So we were talking about breaking into comics, right? Before we go any further though, let’s get a couple things straight:
First of all, I’m no expert when it comes to this shit. I’ve been writing comics for a living for about 5 years now. I’ve had around 120 of the little guys published so far. That’s peanuts compared to a lot of other writers out there. You want advice from a real expert, go follow C.B. Cebulski on Twitter. He daily dishes out all sorts of stellar advice, things that apply not just to those of you wanting to work for Marvel, but to anyone hoping to break into comics. C.B. knows the ins and outs of the whole biz. He’s like the guy from college who always knew where all the best parties were and how to sneak in. Me, I’m just a dude who somehow stumbled his way into the greatest party ever and is still looking around, wondering how the hell I did it. All I can offer in the way of advice is what I’ve seen and done during my brief trip here, to wherever the hell it is I actually am right now. Take of that what you will, and then go find your own way into the party.
Secondly, there’s one thing we need to get out of the way before we can talk about pitching or approaching editors or anything like that. As far as I’m concerned, this may be the single most important piece of advice when it comes to breaking into comics.
If you wanna write comics for a living, the first thing you need to do…
…is not suck.
“Well, no shit,” you’re thinking. I mean, anybody should know that, right? Well, hold on, let’s back up a minute.
Once when I was in college, majoring in English, studying to be a writer of some sort of another, I went to a local writer’s conference. I’d never been to one before, so I was really looking forward to getting advice from some of the big name writers who were appearing (the highlight was most definitely getting to shake hands with the great Ray Bradbury). But I remember feeling like most of the struggling writers like me who were there were only interested in learning about how to get published. They seemed to believe they’d already written the next great American novel, and they just wanted to know how to get an agent, how to get in print. They didn’t seem to even be entertaining the possibility that maybe their novel just wasn’t any good.
Now me, I didn’t know much about any one thing in particular back in those days (except maybe Prince’s discography or the life and times of Jim Morrison), but I did know enough to know that I wasn’t a good enough writer yet that I warranted being published.
It’s always easy to play that game where you look at some professional writer whose work you don’t particularly like and say, “That guy sucks. I can write better than that guy.” But it’s a lot harder to take a long hard look at your own work and really ask yourself: am I truly good enough? Sure, maybe I was the best writer in my podunk little high school, and yeah, my mom and my girlfriend both think I’m pretty great, but when I compare my work to that of a published professional, are they even in the same fucking league? If I saw something the caliber of my own work on the shelf in a comic book store, would I seriously fork over my own money to read it?
Even now, that’s the only way I can ever judge my own work. If I can look at something I wrote and know that as a reader, I would be into it, then I feel like I’ve done my job. If I respond to it, then I figure someone else out there will as well. Maybe not 100,000 other someones, but still, someone. The day I can’t honestly say that about my own work is the day I need to hang it up and go re-apply for my job at the porn warehouse.
As a struggling writer, I always assumed that if I just got competent enough, eventually the “breaking in” thing would somehow take care of itself. If the work was good and I was patient and persistent enough, I would eventually catch someone’s eye. To that end, I wrote reams and reams of some of the worst stories and most meandering, hopeless attempts at novels that have ever been put to paper. I had to burn my way through loads of shitty writing before I could ever have any chance of actually putting down something decent.
So I sucked, for a very long time, but I knew that I sucked, and kept working until I sucked a little bit less.
I worked my ass off on “The Other Side.” I worked harder on that first script than anything else I’ve ever written. I poured myself into research. I read every book I could find about the Vietnam War. History books, novels, comics. I asked questions of vets. I compiled huge files of notes. I wrote and re-wrote the script for months. And by the time that script was done, I knew that it was a book that I honestly wanted to read. In terms of sales, “The Other Side” remains the lowest selling thing I’ve ever done. But that script won over editor Will Dennis and got my foot in the door at Vertigo. It got me “Scalped.” It got me my first gig at Marvel. So “The Other Side,” for me personally, is the single most important thing I’ve ever written. Without it, I wouldn’t be here.
So if you wanna know how to break into comics, I guess my advice to you is just, “Write.” Don’t even worry about breaking in until you know you’re ready. Focus on your writing. Find that story you were born to tell and work your ass off on it. Read outside your comfort zone. Judge your work harshly. Write and re-write. Always re-write. And most importantly of all…
If you can do that, then the hard part is over, and once you go to actually break in, it’ll seem easy by comparison, I promise you.
P.S. Speaking of sucking…
Editor Axel Alonso once told me, back when I first started working for him at Marvel, “I’ll keep using you, until you start to suck.” And I walked away thinking, “What more could I possibly ask for?”
So here’s to not sucking.
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