Day Two of WonderCon was packed with panels and interviews. I admit it was almost too much; towards the end of the day I stopped taking notes, and just sat back and listened.
But I still took down lots of good advice, from building a career in comics to getting hired on staff for a TV show.
Many thanks to the creators who took time away from their work and their families to share their insights and advice with us!
Breaking in and Staying in Comics
jim zub, max dunbar, chip mosher, ivan salazar, kiersten wing
jim zub: currently writing the avengers and iron man; did the rick & morty vs dungeons & dragons comic
max dunbar: artist, worked on dungeons & dragons, various comics at dc and marvel
jim zub: unlike a lot of other industries, you can go to conventions and show off your stuff, meet people; easiest way to get started in comics is to start making comics; got his own start in animation, because it seemed easier (to him) to break into (so many people needed for every project); started doing his own comic in the evenings after work (c. 2001); what’s amazing about the internet is a lot of the barriers to getting your work out there are gone
max dunbar: x-men cartoon blew his mind when he was young; drew all the time, thought “there’s a job where you get to draw non-stop”; much later, started taking his work to conventions; first breakthrough was convention in 2012, getting into a portfolio review, talking to editor directly, showing them his work
kiwi: there’s a lot of different jobs in comics: marketing, editorial, etc. lots of other ways to get in
chip: got into comics in ’82, parents let him have a subscription to rolling stone, which was a mistake, but it had an article about the dark knight, and he thought “this comic’s going to be hot”, so he went into the shop and bought two number 1s; soon followed with swamp thing, watchmen, etc; one his favorite comic companies at the time was kamiko: robotech, johnny quest, grendel, mage, etc; worked in a comic shop when he was a kid; somehow talked his parents into letting him take a bus from houston to san diego to let him go to comic-con when he was 16; he volunteered because he couldn’t afford a badge; ended up meeting bob and diane with kamiko, who took them to a party where he got to hang out with mark hamill, ended up working for them, and then moving to boom studios and helping them staff up and become a major player, then to the movie side for oni press, then…
max dunbar: make as many contacts as you can early on, never know when those contacts are going to provide an in
jim zub: joined a creative community early on, they would go to the cons and then to dinner afterward, and all look out for each other as each of them got their foot in the door
kiwi: and not only those contacts help you get in the door, but they become your support system later on
jim zub: though if you take a hunt-and-kill approach to making contacts, just looking for the next person to help your career, people are going to notice and you won’t be the kind of relationships you need to not only get in but become a better artist, a better collaborator; seek out the people on the sidelines, who aren’t being mobbed, they’re all important, and they can become part of your support system (and also: it’s just good people to recognize the humanity in others)
ivan: got his job in marketing not on the basis of his professional stuff, but on the strength of his fan-mix covers; because (according to chip) they were more him
jim zub: agreed; so many people pitch stories that they don’t really care about; but the biggest successes in indie comics over the last 25 years have been passion projects; nothing else is going to keep you going when you’re juggling a day job and grinding this out on the side
- for jim: how do you get in the mindset for villains? jim -> when writing, he’s done so much d&d, he’s literally roleplaying all of it; villains are people that think they’re good and can always justify how they’re working towards their goals; they’re driven people; if you don’t know who your characters are, if you’re just putting them in there because “we need a bad guy” they’re not going to feel real to the reader; finds villainy for villainy’s sake to be boring, always wants to find their motivation
- if you come in later in life, with a day job, how do you balance that?
- jim -> can be really difficult, he’s still teaching, and writing at night, it’s nuts and it’s hard to get in the right amount of writing; like any hobby, like exercise or dieting or anything habit-forming, you need to be able to carve out that time; and hopefully the people in your life understand that and will give you your space; it’s so important to stop pretending like “i’m going to take 6 months off and do my creative project”, that’s a lie; make incremental progress constantly, daily, and then you’ll look in the rearview mirror one day and marvel at your progress
- max -> start small, on anthologies, short comics; it’s important to work on projects and finish them, put them in your portfolio; put in the daily effort you’ll need to work on your craft
- jim -> definitely don’t do things like cashing out your retirement account early so you can take a year off work to produce a comic; the problem with getting advice from successful people is that none of the bodies strewn on the fields around them speak up and talk about how things didn’t work out for them
- max -> you can keep your job and work in comics, it’ll just take more discipline to juggle the two
- american market is saturated with superheroes, can you talk about pitching stuff that isn’t that?
- jim -> would not recommend trying to break in with a superhero comic; better to do a different genre, and build your rep there
- max -> plenty of other stuff out there; his first superhero book was just last year
- ivan -> for pitching, look at editors, see what they’re working on, look for similar stuff, and pitch your stories to those editors
- jim -> check the names in the back, be targeted in your pitches, look for the people/names in common with the work you like; when you reach out to them, be genuine, don’t blow smoke, make a real connection based on your research and your fandom
- jim: don’t send generic emails out to companies; meet people, and send your stuff to them
Spotlight on Scott Snyder
with whitney moore, host of the DC Daily (podcast?)
“what does it mean to have 80 years of batman?”
- batman was one of his favorite comics when he was little; he’s from New York, grew up when times square, etc wasn’t considered safe; batman resonated with the problems he saw growing up, every day
- and you want him to win, because he’s the most human of the heroes; no super speed or strength or anything else
didn’t handle his first year of writing batman well; got the book when he was in a low place, was really unsure of himself; was writing short stories at the time, one of them caught the attention of editors at DC, was only supposed to do background for the book, and then suddenly got handed the whole book; thought he’d only have that one shot at batman; wasn’t handling pressure well, was drinking too much at cons and parties, getting into fights with editors, etc; ran into grant morrison, who told him the only way he could deal is if made his character have a birth and death, and that’s when he started working on zero year; wanted batman to deal with the problems his kids are dealing with (shooter drills, terrorism, things that scott didn’t have to deal with when he was little)
batman laughs is his chance to vent, be crazy; write the anti-batman; let loose with all his little problems like “i got stuck in traffic today”
what is it about the horror genre that draws you?
- was a very weird, anxious kid; lots of worries and anxieties; horror helped him deal with them
- found a loophole in the video store: they wouldn’t rent R-rated videos to kids, but they would deliver them to your home; remembers getting night of the living dead, made a huge impact on him, so bleak, so socially conscious, lived in his imagination for months
- horror is the perfect distillation of conflict; even if you’re writing a drama, you’re pitting the hero against their own worst fears; if you’re writing horror, you can go at it directly
- takes your worst fear and makes you face it; takes the worst version of what you’re afraid of, and makes you face it, and then you come back ok
but even your horror has levity, how do you approach that? is a formula of timing, or..?
- tries to throw in jokes because you need some release through the book
always puts himself in the work; it comes from what he’s struggling with personally; if you’re an aspiring writer, be prepared to be vulnerable, because the only way you’ll make these characters original is to bring to them your fears and problems
advice for aspiring writers and artists?
- you gotta write your own favorite story that day; doesn’t have to be the smartest or the funniest, but the story that would change you that day
- pragmatically; it’s going to suck; there’s going to be lots of years when everyone else has careers, and you’re like “i’m a writer!” with no credits
- you can’t wait for the muse, you have to think of it as your real job, your secret identity, and work it like a real job
- when he started out, he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the class when it came to writing, but he wanted to do it, and so he kept at it
- writer’s block is just the fear of writing something shitty; even on the days where you suck, you have to write anyway
- what if you don’t want to confront yourself on the page?
- there’s no way to avoid it; whatever you write will be you; even if you don’t want to face your fears, write what about something you love, and make the villain the thing you hate, and you’ll still be confronting yourself on the page
Inside the Writer’s Room
chris parnell, gabrielle stanton, ashley miller, steven melching, ryan condal, deric hughes, bo yeon kim, kay reindl, jesse alexander, sarah watson, brian ford sullivan, marc bernardin, mark a altman
haven’t done a breaking in panel in a while, let’s do that, shall we?
focus on the staff writer today; how do they fit into the room?
gabby: levels: staff writer -> story editor -> executive story editor -> co-producer -> producer -> supervising producer -> co-executive producer -> executive producer, and that’s wobble for a while
who hires writers?
- mark: writers hire writers; he wrote comic books for a while, didn’t work out, agent got ahold of one of his comics and said what do you want to do when you grow up; need to be able to write a pilot, need to come to LA for meetings, need to wow a show-runner, need to be able to plug holes as a staff writer; your job is to help the show-runner execute their vision
- ryan: even show-runner has to get approval up the chain
in order to get hired, have to get your name on a list. how do you get on a show-runners list?
- sarah: once you’ve written your one great script, write your second great script; you don’t know what show-runners are gonna be looking for; having a breadth of material helps; write as much as you can, because you get better with every script
recording this for inside the writer’s room podcast, which will launch later this year
jesse, how many scripts had you written when you got staffed?
- wrote mostly features first, got into tv because a friend did and said it was fun
- found his voice very early on, but now he’s so old that he’s lost his voice
- write what you love and what you want to see, just crank out tons of it
- wrote 40-some scripts just to learn how to do it
understand: the show-runner’s been moving up the chain for years, and this is their one shot to get their vision out, so they want to build a room that can get their voice out there
as a show-runner, what are you looking for?
- jesse: had series with nbc, young writer submitted 2 spec scripts for other shows, and they were amazing and they were two very different shows, and so he hired her
- kaye: is always looking for the writing; tip: read lots of scripts, read good ones and bad ones; most scripts aren’t bad, they’re just average; when you read something with a craft to it and a point of view to it, it stands out; she’s looking for someone that has their craft working for them
- mark: wrote an original pilot that got him on castle; but he’d written features for years
when trying to get in a room, should they focus on specs or original material?
- mark: recommend writing original material; really depends on the show runner; he prefers reading original
- gabby: have a spec in your back pocket, because a lot of the writing programs now are asking for a spec and an original
- sarah: have a spec because it teaches you how to write in someone else’s voice
- kaye: also helpful to learn how to breakdown a show
when staffing colony, ryan only show sci-fi scripts, but he really wanted drama writers, because the show was meant to be character-driven in a sci-fi backdrop; also looking for diverse voices, even someone that doesn’t like science fiction to find out what kind of show they would watch
gotta market yourself to get on staff, right?
- deric: yes, you want to pick a lane, get known for something to get on a list, and then once you’re established, you can move out of the lane; writing a smallville episode got him representation, but writing a rescue me episode is what got him his first job; gotta prove that you can write, no matter your lane
- ashley: i’m supposed to have a lane, but i’ve been drinking, and so i don’t know the lane until i get home; been doing a lot of sword&sorcery lately; finding a lane is good advice, because it’s about knowing who you are as a writer; having a ground truth you can start from is very powerful; should constantly be creating material and developing skills
nelson, any different in animation?
- in the early days, in the 80s, was studio staff driven; building full of writers would be assigned to whatever shows they were doing
- then it became a freelance model, with single show-runner
- now it’s more like tv model, with staffs of writers working on show
- want to emphasize that it’s important to find your voice and where you fit, because it’ll be soul-crushing to be stuck somewhere you’re not happy working in (imagine being stuck in a show type you don’t like for 4-5 years)
what sets a good script apart from a bad script?
- ryan: voice; it’s the hardest thing to quantify, but when you read a cormac mccarthy novel, you know it: that’s a voice; that’s the thing that leaps off the page, especially for people reading tons of scripts every day
- jesse: looks for craft in the scene; needs someone who can tell a story and knows the format of tv; know how to tell a story in a scene
- kaye: no more excuses for not having the right format for your script; when reading for a competition, knew she had a good script just from the way the writer started off the episode (just five pages in)
- sarah: it’s character; wants to feel like she knows those characters; nothing more boring than a cop show that’s just about cop stuff; hook her with the characters, and then she’ll be into everything else
what’s a good pilot character?
- jesse: put specifics in it; don’t say “i love a car” say exactly what car; this is nuts and bolts stuff that’ll make your work stand out
- marc: it’s a character that’s never satisfied; the show is them trying to cross that gulf between where they are and what they want (ex: buffy and her need to be normal); mulder is much more interesting before he finds his sister
brian: got in through the warner-bros workshop; made it through a scene of house he wrote
what are options out there for getting in the room?
- warner brothers writers’ workshop
- writers on the verge (nbc)
- cbs writers’ mentoring program
- writers’ assistant is another way in; they’re the keeper of the wikipedia of the show, they keep all the notes and all the discussion from the room; they have to take everything and collate it into coherent thought at the end of the day, and send it out to the writers
- marc: don’t be a dick; conduct yourself with grace; a lot of this business is people you know, and if you’re a dick, people will find out and they won’t want to hire you
- also: don’t go on twitter and tear other shows down, it’s not a good way to get known; people look at your social media when considering whether to hire you
- sarah: twitter is an optional platform with real-life consequences
- can you be too old to break in?
- marc: got first staff job at 43 years old
- what about show bibles?
- deric: no do not write the show bible, the show runner has that and they don’t want to read yours
kaye: don’t save anything from the pilot, don’t assume you’ll get a second episode; just blow shit up in the first episode, and deal with it once it gets accepted
nelson soler, lia martin, kristine huntley, kayreth williams, suzanne park, teresa huang, ken choy
feeling fear makes you a writer; wants to create a safe space; teach you how to utilize it
if you don’t have a writing support system, get one, to help you through your periods of doubt
take those traumas you’ve been through and turn them into fodder for comedy; it can be very cathartic
one method to add the comedy: have a character that can do things they wouldn’t normally be able to do (example: if they have cancer, there’s a lot of taboos they can break)
the rules: be funny, be honest, and be ugly; if you’re going to go (expose trauma) go all the way; dig deep, write all the ugly into the script
“all procrastination is fear”
epiphany: the fear never goes away; you have to learn how you’re going to live with it; stop fighting it or feeling bad about having it
technique: use creative kindling; give yourself 5-15 min to write something else: from a writing prompt, or a diary complaining about how things are going; then set timer and write during the whole time
every story is about fear; fear gives you the stakes, and the tension
take your fears and build them into stories, that’ll make them resonate with other people
for a tv show, need to take that fear and make it big enough to form an umbrella for 100 episodes of a show; example: fear of failure in college, make the college a super-prestigious place where failure means derailing your entire life (and maybe ruining your family): now all the normal events and stresses become much more dramatic