I wrote a blog once that urged comic artists to try writing their own books. I held back a bit on what I said--Punk Rock Jesus hadn't come out yet, so I didn't feel like I had the proper authority to really speak up.
Since then, there's been a lot more discussion about the etiquette of publishers toward their freelancers, the recent rise of creator owned books, and the effects of Hollywood moving into comics (or vice versa). And as friend of mine at Newsarama pointed out recently, I'm one of a few guys who's found a middle ground--not only because I'm writing and drawing my own book, but because my OGN is partially owned by DC Comics.
Certain events of the last year have created new concerns within our industry. Do you still need to work for big publishers if you want to "make it"? Do they deliver a better product than creator owned books? Are the Big Two treating creators as fairly as they've always been? Between the rise of digital comics and comic-based movies, are creators getting their fair share? Are comic companies adapting properly to the changing landscape?
Whatever the answers to these questions might end up being, two things are becoming clear to me.
1. Now is the best time in the HISTORY OF COMICS to be doing a creator owned book.
2. Being a writer as well as an artist gives you more power, which is helpful in these uncertain times.
Frank Miller is a successful artist/writer combo. So is Paul Pope. Mike Mignola, Jeff Lemire, Bill Watterson, Will Eisner, David Lapham...the list goes on. And there are a ton of indy artist/writers that also put out a good product, although many will tell you that they don't make a lot of money doing it.
So if we know it's possible to be a writer/artists combo, why don't more artists try it?
The truth is that most attempts at being a combo fail. No one wants to be the artist who mills away for years writing (what he thinks will be) his opus, only to have it end up a laughable failure. But I think most of these attempts fail because artists don't respect writing as an individual craft--rather they think that being in comics for long enough means they've developed writing skills simply through osmosis.
Which is bullshit. And it's disrespectful to your medium. Just because you can stand on a hardwood floor doesn't mean you know how to build one.
What are other reasons not to write? Maybe you have no desire to write. Maybe you don't think you'll be good at it. Maybe you have a family and bills that prohibit you from taking the time to pursue it properly. Or maybe you feel like the industry's attitude against writer/artist combo is too steadfast.
Some of these are good reasons. But even if you don't think you want to write, the benefit of being a artist/writer combo deserves your consideration. Don't you owe it to yourself and to your family to try make the most out of your career by wearing two hats instead of one?
READ ONE BOOK
My first argument is to commit to one book. Over the past 7 years and in my spare time, I've read 7 books on writing and screenplays. And while I'm no expert, I've managed to have success with Punk Rock Jesus. What does that tell me? It says that it's possible to read 7 books on writing and manage to produce something (at least) average to most comics. You might not be Mark Millar, Ron Marz, or John Arcudi on your first try, but that's okay--you're not looking for excellence, you're looking for proficiency. It's possible to pull off a decent OGN if you're willing to learn the fundamentals.
Here's a list of books I've read about writing. I suggest you pick one and read it. If you finish reading and still have no interest in writing, then that's fine--I guarantee your storytelling will have improved, as well as you ability to recognize a good/bad script. But if the book is even marginally interesting to you, then you might have the chops for a decent OGN.
Screenplay by Syd Field
Good Script, Bad Script by Thomas Pope
The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus
Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder (this is a popular one lately)
Story by Robert McKee
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
I have a movie screenplay approach to my writing, which isn't necessarily the best way. In fact, you might disagree with some of the things you'll read, and that's fine. The reason I recommend the screenplay approach is because it's more efficient: you can view/dissect 4 movie plots in an afternoon, whereas a novel can take weeks to read. And I feel comics have more in common with movies than any other medium.
OGN vs FREELANCE
Working as a freelance writer for a publisher, from what I'm told by my writing friends, can be really hard and unfair. Writing's hard enough, but pleasing a publisher makes it a lot harder. Here's a list of problems you might encounter while working with a publisher:
-You're hired to write X, but then X changes halfway through. And you don't get paid extra for rewrites.
-You submit an idea when suddenly a bigger writer comes along, sees it, likes it, and takes it for his own.
-You finish a plot, but are then told you can't use certain characters because another writer wants to use them.
-You have to write plots that you don't like--plots sometimes invented by people who don't know what they're doing.
-Someone might chang your dialog without telling you. And you don't find out until it's on the stands.
-You're ready to get started, but the publisher puts it on hold. Or artist X spends too much time on Twitter and not enough time hitting his deadlines, the bastard.
These problems are mostly avoidable if you're doing your own stuff. Even if you're not as good as a professional writer, the grueling editorial process imposed on most writers might be enough to give you an edge.
THE GARAGE ARGUMENT
While publishers have the most money, the best creators and the best distribution/advertising, they're still LIMITED from doing whatever they want. Batman brings a lot of money into DC, and while they want to have the best Batman stories possible, a writer can't do anything he wants with the character. They need Batman to be relatively unchanged, because merchandizing and movies necessitate it. That's obviously why comic "deaths" aren't usually permanent, and we all know it can lower the quality of the books. Now when Captain America dies, some of us just shrug. That's the cost of the "limiter" on comics--it keeps us from telling the Shakespeareanly-epic stories that freelancer writers are capable of.
In a way, a major publisher is like BMW--they've got a recognizable brand, a long history, and more capital than a "do-it-yourself-er" in a garage. BMW can afford to spend $100,000 to make sure the sound of the locking mechanisms isn't too loud. They even makes some of the best engines--some are so fast, that they even put a limiter to make sure it doesn't go over 200 mph.
Now why would BMW add a limiter? Why build an amazing engine and then stop it from reaching maximum performance? The reason is this: adding the proper brakes, suspension and other gadgets that allow a car to go over 200 mph safely would make that car too expensive. In other words, BMW wants to make an impressive car, but they know it's not practical to make it go "full tilt".
So what's Punk Rock Jesus?
PRJ is a custom car built in a shed by a single mechanic, me. While it might not compete with BMW, it does have some of the same parts (same paper, drawing supplies, DC distribution, and a DC editor). I also have the help of a BMW caliber designer (me the artist). And while I don't have the normal pit-crew BMW has (DC colorist, writer, inker, or the recognition of a character like Batman), I also don't have a limiter so I'm relatively free to make the car as fast as I want (I can create any character, subject, background, kill anyone at will, etc). At the end of the day it might not be a Z4, but my car just might beat it in a drag.
Sometimes I think it's better to be a combo artist/writer on a "C" level book than an artists on an "A" level book.
As I said before, being a writer gives you more power. Even if your script isn't at Scott Snyder level, at least it's YOURS. Tons of artists talk about doing their own thing one day, but you actually DID IT. You'll gain new readers, do more interviews, be invited to more shows--a writer/artist combo is way more likely to get comped at a convention because for the same price, they're flying in both the writer and the artist--YOU.
Yes, being on Batman is also great, because Batman is giving you a boost. But it's easy to forget that Batman is going to outshine you, and many people won't give your art the attention it deserves. That doesn't happen when you're doing your own book.
In my opinion, artists who have been in comics for decades but OWN NOTHING are irresponsible. After years of toiling away on your craft, dragging your ass to shows, pouring thousands of hours of sweat into pages and commissions, you never found the time on the side to do even ONE 4-issue miniseries that you own?!
Shame on you. Even if you didn't want to write, you could have owned something with a writing friend.
Owning something that turns into Hellboy is unlikely, of course. But ownership of your characters pays off in lots of little ways. Maybe a second edition will make you some extra cash. Maybe the European editions will make you more. Maybe you've got enough of a hit to get more money for a sequel. Maybe you saved your process sketches and can sell a sketchbook on the side. Or maybe it won't get made into a movie, but the option money alone could pay for a mortgage.
With the digital age of comics, writing and drawing your own stuff is easier than ever. Big publishers are nervous about the options small press and self-publishing offer--and they should be, especially when you see what some of these guys are getting on Kickstarter! Even if you decide writing isn't for you, I just wanted to write this post and encourage you to give it more thought.