Tag Archives: comic books

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!

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The History of the Graphic Novel

 

In 2005, Time Magazine compiled an unranked list of the 100 best books from 1923 – 2005. Among these 100 books is WATCHMEN by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986), a graphic novel.  Placing WATCHMEN within the ranks of 99 other literary greats proves that graphic novels are becoming widely accepted in mainstream literature despite the humble beginnings on the American comic strip. Here’s a quick history of the graphic novel, enjoy! (all images are from Amazon)

A graphic novel (a phrase coined by the great Will Eisner in 1978, who was trying to distinguish his book A CONTRACT WITH GOD from the superhero comics that dominated the market at the time and put his work in bookstores) is simply a comic book that is the length of a book. A comic book is sequential art, told with panels of illustration instead of with prose. Agraphic novel is more durable than a floppy comic book, and tells a complete story. But getting from the early forms of cartoons to Time Magazine’s best books was a long journey.

In the early 1900’s, American newspapers printed comic strips along with news, sports, and editorials. Although originally they were humorous, comic strips quickly came to encompass all genres including fantasy, adventure, action and science fiction. These comic strips were wildly popular, so popular in fact that in the 1930’s, newspapers began to reprint collections of old comic strips and sell them on newsstands as separate items. These were the early comic books, which quickly gave way to new titles and characters that were totally independent of the newspapers altogether. The landscape of comics changed forever in 1938 with the roaring success of Action Comics #1 featuring Superman.

For decades afterwards, comics were printed for newsstands. These comic books were very inexpensive, only about 20 pages long, printed on thin paper, and the stories continued for only a few issues before moving on to a new topic. As Americans grew up, they left their comics behind and went off to college. Thousands of boxes of comics went out with the garbage. They didn’t seem to be of any value to anyone, and were lost, but not forgotten.

For a number of reasons (waaaaay to many to talk about here), the comic book market changed drastically starting in the late 1960s.  By the 1990’s, the industry was unrecognizable. Comics were no longer sold at newsstands; they were sold primarily at specialty shops. Each character had not just one title, but many titles and spin-offs and events. The cover price of comic books doubled, and doubled again, and doubled again. DC suffered a financial meltdown, what is now called an ‘implosion’, in 1978. Marvel saw a steady decline in sales starting in 1968, imploded in 1993, and finally went bankrupt in 1996. But people still wanted comics. And those who read comics as children wanted to re-read the comics from their youth.

Marvel and DC both began to reprint those beloved comic books in softback and hardback form. Marvel and DC would collect six issues of an old series and reprint it with a sturdier cover. Marvel and DC already owned the art, and readers were desperate to rediscover collections that were impossible to find otherwise. These reprinted editions, called trade paperbacks, helped keep those comic book companies alive, and helped comic book stores survive tough financial times. WATCHMEN is actually a reprinting of a twelve-part comic book series that DC Comics released in comic book shops between 1986 and 1987.

WATCHMEN was never meant to be an ongoing series like Batman and Superman. After the twelve issues were printed, DC Comics collected the issues and marketed them as a graphic novel, drawing the attention of bookstores, libraries, and book reviewers. This, along with the collection and marketing of BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (a collection of four comic book issues) and the collection of The SANDMAN by Neil Gaiman (a collection of issues 1-8 released in 1991) is a definite turning point in the history of graphic novels. This was a distinctly different sales and marketing strategy from the earlier reprinting of ongoing series by Marvel and DC.

In a few instances, an artist and publisher would collaborate to produce a graphic novel that never went to comic book shops as single comic book issues. They might go directly to comic book shops and bookstores as a complete book. And now,graphic novel genres are as diverse as the early comic strips from the newspapers. Fantasy, science fiction, adventure, thrillers, romance and drama are all represented. And while Time Magazine, in 2005, made a separate list of the ten best graphic novels, we’ve come a long way since then.

The most notable and stunning graphic novel, also from 1986, is MAUS by Art Spiegelman (Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History: 1) MAUS I and II is a touching father and son epic, and a tale of the Jewish Holocaust as remembered by people who lived through it. The nationalities are anthropomorphized – the Jews are mice, the Nazis are cats, Americans are dogs, the Poles are pigs. This visual element, turning humans into animals and even beasts, magnifies the fear and vulnerability the characters faced while trying to survive Hitler’s genocide in a way that only a graphic novel can.

Batman: Year One and Batman: The Killing Joke remain two more of the most popular graphic novels of all time, but graphic novels are much more than just superheroes. Persepolis, Habibi, American Born Chinese, Ghost World, From Hell, 300, and Pride of Baghdad, The Underwater Welder (and a ton more that are being released all the time, too many to name!) are examples of excellent graphic novels that steer clear of the superhero genre altogether and cover drama, horror, historical fiction, and more. And two of the most popular comic book series right now are not superhero, The Walking Dead and Saga , and they collect their individual comic books into trade paperbacks shortly after the individual issues come out in comic book stores. So even if you don’t have a comic book shop near you, you can keep up with all the latest comic book series in collected forms.

I hope you pick up some of these great books. I’ve also written about the difference between comic books and graphic novels, which is a painful and needlessly convoluted discussion. The final word – buy comics! — Damian Wampler