Why Do We Call It “Breaking In” to Comics?

We’ve all heard countless interviews with comic creators.  I’ve personally participated in numerous such talks myself.  Like the tides, they all invariably include the story of the “break in”.

One would think that working in comics was some sort of detailed and illicit activity, plotted and planned for years, and executed with either subtlety and craft, or just a lot of loud, forceful banging, until the wall finally gives way, and you grab what you can before the authorities show up.

While it’s not the sole province of comics to use this colloquialism, it seems more fitting than most other industries.  If you want to work in comics, let alone make a living in comics, it’s a lot more like the above description than any other vocation I can think of.  I feel like Andy Dufresne with my rock hammer some days, chipping away when I can, when no one is looking, hidden by my lady posters. 

I think the question and obligatory story is so ubiquitous because, for some strange reason, no one in comics ever seems to get in the same way, especially writers.  Over the years, I’ve heard so many versions of people getting their first break that I catalog them in my head like sports fans can rattle off the college where pro basketball players went to college.  Just like people remember that James Worthy, Jerry Stackhouse, and Michael Jordan went to North Carolina, and Shaquille O’Neal went to LSU, and Kobe Bryant and LeBron James never went anywhere, I can rattle off writer break in stories like some idiot savant.  Kurt Busiek: fan letters.  Mark Waid: fanzine, then editorial.  Jason Aaron: contest.  Brian Michael Bendis: a decade of indie comics.  Paul Cornell: novel and TV writer.  Andy Diggle: editorial.  Stan Lee: nepotism.  Brian K. Vaughan and Joe Kelly: an NYU comics class.  Geoff Johns: met people from DC while working at Richard Donner’s assistant.  Joss Whedon: giant cult TV producer.  Dan Slott: intern.  I could go on.

In a way, these legends are so much more satisfying than even stories about Hollywood success, perhaps because it seems achievable, or perhaps because a huge portion of the comics reading audience thinks they A) could and B) should be making comics.  But if I’ve learned nothing else, it might actually be harder to break into comics than, say movies or TV.  Plus, even at relatively low levels, people in TV and film get paid very well for their participation.  They don’t get to sleep much, spend any time at home, and spend all their off time searching for the next job, and don’t usually strike it really rich unless they’re lucky or are the offspring of parents from the entertainment industry (see the aforementioned Joss Whedon, also J.J. Abrams).  But the industry is big, and varied and there are countless companies and ways to fit in.

Comics, on the other hand is a tiny industry, nearly profitless, and has a self-esteem problem.  It’s also got a short shelf life.  Think about the people who were writing comics 10 or 15 years ago.  Some of them are still kicking around, but so many of them disappear to… somewhere.  A lifelong career in comics seems to be an anomaly, because of the constant desire to see new talent and new things happening.  So even if you manage to run the gauntlet and “break in,” you’ve only just begun your perilous journey.  Spend some time listening to veteran creators, on Twitter, or wherever.  Granted, a lot of them might still love comics, but as far as the “industry” goes, some jading has occurred.  They don’t like the set up of the business.  A lot of time, they don’t like the fanbase.  I don’t think it’s that they’re not grateful for this job, or their position, but like any mighty mountain exposed to the elements, erosion occurs and it takes a thick, thick skin to survive in comics, to continue to endure the privilege of serving in the shadow of Kirby.

The mention of Jack Kirby actually brings up another point that absolutely fascinates me.  In Kirby’s early days, no one wanted to work in comics.  It was something they did so they could work doing drawings rather than whatever other horrible manual labor jobs were available at the time.  But it wasn’t necessarily respectable, nor was it particularly lucrative.  Had Jack Kirby been alive today, he would have a shot at being George Lucas rich.  Then again, the fact that he’d have that opportunity today is probably because of how poorly he was treated (not entirely without fault himself), and creators’ later reactions to it.  The point being, Jack didn’t ask for much, because they believed they didn’t deserve much, and were lucky enough to have a job.  I feel like, at least at the beginning of many comics careers, that’s still somewhat pervasive.  People are just “happy to be here,” but that only lasts so long.

This is the part that scares me.  It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, but the actual audience for most comics is nearly microscopic.  So you can put together a great, fun book, but it’s damn near impossible to sell.  I’m always reminded of Brian Reed’s The Circle from Image Comics a year or so back.  That was a great spy book.  Smart, well written, with great art; Conor and I extolled its virtues on the podcast every time an issue came out.  The thing barely sold.  It sold so little that they didn’t even make a trade paperback out of it.  Brian Reed was a known creator, having done Marvel work, but it didn’t make a difference.  It wasn’t as if he was even doing some sort of esoteric  art house project.  It was an action book about fighting Russian spies! 

But it appears that the secret is to keep those balls in the air, while also keeping your options open.  Make your other contacts in the entertainment industry, because it looks like video game work and film options are keeping a lot of smaller (and even some bigger) comic names afloat.  For every Brian Bendis and up and comer like Rick Remender, there are a whole lot of… that guy whose name we don’t remember but he worked on Moon Knight for a while in 1997, and those issues were OK. 

These are the things that keep me up at night when I get stuck thinking about them.  These are the thoughts that slow me down, when I should just be working on making my scripts better, and coming up with new ideas, and finding new talented collaborators.  I suppose the trick is that you don’t let these kind of thoughts get to you, and you keep throwing yourself into the grinder, until you either jam the thing up in triumph or there’s not enough left of you to grind up.  For now, I can only focus on the “breaking in,” and hope I can add my own unique story to the chorus.

Comments

  1. Just to be clear: This comes from a comic book fan that knows he could not and should not be writing comics.  However, I do attempt to publish academic research, so I can sympathize to an extent.

    It is always frustrating when effort plays such a small role in success. You can be the absolute hardest working writer on the planet, but if you don’t get lucky (or if you have no real skill) then you cannot succeed.

    I have to wonder what percentage of writers come from indies (self published) into the mainstream (where most of the money is). I imagine that is the most common method potential writers attempt to use as an entry point. If the success rate is a low as I suspect it is, then that information is valuable and may need to be conveyed, so potential writers will pursue other avenues of entry.

  2. Great article Josh.  I was wondering about a similar subject recently, with regards to comic careers.  I think we are all guilty of trying to find that next big thing.  To make a poor drug analogy, are we addicts just trying to get that better high?  I’m not too sure this is different from any career path in writing.  In print, film and television it seems to often be about finding the next big writer. 

    PS Shaq went to LSU, just saying 😉

  3. Just a typo!  I knew that!

  4. I think your analogy would work better if we looked at NOT working in comics as the prison…

  5. Well, obviously I think it’s still better than not working in comics.

  6. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    See, and I was gonna start on that script this week too…

  7. Any excuse not to work…

    Feh, writers…

  8. Mine is moving very slowly as well. Maybe if I had an artist lined up, I’d be more motivated.

  9. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    "Why are you testing out the Christmas lights in July?"

    "Well, I have a whole lot of writing to do at the moment."  

  10. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    …and I’m still gonna start it.  

  11. How many people have been discovered by writing think pieces about Rom the Spaceknight? Probably a lot?

  12. It depends on your definition of "discovered".

  13. However, you might want to look into Gail Simone’s secret origin, because it’s not that far off.

  14. I like thinking of writers as having "secret origins."  I can see one now: Neil Gaiman started as a journalist only to become friends with Alan Moore and he is now known as… The Writer!  Dun dun duuuuuuuuun.

  15. I feel your laziness Josh… I have this great (aren’t they always) idea for this monster 100 issue comic for about 7 years now and what do I have to show for it? …7 scripts!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I think it gets to a point you either do or you don’t follow your dream to be in comics and sadly enough as one gets involved in the circus of life there never is enough time.  I mainly just can’t find an artist that will actually do it… any leads to help me find artist?

  16. @thunderduck Check out http://www.digitalwebbing.com you can place an ad on their and find artists. Or go through Deviant Art profiles and contact someone on there.

     

  17. I never thought about how funny “Breaking in” sounds. It does sound like an illicit act.

  18. I never said *I* was lazy.  I mean, I might be, but I never *said* it.

    In spite of all these thoughts, I’m charging boldly ahead.  I’ve wasted enough time, and I’m working full on towards my break in.

  19. Isn’t there a thread on the Revision3 forum pairing writers with artists?

  20. Thats good to hear Josh.  Just keep chipping away at the wall.  When you finally get through its survival, artistic growth and business all the way.  Thats what I figure.  "Pain is temporary; quiting lasts forever".

  21. @josh, i’d sure as hell buy your comic.  honestly, i think most (but not all) fans just don’t got the skills. even worse, most don’t know they don’t got the skills. i think it’s that sea of people that makes you feel like you’ve got all that competition, when really it’s more like a 1/3 of a sea. 

    YOU’LL MAKE IT!
  22. Jesus Josh.  That was a really fucking good article!!!  It flowed as well as some of my favorite HST works.  Seriously, well fucking done!  You’re writing has gotten stronger, even in the short time that I’ve been reading you.

  23. Yes, and it’s worked to a certain extent for a few people, but mostly people were not nearly pro-active enough. 

    Finding an artist to work with is very hard.  It takes time and perserverence, and usually more than a post on a website.  It really is about finding some way to get get to know people, and convincing them that you’re someone who is going to help THEM get noticed and that you’re capable and fun to work with.  It took me years to find artists to work with.  But I didn’t ever give up. 

  24. Well, if you end up with too many artists, feel free to pass some my way. I’ve had some luck, but overall, finding an artist is actually the hardest part of the whole process (at least thus far).

  25. Breaking in is luck plus perseverance.  Back in the late 90s, while working there as an intern, I sold an idea to Marvel and was commissioned for a spec script (for a whopping $500).  At the time, my contact at the company was Bob Harras.  Soon my internship was over and I went back to normal college life content that me and Bob would keep in touch about the project.  Then Bob was let go.  I considered continuing to harass Marvel now that my foot was in the door, but everyone I knew convinced me that comics was a dead medium and it was better to move on to more productive avenues in life.  And thus the end of this fairly banal story.  Had I kept up my writing, kept up my contacts with Marvel, who knows.  The lesson I draw from all that is just to keep doing, keep going, as stupid and cliche as that is.  

  26. Who got discovered while writing for Heavy Metal? I want to be that guy, but that means writing.

    As for artists – you can always offer them money. 

  27. Get a real career that pays real money and benefits and do comics work on the side. Or be content with fanfic to scratch that itch. But as a career choice, run far away from that!  You won’t retire on it, and it will only hurt your chance of getting laid.

  28. @BrowncoatJedi:If you think being a comic book creator hurts your chances of getting laid you must not know any.

  29. Thank you for your inspiring career advice.

  30. @BrownCoatJedi – Conor is peripherally related to the comic industry, but he still gets laid (proof: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/photo.php?pid=6884459&op=1&o=global&view=global&subj=500560228&id=782960400)

    And Josh is married, so (if his marriage is anything like mine) he will never get to have sex again regardless of whether he writes comics or not.

  31. What’s with the inherent need to prove to people comicbook readers get laid? Also Friday – Ice Cube is Liefeld’s life-soundtrack.

  32. Solid article Josh! From an artists perspective, Im not sure its all that different; do stuff you believe in and believe in the stuff you do; do comics, get your stuff published and show youre reliable, demonstrate that you can do the work itself and if possible, show that you can build an audience.

    IMO, who you know is important in getting hired, but I think if you are patient, as Josh says, and are willing to work hard and long to find good, like-minded collaborators you can get your work published. For some people, that’s enough; for a lot, they have an end goal of working for one of the big two – but either way, your best bet is to do indie comics as well as you can and show people that you have a distinctive voice and make the most of your time "on stage".

  33. I try not to concentrate too much on HOW I’m going to break, just that I want to, and as long as I’m writing, I’ll eventually find my way.

    Since I can’t find any artists, my current goal is to write novels and build up a reputation that way.

  34. @BrowncoatJedi – If there are 2 or 3 hot chicks at a con, they are more likely to want to hook up with the writer or artist of their favorite book, not the fat, sweaty lumps rumamging thorugh the 50 cent boxes.

  35. I could give a rat’s ass about getting laid at this point.  I want a fulfilling career.

    A dream, I know…

  36. My friends and I are writing a comic with aims of going the Indie route with it (possibly digital particularly if the Longbox project bears fruit).

    Right now we’re in the blind optimist phase of plotting and scripting; sitting at a bar talking out where we see our characters going, writing notes, and rewriting it later sober. I believe we have the will to see this through but by "this" I mean just writing the script.

    We acknowledge the next step of finding an artist but aren’t focusing on that at the moment. But after the script is written, the artist is found, and the pages drawn, what then?

  37. What if their favorite writer or artist is a fat, sweaty lump?

  38. While it seems every writer has a different story for how they broke in, the common theme is that they all had experience writing, and most had something published in one form or another. Just as you wouldn’t hire a plumber with no experience in that field, why would you hire a writer with no published material or no proof that they can produce regularly?

  39. It used to be the case that that was much more common.

  40. Thanks for the great article, Josh.

  41. Josh, it is better to be a beloved podcaster than a writer like Chuck Austen… you could do worse…

  42. Cool article. I wish you luck. Even if you don’t get published at least you tried and, hopefully, enjoyed the experience of trying. I find that even the process of creating, however middlingly (not a commentary on your work) is invigorating.

  43. As an artist hoping to one day "break into" comics I just want to know if its at all possible to just somehow start working at the big two or would I really have to do a bunch of indie work while making connections then hopefully one day make my break… THEN maybe I could write something here or there?

  44. @DarkKnightDetective – If you listen the the recent Talksplode episode with Joe Kelly you will hear the absolute best case scenario.  My impression (based on what Josh has said and what I have heard in the past) is that you will need to work your ass off on anything and everything you can get your hands on to get noticed. But, i am certainly not an expert and don’t want to mislead you.

  45. A talented artist has a better chance of getting recognized based on interviews and stories. All of the major comic producers are constantly scouring for quality artists who can keep a schedule, or even just fill in regularly in emergencies. That’s how many artists get started. They do some fill in work  few times. Get a reputation a reputation as a dependable worker and go from there.

  46. Theoretically an artist could meet with CB Cebulski at a convention, and get hired right away.  That’s not going to happen with a writer.

  47. @Darkknightdetective: You could try the portfolio review at Con route (as far as I know, neither company is accepting unsolicited subs any more), but thats the only way I know of for new artists to get hired now, apart from establishing themselves in the indies.

    From what Ive been told (and I guess no one could say but editors themselves) comics rookies dont get hired by the Big Two as much as they used to; most new artists have some experience or credits. Doesnt necessarily mean creator owned – there are other publishers who hire as well.

  48. Work in everything you can get your hands on? I know of local creators that give courses for kids on how to draw comics, and also work as illustrators in childrens’ books. Have a website showing off your work? Go to small conventions?

  49. I’m acaully more worried about "breaking even" or slightly under then "breaking in".  I believe strongly in putting your money where your mouth is so I’m going to self publish my work and make damn sure everyone I talk to know where to get my work, whether it be for free or paided for.  Before I fell in love with comics I knew I wanted to be a story teller.

  50. Again I ate up your article Josh, keep them coming.

    In the mean time I need to get back to writing a decent script for a mini and finding a decent artist.

  51. Writers if you can’t find an artist, try drawing it yourself.  Not that I’m any good, but if I find one artist to do a story, and then I draw for another one I’ve doubled my output.  Or at least gotten above zero.  I’m not sure about being famous, but just the act of making a comic isn’t but so hard.  You put the time in and you can make a mini comic.  Start somewhere, anywhere.  And work your ass off.  I’d be surprised if you didn’t end up with some sequential storytelling.

  52. Thanks for the inspiring words as always Josh.

    I have the same dream and the same passion, but get caught up in the myriad of ways writers either break in vs. how they get in other ways. It always seemed like a combination of luck, knowing someone, talent and being at the right place at the right time. Sometimes even gaining attention from writing other stuff or being published in other ways. I never know which is the right way or a good way to get into this industry. It’s a deterrent for me and I get discouraged easily from it. All i know is that I’m bursting with creativity and I need an outlet for it. I want to create great comics. After reading this, I’ll take it as a sign to get back on the horse and keep going. Thanks again Josh! 

  53. @Josh-you do have a fulfilling career! Ifanboy.com is great!

    Keep the thought provoking, well-written articles coming.

  54. Please send money!  And insurance!