More creating comics advice

Not a continuation of the Instinct posts (but hopefully more to come on that very soon, I think we’re about to lock down the final piece), but some general advice on comic creating. Or a rant, not quite sure which.

Okay, so…you want to create comics? Great. Get to it.

Hold on, you might say, what do you mean? How can I just “get to it”?

It’s pretty simple. If you want to make comics, get out there and make comics. There’s no secret to it. If you’re a writer, then write comics. If you’re an artist, draw comics.

Okay, so maybe it’s not quite that simple (but it’s really not much more difficult than that). You have an idea for a comic book; one you believe in, one you think might strike a chord and find an audience. That’s step one.

I’m approaching this from the standpoint of a writer, since that’s what I am. It’s pretty universally known that it’s harder for a writer to break into the comic book industry. No sample to shove under the nose of an editor or publisher, because no one in their right mind is going to sit down and read your 22-page script. Editors and publishers are busy people. They need shit done right now. When you’re an artist, you can show your portfolio and someone can tell within 10 seconds if you’ve got the goods or not. It’s a much harder battle to be fought for the writer.

Because you need art. This is comics, not prose, and comics are a visual medium. Without art, you have a script. Without art, you have a book (possibly). Without art, it’s really not a comic book.

So what do you do? You look for an artist. There’s tons of ways to do this now. When I first started looking for artists, I was kind of limited. There was www.digitalwebbing.com, or www.penciljack.com, and you could always scour through www.deviantart.com. There was no Facebook or Twitter yet. Nowadays there are dozens of groups on Facebook for comic artists and writers to hook up and create stuff. You can throw up a tweet looking for art. Twitter is a pretty valuable resource for comic creators. Look at some of the hashtags that other creators are using. These aren’t just random things tacked onto the end of their tweets; these are actually sub-groups within Twitter. Stuff like #makecomics, or #comicmarket. Check out these hashtags and see who’s posting and who’s talking about what.

So you manage to find an artist. Is it a paid project, or is it backend? For the unenlightened, “backend” means that there’s no money up front, any payment will come on the back-end, after the book sells copies and makes money. So most of the time, backend means “never getting paid”. It’s a sad reality, but there it is. Paid projects are something I actually have no experience with. I’m not saying this to brag, not in any way, but I have yet to pay an artist a single dime, and I’ve worked with lots and published comics with lots. Do I think they deserve to be paid? Abso-fucking-lutely. No doubt about it. But here’s my position: I’m a single dad to two boys. Between rent/car/food/kids/miscellaneous, that leaves me with exactly zero to pay an artist with. And I can’t really give up on the food or rent or anything, you know? So I don’t have money to pay artists.

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to work with incredibly talented artists who have the same mindset as myself: we love making comics, and do whatever we can to make them and keep making them. I appreciate the hell out of every single page, no, scratch that, every single panel that an artist creates out of a story I’ve written. That’s one more panel that the artist has taken time out of their life to draw. Maybe they didn’t go to the movies because they were drawing. Maybe they PVR’d an entire season of their favorite show because they were drawing. Maybe they missed birthdays, anniversaries, nights out with their friends, maybe they were up until 5am drawing. There is an immense amount of blood, sweat, and tears that go into comic book pages. I have never taken any of it for granted. And never will. Every page that comes to me is one less page that artist could have created and been paid for elsewhere. Maybe it’s a testament to my writing (I’m trying to write this without a gigantic swollen head), that there’s something there that sparks the imagination of the artist, something they connect with and say “yeah, this could work, I like this”.

Whatever it is, I don’t like to think about it too much. I don’t want it to disappear.

Okay, so: either you’ve paid an artist or you’ve collaborated with an artist for the mythical backend pay. Great. Your first step should be easy: don’t write that 100-issue epic that’s been brewing in your mind since you were eleven. That shit won’t fly. You will, I can almost guarantee it, never, ever, ever have your first comic work be that magnum opus you’ve been working on forever. Unless you’re self-publishing, then go right ahead. I have no self-publishing experience and won’t offer any thoughts or opinions on it. Because I’d most likely look like an idiot.

My advice: start small. Write a self-contained story of about 8 pages. That’s also a test to see if you can do it or not. I’m terrible at it. I hate short stories. I’m not good at them. I struggle over a short a million times more than with a full 22-page story. I have a hard time being concise enough with a story to get it down to that amount. I’m a wordy bastard. But that’s just me. Write a short; get the artist to create art based on that short script.

Now, let’s say now, you’ve got 8 pages of art all done. Is it black and white? Does it need to be colored? The same process can start all over again when looking for a colorist. Ditto for a letterer. But these are all important pieces of the puzzle. Especially letters. A bad lettering job can make the whole thing unreadable. The same places you looked for an artist can also lead you to a colorist and letterer.

What you want to do is simple: make it as professional-looking as possible. Is it just as good, or better, than what you see on the shelves at your local comic store? Has anyone beside your mom read it and told you it was good? Be honest with yourself. It’s not going to happen right out of the gate. Like anything else, creating comics takes practice. If you don’t feel like your comic could sit on the shelf next to this month’s Batman or X-Men, then is it really good enough?

I’m not saying this to be discouraging. Not at all. But it’s a reality. The way I think of it is like this: if I’m pitching something to a publisher that’s of sub-par quality, a) it’s going to get turned down and b) this is something that has my name on it, and that’s something that a publisher/editor might not forget. I don’t want my name associated with something that’s less than perfect. It’s a small industry. It’s the same way you don’t want to talk a lot of shit about other creators. It’s a small industry with a long memory. I don’t want editor A at Publisher X to associate my name with amateur-looking material. Maybe that’s a fault of mine, maybe that’s not the reality, but that’s just how I’ve always approached it.

Alright, you’ve got a professional-quality 8-page package. You’ve written all your accompanying documents (your pitch, your synopsis, whatever the guidelines of the publisher you’re submitting to are – and I can’t stress that enough: read the submission guidelines. They’re not all the same at every company. Be a professional and do your homework), and off goes your submission into the wild blue yonder. Now what? Do you wait to hear back? Sit and click refresh in your email inbox all day long? Stare longingly out the window wondering why the world is so cruel to you?

No. No, no no no no no. What you do is this: start the process all over again, with a new idea, new story. Where one story might not work, another would. That first one might not hit, but that second one, who knows? Or maybe it’ll be the eighth one. Or the twelfth.

Creating comics is a lot like throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks.

My first-ever comics experience was like this: I had the first 8 pages of Ghost Lines created (this was with the original artist, long before I met Carl Yonder). I thought they looked great, I printed them out on nice glossy paper, made up a bunch of packages, and took them off to the 2005 Toronto Fan Expo, determined to get them into the hands of real comic book creators. I handed out every single one of those packages and you know how many people got back to me? Yeah, not a one.

I submitted it to Image comics, via email. This was almost seven years ago, and I’m still waiting for a reply. (I’m not actually, I know they turned it down years ago, that’s how Image works – if you don’t get a response, consider it a “no”.)

But did I rest on my laurels (whatever those are) and just expect that Ghost Lines was my ticket in, that somewhere, someone would read it, realize my brilliance, and offer me the X-Men? (Not that I want to write X-Men, but you get what I’m saying). No. I did not rest. I worked on more. And more. And more. I created comics like I took breaths. I did then, and still do now. Because you never know what story might connect. You never know what story might be the one.

Look for anthologies. That’s a great way to get your work seen, without a huge commitment from anyone involved. Get involved in the small press community. Get to know people, meet other creators, share work, offer your opinion and (if you have any) insight. Make friends (this takes us back to a previous post about establishing relationships). Be sincere. Don’t be a dick. Treat people fairly. Have clear and open lines of communication with your collaborators. Treat it like a job. Respect your partners. Respect the work.

There’s no right or wrong way to break in. If there was, I wouldn’t be writing this, I’d be broken in and writing X-Men by now (again, using that title just to illustrate the point). I got lucky, and I will never deny that. My first-ever cold pitch to a publisher got picked up. My third one got picked up as well. That’s unusual, I know. But I believed in the work, I believed in my creative partners. And since then, I’ve created lots of comics, some published, most not. I’ve also made great friends and established a pretty fantastic network of fellow creators, people I can trust will have my back, metaphorically.

I don’t know if any of this is helpful. I hope it is. I hope there’s something here that you pick up and take with you. I really do, because you know what the world needs more of? Good comics.

I want to leave you with the words of the master, Harvey Pekar (and if you don’t know who Harvey Pekar is, go google him, and do it right now):

“Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.”

So do anything.

You can follow me on twitter @mark_bertolini. I sometimes talk about creating comics there.

Do yourself a favor on a Friday and go listen to “Les Chemins De Verre” by Karkwa.

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