Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Owning Comics (Part 2): Begin with the Best

I had originally planned to include a full post in this series called "How to Read Comics," but I quickly realized—depending on which angle I chose to attack the issue from—there would be either very little to say or way too much. I decided to take the shortcut with a few quick tips and a book to read if you really feel like going extracurricular with this.

(ultra brief edition)

Tip #1: Realize it's not that hard to figure out how to read a comic book page. Believe that, and you'll figure things out in no time. Sometimes, comic book pages can be intimidating. The format is unfamiliar, there are lots of balloons and captions and panels and god it seems like a lot to puzzle out. Don't give into the temptation to get frustrated or feel like somehow the page looks different to other people; it doesn't. As with anything else, practice makes perfect—or in this case, practice makes effortless. Left to right, top to bottom. That applies to balloons (dialogue), panels (individual pictures), captions (boxes with text in them, like narration), and everything else. If the comic artist has done his job (most will if you stick to the best and the brightest), there will be a discernible flow to the page. Just do your best. This is for fun, and I promise nobody is going to shove a quiz under your nose.

Basically, you just look at it.

Tip #2: Start at the beginning of the story. Whenever possible, this is a good idea. This doesn't mean you have to go back to 1938 if you want to read Superman. There are reboots and self-contained arcs all over the place that anyone can pick up and enjoy. These self-contained arcs are often collected into hardcovers or trade paperbacks, typically about 4-6 issues long (an issues is around 22 pages). Not only does this make enjoying comics cheaper, it means you can read the whole story without hunting around like mad for individual issues. (We'll get into acquiring comics later in this series.) If you want to give Batman a shot, for example, often it's as easy as googling "Top 25 Batman Stories" and looking them up on amazon. I've discovered tons of great stuff this way.

Tip #3: Remember, it's okay that you don't know everything. Trust me on this; the people who know everything get paid good money by DC and Marvel to serve as consultants and continuity experts. So don't be discouraged if you run into a character you don't know or a reference that leaves you drawing a blank. This. Happens. Just do what the average reader does and keep reading. If you try to push through and find you still can't puzzle out (or enjoy) the story, chances are that either the comic book writer forgot his obligation to keep readers up to speed (every comic book could be somebody's first comic book, and it's the writers' job to remember that), or you've ended up the middle of a larger story without the benefit of going through the beginning. If the latter is true, again google can save your life. Wikipedia too. They often have extensive lists of comic book issues and stories, what came first, etc; sometimes there are even synopses so you can catch up quick and get back to reading.

To summarize further, just remember: You're smart enough for this! It can look like a big confusing world out there, but most of what you need to know is a click away. It's a treasure hunt, and discovering new things is part of the fun. I promise you'll stumble onto something amazing that will make it all worth it. And there's nothing like sharing something new with your friends and watching them get excited about what you dug up. There's great stuff out there; go find it.

Stand back.
Bad ass at work.
If you want to learn more about comics as a medium, there is no better resource that Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. It's a comic book about comic books. Read it. It will blow the lid off your brain. By the end of it, you'll know more about comics as a medium than 99% of the human beings on Planet Earth.

But what if you're thinking, Slow down, Steve.Your tips are all well and dandy, but I know literally nothing about comics. I've seen the Incredibles, and that's it. (Great movie by the way.) I can't google a character I want to read, because I don't know any of them well enough to know if I want to read them or not. I'm greener than Green Lantern on his first day. (Okay, you probably wouldn't say that last thing.)

Here's what I'm going to do for you:

I'm going to assign you some homework. That's right, I'm takin' yo ass to school. Eventually, we'll get into things like DC's New 52 titles, indie comics, movie and novel tie-ins, manga, current mainstream comics, animated movies, even individual superheros. We'll get into how and where to acquire comics, how to store them, the benefits of trades vs individual issues, but not yet. Right now, we're going to start with the classics. And trust me, in the world of comics, that's a good thing. A very good thing. Because these babies won't bore you. On the contrary, they will grab you by the face, entertain the ever-loving shit out of you, and overhaul your brain in the process. That's right. Some of the comics I'm about to suggest won't just entertain you; they'll change you.

Big talk, right? I confidently stand behind every word. These books are the reason why:

(alternate title: "Read These and You Can Instantly Talk About Comics Like You Know Your Shit")

1. Sandman by Neil Gaiman

^It's in here. All of it.
 This is my favorite comic in the world. It spans 10 volumes, every mythology and religion known to man, and seemingly every facet of the human (and inhuman) condition. Sometimes I wonder if there's anything that isn't in this comic book. My brother, Paul, put it best when he finished Sandman. He said, "I just want to go up to Neil Gaiman and say, 'I finished Sandman. Now what do you want me to do?'" This comic changes you. It stirs your brain with a stick. It makes you fall in love. It makes you cringe. It makes you cry. It breaks the way you see the world and rebuilds it better. (It might make you get a kick-ass tattoo or two.) One of the stories in this series won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story. That isn't even allowed, and it happened. In short, best comic ever. If you're a little scared, you should be.

2. Watchmen by Alan Moore

...but for reals this time.

This recommendation has lost some of its zing since the movie came out (and wasn't nearly as well-received as it should have been), but this is still probably the best comics story ever collected in a single volume. If I could only put one book in the hands of a comic book skeptic, this would be it. This is the story of superheroes in the real world. This is the story of their personal struggles, their human quirks, and the massive threat they must pull together to face. The sheer amount of colorful characters and truly gripping scenarios in this book is staggering. It's an epic in every sense of the word, and the literary brilliance and complexity of the story is second to none. I mean, come on, how can you argue with a comic that made Time's 100 Best Novels of All Time? (Not graphic novels. Freaking NOVELS.)

3. Batman: Year One and/or Batman: Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

The Sin City/300 guy does Batman.
If you liked Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, you owe those movies in large part to Frank Miller's work on Batman. The two titles above are credited with being the most important, influential, and well-crafted Batman stories ever told. Like the rest of the titles on this list, they are older and stylistically off the beaten path, but there is a reason they have stood the test of time. If you'd like your Batman served complex, dystopian, and brutally epic with a dash of frenetic punk-rock crazy, The Dark Knight Returns is probably your book. If, on the other hand, you'd like something simpler, more down to earth, and noir as black coffee (and if you'd like to be with Bruce Wayne at the very beginning), then Batman: Year One is where it's at. Personally, I prefer Year One, but Dark Knight Returns has some glorious moments, specifically the stuff involving Superman. (Shh. You didn't hear that from me.) Which ever sounds coolest, you should read them both.

That's all for now. I'm super stoked for the next post, "Owning Comics (Part 3): Superheroes and the New 52" because we'll be getting into the New 52, DC Comics' reboot of all their titles. If you know nothing about DC, go watch this documentary. (I know, I know. So much homework. But seriously, it's a great documentary even if you don't give a shit about comics.) The New 52 is what's happening now in the comics world, so it's relevant and fun and chock full of great stories (not to mention some of the slickest art I have ever seen). I can't wait. :)

Also, if you're following my series Chasing the First Sale, look for "Part 2: What a Pro Story Is" on Monday.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Memorial Day Weekend

I'll be going out of town this weekend for Memorial Day—we're leaving tomorrow and coming back Monday night, so the second installments of "Owning Comics" and "Chasing the First Sale" will be pushed back a week.

Until then. :)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Chasing the First Sale (Part 1): Wherever You're Standing

Before we begin, a story:

It was winter 2005 in Wyoming. I was dirt poor, living with my in-laws, and driving a 50 ft. bus full of coal miners to and from the mines in the most god-awful, 20-below, white-out snowstorms you could imagine.

We're there. I think.

I was 15 hours away from everyone I knew--except my newly-minted wife of just over a year--and I was depressed in a way I had never thought possible. The only escape were library audio books, mostly Stephen King, piped into my head through a dangling earbud as I drove the same Wyoming roads twice a day, back and forth, with only 7 hours of down time between runs. On my days off, cramped in our small basement living space, I was discovering alcohol, and my life had become something I didn't recognize.

It was here that I wrote my first good story.

It was a simple premise: a man trapped in a failing marriage is gifted with horrible nightmares in which he murders his wife over and over; the imagery is so awful, it prompts him to treat her well in real life, thus saving his marriage. It wasn't great, but it was passably good, the first good thing I had written, and it was the first time in my life I thought maybe I could be a writer.

I had told stories my entire life in one form or another. As a kid, I recorded fake news broadcasts with my brothers, made up superheroes whose adventures we acted out in the front yard, and blatantly ripped off Jim Davis' Garfield comics in my own series of strips, "Little Bo," about a Zebu calf and his half-water buffalo guardian. (We'll talk more about Little Bo later in my series "Owning Comics.")

We made asses up just so we could kick them.
When I was nine, I started making up my own ghost stories (blame this) and having my dad type them out in language that didn't sound so nine year-oldish. (I have the coolest Dad in the world, by the way.) Soon, though, I didn't want to write on Dad's schedule, so I struck out on my own, hunt-and-pecking out pages and pages of utter shit practice stories. I was frustrated with my limitations, but there was something about making stuff up that had me hooked. It was like everything else--school, church, chores--was in black and white, and any opportunity to be creative made the world explode with color.

But it wasn't until I was fifteen--sitting in an upstairs bedroom at my grandparents house over Christmas, fan blowing in my face, the toasty smell of the furnace from downstairs all around--that I read The Hobbit, and for the first time, I realized what I wanted to do with my life.

I told you all this for a reason. If you recognize my life because you're living your version of it, if you say, "Yes, that's me," (amen, hallelujah) then I want to help you. Maybe you're where I was after writing my first good story that winter in Wyoming, flipping through the Writer's Market, feeling totally overwhelmed and lost and small, wondering if your work will ever see print. Maybe you're where I was after reading The Hobbit, full of enthusiasm and desire, but not really sure where to start learning your craft. Maybe you know you want to create things, but you're still trying things out, searching for your medium.

Those are all great places to be, and they're all frustrating places to be. I want to help you enjoy and escape those places. I want to walk alongside you, from wherever you're standing, right to the threshold of your first professional short story sale. I want to tell you what nobody told me and--this is my hope--to save you a year or two of your writing life.

(If, on the other hand, you've sold some pro stories or a novel already, chances are this blog series won't be of much use to you, except maybe as an amusing trip down memory lane or a surprising look into another writer's process. If you're at a place where most of the advice in this blog doesn't apply to you, I hope you'll share it with someone you think might need it. We all started a zero, after all, and we've all asked for this kind of advice a time or two.)

This is not a writing course; it's an early career how-to. It's a step 1, step 2 process. I'll be getting into the craft of writing and what a pro story is (if you don't learn this, the rest won't matter), but I'll also be blogging about what markets to send to, how to learn from your idols (sometimes literally from them), how to meet other pro writers who will actually help you in your career and not hurt you (sorry Local Writing Group; if you're not helping each other create selling work, you're doing it wrong), and how to plan your career so you have the best possible chance of winning beginner/new writer awards that could mean big money and exposure. (Wish somebody would have clued me in!) We'll even take a look at that "next level" beyond the first sale, what that means, and how to reach for it.

Repeat after these jackasses:
"There's hope! Zaba-zoot-ZOW!"
Do you feel that? That's called hope. And it's fine to let yourself feel it. If you've ever thought selling a story felt impossible, like a far-off hypothetical thing, I can tell you, a day will come when you will look back on it, when it will be something you did a few years ago, and it will feel so small and so easy, you'll forget what the big deal was. When that day comes, I want to ask you a favor:

Don't forget. Remember how hard it was. Then help other people get where you are. (And don't forget to keep learning from the people who are where you want to be.)

Can't wait to get started, my friends. See you next Monday when we'll get into "Chasing the First Sale (Part 2): What a Pro Story Is."

Friday, May 18, 2012

Owning Comics (Part 1): Tearing Down Walls

You know you loved it.
It happens all the time. I'm talking to someone, we start discussing comics, and this look comes into their eyes. Occasionally, it's a condescending glance that says, "Comics? Aren't those for kids? Or musky nerds living in their parents' basements?" Which is always easy to deal with; I have no qualms about dismissing dismissive people. But most often, the look I see in people's eyes when discussing comics is a kind of self-conscious embarrassment. It's almost as if they're afraid of being called out. They might enjoy the idea of comics, they probably loved the Avengers or Dark Knight, and they almost certainly have a favorite superhero or two, but I suspect many people are timid around the subject of comics, because they only know them through movies or cultural osmosis. In a time when comics are pushing their way into the mainstream, many people haven't read the source material (I'm convinced nobody has read all of it), so they feel like a casual fan, an unread fake, as if their enthusiasm isn't valid or won't hold up in conversation with "real fans."

If you've ever felt like this, let me let you in on a little secret: there are no "real fans." Or more accurately, we're all real fans. You have just as much of a right to enjoy The Avengers as the guy who's been reading Marvel stuff since he was a kid. And you have just as much right to enjoy comics. They belong to everyone, not everyone else. And they're worthwhile. Neil Gaiman (if you don't know him, you will) is always explaining to people that "comics are not a genre; they're a medium." In other words, they're like books and movies themselves, not certain types of book or movies. Comics are an "empty jar" that you can put any kind of story inside. They are the container, not the contents.  For example, if you don't like superheroes (yet), that doesn't mean you don't like comics. Maybe you just prefer horror comics, or romance comics, or literary comics, or historical comics...the list goes on.

To put it another way, comics are just a storytelling form, a canvas. Like any canvas, you can use them to paint something genius or you can slap down a pile of complete shit; comic writers and artists have done plenty of both over the years. As a reader, it's just a matter of sorting the bad from the good, learning about yourself, discovering what you like. And if you're still tempted to say, "I just don't like comics," I'm going to boldly disagree with you. I'm going to put my foot down and claim I know you better than you know yourself. Because you're a human, baby, and we love pictures almost as much as we love stories. Keep an open mind through this blog series, and I guarantee you'll find something you like. (If you don't, I'll let you put on a glove and punch me in the face as hard as you can.*) And in the process, you might discover you like the shape stories take when you put them in comics form. You might discover a whole new way to entertain and enlighten yourself. That's worth a little time and effort. (I certainly think it's worth the effort of writing this post.)

This brings me to another objection I run into. It's not very often that someone articulates it, but I'm convinced it's there all the same. It is the fear of being one of them. You know who I'm talking about. The guy in the faded Transformers t-shirt with the sweat stains. The thick glasses. The bad facial hair. The nasal voice jabbering on and on about power levels and release dates and a bunch of other shit that just. really. doesn't. matter. I'm sure just about anybody who has spent time on the internet and interacted with--ugh--"fandom" has entertained this stereotype.
This isn't what it looks like.

First of all, shame on both of us. Follow along with me: Extend your right hand and firmly swat the top of it with your left. Can we agree it's bad to play the judgmental asshole? Even the most awkward of comic book fans are real people. For all we know, some of those guys are going through a hard time, not doing well socially, getting older and wondering if they're going to end up alone, having a tough time adapting to adult life. Can you blame them? It's tough out there, so who are we to look down on them for taking solace in something they enjoy? Nobody is who, because we do the same different ways perhaps, but we do them. And do you know why comics become a solace for people on the fringes of society? Because comics are a fundamentally human form of expression; they touch us. The move us.They can provide us a community to belong to. They can even heal us. (Have you ever heard someone say, "Music saved my life." Boom. Art is powerful, and comics--in every way that matters--are art.) These are good things. Let's not waste another minute looking down on other people; all that accomplishes is robbing us of the freedom to enjoy something truly enjoyable. So don't worry about looking like somebody else or being lumped into such-and-such category. Just have fun, and realize that reading comics doesn't make you who you are...and for that matter, neither do other people's opinions of your hobbies. Life is too short not to love things like a kid.

And if it makes you feel better (I don't mind reminding myself of this from time to time), there are so many talented, intelligent, socially-adept (even sexy?) people who read and write and draw comics, it blows my mind. I don't know who you are, but I'd put money on the fact that you're not as cool as Neil Gaiman. If he likes comics, you can like comics. I'm sure Neil would even give you his permission. (Go ask him on his twitter if you don't believe me.)
There's always someone cooler than you...
...unless you're Neil Gaiman.

But what if you don't have time? Or money? What if you'd love to get into comics, but you just can't squeeze it into your life. Fair enough. But if you can find time in your day to watch TV, to check your Facebook, to read this much-longer-than-I-anticipated blog post, chances are you can find some time to try something new. If you ever find yourself saying, "There's nothing on TV," that might be a great moment to pick up comics. Because in the comic world you pick what you read, and something good is always, always on.

So if you're willing to give it a shot, if I've sufficiently hounded you into trying this comics thing out, I'd love to be your guide for the next few weeks. I'd like to show you some different paths of getting into comics, some places to start, and you can decide which sounds right for you. Maybe you're a book snob (guilty!), and you want to read the best and brightest that comics have to offer. Maybe you love anime, but haven't really given Manga (Japanese comics) a chance. Maybe you love superheroes, and you want to know more about them, but you don't know where to start. We'll get to all of that in the coming weeks. And, of course, I'll be telling you about my own journey with comics.

After we get you good and hooked (or just comfortable and educated), I'll probably begin reviewing individual titles. But not yet. The next few weeks are all yours, my blog-reading friend. I, for one, can't wait to get started. :)


Don't forget, my next blog post (on Monday) will kick off a beginners' series on writing and selling fiction called "Chasing the First Sale." The next post in this series--"Owning Comics (Part 2): Begin with the Best"--will be up sometime around the middle of next week.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Comics, Advice, and Whaddup

It's been a long time, but I have to tell you, it's nice to be blogging again. I've been thinking about how to focus this blog for months, and I only recently settled on a good answer in mid-April. A friend and I started a comic book discussion group on Facebook, and suddenly, I found myself writing reviews practically every day, sometimes three or four at a time, and I started thinking, "Man, I wish my blog was about comics." Which, of course, led me to, "Why not blog about comics?" Turns out, when you're writing about the things you enjoy in your free time, it doesn't feel like such a chore to sit down and pound something out on the old blog. In the future, you can expect comic book reviews (sometimes outright endorsements--I get excited) and other comic-related news a couple times a week. If you've always loved the idea of getting into comics, but didn't know where to start, this might be a great time to subscribe or follow me on Twitter.

Also, every Monday morning, I'll be doing a series of blog posts intended to give straight answers to brand-new writers on the path to their first pro story sale. I remember writing stories and wanting to sell them as far back as 2006. I was reading piles of writing books, flipping through the Writer's Market, trying to rough out some idea what getting paid for your fiction was like. Back then, I didn't want vague advice or even simple encouragement; I wanted a road map I could follow. I wanted strategies, markets, ways IN. I'm pretty green compared to a lot of people I know, but compared to the guy I was in 2006, I'm a freaking guru. So if you're a young (or just new!) writer who's looking for the first step...swing by the blog Monday morning. I might be able save you a year or two. I'm looking forward to it!

The above is all I was planning to post today, but it occurs to me some of my family and friends might want to hear what I've been up to during The Long Blog Silence. I'll take a few hundred words to do that now. If you don't need to know this crap, feel free to surf the web now. They've got some free UFC fights on Youtube these days, and I hear Lumosity can really sharpen you up. And there's always porn.


September: I finished my first novel. It's currently in revisions--still, because I waited a small eternity to start them. They say to let work breathe for 1-3 months before touching it again, but 7 months works too, right? Anyway, I think it'll be damn salable once I rewrite the first three chapters.

October: I attended World Fantasy and met some people whose names are totally worth dropping. I talked with Pat Rothfuss and held the camera while a friend did a backflip next to him--it was weird. I listened to Neil Gaiman read his stories, laughed, cried, and even shook the man's hand. I drank beer and ate pho with Ted Chiang, then got home, read his work, and retroactively geeked my geeker off. But most importantly (sorry, Famous People), I saw the publishing world at work. I sat and ate steak while I watched people collect World Fantasy Awards. I remember thinking these people would go home tomorrow, wake up in their pajamas, sit sleepily in front of their keyboards and just...start...writing. In a way, I realized, no person in that room ever really leaves. In a way, all writers are in that room, all the time; it's just some of us are better at remembering that than others. It's a thought that has both paralyzed and motivated me by turns. (I'll ask my therapist what she thinks of it.)

November: I worked on developing a graphic novel series called Spooky Paint, a playful cyberpunk story about street artists trying to change things in a warring city (and one artist whose paint can literally change things). The series wouldn't ultimately end up drawn beyond page two, but the brain work is done, and the characters are still there in my head, waiting for the right time to jump out and "get up" all over my monitor. (It's not quite as bad as it sounds. Although, I would probably need a new monitor.)


January: I took part in Weekend Warrior, a five-week flash fiction contest on Codex and actually won the bastard. It was the most participants the contest had ever had (over 50 pro and neo-pro writers), and I had one of the highest cumulative scores ever. I'm not ashamed to brag about that, because damn it, I worked really hard. At the beginning of the month I told Lynna, "I'm going to make it my mission during the next five weeks to win this thing." And there's nothing quite like meeting a goal through hard work. I've sold two of the five stories I wrote for Weekend Warrior, and I'm expecting to sell at least one more. That's not bad for ol' January.

February and March: It's a hard truth, but sometimes, it's harder to get things done after a success than after a failure. These two months were full of false starts and sudden stops. I tried to take part in another Codex contest right away, but my entry didn't work at short story length, and I realized (after submitting the first 500 words) that I was writing a novel. Then I worked with my buddy Rusty Raymo on a story for an anthology Eric James Stone was editing about the Three Billy Goats Gruff...and accidentally outlined another novel. Realizing now was not the time for either one of those accidental novel projects, I crawled out of March on my hands and knees feeling defeated. <--Part of the game.

April: My brothers and I had a show coming at an Earth Day festival here in town, so I spent a fair piece of April trying to make myself feel any kind of prepared for that. But the main event for April was C2E2. I traveled to Chicago, ate the best pizza of my life at Pequod's, went to a comics convention and treated it like school, and came home changed. I had always wanted to work in comics, but suddenly, I REALLY wanted to work in comics. (I'm not sure why it took me so long to realize this. I mean, hell, I was doing comics and putting them in the local paper when I was 11.) I still do, and I'm taking steps to make it happen.

May: Here we are. I'm working on some springboards and sample scripts for DC and Dynamite, and I'm reading as many comics as I possibly can in my spare time. The novel is next once my submissions are out the door, and there's this ol' blog to whip into shape. Here's to a productive summer, ya'll. If you made it down this far, you deserve something awesome. Unfortunately, all I have is this picture of a baby pig:

Be sure to check in periodically for comic reviews/news, then Monday mornings for my series on finding that first sale, which we'll begin on the 21st.

Stay jiggy.