Things I’ve Learned Along the Way
By Paul Kupperberg
© Paul Kupperberg
It’s a day that will live in infamy: April 3, 1975. That was the day I received a phone call from Charlton Comics assistant editor Nick Cuti with the news that the company was buying one of my scripts, a five-page sword & sorcery tale for one of their horror anthologies. I was also given the go-ahead to write up two other story ideas that I had pitched.
It was my first professional sale. The page rate was five bucks per; the best $25 I ever earned!
I went from there to writing for DC Comics several months later. I eventually wrote something on the order of four or five comic books a month for them on characters ranging from Arion to Zatanna, including a couple of years where I was one of the main writers on Superman, as well as handling Superboy and Supergirl. I was always busy and there was always a new assignment waiting for me when I turned in the latest script. I also did a little work for Marvel Comics in Crazy Magazine and the occasional commercial or custom comics job. I even managed to squeeze in two novels (comics related, featuring Spider-Man and the Hulk for a Marvel Novel Series published by Pocket Books). When someone asked me what I did for a living, I answered that I was a comic book writer. No better job in the world. I had it and intended to do it for the rest of my life.
Except I forgot to consult with the comic book field.
Hey, I had a good run, did some work I’m proud of, but times changed, new blood came along and, by about 1990, I had gone from four or five regular monthly titles to none. Writing work in comics got scarcer and I had to turn to other sources of income, including a day job as an editor for DC Comics. It was a difficult transition for me and my family, financially and emotionally. And, in retrospect, probably the best damned thing that ever happened to me.
First, you need to understand something very important: DC Comics and Marvel, while publishers of many, many comic books, are not “comic book companies.” They are “media companies.” They own properties, which they exploit in the form of publications and book. But those publications and books are really mostly just for show. To show who? To show the movie companies and the apparel and toy manufacturers and the greeting card companies and the packaged food industry and McDonald’s and Burger King etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum, what DC and Marvel have to offer in the way of the properties they own that these companies can license, for millions and millions of dollars in some cases.
The people who actually produce the comic books? They love what they do and they care. Really care. Whether or not we think their efforts of late are horribly, grossly misguided is neither here nor there. Bottom line and what matters for our purposes here is that they really do care.
The corporations who own the companies that employ the people who actually produce the comic books? These corporations could not care less about the comic books themselves. For their purposes — to have books to wave in front of potential licensors’ noses that show the properties are out there and have great visibility in the marketplace — DC and Marvel could be publishing reprints, from five, ten, twenty years ago, what difference does it make? I’d wager that 95% of the licensing DC writes is for Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman — and it doesn’t matter how those characters are presently portrayed in the books. Because there are two (broad) versions of every character: the comic book version and the licensing version.
The comic book versions can change any damned way they want; the licensing versions are what’s known in the parlance as “evergreens,” properties that transcend fad status to attain universal, long-term recognition. DC calls these versions the “Classic Style.” Within the “Classic Style” can be any number of sub-categories: Urban, Animated, Tiny or Super Jrs. Style, etc. The passing fancies of the monthly story arcs are seldom addressed in licensing, unless it’s something that transcends the floppies, like Venom. Remember, licensing guys for General Foods aren’t reading the stories. They’re flipping through them to see if they can repaint old molds of some an earlier superhero line for the new action figures to which they’re buying the rights.
(Discouraged yet? Very good, grasshopper. Now…wax on…!)
The comic industry has come to resemble the movie industry in some respects. They try to emulate the Blockbuster Formula, creating the Big Event Movie (or Comic Book) that will sell a lot of tickets, create a lot of buzz, and attract a lot of deep pocket licensees like McDonald’s to their door. In the publishers’ case, they want to sell copies of the main title as well as the tie-ins and spin-offs. Take a Property and squeeze as many Spin-Offs as you can from it. Even better, create a Franchise (Spider-Man, X-Men, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars) and sell the same stuff with a different bow on it every other year for the next half dozen years. Cha-ching!
By the way, I don’t begrudge corporations making money, especially those who make money that they might use to pay me for my services. I’m just saying.
Another way comics have come to resemble show biz is their worship of the Youth Culture. If the audience for our product is 18-24 year old males, goes the reasoning, then our creative staff should be in the same or similar demographic, say 25-35 year old. Eventually, the company starts looking at its experienced but graying staff and thinks, “Hmm, how’s grandpa here supposed to sell to the kids?”, forgetting that grandpa has, in his years, sold many things to many demographics and has already proven he has the experience and know-how to adapt to the changing marketplace, while all the Kids know is…well, what kids know. Which ain’t much. Except when we’re young, we think we know everything. But we don’t. We’re stupid, but only because we haven’t lived our lives yet and experienced the things that will eventually turn us into hopefully reasonably competent human beings with some clue as to what’s going on and what any of it means. Unfortunately, being stupid, we don’t know we’re stupid, so we plunge stupidly along, until one day we get a clue and…
It’s too late. One day, probably just about the time you can wake up and say, “Oh, I get it now!”, you find yourself less and less in demand. Because you’re old, or at least older than the powers that be (consciously or otherwise) think you should be in order to tap into their market. And, short of selling adult diapers or Viagra, that’s always going to be the youth market. Not everyone is a victim of ageism; there are exceptions and many factors that allow a good many talents, more artists than writers it seems, to avoid it, but the odds are not in favor. Assume they never are in a creative field; a healthy dose of pessimism can save you from the unwelcome surprise of bankruptcy and foreclosure. Hell, even a streak of bad luck or a change in editorial personnel can cause a sudden whittling of once steady assignments until the only thing you’re writing are sales orders for housewares in Macy’s Basement (December 1990 – March 1991).
Oh, yeah. It happens. You are, never forget, Freelance’s bitch. I got lucky and landed a job as an editor at DC Comics, where I worked for the next sixteen years. I left there in 2006 to become Executive Editor of Weekly World News, which folded in the summer of 2007. Other than a few months at World Wrestling Entertainment on their new kids magazine, I have been freelance ever since.
Only about 20% of which I do is actual comic book scripts. The bulk of my income is earned through writing non-fiction books on subjects ranging from science and history to medicine and pop culture — my last one was about the construction of the Alaska Highway during World War II; my next is a biography of Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang — short stories, novels, coloring books and books for children ranging from four year olds to teens. I deal largely with licensed properties in these fields, such as the five chapter books aimed at sixth grade challenged readers I recently wrote featuring Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, but I’ve also written prose featuring Powerpuff Girls, the Avenger, Star Trek, Doctor Who, the Phantom, Batman, the Justice Society of America, and others. I’m also shopping around an original mystery novel, some YA series ideas, several non-fiction books related to comic books, and a self-help book (no, really, this one’s good!!).
The thing is, all the while I was writing all those hundreds and hundreds of comic book stories, what I really wanted to be doing was writing prose. I was too tired or too lazy to do anywhere near as much prose writing as I should have and only got writing assignments when I stumbled across them or knew the editor assembling the anthology. I’ve dreamed of being a novelist since I was a wee lad. I’ve written novels, but never my own, original work, It was always Spider-Man or the Hulk or the JSA. I was a novelizer, not a novelist.
I’d dabble, but I never finished anything. A mystery novel with 18-19,000 words done. A YA novel with six chapters and an outline. A second mystery novel with a 10,000 word outline that wasn’t finished or any good. A few thousand words of this or that. Crumbs.
And then, unemployment. While I was maintaining the necessary income and doing it without turning to hackery, I still had plenty of free time on my hands during my writing day, so I started creating pitches for original projects so I could stop relying entirely on licensing work. And I picked up the 18-19,000 words of my mystery, read them, and decided since I had the time, I would write a minimum of 500 words a day of the book, no matter what else I wrote that day. Even at that modest rate, an hour a day, tops, I’d have a completed novel in three months. Of course, the novel took me over and 45 days later, I was, finally, a novelist…not that I was going for a record. It just came out of me that fast.
I’m proud of getting it done. I just wish I had found that energy fifteen, ten, five years earlier, written some books, maybe even sold a few, so that I would be better prepared for that new marketplace by this stage in my life. The thing is, the steady income of the successful comic book writer is a seductive thing. You’re doing a thing you love and they’re giving you good money for it. Why bother looking outside that lovely, comfy velvet lined box? Why take a chance in the unknown realm of novels or screenplays when you’re doing just fine right where you are?
I could give you a whole laundry list of reasons why I might not have been ready before now to step out beyond comic books and licensed properties. But they would all be bullshit. I lie to myself all the time to get through the day and I’m a convincing liar. I believe me all the time, no matter how often I fool myself, but the truth really is that I’ve always been afraid to step outside my comfort zone and, for a goo long time I didn’t have to.
And then I was pushed by circumstances. Out the window, off the gangplank, onto the ice floe, whatever metaphor you choose to describe it. And the freefall I was in was a lot scarier than the prospect of writing a bad novel. I don’t know whether or not I did yet, write a bad novel; only a few people have read it, my wife and some friends, and they have, quibbles aside, had nice things to say about it. I’m happy with the story and idea, a lot of the writing, and the general results…I’ll consider it good when it’s sold.
For yourself, take a good, honest look at the marketplace. You know how many experienced writers are out of work right now? I’ve got a good idea; I seem to have spoken with most of them at the 2009 New York Comicon. It’s a tough market, which isn’t to say you shouldn’t shoot for it, but be realistic. And don’t, ever, ever, ever put all your eggs in one basket. Have a fall back position, a skill or set of skills to carry you through while you’re waiting for the comics career to get off the ground, or in case that plane never leaves the gate or you find yourself forced to change careers due to any number of circumstances.
Don’t wait. Start now, today, on that short story or novel or screenplay or TV pilot or animated series proposal or role playing game concept. It might suck. It probably will, but so what? No one ever has to see it. Or the next one, or the one after that. But if you keep going, you’ll eventually get to one that’s good (or you’ll give up and decide this just ain’t for you), or at least to one that’s on the road to good, and you’ll have something that’s yours.
Sure, someone’s got to be the one who manages to break in to the big time. Why shouldn’t it be you? But, just in case you don’t wind up as the new Johns or Bendis or Morrison, you’ll still be writing and you’ll still have a career.
And how many of the above named and other current superstars of comics do you think are using their current (but, ultimately, even for the best of ‘em, temporary) fame to pitch their screenplays and novels from one coast to the next?
How about all of them.
Now, what does that tell you?
Paul Kupperberg is a freelance writer who began his career at Charlton Comics in 1975 and has never looked back. At DC Comics, he’s written a little of everybody, from Arion to Zatanna. He is the author of several books, numerous short stories and novellas, young adult non-fiction books on subjects ranging from pop culture to hard science, online animation and syndicated newspaper comic strips. He has also been an editor for DC Comics, Executive Editor of Weekly World News and Senior Editor of WWE Kids Magazine. His latest work can be seen in the humor book Jew-Jitsu: The Hebrew Hands of Fury (Citadel Books, 2008), a short story in The Avenger Chronicles (Moonstone Books, 2008), back-up stories in every issue of Captain Action comics (Moonstone Comics), and sundry issues of DC Comics’ Cartoon Network titles and Bongo Comics’ Bart Simpson Comics. Visit him at his blog, www.kupperberg.blogspot.com.