When Image Comics released Phonogram in 2006, its writer Kieron Gillen figured he’d reached the top of his career. He’d be a creator of independent, semi-underground comics, and he would be happy with that.
But by 2010, he was writing Uncanny X-Men. The creator-owned series The Wicked + The Divine, which he created with longtime artistic collaborator Jamie McKelvie, won a 2014 British Comics Award. The same year, his and Jamie’s run on Young Avengers received a GLAAD Award for its portrayal of LGBTQ characters.
Throughout his busy career, Kieron has learned from his mistakes and successes and in the Comics Experience Master Seminar: Surviving Work for Hire, he’ll share his knowledge with aspiring comics creators of all experience levels.
The one-day online seminar takes place on Saturday, November 18 from 10 am – 4 pm Eastern Time. Space is limited, so we encourage participants to register soon! We spoke to Kieron to get a preview of the kind of insight he’ll share during the six-hour event, co-hosted by Comics Experience founder Andy Schmidt.
COMICS EXPERIENCE: As someone who wrote creator-owned comics very early in your career and then moved on to licensed as well, what would you say was the biggest adjustment — culture shock, if you will — in moving from one to the other?
KIERON GILLEN: I come from a background as a journalist and critic, both freelance and working the pressure of an office. As such, I suspect I had a lot fewer chips I needed removing from my shoulder in terms of the realities of working in a deadline-based creative field. Put it like this — any prima donna genes I had were well and truly cauterized by my first production editor back in my PC Gamer days.
My first actual adjustment was actually something much more positive.
I’ve handed in my first script to Marvel. The editor is on the phone, and we’re talking over it. He says that he thinks it’ll be better to switch one scene to before another one.
And I just freeze, and take a deep breath. We’ve all heard horror stories about editing in the comic industry. I was thinking “this is where it begins” and anything worthwhile is stripped out. This is how the sausage gets made, and I am the sausage.
So I breathe out, and then explain why I don’t think that’ll work. It gets a fun beat, yes, but it means that the reader discovers one fact too early, which means the story as a whole is going to be weaker.
He pauses, goes hmm, and then agrees. He gets it.
And I’m blinking. This is not how I thought it was meant to go down!
The readjustment here is actually not to be that negative. If you’re hired to write a work-for-hire story, they’re hiring you because they think you’re good enough to do the job. Those storytelling instincts and ideas which made them approach you are things they want to harness. If they didn’t want you to write it, they wouldn’t have asked you to write it.
It’s worth noting in that story where my experience in working with editors before helped — I suspect some people less used to talking over their stories would have had the prima-donna response to a suggested major change. That would be bad.
CE: Were there times in your career when you felt like you weren’t surviving, at least not in a healthy way? What was that like and what led to it? What did you learn from it?
KG: Oh, definitely. I got into an unhealthy cycle of writing my script in a day or two, and then being so broken I couldn’t do any decent work for the next few days, before then needing to do the next script in a day or two again. The worst thing was the perverse writer pride in knowing that you could do it like that, so a terrible part of ego was proud of it — and I suspect was the reason I did it. That was damaging to me, and damaging to the work.
In the end, it was a case of just stepping back, realising that I didn’t want to do it again, and rework my schedule to work at a more steady pace. The slow changing of my schedule across the years, as my instincts and interests alter is pretty key as well. You start to see where you’re getting bored and broken before it gets too serious, and then try to course correct into something else.
CE: You promise to tell Master Seminar students “LOTS OF THINGS THAT YOU SHOULD NEVER DO” during the session. What is one of them?
KG: Do a seminar called “HOW TO SURVIVE WORK FOR HIRE COMICS.” That’s just tempting fate, isn’t it?
I think the key thing about that section isn’t just a “why you should never do it” but a “why you will, in that moment, think it’s a good thing to do, and why I’ll strongly advise against it.”
Let’s keep it basic: lie to your editor about when you can get something done by. Even worse — lie to yourself about when you can get something done by. This is a whole conversation though.
To go even more basic: Don’t ego-surf and then fave negative tweets about your work. They didn’t like the book. Now they don’t like you, and they’re right not to like you, as you’re being really creepy.
Man, I wasn’t planning on doing some social media stuff. I probably should do some of that as well.
CE: How do you help people who are interested in working in the comics industry keep their expectations realistic while also not scaring them away?
KG: Oh, I dunno. It’s okay to scare some people away as long as you’re keeping it to the specific realities of what that exact bit of the job entails. If they really don’t want to do certain things, there’s certain parts of the industry they should be scared away from. The trick is trying to bracket your advice, to ensure what you’re talking about specifically. Even in an area as broad as “Work-for-hire comics” there’s lots of experiences, some which are more suited to certain artistic temperaments than others.
Of course, the other side is not to let your own experience of what is “realistic” warp what is actually possible. The industry changes all the time. At least some of the stuff I want to talk about is to actually try and give the tools that will help people analyse the medium at any specific moment, and see what a smart choice is at that time and space.
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!