How to Write Comics

How to Write Comics - Part 1: Hard Truths by Frank Gogol

If you really want to be a comic book writer, there are going to to be some hard truths that you need to learn and accept.

Entire books have been writing about the kind of commitment it takes to learn writing craft and to be a successful writer. And while there’s no formula for success, there are two major lessons about writing comics that if learned and accepted upfront will save you a lot of time spinning your wheels in your writing career.

The first lesson is that writing comics is hard work and it takes literally thousands of hours of you investing in yourself to get good at it.

The other lesson is that you’re going to spend a lot of money if you want to be a comic book writer who has actual physical comics to sell and use as a portfolio with publishers.

So, If you’re cool with trading dozens of literal days of your life each for the dream and living off of ramen while you do, then read on.

Truth #1: Writing Comics is TIME-CONSUMING, HARD WORK

Writing comics is hard fucking work, no two ways about it.

Unless you are one of those insanely rare people who is simply struck by the muse and can produce a prolific body of awesome work with next to no effort, make no mistake, you will spend literally thousands of hours learning to write and writing and rewriting if you’re serious about being a comic book writer.

Also, for the record, there’s no way you are the above-mentioned struck-by-the-muse writer. They don’t exist. Anyone who seems like that kind of writer (the Brian Michael Bendis’s and Jeff Lemire’s of the world) have just already put in their thousands of hours over many years before anyone was looking their way.

My point is: If you’re serious about wanting to write comics, you’re going to have to put the work in.

Allow me to use my own, very young and still ongoing experience writing comics to illustrate this point.

As of this writing, I’ve been writing comics for two and a half years. I’ve had just one short story collection published that was released through Diamond by a medium-sized publisher. I also have two miniseries green-lit with that same publisher.

For my full-time day job, I work 10 am to 6 pm (9 am to 7 pm if you account for commuting time). I wake up every day (every day) at 5 am to write and study comic books. This includes reading comics and pulling them apart to see how they work, planning stories, and doing the actual writing. I do this until 7:30 or 8 when I have to start getting ready for work. On the conservative side, let’s call it 2.5 hours a day.

So in 2018, my hours spent studying and creating comics looked like this:

365 (days in a year) x 2.5 (hours each day) = 912.5 (hours studying and writing in 2018)

That’s roughly 38 days. Or more than 10% of the entirety of the year’s time.

But this is the conservative calculation. It doesn’t account for weekends when I went way over 2.5 hours a day working on my comic craft or writing scripts. It also doesn’t account for the two comic writing classes and their assorted projects and homework.

The truth is, I spent at least 1000 hours in 2018 trying to be a better comic book writer. And I’ve got a published book and a few more on the way to show for it.

But very few comic book readers know my name and I’m not talking to anyone at Marvel (or DC or Image or Dark Horse) yet, so there’s still lots of work to be done.

The unofficial consensus in the comics creator community is that it takes 5-10+ years to break into comics (5 if you’re really good, but more likely 10+ for most writers, if it ever happens at all). That means you’re looking at 5,000 - 10,000 (if not, and very likely, more) hours of study and work before you’re knocking on the door of a major publisher.

That’s more than 417 full days worth of your life. Or, put another way, the equivalent of if you were to work at your writing every day all day for 1 year, 1 month, and 22 days for 24 hours a day straight with no breaks.

Which, you know, is impossible.

My point is, if you want to write comics--like REALLY want to write comics and be good at it--it’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to be hard, too. But it’s the only way.

If you can swallow that hard truth, you’re halfway there.

Hard Truth #2: Writing Comics is EXPENSIVE

Unless your only goal with your comic book writing is to get your stories down on paper and you have no earthly intention of developing them into full-fledged comic books, making comics is going to cost you money.

A lot of money.

Many a creator have chosen to ignore this truth about making comics, and those creators are making exactly zero comics.

Of course, there are those writers who are charismatic enough to convince their collaborators to work without pay or to work for “exposure” (whatever that is), but--ethical issues notwithstanding, and there are definitely ethical issues there--those kinds of scenarios play out 0.0000001% of the time and end up workout even less often.

The hard truth is that the financial burden of creating a comic book falls largely, if not completely, in the writer. As the person whose vision is being brought to life, it’s your responsibility to pay other people (editors, artists, colorists, and letterers) to bring that vision to life.

If you wanted to build a house but lacked the skills to lay a foundation, build the structure, or wire the whole thing for electricity, you would hire and pay a mason, a carpenter, and an electrician, respectively, and not think twice about it.

So, if you lack the ability to draw, color, or letter, you’re going to need to hire and pay other, more skilled people to do this work for you.

Accept it. Seriously.

You’ll be that much closer to actually making comics.

***

Look, becoming a comic book writer is not easy, but it’s not impossible.

People publish comics and break in all the time. Just like everything else in life, you get out of your comics writing career what you put into it. If you do the writing and pay to your collaborators to bring your visions to life, you’ll have a comic.

And if you’ve put in the hours to learn your craft, it’ll probably be a good book.

If you can accept the hard truths laid out above, your next step is starting to write.