If you’re an aspiring comics creator, you may or may not be aware of Jim Zub’s very helpful guides to pitching, writing, and breaking into comics. Industry professionals on the publishing side have cited his blogging as comprehensive aides that creators can rely on for navigating comics. He also teaches animation at Seneca College as his day job, so there aren’t many people proven more qualified than Zub for hosting an educational writing and pitching comics panel at a major comic con.
Fortunately for us at New York Comic Con 2015, Zub did just that. Joined by panelists Marguerite Bennet, Charles Soule, and Steve Orlando, the panel explored how the industry works as well as the panelists’ personal experiences on creating and breaking into comics. Even if you’ve read all of Zub’s writing, this panel shared more than what he’s previously explained.
Zub opened the panel by asking the others how they got into comics.
Soule responded by saying that comics in general has a clear path, starting with creating amateur comics then working one’s way up. He learned the basics of script-writing and other tools by attending comics conventions. He found artists through writer Brian Michael Bendis’ old internet forum and eventually broke into the mainstream after publishing his title 27. He stated that it took him about ten years to break in, which is a pretty typical timeline.
Orlando agreed with much of what Soule said in regards to amateur comics. It took him about 15 years to break in. He met professionals at comics conventions and found people who gave him true criticism of his work instead of buttering him up. “You already know what you’re doing right.” He made a 100-page comic book for his college thesis and said that the experience of doing the artwork as well as the writing helped him to better understand the art side of the process.
Bennet first wrote a novel to get into the Sarah Lawrence MFA program. There, she took a graphic novels course with Scott Snyder, who later contacted her to say he was interested in seeing more of her stories. He then introduced her to Mike Marts, then-editor at DC Comics, and Marts had her write a spec script to show that she could work with an art team. She stated that she had to jump through a lot of hoops to prove herself and that she’s learned that working in comics means having a ton of ideas that you keep on churning out.
Zub’s background, as previously stated, was in animation. Because he didn’t enjoy his day job, he started creating web comics in order to keep himself drawing. After putting his comic on hiatus for a time, Scott McCloud reached out to tell him that he produced great work. They exchanged emails and McCloud said “see you at the con.” What con? San Diego Comic Con; Zub could go as a comics pro now. Zub didn’t think he could go, but McCloud got him the resources and now Zub has been to every SDCC since.
The panel moves onto the topic of building your work. They explain that all creators start with small stories and simple ideas before growing to larger works.
Soule stated that you create tools for your smaller stories that you can then use on your bigger stories. As a plus, artists can more easily draw 1-2 page stories.
Zub compares smaller stories to stretching before exercising. If you start with something smaller, you can have a complete story that you can look back on. Not all these stories will be publishable, but they’re useful for practicing and for looking at to understand their flaws.
Creators want to self-publish or publish online. Larger works are more expensive to print, another reason not to immediately jump onto them. “With larger works, you are still better at those last pages than you are the beginning,” said Zub.
“A 100-page book with mediocre art is worth less than a 50-page book with professional art,” said Orlando.
Back in the 90s, self-publishing meant creating ashcan books to distribute at shows, Zub said. The ability to put something online is better in terms of accessibility. The stigma web comics creators used to have is gone. He cited Ryan North, creator of the webcomic Dinosaur Comics and now writer of Marvel’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, as an example.
Soul, who has played music since he was 3 years old and plays in a band to this day, explains how his music has a presence in his comics (such as in 27). He is also an attorney, which aided his writing of Marvel’s She-Hulk. “You have authority through your life or through research,” Soule said. “Both ways are equally valid.”
“Every project is a passion project. That’s the romantic answer,” Orlando said, partially in regard to his original title Virgil (Writer’s note: You can read more about Virgil in my interview with Orlando here).
Bennet said her upcoming series with Aftershock Comix, InSexts, has everything she’s interested in. It’s a lesbian Victorian story where the characters fall in love and then go on a murder spree.
Zub discussed his title Skullkickers, which is a humorous fantasy series. At the time when the series began, some claimed that the industry “wasn’t interested” in such a book. But Zub thinks that some writers are too involved in trends, following what sells versus what they are actually interested in. As a result, they create work of lesser quality because of their lack of passion. He went on to say that writing what you’re passionate about helps when it comes to gaining commercial work later on; his writing on Sword & Sorcery and the Conan books came from his experience writing Skullkickers.
For inspiration, aspiring writers should absorb other media and look to the exact moments they feel like they wanted to do their own work. This often includes being struck by that media’s flaw and deciding what you’re going to do better.
Next question: How do you find your first artist?
Soule found his first collaborator on a website, but said that cons are a goldmine for discovering artists. There, artists of all different levels are present and looking for work. He also says that they love money, so pay them well. He would audition different artists by asking them to draw characters. He chose his first artist based on that artist drawing a character in a poignant moment instead of a dynamic, physically powerful stance. He later worked with artists based on them having intimate knowledge of the comics’ subjects.
Orlando cautions the audience about choosing artists carefully. He has lost thousands of dollars from artists who did not do the work that they were hired to do. You need to investigate that they are professional.
Bennet found her InSexts artist through Aftershock, but discovered artists for DC on a previous project. After the movie Mad Max: Fury Road was released, she became obsessed with fanart of Furiosa and created a Twitter chain of all different artists’ depictions of the character. Thanks to her tweets, DC hired 6 new artists to work on the book.
Zub found Brittney Williams on tumblr while working on Samurai Jack and was impressed with her art, which was visually distinctive and fit the style of the book. Williams is now working on Marvel’s upcoming title Hellcat. “If you want to make great books, you need to be a great collaborator,” said Zub. He has long conversations with the artists not just about the book, but about their personal lives and passions so that he can tap into them. “The artist is generally going to spend more time on [the] book[s] than you are.” He often apologizes for tough sequences and writers asides in the script to explain why they’re necessary to the story.
The panel moves on to exploring pitching, which they said is related to writing, but also has its own skill set. They instruct the audience to answer the question, “why should a publisher choose your work over someone else’s?”
Soule said to give editors one or two sentences to get them interested, and then when they ask for more, to give them a paragraph. If your story doesn’t have a hook, maybe develop it a little more. Sometimes it’s not even editors that help the process; Zub, interested in his pitch for Letter 44, introduced him to Oni Press, who then published it.
Orlando says that if you can’t be brief, it shows editors that you don’t understand your story’s concept. “Leaving things vague is for the readers. Editors want to know that you have a plan.”
“‘You’ll never believe the ending’ leads to ‘you’ll never believe how fast they drop your pitch,’” said Zub. He told Image Comics that issue 10 of Wayward would lead to a massive paradigm shift in the series, but of course didn’t tell the readers this.
In terms of Wayward’s elevator pitch: it’s not really “Buffy in Japan”, that’s just what gets editors and readers in through the door. Often, individuals make the mistake of calling their stories their influences, like “it’s like Bladerunner!” But that doesn’t get editors interested because Bladerunner already exists. What the pitch needs is to explain the twist to a classic work or idea.
Zub reminds the audience that if a publisher is interested, they will ask you for more. “This is a business.” Publishers are putting their trust in you by hiring you and if they have to choose between you and established talent, they won’t pick you. Writers can break through that by networking, then showing quality product.
Orlando said to understand the point of view of editors. Like, don’t pitch to them at a urinal.
You will not only get one chance to meet someone, said Zub. You don’t need to only spout pitches at editors.
Soule stated that editors spend a lot of time with creators so they are not going to want to work with people that come onto them rudely. Zub agreed with this, saying that he earned the nickname “second wife” from the wife of one of his editors because they spent so much time together.
Stuff We Wish We Knew Before
1) The industry is more accessible than ever (but don’t tag people rudely). “However bad we have it, Marguerite has it 20x worse,” said Zub. Bennet said that she gets asked to promote Kickstarters and books just because they have a strong female character. Her response is a sarcastic “good for you.”
2. Networking is easier than you think.
3. Most people don’t appreciate where they’re at. Zub said he’s mostly been busy in the last year with trade organization. When people comment on his schedule, he often responds that he’s not busy enough.
4. Bigger/smaller companies aren’t necessarily better. Zub said that projects need to be judged on their own merits.
5. Passion and hard work pay off. Zub said, there may not necessarily be one path to doing that work, but it will get you somewhere.
6. Support creator-owned comics!!!