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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 25: The Business of Writing Comics

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 25: The Business of Writing Comics


Key points: Professional relationships and keep plugging. Don't be afraid to try other things, you need a portfolio more than a specialty. Make your deadlines and be easy to work with. And work hard -- it takes passion and love to break into the comics industry.

[Dan] We are back again with Jake Black, author of The Authorized Ender's Companion and many and varied comic books. This week we are going to be talking about the business of writing comics. Let's start with the burning question that everyone has had all week long. How did you get into this business and what advice can you give them to do the same?
[Jake] I'm glad that you asked it, "How did I get into this business?" rather than how would someone get into this business, because the short answer is you can't.
[Dan] And that's our episode...
[Howard] I've heard Jake tell this before. I love this explanation.

[Jake] A couple of... well, almost 10 years ago now, I started as an intern on the TV show Smallville. It was heavily overseen by DC Comics. Obviously, it's a Superman property and they are very specific in watching over the intellectual property. I started as an intern. I was a writer's intern. They had me working on online projects... they had... Smallville was the first show to do viral marketing for the show or the movie or whatever. Actually won a lot of awards. One of the things that I did is I wrote in character for the Smallville newspaper -- quote unquote newspaper. I wrote as the characters on the show writing for the newspaper. After the show was on the air for about a year, DC Comics decided to do comics based on the show. Because I was still really good friends with the people that worked on it, I asked if I could be brought on to do one of these comics. I cowrote a story with one of the head writers on the show. It was published by DC Comics. That meant that my first comic book that I wrote was published by DC Comics. That's very unusual in the industry. I had really no credibility and I wouldn't have been able to do that if I wanted to just jump in and write comics.
[Dan] If you didn't have the TV show background helping you out. That's actually more common than I think people think, is getting in from other media. You can see that with Joss Whedon and Scott Card and all these people.
[Howard] It's not just getting in from other media, it's getting in from who you know. The fact that you worked there as an intern, knew the names of these people, and had a good working relationship with them.

[Jake] That... we talked about this in last week's show, like fan fiction. I don't think this was part of the actual podcast, but we made the joke that I get paid to write fan fiction, basically. I think that this professional working relationship is the thing that sets apart a professional from a fan fiction community. A lot of times, the fans don't have the best reputation on working on something like this. You don't want to bash your audience, so I'm really trying to be careful here. Because I want to make clear that fan fiction is a fantastic thing. In fact, I wrote fan fiction when I was in high school. When I was working on Smallville, they asked me what my writing experience was and I said that I would just write... Lois and Clark stories was the example that I used. I would write Lois and Clark stories because I wanted to read them. I didn't even... this was before the Internet was really a common thing, so I didn't really have anyone to share these stories with. I just wrote them because I wanted to read them. The writers that I told this to... one of them was Mark Verheiden who went on to be an executive producer on Battlestar Galactica. He wrote the movie The Mask and Timecop. He's a producer on Heroes now. And Michael Green who went on to work on Jack and Bobbie and... what's that show that shot in Utah that was on WB? I can't remember what it's called.
[Howard] Touched by an Angel?
[Jake] Everwood. That was it. No, not Touched by an Angel.
[Dan] Keep going.
[Jake] Then he created the show Kings that aired for a couple of episodes on NBC. But they were really supportive of the idea that I had written fan fiction because I cut my teeth. Combining that with the professional... I don't know if it's demeanor or what's the right thing to call it... but the working relationship that I established with the staff at Smallville. They felt comfortable and confident going to DC Comics and saying...
[Dan] And recommending you.
[Jake] And recommending me. Right.

[Dan] It sounds like what you're saying is what we say when people ask how do you get your first novel published is you have to put in the work beforehand. You have to... you can't go in cold. You need to work it before, you need to do a lot of stuff that will never see the light of day, a lot of stuff that gets rejected. Then eventually, you break in. And Hooray. Now that you're in, what do you do to find work? You started doing a comic or two for DC, now you're doing all these things, you're on Ninja Turtle titles, you're on a lot of other titles. How did you get those... how do you find new work as a comic writer?
[Jake] It's constant. You mentioned a lot of rejection. I still get a lot of rejection. So much of what I pitch just never works or is successful. It's maintaining the relationships, though, that so key. I think that's the same in prose writing. You have to have a good relationship with the editor. Because editors have all the power in the publishing world, whether it's prose, whether it's comics, whatever it is. I've done a lot of animation work, too, and I've done it again through relationships. It's really cool to see... kind of trace the path I guess for how these relationships happened. After my first comic was published by DC, I thought that meant I would be able to work... I had my pick of the titles at DC and Marvel. Because I had done one comic at DC Comics, I was going to be like Jeff Jones or Neil Gaiman.
[Howard] So there is a reality check waiting for you.
[Jake] Yeah, there was a reality check waiting for me. I think that I... I think every copy of that first Smallville comic that I wrote has passed my hands at some point because I kept buying them on eBay and sending them out to every editor that I could find. It wasn't just at DC and Marvel, but it was at independent publishers and everywhere. That's what got me on Ninja Turtles, was the fact that I had done this DC thing.
[Dan] Who is the publisher for the Ninja Turtles?
[Jake] It is Mirage currently, but only for about three more months. Mirage is Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman who created the Ninja Turtles, they established Mirage Studios 25 years ago. They called it that because it wasn't really a studio, it was just them, and they needed to have a corporate identity, so it was a mirage. But Mirage just sold the IP rights to Viacom like two weeks ago. They're publishing Turtle comics through May, but then that's it. They hold the rights so Peter can do more Ninja Turtle comics if he wants to, but he's so burned out on 25 years of Ninja Turtles that...
[Howard] You said something interesting. You said that you got that job because you had the Smallville credit. I'm going to take issue with that. You got that job because you were able to put a Smallville comic that had your name on it in front of them. And you beat the streets for months doing that, putting that Smallville comic in front of people, and you've got one bite.
[Jake] Right.
[Howard] Okay. That's... a lesson for our listeners. Should we let them chew on that lesson while we break for a commercial?
[Dan] I believe we should.

[Howard] With Brandon out of town signing Wheel of Time books, it's appropriate for me to plug Wheel of Time books from audible. I've been listening to the first five Wheel of Time titles recorded by Kate Reading and Michael Kramer. Fantastic audio books. They've been very, very engrossing. They are also very, very long which is why I've only read... or had five books read to me. When I'm sure everybody else is all caught up and can pick up The Gathering Storm right now. Grab yourself some Wheel of Time audio books. Good stuff. Visit for a free trial membership.

[Howard] And we're back.
[Dan] And we are back. We were talking about the importance of putting in the work. As soon as you have something, you have one credit in comics, then you can't just rest on that, you have to put in a lot more work. In many ways it sounds like getting your second shot at a comic was possibly more difficult than getting your first shot at a comic.
[Jake] It was. It for sure was. I think every story is unique in the comic industry. Nobody has the same way that they got in. Though my story is shockingly similar to Jeff Jones. I'm not Jeff Jones, by any means. He's far more successful than writing comics than I will ever be.
[Dan] Not yet.
[Jake] No. I can tell you for actual full-on fact that he is far more successful than I will ever be. I was an intern on a comic book related TV show. I was working in the comics industry that way. It transitioned into the actual format of a comic book. So many other ways, you know?

[Dan] Let me anticipate some of the fan questions, because I know that there's going to be a lot of people asking these. The first is a question I get all the time and I'm sure that people are going to wonder. As a comics artist, is there livable money in that? Do you make a living at that?
[Jake] I don't write just comics. It is possible to make a living as a comics creator, Howard can tell you that. But it's not exclusively what I do. I wouldn't make enough money if I just did comics.
[Dan] Which is why you do other things like animation. But you do make a living as a creative writer?
[Howard] Yeah. You're making a living as a writer and that's...
[Dan] That's the dream, so...
[Howard] Comics is a great thing to add to your stable of writing, especially if you're interested in writing things like screenplays or animation because the formats are almost interchangeable. They're not fully interchangeable but...
[Jake] There's a lot of crossover industry wise, too. The people that run the animation industry are... like the story editors on a show is the same as the editor in comics, and a lot of the story editors in the animation industry are the top names in comics. People like Christopher Yost and Dwayne McDuffie and people like that. They're doing the same thing that I'm doing, they're making a living as a writer...
[Howard] Follow the money. Disney owns Marvel, and Warner owns DC, and the marriage...
[Jake] Viacom owns the Ninja Turtles.
[Howard] The marriage of full motion media and comics is complete [evil laugh]

[Dan] Here's another anticipatory question. To what extent can producing your own comic, whether it's online or just something self produced... to what extent can that get you into a real job at an actual comics studio?
[Jake] That's a real common way that people break in. The challenge now though... and I think this is in part because of the economy, in part because of just the way the industry has evolved over the last few years, is it's really hard to get your self creator owned comic book series out there. The industry is controlled, maybe even monopolized, by the distributor Diamond who sends out to the comic book stores. They sell to comic book stores. Comic book stores order their merchandise from Diamond comic distributors. Diamond has to make a profit. They have recently, just in the last six months or so, raised the minimum on numbers of issues that you have to sell for them to carry or distribute your title. That's not to say that there are no other distribution options, but it's a much more uphill battle to get out that way. Having said that, if you're doing creator owned title to make money, you're in the wrong business. Because you're not going to make money, for the most part. You might be fortunate like Howard and hit a chord and have thousands of fans...
[Dan] Hundreds of thousands.
[Jake] But for the most part, when people go into a comic book store, comic books are four bucks an issue now. They're going to go with the ones...
[Howard] They're going to go with the stuff they know. The other thing is that if you're trying to create a creator owned property, you lack the infrastructure to get into Diamond, to get into these comic book stores. You can get into the local stores. Yeah, you can shop that around, maybe you can use that as a resume piece, and say, "Hey, look, I wrote a comic. Will you let me write a comic for you?"
[Jake] I think that's a more successful route to take.

[Howard] That is a more successful route. What I would tell people is that if you really want to do a creator owned comic, do it as a web comic. Because the moment you start trying to burden yourself with print, the whole infrastructure of print distribution, you're going to kill the creative fire. Spend some time just writing stories and putting them online. If you get lucky and strike a chord like I did... there's about 100 similar stories to mine out there were guys are making a full-time living out of it... then that'll work. I would not... I strongly discourage people from self-publishing comic books. What a horrible idea that is.
[Jake] There's competition. I think... Image has one, Top Cow I know has one. DC runs kind of a web comic, but it's not really a web comic. I don't think...
[Howard] You're talking about Zuda. Yeah, there is Zuda, and there is the Amazon... the top comic contest on Amazon that they are recently doing...
[Jake] Top Cow does Pilot Season, but even Pilot Season is tough. So there's options or opportunities for you to get your creator owned stuff out there to be picked up by a bigger company but again...

[Dan] More likely, you're just going to catch somebody's attention and then they'll say, "Here, write my thing for me." We talked about some contests, we talked about how you were interning with DC. If somebody is out there and wants to get into this business, what other routes are there for them to get their work in front of the right people? Do you recommend that they go to certain conventions? What kind of stuff can they do?
[Jake] Yeah. They should go to conventions, but smaller conventions. Not San Diego. Don't try to get work from San Diego because it's so massive that the editors don't really even look at what they're given there anymore. But there's one in Phoenix that I think the publishers go to or at least some editors. There's one in Seattle called Emerald City which is a fantastic convention.
[Howard] Emerald City Comic Con is a delightful event.
[Jake] Even the New York Comic Con is better than San Diego. It's a huge convention, but again...
[Dan] More likely to have an opportunity...
[Jake] Face time...
[Dan] to pitch an editor or to show someone your work. Well, very good. We are essentially out of time. Do you have any final words on the business of comics?

[Jake] I know that Howard wants me to say this part because he loves it so much.
[Dan] Oh, now I'm excited.
[Jordo] This would not be luxury.
[Jake] I have a friend and mentor in the industry who is named Mark Wade. He's written over 1000 comic books in his 25 year career. He learned from someone, and I can't remember who it was, I meant to look it up today before I came, but... He used to say that you need two of three things to be successful in comics. You need to be the most brilliant writer that ever lived, you need to absolutely make your deadlines, and you need to be the editor's favorite person to work with. If you have two of these three things, you'll make it. I tend to think that I meet my deadlines and people like working with me more than my stuff is brilliant. I don't really think my stuff is necessarily brilliant. Having said that, he changed his mind recently and said really, you just have to be good now. The industry is moving in such a way that if you're not good now, the companies don't have time to wait for you to get good. You may only have one shot to break in. That can be defeatist, but I think it's pretty realist as well. Also, the other thing that he likes -- that Howard likes is, this is another Mark Wade quote, is it's kind of like breaking into a military-industrial complex. Everyone has their own way of getting in, but once they find the hole that you tore in the fence to get in, they patch that and make sure no one else can get in that way. So every experience is unique, every story is unique, and you just... if you work hard enough, you can do it. If you're talented enough, you can do it. But it is a really, really hard industry to break into.
[Howard] You've really got to love the industry in order to even start that. It's... if you want to write comics, you've got to be doing it because that's where your passion lies. Because if you're not passionate about writing comics, then your first setback is going to send you into writing technical articles for Wired.
[Dan] And on that depressing note...
[Howard] I am so sorry.
[Dan] No. The note we will end on is, it is possible, we are sitting in the presence of a man who has done it and who makes it his living. So go out and do it.

[Howard] I have a writing prompt.
[Dan] Writing prompt? Let's hear it.
[Howard] Our superhero gained his superpowers by writing technical articles for Wired.
[Dan] Excellent. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: business, comics, deadlines, passion, persistence, portfolio, professional relationships

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