Discover more from IF YOU GO AWAY - News from P M Buchan
April is no longer the cruellest month!
An interview with David Hine & the best way to get started as a comic writer.
Isn’t December the loneliest? The pressure to get everything right, for kids and parents crushed under the collective expectation that we all be ecstatically happy, while half the country worries about how to put food on the table, is suffocating. Every year we wrap our emptiness in tissue paper and fairy lights, embracing half-forgotten pagan traditions to ward away the darkness. And mostly it works. But I really miss the summer.
BLOOD MOON chapter one preview - Art by John Pearson and Aditya Bidikar
No news on BLOOD MOON this week. John Pearson returned from Australia with a head full of oversized cobwebs and a tablet filled with thumbnails and sketches, but nothing that’s ready to share yet, so let’s speak of other things. If you want to be the first to see the next issue of BLOOD MOON when it’s ready, however, John’s Patreon is the place to visit.
After my son was born, during the period of adjustment when the only way to make him sleep at night was for me to sleep on his bedroom floor, I often lay awake haunted by the realisation that I had to find a way to write. I started by writing online regularly about horror films and comics, then it became time to find somebody to publish my work. If you’re an aspiring writer still waiting for your published credit, the secret is that there is no secret at all. You have to find a way in by any means necessary and then work your arse off to show that you’re reliable. No more, no less.
Don’t Fear The Reaper - my first SCREAM strip, created with Jack Fallows
I began by sitting alone and working out what I had to offer the world. Loving horror more than anything seemed like a good starting point, so I hit the shops and bought every horror magazine that I could. That narrowed down my options massively at the time and two stood out as recently launched specialist magazines that might take my work, SCREAM: The Horror Magazine, which was onto issue two, and Shock Horror, the first issue of which had just been released. There were clearly a million people already writing about horror films for those and other magazines, but very few writing about comics. In fact, there wasn’t any space dedicated to comic-books in SCREAM at all. So I emailed to the editor, offering my services to write about and review horror comics and creators.
Rich, the editor, was happy to take me up on my offer, on the basis that he couldn’t pay me yet. People talk a lot about the relative merits of doing unpaid work and undervaluing the efforts of others in the field. I chose to see it as a transactional arrangement. I already had a day job to pay the bills, and this would be an opportunity to get my work featured in a print publication and distributed across the UK, for the first time, something that would be invaluable for my portfolio. I would write unpaid for as long as I felt like I was being rewarded in kind, and stop when that was no longer the case.
Having made that decision, I pushed for one more thing. If Rich was happy for me to write about horror comics unpaid, maybe he’d also consider publishing one-page horror comics in the magazine. He agreed and that that was how I first started regularly writing comic strips for national magazines: by committing myself to something that I’d never done, creating one-page done-in-one comics to deadline.
A Krampus Carol - Created with Jack Fallows and Michael Barnes in 2011
Writing those one-page magazine strips was the best thing that I’ve ever done to develop as a writer. I learned how to write concisely and how to create to deadline. For years I’d struggled to make headway as a comics writer, because most artists can create comics perfectly well without teaming up with a writer. Finally, with SCREAM as a platform, I had something to offer in the equation. Work with me on a single-page comic strip and add a national print magazine to your client list, having your work seen by a whole new audience. AND IT WORKED! For the first time I was able to approach complete strangers and offer them something of value, and in return I got to collaborate with talented artists, tell my stories and grow as a writer. This was ultimately how I first worked with people like Martin Simmonds, now drawing
The art of coming up with a completely new story each month that you can tell from start to finish, and boiling it down to a maximum of nine panels, was gruelling work, but taught me almost everything that I now know about writing comics. After years of mental backlog, all those ideas for novels and films and short stories that I’d never have time to write, this was like opening the floodgates and giving myself permission to clear the decks, experiment and come up with new ideas.
The best piece of advice that I can give to any aspiring comic-book writer would be to concentrate on completing short, done-in-one strips. Don’t start by trying to persuade an artist to draw the graphic novel you’ve dreamed about all your life. Don’t team up with somebody who’s willing to quickly churn out an ongoing webcomic straight out the gate. Concentrate on finding the best possible collaborators that you can and make short, high-quality comic strips, learning from your co-creators and showing off your ideas in the best possible light. A single one-page strip with an inspirational artist will get you much further with an editor than a sub-par hundred-page webcomic.
Krampusnacht - Created with Simon Perrins for Starburst Magazine issue 383
Going back to SCREAM, even better was that alongside creating comic strips I also had a platform to write about other people’s comics. Which meant that I was able to request free comics and graphic novels to review, a lifeline considering how broke I was. And by writing about their work, I met so many of my peers, people who I’d go on to collaborate with, who I’d see at comic conventions and exhibitions. People like Mike Garley, Robin Hoelzemann, Conor Boyle and Sarah Gordon, all of whom are excellent examples of UK creators forging their own unique paths to create comics. Writing about other creators is a phenomenal way to network in a community like comics, allowing you to bypass a lot of the scepticism and wariness that more established artists will often show if you try to approach them as a newcomer.
I was a columnist for SCREAM: The Horror Magazine from issue four, March 2011, until issue 10, March 2012, creating black-and-white one-page comic strips from issues five to 10. I got everything that I could out of the opportunity, keeping in mind that I wasn’t getting paid and my time was limited. Until I heard a rumour that Starburst Magazine, the world’s longest-running magazine of sci-fi, fantasy and horror, was under new ownership and preparing for a revival. I emailed the new owner directly and put myself forward to write a column about comic-books, this time not limited to horror, but covering anything that I wanted to write, from US superheroes to UK independents.
The first issue of the revived Starburst, issue 370 in May 2011, was online only. The relaunch was such a success that the next issue was published in print, in full-colour (which SCREAM at the time was not), with widespread distribution across the UK and freedom for me to write a monthly column, additional graphic novel reviews, news pieces AND to write a strip for each issue, with flexibility to go between one and three pages. Again, I wasn’t getting paid at first, but I was given the trust and freedom to write almost anything that I wanted and it appeared each month in newsagents across the UK.
This week I’ve interviewed critically-acclaimed comics writer David Hine, whose new Image Comics trade paperback collecting the first story arc of his series Sonata with Brian Haberlin is out this week. One of the things that I love most about David and his body of work is his fierce independence, in a career that has seen him work for all the top US comic publishers, on characters including Spider-Man, Green Lantern etc, Daredevil, alongside a raft of stories, characters and concepts that he’s created.
There’s something inspirational about the man who co-created Spider-Man Noir for Marvel in 2009 (seen most recently in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse!) carving out a career based on his own creations, in an industry that’s heavily weighted towards writing licensed stories and giving up the rights to everything you create. His Image Comics series with Doug Braithwaite, Storm Dogs, was ahead of its time in almost every respect and is something that I feel modern readers would enthusiastically embrace. I also recently finished reading his new Soaring Penguin Press graphic novel, The Bad Bad Place, with Mark Stafford, which is a deeply unsettling Lovecraft-esque tale of “urban unease” that’s beautifully British and very disturbing!
1/ What accomplishment in your career to date are you most proud of?
I think that still has to be my graphic novel Strange Embrace, which was first published back in 1993. This was the first time I undertook a full graphic novel, writing and drawing without a confirmed publisher when I began it. I had my ideas of how non-mainstream comics could be done, based on what I was seeing coming out of Europe, specifically the work of Munoz and Sampayo (Joe’s Bar for instance) and the novelistic work of Tardi, working with various prose writes like Léo Malet. Strange Embrace was the result. There were no editors and no deadlines and best of all, I had enough savings at the time to spend a year working on it without the distraction of having to do other paying jobs. I look back on that period with great fondness because I was able to totally immerse myself in a single piece of work and I think it shows.
2/ What or who inspired you to begin your journey as an artist, and if different, what inspires you now to keep creating?
I’m going to take the term ‘artist’ as including the art of writing. As far back as I can remember I would immerse myself in fictional worlds, whatever the medium. I was drawn to fantasy and science-fiction more than anything. The Narnia books, The Trigan Empire in Ranger and then in Look & Learn, Dr Who on TV along with Lost in Space, Star Trek, The Time Tunnel and all those other great American TV shows. I read masses of science-fiction. Favourite authors included Ray Bradbury, Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison.
I knew by the time I was eight years old that I wanted to write and I have loads of notebooks filled with two completed novels, short stories and innumerable incomplete novels that would peter out after a couple of chapters. One of those completed novels was a western, so I wasn’t totally fixated on science-fiction. When I stumbled on imported Marvel and DC comics in the newsagents at about the age of 10, I became obsessed with the medium and that’s when I started to focus on drawing so I could emulate the creators I admired, like Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and later Steranko, Wrightson, Neal Adams and later still, the underground artists like Vaugn Bodé, Robert Crumb, Greg Irons et al. I won the school prize for art for ‘O’ level and school prize for English at ‘A’ level so I guess that shows my determination. Sadly, I’ve never won any prizes for anything since.
When I started out, it was the old masters of the medium who inspired me, then the mavericks, and now it’s the younger creators who are entering the comics medium. Some of them are my Graphic Storytelling students from the Animation Workshop at VIA University in Denmark. They all inspire me with the freshness of their outlook and diversity of styles and their outstanding talent. Some of them are starting to publish their work now. Emil Friis Ernst just published his first graphic novel, Dr Murder and Emei Burell contributed to Soaring Penguin’s anthology, Meanwhile, and then published a biography of her mother, which was recently picked up by BOOM! Studios.
There is a whole pack of new young creators snapping at the heels of us old guys. Luke Healy is another artist who impresses me. I’m amazed at his output – and he’s still in his twenties. So, yeah, the youngsters with their wide-eyed enthusiasm and anyone who pushes the boundaries, like Richard McGuire with Here or anything by Chris Ware.
3/ Can you give me a snapshot of your creative process from start to finish – do the nightmares that you write come from immersing yourself in misery or do you write about bad, bad places while sipping smoothies in the sun?
It’s a long process from the germ of an idea to finished comic book. Immersing myself in misery is definitely part of the process though I have also written far too much on holiday – not so much sipping smoothies in the sun, as labouring in a hotel room while my partner was soaking up the sun on the beach. Not recommended, though it is a good test of the strength of our relationship.
I have two distinct kinds of work. There’s the mainstream work, which is more commercial and almost always work-for-hire. That may be working with existing characters, from Batman, or Spider-Man to Spawn or Will Eisner’s The Spirit. The challenge there is to come up with original ideas that still keep the integrity of popular characters that many others have worked on before. Editors will usually give me some idea of theme, or the direction they want a book to go in. I’ll come up with a story pitch, which is couple of pages long. If that’s approved I move on to breaking the story down into 20-page chapters, usually running to about 100 – 120 pages total. That part of the process is all about pacing, keeping the interest of the reader and building the drama, taking the characters through a journey that tests them and pushes them into new areas. The trick with a character like the Batman is to develop the character without changing the essence. Give the readers something new without betraying what the character stands for.
Once the chapter outlines are approved I start breaking it down into pages and then panels. That’s all about the beats, panels are minor beats, pages are major beats. I try to make every episode complete in itself, as far as possible, with some kind of hook or cliffhanger to make the next episode unmissable.
I sketch out thumbnails of each page so I can see what I need to achieve dramatically. That means choosing establishing shots, mid-shots, close-ups etc. I’ll then write dialogue, then cut enough of the dialogue so I don’t go over 150 words to the page. The ability to cut dialogue to the bone is a major skill you need to acquire if you are going to write for monthly comics. 20 pages with 150 words or less to the page is not a lot to develop plot character and theme.
The last part of the job is the bit I enjoy the least. This is the full panel description, where you make sure the artist doesn’t miss out on any element of storytelling. That will include establishing props that you are going to need five or ten pages later. You don’t want that matter transmitter or raygun or package of cocaine to just appear out of nowhere (unless it’s the matter transmitter doing it). It can become mind-numbing when, for instance, you realize on page 15 of episode three that your character has to climb out of a window that was drawn with iron bars on it in episode two. It’s the detail that makes a comic convincing but it can drive you crazy. I’m always happier doing this part of the job when I know the artist well and can write the script in a more conversational way. My most frequent partners in crime have been Shaky Kane and Mark Stafford and we pretty much share the same headspace when we’re collaborating.
After the script is done and sent, you wait for the art to come in, at which point you feel ecstatically joyful or sink into a mire of depression. Happily, it’s more often the former.
The location for work is important for me too. I like to change it up as much as possible, so though I do have a studio set up for work with reference books, piles of notebooks and my trusty laptop, I also like to work in cafés, hotel rooms, on trains and planes or waiting in airports. Sitting in the garden in summer is also good.
The process for creator-owned work is similar in some ways to work-for-hire. You still have to pitch to a publisher, but you will be left to your own devices once the project is greenlit. The whole thing is a lot more enjoyable because the straitjacket of working with characters that are described as ‘properties’ is gone. I feel totally liberated working on things like The Bulletproof Coffin or Lip Hook and The Bad Bad Place. I am eternally grateful to publishers like Eric Stephenson at Image, Emma Hayley at SefMadeHero and John Anderson at Soaring Penguin, who had enough faith in me and my collaborators to allow us to pursue our twisted visions.
That was a little more than a snapshot, wasn’t it?
4/ If you woke tomorrow and were no longer constrained by time, budget or even skills you haven’t learned yet, what would you make?
It’s nice that you think I’m still capable of learning new skills. I have a couple of ideas for graphic novels that I would love to do as complete projects, making the art, colouring, lettering, the whole shebang. However, my drawing skills never have, and never will reach the point where I can recreate what I see in my head. I lack the mind-to-hand motor skills. I also lack the digital skills for the more fantastical imagery. The only artist who has come close to making images that I need for one of those projects is Frazer Irving. Ideally I would have the ability to inhabit his head for a year or so to make the artwork.
More realistically there’s a prose novel or two I want to write and then I hope to make more comics with Shaky Kane and Mark Stafford. Mark and I already have a plan… it just requires the time and a wealthy benefactor. If I woke up to the magical world you suggested I would probably go for the graphic novel project with Mark first, then lure Shaky back for another series of monthly comics in the style of The Bulletproof Coffin (but different), then my personal book project, which I am not even going to attempt to describe, with illustrations by me using the magically acquired skills of Frazer Irving.
With or without children, Christmas can be an isolating period that rarely lives up to the hype, but nevertheless I’m going to share my annual Christmas list, packed with gems like No Doubt’s Oi to the World. There’s no end to the number of artists who’ll record a cover of Fairytale in New York, but I’m pretty certain that none will ever beat No Use For A Name. Look out also for Harley Poe’s It’s Christmas Time Again, which channels the spirit of Gremlins and Nightmare Before Christmas in a way that only Harley Poe can!
That’s it until 2020. It’s been a difficult year in the UK and things are going to get worse, with the country now led by a demonstrable liar who can’t bring himself to admit in public how many children he has, a history of making brazenly racist remarks and a seemingly complete disregard for the environment. But this too will pass.
On a personal note this year my son has overcome a number of hurdles that we weren’t sure he’d ever manage, my wife is fighting to make sure environmental issues get the voice that they deserve in local politics, and after an almost-unbelievable string of offers that fell through from the biggest Western comic publishers in recent years, I finally had a strip published in Heavy Metal, adapting a song from the first album I ever bought growing up. You’ve gotta take your wins where you can.
If you want to catch up about anything discussed in this newsletter, as always, find me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/PMBuchan