How to Break Into Writing Comics

Breaking into comics as an artist is relatively easy. You make up some samples, you show them around, you take the advice you’re given, and you persist until you get work or find something more responsible to do. It’s hard work, but it’s a simple plan to follow.

But breaking in as a writer… that’s difficult. There are a lot more wannabes than ever will find work in the field, everyone thinks writing is easy, and most people have ideas for their favorite characters just waiting. Plus, you can’t easily show your work. So how do you start getting paid to write comics? There are four and a half ways I know of.

1. Make Your Own Comics.

Self-publish or get published by a smaller publisher. Yes, this means that you have to do all the hard work of finding an artist and making sure the comic actually gets completed. Why should you expect someone else to do it for you when you’re just starting out? Actual printed comics are the best samples you can have. Comics that people talk favorably about are even better. Put out a book, win an award, and get attention. (Even if it doesn’t sell very well.)

2. Be Best Buddies with Bob Schreck.

Or someone else. (I just picked his name because it’s fun to say and alliterative.) But going to college with someone or being drinking buddies is a good way to get that foot in the door — in comics, as in so much else, it’s still who you know. And knowing someone who can give out work is the surest way to getting work.

3. Write Something Else.

Jodi Picoult, for example, wrote successful novels before being asked to do Wonder Woman. Various book authors, moviemakers, and TV scripters have been invited into comics lately to bring some of their magic (and audience) with them. Even a small, independent film that gets buzz might assist in getting you an introduction.

4. The Jailbreak Option.

So called because it’s something creative and original that works once, and then they slam the door on it and the next person has to find a different way. Gail Simone wrote humor columns and a feminist website. Devin Grayson wrote Batman fanfic porn that caught an editor’s eye. (Let me reiterate: These methods no longer work. Do not send editors your pornfic.) I can’t tell you what else will work, or the idea wouldn’t be original.

4 1/2. Draw Your Own Comics.

Get work as an artist, build a reputation, make contacts, and then convert to mostly writing. Brian Michael Bendis followed this route, combined with #1, originally publishing series called Goldfish and Jinx through Caliber. But learning to draw is harder than learning to write, so if you’re looking for the easy way, this isn’t part of your list.

What’s Next?

KC said, when reading over this list, that I forgot to mention “have talent”. Yes, that’s important, but determination is more so. I’ve known people that got their “big break” five or ten years after they first started trying. Sometimes, just outlasting everyone else works. But you won’t get that second or third job without some ability.

Once you’ve written a comic, it doesn’t stop there. The next question is how you keep getting jobs writing comics with so many others wanting the work. But that’s a subject for another time. I’ll give you a hint, though: it involves diversification, writing different characters and types of stories for different people. And the basics of meeting schedules and being pleasant to work with.

The naughty question to ask people who say they want to write comics is “do you want to write comics, or do you want to write Spider-Man?” Many, if honest, would answer the latter. And there’s really no easy way to accomplish that. It’s the equivalent of a girl dreaming that she’s going to get discovered walking down the street and become a supermodel — it’s a uniquely American dream of fame without effort, of success without work.

Letting people know that your lifelong dream is to write Superman and only Superman is the best way to not get what you want. You’ll instantly seem like a fanboy instead of a professional.


21 Responses to “How to Break Into Writing Comics”

  1. Gail Simone Says:

    Ouch.

    Joanna, I’m sorry for my first note here in a while being a correction, because I enjoy the sight very much.

    But Devin didn’t break in because some editor spotted her fanfic. She did it the hard way, in a manner that is almost impossible to achieve now. She wrote the Bat-editors and did spec work and outlines for two solid years. She took their suggestions, listened to their advice, and worked her behind off before getting her first pro shot. I’ve always found the way she broke in to be inspiring and a very very good lesson for those making the attempt to break in at DC or Marvel.

    Simply put, she worked her way in through hard work, talent, and determination. Unlike myself, who somehow was in the right place at the right time, she did things right and earned her own way, not an easy thing for anyone to do, but particularly tough for a female writer at that time.

    Great post, as always, however, just wanted to clear up that little bit.

  2. Gail Simone Says:

    “Sight.”

    Yikes.

    “…enjoy the SITE very much.”

    I will spell for JUSTICE!

  3. Johanna Says:

    I didn’t mean to imply that some editor was surfing the net and found her writing; I’m sorry if my phrasing or the word “fanfic” gives that impression. She took writing classes from comic editors, yes, and wrote and rewrote. But the way I heard it, from people there at the time, was that aspect of her submitted stories is what brought her attention. Anyway, as we agree, it can’t be done that way again.

    Thanks for reading and complimenting the site!

  4. Gail Says:

    That’s fine, the fanfic certainly was an aspect of her breaking in, it’s just that she routinely gets shortchanged for her accomplishments.

    I don’t know HOW many times I’ve seen people say she broke in as a result of being Mark Waid’s girlfriend when she already had several assignments printed before they’d even met.

    I’m hoping history gives her the credit she deserves as one of the first female mainstream comics writers to have her own fanbase specific to her, and as a big influence to a lot of us who followed.

    Thanks, no harm intended!

  5. there it is, plain as daylight. » Writerly angst and fangirl squee Says:

    [...] of all, Johanna Draper Carlson wrote this great article, How to Break Into Writing Comics which is pretty near and dear to my heart these days. I’m not exactly sure where I fit in to [...]

  6. Rivkah Says:

    *bookmarks*

    THANK YOU, Johanna. The next time somebody tells me they want to get into writing comics and only comics when they’ve done nothing else before, I’ll be forwarding this to them. You’ve just stated everything I’ve ever tried to say: that the pursuit of becoming a comics writer isn’t the same path an artist’s and requires a lot more elbow-rubbing and pestering and working in other fields to even get your work looked at.

    To put it simply: being a writer is not more difficult (or easy) than being an artist, but it’s certainly more difficult to convince somebody to take at least thirty minutes of their day to look at your sample script in order to develop an impression as compared to saying, “Hey. Here’s my art!” and taking two seconds to develop an impression. And editor can glance at an art portfolio and decide in an instant whether this style is right for the kinds of projects they work on, but dedicated reading takes more time and effort . . . something most editors (and agents) have in short supply.

    A story: I’ve told you that I’ve written a youth novel and have started to pitch it around and publishers. Having been on the publisher’s end, however, I recognize how difficult it is to get people to even look at your writing. So, in order to form a more instant impression, I included artwork: character designs, setting sketches, even mock pages for either a) what would be an illustrated novel or b) what could potentially spin off into a graphic novel series. The response so far means that I can do the reverse of most writers: go through the people I know in the GN biz to get my work on the desks of those in the prose biz. And so far, it’s working.

    The quality of the work will determine for itself whether or not it will get picked up, but for getting somebody’s attention, it works.

    Which is why if anybody wants to get into writing comics, they should already have an artist on board instead of saying, “And this is what I envision doing with Jim Lee.”

    Currently trying to get a few “writing only” gigs as well, but this stuff takes time, and you have to be patient with and respect the time of the people look at your work. Publishers are a lot more hesitant–it seems–to sign on new writers than new artists and take longer to get around to reading your samples.

  7. Johanna Says:

    Great additions, Rivkah, thank you for sharing those!

  8. Vito Delsante Says:

    I’m not much of a success story, but for anyone reading this, I can verify that Johanna (and KC) are right. Here’s how I know:

    1. Make Your Own Comics – While I didn’t start out doing this, doing my webcomic did lead to a great gig.

    2. Be Best Buddies with Bob Schreck – For me, it was Dean Haspiel.

    3. Write Something Else – I wrote screenplays and did script doctoring when someone asked me to look at their comic idea. Haven’t written screenplays since.

    That’s a pretty good list up there, folks. Don’t underestimate it.

  9. Christos Gage Says:

    It’s actually me who broke in by dating Mark Waid.

    I regret nothing. I apologize for nothing!

  10. Bill Says:

    Thanks for this. The way is long and the lightbulb goes out at the end of the tunnel sometimes, but reminders like this help to turn it back it back on.

  11. Jake Saint Says:

    Of course, you can do all those things and still remain a dismal failure haunted by his unfulfilled aspirations, a contemptible naif excoriated by the mechinations of a horrid and unloving universe bent upon flensing all hope from his soul who hides his perpetual anguish behind an occasional snarky quip on the comics blogosphere. Well, it’s one way to go, anyway.

  12. Alan Kistler Says:

    So wait … I SHOULDN’T send Batman porn-fic to editors!

    DAMMIT! I’ve wasted the past three years of my life!!!!!

    Seriously, though, great site and very helpful advice. Thank you.

  13. Tom Stillwell Says:

    Great article, Joanna.

    I’m a big believer in #1…no, not the bodily function you pervs!!!

    It’s all about showing people what you can do. Telling people you can write comics means zilch.

    Handing someone a book you wrote and published shows not just your talent level but also your commitment to making comics.

    Now, fingers crossed, hopefully it will pay off for me.

  14. Dan Coyle Says:

    Through mutual acquaintances at the time, I know for a fact that Mark Waid and Devin K. Grayson started dating in early 1997.

    Batman Plus Arsenal was released in October 1996.

    Grayson’s flaws were many, but she got where she was more for her talent than her ability to network. She squandered that talent, IMO, on her fear of the fangirl within, but comics, and quite frankly any creative endeavor, are poorer for her absence.

  15. Johanna Says:

    Are you speaking from experience, Jake, or exercising your vocabulary? True, you can do everything right and still never make it. Sometimes, that’s the luck of the draw.

  16. Jake Saint Says:

    Are you speaking from experience, Jake, or exercising your vocabulary?

    Both! I’m not worried– when you accept that a horrid and unoving universe is bent upon flensing all hope from your soul, you learn to enjoy your beer and not give two hoots about your luck. Maya! Maya! Maya! But mostly I was making a (ch’yeah) funny.

    (And no, I have not and will not stop trying. Hell, I’m working on something right now when I should be… working.)

  17. Johanna Says:

    I admire your determination. That’s a great quality so many of your fraternity have.

  18. Blog@Newsarama » Blog Archive » The Lightning Round Says:

    [...] – Johanna Draper Carlson tells you how to make a career writing comics. [...]

  19. Thomas Gerhardt Says:

    You forgot one thing, Johanna, in that list: be prepared. Be prepared to argue the commercial value of your story. This is a business, after all. Be prepared to stand your ground while writing the book. Don’t let an editor or a publisher run you over. And… be prepared to walk away, if necessary. This, of course, can only apply to writers who do original stories, not so much to those whose dreams are to write Superman, Spiderman, Costumed Man and Too Short Brief Man.

  20. Fallacy Says:

    “But learning to draw is harder than learning to write.”

    No.

    I would kindly suggest that writing and drawing are at least on equal footing when it comes to the difficulty of mastering them. If learning to write was so much easier than learning to draw, comics in general would be better written than they are, no? Certainly the increasingly skilled, realistic art is not the reason comic audiences have been shrinking steadily for the past 20 years…

  21. A.J. Fulcher Says:

    Excellent article, easier said than done. It is odd that this path is a difficult one to follow, the way some of us are built, there seems to be no other route to pursue. Although I feel I was born to late to really find all of this on my own like Stan or Jack, I am thankful that professionals like you all are here to share your wisdom. Thank you!




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