Writers Kurtis J. Wiebe, Ed Brisson, and Brandon Seifert gave attendees a candid look at life as a freelance comics writer during their Fan Expo Vancouver 2014 panel discussion. Click through to get the inside scoop on breaking into the industry and getting along with your artist.
One of the most instructive events during last month’s Fan Expo Vancouver was the Image Comics Creators Chat panel that saw Shuster-nominated do-it-all comics creator Ed Brisson (Sheltered, Murder Book, The Field), Eisner-nominated Peter Panzerfaust and Rat Queens writer Kurtis J. Wiebe, and Witch Doctor co-creator and writer Brandon Seifert take part in a free-flowing self-moderated discussion about the business of pitching, writing, creating, and promoting comics as well as the finer points of collaborating with artists and other members of the creative team.
Just as the Expo’s comics artist guests did during their respective sketch duels, Brisson, Wiebe, and Seifert did a lot to de-mystify the comics industry with candid personal accounts, honest takes on the economic realities of freelancing, and their practical advice for those in attendance looking to break into the world of professional comics. Below is a partial, edited transcript of that panel.
On how they got their start in comics:
Ed Brisson: I wanted to be a comic book artist for a long time… I only started writing because I didn’t know any writers—this was before the Internet made finding writers easier—and self-published my first book back in 1993. I was self-publishing for almost 19 years before I had my first Image book, so I’ve worn all sorts of hats: writer, letterer, artist, colorist, publishing guy. I’ve got a print background so I’ve done everything on a book from conception to dealing with the printers.
I started pitching to Image, I think the first time was in 2006, and I pitched for about a year or two. I got real frustrated and started self-publishing a series called Murder Book, which is a bunch of short crime stories, and it started getting attention. It sort of worked in the opposite way: Skybound, an imprint of Image, reached out to me because they’d read Murder Book. [For more on Brisson talking about his past, current, and future comics work, read our recent interview with the Vancouver-based writer—ed.]
Brandon Seifert: I kind of had the opposite experience in comics [compared to Ed Brisson’s], where the first thing I ever did in comics, which was Witch Doctor, was what got me picked up [by Image Comics].
Back in 2007, I met artist Lukas Ketner, and we decided that we would collaborate on a portfolio piece that would maybe be just 16 pages and the intention was that we would both use this to get more comics work—we weren’t actually going to continue with it. But the thing that we came up with for this portfolio piece became Witch Doctor. As we were developing it, it became clear that we were onto something good and something that was marketable, something that could be a commercial success and it was also something that we really, really liked and represented big chunks of our brains and personalities. It would have been kind of stupid to do just 16 pages of Witch Doctor and then try to get on Spider-Man or something like that.
So we did that 16-page issue and we did another eight-pager, and I just pushed the crap out of it online. We got a bunch of readers, took it to a bunch of publishers—we got interest from Dark Horse, IDW, and a couple of smaller publishers—and then [The Walking Dead and Invincible creator] Robert Kirkman contacted us on behalf of Image. This was before there was Skybound—Kirkman’s imprint at Image Comics—and they actually brought us on as the launch title for Skybound. That was all based on the strength of the first 16-page comic that we did. I was in a very interesting position of having to write my first miniseries, when I had not actually written a 22-page comic. It was very strange, and as far as comics creators go, I don’t know a lot of other people who have had the experience that I’ve had. But yeah, Witch Doctor came out, it was a success, and pretty much all the work that I’ve gotten has been based on the strength of it.
Kurtis J. Wiebe: I got into comics in the mid-2000s and I was writing a lot of short stories at the time and—embarrassingly—a lot of fan-fiction. But there was a group of writers on the Penny Arcade webcomic’s “The Writers’ Block” forum and that’s actually where I cut my teeth as a writer. I’d been doing a lot of short stories on my own and sharing them with my friends and of course, they didn’t really tell me anything real or honest [in terms of criticism]. And so when I started posting my stuff on there it just got torn apart and I was all like, “I’m a good writer, that’s what my mum tells me,” but I actually wasn’t, I was terrible. So that’s where I kind of got my start and [the forum members] were really brutal and honest and I learned a lot about my craft, so yeah, if you’re a burgeoning writer, the best advice to start off with is to have honest people in your life to tell you when you suck because you probably do. I sucked—you have to get better all the time and having honest feedback is a great way to hone your craft.
Anyway, I was doing short stories and I’d just written a novel and I’d never actually read a comic. I had this one idea and a friend of mine said “do it as a comic book.” All I really knew at that time was that comic books were superheroes—Spider-Man, Superman—that’s all I thought it was. A friend bought me an issue of The Walking Dead, Warren Ellis’ Fell was also one of my favorites from that time, and I went, “oh man, there are actually comics that aren’t about superheroes” and I got into it.
I started writing terrible comics scripts and from there I just started trying to find artists. That’s probably one of the tougher things for writers—I mean, I drew as well, but finding artists and colorists to stay on a book is pretty hard. I went to a lot of places online like DeviantART and there was a site called ConceptArt.org where I would look for people [to work with]. Eventually, I got some pitches together and I pitched and pitched and pitched. I probably had roughly 50 rejections before I got through to a smaller publisher called Red 5 Comics—they do Atomic Robo—and they actually picked up a miniseries from me. [That miniseries was called Beautiful Creatures—ed.] It was just a two-issue thing that nobody bought and was terrible. I thought “this is my ticket, I’m in now,” but I went through another year-and-a-half of more rejection letters and no responses.
In 2010, I went to Emerald City Comicon, I was thinking “this is my last great hope,” and I went to pitch a book called The Intrepids, at the time it was still titled Rat Bastards but we later changed it to The Intrepids because we were gonna get sued [due to a trademark conflict with a previously published comic—ed.] when it came out as my first Image book. So we pitched [the book], we had a ten-page comic book that we showed directly to Image and a few months later they picked it up.
From there I’ve done mostly Image stuff but it’s kind of opened doors in other ways, interestingly enough, to deals that I never would have imagined. I worked at Black Tusk Studios [the former Microsoft Vancouver—ed.], a video game company here in Vancouver for about six months. I’ve done a bit of Marvel work, and lots of freelance stuff that is not really connected to comics. So yeah, that’s basically my journey. I’m pitching new stuff now. Once you do have a book at Image, it’s usually a bit easier.
On making a living as an Image Comics creator and promoting their books:
Wiebe: We generally don’t get paid page rates. We only really make money on the book if it sells. It’s the reality. Image is really great, they cover printing costs and if you don’t make the money back, they don’t charge you or anything like that, they take the risk on you. But it means you have to be ready to do the book out of love for a little while. Rat Queens is my seventh series, and between that and Peter Panzerfaust, this is probably the first time I’ve made money. The previous five series, I made maybe just $50 total.
Brisson: You have to be ready to hustle, too. You’ve got to be the one fighting for your book, for shelf space, contacting stores. All the interviews you see online between creators and CBR or whoever it may be, those are usually set up by the creators themselves. That’s the one thing I wasn’t prepared for, actually: how much time I’d spend not just lining up interviews but also how much time I’d spend doing them. I’d usually have to set aside an entire day a week just to sit down and respond to interviews. And I hate doing phone interviews because I say stupid stuff all the time. At least if I say something stupid in an email I can delete it or rewrite it, but once the words have left my lips, man…
Seifert: I’m the opposite. If you’re interviewing me on the phone and transcribing it, you’re doing all my work for me. Whereas in an email, for me, it takes forever. The impulse is to go back and rewrite it or whatever. With Image you do have to do a lot of the promotion but that is also true anywhere you’re doing an original series. Some companies have bigger promotional departments but if you’re launching a new original series and you’re not promoting it yourself, it’s going to fail. It doesn’t matter where you’re doing it, it’s not going anywhere. You two [motions to Brisson and Wiebe] are two guys I really admire because you’ve been really successful at this self-promotion thing, with Sheltered and Rat Queens, especially.
Wiebe: We’re also battling the Marvel and DC marketing machines. [Promotion for] Rat Queens has just been ground-level, where we try to engage the fans completely. They’re a part of it now. It’s like a community and they’re part of it. It’s something I’ve never really experienced before and it seems to be working.
On dealing with creative differences with the artist:
Brisson: The real important thing is to talk as much as possible [with the artist] before going into it. I’m lucky in that most of my co-creators live here in Vancouver, so we don’t have that Internet/email thing where somebody misreads tone and that becomes an issue because he thinks I’m saying something that I’m not saying. Have conversations as much as possible and don’t leave things to talk about later on because you’re awkward about talking about them in the early stages. Just put everything out there on the table so that the less surprises you have, the less likely you’ll have issues. You’re still going to have them, but just talk it through.
Seifert: Any conversation that I have where I think there’s even a slight chance that it could go over badly, that’s a “phone call conversation,” it’s not an “email conversation,” let alone a “text conversation.” They’ve done studies that say something like 80% of emails get misinterpreted. The easiest way to catch if you’re being misinterpreted or you’re pissing your artist off is in person or over the phone. Email to me sometimes seems like a series of monologues sent back and forth and it becomes very difficult to gauge the other person’s reaction.
You also really need to be picking your battles. In any collaboration there are going to be times when the other person wants to do something you don’t want to do. You have to ask yourself, “Does this really matter? Does my opinion on this really matter at this stage?” For me, the ultimate test for that is the question “Is this hurting the story?” If I ask my artist to do three panels at a fixed angle and they do three panels with completely different angles, does that really hurt the story that I’m telling? Was there some sort of effect that I was trying to get at or is this just my personal preference and is this something that I write into every script that I write?
Picking your battles is one of the most important things that you can do as a collaborator to make sure that things continue to go smoothly. You’re never going to be 100% happy with what you yourself do, and in a collaboration you’re never going to be 100% happy. The thing is to make sure that the most important boxes get checked off, not that every single box is checked off.
Wiebe: Manage expectations and roles. My first Image book The Intrepids almost died because me and the artist [Scott Kowalchuk] completely stopped communicating at around the four issue mark of the six-issue miniseries. It was really bad because he thought that I should, as the writer, be doing the lettering and graphic design, because he was friends with Riley Rossmo, who’s another illustrator, and he had done a book where he was the writer and also did the lettering and graphic design, but I had no experience with that. But I never talked to the artist about my role other than to say that I would write the book, and so he was getting fed up because he had to do all these extra tasks. I assumed that [the lettering and graphic design] would be part of what he would be doing and that was bad, it was poison, and it almost killed the book. It actually damaged our friendship quite badly—we made amends quite a while later—but that’s the thing: When you get into it, say “I will fulfill these roles and this is what I need you to do” so that it’s clear what you’re putting in and what the other person is putting in.
Their advice to starting writers on getting artists to work on a creator-owned comic for little or no up-front pay:
Seifert: [Payment for artists] can be a problem even after you start doing work. It’s difficult when you’re going to an artist and asking them to spend time on a project: It might take me a week to write a script but it’s going to take an artist a minimum of maybe four weeks to draw it. And if I’m like “I don’t have any money for you,” how do you get somebody to work with you? One thing you can do is work on projects that your collaborators really, really want to do, to the point that they’re willing to do it as a labor of love. A lot of that really comes from just listening to the other person and looking at what they’re interested in, looking at their art and trying to get to know them.
The standard thing, though, is co-ownership [of the comics property] and back-end money. But the reality is, for a four-issue miniseries, the artist is probably spending four months working on it, if not more, maybe six months or eight months. So it can be very difficult for them unless you can pay them [up front] or unless the publisher can pay them.
Brisson: I think one of the other things, too, is, if you’re just starting out, try and find an artist who’s trying to break in as well and then you can try to break in together. But if you have any money to give them at all, that’s always great. One thing about creator-owned comics, you have to split the ownership of the project because you’re both putting in a lot of time. I know there are some writers who consider that because they conceived of the idea, they own maybe 80% of the project but I don’t know about that. It’s always great to have money to throw at the artists but the reality is, it’s not always a possibility. For my part, I always try and make the back-end deal more appealing—the standard is to split it 50/50 but I usually do something a little bit different. What you have to bring to the table is also important. It does get easier when you do have a series that’s come out already, but in a way it’s also harder because there’s the perception that because you already have an Image series you have $100,000 in the bank, which is nowhere near the reality. I’m not even sure if I have $100 in the bank right now.
It’s a tough thing, it’s a tough road to go down. The other thing is to have realistic expectations going in. As Brandon said, it does take the artist four times [as much time to do the work] so try and make it as easy for the artist as possible. If you’re just doing a pitch that’s five pages and a cover, try and limit it to that. And have contracts up front. Always have contracts. You guys might be friends now, but man, once money starts coming in… I’ve never had this happen to me personally because I always have contracts up front, but I know people who’ve had a myriad of issues down the line because someone thinks they’re owed more or whatever it is.
Seifert: Another thing I want to add is that it’s much easier to get a commitment from an artist for six pages, or eight pages, or 16 pages for no money than it is for a four-issue miniseries at 88 pages. Ed and I did the same kind of thing when we were breaking in with Murder Book and Witch Doctor, where we recruited artists, put together a finished thing, put it up for free on the Internet, did print editions, and really [promoted] it. I do think that’s a really good way to break in. The best way to break into comics is to make your own comics. That’s the only way to break in unless you can do some other kind of writing—you can do a novel or have a film produced or do a TV show or something. I have friends who are published playwrights who got hired by Marvel and they’ve never done comics before. But that is much rarer. You have to do the work one way or another to get paying work in the industry.
Other Fan Expo Vancouver 2014-related articles:
- INTERVIEW | Ed Brisson (pre-Fan Expo phone interview)
- Leaving Proof 220 | Fan Expo Vancouver 2014: The Cosplay Question
- Leaving Proof 221 | Fan Expo Vancouver 2014: Sketch Duel Highlights
- INTERVIEW | Philip Tan (live on-site interview)
- INTERVIEW | Mike Del Mundo (live on-site interview)
- News Round-up | Week of April 26, 2014 (features official Expo attendance numbers and more)