Sunday, July 27, 2008

Comic Con Job


The first in a series of lessons for those wishing to break in to comics. Comic Con Job is a satirical look at the comics industry. I decided to start this series this weekend in honor of the San Diego Comic Con. In this first episode I make fun of Brian Michael Bendis, Brian Wood, Jhonen Vasquez, and David Mack just because I am an angry and horrible person.

Actually, since I've worked in editorial cartooning I'm just used to being able to name names and ridicule specific people to make my points, but since this is comics and everyone is so damned sensitive I figured I'd go with the oh-so not clever technique of slightly altering the names even though it's obvious who they are. I mean, I would actually like someone to hire me to draw comics some day so I can't completely burn my bridges here. And besides, I've learned that even if you don't like someone politics or public persona, chances are when you meet them they are actually a nice person so I try not to make it too personal. I'm really trying to make fun of the industry of comics, but occasionally the professionals and fans are going to take some collateral damage.

I started this series because, as someone trying to find a way in to working in the comics industry, I find most "how to break into comics" books and blog posts completely full of shit. They give you all this vague generality and talk about how nice everyone in comics is when the truth is that the industry seems to me to be made up of some of the most insecure, cliquish, vain, self-satisfied and emotionally-stunted human beings one could assemble into a large convention hall. The truth is that is that the way to break into comics is probably a combination of shameless salesmanship, endless knocking on doors and bothering people, a little bit of luck and skill, along with fellating a few of the right people. And there our story begins....

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Breaking and entering.. how it started

In my last post I started what is basically a series detailing my attempt to get work in comics. In that post I explained how James Hitchcock and I came to self-publish an anthology comic called "Red Flags" and assemble a second volume which we are attempting to find a publisher for (read it for free right now). In trying to keep that post from being an entire novel I sort of shorted some things I felt merited a little more discussion. What follows is an attempt to explain why we started self publishing in the first place...

Besides an earlier aborted effort, Red Flag Publishing only got started when I told Jim about a contest being held by Viper Comics. The company was asking for a 5-page backup story that would run in one of their crime/detective books so they were looking for something in the crime, detective or horror genres. I told Jim about it since we'd been discussing how to take a stab at comics and he agreed it sounded like something we should try.

That aborted, earlier project I referred to was a sort of Sin City graphic novel series Jim had created which he'd tried to get me to draw when we first met about 10 years ago. I've never been much into the detective genre while it's one of Jim's favorites. My interest waned (partially due to not caring much for drawing office interiors and other mundane things and also the fact that Jim was turning in page after page of script and by the time I got drawing he had probably hundreds of pages of script and I just felt a little over-whelmed when most of my life I haven't been able to draw comics of more than one page in length very often) and nothing ever came of it. Several years having passed, I now felt I was ready to actually finish some comics since I could now clearly see my life passing (hitting 30 and having a kid will do that to you) and I figured it was now or never. That 5-page story seemed like something I could actually complete.

Jim nearly instantly turned in the script for Mr. Smith. It felt right. It was a noir piece (Jim's specialty) that was also magical realism (more to my liking). He'd found a way to combine his peanut butter and my chocolate. It was a very down-beat story which probably reflected his grim thinking in the days when his marriage was crumbling. In fact, the thing that really got me set on drawing comics was realizing how good of a writer Jim was and wanting to help show other people as he was stuck editing copy for a shopping guide where the most creative he could get is in his yearly attempt to sneak in a funny headline when they hold the annual "Magic Get-Together" in Colon, Michigan ("Magicians Descend on Colon" is still my favorite).

We didn't win, but we did learn a couple quick lessons. First, the company failed to announce the winner when they said they would. It was the first of many signs that comics companies don't operate by the sale rules as most other companies (it doesn't help that people aren't exactly making millions printing and selling comic books so it's not like they have massive editorial departments). Jim and I both work in the newspaper business where you simply don't get an opportunity to blow a deadline. Being one hour late could cost the companies hundreds or thousands of dollars and we have a constant stream of jobs due that all have to fit in their alloted time on the press- being late isn't an option (even if it's "just" announcing the winner of a contest). However, in a field where books routinely ship weeks late, sometimes months and even years, this behavior seems sadly commonplace and typical. In fact, if a company is merely late then they're usually doing well by industry standards in an arena filled with shysters and sociopaths who routinely start up fly by night operations that scam consumers and creators, make quick cash and then disappear only to show up again years later to take advantage of a whole new crop of people.

When the winner was announced, one sore loser trolled the message board bad mouthing the winning entry, the editor and the company. While I obviously felt we'd created something good and the winning entry wasn't exactly my cup of tea (mostly, I felt it didn't really fit the book it was going into, while it had a very cool Dave Cooper meets Jhonen Vasquez feel, the scraggly humor-based goth art style and cuddly characters didn't exactly sit comfortably next to the main series as I saw it but it wasn't my choice to make I wouldn't dream of bad mouthing a person for simply choosing what he thought was the better choice), I could see how the artist had a lot going for him with an attractive art style solid storytelling.

If only I'd been able to match the darkness of the script maybe we'd have won. But I still have a way to go in building up my confidence in drawing comics, I can see that my lack of confidence expresses itself in the lack of boldness in the art itself- both in terms of pushing the drawing and also in the spotting of blacks. I'm so afraid to make a mistake that I'm scared to lay down the blacks, seemingly unable to commit and risk making a mistake. Still working on that though I can see how with each new page it gets better.

So, now we had 5 pages of comics that, despite losing the contest, didn't seem half bad. We'd already been discussing an idea which was starting to form into something and the annual convention in Chicago was coming up. Jim started writing script pages for what would become the fist chapter of "Snatched," a thriller about a series of child abduction and the FBI agent and reporter who slowly find out the truth.

I sent out a handful of book to reviewers and it got some nice feedback:

"For their first steps into the world of comic books, James Hitchcock and Joe Willy show a great amount of promise; a strong grasp of story and an eye toward graphic pacing. Hopefully they will continue to hone their respective skills and continue to turn out creative stories." - Tanya Crawford, Broken Frontier

"'s pretty good for someone just starting out. The stories hang together pretty well too: the first chapter of a kidnapping story with wider implications, and a vignette about a killer-by-assignment. Not bad for the price." - Steven Grant

The main reason we ended up publishing the book was because we'd decided to hit the Chicago convention and wanted something to show other professionals, editors and publishers. Jim wouldn't be able to get anyone to read his scripts without having someone draw them and I was unlikely to get someone to take a chance on me, even if they liked my art, because I lacked proof that I could finish enough material to make a book. Artists in comics are notorious for flaking out and blowing deadline, a side effect from it being a very laborious and back-breaking endeavor which often reaps little reward, especially in a cost-benefit analysis.

So, we weren't really planning on even selling the book, simply throwing a $1 price on it just because our printer had given us a large enough break that it sounded like an easy decision to print 200 more for only about $50 extra. I've always had a hard time turning down "up selling" like when I bought my computer and an extra $100 gets you even more RAM and maybe aDVD burner it's kind of hard to turn down even when you don't really have it to spend- it seems foolish to not take advantage of such a good deal.

We even threw in a script page as a gag, since we saw it more as a business card we thought it would be cool to have an actual page of Jim's script with a fake "post it" note from him asking me to draw an extra scene despite the book being due at the printer the next day (which actually, is sort of what happened- Jim realized he needed an extra scene but by then we'd have blown the deadline and gone over our page count if I'd have actually drawn the new scene). Needless to say, most people haven't "gotten" the joke. It was yet another example of us being neither fish nor fowl- creating an ashcan/business card yet selling it to people as if it was a complete comic.

Another mistake was thinking we'd sell it for a buck and give people a deal since we knew we didn't really have a full and complete comic- one short story and a longer story which was the first chapter of a larger story which included one page of script- and anything more would leave people feeling cheated. Yet by only pricing it at a buck we disincentivized ourselves from working hard to sell it- when each sale nets you a mere .50¢, it's hard to make any money without selling lots of books. If a store only wants to take a handful on consignment are you really going to drive across town, let alone out of state, to pick up the money you made from those sales?

This leads into the many mistakes we've made along the way and lessons learned which is a good time to break this off and promise more later. Thanks for reading- more soon!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Breaking and entering... comics

Almost two years ago (has it really been that long?), Red Flag Publishing published the first issue of our anthology Red Flags. We published what was basically a 20 page business card on crappy newsprint (a misunderstanding in reading the quote from a printer not used to dealing with comics and assuming they were printed on that 1940s war-rationed toilet paper) mostly to take to conventions and send to publishers as a way to introduce ourselves without seeming like rank amateurs. Every "how to break in" article or message board thread suggested actually producing something. And since Jim and I were both in the publishing business (newspapers) we figured that was simple enough. Jim's a writer and editor and I work in layout and produce graphics so we pretty much had the bases on production covered. We got them published just in time to hand quite a few out at Wizard World Chicago, we traded many people for copies of their self-published or small press books. We didn't have a table so we were limited on how many we could sell but it was a good taste of what the world of comics was like. We vowed to come back bigger, stronger, faster.

We very quickly had ourselves a second and much better issue of Red Flags. Immediately thereafter, writer extraordinare James Hitchcock began soliciting other artists to draw the products of his fertile imagination as he was writing faster than I could draw them. We also received a submission of mind-blowing comics from Slovenian creator Matjaz Bertoncelj.

We hit the Wizard World Chicago convention again, this time with a small table and what we thought was an attractive set up. The convention wasn't a spectacular success since we got stuck in one of the side aisles of Artists Alley in a sort of no-man's land (and I can see how that display wasn't as cool as maybe we thought and that guy sitting there probably scared off people). There also wasn't any big names to draw people past our set up so we could get the valuable foot traffic retail establishments seek when hunting for a location- we were the guy at the end of town near the industrial park. Plus, we still only had our first issue for sale. Our second issue was 99% done but at the show we had only some fliers I'd made- a tabloid size sheet of paper folded over with one page devoted to hyping the three stories for our next issue. We also had another flier hyping the work of Matjaz with a couple actual sample pages. I should mention that Wizard World Chicago is also a very mainstream town, despite Chicago being home to some of the best indy comics creators and retailers, and many fans just aren't interested in anything besides the spandex and cape comics from the Big 2- I even talked with one award-winning mini comics creator who flew out from the West Coast and sold less books than we had!

After the show we began posting our stories at Web Comics Nation as a way to stir up some publicity for the next book. But our press releases got ignored by the news sites we sent them to, despite Jim being a professional editor who knows how to craft a press release and despite those same sites featuring press releases of much more questionable news content or for work which is far less professional in its level of quality. We got a decent number of hits from our own efforts (the web comics aggregator sites worked very well for us) but no reviews, comments or feedback to show for it. Our plan all along had been to self-publish the second book at some point and hit the convention circuit again. Those plans fell through when our publicity efforts fell on deaf ears and then my partner Jim got busy with starting his own retail frog business, and any funds we'd have used to publish a second book dried up gas prices shot through the roof.

Finally, after much deliberation I asked Jim if it would be OK to start seeking publishers who might be interested in the stories we've produced. One of our problems has been that neither Jim or I has a published credit in the industry yet. In an industry filled with thousands of amateurs all trying to break in, it's hard to be noticed when you are just one of a faceless herd of rookies looking for a try out, especially if you aren't part of a circle of friends based in an urban center as this industry is extremely cliqueish and creators tend to bring their friends up the ladder with them, leaving less spots in the life raft for everyone else. So, we've decided that instead of peeing into the wind and continuing our self-publishing venture, that for now we'll try to entice someone else to focus on publishing so we can focus on creating (especially while Jim gets his store up and running to become the engine that funds our future publishing empire- insert maniacal laugh here).

So, long story made not quite short, last night I sent off the first submission to a publisher who produces an anthology featuring comics that kind of straddle the line between indy and mainstream. Something we've noticed in our past efforts has been that what we're doing is neither fish nor fowl in a industry where people like their niches. We're too mainstream for the indy crowd since we tend to play in genres and feature realistic art (except for Matjaz) while we're too indy for the mainstream crowd that follows name creators and tends to favor their genres untainted by things such as deeper meaning and politics. Besides, their anthology is also known for giving a break to people who go on to become something in the industry.

The only other time I've submitted any comics for publication was to Top Shelf (when they still pretty much just published their Top Shelf anthology, long before Blankets or Lost Girls) around 1999 or 2000 for which I got back a nice postcard saying that my story wasn't quite what they wanted but they'd be interested in seeing more of my work. I never got back to them and actually kind of gave up on comics for a few years. It's only now that I'm realizing how much I really want to do comics and that I'm sort of wasting my life waiting for the industry to beat down my door to beg me to come work for them.

So, hopefully this is just the first in a series of posts about my efforts to hustle my way in which ends with me getting paid to create comics. Stay tuned...