WC11: Breaking into Comics the Marvel Way

Returning to the San Francisco-based WonderCon after passing on the show for a number of years, Marvel Comics Senior Vice President for Creator and Content Development C.B. Cebulski hosted a panel of Marvel bigwigs who give entry-level creators a lifetime's worth of hints on how to get into the business.

Cebulski kicked off the panel with a quote from writer Mark Waid. "Breaking into comics is like breaking out of jail. Once someone finds a way out, that way is forever blocked, and you have to find a new way to do it." So the panel was designed "for you guys, to give you the good answers you need to get your foot in the door and on your paths."

Cebulski turned to the panel members to get their own stories about how they broke in.

Jason Aaron, writer of "Wolverine" and the upcoming "X-Men: Schism," kicked things off. "I got very lucky," he said. "I won a Marvel talent contest (in 2001), with an eight-page Wolverine story. I thought, 'This is it; the next thing, I'll be writing 'The Avengers'" -- and nothing happened. Eventually, he wrote some for stories for Vertigo, and sent them to Axel Alonso. "I had written some short stories, but my first 22-page story was my first comic script."

As for Alonso, Marvel's Editor-in-Chief, he echoed an old ad campaign by saying, "I got my job through the New York Times. My story was pure luck. I interviewed with a DC editor who had read an article I had written for a newspaper. He remembered my name, 'cause it's an uncommon name. So I went in for the interview, and after we'd talked awhile, I asked, 'When does the interview start?' He said, 'I've already interviewed you; do you want the job?' I said, 'I'm not sure, actually.' I really thought I'd never get offered the job. So I took the job, and regretted it for a year. Ever since, I haven't regretted it. I grew up reading comics. I bought comics as a kid; I gave them up as a teen, and rediscovered them in college, and continue to read them as an adult."

Joe Quesada, Marvel's Chief Creative Officer, related that he'd "finagled my way to be a colorist at Valiant, then about four months later, bankers came in and cut the payroll, and cut about 60-70% of the staff.

"I couldn't get an interview at Marvel, so I called Jim Owsley at DC, who had just started there, and he yelled at me that he didn't have the time. So I ran up to DC['s offices] and asked for Jim Owsley, and they called him, and [the receptionist] said, 'Wait here.' So I waited, and eventually Jim Owsley, who wouldn't see me in his office, saw me in the lobby. He came out, and he was sweating and he was all scattered, and he said, 'Whattya got, whattya got, whattya got?' I showed him my portfolio. 'I thought you were gonna suck.' 'Thanks.' 'I got bad news for you. I have no assignments for you; I have two crappy licensed books from TSR. I hate them, and I have no assignments. So I'll tell you what: do me a favor. Go home, give me an inventory cover for this book. Go home, do this for me, and bring it back.'

"So I go home and that night, I drew the cover," Quesada continued. "I bring it back, they call him, and he says, "What are you doing?' 'Here's your cover.' 'I didn't mean now!' 'Well, I got nothing else to do, here it is now.' So he looked at me and said. 'Thank you, I've got no other work for you. You don't have a job, do you? I might have something for you in the next week or two. Stay here, and let me talk to our managing editor, and see if there's an open assignment.' So fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes go by, then 45 minutes, maybe an hour. The receptionist says, 'Mr. Owsley would like to see you in his office.' I walk through the door, and he says, 'Let me ask you; what are the odds of one of the artists on one of my two solo books should call me up, get pissed off, curse me out, and quit?' I said, 'Pretty astronomical.' He said, 'What are the odds that I would give this assignment to some guy that just walked in off the street yesterday and handed me a cover I wasn't expecting this morning? Well, congratulations, buddy. Consider yourself the luckiest sonovabitch in the history of comics.' And to this day, I consider myself the luckiest sonovabitch in the history of comics."

Alonso countered that it was "the only time Joe ever delivered a cover the next day."

Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel Television, "came in sideways. I went to film school. I left film and came to Southern California full of piss and vinegar, and thought that a movie about a teenage werewolf who played basketball was a good idea. I had a studio that thought the same thing, and at 23 years of age, I wrote 'Teen Wolf,' and in the same year, wrote a movie called 'Commando,' with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Suddenly I went from 'Who is this guy?' to 'Wait, this guy can write both teen comedies and action movies? How is that possible' And I tried to tell people that they really just were comic books. And of course, my agent and my lawyer said, 'Don't tell anyone that; this thing that you've got in comics? Don't tell anyone that.' Now it's all like, 'Hey, you work in comics? Can we have a meeting?'"

Loeb went on to explain that having success in Hollywood didn't mean much in the comics industry. "I was very lucky. I started working and, through one thing and another, managed to get a job working on, of all things, the 'Flash' movie. Except it was one of those weird circumstances where I thought, 'How cool; I'm gonna be working on a comic book movie! That's awesome.' It's the Flash, hmmmm ... The Flash... runs. How's that gonna fill up two hours? Obviously David Goyer and Geoff Johns will figure out later this year, but that's not my problem. But back before there was a Batman and all those other movies for us look at and go, 'Huh, it's possible,' it was one of those things that fell apart. Then I met Jenette Kahn, who was then the president and publisher at DC Comics. Jenette said to me, 'Look, you're not going to write a movie for us, would you be willing to write a comic book for us?' And I gotta be honest with you guys; it was the same thing as if Santa Claus pulled up to the house and said, 'I got this gold card to FAO Schwartz -- anything you want!'"

But the offer wasn't all that Loeb had hoped, as the writer went on to explain. "I had all these hopes and dreams. I was just dumb enough to think that comics worked like television shows, where there's a regular staff and they write all the shows, but there's gotta be a couple of freelance assignments out there. So I just said, 'You know, I'll write "Superman,"' and they went, 'No, we have people who do that.' 'Well, then, I'll write "Batman,"' and they said, 'We have people who do that.' So I said, 'Can you give me a list of the things I can do?' And so they gave me a list in alphabetical order. I started with Aquaman, and they went 'no.' 'He's on the list!' And they said, 'No, we don't want you touching Aquaman.'" What he found out later on was, "[DC] were terrified on the editorial side because I was 'this Hollywood guy,' who was probably going to change everything, 'cause that's what Hollywood does; it changes it to something else. And from editorial's point of view, it was a lose/lose, because if I turned out to have any talent at all, the editor was going to have to say it was really Jenette Khan who brought him in. If it sucked, he was going to get blamed. So no one wanted to work with me. On my first project, I went through five editors. People just got away as fast as they could.

"Anyway, we kept going down through the list, and finally got to what I affectionately referred to as [dramatic booming voice] 'Challengers of the Unknown!' Which even research people don't know. I mean, I'd collected comics, and I didn't know them!"

Quesada snarked, "That's why they were unknown."

Unphased, Loeb resumed. "What I was really frightened by, was, I went to my local comic store, and I said, 'Do you have any back issues?' And the guy had, like, this smile on his face. He had the first 78 issues of 'Challengers of the Unknown' in a box. And I said, 'So, how much?' And he goes, 'Five bucks.' And I was like, 'Really? They're that good, huh?' And I'm sorry to any Challs fans out there, but this is the world I was living in. I pitched that they were 40 and they were gonna be on trial for murder. And they were like, '...Sure -- we don't think you can really hurt anybody.' The best thing that came out of this was that I went and found this artist -- I actually found him at a convention -- named Tim Sale, and that was the first thing Timmy and I worked on together.

"I thought that was really the end of my career," Loeb continued. "The reason why I thought it was the end of my career -- besides the fact that it sold like four copies -- was that in the second issue of that book -- and this is not a story I tell very often -- Superman comes to the trial of these guys and says to the jury, 'I just want to let you know that these men have put their lives on the line; they didn't need to be heroes, they just did the thing to do, and that's all I can really say on the subject. I don't know the facts of the case. I'm just here as a character witness, and I just wanted to say that.' He lifts up the jury box, everyone cheers and they get off. And this whole thing was approved and it was all fine and good, and I had actually called Mike Carlin, who was then the editor-in-chief for the Superman group, and I said, 'Look, I was told by one of the five editors that I worked with that I'd have to get your permission.' He said to me, 'Sure, it sounds fine; it sounds cool. I just want to let you know, John Byrne is working on this book now, and I just want to run it by him to make sure the dialogue sounds right.'

"Cut to, like, a year later, and Elliot Maggin, Superman writer and one of my heroes, turned out to be the editor at the time. He's in the Xerox room, Xeroxing these pages that Tim has drawn, and Mike Carlin walks in, and goes, 'Why is Superman in that artwork?' And Elliott goes, 'It's a story Loeb and Sale are telling -- 'Challengers of the Unknown.''

"My phone rings; It's Mike Carlin, and he says, 'What do you think you're doing?' I'm like, 'What do you mean, 'What do you think you're doing?' 'You've got Superman in with the Challengers of the Unknown!' I said, 'Yeah, I know. You and I had a conversation.' 'No, we never had that conversation!' I say, 'Honestly, I don't own Superman. I asked whether or not I could do this.' He said, 'No, no; here's the problem that I have. First of all, I said we would run this story by John Byrne? John Byrne doesn't own Superman. John Byrne's not the person who can do that. I will make these decisions.' 'Hey. Right. Whatever you want, I'm fine. However you want to tell the story.' 'Well, I have a big problem with this. I have a big problem because, ever since 'Crisis,' Superman doesn't know the Challengers of the Unknown, and so he would never be their character witness, so there's no reason for him to be in the story.' And I said, 'Mike, see, here's the thing; you weren't in the office that day, but Superman actually came by and he took the Challengers of the Unknown out to lunch. I actually have the receipt, and I was gonna turn it in, but I sort of thought this was my big chance and I was gonna hold onto it, instead. So they've been palling around without letting you know.' Dead silence on the other end of the phone, and then all I hear is, 'That's the kind of comment that keeps people from ever working in comics.' And I was like [small voice], 'I was kidding. It was just joke. I didn't mean it. I'm really sorry.' But it was the thing that, for a long time, I did not get to work in comics because I had done the very thing -- I tell you that story to teach the lesson -- 'When your editor tells you something, it's a good idea not to make a smart remark back.' It would be to his credit, Archie Goodwin, the late great editor, saw in Tim Sale an extraordinary Batman artist, and asked Tim whether or not he wanted to do a Batman story -- and Tim asked whether or not I could write it. Archie said to Carlin, 'I don't know what your problem is, but I'm hiring this guy.' I got very lucky that I could write the first Halloween special, and I've been writing comics ever since."

At the conclusion of Loeb's marathon opening, Quesada held up his iPhone, and showing the crowd its timer, told Loeb, "You broke the nine minute mark!"

Cebulski's story is "kind of the same. Everyone gets in sideways. I grew up a Marvel reader, a Marvel Zombie; I love comics, and I knew I wanted to work in comics. I just had no idea how. I knew I couldn't draw, so I wasn't going to be an artist. At the same time, I grew up reading a lot of manga -- this was in the early to mid '80s -- a lot of the really old stuff. I ended up going to a school for Japanese studies. I graduated and went to live in Japan. I was over there for about four years, and tried to make as many contacts as I could in the Japanese art community. Eventually, I moved back to New York and worked for a company called Central Park Media, an anime company at the time, and they wanted to launch a manga division. I never wanted to work for Marvel, though. Manga hadn't taken off like it has now, and we were always looking for ways to get more exposure, and one of the ideas I had was to get more mainstream comic artists who were inspired by manga to try to do covers for our books; guys like Ed McGuinness, Jeff Matsuda, lots of people would do covers for me. I'd go to conventions, I'd introduce myself, say, 'You know, I'd like to get you guys to do some covers.' I got more and more artists to do covers for us, I got to know the artists, got to go to parties, got to go to bars, got my way into the comic book circles."

Cebulski got his start at Marvel when they were "looking to do the Marvel Mangaverse, Tom Brevoort, Ralph Macchio, and Brian Smith -- Smitty -- came to me and said, 'Hey, we need a guy who knows a lot about manga. You know artists in Japan, we want you to consult for us on this project.' I was like, 'Sure, I'd love to.' At that time, I'd left Central Park Media, and I was pursuing a career as a writer as well. I had a big stack of rejection letters, so I consulted with Smitty on the Marvel Mangaverse, and wrote the 'X-Men' book with Jeff Matsuda. The Mangaverse did pretty well, and it was at that point that Joe and Bill Jemas were looking to take risks and were looking at Japanese artists, and brought me on staff, and I started as an Associate Editor up there. Marvel has been interesting because I was a terrible editor. I was the guy who believed every artist when they said they were going to hit their deadlines, and gave them the benefit of the doubt, and 'Okay, I'll give you another week if you guarantee me the script's going to be in; you guarantee me the pages are going to be in.' I have the worst history of late-shipping books than almost anybody up there. So I admitted to myself I was a terrible editor, but Joe said, 'Everybody likes you,' 'cause I was a nice guy. At that point, David Bogart was starting the Talent Management Division, which was founded inside Marvel to guide the talent and careers of the up-and-coming writers and artists that we found. Once you break into comics, the second part is staying in comics. It's like you have to reapply for the job after every arc; every six issues; every miniseries. So what we did was help people, once they were in Marvel, to stay in Marvel and guide their paths upward; give them upward mobility, show them they have a home. And that's what I've been doing for the past five or six years. Part of that function is also coming here to cons and being kind of the presence for Marvel, and guiding young creators -- up-and-coming creators who haven't broken in, like yourselves -- into Marvel."

In order to "get a feel for the room" before beginning the question and answer session, Cebulski asked how many of the attendees wanted to be writers. About a third of the audience raised their hands. How many pencillers? Maybe half a dozen. Inking, coloring, and any of the other discplines? A few. Editorial, corporate, or legal? About fifteen.

A woman asked a question of the assembled panel: "I'm probably older than most of the people here, and I grew up reading Marvel and DC, but I married, raised kids, and all that, and now that they're out of my house and out of my hair, I still want to be in comics. I'm a writer, I come from journalism -- "

Quesada interrupted her, saying, "That's the beauty about comic books. Unlike the movie business, where beauty sells, for the most part, it doesn't matter with comics. It doesn't matter who you are, where you are, where you come from, what age you are; it just matters if you're talented and if you have an interesting perspective on things. For me, I actually got into comics late. I read them as a kid and dropped them at around the age of 12 when I discovered baseball and girls, in that order. Then I didn't read them again until I was 25, and didn't break into comics until I was around 29 or 30, when a lot of my contemporaries were breaking in when they were 21 or 22. So, it doesn't really matter. All that matters, especially if you want to be a writer, is your skill. In terms of pitching, or how you get into Marvel as a writer, you have to have written before. A lot of people think, "Oh, I can get my first job writing for Marvel; I just want to be a writer." That's not how it works. We hire established writers, but for established writers, you can have written in any medium, it doesn't have to be comics. You could have written for film, you could have written a novel, you could have been in journalism. We've hired a couple of people like Mary Choi, who wrote this amazing column, who has an incredible voice and who's become a writer that we've been working on really developing. It doesn't matter where you have written as long as you have written and have samples you can show us. And we accept samples by snail mail. We like to see what people have done. We have to have previously published work we can review so we can get a sense of your skill."

"There's also web comics and ashcans. You go out and do it yourself. If you can't draw, there's other ways of doing it," Cebulski added. "You go online and you find someone who will draw your story. There are a few people I've hired from an ashcan. I'm impressed enough by their ashcan to give them a shot at a short story."

Alonso interrupted, "Didn't you just hire someone from a webomic? 'McNinja?'"

"Yeah, if you aren't reading it, read it. 'Doctor McNinja,' is that what it's called?" Cebulski answered. "It's great stuff, but he's doing a 'Deadpool.' Who'd have thought he'd write 'Deadpool?'"

Alonso added, "If you're a writer, there's some resources, especially online, for writers who are looking to connect with artists and artists who are looking to connect with writers, digitalwebbing.com and penciljack.com, both sites that are pretty much dedicated to that; they have forums for it. Also, if you go to Brian Bendis' Jinxworld or Mark Millar's Millarworld, they have creative sections where they have specific message boards for artists looking for writers and writers looking for artists. Those are really good resources you can use online."

Loeb expanded on this point. "We can't stress enough that it's really easier than it's ever been; easier for us to see what you can really do. The fact that you're here today to get some ideas for your passion. The best thing you can do is walk around on the [convention] floor, or look at the people around you. You guys need to get your samples out so that Marvel or anyone else can see that you can work your craft. There was a time when the pressure was on you guys to do an ashcan; for you to do a published piece of work, which costs money. But now, you're in a world where you can just set up a website for almost nothing, put your pages up there so that people can take a look at them, and then when you go to a con, find an editor, because editors are the people that can hire you. As much fun as it would be to talk to Jason [Aaron] about his craft and learn from him, at the end of the day, Jason can't hire you. Better that people like Axel or C.B. see your work, and if you have a business card that has your URL on it, and you say, 'I wrote a comic, and this is where it is,' the odds of them taking a look at it are a much simpler game, and it's also much easier to take that card and put it in your pocket than to actually have to hold onto any number of portfolios. You don't want it left back in the hotel room. What you do want is to get it back to New York, and get that email address to them so that they can check it out for what it is."

Cebulski gave potential applicants some hope. "Last year, from January 1st to December 31st, 2010, we hired 128 new people... I was talking to Skottie Young about this recently. There's no such thing as overexposure on the net. Don't limit yourself to just a Facebook page or a blog. Go ahead and get your own website. You never know where someone is going to come across your work or what the link is. I've found people from the most random places. Put yourself in as many places as possible, because you don't know where you're going to get seen."

Asked if there are any common mistakes or faux pas they see in portfolios, Quesada replied, "There are plenty, and here's the ugly but realistic truth about portfolio review: by page two, we know whether you are talented enough to start working now; talented enough, but not ready yet; and in some cases, not ready ever, So, I would advise a short portfolio. My original portfolio was 12 pages. I would hear all these horror stories. I showed my portfolio at DC, and it had all these Spider-Man pages. They said, 'Hey, this is great stuff, we love it, but can you draw DC characters?' That was sort of the way comic books were working at the time. In the same way at Marvel, 'I love the way you draw Superman, but can you do the X-Men?' 'Gee, I drew a great Superman, can you imagine I'd draw a great Wolverine? I guess not.' And when I'd hear that DC was looking for a horror artist, they'd say, 'Well, you draw a great superhero story, but you can't do horror.' So I decided to do three separate stories that were basically just panel layouts. They were silent stories, which the editor would be able to follow -- because that's another big problem, right?' If you're not a good letterer, it can really destroy a great comic book. So I didn't want to letter, I didn't want to ink ('cause I wasn't a great inker), so I did three stories. The first story I did was a single character. I did a three-page Superman story, to demonstrate my handling of a single character -- a DC character; I did a three-page X-Men story, to show my handling of a group of characters -- Marvel characters, and my next pages were just two guys telling a story of a lost love in a bar, so a great quiet story, but not superheroes. My final three pages were the covers for each of those stories. That was it. And that was the portfolio that got me hired at DC. And I never had to show it to anyone else. I showed it to Jim Owsley, and that was it. It was never shown again. So keep it short. There are other aspects to showing your portfolio. Be pleasant. Be resistant but not pushy. And always show your most current work. You want to make your first impression the strongest."

Cebulski contributed some other tips. "One of the other things I'd recommend, too, is it's always great if you bring a notepad to take notes. Show an editor that you're listening and you're there to learn. A lot of times, if someone pulls out a notepad and starts writing, I'm going to give them a little more time; going to give them a little more critical review, 'cause I know they're listening and I know they're writing down what I say. And I know they're going to take that home and learn from it; they're not just going to forget what I said."

Asked what is the best way to get hold of the Marvel editors, Cebulski replied that all of them are encouraged to be active on Twitter and Facebook, and to communicate and interact with fans and artists. A list of all those accounts can be found right here at Comic Book Resources.

An audience member prefaced his question by saying he was in college and "didn't have a lot of time." Cebulski asked, in all seriousness, if he had a health issue. Assured that he didn't, the editor continued, "There's an important answer to that question. The thing you're talking about is a career, not a job, and I have a daughter who's out now, looking for work -- and I say this with affection in my voice -- 'There's plenty of time to get a shitty job.' If you're working at a place where you know that's not your dream, then it's okay; you'll find another one of those jobs. But this thing that you're talking about is something that, hopefully, you're gonna do for a long time. And so it does require patience; it does require a lot of rejection. It does require going to conventions and meeting people, letting them get to know you, making impressions and getting better at your craft. Those are the things that are really going to make a difference, and so this may not be the year that it's gonna happen, but if you really stick with it and you believe in yourself -- the thing that I continually try to tell people when they're trying to get into this business -- or get into any business -- is, when you have a dream, the worst thing that someone can do is wake you up from it. And when you have a nightmare; the only thing you can do is hope that someone will wake you up from it. So if you have a dream; if your dream is to get into this business, and you have somebody in your life -- whether it's a parent, or a friend, or a spouse, or any of those people are trying to tell you that you shouldn't be doing this -- you need to get those people away from that conversation. I'm not saying get those people out of your life; just it's not worth trying to convince them. They have an agenda which is not your agenda. Your agenda is to chase your dream; to stay in your dream. Stay there. Chase after it. And let those people worry about whatever their problem is. So, if they want to give you all the reasons why you're never gonna make it, just say, 'Okay, fine. I appreciate that. That's fine.' Stay with people in your lives that believe in you and believe in what it is that you're gonna do, and you will make it along the way. I really do believe that at the end of the day."

Alonso left the artists in the audience with a final word of advice: "Keep the layouts simple. One of the biggest turnoffs for me, and I think for a lot of people, is when you open it up, and the page is a mess. The panels are wacky and crazy and reinventing the way you move into the page. The biggest secret is, many of the most popular artists in the business work in very simple layouts, but do something within those panels is so fantastic that it gives you the illusion of motion; that it makes you feel you're seeing something new every time. So keep your layouts simple."

Quesada added, "The thing that separates the children from the adults is the ability to tell a story in a fashion that's not confusing. So learn the basics; learn the real basics of storytelling, and once you learn those basics, you can go abstract, but you can always fall back on those basics. I personally would rather hear, 'Yeah, that's a funky head you drew here; those eyes don't look quite right,' as opposed to 'I don't understand what's going on here.'

Cebulski concluded: "One of the things I've often heard, is that editors say, when they're looking at storytelling, that a lot of people seem to feel like, 'Oh, well, if I have the Hulk and Spider-Man have a fight, that'll be storytelling.' And in fact, that stuff is absolutely money; it's gold, but you wanna make sure that the thing you're asking is, 'What's the story that I should draw?' The one I always pitch is: Draw Peter Parker getting out of bed, walking through his apartment, going into the kitchen, opening the cupboard, taking down a cup of tea, putting on the kettle, pouring a cup of tea, sitting down at the table, and then having a conversation with MJ or Aunt May or whoever that's gonna be. If you can convey that over three pages, so that you can actually know that it does look like a kitchen; that it looks like a cup; that it does look like that's what he's doing, that's storytelling. That is something that is unique to comics, that is different from anything else -- not the big splashy image that's gonna be a cover, or gonna be a big spread. This is the way that people are going to get to know you, that you know how to tell a story."

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