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B&N Week 62: Quality Is Job One

| February 28, 2012 | 3 Comments

It’s Tuesday! Here in NC, it’s been a mild winter. I haven’t needed much more than a medium jacket for most of this winter. Terrible. I used to live in Arizona, and living there during the winter was about the same, but with less humidity. I’m looking for actual winter, here: cold, snow, and cold snow. As winters go, this sucks. There’s no quality to this winter.

And that’s what I want to talk about this week. I want to talk about quality, and the effect it has on your creations. So, let’s get into the Bolts & Nuts of that, shall we?

I’m just going to come right out and say it: most of you are putting out extremely crappy comics. I’m talking all around, straight up crap: writing, art, and lettering. No, don’t get upset. Don’t start looking at one another, either. You’re all at fault. In the indies, I’m going to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of two people: the writer, and the editor.

(Why them?) In the indies, writers are generally the prime movers. They’re the ones with the ideas, and they want to see them come to life. That means they have to pay for it. Simple. As for editors, I’m generally talking about small press editors. They either don’t know what they’re doing, or they’re too afraid to ask for changes, or both.

Let’s talk about the writer first. (Of course you were.) [Of course I was.]

Go look at the Help Wanted sections of any comic board you care to frequent. The overwhelming majority [99%] of those ads are from writers who are looking to create a comic. That’s great! That means comics are getting made! Love it, right?

Until you start to run the numbers. When writers run the numbers, they then start to cut corners. The first thing to go, if it’s even thought of, is the editor. Right after that, the letterer goes [because everyone knows that putting words on the page is simple]. Then, the colorist, because color isn’t that important, right? That leaves the writer and the artist, who’s going to do their own inks.

This, my friends, is a recipe for disaster.

Go pick up almost any small-press book, and look at it. Sucks, right? Not up there with the polished look you’re used to from Marvel and DC [and Image and Dark Horse and Oni and…] The characters look the same, except for their clothes, the anatomy is off, as is the perspective, the storytelling in the art is unintelligible, and that’s just the art. The story itself is uninteresting, drags, and has places where it just doesn’t make any sense. If there’s color, then you have all kinds of tricks that new colorists like to pull out: over-saturation, lens flares, blurs, photo-realism.

All of it goes into making a crappy book that was brought to market, and then won’t get sold much beyond local markets [a few comic shops in the creator’s immediate area]. (Isn’t that harsh?) No, that’s not harsh at all. This is truth. Your story, Sunrise of the Mummy, which is about mummies rising up and taking over the world because it moves too fast and they want it to shuffle along, just like them—that story isn’t interestingly told from a writing perspective, and visually, it’s little more than an eyesore. It won’t gain traction outside of your immediate circle of friends, your local comic shop(s) may not take more than three or four issues, and Diamond won’t touch it. You tried to get it into Image and Dark Horse, but they aren’t returning your calls.

You’re trying to peddle crap.

As for small-press editors, they need to grow some balls. (Ouch! Not looking to make friends much, are you?) [This isn’t about me making friends. This is about the truth.]

I’ve seen/read too many small press books that were “edited”, and there are simple mistakes in the writing/storytelling, as well as in the art. I mean the complete visual language of the book: art, colors, letters.

I have a friend whom I edited for part of a story. He then was able to get that part of a story into a publisher, and the publisher assigned him an editor. The editor then made some suggestions, but didn’t really edit the story. “How about this” was said, instead of saying “this is wrong, and this is why it’s wrong—fix it.”

Small-press editors are too afraid of rocking the boat, and it shows in what’s being published. Either a lack of fortitude, or a lack of vision for what the book should be putting out in the world. Both of these things are lowering the quality of your book.

It’s quite simple: without quality, your book will not sell. Something about the book has to say “quality” about it. Without that core of quality, your book will languish. This is a simple fact.

How do you inject quality into your books?

That’s the million dollar question. There’s no magic bullet, but there are ways to raise the odds of injecting that quality.

The first way, writers, is to save your money. Remember when I ran the numbers a while back? Hone your skills, stop going after straight collaborations, and pay your creative team. Trying out an artist who’s just learning is nice, but it isn’t going to sell your book. Selling your book is the ultimate goal. If you’re not thinking about that, then you’ve already lost.

The second thing to do is to hire an editor. Not just any editor, either. New editors are great, but if they don’t have vision, then they aren’t going to be able to help you. I have very strong views as to what a comic should look like, and how a story should be told. I will let you know in no uncertain terms what works and what doesn’t, and why. I’m not saying that you have to hire me, or an editor like myself; what I’m saying is that if you don’t hire an editor with vision, your book is going to suffer if you don’t have a strong vision yourself.

If you’re able to get your book into a small-press publisher, don’t be afraid to ask about the editor and their style. Ask to talk to them, either on the phone or through email. You’re looking for vision, you’re looking for compatibility, you’re looking for someone who’s going to guide your story if it starts to go off the rails [starting with you]. Talk to other creators that the editor has worked with, and ask about the editor. [For that matter, ask the freelance editor for references. They should have no problem in providing them.]

You do these things, the quality of your book should go up. When the quality go goes up, then good things get said about your book, and the more critical acclaim your book gets, the better your odds are of getting your book into Diamond, or moving up into Marvel/DC.

A prime, recent example of this is Sam Humphries. (I vaguely remember that name…) He wrote two books: Our Love Is Real, and Sacrifice. Both books are independently published, and both sold out. He was able to get a second printing of Our Love Is Real published through Image, and due to the success of Sacrifice, he gained the eyes of Marvel, and is now co-writing Ultimate Comics: Ultimates with Jonathan Hickman. How did he do that? Quality. He brought a former Marvel editor onboard to edit Sacrifice, and he also worked with pros on the covers and book design. He focused on quality, because cutting corners would have left him with a crappy book.

Quality books. Quality is job one.

Homework: save your money! The more you save, the better a creative team you can hire. As you’re saving your money, write down questions you’d like to ask your prospective editor. Also write down the answers you’d like to hear. As long as they hit those notes, you should be good to go.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

Comments (3)

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  1. John Lees says:

    Good article! I’m paraphrasing, but I remember when Warren Ellis was asked how a writer can make a submission stand out, and he said something like, “Don’t be shit. Have a basic understanding of spelling and grammar, and competent storytelling ability. This will set you apart from about 90% of the slush pile.”

  2. That reminds me of something I wrote recently: indie comics are judged according to the same criteria as mainstream publications. There is no fund for the little guy. The money that could be used to buy your comic comes from the same pocket that forks out the dough for Avengers vs. X-Men.

    This is what you’re up against. If you can’t compete with their marketing department and 70-year grasp on the market, quality is what will make you stand out on the shelf.

    • John Lees says:

      Well said, Yannick. With The Standard, my goal was to create a comic book that wouldn’t just be judged as “good for an indy”, but rather something that could stand on the shelf next to Spider-Man or Batman and not look out of place. I can’t say if I was successful on my end, but thanks to the art of Jonathan Rector (not to mention Kel Nuttall and my various colorists), The Standard is definitely a book that LOOKS as good as anything else out there. And that’s what you should be striving for. Create a book that, if you saw it on the shelves, YOU’D want to buy it.

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