Random Bits from the Mailbag

And we're back.

No new columns the last couple weeks because I've been beard-deep in work, jumping from "X-Men Schism" to "Scalped" to "Wolverine" to "Secret Things I Can't Talk About Yet Lest Axel Alonso Pull Out My Fingernails with His Teeth." First rule of being a freelance writer, though: being busy is always a good problem to have.

Last week on Twitter, I asked for suggestions for future columns and got a bunch. To get back in the swing of things, I'll tackle a few tweets this week.

From @NotAntagonist: As a writer how do you evaluate your work, appreciate it and progress, without getting too full of yourself?

Easy. Just read your negative reviews.

My favorite negative review I've ever gotten: Back in 2007 I did a "Ripclaw" one-shot for Top Cow, and a reviewer in a podcast (I can't find a link for it now) hated the book so much he said he wanted to "throw shit at it like a monkey." Every writer needs a reviewer who wants to throw shit at them, just to keep you grounded.

A lot of writers say they don't read their reviews. I usually do. I wanna know what people are saying about my work, good or bad. You learn quickly, you're likely not as good as the best reviews you get or quite as bad (I hope) as the worst. Most likely you're somewhere in the middle.

Which means there's always somebody else who's way better.

If I wanna keep from getting too full of myself, I just read something by Grant Morrison. Or Warren Ellis. Or any one of dozens of other writers out there who are way more experienced and skilled at this than I am. That tends to bring me back to earth and remind me, I've still got a long way to go.

I don't think you can ever afford to be comfortable, to just sit back and coast, no matter what you've done in the past. I'm proud of my back catalogue of work, but I don't spend time patting myself on the back. I feel I'm only as good as what I'm writing at the moment, and at the moment (thankfully), I'm always writing. So there's always another chance to fuck it all up and send my career completely off the rails. And if I'm not getting better with each new book, then to me that's the same as going backwards. I don't want to be content. That's the road to stagnation and irrelevance.

That hasn't been a problem for me though, as I recognize that I have loads of room for improvement. As a young writer, it's good to be confident in your work, but if you don't see your own flaws, then you're just not looking hard enough. Trust me, they're there.

Another way to keep from getting too full of yourself as a comic book writer: talk to people at parties and tell them what you do. Just regular people off the street who don't know anything about comics. Tell them you write comic books for a living and watch the look in their eyes. There's shock and perhaps a bit of pity there. They usually figure this is something I should be ashamed of, not willingly disclosing.

That should help keep your little ego in check.

From @itsthatlady: when to say no to a particular job.

When you don't have a story to tell or you don't have time. I've turned down projects for both.

If you don't have a story, you don't have a story. There are times you can still maybe bullshit your way into the job and just go through the motions, but if the product sucks, what good does that do you? Gets you a couple of paychecks, sure, but it hurts you in the long run and makes that next round of paychecks that much harder to get.

Turning down a good job because you don't have the time to do it is hard. As a freelancer, you're trained to always want more and more work, because you never know when one gig might dry up and leave you out in the cold. You always wanna know where that next paycheck is coming from. So when something you wanna do falls in your lap, it's hard to turn it down. But at some point, you have to recognize your limits. If you take on too much, then all your work could start to suffer and again you'd be hurting yourself in the long run.

Sometimes you worry about burning bridges by turning projects down. Maybe Marvel is suddenly offering you a Power Pack mini, and you're the world's biggest Power Pack fan. It's been your dream for years to write Power Pack. But you've already got as much work as you can handle. You might look at this and say, "I have to take this job, no matter what. This could be the only chance I'll ever get to write Power Pack." But you just have to remind yourself, these characters have been here for a long time and they're not going anywhere. Better to wait until you can do the job right than wind up doing it half-ass and squandering your chance. You just have to believe that if you only keep doing good work, these opportunities will still be there. Just always be up-front with your editor. Hopefully, if you don't bullshit them, they won't bullshit you and you can walk away without having burned any bridges.

There are also times where you might have to choose between projects, and that's a whole different can of worms. But at the end of the day, you always have to have those two key ingredients: a story to tell and the time in which to properly tell it.

From @Ryan_the_Iowan: I'm a bit behind, so sorry if you've covered it, but what about the pressure to be great on your first "big" project?

There certainly is that pressure, and the more high-profile the project, the stronger the pressure.

When I was writing "Ghost Rider," there wasn't much pressure, other than the pressure to tell a good story, which you feel every time you put pen to paper. "Ghost Rider" wasn't a book anybody expected to sell very well, and it didn't. "X-Men Schism," which I'm working on now, is completely different. It's the highest-profile gig I've had yet, and there's obviously a lot riding on it. It charts the course for the future of the entire X-universe. It's being drawn by five different big-time artists. It's got lots of marketing dollars thrown behind it.

That all adds up to more pressure on me to make it worth-a-shit.

That said, I tend not to worry much about that sort of thing. I try to focus just on that initial challenge: telling a good story. That's my only job. It's someone else's job to market it, to get retailers to order it and fans to pick it up. The better the story, the easier I make their jobs.

I never worry about how something is going to sell when I'm writing it. That to me seems like a dangerous dragon to start chasing. If you want to make a living in this business, of course you have to be conscious of your sales. You're obviously not going to continue to get work if nobody's buying your stuff. But simply telling good stories tends to solve all those problems. So I try and focus on that. That's pressure enough for anyone.

From @warmachine15: Beard grooming. And I'm not even joking at all.

It's almost like having a head of hair again, which I haven't since I first shaved my head back in 1994. I have to shampoo and brush it. I have cowlicks and bad hair days and serious cases of bedhead. It gets tangled like a motherfucker at times and it's like having a swarm of ants bite your face to brush that shit out. If my beard was all straight, it would hang down to the middle of my chest, but instead it's all curly. My hairbrush looks like a Sasquatch uses it to comb its pubes. It's pretty gross. But I still see no signs of stopping any time soon. Even though the other day I was flossing my teeth when the ends of a couple beard hairs managed to work their way into my mouth and I ended up wedging them down between my back teeth, with the other ends still attached to my face. That was a first.

And on that note...

See you next week. If there are topics you'd like to see me address, send them to me on twitter or mention them in the WHERE THE HELL AM I message board here on CBR.

As always, thanks for reading.

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