Conventional Approach

For aspiring writers, comic book conventions offer a networking opportunity—and a sobering experience

This weekend, geeks of the world and the content producers who fuel their insatiable appetite for comic books, films and multimedia will descend upon San Diego for the 41st annual Comic-Con International. But aside from the discussion panels, film screenings, celebrity autograph signings, costumed characters and after-parties, there’s another draw to North America’s largest comic book and popular arts convention—the opportunity to network with the movers and shakers of the comic book industry.

But you won’t find me there. This may surprise some people because, as they know and you’re about to learn, I’ve spent the last year or two trying to transition from journalist to comic book writer. The tricky thing is that, unlike almost every other form of professional writing, comic book editors (generally speaking) don’t accept unsolicited scripts from new writers. At a comic book convention, an artist can usually show up with a portfolio full of pretty pictures and get feedback—and potentially a gig—right on the spot, but unless a writer has an existing relationship with an editor or publisher, or has enough “pull” in the industry, he can’t just turn up with a pile of scripts and say to an editor, “Nice to meet you, please read all of this.”

“When you’re a comics writer, it’s remarkably hard work getting someone’s ear,” says Jill Beaton, associate editor at Oni Press, whose creator-owned properties include the Scott Pilgrim series of graphic novels (which will see a feature film adaptation this August). “I would suggest writers get involved in the community, get your voice out there, make some friends with other comics writers and work on your craft. See if you can get anthology work, and take it seriously.”

Getting anthology work—as well as producing any other product that will prove to editors that a writer’s script can be turned into a readable comic—can be a lengthy, grueling and costly process: finding artistic collaborators, ideally paying those collaborators and, in some cases, potentially self-publishing the resulting creation. The latter of which is the route I’ve taken thus far. And it hasn’t quite paid off yet. Neither have conventions, for the most part.

Yes, I’ve made some contacts, but none that have led to paying work, and the $1,000 I spent on travel, hospitality, food, merchandise and table rental at Seattle’s Emerald City Comicon this spring? I grossed $80 over two days and didn’t meet anyone I hadn’t already known through other shows or the Internet.

Of course, not all writers have to go through a cumbersome, self-publishing phase to score a paying gig. Some, such as Brandon Jerwa, get the right pitch to the right editor at the right time. Eight years ago, he was unemployed in Portland looking for jobs by day, but by night, the former radio jock worked on comic scripts. Jerwa submitted a cover letter with a G.I. Joe script on speculation (meaning without assignment) to Devil’s Due Publishing. That first script was published the next year, and led to Jerwa becoming the regular G.I. Joe writer.

“I pursued G.I. Joe because I pretty much lived, ate, breathed and slept that world when I was a kid,” says Jerwa. “I just applied that passion and knowledge I’d carried since childhood. Plus, Hasbro made me into an action figure! How insane is that?”

When he attends comic conventions now, it’s usually to meet fans and sign comics. But Jerwa notes the importance of these gatherings for career advancement purposes. “Conventions offer a million different chances to move ahead, as long as you’re judicious and professional in your interactions,” he says. “I’ve found my way into new projects via bar conversations, random introductions on the con floor, and the usual mechanical process of just running into people.”

Like Jerwa, most new comic book writers get their start at independent companies such as Devil’s Due. Very rarely does an untested writer get a script published by one of the so-called “Big Two,” Marvel and DC. Though it has happened—my pal Russell Lissau, a Chicago-area journalist, sold a Batman script to DC on his first try—it’s rare and almost always a bizarre stroke of luck.

“You work your way up to Marvel and DC; you don’t break in with them,” notes C.B. Cebulski, Marvel’s talent scout. “Think smaller publishers first.” Cebulski—who regularly doles out free advice to aspiring comic creators (whether or not they take it) on Twitter—writes on his blog that Marvel hired 144 new freelancers in 2009—but only 24 of those were writers. It’s simple mathematics: Established writers can turn out multiple books per month without quality suffering much, whereas artists and colorists take much longer just to complete one issue, so there’s far more demand for visual creators and far less opportunity for wordsmiths. It doesn’t mean writers shouldn’t even try. It just means setting realistic expectations—especially when attending conventions.

“Don’t ever go to a con with the intention of pitching an editor a story,” writes Cebulski. “It doesn’t happen. Go solely to meet people and make contacts.”

There’s that repeated message: Get out there, make contacts, be professional. Seems simple enough. Also seems to be common sense. Still, I’m worried that too soon into this endeavor, I’m already feeling jaded by the big-time con circuit. Smaller festivals and shows have yielded better, measurable results for my boutique comics, but the truth is, if I want to make it out of the self-publishing ghetto, I’m going to have to get back on the con horse again. This fall, I’m going to test the waters again at Long Beach Comic Con, and who knows? Maybe this time next year I’ll be prepping for San Diego once again. And remembering the advice Jerwa offered up: “Never lock the door to your wildest imaginings.” Pj Perez makes comics, plays drums and generally avoids growing up.

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