How To Become A Comic Book Writer In LA: From A Legendary Superman Writer
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Mark Waid's been writing comics for more than 30 years. His work has sold millions of copies and influenced movies, TV shows, and more — he's written classic runs of the Flash, a massive reinvention of Superman, a definitive take on the future of DC Comics characters in Kingdom Come, and much more.
He recently took a position as the director of creative development with L.A. comic book company Humanoids, launching a new comics lineup. You can read the first five pages of the new book that he co-wrote, Ignited — about teens developing superpowers following a school shooting — at the bottom of this story, plus more on how he's creating this new world.
Here's how he got started, and how you can break into comics yourself.
STEP 1: FIND YOUR PASSION
Waid didn't plan on being a comic book writer — growing up, he wanted to be an editor.
"I didn't honestly think it was possible to sit down and come up with brand new stories every week, for any of these characters," Waid said.
He loves comics. He's been reading them since he was 3 years old and fell deeply in love with superheroes. But he didn't think he had the ability to be a writer.
He grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and was going through a dark time as a teen.
"I was shuttling back and forth between two parents who I didn't feel like... nobody really cared whether I lived or died," Waid said.
That's when, at 15 years old, he saw 1978's Superman: The Movie.
"I'd liked Superman going into the movie — I liked comics, but I also liked magic tricks, and I liked ping-pong. I liked a bunch of different things," Waid said.
He sat through the movie twice in a row, and it changed his life.
"I came out of that movie theater, knowing for certain, at age 15, that whatever I was going to do for the rest of my life, it was going to have to have something to do with Superman," Waid said. "I know he's a fictional character. I know he's not real. But in that movie, he cares about everybody — Superman cares about everybody. And that meant so much to me when I was a teenager, and it touched me in a way that I cannot possibly describe — that there was somebody out there, fictional or not, who cared about everybody."
STEP 2: BUILD A NETWORK
Waid attributes getting the chance to write comics to dumb luck. But there was also a lot of hard work. He started his career at Fantagraphics in Thousand Oaks, doing editing, layout, and other production on comic book fan magazine Amazing Heroes.
He also had the chance to write for the magazine, doing interviews that he described as puff pieces — but discovered that he was inadvertently networking, since he was now in touch with every editor and creator in comics.
When an editorial position opened up at DC Comics in 1987, he was known there for his work in those fan magazines.
"Was I interested in coming in for an interview? Well, yes. Jesus, yes," Waid said.
STEP 3: LEARN HOW TO WRITE COMICS, AND REALIZE YOU CAN DO IT
He landed a job as an editor at DC, before it moved from New York to Burbank — and DC is where he learned how to write. Waid worked on their anthology comics, which meant that he dealt with rotating creative teams and was editing scripts from some of the best writers in the business.
"That was a boot camp. I learned more about writing and scripting in two years than I would have in 10 years on my own," Waid said.
It gave him the push to break out on his own. He managed to get a few freelance writing gigs — and he realized he'd developed a taste for writing himself.
"I thought, 'You know, maybe it's not impossible to do this job on a regular basis,'" Waid said.
STEP 4: PUT YOUR WORK ONLINE, REGULARLY
The last decade has helped to democratize breaking into comics, Waid said. He encouraged people breaking in today to make comics and put them online — that's where editors and publishing, including him, go looking for new talent.
Another key factor: do it on a regular basis, which shows you can hit deadlines.
"That immediately puts you 10 steps ahead of anybody else who's just going to show me some work, and I have to look at it and go, 'That's good, can you do that every day?'" Waid said.
STEP 5: FOCUS ON THE WORK BEING GOOD, NOT THE DEADLINES
While showing you can do work regularly is good, Waid said that the best advice he ever got is that it's better to let a deadline slide than to put out something that's not good.
Waid said that his mentor, editor Dick Giordano, explained it using superstar artist Neal Adams as an example.
"He would turn in work late, and they'd lose their minds. They'd be furious, they'd be raging, saying we will never ever work with Neal Adams again," Waid said. "Six months later, they wouldn't remember how late it was. All they would remember was how good it was."
Your editor might be angry if you need another day or two, but all that gets remembered in the long run is the quality, Waid said.
STEP 6: GET EXCITED ABOUT WHAT YOU'RE MAKING
You need to find your voice, according to Waid — don't worry about the audience, write what you want to read.
"There was a book I was editing that was objectively terrible," Waid said. "And yet, as a fan, I enjoyed it — and as an editor, I kind of enjoyed editing it."
He went to his mentor and asked him what it was about the book that he connected with, despite it being bad.
"He looked at me and he said, 'It's because the writer would do it for free, and it shows,'" Waid said. "If you're bored by your work at any moment, stop, and find some other way to do it."
Waid promised that, if you're not excited by what you're doing, it's going to show.
The project that Waid said he was proudest of and had that excitement for himself was his update of Superman's origin story, Superman: Birthright. It became a popular collection and has been referenced in movie adaptations and comics since then.
Waid said that hundreds of people have come to him at conventions and told him, "I didn't like Superman until I read this."
"As somebody whose career began with falling in love with Superman, the idea that I'm able to pass that on to other people, and get them excited about that character, and get them to understand the values and ethics that are universal about that character, and that can be learned and that are valuable to anybody, no matter what age they are — that is the thing I'm probably proudest of," Waid said.
STEP 7: DON'T LET CRITICISM GET YOU DOWN
There are times Waid knows that his work hasn't hit the mark. But often, it isn't that the work is bad — it may just be that you're making it at the wrong time.
The example that stuck out to him the most was when he wrote the Legion of Super-Heroes with artist Barry Kitson in 2005.
"We thought we were on it, man. We thought we had a winner. And it just didn't take hold with fandom," Waid said. "Then five years later, we're seeing them use a lot of those same storytelling techniques, here and there, elsewhere, successfully."
He also noted that toxic fandom is something that creators may have to face. Waid's currently being sued by a member of the "ComicsGate" movement, following Waid describing commentator Richard Meyer as a racist.
STEP 8: START TEACHING OTHERS
Coming from an editing background, Waid's always enjoyed teaching others, though he said he also knows he still has plenty left to learn.
"When you have to explain what you take for granted and take instinctively about your work, and put it into words, that makes you a better creative person," Waid said.
While continuing to write, he's also been in a lead creative position at multiple comic companies, as well as co-writing books with younger writers to help them on their way up.
"At this point, it's because I've literally done everything there is to do in comics, short of putting the staples in," Waid said.
He's even owned a comic store.
STEP 9: DON'T OPEN A COMIC BOOK STORE (AND DO STAY IN L.A.)
Waid left L.A., working for the CrossGen comic company in Tampa, Florida — and didn't care much for the local climate.
"It is 100 percent humidity and 100 degrees, 100 percent of the time," Waid said. "So when I came out to Santa Monica to visit friends, I was reminded of the fact that this is a godsend of a place."
He moved back to L.A. in 2002 and lived here for 12 years before leaving for Indiana, where he opened a comic book store. Owning a shop in the mercurial business didn't work out — Waid described the result as "set[ting] fire to all my money."
Waid subsequently moved back to L.A. for the third time in his life, and he plans on making it home for the foreseeable future.
"It's going to take an act of God to get me to move now," Waid said.
Spending time in L.A. has also helped make his writing better — he said that being here has helped him to remember the diversity of the audience, moreso than in Indiana or even New York.
"When I starting working in comics — white guys. That was your audience, and those were your creators," Waid said. "The rare woman who may accidentally fall into comics was a unicorn, and there were very few ... creators of color, very few creators of a different sexual orientation."
Now there are significantly more, but Waid said that the industry is also grappling with the fact that the last 50 years have been spent not catering to a diverse audience.
"We didn't give them anything to read for 50 years. Why would they be interested in what we're doing?" Waid said.
But as the demographics of the creators shift, so does the audience.
STEP 10: KEEP MAKING COMICS
The worst part of making comics: you now have homework every night for the rest of your life, according to Waid.
"There is no time off. You're always chasing the next assignment, you're always having to chase the next deadline," Waid said.
But despite that, Waid still has a love for the craft. One advantage of comics, Waid said: they're like making movies and TV shows with an unlimited budget, since drawing a bigger explosion doesn't really cost more money.
Waid's following his own advice, still writing for Humanoids, Marvel, and elsewhere. Developing comics now at Humanoids, they're putting out stories that "are not superhero books per se, but they're about real-world-level people who've been given powers and abilities," Waid said. "And the question is, how do they use these powers and abilities to affect the real world around us, rather than punch supervillains."
Waid's always enjoyed writing young characters — he recently helped launch a new version of iconic teen Archie, along with Marvel teen superhero team the Champions — but he knows he needs a hand getting the nuances just right. Ignited co-writer Kwanza Osajyefo helps keep the new book on track.
"It's his primary job to keep my voice sounding young, and not like another old white guy writing a bunch of young, ethnic characters," Waid said. "The approach I take going in is drilling down more on emotions, and then Kwanza and I talk more specifically about, 'OK, but, this is not the way kids look at this thing today — they're more aware of X, Y, and Z' than they were when I was going to school."
The two writers have formed a tight team, collaborating as they launch this new universe.
"We get together on the phone, talk a lot about the way we want to go with each issue. He will generally do a rough beat sheet on Google Docs of plot points, and then I will turn that into a first draft script, and then we kind of bounce it back and forth after that," Waid said.
Waid will be signing copies of Ignited with artist Phil Briones at comic shop Collectors Paradise in Winnetka this Saturday from 12-2 p.m.
Ignited #1 is in stores now, and you can read the first five pages below:
Warning: Contains adult language