I’ve seen a bit of chatter recently where people talk how to get started in comics, or how to break in, and one thing always seems to strike me, and it got me thinking.
You have to be strategic.
Making comics, as a professional, is going to become your business. You can’t just hope and want and glide about on dreams of a starving artist. You have to clearly plot out how you are going to do it, or at least try. Now, that plan will be decimated dozens of times, but that just means you recalibrate the plans, you don’t just cast your ancient runes to the wind and hope they’ll guide the way.
“I want to tell the stories I want to tell, how I want to tell them.”
Of course you do, we all do, but there are limits to this sentiment. I’m not telling you to start writing fanfic of Fifty Shades because you think that’s hot right now, I am telling you this:
Just because you have this rad 60 issue epic in your head, doesn’t mean you’ll get to tell it, or that you should even try. Here’re a few reasons why.
No publisher will back you – you’re pitching this beast before proving you can tell any sort of tale, why would a publisher back you for a 5 year gig when they don’t know you can stick the landing on a 5 page gig? Again, this is business, you aren’t viable yet.
No audience will follow you – there are literally trillions of comics released every month across the globe. Literally. Readers are flooded with some amazing content, why are they going to invest 5 years and hundreds of dollars into your tale? What have you done to build/earn such an audience? What makes you think this is sustainable on any sort of level?
By the time you get to the end, your start will be embarrassing – if you’re still breaking in, you are no doubt not yet fully formed – I’m still like a BrundleFly of the writing game – and so if you did manage to somehow churn out this 5 year gargantuan beast, man, you are going to grow and improve over those 5 years like crazy. And yes, everyone improves over half a decade, but that first learning curve is steep. Your book will go from ‘not ready for prime time’ to ‘maybe ready for prime time’ and the disparity will always be there, and it will haunt you, and you don’t want none of those ghosts haunting you for life.
Any time anyone asks me about breaking in – and let’s be clear, I know very little, though I know a few things NOT to do – one of the first things I tell them to do is to chuck that 60 issue epic out the window, for now. And every time I do, I see that glint in their eye dull a little, and their frothy surf of loathing come churning for my face, but on this I stand staunchly unmovable. You can’t start that big.
“But if my story wants to be longer, I want to stay true to that.”
Yep, if that’s the comeback, I feel all is lost. Yes some stories must be long, yes some stories should not be truncated just because, but your job is to find a story you can do right in your current position. If that’s 5 pages, then do it, if it’s a one-shot, rock that biz. Shelve the long con tale, flip out something punchy and shiny and something everyone wants to touch.
Editors mostly want – and this has been supported everywhere from interviews with Stephenson to Bendis’ book on writing [including an editorial round table] – editors want to see completed comics. They want to know you can produce, and you can close. If you can do this in 5 pages, you’ll get their eyes. If you send them samples, it’s a crap shoot, if you drop a tantalising issue #1, that’s cool, but they’ll want more, and only then if it’s any good. If it’s not, they won’t read the rest. Trust me.
Editorial time is scarce, you gotta give them your best.
So, yes, that means being strategic. Shelve the glorious 5 issue mini – because making that off your back is going to be hard, and getting a random slush pile greenlight is also on that end of the spectrum, and just rock out something decent in 22 pages or less [though there are peeps who prove this wrong, like Sam Read and co on EXIT GENERATION, and Ryan Ferrier’s slowturning but always amazing THE BROTHERS JAMES, and Craig Bruyn’s FROM ABOVE – but there are also examples where someone made 2 issues and never came back and that’s gonna hurt them, even if just in small ways]. Do something manageable, finish it, and it’ll get eyes, it’ll check all the boxes those eyes need to see, and it’s achievable to make off your own back.
That’s a strategic decision.
The more you do this, the more your brain will pop up short stories, and break them naturally. Which is in itself, a huge skill to sharpen.
It’s not selling yourself short. It’s not selling yourself out. It’s selling yourself, and that’s your job.
I have been strategic in my time. I made a one-shot, I did a handful of shorts, I made another one-shot. Then my first pro gigs were a one-shot and a short. Amidst all that, I did a mini. Can you guess which works have helped me the most with editors and getting more gigs?
Yep, I don’t even need to say it.
Read all of the above with all your grains of salt. Everyone’s path is unique, as are we all. I spoke in sweeping statements above because constantly couching every statement in the exceptions at every turn is a fool’s game. Modality is heard, anything less is brushed off. Go hard or go home, y’know?
But if this helps one person – and I know I’d have killed to read the above 5 years ago – then I’ll be happy.
I hope you are happy, too.
Not sure if we would have Cerebus if Dave Sim had followed that advice. I think sometimes it’s nice to follow and enjoy the journey of growth. Even From Above has improved markedly as each issue progresses. I think you also need to separate the motive of wanting to be in comics as a work for hire and wanting to be in comics to tell your story. Some people want to just make comics, while others want a career in comics. The good thing is we can enjoy both. Because comics are cool.
Agreed, we certainly wouldn’t have Cerebus, or the like, if we all followed one path.
I’m more consciously thinking about the people pitching to get a comic made – because they write and don’t/can’t draw, and can’t afford an artist’s page rate for 1000+ pages – and so they beat their faces against the brick wall that is the dream of making an opus somehow.
As for motive, no one is looking to retire rich here, aw helllll no, but sometimes you’ve gotta make money in order to be able to make the next comic. Either that or just go very slowly 🙂
Ahm, yes, but don’t you think CEREBUS is actually a prime example of what you’re saying?
I mean, check back Book One (recently reprinted in a wonderfully digitally-remastered edition, too): Sim started with standalone, bi-monthly issues for two years!
Then he went monthly (second half of Book One), and then he did some two- and three-parters, but even these issues were their own thing through a “Synopsis” recap. Anyone could be handed a single issue from this three-year run.
It’s only after having established his series and proved himself in the market with 25 issues, that Sim embarked on the 25-long HIGH SOCIETY storyline, and each chapter was still intended to be as substantial and self-contained as possible.
We probably have the complete CEREBUS library precisely because he started small and focused! So I think your advice is sound, it just applies to the foundations of Sim’s magnum opus too. (Though a more extreme example could be STRAY BULLETS, whose overarching arcs and continuity are emergent properties of its 40+ self-contained issues!)
And even some long-form free webcomics have used a similar internal pattern of mostly-standalone chapters or segments for their beginnings, from Ursula Vernon’s DIGGER to Thomas Siddell’s GUNNERKRIGG COURT to Michael DeForge’s ANT COLONY.
It’s like the thread-string-cord-rope trick to set up a swing! (And it’s a shame Dave Sim’s works and lessons have been mostly erased from the history of comics.)