Creators Joshua Hale Fialkov, Jim McCann, Brian Buccellato and Mike Costa joined together for the “Independent Voices: Distributing Your Vision to Your Audience” panel during the Las Vegas Comic Expo to talk about their work on creator-owned comics. Fialkov, whose creator-owned books include “Elk’s Run,” “Echoes” and “The Last of the Greats,” led the panel, joking, “We’re going to talk about comics, and they’re going to talk about darts,” referring to the very loud darts tournament being held in an adjacent meeting room.
Fialkov started out by asking Costa, writer of “Smoke and Mirrors” for IDW, what motivated him to pursue indie comics after his work with licensed properties like Transformers and G.I. Joe. “There’s a perception in comics that you haven’t really made it until you have your own creator-owned book,” Costa said. Although he had only positive things to say about working with Hasbro, Costa remarked that it was nice not to have two sets of people telling him what to do on “Smoke and Mirrors.”
Fialkov next asked Buccellato about his transition from colorist to writer, both as co-writer of DC’s “The Flash” with artist Francis Manapul and as sole scripter on his self-published miniseries “Foster.” Although he’s worked steadily as a colorist since 1994, Buccellato remarked, “It never fulfilled me creatively the way writing did.” After spending 15 years in Los Angeles attempting to launch a career as a screenwriter, Buccellato got his break writing comics when Manapul was offered the “Flash” gig and brought him along. “No one takes the colorist seriously as a writer,” Buccellato said, but thanks to “The Flash” he now has the chance to pursue his dream. “Suddenly, now I’m a writer. With ‘Foster,’ I had a story I wanted to tell, and I wanted to prove to people that I could write on my own.”
McCann talked about his own transition, from working in Marvel Comics’ marketing department, to writing for the publisher to writing his own books, including the popular Image Comics title “Mind the Gap.” McCann recounted his background writing for daytime soap operas, followed by several years at Marvel before getting his first comics writing assignment. “At the big two, you have certain constraints,” he said, noting that he had to coordinate with other writers about what the characters in his series could do. “If the other writer completely outranks you, you have to follow what they do.
“When I got to write ‘Return of the Dapper Men,’ it was terrifying,” McCann continued, mentioning his and artist Janet Lee’s first creator-owned book. “It is your own baby and your own voice. You don’t really have anything to fall back on. You just kind of give birth and hope people don’t think your baby’s ugly.”
“I actually look at independent comics and work-for-hire comics as two separate jobs,” Fialkov said. He pointed out that in “The Last of the Greats,” he was able to have his main character attempt to mate with Oprah Winfrey, something no Marvel or DC editor would have ever let him do. At Image, he was free to take the story in whatever direction he wanted.
Costa added, “I really like writing the company characters a lot,” and the rest of the panelists all agreed that they weren’t against work-for-hire jobs. “It’s almost an honor to be able to contribute” to the ongoing story of a company-owned character,” Costa said.
Fialkov said that he found writing company characters much easier than working on his own creations, since their voice and personality was already established. Costa countered that while the characters may be already established, it’s difficult coming up with new stories to tell with them. Fialkov and Buccellato both compared writing company-owned characters to solving logic problems, working within certain parameters to deliver the assigned story.
Costa then segued into the difficulties involved in getting indie books into the hands of fans once they’ve been produced. “You have to face the reality that most people are going to the store to pick up their ‘Justice League’ or ‘Avengers,'” he said. “People have no reason to buy your book.” He engaged in marketing and promotional efforts for “Smoke and Mirrors” that he never would have had to deal with on a DC or Marvel series, just to get the word out. He and his collaborators called more than 100 comic-book stores and walked retailers through a promotional magic trick for the book that was illustrated in “Previews.” “Ultimately, I have no idea if it was effective, but you have to do it,” he said.
“The writing is the easy part,” Buccellato stated. “The scary part is, will I be able to do the next issue? The hardest thing is, how do you get your product out every month without having to work seven other jobs?” “Foster” is a very personal story, inspired by being a father to his 12-year-old son, and he emphasized the value of telling a story that you care about when working on a creator-owned project.
“No matter how much people like my work-for-hire books, it always means more when people like my creator-owned books,” Fialkov agreed. “It’s like having a private conversation with your readers.”
Returning to the topic of marketing, McCann said, “With indie books, even with something like Image, you have to get out there and beat the drum.” He touted the importance of pre-orders and of involving readers before the book even comes out. For “Mind the Gap,” he posted nine pages of previews online three months in advance, at the time that pre-orders were being taken.
“The worst part for me, is that you have to be an entrepreneur and a marketer and your own salesman,” Costa said. McCann, however, with his marketing background, said he enjoyed that part of the job as well.
“You have to understand that it’s a long game,” Buccellato said, stressing the importance of attending conventions and meeting people, building a fan base one person at a time.
Fialkov said he’ll meet people at one convention, talk up his work, and then see them again a few months later after they’ve become fans. “It’s really hard to make money until you have a back catalog,” he said. Getting people to buy the first book is the hardest thing, and it’s “much easier to get them to buy books two through 100.”
McCann highlighted the community of creators who support each other. “We want other people to succeed,” he said. “We need more people in this business,” Costa agreed. “It’s all about relationships and the people you know,” Fialkov said. “Mass advertising independent comics doesn’t work. What works is hand-selling.”
Ultimately, McCann said that now is a good time for indie creators. “Fans right now are following creators,” he said. “Right now’s a great time to get something out there.”