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Jay Faerber is living the dream:
In Noble Causes, he writes his creator-owned series at Image. It wasn’t easy path and Jay explains to Comic Foundry why, and how to make sure your plans for a creator-owned series doesn’t become a nightmare.
What exactly does “creator-owned series” mean?
A creator-owned series is one where the characters, concept, and title – the whole book, really – are owned by the creators, and not the publisher. Most of the comics produced by DC and Marvel are work-for-hire situations, where the creative team is paid to work on properties they don’t own. In those situations, the creative team answers to an editor, who answers to the publisher. On a truly creator-owned book, the creators have complete creative freedom, because they don’t answer to anyone. The downside to this scenario is that most truly creator-owned work is created in a situation without financial backing — meaning, there’s no guaranteed paycheck, since you’re not working for a big company.
There is sort of a gray area, where big companies publish books that are technically creator-owned, but the creators are still paid a page rate, and the company usually has some stock in the profits of the book. The creators still technically own the characters and concepts, but they’re in a contract with the publisher that limits their creative freedom.
I hear you’re a soap-opera fan. From a storytelling point of view, how are comics and soaps similar and different?
They’re a lot more similar than most people realize, both in terms of storytelling and in terms of the way fans connect with them. They both hinge on serialized storytelling (at least, monthly comics generally do), where they end on a cliffhanger to keep you coming back for more. They also both often juggle multiple storylines featuring multiple characters, with some characters operating in the “A” (or main) storyline, some in the “B,” some in the “C,” etc. I once heard that former Marvel editor-in-chief Bob Harras used to pass out scripts from “All My Children” to show writers how to juggle plotlines and pace stories.
Of course, there are differences. For one thing, soaps are daily, so they can cover a LOT of ground. They can have dozens of characters and half a dozen plotlines and still keep everything moving. Most comics only come out once a month, and generally have around 22 pages of story, so they’re severely limited in the amount of ground they can cover, when compared with TV soaps.
How did you go about pitching Noble Causes to Image? What was the process?
I had met Anthony Bozzi, who was then Image’s marketing director, at the Wizard World convention in Chicago, back in 2000. I had never really considered creating my own series, but he encouraged me to pitch something to Image, and after having a very enlightening dinner with some other Image creators, I started developing ideas. I followed the Image submission guidelines, which required me to have a series overview and five completed pages — pages that were drawn and lettered, as well as a completely finished, colored cover. I threw in some additional stuff — character designs, that sort of thing, and the book was accepted shortly thereafter. The convention where I met Bozzi was in, I believe, July or August, and I submitted the book in December. So it took me about six months to find a creative team and get the pitch produced.
You’ve done a fair amount of co-writing in the past. How does that work?
Every situation is different. Most of my co-writing has been with Devin Grayson, with whom I’m fortunate enough to be good friends. So we’d just talk about the story we were going to tell, and then I’d go away and write up an outline, blocking out the story scene-by-scene, and mapping out how many pages each scene would entail. I’d send it over to Devin, and she’d play with it a little, sometimes suggesting we shorten or lengthen certain scenes. Then we’d divide up the scenes, and I’d write some and she’d write some, and when you put our individual scenes together, you’d have a complete story.
When you were trying to break into the industry and applying to Marvel and DC, what was in your submission packet you sent?
When I first started sending stuff to DC, it was back before the Internet was really up and running, so I would mail in one-page pitches. These pitches were almost always updates of old, underused DC characters. I’d send them to any editor I thought would read them. A good idea is to pitch to assistant editors, since they might be on the lookout for talent they can “discover.” As e-mail became more and more common, I started pestering X-Men editor Mark Powers, and he graciously sent me some X-Men artwork, along with a Scott Lobdell plot, and asked me to dialogue the artwork based on the plot. This was back when a lot of Marvel books were still produced this way: The writer would write up a plot, the artist would draw from that plot, and the dialogue would be written after the art was turned in. This isn’t really the case anymore. At any rate, I now had professional scripting samples, so I started including them in my packages to Marvel editors.
Noble Causes, in the early stages, went through a lot of printing transitions – some issues in color, some black-and-white, some publishing monthly, some bimonthly - why the changes? In the end, what did you find as the best solution?
The “why” is money. It all came down to money. When you’re publishing without the financial backing of a big company, every dollar counts. The most time-consuming part of the project is having the pages drawn, so we initially used the split format (having 15 pages of one story, and 8 pages of another) to make it easier on the regular artist (who’d only have to draw 15 pages a month, instead of 22). We also went bimonthly as a way to accommodate the artist. We switched to B&W for awhile, because our order numbers were really low, and the book didn’t stand to make any money. We thought switching to B&W might help, since it’s cheaper to print. But what we learned is that a lot of superhero fans really don’t like B&W books, so that experiment was something of a failure. While it’s more financially risky, the best format for superhero titles, in today’s market, appears to be a monthly, full-color format.
How has your writing evolved during your Noble Causes run?
That’s a question that’s probably best answered by someone other than me – an outside observer. But if pressed, I guess I’d say that my pacing has improved. It’s tough to juggle all the subplots I like to have in the book, so I’m constantly trying to improve exactly how to structure the book so that each issue is a satisfying read, but all the characters are serviced. It’s a real tightrope to walk. I used to try to advance every single subplot every issue, and when you have as many subplots as my book does, it doesn’t leave much room for an actual story. So, I’ve started staggering them, so you might not get an update on every character every month. But it makes each issue more satisfying.
What’s the one thing every amateur writer should know but probably doesn’t?
They should know that, in comics, at least, there’s never one way to do things. People always ask me how I broke in, as if they can just copy what I did, and they’ll break in as well. But I know a lot of other professionals, and I have never, ever heard the same “How I broke in” story twice. It’s fine to learn from the past, but you really need to forge your own future.
Generally, do you think comics should be more plot- or character-driven?
I think that those two choices should really be combined. You shouldn’t be able to separate the plot-driven stuff from the character-driven stuff, if it’s done well. The best comics feature compelling characters who are made even more compelling by their reactions and responses to an engrossing plot. It should all be one package.
What’s been the hardest part about publishing a creator-owned series?
The financial side – using every trick you can to keep the book in the black, so that you can produce each issue.
What are the perks?
The creative freedom, and the satisfaction of knowing you’re doing it 100 percent your way.
You’ve also released a graphic novel. What are the pros and cons in publishing a straight OGN rather a monthly series?
One of the pros is that you only have to solicit the book once. Soliciting a book costs money, as does paying for a cover to be drawn, as does paying for printing the different covers, etc. With an OGN, you just do it all once. That’s also a con, though, because with a monthly series, you have repeated chances to engage readers, and maintain a presence on the racks. While OGNs generally enjoy longer shelf lives, they still have to compete with other, newer OGNs, which generally get more promotion from the retailers.
It really comes down to whichever format best suits the story you want to tell. That should be your primary consideration.
— Interview by Tim Leong