Last week, we announced that the Master Seminar on writing ensemble and team comics with Justice League and Detective Comics writer James Tynion IV was now accepting enrollees. Now, read our brief interview with him about some of the points covered in the class.
Comics Experience: What are some challenges to writing team/ensemble books that writers might not know about? What are some of the ways you overcame those challenges?
James Tynion IV: I think a lot of times, particularly when you’re on a work-for-hire book that’s part of a shared universe, there’s an impulse to just throw in all your favorite characters and see what happens. The trouble is, in a lot of cases, your favorites have a lot of traits in common (those being the traits that MAKE them your favorites), and you can end up with a team where figures have duplicative personalities and functions. You can overcome that if you lean in, for instance if you take two characters that SHOULD be similar and put them on ideological divide that sends them down different paths…
But if you don’t make an active choice it can make it difficult to write, because multiple characters are capable of performing the same actions and are likely to have the same response to that action. The key to working around that is just putting thought into the line-up from the beginning. Make sure you have the team you want and need, where everyone’s abilities and personalities are distinct.
CE: What makes writing a team book fun? Why should comic book writers tackle ensemble casts?
JTIV: Honestly, the biggest and best reason to write team or ensemble books is pacing. It’s easier to keep dramatic tension up when you’re intercutting between multiple plot threads. It also allows you to skip some of the more boring connective tissue like people en route to places. You can just cut away, and when you cut back, they’re already there! Like magic! Also: In more general terms, I think that characters reveal more of who they are through how they interact with people around them than they do in their own minds. We all know that the internal monologue can be misleading. Actions and relationships define people, and a superhero team book, is by nature, all action and relationships.
CE: What is the “Sad Monster?”
JTIV: I mean, the best example in all of comics is The ever-lovin’ Thing from the Fantastic Four. But honestly, I think every team book or ensemble needs a good sad monster. Sad monsters want to embody everything the team stands for, but there is something innate in them that holds that back. Normally, they think it’s the fact that they’re these hideous monsters, but usually it’s something much deeper. Sad monsters help define the thesis of a series by showing their struggle to fight for that core ideal. Even in the most mundane ensemble book, in a world without literal monsters, you want a sad monster character to help you and the readers define the conflict that defines the book.
Slots in our master seminars fill up fast! If you’re wanting to learn James’ lessons on balancing ensemble casts, sign up here.
Every comics reader has a favorite ensemble cast (or two), whether it be a superhero squad like The Avengers or The Justice League or the slice-of-life stories found in books like Strangers in Paradise. And everything in between, of course.
For writers, learning to balance so many characters with their own unique arcs and motivations can seem like a Sisyphean task. James Tynion IV (Justice League, Detective Comics) wants to help you with crafting compelling stories where everyone you write has a chance to shine.
On Saturday, April 20, he’ll be teaching a master class on writing team and ensemble comics! Topics covered include creating your cast, deciding on a leader, enemies, pacing, and more. There will be a Q&A so you finish the day out with everything you’ll need to know to get started on your ensemble book. You don’t want to miss out on such a great opportunity to learn from an industry leader!
You can sign up for the master seminar here. Remember, our slots tend to fill up quickly and space is limited!
Whether you’re telling a two-book tale or a sprawling epic that would
impress even Eiichiro Oda, you’re going to need to know how to draw up the
blueprints for a story arc. Fred Van Lente‘s (The
Astonishing Spider-Man, Marvel Zombies) upcoming Story Arcs and the Art of Serialized Storytelling course,
beginning April 9 and running every Wednesday until May 15, teaches you how to
become the architect of your own rich worlds.
We spoke with Fred briefly about his intentions for the class, and what
students can expect to learn from his expertise!
Comics Experience: What are your goals for the story arc class? What
do you hope your students get out of the experience?
Fred Van Lente: So much of comics storytelling is about
pacing — on the page between panels, and between pages within a story unit. What
I want students to learn is how to pace an entire story “arc,”
whether that’s a multi-issue story within an on-going series, or a completely
self-contained graphic novel, and how to use pacing to for effective reveals,
enhance individual character arcs, and maximize reader interest, to keep them
coming back for more and giving you the commitment to see your story through to
CE: What are some of the unique challenges to writing out serialized
arcs vs. more episodic or procedural stories?
FVL: Planning is the main thing, and it’s those kind of
plotting skills we want to teach in this course. We get very wrapped up in
scene-to-scene storytelling, and you need that too, but we want to tackle the
next level, which is looking at the whole piece from a high altitude and
figuring out the best way to order those scenes. Is this a monthly comics
series with 20-pages issues, or a weekly web comic with 20 panels per chapter?
The skills you need to tackle both are basically the same (it’s the decisions
that are different), and that’s those skills that we want students to come away
CE: What are some of the most common misconceptions about writing
FVL: “Decompression” is a term that has been
bandied about a lot since I’ve been in a comics, usually as a derogatory term,
but some of the most popular comics of the last twenty years have been
“decompressed.” What’s important is to pick a pace that’s right not
just for your own story, but how best expresses your own voice and style.
CE: What are some of the most common mistakes writers make when
writing and mapping serialized stories? How will your course address them?
FVL: I’m going to try and take people from a completely
blank slate, so hopefully we’ll “unlearn” bad practices during that
process, but I think more than anything else new folks focus too much time and
effort on Chapter One, or Episode One, to the neglect of the remainder of the
piece. From the jump we’re going to get people to spread that love around their
entire story, not just the beginning.
You can sign up for Fred’s Story Arcs and the Art of Serialized
Storytelling course here. Remember, our slots fill up fast, so make sure to
secure your spot as soon as you’re able!
Now, David and team are gearing up for the launch of Spencer & Locke 2, the follow-up arc to their successful debut. The sequel pays loving tribute to classic strip comics, pitting hard-boiled Detective Locke and his imaginary talking panther Spencer against Roach Riley, the creators’ murderous riff on Mort Walker’s classic strip Beetle Bailey.
Spencer & Locke 2 features art by Jasen Smith and Jorge Santiago, Jr., with covers by Santiago, Maan House, and Joe Mulvey. It’s available for pre-order now at comics retailers everywhere, and arrives in stores on April 24, 2019.
We talked with David about the challenges of writing a multi-part story, attracting and retaining readers, and more.
What can returning readers expect to find in Spencer & Locke 2 — and what makes this a good jumping-on point for new readers?
Following the fallout of his last investigation, hard-boiled Detective Locke has found himself in a particularly bad place — he’s been suspended by Internal Affairs, his bid for custody over his daughter Hero is in jeopardy, and he’s continuing to struggle with the demons of his abusive upbringing. The one constant in Locke’s life? He’s still got a partner to watch his back — who just happens be a seven-foot-tall imaginary panther named Spencer. But these unlikely heroes are going to find themselves in over their heads when they face a murderous former soldier named Roach Riley, our pitch-black parody of Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey.
As far as jumping-on points go, I think we’re taking our original series’ high concept to the logical extreme — if the original Spencer & Locke asked what if Calvin and Hobbes grew up in Sin City, Spencer & Locke 2 is going to be declaring all-out war across the funny pages. But even if you aren’t familiar with Bill Watterson or Mort Walker’s iconic work, we get readers up to speed quickly on Locke’s horrifying past, as well as his unorthodox partnership with his imaginary friend — at the end of the day, we all have memories we don’t like to think about, and it’s that foundation that I think makes Locke such an engaging and accessible character.
At what point did you know there would be a Spencer & Locke 2? What prompted the decision to launch the second arc?
I’ve had the idea for our second arc really since the beginning — since we started off with a base of taking a gritty, adult spin on Calvin and Hobbes, it felt like a natural progression to take our show across the funny pages, particularly with Beetle Bailey, whose military background made him a perfect candidate to continue exploring our story of violence, suffering and PTSD. And it’s really to our publisher Action Lab’s credit, because they asked us fairly early on in our first arc if we’d be interested in continuing on with the series — and given how fun Spencer and Locke were to dive into as characters the last time, it felt like a no-brainer to say yes, so we could start putting together this bigger and bolder new storyline.
What advice do you have for creators who want to plan a
series with multiple story arcs?
The biggest thing I would say is just not to put the cart before the horse — it’s easy to get wrapped up in this idea of a 60-issue epic, but even for the most seasoned of creators, that longevity isn’t always (or even usually) viable. You want to make sure your first arc is as strong and self-contained as possible, because it’s only by establishing trust with your readers and your publisher that you can really justify getting multiple story arcs.
And by building up your first
storyline, you’re really doing yourself a favor in terms of being able to take
a step back and figure out the best way to expand your high concept, your
themes, and your character arcs for future installments. It’s good to have some
ideas in your back pocket, so you can position your story to head in a certain
direction if you’re given more runway, but ultimately your series is only going
to be as strong as the foundation you build it upon.
Anything else you want to tell us about Spencer & Locke 2?
The Spencer & Locketeam was nominated for five Ringo Awards for our work on our first arc, and early buzz is saying that Spencer & Locke 2 is even better than the first. I think there’s such depths we can explore with these characters, and such a sense of empathy that we can bring to our readers, alongside all the action and excitement. This is our Empire Strikes Back, our Dark Knight, and I’m not invoking either of those trilogies lightly. If you like psychological crime thrillers with a genre twist — or if you’re a fan of books like Criminal, Moon Knight, Afterlife with Archie, or Blacksad — then you’re going to love what we do in Spencer & Locke 2.
Spencer & Locke 2 is available for pre-order at the following links or from your favorite retailer. It will be in stores starting April 24, 2019!
Ahead of the launch of her class on April 1, we spoke with Heather about her favorite tips and tricks, and she shared with us a previously-written blog post with some fantastic advice.
An Excerpt are printed here:
“1) Before you settle on your goal amount, make sure you know for a fact the actual total producing, publishing, and shipping all your items will cost you. Don’t just guess. Find a similar size book, make sample packages, take them to the post office, and know for certain the cost. Take into account international shipping charges, too. Shipping can cost as much, if not more, than your printing invoice.
2) Make your video & page description count! Take a look at Kickstarters that were successful, emulate them. Look at Kickstarters that weren’t, analyze what went wrong. How did they film? What did they film? How was their page worded? What incentives were available?
3) Having a strong social media following is going to be your biggest asset. The wider your circle, the more people who are going to see your work, the more chances you’re going to have people who want to support you. If you’re asking for $10,000 and only have 10 followers, chances are you’re not going to get each person to pledge $1000 each.”
Want to know more? Heather’s upcoming course will dig deep into everything that goes into organizing, running, promoting, and following through on your campaign.
She says, “By the end of the course all participates will have created either a completed, ready-to-go-live Kickstarter for their comic projects [or] a completed Kickstarter for a ‘hypothetical’ or ‘future’ project”
The syllabus includes how to craft a compelling story to hook investors, strategies for creating the best video, marketing and PR, and the right rewards for the right projects.
“Each class will be breaking down a specific aspect of building a Kickstarter – for example, what makes a good video, or how a project’s rewards and incentives can help shape the unique identity of a campaign – using personal examples from projects I’ve ran/built/etc,” Heather says.
“That’s week’s homework will be for the participants to then create that aspect of their own campaigns for review during the first half of the following week’s class.”
Heather’s Kickstarting Your Comic or Graphic Novel course begins April 1! Sign up early to ensure your spot, as enrollment is limited. Learn more and register here.
If you want to make comics, write, draw, letter, and color comics, or improve as a comics creator, you’ll find like-minded friends and colleagues in our online workshops and courses. We hope to see you there!
Creators Workshop members and Comics Experience alumni have teamed up with our friends and partners at Source Point Press for an exciting Kickstarter with a fresh and fascinating premise. Roads (Not) Taken began as a challenge in the Workshop, serving as both personal introductions and a creative exercise exercise. Participants – which include Milton Lawson, Ramon Gil, Blake Braswell, Marta Tanrikulu, Stu Rase, Will Allred, Jason Czaplicki, Keith Davidson, Emily Elmer, Diana Naneva, and more – tell stories about famous fictional and non-fictional figures they want to meet, and what a road trip with them might look like.
The book provides a fascinating glimpse into how many of our creators view the world and the people who inspire them.
“Roads (Not) Taken sets itself apart from the pack of anthologies currently coming out in a few key ways,” says Source Point Press President and Editor-in-Chief Travis McIntire.
“Beyond the fact that this collection of writers and artists are some of the best in the independent world, the theme – a road trip with someone that exists outside their world – forced the creators to put their characters on the move, to consider how a character (from other fiction, or from history) would interact with their own creations. What this has lead to is one of the most engaging, and interesting, comic anthologies I’ve had the privilege of reading…and publishing!”
Workshop member and alumnus Shaun Manning is coordinating the campaign along with Travis. We spoke with him about the project.
Comics Experience: How did the concept for Roads (Not) Taken come about in the Creators Workshop?
Shaun Manning: This project was the brainchild of fellow workshop member Dave Kawalec, who had solicited concepts under the heading of “Getting to Know You” in the forum. The idea was to create stories that would help us, as creators, get to know each other through the creative process, through choosing and telling the story of a famous traveling companion, living or dead, real or imaginary. There was a lot of excitement and interest around the idea, and we had a number of names batted about for adventurers.
CE: How were the stories chosen?
SM: After that initial round of excitement, a good number of scripts were submitted to the workshop group. We offered our critiques and recommendations for strengthening the core concepts, and in at least one occasion we had a traveling companion change. Because this is a community effort, we didn’t outright reject any pitches at this stage. There were, however, some that were not re-submitted after revision — which is fine. The creators may have had other priorities they’d prefer to focus on.
The next challenge was putting together a creative team. Comics Experience has a rich community of writers and artists, but possibly because of the ways this project came about, a lot of these pitches originated with the writers. We made efforts to pair folks up within the CE boards, but of course that could never suit all needs. So there was something of an obstacle as writers worked to find line artists, colorists, and letters to bring their story to life. Some of that initial batch of writers didn’t manage it, or didn’t manage it on time; that’s nothing against them, sometimes a pitch just doesn’t work out, sometimes you’re not resourced to make it work out within the submission window. These creators do great work, and continue to do great work.
Now, it wasn’t a matter of “if you get art done, you’re in.” Though I’d seen all of the scripts and the stories were strong, it was still possible that the finished comic just wouldn’t be up to par. Thankfully, I didn’t have to have those difficult conversations, because without exception these creators delivered. There are a number of really interesting styles in the book. Stu Rase drew his Ol’ Dirty Bastard story himself, and it is completely fitting. Some of our other creators also pulled double duty, like Ramon Gil, who wrote and colored his story as well as designing the anthology. But in all cases, these folks delivered – Colin Cheney found Diana Naneva for his story about the poet John Clare, and her style is completely fitting if you know anything about John Clare; Keith Davidson for Ronn Sutton and Stephen Legge to do his very EC Comics-style story about Death hitchhiking with clowns. Marta Tanrikulu, Lipe Diaz, Sandro Ribeiro, Emily Elmer, Kevin D. Lintz do something different still with their story about a short drive with the teacher who became an astronaut on the doomed Challenger launch. The list goes on.
CE: Why does the theme of road tripping with inspirations resonate with creators and audiences? Is there any difference between how the two engage with the theme?
SM: It’s a bit of a party question, isn’t it? It goes back to that initial workshop post of “Getting to Know You.” Who you choose says something about you. How you see yourself, how you wish to be seen; what you need, or what you think you need. How you perceive the world. What holds value. That’s the creative appeal.
For readers, well, these are familiar faces. We know them, or think we know them; at any rate, they are great cyphers. Roger Ebert is synonymous with “film critic,” and we trust his opinions. Stephen Hawking is an icon not only because of his genius but because of his unique life. Charlie Chaplin holds a place of privilege in the history of comedy and film. These people mean something, beyond their individual existence. That gives them special power in storytelling.
The road trip, too, is a familiar journey. Even if we’ve never been cross country, we’ve likely been on a long car ride, we know the sorts of conversations that ensue and how this environment is often very far removed from the ways our every day existence operates. We learn things about each other, sometimes big, but more often small yet poignant. And again, not all of the stories in Roads (Not) Taken are literal road trips; most aren’t. But the idea of a journey is central, venturing from Point A to Point B and experiencing change along the way. These icons, our traveling companions, facilitate that change, and I think this combination is what makes these stories compelling.
You can support Roads (Not) Taken on Kickstarter here.
“I took the Comics Experience Writing course with you last Fall. The fundamentals I learned at Comics Experience gave me the foundation to assert myself and navigate my way through the comics industry with confidence. It also gave me a level of credibility, that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, that I feel made a significant difference. Don’t be surprised if you hear me enthuse the value of what I learned from COMICS EXPERIENCE (and the MAKE COMICS podcast for that matter!) to new and aspiring creators for years to come!”