I’m not a football fan. It’s slow and choppy, too many plays get called back, plus, you know, guys are out there literally killing themselves. I prefer basketball, but this post isn’t really about sports. It’s about Super Bowl-winning quarterback Nick Foles, specifically how his journey should inspire writers.
Imagine for a second Nick Foles is one of us: a writer. On Sunday, he won the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, or for comics, an Eisner. That’s great, good for him, but what I find interesting is his journey.
- After Foles was released from the Rams in 2015, he considered retirement at age 26.
- In 2016, his old coach, Andy Reid, signed him as a backup; he played in 3 games and threw less than 100 passes.
- In 2017, it took a serious injury to someone else for him to get him on the field, and when he got there, fans and analysts largely thought he’d fail.
- On Sunday he helped win Philadelphia its first Super Bowl.
Foles, essentially, learned from struggles, ignored doubters, did his thing, and excelled. Football, of course, is far different than writing comics (duh) but sports are nothing if not useful metaphors for struggle, and Foles’ path is an epic example for writers who have had to live at home, work day jobs, spend hours honing the craft, tune out doubters, contemplate quitting to preserve sanity, and try for years to break out (if we ever break out at all).
It’s all good to keep in mind at the keyboard.
Now then, let’s get to part three of our series on writing advice. You’ll find parts 1 and 2 below:
How to Write Comic Books: (Almost) Kill Your Darlings
I used to live in Austin, Texas, home to the Michener Center, one of the most prestigious creative writing MFA programs in the country. While there, I saw Michener faculty members speak several times.
One thing that stuck with me was one of the professors referencing the classic Looney Tunes’ short “Duck Amuck,” a clip about Daffy Duck being tormented by the pencils and brushes of an unseen animator. The professor said that as a writer you are the animator and characters are Daffy: a compelling story derives from the obstacles you put in their paths.
Matthew Rosenberg, a rising star at Marvel who most-recently penned the critically-acclaimed Phoenix Resurrection, certainly agrees. Rosenberg recently laid out similar thoughts in a thread on Twitter, highlights below:
It is our job to make people feel and care about these characters. To make you relate and empathize with them. Often times that means bad things have to happen.
Tragedy doesn't come from a disdain for the protagonist, it comes from a love of the protagonist. But in superhero comics it goes a step further. We love these heroes because they overcome, because they show us strength.
And they can't show us those strengths without being tested. It's from these tests that they become the characters we love. It's these tests that show us why we love them. (Editor’s note: DING DING DING! This!)
So when you read your comics and see that Spider-Man is suffering, Thor is at her breaking point, or that the X-Men have it bad, please know that we do this because we know they will come out the other side stronger. That's the point.
How to Write Comic Books: Write Like a Mother$#@%!$
One common problem of aspiring writers (the most common excuse I make myself) is not having time or energy to write. We contemplate quitting jobs, going back to school, moving home with our parents...all just to make an honest run at writing.
We have the desire, we just can’t seem to get words on the page, for whatever reason. This is also the subject of a famous column of writing advice: Write Like a Mother$#@%!$ by Cheryl Strayed (who wrote Wild, which was also a movie starring Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon). In it, Strayed tells a frustrated writer that the path to success lies in staying humble, doing the work, and writing like a mother$#@%! (Strayed uses more inspiring language, of course).
Last month, another rising comics pro at Marvel, Jim Zub, who is currently team-writing the exciting Avengers weekly mega team-up No Surrender, gave aspiring comics creators similar advice, also in a Twitter thread. Zub wrote in response to a guy in his 40s who’d asked him if he should cash out his 401K to quit his job and use the threat of financial ruination to motivate himself to become a full-time comic writer.
First off, yeah...How to even respond to that.
Part of me just wants to type "NO" and send it, but that would be crass and awkward.
On top of that, is fearing future financial disaster the motivation you need to create stories you claim you've wanted to do for the past 30 years?
I don't know you, but I'm not buying that.
The romanticized ideal of the inspired artist sacrificing everything as they cast themselves off a cliff waiting for destiny to kick in and save them is Hollywood-esque Survivor's Fallacy Bullshit.
Look at the corpses on the rocks below. Chances are that's you.
On the one hand, I'm sort of thankful this guy is asking me, someone who _still_ teaches at a college full-time while I write 3+ comics per month because I don't want to financially hook myself when it comes to creative endeavours.
When it comes to crazy comic dream sacrifice plays, I'm about as pragmatic as you can get. If I was a superhero, my name would probably be Schedule Guy. Asking me if you should expose your financial underbelly for the Arts is not going to go far.
"If only I had time-"
Make time. Set an alarm and wake up an hour early or an hour before bed. Write.
Make it 2 hours on Saturdays. That's 8 hours per week.
"If only I could dedicate myself-"
You can and it doesn't have to be with the shadow of financial ruin looming over you.
"I've always wanted to-"
Cool. Do it. Make a thing. Finish it.
Learn from it. Do it again. Keep doing it.
Isn’t that great? I know it struck a chord with me. Zub even cleaned it up and put it on his blog, which I’ve bookmarked for ready consumption when I don’t feel like making myself write. I suggest you do the same.
How to Write Comic Books: Listen to the Pros
Finally, I’m obviously not the first to try to learn from pros. In fact, Patrick Zircher, an underrated artist who’s been doing outstanding work as of late at DC, compiled a quick list of the best tips from industry legends, a list he was kind enough to Tweet:
Advice & pep that has stuck with me:
Don't draw each eyelash
- Stan Lee
- Steve Ditko
Go get 'em, kid
- Jack Kirby
No matter how good or bad you are, if you can't tell a story you won't last
- John Romita Sr
Strip it down & draw the hell out of what's left
- Alex Toth
With that, I’m off to print this out, laminate it, and permanently affix it on my writing desk. What you do with this advice now is up to you!
Zack Quaintance is a career journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.