Category Archives: Tutorial

The Full Script for WAYWARD #1!

Wayward01-CoverA-FRONT

A year ago WAYWARD #1 arrived in comic shops nationwide so, as a special thank you to all of you, I’m posting up the full script for the issue. If you own the issue or our first trade paperback you can compare the script to the final printed version page by page and see how the collaborative process of making comics works.

Please feel free to share this post and link far and wide.

WAYWARD #1 FULL SCRIPT
http://bit.ly/1i8zMJ6

All of us on the Wayward team deeply appreciate your support. Keep telling people about the series.

(PS: Back in 2011 I posted the full script for SKULLKICKERS #1. You can find that over HERE.)


WaywardVol01Cover-FRONT
Wayward Vol. 1
String Theory

(issues #1-5)

Rori Lane is trying to start a new life when she reunites with her mother in Japan, but ancient creatures lurking in the shadows of Tokyo sense something hidden deep within her, threatening everything she holds dear. Can she unlock the secrets of her power before it’s too late?

Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble
Book Depository
Chapters-Indigo
Cheap GNs
comiXology
Forbidden Planet
Instock Trades
Midtown Comics
TFAW
Third Eye Comics

How to Color for Comics?

With so many tutorials on my site about how to write comics, I occasionally get asked about good resources for other parts of the comic creation process. Well, I’m happy to point people toward this one, and that’s not just because it has a Skullkickers pin-up in the example. :)

skullkickers_edwinhuang_COLORS

K Michael Russell has put together an extensive online course that walks through professional comic coloring techniques step-by-step. If you check out the course outline you’ll see an exhaustive number of subjects covered, all broken down into bite-sized pieces that make it easy to understand and refer back to.

There are two versions of the course offered for sale. One is streaming video off the site and the other one is downloadable so you can have the files stored locally on your computer and reference them any time.

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advanced_techniques

When I was going through art school Photoshop was just coming into its own as production software and I had to learn a lot of these techniques through trial and error or by cobbling together tutorials from a variety of sources while asking friends for help. I wish I had something as clearly laid out and well organized as this course when I started digitally coloring my work.

Needless to say, I recommend it for people who want to produce pro quality comic coloring.

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Wayward – The Original Pitch, Redacted

Several people have asked me to post up my pitch document for Wayward like I did with Skullkickers. I’ve avoided doing that because the Wayward pitch is filled with story spoilers, but Rob Xara suggested I redact all the bits no one can see yet and that sounded fun… so here’s the original Wayward pitch with big spoiler sections blacked out like a classified military document.

Enjoy!

WaywardPitch-Redacted0

WaywardPitch-Redacted1

You’ll notice the whole thing is only 6 pages and the core of it is really just this one summary page. Yeah, it’s lean and mean. As I’ve said before, keep pitches short and focused. If a publisher likes it they’ll ask for more.

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WaywardPitch-Redacted4

WaywardPitch-Redacted5

Normally you’d also include finished comic pages with a pitch package, especially if you’re new to the industry. In this case both Steve and I were established with a solid body of work and the publishers we were pitching to knew we could deliver pro quality so that wasn’t required.

If you’ve never read Wayward before and the pitch material above has you intrigued, find out more about it by clicking HERE!


WaywardVol01Cover-FRONT
Wayward Vol. 1
String Theory

(issues #1-5)

Rori Lane is trying to start a new life when she reunites with her mother in Japan, but ancient creatures lurking in the shadows of Tokyo sense something hidden deep within her, threatening everything she holds dear. Can she unlock the secrets of her power before it’s too late?

Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble
Book Depository
Chapters-Indigo
Cheap GNs
comiXology
Forbidden Planet
Instock Trades
Midtown Comics
TFAW
Third Eye Comics

Conventional Wisdom – Part Two – The Experience

I’ve talked about a variety of different subjects related to creator-owned comics- writing craft, networking, promotion, and economics, but one of the areas I haven’t focused on (until now) is a big one: selling at conventions. Last time I covered getting prepared, now let’s talk about interacting with people at the show.

ConventionSelling2

I’m happy to report that the past two years at conventions have been my best in terms of sales. Part of that is because I have a lot of books at different publishers going at the same time, but that’s not the only reason I think my sales are up. Doing well at conventions is an alchemical mix of visibility, product, fan base, price point, and salesmanship… and it varies from show to show.

Each convention has its own feel. If you want to make the most of the convention ‘circuit’ you have to figure out which types of shows work best for you and try new ones to expand your reach and engage new readers. Convention culture changes, it evolves. Unfortunately you can’t do the same thing each time and expect the same results. With the growth of fan culture and the expansion of conventions all over the world, a very large and different crowd of people are now attending and if you’re not a major creator doing high profile work you’re going to have to adjust with the times in order to succeed.

Everything is changing quickly thanks to technology and the nature of our collectible culture (of which comics are smack dab in the middle of) is undergoing massive upheaval. It alters the way we consume media and you need to understand that when you’re sitting behind a table trying to sell your wares to strangers.

When we were younger, having a collection was a big deal: music, books, movies, whatever. It was part of our geek identity. Now we all have massive digital movie, book, and music collections at our fingertips and it’s changed the way we value and obtain media. Some people still collect whole hog, but many fans are far more focused/selective than they used to be. Selling entertainment is tougher than ever because it’s plentiful and cheap.

What cuts through all of those difficulties is the value of an experience. People in 2015 don’t just want to buy “stuff”, they want something special. They go to prestigious restaurants with unique menus. They throw elaborate theme parties. They travel to far off places and make sure they snap a photo to prove they were there. More than ever before the experience is just as valuable (maybe even more valuable) as what they purchase.

If people can buy things cheaper online (or for nothing if they pirate it) or more conveniently at their local comic shop, you have to give them an experience and offer something unique they can’t get anywhere else in order to consistently make sales at conventions.

ConventionSelling1

Here’s how I do it: I offer me; the interaction, the signature, and my genuine appreciation of you, the reader. The experience is enthusiastically getting a comic from the person who makes it. I do everything I can to make that connection and give people a positive convention encounter.

When someone comes up to my table, it’s not just a cold “purchase and go” scenario. It’s a social interaction and it has to be genuine. They might buy something but they’re also having an engaging conversation, something personal and hopefully memorable. I have a handful of seconds to make an impression and, if it goes well, they might be a loyal reader from then on.

Whatever you do, don’t just talk about yourself. Ask people about their day, where they came from, what they’re most excited about at the show. Listen just as much as you speak. If you see that they have an Exhibitor or Pro badge, ask about their work or how the show is going for them. Make it a two way interaction instead of a one way sales pitch and you’ll be surprised how much more receptive people will be to hearing about what you do and possibly supporting it with a purchase.

Don’t stereotype the people looking at your work. Some of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve had at shows were with people who you wouldn’t peg as “fans” in the typical sense. The convention experience is broader and more inclusive than ever before and with shows like The Walking Dead doing record numbers on TV and movies like The Avengers crushing at the box office people are more open to reading comics than they have been in a long time. Talk to everyone and you’ll be surprised how many might be receptive.

Does that sound obvious? Sure, but I still see dozens of creators, new and old, putting their stuff on a table and ignoring people unless money is coming out of their wallet. They make the whole thing commerce first, and it’s a real turn off for most attendees. Worse still, if sales are poor at the start of a show their attitude worsens as the weekend carries on, creating a negative feedback loop that’s almost impossible to pull out of – People suck because sales suck and so the show sucks.

For me, interacting with people is part of the joy of doing conventions. I get to leave my solitary workspace at home and meet people who enjoy what I do while also encouraging new readers to jump on board and read the stories I create. That enthusiasm carries through in how I interact with the people who come by my table and it’s helped me do well at conventions near and far.

When I finish a day at a show, my throat is hoarse and my brain is fried. I push really hard to be ‘on’ at conventions. Ask anyone who’s met me. I genuinely love it, but it can be exhausting. I totally understand if that approach is not for everyone, especially if you’re not normally socially gregarious. I don’t have a foolproof way of generating sales for everyone, just a bit of advice on engaging the audience that’s worked well for me.

ConventionSelling3

If you have something of quality and want to make an impression, think about the people you’re selling to and make it an enjoyable experience for them instead of focusing solely on the monetary transaction that benefits you.

Going to conventions has proved to be a big boost for my career. Many of the comic projects I’ve done can be traced back to the wonderful people I met at shows and the conversations we had there. A great convention reminds you about the energy and excitement that comes from this industry and, ideally, puts a few bucks in your pocket at the same time.

In future articles I’ll talk about setting up your table, pricing, and travelling to other countries for shows.

If you find my sales and tutorial blogposts helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share them with your friends, and consider buying some of my comics to show your support. Thanks!

Comic Art Portfolio Critique

Art critique is hard.

We create art as a form of expression and, because we put ourselves into the work, receiving critical feedback is a difficult process. Everyone wants to be complimented on their hard work, especially by working professionals in the field they aspire to be a part of.

Part of my job for the past 15 years has been to give portfolio critique. I’ve done it as an art instructor (teaching at Seneca College), as a project manager (when I organized creative services projects at UDON for ten years), and now as a comic professional (looking for possible artists to collaborate with on future creator-owned projects).

In that moment when you’re looking at someone’s artwork and they’re waiting for feedback you have to make a crucial value judgement:

What kind of feedback is going to be most useful to their development?
and
Does this person need kind encouragement or intense critique?

I’ve gotten pretty good at making that snap second decision but sometimes I still get it wrong. Every so often someone comes up to my table excited to show their work and they leave frustrated or angry at me. It’s pretty demoralizing for everyone involved.

The safe bet would be to just happily encourage everyone (even if that means they’re left with a false impression of the quality of their work) or refuse to give feedback at all (they can’t get angry at you if you don’t criticize their work) but I feel that’s disingenuous. I understand what it’s like wanting real evaluation and hoping you can use it to better your skills. I want to help artists improve their work.

At this point I try to limit myself to giving critique in person at conventions. It’s way easier to get a sense of what the right approach is when someone is right there in front of me. Also, if I tried to give proper feedback to everyone who asked online I wouldn’t have enough time to work on my own projects or have a social life (what little social life I have right now thanks to cascading deadlines).

All that said, I’m going to show you an example of an online critique I recently gave because I think the advice applies to a lot of comic art portfolios I see online and in person. The mistakes made were pretty common. This person has formal art training and isn’t a beginner. They specifically asked for critique so I didn’t hold back.

(Note: Everything I cover below relates to a portfolio built around modern/big two-style comic art. I don’t think every artist should draw the same or needs intensely detailed artwork in order to be considered professional, but the basics I talk about are helpful for almost any style, especially when you’re first getting established.)


• On many pages you’re not leaving enough room for dialogue or sound effects. Adding lettering would make those pages claustrophobic and cover up important elements that are part of the storytelling. Always draw pages with dialogue in mind and, whenever possible, work from an actual script rather than just illustrating silent scenes from your head.

• Your use of shadows and light is inconsistent from page to page, which comes across like you don’t have a strong understanding of light direction and volume. Your light sources are all over the place (except for when they’re coming from a very clear source like magic or a superpower) and your use of thicker or thinner lines has very little consistency. For many of your pages an inker would have a difficult time translating the pencils into any kind of a consistent look. You’re using lots of pencil shading to add texture and cover up weak drawing but that doesn’t help an inker who usually needs something more substantial to work with.

• Your anatomy looks like it’s kit-bashed from reference material (especially other comic artists and body builder photos) instead of being informed by actual drawing from life and a knowledge of anatomy. In some panels you’re exaggerating anatomy and other times you’re using photo ref or different comic artists as your inspiration and it shows. There are some panels that look good, but the other weak ones make it clear that you don’t have the innate knowledge or, if you do, it’s not coming through in your drawings.

• Your backgrounds are also quite inconsistent and I don’t get the sense that you have a strong understanding of perspective drawing. Don’t get me wrong, you have some perspective in your scenes, but it’s basic with a bunch of random detail-texture lines thrown on top of flat boxy walls. You’re rushing through the backgrounds and because of that most of them look poorly defined, both in terms of construction and a sense of depth. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not all about the characters. You’re adding all kinds of inconsistent shading to try and cover the page in ‘stuff’, but the actual sense of space is not clearly established. I don’t get a solid sense of the environments because, as far as I can tell, you don’t have a clear understanding of how they’re constructed. When I want to tell the difference between an amateur and a professional most of the time I can see it in their backgrounds. Yours aren’t coming across strongly.

• Watch out for line tangents, parts of a drawing where lines at different depths intersect and they look like they’re interacting with each other when they shouldn’t be. They confuse the viewer and flatten the sense of depth in your drawing. The best explanation/tutorial I’ve ever seen on line tangents was put together by Chris Schweizer. Read it!

• Leave more space on the edge of your pages. Storytelling should never be pushed right to the edge since it may end of up getting cut off during the printing process. Even if the sample pages you sent already have the bleed cropped and there’s extra breathing room on your originals I’m not seeing here, some of your panels are crushed in far too close to the page edge.

• Your page layouts are flashy, which is not necessarily good or bad, but accompanied with inconsistency it looks like you’re breaking panel borders and using odd panel arrangements to cover up a lack of understanding of the basics. That said, your left to right reading flow is pretty good. My eyes move through each page in the proper order and I know what’s happening, so your overall storytelling is okay.

I can tell you worked hard on these sample pages and most casual observers would be impressed with them but, in my opinion, they’re not professional quality. I don’t think they’ll move the needle at a larger publisher and you still have a lot of work to do to get to that level.


That’s comic portfolio feedback focused on intense critique rather than encouragement. Hopefully the person receiving it doesn’t want to punch me in the face or burn all my comics.

In broader terms, here are the most common problems I see with comic art portfolios:

PERSPECTIVE and VOLUME: Learning to visually ‘build’ with proper perspective, draw characters, scenes, and objects with a consistent sense of volume, and showcase a thorough understanding of depth and form is tough, but it will make a huge difference in the quality of your work.

ANATOMY and CONSISTENCY: Understanding how the human body works and being able to draw from life with a sense of gesture, structure, and clarity is a lifelong pursuit. A lot of beginners think this doesn’t apply when they’re drawing stylized figures but I, and most art directors/editors, would strongly disagree. Even when you’re stylizing your work there should be a consistent approach to the figure, even if it doesn’t conform to realistic anatomy.

CLARITY and COMMUNICATION: Comics are about storytelling. If the reader can’t follow the action and the story isn’t coming across clearly then the artist isn’t doing their job. Well defined panel to panel flow, good staging, clear storytelling, and strong body language are an important part of the craft.


I know there are exceptions. Yes, there are artists who ignore the above and still get work. Showing me dozens of examples of artwork that ‘break the rules’ doesn’t change the critique I’d give and here’s why:
If you want to consistently impress with your work and stand out in a field where thousands of other artists want to break in and ‘go pro’, concentrating on improving your perspective, anatomy, and clarity will always be beneficial.

If you want to get a better sense of how much/little detail is on a professional comic page, take one of your favorite comics to a local photocopy place and get them to blow up a few of your favorite pages 150% on to 11″ x 17″ paper. That’s approximately the size the artist was originally working at on most North American comics. At that full size you’ll get a better sense of how large each panel really is as its drawn, how much space is left for dialogue, how detailed the figures/environments are, and overall line thickness/line quality.

As you work to improve your skills, understand that it will probably take years and lots of mucked up pages before you approach anything resembling ‘professional quality’. There’s a term in animation we use called ‘pencil mileage’. No matter how many tutorials you read or critiques you receive a good chunk of your learning in art takes place by putting in the time and creating thousands of drawings.

If you found this post interesting or helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter) and share the post with your friends. Please consider buying some of my comics online, from your local retailer or from me in person if you see me at a convention. Also, please don’t ask me for a portfolio critique if you’re not prepared for critical feedback.

Creator-Owned Economics: The Changing Market

It’s been two and half years since I posted up my ‘Reality of Mainstream Creator-Owned Comics’ article that kicked off a furious online discussion about where money goes in the retail market and what creators are paid on small print run creator-owned comics. There’s rarely a week that goes by where someone isn’t linking to that article, tweeting at me about it, or otherwise asking for clarification about ‘how things work’.

Even when some people pointed to that article as ‘proof’ that Image Comics wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, Image stuck with me, kept publishing Skullkickers, and continued to make incredible strides in expanding the market for creator-owned comics. I’ve always been thrilled to have my creator-owned books published by Image because I knew why the company was formed and how it’s always worked: Creators are in complete control of their comics and they’re compensated based on its success.

The comic industry in 2015 is a very, very different place and a big part of that is thanks to Image Comics’s tireless efforts to show retailers and readers the strength of new ideas and new stories.

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SKULLKICKERS #1 (September 2010) and WAYWARD #1 (August 2014).

The Image model has always been about investing in yourself and reaping the benefits of that investment if sales are strong. I knew that going in with Skullkickers back in 2010 and, even when our sales were borderline unprofitable, I stuck with the series as a way to establish myself as a writer and show people our team could produce a high quality comic month after month. Now, four and a half years later, I’m seeing the benefits of that consistency and the growing creator-owned market with my new Image series called Wayward.

How much of a benefit? Well, let me show you…

ComparativeSalesFull

Wayward’s first five print issues have sold more than two and a half times as many as Skullkickers did over the same period 4 years earlier. As you might imagine, that’s an impressive jump and I think there are a bunch of reasons for that climb:

• Improved Visibility for Comics: Comics sales are growing in print and online, graphic novels are the buzz-worthy darlings of the book market, and comic-related movie and TV shows are more mainstream than ever. The ripple effect of that is a greater acceptance of comics from the general public and a more diverse fanbase looking for new stories.

• Image’s Success and Subsequent Growth: The success of the Walking Dead, Saga, Sex Criminals, and a host of other incredible titles have increased visibility and market share for Image. This is especially true with launch titles as readers and retailers look to these new series with excitement, hoping they’ll be on the ground floor for something special.

• My Career Growth: In 2010 I was practically an unknown creator in the mainstream comic market. Four years later I have quite a few other comic titles under my belt – Samurai Jack, Figment, Legends of the Dark Knight, Pathfinder, and a bunch of others. I’m not an industry powerhouse by any means, but the readers from those series seemed curious about what my next creator-owned title would be and jumped on board Wayward to check it out.

• Retailer Outreach: I’ve also done a ton of retailer outreach over the past four years. Having well regarded work is wonderful but only if retailers feel confident they can sell the books. As we headed towards the launch of Wayward, the crew at Image and I did a lot of communicating with retailers about the series, showing them exclusive artwork and previews, doing everything we could to prove to them that this was a series they could confidently sell to their customers. That lead to several comic shop and convention-exclusive variant covers for Wayward #1, bolstering our launch numbers by thousands of copies while creating extra interest in the series.

• Press Outreach: In the same vein, it’s a heck of a lot easier to get press coverage when you’re more established and we (Image’s PR crew and I) did a lot of press outreach as well to make sure Wayward was visible on every comic news and review site we could muster. The last couple months before the launch of issue one was a dizzying promotional tour of interviews, podcasts, exclusive sneak peeks, and more.

• The Series: Wayward is a very different series than Skullkickers. I love them both, but I’d be foolish not to note that Wayward as a concept is more inclusive and taps into a much larger potential readership than Skullkickers does. Cute supernatural teenage girls (surrounded by cats) kicking the shit out of monsters on the street of Tokyo plays to a bigger audience than a bro-centric slapstick violent D&D tale, especially in 2014-2015.

Okay, sale numbers are spiffy but how does that translate into relative profitability? Wait ‘til you see this…

ComparativeProfitsFull

I know you’re looking at that bar chart and can’t fathom how 2.5 times the sales magically turns into 7.5 times the profit. Trust me, I’ll explain.

Here’s the real beauty of the Image model when it’s running at full steam and, as far as I know, it’s something no other creator-owned publisher can match: Image has a flat administrative fee for soliciting and releasing each issue of a series. That amount does not change no matter how much the issue sells. On a relatively low selling comic (like back in 2010 with Skullkickers #1) that base fee can eat up most of what’s left over after the printer, distributor, and retailer take their cut but, on a strong selling comic that amount stays the same and the issue becomes a lot more profitable. A lot.

This is why that pie chart from my original retail post doesn’t scale well to different print runs and doesn’t perfectly sync up with the Image model. A 5000 copy comic has a very, very different money breakdown than one that sells 10k or more. Printing large quantities of something vastly decreases the cost per copy. The “price per unit” drops and the profitability per copy increases, but Image’s base fee doesn’t change.

Each issue and cover breaks down differently in terms of percentages/costs, but here is an approximate rundown of how our best one fared, WAYWARD #1 Cover A:
PieChart

As you can see, it’s a seismic difference from the chart I posted in 2012 based on a much lower print run/lower sales.

Skullkickers #1 went through three printings, but each one was a small run, which made the “per unit” cost quite high on each issue. Wayward #1’s first printing was a much, much larger run done all at once and, in turn, the profitability of that first issue was geometrically larger. A lot more copies printed, a lot more sold, and each one cost a lot less to produce, making us a lot more money when it was all said and done.

Cranking up that profitability even further, Image has been able to leverage their increased market share and larger print runs to aggressively keep their printing and shipping costs low even as their sales increase, leaving even more money for creators after the fees are covered.

You might look at that chart and imagine Steve Cummings (the artist and co-creator of Wayward) and I pelting each other with giant wads of cash, but it’s not like that. What those numbers mean is that we’re thankfully in the black right from our first issue, which is obviously where we want to be. Steve gets to make drawing Wayward his full time job (I’m still teaching at a local art college and freelance writing), and the color flatter, colorist, and letterer all get paid without me having to dig into my personal savings (like I do on Skullkickers). On top of that I can finally put some money into my “war chest” for convention travel and future creator-owned projects. If sales continue strongly I’ll make extra payments on my mortgage so I can be debt free that much faster.

It’s a solid start and miles ahead of where I was in 2010, but that doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. Strong launch numbers are one thing, but finding a loyal sustained readership is our long term goal and that requires a lot of work. By the time our first arc ended, Wayward seemed to be settling into a reasonable sales bracket, now we have to do everything we can to try and stay in that stable sales range over the long haul.

Image is bolstering our chances by releasing Wayward Vol. 1: String Theory on March 25th as a value-priced $9.99 trade paperback. We’ll make less money per copy on that first volume, but it’s a very smart way to increase our readership as retailers up their orders, new readers give the series a shot at a sweet price point, and current readers ideally pick up the collection for themselves or buy it as a gift for their friends (Pssst~ Have you pre-ordered your copy yet?).

WaywardVol01Cover-FRONTWaywardVol01Cover-FRONT-HC
Our standard TPB cover and the Emerald City Comicon exclusive hardcover.

We’re also releasing Wayward #6, the first issue of our second story arc, on the same day as our volume 1 trade paperback as a way to create extra sales synergy. Savvy retailers can bundle both together to get readers on board the new storyline, hopefully leading to additional subscriptions for their pull files.

On top of that, Steve suggested we create a series of connecting covers for our second story arc and I happily went along with the idea (leaving the logistics of that artistic monstrosity to him and Tamra, our kick ass colorist). We’re hoping fans will want to keep buying the single issues to create a sweeping 5 issue cover panorama. Here’s how the first three covers (issues #6-8) look when they’re connected together:

Wayward06-08Combined

Quality, consistency, and outreach. With a bit of luck those three things will convince retailers and readers to stick with us.

At the same time, Skullkickers is heading into its final story arc. Financially it’s always been a bit rocky but it’s proving robust with a long tail of digital and collection sales and has a strong audience online as a serialized webcomic. It’s the project that pushed my comic writing career to the next level and I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve done. Nothing else I’ve worked on since then would have happened without it.

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If we maintain our current production schedule on Wayward we’ll have two trade paperbacks out and be starting our third story arc in time for Christmas 2015. Skulkickers’ final arc, final trade paperback, and final deluxe hardcover will arrive before Christmas as well.

At each step we’ll be juggling solicitations 5-6 months ahead, scripting 3-4 months ahead, line art 2-3 months ahead, coloring 1-2 months ahead and letter proofing a few weeks before each issue heads to print. It’s a relentless game of “Scheduling Tetris” but, when the momentum is rolling, I actually enjoy it. There’s a constant influx of inspiration as line art and coloring samples pop into my inbox almost every morning. It reminds me that all of us on the team are working hard to create something that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for our efforts and the support of amazing retailers and readers like you. I love creating comics and want to keep this dream rolling as long as I can, learning more about the craft and business, year after year.

In the end, I think that’s what creator-owned comics are all about – charting your own destiny and growing creatively with each new project.

If you found this post interesting or helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter) and share the post with your friends. Please consider buying some of my comics online, from your local retailer or from me in person if you see me at a convention.

Conventional Wisdom – Part One – Getting Ready

I’ve talked about a variety of different subjects related to creator-owned comics- writing craft, networking, promotion, and economics, but one of the areas I haven’t focused on (until now) is a big one: selling at conventions.

TheJoysOfConventions

I’ve been attending conventions as a professional since 2002 and in the past 13 years I’ve exhibited at over a hundred conventions of all stripes- big pop culture shows, indy comic markets, educational festivals, library conferences, and classic comic cons. Each one has its own feel and its own set of challenges. There’s no possible way for me to give advice that can cover every convention eventuality, but I wanted to put together some key points for things I’ve learned through trial and error that now saves me a lot of stress and is helping get my work out to a larger audience.

First off, let’s talk about expectations and being prepared.

If you’re heading to a convention with the intent of selling or promoting your work and getting your foot in the door but you’ve never done this before, you need to make sure you’re realistic about your goals. You will not make piles of money. You will not sell hundreds of books. You will not be plucked out of a crowd by your favorite publisher and be given a contract that promises fame and fortune. Get that crazy crap out of your head. Conventions are great, but don’t spend money you can’t afford with delusions of grandeur.

If everything goes well you’ll have some fun, make some new friends, and could make a bit of money. As I’ve covered in my post on networking, some of the people you meet may end up being valuable contacts down the road, but it’s hard to tell where these things will lead.

Start local. If your city or a city within driving distance has a convention, that’s a safe bet. If you’re lucky enough to live in a well known convention city (I’m sure we could name a dozen, but off the top of my head let’s say New York, San Diego, Chicago, Seattle, or Toronto) then that’s no problem but with the proliferation of convention culture it’s easier than ever to find somewhere to set up.

Plan as far in advance as you can, especially if this is your first time travelling to a particular city. You’re better off pushing a convention appearance to next year than you are rushing into a show without a plan or proper materials. I can pull together a convention trip last minute now if I have to, but I’d much rather not.

Here’s how my table looked at Fan Expo Canada in 2014:
ZubConventionTable

(My new banner is a set of four that roll up quite small and, thanks to the grommets on each one, I can swap in new ones depending on which projects I’m promoting at each show. I also have a free-standing banner for shows where they don’t have pipe-and-drape set up.)

It’s the largest solo set up I’ve had at a show so far and, thankfully, it ran pretty smoothly because I planned ahead.

Here are some basic questions you should be able to answer while you’re getting ready:

What is the focal point of your table and how are you going to display that in a way that’s clear and easy to interact with? This is where attending other conventions or checking out photos of cons online can be a lot of help.

When you’re just starting out you probably don’t have much product, so this is pretty easy but, even still, early on I would measure a plot on my dining room table equal to the Artist Alley space I was about to get, tape it off and then pre-set up that space to see how it looked from both sides of the table. From there I could make adjustments and double check that everything fit properly. Once you do that a few times you’ll get a good handle on how much space is needed for product and signage.

If you’re going to be sketching at the table, is there enough room to do that? Self explanatory.

Do you have an inventory list and are you keeping track of your expenses? Even if you’re just doing this for fun, it’s helpful to know how much you’ve spent versus how much you make when you’re setting up at a show. It doesn’t have to be high tech. A simple check list for product and envelope to stuff receipts in is good enough to start.

Do you have supplies you might need over the course of the day? Here’s a quick list of basics that are always helpful to have in your convention travel pack:
• A money float so you can easily make change
• Your business cards
• Your portfolio (physical or digitally on a tablet)
• Book or other display stands
• Charge cords for your tech (If you’re a real keener, bring a power bar/multi-outlet too.)
• Pens, pencils, sharpies (thick and regular) and any other art supplies
• Post-it notes, extra paper
• Invisible tape and packing tape
• Clips, rubber bands, and safety pins
• An exacto-knife and pair of utility scissors
• A few feet of dark fabric to cover the table/product when you’re not there
• Granola bars and a couple bottles of water
• A small bottle of Aspirin and/or Tylenol
• Hand sanitizer and breath mints

At the end of each day/end of the show you should look over that list and restock anything that ran out.

Here’s a photo of my convention supplies for a typical show. It all fits in one backpack and is pretty easy to carry around. The only thing not pictured is my banner and books:
ZubConventionSupplies

Speaking of which, is your set up portable? Getting your supplies and product manageable and moveable is important, especially if you’re setting up by yourself. Get everything you need gathered in one place and make sure you (or you and people helping you) can actually carry it all. Imagine you have to do that while using an escalator or a packed elevator.

On the other hand, if it’s going to take multiple trips to get all your stuff into the show, do you know where load-in is happening and where you’ll need to park? Save yourself frustration and find out ahead of time.

Do you know where things are at the show? Find your table on the map. Write it down so you don’t forget. Locate washrooms and key booths you might want to visit ahead of time so you’re not scrambling trying to figure that out when the show is under way and probably crazy.

Do you know the area around the convention center/hotel? If not, do some research on restaurants, parking, the closest copy shop, and closest post office or Fed Ex. The better informed you are about the area, the easier things will be over the weekend. It’s also nice to be able to recommend places to go after hours.

Going to conventions has proved to be a big boost for my career. Many of the comic projects I’ve done can be traced back to the wonderful people I met at shows and the conversations we had there. A great convention reminds you about the energy and excitement that comes from this industry and, ideally, puts a few bucks in your pocket at the same time.

In future articles I’ll talk about pricing, selling, and travelling to other countries for shows.

If you find my sales and tutorial blogposts helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share them with your friends, and consider buying some of my comics to show your support. Thanks!

Creator-Owned Sales – Nov 2014 Update

Just over a year ago I put together a second pretty extensive post all about how long term sales were going on Skullkickers. I wanted to give people an understanding of the economics of what I’m doing without revealing the exact dollar figure amounts involved (that information is between Image Comics and the creative team).

Since then I’ve received two more accounting accrual statements from Image and also had a chance to dig deeper into the numbers and chart them a bit more accurately.

Here’s an updated look at where we’re at and some of my thoughts. I’m not going to repeat the same info from before, so feel free to check the earlier article for analysis of 2011 Q2-2013 Q2.

Here’s how Skullkickers has performed from our launch back in 2010 through to the first half of 2014:

2014-11-SalesChart2

2013 Q3-Q4: As I expected in my previous update, printing the deluxe Treasure Trove 2 hardback ratcheted up our expenses, but print sales are pretty much neck-and-neck, with digital keeping us slightly ahead.

2014 Q1-Q2: Reprinting our Volume 3 softcover built up some cost but we’ve been able to stay ahead with accrual sales. Digital sales are now becoming a larger factor overall as well. How much so? Well, let me show you in more detail.

2014-11-SalesChart3

Keep in mind the above is profit, not sales.

Digital sales continue to grow. Since there’s no print run or storage limit with digital they continue to build profitability over the long haul (particularly with the early issues as new readers sample the series during comiXology sales). Many issues that lost money in their initial print release have been able to make back their losses thanks to digital.

You can also see the effect our goofy reboot promotion (where we released five new #1’s in five months) had during issues 19-23. We’d never be able to do that sort of thing again, but it was a nice way to extend the life of the series a bit. I can see why Marvel and DC hit the relaunch button so often. Fans may say they’re sick of new #1’s, but the truth is that it can stir interest/sales.

Let’s look at the current state of the collections.

2014-11-SalesChart4

In my update a year ago Skullkickers Vol. 1: 1000 Opas and a Dead Body and Skullkickers Treasure Trove Vol. 1 weren’t profitable but now, thanks to longtail sales and digital, they’re making some money.

Skullkickers Vol. 3: Six Shooter on the Seven Seas sold through its initial print run and needed a reprint, so it’s back in the red (but will hopefully recover over the long haul).

Skullkickers Vol. 4: Eighty Eyes on an Evil Island hasn’t been out very long so there are more copies in stock than have currently sold. Thankfully digital sales are helping.

The deluxe Skullkickers Treasure Trove Vol. 2 hardback is, like the first one, very expensive to print and will take quite a while to make its money back. Even still, with a higher cover price it’s a great archival item to have available. The deluxe volumes sell well for me at conventions and, although it looks brutal right now, I think it will climb its way out of the red just like Treasure Trove 1 did.

A year ago our print expenditures had finally popped into a tiny bit of profitability. How are things looking now?

2014-11-SalesChart1

Okay, so that tiny breath of profitable fresh air in the green was temporary, but that’s okay. Things actually aren’t as dire as it may look, given all the data.

First off, Image paid us an accrual cheque based on digital sales in 2013, so when they had to print Treasure Trove 2 and Volume 4 and reprint Volume 3 that put them back in the red. Keeping the series in print and available is crucial for our long term viability.

Secondly, notice that digital sales continue to climb and that profits from digital are actually keeping pace with losses incurred through print. Digital is keeping us skimming along the break even line. I’m still hopeful that, once the series ends in 2015, we’ll end up in the black.

Compare the current situation to the low point of the first half of 2012. I can’t state enough that Image has been a rock through all of this, making their base amount and sticking with us, paying printing/distribution bills while we looked towards longtail sales for the series.

Keep in mind this is just analysis of one creator-owned series. As interesting as it can be, I can’t speak to anyone else’s sales or their financial situation. This sales cycle does not correspond to all creator-owned books. Please don’t make your own financial decisions based on what I’ve done. Everyone’s risk threshold and situation is different. You may end up throwing good money after bad. Wayward, my new creator-owned series that launched in August, has a completely different sales/profit situation and, if I have time, I may analyse that as well once we have our first trade release.

Note that this is not the full financial picture. The above charts don’t include convention sales, which are still going strong. The money made from direct convention sales, sketch covers, commissions and selling original page art has helped keep us going and viable. I exhibited at 11 conventions this year and, even though it was exhausting, it paid off in terms of sales and visibility for the series. It also doesn’t include money made from web ad revenue generated at our webcomic site.

Also note that none of the above takes into account freelance work that’s come from working on Skullkickers. If you factor in money made from the writing jobs I’ve done for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, IDW, Valiant, Dynamite, and UDON since the series began, it has turned a substantial profit in that way even after paying the art team out of my own pocket (which is not factored into the above. The charts above represent only Image Comics’ profit/loss). Skullkickers has been the foundation where I’ve built a 2nd career as a professional comic writer over a relatively short period of time.

Most importantly, we put out a comic that stands favourably beside some of the best titles in the industry and I’m incredibly proud of that. As we head towards our sixth story arc we’re going to have over 30 issues, which is pretty rarefied air for a creator-owned series in this day and age.

If you find my sales and tutorial blogposts helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share them with your friends, and consider buying some of my comics to show your support. Thanks!

Comics Survival Kit

Gail Simone, award-winning comic writer and long time friend/supporter of my work, has put together a new Tumblr called the Comics Survival Kit filled to the brim with resources for aspiring comic creators.

Compiling articles and information from artists, writers, and editors across the industry, it’s a great resource and quite interesting even if you’re not looking to make your own comic stories. Check it out!

ComicsSurvivalKit

Comic Story Critique

One of my students from Seneca College (where I teach Animation courses) sent me two finished comic scripts for feedback. I don’t normally have time for this kind of critique, but we’ve talked quite a bit in the class about his desire to create comics and I wanted to encourage him to continue and push him to dig deeper. Here’s the feedback I sent, since I think a lot of the critique I write applies to new writers just starting out.

(Please do NOT send me your pitches/scripts for feedback. I really don’t have the time to review them. I did this as a personal favour for someone I know. I can’t spend all my time critiquing the work of strangers, especially with my insane work schedule right now).

Hi (name removed),

Sorry for the delay in getting back to you on this.

First off, congrats! Writing stories is tough and creating something new for yourself, especially the first few times, is always an intense uphill battle. You’ve finished a draft and that’s worthy of praise.

I read through both scripts and have quite a few thoughts, but I want you to know that I’m giving critique because I want your skills to improve and feel you’re capable of learning from the feedback rather than taking it personally. Tastes vary and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another, but getting feedback and deciding what criticism is valid for yourself is key.

TITLE: I’ve been told by several people that titling a story something negative can create a subconscious negative impression of the story itself. I know what you’re going for with that title and it’s okay, but I thought I’d mention that right out the gate.

FORMAT: Many of your panel descriptions are too brief and far too generic. You don’t have to create flowery prose for a comic script, but you do need to have enough material in there for the artist (unless you’re drawing it yourself?) to draw inspiration from. Using terms like “the city”, “the bank”, “the police station” doesn’t give us a sense of the place or atmosphere. What kind of city is this? What impression do these places give? Rich, poor, modern, historic – what do we need to know about these places to help us visualize them?

Always impart relevant information the very first time it’s required. You have several pages mentioning the crowd of people at the start of the story before you include information on the fact that there are mutants mixed in with that crowd. You also don’t mention that the main hero guy is wearing tech on his wrist until later when he uses it.

Remember that ‘page turn reveals’ happen on even page numbers. You have several surprise/big reveal moments happening on odd numbered pages, which means that if this was a printed comic the reader would already have seen the big moment with their peripheral vision as they read along.

PLOT: Your core story (cops investigating a superhero murder, a lesser hero murdering the #1 hero they’re jealous of) is really, really well worn cliché ground that’s been done many times before. Every twist and reveal is exactly what I expected it would be as I was reading. There’s nothing new here that hasn’t been done in other places.

One of the toughest things about creating new stories and being inspired by all kinds of different sources is that your earliest stories tend to be Frankenstein monsters of all your influences as you learn about form and storytelling methods. In that way, that’s exactly what you’ve done here. It’s competent, follows narrative logic and all wraps up cleanly. I think you’ve learned a lot just by writing this… BUT, it doesn’t have anything new/different/unexpected to say about superheroes, murder, or police work. The tropes are locked in place and a reader who knows the genres you’re taking from enough to want to read this will also see nothing here to excite them.

RESEARCH: After reading the story I don’t get the impression that you’ve done any research at all in to how actual murder investigations are conducted. Go beyond base level clichés and easy 1 note solutions. Even if you don’t use 90% of the research you do on actual police work, you can enrich the story with a 10% extra dose of reality by doing the legwork and finding out about the real thing. Everything goes too smoothly for your loser cops. They stumble across evidence and solve everything without breaking a sweat. They don’t follow any kind of protocol and just sort of stumble along and have it all go their way.

Same thing with the technology. Everything comes across as generic and too simple. They don’t give a sense of high-tech/future tech or any kind of specific reality. They’re just sci-fi-style shortcuts without anything new/unexpected.

DIALOGUE: If the entire story played out in a generic way but the characters were unique and witty the story could still be entertaining. What really hurts it for me is that your dialogue is just as cliché as the plot. Every character says the expected thing in the blandest way possible to move the plot forward. Everyone’s dialogue is interchangeable. There’s no personality coming through in the way they speak or their attitudes. They spout plot facts and move to the next scene.

This is where research can really come into it. Enrich the characters with facts about their lives, the city the story takes place in, the things that are happening before the story ever began. How did they end up where they are in the police force? What do they do when they’re not working? Who are they and why should we care?

Read the dialogue out loud. Get into character and say it differently for each person. How can you make the characters more distinctive sounding? How can you strengthen their personalities through the way they speak?

Again, I get that you’re playing with clichés, but would it kill you to have a woman (multiple women) in this story anywhere? Two superheroes, multiple bank robbers, cops, the police chief… they’re all guys. Don’t fall into the toxic head space that guys are protagonists and women are background material. It’s bullshit.

THEME: What is the theme of the story? What are you trying to say above and beyond the basic sequence of events? Not every story will be deep and meaningful, but finding a message/theme can be a helpful way of pushing yourself with bigger ideas to help drive the story.

I’m not saying you have to force a ‘deep’ moral core into it by any means, all kinds of fun stories can be built on silly/slight premises, but right now there’s absolutely nothing beyond the sequence of events and those events are generic.

Say something you believe in, not just what you think the audience wants to hear.

I know the above may come across as harsh, but I really do want to reinforce that you’ve done a good thing by completing these scripts. The only way to really learn storytelling is to do it. Reading tutorials and how-to books can’t replace the work itself. These scripts are the building blocks towards your improvement and you should be proud of that, even when I’m cutting deep with my criticism. I hear far too many people tell me they want to write stories and create things and then lament that they never have the time or make other excuses. You’re doing it and that is worthy. Keep doing. Keep building, self analysing, and improving.