In part 2 of our coverage of the 2014 Vancouver Comic Arts Festival, read the transcript of the writers panel featuring Ed Brisson (Sheltered, The Field), Kurtis J. Wiebe (Rat Queens, Peter Panzerfaust), and Frank Gibson (Tiny Kitten Teeth, The Amazing World of Gumball).
[Click here to read our coverage of Day 1 of the 2014 Vancouver Comic Arts Festival—ed.]
The second day of the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival, weather-wise, offered a damp and drizzly contrast to opening day Saturday, but attendee enthusiasm was undiminished. Inside the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre, festival-goers continued to mill about guest and exhibitor tables. In the building’s main exhibition space, an unrelated hip hop-themed gathering was taking place, with MCs, DJs, and b-boys (and girls) tearing it up amidst framed graffiti and urban-inspired paintings.
The “Beyond the Bubble: Writing for Comics” panel started promptly at 1:00 PM Sunday afternoon. Moderated by regular Cloudscape comics anthology contributor Bevan Thomas, it featured Ed Brisson (Sheltered, The Field, Sons of Anarchy), Kurtis J. Wiebe (Rat Queens, Peter Panzerfaust, Debris), and Frank Gibson (Tiny Kitten Teeth, The Amazing World of Gumball) sharing their advice and experience on topics relevant to the task of writing comics.
Below is a partial, edited transcript of the panel audio. [Among the omitted portions of the transcribed discussion are those that address topics already covered in greater detail by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Ed Brisson during Fan Expo Vancouver’s Image Comics Creators Chat and our April interview with Ed Brisson—ed.]
On finding artists to collaborate with:
Ed Brisson: I actually started as an artist and self-published comics for 17 years before I even hooked up with a publisher so through the process of self-publishing I met artists in the comic community here and elsewhere in conventions…
… One thing I do recommend writers do when looking for artists is to start with smaller stories, five to ten page stories, because it’s much easier for artists to commit to it. At minimum, a five to ten page story will take an artist five to ten days to draw. When I started to do Murder Book, which is a collection of short crime stories, it was easier to convince artists to work on that as opposed to a 120 page epic that would take them the rest of their natural lives to do.
Frank Gibson: I’m marrying the person who draws my comics [Tiny Kitten Teeth artist Becky Dreistadt—ed.], so that was easy [laughs].
Kurtis J. Wiebe: I’ve mostly met artists through friends… but conventions are also a really good place to meet people who are also looking to get in [the comics industry.] In shows like [the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival], you can just sort of wander around artists alley and see what people are looking for in their careers and a lot of the people here are just looking to get in as well.
On the “ideas” behind comics:
Gibson: The idea never matters. You can make an amazing book about the most banal garbage if you write it well and the artist does a great job with it…
Brisson: Ideas are nothing next to execution. [A comic] can go any number of ways depending on how you execute a script.
On the collaborative process between writer and artist:
Wiebe: I generally like to include the artist right away. I might have the basic idea, but bringing them in for development of the world and the characters—really allowing the artist to become a part of it—it makes them just as invested in the story.
As far as scripting, it really depends on the artist I’m working with. When I’m working with a newer artist whom I’ve never worked with before, I guess I’m more descriptive and controlling of the panel direction. Sometimes it will be like a paragraph per panel if I’m trying to feel out an artist and how we’re going to work together. After awhile, it really becomes loose. For Rat Queens #7, I literally gave [series artist and co-creator] Roc [Upchurch] this clip from [Indonesian martial arts movie] The Raid and said, “these two things [in the clip] need to happen over five pages.” With Peter Panzerfaust, sometimes it’s the mood that is more important. The dialogue is there to convey some emotion, but everything else is up to the artist. There’s a sequence in Peter Panzerfaust #9 where it was a 13-page conversation and I didn’t panel it at all. I just broke down the dialogue and [series artist/co-creator] Tyler [Jenkins] did the art. When you can trust your artist to do that, that’s when it feels like that comics are the best. When you can just let go, and let them deliver the story, and just hit it with the dialogue, it doesn’t get any better than that when you reach that kind of connection with an artist.
Gibson: As a writer of a comic, I think you have to realize that you’re completely superfluous to the process. Artists don’t need you. At all. Because there are so many talented people out there who draw comics who can also write them. Anyone can write, so you have to bring something special to the table. I try to balance out the work process by helping out on the lettering, organizing things, and finding myself in a bit of a director/producer-type role so the artists can focus on [doing the] art. [As writers, we’re] just very lucky to have artists who are willing to indulge us…
… Different artists I work with expect different things for me to do. With Becky, I panel things out, but for Tyson Hesse on The Amazing World of Gumball—Tyson’s an incredibly gifted writer—I just break it down by the page kind of loosely, and just go with it. I think it helps not to be so precious with your words, because it’s not yours anymore the second you involve another person even if you’re hiring them. It’s not your baby, anymore. As a writer in comics, it’s a collaborative process. If you want to be precious, you can write a novel that no one will read [laughs].
With everything I do these days, I want it to be the artist [on the page] as much as it possibly can. Their vision of the story should come through, sometimes even more than my own… If they want to rewrite my dialogue, they can rewrite my dialogue as long as they tell me and as long as we can talk about it. I’ve worked with artists where they just go “fuck it!” and completely change everything and that can be frustrating but you have to remember, they have to sit there all day and draw something that I probably wrote in an hour and they need to feel fulfilled by that process. If that means they step on me a bit, I really don’t mind.
It’s tricky because you want to see [on the comics page] what you see in your head, but the problem is, we [writers] don’t have that extra skillset—other than this guy [gestures towards Ed Brisson], this guy can draw for days—but we don’t have that. We have to focus on one aspect and they have to deliver on another, we do 25% and they do 75%. Let the artists do what they want.
Brisson: You have to have open communications [with your artist] and a clear idea of what the expectations are on both ends. Not every artist can deliver 22 pages a month, actually not many can especially now when every penciler is expected to ink his own work. Just have those conversations ahead of time. Try to plan for every disaster scenario, because chances are you will hit a couple as the book’s going along if you’re lucky enough to get the book picked up [by a publisher].
Try to have some sort of a basic contract down to protect everyone, so you’re not in a situation where a television series based on your comic is on its fourth season and the original artist comes back and sues the writer because he’s not getting his royalties—just strictly as a hypothetical [laughs].
Trust the artist to know what he’s doing. Artists tend to think more visually than most writers do. I usually break down my scripts by panel, although every so often I’ll have something like “Panels 4 through 7: They beat the shit out of each other” where I don’t need to micromanage the action. But if the artist wants to merge two panels or split one panel into three panels, just give them that. Each person [in the collaboration] has to have their voice.
On the dialogue, I’m a bit more precious with my dialogue. [Looks to Gibson] I’m assuming with the artists you work with, they do the lettering themselves? On my creator-owned books, I’m in the enviable position where I write and also letter a book, so I’m the dude who puts the dialogue [on the page], and I actually end up rewriting a lot of my dialogue while I’m lettering to better match what’s going on with the art. I find that a lot of times I can drop dialogue because the artist is already showing what we need and you don’t want too much exposition in your comic.
Gibson: I used to letter my own comic as well, and it affected my writing process. Now, I always do a round of revisions [to the dialogue] after the illustrations come in, and even though other people do the lettering now, I still give the script another pass so I don’t have to hammer it in with the dialogue so it doesn’t read like [The Adventures of] Tintin. I love Tintin but it’s like he’s explaining everything that he’s doing. He’s running and he’s saying “I’m running!” [laughs]
Brisson: One thing I want to add is that if you’re writing dialogue, keep it to about 35 words per panel. You can have more if it’s a larger panel, but that’s sort of a standard rule.
Gibson: I’m like blunt with my scripts now. Every time I see a word bubble encroaching on the art I start to feel real gross. It’s like my words are creeping out and taking over this beautiful piece of artwork [laughs]. I’m brutal, I drop whole sentences now [when I do script revisions].
On pitching comics to publishers:
Gibson: My biggest experience with pitching is in animation. I’ve been pitching for five years now, and as you can tell, I’ve done very good with that because I still don’t have a cartoon [laughs]. It can be soul-destroying. The thing with animation is that you’re asking somebody to put up a whole lot of money to back your idea and you don’t have a lot of power in the situation and a lot of smiling people telling you did a good job but you still don’t end up with anything.
With pitching books, man, I’ve spent so much time just pitching a book. With Becky, we’ve done full pencils for an entire book, with a completed manuscript, before anybody would even consider putting up any money and publishing it. All the work’s done before you even see a dollar for it. At least that’s been my experience.
Brisson: [Pitching to a publisher and getting rejected] is demoralizing. My advice is to just self-publish for a while before you start pitching. Build those relationships and get your really bad storytelling out and done with so you can move on to the really good storytelling. It took me 17 years to do that. Hopefully you guys [motions to audience] will be able to shake that out a little bit quicker.
In my own personal experience, through self-publishing, I learned how to draw comics, I learned how to write comics, and I learned how to letter comics. I learned how to deal with printers, I learned how to deal with distributors, and I learned how to deal with publishers. So the first time I actually got a publishing deal, I was self-sufficient. And as it turned out, I knew more about printing than the publisher did. [Brisson actually ran his own print firm, New Reliable Press, for several years before signing on with publishers like Image Comics, BOOM! Studios, and IDW Publishing—ed.]
Just learn as much as you can before pitching. Everyone just wants to jump right in, and I get it: You form a band, have one practice, and you want a record deal the next day. But it never works that way. You’ve got to put in the time and just figure it out. Work at the craft and become a better you so that when you’re pitching, not only do you know what you’re doing better, you’ll probably know more people in the industry at that point. Through the act of self-publishing you meet other creators and form those connections so down the line, when you make your pitch, the publisher already knows your name.
My series Murder Book, which I started doing in 2010, came about when I basically had a breakdown on my 35th birthday about how I wasn’t doing anything so I just went, “screw this!” Nobody would pick up anything I pitched so I just sat down and started writing what I wanted to write, what I wanted to read, and I started working with artists I wanted to work with and in a roundabout way that’s how I ended up with an Image book because some of the people at Image saw Murder Book, called me up, and said “hey, why don’t you pitch something to us?”
Gibson: That’s the cool thing about self-publishing: people will have already read your stuff and you can bring your own audience with you [when you sign a deal with a publisher]. You don’t need a publisher. They can be helpful. They can give you money, they can put together a book for you if you don’t want to do your own bookbind, that’s all handy, but if you come in and you don’t need them, that’s when they actually want you [laughs].
When I was pitching early on, no one was listening to a word I was saying. But with one of the books I’ve been self-publishing for several years, [the publishers] go “oh, we want that now.” So I go “sure… but it’ll cost you” [laughs].
Brisson: Use the Internet. The one thing I really believe in if you’re self-publishing, and I don’t know if these guys agree with me, is put as much of your stuff out there for free…
Gibson: Yes! I agree 100%
Brisson: You’re never gonna make any money self-publishing. That’s never gonna happen. But if you put your stuff out there for free, people can find it. You have no control over who finds it and anything can happen. I got linked on Reddit one time and Murder Book got 100,000 hits in one day. It cost me a lot of money with my service provider, but all of a sudden the editors were there and reading it just because it was there. I put the entire story out there for free, not just a page a week or anything like that. As crass as it sounds, you’re selling yourself, you’re not just trying to get an audience. You’re selling yourself as a writer and part of that is making your work as accessible as possible. If your stuff is available only through comiXology or $2 PDFs or something like that, you’re actually cutting out 99% of your potential readership. The money will come later down the line if you’re any good.
Wiebe: I’ll just add two things to that: Rejection is not failure, and don’t get stuck on one baby.
Gibson: Does [rejection] still kill you inside, though, or are you at peace with it?
Wiebe: I think it’s just, if you get rejected, learn something from it. It’s still gonna bother you.
Brisson: It’s like a kick in the balls… And the thing about ideas is that they don’t go anywhere. So if an idea’s not working and your goal is to get it to a publisher, just set it aside, work on something else. I can say this because I’ve done this. I’ve had ideas that I had to put on the shelf, and now that I’ve got a little more name recognition, I can pull those ideas out of the drawer that nobody had faith in initially. Now that I have a track record established, I can go to a publisher and say, “here’s what I want to do, a book about a dwarf hitman.” You have to establish yourself before publishers will start taking bigger risks with you.
- Leaving Proof 222 | Fan Expo Vancouver 2014: Image Comics Creators Chat notes and highlights
- INTERVIEW | Ed Brisson
• In yesterday’s account of Day 1 of the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival, I set forth my estimate that maybe 2,000 people attended the two-day event. Looks like my figures were way, way off. The official figures are in and it turns out that some 8,000 people attended VanCAF. The previous article has been updated to reflect this number.
• I know I promised some new concept art samples from The Last Devil last week, but with the busy weekend and everything, and with a growing list of digital comics from Image, Dark Horse, BOOM!, and IDW that need to be reviewed, I hope you guys understand if I take a rain check. If you missed the previous concept art updates, you can find them in the three Leaving Proof posts prior to yesterday’s column or just head to my shared art development tumblr.
• Returning readers will know that we here at the Comixverse have what you might call our “pet causes.” We’ve spoken out before against legislation that restricts Internet access, railed against DRM and the non-transparency in the way some companies peddle digital comics, and have occasionally taken publishers and distributors to task for censorship in our reviews and news coverage. Our latest case of collective agita stems from recent developments regarding net neutrality and legislation that threatens it. What is net neutrality? We’ll let the following video sum it up for us:
To learn more about net neutrality and how it is under threat, read this article by Mashable’s Jason Abbruzzese.