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Forging a career in comics can seem like an insurmountable task. It takes more than desire, talent isn't a surefire guarantee, and few people will make a living after that first big break. With all this in mind, your friendly columnist reached out to Brooklyn-based cartoonist Michel Fiffe
to come up with a list of tips and tricks that are just too big for a twitter feed. Christmas may be weeks away, but the spirit of giving came early!
Enough with introductions. Here's what you need to do to get a job with Batman, as well as some suggestions on how to keep that money coming in after they give it away to some foreigner.
ONE MAN ISLAND OF TORTURE
It'll take long, lonely hours just to build a decent point of view. If you have any doubt
that this is what you want to do and there is no possible way someone else is going to stop you, get out now. You'll thank yourself later when you realize that you actually wanted to be an actor this entire time, or a playwright or a DJ or a fan with benefits. What I'm suggesting is not what older cartoonists tell aspiring ink studs all the time, such as "this business stinks, don't bother trying to break in, don't waste your time." That's a thinly veiled ruse to get rid of future competition. I've read the greats suggest such nonsense, but you deserve to learn firsthand the sting of discipline only comics can provide.
FAME AND COMPETITION, DIE
Ok, so you're in it to win it, right, pal? The important thing is that you're ready to do some comic books. Whether you start small or big, you'll eventually get wrapped up in the anxiety of putting yourself in front of people. You'll start worrying about popularity contests and trends and fame. Get real. Being famous through comics is ridiculous and counterproductive. You may even start feeling competitive in this weird, nuanced way after a while. And while competition feels wrong on some deeper level because you're not selling toothpaste or air conditioners or milk, you are
selling your style. It's up to you to develop your own point of view, or at the very least, to swipe an already overrated popular style and pass it off as your own.
YOU HAVE TO EAT, SO MAKE FOOD WORK FOR YOU
Lots of people involved in comics consider themselves "foodies". Don't know what that means? That's okay, nobody
knows what that means. Knowing what that means is like admitting you pimped out your sister's maidenhead for a broken Game Boy. But pretending you are a foodie: easy peasy, lemon squeezy! Eventually, you'll either get a Vertigo OGN (if you're really good at it) or one of those 8 page filler stories that always show up in those Marvel mini-series that you only buy because your friend has a story in them....someday, that could be you! Your friend could be buying your comic, instead of the way it is now, where you're stuck with some comic book about The Falcon's first time playing Angry Birds just because there's a possible dinner party where this particular issue will need to be prominently displayed on a broken Ikea coffee table. Speaking of friends:
GO MAKE A BUNCH OF FRIENDS
Friends aren't just useful as great sounding boards for your ideas about future comics stories, they're also going to be your primary buying audience, the people who will head out to local stores and buy multiple copies of your "first comic". Assuming it's your first dance with the Big Two, the comic will most likely be an off-brand mini-series or a tie-in one shot, which is rarely the type of thing that has a previously built-in audience. But when those non-readers see your book flying off the shelves, into the hands of a never-seen-these-people-here-before audience, the demand--and your
cachet--is going to shoot up like Kurt Cobain.
But that's the aftermath of success. While you're working to break in, you're going to need a core group of people to share your experiences with. Now, you'll want to pick these people well: you're looking for listeners
. A certain type of "friend" might start picking on you, saying "well, you've been at this for a while, and you owe me like 400 bucks, and i'm just wondering if maybe it might be a better idea if you, like, had a day job or something?"---no no, not for you, pal. Who is this negative nancy? Get ‘em out of there! Positive Thinking is the key
! Always remember, you can't spell the word "friend" without the letter "I", and yeah, that means you buddy!
BUILD A RELATIONSHIP WITH LOCAL RETAILERS, I.E. PUBS
Apparently this is where most comics writers hang out? Don't bother looking for artists, those cats work for a living. General rule of thumb: if you meet an artist in a pub, he (or she, but come on, who are we kidding, girls certainly draw comics, but they don't get hired to do so) is there because he wants to talk a bunch of "shite" about how he can't get any work. That's not helpful to you at all! Stick on those writers like a ball of honeyed wax, drink in their tips and buy their editors "a round", just make sure you don't bother Warren Ellis until you need a foreword or back cover blurb. (FACT: Ellis has never turned down a request for a blurb! That's actually why all his Avatar comics are always late.)
DON'T JOIN THE ZEITGEIST, BE THE ZEITGEIST
Or maybe you don't need friends, especially those
guys. If talking ain't your thing, you should turn yourself into a badass loner who refuses to "play the game". Go to the parties, sure, but ignore everyone there. Act like you don't know anyone and you're glad it's that way, that you're in control. Avoid eye contact. If you catch anyone looking at you, pretend that you're getting a call on your cell. Put the phone up to your ear. Remember, pretend talk is better than real talk
WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN, "ORIGINAL"?
If you find that publishers yawn before they even start reading your comic proposal, you may actually be the original force you think you are. I'm not kidding when I say that original ideas are a no-no around here. I'm dead ass, son. Even the most avant playmakers out there want something they can recognize, something familiar, with just a touch of the new. Try to swipe a style or cop a line of poetry or pay homage to obscure comics by photocopying them and recoloring them, then at least you have a starting point.
PLEASE SHUT UP
Don't be that guy
. You know which guy I'm talking about, the guy who is a walking PR kit. He never talks with you, he talks at you. This one dimensional persona pollutes the comics industry. If you have an idea for a project and you're pretty excited about it, congratulations, but here's a little secret: no one cares
. If you insist on giving us lip service then please, I urge you to take a step outside yourself and imagine listening to your spiel about your "secret project" or how "people would kill
to work on the deal" you just "scored". Oh, you mean the project that you're not at liberty to talk about and yet 5 other artists have turned it down, and the deal is that you work fast, for peanuts, so they threw you a bone? That
dream project? Thanks, guy. Now that you've stopped your glassy-eyed rant, I'll definitely be following the progress of your project through every imaginable networking forum that I'm sure you'll clog. I'll make sure to hit the "share" button.
LET OTHERS DO THE SQUAWKING FOR YOU
But if you can't promote your work, how will the word get out there? Twitter
is the key, or at least it is at the time this is being written. You'll need to get used to two things first: searching for your name, and retweeting your name every time it is mentioned. Do this incessantly, and until you've cleared 10,000 followers, make sure you provide a genuine and thoughtful response to absolutely every single mention your work receives. This is how you build up what Malcolm Gladwell called "the core fanbase"*. Are a lot of these going to be crazy amateurs trying to steal your thunder and break in themselves? Don't worry, it doesn't matter
. They'll support you right up until you become a success, at which point you won't need them anymore anyway.
IF YOU DO OPEN YOUR MOUTH, LET OPEN AND EXTENSIVE PRAISE EJECT FROM IT
You know what phrase CB Cebulski and Ian Sattler have never used? "What a brown-noser that guy was." True facts, little sailor! Not once has there been a time when the people at the Big Two have turned down a friendly "omigod, I'm one of the 14 people who bought Marvel Fairy Tales and I couldn't believe that Asterios Polyp went home with its Eisner."
There is one little problem--but it's really small--try your best not to gush over someone's work IMMEDIATELY after you've just tweeted that you hung out with them the night before. Sure, Jim McCann's Return of the Dapper Men
graphic novel is the bees knees, it's the Mekong Delta in what the French call "the 9th art", but seriously, if everybody just saw you post jpegs of you and the creative team busting out a couple rounds of "oh sailor me-o" at the local karaoke bar, we're all going to be a bit suspect. Try waiting a day or so, that ethics thermometer needs 24 hours to reset. Safety first!
"WORK HARD"? NO SHIT
You're most likely going to be told to work hard as if it's the secret key to unlocking your fortune. Here's something from the secret box: it's morally irresponsible bullshit for a pro to suggest that hard work is all it takes to make it in comics. That's up there with the same kind of empty sloganeering as "believe in yourself and all will take care of itself
" or "follow your dreams and you'll see them come true
." Suggesting that hard work is the sole ingredient for success is a slap in the face to those who work their asses off and are still struggling, as well as those who are simply trying to stay afloat. That "work hard" card is essentially a dick measuring contest, telling everyone what a workhorse one is while ignoring the other major components of success: timing, talent, and luck. Sometimes it's random luck, sometimes not so random luck. The cliche "being at the right place at the right time" certainly applies, but ultimately there's no guarantee. That's how the grown up world works!
600 PAGE SLEEPING PILL
Memoirs, huh? Are people still doing these? Really? Let me check. Well, I just wiki'd it and it says here agents strongly suggest that you should definitely go in the autobio direction and push it. It's a hot commodity, your life story. Not in the Crumb kind of way, but more in the delicate, poignant, coming-of-age mold. If it's humorous, even better. If you're from another country, you've got yourself a deal.
THAT VIDEO STORE SMELL IS MISSING
Give me a memoir over an obvious screenplay-to-comic any day. I know: you can't get a producer to look at your unrelentingly bland piece of shit screenplay, so you get the guy who traces photos of his cousin putting a gun in her mouth to draw it and hopefully it'll get a full page feature in Previews. It'll eventually land in that producer's hands due to the fact that there is no justice, and BOOM, we've got another straight to DVD flick keeping Tom Sizemore out of jail for a couple of months. Did no one learn anything from Miller and Chaykin? Those guys left Hollywood for a reason, and their comics are better than yours will ever be.
I know you can't wait to get to your own individualistic epic, but take a moment to try the other available option: the majors. Start sending samples to the Big Two. What have you got to lose? Don't bother inking your pages, either, just stick to pencil art (it's easier for the editor to see your strengths that way than if you have potentially bad inks). Familiarize yourself with the company's characters (don't send Wolverine pages to DC, remember to draw Wonder Woman with her clothes on, etc.). Give them a good range of scenarios (quiet scene, fight scene, civilians, heroes, avoid pin-ups). If you have trouble coming up with a story, take a pre-existing comic and do it in your own style! Mail your results to the editors and wait patiently. Keep sending them samples. Engulf them with samples. Be persistent. Hey, it worked for McFarlane. Look at him now. The guy's a millionaire. Samples
. They work.
IS IT 1998 YET?
The fact that you're reading this means that you have a computer, including e-mail. I know we're all trying to cling on to the pathetic possibility that people still buy the "isn't this technology new and crazy" excuse, but no one is being fooled. No one misses calls anymore, text messages no longer get mysteriously lost, and all e-mails are received and read. We know, then, that an unanswered e-mail is the typical currency of the busy set. It's the big passive/aggressive "piss off". Don't you even think of pulling that crap on any editor, though. When they tell you to jump... well, you know the rest. Look at it this way: you can't be the lucky last choice for a DC ongoing if you aren't around to catch that desperate 3AM phone call.
Don't be naive. Artists should
be business people. Why is it a given that our industry promotes and perpetuates an artiste
's naivete like no other? There isn't an industry out there that nurtures such an attitude. Any publisher, editor, peer, or teacher that doesn't help you expand your knowledge of the business probably has an agenda that's at odds with yours. You need to know your stuff: know your creator rights, the page rates between publishers, when to work for free and when to stop working for free, promotion and marketing and contracts and agents. All this stuff can be very depressing and you'll probably convince yourself that none of it has to do with the beauty of creating comic art. That's basically true and it's a tender sentiment that I mostly agree with, but you'll get steamrolled if you don't get over it.
Ok, so now you're a hard working, business savvy, so-and-so who's not afraid of presenting himself in a respectful way and who is armed with a healthy interest and passion in comics. Good luck; you'll never make it in comics... but if you do, then know that it's all in your attitude, friend, because you may find yourself either toiling away at a thankless job in a competitive industry or you may find yourself working on your real dream project alongside creative giants, doing your best and not taking any bullshit, especially your own.
*These may not be Gladwell's exact words.
Tucker Stone's writing can be found in print from time to time. He currently blogs about comics at The Factual Opinion and Savage Critics.
This Ship Is Totally Sinking is © Tucker Stone, 2010