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A Random Thought on Writers in Comics

Brian Hibbs

I was reading the Joshua Hale Fialkov interview (he’s a great writer, by the way) yesterday, and was struck when he said this:


“Everyone has a path, everyone has a road — for some people that road is a lot shorter than other people. I have moments where I realize I’ve been doing this for 10 years. When “I, Vampire” was announced, there was a chorus of, “Who the fuck is that guy?” I’m like, “Seriously? 10 years. Tons of awards. Book published by Random House, biggest publisher in the world. Seriously? Anybody?” And then you realize that well, no, I have 3000 fans. I have those 3000 people who read everything I do and now you’re given this opportunity with the relaunch and with this book to reach twenty or thirty times that audiences and it’s fucking great.”


…and the thought that struck me was this: I don’t believe there’s ever once been a writer in comics who has become a “name writer” who didn’t become that way until after doing a regular, ongoing monthly series. Not minis and GNs — monthly on goings. Let’s define “name writer” as “sells a book solely on the strength of their name to a significant (5-10kish, maybe?) audience”

(I think that may also be true for screenwriters as well — I’m thinking Sorkin, Whedon, Abrams… though Maybe M. Night puts a lie to that?)

Clearly it isn’t true for writer/artists — but I think it is right for writers, which is why a lot of people never “break out”, because they never find that ongoing idea they can make their own for 5-ish years.



39 Responses to “ A Random Thought on Writers in Comics ”

  1. I can’t offer any examples, but going by basic attribution theory in order to establish him-/herself as the one responsible for something being good he/she has to put good books repeatedly. That’s the crucial factor. Somehow demonstrating that it isn’t the collaborator or editorial or the subject matter is a bonus, but reptition is key.
    That said: Craig Thompson. To my knowledge certainly a “name” artist with a built in audience who never did an ongoing. He’s also a special case because by doing everything himself, a single work is enough to “prove” that it is this guy, not some circumstance or collaborator who’s responsible for the quality. But even here, Goodbye Chunky Rice, Blankets and Carnet de Voyage certainly built up trust in Habibi, both with retailers and fans.

  2. Markus: Brian specifically said “not writer artists”.

    I’ll agree with the hypothesis.


  3. Are you talking American comics only? Otherwise Jodorowsky might be a counter-example; other than that, I can only think of Pekar. I don’t think either of those guys built their audiences through regular serials, unless “annual” counts (for Pekar)?

    And, I hate to say it, but haven’t there been some “celebrity” writers from outside comics who’ve sold big numbers before, or without ever, writing monthlies? Like Kevin Smith’s Daredevil…

  4. Possible exception to Brian’s hypothesis: Gerard Way.

    Also Pat Mills and John Wagner. ‘Cause they became big names doing weeklies, not monthlies. :)

  5. “I think that may also be true for screenwriters as well — I’m thinking Sorkin, Whedon, Abrams… though Maybe M. Night puts a lie to that?”

    Actually… no. Because M. Night gained fame as a writer-director, which is the filmic equivalent of writer-artist. (Quentin Tarantino is out of the running for the same reason.) J.J. and Joss both wrote movies BEFORE they became TV guys, but were unknown to the general public until they earned recognition as the “auteurs” behind ALIAS and BUFFY, respectively.

    I’d argue that, in the entire history of American film, there’s maybe been only two “name-brand” screenwriters-only EVER. I’m talking guys who came to prominence *only* as screenwriters (not writer-directors). So I don’t mean guys who earned their fame in another medium (TV, Broadway, novels, etc.); and who became recognizable “name brands” for quality not just within the industry but to the general public — and who, early on, were recognized as the “auteur” or “co-auteur” of their films. I’m thinking of Paddy Chayefsky (NETWORK, MARTY, ALTERED STATES, etc.) and Charlie Kaufman.

    (And @Jones, I think Hibbs is talking about writers “breaking out” as comics writers — the prior fame of Jodorowsky and Kevin Smith as cult filmmakers kinda rules them out.)

  6. Two names spring to mind: Matt Fraction and Jonathan Hickman. I can’t speak to sales on either of those guys, maybe it doesn’t meet your audience threshold, but my impression has always been that both those guys became big names because of their mini-series work — Casanova for Fraction, and Nightly News et. al. for Hickman. Both have gone on to do ongoings, and I’m sure it’s raised awareness of them, but aren’t those series the real reasons people thought they were good in the first place?

  7. I’d say Pekar also, but as Jones says, his was ongoing (annual) and American Splendor was distinctively Pekar’s.

  8. But I’d argue that neither of those series, as good as they are, sold enough originally to elevate Fraction or Hickman to the level Brian’s taking about, where many folks buy their projects just based on their name alone.

    It wasn’t until their lengthy runs on Iron Man (maybe Iron Fist, but probably not) for Fraction and Fantastic Four for Hickman that they moved beyond the hardcore fans Fialkov talks about.

  9. I can’t speak for other people, but Nightly News alone impressed me so much that I swore to try anything Hickman wrote just based on his name from that point forward. I don’t think I was alone, because Marvel made a big deal about announcing him as the new FF writer, meaning I think they considered him a “name” already.

  10. Hickman’s a writer-artist. He was on Nightly News, at least.

  11. Ah yes, Shawn, you’re right. Good point.

  12. I think people are missing the most instructive thing in Fialkov’s comments.

    “I’m like, “Seriously? 10 years. Tons of awards. Book published by Random House, biggest publisher in the world. Seriously? Anybody?” And then you realize that well, no, I have 3000 fans.”

    I think a lot of comics fans who look at the book world in comparison don’t have any idea how poorly most books sell. There’s plenty of authors whose names you might recognize that would kill to have their latest work sell 19,104 copies like Secret Six #36 did in August.


  13. Plus, Hickman’s pre-Marvel minis had a very, very small following.

    I can’t think of a single example of a “writer only.” Maybe Alan Heinberg? Does he sell?

  14. Heinberg – probably couldn’t sell a book on his name alone.

    What about Kevin Smith?

    I know he’s an outside-of-comics guy, but as a comics writer – all arguments about quality and timeliness aside – surely he’d sell on his name alone. No?

    He’s probably excepted from this discussion, since I think Brian was trying to make a point about writers making a career in comics without the long series, and Smith sells because of his movies, not because of his comics.

  15. I’m not sure about all the details of his career, but would Steve Niles qualify? I don’t know if he’s had any significant run on an on-going book before 30 DAYS OF NIGHT hit, or if he meets the test as a “name writer”.

    Of course, I’m not sure very many “name writers” who have had long runs on an on-going could sell very well just on their name. I guess Millar is the poster-child for that, but he generally does his creator-owned books with big-name artists, with Marvel’s marketing behind him and sticking close to the super-hero mainstream (But more shocking! And with swears!). When he doesn’t, you get WAR HEROES, or THE UNFUNNIES.

  16. How about Brad Meltzer?

  17. I can’t remember 20 years ago–did James Robinson become a “name writer” after Golden Age?

    I wouldn’t count guys like Kevin Smith and Brad Meltzer since they were already established writers in other media.

  18. And how about Kurt Busiek? Although he had worked on monthly series beforehand, it was Marvels that really made him a “name writer”.

  19. I’ll concede this one is questionable, but I do remember I bought Sandman solely because of Gaiman’s work on Violent Cases and Black Orchid.

  20. Hmmm….the best I can think of is Steve Niles, but I don’t know if his name ALONE sells a book, as he’s almost always paired with an artist of at least as great renown as he…

  21. What about Warren Ellis? I know he did Lazerous Churchyard, but was that a monthly or something that had an irregular schedule (I’m not sure how 2000AD publishes their comics).

    Would Brian Wood count? I knew him from Couriers before he did the Generation X stuff. I thought he got Generaton X because of his work on Couriers and/or Channel Zero. Was he the artist in Channel Zero? I forgot.

    Didn’t Devin Grayson get her start from Arsenal Plus Batman #1 and the Arsenal Miniseries? Does that count as “becoming a name creator after miniseries?”

    Gail Simone got her start from Treehouse of Horror, but by that time, she was already a name creator because of her YABS comics parody column at CBR.

  22. I think the big difference between writers and artists is that with artists, you can usually tell right away if you think its great or awful. With writers, it’s much harder. For example, Brad Meltzer took four issues of Identity Crisis before people realized, wow this guy sucks. It took years for people to realize Jeph Loeb was a shitty writer. Not only did it take years for him to be noticed as being shitty, people were fooled into thinking his early stuff was actually quite good (in actuality his early work is just as shitty as his new work, but its less obvious for a variety of reasons).

    It takes a long time, especially in decompressed, slow burn writing, to realize the writer has no idea what he’s doing. I read years of 90s X-Men before I realized it was a convoluted mess that they were making up as they went along and that made no sense. I read years of Robert Kirkman before I realized his books weren’t really about anything except gratuitous gore and ugly misanthropy. Same for my favorite comic runs, it took a long time before I started realizing that my favorite comic runs were shaping up to actually be epically great.

    So in a way it actually helps writers in the same way it hurts them. Yes it takes longer for the cream to rise to the top as a writer compared to an artist or writer/artist, but it also allows the crap to float beneath the surface undiscovered for quite a while as well.

  23. Some noble tries here, but most don’t pass the smell test (Devin Grayson, really?)

    I totally get the “*I* discovered (writer) with their mini” (Gaiman, Ellis, etc.), but that’s not what I’m asking — I’m asking when the “mass audience” figured it out, and those are all monthlies (Gaiman = Sandman, Ellis = Transmet, and so on)

    Busiek is the only one mentioned so far who maybe sorta maybe comes close, but I think that while MARVELS allowed him to do ASTRO CITY, it was really AC that *cemented* him past “Well I kinda liked him on a, b, or c”. Ie, he *could* have gone from MARVELS back to doing “the 15th retread of CLOAK & DAGGER” or whatever, given his career trajectory at the time.

    (Kurt, come win, if you disagree?)

    As others said, there’s also the Kevin Smith path — become cultishly famous in film/tv/books/something else, adn then add another media to your toolbox… but that’s not the same thing at all.

    I think, from a career management POV, a pure writer in comics HAS to be looking for a ongoing monthly book with which they can make their name. Once made, then can fuck back off to one-off ideas and what not, but THAT (the monthly) is the key break for writers in comics.

    This is a great discussion, so thank you everyone who has contributed so far.


  24. I think the only other path that might work is the whole “I’m going to write my epic masterpiece with my consistent artist” story…and really only Dave Sim comes to mind and his was a monthly.

    I think this is a time thing. Consider that there were no other outlets but a monthly until the 1980s, and even then we only have a good market for trades (where you could compile mini-series) since the 2000s. Give it another decade and I think we’ll start seeing writers break through with a wider consistency.

    But then again, I think it is very hard for a writer to get noticed, in general, for comics work. Most of the best comics writers were noticed first for journalism (Gaiman and Fraction), editing (Waid and Christopher Priest), fandom (Busiek), or british head-hunting in 2000AD (Moore and Morrison). Comics are also a visual medium, so writers tend to get shafted over their artists. It took a while for me to know that Jeoph Loeb wasn’t a good writer, primarily because Tim Sale was such an interesting artist in the Long Halloween.

    I think the reason why monthly writers get more praise than mini-series writers is because they’re doing the whole Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour rule of putting hours into their craft to the point where creative people suddenly have the fame and recognition of others.

    (Wait…I just realized: What about Greg Rucka? Does he count? Whiteout was his first work. But I guess he really isn’t a big-name).

  25. @Brian
    I think you moving the goalposts around (when you get right down to it, “name” XXX is all that counts), but mostly you’re arguing from your favourite conclusion backwards. It so happens, that the way the industry is set up right now, most up and coming writers sooner or later end up doing an ongoing. If you arbitrarily pick that point as their becoming “name” then congratulations, you confirmed your thesis that an ongoing is vital to becoming “name”.
    Even within the artificially constrained field you set up, the reality is more likely to be, that some of the people were “name” before they got the ongoing, some when they got the ongoing but before it came out (publisher recognition acting as a proxy there) and for some it was the ongoing that put them on the map. That’s always hard to tell, especially with a vague criterion such as becoming a “name” artist.
    I do know, but I’d say unless you put down some hard definitions and justify them relative to the point you’re trying to make, the “importance of serialisation” to becoming a “name” artist is mostly wishful thinking from someone who has a major stake in serialisation.

  26. i miss Astro City.

  27. Markus:

    You’re two for two now on reading comprehension — I gave a clear criteria: that of sales volume. I know it when I see it in my own store — there may be a handful of people talking about, say, Nick Spencer, but there’s not dozens of people who read the words “Nick Spencer” and will preorder a book sight unseen, as there are for Gaiman, or Ennis, or Ellis, or Moore, or any of the other “big” writers.

    And I’m really not trying to make any kind of a point whatsoever in any way shape or form regarding serialization — it was an honest realization I came to upon reading Fialkov’s interview, and is not trying to match any kind of “agenda” — and I offered it hoping that it would be a useful realization for new authors trying to break in to comics: The paying audience needs to see you on a monthly book before they start associating you with “must buy”.


  28. Brian: so basically you’re saying that the long-term viability of writing careers are still largely determined by the big two? Only Marvel and DC have the resources available to provide ongoing titles to up-and-coming writers. With the modern exceptions of Kirkman and Chew, independently-published ongoings have little to no chance of surviving in the current market long enough for a writer to make their mark.

  29. Much much easier to be a Premier publisher, yes (so, “Big 5”), but there are several “back of the catalog” publishers who would appear to have the resources to make a monthly work?


  30. It’s about a work of a certain size. The only way in the anglophile current Market to produce a work of a certain size is a serialised work. A six issue standard size mini doesn’t have the “footprint” to work.

    He’ll, even if Moore arrived with Watchmen as his first work, it’s worth remembering it’s 12 issues and they were all oversized, giving the content of something like 18 issues.

    It’s about size. It’s about getting something like 400-1000 pages of a work that’s distinctly the writer out there. And presently, for a sole writer, serialisation is about the only way to do that.



  31. (Er… In case the Watxhmen point is fuzzy, I’m say that even a mini as good as watchmen may not do it… Because watchmen is bigger than what we think as a mini)


  32. Is it a certain page count, or is it just doing a monthly. I keep on thinking of how many writers overseas cut their teeth on 2000 AD before coming to the States, or how many writers here started out doing Dark Horse Presents.

    I think there’s something about consistant writing on a monthly schedule that people like. For instance, I love the heck out of Mark Ricketts. He’s a contemporary of Bendis and Dave Mack at Caliber. He wrote Nowheresville, Night-Trippers, and Lazerous Jack…three trades that only me and the Word Balloon guy seem to purchase when they came out. He’s one of the best writers no one has heard of because he only does trades. I think Bendis mentioned that whenever he visits Ricketts, there are always 3 to 4 trades that Ricketts has finished but hasn’t sent out for a publisher yet because no one is biting. If this guy had a monthly, his trades would’ve been flying off the shelf, mostly for the name recognition.

  33. I think the “ongoing” is definitely what makes a comic writer a “name.” This is mainly for two reasons, in my opinion.

    One it allows a writer to exhibit that he/she can deliver the goods consistently, affording them the opportunity to give readers a reason to believe in them. A great mini-series can put one’s name into the audience’s minds, but there’s always the worry that maybe they’re a one-hit wonder.

    And two, doing that ongoing series keeps the writer’s name visible and in the fans’ consciousness. We get used to seeing that name and eventually relate it to quality (however one wishes to define that).

    This is what Sandman, Swamp Thing, TransMet, Preacher, 100 Bullets, Animal Man & Doom Patrol, Daredevil, Captain America, etc. etc. etc. did for many of today’s name writers. Here’s hoping Mr. Fialkov is allowed to finally get his name out there, as he deserves.

  34. On the risk of completely missing the point: René Goscinny and Jean Van Hamme are writers that probably outsold everyone mentioned in this discussion by a huge ammount, and maybe some of the most worldwide recognized names in the trade. Funny they were never mentioned.
    They ever had a monthly series (of course they didn’t work in the american system so it proves no point).

    Only ongoing series in the US sell in the quantities you demand for being considered a name writer, so of course you got yourself a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one buys mini-series from up and coming writers and artists.
    Even for artists, if you apply your criteria strictly (no writer-artists, big sales), you’ll se that the same is essentially true. even though they might gain some attention with their skills, true fame (which is being correlated to high sales) generally arrives with high-profile works, which again brings us to ongoing series…

  35. @ 34. John:

    “On the risk of completely missing the point: René Goscinny and Jean Van Hamme are writers that probably outsold everyone mentioned in this discussion by a huge ammount”

    Well, clearly the discussion is primarily around US comics, because this is a US site, and in the US, I bet 95% of my customers could name /recognize ASTERIX, but less than 1% could name either the writer or artist, but let’s take Goscinny — there hasn’t been new work in 30 years (certainly, since he passed), but in ’65 when he did “Les Dingodossiers”, was there a huge group of people who were buying it BECAUSE it was written by Goscinny?

    (I don’t know either way, I’m just copying from wiki!)

    Also, that material all appears to have been serialized originally, so it would appear to me to meet my criteria with a certain amount of parity.

    >>>Only ongoing series in the US sell in the quantities you demand for being considered a name writer< << That's not strictly true -- minis featuring established characters by name authors often outsell comparable monthlies (Blackest Night, Siege, etc.). Though, certainly it is true that unknown writers don't get THAT kind of exposure. >>>Even for artists, if you apply your criteria strictly (no writer-artists, big sales), you’ll se that the same is essentially true< << Again, I disagree -- I can think of several "name" artists who move quantities of books, who have never done significant interior work on serials -- Dave McKean would be just one obvious example. -B

  • And it would pretty much HAVE to be a Marvel/DC series, wouldn’t it?


  • Chris Beckett’s theory that people are more likely to follow a writer who’s had a consistent writing schedule is something that’s worth following up on. Jim Butcher of The Dresden Files has managed to maintain his popularity by releasing a new book of his Detective Wizard once a year has made him a perpetual bestseller. Harry Dresden’s comparisions to Spider-Man don’t hurt either.

    It’s only recently that Jim Butcher’s writings have been adapted to the comics page, though the first book is unfairly divided into two volumes instead of one. There’s also a single stand-alone volume, “Welcome to the Jungle” that works well and plays to Jim’s strengths better than the adaptions of Anita Blake.

  • As long as we’re bringing up the subject of European comic writers, we might as well add Raoul Cauvin into the mix. The man’s done an impressive amount of varying work, most of them comedic. His most serious work is The Blue Brothers, which is set around the time of the Civil War in a similar vein to M*A*S*H. However, most of his stuff is aimed at children, which seems to be a forgotten realm of the comics market. While everybody seems determined to gain the attention of adults, stuff at children seems to be mostly frowned upon, even though they’re some of the most popular and widely read stuff around.

    On a related note, this goes for Newspaper comics as well. People are more likely to know the names of the following: Charles Schultz, Bill Watterson, Lynn Johnson, Cathy Guisewite, Mort Walker, Johnney Hart, Jim Davis, Gary Larson, Jim Unger, Bill Amend, Scott Adams, Jeff MacNelly and Berke Breathed among many others.

  • I like Kieron’s measure of 400-1000 pages of work. It indirectly sets up some benchmarks which make sense: (1) proven ability to sell, (2) ability to establish a distinct style of writing, (3) ability to sustain narrative for enough arcs to fill a minimum of 3 TPBs, etc.

    Do we have statistics on cume dollar sales or total copies sold you can associate with a writer or artist? It would be interesting to see if there is a certain dollar sales volume that establishes a blockbuster writer. It would be even more interesting to see if there is a pattern among up-and-coming talent that accurately predicts their performance writing titles for the Big 2.

    I don’t like comparing US artists to European or Asian artists because the marketing and distribution systems are wildly different. They deserve their own separate conversation, an increasingly important one in an era of digital comics.

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