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I'm glad she did. Richard introduced himself, and immediately I begged a blog post out of him. Thank goodness I did -- Richard is a comic book writer. His contribution to this year's Writers Worth is to show us how writers can get into the comic industry. Yet what he's done also, and maybe without realizing it, is show us how to get into any industry. He mentions oDesk and eLance in his post, and while I don't think they're the best places for ongoing work, they might serve as jumping-off points if you can locate the right gig paying the right amount. Remember, it's about what you're worth - that should be your primary focus.
It's a post befitting Writers Worth Month. Thank you, Richard. I'm pleased to know you!
Origins of a Comic Writing Career
By Richard Pulfer
Maybe you were raised on Batman sheets and Wonder Woman Underoos, or maybe the only comic book you ever read was a single issue Archie. Maybe you never gave comics a second thought until “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” came out (and that was only because it had Scarlett Johansson in it). But whatever your history with comic books is, you have to admit, public awareness of the industry is booming.
This isn’t just good news for superheroes – it’s also good news for writers (and I don’t mean the ones named Clark Kent and J. Jonah Jameson). While the comic book industry is very difficult to break into, more and more companies are looking to the paneled page as a way to get their message across. With the power and responsibility of a freelancer, you just make be able to gain access to this blossoming niche market.
But I Can't Draw!
This is what I hear the most from anyone interested in writing comics. Here’s the blunt truth: I can’t even draw malnourished stick-people well. But comics are rarely drawn and written by the same person. Most creative teams are compartmentalized with at least a dedicated writer and artist, with duties sometimes further divided between plotters, scripters, pencilers, inkers, colorists and letterers. If you do have some artistic ability, more power to you - it will definitely give you an edge when it comes to visualizing the action when writing the script. But art skills are an advantage, not a necessity.
The keyword is script. Think about what else is scripted: plays, movies, television shows (even reality TV, but that’s another matter). Comic books are no different. A writer lays out the narrative, while relying on someone else to bring their words to life, whether it is through a performance, a camera or an illustration. While comic books are a visual medium, they are also a collaborative one. And that leads to my next point ...
The Art Side
Remember when you had clients complaining about flaky freelancers? Well, now it's your turn to be on the other side of the fence. I'm not saying this to deter you - artistic collaboration is one of the most rewarding and exciting facets of comic book writing. But does come with its own distinct challenges. As a freelancer, you are usually in giving voice to your client's vision, whether it’s a fictional story or non-fictional article. As a comic book writer, you now have to rely on someone else your vision to life..
But how do you find an artist in the first place? Well, if you're lucky you know someone. This irons out a lot of the potential headaches – they are just a phone call away, and payment is usually a Paypal click away. But if you're like the rest of us, you go the Internet. Fortunately, there is no shortage of artistic communities specializing in comic art. Evaluating artists is tough because it's largely subjective, but when looking collaborators, make sure they can draw the things you want to write about. Just because someone can draw animals well does not mean they can necessarily draw people (I can't count the number of parents have asked me to judge their child's comic book potential based on pictures of animals they drew in the fourth grade). Similarly, just because an artist excels in drawing superheroes doesn't mean they can draw the average Joe and Jane. Make sure you know what you are looking for, and judge your submissions by that.
Once you have agreed upon a price (assuming they are not working on spec or exposure), make sure you have a way to pay the artist. Paypal works fine in most places, but for countries with high amounts of corruptions (particularly in South America), services like XOOM and Western Union are more popular due to problems with banks and money changing hands multiple times.
Seeing your vision come to life from a few sentences to a full-blown illustration is easily one of the most satisfying experiences ever. But you have to remember what it's like to be on the other side of the equation - as a freelancer providing a service. Your artist is not a mind-reader. They are not going to draw your script exactly as you envisioned it. But in my experience, if you pick the right artist, they can draw it better than you imagined. But in order to do achieve this, you have to be opened-minded enough to accept your vision isn't the only one on this subject, and your artist might have something even better to add. Of course, the same is true in reverse - your artist might be wrong. Most artists are professional enough to redo any pages upon final approval. And even if an artist is trying something new or making a suggestion to your script, there's no excuse for them to ignore your instructions completely - when that happens with no prior warning, it's a red flag, especially when it happens repeatedly.
So you've got the skills and you've got an artist . . . where do you go next? Well, your first instinct may be to write Marvel with that Spider-Man/Gambit cross-over you've been writing since you were six. But as previously stated, breaking into the comic book industry is just as challenging as breaking into any other industry - if not more so. Most major companies aren't accepting submissions. Think about it. How many people call Stephen Spielberg with ideas for a movie? Probably at least as many that call Joe Quesada with ideas about Spider-Man. Unsolicited submissions go to one place - the trash. There are a few major publishers that are accepting open submissions, however, such as Dark Horse and Image Comics. If you are submitting an idea to them, treat them like you would treat a book publisher . . . and follow their guidelines to the letter. Otherwise, you risk all your hard work ending up in the paper shredder.
There's also the added bonus of conventions, like Wizard World, C2E2, and of course, the world-famous Comic Con. But if you are going to pitch a con, make sure you set realistic expectations. While plenty of comic professionals will be willing to talk to you, they probably are working from the same restrictions as their publisher. Don't expect them to buy your pitch on the spot. Instead, expect them to, at best, swap business cards, just as you would an agent or editor. Also keep in mind these people are stuck in a packed convention hall with overpriced food, signing autographs in a place packed shoulder-to-shoulder with comic book fans. Those conditions will wear down on anyone, so whatever happens, don't take it personally.
It took me a while before I was truly comfortable writing comics. It took a lot of practice, and the best kind of practice was the type I was getting paid for. So how do you find work in comic books when you are brand new?
First, find comic book communities online. It's not particularly hard, but make sure you find communities of people who are interested in creating comics, not just discussing them. Pay special attention to communities that actually have a job board, like Digital Webbing.
Be on the lookout for start-up companies looking for writer. These can range from a single anthology looking a few more back-ups to the launch of a brand new comic company. Start-ups are a good way to get your foot in the door. But there's two catches to keep in mind. First, quite obviously, since they are start-ups, they probably can't pay very well, if at all. Secondly, since they are start-ups, there's a chance they may never reach publication. I worked for several comics which never made it out of the front gate. I wasn't thrilled about it . . . but it gave me experience, and also helped me make valuable connections.
Finding a freelance comic book jobs is probably a little easier than you think. Especially now, with comics pushed very far into the public consciousness, comic book writing gigs often show up on writing job sites like oDesk and elance. I also have to once again plug Digital Webbing, which has a help wanted forum for both collaborators and paid creators. Of course, with bid sites like oDesk and elance, the competition is stiff to say the least. Make sure you have something you can visually show to adequately show your skills. The most preferable example would be a finished comic book scene, fully illustrated. But if that’s not possible, you might be able to show off your skills in similarly visual mediums, like screenwriting and even children books. The worst sample would be a comic script without any finished art though, because you are now asking your prospect to load up your script and visualize your comic. Still, it's better than nothing.
I've learned a lot about writing comics, but I still haven't achieved my goals, which tells me I still have a lot to learn. Like many industries, the comic book medium is undergoing an ever-changing mutation. Digital publishing is turning into a big business, but with Amazon acquiring Comixology, its future is far from set in stone. Similarly, webcomics are trying to find their own niche in the comic industry, with only a few examples ever successfully monetized. Comic books are always changing. The good news for us fanboys (and fangirls) is that the only way to improve on writing comics . . . is to read more comics . . . something we’re more than happy to do!
Richard Pulfer is the co-writer of the webcomic Blue Yonder. He is also the creator of Bat & Wolf, which won the international comic book pitching competition Direct2Development.