Issue #106

"I have been a fan of comics for some years now... I am a fan of the crime genre... I know that you have heard this before - I am also an aspiring writer. Brimming with good ideas and enthusiasm. I read your article in WRITE NOW! magazine regarding writing. In the article, you mention that it is a difficult thing to break into now. I am thickheaded enough to think that I might get somewhere in this business. In this day and age, what would you suggest an aspiring writer do break in? (shy of a crowbar and well worn brass knuckles.) In other words, what would you do?"

Right now?

Assuming you've mastered basic skills of grammar, punctuation and style, and you've researched the functions of dialogue, plotting and story (you don't need to study comics specifically for this, and it's perhaps better if you don't; most libraries have sections on writing for theater, TV, etc., and you can learn a lot from reading those books as well as plays, screenplays, etc.), there are a few ways in. None of them are easy, none guaranteed.

Traditionally, you write plot synopses and send them to editors. If you're aiming at work-for-hire companies like DC or Marvel, you only approach editors with synopses for characters they edit. For smaller companies, you have to do the research to find out what they publish and how they want submissions (or if they want them); most companies publish their Web site addresses inside their comics, and if you haven't read at least a few of their comics you haven't prepped yourself well enough to be sending them anything. Different companies publish different types of things; pitching your own faithful knockoff of YOUNGBLOOD to Fantagraphics or Oni Press will most likely be a colossal waste of everyone's time, not to mention stamps. Probably best to do your homework, choose an editor, and send a query letter expressing familiarity with their output and asking for permission to send something. A brief (and I mean one or two short sentences) about exactly what you want to pitch him probably couldn't hurt. ("Dear Mr. Macchio, I have an idea for a Spider-Man story where Spider-Man is hunted by a female counterpart who wants to have his babies then bite his head off. May I sent a plot synopsis for your consideration? Thank you.") Confidence counts, but so does politeness, and spare everyone any "the guy you've got writing ___________ is destroying the character, but I know how to save him" notes.

So maybe you'll get an answer, maybe you won't, and if you do maybe it'll be positive. These things happen, just not often. Most editors have a ton of work to do that doesn't involve you, and you're not their top priority. Letters get moved to the side with the best intentions, and forgotten. If you get a response, odds are great it'll be "We're not accepting submissions at this time," "We already have a storyline like that being done" (and if you get this, do not assume they're ripping off your idea) or, if you're really lucky, "This isn't what we're looking for, but keep trying." You might marginally up your chances by meeting editors at conventions and asking if you can send them synopses (handing them material often relegates it to the slush pile, because conventions are usually the last place anyone wants to read anything, except maybe comic books).

The problem with a synopses is that it can tell an editor if you can plot a story, but not if you can write one. Writing a comic book is considerably more complicated (not necessarily more difficult) than plotting one. Even if an editor likes your plot, he may not have leeway to commission a script or comic from it; companies have tightened up on these policies over the last decade. (For those who are interested, Lee Nordling, editor at Platinum turns out to be discussing this very situation over the next three weeks at Silver Bullet Comic Books. Don't be fooled by Marv Wolfman's picture at the top.)

If it were me, today, I'd try to find the best artist I could hook up with, and try to publish my own comic. Not as a moneymaking venture - though the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started out like this, more or less - but as a calling card. You don't even necessarily have to publish it yourself; there are a few companies you can submit unpublished, but complete projects to, and you may not make any money off your book, but you won't have to pay the publishing costs and you'll still have your calling card. Not to mention your own property to do with as you choose (it's always a long shot, but there are other ways of cashing in on your work besides getting it published, but getting published is usually a good first step).


When I say a good artist, I mean a good artist. I don't mean your accessible old pal who doodles a little and once in awhile you've seen stuff as bad as his get published so why not? Bad art will instantly kill interest in even the best writing (maybe Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman could withstand it, but their names would have to be on the front cover in big type) and if you start your project without good art you're shooting yourself in the foot. Just as you don't want to be known as a guy who can produce work slightly better than the worst stuff published, you don't want an artist whose work can be charitably described as "not as bad as ____________." A good artist knows how to draw figures that continue to look like themselves throughout the story, who knows how to arrange them attractively in a credible-looking space, and who can use all the elements to tell your story so it can be comprehended by the reader. And who's willing to tell your story.

Not to mention who's actually willing to do the work.

Needless to say, such artists aren't easy to find. In theory, any artist good enough to suit your purposes - and, remember, the point of this is not only to get your material out there, but to make it an advertisement for yourself - is already working professionally. Fortunately for you, that's often not the case, for a slew of reasons. Bear in mind you're most likely not going to land The Next Jack Kirby as your artist, just don't rush in. Get an artist who'll do you some good. If you don't have the taste and experience to know what makes good comics art, it's a pretty good bet you won't have the taste and experience to know what makes a good comics story either. If you're doing comics, art isn't irrelevant to your story, it's the suit you put on it. So wear your best suit.

Like I said, producing your own comic will cost, at minimum, time, and probably a decent sum of money. (Money saving hint: forget about color.) Consider it your investment in your future. Whether you publish yourself or go through a company like Image or ID+W, at minimum you'll end up with a comic book or graphic novel you can hand to any editor anywhere. Editors like comic books. They're easier to read than a manuscript, and usually more fun. There are fewer potential legal problems. Note: the likeliest outcome from a published comic is that your artist will get offers if the art is any good. But writers get work from them too, just less often.

(Alternate suggestion, also difficult: since New York comics editors are screenwriter nuts these days, try selling a screenplay. (Which is a little like saying, try swimming across the Atlantic, solo, blindfolded.) And if you can't sell any comics scripts you can still have a screenwriting career to fall back on.)

The last course of action is one that doesn't particularly appeal to me, but it's not really supposed to. Try the Epic line, over at Marvel. They've not only announced their openness to neophytes, they're already working with a few. Marvel's got submission details on their website. Sure, it's a long shot, but what isn't. Sure, the money's lousy, but if you're breaking in, don't worry about the money. View it as an internship, an apprenticeship. Your work is likely to get raked over the coals, rearranged, reconceived, renamed, and re-everything else, you might go through the whole circus to have the company turn around and decide not to publish anyway, but it's also a foot in the door with a major comics company with the potential of a lot of work and exposure if you can hack it. It might not be the sweetest deal in the world, but it's not the worst point of entry either.

As for content, that's your business. You can either mold your ideas to your target market (and, remember, at this point, unless you're self-publishing, the audience isn't your target market, your editor is) or you can seek out the best venue for your ideas. It's up to you. It's a tricky business; I wouldn't start butchering ideas just to jump through some editor's hoops, but some flexibility is useful.

Hell, you don't even have to be better than the best. All you have to do is make them think you could be.

The CrossGen situation has gotten more interesting. If reports can be believed, any new influx of money into the company is coming from... owner Mark Alessi. But wait! Doesn't he already own the company? Isn't this pumping good money after bad?

Depends on your point of view. Everyone with any interest in big league work-for-hire comics - what CrossGen seriously aspires to - should be aware by now (some call it cynicism, but look around you) that such are intended these days to be not story fodder but licensable trademarks. Alessi may own Crossgen, but I'm sure, if he's any sort of businessman, CrossGen is its own corporate entity. See, that way Alessi won't be liable, and his assets won't be attachable, if the company were to be sued or declare bankruptcy or most other possibilities that might send people scurrying to gouge as much money out of the operation as possible. Not that there was probably any expectation of such things, that's just what corporations are for in standard practice. The problem with this is that CrossGen's licensable trademarks are owned by the corporation, not by Alessi, and are subject to seizure in the event of financial or legal catastrophe.

Or, rather, were. Mark Alessi the private individual (or personal corporation, I'm not sure) makes a loan to CrossGen the corporation, it may look like him taking money from his right pocket and putting it into his left pocket, but that's not what's going on. It's as valid and legal a loan as any other. Here's the kicker: CrossGen's licensable trademarks seem to be the collateral on the loan, meaning that's the company property that, in event of CrossGen's inability to repay the loan, becomes the private property of Mark Alessi. Which it isn't now. What this means is no matter what happens, Alessi holds onto all the properties and can continue to make movie deals etc. involving them. Unless, of course, any other creditors (and there may not be any, aside from some company called Blue Ridge, who are also putting up money and who get the furniture if Crossgen blows away) could opt to challenge the scheme in court, but I'm presuming it's perfectly legal under Florida law.

The more cynical might assume this is Alessi's way of walking away with the baby when the company inevitably collapses, but that presumes he's not really trying to keep it going and that's an awfully big assumption. At the least he's doing it to protect his investment, and you'd probably do the same.

But enough business crap. It's all too rare that someone actually discusses the aesthetics of comics in any meaningful way, so it's great to see former Marvel/Vertigo editor and writer of Dark Horse's LONE Stuart Moore discussing the recent trend toward decompression in comics storytelling. Stuart rightly cites the slow transition in American comics from the days when stories were jammed into 10 pages and books like FANTASTIC 4 had dozens of plot points in every issue, through the manga-influenced "relaxing" of storytelling via longer works like Frank Miller's RONIN, which elongated time to good, adventurous effect. Certainly the Japanese have never had any problem with decompressed storytelling, as anyone who has ever read their golf comics can tell you. (Page after page after page of a ball soaring through the air and arching back to the green after a swing.) By now, decompressed storytelling is part of the American comics landscape.

The short definition of decompressed storytelling is, if it's done properly, the emphasis of nuance over action, the elongation and subdivision of story time to create sensation, effect and meaning. In bits and pieces it goes back decades: Harvey Kurtzman, particularly in his war comics, would have reaction shots that evolved and heightened over three or four panels, a demonstration of emotional response that often climaxed in some physical response. Will Eisner was no stranger to such techniques in THE SPIRIT (though his execution was of a different texture than Kurtzman's), and this emphasis on emotional response in the series goes a long way toward explaining why THE SPIRIT came off as more intelligent and adult than most comics of its day, and why it still does. In much of his work, Steranko specifically follows Eisner's lead and uses time extension for emotional emphasis, and in much the same way: the page is subdivided into many more panels than the average comics page. The difference between the Eisner-Kurtzman-Steranko decompressions and the storytelling decompressions of Miller and those in his wake is mainly space: Eisner etc. didn't have much. Their formats were rigid, their options few. They developed their techniques as ways to subvert their limitations and fit in more emotional, not to mention story, content. Miller, on the other hand, worked mainly in expanded playing fields, in an era demanding longer and longer stories. RONIN was among the first comics regularly published (or as regularly as Frank produced it) in a length well exceeding the standard 22 pages. Publishers quickly became more comfortable with letting writers and artists stretch stories over issues that previously would've been crammed into one or two. Now we have the graphic novel, with lengths really only determined by publisher fiat. Some are only 48 pages. Others, like BLANKETS, top out at over 600 pages. That's a lot of real estate.

Me, I think we've had the golden age of decompressed storytelling and its day is already over. While still useful, it has become as "natural" a style as Neal Adams' "realism" did in its day, meaning it's now in the hands of a generation or two of talents who grew up with it but view it as part of the scenery without really understanding what it's supposed to accomplish or why. It may be a stumbling block to further development of the graphic novel. The problem of graphic novels that I'm seeing today is many of them are cramming into 60 or 80 or 100 pages story that would barely have fit into a 22 page comic twenty years ago.

Story decompression has its place, but in many cases it's taking the place of story altogether. While that sort of thing can reduce the wear and tear on a writer and/or artist considerably, it's got consequences. It gets boring, as any effect repeated ad nauseum does. Black and white is only a useful storytelling device in the presence of color. Decompression without context becomes meaningless. Decompress stories too much and you're asking your audience to pay a lot of money for what amounts for not much content. Do that enough and your audience goes away.

If we really want to capitalize on the resurgence of the graphic novel, we need new techniques to make them a richer reading experience. That's the only way we're going to keep any new audience they lure in. There was a time when decompression enriched the reading experience, but now it's working against it. It's time to think in terms of creative recompression, not necessarily by returning to the "okay, this happens, now this happens, now this happens" shorthand storytelling style of yesteryear, but brainstorming and testing new innovations to emphasize the "novel" in graphic novels. I don't want to say denser stories, because that's not necessarily what we're talking about either. I think "enriched" is the best way to put it: more story content (and, theoretically, more reading value) for the real estate. It's time to really start taking the new format seriously and thinking in terms of "enriched" work, however we can get there.

Marcel Guldemond's dot dot dot (Cyberosia; $8.95) is more like an adult version of a child's picture book than a comic book. But the art's nicely primitivist, and its run of vignettes, most with full page art, compassionately looks at various disintegrations personal, philosophical and physical. Good.

Okay, here's an oddball comic: a '30s Crimson Avenger type does the Samurai Jack timewalk into Seattle 2025, and becomes a private detective. Without taking his mask off. That's the premise of Brian Meredith's SPRECKEN: THE DESTINY DANCE (Rorschach Entertainment; $2.99), written by Brian Meredith and Brad Taylor, drawn by Rick Forgus and James Taylor. On the one hand, I kind of like it. The pace and patter are brisk, and the art's got a quirky POWERS feel to it. On the other hand, it breaks down badly in the imagination department, pretty much abandoning any sense of a futuristic setting to a compendium of '30s pulp clichés. Everyone dresses like the '30s. The stores and motorcycles look just like their '30s counterparts. (The cars look like the Batmobile.) The villain's got no motivation. And just so's you don't miss them, a backup story features Nazis. I dunno. It looks good. The art's nice. Dialogue and such aren't bad. The material's a waste.

Also got a copy of SECONDSOUL, an s-f graphic novel by Scott Brown and Amin Amat (Cyberosia; $10.95), but since Scott's my publisher on DAMNED, I'm recusing myself from reviewing it. I can look at other output from my publishers without concern, but work by my publisher is something I'm more comfortable not commenting on. Maybe I can scrounge up an alternative reviewer for it. Still have a handful of books from Candle Light Press I haven't been able to get to yet. Next week, I promise.

TWO AND A HALF MEN (CBS, 9:30P Mondays): Adequate, but that kid is a lump. Jon Cryer looks terrified to be back in the FABULOUS TEDDY Z slot. Under no circumstances should Charlie Sheen ever wear shorts.

LIFE WITH BONNIE (ABC, 9:30P Fridays): Still mixing unfunny family stuff with funny TV show-within-a-TV show stuff, but not enough of the latter. Didn't the family have a daughter last season? Eh.

HOPE & FAITH (ABC, 9PM Fridays): What can you say about a show that resorts to both old LAVERNE & SHIRLEY routines and a food fight in its first episode? Faith Ford is Hope, Kelly Ripa is Faith, and it isn't the worst show on TV. But they're working on it.

ER (NBC 10P Thursdays): So current focal point John Carter (Noah Wyle) just got back from an African hellhole, and next week he goes back there. In between characters blurred past, and I think a new intern killed somebody but felt good about herself despite it. Dour.

Haven't had a chance to watch many dramas yet. Everything I've heard about COLD CASE (CBS, 8P Sundays) indicated the first episode, about a heroine cop who reopens old cases that never got solved, was awful, so I'm waiting until the second episode. On tape but not yet watched: 10-8 (ABC, 8P Sundays), with Danny Nucci & Ernie Hudson; THE PRACTICE (ABC, 10P Sundays) in its new James Spader incarnation; KAREN SISCO (ABC, 10P Wednesdays), with Carla Gugina as the Elmore Leonard heroine. I plan to give a shot to Joe Pantalione's THE HANDLER (CBS 10P Fridays), and someday if I'm intensely bored, I may give COUPLING (NBC, 9:30P Thursdays) a try, but already out of the running (just can't work up the interest); LYON'S DEN (NBC, 10P Sundays), with Rob Lowe in a John Grisham evil law firm knockoff; LAS VEGAS (NBC, 9P Mondays), with James Caan, and that's argument enough against it; NAVY CIS (CBS 8P Tuesdays), ditto, but substitute Mark Harmon for James Caan, and just how many crimes do we need solved, anyway; MISS MATCH (NBC, 8P Fridays), with Alicia Silverstone as a divorce lawyer drumming up future business by matchmaking on the side; JOAN OF ARCADIA (CBS 8P Friday), with whassername from BUFFY as a teen who sees God, and sees him and sees him; and I know there are other shows, but they're so apparently hideous my mind has already blanked on them. Let us speak no more of them.

Also caught up with a few movies on DVD over the last week:

DARK BLUE: Kurt Russell stars as a bent cop with issues as the city of Los Angeles becomes a tinderbox in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. I saw this James Ellroy-based film in the theater and dug it, and while I can understand why the ending doesn't work for some people, I think Russell makes it work with a great speech that solidly founded in his character. Probably Russell's best performance, possibly Ron Shelton's best directing job, and a good story with a slew of good characters. (Plus the motivations get kept simple.) It holds up. See it.

IDENTITY: John Cusack, Ray Liotta and a host of semibodies in a forced but mildly entertaining James Mangold thriller. A group of strangers collects against their will at a ramshackle desert motel and start getting killed off one-by-one. At least the killer has a motivation in this one, and Cusack's good enough that even after the big reveal should kill any interest in his character arc he keeps us interested.

DAREDEVIL: Wow. There are good things in the film - it's nice to see an action hero actually sustain injuries and feel them, the "radar sense" special effects are nice, and Colin Farrell makes an energetically psycho Bullseye - but, man!, is this a bad movie! Stars Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner are just dead weight on the screen, and whose idea was it to bring back SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN slo-mo fight scenes? Oh... wait... that plainclothes karate 101 with wire-fu playground battle wasn't in slow motion...

DAMNED (Cyberosia; $19.95) officially came out last Wednesday, but for some reason Diamond's not shipping it to most stores until today. So don't think you've missed it. I could talk myself blue in the face about it, but I've been doing that for weeks now, and if you haven't decided to buy it already you're certainly not going to listen to me. So go read this review instead. Now.

Meanwhile, the art is finally done, so Avatar Press is starting to solicit my next original series over there (following the well-received MORTAL SOULS, the next arc of which won't be too far down the road), MY FLESH IS COOL, about a genial hitman who does his dirty work by throwing his mind into other people's bodies. And that's just the starting point, as he very quickly goes from untouchable to a very bad place very quickly, leading to events that change the course of the nation and leaving him the only one who can stop the ensuing chaos, if he can manage to stay alive. Action adventure, with "cool" art by Sebastian Fuimara and covers by Jacen Burrows. Dig it.

Several other projects suddenly on the front burner, including more Vivid work, a surprise new project for Avatar (it was a surprise to me, anyway), and a few thing involving some old properties I haven't done much with in recent years. Just about done writing the RED SUNSET western, drawn by John Garcia, for AiT/PlanetLar Books. And, of course, I'll be at the Las Vegas Comic-Con at the end of the month. (Even though they don't have me listed among their guests yet.)

One last thing. It's been pointed out to me that, despite all the collections of all kinds of things floating around out there, almost none of my old pal Howard Chaykin's work has been collected into trade paperback. CODY STARBUCK. BLACKHAWK. THE SHADOW. (Probably all kinds of legal issues in that one.) A definitive AMERICAN FLAGG!. MIDNIGHT MEN. POWER AND GLORY. TIME². All that's really out there is BLACK KISS and some old AMERICAN FLAGG! arcs if you're lucky enough to find them. What about the graphic novels he illustrated in the '70s, EMPIRE and SWORDS OF HEAVEN, FLOWERS OF HELL. (I may have that name wrong, but it's the Michael Moorcock book.) We're talking one of the most innovative and influential talents of the last 25 years, with many of his works still superior to most of what's being done today, and I've got more old work in print than Howard does. Where are the Howard Chaykin collections? What the hell is wrong with everyone?

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

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I'm reviewing comics sent to me - I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them - at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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