Comic Books 101: The Finale

My Comic Books 101 series, which detailed all the wisdom I learned from my comic book writing class this past semester, sort of faded away without much explanation. Long story short: I graduated.

Happily, I finished the class with a professional portfolio that contained the entire script for my graphic novel Fusion (which, admittedly, I also wrote as my senior thesis in English), the first six pages penciled and inked by an artist, a springboard, and other goodies (like character profiles, visual references, etc.). So while I’m certainly no expert at the comic creating process, I’m at least considerably more experienced than I was four months ago.

So here’s my plan. This post will act as my transition from the Comic Books 101 series to my new series, I Can Write a Comic Book and So Can You! (which will detail the adventure of creating my first ever graphic novel).

And to pretend like this post contains serious content, here’s a list of what you’ve learned in Comic Books 101:

Resources for Comic Creators

Writer-Artist Collaboration

Selling Your Comic

Breaking Into the Comic Book Industry

Writer Rights

The Elements of an Effective Comic

Pearls of Wisdom

Comics Are…

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Interview with Comic Writer Kara Barrett

It’s not every day that I stumble upon a comic that 1. has a strong female lead 2. has awesome art 3. involves fighting, superpowers, and other such kick-ass elements. Kara Barrett’s The End Is Totally Nigh gets a little checkmark for each of my qualifications for a throughly enjoyable comic book read. And there’s a lot to learn from Ms. Barrett, who made her dream comic happen through the help of Kickstarter, hired artists, and a ton of hard work. In this interview, she shares her experiences and advice for those looking to get their comics out into the world. (Oh, and check out a preview of the comic here.)

Convince us, in one sentence, that your comics are awesome.

The End Is Totally Nigh is one BIG burrito-wrapped apocalypse of awesome filled with hellfire, horseheads, heroes and demons! How’s that?

What is your favorite comic or graphic novel?

My favorite comics right now are Rachel Rising and Saga. But I’m always looking for new titles. You have any recommendations for me? I’ve also backed a few on Kickstarter that I can’t wait to read.

What (or who) inspired you to begin creating comics? Why did you begin writing and creating comics?

I read comics when I was a kid and then stopped. When Buffy went to comics, I picked up a few copies and fell back in love with them. A few years ago I started writing this story in a loose format. I looked at different mediums for my story, and ultimately decided that comics were the way to go. I think they are a great way to put your story into people’s hands.

Tell me about  The End Is Totally Nigh.

The End Is Totally Nigh is a story about a girl with mysterious abilities who is trying to stop the impending apocalypse. She suddenly has the ability to exorcise demons, but it isn’t sure how or why she is able to do this. All she does know is that the demon army is about to rise and Lucifer is going to walk the Earth. It’s up to her and a group of ragtag demon hunters to try make sure that doesn’t happen. It’s a supernatural story filled demon bad guys and plenty of apocalyptic drama. I think readers will really enjoy it.

If your comics had a soundtrack, what songs/artists would it include?

The End Is Totally Nigh playlist? Yes, I’ve got to create that!  I think there’s some country music on that playlist. T-R-O-U-B-L-E and Amarillo by Morning for the main character Jane. And Thunderstruck. That’s a must. I’ll have to ponder on the rest.

Why did you decide to write a comic with a strong female lead? When I began work on my own graphic novel, Fusion, I purposely wanted to break gender stereotypes so prevalent in superhero comics. Were you motivated at all by a similar “feminist” objective?

I definitely wanted strong women in this comic. The End Is Totally Nigh is filled with great female characters who take charge. They are also drawn in a more realistic manner than a lot of what you see in today’s comics. I hope that is a refreshing change for some readers.

You used Kickstarter to fund The End Is Totally Nigh. Would you use Kickstarter again to fund another project? Why did you choose to use Kickstarter in the first place?

I heard about Kickstarter and decided to try it as a last attempt to make this series happen. It was a lot of work but totally worth the effort. I think crowdsourced funding is helping a lot of indie writers get their stories to public. I think that means we can expect a lot more variety in comics and graphic novels. I would definitely try it again and may do so very soon. The End Is Totally Nigh is funded from my own pocket, so I will be in need of an influx of cash soon to keep the series going. 

What was most intimidating about breaking into comics, and what tips would you give others who are hoping to break in as well?

I think I read something recently where someone said, there is no such thing as ‘breaking’ into comics anymore because of sites like Kickstarter. If you have the gumption, you can just go out there and MAKE a comic. I think that’s true. Write a story you believe in, find an artist and get your funding. Anything is possible!

What advice would you give other aspiring comic artists and writers in regards to getting their stuff published? What are the pros and cons of self-publishing?

Self publishing is a lot of work, especially if you are new to the business and no one has ever heard of you. But the upside is that if you self-publish you can keep all of the profit. If you have the time and money to devote to self-publishing, then go for it. Personally, I am juggling full time work, freelance work and writing and promoting this series. My plate is pretty full. I have recently found a small indie publisher willing to help distribute the title. I hope to be able to announce who that is very soon. Once I have more experience I may pitch a new book to a big publisher and see if gets picked up. Ultimately, I think it’s really just a matter of what you have the time and money to accomplish.

How do you think the experience of comic creating and publishing differs for men and women (if it does at all)?

I really don’t know. This does seem to be a male dominated industry, but that is changing. Kickstarter and sites like that are giving a lot of female writers a chance to create and publish their own projects. That is really exciting. I’m glad to be a part of that.

What is your next project?

I have two in the pipeline. One is a mini series and the other is a one issue horror story. I hope to get the funds to do one or both of them later this year. Right now I’m devoting my energy to getting my series off of the ground and hopefully hitting some cons this year.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

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Review & Rating of Jack Hammer, Issue #1

Book One: Political Science, Part One

By Barrows and Ionic

Publisher: Action Lab Comics

Jack Hammer is a crime noir style comic book with a unique superhero twist, reminding me a little bit of both Watchmen and X-Men as well as the new series Fatale. The crime noir style comes out most evidently in the storyline, which centers around a self-employed detective, Jack Hammer, who—and here is were things get unique—has a superhuman activities license. The dramatic silhouettes, the clothing style of the characters, and even the dialog nod to crime noir. And while I’m a fan of crime noir, even as it is attempted today in comics like Fatale, I’m not completely sure if Jack Hammer makes it work. The first issue does little to define itself as a unique noir comic, one that borrows the elements of traditional crime noir and shapes them into a unique story. The concept of people with superpowers kicking butt in this noir world, however, does intrigue me, and I’m hoping that Jack Hammer’s world continues to develop in a unique way with issues following

The art is perhaps more compelling than the storyline.  Reds are a prominent color throughout, while sepia-toned flashbacks make for a dynamic read. I’m most compelled by the “sketchiness” of the lines, something I haven’t seen before in a superhero comic. The artwork infuses into the story a tone and attitude (fast-paced, urban, rough) that is trying desperately to match a storyline that still hasn’t come into its own.

Ultimately, I have high hopes for the future of Jack Hammer, as the story—hopefully—begins to define itself as a unique twist on the noir style.  If you are a crime noir fan who also enjoys the superhero genre, it’s worth a read no doubt. You can pre-order a copy here:

% Panels Devoted to Women

23%

Women in Action

★ ★ Women occasionally participate in plot-moving action.

We’ve got a couple of apparently important women in the story, but it remains to be seen if they truly are big players.

Women as Leaders

★ ★ Women depicted occasionally as leaders.

Women as Sex Objects

★★★Women are depicted as sexy (or their sex is not emphasized at all), but their allure does not define their purpose as a prominent, plot-moving character in the comic.

I’m happy to give Jack Hammer three stars for this point. There are only a couple of important female characters thus far, and while they are certainly attractive, their sex isn’t overemphasized.

Men Deviating from Male Stereotypes

★ Men never express their emotions; they engage is mostly physical action. They are depicted as logical and apathetic. 

It’s a crime noir comic that mostly sticks to the stereotypical rough and gruff detective character.

Comic Books 101—Part Three

Everything in a panel matters.

Everything in a panel matters.

Everything in a panel matters.

Got that?

My professor had the class watch a Charlie Chaplin silent film and then asked us how Chaplin’s techniques could be applied to our comic writing.

1. Sequential action. One thing leads to another that leads to another. Comics are also called “sequential art” because they show actions that sequentially build on each other. A good comic clearly portrays the sequential action. A good comic isn’t just a bunch of people standing around in a room and talking. Stuff actually happens.

2. Expression. Have you ever read a comic in which the character has the same mild expression on her face when she’s sad, angry, happy, tired?…you get the idea. The mark of a good comic is accurately portrayed expression. If a pair of eyes filling the panel tell you something, the comic is doing its job. Just look at Charlie Chaplin’s face. No sound, and you know exactly what he’s feeling.

3. Everything presented matters. In the Chaplin film, images—wine bottles, a revolving door, a man with a cast on his foot—repeated themselves. But everything was there for a reason. The plot and characters depended on these images, and no image was carelessly thrown in and never referenced again. As comic writers, we not only control what our characters do and say, we also dictate what surrounds them. If I put a picture of Buddha in the background, it better be significant.

So remember, everything in a panel matters.

Here are some more small gems of wisdom from my third comic writing class:

Try using Open Office Word processor for your scripts. It’s more user-friendly.

There is a fine line between too much detail and not enough. Provide models for your artist and address any cultural references.

Don’t insult the artist.

Comic Books 101 – Part Two

Another cold Chicago morning, I was sitting once again in my comic book writing class. The professor continually emphasized that in comics, words are never more important than images. That’s a tough thing to hear if you’re a creative writing major, but it’s the honest truth. Comics are, after all, a graphic medium.

Great art can save a mediocre script. Yet a brilliant script never saved bad art. That’s why for our final project, we’re required to convince an artist to draw the first six pages of our script. And it’s scaring the hell out of most of us. What if I can’t find an artist? What if my artist bails last minute? What if the art is terrible?

But this is the nature of comic writing and also what makes it unique. In typical prose, what you write is what you get. The writer (editor notwithstanding) almost exclusively controls the end product of her writing. But in comics, what you write may not be what the art actually becomes. What you write (besides dialog and captions) isn’t actually read by your audience. Sounds like a writer’s worst nightmare!

Yet, comic book writing is great in its own ways. Comic books force writers to think in a new way, to collaborate with an individual(s) they may not even know. It’s exciting, actually, if you think about it. Great things come from collaboration. Comic books are proof that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Besides learning this humbling insight into comic book writing, in my second comic book writing class, I learned:

The Rule of 35- in any panel, you must have no more than 35 words.

GGA means “good girl art.” This I might want to avoid.

Avoid writing “talking heads.” Utilize the comic book medium and create movement and action that works sequentially from panel to panel.

Original art is usually drawn on 11 by 17 inch paper.

90% of everything is crap. That includes your writing.

Take some time to email some comic creators. They actually might respond.

Don’t tell your story through captions. Captions are useful for irony (contrasting with what is shown in the panel) or to establish time and place.

The job of the last panel is to compel readers to turn the page.

Self-publishing is totally legitimate.

Check back next week to discover what I’ll learn next!

Interview with Comic Writer Jeremy Whitley

Yeah, I know, I interviewed a dude. But give this guy a chance! He’s got a lot of interesting things to say about women in comics. First of all, he writes the comic Princeless. The title is pretty self-explanatory, and, if you’re interested, you can read more about the comic in my recent review.

Convince us, in one sentence, that your comics are awesome.

 
It’s about a princess who saves herself, rides a dragon, and faces down terrifying monsters with nothing but a sword and her wits.

 

What is your favorite comic or graphic novel?

 
All time, Y: The Last May by Brian K Vaughn and Pia Guerra.  Currently…Batwoman.
 
 
Who is your least favorite author (of any medium and genre)?
 
Is is fair to take Stephenie Meyer?  Should she be off the table as too obvious?  Scott Lobdell goes here for comics, but I feel like that’s phoned in too.  He’s just too awful.
 
 
What is your dream job?
 
Professional writer.  Not of one thing in particular though.  I want to have my own creator owned stuff, but I’d really like to add something to that great superhero mythos as well.  I’d love Marvel to hire me to write a B level female superhero, one of the ones I feel just doesn’t get the stories she deserves.  Storm, Misty Knight, Dust or Ms Marvel.
 
 
What (or who) inspired you to begin creating comics?
 
I’ve always loved comics, but I had not read them in some time while I was actually studying to be a writer.  I stumbled on Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men while hunting down issue 1 of Buffy Season 8 and it reminded me why I loved comics.  From there, I put my head down and went for it.  So…while my dad got me into comics initially, I guess Joss Whedon inspired me to start writing them.  Never thought about it that way. 
 
 
What was the last book you read?
 
I honestly haven’t read many non-graphic books recently (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but the last thing I read was this great new all-ages comic called “The Intrepid Escape Goat” from 3rd World Studios.  It’s kind of an amazing book.
 
 
If your comics had a soundtrack, what songs/artists would it include?
 
“Sister Rosetta” by The Noisettes
“Feeling Good” by Nina Simone
“Creator” by Santi White
Definitely something by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Regina Spektor
 
 
No doubt your comic, Princeless, attempts to break down stereotypical portrayals of women in fairy tales (and comics). What inspired you to create Princeless? Were you ever concerned that writing a strong female lead might deter some readers?
 
I wanted to write this story because at the time I was considering the future and that my wife and I hoped to have a daughter.  I wanted to be able to share my love of comics with her and I wanted to write the sort of story that I would want her to be reading.  I’ve always been incredibly bothered by the princess culture that we push so many girls into. It’s okay for girls to like what they like, but if all they ever know is helplessness, rescue, and subjugation then what are they going to become?  I certainly want more than that for and from my daughter.
 
As for whether having a strong female protaganist would deter people from reading, the thought hadn’t really crossed my mind.  I guess I figure that if strong women bother them than they’re not my audience anyway.  Also, probably not people I want to get to know.
 
 
What advice would you give other aspiring comic artists and (particularly) writers in regards to getting their stuff published?
 
Think.  Work.  Create interesting characters.  Keep putting things out there.  Go to conventions even if you don’t have anything to sell.  Talk to the people who are doing what you want to do.  Make connections and make friends.  Keep going.  If you can’t find anyone to publish your stuff, publish it yourself.  When you have success, it’s going to feel like luck, but remember all the work you put into being lucky and don’t stop working.
 
 
What was most challenging about founding (and managing) Firetower Studios?
 
The most challenging thing about being an Indy comic creator is also the most challenging thing about being an indy comics publisher:  Keeping your head up.  It feels like no one is reading your comic.  To this day I’m certain I’ve spent more money on Firetower than I’ve made and that’s especially tough as a writer where you have less chance to do commission work at conventions and make your table money back.  In fact, I think SPX last year may be the first show where I actually made money…well, if you don’t count what I spent on the hotel and food.
 
 
How do you think the experience of comic creating and publishing differs for men and women (if it does at all)?
 
I’m obviously not an expert at being a woman in comics, but it seems to me that it’s way harder for women.  There’s a fair amount of misogyny in the industry and fanbase, but beyond that, there’s the question.  How will people receive your work once they know you’re female?  Will that effect whether or not they buy your work or hire you for a job.  Then there’ll always be those that insist that you only got the job because they needed a girl who blanks.  I’m very rarely asked what it’s like being a white man who writes comics, but no matter how good female creators are, that’s always going to be a question for them.
 
 
What is your next project?
 
Well, Princeless Book 2 should start making its way out a little later this year, but right now I have my fingers in a lot of other pies.  Firetowerstudios.com puts up new webcomics every weekday and we’ll have two (maybe three) new books coming out this summer.  All of them are written by me and all feature female leads.  That wasn’t a plan, it just happened that way.  “Illegal” which I’m doing with artist Charlie Harper is a book about being an undocumented immigrant in an increasingly monitored and socially stratified future.  It’s an action book, despite that description.  “Skip”, which I’m working on with artist Rich Lombardi, is a more traditional super hero comic, but it follows a superheroine who’s very new to the business and finds herself in the middle of a fight to the death between the forces of good and evil.  Finally, “The Last Fairy Tale” which I’m working on with artist Jason Strutz is a story about a future where magic has devastated the world and the few lone survivors live in magically protected communities.  One girl stumbles on one such community that suffering from a mysterious, but incredibly familiar curse.