How to make your mark in indie comics
Self-help From rags to riches by drawing pages: artists and publishers who have succeeded in the indie comics business explain how it’s done
Artists and publishers share their pros and cons of going it alone in the comic world.
Space Beaver is the story of a vigilante rodent seeking to avenge the death of his best friend by assassinating gangs of drug dealers. It’s set in outer space. Its central character is rich, boozy and trigger-happy.
Darick Robertson began working on this, his first comic, in 1985. He was 17. Tibor Sardy, owner of local San Mateo store Peninsula Comics, agreed to publish the title and pay Darick for doing so. TenBuck Comics was Sardy’s first and last foray into publishing. He’d hoped to cash-in on the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and similar black-and-white indie books of the time.
Space Beaver ran for 11 issues to admirable success. Darick would later call the title ‘laughable’. But the experience he gained from it was invaluable, eventually leading him to the doors of DC Comics and Marvel, and an illustrious 20-year career.
“The road was a tough one,” says Darick, “full of disappointments. I made almost no money drawing that comic. I knew nothing about the accounting or what I was owed. I was young and naive. Today, I’ve worked with the mainstream characters I grew up loving, have collaborated with some of the best writers in the business, and have cocreated original stories and characters.”
From Space Beaver, to more recent collaborative projects Transmetropolitan and The Boys, via Justice League, Wolverine and Spider-Man, Darick has seen the comic book industry from all angles. His advice to fledgling artists considering their own comic is simple: do it. But do it for the love of it, rather than any idea of success it may bring.
“If you’re chasing a dollar, you’ll be running your whole life,” he confides. “Comics have never been more competitive.
The digital age is a mighty equaliser – the talent pool got a whole lot deeper. But when it’s my own idea, my own creation, and it succeeds, I know it’s the result of personal hard work and a validation of those original ideas. I’m not riding the coat-tails of a wellestablished character or publisher.”
But where to begin? Darick says it’s as simple as sitting down with a pen, a blank page and an idea. “Make it about the story,
The distinction between the mainstream and the independents is perhaps not as distinct as it once was
about creating something that’s personally fulfilling, so your hours spent creating are enjoyable. A strong sense of storytelling and dramatic lighting will help. As will the ability to draw consistently, with a good knowledge of anatomy, proportion and perspective, and a flair for the dramatic. You’re ready for the mainstream once your drawings are on par with your favourite artist.”
The distinction between the mainstream and independents is not as distinct as it once was. “What are indie comics, anyway?” Carrie Cuinn recently asked in the Hugo Award-winning blog SF Signal. A simple answer is those not published by DC or Marvel. Carrie offered more precise definitions: mainstream comics are the big boys – not just Marvel and DC, but Image, Vertigo, IDW. Indies produce “work based on individual tastes and originality, not dictated by the will of fans or marketing departments.” There are also several subcategories: alternative, small press, web comics, digital comics, mini-comics… but these definitions are open to interpretation.
Germinate the concept
Creator-owned comics are those where the artist or writer behind the title retains the rights to it. It’s these publications that Scotland’s leading independent comic book publisher Black Hearted Press specialises in. Art director and publisher Sha Nazir says success hinges on simple ideas. That’s what he’s looking for: a concept expressed clearly and succinctly. “If you can boil your core idea down to a single line,” Sha says, “then you’re doing well: a peasant farm boy journeys across the galaxy to rescue a princess; a family is trapped on an island where cloned dinosaurs run amok; billionaire dresses up as giant bat to fight crime because his parents got killed by a mugger.”
A sound understanding of the visual language of comics is essential. This, the art director adds, should come naturally… if you’re reading enough and observing how artists arrange pages. He also recommends referring to Scott McCloud’s book
Understanding Comics. If you’re not a confident writer, collaborate with someone who is. But it’s discipline that Sha values above all else. “Be sure when you start a project that you’ll be able to see it through to the end. It’s easy enough to get through the first few pages on the high of starting a new creative venture, but weeks down the line when time is dragging and there are still pages and pages to do, it can be harder to push yourself on. Forward planning can save a lot of heartache later.”
It’s at this point where a good editor who believes in your work can help. When DC stopped publishing Darick’s The Boys, Dynamite Entertainment picked it up and published it for a further five years.
“While we exercise good judgment on content,” senior editor Joseph Rybandt says, “we have more freedom to push the envelope and explore the medium to its fullest potential. But understand that you’ll be expected to produce on a consistent schedule, week in, week out.”
Joseph says starting from the ground up is difficult, which is why he advises gaining experience on an existing property before going it alone. This presents a paradox: to have your work published, you often need to have previously published work.
Do it yourself
Alternatively, you could circumvent publishers altogether, retain total creative freedom and self-publish your comic. That’s what Mikael Bergkvist did. The Swede has been making comics for just four years. In that time, he’s sold the rights to his first creation, earned a deal with an American publisher and gone into business with iconic artist Neal Adams.
The former web developer came up with character Agent Marc Saunders in 2010. He wrote the story, did the pencil and ink work, the lettering and the layout for each of the 108-page issues he sent to the printers. He
If you want a regular pay cheque, go to an established company. Do what they tell you to do. Get paid
published four stories a year, each a single concluded narrative, before Swedish publisher Serieplaneten snapped up the rights. He went on to work for Ardden Entertainment, currently at concept publishing house Deadline, of which Neal Adams is co-owner.
The artist says creating your own comic acts as a good portfolio. It shows you how your art works on the page. It’ll also serve you well when meeting an art director or editor in person. It’s something physical to take and talk over at conventions and conferences. Whether to act on their advances is up to you.
“It really boils down to this,” Mikael says. “If you want a regular pay cheque, go to an established company. Do what they tell you to do. Get paid. You will get that pay cheque, but that’s all you’ll get.”
Starting your own comic, he says, is like starting your own small business: it’s liberating to be your own boss, but by no means financially stable. But it’s possible to make a success of it, as Mikael proves.
“Reality catches up with you real quick,” he says. “Do breakdowns, do covers, just do. Everything is steps. And check your market; be a bit cynical and crass about that. I was depressed and broke when I created my comic. I had nothing. I was as poor as one can be without dying. I created the comic on used A4 copy paper, using old markers, inking with worn-out Pilot Fineliner pens. Things moved fast. From nothing – just an idea, creativity and some bad materials – came a life. Desperation feeds innovation, and innovation can create a career.”
Darick Robertson created his own “laughable” comic, Space Beaver, at just 17, and went on to work for both DC and Marvel.
A cover from Oliver, drawn by Darick Robertson and written by Gary Whitta.
Darick Robertson and Garth Ennis’s creator-owned comic, The Boys, published by DC and later Dynamite Entertainment. Scotland’s leading indie, Black Hearted Press, specialises in
Dynamite Entertainment, publisher of Legendary, has “more freedom to push the envelope” than either DC or Marvel. Based in the US, Dynamite Entertainment publishes The Boys, The Shadow and Bad Ass. Within four years of publishing his own comic, Mikael Bergkvist was working with industry legend Neal Adams.