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Devin Grayson has been around the industry long enough to know how it works. She’s had a strong presence in the Bat titles (Nightwing) for some time now and has her a creator-owned series, Matador, on shelves. Now, in this exclusive Comic Foundry interview, Grayson talks about what she’s learned from her time in the comic industry and gives insight to what’s it’s like to be a freelance writer.
How have the idiosyncrasies of the comic industry changed in the past few years?
There are a couple of noticeable shifts that seem to work cyclically. The industry goes back and forth between featuring more literate, less mainstream work that is often able to attract new readers to the medium, and more bombastic, continuity-heavy work that keeps the long-term readers invested. There’s no inherent reason that any given company couldn’t do both, and, indeed, Marvel had that going for a little while with the Ultimate line running side by side with the regular series titles, but usually the person in charge of a publishing company’s marketing objectives will have a strong preference in one direction or another.
Likewise [there’s] a constantly seesawing emphasis on either characters and story content or high profile, creator “stars.” Again, there’s no reason a high-profile writer can’t create a great story that honors and promotes the characters, but usually the emphasis ends up being more on their celebrity than on the development and marketing of the character with whom they find themselves working.
Maybe because the people who end up running the major mainstream publishing houses are usually grown-up fans themselves with obvious and reinforced preferences for stories like the ones they grew up reading, or maybe because the industry as a whole seems always to be just on the brink of financial collapse, the product often has a hard time settling into a reliable identity. Just in one year of reading a single Batman title, for example, you could find yourself starting with a reasonably universe-integrated story line created by and playing to the strengths of a seasoned comic writer for three months, then find that the book has been swept into a much larger crossover story “event” with new writers rotating through. And then four months later, the book is under the control of a really exciting movie/TV/fiction best seller “auteur” who creates tremendous buzz and kind of reinvents everything from scratch with total carte blanche from the editors, but the year finishes out under a new editor and a “stable” writer who work together to try to pull it back into the continuity of the previous year, which is the last time either of them had any idea what was going on. If someone who didn’t read comics then asked you to say what that series was like, you’d be kind of at a loss for words. And an ill-defined product is deathly in marketing. I think many of the higher-ups in the industry understand this, but financially, there often isn’t enough time to set out on a venture and stick with it until it finds its audience and begins to generate consistent sales, so instead there’s a lot of panicking, a lot of perpetual reinvention, and a lot of “No, no, wait – this is gonna be SO cool!” bravado that pans out well slightly less than half the time.
I broke into the industry in the late ’90s when college students and twenty-somethings were breathlessly discussing Vertigo comics and the average reader was happy to put down money for small, independent titles and mainstream titles alike. DC was publishing mini-series, specials and anthologies featuring new talent and experimental ideas, and the big offices (i.e., “The Bat-Office,” “The Superman Office,” “The JLA Office,”) were by-and-large run as independent fiefdoms, each producing different and usually nonassociative, but also highly identifiable character-related content.
Today, I work for the same company, but I’m getting very different directives. I wish I could freely discuss the specifics because I think they’re illuminating, but part of the change is the tremendous level of continuity tie-in and the vast amount of secrecy this generates. The team responsible for choosing direction is much smaller, yet they’re making much more broadly reaching decisions. New guidelines and old events alike are being applied to books regardless of office of origin. Will the fans enjoy a universe with tighter continuity? Almost certainly. Will they be disappointed by how much the quality of writing suffers when four people are laying down the marching orders for forty? We’ll see. There are good and bad qualities in both models, but there’s no denying that they’re really, really, really different models. It will be interesting to see whether or not most readers even notice the change. I think externally those kind of changes feel to the reader like a slow evolution that maybe has as much to do with one’s own (theoretically maturing) taste in comics as anything else, but in reality, they can usually be traced to a single person in a prominent position in one of the two major publishing houses.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned since joining the comics industry?
That there’s a huge difference between working in the comics medium and working in the comics industry. The medium, when you begin to explore it, quickly reveals itself to be capable of handling almost any kind of storytelling. It’s great for pulling readers into the emotional life of a story and has a powerful, interactive aspect not precisely mirrored in any other type of fiction. I really feel like it’s still evolving as an art form and is open to a tremendous amount of redefinition and growth.
The industry, on the other hand – by which, by the way, I always mean the mainstream industry, since that’s where my experience lies – is one of the most limiting and circumscribed producers of fiction going. Though richly layered with decades of creator contributions and sometimes so archetypally pure as to survive almost any embarrassing mutilation, most mainstream superhero characters work not at crime-fighting or entertainment so much as at marketing. At the end of the day, Superman has to go sell Underoos and Batman gets his head planted on the top of a Pez dispenser. It is difficult to even begin to explain the ways in which this fundamental truth necessarily dominates and regulates character and story development. No one ever mentions it, but it is the financial driving force of the industry and ultimately influences every decision ever made about a superhero comic book. The next time you catch yourself balling your fists in frustration over a story line and yelling “Why don’t they just – ” I can almost guarantee you that the answer is “toothpaste.”
Second most important fact: there’s a huge difference between knowing everything about a comic character and knowing how to tell a story about that character.
How does working for a large corporation like Marvel or DC affect your job as a writer?
Um … you mean as opposed to working independently or for a smaller company? I actually find both companies fairly pleasant entities to work for most of the time, though certainly, in all industries, the larger the company the more virulent the bureaucracy. These are comic book people, though, and it doesn’t really take that long, once you’re in the industry, to have access to and get to know the major players, which can be very rewarding. Someone like Paul Levitz, for example, is not just the publisher, he’s also an extremely talented writer and a brilliant guy. I love talking to him just to glean wisdom. When I was working on The Titans I asked him how he plotted out his Legion story arcs and he drew me this great chart and really took the time to talk to me about subplots and the importance of individual characterization in team books. It was so generous of him and so inspiring for me. And Joe Quesada, of course, is “one of us.” Most of us “knew him when” and he remains one of the nicest, realest, most approachable guys in the industry. He’s also an artist, so just as Levitz really does know what it’s like to be a freelancer, Joe was one, figuratively speaking, yesterday. He totally gets it and is a tremendous asset to the industry balancing both those roles.
No matter which company you’re working for, comic-book writing is not an office job. We’re technically independent contractors, paid by completed project and working independently from home offices or studios. The only exception to that rule that I can think of is CrossGen, where creators were asked to actually report to an office and sit there every day, and although I imagine that worked reasonably well for certain types of creators, by and large I think it’s a crummy idea as, apparently, does providence (for those of you who don’t follow industry politics, CrossGen was a vanity publishing company in Florida that tanked after three years of operation). What that means in terms of your question is that even though I’m working for a very large company, I’m sitting here in my pajamas blasting the Eels and drinking home-brewed ice tea. On a day-to-day basis, the corporate culture doesn’t affect me very much. But it does come into play in terms of both the initial conversations about and clearance checks on the work I do, and then again during the final acceptance and marketing stages of that work.
For example, doing a Batman script for DC means that:
- My initial idea has to be cleared by my editor who may, if it’s controversial enough, have to get it cleared by the Batman Group Editor (Bob Schreck) who may, in turn, have to get it cleared by the VP (Dan Didio), the legal department, and/or the publisher (Paul Levitz).
- This means that, though I’m all excited and ready to work, I cannot start that script until all those people chime in and agree. Sometimes that’s a matter of three minutes worth of e-mailing, and sometimes it takes four months (during which, if that’s the only project I’m working on, I receive no pay, even if I’m rewriting the idea – or pitch – every week to address various concerns).
- It’s even possible that, after four months of trying to get this idea to work, someone decides it just won’t. Bam! I’m out four months pay and have to start at square one (unless the company agrees to a project “kill fee,” which is a way of paying me for my time even though there will be no published project).
- Assuming everyone does finally agree and I get the green light, the project can still be torpedoed in progress (i.e., while I’m writing it) by any of the following: a) another writer initiates a continuity status quo change that affects my story line (the editors are supposed to stay on top of this and usually do, but things do fall through the cracks sometimes), b) a crossover event begins, either derailing or postponing my story arc, c) an artist either makes a mistake or decides to change something in the script (again, this isn’t supposed to happen, but sometimes does), resulting in the editor calling me apologetically to tell me that it’s faster for me to change the dialogue than for the artist to redraw the page, d) a major motion picture and/or licensing deal is announced that somehow changes the requirements of what I’m doing (for example, when Greg Rucka and I were working on the ending of No Man’s Land, we at one point received a list of characters we couldn’t kill, no matter how much sense it made for the story, because they were either marketable action figures, appearing on a cartoon regularly, or were in some way considered essential to the Batman “franchise”; e.g., anything that can be sold. That left us, as I recall, with two viable choices out of something like seventeen).
- If I finish the product and someone in the hierarchy objects to it, it can still be pulled (or “shredded” as we like to say at that point).
- If I finish the script and turn it in and voucher (request payment for it) but then the artist draws something totally different than what I asked for and/or the editor changes dialogue, etc … I have no recourse to get my name removed from the final product even if I hate it, because it was created for DC under contract and becomes their property the moment I turn it in. I have at least one book I can think of that came out with my name on it that retains maybe two of my original sentences, tops. That feels pretty awful when it happens, but it’s part of the reality of freelancing. The same thing can happen to the penciler if he doesn’t like the inker’s work – his work is compromised, very few people know the difference between what he did originally and what appears on the page, but he’s going to shoulder the blame because the book will come out with his name on it.
- Even if I have strong ideas about how the story should be marketed, chances are I won’t even be consulted about copy for Previews and/or “house ads” (advertisements for DC Comics that appear within DC Comics). The nightmare example of this is the crucial plot twist that you’ve worked so hard to keep secret ending up printed in Previews or Wizard because someone in marketing has never spoken to you and didn’t understand that it was a reveal.
Those are some of the realities of working on a contractual basis with franchise characters for a major publishing house. The flip side is that your product is usually quite well-funded (which means it will come out nicely packaged and strongly marketed with no effort on your part), you get to work with other professionals at the top of their game without having to go searching for them (the editor is usually in charge of assembling the creative team for any given project), the product is published at no financial risk to you (meaning you make your page rate even if only two copies sell), and, of course, you have the amazing honor of receiving access to some of the most dynamic, iconic fictional characters in the history of literature.
What role does an editor play? How much influence does an editor have on the work? In the end, who wins the argument?
The editor is extremely important in mainstream superhero comics. He or she is responsible for assembling the team (pairing writers and artists who will work well together, finding an inker that will complement the penciler, getting the right colorist, and figuring out how to get all of those people on the same schedule), “traffic copping” (which sounds menial but is actually the terrifically important job of making sure that the assembly line work flow keeps moving … if I’m late with a script, for example, the artist can’t start, and the inker can’t do anything until the artist turns in his or her pencils, and of course the colorist is waiting on the inker, etc.), troubleshooting (which can include anything from getting art references for a penciler to talking a writer off a ledge to fixing something that has already gone horrifically awry), continuity-proofing (which entails knowing what’s going on in every other book that’s being produced and being able and willing to communicate with other offices to, for example, make sure Ra’s Al Ghul isn’t dead in one book and paddling down the Suwannee River in another, or to make arrangements for a Bat-writer to use Superman or the Flash in a story, etc.). He or she is also the creative team’s advocate (“What!? Why can’t I show condoms on Dick’s bedside table!? We’re not supposed to advocate safe sex!? Dammit, go talk to Paul!”) and, most importantly, the corporate guardian of the characters (“Okay, here’s the deal. I spoke with Paul, and he talked to Burbank, and you can show crumpled foil near the bed, but that’s it. The Warner Bros. office is concerned about explicit sexual content in a Bat-related book that could conceivably be picked up by a 10-year-old in Utah … etc”).
Generally, a good editor’s work is invisible. He or she has put together a strong creative team, helped clear the way for them to get where they wanted to go corporately, assisted them in getting there creatively if necessary, delivered the product to the company on time and helped to make everyone feel relaxed and happy (and/or excited and pumped up) about what they were doing. There are, of course, bad editors who put together ill-suited teams (which usually results in said editor then having to field a lot of calls from unhappy freelancers), won’t go to bat for their freelancers (“Let’s just not make any waves, OK?”), and/or, most egregiously of all in my opinion, feel the need to “put their mark” on everything that comes out of their office, either over-steering projects or indulging in heavy-handed editing (personally, I think an editor should never change a writer’s dialogue without first asking the writer if he or she would like a crack at it, but it happens). There are also great editors who occasionally fall into one of these holes.
The cream of the crop operate like muses for their freelancers, laboring with creative talent to get the very best work out of them and inspiring the creators to strive for and achieve greater goals than they could or would have without the encouragement. Creating can be lonely work, and sometimes the editor’s job is really to function as a cheerleader, touching in by phone or e-mail just to stroke a little ego or make sure the creator feels like they’re part of a team instead of an isolated workhorse. Though this may feel undignified or banal to the editor, it’s actually hugely important. I once had an editor show me the list of artists he called every single day just to say “hi,” because that’s what they needed to keep going. And damn if he didn’t get great work out of them.
The final say is always the editor’s (or, truthfully, the editor’s boss’), except on a creator-owned projects where the writer does have the option of pulling the project to shop it elsewhere. If a Batman editor and I are arguing about a Batman story, though, I’m allowed and even encouraged to present my case, but we both know that at the end of the day, what editorial says, goes. This is a basic function of ownership. Who owns the character? They have the final say.
What about the publishers and upper management? How do their roles affect you as a writer?
They set the general tone, both in terms of workplace culture and creative direction. And, of course, they vary tremendously in terms of how hands-on they are – Mike Carlin was the head of editorial at DC for years when I was first working for the company, and although big, new projects had to get his OK before they could be pitched to the publisher, in general my sense was that he encouraged the group editors (i.e. Batman group, Superman group, JLA group) to follow their own hearts and set their own tones, the result being diverse, and to some extent separatist, material. In comparison, current VP Dan Didio is extremely involved on the creative level, working with a (very) small group of writers to create binding continuity events for the entire DCU, the result being tight continuity, but much less autonomy for individual creators and far less product diversity.
Upper management (VPs or editors in chief) also has a lot of influence on hiring practices, so when you see, for instance, a lot of fresh, new talent, that’s a new editor or an edict from upper management. Similarly, when you see a trend towards, to put it bluntly, “star fucking,” when every book is suddenly being assigned to someone outside the industry who has some kind of major pop culture cred, that’s usually the result of upper management wanting to attract a certain kind of publicity and cache.
Can you take us through the life of a script? What happens after you write it and turn it in? What are the steps?
An editor would be even clearer on this than I am, but here’s my understanding of what happens. I send my script in to the book editor as a Word file attached to an e-mail. For a regular series, like Nightwing, often no one else needs to look at it, but for a larger project, like the Ra’s Al Ghul “Year One” thing (or during a crossover event), the script itself may also have to be approved by the other editors in the editorial group, and possibly even by upper management and/or the company publisher. During crossovers, they also get sent to other writers working on the same event. If any of those people have a problem with it, a good editor calls or e-mails the writer and talks him or her through the changes they want. The writer then has a day or two to make those changes and turn the script back in. A bad editor just changes stuff without calling the freelancer. The only thing I hate more than being asked to change things is not being asked to change things.
Once the company has a script they’re happy with, the editor sends a copy to the penciler. Very new pencilers will be asked to send in a breakdown, or “spring board,” of what they intend to do; a regular series artist may do that for him or herself but will otherwise pretty much just dive in. If reference material is needed, the artists may call the scriptwriter or the editor (whichever he or she tends to get faster responses from), ditto questions (it frequently happens that you’re working on the sixth script for a series and the artists calls with questions about the second or third issue, which can be a little disorienting for a second).
As the penciler finishes batches of pages (the standard comic book is 22 pages of art), he sends them in to the editor, who indicates where the balloon placements for the dialogue are going to be if the penciler hasn’t already done this, and then forwards the pages on to the inker. The inker goes over the penciler’s work, refining it and adding weight and texture to the lines.
From the inker, I believe the art pages go back to the editor and then out to the letterer, who also receives a copy of the script from the editor and gets the proper text into the captions and balloons, sometimes by hand but with increasing frequency by computer. When all the pages have been penciled, inked, and lettered, the editor sends a copy back to the writer, called the issue “black-and-white.” This is usually the first time the writer has seen the art work, and it’s usually a month or two after having finished the script – the good news is that the writer now has time to correct any mistakes in the text – either typos or dialogue corrections that help the text work better with the art. The bad news is that it’s usually way too late at this point to change any of the art, so if something has gone wrong – say the penciler has strayed way off the original script and the editor didn’t check the art pages against the script, so now there’s a major missing element in the story or and unexpected, extra beat – it’s up to the writer to fix it. That, as you can imagine, has been known to cause some tension between writers and artists – there’s nothing like turning in a really tight script that achieves everything you want it to only to get back art two months letter that bears no resemblance to what was requested and then be asked by your editor to change the dialogue to match the artwork instead of the other way around. So much for auteurism! But as much of a pain in the neck as this is, the reasoning for it is obvious – it takes the penciler and inker easily twice as much time to patch a finished art page as it takes the writer and letterer to change some dialogue, and any business that puts out monthly products isn’t about perfection, it’s about getting something – sometimes anything! – out onto those shelves.
The writer sends in any text and very minor art corrections back to the editor, who forwards those changes to the letterer and inker, and then the black and white gets sent to the colorist.
As the writer, I don’t see or hear anything about the book again until it shows up in my comp box, but after it gets colored, it gets resized, printed, shipped, and distributed.
How does the relationship work between the writer/penciler/colorist? Does anyone have veto power over anyone else’s work?
Technically, the editor has veto power over everyone’s work, but beyond refusing to work with each other, freelancers don’t have much say once a project’s rolling. There’s just no time. Vetoing something would mean it would have to get done over again, and that practically never happens – the book would miss the ship date, which would lose the publisher money, and no one cares about anyone’s ego enough to let that happen. Now, I’m talking about mainstream DC and Marvel comics – it’s a little different if the project is creator-owned and potentially quite different if the project is self-published. But if you’re working for The Man, you learn real quickly how you fit into the assembly line. That the quality of most comic books is as high as they are is actually something of a miracle, and part of what I love about the business. Knowing what everyone goes through and how frustrated everyone sometimes gets, it’s amazing how well things work out so much of the time.
And think about this too for a minute in terms of artistic ego: The writer puts their all into a script, which then can be literally rewritten by an editor or figuratively reinterpreted by an artist, and as freelancers, we don’t have the legal right to get our name off of the book even if we loathe the final project. The penciler puts a whole month or more into these 22 pages … and then literally has someone draw over his or her work. God help you if you don’t like your inker, you’re totally screwed. By the same token, the inker usually never even sees the script and has no say in the penciled pages that arrive, but he or she has to make them work. And all three of these people have to ask how high if the editor, at any point in the project, says jump. And the editor, to be fair, is answering to God knows how many higher-ups, trying to keep both the company and the freelancers happy. It utterly astounds me when people talk about wanting to break into comics to be recognized or to “finally have control over the characters.” I think this is part of the reason why comic creators get as defensive as they sometimes do about virulent criticism – I certainly don’t feel, and I know that few of my colleagues do, that most readers truly understand what goes into the creation of these products and how much compromising we’ve already had to do before anyone even opens the book. That’s just the price for working with such high-level characters and, as far as that’s concerned, it is, ultimately, worth it. It’s an incredibly cool job, but it is a job, complete with bosses, co-workers, company policies and all kind of other things that can be either blessings or curses on any given day.
How does your job work with a letterer? Can you ask to go back in and change a line break?
I don’t tend to speak directly to the letterer (though I’m always happy to), but after I see the black-and-white, I can contact the editor and ask for changes, and they’ll get made if they’re reasonable and not too time-consuming. Generally, a line break is not something you’d make a letterer go back in and fix, but a misspelled word (even if it’s my fault from the original script) or a serious punctuation error is, assuming that we catch it in time. Every now and then a line that worked great in the script reads off on the page, and again, if there’s time, we’ll change it. But by the time the writer receives the issue black-and-white, express shipped from the editor, there’s usually less than eight hours to indicate those changes.
How are politics prevalent in the comic industry? What are the slips a new artist or writer should avoid doing/saying?
The more money that’s involved, the thinner the political tightrope you can expect to be walking. I think there are three very important things to remember.
The first is: BE WILLING TO LEARN. As much as you may know about your own skill and the characters and what you do or do not like in a comic, the people you start working for will invariably know more about the business of making comics than you will. You must be willing to listen to them and treat them with respect. They are responsible for answering to business higher-ups and putting out X amount of comics every single month and believe me, they don’t care nearly as much about “fixing” that one continuity mistake that’s been driving you crazy since 1987 as you do. You are there, ultimately, to make someone else money. That sounds harsh, but it’s just a bottom line of business that you have to keep in mind. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do work that you find meaningful or that no one cares about your passion – they do. It just means that unless you’re willing to dig into your own wallet to produce your own vision, you’re going to have to cooperate with the people who are. And by “cooperate” I mean “do what they say.” You can always argue, you can make your case, you can quit, you can refuse to work with certain editors or freelancers … but at some point if you’re doing a lot of this you need to recognize that you may be in the wrong line of work. Being an independent contractor means using your skill to deliver your client something made to his or her specifications.
The second is: BE FLEXIBLE. Comics are a serialized medium that demand fresh product every month. You may have the best idea in the history of fiction, but if you can’t immediately change 14 things about it on request (such and such character is unavailable, so-and-so can’t do that because we have him selling toothpaste in a major national campaign next month, this-or-that was destroyed in the last big event and can’t be used now, or – I swear to god, the worst one I ever heard about – “This doesn’t seem very visual, but what if they were all cats?”) and develop it into 12 other ongoing story arcs, your one story is, quite frankly, not going to be worth an editor’s time. They’re not going to develop you as a writer because of one great idea when they could instead put their effort into someone who consistently coughs up 20 OK ideas. Comics are about flexibility and quantity, not continuity and quality. To be successful, you have to be someone who loves the process of writing — the thinking and the starting over and being all alone in front of a keyboard and sweating it out part — not just someone who loves comics. I’m sure you guys already know not to get into comics for fame (if you need a reminder of how nice readers are to comic writers, type my name into any comics-related BBS search engine and enjoy the love), and I can tell you right now that there hasn’t been money involved in it since that last X-Men boom in the ’80s. And I wish I could tell you that it’s worthwhile to go into it for love of the characters, which is what I tried to do, but the truth is, even that ends up pretty badly: the characters are corporate-owned entities designed for marketing deals, and chances are good that there’s a reason no one has ever yet tried your One Great Idea. Chances are, we’re not allowed to. The only reason to work in comics as a writer is because you love writing. Any other motivation will bring you grief.
Last but not least: BE NICE. As outlined above, a lot of people are involved in constructing a comic. It’s a team effort. You’re not going to like everyone, and you don’t have to. But you really do have to be professional and polite. There are a few heavyweight, well-established talents who get pretty vocal when they’re unhappy and I guess it works for them, but I really don’t recommend it for those just starting out. This doesn’t mean you have to be obsequious, just that you need to recognize that everyone is there because someone believes they have something to offer. And actually, there are an unusually high number of extremely talented people in this industry and there’s probably something you can learn from almost every single one of them.
So that new writers don’t get shortchanged — What can a new writer expect as a salary range?
With DC and Marvel, you receive a starting page rate (receivable in full when the project is completed and accepted), which is increased slowly over time (unless you’re doing a prose project – the novels are generally 75K words for a set price). Beginning page rates, last time I checked (which was quite a while ago) are around $70 per. It tops out around $120, unless you have a special deal (like an exclusive contract with a special page rate or bonus). The big companies are not going to shortchange you, it’s not in their best interest. The smaller companies often pay less because they have less capital to play with, but sometimes you can get more autonomy on a project or have more say in picking your team.
And remember, too, that it’s not salary. It’s contractual pay. Even if you are working on an exclusive contract with a guarantee of X amount of work over the course of a year, you do not get paid until that work is completed, and you cannot complete that work until those projects are cleared. There is never a guarantee that the next check is coming. Your series can be canceled. You can be replaced. You can removed from a book for a few months while something else happens. You can be stuck in clearance limbo for months at a time. Freelancing, by definition, is not a secure line of work.
The other tricky thing to remember is that this is untaxed income. The companies keep track of what they pay you in any given year, but they do not withhold tax money. Full-time freelancers (in the U.S.) pay quarterly taxes, including self-employment tax. The minute you get paid, put 40 percent of it away for the government and try not to cry.
Terry Moore said it’s harder to stay in the business than it is to break in. What should writers do after they finish their first gigs?
BEFORE you finish your first assignment, you need to be networking with the editors and drumming up new work. Unfortunately, self-marketing and artistic skills don’t often go hand and hand, but you have to learn both to survive. A common mistake is to wait until something’s finished to start looking for your next project – if at all possible, you want it lined up well before you voucher (turn in and request payment for) your previous project. Lulls can be perceived as a “loss of heat” (“You were so hot last month but now I’m not hearing anything about you …” – “Uh, well, you would if you’d let me do this next project.” – “Well, I’d let you do that project if you were generating heat.” – the old Catch-22). As I think I said earlier, the editor is the only one who can assign work to you (though if you only know one editor, you do want to turn in the work you owe him or her before asking for more – the hope is that you’ve managed to meet more than one).
You also need to build up a reputation … for almost anything. Just something that distinguishes you from the pack. I’m known among the editors, for instance, as being good with characterization, so I tend to be one of the first freelancers they think of when they have a very character-driven story they want to assign. Other writers are known for being great with action or crime drama or team dynamics or even just for being reliable and fast. Usually, the guy known for action can also do characterization and the chick known for characterization can also do action, but that doesn’t matter (you’ll get a chance to prove that once you’re actually working), what matters is that you’re associated with something. Same goes for artists.
There’s an old adage in the business: “A perfect freelancer is talented, fast, and easy to work with. But two out of three will do.” Early on, you really need to hit all three.
And Terry Moore, by the way, is one of the genuinely nicest and smartest guys you’ll ever get a chance to talk to.
What is a theme and why is it important to a comic story? Is it necessary?
Theme is one of several key elements involved in story structure. I’m happy to discuss it here, but be aware that we’re doing so out of context. To really explore theme, you need to look at where it fits in the complete structure of a story. For that I recommend formal story-structure training, either via a fiction class, a seminar (Robert McKee’s “Story Structure” is a famous and high-quality workshop you can often find offered in L.A. and New York), or some good, old-fashioned reading (there are tons of books available on story structure these days, but a few I can personally recommend are: Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, Bonnet’s Stealing Fire from the Gods, and McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting).
The theme is the value the story is exploring on an emotional level. This is different from what’s actually happening in the story (the action), who or what is being operated upon in the story (the protagonist, closely tied into the story point of view), and also different from the world the story covers (the subject). Though obviously Batman stories cover many different themes, in general I’d say by way of example that the over-arching legend of Batman is a story about a tragic hero (Bruce, our protagonist) struggling to become and remain a hero (the action) dark and powerful enough to defend virtue (the dominant plot) in a threatening, violent urbanscape (Gotham, our subject). The theme of the Batman legend is vengeance (and by extension, its opposite, forgiveness).
Theme is important in any story – comic book or otherwise – because it is the essence of what the story is communicating. It is the why of the story, the essential truth behind the allegory. To make up a spur-of-the-moment allegory to explain this, imagine that we’re sailing. The plot is our boat. Without that, we’re going nowhere. The subject is our ocean – everything we might include or refer to during our journey, the world in which our travels take place. Theme is our destination. Without it, we might have a really cool boat and a beautiful (or turbulent) sea to ride, but we’ll never get anywhere. We’d have nowhere to go.
Now, it is possible to write a story without intentionally having a theme, but usually one will suggest itself to you along the way, or be evident to your reader even if it’s eluded you. And usually the parts of the story not directly commenting in some way on the theme will feel superfluous and out of synch with the rest of the story. You can see this sometimes in a monthly comic that’s been interrupted by a crossover event – the writer’s exploring a theme in the series, and then there will be two to four pages introducing or commenting on a new action that just seem incredibly out of place. That’s ’cause they are. They’re part of another, larger story, with, more often not, a completely different theme.
Where do I get themes? Do I just make them up or is there a list I should choose from?
There’s no list. You get it from your head (or, if you’ll allow some sentimentality, your heart). The theme is what you’re talking about, what you’re sharing. If you don’t have anything you want to talk about, it’s going to be difficult to convince other people to care about your story.
Superhero comics are interesting in this regard because there’s already a default theme in place, like vengeance for Batman or altruism for Superman. But to really make your mark – to get readers excited about your story – you’d probably better find something new to talk about. My main theme for the Batman stories in Gotham Knights, for example, was sacrifice – the stories were about Batman and his family and they were exploring the nature of sacrifice – what you have to give up (and, by extension, what you can keep) to be effective in that particular mission. Vengeance is still present as an undercurrent, but those stories aren’t exploring that particular theme in any depth. Though there are lots of different characters and story lines, thematically what tied my run on that book together was an exploration of personal sacrifice.
Can I have more than one? How many is too many?
You can explore different themes in a story, but then you’re splitting your focus. I guess the answer to how many is too many is: one more than how many you can keep track of and articulately comment on or authentically explore. But I think unless the themes are wedded somehow – jealously and revenge, for example, or altruism and self-sacrifice, you’re making the story unnecessarily complicated for your readers and yourself. That’s a tricky questions though, I’d have to think of a few more examples. My hunch is that looking at too many themes means that none of them get explored very deeply, and it’s more powerful to stick with one and really delve into the true nature of it. If you have a story thematically exploring love and jealousy and sacrifice and ambition and grief and betrayal and passion and pride, for example, I think nine times out of 10, you’ll end up with histrionic mud. In fiction, too, you don’t state the nature of a theme – if you want to tell me what love is, then write an essay. In fiction we explore what things can and might mean. And to do that with any honesty, I think you need to commit yourself story by story to specific explorations. Otherwise, every time you got close to a thematic value that surprised or confused you, you could just shift thematic focus, and nobody would learn anything.
How do thematic development and character development work together?
Well, there’s two separate levels of character development. The initial character development happens independent of theme, it’s the deepening and fleshing out of character creation. At least the way I write, the characters come first, and they get to be pretty whole and three-dimensional well before I even start thinking about what I want to explore with them and then what that means will have to happen.
But then yes, there is character development that happens during the course of the story, and there will be a thematic parallel. To oversimplify (and still be completely incomprehensible), you are attempting, in a story, to have your protagonist integrate the lessons of the nature of the theme into his being. Going back to our Batman example, then, if our theme is vengeance, Batman’s character begins developing as someone in pursuit of this rather nebulous concept. His defeats and victories continually teach him more about the true nature of vengeance – that, for example, it will not heal the pain of his grief, but that the continuing desire for vengeance will be a quality from which he can continue to draw strength. As he integrates these lessons, he develops as a character. Eventually, depending on which version of the story you like, he either finds the man who murdered his parents, or realizes that he probably never will find him – and in both stories, he nonetheless goes out again the very next night, and all the nights thereafter. He has at this point integrated vengeance into his character and, essentially, transcended it. And here we explore another important quality of vengeance – it is fiery and taxing and not endlessly sustainable. Batman, our hero, continues on.
Character development, by the way, is one of the trickiest things to tackle in serialized drama, because if a book is running for 60-odd years, there’s a status quo that the character will have to be returned to. With an ongoing project like Nightwing, the story has no clear beginning or end, so it’s not just a matter of getting Dick from Point A to Point Z and then ending the story. In ongoing comics we have to work with story arcs and the “illusion of change.” To actually have a character grow is very tricky, and must be approached with great subtlety and patience.
What if the reader doesn’t pickup on the theme?
Then they probably will say something like “I didn’t get the story” – it won’t connect for them or mean anything to them. That may be a matter of individual taste, or it may be that you as the writer weren’t clear or focused enough (or, as we’ve explored earlier, that you were knocked off course by an element beyond your control). Theme is a difficult thing to work with clearly and it takes continual practice. When it does work, it’s very rewarding and when it doesn’t, well, you have an opportunity then to play with that theme again and see if you can go deeper.
It’s also possible that your reader will respond to the story and think it’s powerful even if they can’t consciously identify or summarize the theme. That’s OK. That means that thematic value was present for them in some way, and that’s good enough. Not everyone knows how to deconstruct a story, and that’s fine, that’s not a requirement. What’s more problematic is when people don’t know how to read a basic story structure, and that happens in comics quite a bit. The clearest example of this I can personally relate concerns Relative Heroes. The theme of that story is grief (and, by extension, denial). That’s what’s being explored. But one of the most common criticisms I heard about the story, in the words, even, of one professional reviewer who should have known better was that, to paraphrase, he didn’t like the story because the kids weren’t dealing with their grief. Well … that’s what the story was about; the journey from denial to expression. The reason the reader expected the characters to be grieving was because I had put that on stage and identified it as the problem. Now, it’s certainly possible that I didn’t resolve the issue satisfyingly or well, but this was a six-part story, and if you read to the end, you would see the issue addressed. These complaints and this review were based on the second or third issue. It’s completely legitimate to criticize a writer for not handling a theme well, but to read half of a story and criticize them, essentially, for presenting a conflict that hasn’t yet been resolved is a little odd and shows ignorance of basic story structure (of course it’s not resolved in Act II, it’s not supposed to be!).
I actually ended up contacting that reviewer and asking him if DC had mentioned, when they sent him those issues to review, that it was only a six-part story (with, then presumably, a beginning, middle and end) and he admitted that he hadn’t even realized that. He had reviewed it as if it were a continuing serial. He might still have not liked the story, which is fine, but in no other kind of writing that I’ve been involved with do readers point out story conflict – the key component of drama and rising action – as the element they want removed from the story. Conflict is set up and put on stage in stories to be resolved. A reader who panics the minute they see conflict in a story and assumes that it will never be addressed simply does not have experience with reading structured fiction (which may be a criticism of the comics industry as much as any individual reader). You may not like the way a writer solves a problem, but you have to understand that when they put a problem on the page, they are doing so in order to address it. To assume they’re unaware of the conflict (that they themselves have set up) is a kind of dramatic structure illiteracy that I find both very interesting and very frustrating. I’ve really started to wonder if this points to a larger structural failure in serialized fiction, but so far, I haven’t seen that.
Is there any practice you can suggest for working on thematic development?
As mentioned above, it’s critical to study story structure in its entirety. There’s no point in mastering theme if you don’t understand rising action and archetypes and dramatic conflict and story wheels. If it sounds intimidating, don’t worry. The cool thing is, once you absorb all of it, you kind of get to put it aside – it’s the technique you fall back on, not the unbreakable law. And, of course, there are probably plenty of great writers who never studied formally, but why not avail yourself of the knowledge of those who did? Better to know and choose to disregard (or use) than not to know.
Also, read! Not just comics – read novels and poetry and short stories and movie scripts and song lyrics and essays, both to develop vocabulary and awareness of structure. Find out what moves you, what you’re interested in – not just in terms of subjects, but in terms of themes. What are the themes currently dominating your own life? Can you identify them? Are there themes you find yourself drawn to over and over again in songs or movies or TV shows? What do you most want to talk to the world about? What do you really wish you understood? What are you most afraid of? What are your own core values and have you explored them? Talk to everyone. Try to resist judging people, or when you do judge them, try to imagine what series of events might have created them, try to find something about them you can respect, even love. Invite questions and uncertainty and exploration. Learn to live with flux.
And write! Every day. About anything. Just keep doing it. It is, at the end of the day, the one thing that absolutely all successful writers do.
And last but not least, live! You won’t be able to explore themes very deeply if you don’t have authentic experiences to draw from. The best thing about being a writer is that absolutely everything is relevant – every friend you speak to, every place you visit, every bit of technical jargon you memorize, every skill you master, every event you attend, every food you taste, every mistake you make, every emotion you feel – all of it is usable. And don’t make up your mind about anything. Fiction is about truth, not reality. To explore truth we need to be open-minded and experimental and fearless. We need to understand how many different ways there are to live one’s life, how many choices we make every day, how we come to be who we believe we are. Everything is germane, from the smallest detail to the broadest generality. When you put writing out into the world, you’re asking for people to listen to you.
Have something to say.
—Interview by Tim Leong