Breaking Into the Big Two

Today’s example of valuable advice that will likely not be listened to by those who need it most. Tom Brevoort in response to a question about how you break into writing comics without having comic-writing experience:

it seems like what you’re really asking about is brand new, never-before-published writers walking in cold and pitching something, without any appreciable experience anywhere else. And the frank answer to that question is no, at a major firm like Marvel, you don’t really have a whole lot of chance of that happening. …

Inherent in this question is a sense of entitlement, though, a feeling as though you don’t want to “slum” with the smaller guys, or work your way up through the trenches, or another field, or whatever. “I just want to write Spider-Man!” Well, sadly, the world doesn’t work that way. Practically every reader who follows comics secretly believes that they could write a comic–and virtually none of them statistically really have the necessary chops.

I’ve talked to some self-publishers who admitted that they were putting out their non-superhero comic only to create portfolio pieces that would hopefully get them noticed by DC or Marvel, because all they really wanted to do was write those characters. And frankly, it showed.

If you want to work for those companies, there are better ways. Starve for a few years while interning at one of them or working in the mailroom. Become an editorial assistant, make your contacts, and then leverage those as a reliable guy who’s already known.

But “I only want to write superheros, and only those characters”… that’s not being a writer. That’s fanfic dreaming.

A remarkably honest commenter responds:

I think part of it is that I don’t read anything except what the big two puts out. So to me, “comics” means Marvel and DC. On the other hand, I have made a webcomic in the past, and probably will again. It’s an odd thing, somehow webcomics seem more real because I read them, despite the fact that I know plenty of people read comics from companies other than Marvel and DC.

That’s just weird.


23 Responses to “Breaking Into the Big Two”

  1. John Says:

    When I was self-publishing,I always found it a little depressing that so many of my peers were making it plainly obvious that their goal was to work for the majors (Brian Michael Bendis being one of them) and that their big dream was to, essentially, write stories around “properties.” This matched the general attitude I found that when someone did something truly interesting and cool, the typical industry response was something to the effect of “Wow, I’d love to see what he/she/they would do with Iron Man.” It’s similar to when Hollywood finds a great foreign director and brings him over to direct an “Alien” movie.

    The sad thing is, as in any industry, the only way to go is up and so I, too, ended up in conversations with some of the majors (not the Big 2) about projects on licensed characters! I realized that if you want to make a living in comics, that was what you had to do, really – the other way isn’t the norm, I don’t think. In this way, “slumming” is appropriate, not in the social or quality sense, but in the economic sense, and when you’re dealing with people who want to work in a creative industry, “slumming” is certainly not appealing.

  2. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Sept. 14, 2007: New TCJ goodness! Says:

    […] Johanna Draper Carlson on the difference between wanting to be a comics writer and wanting to be a fan-fiction […]

  3. Tintin Says:

    “Starve for a few years while interning at one of them or working in the mailroom. Become an editorial assistant, make your contacts, and then leverage those as a reliable guy who’s already known.”

    Then again, this process seems tailor-made to weed out anyone whose style/pitches don’t resemble what the comany is already publishing, or who doesn’t already share the company’s point of view. That explains a lot of what’s going on, actually.

  4. Thomas Gerhardt Says:

    “Starve for a few years while interning at one of them or working in the mailroom. Become an editorial assistant, make your contacts, and then leverage those as a reliable guy who’s already known.”

    Kiss the right ass in order to manage something that has been decided in editorial conferences. And that’s the reason why I don’t call them creators, but content managers.

    Doesn’t mean that the stories are poorly crafted and sometimes one can use the standing of a well-known character to enhance a story, but ultimately, the Big Two are not (nor would it be advantageous for them in the short term, long term is a different matter) in the business to innovate but to sell the maximum amount of quantities to a shrinking market.

    If one wants to create, one should try other outlets, like BOOM or, heck, even Tokyopop or Del Rey, First Second or Seven Seas. There a creator can tell his/her own story

  5. Johanna Says:

    Tintin, well, yeah. But if you really want to do something creative, why would you want to work with a character constrained by having tens of thousands of stories already told about him, creating unmeetable and unreconcilable expectations in your audience?

  6. Tintin Says:

    Why work for Marvel or DC? Money up-front. Industry cred. Honestly, no other reason. Well, maybe a smidgen of fannishness …maybe.

  7. Tintin Says:

    I’m not sure of the point you’re trying to make. Is what you’re saying something like ” no truly creative work- that is, a heartfelt vision from a single creator- can develop within the Big Two at this point in time, given their production process and the nature of their product (that is, product made for the express purpose of licensing)”?

  8. Tintin Says:

    “Inherent in this question is a sense of entitlement, though, a feeling as though you don’t want to “slum” with the smaller guys, or work your way up through the trenches, or another field, or whatever”

    Ah! It took me awhile to understand this…I just realized that Brevoort is implying that the Big Two are the pinnacle of the comics industry…and he is deriding independent/ smaller comics publishers are slumming- mere training grounds. Talk about having a sense of entitlement!

  9. Johanna Says:

    No, Brevoort isn’t implying that he believes that — he’s saying that that’s the attitude he sees from people who expect to *start* their comic career at Marvel or DC. And yes, those people (whose only dreams are quite specific, involving writing superhero comics with characters they’ve read for decades) likely do see anything else as “slumming”.

    And yes, regarding your #7, I do think that’s the case, if we’re talking about the core superhero “universes”.

  10. Tintin Says:

    Ah, I see. Thanks for clarifying!

  11. Kevin Moore Says:

    This may sound odd coming from someone whose own work bears obvious influences from Walt Kelly’s Pogo and Carl Barks’ Scrooge, but I don’t see the point in perpetuating “property” characters indefinitely – that is, beyond mere commercial reasons. Creatively speaking, I would get more reward from developing a world and a story from whole cloth, or at least build upon the innovations of past great masters.

    On the funny pages, the persistence of “Blondie” and “Gasoline Alley” indicate that the syndicate system is dysfunctional. From the evidence of perpetual “properties” shouldn’t we reach the same conclusions about the direct market, the Diamond monopoly, and the dominance of the Big Two?

    The rise of webcomics owes a great deal to the dysfunctions of the current comics industry. Creators turn to posting their stuff to the Web for any number of reasons, of course, but I think the greater opportunity to pursue original creativity and hone one’s chops at the same time is a big factor.

  12. James Schee Says:

    I can see the appeal of working for the Big Two asa writer for commercial purposes. You can make a pretty good living, you can become a very big fish in an even shrinking pond (praise and heck adulation I see some writers get is interesting), and if you create something it has the potential to be around a very long time. (sort of a sense of immortality)

    It is too bad that there isn’t more of an interest in self creativity in fans though.

  13. Johanna Says:

    Kevin: Just for the sake of argument, what’s wrong with continuing to give people what they want? If someone’s willing to read Blondie or Superman or Dennis the Menace after their creators have died, who are we to say they can’t, if the owners are willing to perpetuate it?

    How is that different from Van Halen or Pink Floyd playing stadium shows to fans without their original lineups? Or Doctor Who still running with a different cast, writers, premise, and producers? If people are willing to pay money to feed their nostalgia (and no one’s getting hurt), then why is it a bad idea?

  14. John Says:

    What James said is entirely right and applicable to the wider world, where people become professional writers and find work as professional writers – it’s a trade as much as anything else. You work in all kinds of newspapers and publications, newsletters, universitys, firms, non profits writing a variety of things, the point being you go to the place your interest lies that will provide you with a good living – in that way, working for the big two is a viable professional option consistent with being a working writer. You give up some things in creative freedom, but you gain in other ways that may be more professionally sound. It all comes down to what you want out of writing, which sometimes can be several things at once. It’s not easy to make a living as a writer in comics, one can’t blame people for going where the money is.

  15. Johanna Says:

    James and John, great point, and an important distinction to make, between a job and an artistic creation.

  16. Nat Gertler Says:

    “Creatively speaking, I would get more reward from developing a world and a story from whole cloth, or at least build upon the innovations of past great masters.”

    Yeah, well, that’s you. Others want different things for themselves.

    I don’t see that the world would be better if we only entrusted the extant character work to people who didn’t actually want to do it. Someone who only wants to work with a given set of characters may be limiting their career possibilities and their chances for happiness even… but we can’t always pick our desires. And it works out well for some of those folks — the world would be a slightly lesser place if Don Rosa hadn’t gotten to do lots of Disney Studios/Carl Barks duck character material.

  17. Don Rosa Says:

    “…hadn’t gotten to do lots of Disney Studios/Carl Barks duck character”
    Please! I only work on Carl Barks characters. Not “Disney Studios” characters. As you know, Barks was not a Disney employee when he created those comics. The only part that came from Disney was the central Donald Duck character, but even Barks’ version of Donald was so far beyond what Disney had done that I’ve never seen much of a relationship. (But thanks for the nice comment!)

  18. Johanna Says:

    bbbbuuuubbbbuuuubb… That’s Don Rosa. Omigosh.

  19. Nat Gertler Says:

    I certainly didn’t mean to understand the importance of Carl Barks in the grand duckwork. I apologize for it coming across that way.

  20. Kevin Moore Says:

    Don has taken up the Barks torch beautifully. And I don’t want to make some hard-and-fast rule that no one should ever work with pre-established characters. That would be silly. I love what Jeff Smith did with Shazam, what Miller/Mazzuchelli did with Batman. There are plenty of excellent examples of great work done with characters/worlds created by someone else.

    But I don’t think the syndicates are giving people what they want. They are giving editors what they feel they have to have on their funny pages because they fear the occasional irate letter. This trend is beginning to change, as demonstrated by the dropping of Beetle Bailey from several papers in favor of newer talent.

    Obviously the newspaper market faces serious challenges from competing media (such as the one we are using now) and the syndicates have been developing webcomics content for some time now. These dynamics are different to some extent from the DC/Marvel dominance of the direct market. But even they are looking for ways to expand into the webcomics area because the direct market does not appear, in its present form, to have a long term future. Or so I can tell from my couch in my pajamas.

    I don’t know if that addresses Johanna’s question. Nat is right: Every artist is driven by a personal muse.

  21. Tintin Says:

    “Every artist is driven by a personal muse.”

    And sometimes that muse is inspired by giant transforming corporate-owned robots!

  22. Thomas Gerhardt Says:

    “If people are willing to pay money to feed their nostalgia (and no one’s getting hurt), then why is it a bad idea?”

    Johanna, I don’t think it’s a bad idea. And like I said, there have been excellently crafted stories by WFH-writers in existing universes. Heck, I buy every Don Rosa album on the German market (and we have them in beautiful editions too), Andre Franquin defined Spirou in such a way that many people today think that HE is the one who created the character and not Robert Velter. And a lot times when somebody (I don’t know, but thank you) in editorial tells a writer/artist/team, here you go, have fun with it, you just might wind up with Batman: Year One or Alan Moore’s version of Swamp Thing, which are highly entertaining.

    I also see the whole “one’s gotta eat” job angle. What IRKS me is the notion that writing the monthly Spider-Man is the height of your professional dreams. What irks me is that most of today’s comic books from the Big Two have the taste, smell and feel of something coming from an assembly line, with little nuances changing from title to title. What irks me is the sheer existence of a title like ARENA. I’m not talking about “let’s go all indy on each other’s buttocks and have the market flooded with self-pitying memory stories about, ah, my first love lost, oh, the story of my bike… we have blogs for that now LOL). But GOOD commercial product that varies, that cares about characters and brings stories to a logical fruition that allows the reader a bit of satisfaction and, yes, a sense of closure. Not: AND IN THE NEXT MONTH: Watch how Superman saves the planet from an alien invasion (of the superbody snatchers) again while having a domestic with Lois.

    Like, eg. what I loved about Jeff Smith’s BONE, he set out, he had a game plan, we went along for the ride and he ended it on a high note.

    If Tolkien’s estate had given up LOTR, we’d now be in SAURON RETURNS, from the mountain of madness he comes back, more fierce than ever! Will Frodo be able to forge a new ring to bind them all? Will Sam be able to hold his liquor? What bondage outfit will the elves wear for tommorrow’s fight? And can Aragorn overcome his impotency? NOTHING will EVER be the SAME AGAIN, TRUE BELIEVERS!

    Each character, each concept, each story has a limited shelf life before one has to repeat oneself. Or in music terms, before you are on your 19th FINAL, no, really, we MEAN it this time, Farewell tour, isn’t that right, Jagger, my boy?

    William Goldman once wrote: Why do we write? Because we think we are so fabulous, so great that we want to dazzle everybody around us with the stories we tell. Now, why do we write sequels? FOR THE MONEY.

  23. Sarah Says:

    Personally I think pre established properties need a good kick out the door.

    I prefer to read and write slice of life comics though. Or the story of the everyman overcoming great odds. Thats a new character every limited series.

    I don’t mean completely realistic. Saikano isnt the most realistic strory, But at least I give a crap about the characters. Superman Idont.




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