The comic book industry isn’t an easy one to break into, nor is it an easy one to stay and make a successful career in. As part of #MakeComics week, Comicosity reached out to creators working in the industry today for wisdom about breaking in and surviving the world of comics. We posed a question to them that we have seen asked a thousand times online, and these “pro tips” are priceless for would-be pros and pros alike. The question we posed:
What is the best advice you’ve ever received from an editor?
Writer of Phonogram, The Wicked + The Divine, Young Avengers, Darth Vader
Heh. The most awful cynical piece of advice for working in the mainstream industry was something passed on from another writer from his editor. “Sometimes the best you can do is polish a D- into a C.” There are so many amazing ways things can go completely wrong which are entirely out of your control, and trying to work out a way to transform that into something that is vaguely readable is the job. It’s a job. You work in the mainstream as a writer, that’s the skillset they’re hiring you for. Not just you at your best, but the ability to bring craft to bear to try and save the day.
Heh. That was cynical. You get me in a bad mood, clearly.
Writer/artist of Lady Killer, Helheim, Mockingbird
I have been so fortunate that though out my career I had had some of the best editors. Each one has taught me a valuable lesson on storytelling and along the way that has made me a better artist.
Writer/artist of Neat Stuff, Hate, Reset
John Holmstrom (of PUNK Magazine) once said to me “you’ll never change the world with a comic strip,” which was refreshingly liberating. And R. Crumb (of WEIRDO Magazine) told me “you never know how much money — if any — you’ll make off of comics. So with nothing else to lose, BE TRUE TO YOURSELF.”
Writer of Bandette, Colder, I Am The Cat, Plants vs. Zombies
I think it was, “Envision what would happen in this story if your protagonist didn’t exist.” It forces me to make sure that antagonists have actual working goals, plans that would succeed, plans that make sense. And that’s important not only for the believability of the story and the characterization of the villain, but also applicable for any villain… in a range from “Doctor Doom who wants to enslave the world!” to “David Drum, who wants to kick out the bassist from our high school band.”
Colourist of Bitch Planet, DC Bombshells, Black Hood
“Your overall approach is great, but we want to push the color palette more…”- Sierra Hahn
Sierra pushed me farther than most editors and really helped me create a great book with Neverboy. I’ve probably learned the most with Sierra. She has a really keen eye.
Writer of Southern Dog, Art Monster, After Houdini
That’s tough to answer. I’ve had the fortune of receiving some really great advice from a handful of top-tier editors, but there isn’t one nugget of knowledge that was imparted onto me that stands out from the rest. Over the years, I learned how to conduct myself (via email and in person) in a pleasant and non-obtrusive way that enabled me to receive feedback from editors. Honestly, every response I’ve received–rejection or not–has been invaluable to my development. Editors can quickly assess the ones that can not only take constructive criticism, but eventually apply it to their next project.
Artist of The Fix, Superior Foes of Spider-Man, Whiteout
A long while back I showed Marvel’s Axel Alonso some work of mine. He praised the aspects that usually get praised, then told he me why it would be hard to place work like that at Marvel: it lacked glamour. Up until then I’d always instinctively steered towards naturalism, and was mostly indifferent to making images that were conspicuously attractive. I woodshedded and made a point to add that ability to my arsenal, so that in the future, any prosaic quality to my work it would be a conscious choice, not just “how I draw.”
Writer of Black Science, Tokyo Ghost, Deadly Class, Uncanny X-Force
Axel Alonso Taught me to use silent beats. Instead of having somebody constantly filling every moment with dialogue sometimes the best answer to a question is silence. I use those a lot still.
Writer of The Sixth Gun, Sinestro, Uncanny X-Men, Harrow County
Years ago, I was told that whenever possible, every issue of a comic should have a beginning, middle, and end. Even if the issue is part of a much larger multi-issue arc, it should stand on its own as much as possible.
Writer of A-Force, Jem And The Holograms, Heart In A Box
Change everything! No, I’m just kidding (mostly). Early on with Jem and The Holograms while doing a lot of press and interviews, our editor John Barber cautioned me about telling fans too much about things that were coming up, or specific things to expect – and his reasoning was just because things tend to change in comics and it’s hard to walk that stuff back (or at least annoying) once you put it out there and then have to change it. And I kinda went “Pfft. That’s silly.” And then walked into exactly that situation not long after and it sucked. The lesson here is that John is always right.
Writer/artist of I Hate Fairyland, Rocket Raccoon, countless Marvel variant covers
About 13 or 14 years ago, Tom Brevoort pointed out a tangent in a few of my drawings. I didn’t actually know what that was at the time. Now, all these years later, i’m obsessed with seeking the out and destroying them. For those artists that don’t know what tangents in drawing are, do yourself and favor and google it. It will save your life. Or at least make your drawings better.
Writer/artist of Titan
It’s better to have something that’s flawed and finished rather than something that’s perfect but incomplete.
Writer of Roche Limit, Hoax Hunters, The Burning Fields
I think the best advice I’ve gotten recently about writing was from Scott Snyder in the DC Writers Workshop. I learned a TON from Scott, but one of the best things I absorbed was how to incorporate high stakes emotional storytelling that really enriches that story and the characters. I think that’s something I never paid enough attention to, but my writing has been better, I think, since being attuned to this. Reading Scott’s work, it’s all over what he does, and it’s part of what makes him so great.
Writer of Harley Quinn, Starfire, The Big Con Job, All-Star Western
Probably not to worry about the content and write what I feel and let them tell me what can and cant be used later on. To express myself and censor later. Most of the advice has been things I already knew since I was an editor for so many years.
Writer of The Tomorrows, Mayday, The Fiction
Not really sure. I always liked working with Dave Marshall at DH because he would flat out tell me he just considers himself the first reader. He wants to make the books as good as possible. In that way Dave and I really just completely let go of our egos and it was a collaboration. On Tomorrows I very rarely got the kind of notes I got on Pop, because I became a better writer.
Writer of HIT, Managing Editor at BOOM! Studios
There’s one particular pearl I picked up years ago from my first editor, Mark Waid. This was actually something he told me before he was technically my editor. I remember vividly, he had just passed on the first thing I had ever pitched in my life, a short story for the old BOOM! Studios anthology series, Zombie Tales. Hell of a way to start a career in writing, huh? It was a crushing blow for a young twenty-something but then Mark said something that I’ve carried with me every day since: “Pitch me something else.” I don’t think he necessarily meant it as “advice,” but I took it that way and pitched him something completely different, which he greenlit, effectively starting my writing career. That’s all to say that if you hear “no” but don’t get the door slammed in your face, go back to your car, come back, and try to sell something else out of your trunk.
Artist of Genesis, Creepy, Shadows (In The Dark)
Don’t make it commercial, make it attractive – Steve Wacker (he was a Marvel editor at the time, spoken in a portfolio review when I was asking which color sample I should use for Genesis)
Writer of Aquaman, Titans, Guardians Of The Galaxy
“If you get to the end of an issue and can’t tell if the main character is wearing roller skates or not, then the art is missing something” (a version of one of Jim Shooter’s rules). I’ve also heard this in different versions, but— you can be amazing, you can be on time, and you can be a pleasure to work with. All three is ideal, but any two is essential if you want to stand a chance.
Writer of Sons of Anarchy, Cluster, Sheltered, Comeback
Paraphrasing: Stop pitching what you think a publisher wants and pitch what you want to write.
Writer of Narcopolis: Continuum
This was already instilled in me prior to comics from my film background, but the notion that this is a collaborative medium is often lost on so many trying to break in. Comics are the sum of its parts, and unless you’re a one man band who wears all the hats (and if you are, more power to you), you need to have good, strong communication with your team.
My fantastic editor on my last project, Val D’Orazio, gave me tons of great advice throughout the project, but one area that stuck out to me was the importance to not be so precious with the material and let your teammates inject their own ideas into the work. Sometimes your artist may have a better idea about an angle for a panel or whether or not to combine two panels into one to make more room for another, or your letterer might suggest trimming some dialogue so it gives the art room to breathe. If you’re smart you’ll listen to your team and take these opinions on board. Nobody wants to work with a control freak and you’ll be doing yourself no favors when it comes to making a good impression on your team who could possibly recommend you for jobs in the future. So just like any good working relationship, communication is essential.
Valentine De Landro
Artist of Bitch Planet, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Adventures of Superman
I’ve had many great talks with Lauren Sankovitch, who is so incredibly intelligent and dauntless. I can’t really transcribe the advice and reaffirmation she’s generously given me over the past few years. But distilled, the gist is pull your head out and have some faith in the abilities that have brought you to this point.
Fred Van Lente
Writer of Archer & Armstrong, Conan, Incredible Hercules
That a script needs to be as clear as possible so the editorial, art and production teams (lettering is kind of a hybrid of those last two) can separate their duties from the others. That’s what developed my own script format I’m pretty proud of and I’ve gotten a lot of nice feedback on. You can download templates for my format in Word for other programs and check out some examples at my web site: http://www.fredvanlente.com/comix.html
Artist of Paper Girls, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow/Black Canary
“How much time are you gonna spend turning a B+ to an A-?” You want to shoot for the stars and do your best, but sometimes it’s easy to get stuck trying to fix something that isn’t worth it. It’s helpful to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Time will always be your most precious commodity, so don’t waste it.
Alex de Campi
Writer of No Mercy, Grindhouse: Doors Open After Midnight, Valentine
I came pretty fully-formed to comics, and I can’t say there’s been a fundamental “aha!” moment or lesson from an editor. I”m always respectful of editors’ notes. My old editor at Dark Horse, Brendan Wright, who continues to edit my creator-owned work, taught me a lot in the way company politics work, and how to be chill when there are things going on that means your (good) story isn’t going to get picked up. Basically, he taught me that most of the time, it’s not about me, and to keep trying.
Writer of D4VE, Hot Damn, Kennel Block Blues, Curb Stomp
Theme and character are the heart of your story. Without that, you aren’t connecting to your reader—you’re just moving from plot point to plot point. So, what are you trying to say with your story, and what is every panel doing to build that foundation?
Artist of Roche Limit, Thumbprint, X-Files: Year Zero
Since editors almost always coordinate all the different moving parts of putting a comic together and out the door they need to know how you’re progressing through your project. That way they can keep everyone else in the loop. So always keep an open line of communication to your editors.
Writer of The Fuse, The Coldest City, Umbral
That’s a tough one, because I’ve been very fortunate that most of my work has been quite hands-off, editorially.
I think the one that affected me most was when I initially pitched the first story arc of WASTELAND, and Oni publisher Joe Nozemack simply said, “Not enough happens.” I took a step back and realised he was right, so that’s something I’ve kept in mind ever since.
Writer of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Halcyon – producer of Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow
It’s so obvious and so often repeated that I’m loathe to mention it, but: Show, don’t tell. Obvious, right? But we all need this reminder on occasion.
Artist of Lazarus, Gotham Central, Daredevil
A good editor shouldn’t give advice, in my opinion. Shelly Bond at Vertigo was my first editor, and she was very, very good at pointing out and praising all the things I was doing that worked well. She never told me what to do, but I naturally tried to do more of the things that she pointed out as being successful. I would have never gotten very far in this industry without that kind of feedback.
Artist of Jem And The Holograms, Glory, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
“Don’t sweat the small stuff.” I’m still trying to learn how to do this.
Writer of The Tithe, Aphrodite IX, Think Tank, The Test – President/COO Top Cow
Use as few words as possible.
Writer/artist of Wuvable Oaf
I don’t work with editors very often; most times they’ve trusted my artistic vision and let me do my thing. Does asking them for the contact information of other artists, editors and development people count as advice? Because that’s been incredibly helpful for me to make new connections.
Artist of Jem And The Holograms covers, Princeless Anthology
I can’t remember who said this one, I think it might have been Jim Gibbons? But it’s really stuck with me when working on creator owned stuff: Never make an otherwise intelligent character make stupid decisions just to further the plot. Other than that? Keep your email sizes under 5 mb if you can. Most internal mail servers have limited space and having held a day job for many years myself, I know what it’s like to get in to the office and have to spend the first hour of the day fiddling with your inbox to make room for incoming mail.
Writer of The Skeptics, Power Rangers: Pink, Barbie, Magdalena
Bryan Edward Hill, in addition to being an awesome writer, is also the Story Editor over at Top Cow. I call him ‘sensei’ for a reason. He puts everything I submit to him through its paces, and even when I’m super frustrated, I learn so much. If I had to distill the advice I get from him into one line, it would be “know what your characters want, make that clear to your reader, and make them fight for it.”
Artist of Titans, The Flash, Nightwing
You need to work on your facial expressions. Was later told no one else could pull off the facial expressions in the costume right but me. I learnt!
Writer of The Invisible Republic, Star Wars Legacy, Once Upon A Time: Out of the Past
That there’s always room for a little more weird. It’s easy to allow a story or dialogue to move along already-established channels, either based on familiar previous works or on you own style. Fight against that and you’ll end up with something more interesting than what you started out with. I try to keep this advice in mind and it really is helpful.
Writer of Cryptocracy, The Flash, The Leg
It was really specific, but Matt Idelson (my Green Lantern Corps editor, and now my Six Million Dollar Man editor at Dynamite) once told me to make sure I’m using the environment in my scripts, but in action scenes especially. Basically, construct an interesting world, then have your characters physically interact with and manipulate that environment, so that it becomes part of the story. It’s the best way to make action scenes way more fun and unique.
Writer of Vampirella, Sunglasses After Dark
“Don’t worry about what your grandmother thinks about your writing. She’s not buying your book, and she’ll still love you anyway.”
Writer of Green Lanterns, Star-Lord, Weirdworld
Daniel Ketchum told me not to write so dang much in my scripts, and he was right. It made for better scripts because I had to pull myself back and focus on what was important — what appears on the page. Also, it saved me a lot of writing time. 🙂
Writer/artist of Multiple Warheads, King City, Prophet, Island
One time an editor at Vertigo told a friend of mine who I knew to be a better artist than me “You’re good but not Vertigo good”
That was a good lesson in that someone having a job doesn’t necessarily mean I need to agree or listen to them when it comes to what I value in comics.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t listen to anyone else about your work. but I tend to listen more if someone makes the type of work that I personally want to learn from.
Art is subjective and all.
All in all I haven’t really worked with many editors.
Writer of Transformers, Toil & Trouble
Okay, this is a little technical thing, but it really helps. Tab over to 3 or 3 1/2 inches before writing any dialog. It will give you a better idea of what your text will look like in an actual dialog bubble and will stop overwriting.
Writer of Doctor Who, Vikings, Adventure Time
A comic script is a letter to the artist not the reader. It’s about sharing your vision with the person who will realise it. But remember that its guidance not a series of demands! Try to build a partnership, not a dictatorship.
Writer/artist of Nightwing, Hack/Slash, Revival, Grayson, Batman Eternal
I’ve worked with a lot of great editors, but I think the best advice I’ve regularly gotten from them is ‘Don’t worry about that. No one cares.” From the inside, as both writer and artist, Ive gotten hung up on details that I think the readers need to know, or will care about, and 100% of the time, when an editor has told me to let it go, they were right.
Sean E. Williams
Co-founder of Comicker Digital, Writer of Fairest, Artful Daggers
The first lesson my first editor (Shelly Bond) taught me was that they’re called “word balloons” and not “speech bubbles.” That was kind of critical information for being a writer of comics. For me as an editor, the one piece of advice I find myself repeatedly giving to new writers (and had to learn myself before I was even working with an editor), is that each character can only perform one action per panel. That’s the thing I see new writers struggle with most, and can be a hard thing to wrap your head around at first, especially if you’re used to writing in another medium.
Artist of The Futurists, Captain America
Writer of Resident Alien, Durham Red, Terra Obscura
It was incredibly specific to one piece of work, and was basically, “this needs to have A, B and C … and on no account should you do X, Y or Z.” And that was REALLY helpful and liberating, to be told that, and I wish that kind of thing happened more often. Mostly if you get advice it’s either really vague or annoying or both.
Other than that, probably the best advice I ever got was, “Have fun with it”. Sometimes you lose perspective on the work – you’re just too close to it, and gripping on too tightly ; when that happens you need to not so much step back a bit as just loosen up a little. Trust the process, and let the characters and the story drive for a while.
Ryan K. Lindsay
Writer of Negative Space, Chum, Deer Editor
If you’ve got a great story then it’s probably taking place in a rich world with engaging characters. Use the world/characters to tell a 5 page short that stands alone away from your story. Explore the world/characters, in a way you can complete with a full creative team, and in a way that shows editors you can close on the making and on the story side of comics.
Writer of Death Head
“Trust your artist.” My editor on Death Head, Jim Gibbons from Dark Horse Comics, pointed out that my brother and I were handcuffing our artist, Joanna Estep, by being too specific with every detail of our script. She had no room to add her own stamp or ideas. The script should really be the pieces of the puzzle, it’s up to your artist (who knows much better than you) how to make them fit together. Be clear in your panel descriptions, but leave room for your artist to do what they do best. The moment our relationship with Joanna became more fluid, more of a conversation, the better the final pages turned out.
Writer of Atomic Robo, 8-Bit Theater
Don’t use words to convey what the art should.
Writer/artist of Superman, Booster Gold, Batman Beyond, New 52: Futures End
There has actually been quite a bit.
If I had to narrow it down to one bit of advice, I’d probably go with something Dick Giordano once told me.
He said, “It’s the job of the writer to excite the artist, the job of the artist to excite the inker and in total, that excites the reader.” I think that’s actually quite true. That kind of infectious enthusiasm is something you can feel when reading a book, and when the creative team is firing on all cylinders, the book soars.
Writer of The Red Ten, Epic, Tears of the Dragon – publisher of ComixTribe
Count your dialog on the page. Literally, count them, you wordy bastard!
Then make sure you’re not violating the old Alan Moore rules that Steven Forbes turned me on to. Supposedly these guidelines were give to given to Alan Moore by his editors at DC comics.
* No more than 35 words per panel.
* No more than 25 words per word balloon or caption.
* No more than 120 words on a page.
If it’s good enough for Alan Moore, it’s good enough for me and you.
Writer of Thunderbolts, Skullkickers, Wayward, Figment
“Communication is everything.”
When projects are running smoothly it’s easy to stay in touch with your collaborators but, when the going is rough or mistakes get made that is exactly when you need to keep in contact and take responsibility. Don’t run away from problems. Don’t pretend that they’ll go away by ignoring them.
Writer/artist of Rust
I’ve had great experiences with editors but I guess the best thing I’ve heard was ‘you’re not finished yet’. With that feedback she didn’t tell me what to write or how it should feel, she just told me that it didn’t feel finished yet and I had more work to do. That was all I needed to know in order to go back and polish the story.
Writer of Green Lantern, The Flash, X-O Manowar, The Homeland Directive, The Surrogates
“Characters don’t always have to behave logically.”
Writer/artist of Mind MGMT, Dept. H, Ninjak, Revolver
“You should get out now while you can.”
Writer of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Strange Nation, Orc Girl
Underpromise and overdeliver.
Writer of Pawn Shop, Footprints, Captain Ultimate
“You’re the only one that can write like you, so write like you and not [insert famous/influential writer].”
Writer of Copperhead, Secret Identities, Near Death, Generation X
Frank Pittarese, the editor who gave me my very first professional comics gig on GENERATION X back in 1998, impressed upon me right from the start that the stories should always be about the characters and their interpersonal dynamics, NOT about who’s going to win the fight in any given issue. It’s the character stuff that keeps readers coming back, not whether or not the X-Men will defeat Magneto that month.
Writer of The Spider, Black Panther: Man Without Fear, Sherlock Holmes
I don’t know that I could nail it down to one specific thing. The biggest challenge I faced coming to comics from prose fiction writing was to learn how to convey plot and character visually. Bill Rosemann, my editor at Marvel taught me , in a million incremental ways, how to do that. The first script series I ever wrote for Marvel was a mini called Mystery Men. It was a big project for a newcomer — introducing five original historical characters to the Marvel Universe. Tom Brevoort had me toss the script for issue #1 and start from scratch three times, and he provided lots of details about why what I had wasn’t working. I was frustrated, but the experience served as a kind of comics writing boot camp that was invaluable, and by the time I hammered out the fourth incarnation, I felt I had something I could be really proud of. So, I would say I benefitted most from the cumulative effect of good advice from smart people who know the medium.
Writer of Further Travels of Wyatt Earp, Avengers Assemble, Ultimate Spider-Man Web Warriors – letterer for Marvel
It’s something that I was already doing, but Steve Wacker would always say to “under-promise and over-deliver.” In creative industries where the opposite is the norm, your superiors will appreciate your honesty and your effort, and reward you with more work.
Writer/artist of Guarding The Globe, Green Hornet, Wonder Woman
Work. Nothing teaches like work. The growth you achieve between page one and page one-hundred of your career is the sharpest incline you will ever experience. So, even if no one will hire you, hire yourself, put yourself on a schedule, and knock out those hundred pages.
Draw what you don’t want to draw. Your reluctance is a manifestation of your subconscious knowledge that your drawing is weak in that department. Confront that weakness. Even if you don’t conquer it, you will at least see it clearly and develop strategies to deal with it.
Adam P. Knave
Writer of Amelia Cole, Artful Daggers, Never Ending
My all time favorite editor interaction, to this day, was years ago. I was working with an editor on a comic thing and we were reviewing pages and she asked, perfectly level “If you’re going to waste an entire page on one sight gag, could it at least be funny?” I still laugh when I think of it. She was 1000% right. You only have so many pages, so much time. If you intend to burn through some of it – know why and make sure you aim true. And when you don’t, hope you’re lucky enough to have an editor who will just tell you.
Mark Alan Miller
Writer of Hellraiser, Next Testament, The Steam Man
Again, going to the cliche here, you really do have to kill your darlings sometimes. If you don’t open yourself up to collaboration, and alternatives, you might be missing out on some of the favorite moments you never would have thought of otherwise.
Writer of Princeless, My Little Pony
Dress for the job you want. If you want to make comics for a company like Marvel, DC, or Image – pay attention to what they’re putting out. If you want to draw sequential comics, then draw sequential comics. If you want to prove to an editor that you can write comics professionally, hand them a professional comic book you have written. Self publishing is hard, but editors are staking their reputations and timelines when they bring in new creators. You should be able to prove to them you can do it.