Of the many people who want to break into the comic book industry, a precious few are able to realize their dreams. At New York Comic-Con, four of those fortunate writers - Robert Kirkman ("The Walking Dead"), Nick Spencer ("Morning Glories"), Steven T. Seagle ("Frankie Stein") and Ron Marz ("Artifacts") - spoke in front of a packed room to impart some of the wisdom that they've learned throughout their careers as comic book writers.
The Image Comics: The Writers panel opened with Image's PR & Marketing Coordinator Betsy Gomez asking each of the writers to recall their initial journey into the comic book industry. "I'm a failed comic book artist," Kirkman said to laughter, but he insisted it was the truth: back in his "Battle Pope" days, Kirkman wrote and illustrated his own comic book. When Diamond Distribution told him it was "awful," he gave up on his artistic ambitions. Thankfully, he's much happier with the way his career has turned out, because as a writer, he's able to work on multiple books each month, while many artists are only able to work on one.
Marz dated his career back to a fateful day in fourth grade when he realized he wouldn't become the third basemen for the Mets. After some years as a journalist, Marz eventually found his way into writing comic books. "I haven't done an honest day of work since then, which was about 20 years ago," he said. "It's the best job in the world. We just get to make shit up and they pay us for it."
Kirkman argued that comic book writing isn't always the greatest job in in the world, saying that there's probably an investment banker in the room who makes millions of dollars from one minute worth of typing.
"Yeah, but that guy is an asshole," Marz quipped. "Then again, we might be too!"
Spencer, whose first published work arrived in last summer's "Existence 2.0," said that he wanted to write comics since he was a kid. Some years ago, when he showed some of his early writing to editor Bob Schreck at Wizard World Chicago, Schreck offered him some sage wisdom: "This is good because you're writing what you know; problem is, you don't know shit." Spencer was encouraged to travel and try new things to broaden his experiences, which is exactly what he did for ten years, working at bars and working in politics. Through it all, Spencer always believed he would come back to comics; it was just a matter of figuring out when. After a dealing with a business failure, it seemed like it was the right time.
Asked to discuss their writing process, Marz said that he always starts with a germ of an idea, usually a visual that he wants to work into the front or end of the book. He takes a blank piece of notebook paper, numbers it 1 - 22 and gets a sense of what's on each page. Then, he breaks the pages down into panels per page, with each page needing its own beat, visual statement and information to convey to the reader. If it doesn't have those qualities, it's not worth being a page. Marz explained that once he has all of that figured out, the rest is just "monkey work."
"Once I have the story figured out and once I have the beats down, the rest is like being a secretary; just typing shit up," he said.
"I hope people like the artist, because they don't like me by and large, so I bank on them being sellable," Seagle joked of his writing process, adding, "And nobody laughs, so clearly it's true!" Seagle said that he writes differently depending on the artist he's working with; he likes to know who he's working with and what their strengths are. If an artist doesn't want a full script, for example, he won't give them one.
Writing comic book scripts is distinct from other forms of writing in the sense that these scripts are typically only viewed by artists and editors - the comic book itself is what the reader gets to see. Writing for television is a completely different animal, as Kirkman recently found out after writing an episode of AMC's "The Walking Dead" adaptation, where a script is an actual product that requires oversight from producers, studio executives and others.
The writers were asked to list the projects they're currently working on. Along with his Man of Action team, Seagle is working on several television endeavors including "Generator Rex" and the new "Ultimate Spider-Man" series for Disney XD. He's also working on four different graphic novels, one of which has been in the works for five years and another for four years. "I blame the artist," he joked about the reasons for the books' delays. "But they're not written yet, so who am I to talk?"
Spencer has many projects going on, including the critically acclaimed ongoing series "Morning Glories," the just announced "Infinite Vacation," plus work for Marvel Comics ("Iron Man 2.0") and DC Comics ("Supergirl," "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents").
Kirkman is hard at work on "Invincible," "Haunt," both the comic book and television versions of "The Walking Dead," "Guarding the Globe" and the nearly concluded "The Astounding Wolf-Man." Once "Wolf-Man" wraps, Kirkman will launch a new secret project with collaborator Jason Howard. He also brought up "Image United," joking: "We're on issue #40. It's been going on for a while. It's a good book, you should try it."
Marz is mostly writing for Top Cow, currently penning the universe-spanning "Artifacts" limited series, "Witchblade," "Magdalena," "Velocity" and "Angelus." For Image, Marz co-wrote a "Firebreather/Dragon Prince" one-shot with Phil Hester, likely shipping in December. Additionally, he's launching a Japanese vampire series called "Shinku" next spring, a book where "vampires are the bad guys, the way they're supposed to be."
"It's got nudity and bad words in it, so buy two," he added.
Asked if there's any advice they would give their younger selves based on what they know now, Seagle recalled the best advice he ever received - advice he received from the worst writing class he ever took, ironically enough. Seagle said that aspiring writers should set aside 15 minutes every day of the week where all they do is write; they can't stop typing, they can't do research, they can't go to the bathroom. Do this for a month, 15 minutes every day, the same time every day, never missing a day and never interrupting for anything.
"If you can do that for four weeks, you do that again for four weeks for another 30 minutes," he said. "If you make it through two months, you'll probably make it. If you can't, you probably won't be a writer."
For his own part, Marz said that it's most important that a writer writes for themselves. "Don't write for Logan242 on the CBR message board," he said. "Don't write for anybody else except for you. Make sure you think the story is good. Don't turn it in until you think it's good. If you think you're getting conflicting advice from your editor, try and talk it through. The most important thing at the end of the day is, you're happy with the book that's on the stands. The audience as a writer should be you - don't give a shit what anyone else thinks, because in the end, you have to have that gene of self-judgment. If you don't, nobody else will do it for you."
An audience member asked the panelists how they determine the breakdowns from page to page. Marz said that he thinks comic book writers need to have a visual sense; he can't draw to save his life, he said, but he can visualize the page. "Not that the artist has to follow that, but you have to have some sense of what can fit on the page," he said. He added that he tries to end each page with a question, especially the odd-numbered pages since those are the page turns.
Another fan wondered how the writers go about tailoring their scripts for artists, particularly when they have a very specific visual already in mind. Spencer said he tries to play to an artists' strengths without dictating a book to them; it's most important for him to find out what's going to be fun for his artists to draw. Marz agreed with Spencer, saying that writers should give their artists an exciting reason to go to the drawing board every day.
"Talk to the artist," advised Seagle. "They'll tell you what they need."