Sunday, March 10, 2013

So You Wanna Be A Comics Writer?

The Clarion Group asked me to write an article about getting into comics. So I wrote it. They used it, but it's a lot shorter. So here's the rest of it. Oh, and they used a much prettier picture.

Me, imitating Christopher Lloyd.

After a long San Diego Comicon, during the Sunday wind-down, a mother with a hopeful son approached me as a comics professional:

"My son wants to get into comics," she said. "What should I do for him?"

Pretty much wrung out after three days of marketing, I blurted, "Break his hands!'

Happily for me and her kid, they'd been around the industry long enough to recognize the reality of my comment.

Comics are hard work. They're probably the most labor-intensive art form we can successfully finish alone. The best way to get into comics, of course, is to learn to draw and write them from start to finish; that's what we call a comics author.

These days, with print-on-demand and downloads becoming simpler, cheaper and more easily organized, many comics authors are profiting quite nicely from the entire publishing process themselves.

Many people are becoming complete authors, but there's still a demand in the industry for the old-fashioned penciller/inker/letterer/colorer/writer team, especially in the old genre markets like superheroes and manga.

If you're going to write for comics, first of all attend a comics convention, the bigger the better. Look at everything and talk to everybody. Bring a big box of business cards, and no matter how good you think your memory is, write what your exchange was about, or both parties will forget it by the time you get home. There's just that much going on.

Hydrate, eat a good breakfast - you may get nothing more until supper - and learn to fish-swim through the rivers of fans (an art in itself).

Back home? Seen some books you want to write for? Learned who people are? Now it's time to get to work.

Think movie script. You're transmitting your ideas of dialog and images to another person. If you're writing licensed characters, it's like writing a Star Trek novel; you get pay, not the rights. On a comic book you get paid like the script-writer. The artist/s get paid like the actors.

The first lesson is: nobody's a mind reader. The second is: garbage in, garbage out. Artists come in at least two flavors; the ones who want you to describe every detail of every panel, and the ones who want to do the layout themselves. Too much detail just makes panels clunky. And you have to leave space for word balloons. Get some comics, and check out basic layout.

You want to become a writer for a publisher? Learning a genre and submitting scripts is the same as for any multi-level project. Each company has its own requirements. Their websites will tell you how. Nobody has time to give you the details at a comics convention. It's a trade show dealing with every level of arts, media and entertainment, and time is precious.

Of course, if all you have is a script you're probably going to end up sliding off the slush pile. A script is just a script. You need art, because the publisher isn't a mind-reader, either.

Don't try to talk some artist into working for cheap or free. Learning to be a really able artist requires thousands of hours of work and thousands of dollars in expenses. Unless you're part of a team that deeply believes in the project, that way lies fights, accusations, and a reputation as an amateur and an asshole. The artist is not lazy or feckless; you're just on the back burner because you're not paying, and somebody else is. It doesn't matter if they showed up after your project started. Artists are professionals, and while it's fun to work for the love of it - it's where the word "amateur" comes from - this is the real world, and they have a job to do.

If you've got a fat wallet, you can pay your artist without quibbling, but you still have to know if you like his or her art already. Don't demand the artist imitate a much more expensive artist, unless you're willing to pay the same fees; that's just getting copy-art for cheap. It's not going to help your reputation.

You pay up front; you're hiring the artist to do the work, not to decide if you like it or not. The usual arrangement is fifty percent up front, fifty percent upon approval.

But what if you're strapped? There's a way to get a good start. Put money together to pay well for the first pages before submitting the project to a publisher. You're acting as a small-scale producer; you have to find the funding for the film.

I can remember one young man who approached me and offered $750 for twenty pages of art. Starting at black and white for $150.00 per page and going up - he wasn't getting beyond a short story. I asked him who his dream artist would be, and if s/he was at the show. The man was. Then I asked the writer who he'd approach second, and then third. They were all at the show. I told the writer to wait until his first choice was on a break from lines of signings, then approach him politely, and offer the entire budget for one really fine color splash page.

The writer returned within the hour. His first choice worked at a higher usual page rate, so turned him down, but thanked him for the offer. The second had too much work on his plate. He got the third.

Start at the top. Offering a copy of a really top-class piece of art along with a script is going to at least let the publisher know you're serious about your project.

How many of you out there are asking what a splash page is? If you don't know, or what a Kirby grid or a signature is, or how many of them go into a comics format, then you need to google some comic book terminology. Or at least get to the largest comic book show you can find, and geek up. If nothing else, you could see Darth Maul on stilts playing a bag-pipe.*

Happy hunting!


Ted Henkle said...

Thank you for the insightful post. I'm working on a longer fumetti-style webcomic and on average can get only 2 panels per page. (Yes I had to look up "Kirby Panel").

Donna Barr said...

Well, the old pager-makers used huge pages, and shrunk 'em down. What? You really think all that detail was drawn teeny-weeny? I draw nearly to size, but that's just me. BTW, I love Fumetti - let me know when you have links up!