WHERE THE HELL AM I AND HOW DID I GET HERE?
Gate B1 at LaGuardia Airport. Eating a pretzel dog. Waiting to fly back to Kansas City after three days at a Marvel Comics writers summit. Knowing that when I get home I’ll be swamped with work. Back to writing a total of six different titles for two different companies. Having to keep eight and sometimes nine different art teams all working at the same time. And loving every single second of it.
That’s where the hell I am.
But how did I get here?
How did an awkward, little, mullet-headed nerd from deep in the backwoods of Alabama wind up stumbling his way into a career in comics?
Was it luck? Determination? An inability to succeed at anything else? Free porn?
Or would you believe, all of the above.
The simple answer is, I got lucky. I won a Marvel Comics talent search contest back in 2001 and got to write an eight page Wolverine story. I’d never written a comic script before, never written a pitch. But I’d been reading comics for 20 years and had always dreamed of breaking in. Encouraged by the contest win, I started sending out pitches. To Marvel. To everyone.
Nobody in comics knew who the hell I was. I was just a fan, a guy who’d stand in line at conventions to get my comics signed and who’d get nervous as hell when it came my turn to shake hands with my favorite creators.
One day an editor at Vertigo picked a script of mine off his slush pile and gave it a read, and in 2006 that script became “The Other Side,” my first full comic book work. “”The Other Side” earned me an Eisner nomination and another gig: “Scalped,” an ongoing crime series, also for Vertigo.
My Vertigo work soon found its way into the hands of editor Axel Alonso at Marvel and he offered me a Wolverine story. So in six years, I’d come full circle. I was back at Marvel, writing Wolverine again. Only this time, my Wolverine gig led to more work and soon an exclusive deal with Marvel (though one that allows me to continue writing “Scalped”), and here I am.
That’s the standard answer. The one I always give in interviews. But it leaves a few things out. Like all the embarrassing shit I did along the way. All the mistakes and mis-steps. All the struggle and years of work with nothing to show for it. All the waiting. All the shit that’s not particularly cool to talk about.
That’s exactly the sort of shit I want to talk about here.
For the next however-many-weeks this column runs, I’ll be talking about the real story of how I broke into comics. I’ll be as frank and open as I can be about myself and the industry I work in. I’m not here just to try and make myself look cool, ’cause God knows I ain’t. And I’m not trying to say I have all the answers when it comes to breaking in, ’cause God knows I don’t. If anybody does say they have all the answers, they’re either full of shit, delusional or Warren Ellis. I’m just saying, here, this is I what I did in all its pathetic fucking glory. Make of it what you will, my son.
So like I said, I’m writing six different books right now. “Scalped” for Vertigo. “Wolverine” (cue shameless plug: “Wolverine” #1 in stores now!), “Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine,” “PunisherMAX” and a couple of as-yet-unannounced minis, all for Marvel. That’s a lot. Maybe not for Bendis, but for me, it’s all I can handle.
Nevertheless, with everything I do, with each and every script, I always try to write like my life depends on it. Because in a sense…it does. As do the lives of my children. Isn’t that a tad bit dramatic, you may ask. Not really, I say, because let me tell you the true secret of my success in comics.
I have no marketable skills whatsoever.
None. I got nothing. You look back over my resume and you’ll see a long, sad list of low-paying, dead-end jobs. One of my first jobs was installing air conditioning ducts in new homes. Bad idea. Me attempting to handle any sort of tool or building material comes off looking like a monkey trying to fuck a football. I worked in retail and waited tables long enough to realize that customer service is not my strong suit. I was a late-night cook in a bar, and to the customers of said establishment, I’d like to take this moment to sincerely apologize. I threw boxes into the back of a UPS truck. I tore tickets at a movie theater. And my worst job (or best, depending on how you wanna look at it), the last day job I held before getting into comics, was in a warehouse filled with porn and vibrators and dildos (now I know, the perverts among you are saying, THAT SOUNDS AWESOME, but you only say that because you’ve never had to sort through boxes of returned sex toys in an un-air conditioned warehouse in the middle of the Kansas City summer).
My utter lack of success in the job market wasn’t because I’m uneducated. I always made good grades in school, and I went to college. I dropped out for a while during some rather wayward years, but I eventually graduated. It’s a BA in English, but that still counts as a fucking diploma, right? Can’t do anything with it, but it still counts.
My problem was that all I ever wanted to do was write.
The jobs I worked were always low pay, but also low on stress. As soon as I clocked out, I could instantly forget about work and move on to whatever ridiculously-convoluted-attempt-at-a-novel I was working on at the time. I worked jobs where I could goof off and daydream a lot. I broke into comics thanks to that shitty porn warehouse job. My very first pitches for “The Other Side” and “Scalped” were written in that warehouse. I worked on my first comic scripts while sitting at a desk surrounded by huge stacks of Jenna Jameson and Tera Patrick DVDs.
I never let my complete lack of success or achievement dissuade me from what I really wanted to do.
The only downside, of course, was that I was always poor. Seven years ago, when I first met the woman who would soon become my wife, I was driving a car that had two hubcaps and one working headlight. I had to sell my “Ultimate Spider-Man” collection on eBay to be able to afford our very first date. When she eventually got pregnant, I couldn’t afford a ring or a wedding. We got married at the courthouse and spent our honeymoon dropping my car off at a junkyard. When our son was born, I quit my porn job, since I wasn’t even making enough money to pay for daycare. “Scalped” had just been greenlit. I was writing for Vertigo. But it’d be another 18 months before I even had anything on the shelves.
My first full year as a professional comic book writer, I made $6960.
Now I know you may be thinking, “Jeez, I’d love to get paid anything to write comics,” and I still feel the same way, believe me. I thank my lucky stars every time a check with my name on it cashes. But when you’re married and you have two kids and all you make for a year is $7000, I don’t have to tell you it’s a bit of a fucking struggle. Lucky for me, my wife is an amazing woman who worked her ass off to support me and our kids for those first few years as I stumbled to make my way in an industry she knew nothing whatsoever about.
Looking back now at my years of farting around and wandering aimlessly through the job market with little or nothing to ever show for myself, one single solitary thought springs to mind…
It was all fucking worth it.
It was all worth it, because it got me to where I’d always wanted to be. I now make my living solely from the writing of comics. And I’m here to tell you, if I can fucking do it, Lord knows there’s hope for anybody.
Now, that’s not to say that everyone reading this right now who hopes to someday write comics will eventually find a job doing so. Let’s be realistic. But for some of you, who’ve been drifting and wandering, who’ve been looking your entire life for where you fit in…
There’s a place for you here.
You just have to keep searching until you find it.
I promise you, it’ll be worth the wait.
Good luck and see ya next week.
P.S. Regarding the previously mentioned free porn. I sent a huge box of it to editor Will Dennis when I was first pitching Vertigo. Next thing I knew, I was writing “Scalped”. Coincidence? I’ll let history be the judge.