What I'm Not Doing Is Important

By | Wednesday, February 02, 2011 5 comments
Let me be clear right off the bat here: I do NOT want to write comic books for a living. That hasn't always been the case, but I'm fairly certain it's not the type of thing I'd enjoy.

I've mentioned numerous times over the years how I've loved comics as far back as I can remember, and REALLY became enamored with them when I turned 11. And I think, like many kids who love comics, I decided I wanted to be a comic book artist as soon as I realized that was an actual profession. But I realized a year or two before high school that I wasn't good enough to compete as a professional comic artist.

Sometime in my late college years, it occurred to me that I could write. For whatever reason, it never really struck me before then, but I'd had a number of people say that they thought I was a really good writer. I took a couple of writing courses as electives, but I was kind of digging the graphic design thing by that point and didn't want to give up a reasonably decent career before I'd even started it. So writing remained a sideline thing. An interest, but not even really a hobby.

A year or two after college, I started my Fantastic Four website. Originally just as a resource for myself, but it increasingly became a reference for others as well. Part of my own interest was sorting through continuity and doing research on obscure Marvel arcana, and I would write articles for the site that basically summarized my findings. Those were often well-received, and I got some nice compliments for them.

So I thought, "Well, maybe I could write comics?"

I knew that unsolicited scripts sent to publishers generally didn't get a more than a passing glance, so I started a campaign of sorts to make sure my name was recognized. And what was most assuredly going to get read in the comic offices? Fan mail. I started doing some letterhacking and started getting published in the backs of various comics. I had about a year, I think, where I was getting a letter published every two weeks on average. It made me something of a celebrity in my LCS at the time.

After I'd been doing that for a bit, I started sending off stories to Marvel editors on a regular basis. Proof, I thought, that I had more than one story in me and that I could maintain a regular schedule. I even managed to convince Paul Jenkins to read through and critique them.

But I came to a realization during that experiment. Two, actually, but they're very related. First, I'm pretty decent at the basic craft of writing. Using the English language, using punctuation and grammar properly, etc. But I'm not that great at making up stories. Not good ones that have sub-plots and clever foreshadowing and all the bits that make it more than a simple fairy tale. Secondly, the types of things that I want to say, as an alleged writer, are better expressed without the metaphors of fiction overlaid on them. I'd rather write about how Jack Kirby came up with the concept of O.M.A.C. than pen an actual tale about the character.

These two ideas mean that, not only should I not pursue a career writing for Marvel or DC, but that I should generally avoid writing fiction altogether. I can still write and I can still write ABOUT comics, but I'll do a better job of it than if I try writing a Hulk story. Or even something entirely of my own creation.

This afternoon, I stumbled across some pieces I wrote just before I decided that wasn't the direction for me. Some complete, some abandoned part-way through. They not the worst things I've ever read, not even the worst things I've written, but they're not all that great either. And it's only been SINCE then that I've focused on the more non-fiction/op-ed/journalistic end of the writing spectrum.

I've had considerably more success in that realm and, I think, I'm happier and more proud for it. It's always sounded kind of awesome to be able to tell people, "I write Spider-Man" -- and it'd certainly be a lot easier than trying to explain what I do write -- but if I'm honest with myself about my real interests and my real skillsets, that's not what I should be trying to do.

Now, I don't want to discourage anyone who genuinely DOES want to write Batman comics for a living and has a knack for that type of writing, but I suggest you take a moment to see if that's really the gig for you. Because I've known people who worked towards that goal for decades and never made any real headway, and I think it's a shame to have seen talented people spend so much time pursuing what seems to be somebody else's grail.
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Matt K said...

I'm in kind of the same boat. I think I write well, to a large extent instinctively, but I have no instinct for fiction.

Which I find particularly interesting recalling the elaborate fictional universe I created as a child playing with Legos, with richly-developed ongoing characters, epic extended plots, etc. Granted some of it was fairly derivative but 1) I was a child and 2) good fiction can build on other work anyway.

What became of that wellspring of fantasy?

I'm also right there with you. I enjoy writing, but much of my passion is in making things clear, or introducing work, making things get into the right hands.

Actually making the stories... well, I learned long ago that I was good at writing dialogue and helping shape an already written story, but when it comes to plotting I've got nothin'

Matt - At some point, I think there's the realization that the elaborate stories you make as child, regardless of how interesting or creative they are, don't make for satisfying fiction. You're familiar with the Lee/Ditko spat over who should be the Green Goblin, aren't you? Ditko's version would have been more realistic (through its oddly non-sensical, almost child-like, approach) but Lee's solution is much more satisfying from a reader's POV.

Ian - That's the key: recognizing your genuine strengths AND weaknesses, and catering to them. (Which is not to say that you should never go outside your comfort zone of course!)

Lebeau2501 said...

A great sage once said; "I'd rather be a failure at something I love, than a success at something I hate."

I have wanted to illustrate comics for at least 20 of my 29 years, and never seemed to understand how to do it. That's probably because I can't stop comparing myself to the best artists while I curse and bemoan the ones that I think I can do better than.

It's like a dream of mutants and humans coexisting. I don't think I would be able to love comics the way I do if I made them.

I dunno. I guess I've just always wanted someone to take me by the hand and say; "This is how you become a comic artist."

It doesn't really work that way.

DeBT said...

That's very interesting. From your daily updates, I got the general impression that you were a prolific comic writer, and I was surprised to find out that my interpretation of your field wasn't quite spot-on. You wrote about comics, yes, but you didn't write comic STORIES. That really surprised me, since you're quite eloquent about your passion.

An interesting story - when I was growing up, I had the HARDEST time trying to write stories in school. I simply couldn’t think up a story if I was threatened to. I resorted to writing fictional recipes and stealing from Shel Silverstein books and Saturday cartoons. Strangely, none of the teachers ever noticed my plagiarism. It wasn’t until I started reading Manga that story outlines suddenly became clear to me. As long as I could predetermine the final outcome, everything else that happened in between could be made up on the fly. This was a far cry from the S-hero comics I’d been reading where plots and subplots could change by the seat of your pants. Sure it made for exciting reading, but it also left an incomprehensible mess where I couldn’t distinguish good from bad stories.

Since then, I haven’t been able to stop seeing story potential in everything. Given a subject, I’ll find a way to make it interesting. The Walking Dead V-game parody I recently wrote was one of the fastest drafts I ever did. Humour is normally my forte, though I could branch out in other genres if necessary.