Comics is a tough business. There are SO many things you need to get right in order to have a chance at having a successful book. Like it or not, the TITLE of your book is one of the most important decisions you’ll make.
You’ve simply GOT to have a great title.
Your title is your brand. It’s the shorthand for the work itself, and in many cases will become shorthand for YOU. So it’s something that you REALLY need to think long and hard about. (Yes, Michael Scott, that’s what she said. The Office…great title.)
Sometimes, coming up with the title is easy. Often, the title is the FIRST thing that you come up with. I’m in the process of building a story around a great title right now. I came up with the genre and type of story I wanted to tell first, and the name of the story second. I let that mull in my head for a few days, before coming up with an interesting hook, and am now working my way through the spine of a story. A great title will do that for you. If you can envision the book on the shelf, with that perfect title on the cover…sometimes that can be enough to keep you motivated to do all the necessary work to bring it to life.
However, sometimes the title is the LAST thing to come along. You know the story you want to tell, you’ve written plenty of scripts, you may have even had pages drawn for it. And sure, you’ve been calling it something during this process. Projects do need names…even if they’re just placeholders. But a “placeholder” title simply isn’t good enough. Until you’ve got your blockbuster title, you’re not ready to release it.
I would encourage all of you to push hard to attach a “million dollar title” to everything you do. What do I mean by a million dollar title? I mean literally that…a title so good, you could envision it supporting a million dollar media property.
Mark Millar does this for all of his work. Whether you love or hate his work, you’ve got to admit his titles are great. Wanted, Kick-Ass, Nemesis, Secret Service, War Heroes, American Jesus, Super Crooks…it’s not hard to imagine those as the titles of a comic, novel, tv series, movie, or video game. And in Millar’s case, he pursues an all-of-the-above strategy for all of his titles…to the tune of millions of dollars.
What Makes a Great Title?
Naming a book is a creative endeavor. All creative endeavors lend themselves to a certain measure of subjectivity, and surely you and I could disagree on the strength of any given title. However, I will argue that there ARE some general rules of thumb that make some titles objectively better than others. I’m going to discuss those rules now, and then I’ll analyze the titles of some recent new comics to see how they stack up.
Your Million Dollar Title Checklist
1.) Is it Ironic?
Irony is one of those concepts I always sort of got, but often struggled to explain. (And I’ve got the high school English papers to prove it.) Then Alanis had to go and make that song and fill it with examples that weren’t really irony…just kind of crappy things to happen to people. But I digress. A great title often has an element of irony to it, and by that I mean, there’s something about it that causes the reader to expect something, but he/she actually gets something else. People like twists, and irony is a surefire way to catch people’s interest. Your pitch or hook MUST contain an element of irony, but it’s even better if your title does, too.
The Walking Dead – (Bu-wha?! The dead aren’t supposed to walk! What’s going on here?)
High Moon – (Wait, I was expecting “High Noon”…but High Moon…and is that a werewolf with a ten gallon hat? Color me intrigued…)
Kick-Ass – (Wait, can that nutty Scottsman ACTUALLY get away with titling a book Kick-Ass?!)
2.) Does it Say What Your Story Is?
Of course, irony will only get you so far. In his brilliant book Save the Cat, Blake Snyder writes, “a great title must have irony and tell the tale.” I was reviewing some pitch information from a creator the other day who was in the home stretch of getting a new book out. He had an ironic title, but unfortunately, it did nothing to say what the story was about, and rather would lead readers to believe the story was about something different. That’s a no no. Million dollar titles, in one or a few words, clue the reader in on what they’re going to be getting if they plunk down their hard earned greenbacks for a copy. In the case of comics, and in Superhero comics in particularly, this is most simply achieved by naming the title after the main character. Sometimes the direct route is the best one.
Batman – (It’s a story about a guy who dresses up like a bat. What more do you need to know?)
Invincible – (It’s the story of a guy named Invincible, who pretty much is.)
Pride of Baghdad – (War story of a pride of lions taking place in war-torn Iraq.)
3.) Can it be Shorter?
I like one word titles. I like short titles. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the shorter the title, the bigger the font of the logo, and the more easily read your title will be on the racks. Don’t underestimate that. Second, communication in many areas is being reduced to short hand. Short blog posts are more likely to be read. Short Tweets retweeted, etc. Having a big long title doesn’t lend itself well to repeating.
Singer Fiona Apple just released a new album called (and I sh*t you not), “The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do.” That’s a 23-word title. That’s ridiculous. (Of course, it’s SO ridiculous, she got a decent amount of press for it and I’m talking about it, so chew on that. But in general, you don’t want to pull a Fiona. (Worth noting…the song Fiona is most known for was just one word, simply titled “Criminal.”)
In general, the longer the title, the more likely it gets butchered by Bleeding Cool, or not passed on. Yes, there will always be exceptions, but think hard about making your book one of them.
4.) Does it Pass the Internet Test?
You can’t copyright titles. (You can trademark them, but this isn’t a lawyer column.) The fact is, you can pretty much title your book whatever you want. However that doesn’t mean you should. Before you lock in a title, I want you to run this internet diagnostic:
- Google it! - Google the title, and the title + “comic” and see what comes up. The less the better. Sometimes you’ll find your title is already being used. If that’s the case, you need to decide whether or not you’re willing and able to do what it takes to push your book ahead of whose in front of you. If not, you’re going to probably want to switch it up.
- Amazon search it! – What are people who want to buy your book going to find when they look for it on the place where the most books in the world are sold? Better to find this out now than later, right?
- Domain name test it!- Can you get the domain name “your title”.com or something close? If not, again, you might want to call an audible on the title.
Let’s Look at Some Recent Titles and See How They Hold Up?
With the above rules in mind, I’m going to give you my take on the strengths and weakness of some recent new titles that have come out. Now, most of these are going to be Image comics, because, let’s face it, Image is most visible publisher putting out new ideas in comics. I won’t be including any old licensed properties, but would rather focus on the recent. Also note, I won’t be making any judgement on the books themselves, this is simply a title evaluation.
Peter Panzerfaust – This title by writer Kurtis Wiebe scores very well. Is it Ironic? Sure…Peter Pan…zerfaust! Weren’t expecting the German were you! While most readers probably wouldn’t put together exactly what this story is without out getting a bit more, when they hear that this is a World War II retelling of Peter Pan, they get it. Whenever people can GET your title, this is a good thing. The only drawback to this title is that I’ve heard people absolutely butcher the name “Pazerfaust”…”Peter Panzertwist”, “Peter Panzerface”, “Peter Pantywaist”…there’s not much you can do about this.
The Strange Talent of Luther Strode – Okay, I’ll be honest. I hated this title…at first. It seems to fly in the face of my above recommendations. It’s way too long. There’s nothing ironic about it. And it’s not really clear what the “talent” is that they’re talking about. It’s sort of a superhero book, but I’ve rarely heard the word “talent” used as a synonym for power. It’s a weak one at best. ”But, Tyler,” you’re saying, “Luther Strode is a BRILLIANT book and a huge indie hit. So, all this talk about the importance of a title is hogwash!” (Yeah, that’s right, you used the word “hogwash.”) And to that I would counter, YOU are right… “Luther Strode” is actually a GREAT name. See, when talking about the book, virtually NO ONE calls it “The Strange Talent of Luther Strode.” They call it Luther Strode. And there, Justin Jordan did a great job of picking a very unique name that does phenomenal on the Google test. (Bonus writing pro-tip: When naming your characters, seldom-used verbs, like strode, are great last names. They just do.) And then when I heard that Jordan envisions Luther Strode as a trilogy, with sequels perhaps titled, “The Legend of Luther Strode” and “The Legacy of Luther Strode“, it hit me that the guy did his homework. He wasn’t building a title here…he was building a franchaise. Well played, Mr. Jordan. Well played.
SCAM – What about ComixTribe‘s own title, SCAM? It’s certainly short enough, that’s for sure! When you hear a book called SCAM, your mind immediately thinks of con artists, money, tricks, double crosses, and the like, all of which figure prominently in Joe Mulvey’s book. You know what this book is about before you open it up. What doesn’t come across in this title is the super-powered angle. But getting that across probably would have ventured into the land of cheese- “Super Scam”? Barf-worthy. The superpowered element is downplayed in the book, so downplaying it in the title works. SCAM definitely is a million-dollar title, and could easily work across a wide range of genres.
Green Wake – I think Kurtis Wiebe learned his lesson. As good a title as Peter Panzerfaust is, Green Wake is not. (It didn’t help that Image released a title called Blue Estate at about the same time…also an obtuse name for a book.) While it likely does fine on the internet test, I beg any of you who haven’t read this series to tell me what a comic called Green Wake is about? Hell, I read the first issue, and I still can’t tell you what the comic is about. This book built a nice cult following, but in today’s comic market, a cult following might not be enough. I do think part of the reason this book had to end it’s run at issue #10 (still a commendable feat) was that it was a title that was too obscure for the casual fan to take a flyer on.
Thief of Thieves – Kirkman gets it. There’s a reason he’s living the dream right now. This title is both ironic and tells what the book is (it’s a book about a great thief who steals from other thieves…it’s all right there in the title.) There’s not much more to say about this one. It’s perfect.
Superbia – This is a home run title. Without seeing anything else (art, log-line, pitch, etc.) I could tell you EXACTLY what this new Image title is about. Superbia…clearly it’s “Desperate Housewives” meets “The X-men.” It’s ironic in a “Wow, those words fit together perfectly! Why didn’t I think of that!” And there is NO greater compliment you can get on your pitch than “Why didn’t I think of that.” This title is a license to print money. Bravo, Grace Randolf.
One thing you may have noticed is that, on the whole, I’ve liked most of these titles. That’s not a coincidence. The fact is, books with lousy titles either don’t get made or don’t get talked about. So don’t pitch your book until you’ve got a title as good or better than some of the ones above.
Alright, there you have it. My humble opinion about what makes a million dollar title. In the comments this week, I’m willing to workshop some titles with you. Post your title and your title only and I’ll give you my thoughts.
Tyler James is a comics creator, game designer, and educator residing in Newburyport, MA. He is the writer and co-creator of superhero murder mystery maxi-series THE RED TEN, EPIC, a superteen action comedy, and Tears of the Dragon, a swords and sorcery fantasy. His past work includes OVER, a romantic comedy graphic novel, and Super Seed, the story of the world’s first super powered fertility clinic. His work has been published by DC and Arcana comics.
Tyler is the publisher and co-creator of ComixTribe, a new website empowering creators to help each other make better comics.
Category: Comix Counsel