Q How did you get your 'break' in the comics industry And how long did it take you to finally get published?
In which we learn the disparate routes into the industry, which will hopefully provide those starting out with a few ideas.
Al Ewing (Judge Dredd, 2000 AD): I saw the submissions guidelines in 2000 AD and sent off a ‘Terror Tale’ – a fivepage twist-ending horror story, cousin to the famous ‘Future Shocks’ format. A few months later, I sent off another, which was rejected, but got Tharg ( 2000 AD’s ‘alien’ editor) to take a closer look at the first. He suggested some reworking and gave me a couple of tips on how to write, and I managed to get the second draft accepted, so I was published about a year or so after I started trying. That wasn’t the opening of a magical door, though – it never is. It took another year of rejections to get published again and I got an awful lot of small press work under my belt before I was getting any kind of regular gigs in 2000 AD. Si Spurrier (Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider): “I’m a bit anti the whole notion of A Big Break. I worry that it’s a really unhelpful impression – one which I think a lot of would-be comics writers cling to – that there’s this One Significant Hurdle, and as soon as you’re over it you’ve got your
foot in the door and it’s an easy ride to fame and fortune. It just doesn’t work like that, sadly. There are hurdles every step of the way and the second one is just as high as the first. Higher, sometimes. I know a lot of guys who’ve landed one gig and then can’t understand why the second one doesn’t automatically follow. Tony Lee (Doctor Who, X-Men): The funniest thing with most people’s stories about how they ‘broke’ into the industry is that a lot of them sound like the person was an overnight success even when they weren’t. For example, my first published story was an 11‑page strip in a Marvel comic, X-Men Unlimited #1. People were shocked – the fact that this unpublished comics writer had a Marvel comic on his first bat out was almost unheard of. But I was published by Marvel when I was 34. I’ve been a professional writer and journalist for over 20 years now. I worked for pretty much everything, from Radio 4 to TV, newspapers to trade papers to magazines to commercial radio adverts. If I hadn’t had 16 years of solid writing experience that I could show the editors, there was no way that I could have got that initial meeting. Andy Diggle (The Losers, Daredevil): I took a fairly unconventional route into the industry, by getting a job in editorial before I became a writer. I was gearing up to start bombarding 2000 AD with story ideas when I heard they were looking for an editorial assistant. I got the job and spent four years moving up through the ranks there before I finally jumped ship. I’d never had any ambition to be an editor, but it was fantastic training for a would-be writer – seeing how comics get put together from the inside. Apart from a couple of anonymous Tharg stories, my first published comics work was Lenny Zero in the Megazine, with art by Jock. Dan Abnett (The Authority, Nova): My first published comic work was on junior and nursery licensed comic properties at Marvel UK in the late 1980s. I was an editorial assistant and a lot of work like that was farmed out in-house. We’re talking the likes of Care Bears and Ghostbusters. Once I had the confidence, COMIC HEROES
I started to pitch ideas to editors at Marvel US in New York and I also went freelance so I could concentrate on the writing. David Hine (Detective Comics, X-Men): I began by self-publishing when I was at art college. I wrote and drew a magazine called Primal Scream, with a few contributions from friends, and used the art college printing press to produce the printed copies. I even made the photographic plates and operated the printing press myself, cropped and cable-stitched the finished copies and then distributed it. A lot of effort was involved but it gave me a good all-round above: Si Spurrier’s Gutsville is a highly original comic. Read it if you can experience of the process. It took a couple of years after leaving college to get my first strips published in underground comic Knockabout and then 2000 AD. I did a lot of bread-and-butter inking work for Marvel UK as well. Antony Johnston (Daredevil, Wasteland): If you date it from when I made my first formal submission to a publisher, then it’s about three years. But even that didn’t happen until I’d spent maybe a year figuring out what to pitch. My first ‘break’ was Frightening Curves, which was an illustrated novel, not a comic per se. It started out as a web thing, then got picked up by a small indie publisher who also did comics, so after FC, my first graphic novel was for the same people. That early work was enough to get me a calling card with other, larger indies. Getting some early encouragement and endorsement from Warren Ellis sure didn’t hurt. Jeff Mariotte (Wildcats, Desperadoes): I was managing a bookstore and hired Jim Lee’s wife). She became my assistant manager and I got to know the family, and they read some of my published work (which at the time consisted of short fiction and journalism). After the company that owned my store shut it down, Jim asked me to work for him as a writer, working initially on what would be the first set of WildCats trading cards. I kept bugging people until I got the chance to script a Union issue, then a Gen13 issue. My first original comic story was a Warblade back-up in WildCats #9, with art by Travis Charest. Keiron Gillen (Thor, Phonogram): My first professional gig in comics was actually for Games Workshop when it was doing its Warhammer Monthly comic. But in terms of a real break, we’re talking about Phonogram. For the first half of the 00s, I’d been doing small press work, webcomics and an editorial cartoon with Jamie McKelvie (‘Save Point’ for Official Playstation 2 magazine). He’d just done a book with Eric Stephenson, Image’s Executive Director, now Publisher. Image knew we were working on something, and asked us to pitch. They said yes. Joshua Ortega (Gears of War, Battlestar Galactica): My break came from writing and publishing my first novel, Frequencies. I was able to do a 40-city book tour for the novel, and that really helped to establish my name and expose people to the work. From there, I had some talks with DC, then met with Top Cow, Dark Horse and Marvel, and Marvel ended up being the first comics publisher to put my work out there (though it’s worth noting that DC did pay me for some unpublished work). The first published book was Spider-Man Unlimited #8, which, ironically, was Joe Hill’s first published comic work.
You’re an unpublished writer with your pitch/story in hand and you attend your first comic convention. What should you do to get an editor to read it?
In which we deal with the important, and unwritten, protocols of getting your properly formatted, spellchecked and, crucially, grammatically correct document in front of the person who may actually hire you – the editor. Al Ewing: Walk away – and show your pitch to the small press people instead. The fact is that an editor will be much more likely to take you seriously if they have some sort of evidence that you can write. Seeing a finished, lettered, printed comics page will give them an idea of what you’re made of, and give you an idea of what needs improving in yourself. And, fortunately, in this country we have a thriving small press scene – you can find an editor willing to publish you in a small press anthology without too much bother, or you can self-publish on a photocopier. Once you’ve got a few of those under your belt, you’ll be infinitely better and stronger as a writer. Si Spurrier: Just introduce yourself to the editor – nothing more. Don’t be sleazy, don’t be desperate, don’t be a cliché and, above all else, don’t give them the pitch. It won’t be read. Seriously, put it away. Don’t even get it out in the first place. If you’re a wannabe writer and your aim is to get into comics by waving sheets of paper in editors’ faces, you’re already pretty much fucked. The worst you can hope for is that they tell you to pitch it verbally, then and there, on the spot. This – unless you’re prepared – is guaranteed to turn you into a gibbering idiot and to reduce your glorious story idea into a stammerfest of uselessness, which is kind of what the editor expects. And secretly enjoys. No, best practice is this: Introduce yourself. Tell them you’re a writer with an idea and you’re confident they’re going to love it. (And that had better be true, by the way, or you’re fucked again.) Ask if it’s cool for you to post or email them your idea, when the craziness of the convention is all over and done with. Tony Lee: Sell yourself, not your work. If an editor meets you and gets to know you, your name will be more recognisable to them when they see it. They will have a bond with you now that will help you get feedback, be it positive or negative. It’ll be easier to speak to them by email, ask for advice and discuss what stories they’re actually looking for – that way you can tailor future pitches to their needs. So my suggestions are, firstly, never hassle them on their time off (for instance, at the bar) unless you’re buying them a drink – and even then, don’t talk shop. When you do introduce yourself at a convention, ask if they have any free time to speak to you over the weekend. Do not mention the script. You want this to be a long-term professional relationship. Never argue with them if they shoot your idea down and only give them the proposal if they ask.
Andy Diggle: Never, ever pitch stories to editors at conventions. It’s the wrong venue for it. Introduce yourself, by all means, so they can put a face to your name, but don’t pitch them there and then. Put it in writing. Dan Abnett: Be polite. Be as professional as you can. Have copies of your pitch or samples of your work in neat, clean multiples that you can hand out and leave with people (clearly tagged with your contact details). Don’t give anybody too much – don’t expect someone to read, on spec, your 880-page graphic novel script. If possible, know your target – don’t try to give samples or pitches to an editor or company that has stated it’s not soliciting. Similarly, if a company has published submission guidelines, read them and, you know, stick to them. David Hine: The only answer is to get it drawn and lettered. I don’t know of any editors who will look at scripts or even pitches from unpublished writers unless they can see how they work with an artist. No editor will wade through a fat script by an unknown writer. If you know someone who can draw, then get them to draw up at least a few scenes and ideally produce an entire comic book. These days, you can easily run off a dozen copies on a home printer to hand out to editors. Even if you don’t know an artist personally, it’s not hard to track people down on the internet. Artists need scripts to work from and if you’re good then an unpublished artist will benefit from interpreting your story. After all, that’s how Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman started out. Antony Johnston: Don’t do it. Maybe ten years ago it might have worked, but these days editors barely have time to read all the pitches they receive from professional writers, let alone newcomers. Editors want to see finished comics from unpublished writers, not pitches. It doesn’t have to be huge, or expensive; a ten-page short published on the web will give anyone a good idea of whether or not you can write. Think of it like a band’s demo CD. Jeff Mariotte: You should put it away. It’s okay, at a convention, to talk to editors and let them know what you’ve written (verbally). You can even buy an editor a drink at the hotel bar later in the day. But if you put a piece of paper with words on it in front of an editor at a con and ask him or her to read it, you’re making a mistake. If you leave it with an editor, chances are it’ll never make it out of the room. The best thing to do? Ask if you can send something in after the editor is back in the office and away from the frenetic paces of the convention floor. Get a business card! And then follow up. Keiron Gillen: If you’re pitching cold, with no reputation… well, you may as well play the lottery. If you’re pitching company-owned characters, then it’s particularly hard. Even with a brilliant pitch, the status quo you’re pitching for may not exist by the time they could even consider publishing it. About your only hope is that the editor is already, in some way, interested in your work – in which case, you need to get on the scene and make yourself known. Don’t worry about pitching at the con. Just go to meet people, hang out, have a few drinks and don’t be a dick. Especially at British cons, where there’s a tradition of everyone drinking in the same place and fewer boundaries between creator and the public, this is easy to do. The sort of people who like to weaponise any form of human interaction call this ‘networking’. I just call it being social. My advice would be: don’t be a writer pitching. Find an artist and pitch with them. Joshua Ortega: Get published elsewhere. Have a body of work to back up your writing. The ‘humorous’ side of me can’t avoid these four handy tips: 1) Be male; 2) Be white; 3) Be over 40, or at least over 30; 4) Be a former editor or current publisher.
Above: Judge Dredd and 2000 AD have been a breeding ground for Bristish comics talent below: Itching to write a Ghost Rider story? Si Spurrier did. Who knows, maybe one day you'll get your chance, too…
top: Tony Lee writes for Doctor Who. We’re very jealous above left: More Doctor Who, of the David Tennant variety. left: Antony Johnston is currently writing Daredevil
below: Rob Williams wrote postmodern superhero tale Cla$$war for the publisher Com.x
middle: Dirty Frank is another Williams creation for 2000 AD
top: 2000 AD still remains the most vital of British comics top right: More artwork from Rob Williams’ Cla$$war
above: Antony Johnston penned the script for the game and comic of Dead Space: Extraction Above Right: The Simping Detective, by Si Spurrier right: Dan Abnett's Sinister Dexter © 2010 Tokyopop below: David Hine wrote the manga Poison Candy