In the first post I published on this blog, I bemoaned the reductive nature of writing advice. “If you write like everyone else,” I wrote, “your writing will read like everyone else’s.” While I have gotten away from that theme from time-to-time, I try to return to it every now and then as part of my series: Rules: What Rules? which consists of a series of blogs that deal with common pieces of writing advice, and then present a famous work–by a successful author–which breaks those rules. My aim is not to criticize these authors—I enjoy all of them, that is the point. Rather, I present their works as examples of successfully writing, which might cause you to reexamine the writing “rule” critically. I am not advising you to ignore these rules, rather to take control of your own craft, and consider your choices actively. As always, I believe there is more than one path to success, more than one formula for great writing. Consider these posts synecdochally. The specific rule is not the point; it speaks to a general attitude which is prevalent within the contemporary writing community.
In each blog post in this series, I will give a brief summary of the rule, followed by a case study of a successful author, work, or series that breaks that rule. Finally, I will provide some analysis of the rule and the alternative techniques the featured author makes. Since the posts in this series will not necessarily be consecutive blog entries, I will link each piece to previous entries.
Previously in this series:
The Rule: Don’t Write Independent Superhero Conics
One of the most common pieces of advice given to young comics creators is not to make superhero comics. How can you possibly compete with Marvel and DC, the big two companies who have a virtual monopoly in the genre? Do you really want to go up against the name recognition of those famous characters? Superhero readers know where to find the comics they enjoy, and they’re not coming to small-press row to find them. When I first started attending “Breaking into Comics” type panels at various cons, some piece of this advice was repeated on each panel.
Recently, there have been many non-big two superhero comics which have enjoyed commercial and critical success. Titles like The Boys and Invincible have even been picked up for streaming, and Barbalien, a book from Jeff Lemire’s Black Hammer series was listed on NYPL top 100 books (all books released that year, not just comics and graphic novels) of the year list a couple of years back.
Big creators like Alan Moore have written non-big two superhero comics, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, Mark Millar’s Kickass, and Mike Mignola’s Hell Boy are breakthrough indie comics from the relatively recent past.
Ahoy Comics, one of my favorite widely-available indie publishers (and not just because they’ve published my work) publishes multiple superhero titles, including two which I read regularly, The Wrong Earth, by Tom Pyer and Jamal Igle, and Second Coming, by Mark Russell and Richard Price.
If the major indie’s aren’t afraid of the big two, and are willing to publish superhero comics, shouldn’t all creators, regardless of where they are in their careers, be willing to do so as well? There certainly seems to be a path to success within the genre.
I would imagine that the most common response to my point about the success of independent superhero comics which I listed above would be that many–if not all–of these titles are not traditional superhero stories, but rather twists or angles on the superhero genre. Each puts a unique spin on the concept of superheroes, often deconstructing and critiquing the traditional trope, or using the familiar trope to affect a critique of society and address some larger theme. While this is true, it is not really different from any other genre. You wouldn’t not be successful writing a zombie book that was exactly like the Walking Dead or a crime book that was too similar to 1000 bullets, Criminal, or Sin City either. Originality is important, regardless of genre.
To this point, when I walk around small press and artist alley at various comic cons, or visit indie-focused comics Facebook groups, superhero is far from the most common genre. If anything, it’s horror, and based on my experience, it’s not particularly close. We may be getting to the point where, at least in small indie circles, superhero comics stand out, ironically, because of their rarity.
When I posted this idea in one of my comics groups last week, one of the responses was that the most successful independent superhero comics were, by and large, created by big-name creators, like Mark Millar, Jeff Lemire, and Gath Ennis. This is also true, but is it really that different from any other genre? Jeff Lemire has had success writing horror comics, fantasy, and sci-fi as well. Mark Millar has done space adventure, time travel scifi, and slice of life horror. Gath Ennis has written major titles in crime and war comics. If an independent creator were to attempt to sell work in any of these genres, they would be up against name creators regardless.
Moreover, if superhero comics are successful, shouldn’t we be creating in them? Shouldn’t we be practicing to get better at them, so that when we have the opportunity to pitch editors we have the style under our belts. Should we have portfolio pieces which show we can do that kind of work? If the top of the industry is producing superhero books, how can we break into that segment if we do not know how to create them? If we, one day aspire to write or draw for Marvel or DC (recognizing how unlikely that dream is for any creator) shouldn’t we be practicing and publishing with an eye toward that type of work?
Additionally, I believe that there is a marketing angle to writing independent superhero books as well. I have found that when I table at cons, I can find potential customers by observing what they are wearing. If I see a goth, for example, I might call them over to my table to check out Into That Darkness Peering or Love Letters to Poe, the gothic horror titles at my table. Well, superhero fans make up a huge segment of the comics-buying community. “Do you like Spider-Man? perhaps you’d be interested in checking out this book about a teenage…” “Oh, I see you’re wearing a Batman shirt. Let me show you my book about a revenge-seeking…” It seems foolish to ignore the largest segment of the comics fans.
I will end by saying that the prejudice against superhero comics in indie circles is real. There are definitely people who will tune you out if you bring up a super hero concept. Some of these people have power within the industry, and may reject a pitch outright just for being a superhero title.
If, however, one has the opportunity to pitch a company which publishes superhero comics, why would one not do so? And, since many in the independent world self-publish, there are really no restrictions on the types of books one can create.
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