The Hot Seat

Mon, January 14th, 2002 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
The Hot Seat, Columnist

Welcome to another edition of The Hot Seat.

This week "7 Guys of Justice" co-creator Brian Joines takes the stage. Those of you interested in checking out the series can do so January 23rd when both Issues #11 and #12 will be in comic shops. In addition to "7 Guys of Justice" Brian is also working on the "Taking of Happyland," a crime caper graphic novel to be published by Platinum Studios.

Breaking into the comics industry isn't easy. Ask any established pro about it and I'll guarantee they'll respond with that very statement, in one form or another. It's like a hidden mantra for the professional community. Coming in second in the "most uttered phrase at a comic convention" contest would probably be, "It's easier for an artist to break in than a writer." I've heard it a billion times, told to another person or myself. The reasons vary..."It's a visual-driven medium," "A writer can work on 2/4/57/(choose your own number) books a month," "It's not what you can do so much as who you know"...and that's not even touching on the dreaded writer-artist hyphenate. Yet despite all of these known setbacks and stumbling blocks, aspiring writers toil endlessly on the perfect Superman story or the greatest untold Wolverine story ever (with all due respect to Paul Jenkins). They're ambitious, they're gifted and dammit, they've got a story to tell. So, when DC Comics announced that they would no longer be accepting unsolicited submissions a few weeks ago, many fans who were riding on their unseen Nightwing story to get them out of retail saw their hopes dashed on the rocks below. Fingers were pointed, message boards spilled over and tempers flared in such a way that you'd have thought Bill Jemas wrote the press release. The comic fanbase was an angry mob and, I'm embarrassed to say I was a part of it. Briefly. It was a knee-jerk reaction on my part, due to years of sending off unanswered submissions to various companies. Taking a step back, I realized that I have something that separates me, and a good number of other writers, from the people storming the streets with a torch in one hand and the perfect way to relaunch Deathlok in the other...I have a physical, tangible comic featuring my work inside.

Let me pause here before I go on and tell you a bit about my station in life. I have, by no means, "made it" in the comics community. I still do the day job thing five days a week. What money I make from my comic book all goes into publishing the next issue...and it's usually not enough to cover all the costs. What little buzz I've managed to accrue from the book hasn't automatically opened any doors for me. And, having just turned 30, I have art skills resembling those of a very competent 4th grader. I'm probably not all that different from the majority of aspiring writers reading this. And yet, writing a book featuring a talking monkey has brought me more opportunities to at least talk to people in the field than fifteen years of trying to figure out the perfect JLA story. That's what this column is about...how to get your written work seen by the big companies in this time of no unsolicited submissions.

I think the first thing you need to do, before anything else, is to recognize that the dead system was, in fact, a flawed system. Look at the basic requirements of the late DC Submission Guidelines (as well as Marvel's guidelines which, to be fair, had been discontinued long before DC pulled theirs)...a double-spaced synopsis on a single sheet of paper. In this format, you would have been able to get the bullet points of your story across, but the other things...the character moments, the dialogue, the little quirks that really kick your story into gear and make each moment shine...those fall on the wayside. Remember, the big two never asked for fleshed-out proposals or full scripts, just single stories on single pages. You could have a great emotional scene between Spider-Man and Aunt May in the works, but how much of that single page can you devote to it without taking away from the rest of the synopsis? So, going into the submission, you're already hobbled...how can you expect to get your story considered, let along purchased, when you've had to trim your best stuff for space consideration? When was the last time you heard of somebody getting hired based on the strength of his or her submission? Jim Shooter's Legion stories? The sooner you realize the system wasn't feasible the sooner you'll be able to get over the anger of having it yanked out from under you and can focus on what's important...namely getting your work seen.

So here you are with your story. You know exactly what you want to happen and where it's going to go. You know this is the perfect story to get your foot in the door...except there's a problem. The story ONLY works for Superman or Batman or Wolverine. If you can't use those characters, there's no point in doing the story, right? Wrong. If you're already pigeonholing yourself into that role, you're not going to get anywhere. You're a writer, aren't you? Well, write your way out of your story being "just a Superman" story. There are a number of things to do...the easiest being to create a Superman-esque character, somebody to join the fine ranks of Captain Marvel, Samaritan, Miracleman, Supreme, Hyperion and countless others. That's all well and good and will help you get around the "only for Superman" problem, but take a look at some of the people being brought in to write comics lately. Brian Michael Bendis made a name for himself in crime comics before landing "Ultimate Spider-Man." Terry Moore of "Strangers in Paradise" is slated to take over writing chores on "Birds of Prey." Even Mark Waid, who's spent years writing various superhero titles, landed the "Fantastic Four" based upon the strength of "Ruse," a Victorian detective series. I love superheroes and think that anybody dismissing their role in comics is living in a state of perpetual denial, but a lot of editors are looking at people who are doing good work beyond the capes-and-cowls realm. With that in mind, you can tinker with your and remove it from the trappings of the superhero sub-genre. It can be easy to forget that Superman stories can be boiled down to a science fiction story in tights or that Batman stories can be boiled down to crime drama in a cape, but they can. Re-examine your story without the superhero aspects and see if you can make it play. Who knows? Maybe you'll catch the eye of an editor impressed with how you've handled the horror genre.

At this point, with your new/old story in hand, there are a couple different things you can do. First of all, you can look at other publishers to see if they're interested in picking up your story. Sure, you'd love to work for DC or Marvel...what aspiring writer wouldn't? But aiming so high right out of the gate might not be the most realistic thing for you at this point. There are literally hundreds of smaller comic book companies that might be interested in publishing your work. Dark Horse, one of the top-ranked companies after DC and Marvel, still has an open submission policy. They even ask that you send them a full script, which allows you the opportunity to really make your story shine in dialogue and character bits. The other thing that you can do is to find an artist and put the comic together yourself. This is exceptionally hard work but is also just that much more rewarding when you see the final product. I know, I know...it still comes down to the most-repeated question I've seen in regards to any writer doing their own comic: where do I find an artist? There are a lot of different places to look...local art/graphics schools, your fellow comic shop patrons, classifieds on sites like Digital Webbing, comic con attendees...but rather than focus on those, I think a distinction needs to be made in regards to an artist. You need to ask yourself what is the purpose of the comic book you're putting together? If this is a comic you plan on packaging words and art together in an attempt to get published by another company, such as Image, or self-publishing yourself on a regular basis, then yes, you'd better make sure you have an artist who knows what the hell he/she is doing. On the other hand, if you're trying to just put together some makeshift book to hand out at conventions or send to editors, then the art really doesn't have to be all that great. It should be passable, make no mistake...the reader should be able to see what's going on based on the art as well as the words...but if you're just going to hand this off to somebody as a sample of your writing skills, you don't need Pat Lee playing backup. Any editor worth their salt should be able to differentiate between writing and art, should be able to separate the two and look at them individually. Since I've started going to editors with my book, I've only had one guy who just could not (or perhaps would not) make that distinction (I've since learned the guy has a reputation of being a jackass anyway, so that made me feel better...but you will encounter these types in this field as much as any other, sorry to say). In fact, in putting together your own comic for show, I'd say that the second most-important component after the writer is the letterer. You may be the best dialogue writer under the sun, but it doesn't mean a damned thing if nobody can read what's being said. I got very lucky and met a very talented letterer at the San Diego con two years back, but before that I was doing my own lettering on the book. It wasn't pretty, but it was legible. I don't care if you're writing in the word bubbles or have Adobe Illustrator version 47.9 installed in your computer system...as long as the work is readable, that brings you one step closer to getting your writing noticed.

So now your book, with pencils and inks and letters and the whole magilla, is all but complete. You've either decided to go about publishing your own book or those philistines at Image have turned you down, leaving you no choice but to self-publish. So where do you go? If you have the money, you can go to one of the bigger comic printers out there, Brenner or Quebecor, or check your local printing houses. It costs about $1200 to publish a 32-page black-and-white book with a color cover. If you're suddenly feeling your heart tightening in your chest, then you may want to consider the tried-and-true Kinkos method of printing comics. While their paper stock isn't exactly the same as the standard comic book, they can get you pretty close and make your book look sharp enough to attract a reader's attention. They can still be pretty pricey...the actual cost of a single comic produced at Kinkos is about four times the cost of a single issue printed at one of the larger printers, but if you're just getting started, you may not need 1000 copies (the usual minimum print run at the larger printers) of "Goth Vampire Teens In Love." A simple run of 50-100 may suit your needs just fine. One final point about this: if you're unwilling to spend any money on getting your work seen, then enjoy posting your fanfic in-between your closing shifts at KFC. Doing this sort of thing takes an investment in every sense of the word and those who aren't willing to sacrifice for their art had better pray their cousin edits "Deadpool," because that may be their only shot.

And now you have a finished book. What's your next step? Promote, promote, promote. Send out press releases over the Internet. Send copies of your book to critics like Randy Lander or to the guys at Wizard running the Secret Stash column. Contact editors at the big companies and ask them if they'd like to receive a free copy of your book. Most editors are happy to have an actual sample in the proper format to look at. Go to conventions, either as an attendee or paying a few bucks to get your own table. Contact the various comic distributors about carrying your book. Go to your local comic shop and see if they'll carry it on some kind of consignment arrangement. Just get a buzz going on your work. If enough people see what you can do, you're bound to draw the attention of somebody in the field who may be interested in talking to you about future work.

Do I make any promises about any of this? Oh dear God no. There are alternatives I haven't touched on and probably more I don't even know about. There are a million variables that can come into play and blow apart one or all of my rantings above. That's the nature of the comics industry...it's a mercurial beast in a state of constant change. The best any of us can do is to steer its waters and hope to find some kind of port we'd like to stay in.

Me? I'm just trying to offer you guys a better boat.

-- Brian Joines

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