Jan 03 2010

Nine Surprising Facts About Writing Comic Books and Graphic Novels

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

1. Marvel and DC Comics don’t consider unsolicited submissions. Fortunately, Optimum Wound has a useful list of publishers that do. If you’re dead-set on working with Marvel or DC, I’d recommend taking a job with them in some other capacity (such as editing, sales or marketing) and then moving laterally into writing.

2. Most publishers won’t evaluate a comic book submission unless it has ~5 illustrated sample pages. This means that a writer will usually need a professional-grade artist friend willing to work for speculative pay, a paid freelancer or the skill to illustrate his own work.  If you don’t know any artists and don’t have $500-750 for a freelancer, I’d recommend submitting to Dark Horse or another publisher that doesn’t require art samples.  However, if you can pull off a competent art sample, it will really help your submission.

3. Pretty much no one considers proposals for licensed works. Do you have an awesome idea for a Star Wars or Buffy comic?  Unfortunately, with licensed works, the publisher will almost always contact the writer it wants to work with rather than vice versa.  Additionally, when they need a writer for a major series, they will hire someone experienced and proven rather than an unpublished author.  Sorry. If you want to write for Spiderman or Batman, you need to establish yourself first.

4. Comic book companies usually buy the rights to the series and characters. In contrast, novel series are almost always creator-owned.  If you really care about maintaining ownership over your characters and stories, I’d recommend looking at Image Comics. Almost all of their series are creator-owned.

5. Unlike novelists, comic book writers are usually paid upfront by the page. Novelists usually receive an upfront advance which they keep even if the book sells poorly and royalties if it sells notably well.  Image Comics pays NO upfront money, just royalties. With Image, you’ll earn more if your book sells well, but you’re absolutely screwed if it doesn’t.

6. Comic book readers are usually males between 15-30 years old. Selling to women is much harder because they typically won’t even go in comic book stores. (This is changing somewhat, but currently most comic books and graphic novels are sold in specialty stores).   Children are also a tough market.  They don’t have the money to buy books themselves and most parents and teachers are not receptive to comic books or graphic novels.

7. The two most important factors for whether a comic book will get published are whether it looks like it will sell well and whether it fits the publisher’s style. I could have the most awesome comic for kids in the world, but it would still get rejected at Avatar. “Umm, you do know we’re into extreme content, right?”  Also, if you’re writing a superhero story, make sure that the publisher actually handles superheroes.

8. Because sales considerations are so important to publishers, I’d recommend checking out Comic Chronicle’s sales lists from time to time. For example, if you were thinking about doing a Superman-like series, it might interest you to know that Superman usually gets outsold by Buffy and Deadpool, among many others.

9. Comic book teams can be quite large. For example, my team includes a (deep breath) writer, a penciller/inker, a colorer and a cover artist and that’s before a publisher and editors are involved. Also, we’re from three different continents and will probably never meet in person. How’s that for globalization?

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7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Nine Surprising Facts About Writing Comic Books and Graphic Novels”

  1. B. Macon 03 Jan 2010 at 5:31 pm

    Another surprising fact about comic book writing is how easily readers pick up minor mistakes. For example, did you notice that the above article was called “Eight Surprising Facts About Writing Comic Books” but actually had nine? 🙂

  2. Scott Storyon 03 Jan 2010 at 6:04 pm

    I think you hit the nail on the head with this list.

    The prose reading group is much larger than the the comic reading community, but the number of people reading novels has also slid in recent years.

    This is my first year that I’m skipping Wizard World Chicago, but I have been there the previous 15 years. As a vendor over that decade and a half, I’ve seen the attendees change from white men in their twenties and thirties to a much larger ratio of women and other ethnic groups. We have really loved this demographic widening. It seems that modern girls and women are much more open and pronounced in their geeky tendencies, and I say “Bravo.”

  3. A1Writeron 04 Jan 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Thanks for the list. I found this interesting. I’ve been reading Writers on Comics Scriptwriting and have found the insight on the behind the scene workings of the comics industry interesting. I had two questions for you: 1) How did you meet your team? 2) What are some avenues a writer could take to find an artist and other people to make a creating team?

    I personally find all of this intimidating as someone starting out, but yet I find it all extremely exciting at the same time!

  4. B. Macon 04 Jan 2010 at 1:25 pm

    First, I think the most important thing is to check the companies you’re submitting to and find out what they require. For example, Image requires 5 inked & lettered pages and a cover with logo. Dark Horse does not require any art (but it is much easier to evaluate a comic proposal with art).

    A lot of writers collaborate with artists they know in real life. However, I don’t know any particularly impressive artists. Also, I’d recommend against going into business deals with friends. You may have to fire this person if his art isn’t what you’re looking for or if you’re taking the art in a different direction (to improve your odds of publication, or because the concept has evolved, etc). Firing anybody is hard but firing a friend will keep you up at night for weeks.

    Because I didn’t know any artists, I had to hire freelancers. If your budget is pretty tight (~$500-600), ideally you’ll have one artist handle all of your pencils, inks and (if applicable) colors. That will save you money and alleviate the problems of coordinating with a big team. Because of the time constraints of Rebecca (my inker/penciller), I ended up hiring a separate colorer.

    So, how did I meet them?

    I met Rebecca by commissioning a few artists to do concept art for a Superhero Nation character for $25-30 each on DeviantArt. Look really carefully on DA and you can find a few solid artists that are fairly inexpensive. I really liked Rebecca’s version of one character, so I commissioned another and you can see those two guys in our header here (Lash and Gary). One word of caution, though: competent artists often have crazy schedules and waiting lists. For example, Rebecca is booked 2-3 months in advance. So this may take you a while.

    If you’re deeper into the process (your script for the first issue is completed, for example), then you could try something more like a tryout. Something like “I’m going to pay 3 people to do a sample page and then I’ll hire the winner for more work.” It took me about two weeks to hire Emily as my colorer. That ended up being a bit more expensive ($75 for each of the three people I hired to do a sample page).

    As part of your sample pages, you’ll probably need a letterer. As part of the submissions process, you can either have one of your other artists serve as an interim letterer or hire someone separately. Personally, I’d recommend the interim letterer approach because it’ll probably be cheaper and requires less coordination. I get the impression that you don’t need an excellent letterer to get published. (Dark Horse explicitly says in its submissions guidelines that they can provide a letterer if you end up working with them). I ended up hiring a separate letterer for $15 a page. That’s $75 for a five page sample.

    If you’re submitting to Image, you have to include a cover. At other publishers, it’s helpful but usually not mandatory. If you’re on a really tight budget, you can have your regular team put together the cover. Personally, I prefer to have an artist on hand that specializes in covers. The main difference is that covers are usually high-detail and often more realistic than the rest of the book. Also, covers need to be eye-catching. An excellent cover artist needs to be able to make images that stick out from across a comic book store. Also, covers tend to be a bit more iconic/symbolic than the rest of the art in the series. For example, the cover of The Dark Knight Returns is considered to be one of the best covers of all time but the action depicted on the cover (Batman jumping towards something) isn’t particularly important to the plot. He’s just striking a helluva cool pose. A solid cover artist needs to package what you have in a way that looks really exciting to prospective readers and tells them what kind of comic it is. For example (if I may be so immodest), Superhero Nation’s cover uses a rocket launcher propped against a water cooler to suggest that this is a really eccentric office comedy. For Image, you also need a logo. Preferably something that fits the mood of the series and is easy to read from 10+ feet away.

    In all, putting together five pages and a cover will probably end up costing $700-800, but I think that I could have saved a few hundred dollars if I were doing it again. In particular, I made the rookie mistake of hiring an artist far too early and ending up having to redo a lot of the art as the series evolved. I wouldn’t recommend hiring artists until you’re within a month of the final draft of the script of the first issue.

  5. […] Super Hero Nation share Eight Surprising (and somewhat disappointing) Facts About Writing Comic Books. […]

  6. […] Super Hero Nation share Eight Surprising (and somewhat disappointing) Facts About Writing Comic Books. […]

  7. B. Macon 04 Jan 2010 at 9:46 pm

    Thanks for noticing the new banner, Banana Slug. I think it turned out pretty well and the helicopter was a neat touch. Abandoning the flag was hard, though…



    I also have a lot of anxiety about comic book companies buying the rights to my characters, especially before I’ve had a chance to prove their marketability. Fortunately, Image is a pretty credible option. However, I find Image’s payment system extremely unattractive: they pay creators royalties (a proportion of sales) rather than a page rate. Imagine this conversation between me and my freelance teammates.

    B. MAC: Hey, you know how I agreed to pay you a particular amount of money per page to do the inks?

    REBECCA: Yeah.

    B. MAC: Well, Image won’t pay us by the page, but they’ll give us maybe 10% of the revenues*.

    REBECCA: What if we end up selling 500 copies?

    B. MAC: 500 copies times $4 per copy is $2000, and 10% of that would be $200 for the five of us.

    REBECCA: You expect me to ink 32 pages for less than $200?

    B. MAC: Umm, maybe?

    I doubt I could get my freelancers to agree to those terms. I pay my freelancers by the page, not on the theory that they might get a portion of the profits that we might generate. However, if we end up selling more than 10,000 copies (which is very unlikely), then a royalty-based payment system would be very lucrative. At this point in my career, I’d prefer to be paid by the page.

    *NOTE: Be VERY careful about what you’re getting a percentage of. Are you getting a percentage of the publisher’s net profit on each sale? If so, you might end up losing half of your royalties because the publisher spends a few dollars to print and distribute each copy. Are you getting a royalty based on the standard price or at the actual price? If you’re getting paid based on actual price, your royalties will drop when the book goes on sale. These are really, really complicated contractual issues that I do not understand well, so I would really recommend hiring a lawyer to review your contract if possible. Also, have the lawyer review it BEFORE you sign. Otherwise all the lawyer can tell you is how screwed you are.

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