SDCC: Secret Origins: How the Industry's Best & Brightest Began

comiXology's Chip Mosher led a talent-heavy panel that discussed their earliest steps for some of the industry's most compelling talents. On tap, were Marc Bernardin ("Genius" writer and "Playboy" entertainment journalist), Mike Marts (Marvel executive editor for "X-Men" and "Guardians of the Galaxy"), Shannon Watters (BOOM! Studios senior editor, creator of "Lumberjanes"), comiXology CEO David Steinberger, and Frank J. Barbiere (writer of "Five Ghosts," "Solar: Man of the Atom").

Mosher began by asking the panelists if working in comics was a lifelong dream.

Bernardin said, "From about [age] ten on, when I had every issue of 'Secret Wars' laid out on my dresser."

Barbiere had a similar story. "I grew up in the era of 'Batman: The Animated Series' -- I just wanted to do that."

"I had a period of time in the '80s that I wanted to be a comic book artist. I went to undergrad to study art, I was terrible at it," said Steinberger. "I could sing a little better, so I went into music, didn't want to do the work. But [comics] from about 20 on."

Watters was a fan of newspaper strips and discovered she was good at the logistical and management areas of editing very early on. She learned what a comic book editor was in the fifth grade. "In fifth grade we didn't have a yearbook, but I forced a group of my friends to make a yearbook with me. I've been wanting to be an editor since I was wee."

Marts agreed, saying, "Definitely my lifelong dream. At tender age of 10, my parents split up, my mom met this new guy. We went over to his house, he had two kids -- who had six hundred comics." Marts said he was a huge X-Men fan, continuing, "from that point on, I wanted to become the writer of the X-Men. I've been the X-Men editor twice in my life." Barbiere noted that Marts editing Grant Morrison on "New X-Men" brought him back to comics.

Mosher then asked the panelists what brought them to being in this forum, based on their careers.

Marts noted that he started working in comics retail while studying journalism in college, to get closer to the business side of it and maybe make some contacts. He started submitting a story a week to Marvel, as a personal deadline to himself. Inker Mike McKenna shopped at the store and offered to personally walk in Marts' submissions to some editors who gave him some feedback instead of the standard rejection letters he had been receiving, which turned into an opportunity to apply for an internship at Marvel. "Got an internship between my junior and senior years and really never left," Marts said. "I started when I was 21, and it was 21 years ago. I've spent most of my career at Marvel."

Watters said she was a "weird editing kid, middle school, high school yearbook editor." While working a "normal" job, she scanned Craigslist for anything remotely involved with comics, and one day found an ad for a copy editor at now-defunct manga publisher TokyoPop. "I don't think I ever wanted anything as badly as I wanted that job," Watters said, "except for my first girlfriend to like me, until we got laid off after eight months." An assistant editor opportunity opened up at BOOM! Studios and Watters got recommended for it, leading to her rising through the ranks to control the company's all-ages output.

Steinberger said, "I tried to sing, I got a whole lotta degrees in classical singing, went to Juliard, didn't really want to do the hard work to do that. Eventually I decided to go into further student debt and get an MBA. I was working as new media manager for UBS. While I was at NYU, they had a business plan competition that I entered with my co founders. An app to help you catalog and sell your comic books." Steinberger had a large collection at his parents home at the time and they decided it had to go to make space.

Mosher asked, incredulous, "So are you saying comiXology started because your parents wanted to throw away your comics collection?"

Steinberger walked past the question. "We never did the cataloging app, we thought digital comics were the way to go, won the competition, a judge invested in us and here we are."

"I always read comics, I went to college for English education with a minor in creative writing," said Barbier. While taking a screenwriting course, he read in the now-defunct "Wizard Magazine" that Image Comics exclusively published creator-owned comics. "That day I started looking for people who want to draw comics. From there I was trying to make pitches and self-published stuff, it just inspired me to keep doing things."

Barbiere did a Kickstarter for a concept he'd been pitching to publishers called "Five Ghosts" because he got tired of submitting it and not getting the deal done. At New York Comic Con in 2012, he and artist Chris Mooneyham released the book and sold out all 60 copies they'd printed. One of those copies found its way to Image publisher Eric Stephenson, who e-mailed Barbiere, while he was working at comiXology, and brought the book on board.

At that point, Steinberger interrupted, "He quit."

Barbiere started working for the digital comics platform in March 2013 and left in November 2013, citing his own positive attitude as a major element of his success. "Being approachable, being nice, being smart, never turning anything down because you think you're better than it," said Barbiere. "A lot of stuff I'm coming out with is stuff I came up with back in school. The idea never leaves. 'Five Ghosts' got optioned for TV this week, that's really big. It's about just moving forward. A lot of people want to write and draw, I'm always excited by people who want to be in comics. Remember to love it, you're never owed success."

Bernardin then shared his journey to comics: "My first job out of college was an assistant editor at 'Starlog' magazine. 'Starlog' was the greatest science fiction magazine that ever was or ever shall be. My office mates left to work for DC. I felt that was what would happen. They all left and I didn't. The call I got was from 'Entertainment Weekly' -- not a bad consolation prize. While I was there, I was the comic book geek, the guy who knew all the words to 'Indiana Jones.' I started the comic book coverage. I started meeting people, publishers and editors. While I'm doing this I can't do that, conflict of interest. After a while I kind of stopped saying no, shuffled the comics coverage on to somebody else, and then started writing comics."

Next, Bernardin talked about how he approached the industry. "I started stalking Jim Lee for about a year, I got his e-mail from Patty Jeres." Bernardin sent e-mail after e-mail with no response from the legendary artist, "I did that for about 13 months, and realized I became the person I hated as an editor, the person who never gives up." After sending a profuse apology, Lee finally responded and agreed to being pitched over coffee, and if nothing stuck, Bernardin would back off.

"He bought one on the spot, which was 'The Highwaymen,'" Bernardin recalled, accepting that giving up all rights to ownership was part of what it took to have your first book published by DC Comics, working alongside his writing partner Adam Freeman. "That sort of kicked off a weird spiral of a career next to my magazine editorial career. We did 'Push,' not based on a novel by Sapphire, but the shitty Chris Evans movie. We did 'The Authority,' an X-Men story, then I got a call about 'Static Shock,' they needed a writer to take over for two issues before it got cancelled. As a journalist, I understand the value of deadlines. You have to be fast, good or cheap. If you're one of them you can work for a while, if you have two you can work the rest of your life. I was fast, at 'EW' there had to be a magazine every week. The pages have to ship, books have to come out. But how I got here was I crossed the train tracks."

Opening up to audience questions, Watters said that she believes Marts' path of getting an internship is still the best way to get into an editorial position.

Steinberger noted that he sensed a theme of obsessiveness and persistence on both sides, referring to Marts' weekly submissions, Watters' forced yearbooks and Barbiere's dive into creator-owned work. "You have to want it more," he said. "The people who are decent will just fall off to the side."

Barbiere reinforced the importance of attitude in success. "Be part of the greater community. Being here right now, you're being part of the community. You need to be active, have work out there. It doesn't mean you have to make friends, you have to be surrounded by and immersed in what you like, even if you have to start that community. There are places they were congregating. One thing I say is that even if you're doing short stories, you can hand that to an editor."

Watters agreed, saying having work in hand shows "that you have the ability to finish things."

For editors, Bernardin cautioned, "If you're going to be an editor, understand that it's not to be a frustrated writer, [but] to help me make my story the best it can be. Understand what you contribute to the process and how easily that can go awry. Find a writer who's a little bit off the reservation, find an artist who need a little push."

At this point, Steinberger handed out the first of two Kindle Fires awarded to questioners.

A woman asked about the importance of college, saying she was 27 and "sitting in classes wasn't for me." Marts said that while his college education helped teach him the fundamentals of writing and deadlines, his Marvel internship gave him the practical tools he needed to succeed.

Barbiere said it's good to have alternatives, noting that he got a degree in teaching so he could pay his bills. Watters, however, encouraged the woman to just make comics. Bernardin agreed, saying, "your work is your resume." Barbiere suggested taking comics she liked and reverse engineering them into a script to learn what sorts of things communicate ideas the way she wants to. She was awarded a Kindle Fire for her question.

A parent asked what her son should major in to achieve a career like theirs. Marts said, "Creative writing, journalism, it's important to learn the structure of writing and really enhance his creativity."

Bernardin said, "Film might be a good idea. Teaches you how to work with visual and textual at the same time."

Watters revealed that at Occidental, her position as yearbook editor was an actual paid position, so she learned about managing a staff, paying people and creating on a deadline.

Steinberger did an informal poll, and three of the five panelists had either majored in or minored in creative writing, with Bernardin majoring in communications and himself majoring in music.

An attendee asked whether or not it was worthwhile to give away content, to which Watters enthusiastically said, it was "invaluable. Best thing you can do. 80% of the people I hire, they're gonna be fine on their own. They do web comics, they do stuff on their own. Prove to me that you can do the work."

Barbiere said, "There are more platforms than ever. It is so hard to monetize your work," and recommended attending conventions like MOCCA, APE and SPX.

"Being bad until you get good," Bernardin noted, referring to the famous quote from Malcolm Gladwell.

Marts added, "Do something that's gonna set you apart. Do something original."

"Accept that you might have to do something that is not art," Watters cautioned, saying aspiring creators should do as much of their own work on their own time as possible and not to get so incredibly wrapped up in the idea that you have to do art or nothing, noting how fulfilled she was doing comics only on the side.

The last fan asked how she could help her boyfriend who hadn't found an art job four years after graduating with an art degree. "Help him come up with realistic deadlines for things he can do in his free time," Barbiere suggested.

"Encourage him to find the story that he alone can tell," Bernardin added.

Steinberger was reluctant to psychoanalyze but noted, "It's gotta come from inside," suggesting that she may not have an active role in his advancement.

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