Joe Sergi lives outside of Washington, DC with his wife and daughter. Joe is an attorney and a Haller Award winning author who has written articles, novels, short stories, and comic books in the horror, scifi, and young adult genres. Joe is the creator of the Sky Girl series of novels and the editor of Great Zombies in History. His first novel, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy was selected Best of 2010 by the New PODler Review. Joe is a life-long comic fan who regularly writes on the history of comics and censorship for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. A complete list of Joe’s titles is available at www.JoeSergi.net. When not writing, Joe works as a Senior Litigation Counsel in an unnamed US government agency and is a member of the adjunct faculty at George Mason University School of Law.
Joe Sergi—On Comic Book Writing
Thank you for inviting me to talk on one of my favorite subject—comic writing. First, a little background. I am an author and on tour with my new middle grade/young adult book, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures. My new book is the sequel to Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy, which introduced DeDe Christopher. DeDe is an ordinary teen with the extraordinary destiny. In the first book, DeDe discovered that she possessed fantastic abilities that were strangely similar to those of a comic book character named SkyBoy. With the help of her best friend Jason, a self-professed comic geek, DeDe accepted her legacy and became Sky Girl at the end of her sophomore year of high school. In the second book, DeDe continues her journey as Sky Girl as she starts her junior year. DeDe must learn what it means to be a heroine as Sky Girl faces the all too real enemies and allies of SkyBoy, including the clever Quizmaster, the beautiful Penny Pound, the enigmatic Jersey Devil, and the magical MissTick. Being a teenage girl is hard enough, but for DeDe Christopher, it is proving impossible. In addition to cliques, books, and boys, she has to worry about capes, apes, and aliens. DeDe must also face personal challenges as she discovers the secrets of her late father and his connection to SkyBoy--secrets that will affect Sky Girl’s destiny.
While not a comic itself, Sky Girl takes much from the world of comics. One reviewer referred to the books as a “love letter to comics.” Another concluded that I had an amazing insight into the world of comics that allowed me to explore comic book conventions and tropes and turn them on their head. There is a very good reason for that: I write comics. More importantly, I write comics because I am, and have always been, a huge comics fan. I remember when my mother bought me my first Star Wars comic in July, 1977. I was hooked. Every month, I picked up my comics—first, by mail subscription (which took forever and usually destroyed the books), and then at my local comic shop, where I would check in every Friday. I kept reading all through high school, college, and law school. Book day went from Friday to Thursday to Wednesday. I didn’t even lose faith in the dark days of the 90s when most fans left. I stuck it out, and you know what, the books are better than ever. Recently, comics have attracted some really amazing creators both in the mainstream and independent markets and I still spend a substantial part of my disposable income on these books.
In addition to being a huge fan, I also get the privilege to write for and about comics. First, I am a regular contributor for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund website (CBLDF.org), where I write about the history of censorship in comics. I recently did articles on the rise and fall of romance comics, a before and after analysis of the comics code on reprinted books, and detailed histories of Sheena, Superman, and Wonder Woman. It takes a lot of work to write those columns, but I believe the CBLDF is an important organization and am glad to help them in their mission to protect comic creators against censorship. Second, I have written several comic book stories in the romance, horror, scifi, and superhero genres. In addition to writing stories for a few comics anthologies (Indie Horror Magazine, Aliens Among Us, and Don't be Afraid), this year I edited a comic anthology, Great Zombies in History, through McFarland Press. ). Great Zombies in History is an anthology of historically accurate stories, but written to include zombies. For example, I wrote The Zombie War of 1812, which features the real reason that Washington, DC was burned during the war.
Which brings me to the topic of this post: How to Write Comics. When I appear at comic cons, shows, and book festivals, I get a lot of questions about how to create comics. So many people have a story to tell and comic books provide a great medium to tell it. As a point of initial clarification, comic is indeed a medium and not a genre, as there are many genres in the comic book medium. But I digress.
The purpose of this post is to attempt, based on my experience, to answer the most common questions I get about creating comics, especially as a writer.
Breaking In and Staying In
I should really start out by pointing out two things that surprised me when I started seriously writing comics. I think the most surprising thing I learned about comics is simply how hard it is to break in to mainstream comics. This is truer for writers than artists (although it is still very hard for both). For example, there are more opportunities for artists to show their art work and have their portfolios reviewed. In fact, there are numerous convention panels that are set up for precisely that purpose (DC Comics is doing open try out on their Facebook page right now.). If you are a writer, there really isn’t a comparable avenue. In the old days, the only way to show you had the talent necessary to be hired to write comics was to be a comic writer, which you could only do if you got hired to write comics. Luckily, this has gotten a little easier with the advent of webcomics and other cheap print-on-demand production companies. Now, all that most potential comic creator needs is a computer and a dream (a lot of luck doesn’t hurt). Of course, this creates more competition for the jobs and for consumer money. A big name creator recently started a “How to Pitch” comics seminar with the words, “Welcome—Most of you are going to fail.” For a lot of people the dream is to write for Marvel Comics or DC Comics. Interestingly, no two stories about breaking in to mainstream comics are the same. Some people enter contests, some people pitch at conventions, and one creator broke into the Marvel Offices in the middle of the night. The only thing everyone agrees is that dedication and persistence are the keys to success. (Networking doesn’t hurt.) And if you keep at it, the odds that you will be in the right place at the right time go up considerably. Recently, I heard a creator say that his greatest comic successes were only made possible because everyone around him quit. I would give you my “breaking in” story, except that I haven’t done it yet. I’m still what is known as an indy creator, which means I make small press creator owned books. I would kill to write for the big guys, so if you know how, I would love to hear it.
A second thing I should mention is that it is very hard to have a career where you just write comics. I know very few writers, including some big-name creators, who are able to make a living solely by making comics. Although some write novels and for television, many more, like me, have day jobs that are completely unrelated to the comics industry. There are some really big success stories out there, but those are the exceptions. On the other hand, this also means that people who do work in comics really love comics. And I think that love comes through every month in the quality of the books.
A related question I get is: once someone breaks in, how does one stay in? Now this advice is the same whether the creator is independent or working for one of the big publishers. Of course, it helps to love the subject matter. In addition, I have been told by numerous people that there are three characteristics that one needs to succeed in the comics industry. First, as obvious as it sounds, the person needs to have talent. If someone can only draw stick figures, I wouldn’t recommend an artistic career. Similarly, if someone can’t compose a complete sentence, being a comic writer may not be the best career choice. Second, you need to be able to make deadlines. The comics industry is deadline intensive. A book needs to be to the publisher by a certain date, which means the art needs to be colored and lettered by that date, which means the artist must get the final pages to them with sufficient time to do their work. For that to happen, the script needs to be finished early enough for the artist to have time to get the coloring and lettering done by the publisher’s deadline. If this process breaks down at any level, the book doesn’t come out. So, deadlines are important. Third, and finally, a person has to be likable and easy to work with. As I described above, there are a lot of different people that come together in making a comic book. The writers work with the artists and the editors work with everyone. The process goes smoother if everyone gets along. Moreover, because most comic work is done on a project-by-project, work-for-hire basis, if someone is not a team player, then the odds are they won’t be hired for the next project. I have been told that you really only need two of the three to succeed. And the stronger someone is one category; the more likely it is that they can slide in another. For example, the most talented artist who also meets his deadlines can be a bit of a prima donna. A talented artist, who is likeable, may be able to slide on his deadlines. However, in order to be successful in the comic industry, I recommend developing all three of these characteristics.
Many people ask me whether there is specialized training for comic creation. This is an interesting question given my background. I majored in accounting and finance in college. Then, I went to law school. After law school, I continued and got an LL.M. (a Master’s of Law) in tax. At first blush, my educational background appears to be as far from a career in writing as possible. But, that isn’t true at all.
In my day job, I work as a senior litigation counsel for the government. I can’t really give too many details about what I do, but basically, I try complex and large-dollar cases on behalf of the U.S. government. This is the perfect complement to my career as a writer. Because, at the end of the day, writing and litigation are about the same thing: effective communication. Litigators are really just nonfiction storytellers who have to communicate their persuasive stories across to their intended audience: the judges and the juries. I took this technical skill and adapted it to my fiction work. In short, anyone can make comics. I’ve seen many creators at shows like Small Press Expo who have pretty low tech comics that they make using their office copy machine and a stapler. Others hire editors, pencillers, inkers, letters, and colorists and then use a high end printer to create their books. Some people don’t print them at all, they just put them on the web. As I’ve said it only takes a computer and a dream.
That being said, there is certainly the need for education. When I was starting, there really was no formal (or even informal) way to train for comic book writing. I took my fair share of general fiction writing courses and workshops. And while most of those dealt with prose work, they have come in handy in writing comics. And although I was already producing comics, it wasn’t until I became a finalist in the Image/Shadowline “Who Wants to Be a Superheroine” contest that I realized I had no real understanding of the technical side of comics (eg, panel layout, dialogue placement, script format, etc.). In the early days of comics (and my early days) a lot of the comic-specific stuff was developed through trial and error and a lot of reading. Someone once told me to look at a book I like, figure out why I like it, and try to duplicate it. It’s advice that has never let me down. Of course, it certainly helps if someone helps you avoid trial and error and has already figured out what works and doesn’t.
Luckily, some really great formalized instruction has been developed in recent years. On the art side, there is the Joe Kubert School. Also, many art school programs have developed curriculum for sequential artists. Another great resource that I have personally taken advantage of is Andy Schmidt’s Comics Experience. Comics Experience offers a wide variety of online classes for the aspiring comics professional. So far, I have taken classes on basic and advanced comic writing, editing lettering and production, basic art, and coloring comics. I am currently taking a class called “Writing for The ‘Big Two’ & Licensed Characters,” a five week course that breaks down the do's and don’ts of working with the big companies and any license holder. These classes are amazing at teaching students the practical nuts and bolts mechanics of the comic creation process. They also offer a professional workshop, which I am a member of, where art and scripts are critiqued by industry professionals. We also meet twice a month to discuss topics or review current issues that affect the industry.
In fact, for people who are looking to create their own comics and want to know the process, Comics Experience has just offered a new course that starts on October 30th called “Making Comics: Self-Published & Creator-Owned.” This is a four-week course, designed specifically for writers that addresses thing like finding an artist, marketing, distribution, pitching and getting work for hire. The class will be taught by Paul Allor (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Orc Girl, Pathfinder) and Rob Anderson (My Little Pony, Rex, Zombie Killer, Great Zombies in History). I’ve known or worked with these guys for years and they both know their stuff. Information is available at http://www.comicsexperience.com/making-comics-creator-owned.html
I should probably add that, from a practical point of view, that in addition to writing classes, an aspiring creator should probably develop two other skill sets. The first would be to get a good handle on graphic design software (like Adobe’s Creative Suite) since most of the industry uses it to color, letter, and produce comics. Second, I would also recommend a couple of good marketing classes as comic creators are primarily responsible for selling their product and themselves.
If you decide to pursue comics creation I wish you luck. You will certainly find it rewarding (in a nonmonetary way, I mean). I hope that you found my post useful.
Sky Girl is available at all online booksellers and can be ordered in brick and mortar shops and chains. It is also available directly from the publisher at www.martinsisterspublishing.com. I will also have copies at some upcoming show appearances, some of which include: The Collingswood Book Festival (October 5), New York ComicCon (October 10-13), and the Festival of the Book (October 19). I should also mention that Martin Sisters Publishing will be rereleasing the now out-of-print first book, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy later this year. The final book in the series, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Return, should be out next year.
If you have any questions, my author site is www.joesergi.net; Sky Girl can be found at www.SkyGirlNovel.com, and the official site for Great Zombies in History is www.GreatZombiesinHistory.com; my monthly articles can be found at www.cbldf.org. I can also be found in the usual places like Facebook and Twitter.
Being a teenage girl is hard enough, but for DeDe Christopher, it is proving impossible.
In addition to cliques, books, and boys, she has to worry about capes, apes, and aliens. Last year, DeDe discovered that she possessed fantastic abilities that were strangely similar to those of a comic book character named SkyBoy.
With the help of her best friend Jason, a self-professed comic geek, DeDe accepted her legacy and became Sky Girl. Now, DeDe must learn what it means to be a heroine as Sky Girl faces the all too real enemies and allies of SkyBoy, including the clever Quizmaster, the beautiful Penny Pound, the enigmatic Jersey Devil, and the magical MissTick.
DeDe must also face personal challenges as she discovers the secrets of her late father and his connection to Skyboy--secrets that will affect Sky Girl’s destiny.
Purchase paperback from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Girl-Superheroic-Adventures-Series-Volume/dp/1625530277/
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