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This is part of Devin Grayson’s exclusive interview with Comic Foundry. For part one, please click here.
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