Open Your Mouth: Issue #7

Thu, June 19th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
J. Torres, Columnist

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THE WRITE STUFF

Two of the most frequently asked questions I get from people I meet at comic conventions are: "How did you get started in comics?" and "What's your advice for someone trying to break into comics as a writer?" Or some variation thereof.

My response to the first question has been fine-tuned over time and I eventually managed to boil down the three or four year ordeal into about as many sentences. But essentially, the answer I give these days is the same as the one I gave back in the day. Although lately I do tend to leave out the part about the kneepads.

On the other hand, my reply to the second question has certainly changed with my experiences as well as with the changes in the comic book industry itself. I mean, at one point, it was easy enough to simply direct aspiring writers to the Web sites of comic book companies and tell them to follow the submissions guidelines. However, these days, what you'll find on many of those websites is: "We are not accepting submissions from writers at this time." Or some variation thereof.

So, what's a wannabe writer to do? How does one break into comics given the seeming lack of opportunities and current state of the industry? As I did in the last couple of columns intended to help out aspiring artists, I also recruited some friends and peers to help me make some points, give out some advice, and lead by example here…

GETTING STARTED

"We are not accepting submissions from writers at this time."
I remember when I was a teenager trying to find a cool job for the summer. Pretty much every place I went to apply was only hiring people with experience. It frustrated me that I couldn't get a job because of a lack of experience and that I couldn't gain any experience until someone gave me a job in the first place. This type of irony surely is not lost on aspiring writers attempting to get work in comics, particularly in the mainstream or with the more commercial publishers and studios. Often, these companies only hire name writers or people who have racked up writing credits elsewhere.

Beau Smith, whose writing credits include "Wynonna Earp" and "The Tenth," says he got his start in comics as a letter hack. He took his cue from other prolific letter writers he saw in the letters pages of favorite Marvel and DC Comics of his youth. "Guys like Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Tony Isabella, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and many more," says Smith. He wrote letters of comment to the editors and assistant editors of every comic book he bought, hoping they would remember his name which he signed "Stephen Scott Beau Smith." With four names he thought they had to take notice. "It worked," says Smith. "I also started going to conventions...Chicago Con, Mid-Ohio Con and others. There, I would run into editors and creators and I would introduce myself and they would look surprised and say-- 'Hey! You're the guy that writes letters with the four names!'" He would then use that as an opening to engage the pros in conversation and "sway them to the side of Beau." Eventually, editors started sending Smith advance copies of some upcoming new comics so that he might provide them with a letter for their first issues. And soon, Smith had built up key relationships with certain editors and even made connections with his favorite creators. With their help and guidance it wasn't long before he was pitching (and selling) story ideas himself. And it only took him about a decade to get there.

On his Web site, Jay Faerber, writer of the fan-favorite "Noble Causes" published by Image Comics, details how his first published work was in a fanzine. It was while writing prose stories for "Titans Talk" that he met Devin Grayson, who would later become writer of "Nightwing" for DC, among other things. They became friends and not too long after that, Grayson made her first sale to DC - a short story for "Batman Chronicles." Taking a cue from his friend, Faerber started pitching his own material to DC, sending in springboards and spec scripts to editors she recommended.

But Faerber's first gig didn't come from DC. Around the same time, he also sent some writing samples to Frank Pittarese at Marvel, after discovering via the editor's AOL profile that they shared a love of soap operas. This gave them common ground and thus began an e-mail correspondence. Some eighteen months after his first Marvel pitch, Pittarese offered Faerber a shot at an issue of "What If…?" Then came Faerber's first DC gig (a mere two years after he started sending ideas in), which was followed by his stint on "Generation X," then his run on "Teen Titans," bringing things full circle for him (and it only took five years or so).

Another writer who used an online forum to make a connection with other professionals is Sean McKeever, writer of Marvel's "Inhumans" and "Sentinel." He says: "In my quest to become a writer of comics, I found myself on the CompuServe Comics/Animation Forum, where I met a lot of other aspiring writers and a few existing pros, including Kurt Busiek, Warren Ellis and Paul Jenkins." Jenkins ended up mentoring McKeever and eventually introduced him to Joe Pruett, then an editor at Caliber Comics. "Joe gave me my first couple of gigs in Caliber's 'Negative Burn' anthology," recounts McKeever. A short five years or so later and McKeever has graduated to writing two monthly books for Marvel Comics.

Letters to the editor, spec scripts, fanzines, anthologies. You've got to start somewhere. Working on spec scripts can initially serve as writing practice, but later double as (self)promotional and audition type material. Despite the geek stigma that comes with them, amateur publications are a good place to gain some experience writing for an audience. Anthologies are the perfect place for aspiring comic book creators to hone their craft, get some published credits under their belt, and have their work out there for people to see. And as for the lost art of letter writing, well, you can garner from these writers' examples that the experience of putting yourself out there and making contacts is almost as important as getting your work out there…

IT'S ABOUT WHO YOU KNOW

"I was frustrated that I couldn't break into the big two…
We all know someone who got that job interview because a friend of a friend knew someone at the company. And we all have relatives who have personally submitted another family member's resume to the right person, hoping to move them to the front of the line. Oh, please, just admit it. You'd love it if your last name were Kubert or Romita.

When I asked "New Mutants" co-writer Christina Weir how she and husband Nunzio DeFilippis broke into comics, she replied: "Greg Rucka." Rucka was DeFilippis' college roommate and a good friend of the couple's. He introduced them to the fine folks at Oni Press who eventually published the writing team's "Skinwalker." The well-reviewed miniseries was also well-received by people at Marvel and led to Weir and DeFilippis' work for the X-Office, including their first Marvel assignment, a short story for "X-Men Unlimited." "Not sure that the simple answer of nepotism is what your readers want to hear," says Weir. But the reality of it is that often it's 'who you know' that gets your foot in the door, isn't it?

Sean McKeever says: "I was frustrated that I couldn't break into the big two… so [Paul Jenkins] said he'd talk me up to his Marvel editors." Then a time came when Jenkins needed a break from his monthly work on "Hulk," so he spoke to editor Tom Brevoort about letting McKeever write a fill-in. As it turned out Brevoort was actually already a fan of McKeever's work on indy series "The Waiting Place" so not only did he get the fill-in, but he also ended up assisting Jenkins with his final arc for the series.

Dan Jolley, writer of "Voltron" and "Sabretooth", also admits: "It was all about the introductions!" When Jolley was nineteen he spent the summer with his older sister in Macon, GA. There he met a girl while playing video games in a local mall. He asked her out, and on their first date she introduced him to a couple of her friends: artists Craig Hamilton ("Fables," "Sandman") and Tony Harris ("Starman," "JSA: Unholy Three"). They found out Jolley wanted to be a writer, and eventually put him in contact with Meloney Crawford Chadwick at Harris Comics and Dan Thorsland at Dark Horse. Jolley was able to convince them that he knew how to put a story together, and got this first work in comics. "A long lost issue of Vampirella, and a sixteen-page story in the Dark Horse Comics anthology," recounts Jolley. "I've been writing comic books, in one capacity or another, ever since."

"At this point, it's almost embarrassing to tell the story."
Then there's how industry vet and CrossGen writer/editor Ron Marz ("Green Lantern," "The Path," "Scion") broke in the biz: "At this point, it's almost embarrassing to tell the story. There are so many people trying to break in as writers, hammering away at it for years, but I never even wrote a submission. I just walked through the door because it was held open for me, all thanks to Jim Starlin." Starlin and Marz lived in the same area and had been friends for years. Marz was working as a journalist before he worked in comics, and had copy-edited one of Starlin's prose novels for him. One day, Starlin suggested that Marz try his hand at writing comics and even showed him the ropes. "He handed me my first job, which was 'Silver Surfer Annual' #3," says Marz. "Jim and I co-wrote it, my first stab ever at writing a comic. Then I got the chance to do a Surfer backup story in the same annual, this time flying solo." Marz then went on to become the regular writer on "Silver Surfer," again thanks to Starlin. "I know how lucky I am to go right to the 'big leagues' without ever toiling in the minors. It's a debt I can never repay. Thanks, Jim," says Marz.

Everyone gets by with a little help from friends. But being introduced to an editor is one thing, impressing that editor is another. Sure, Starlin was instrumental in getting Marz work at Marvel, as was Jenkins for McKeever. But both Marz and McKeever had previous writing experience and although someone held open the door to get that proverbial foot in there, it was their talent that got them a foothold at the House of Ideas. Similarly, Weir and DeFilippis had made their mark in television writing for the HBO series "Arliss," but in comics started out in the small press. They quickly worked their way into the major leagues because of the quality of their work, not because one of them slept with the writer of "Wolverine."

SHMOOZE, NETWORK, HOOK UP

So you aren't pals with Devin Grayson, you didn't go to college with Greg Rucka, or date a friend of Tony Harris'. Get out of mom and dad's basement for a day and go out there and practice your people skills. Comic book conventions are great for networking and making industry contacts. They are not conducive to reviewing written work or even pitching ideas, in my opinion. But go ahead and collect business cards from editors. Swap e-mail addresses with artists. Don't try to sell your ideas here, socialize and sell yourself instead. The pitching can come after the hustle and bustle of the show where you and your paperwork can easily get lost in the shuffle.

Can't make it to a convention to schmooze people in person? Follow Faerber's and McKeever's lead and check out some online communities, frequent message boards for comic creators, and sign up for comic book mailing lists. You never know, you could find a future mentor this way, bond over common interests with an editor who'll give you that crack at a back-up story or fill-in, or maybe even befriend a like-minded artist to help you accomplish your goals.

And hooking up with the right artist can be the thing that puts you over the top.

"It all started with meeting a kindred spirit over the Internet."
Jason Hall, writer of the critically acclaimed "Pistolwhip," tells me that for him "it all started with meeting a kindred spirit over the Internet." He first met artist Matt Kindt online and explained that they eventually decided that they wanted to make comics together: "So that's what we did."

Hall and Kindt put together an "entirely completed product (professionally printed mock-ups and a variety of cool promo items) and then showed it around to publishers at the San Diego Comicon." Apparently, their presentation looked so slick and finished that Top Shelf thought at first the aspiring creators were giving them a comp copy of an already published book. "The company loved 'Pistolwhip' and published the books as is," says Hall, who went on to also produce "Mephisto and the Empty Box" with Kindt, then sold spec scripts for "Gotham Adventures" and "Star Wars Tales," and now writes "Beware the Creeper" for Vertigo.

As for how I got started in comics, it almost began in high school. (You're getting the extended version here and not the three or four sentence prcis.) I went to school with a talented artist named Tim Levins. He wanted to draw comics. I wanted to write comics. A mutual friend suggested we work together. Ironically, this didn't happen until about a year after high school and by that time we were living in different cities. But we began a long distance relationship nonetheless, and focused on trying to come up with concepts and stories to pitch to various publishers. About another year and several rejection letters later, we decided to take a cue from people we knew in the Toronto indy comics scene and actually create a comic instead of simply putting together a write-up and some concept art.

"Copybook Tales" began as an eight-page, digest-sized, hand-stapled, photocopied minicomic that we put on consignment at local comic shops, advertised on the Internet and sold to fans by mail order, and gave away to pretty much every editor and publisher we came across at comic shows. That last part being key. After producing five issues of this minicomic (over the course of another year), we got a call from Dan Vado at Slave Labor Graphics saying he wanted to publish our title as a full-sized, honest-to-gosh comic book.

After producing six issues of the full-sized "Copybook Tales," Levins and I went on to do "Siren," a miniseries for Image Comics. Editor C.B. Cebulski happened to be one of our loyal readers and he eventually recruited me to do some work for him at Fanboy Entertainment and later Marvel Comics. Along the way I also hooked up with Oni Press who published "Alison Dare" and "Days Like This" among other things for me, including a "Copybook Tales" trade paperback some five years after that first SLG issue was published. Levins went on to work on "Gotham Adventure" for over two years. And the rest as they say is history. Well, at least it's our story.

There you have it. Now you don't have to ask me that question if you ever see me at a show. And as for my advice for someone trying to break into comics as a writer?

Scroll up. Follow by example. And give it time.

Next week: Brian Michael Bendis (speaking of comic book writers).

Meanwhile, (speaking of comic books I've written) drop by the Open Your Mouth forum and tell me what you thought of "Jason & the Argbots" (Volume 1), illustrated by Mike Norton, and the "Sidekicks Super Summer Fun Special," featuring art by Takeshi Miyazawa and an all-star line-up of other artists including Mike Wieringo, in stores this week.

Thank you for your attention.

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