Square One: Where to start in the comics business

Another Q&A from a reader of my blog. The key thing here is that writing scripts does not require a literature major. Comics and film scripts are written by storytellers. Scripts are not prose, they are the structural elements of a story, told with action and visuals. But then there’s the question – how do you get published? Different people will tell you different things, but here’s my take.

Q: Hi, Damian. I’m an aspiring illustrator with about 30 years of drawing under my belt and almost 6 different ideas that I’d love to see published or make it into film. I’m 28 and feel like my lack of knowledge about the comic industry is really setting me back…and my crippling anxiety of having to accomplish all this on my own, for now at least. I’m no literature major, but I have a way with words so I’m taking a stab at writing outlines and scripts so I can get these ideas out of my head and into text. I naturally gravitate to illustrating character line-ups and visual development but I was recently told that if you don’t have a script then the art is pretty much pointless. What would you say is “square 1” of the journey to prepping your comic for a pitch??


A: Getting the ideas out of your head is the curse of all us writers. I read an article by Stephen King, who says that he so many stories in his head that just need to get out, which is why he is such a prolific writer. He has no choice. The stories are just banging around in there until he can get them on paper. That’s pretty much the same way with me. Once I have a story, it has to get onto paper or else I go mad.


At the same time, the comic book industry is a particular animal that you have to get to know really well. Just like Hollywood or book publishing, the comic book industry has its own rules, many of which are unwritten. I’ve been luck to have gone through the process – I got a lot of rejections before finding a publisher, and I’ve had an inside perspective of the industry now that I have a friend who works at Marvel and another who worked for DC for years.


You are in an interesting position. Very few comics are written and drawn by the same person. David Mack did Kabuki all by himself, and Craig Thompson (Blankets and Habibi) works solo. I think Jeff Lemire does The Underwater Welder all by himself, and I think Matt Kindt does Mind MGMT all by himself. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, one person writes and the other person draws. So this could be very good for you, certainly cheaper.


That being said, writing and art use such different parts of the brain that it may be really difficult to pull it off – I mean with so many talented artists out there, why don’t they all just start their own series? Anyway, I’m a writer, and I have to pay people do draw for me. So if you can come up with a great story and good art, you are in a good spot to make your own comics financially, I envy you.


I taught myself how to write comics by reading almost every post on the Comicxtribe website and Jim Zubb’s website, and also by reading every blog post by FILM CRITIC HULK and reading his book Screenwriting 101. But writers don’t have it easy anywhere in the world, and comics are no different (basically, writers work with intangible elements and therefore get the short end of the stick in every market they are needed). A comic book script with no art is impossible to pitch. People want at least the first 8 pages of art, if not the whole first issue. Or the whole series. Plenty of people will take a completed comic book off your hands and make money with it! If you happen to have a 3 or 5 issue series already complete, and someone likes it, they will take it and sell if for you, there’s no risk to them.


So I’d say square 1 is a completed script of a 3- 5 issue series. No one wants a single issue, and 6 is too long. The reason – you’ll want to sell the project as 3-5 individual issues, then package it as a graphic novel and sell the book (a trade paperback really). And with the script, you need at least 8 pages of art and 1 cover. 8 pages is minimum, that’s what Image and Dark Horse want to see. (Note that Image and Dark Horse take projects for established creative teams almost exclusively). Don’t aim high. Aim at getting your book sold anywhere so you can build a fan base – sell directly to your local comic book shop or at comic book conventions. Aim for small publishers. Print your first issue and give physical copies to publishers at comic book conventions, and see if they will carry the book for you to other conventions. Having a well written 1 paragraph pitch, and a well written 1 page summary, is also necessary and way harder than it seems.


Your case is special. You can draw. So, you can do much more than just an 8 page pitch. You can complete entire issues! If you have completed issues, you don’t need scripts. Scripts are only when you don’t have art, or only have some art. But yes, people don’t want concept art. They want completed lettered sequential art. Letters can be re-done later, and letters are cheap, but good art is priceless.


You could make your graphic novel and sell via Amazon/Ingram Spark. Not a bad option, with very little investment from you. Ingram’s print on demand is very good. Sales will be low, but at least the work will be out there. But you want to build a fan base, and that means getting single issues into the hands of people.


Worst case scenario – make a 3 issue series and pitch directly to Diamond. The key this – hire a very famous cover artist and pay premium dollar for the cover ($200-$500 is normal for a cover by a well known artist, it can go higher). Diamond is hard to break into unless you have a famous name to back you up.


Breaking into comics is not easy, but the key is to create and get something out there any way you can. As a writer, I pay for my art, but to me it is an investment. I’m building a fanbase slowly. Just do what you love and follow your dreams!
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Q&A about comics and breaking into the industry

I recently got an email from a young man (I can say that now that I’m 40!) who dreams of breaking into comics. I don’t blame him, comics rock! Here’s his email and below I’ve put my response so that it might help others. The kid sounds a lot like me. And yes, I answer all emails!


Q: I’m a young writer looking to someday have my comic book out there for people to read. I’m 19 but I’ve been working on this story since the 8th grade. I’ve started over numerous times and scrapped a lot of work and ideas. One thing I’ve never changed is the main character’s name, personality, and what he fights for. Just this year I started writing the script for my story and I’m nowhere near finished. One thing that scares me and is always on my mind is, how am I going to get this published? How am I going to turn this into a book? What do I do after finishing this script? I read your article and I was hoping I could get some more information on how you got to where you are now. Maybe through you i can get one step closer to my dream.


A: First off, ideas are a dangerous thing, and they are rarely, if ever, finished. I’ll use the analogy of the original Star Wars because that is so well documented and so easy to relate to (and has a lot to do with the problem you are having). Lucas’ original script for the film was massive. It was way too long, and had enough story for 3 or more films. It was cumbersome, but he had all these ideas in his head and could not let them rattle around up there. He had to put them all down on paper, which is fine, but once Fox gave him the green light, he had to cut down the ideas into something that he could actually film (and the studio could actually make and distribute).


This is much the same way with comics. It starts with an idea. We have tons of ideas pouring into our heads at all times, that’s just what happens to creative people. And then we go to put them down on paper, and it goes nowhere (or it’s so huge you can’t pitch it!).


What Lucas had was a huge problem. He had a big pile of nothing. So he cut out the last 2/3rds of the script and filmed just the first part, assuming that it would bomb and the second and third parts would never be made. Sci-fi wasn’t popular back then. He had a frame to work in – he had to make a film about 2 hours long. Comic books are the same. No matter what, you have to limit your story to 20-24 pages (depending on the publisher), and each page or series of 2-3 pages needs to be a compelling story within itself. The problem is, how do you do that?


I don’t know what your comic is about, but comics are a visual medium, so there needs to be something happening on each page. I’m not a fan of comics that are just 2 people talking, although if the visuals are telling a story or the writing is compelling and compliments the art, it can work.


For your specific case, I’m going to recommend that you completely throw away the concept of ‘idea’. Why? Because comics are not ideas, they are concrete people, places, and situations. Each page takes place in a location, filled with characters, so let’s start there. And I’ll go ahead and use a Star Wars analogy, since we’re already here.


Think of Star Wars. The original 1977 film, the one I called Star Wars growing up, but is now called Episode IV, a New Hope. Anyway, let’s look at the film in terms of actions, not ideas. I’ll break down the whole film from memory (’cause it’s that easy to do).


  • fight scene (very short, 1 second)
  • chase scene (again, 1 second)
  • capture scene
  • break in
  • fight scene
  • rout
  • interrogation
  • capture (of Leia)
  • escape (of droids)
  • interpersonal conflict (droids argue)
  • capture (of both droids)
  • escape (droids sold to Luke)
  • escape (R2 runs)
  • chase (Luke chases droids)
  • fight
  • conversation
  • run (Luke going home)
  • entry (to city)
  • fight (in bar)
  • fight (in hangar)
  • escape (from planet)
  • training
  • capture (by death star)
  • escape (in Stormtrooper armor)
  • rescue
  • fight
  • escape (to trash compactor)
  • escape (from trash compactor)
  • fight
  • run
  • fight
  • escape (death star)
  • fight (battle of Yavin)


That’s basically Episode IV. I left out a few conversations, which are very few, very tight, and serve to show character and also move the plot forward or explain things to the audience. As you can see, the action is constant. Things happen, not ideas. Although the ideas are there, and the action carries the story of a boy trying to be more than he is. But since your problem is you have a huge idea, I’m rolling everything back to square one and breaking it down to the basics.


Fight, run, escape, run, fight, break in, break out: this covers almost everything in Star Wars. Instead of rescue you can say break in, instead of escape you can say break out. There are a few common elements missing, namely the seduction scene (not sexual, but simply when one character tries to convince another character to do something they don’t want to do) and a few others.


As I said, I’m leaving out a lot here. The key to Star Wars are the 4 connections between Luke and Obi-Wan. First in Obi-Wan’s house, second the training scene on the Falcon, third is Obi-Wan’s [spoiler alert] death, and 4th is Obi-Wan’s voice during the trench run. Take those elements out and the film/story fails. Star Wars is about a boy with no father who meets a father figure that allows him to be the man he always knew he was. Those 4 moments seal it all. So don’t think that this is about action and more action. The story has to be solid. And it doesn’t take much, just a few moments between two people will drive your story. But if you’re stuck, start with the action. You can move to plot, character and story later. This is just one method. There are other ways to go. But the ‘scene by scene’ method is a good place to begin if you are stuck.


Here’s my suggestion. Take a piece of paper and make 22 bullet points, each square representing a page. Then map your story in terms of action. Characters break in, fight, get captured. They steal something, they run. This will force you to set the location and time. And it will force your characters to make decisions – remember that your characters make the decisions, not you. So you can build this comic organically. Put the characters in a tough situation, and then let it play you. What would your characters do if they were in a fight? How would they act? Let the situations unfold naturally.


Map out one issue. Start with the characters in a tight spot, and end in a cliff hanger. Remember, you want people to be dying to read the next issue. Start right in the middle of the action, which usually means writing a story and then cutting off the first few pages so that we land in the middle of something that is ongoing.
Work on your script and polish it. Get that done before looking for an artist and a publisher. I recommend self publishing at conventions or POD at first, but you’re a long way away from that. I have tons of tips for that – my second graphic novel is being produced right now. But it took me years to develop my first script, so I feel your pain.


Let me know if this is helpful. I wrote a whole book about the entire process and put it on Amazon for 99 cents. I also recommend in your case that you go on Amazon and buy Screenwriting 101 by Film Critic Hulk. Do the character map described in that book, it will work wonders I promise.


And when you have a new 22 page script, send it to me. I’ll take a look. I hope this helps!

Need help writing your comic?

Are you writing a comic book? Here are the websites and links that helped me. I adapted my play into a comic book by reading tutorials that others posted online. I love the internet!

But it all starts with the story. If you don’t have a story, you have nothing.

Perfecting your story


Robert McKee; I talk about McKee in depth in this book because I found this work extremely useful, I highly recommend checking it out: http://www.amazon.com/Story-Substance-Structure-Principles-Screenwriting/dp/0060391685/


Screenwriting 101 by FILM CRITIC HULK! on Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Screenwriting-101-Film-Crit-Hulk-ebook/dp/B00H0NQE7S


HULK’s blog: you should seriously spend some time reading his blog posts, he blogs here: http://birthmoviesdeath.com/author/film.crit.hulk


Writing an episodic story; comic books are long form storytelling. Not many articles deal with this. Here’s one about TV storytelling: http://storyfix.com/the-key-to-writing-an-inherently-episodic-story-effectively


Sample comic book scripts; Scripts & Scribes has many other resources as well: http://www.scriptsandscribes.com/sample-comic-scripts/


Writing for comics, 5 rules by Joe Edkin: http://revista-comics.blogspot.com/2011/10/writing-for-comics-by-joe-edkin.html Joe’s web articles about writing for comics are fantastic. His site is down, but some of his tips are archived on other people’s blogs.


Outlining your comic book by Joe Edkin: Joe’s resources are the best there are, unfortunately his page is down. This is a saved snapshot of a page from his website about outlining and page breakdowns: http://archive.is/vWv5


Plot points; The Script Lab has lots of resources that are handy. Check out this page and many others for help with story and plot. You can see that the movies that have weak plot points tend to be weaker movies overall. Click on your favorite movie and look at the plot points. This will help you look at your comic book story: http://thescriptlab.com/screenwriting-101/screenplay/five-plot-point-breakdowns#


mtvU Sand In: Trey Parker and Matt Stone talk about getting rid of the ‘and then’ moments and making sure your story is full of ‘but’ and ‘therefore’: http://storyfirstmedia.com/storytelling-tip-the-principle-of-buts-and-therefores/


Dialog; sometimes I just get stuck on dialog. When that happens, I reread this article by Chuck Dixon. I can’t find it on his site, but it has been reposted here: http://apologiesdemanded.blogspot.com/2006/08/chuck-dixon-teaches-dialogue.html


How to give your character some flaws: http://scribemeetsworld.com/2012/screenplay-writing/six-things-need-fixing-definition-examples/


Making a good bad guy; Chuck Dixon has many worthwhile articles, you can start with this one and then check out his other posts: http://dixonverse.blogspot.com/2015/05/once-twice-three-times-bad-guy.html


Comic book scripting, 10 short and simple words of wisdom from Chuck Dixon: https://dixonverse.wordpress.com/2015/01/28/the-ten-commandments-of-comic-book-scripting/


From plot to script: Cullen Bunn always had the best posts about plotting and scripting. His site isn’t always working, but try this link or find him on social media: http://www.cullenbunn.com/process/plot-to-script/


How a comic book page works; this is a fantastic, must-read article about how panels work and how action takes place in comics: http://www.adamgeen.com/guest-post-the-write-stuff-writing-comics/

find the hero within