Today I march once more into the line of fire to address that most controversial of topics – breaking into the business. And when I say the business, I mean the comics industry.
It never fails – whenever I do a column on the topic, I get mail, mostly negative, most of it accusing me of being a self-satisfied pessimist who enjoys dampening the dreams of the talented. Not guilty. I am a restless explainer of things who loves to share what I know with a mass audience. If what I have to explain is not happy for one and all, I feat I am obliged to tell it as I see it.
Breaking in…hundreds of people have done it, thousands of people have wanted to do it but, for various reasons, didn’t. Of the hundreds who have found a way to make a living doing comic books, no two people’s stories of how they broke in are exactly the same. But there are a lot of similarities, and the similarities often begin with a person’s basic character traits.
The way I see it, the most important qualities a person needs are creativity, perseverance, versatility, perseverance, willingness to work hard, perseverance, willingness to take criticism, perseverance, sense of humor, perseverance, and sheer love for what you’re doing. Perhaps you can tell which I think is most important. With the “p” word, you won’t last long enough to show anyway you possess any of the other attributes.
The list above is what you need to break in. Once you’ve made it in, however, I would then rate “a sheer love for what you’re doing” the highest. As a veteran writer of more than 300 comic books, I can tell you that there are times, usually late at night, when you hate the story you’re working on, hate your boss for imposing deadlines, and hate yourself for not being quicker, or more facile, or deeper, or whatever. When all this hate is robbing you of the will to work, what are you going to do? What can get you back on track? What will bring your despair under control? My answer – the love of the medium (comics) and genre (super heroes).
When I reach my wit’s end and just can’t continue in the face of writing adversity, I stop, get up, go to the shelves, and pull down some of my favorite comics. I only mean to page through them, but I soon find myself reading them again and, without realizing it, I discover what’s going to make me go back and face my word processor again: I love this stuff, I love being part of it, even when it’s late, even when I have intensive deadlines, even when I can’t make every detail of a story come together as wonderfully as I would like.
If you can’t relate in some way to these feelings, maybe the comics industry is not really something you want to throw your life into. I’ve got a great exercise for all of you aspiring comic bookers. Get out a pencil and paper and take this little aptitude test.
DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BE IN THE COMICS INDUSTRY?
- Do you take criticism well, extracting the important points and incorporating them into your thought processes about your work?
- Are you willing to be brutally honest with your own work, compare it to, not just the worst in the field (“I can do better than him!”), but the best?
- Do you like doing homework – sitting by yourself for long periods of time and doing the same thing?
- Do you like to read – not just comics, but everything you can get your hands on? Do you love the medium beyond the understanding of anyone around you?
- Are you a keen observer of life? Do you make notes or sketches of real life—people, things, situations?
- Do you like to do things over and over till you get them right? Are you seldom pleased with whatever you do the first time?
- Do you know how to take rejection as a learning experience, turning it into fuel for further creative endeavor?
- Are you willing to make long, sobering explorations through the unexamined reaches of your mind, trying to dredge up the “juice” that enables you to go on in the face of a difficult creative process?
- Are you willing to make sacrifices for your dreams, put yourself in economic and emotional jeopardy to make your bid for your shot at the big time if you find that’s what it takes?
- Do you feel the constant urge to convert your experiences into works of art or fiction? Is this urge so strong that, even if you didn’t find a way to get paid for doing your art or stories, you would do them anyway?
Scoring: 8-10 yes, you may have what it takes. 5-7, you may have what it takes if you’re very lucky. 1-4, you’d better start thinking of what you really want to do with your life.
So, you’d you all do? Don’t feel obliged to write and tell me. I just want to help you judge for yourself. You know, I would love to be everyone’s big brother in the biz, answer your questions, give critiques to your stories, give you tips customized to your own experiences. But I can’t. There just isn’t enough time for me to personally encourage every single person I see with a modicum of talent and do everything else I have to do as a Marvel staffer, a freelancer writer, a comic collector, a husband, and a father.
While I dearly remember what it was like to be a fan out there, longing to find my way inside, I somehow knew even back then that no one cared if I got into the business except me. Therefore, I realized I couldn’t really count on anyone to help me get in except myself, and by trying to impose myself upon some professionals who seemed accessible or whose work I respected, I’d probably just annoy them and hurt my chances to become one of them.
Since this is the last time I hope to write on this topic for a while, I would like to leave those of you who are still with me some special inside tips on breaking in, culled from my experience on both the inside and out:
- Don’t send stories to writers about the characters they write. Many, like myself, will return them unread in order not to be unconsciously influenced by someone else’s ideas and insights. A writer’s stories must be his or her own.
- Never send character ideas to anyone. Marvel hires writers and artists who make up characters. We don’t buy characters from people who don’t already work for us.
- Make personal contact with writers and editors at conventions or store appearances, and make a good impression on them so that, when they receive something in the mail by you, they’ll be able to put a face with the name.
- Never make a follow-up phone call to see if someone got your submission. It’s pushy and annoying. They’ll respond when they respond, if they respond.
- Be humble and polite. It goes a long way with a lot of people.
- Develop a sense of humor, preferably one that’s not dependent upon putting down others. (You never know when the person you hope to amuse identifies strongly with your putdown target.) Everyone likes to be amused, even people you want to hire you.
- While you ultimately want to become as versatile as possible, hone just one of your skills at a time. A portfolio showing good penciling samples is better than one showing mediocre writing, penciling, inking, coloring, lettering samples all in one.
- Submit your work only to people who can buy your work. I, for example, edit no titles and thus cannot buy any work. Even if I loved your stuff, I could not force anybody to hire you. That’s not the way the Marvel system operates.
- Pencilers: Only submit your absolute best work. If you have to explain, “Oh, this is a year old – I’m better than that now,” don’t include it. Better by far to have five great pages than ten pages, some of them mediocre.
- Writers: Don’t send full scripts (art directions, captions, and dialog all included). Don’t send multipart stories. Don’t do stories that resolve or complicate a book’s ongoing continuity. Don’t send stories featuring character’s who don’t have their own books. Don’t send plots starring your own characters. Do send plot springboards, up to five at a time if you want. Do send one-part stories than can fit anywhere in continuity. Do send stories that could be bought for books we currently publish. Do send us comics featuring your published work.
That’s it. As unself-satisfied and non-pessimistic as I can muster. Till next time, dream any dream you wish, but strive to be worthy of that dream.