The Sunday afternoon session Writing Comics, hosted by comics obsessive DJ Iyare Igiehon, featured a discussion with writer Tony Lee and head of Markosia Publishing Harry Markos. The session was well-attended, with a big helping of genre writers – a couple game writers too – seeking ways to develop their stories through graphic novels and comics (“sequential art” as Scott McCloud dubbed it).
Tony has been writing for 25 years, and doing comics for 8 of those. He’s been a novelist, a screenwriter, a writer for audio drama, and a comics writer. One of his first points was to note the tendency for screenwriters to think its easy to write comics, assuming that comics are simply the illustration of a screenplay. In fact, comics writing is its own special beast. In comics, you are writing for still images, not moving images. The reader supplies the motion and the pace – the time element – that is taken for granted in movies. Comics exist outside of time (like a sculpture or painting) and in linear time (like a story or music) simultaneously – and it’s the reader who gets to choose which side he or she wants to inhabit. Screenwriters love the potential of graphic novels, both Tony and Harry recognized, because the medium allows them to realize the most outrageous, outlandish spectacles in a way that would be budgetarily impossible outside a movie directed by Jim Cameron.
The business of comics is no less difficult than the movie industry. Harry said that he gets 100 projects a month submitted to him. He might like five of them. And from there might contact the comics creators and pursue things further. Unlike the moving picture industries who rely on “writers for hire”, a business like Markosia relies on writer-artist teams. Writers hoping to see their stories realized, will need to partner up with an artist and create half a dozen sample pages to submit. Sending just a script to a comics publisher is a waste of postage (or bandwidth).
In the comics world too, that word “collaboration” appears, a word which many neophyte writers seem to fear so much. While there is more opportunity for fine-tuning and control in a graphic novel or comic, simply because the scale of the thing is smaller, it is still a collaboration – between the writer, artist, colorist, letterer, and publisher. As Tony said, “The artist is not there to do everything you say. They are not your art bitch.” And in truth, if you knew anything about art, wouldn’t you be doing it yourself anyway? Markosia Comics is also seeking collaborators in its business, people willing to establish a long-term relationship with a company. People thinking they can swoop in with their script, get an easy adaptation, then swoop out with something they can sell right to a studio are considered scoundrels of the worst kind.
The collaborative aspect of comics creation – no different from any other creative industry – thrives on trust. Harry said that Tony is an exceptional writer, but he has also come to be a friend and great deal of trust has built up over time. He knows that Tony will deliver consistently, and to a high standard. And Tony has never missed a deadline. You hear it again and again – and again, in comics – submitting your material on deadline is as important – or more – than its quality.
There’s not much money to be made in comics, that much was clear. Markosia and other indy publishers look to the long term for making profit – towards possible film/tv, digital, and print rights, for example. The revolution in online publishing has been great for comics. Readers who might have had to travel dozens of miles (hundreds in some parts of the world) find a comic store can download comics digitally from anywhere. Whereas a brick & mortar store might decide to keep only the hottest titles on the shelves, and then only for a short time, digital downloads are perpetually available. And, of course, there are no variations in color reproduction in a digital copy – the book you download looks as good as the one the creators uploaded to the publisher (as one obsessed with image quality, I especially like this aspect).
There are no “blockbuster” comics that are going to suddenly pay off everyone’s mortgage. Even writers working full time at DC or Marvel, Tony said, need second jobs. And the current industry is especially brutal. In DC’s restructuring of their entire superhero universe, many titles were ended or combined, and as a result, many writers were let go. Now those comics writers – veterans who have been at it for many years for many publishers – are now competing for jobs and attention – and a lot of them are probably dusting off those brilliant ideas they’ve had sitting on the shelf for years. So competition is fierce, for a fairly tiny pie.
But nothing is going to keep some of us away. When I relocated to the UK, two of the books I packed in my bags and brought on the plane with me were Burne Hogarth’s adaptation of “Tarzan Of The Apes” (one of the best graphic novels ever made) and “Panel One: Comic Book Scripts by Top Writers”. That Tarzan adaptation was one of my prized possessions as a kid – and it still is. It introduced me to three life-long loves: visual storytelling, illustration, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. And when all’s said and done, isn’t love why we’re in this in the first place?