Mike Gold on breaking into comics

Mike Gold spoke with Comics Career editor Kirk Chritton during the October 1988 Mo-Kan Comics Festival in Kansas City. At that time, Gold served as Director of Development for DC Comics. He had already been a pioneer in comics marketing, helped create First Comics which was one of the strongest companies in the direct sales comics market in the 1980s, and spearheaded groundbreaking new projects for DC. 

Today, Mike Gold is President and Editor-in-Chief of ComicMix.com, which is one of the leading sources of news and features about comics and related media.

This interview was originally published in Comics Career Newsletter #13. It has been edited for republication. It is copyright (c) 1988, 2008 by Kirk Chritton, all rights reserved. It may not be reprinted or republished without permission.

CCN: Do you have the opportunity to work with much new talent?

GOLD: All the time. One of the main reasons I go to conventions and do a lot store appearances is to look a people’s portfolios. It’s just that simple. I like to talk to people. It’s nice to hear what they have to say about the comics we’re doing. We get a lot of interesting ideas and we find out what people like and don’t like. They’re very vocal and that’s wonderful, but I spend a lot of time looking at people’s portfolios.

It’s still hard to find an opportunity to talk to a would-be writer. It’s very, very difficult, and I’m sure you’ve heard this over and over and over again. A convention is probably the worst possible setting to talk to a fledgling writer. I’ve said this before, and it sounds very unfortunate, but the easiest way to get an editor at DC to read your stuff as a writer is to try your hand at some of the smallest publishers first. You can experiment and make a lot of your early mistakes that way. More importantly, even if these guys don’t pay very much or anything, it’s a good opportunity for you to learn how to write visually, which the most difficult thing to teach. It’s the Catch 22. You need the experience, but you’re not going to get the experience unless you know how to do it.

There are a tremendous number of smaller publishers, very small publishers, and medium size publishers around. You can sort of work your way through that system. I’m not just talking about some of the better known independent publishers; I’m talking about really small publishers. It’s much easier for an editor to read a copy of a small black and white publication that may have only 200 copies out there than to read somebody’s 40-page script. Nobody has the time to do that. It’s unfortunate, but nobody has the time.

CCN: An example of someone who came up through that system would be, well, Mike Baron. Nexus was originally a black and white at Capital Comics.

GOLD: That’s right. Mike Baron got his start through Capital and then through First. John Ostrander got his start over at First, which is bigger than the smaller publishers, but still is a way to make it to DC or Marvel. Mark Verheiden got in at Dark Horse. 

Now, I’m not saying that the pinnacle and be all and end all is to work for DC or Marvel. That certainly isn’t true. 

Still, I don’t want to make it sound like you shouldn’t be working for Dark Horse or some other smaller publishers. There’s a tremendous amount of freedom and opportunity there. These are very valid outlets.

I think the attitude that newcomers should take in coming into the field is that they’re getting into show business. I’m not saying that in the sense of vaudeville; I’m saying it in the sense of show business. You work for 20 years, and sit down and really perfect your craft and you rehearse and you audition and you go back and you improve and you audition. You audition for a number places. That type of thing. You know, that’s really show business, what the system is all about.

I’ve never met a person, artist or writer, who came into the business and became the next hot name who hadn’t been working at it for years and years and years beforehand. He may have started when he was eight! He may have started when he was eighteen or twenty-eight but he or she had been at it for a long, long time. He has to be tremendously patient in every way, shape, and form.

There’s this break through period for virtually every artist or writer where they’re 95% there. They’re within that last 5% of actually making it. They’re at the point of actually being employable, and the needs of the publishers from time to time are so strong, that when you get within that last 5% you can get work. You can turn it into a living.

The problem is, once you start making those deadlines and putting your energies towards deadlines and doing it every month, every day, you’re going to continue to learn, but now you’ll learn at a much slower rate. You’re busy acquiring these other skills. The skills of making a deadline, of getting along with your collaborators and editors. As writer you’ll be learning just how the letterer is going to visually interpret your scripts. As a penciler you’ll be learning how your art will get moved around if you didn’t leave enough room for the copy, how the inker will interpret the pencils, what color is going to do to everything. How you write for color as well as draw for color. You know, there are those things that are really difficult to learn until your really out there doing it. 

That’s the most important time for a newcomer to be patient. That last 5% can take you two weeks, it can take you six months, another year – but don’t give in to that terrible itch of going in and turning professional before you’re ready because there are an awful lot of newcomers who came in, looked hot, looked like they had a lot of potential, but never got any better and generally deteriorated pretty fast.

Some of these guys will disappear for a few years and then come back and be really good. I don’t want to slam anybody here by saying this, but you can go back and look fifteen years ago, ten years ago, five years ago, and look at some of the back-up features or lesser books where you’re likely to see new talent and see various people and wonder whatever happened to them. “Well, that guy disappeared for a couple of years.” Those are the people who came in just before they were ready. 

That’s very critical. Once they’re offering you work, be aware that you may not be ready for it yet. Get past your enthusiasm, get past the tremendous ego thrill of being offered work, and make sure that you’ve gone as far as you can go through the learning phase before you get into the doing-it-for-a-living phase. It’s very, very important.

CCN: How can developing creators get advice on how to proceed?

GOLD: If you want to get some feedback fast, you’re going to have to make an investment in your career – a financial investment, not just time and energy. My recommendation is that you go to a convention where one of the editors is appearing, and talk to the editor there. 

Smaller conventions are better. San Diego and Chicago are unbelievable. There are hundreds of guests and hundreds of dealers. There’s a lot of business being done. For editors, those are really trade shows more than anything else. Smaller conventions, where they have 500 or 1,000 attendees, two or three guests, fifty or sixty dealers tables, that sort of thing, are a lot better for showing your work.

And if you’re a convention promoter, and I speak as a former convention promoter, if you know that there are several would-be writers and artists in your area, it’s a good idea to ask one of the editors from DC or Marvel or one of the other publishers to come down just to look at portfolios and talk to newcomers. It’s a wonderful attraction for a convention promoter. A lot of inexperienced promoters tend to think that it’s not a real attraction, yet as an editor, I really enjoy coming to these conventions to do exactly that. And, quite frankly, I come back to the same conventions every year or two to see how certain people are progressing. 

I’m sort of a semi-regular here at Kansas City. This is probably the fourth convention I’ve been to here, and there are people that I’ve seen every time. I can see them progress. It’s wonderful. There’s one guy here, who I think has finally fallen within that 5% zone, which is the most difficult time, but at least he’s gotten that far. 

My main advice is to go to conventions if you can. I know that you’re working and have things to do with your life and every spare moment is already devoted to perfecting your craft, but this is show business and the auditions don’t come to you. You have to go to the auditions. 

CCN: What are the basic requirements that a writer or artist needs to have to break in?

GOLD: Well, being a Will Eisner clone helps – being ungodly talented.

You can see the person’s work if they’re an artist, and you know, you need to know all the things artists know they need: great anatomy, great storytelling abilities, you need a certain flash in your work. You need to have memorized Will’s book [Comics and Sequential Art].

For a writer, you also need to have memorized Will’s book. You also need to be able to tell stories visually and to appreciate the economy of words. The process for a writer is different if you’re also an artist. That’s why some of my favorite writers are artists – because they understand both sides of the fence. A writer has to learn the other side of the fence.

A writer also has to understand from an ego standpoint, that although the story originates with the writer, it’s going to interpreted and told visually by the artist. There’s a certain emotional maturity that’s required from a writer in this job because they have to understand that the story is at the very least a collaborative effort and the primary responsibility for telling the story that the people will actually read is going to come from the artist’s interpretation.

After that, patience, bathing frequently, any other intrapersonal skills are helpful. You don’t have to put on a suit and tie to go to one of these auditions. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Your work will speak for itself. But be polite because I’m going to see twenty people every day, and maybe a hundred people every day depending on how big the convention is, and I’m human too.

CCN: Do first impressions play a large part in it?

GOLD: I think that’s true to a degree in any human contact, but, no, not really a significant part. There’s a line that you get all the time. I think you’ve written about it before. A kid’ll come in – a kid meaning anyone who’s not in the business, of course – a newcomer will come in and say, “Hey, I’m as good as that guy.” 

“Yeah, but that guy’s awful!”

“Well, you give him work.”

“Yeah, but he’s 152-years-old and we’re desperate and we hired him once when we were drunk and he’s helped us out of a jam and he can turn everything in overnight and sometimes that’s really needed because we have to make our deadlines, but we’re not really crazy about it. Don’t tell me you’re as good as the worst or even as good as the average. Show me you’re unbelievably great – and can get better.”

It’s show business! It’s an audition! We’re dealing with potential when we’re dealing with newcomers. We can see potential, but you’re dealing with an awful lot of men and women who have just as much potential as you do. So, not only do you have to be better than all the people who are in the field, but you also have to be better than all those other hundreds and thousands of people who are in line with you.

CCN: There’s a lot of competition.

GOLD: There’s a tremendous amount of competition. It’s not a one-on-one competition. It’s not a baseball game where you’re playing them. You’re competing with thousands of people. 

It’s a matter of only having so much work for so many people. We can still only publish so much material. Not just in terms of editors and writers and artists, but in terms of letterers and colorists and production personnel and color separators and printers’ schedules and newsstand rack space and fans’ attention span and pocket books. 

The comic book field in general requires a tremendous financial commitment from a comic book reader. It’s not that we want you to spend every penny that you have – although I imagine that there are business people involved in every publishing venture that would feel real comfortable with that – but the type of stories that are the most popular lead you to buy more comics. The whole fact that we deal with universes, The DC Universe, The Marvel Universe, The First Universe, The Eclipse Universe, contributes to that. The personalities also figure into that. You like Jim Starlin so you’re going to read his work over here, here, and here, so that’s already a ten dollar a month commitment and if you like three or four other guys you’re spending a lot of money. 

If you’re coming in and you’re talented as all hell, we really want to back your stuff 100%. In order to promote it fully, it’s possible that it won’t get into print for more than a year. There are certain technical reasons why that happens, but even once you have everything down, it takes six months just to produce a comic book. There are contractual negotiations. There’s always going to be some changes in your concept. Even if it’s just so beautiful that we want to publish it as is, we’ll still spend a few months dealing with working relationships, contracts, and that type of thing. Then, we’ll schedule it.

Patience is important, and you have to understand that when you’re coming in. Chances are, no matter how good you are, you’re not going to get work tomorrow. Those people who do are not only the exceptions, but they’re the guys who win the lotteries. “Oh, yeah, I won the $55 million, sure.”

There’s no malice on anybody’s part. A good editor is going to understand that the man or woman standing before you with a portfolio or script – even if their stuff is terrible – really wants the shot and is working hard and believes in the concept. We’re very impressed by that and understand the newcomer’s position.

The opposite has to be true as well. In order to sell yourself and your work, you have to understand what the needs of the marketplace are and what the conditions of the marketplace are. It’s very, very hard, and I have no sympathy for anybody who whines about it because everybody has gone through it no matter what position they’ve had in comics.

CCN: How did you get in?

GOLD: They just walked up to me and offered me a lot of money. I was that guy with the lottery ticket. [laughter]

I was probably one of the first people to get into comics through the convention side of things. I had been in media for eight years by the time Jenette [Kahn] offered me the job back in ’76. So, I had a very good, solid background in media. For a short period of time I had been one of the people organizing the Chicago Comicon, and Jenette and I had a number of conversations on a variety of comics-related areas because of the preparation work for that show. She’d just become publisher at DC a couple of months after we had decided to do the first Comicon. I had known Jenette from my work in other media; she was publisher of a youth-oriented magazine, and I was an organizer of a runaway hotline program at the National Runaway Switchboard. I became friendly with one of her reporters and Jenette and I met that way. Stan Lee had agreed to be our guest of honor at the Comicon and I figured, “Well, Stan’s publisher of Marvel, wouldn’t it be interesting to get the new publisher of DC here?”

Jenette and I just started talking. We had these two-hour conversations three times a week for months and months and months. She then asked me if I’d be interested in coming out to New York to talk to Neal Adams about taking a coordination job over at Continuity Associates. I had known Neal from the Warp days when he was working on the Broadway version of that play. I had been very, very close to that cast and the theatre company throughout the one year run of Warp in Chicago and some of the earlier productions. I’d done work for that theatre and subsequently we did a comic book for them in 1980. I thought that would be interesting, although I was very happy with the work I was doing in Chicago and it was very involving. But, what the hell, I figured it would be fun to go out to New York and talk to Neal and Jenette. 

What happened was, when I got to New York, some last minute problem forced Neal to cancel out on the lunch meeting. Jenette and I wound up talking face-to-face for four hours. The next day, I flew back to Chicago and Jenette called and said, “Forget about Neal, do you want to work for DC?”

The job was Director of Public Relations, which was the first time that position had ever been developed in comics and was the first strictly marketing-related position other than simply dealing with the newsstand distributors. It was the first time that somebody was hired specifically to deal with the growing direct sales system. The job put me into very strong contact with the editorial aspect of comics. A lot of the input I had was editorial input, sort of a consultant editor. “Here’s how you can make your books more accessible, more interesting to people who buy in the direct sales system.” 

It must have worked because in two years our direct sales circulation more than quadrupled. Some of that was the growth of the system, of course, but the whole market didn’t quadruple. Our circulation quadrupled because we paid attention to it. 

I left DC after two years, because, quite frankly, I took the job as a two-year job. I had commitments to the people I had left in Chicago. There was a video magazine which I had been offered the editorship of and was very interested in. I had missed the hands-on editing. 

Through my work with the Comicon, and consulting work for several writers and artists and retailers I got the opportunities to create First Comics. That almost didn’t happen. Rick Obidiah was trying to sell the comic book rights to Warp and I was his consultant on that. I told him up front that the best way to do that was to do it himself. Rick thought that was a ridiculous idea, until he started negotiating with Marvel and DC. Then he came back and said, “Yeah, you’re right. Let’s do it.” 

First is still going today, and I’m very happy about that. After five years with First, DC offered me the Senior Editor job, which developed into the Director of Development job, and that’s why I’m sitting here talking to you today…I was born in a log cabin I helped my parents build…

CCN: In other words, you got into the comics industry by already being a professional in another field and being qualified to come in editorially.

GOLD: Well, yes. I got involved in an editorial position in comics because I got the chance to prove my abilities in comics through my public relations work and marketing work. I’d gotten my marketing job because of my experience in the real world. 

When I started out with the Comicon, the distinction between the fans who do fanzines and fans who do conventions and professionals was beginning to blur. For a long time, I’ve felt that a person who puts on a convention for a living or as part of their living and the people who run comic book shops are the people who do fanzines for a living are working comics professionals. 

CCN: For example, you can’t say that Don and Maggie Thompson are only fans; they’re professionals.

GOLD: They’re professionals, absolutely. They do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year and they never miss a week. No matter what the definition of the publication is itself, they’re working professionals. No doubt about that. Gary Groth and Kim Thompson are working professionals and were long before Fantagraphics was doing a dozen different magazines and publications each month. 

The service that you provide is a very professional service. It’s a very needed service for everybody. It’s the future of the industry. How else do you get people into the industry? Well, they either blunder their way in, or they get some guidance. One of the two. For fifty years we’ve primarily existed on people blundering their way in, or sort of perceptively figuring this stuff out. Now they have some guidance. That’s terrific.

There’s this fannish sense of wonder when someone sits down and says, “Wow, I really want to do this! I can do it!” If you’re going to be doing the superhero comics that are geared to the 13 to 16-year-olds, it’s important to be in touch with that part of yourself. In the beginning, that feeling runs away with you a little bit. That’s okay; at a certain point you realize that to turn professional you have to have a professional attitude. But, there’s nothing wrong with being enthusiastic. God, did you see me clawing over Dick Sprang in the con? I mean, come on! I’m 38 years old and going nuts!

END