Here's a letter I'd like to share with you.
As much as I enjoy reading the comics I find myself turning to MARK'S REMARKS first. I applaud you for turning the wasted space of letters pages used mostly for hype into a thought provoking, entertaining inside look at comics. With comics coming under fire in the press so much lately I thought a good topic for your column might be "HOW HAVE COMICS IMPROVED YOUR LIFE?"
Have you noticed that any press about comics seems to be negative press? Children corrupted by sex and or violence in comics, comic shop owner arrested for selling comics deemed pornographic, etc. Doesn't it seem strange that all of this negative space is generated by people who don't even read comics?
As a counterpoint, I would like to tell you how reading comic for the past 18 years has improved my life. Not only did I improve my reading skills in grade school but I also increased my vocabulary-- imagine being the only sixth grader to know the meaning of the word "omnipotent." (How many times has that word appeared in a THOR comic?) While other kids were becoming couch potatoes watching endless hours of television I would spend endless hours reading about my favorite super heroes. While other kids in high school were spending thir spare time experimenting with alcohol and drugs I was busy either reading comics or working part time to raise money to buy more comics.
Now that I am married and my children are starting school, I spend every chance I get reading comics to my children (even though they can't read yet they enjoy the stories and like to look at the pictures and make up their own stories). I am sure my children will learn as much from reading comics as I have.
All of the above mentioned benefits from reading comics and I haven't even touched upon the main reason for reading comics-- entertainment. The next time someone puts down comics maybe you can come up with your own answers to How have comics improved your life?
Well put, Charles, and thanks for writing. Okay, folks, I could take my usual route and blather on about how comics profoundly influenced my life, but hey, I'd rather hear from you. If you've got any neat insights or anecdotes on the value of comic books, send 'em to me in care of "Mark's Remarks" at the address above. I'll print the best of your answers in a future column.
Seeing as how I won't have any mail on our premiere issue of SOLO AVENGERS for another month or two (and I'd feel guilty running a blank page here), I thought I'd respond to some of the mail that my Mark's Remarks column running in my other books (AVENGERS, WEST COAST AVENGERS, and IRON MAN) has been getting in recent months. The most controversial column I've done since my "Death of the No-Prize" essay in my very first M's Rems has certainly been "How Not To Break Into the Comics Industry" which ran in WEST COAST AVENGERS#22. It seems that a number of you took my listing of seven things you can do that will hurt your chances of landing an assignment in professional comics the wrong way. In the words of one correspondent, "I'm amazed that you could publish those commandments without realizing that you sound a bit arrogant yourself, or at best, supremely disdainful." It was not my intent, in writing that particular column, of course, to be arrogant or disdainful. If I were truly arrogant and disdainful I wouldn't have even addressed the subject at all, preferring to keep the process of "going pro" as mysterious and foreboding as possible.
But before I delve into a point by point analysis of what I said, why I said it, and what I meant by it, let's review those seven points so we all know what I'm talking about. In brief, they were: 1) Have a whole bunch of different career goals, not just comics. 2) Don't get good at any one thing first...be a little good at a lot of things. 3) Don't be willing to sacrifice or put yourself out in any way. 4) Submit a million things at the same time. 5) Submit material that isn't quite comics to be evaluated. 6) When an editor criticizes some aspect of your work, argue with him or her. And 7) Develop arrogance, smugness, and obnoxiousness in your dealings with the person you want to get work from. Now then, one correspondent (you'll note that I'm not identifying my critics by name-- it's not my intent to pick on anybody's opinions in a forum where I get the last word) wonders why I took the negative approach to the essay. Why didn't I write "How To Break Into the Comics Industry" instead of "How Not to"? The reason for that is that there's not just one way to break into comics, and I felt it would be misleading to list what might be considered as the recipe for going pro.
All right then, on to the specific points. First, the career goals issue. When I first began investigating how to make comics my career, I was asked by a renowned comics artist who I showed my art samples to, "If you couldn't do comics for a living, what would you do?" I said, "I don't know...go into advertising, teach art, something like that." He said, "To make it into professional comics, you must have no viable career alternative to fall back on. If you do, you won't be hungry, desperate, or motivated enough to do whatever it takes to become a professional." Now this seemed like pretty extreme advice to take at the time. On the other hand, I followed it, and look where I am today, passing along the same advice. I truly believe that it takes drive and determination to make it in this business, and there's no greater drive than survival. I wanted to get into comics and I was willing to do whatever it took. (This invokes my third tip: be willing to make sacrifices.) I left my comfortable home in the midwest to move to New York (where the main publishers are headquartered), having no job (not even a job offer), few acquaintances, and but $600 in savings to live on. I struggled for six months, depleting my savings, living in a one room garret, and trying to get a job with one of the comics companies, before I finally had to take a file clerk job with a major bank to put food on the table. Did I compromise my career goals by taking that clerk job? Was I ruining my motivation to get in the comics industry? No, "file clerk" was never a career, it was just a job to tide me over till I could get into my career. One correspondent writes, "Only a fool pulls up roots and faces an uncertain financial picture without a firm job offer in hand." He's right. And I was a fool to take the chance on my talent as I did, but it was a gamble I was willing to take, and one that I was determined to make work. The same correspondent goes on to say that an editor should "give someone an offer in writing before you expect them to go to the expense of relocation." I agree, that sure would be nice, but that's not the way the business works. Nobody wanted me to be in the comics industry except me. No one would have missed me had I not gotten in. It was up to me to prove myself to the people I wanted to hire me. Moving to where the jobs are was necessary, I felt, to put myself in a position to so prove myself. The comics industry owes no one a living.
In my second point, I cautioned against not specializing in any one of the various disciplines in comics. Again, I pulled this caveat straight from my own experiences. My own early submissions portfolios showed I could do all of the various disciplines in comics-- writing, penciling, inking, lettering, coloring, editing-- halfway decent, but the industry does not want people halfway good at something, it wants someone who is all the way good at something. You don't get an assignment until you have mastered the minimal professional standards of the particular discipline (and even that is no guarantee). All my half-skills did not add to one full skill at anything I could be expected to be hired for. Virtually no one breaks in by being hired to do more than one discipline at a time. For example, John Byrne and Frank Miller were hired by Marvel as pencilers. Only after demonstrating their mastery of the one discipline did they branch out into others (inking and writing). But if a person is halfway good at something, is it too much to expect that a company will hire you and work with you to bring your half-skills up to full-skills? Yes, that is too much to expect. Unlike certain other professions where there is on the job training, the comics industry owes no one an education.
My third point, about the willingness to make sacrifices, was pretty well covered in my discussion of the first point, so I'll move on.
My fourth point was about the counterproductiveness of bombarding an editor with so many samples at once that it would take a great deal of patience and perseverence to wade through them all. This is no idle gripe. An editor has only so much time to devote to screening samples, and if one person tries to make too big a presumption on an editor's time, that person has a strike against him or her before the editor even looks at the work. One should submit only a representative sample of his or her work, not the collected body of it. The object is to get the editor to want to look at your work, not scare him or her off. Sending samples through the mail is a very impersonal way of breaking in the business, but most editors I know don't want to give anyone a personal interview unless he or she's previewed the person's work in advance. It is important to remember that editors don't want to have to edit your samples to get to the good stuff buried in there. Editors owe no one a disproportionate amount of their time.
My fifth point was about only submitting material appropriate to the various comics disciplines in your samples. While I exaggerated the type of inappropriate material to submit (poems and record reviews for writing samples, still life watercolors and charcoal portraits for art samples), I continue to be amazed at the not-quite-comics material I am shown. Prose short stories do not demonstrate to me that a person can write a comic book synopsis. Full page pin-ups do not demonstrate to me that a person can tell a story through a sequence of panels. (Marvel's need for prose short stories and single page pin-ups is very minimal.) I am also shown comic book plots that don't have Marvel characters in it, and sample comic pages that don't have Marvel characters on them. How am I supposed to know if a person understands the Marvel characters enough to write about them or can draw Marvel characters to look like they're supposed to from samples like that? An aspiring professional has to demonstrate his or her ability to handle the characters the company published in the format the company publishes them. Editors can only judge your ability and suitability by what you give them.
My sixth point concerned justifying, apologizing for, or arguing on behalf of your submissions. None of that will get you anywhere. You must assume that the editor is always right in knowing just what it is he or she is looking for. Explaining why a certain piece of work is not your best ("My hand hurt the day I drew it.") won't make it any better or make the editor want to buy it any more. Your work should speak for itself. If it doesn't, you're in trouble.
My seventh point is closely related to the sixth, and concerns attitude. It always amazes me when people who want me to hire them demonstrate discourteousness or obnoxiousness ("cop an attitude"). Do these aspiring professionals really expect me to hire someone who gets on my nerves? I try to treat people as fairly as I can, but I'm human, and I can be as aggravating as the next man. On the other hand, I'm not the one looking for the job. Anyone who maligns one of the people I'm currently using makes no points with me. In essence, that person is criticizing my judgment for hiring who I did. If anyone questions my qualifications to judge his or her work, I feel no need to list them. If someone doesn't know my qualifications or doesn't recognize the authority of my position, then why in the world is he submitting his work to me? They'd do better to submit to a person whose qualifications they know, whose authority they recognize.
The correspondent who gave my previous column the most trouncing asks me in light of the "grouchiness" of "How Not To Break Into the Comics Industry" if I truly am looking for new writers and artists. The truth of the matter is no, I am not personally on a great quest to find new talent for the comics industry. After all I've got top professionals doing all the books I edit at present. Certain other editors devote more of their time to hunting and cultivating tomorrow's talent than I do, while certain other editors devote even less. On the other hand, Marvel, as a company, is committed to finding and hiring all the top talents there are. That's why we have a Submissions Editor whose full-time job it is to review the work of would-bes. But me personally? No, my great quest is to put out great books. If new talent can do what my old talent can't, then I'm interested. My personal goal is the product of top talent, not the process of finding them. I'm willing to bet that most people would admit the same if pressed for an answer. You see, while I'm not looking for new talent, I'm confident that new talent is looking for me (or someone like me). And if my tips on how not to break in were helpful (either in my original short-winded exaggerated version or this long-winded soft-sell version), I feel like I've done something to put all you aspiring top talents a little more "in the know".
More of Mark's Remarks to Reader Mail on Mark's Remarks next month!
You know what used to really, really bug me back when I was a fan? I would go up to some comics professional at a comics convention, tell him how much I liked his work, and then give a suggestion or two (or three) about what I thought would make a good future story. Now I was not offering these suggestions because 1) I wanted to impress the comics pro how smart or creative I was (though I didn't want to appear like a babbling idiot, either, mind you) or 2) I wanted to be a wise guy telling them I could do their job better. No, I offered these ideas because I thought they were good ideas and I wanted to freely offer my help to a comic book I really enjoyed as a natural expression of how much I enjoyed it. So now for the part that bugged me. On certain occasions, with certain professionals, the response I got to my suggestions was, "Oh, that sure sounds like a fan idea!"
That response confounded me. Of course it was a fan idea. I was a fan. It was my idea. What else could it be? I was quick to realize that this was a put-down, that the person who said it to me was implying that fan ideas are bad ideas. Why were fans ideas bad ideas, I wanted to know? The professionals who tarred my ideas with that brush would not deign to give me much more than a snicker and roll of their eyes.
A few years later (nine and a half years ago), I got into the business, and as a budding writer, I finaly got a chance to use some of my "fan ideas" myself. Some I was able to use, others I realized weren't as good or clever as I thought, so I never bothered to submit them, while still others I submitted and my editors patiently explained to me why they weren't as good or clever as I thought. I have since come to realize what they meant by "fan idea". A fan idea is an idea that would only appeal to (and occur to) a fan. Now what's intrinsically wrong with that? Well, at the time I was still a fan, there was not the fan market that there is today, and a "fan idea" meant that it would only appeal to a small segment of the market, the hardcore compulsive collector. Nowadays, the fan market (usually defined as those who frequent our direct sales outlets, the comic stores) is known to be at least half our total market. So an idea that has built-in appeal to at least half our readers is a far cry from one that may appeal to a mere ten percent. Besides limited appeal, the other negative connotation of "fan idea" I now realize is that the idea revels in the trivial or esoteric, and has no inherant story value. Thus, a story that hinged upon the revelation that Steve Rogers and Will Rogers are third cousins would be considered a "fan idea", regardless of who thought of it.
Well, I've got news for those pros who machinegunned down my earnest suggestions ten and more years ago: fan ideas per se are neither good nor bad just because they come from or would appeal to fans. Furthermore, every writer from Stan Lee on down comes up with and uses "fan ideas" in his works. "Fan idea" is a meaningless label-- there are only good ideas and bad ideas and writers who have to distinguish between the two.
This month's topic was suggested by Adam Schultz of Sattelite Beach, Florida. The topic..."Fan tips for Talking to Pros at Conventions." (Seeing as how I just got back from my third con of the summer, the topic is fresh in my sun-bleached mind.) In no particular order...
1) If you see a pro sitting at a table and you don't know who he or she is, check their nametag. If the name is still unfamiliar, it won't win you any points to ask the pro, "What do you do? Are you a writer or an artist or what? Did you ever work on the X-MEN?"
2) If you have a stack of books you want autographed by someone, open all of them up to the page you want signed. Signing more than one autograph for one person is above and beyond the call of duty so the least you can do is save him or her the extraneous action of taking your comics out of the plastic and opening them to the right page.
3) Don't give a pro a book to sign that he or she hasn't worked on. Most pros feel funny about putting their name on someone else's work. It is far better to have us sign a scrap of paper, a program booklet, or a napkin.
4) If you have art samples to show a pro, make certain they depict Marvel characters in a multi-page continuity. We can't tell if you know how to draw a Marvel story from looking at pin-up shots, paintings, sketches, or multi-page continuities with your own or other people's characters. You're wasting your time by showing us something that doesn't tell us what you want us to know: that you're ready for a professional art assignment.
5) If you have writing samples to show, make them one paragraph premises only. At a convention, an editor's mind is unusually blotto from overstimulus. While we can look at pages and pages of art and comment on what we see, to read pages and pages of writing takes concentration and different cognitive skills than those used in critiquing artwork. Don't show us writing samples-- we're not looking to hire a writer. Show us story ideas-- we are looking to buy stories. Your story ideas should tell us what the exciting opening will be (the narrative hook), what the story is about, how it is different from a million other stories we've seen, and how it all resolves. If your story idea doesn't have these four things in it, there's insufficient information upon which to judge whether the story's worth buying or not.
6) Don't be afraid to ask questions and tell the pros what you like and dislike about their work. The whole point of personal appearances is to gather feedback from the readership. If you just stick a book in front of our faces to sign and stand there without saying anything, you've lot a valuable opportunity to let your opinion be known to someone who wants to know it.
Hope this is helpful, you convention-goers.