HOW TO STAY IN COMICS
The following--“How to Stay in Comics”--is the keynote speech I gave at the 2023 Ringo Awards in Baltimore, so named after the late artist--and my good friend--Mike Wieringo. Even if you’re not familiar with Mike, you will be by the end of the speech. I hope you enjoy it; feel free to share.
In the first Superman movie, there’s a line of dialogue from Perry White where he growls about his newspaper career and says, “I’ve been in this business thirty years, man and boy!” And when I heard that when I was sixteen, thirty years sounded like an eternity.
Next year, I’ll have been in comics for forty years. And because my odometer just keeps rolling over, there is a question that I am asked more and more often, and it’s not from fans. Their question is “How do you break into comics?” which is a whole ‘nother speech. I’m asked by creators younger than me who just broke in and are willing to work for criminal wages: “Gee, Mr. Waid, you started before I was born. How do you stay in comics?”
Here's the advice I give.
How do you stay in comics? Be willing to work for criminal wages.
Also...well, first, don’t limit your knowledge to any one craft. Comics is a collaborative medium, and it behooves you to know as much as you can about every aspect of the business. Yes, find your lane, that’s fine, but it’s a big highway where everyone’s moving the same direction, so it’s okay to at least check out what everybody else is doing to get there.
Example. Early on in my career, I honestly never thought I could be a writer. I was happy being an editor at DC. I was working primarily on their anthology books. This meant that I had scripts come across my desk every day from Keith Giffen and Grant Morrison to John Ostrander and Denny O’Neil. Bill Loebs. All the great working writers at that time, and reading their scripts taught me more about scriptwriting in two years than I could have learned in ten years on my own. I leveled up by broadening my horizons.
Along those same lines, I have since made a point of trying my hand at absolutely everything. I’ve drawn a couple of small things, not at all well, but still. I’ve done a little inking. I’ve taught myself enough Photoshop and Illustrator skills to at least technically know how to color and letter--again, not on any real professional level, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to learn enough to see a bigger picture and to understand what it is I as a writer am asking of my collaborators. I even owned a comics shop for a couple of years because I wanted to get a look into that end of the business.
I’m not going to recommend you go buy a comics store because it’s much easier and more direct to go soak all that money in gasoline and set it on fire. But I do recommend widening your horizons. I do recommend at least trying your hand at every aspect of creating comics, because it will make you a better collaborator. If you’ve not written, hit the keyboard. If you’ve not drawn, Clip Studio or Procreate are excellent apps with dozens of online tutorials to monkey around with. Or, old school, just go grab a pencil. But step outside your comfort zone and learn, and from that learning you will find inspiration.
Ask for advice. As humans, we’re all going to be more generous or less generous with our time depending upon what life’s throwing at us at any given moment, but there’s not a pro in this room who wouldn’t be willing to take a few minutes to talk to someone younger who really wants to learn. I mean, not me. Leave me outta this. This is all I got, you’ll get nothin’ else. When I’m done talking tonight, that well’s gonna be dry. Go ask Walt.
Never, ever stop honing your craft. Never get complacent. Good enough is not good enough. Thanks to digital platforms, thousands and thousands of comics are easily available every day to our readers. This means that every Wednesday, you’re not just competing with the other books that came out that day. You’re competing with everything Alan Moore or Frank Miller or Jim Lee ever did. There is always room for improvement. Remember that scene in the movie Stand By Me where the kids are on the railroad bridge and suddenly they hear a train coming and they’re desperately hauling ass to get to the end of the bridge to safety before the train runs them over? You should probably feel a little bit like that every day, and if you don’t at all, you’re not gonna get any better at this. Don’t get complacent. Your fortunes will rise and fall.
Protect your work. You’ll get notes. I get notes. Kirby got notes. The first caveman to throw shadow animals on the cave wall got notes. Don’t take them personally. If a publisher is handing you a check, it’s not unreasonable to be asked to make adjustments. If you’re lucky, you’re working with professional editors and publishers who know how to produce a good comic and how to convey what they’re looking for, know how to make your work better. You will not always be that fortunate, trust me. Sometimes, you will also get dumb notes, or notes for notes’ sake. And that’s where you have to make some choices. But listen to me: if the notes are bad and you can articulate the reason why they’re more harmful than helpful, it’s okay to push back. Gently. Don’t pick fights, even if you’re in the right--it’s easy in this industry to get a reputation as a loudmouth, or so I’ve heard. Doesn’t mean you’ll always get your way, and you won’t always be right. Be willing to compromise in the face of a solid argument. Be willing to lose sometimes, because you’ll learn more that way than if you always win.
But--protect the work, because down the road, as prospective publishers are someday looking over the work you’re doing today, no one’s gonna care that this work of yours sucks because the editor demanded that you work a robot dog into the story or that you erase all your backgrounds or color exclusively in shades of brown or whatever. All they’re gonna judge are the pages they see in front of them, which have your name on them, and they will hold you responsible, no one else. Don’t do work you don’t want your name on. Even if you strike out, and we all do sometimes, always swing for the fences and don’t settle for a career of solid doubles. A big enough body of mediocre work will follow you around forever.
Be flexible, not overtly defiant. Don’t have an ego. Don’t ever be what a reasonable, uninvolved party would define as “difficult.” But stand up for your work above all else. And whenever push comes to shove (as it may), never let anything get in the way of you doing your very best, every time. In the long run, the quality of your work is all that matters. That is your only resumé.
Protect your dignity. Nothing worth doing is easy starting out, and everyone in any career has to, in some form or another, pay dues of some sort. You did. I certainly did. But know your worth. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that bullying is excusable in any way whatsoever or that it’s part of any “learning curve” or “breaking in process.” This is a business; you have every right to be treated professionally. But not everyone cutting checks is a professional and knows this, so if you never listen to another word I say, and I talk a lot, please hear this: we teach people how to treat us.
You can be confident and show integrity without being argumentative. Easier when you have a gig than when you don’t, I understand. It can be terrifying to look at a dwindling bank account or to lurch from random gig to random gig with no idea what comes after--and early on, I was in that place just like everybody, trust me--but I eventually learned that, unless it’s running from a bear, no good decision was ever made primarily out of fear. Try to do it without causing a scene, but you can always walk away from a miserable situation if you have drive and talent. There are still places in comics to do work-for-hire without being poorly treated, and there are still opportunities to do creator-owned work or self-publish and build a faithful paying audience in print or on the internet. It’s hard work, it is long work, but if you’re happy, you’ll do better work, and that will be the work you want to be remembered by.
Hit your deadlines. Move Heaven and Earth not to let the next collaborator in the chain go without work. Life happens, however; call the editor if you’re running late. Do not hide. But. If you’re ever backed into a corner where your only choices are “blow the deadline” or “turn in substandard work”--if you know, if you’re stone-cold sure, that another day or two will make the difference between “good enough” and “WOW!”...take the days. When I was at DC, we’d stand around eagerly to watch the script pages of this newcomer, some British guy, roll off the fax machine in batches of exactly one page. But you know what? Nobody remembers today that the script came in a page at a time. What they remember is how good Neil Gaiman was at writing Sandman.
Finally, how do you stay in comics?
Please have fun.
Again, in my editorial days, I was a faithful reader of a series that I won’t name, because it was objectively terrible. But I kinda dug it nonetheless. So I went to my boss, the incredible Dick Giordano--the best boss I ever had--and I asked him, “This comic is, like, Olympic-level bad. Why do I keep reading it?”
And Dick smiled and said without a second’s hesitation, “Because the writer would write it for free, and it shows.” And I have never forgotten that.
I don’t recommend working for free. The point is, if you’re bored at the keyboard or the drawing table or the computer, if you’re uninspired, it’ll come through in the work, I promise you. Readers can tell. On the other hand, if you’re excited about your work, if that excitement’s just bursting off the page, that is the surefire way to keep a reader reading, and that’s a win/win.
And if you want an example of this principle in action, that brings us to here and now, in this room. We come here every year to honor a man who had a career not just because he was a stellar artist, but because he took immense joy in his craft and his work shone because of it. Mike Wieringo, my friend and collaborator, loved comics. New ones, old ones...even after he was “comic-book famous,” he would walk up and down artist’s alley and buy ashcans and self-published starter work that caught his eye, sometimes just to show support, and it happened a lot. The single strongest memories I have of Mike are whenever I’d call him nervously after asking in a script for “packed baseball stadium” or “a gigantic library that stretches into infinity,” or “Panel One: A massive alien army armed with rayguns storms over the hill. On horses.” And I would apologize, and Mike did the same exact thing every time. He laughed and said, “I’ve never drawn that before. I enjoyed it.” Man, if you’re an artist and you’re excited to draw a bicycle parked next to a Ferris wheel, you love comics.
See, that’s what these awards, this night, have, uniquely. They’re different than the Eisners and the Harveys. I mean, not in length, they all last six hours. But those other awards are, as much as any awards can be, based solely on quality of work. And the Ringos recognize talent, too. Absolutely. But. Having Mike’s name on them is an additional reminder that a big part of creating the kinds of comics than win these awards--great comics--great art of any kind--is to stay connected to the joy in it, the joy Mike had as much as anyone I’ve ever met. Even when the gig is unbelievably hard, there is an undeniable energy to that joy, and every year this ceremony is our chance to share it with one another. So I ask you to bear in mind tonight, as we round hour seve, that this is a privilege. It might not seem like it to everybody, I know the bar awaits, but come on! Right now, across town, I’m sure there’s a convention of elevator repair technicians or whatever going on, and I sincerely doubt they’re able to feed off each other’s passion. We’re lucky. We get to do that. We just walked off a floor where thousands of people are energized just by sharing their love for something. Let the Ringo Awards keep being where that happens for us. To me, that’s the real legacy Mike left, and it’s in everything that happens here tonight.