Why Do Wannabe Comic Writers Aim for the Top?

Jim Zub, in his continuing series of posts with great advice for those who want to break into comics, has tackled the question Why Don’t Publishers Give Brand New Writers a Chance? in response to a letter that asks “is it not part of the editor’s job to ‘discover’ or attract new talents?”

Zub very politely and kindly informs the writer that no, it’s not. (Let me add: there are many more new “talents” out there than anyone can keep up with. There are also plenty of proven creators without enough work.) Zub says:

An editor’s job is to make sure their projects are taken care of by capable people who can deliver high quality professional work on time and, ideally, whose involvement with the project will help sell the work. Testing and nurturing new talent is generally low on their priority list compared to managing current ongoing projects. Trying new people is risky and difficult compared to using people who have a body of work and proof that they can hit their deadlines. I know it can be frustrating seeing writers plucked from other talent pools but if someone has writing work in other mediums (novels, TV, etc.) at least there’s proof they can tell stories, even if it’s not comic specific. Why should a publisher (a business) take a risk on using unknown/untested talent when they don’t have to?

He goes on to give the sensible advice, “If you don’t have a body of work you need to create one and keep building. If you’re not willing to put in the time to create quality stories on your own, then how is anyone supposed to trust that you’ll suddenly be able to do it ‘on the job’?”

That started me thinking. Someone who wants to make a movie doesn’t think they can suddenly bid for the job of directing James Bond, do they? Even the you’ve-never-heard-of-them-before “discoveries” have directed commercials or student films or something available to view in the marketplace. It’s kind of like dating — it’s easier to meet someone when you’re already involved, because there’s no pressure, and the idea that someone else has already “vetted” you makes you a more proven choice.

Yet in comics, people seem to think they can break in to writing Spider-Man or Batman, billion-dollar flagship properties. At first, that’s a ridiculous conclusion, yet perhaps that’s because people have actually done it. (Although a closer look reveals that those people formed close relationships with decision-makers who saw their work, even if it wasn’t yet published.) But those examples are few and far between, and that doesn’t tackle the big issue the request writer was originally asking — what if you don’t have personal contact with editors, either at conventions or other venues? (SVA classes are good for this.)

Particularly in a market where timeliness has become more important, what with the digital same-day release dates and all, a proven commodity is a much safter choice than a newbie. It’s a shame that the venues that used to be open — anthologies, backup stories, and other ways to break in that didn’t require such a serious series commitment — are no longer there, but in their place, we have self-publishing and webcomics. Yes, you will lose money doing that, at least in the beginning, but how much do you believe in yourself, your dedication, and your talent? Moving to New York and pounding the pavement would be just as expensive, without the benefit of friends and family nearby.

Tom Spurgeon has a good take on this as well (plus a record industry story! remember them?):

You don’t need anyone’s permission to make comics; it’s not easy, and it’s not always possible to do so the way you might like it, but it’s a very achievable thing in terms of those opportunities across the spectrum of all the arts.

In short, I think people who think editors should be cultivating new talent just have fantasies of being suddenly discovered and given their dream job on a platter. In another era, this was the same thing that motivated girls to sit in tight sweaters at Schwab’s drugstore. It’s a convenient wish-fulfillment story for the entertainment industry to promote, but it’s not going to happen for you. Do the work instead.

One Response to “Why Do Wannabe Comic Writers Aim for the Top?”

  1. jdh417 Says:

    To be blunt, I think the number one qualifier to handle a flagship property is to be a good “company” man. You need good writing skills and a proven track record of delivering scripts on-time, but you also need the ability to work with editors and take directions from the corporate suits.

    Notice I didn’t mention being innovative or truly interesting in your storytelling as a qualifier. Comics writers on the big properties are caretakers and provocatuers that tease “big changes” that never ever last.

    You’re best bet for writing Superman is becoming famous in another field and then becoming a “stunt writer,” like JMS did.

    The lesson: don’t aspire to write Superman, aspire to create a Superman.




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