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Devourer of Words 037: Back in the Mailbag

Marc Bernardin for Comic-Con International's Toucan Blog

For this column, I turned to Twitter to answer some questions from “the people.” And once again, they didn’t disappoint, offering ways to discuss finding collaborators, script formats, and finding the desire to press on. So, here we go:

From Mikala James (@FiveFoot5) 
“How do you find the right people to work with?”

Well, finding collaborators is a bit like dating. A LOT like dating, actually. Sometimes, you meet people through mutual friends. “I heard about this person who’s on the market after a long relationship with Marvel, and they’re looking to get back in the mix.” Or, “You should really reach out to so and so—you guys think the same and would make a great pair.”

Often times, collaborators are discovered through an online forum or website. I can’t tell you the amount of time I’ve spent link-diving—heading to the blog of an artist I know I like, and then seeing who THAT person likes. (It’s a little harder to do than it used to be, since Instagram and Tumblr seem to have taken over for Blogger/Wordpress, which made it easy to post blog-rolls, as the platform of choice. But it’s still possible.)

And there is something to be said for hitting the dating scene in person: Artists Alleys at conventions. Spend some time walking the beat, looking at portfolios, making face-to-face introductions. You’ll find people who are at your level—whatever that is—who might be glad to meet new people who want to tell good stories.

It all requires time and the right perspective: Approach a prospective collaborator as an equal, not an employee. People will do their best work if they feel like they’re truly a part of the project, not a lackey there to execute your “singular vision.” Together, you’re trying to bring something new into the world, and that new thing should have both of your DNA. If you’re not up for that, write a novel.

From Nathan Gonzales (@DarkNateReturns)
“After you finish one project, how do you motivate yourself to pursuing the next, regardless of how the first turned out?”

Ironically, my problem is not being seduced by the shiny new idea and finding ways to maintain the enthusiasm to finish up that first thing. But that’s just me.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: Writers write. And with each new thing you write, you’ll get better at it—it’s like a muscle that way; repetition breeds proficiency.

But if you can’t get yourself excited about another story—and the possibility of being able to execute the next one better than you did the last one—you might have to do the incredibly hard thing of asking yourself if you’re actually meant to be a writer in the first place.

It is hard work, solitary work; and you can’t blame anyone but yourself for the quality of the work. And it is one of the rare arts where everyone thinks they can do it because, to the outside, it looks “easy.” There is no shame in not being a writer.

And if you do take that long hard look into the mirror and decide that you are a writer, you just need to buckle down and write. Like you’re running out of time.

From Andy Nordvall (@AndyNordvall)
“Is there a template or program you use to format a comic script?”

The problem with the comics script format is that there isn’t one. When I was first starting out, I tracked down a dozen different scripts from writers I liked—Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Alan Moore, etc—to see how they did it. And to a person, each script was different.

So, because the first real fiction I started writing were screenplays, I adapted the screenplay format for comics. It just makes sense to my eyes that way and as long as I include the necessary information—identifying the panels, numbering the word balloons/captions—no one has any reason to complain.

My recommendation is to use whatever makes the most sense to you and is most easily understood by your artist. Remember: a comics script is a blueprint for a house that other people have to build—the artist, the letterer, the colorist, the editor—and if they’re confused in any way, that blame lies with you.

From Beatriz Elena (@BeatrizMourad)
“When writing preexisting characters you don't own, how many liberties do you really have to tell a story? Are you the one that decides where the character will be at the end of your run?”

That depends entirely on the relationship you have with your editors or publisher. As with all things, communication is the key. Ask them upfront what you can and cannot do and how much wiggle room you’ve got. Tell them what you’d like to do, where you’d like to take their characters. Odds are, you’ve already done some of this to get the job in the first place.

Once those boundaries are set, you’re generally free to play. A good editor of a company-owned character will warn you when you’re drifting into an arena the corporate masters won’t be pleased with. For example, even though it was Brian Michael Bendis writing the X-Men—and he is as beloved by Marvel Editorial as anyone—I’m sure there were conversations about making Bobby Drake gay. That kind of fundamental character change is the sort of thing you can’t just drop into a script and expect your employers to be cool with unless you’re a Bendis or Geoff Johns. And odds are, you’re not. I’m not. Almost no one gets that kind of latitude.

I look at corporate characters as someone else’s toys. You can pick them up and put them through all sorts of adventures but, at the end of the day (or the end of your run), you need to put them back in the toy box in the same shape they were when you got there.

Marc Bernardin’s Devourer of Words appears the third Tuesday of each month here on Toucan!