Issue #84

What do you want?

If you want to work in comics, this is the single most important question you can ask yourself, maybe the only question worth asking yourself. What do you really want?

There's an old wives' tale that people get what they deserve. That's a bit karmic for my tastes – karma's a myth only very young children could take seriously – but, on careful observation over the last 30 years or so, it's my belief that, above a certain socio-economic level in our culture, most people get what they really want, whether they acknowledge it or not.

For instance, a guy who wants to go to college at UCLA but whose parents want him to go to college locally. If he stays and goes to college locally, what he really wants is to keep his parents happy. If you want to leave your significant other but stay with them because you don't want to be alone, what you really want is to not be alone. If you hate your job but you don't want to lose your pension or threaten your income by shifting to something you'd rather do, what you really want is your pension or your income. If you're bored by crappy, outdated concepts in comics and want exciting, original material, but you keep spending your comics budget on crappy comics with outdated concepts, what you really want is crappy comics with outdated concepts.

It's not a difficult equation.

For the last two weeks, I've let editors – and, yes, they were all notable editors at notable companies – pass along their unfiltered advice for people planning to use comics conventions as a forum for presenting their work and getting an assignment in the field. Some of the threads repeating through the responses:

This is a very difficult time to enter the industry at a mainstream level. Well-established talents are having difficulty finding work; unknowns will have an even harder time unless their work is spectacular.

Artists will find a much more receptive audience for samples than writers will.

Being polite will score you more points than being obnoxious.

When one editor tells you a specific thing is wrong with your work, it may just mean it doesn't suit his tastes. When a majority tell you that thing is wrong, it's likely wrong.

You should consider negative response as a guideline for improvement, not an insult. Don't thrust items (sample packets, business cards, your sister's telephone number and nudie photos) on anyone unbidden.

If you really want it, don't give up. Keep trying.

Which brings us back to the original question: what do you want?

Prior to the early 70s, very few people shifted from reading comics to being comics professionals. Around 1943, a bunch of kids from Brooklyn weaned on the first wave of comics in the 30s got in, with names like Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, Alex Toth. Their break came as much from more seasoned talent being drafted to fight the war as from their talent. Post-war saw another little wave, buttressed both by returning GIs who were being paid to learn trades like art (ask John Romita Sr. about it if you see him at a convention this summer) and by a post-war depression in the comics industry that saw the bread and butter books rapidly decline in sales and an exodus of seasoned talent to better paying commercial art fields. But comics were something basically produced in New York City by people who lived in NYC. A tiny spate of writers managed to sneak in during the 60s (Roy Thomas, who co-created comics fandom, Pennsylvanian Jim Shooter, and Roy's fellow Missourian Denny O'Neil). Proportionately, though, the vast bulk of comics were produced by "seasoned professionals." Whatever comics had to say in letter columns about readers being "the true bosses" didn't mean anyone was offering anyone a job.

The 70s changed that. Why? It began with an uprising of "seasoned professionals" who threatened to unionize and claim a bigger piece of the pie, including more pay, health benefits, and all the other things workers usually want when they're underpaid, they don't have insurance and the cost of living is rising dramatically. Solution: there are a bunch of young kids out there chomping at the bit to write and draw comics, and they'll be so glad to break in they'll work for the peanuts we want to pay. Whether this resulted from another depression the comics industry was descending into, or whether this triggered the depression is hard to say. The fact is that the dramatic influx of new talent in the 70s corresponded to a dramatic decrease in sales. Even at its most dramatic, the 70s influx was nowhere near as overwhelming as the influx of the 80s, and by the time I entered the field in '78, it was pretty much over.

What really changed everything in the 70s and 80s was the introduction of possibilities. Eclipse and Star*Reach capitalized on the fetal direct sales market and developed the "independent comics" that focused (to some extent; the kinks weren't worked out) on creator liberty and, to a lesser extent, creator rights. (Looking back, the deals weren't so hot but compared to what existed they were the difference between Neanderthal and Australopithecus.) Dave Sim, Wendi Pini and others continued the spirit of the undergrounds by self-publishing work that would have left traditional comics companies laughing themselves to death. (Cue Rogers & Astaire singing "Who's Got The Last Laugh Now.") When we say "breaking in," we tend to automatically mean "breaking into the comics mainstream," by which we mean the two top tier major companies, Marvel and DC, and the next tier of smaller companies that make up the top five or six sellers according to the Diamond charts. But they're now a small portion of the industry and getting smaller, if you look at all comics sales cumulatively.

These are the possibilities you, the pre-hired, now have to choose from. To do that, you have to ask yourself, again: what do I want? Be absolutely honest with yourself about what you're really looking for. Answer that and you'll know how to proceed.

Do you want to break into comics to make a lot of money?

Forget it. For the vast majority of comics talent, even some of the most talented, those days are over. (Cue Merle Haggard singing "Are The Good Times Really Over For Good?") There is no money in the comics business now. When I was in college, I took a technology of television seminar for which I had to hypothetically wire up a town for cable TV, which was a brand new technology at the time. I chose Sun Prairie, WI, right next door, calculated costs of equipment, manpower, maintenance, promotion and service, and projected profit over ten years, and my professor took one look at the bottom line and said, "Forget cable, open a liquor store."

If all you want is the money, open a liquor store.

Do you want to be famous?

This is like the old joke about the idiot actress who wanted to become a big Hollywood star, so she slept with all the writers. Forget it. Nobody in comics is famous. Except maybe Stan Lee, and look where that got him. At best you can end up a large fish in a tiny pond that very few come near anymore because the pond is polluted by its own muck and drying up. If that's your idea of fame, go for it, but I'd consult a dictionary first. If you're obsessed with becoming famous via comics art, syndicated cartoon strips are a better route to take. (Start with a book by Lee Nordling called YOUR CAREER IN THE COMICS, which interviews many top cartoonists and discusses all aspects of the current state of that business. If you think MOTO is depressing…)

Do you want to create stories for your favorite characters?

This is a perfectly valid motivation. It's also the hardest, most frustrating objective possible in the business. If your favorite character is creator-owned, forget editors and companies and impress the hell out of the creator. If your favorite character is company owned, go get a job at that company and worm your way in. (Of course, almost no companies are currently hiring in any capacity, and if they're not actively firing they're eliminating and consolidating positions as people leave.) Artists have the edge here, if they're any good: books always need artists sooner or later, and the better the artist the better. Unknown writers may be able to wheedle a fill-in, but an unknown getting a top regular assignment is marginally less likely than the XFL lasting another season. And fill-ins are simply not being done anymore. One major company has a policy of only commissioning a new fill-in for a book when an existing one is scheduled, unlike in the old days when editors could commission gobs of them. Companies are still eating a lot of those indiscriminate buys. Judd Winick got the GREEN LANTERN assignment by impressing the hell out of Bob Schreck with his independently-published BARRY WEEN. (And a well-publicized stint on MTV's REAL WORLD probably didn't hurt.) Brian Wood got the GENERATION X writing job on the strength of his CHANNEL ZERO. They established themselves, with idiosyncratic and well-done material, before they made a move on the mainstream. And I'm pretty sure the mainstream went to them, not the other way around. David Goyer, Kevin Smith, Geoff Johns and Joe Straczynski made names for themselves in movies and TV before taking a swing at comics, and even Smith and Straczynski established their comics credentials at smaller companies before jumping to Marvel and DC. They proved they could write, they proved they could crossover. Now they're writing GREEN ARROW and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN.

Do you want to tell stories based about your own creations?

Skip Marvel and DC. Unless you've already established your credentials (or you have such a blazingly brilliant billion dollar idea even they realize they'd be idiots to let it slip from their hands) and have some kind of track record, whether huge sales or critical acclaim, they don't do that. Even most smaller companies, like Top Cow and Dark Horse, will want big chunks of your rights. It's rare these days, for instance, that Dark Horse will publish a creator-owned comic they can't secure film rights to, because much of their continued success is predicated on turning comics properties into movies, since the comics market is currently so flat. There's nothing criminal about that; all their doing is trying to up the odds of survival. Other companies want control of all ancillary rights – meaning they get to determine where and how your creation is used in other media and other markets, and if it's used at all, and you can't really take it for granted they'll defend your best interest over theirs - and many demand creative control as well. Meaning, regardless of what jargon's in the contract, it's really their property and not yours anymore.

So what other options are there? The simplest, and most dangerous: self-publish. Know what impresses comic book editors? Comic books. Well-written, well-drawn comic books that grab their attention. If you're as good as you think you are, your book will grab them. If you're not, you'll find out the hard way. The downside: you're not likely to sell the things. Even if you can get Diamond to carry your book, it'll be buried in the bowels of their catalogue. Meaning you're either going to quickly develop marketing acumen or rent a storage locker. The upside: it's yours. You own it lock, stock and barrel. You get to decide what to do. And you'll have something to show.

Because we're not talking about whether Diamond will distribute it. We're talking about how to connect with editors at conventions. This is 2001: time is short. The quicker you grab 'em, the better your work, the better your odds.

So here's the action short list:

  1. Know your craft. Have it down pat. Don't go off half-assed, because it will come back to haunt you. These are unforgiving times. Today I got art samples from a guy in Florida looking for work in the comics field. Fact 1: they're not bad. Ten years ago, there's no reason this guy wouldn't have had gobs of offers. Fact 2: his work is easily as good as that of many artists currently working in the business. Fact 3: Not bad is simply not good enough anymore. A few weeks back I was talking with an editor about an artist for a potential project and we both agreed that while the artist was a nice guy, and his work was pleasantly attractive, it was also just like what could be got from dozens of other artists. There was nothing specifically distinctive about it, and thus nothing that would really help attract an audience to the book. It's just not good enough to be good anymore, even at the major companies. Especially at the major companies. You have to be good enough to stand out. And that goes for writers as well as artists.
  2. Create something dazzling. A great idea. Not an epic sustaining endless convolutions before it gets to the point but an idea that walks up and kicks you in the gut. It doesn't even have to be in the particular genre an editor works in. Something original. If you want to approach Dan Raspler but you don't want to do a superhero book, you'd rather do a western, if you produce your own comic book that's an original enough take on westerns, trust me, Dan Raspler will be impressed. He might even think someone who could do that kickass a western would be great on material DC publishes, western or not.
  3. If you're a writer who doesn't draw, hook up with the best artist you can find. Sad truth: no matter how good the idea, if the art sucks no one will read long enough to find out how good the story is. If you're an artist who doesn't write very well, find a good writer. Lord knows there's plenty of talent out there. Hook up. Make this a joint effort. Don't try to do badly what someone else can do well. Again, it comes down to what you want. If you want to write comics, you want your story presented in the best possible light, just like all we pro writers do: go for the best art you can get, and don't sign up your best pal who sort of draws because you're not in it to make your best pal feel good. You're trying to get work. If you want to be a writer-artist, make sure you do it all damn well. If your only real interest is to be an artist, don't try writing it. Your objective is to create as professional an artifact as possible. Inept=bad. You don't want editors to come away from your work thinking you're inept.

  4. When you attend conventions, hand out your comic with a business card stapled inside (otherwise they'll lose it) and, preferably, your contact info also printed somewhere in the comic. Bear in mind what I've said before: finding new talent is something editors do, but it's not really their job. At work, their job is to put out comic books that sell. At conventions, their job is to give readers a good feeling about the comic books they produce and the comics company they work for. Anything they do beyond that is gravy. This doesn't mean editors often aren't looking for good new talent, it just means it's an avocation. Behave with them as you would anytime you're applying for a job.

And that's about the best you can hope for now. With luck, you'll get work. With even more luck, you'll find you won't need work: your own comic will be your doorway to success. Which, in a perfect world, is how it would be anyway. You might find out it's what you really wanted all along.

I've been talking about writers and artists, but what if you want to break in as an inker, letterer or colorist?

My best advice: learn to use a computer. Quick.

Good luck.

Still no news to speak of. Thought I had some but it's postponed again. Check back next week.

Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: What's the sexiest comic you ever read? Explain. You may interpret sexy however you like.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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