Jumping Mediums or Too Broke To Make Comics

If you’re fan of my work, chances are you have only read my comics. There’s a good reason for that. Aside from a short story I posted on MySpace back in the ancient days of social media, none of my prose has seen the light of day.

That same story which I posted on MySpace, Culture Revolution in Wheaton Illinois, was the first piece of writing I completed when I decided to quit music and become a writer. It was a poorly crafted non- story, with a charismatic MC and a solid voice.

I received the first and most in depth rejection letter of my career from that story. The editor pointed out that I had a gift for narrative and atmosphere, but that the manuscript was essentially a slice of life soapbox for my perceptions of modern society.

To put it plainly, Culture Revolution wasn’t a story. There was a beginning, but no middle or end. A struggle is set up but never resolved. It was socio-political rant spoken through a proxy of how I wanted to be seen at the time.

I wrote two more short stories right after Culture Revolution. One was an undercooked horror yarn with some interesting imagery. Once again, I was more concerned with presenting a message (in this case the liberating nature of the Satanic archetype) than I was in telling a good story.

The other was a sci-fi, post-apocalyptic tale about a neo-nazi and an average Joe who are the sole survivors of an alien invasion. With this piece, I finally told an actual story. It wasn’t great. Probably not even good.  It was important though, for two reasons. It proved to me that I could craft a coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end. Conflict was established and conflict was resolved.

The second reason that story was important was that it demonstrated that I could create flawed characters, characters imbued with extreme cultural taboos, and make them sympathetic.

None of those stories found publication, and rightfully so. They weren’t good enough. They lacked real passion. Also, prose wasn’t my primary interest. Short stories were something I did while I studied and navigated the world of my true passion, comic writing.

With no fan base or experience I wrote and self-published my first work, Kincaid#1. It sold well on commission at comic shops and at local conventions.  Like my early prose work, it wasn’t great, but it was real! I could hold it in my hands! People bought and enjoyed it!

Shortly after Kincaid #1, I started writing comics for anthologies and other publishers. I wasn’t putting out tons of material. I wasn’t getting paid. But damn it, I was making comics!

And comics were good to me, emotionally and mentally, if not financially. My comic, The Wrong house met with great reviews and was optioned for film. I’ve done work for hire with small publishers. Opportunities have come allowing me to expand my horizons and do non-fiction comics.  I won an award for Curse of The Black Terror. A project I dreamed up forever ago, Mastema, has come to life. It’s been a good eight years.

There’s a tough side to comics too though. The economics of the industry aren’t great, to put it lightly. The writer almost always funds the project. Sometimes that isn’t so. There are several artists I have collaborated with as co-creators and we roll the dice as partners. Most of the time though, the artist wants a guarantee of payment, and I can’t blame them.

“Hey, draw what I tell you and make my dream a reality. If it get’s picked up you can have some money.”  Kind of a shitty deal, right? That’s why the writer generally foots the bill. This is tough though, as most projects don’t get picked up. So if you, as the writer, can only bankroll five pages for a pitch, you’re out a several hundred if no one wants it. This is how writers end up with hard drives filled with thousands of dollars in artwork that the world will never see. For real, you should see all the failed pitch packages on my computer.

If it does get picked up, you might end up in a worse situation. Some publishers only pay backend, or after completion of the project. That means someone has to pay the artist up front still, unless he can afford to work on a deferred payment schedule (most can’t).

As a point of reference, without going into contractually protected numbers, the payment from Mastema only covers about a quarter of the costs I had to pay to create it. Add in to that the time and energy  investment of writing and overseeing the project.

That brings up my next point. There is pretty much no such thing as a “comic writer” unless you are slinging scripts for the big time. As a writer of anything indie, you wear many hats. On many projects I’ve had to do lettering, flatting, rendered colors, pre-press, marketing, etc… There is nothing wrong with learning these skills and applying them from time to time, but there is one major drawback of all this. It takes away from writing time. When I was doing Curse Of The Black Terror, I was spending more time each week coloring than I was writing. Eventually, I decided that I was spreading myself too thin. It was time to get back to focusing on story.

Not wanting to take away time from my writing, nor wanting to compromise another project with my inadequate coloring skills, I found myself facing a very expensive next project.

I was trying to buy a home at that time, and couldn’t keep taking money away from my family to add to my hard drive gallery. I decided to stay strong and just be a writer though, which meant changing the way I did things. I sought out work scripting comics for others, and took two jobs writing biography comics. I developed a few properties with artist friends, based on things we mutually wanted to do. But the biggest change I made, was to revisit prose for the first time in years.

In the interest of honesty, I can’t say that my return to prose was motivated purely out of love for the medium. Not at first anyway. Initially, it was a matter of practicality and curiosity.

I had this story I wanted to tell about a former Confederate soldier who was trying to save his son from a malevolent entity. Originally, I thought of it for a comic. The story demanded a long form though, and to bring on board the kind of artist I wanted, for the size of story I wanted to tell, it would have cost a small fortune. Of course, I could have done a pitch package with a half dozen finished pages, but I figured that even if a publisher wanted it, I would still have to pay up front costs.

So what to do if I wanted my western, cosmic horror story to become reality? Why not give it a shot as a novel? This thought was appealing to me for a number of reasons.

First off, with prose, you know where you stand. If a rejection letter landed in my inbox, it was because of my writing. No possibility of it being the artist’s fault. If I succeeded or failed, it would be completely on me.

Secondly, if I did meet with failure, at least I wasn’t out any money. I can deal with investing time in writing, even if it turns out bad. Worst case scenario, I got some practice and learned what doesn’t work.

I wrote a few practice stories, just to flex those old muscles. Visual storytelling is really more about direction than language. Scripts are blueprints for an art team. Prose requires a different skill set. While crafting a story is similar, you need to be able to convey that story clearly, in a manner that is enjoyable to read. You need to worry about meter, rhythm, and redundancy. When trying to “show, not tell”, you have to show your audience with words, where in comics you can tell a whole story with only pictures (my King and Cub comic, for example).

My first new short story was a re-write of a comic script I had never done anything with it. The prose version came out weak without the visual storytelling techniques that the story had been built around. The second was a horror retelling of Pinocchio, which could have just as effectively been told in a comic format. It works well as prose, but did not demand it (Pinocchio & The Black Pantheon will soon be free to my email subscribers…hint, hint).

My third attempt was The Book Of Echo. This story relied on a long winded narrative from a self-absorbed narrator. It was the kind of introspective story that wouldn’t have room to breathe on a comic page. The freedom of movement offered by this short story was incredibly enjoyable for me, and I had found a rekindled love for telling stories in this medium. The Book of Echo got picked up by Beware The Dark magazine, and I suddenly became a multi-medium author.

Still wrapping up loose ends on Mastema, I got asked to co-write a project with another writer for an artist friend of mine. I jumped at the chance and re-focused on comics. A few months of writing and flatting (I got roped into being apprentice colorist) went by, and we got an offer on the book. It was great! I hadn’t spent a dime, and here we had a publishing deal in front of us. But it was backend pay (kiss of death). The artist who had initiated the project couldn’t afford to spend the next month or two on work that meant only speculation of pay. I was asked to bankroll it, but I just couldn’t afford it. The project died then and there.

After that, I moped for several days and considered quitting writing altogether. I threw a temper tantrum and told my fiancé that I was going to find a more productive way to spend my time. Perhaps binge drinking would produce better results.

Instead, I got my mind together and focused my attention on a novel I had been toying with. I threw myself into it completely. It was mine, and mine alone. No partner’s interests to consider. No creative differences. No god damn flatting or lettering or pre-press.

A few months went by and I had a complete manuscript, entitled The Devoured. And it was good! I did a re-write, and edited, and polished. I had beta readers give me input, and I re-wrote again, making it shine. The ability to polish something up until it’s gold is unique to prose. You can work a comic script over and over, but once the art goes down, it’s out of your hands. You, as writer, don’t have total control over the finished product. The same goes for film, or any visual medium. But in the microcosm of the written word, you have the ability to buff that shit up until you can see your reflection, and then deliver it to the reader just as you intend.

Within months of finishing my first draft, The Devoured was picked up by Winlock Press. It is, in my opinion, my finest work to date. And while I will always make comics, and the medium remains dear to me, nothing in my near-decade of comic creation compares to what I have accomplished with my first novel.

Mind you, I’m in no way saying that sequential art is inferior to prose. What I’m saying is that there is something uniquely special about crafting a story on your own, without the bonds of budget or creative conflicts.

So an experiment born from financial necessity has evolved into a whole new aspect of my career. I’m telling stories in new ways and to a new audience. I’m meeting wonderful new people and expanding my network. I’m experiencing things I never have and I’m gaining a broader view of the publishing landscape.

As I said, I’ll always make comics. They are my first love and were my first great obsession. As things are going though, I would not be surprised if my work as a novelist outpaces my work in comics. I’m already drafting my second novel, and I’ve chatted with Winlock Press about the possibility of a sequel to The Devoured.

Of course I’m always open to opportunities in any medium. My phone’s always on. For now though, I have a book to write.

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