Brutal Tips On Breaking In To Comics
All right, recently, I lost two very dear friends of mine, writers who were intelligent, inspiring and endlessly supportive to me. One was Perry Moore, author of the lgbtq YA superhero novel HERO, and the other was Dwayne McDuffie, one of the finest writers of comics and animation ever.
These two guys were dissimilar in many ways, but they both had a quality that made them heroes to me, and that is that they spoke truth to power. They loved comics as fiercely as the rest of us, but they were not afraid to point out the blemishes and open wounds, and they addressed those problems in their own work. And over a period of just a couple weeks, we lost both their voices. They can’t be replaced but others can carry on with that mission. Maybe you’re one of those people. And that’s why I’m doing this, to potentially help someone who has that goal in mind.
When I am talking to people about breaking in, I am honest, but I try to be kind, and polite, and patient. I try to find positive things to say. The problem is, and I’m sure everyone who has reviewed a portfolio knows what I’m saying, that that’s not what someone who REALLY wants to break in and has the stuff to make it happen needs to hear. They need to hear the truth. So, I’m going to give some truth tonight. A lot of this, you should already know. I am not going to talk about craft or format or anything like that. That material is out there. If you want to do this right, find it, study it, buy the books, do the research. I’m going to assume for this discussion that you have the baseline talent level required to make it in. I’m also assuming for this discussion that you want to work at one of the larger publishers. That may not be the case for you, but it’s what I get asked about the most.
I want to make this very clear…I’m not presenting points for an argument, I’m not offering an opportunity to present excuses. No one can fix whatever roadblocks are in your way but yourself. Telling me about it doesn’t help anything. If you want my advice, which you are then free to ignore, just listen, let it sink in, and then do with it what you will. I’m trying to help, but how seriously you take it is up to you.
I am going to say some things that will make some aspiring creators unhappy. It will be uncomfortable. Again, it’s your choice to listen. If my saying that fanfic can be holding you back makes you feel defensive, I’d stop right here, because it gets a lot worse.
Simply put, there’s a lot of polite stuff out there. There’s a lot of books on craft and blogs with scripts you can study. Partake of that stuff.
This is more to kick your ass and get you to stop kidding yourself, if that’s what’s holding you back. It is SOLELY intended to help you get to a position to work on comics. What you make of that chance is up to you entirely.
STEP ONE: Consider Reality.
You are talking about breaking in to an exclusive group that has a surplus of people applying for every paying assignment in a niche industry where tastes change like the whisk of a second hand. If all you know about being a pro comics writer is what you see at cons, in interviews, and on message boards, yes, it looks like a good laugh, and no, it’s not like digging ditches. But you are never off the clock. Deadlines never stop, never go away. You can do your very best work and have it demolished by a mistake in the printing. The more you care, the harder it is.
The reality is different than the fantasy. It’s hard, and breaking in is really hard. And freelancers usually have to pay their own insurance and have few benefits that most employees receive, and little to no job security. Weigh all that carefully. Think if you want to put your family through that. An editor can take you off a book without thinking twice. Most people breaking in make very little money at first and many never REALLY achieve financial stability. Some of the all time greats in comics? They’re still alive, and can’t get work in the field they helped build. I keep wanting to tell the positive side, but odds are, you already know the positive side. Give this a thought, a long, solid thought, before jumping in. It’s a tough business, a fluid business. Also, if you go in expecting unending adoration from readers, you’re doomed. Doomed, I tell you.
STEP TWO: Assess, Assess, Assess.
First, you need to shake the stars out of your eyes and look at your work. If you don’t have any work, GO MAKE SOME WORK. Decide what your ultimate goal is, what your dream job in comics is. Then look at your work as though someone else did it. Look at it as though you just paid three dollars for it and it was done by someone you don’t know. Don’t look for perfection, but for God’s sake don’t overlook the flaws, either. If you’re an artist, grab three comics you like and compare the art you’ve done to the art in those books. If you aren’t anywhere near that level of quality, then you need to work hard, improve, and come back. If you’re a writer, reread your stories. Have someone else, preferably a writer, read them. Be brutal. Start over if necessary. Repeat until your brain explodes.
Compare your work. No one expects you to be Adam Hughes just starting out. But if you can’t bring something better than the ten thousand artists out there who already can’t get work, then you’re dead before you start. You can’t be 50% ready and get hired. You have to be 90% ready and prepared to learn the other 10% immediately. If not, you have to face the very real possibility that you do not have the baseline level of skill involved to work on Spider-man. That doesn’t have to be the end. Make a project that suits your talents, find a different niche. Don’t just be brutal, be RELENTLESS.
STEP THREE: Find Your Voice, Dammit.
This is the closest thing to an Oprah moment in this discussion so enjoy it while you can. You need to find out what it is about your work that brings something to the table that is missing in comics. I say this a lot, but it’s a fact. There’s already a Brian Bendis. There is already a Grant Morrison. You are not those guys. And editors have seen a thousand imitators and are not interested. What do you bring to the table, as a creator? Can you answer that off the top of your head? Have you given it serious thought?
Is your art style unique? Is your viewpoint unusual and compelling? You need to find that thing not because it brings you joy and rainbows, you need to find that thing because you are a salesperson and this is your goddamn PRODUCT, that you have to sell door to door to very resistant editors. If YOU don’t know what it is you want to sell, I guarantee you, the publishers don’t, either.
I thought every way to tell a decent Fantastic Four story had been told, ‘til Jonathan Hickman showed up and pissed on that notion completely. I thought Spider-man’s visual was getting musty and stale, until Eric Canete showed up and made him look like he was freshly minted. Scott Snyder is making me look at Batman as though I’d never read the character before in my life. You have to be able to do that. You have to bring something new. Writers here will say, “yeah, but it’s harder to SHOW that as a writer,” and I say yes, it is. A lot. Very much. Want some warm milk?
Don’t come to me asking advice as a writer without being able to tell me what it is you think you can bring to the industry that it’s currently lacking. When I asked, earlier this evening, who on Tumblr wanted to break into comics, there were a lot of decent answers…but only a couple of them said right out what they wanted to bring to the industry. And those are the ones I remembered several hours later.
Several people are already working on it and were quick to provide links.
Those are the people you’re competing with, everyone. And they started the race already. It’s your job to catch up and pass them, if you can.
STEP FOUR: Decide On A Plan.
This is the big one. If you have considered and still want the job, if you have assessed and found your work passable, and you have found your voice so that you have a unique thing to offer, then it’s time to get serious.
The good news is, there are absolutely more ways to break in than ever. No question, no doubt about it. The internet means you can compete for visitors just as easily as a big corporation. And that’s pretty much the end of the good news.
Most publishers have no open submission policy. And when they did, no one got hired that way anyway. I had one publisher say they’d hired ONE artist through the slush pile, and another publisher say they’d never hired even that many.
You need to bring the editor’s eyes to you. There is no hidden doorway. You have to carve it yourself. But those ways are out there and there’s a multitude.
I got hired because I wrote a free column on the internet that showed I could make people laugh. Matt Fraction made films. Scott Snyder wrote prose. Nicola Scott was hired primarily for a page of Wonder Woman art she circulated on the internet. I just recently worked with a great artist named Cassandra James that I found doing sketch cards on message boards and right here on TUMBLR, for God’s sake. In short, their work was in front of eyeballs, including editors and creators.
If the answer is no, then you need to put down whatever else you’re doing and figure out a way to get your work seen.
Make a PLAN. I return to Nicola Scott. Nicola is a top artist now, but she did it the hard way. She lives several continents away from where the comics industry is based. She knew no one in comics. She had no real resume. And she scrimped and saved to fly from Australia every year to go to SDCC to spend a few precious minutes with an editor during a portfolio review. And she got rejected several times. And every time she went back and did her portfolio OVER.
Even with all of that, it was a Wonder Woman pin-up she put on a message board that ultimately got my, Greg Rucka’s, and Mike Carlin’s attention. And that got her hired. One way was expensive, traditional and not supremely effective. The other cost her some time and an internet connection. I’m simplifying, but time and again we are seeing people get work because of things they’ve done on the net.
People give me comics at every con I go to, mini-comics and self-printed things all the way up to expensive graphic novels they’ve printed themselves. I can’t bear to throw them away so I stack them in a stack and try to read them, but I’ve spoken with several editors who just throw them away. It’s a shot, but it’s still a tough way to go.
If I were trying to break in now, I would forego the editorial line entirely. Do a webcomic, do a tumlbr, follow editors and creators on Twitter and facebook. Show your best pieces. GET ATTENTION. Make them WANT to look. Don’t spam or harass these people. But get your work seen.
If you don’t listen to another word I say, make that your mantra. Get your work seen. Once you’re a pro, you usually have a professional bastard telling you to get to work. At this early stage, you have to be your OWN ruthless bastard taskmaster.
You can do a mini-comic, a webcomic, a column, prose work. Consider hooking up with a big comic website like Newsarama or Comicbookresources.com for the traffic and exposure. Be polite, be professional, but be persistent. I have a friend named Tom Stillwell, who publishes a book called Honor Brigade. He’s not an artist. He has a day job and a family. But he’s at every con he can make it to, selling his comic. He gives crayons and coloring pages to kids. He has displays and buttons. And his sheer dedication and hard work has made it so that several pros have contributed to his book, including myself, for free. I worry about some of my friends trying to break in. I don’t worry about Tom, because the industry just isn’t quite strong enough to stop him. You need to BE that guy.
Make a plan. You figure out a way to get your work seen. Put everything else aside. Follow the first four steps, take your best work and get it seen. Get it seen.
Get it seen.
STEP FIVE: Present Yourself.
Here’s where things get a little ugly. Your work is only part of the picture. How you present yourself to your potential editor is crucial.
Show that you have thought this through. Show that you are taking this seriously. If you use your precious time with an editor as a litany of excuses, you have told him in no uncertain terms that he should never, ever hire you. Every time I see a portfolio review, the artist always wants to ‘explain’ why the pieces are not finished, or why it’s all pin-ups, on and on. I have no idea how editors take it.
Be polite, be professional. If your portfolio sucks, fix it before showing it. If you are a writer, yes, it’s trickier. But you have to bring something to give your editor a reason to read your work. Have you won an award? Have you been printed in an anthology? SOMETHING in comic form is best. The art needn’t be perfect…if you’re a writer, they want to know that you can tell a story in pictures, that you understand the language of comics. This is a time to be bold.
Same thing with artists…do NOT apply for an interior art job with only pin-up and figure work pages. You HAVE to show some sequential work.
And another thing…if you are at this stage, it’s time to put away the fanfic.
No one really wants to talk about this, because people are so sensitive about it, but if you come to the table carrying fanfic baggage, it’s like showing up to a major league talent scout while still wearing your ill-fitting Little League outfit, or showing up to race Nascar on your skateboard.
They won’t take you seriously. Do not present your fanfic to show your writing skills. Do not present fanfic ideas as pitches. I can’t stress it enough. I’m sure people think I am being mean, but I don’t have a single thing against fanfic. Enjoy it, have fun, be happy. But if you are trying to compete with professional writers, then it’s time to put the fanfic away. You have to think of it as training wheels.
For a lot of people, fanfic brings them joy, and gives them something they can’t get from the actual comics being produced today. I say, more power to these folks, that’s wonderful, but you are flat out kidding yourself if you think it’s the same thing as pro writing. This isn’t a value judgment, it’s the goddamned truth and you should know that already. The process of writing pro fiction is worlds away from fan fiction, and you don’t want that kind of luggage holding you back. Honestly, a month writing professionally for comics and you will be so completely disabused of that notion you will laugh at yourself for even thinking it. It is, quite simply, a different world.
Fanfic is lovely. I’m glad it makes you happy. Now bury it in the backyard and review Step Four. You need that plan. What I want you to do, consider it an assignment, is to decide what you want in this career. Then I want you to make a plan to make that happen. Mini-comic, webcomic, prose, magazine article and illustration, film, columns, whatever. Make that plan. Do it tonight. And put away the excuses that are getting in your way. Don’t share them, don’t give them that power. Move around them. No one can clear that path for you. You have to do it. You have to be smart, talented, and determined like a bastard. And you have to put the things holding you back aside. Bury them in the yard and plant a tree over them. Work hard, make art you’re proud of and show it everywhere. Know what you offer and let others know it. Do it now. Start right now.
That’s it, really. I know most people are probably going to read this and kind of glaze over, and click on their favorite porn site. But the opportunity is there. It’s as much a matter of what to cut from your life as it is what goals to add.
Once you make it, there’s a lot of advice I have, but this is the stuff I wish I could convey to every new aspiring creator who asks me for tips. I know some other pros read this Tumblr and I’d love to hear from them as well.
It’s not impossible. People do it every week. It’s your choice.
Good luck. I mean it.