Saturday, May 11, 2013

Breaking Into Comics

When I was a young man--in my 20s--and establishing my professional and semi-professional credentials as a writer of short stories, I decided to try to break into the comic book business.

This seemed almost too easy for me. First of all, I had grown up reading comic books. My parents owned used bookstores and soon after opening his first one, my dad found that he had accumulated around a quarter of a million old comics. So in short order I had at my disposal just about every comic book published between 1955 and 1967. And I loved comics. I genuinely adored the format and it appealed to me on just about every level. So in just purely terms of immersion, I was already about as learned as a youth could be about comics.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I was becoming enough of a professional writer that I could call myself that according to the bylaws of the Horror Writers Association. I'd sold enough short fiction at the level of five cents per word (or higher) to become a full, voting member of that then-new organization.

So...comics. Why not? I'd been surrounded by them as a kid, and I was still surrounded by them because I owned several comic book shops at that time. All I had to do was learn how to write a comic book script and research the markets and I was pretty sure that I could break in as a pro.

At that time the comic book market was changing, but had not undergone the throes of death and re-birth that the industry would later suffer. It seemed a solid bedrock kind of market and I was ready to try my hand at it. What I initially wanted to see was an actual comic book script so that I could know how to proceed.

And I finally got my hands on one. But not just any one. It was a partial script for a SWAMP THING issue by Alan Moore. Holy crap! That thing was dense! Moore used hundreds of words of script to describe a single panel! It was as if he was leaving almost nothing to the artists! Was this the way they were all done? Not only didn't I think I could produce a script like that, I didn't want to create that kind of script!

Over the course of the next few weeks I got my hands on other scripts by other professional comic book writers. And every one was different. No two of them was the same. One script that was given to me was written by J.M. DeMatteis (but Mr. DeMatteis says he never wrote in that the artist must have mentioned the wrong name!). In that one (and I don't know how some of his other scripts looked) he used two words to describe five pages of action. The words? 'Everybody fights'. In that one, he was leaving almost everything up to the artist! (The artist on that script explained to me that the writer was using something called the Marvel Method, and he would go in and dialog everything once the story was basically told by the artist.) Man! I could do that!

While I was trying to figure out how to write a script, I sold my first story to a comic book anthology! That's right. I didn't yet know how to write a script--that is, I knew how some people did it, but I hadn't done one yet. And here I'd submitted several short stories to Steve Bissette's TABOO project, and Mr. Bissette had picked one for publication! I approached a comic artist I knew who was looking for work and asked if he wanted to do it. He did it and ended up doing the adaptation based on my story. I had decided to take a smaller cut of the pay rather than risk producing a lousy script. I wasn't ready to commit at that point and just let the artist cut the story down into panels.

But soon after that I sold another one and had written enough experimental script pages that I felt ready to tackle the job. I was pleased with the result and felt more confident about the format of scripting. Like every other writer out there, I was pretty much making up my own rules for scripting and making a go of it. It worked, and that's what mattered most. It certainly didn't look like one of Alan Moore's epic scripts, but it did the job.

After a few sales to TABOO and other smaller press publications (Fantaco and New Comics were two of
the publishers I'd sold to), Steve dropped my name to editor Dan Chichester at Marvel.
Chichester was editing the new CLIVE BARKER'S HELLRAISER book there and was actively looking for storytellers to team with artists. At Marvel you were expected to submit very brief pitches as stories and if the editor was interested he either agreed to let you have a go at a full script, or accepted the pitch as it was. However, I had two unsold short stories that I thought could be reworked into the Hellraiser mythos and asked Dan if it would be okay if I submitted those whole-cloth. He agreed, liked them, and soon I found myself having sold those, plus another pitch.

Feeling confident in my script-writing ability at that point, I got to to work and turned in the three scripts. Dan liked them, Marvel cut the checks, and I soon had the biggest payday of my fledgling career. I was making $50 a page for scripts. That was acceptable to me and I felt that, with my toe in the door, I could produce some pitches for some superhero books. Because that's where I really wanted to be. Writing Hellraiser yarns was cool...

But what I really wanted to do was write comics about Ben Grimm.

More, tomorrow.


J.M. DeMatteis said...

I would love to see the script you mention because, in my memory, I have NEVER written such a description. In fact, my plots and scripts have always tended to be pretty dense.

Even in the early days of my career, when I might have left more fight choreography to the artist, I was always writing, at length, about the emotional/psychological arcs of the characters, the inner changes that accompanied the outer conflict.

If you have a copy of this five page "they fight" sequence, I'd love to see it.

Best --

J.M. DeMatteis

James Robert Smith said...

Nah. I don't have it. It was given to me by a guy who was illustrating for DC at the time. I think it was JLA spinoff or something. I've even forgotten the artist's name...really nice guy...I met him guy who was very overweight.

At any rate, he was actually working on some pages in the book at a show and I asked if I could see the script, which he'd run off on thermal paper. I can't recall the page numbers, but it said something along the lines of:

Page 14 through 19, everybody fights.

Then I asked him who was writing the book, and he said, "JM Dematteis".

I wasn't making a value judgement, just toting up the scripts I had seen as I tried to figure out how to work the format. He seemed to be a pretty busy artist at the time, so maybe he gave me the wrong name of the writer. (Wish I could remember his name...Joe? I've forgotten so many of the people I knew when I was working in the comics business.)

J.M. DeMatteis said...

Thanks for the info, James. I'll have to assume he gave you the wrong name, because I would NEVER have done that. (And, honestly, I can't imagine any editor letting a plot like that through.) As noted, even if I'd left the fight choreography to the artist, I would have been filling in the interior character landscape in the plot. And my stories are all character driven.

I'd appreciate it if you could amend your blog to note that, although you remember the artist saying it was me, that I personally have no memory of ever having written anything like that.

At any rate, this is a first: I've been accused of writing too much in the past, but never too little!

All the best --


James Robert Smith said...

Will amend it.

Now I remember the artist! Joe Phillips! Very nice guy. (At least I think it was Joe Phillips.) Did you never work with him?

I do recall the physical script. He ran it off on thermal was like a scroll. Most of it had more detailed descriptions of page action...but there was that five-page interim where...well...everybody fights.

Now I'm wondering who it was. Oh, well.

J.M. DeMatteis said...

Thanks for the amendment, James. Much appreciated!

Joe Phillips did two issues of MR. MIRACLE at the end of my run. The issues in question guest-starred JLI's Blue Beetle and Booster Gold, which means I would have peppered the plot with B & B's patented snarky dialogue.

If that plot ever shows up, let me know! Best -- JMD