How to Break Into Comics Part Three: You Thought Making Them Was Tough?

I found myself wondering if there was anything else to talk about when it comes to making comics, and I kept getting distracted, because I had so many things going on regarding making comics, and that’s when it occurred to me. Making comics is not easy. Making independent comics is absurdly difficult, and the rewards are, from everything I can tell, few and far between. I wanted to make sure that in the midst of all this “Rah Rah! Go Make Comics!” that I addressed some of the realities of what it means to undertake this course of action.

Say, for example, that you’re like me, a person who wants to write comics, and in doing so, you’ll find that there’s a ton of stuff you’ll need to do to get anywhere. It’s all well and good to have a great idea and a script. Hell, even finding a collaborator or two is just the start. The fact is, you’re not just a comic book writer, you’re a producer. You’re the marketing department, and it’s very likely you’re the production department as well. That to do list gets big real fast, and there’s always something else being added to it. The possible return for all this work is dubious, so you’d better learn to gain some satisfaction from a job well done.

Currently, I have 3 comic book projects in different stages of active development. Not a single one is quite ready to be shopped to publishers. I spend most of my time working on iFanboy, as it’s my “day job”. Very quickly, the juggling gets to be nearly overwhelming. It’s not even that I’m actively working on things all the time, but more that I’m constantly thinking about them, and what I should be doing. Almost worse than that is when you’ve done what you can, and you have to wait. That is punishing. On one project, I’ve finished the script for issue #1 (of 6), and a very rough outline for what happens in the following issues. But sitting there, waiting for me, is issue #2, badly needing story beats and scripting. The fact is, scripting is relatively easy if you know where you’re going. It’s the planning part that can be drudgerous. Don’t get me wrong, it can, and probably should, be fun as well. In the midst of that, I got color pages back from the Captain America story back, and I have to adjust the lettering on the color pages back, since they were all done in black and white. At the same time that happened, I’m going back and forth with 2 artists, a colorist, and trying to find an artist for a third superhero project (that I haven’t quite solved the story for yet). Again, all this work is just academic at this point. When the pages are completed and done, someone’s got to figure out how to ready them to be delivered and published.

Once I get someone to agree to publish something, provided that miracle happens, we’re not even close to being done. If you want to release a comic, you’ve got to get people to know about it, and unless you know how to market yourself and your work, you’re not going to get too far. At this point, we’re not talking about DC and Marvel, because there’s a lot that has to happen before working for them becomes an issue. Indie publishers seem to take on a lot of projects, but they’re usually comprised of smaller staffs, and don’t have the resources to give energy to all their books, instead focusing time and budget on the ones they can. Many times, it’s the responsibility of the creator to make sure people know about their book. This is a two-fold process, because when marketing comic books, you’re not trying to convince the reading public as much as you’re trying to convince the retailers, who order from Diamond 3 months in advance of any books being released. You’ve got to get in touch with as many retailers as possible and pitch your product to them. You’ve got to convince the retailers that they can sell your book, and that people will want it. If you’re publisher’s not big enough, you’ll need to get enough retailers to order it, or you’ll get dropped from the Previews catalog, and it won’t matter anyway.

After the retailers, you can focus on the task of getting actual readers to be interested in your book. On the one hand, it’s easier than ever, and on the other, it’s never been more difficult. The web has given us countless websites and podcasts with which to tout our wares. The counter-effect of that is that there are so many things vying for our attention that it’s really hard to stand out. Would that it were enough to just produce great comics. Here, on iFanboy, we don’t really have the resources to cover so much of what comics are out there, so for the most part, we focus on the stuff that interests us. But pretty much daily, we’ll hear from a creator we’ve never heard of, asking us to help promote a product we’ve never heard of. We’ll always accept the submissions, but the truth it, we don’t get to most of them, and even if we do, there’s not really a place for us to regularly do anything about them. We’re facing the same problems they are. We want our content to be eye catching, and grab people’s attention, and make them excited to talk about it. It’s hard to do that when you’re talking about stuff no one’s heard of, and can’t buy for 3 months. It’s the curse of being unknown. It’s not that we don’t care, but there’s only so much we can do. It’s possible you can get a mention or a short interview posted on a place like Newsarama or any of the other dozens of smaller websites out there, but that’s going to be a lot of legwork for a diminishing return. Still, if you want anyone to know about your work, it has to be done.

Where does that leave you? This breakdown of what it takes to make money on independent comics always sticks in the back of my mind when I think about the process. Even the books at the bottom of the list are by people who have some establishment in the industry already. If you’re extremely lucky, you might break even. If you get some critical acclaim and don’t lose too much money, you might be able to start another project and start again from the beginning. If you’re dripping with talent, you’re Jonathan Hickman, and writing the Fantastic Four within 3 years. So there’s always hope.

So what, after that, is the good news? If you haven’t been scared off, there is some. I’ve met plenty of people who’ve made it, and done well for themselves. They own homes, and are doing what they love. It’s possible. The thing is, not a one of them got into comics to make money. One of the reasons I love comics is that the people making comics aren’t being opportunistic. They’re doing it because they love making comics. Brian Bendis always puts it that he “can’t not make comics”. In a lot of ways, it’s more work, and possibly harder than trying to break into films, for way less financial reward. Because of that love and that drive, the product that ends up out there comes from people who have sincere convictions, and are there because they love comics, and fought tooth and nail to get comics made.

Good luck.


It has occurred to me that I’ve been writing about wanting to break into comics for many years now, so honestly, you’ll want to think twice about actually listening to me.  But if you want to see some of what I’ve actually done, you can go to my blog.  I promise this is the last one for a while.

Comments

  1. Thanks Josh, great set of articles.  The business side of the industry is certainly the one I’m least familar with and the one I see presenting the most problems.  It’s one hell of a task to wrap your head around when all you want to do is create stories, characters and worlds.

  2. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Former editor and current Comics Experience guru Andy Schmidt visited my alma mater a while back and he suggested that anyone wanting to make it in comics ought to possess at least two of the following qualities in combination (I paraphrase):

    A. Talent (Do you write well naturally?)

    B. Persistence (Do you have discipline and are you willing to put in the legwork?)

    C. Charisma (Are you capable of not being a dick?)

  3. Only two, that’s easy!

  4. @Paul:

    Are you and Andy suggesting that a (for lack of better word) successful comic writer could have persistence and charisma but a dearth of talent?

  5. I would say that’s entirely possible.

  6. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Yep.  

  7. cause "Two out of three ain’t bad"  -Meat Loaf

  8. I think my favorite bit is your mention of being a producer. Being in comics is very much like filmmaking in that regard. Yes, it’s possible to sell a script and make your money and reputation on being a screenwriter. But it’s a statistical game and sheer talent isn’t always enough. In many cases, filmmakers pick up a camera because they NEED to tell their story, and they never quite got the script query letter to the right people to open the right doors, etc. It’s a tough game, and the comics biz is much smaller than Hollywood.

    But once you decide to Do-It-Yourself (and I’m speaking more for films here, but I think the analogy holds), then you have to be aware of the roles you’re taking on. When my writing partner and I decided to make our first film, we had to become fundraisers. We had to maintain a budget. We had to do all the producing work (do we have permits? Do we have food for people? Do we have all the equipment?), all while trying to be the director. And that can quickly get overwhelming. 

    I think the key, whether it’s filmmaking or comicbookmaking, is to first be aware that you’re going to be wearing multiple hats, and then … give yourself the time to focus on each aspect. You definitely need to learn the ins and outs of the business to successfully market yourself and your product.

    Heh, thinking about it… we’ve probably all seen it: the person who is great at marketing a subpar product? Or alternately: the person with a great product who just doesn’t know how to sell it?

  9. One of these days I will find a career where it helps to be creepy, and then I’m set.

  10. Random thoughts and additions to Josh’s articles:

     Think small.  Ask yourself if there’s a place to publish something shorter than a six issue arc that you’re sure will be collected someday.  Maybe a three issue arc?  You can fill up that trade later with a second story. Check out some of the great anthologies out there.

    Another thought on anthologies:  consider teaming with other creators to publish a larger work without doing it all yourself.  The marketing work is spread around so you’re not carrying the whole load.  You end up with a published example of your work. CAUTION: Ideally team with creators as good or better than you. 

    Maybe think small.  Digest-sized comics have a special appeal.  Look at the Oni Press line.  But you must learn to tell your story in fewer panels per page, like five.  

    Writers, writing can be hard.  But realize that: Establishing shot at a busy Union Station.  Darien is sprawled on a bench, his bags and candy wrappers heaped around him.  Sal stands at the end of the bench with a single backpack. D: "Hey." S:"S’up?" equals a crap ton of perspective, architecture, character design and composition.  Art takes a long time.  Good art can take even longer.  Think about what you’re asking for then be PATIENT!

    Artists, art takes longer than writing.  It takes even longer if you put off putting your ass in the chair.  Set yourself some regular work time.  If you miss it then make it up like you’re punching a clock.  After you’re an established genius, you can afford more eccentric work habits.

    Artists and writers, collaborate but be respectful of what you’re trying to do.  If you guys are working together for the thrill of the story and the fun of working together, great!  But if your goal is a sample piece to showcase your individual talents, share ideas, be open, but the writer has the last word on story and dialogue while the artist has the final say on how that story is told visually.  Discuss everything early on!  BEFORE, anything is written and drawn.

     

     

  11. I’d just like to agree with what Josh and daccampo said about taking on many roles.  I’m about to get my degree in digital entertainment game design and one thing that I’ve learned is just how many jobs there are to do on any given project.  It takes a lot of people to make the games most of as play and the same aplies to comics just on a smaller scale.  Take this into consideration before you start, realize just how much time you are going to have to invest, and then by all means go for it.  Right now I’m working in a two man team, a writer and an artist, on a big project, 20 issue run.  There is no way we can do an issue a month so I’m looking at a lot of years of my life being devoted to this.  Not to discourage anyone, I love doing the work and it fills me with pride but Tad speaks a lot scence when he suggest doing smaller arcs and works in general. 

  12. When you see this gauntlet, this punishing set of Herculean labors every creator has to go through for money-losing years just in order to reach the level at which I recognize his name, I’m not surprised that people keep at it, but I am surprised that a bad comic ever gets published. Look at what you have to go through!

  13. By the time you get paid for it, some people are just too tired, I’d imagine.

  14. Thank you, sir.

    I’ve written six issues of my own comic, I just need an artist. I have about ten other story ideas that I still need to plot out, and I’m also in the process of writing a prose novel that I actually want to be a comic eventually.

  15. @Jimski – All those bad comics are an answer to coltrane68’s question above.

  16. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I had a nonfiction film and video professor who confided to us that he did not see himself as a naturally gifted writer like he assumed a few of us might be. He said he made up for this by working very hard. I don’t know that I’d call him charismatic, but he was very polite.  

    From film school, I recall a definite split between those artists who were really creative and those artists who were really driven. I think I could easily categorize them by the three categories I listed above.  

    I like to think I’m an amiable enough dude.  I hope I have some solid ideas.  Because I know for certain I’m a cowardly, lazy ass bastard. Maybe I need to see the Wizard.  

  17. Don’t forget the hat of web designer. Your website is how you promote yourself when you’re not on the con floor. Would I buy anything off my site? Shit no, It looks like a dirt mall, I’m not a web designer. That’s why I’ve hired talented Eastern European gentlemen to do it. Good luck ladies and gentlemen I hope it consumers your life the way it did mine! Cause really, what else were you going to do? 

     

  18. Another excellent point!  I was thinking of you while I wrote this.

  19. Oh you!

  20. Oh and don’t get disheartened if you screw up, that’s the best way to learn. Just keep writing, keep producing, keep emailing. You will get better, trust me.

    j   

  21. Well you brought up some really great points for writers, but what about someone like me who is artist hoping to some day work in comics? got any advice?

  22. @ Josh The colors turned out great on that first page of your Cap story.

  23. @DarkKnightDetective – Everything here applies to artists as well.  Why is it the writer’s sole responsibility, hunh?!?!  😉

    Artists have it easier, provided you’ve got the skills.  You show sample pages to editors at conventions, and whereever, and if you’re good enough, they might give you a crack at it.  In the meantime, it never hurts to get published (just like writers) elsewhere first.  

    Again, just like writers, you’ve got to do the work, and exorcise the bad work from your system.  Get tons of advice from pros, and be willing to take criticism in order to improve.  Have a good attitude and thick skin.  I was trying not to be specific to writers, but obviously my experiences are skewed towards writing.

  24. @DarkKnightDetective – go to art school? Or to Joe Kubert’s school.

  25. Great article Josh.  I feel your pain.  My friend and I are working on a project as well (Thanksfully, the publisher already signed on), and dealing with the artists has been the hardest aprt.  The one drawing issue #3 finished way ahead of the artist drawing issue #1.  Now we have to wait around for that guy.  I know the final product will be great, but it’s the waiting that kills me.  And, as you said, getting retailers to carry it will be the hardest part, especially now that Diamond has chnaged their policies.

    Good luck with your projects.  I’ll definitely buy them when they hit the shelves.

  26. Also important: Cool covers. I really need to get After-School Agent #1 now.

  27. Some more advice regarding writing and publishing and perfecting (but of books – not comicbooks):

    http://www.sherwoodsmith.net/youngadult.html

    Hope it helps. Enjoy. 

  28. Hopefully this will help: http://idrawgirls.blogspot.com/