During Cincy Comic Con ’14, much emphasis was placed on the fact that comics are a passion business, and there are more ways to “break in” than ever. To that end, Tony Moore moderated the “Comics—People are Dying to Get In!” panel consisting of artists Brian Level (The Brothers James, Valiant Comics), Kyle Strahm (Spread, We Will Bury You), writer Dennis Hopeless (Cable & X-Force, Avengers Undercover, Gearhead), and writer/artist Ryan Browne (God Hates Astronauts). Each person brought their own tales of breaking in and staying in this crazy industry.
All the creators were in agreement with the new cardinal rule of breaking into the comic business: Make Your Comics. Don’t wait for someone to tell you you can make them, don’t wait for someone to hire you because you’re the best unproven talent around. Go make your comics, give them away for free or for cheap, and make friends. You have to make your comic, and then make companies jealous they didn’t publish it, so they’ll want to talk to you about your next one.
The second big point was Don’t Be Weird. By that, they weren’t saying don’t think up weird, crazy stories. Don’t be bad weird. Good weird is where the stories come from, bad weird is stalking creators and just being a creep. Don’t do it, kids.
The three big guidelines to making it in the business were 1) Finish Things. If you start something and you can’t finish it, how are you supposed to be able to make a publisher trust you with a book on a deadline? 2) Be dependable. Finish things on time, finish them well. 3) Be likeable. No one likes working with an asshole, unless they’re an incredible genius, and even then, no one likes it.
When you’re looking to break in, there’s no replacement for doing the work. There’s a saying that behind every good drawing, there are a thousand bad ones. You have to hang out, put in your time, do your work, and get good.
In many ways, being a freelance writer or artist is like running your own small business. You can’t plan to make money early on, because you have to build a following. The rule of thumb is that there’s about five years where you’ll essentially have to give your stuff out for free before you see any profit. Much like people who try to run a Kickstarter on nothing but an idea, you have to make plans, and have work to show to build your following. Try publishing online for free to build your audience, then tap into that audience to fundraise. Get excited that people have read your work. That’s what you’re in it for, right? Because if you’re in it to get rich, all five panelist have reiterated that that is probably not going to happen.
The last piece of advice they gave before opening up the floor to questions was that you have to make friends in the industry. Don’t be the loner who’s going to create his masterpiece without any support network. Every panelist has gotten work in the industry in the past because they had friends who got them work. Networking is important.
At this point, they opened up to questions. The first was in regards to the worst jobs each panelist held outside of comics. Tony Moore was a Little Caesar’s delivery driver and a welder on a Toyota production line, coming home with a “snoot fulla slag” regularly; Kyle Strahm was a movie theater usher but was then demoted to concessions; Brian Level worked in a factory, stacking siding; Ryan Browne was a graphic designer for a huge pyramid scheme before that went under and his company transitioned to being a casket company, for which he was the lead designer; and Dennis Hopeless once worked in a Hardee’s where the gloves that were worn in the mornings to make the biscuits were full of maggots.
The second question was in regards to ownership rights for comics, and when/how those should be negotiated. The panel agreed that it’s important to have a contract when you enter into a creative partnership, because surprises are the things that kill partnerships and friendships (or as Tony Moore, the quote machine, says, “that’s when it turns into a glove fulla maggots.”) As a caveat, the panel warned that you shouldn’t be that concerned about people stealing your idea; it will happen whether you want it to or not. Your job is to be able to come up with another idea quickly. You have to be an idea factory for this industry.
A question was directed particularly at Dennis Hopeless as to what the biggest challenges facing writers looking to break in could be. The biggest, he said, is that nobody wants to read scripts, so meet artists who are already good, but who haven’t made it big yet. Chances are they will make it big before your project is over. The artists on the panel added that you should try to write more shorts; a six page story is a commitment for an artist, but not one that would put them out or take them forever. It’s doable. Writers like Ryan Lindsay have made their name in the industry on shorts, and if a company sees that you can tell a story with a beginning, middle and end in six pages, they’ll know you can do it in twenty-two. Also, if you are going to pay for an artist, pay for the best artist you can afford; invest in good art, and it will improve your work. As a corollary, being able to pay obviously opens up a higher class of artist from which to choose when you’re making your work.
The next question regarded who handles the business side of the comics, and how that goes. Creators reiterated that being a freelancer is owning a business, and that business is your product. Your writing or art is your product, and you have to handle that. Publishers can do some work, but creator-owned presses like Image will let you do whatever you like, they just present you with how the finances of that will shake out. “Soup to nuts, everything horrible, you still have to do,” Tony Moore summed up.
The panel ended with a series of tidbits of advice from the creators. You have to be assertive and get paid. Don’t be afraid to ask for your fair share, as sometimes it can lead to more work. The best way to make connections is to go to cons, give people your work, and be vocal about yourself online. Be personable and as normal as possible. Make friends with people; projects don’t always happen online, sometimes they happen in bars, over drinks. Have as many projects as you can handle; put as many eggs in as many baskets and as many poles in the water as you can handle. When you have to make a living while trying to make it as a comic creator, get a job you don’t love. If you have a job that’s too good, “it’s hard to get off that tit” and get into comics full-time, says Tony Moore. Get something non-taxing, since you’ll still have to work on your comic when you get home, and you can’t be wiped out. As an example, Ryan Browne quit the casket company and got 6 months unemployment, and he got a job at a comic book store, where he could draw at work. He was poor as hell, but he drew every day for six months.
The takeaway was this: Make yourself sit down and do the work. Your best work will be the work you want to do, because at the end of the day, you should love making comics. The whole panel was a good kick in the ass for aspiring creators to not forget the convention, and to go out there and make the comics they want to make. I can’t wait to see how they top it next year.