HOW TO SELL COMIC-SCRIPTS AND BECOME A ZILLIONAIRE!
I’m actually writing this piece for pretty selfish reasons. By far, the most common thing I’m asked, e-mailed, texted and telepathically-interrogated for is for some sound advice on breaking into comics. Every time I take a breath to reply to this question, I make a little mental note to actually put it all down on paper sometime so I can have a form response to send out on the many, many occasions I’ll doubtless be asked it again. Essentially, that’s what this week’s column is going to be; my form response. What you’re about to read are the tricks of my trade so no poor fucker need ever ask anyone that question again. It’s taken me over a decade to learn this stuff so please print it all up and keep these words as close to your heart as they possibly can without causing any kind of myocardial injuries or discomfort.
TIP NUMBER ONE: GET REAL
Nobody can teach you how to write comics any more than they can teach you to bench-press Harry Knowles. It’s something you either have an aptitude for or you don’t. I was visiting a friend in hospital tonight and had another visitor ask me if I could recommend where he should start because he always fancied making quick cash from writing. This always enrages me. As Stephen King’s agent was fond of saying, he always fancied being a brain surgeon because he was keen to make the kind of quick cash which pioneering neuro-surgeons tended to make. Writing, drawing, brain-surgery and bench-pressing are skills that can be honed, of course, but I think it’s impossible to assume that everyone is born with a capacity to make a living from any of them. You either sat and drew comic strips on the wallpaper behind the couch as a kid or you didn’t. If you didn’t, please stop reading now because the rest of this column will be useless to you. I’m insulted when I hear about writers from outside the medium dipping in for some fast money between novels because I don’t think people appreciate how difficult this job is. It requires training, it requires study of your craft and, most of all, it requires very large chunks of your formative years losing yourself in Teen TItans while your Mum and Dad are downstairs arguing.
TIP NUMBER TWO: READ COMIC BOOKS
You don’t have to be an old-hand. In fact, in some ways I think it’s preferential to come to the job with as little baggage as possible. However, I think claiming to be a comic-writer who doesn’t read comics (and I hear a lot of people saying this) is like being a musician who doesn’t listen to music. Comics are the ultimate pop culture medium. They’re probably the most immediate means of storytelling in the world, less vulnerable to committees and scheduling problems than movies or television and, on average, for sale just a couple of months after the idea has left the writer’s head for his Apple-Mac. This is what I probably like best about comics, but fail to spot a trend, get stuck in a rut or just end up rehashing the same old idea everyone else is doing at the moment and you’re going to die on your feet. Literally hundreds of these things are coming out every month and the feeding frenzy for the top spot is voracious. You have to be aware of what you’re competing against if you want to be better than the rest of the pack and the only way to do this is to read more comic-books. This rule applies to everyone from black and white small press material to the people behind the top-selling books.
TIP NUMBER THREE: START SMALL
The biggest mistake we all make is kick-starting our attempts in the field with an X-Men proposal because, believe me, it’s not going to be accepted. In fact, if it does, it’s probably going to erupt into your worst nightmare, but more on that later. A career in comics is like building a house or dressing for an occasion; start at the bottom and work upwards. Yes, the first thing I ever proposed to DC (aged thirteen) was a Superman proposal, but I didn’t sell my first Superman story until I was twenty six years old and it isn’t even appearing until later this year, just a few weeks shy of my thirty-third birthday. Like everyone reading this column, I probably felt that I could do a better job than the vast majority of the people working in the industry at the moment. I assumed that Superman, Batman, Daredevil and whatever the fuck else I was into as a teenager was my God-given right and it was a TRAVESTY that they didn’t hire me immediately. In fact, I was so sure that Denny O’Neil was going to snap me up to write Batman when he received my hand-written sample script in my final year at school that I actually bunked off classes for a day to sit by the phone. It’s only natural to want everything now, but a long-term career means a long-term ascent and, hopefully, a long-term decline. Early Rise, Early Rot, as they say and they’re absolutely right. Nothing will kill your career stone-dead faster than being chucked in at the deep end. What seems like a marvelous opportunity at first will quickly become a nightmare of bad reviews and message-boards calling for your testicles on a kebab-stick. Please, just do what the rest of us did and start in small press or something to learn the very basics of story-telling. Even Alan Moore served an apprenticeship on 2000AD spending two years writing nothing else but three page science fiction stories with three gags and a twist at the end.
TIP NUMBER FOUR: DON’T SEND SAMPLE SCRIPTS TO MARVEL OR DC
Yeah, I know some guys have broken in this way, but I can’t think of anyone off-hand. Every division within these companies is short-staffed and the editors barely have time to read scripts from their regular freelancers, never mind some guy they’ve never heard of before. Some decent types (who should probably remain nameless) like to spend one afternoon a month working through samples, but you’ve more chance of finding a can of deoderant at the San Diego Comicon this weekend than finding a writer who smuggled into comics this way. Comic editors are simple souls. They can’t be bothered reading your Alan Moore-style, page-long panel descriptions. Your work will be better appreciated if the script is already broken down as an easy-to-read small press book and you’re more likely to have achieved some kind of reputation this way too. If you’re good, you’ll be noticed. There is no conspiracy keeping good writers out of Marvel and DC Comics. In fact, they’re pretty desperate for them. Getting a rep in the cool small press or growing Internet scene is without a doubt the best way to introduce yourself to an editor. At least this way you’re going to come to the table with a little reputation and there’s much less chance you’ll bet treated like shit.
TIP NUMBER FIVE: DON’T BUG EDITORS
There’s a thin line between enthusiasm (always to be admired) and being a pain in the fucking arse (always to be avoided). I’ve found myself in both camps, I’m sure, but one things editors hate is someone giving them a hard time because they get enough of this from the smartly-dressed people above them who wear neither beards nor Silver Surfer T-shirts. A tip to anyone reading this on their fancy mobile-phone at the San Diego Con is to hide that proposal now. Conventions are the absolute WORST place to sell a script because the editor is being forced to a) listen to you when he’d rather be doing something else (ie, drinking and enjoying what’s basically a free holiday with his friends) and b) has been forced into carrying at least one large manuscript around with him for the remainder of the show. I speak as someone who handed Marv Wolfman a Justice League script when he came to Glasgow in 1986, only to find it lying beer-stained in the bar next day. I don’t blame Marv for a moment. I do precisely the same thing and feel really bad about it at every show I do now. Conventions are where you shake hands, introduce yourself and charm editors with good jokes and plenty of beer. The proposals are sent a week or two later when the name in the inbox is associated with a good laugh as opposed to that obnoxious kid who kept telling Axel Alonso that he could write Spider-Man WAY better than JMS.
TIP NUMBER SIX: BUG ASSISTANT EDITORS AS MUCH AS YOU LIKE
These guys are great. They’re always bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and eager to find the next big star who’s going to make THEIR reputation too. They have a lot more time on their hands than editors do, but bear in mind that the time someone has to review your proposals is almost always indirectly proportional to their power to give you work. Assistants often have the best of intentions, but fail at the first hurdle because an untried editor with an untried creator is going to get cut the least amount of slack by the publisher. Pick up that Internet interest on your little small press offering and you’re at least giving the assistant something to bat with when he’s actually pitching your ideas at Joe Quesada or Mike Carlin.
TIP NUMBER SEVEN: NEVER SEND SCRIPTS TO WRITERS
This is something I used to do all the time and it’s a HUGE faux pas. I know where you’re coming from; your dream is that your writer of choice will drop his stuff, read your script, declare you a genius and insist that his editor fire whoever they’re working with and hire you instead. Tragically, the truth is that these scripts have the greatest potential to end up lying dead at the bottom of an Inbox and gnawing away at the writer’s subconscious for years to come. Sure, some creators are nice and genuinely happy to give advice, but most are so wrapped up in their own tangled plots, late checks, review-hunting and job-concerns that they really don’t have time to read through unsolicited material. I’m a fairly open guy with my readership because, let’s face it, I owe them everything from the shirt on my back to the cold Caffrey’s I’m drinking as I type, but reading scripts and proposals is something I refuse to do. First off, editors are paid to do this and freelancers need to make a living doing something that actually pays the bills. Secondly, it’s really dangerous. Everyone’s heard horror stories about readers chasing them for years about THAT Batman plot they nicked or THIS Avengers graphic novel that could have made said-nutter a millionaire. There’s a guy in the Glasgow scene who regularly tells people that Grant Morrison and I have made a nice living all these years from ideas he’s constantly stupid enough to tell us. Ideas are the currency writers trade in. Keep them to yourself and dazzle your peers at the same time you dazzle your readers.
TIP NUMBER EIGHT: LOOK GOOD
I know it’s shallow, but it’s absolutely true. In this age when image is everything and beards mean nothing, an international audience is instantly aware of exactly what you look like. Growing up in pre-Internet days, I had no idea what Cary Bates or Steve Gerber looked like, but I pictured something fairly close to Greek Gods with the latest in designer togs. I still have no idea what these guys looked like, but I’m comforted by the notion that they weren’t just a couple of hippies just happened to write the best material in the nineteen-seventies. I’m not saying a six-pack and daily moisturizing is essential, but it isn’t going to hurt. If comics are the new rock and roll, then comic creators have to be rock and roll stars.
TIP NUMBER NINE: USE THE INTERNET CAREFULLY
The Net is either your best friend or your arch nemesis. React too quickly to those early bad reviews and you’re going to look like an idiot. Insult someone on a message-boards and a thousand of his pals will take his place and tear the meat from your bones. However, advertise your work for free in interviews, online columns or by sending it to reviewers like Don and Randy at The Four Rail or Jason’s boys at Silver Bullet Comics and it’s the best thing that’s ever going to happen to you. The Net has democratized the industry in the sense that everyone has an infinite number of ways to reach an infinite number of people. Don’t waste it.
TIP NUMBER TEN: BE YOURSELF
I’ve spent half my life trying to figure out what keeps writers and artists in a job and I think uniqueness is probably the most important factor for anyone serious about longevity. Doing shit nobody else can do is the greatest skill anyone can possibly have and I think it’s what separates the Moores, the Millers, the Kirbys, the Gaimans and the Morrisons from the guys who just phone in their monthly two-fights-and-an-interesting-villain. Anybody can copy whatever they just read, but only you can write about what’s going on in your head. People with a voice are always the most interesting and, in my experience, generally end-up very, very rich in the long-run.
TIP NUMBER ELEVEN: BE A FAMOUS MOVIE GUY
Hitting comics via Hollywood is the surest way for editors to both hire you and promise not to fuck with your scripts, but even this is no real guarantee. Yes, JMS and Kevin Smith are two of the finest pros around at the moment, but it’s important to remember that both are accomplished writers who learned their way around a plot in another medium and both have a great grounding in what makes a comic work. Kevin Smith, yes. Kevin Spacey, no. This all goes back to my feeling that you really need to study your craft and hone it over the course of your career. Even Stan Lee didn’t really take off until he was around for a decade or so and invested in a smart moustache and some well-groomed toupees.
TIP NUMBER TWELVE: DON’T GET TOO GOOD
Or the rest of us will just have to get together and kill you.