November 2011


As a nice counterpoint to my last post, I decided to talk about something a little more positive.  I was asked a question today by one of my Facebook friends, a very nice person who used to work in comic book retailing but whose shop closed down within the last six months or so.  This person (and yes, I’m being gender-neutral, so please forgive some slightly tortured phrasing) used to be able to read all the free comics they could stand, and now has a big, story-sized gap.  They thought they might fill it by trying to write, and asked me if I had any tips for starting to write stories.  It was clear that they wanted to write a book of some kind, fiction, and I this is what I told them, slightly edited:

  • So, writing a book.  First of all, it’s hard, and it takes a long time.  My suggestion is to start with something small, just a short story.  Think of them as a sketch (or more realistically, a series of sketches) before you jump into the main event that is writing a full-length novel or comic.
  • I would structure each story as a separate exercise, within which you’re working on a different element of telling a story.  Each one will help you to understand how your brain comes up with ideas, and will also limber up your brain so it can come up with ideas.
  • Start simple.  Write a story about some random object – let’s say a sunflower, or a jug of milk, or whatever.  Write one in which the color blue figures prominently somehow.  Stuff like that.  The rest of the story doesn’t matter – just figure out a way to integrate one concrete thing.
  • For round 2, keep going with the single idea (a rabbit, the moon, a laser, the measles…), but try writing in different voices to see how they work – first person “I did this…”, third person “she did that, and then he did this…” etc.
  • Round 3, description.  Go someplace interesting and try to describe everything you see in as much detail as possible.  Then put that aside and do it again, but try to describe the mood of the place, only using the details that are important to that mood.
  • Once you’ve done those things, time to graduate – write stories in which one emotion or another is important.
  • Write stories in different genres (horror, romance, sci-fi).  Write with different kinds of characters as the protagonist – give them limitations and challenges to overcome, and interesting strengths.  (A story about a ballerina with one leg, or a story about a blue person who lives in the sky, or a story about a person who can leap tall buildings in a single bound but is terrified of heights…)
  • Again, each little story can be just about trying to figure out how to do one thing.  Once you’ve gone through all that, you’ll see that the stuff you practiced in the beginning starting to creep into the later stories, just naturally.
  • And once you feel like you’re able to confidently do all of those things, you’re probably ready to combine them in ways you find interesting to tell your own longer, book-length stories – because all of those techniques get used in every book, in varying ways.

Those were my words of “wisdom,” such as they are.  I grew up in a musical household, where I was taught the violin through the mastering of a long series of exercises.  You get one right, you move on to the next one (which generally would use the skills developed in the previous exercise as a foundation.)  Eventually, you get to the point where everything’s completely natural, and then you can make your own music.

I wrote, conservatively, half a million words in my “serious writer” phase before I was ever published, and the next half million I write will all serve to improve the million after that.  Small things equal big things.  Your approach may vary, but that’s what’s worked for me so far.

Sort of an odd post to write, because the subject matter is a bit of a tightrope walk.  I’ve been extremely fortunate with comics writing so far – I’ve had some incredible opportunities, and I think a large part of that has been that I’ve had a few people in the business who were further ahead in their careers than I, who decided to help me out in large or small ways.  That could be anything from advice on the business to a critique to a publishing deal.  There are a ton of people I could name, but my list is starting to get so long that I’d be in danger of skipping important people.  Basically, my feeling is that you don’t get very far in comics if you don’t get the occasional leg up from someone higher up the ladder.

I think that it’s important to pay that forward – Haley Joel Osment and Kevin Spacey taught me that much, at least.  (They also showed me a bit about telling believable stories to police detectives and a great deal about how to craft a successful performance as a sad, child-sized robot.)

(Yeah, that was an A.I. shoutout.)

Anyway, when I get asked to look something over, or to give advice on breaking in, or to talk about page rates or similar questions, I do my best to find time to answer.  I did a long Q&A session over on reddit’s comic book board recently, which was great because I was able to reach thousands of people in the same time it would have taken me to explain all that stuff to just a single person over email or at a con.  You can see that here, if you’re interested.

I’m very flattered whenever anyone seeks me out to ask a question – I’m really not that deep into the industry at this point, and I make a ton of mistakes and there’s still a lot I need to learn.  I really enjoy helping people when I can.  However, there’s also a point where my willingness to help someone out is exceeded by that person’s expectations of what I should be giving them.

This post has been triggered by one specific guy – he seems nice enough, and I am CERTAINLY not going to provide his name – who is very excited about his book and wants it out there in the world right now, right away.  He friended me on Facebook and started popping up in the chat window from time to time to introduce himself and ask questions.  I’m usually happy enough to do that, as I’ve mentioned, but it started to be that every time I logged into the thing (it’s a bad enough timesuck as it is without getting into FB chat conversations) he’d pop up and ask for more, more, more.  He wanted to send me his book to review for comments – I said sure, go ahead.  Then he asked for my mailing address and told me what he would charge me for the book.

I explained that I was already taking some time out of my schedule to read his book and see if I could give him any tips – that’s farther than I would usually go, in fact.  I also tried to convey that you don’t ask a guy to do you a favor and then ask him to pay for the privilege.  (See, this is where I’m starting to feel like a curmudgeon.  I feel like my position is justified – I AM busy, and I WAS doing the guy a favor – I’m not Alan Moore or Axel Alonso, but I think I give decent comments on people’s stuff.  On the other hand, he’s just a kid – he’s 21, he told me – who really loves his work and wants to see how he can get it into the world.)  He agreed to just send me a PDF.

I read it.  It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but I don’t think it’s pro quality at this point.  I do think he’ll get there if he keeps working on his craft.  That’s basically what I told him – I gently explained that I thought his stuff has potential, and he should keep hammering away and eventually he’ll have his own book out on the stands (or the tablets, more likely.)  I didn’t really give specific beat-by-beat comments, because I didn’t feel like he’s at a point where that would have helped.  He needs to learn from experience – and if I’m being honest, I didn’t have the time to give a line-by-line critique.

He wasn’t thrilled.  He said that someone else had told him that he should start over and redo the whole thing, and he thought they were so, so wrong, because he’d already put a lot of money and time into what he had.  (What I probably should have said then, but didn’t, is that money and time don’t automatically equal quality – hello, Transformers movies.)  In a delightful twist, he also asked me if now I would buy a copy.

I’ve been ignoring his emails and FB messages since then.  Most recent one was to ask how he could get the book published at Image.  The short answer is “you can’t, not in the form your book currently exists,” but I don’t want to crush the guy.  What I want him to take from his interaction with me is a sense that he should just keep working and refining his talent.  Instead, I suspect he has a general feeling of resentment, possibly doesn’t like me or my stuff anymore (if he ever did), and his original sense of entitlement hasn’t been whittled down to where it probably needs to be.

I feel kind of bad about the whole thing, like I mishandled it somehow, even though I recognize it’s possible that this fellow didn’t want to hear anything except that he’s the second coming of Mark Millar.  He didn’t want a critique or advice, he wanted validation (and possibly to sell a copy of his book.)  Instead, where it stands today is that I would never recommend his work to anyone (even if it does improve), because my interactions with him left a bad taste in my mouth.  On his end, he may never do what he needs to do to get better.  Bad result on both sides.

Bottom line – if you’re asking for help (in comics or otherwise), recognize that people have stuff to do, and be as gracious as gracious can be about your request.  You want to leave people feeling good that they helped you out, not feeling like they wasted time they should have used for something else.

So, am I a jerk here?  I don’t know.  Most of the time, I love helping people out, and I’m not going to stop doing it.  I have a feeling this guy was a one-off.  Truth is, most comics people are awesome.

The process of getting a comic together can take some strange turns.  From time to time, I’ll have an idea for an element of a book, whether it’s a line of dialogue or a plot twist or just about anything else.  I’ll be thrilled about this idea, because it will seem like the best ever.  Then, eventually I see the finished version, and I’m like hooooooly crow… mistake.  If I’m lucky, it’s not too costly, and won’t require massive rewrites or new art.  It’s just part of the process, though.  As I’ve said a bunch of times, you don’t always have all your good ideas at once, and being able to recognize and discard bad ideas is incredibly important.

With 27 Second Set, we decided to continue the series’ tradition of using homages to famous images of musicians as the covers for each issue.  First Set used members of the 27 Club.  Second Set is using one-hit wonders.  As I write this, Issues 1 and 2 are on shelves, as well as available digitally, for those who prefer reading on smartphones, tablets and laptops (Issue 3 is out next week, November 23).  The cover for Issue 1 is an homage to Vanilla Ice.  The cover for Issue 2 references The Buggles.  It’s one of my favorite covers of the whole series – Scott Forbes really nailed it.  I’ve posted it before, but I think it’s so great I’m going to put it up again:

Homage to the Buggles' "The Age of Plastic" album cover, by Scott Forbes.

However, that gorgeous image wasn’t our first attempt.  Originally, I was completely certain that the best idea for this cover would be to use the cover to Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumper” album.  You know, this one:

Thump that tub!

My thinking was that it’s an instantly recognizable cover, it has some nice graphic design, and it would be easy for Scott to do, since it’s basically just one head.  I was going to use Valerie Hayes as the “head” (she’s the one-hit wonder witch who serves as the main villain of the second arc, and issue 2 is largely about her).  Scott did exactly what I asked and came up with this:

Tub that thump!

That’s not to say that image isn’t cool, because it is, and the final would certainly have been even cooler.  However, what we realized is that the cover was going to be creepy, and not in that way a cool Hellblazer cover or one of the new Animal Man covers tend to be, but in a “that’s an unappealing face and I don’t want to look at it or read a book with a character like that in it” kind of creepy.  Again, not Scott’s fault at all – this was my call and it wasn’t a very good one.  Once we realized that this was probably sort of a dead end, we started to kick around new ideas.  Devo, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Divinyls and a bunch of other artists were considered before we settled on the Buggles, and I’m so glad we took the time.  Scott banged out the new cover lickety split, and the results speak for themselves.

The covers for #3 and #4 went much more smoothly, and I look forward to talking about them a bit in months to come.  We’re at the halfway point of Second Set, and things just weirder and more awesome from here, believe me.

I have a book coming out in 2012 from Archaia.  I’ve talked about it here and in other spots from time to time, but not in great detail yet.  I think the art of the tease is important, and you don’t want people to feel like a book is old news months before it comes out. Still, I’m getting excited about it, and I feel like sharing just a bit.

Projects have weird life cycles, and it often takes a while before they really pick up steam and take on lives of their own.  This particular book just hit that stage (or it seems like it did – fingers crossed.)  I got twelve new pages in late last night and very happily reviewed them this morning.  The penciller/inker on the book is the very talented Greg Scott, a fellow NYC resident and veteran of books for Marvel, DC and many other publishers.  His New York-ness is very important for this book, since it’s set mostly in Manhattan and uses a lot of the city’s iconic locations as near-characters in the story.  I have a few recurring themes in my stuff: music, New York City and characters who used to have it all and want it back, or are terrified of losing what they have.  This one has the first two, and some of the third, but I still think it’s a bit of a departure in some ways.

Anyway, I thought I would show you a few panels from the story, just because I’m excited about it.  Greg is absolutely nailing the NYC stuff, which makes me really happy.  This city is a very specific place, and I want people who read this book to be able to recognize locations – they’re all picked for a reason.  I think he’s putting a fair amount of mileage on his Metrocard to get the reference, too.  Here you go!

City Hall!

You're looking at it!

 

Cool, right?  Final art will be fully colored and produced in that amazing Archaia style as a lovely hardcover edition.  Can’t wait to tell you more about it.

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