development with so many people in so few pages?
I think that’s a psychological question. I think my therapist could tell you more than I could. All I can tell you is that when I was growing up I liked a lot of different kinds of people. I have a lot of different types of friends. When I was in high school I had friends in all the different social classes and all the different grades. So, I like a lot of people, different kinds of people, my friends are all parts of different groups and I’m comfortable in a lot of different settings and surroundings. I think it basically comes from empathizing with people. I have a lot of empathy for people and what they go through and how hard they try every day. Most people want to do the right thing and I admire them for getting out of bed in the morning and giving it another shot. And I really feel for people and have a soft heart about that. And when it’s funny I find it amusing and when things go wrong I feel bad for them and I wish I could help. And because I can’t do that I try to express it all in the art and the stories and try to show it to other people. And I’ll show somebody down on their luck and the point of my story is “Be kind to these people, look how hard they try.” Or, I try to pull the veil off a hypocritical asshole and say “Here, this is what they’re really about.” I guess in that sense I’m a social commentator or a social satirist. And because I empathize with so many different people in the population, I don’t really have a strong agenda of my own. So my story doesn’t have a strong social or political agenda, and if you read in there, you’re not going to end up getting liberal or conservative or a person of faith or not. I don’t have an agenda when I write my material. If there’s any agenda at all, it’s “Hey, we all have more in common than we think, so be nice.” And that’s kind of what’s helped me with the book in Europe and the other countries and the other languages it’s printed in. It has a universal story line in it – things happen in my book that could happen in any country.
What kind of advice would you give to someone for writing realistic dialogue?
That’s tough. It’s tougher than you think. I’m trying to teach my son that right now. He has to write and he tends to write how he speaks, which is kind of teenage and searching with a lot of words. I think the key to being a good writer is to spend more time listening than you do writing. One of the reasons I like to get my bagel in the morning is because I like to watch people and listen to their conversations. I eavesdrop a lot, and it’s great. I’m one of those people that can do a lot of different accents and dialects and that just comes from listening to people and paying attention. It’s like artists like to go to a shopping mall and do quick sketches. Writers do the same thing. Not all writers are recluses who hate humanity. Most of them like being around and observing and listening. That’s my biggest tip, to just pay attention to the world around you and what they’re saying and how they say it.
Are you your own editor on the editor?
Well, I don’t have an editor, but when I finish I do give them to my wife. She catches a ton of stuff that just went right by me. She also kind of ropes me in when I go too far overboard. She’ll say “I don’t appreciate that…” And because easily half my readership is female, I tend to pay attention to my wife is something doesn’t strike her well. I don’t want to alienate half my readership and let my testosterone get out of control.
How have you evolved as an artist and writer since launching in ’93?
One thing that I can tell people is that no matter how hard you’ve worked before you turn pro, the first year you go pro will be the biggest learning curve you’ve ever had. Once you start working on deadline and start cranking those pages out like crazy, it’s amazing how good you get. I felt like my learning curve was so strong that my final pages of an issue were better than my opening pages. And I faced this syndrome of wishing I could go back and keep redrawing the same book. You have to learn in public. You never get perfect and get finished and then go public. You just have to get in the public eye as soon as you can and go ahead and learn in public and let them see your learning curve. There’s no way around it. The reason it happens that way is that when you go pro you draw your head off. You’re drawing 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. And you do best what you do most. If you have any talent at all, it will develop once you put in the long hours. As far as an artist, I can draw stuff now that I couldn’t draw before. As far as writing, I’m still learning. I still get calls from friends, like Harlan Ellison, who will call me up and point out a comma in the wrong place or something. When they tell me something I make notes and I try to never do it again. I guess you never stop learning.
Are there certain advantages to both writing and drawing the series?
The benefit is that I get to write what I like to draw. There are times where I write two people sitting on a couch for ten pages. And when I’m writing it, I’m thinking “This is all good stuff” and when I’m drawing it, I think “What asshole wrote this? This is awful to draw – it’s boring.” So I do try to think of both sides. One other good thing is that my scripts don’t have to be very verbose, because I know what I mean. My scripts tend to be mostly dialogue, because I know what the images are. When I work for outside jobs I have to describe everything. Scripts can be 40 pages, but when I write for SiP it can be a 20-page script. And I use a script program, Scriptware, so it looks like a movie script.
Does most of what you write come from personal experience?
No, it comes from personal stuff inside, but it’s not my life. It’s my extrapolation of life. It actually started with me wanting to explore life that I didn’t know. Because in the beginning, one of my original inspirations was pretty girls and how they thought. What do they do at night? Who would they stand out in the rain waiting for? And that’s what I began to write about. Because I was writing about girls who would never give me the time of day like Francine or Katchoo – those girls would never talk to me in real life. And so here I am trying to figure out what makes them tick. I guess it’s back to that pedestal thing. I know they’re not on a pedestal, but I still can’t understand them. I just try and figure it out in print.
A lot of people tend to think writing comes from a lot of experience and that’s why it’s easier to be a writer once you’re older.
One thing that I did know when I started and it’s kind of still working for me is a story is not a sequence of events. A story is about what happened to affect a person, what happened to affect several people, or how several people affected each other. The experience of your life is all in your head. What happens in front of your eyes is just a support team for what is being processed in your head. I’ll tell you a good example of that: If you understand this it really changes your writing. Two people are on an airplane: One of them is scared to fly, one of them is not. They take the same trip and they both get there safely and one of them was hurling and sweating and having anxiety attacks – he had a two-hour miserable experience. The other guy slept the entire way and he gets off the plane refreshed. They both just had the same life experience but they experience it in two different ways. The sequence of events was two guys got on a plane and arrived safely on the other side. But the two guys have two different stories to tell, depending on how they process it in their heads. The writer needs to understand that and that’s where your story is. It’s “Why did that guy afraid of flying process it that way? What was going on? What’s his history? What’s he seeing on the plane? What kind of monsters does he see and feel? What’s setting him off? How’s he handling the stress and wondering if he’s going to have a heart attack and how is he going to escape?” See what I mean? A normal person sees a plane flying and landing, a writer sees the anxiety person and wonders about their whole trip and what got them there. That’s how I try to write. So I’ll write my sequence of events and my adventures as a subplot as to how the characters process. I think that’s just how you write fiction. Otherwise you’re writing nonfiction and history.
In your three weeks that it takes you to do the book, how much of that is writing and how much is drawing?
I spend about a third of the time writing and two thirds drawing. But when I’m drawing, I will rewrite, if it looks appropriate. When I draw a scene I might get an unexpected expression, so I might tweak the line, so I’m always changing things. In that sense it’s like shooting a movie. You start shooting with a script, but when you’re out there you start changing as you go. I don’t stop writing and tweaking and looking for a better way to do things until I stop and send it off to the printer. And sometimes even when they show me the proofs I’ll go ahead and make another change. I just did that today on the newest book. They sent me a proof and I saw something I wanted to change in the text.
If you think back to some of your better-selling issues, are there any similarities between those covers?
Yeah, and I hate to tell you what it is because you’re just going to cringe. I’m sorry it’s true, but the sexy covers do best. Nobody really wants to hear that, but it’s true. Any time I do something provocative, it sells. My best-selling issue of all time, though, was an issue where the entire story was a parody of Xena with each character plugged into the appropriate role. That was sold out before it printed. But that was taking advantage of something that was popular at the time. Other than that, what sells best for me is when Strangers in Paradise is a sex comedy. I mean that in the sense of the sex comedies – like Doris Day and Rock Hudson movies – where everything is innuendo and they’re trying to straighten out their love lives and everything is a comedy of errors. That’s what sells best. I don’t like doing that in the issue, though, because I have other things I’m interested in writing about. If I were smart, I would just do the T-and-A book. I could be rich by now if I did a T-and-A book. I just don’t write that way. I just tend to write about stories I want to write.
What do you think is missing in the comic industry right now?
Definitely diversity in creators. Compare it to music: In music, you know that majority of the talent is not with a record label. Most of the great bands out there are ones that you and I will never hear because they’re local or they’re in a garage, or they’re making great tapes – you and I will never hear it because they’ll never get into a system where we can find it. And I feel that way about stories and artists and comic writers. If they go into the mainstream, they have to work on other characters. If they do their own stuff they need to self-publish. And self-publishing is not easy and very few people can get it done. It’s like trying to make your own CDs and have people buy your music, even though you’re not with a label. So, your reach is very limited. I wish we could find a way to tap in so that you and I would always be able to see the new crop of artists this year, even if they’re only 17 years old and they only drew one story and they did it between classes at school. Maybe there’s a way for all of us to see it on the Internet and everybody knows about it. I wish there was a way people could get more exposure and the raw talent that’s untapped. Because of that, I really feel bad about the demise of the self-publishing industry. A lot of the stuff that was self-published was not readable, but the odds are with you. You’re going to see some brilliant stuff come out. I remember one book that stood out during that self-publishing movement. You had all these stars and then you had tons and tons of small people doing stuff just above a zine. And there was one book that was done by this 17-year-old kid in high school named Creed and it was great. Everybody just flipped over it and it got him work in mainstream. I don’t know where he is today but that was a good example of that happening. That could never happen today. Everybody in the industry knew about him and he was 17 years old and going to high school and he was not working for one of the big companies. That’s what we need. I don’t know how you get that established. I was hoping the Internet would do it but nobody’s figured out a way to organize it yet. And maybe Web sites like yours are a way to do that.
—Interview by Tim Leong