Monday, August 17, 2009

Breaking the Fourth Wall: Episode 2

Twelve years ago, fresh out of college, I decided it was time to blow the doors off the comic book industry by introducing it to the world’s newest writing superstar: me. I banged out a couple stories, sent them in to the powers that be and waited breathlessly by the mailbox for the inevitable notice that I had been personally selected by Stan Lee to revamp the entire Marvel Universe.

And in the grand scheme of things, the effort didn’t actually go all that badly; my first submission netted me a request from a major publisher (Vertigo) to rewrite the story and send it back in, incorporating some editorial suggestions so they could take another look at publishing it. Yes, it seemed like I was in business.

Except, of course, I wasn’t. As it turned out, I never did get any of my projects published and that was the highlight of my brief foray into comics. Yet, looking back now, I can see a number of lessons that can be learned from this episode and applied as I launch my second attempt to break into the industry. Having good ideas for stories and being able to write them well is important, but knowing how the business works and how to present those ideas in the proper manner is even more important for someone trying to break in to the industry. Here, then, are Four Lessons I learned last time I tried to become a comic book writer.

Lesson One: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Recently as I was searching the web for comic book writing resources (of which there are very few) I came across one pro who mentioned as set up to an essay that he had presented his editor with 12 pitches, one of which the editor liked. It sounds like a lot, but it jibes with my own experience.

Back in 1997, I put together a total of three pitches. Now, three sounds like an okay number, but the problem was that one of those pitches was for a Marvel property and one was for a DC property, meaning that I only had one actual creator owned pitch that I could just submit to anyone. Now, sure, it’s possible that I might have stumbled into that lucky combination of coming up with a great pitch and actually submitting it to the exact editor who loves it, but simply on a mathematical basis it was a bad idea. Having multiple pitches that you can send to multiple outlets is going to increase your odds. It’s that simple. It might seem like a lot more work, but if one of the stories gets bought by a company I’m guessing it won’t seem like all that much work after all.

Besides the basic math, having more pitches also allows a writer to cover more creative ground. Let’s say you have one nice superhero pitch. The fact is, no matter how great that pitch is, you’re limiting yourself to publishers who do superhero work. By coming up with pitches in multiple genres, you open up the door to new publishers and new opportunities. You may have gotten interested in comics because you wanted to write the coolest Wolverine story ever, but in order to succeed in the business I think you need a broader appreciation for the medium itself and a willingness to explore all the avenues available to you.

As it turned out, not having more pitches ready came back to haunt me, which is the focus of our second nugget of wisdom.

Lesson Two: Embrace networking

It’s instructive to spend some time reading the lettercolumns of your old comic books before you get ready to send in submissions. If you look closely, you’ll soon begin stumbling on names that at the time signified nothing more than just another fan but now are famous within the industry. Mark Evanier, Kurt Busiek, Dave Cockrum – the number of pros who began as fans is too long to list. Wendy and Richard Pini met through a lettercolumn and they not only ended up creating the classic fantasy series Elfquest, they got married to boot.

What’s the point? Well, back in the day, when the only form of communication fans had with comic book creators was just to drop a letter in the mail and hope it got read, the contacts that these fans created still ended up helping them get their foot in the door. Nowadays, with the internet and conventions taking place every weekend, networking with pros is easier than ever. Which is good, because it’s also more important than ever; if Marvel and DC only read proposals from known quantities, then you’d best start getting yourself known.

This is a lesson I learned a little too late. When I received a handwritten letter from an editor at Vertigo saying that she liked my series but wanted to see a few changes made to it, what I had in my hands was networking gold. And I dutifully sent in a revision. But when I didn’t hear back, I let the contact lapse. What I should have done, of course, was send her another pitch for a different project; after all, if she liked my writing, maybe I would find a vehicle for it that better fit their publishing mandate. But because I didn’t have any other pitches to send her (see: Lesson One), I ended up letting go of what could have been my path into the comic world, which was a huge mistake.

Lesson Three: Do your homework

So, why did one of my three pitches gain some traction while the other two went nowhere? There are probably a lot of reasons, but the simplest explanation is that I sent Vertigo a pitch that actually fit what the company was doing, while the other two pitches were random at best and downright dumbass at worst.

For example, one of my favorite comics as a kid was ROM: Spaceknight. Now, Rom was an alien who came to Earth to track down evil shape changers who were eating human brains; he looked and acted kind of like a square version of Silver Surfer. I thought he was a great character that had been sorely neglected, so I came up with a fun pitch for a new series, with a nice hook to replace the defunct wraith angle and some new supporting characters to keep things modern. It was a pretty strong pitch.

Only one problem: Marvel doesn’t own the rights to Rom. As a licensed product, Rom’s publishing rights belong to the toy company that designed him. Because of this, even if my pitch was the comic equivalent of The Bible: Part Two, the editors at Marvel wouldn’t even waste their time reading it to begin with because they couldn’t publish it if they wanted to.

Right there, a third of my entire library of pitches was rendered useless because I had failed to do the most basic research possible. And my third pitch didn’t do much better; it was a Watchmen-style deconstruction of superheroes, only with a 90’s sensibility instead of an 80’s sensibility. It was a fine enough story and pitch, but I sent it to Antarctic Press, which at the time was the home of giant robot comics and manga themed series like Ninja High School along with the occasional indie cartoon such as Alex Robinson's fantastic Box Office Poison (the source for the images accompanying this article; run, don't walk, to your nearest retailer and buy it now!). In other words, they couldn’t have given less of a crap about deconstructing superheroes, which was quite evident in the rejection note they sent me.

Lesson Four: Don’t give up

Okay, that sounds like the most clichéd treacle ever – and it is – but in this case what I specifically mean is, don’t give up when you don’t have to give up.

Looking back on my experience from ’97 and the lessons I’ve laid out here, it’s clear that what I thought was a failure at the time was actually a series of opportunities that I failed to recognize. When I got the positive feedback from the editor at Vertigo, it should have been a breakthrough. But because I didn’t have any other projects ready to follow up with – in part because I hadn’t done my homework about what kind of pitches were viable in that marketplace – I failed to capitalize on the networking opportunity that had presented itself. I became discouraged and ended up going in a different professional direction; I gave up on comics.

But now I realize I didn’t have to. In retrospect, getting my first submission published seems like kind of a pipe dream; but even if the next five pitches had all been rejected by Vertigo, a relationship could have been developed. Heck, even the negative feedback from Antarctic was a positive in a way; any press is good press when you’re trying to get your name out there and even if a company doesn’t like the story they may like the writing or the attitude and give your next pitch a closer look. Plus, negative feedback is still feedback and can be used to help hone your craft. If people don’t like something, there’s usually a reason, and getting a rejection letter can help you figure out what people didn’t like about your project.

So don’t give up when you don’t have to give up, because even things that appear to be setbacks at the time could end up being the step you need to climb up to the next level. If I had realized that at the time, it’s possible you’d be reading my comics right now instead of my blog.


What have we learned, then? To my mind, these are the very basics of breaking into the comic book world. Firstly, develop a large number of properties, preferably in a wide range of genres. Secondly, research the companies you are submitting to so you can choose the correct projects to pitch to them and tailor the pitches to fit their sensibilities. Thirdly, form relationships with people in the industry, even with the editors rejecting you, because the more people who know about your work the better the chance is that someone will like it. And lastly, don’t give up. It’s a pretty simple blueprint, really, but then, everything seems simple once you’ve already figured it out. Now it’s just a matter of executing the strategy, and over the next few weeks I’ll be doing just that -- with you, gentle reader, along for the trip.

Coming Up in Breaking the Fourth Wall: So, now that we’ve learned our lessons, some of you are probably wondering about my nearly-successful pitch to Vertigo. In short, it was an updating of Haunted Tank, but instead of the ghost of J. E. B. Stuart helping his good ol’ boy namesake make it through World War II, it took place a generation later in a more morally ambiguous war, with a new namesake sure to clash with the Confederate general: an African-American tank commander.

If that sounds familiar, it may be because Vertigo just published a Haunted Tank series earlier this year with the exact same premise. Later this week, then, we’ll take a closer look at my pitch and compare it to the actual published story, discussing concepts like simultaneous development and examining how different writers handling the same idea can come up with wildly different stories. See you then.

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I wanted to add a quick note about Alex Robinson's Box Office Poison that I didn't quite have room to put in the main article. In 1997, as part of my attempt to get into comics, I went to a convention in Boston. It was a bit of a half baked plan; creators don't really review writing samples the way they do art samples, so I wasn't really sure what to say or do when I got there. While I was waiting for the giant line in front of Bob Layton (I think; it's been a long time) I saw an indie guy sitting by himself over at a table all alone. I figured talking to him was better than nothing, so I went over and chatted with him for a few minutes. Getting ready to leave, I thought it would be kind of rude to talk to him all that time and not buy anything, so I reluctantly picked up the comics he had sitting out: Box Office Poison #0 and #1.

This was probably the best thing that came out of my efforts to break into comics, because Box Office Poison is a fantastic comic; I'd go so far as to say it's a classic. The whole thing felt as though Robinson was using mind rays to read my brain and then publish comics from what he found; both Sherman and Ed were so close to my own experiences at the time that it was astounding.

All of the images accompanying this article come from the first three issue of BoP and I want to say that if you haven't read Box Office Poison you are doing yourself a great disservice. Get out there and read it. You won't regret it.