Breaking into Comics Then and Now: Panel at the MCM London Comic Con 2019 – with Duncan McAlpine, Jarrett Melendez and Howard Mackie!

 

Here at this panel at the MCM Comic Con 2019 it’s hard to tell whether the crowd are primarily aspiring creators here for advice or fans of and here for the panellists. Serious aspirants are likely to have built a portfolio of repeated advice – will this panel deliver more of the same or are there any hidden nuggets to be unearthed?

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Either way, this panel is about breaking into comics in different eras so for the comic fans generally it’s going to be as much an insight into different eras and creators as the advice fest some will be here for.

The panel is hosted by director / producer Duncan McAlpine, also a comic fan who’s been buying and selling them – as he tells us – for 45 years. First up on the panel is Jarrett Melendez who’s had pieces in Full Bleed and All We Ever Wanted: Stories for a Better World and has a graphic novel coming from Oni Press next year. And then there’s the great Howard Mackie who, amongst a career of achievements, had a major impact on the medium and industry as the creator of the 90s iteration of Marvel’s Ghost Rider. Invited by Duncan, in comic book style, they share their origin stories.

For so many a job at Marvel – or DC, or any comic company – is the dream. But for many staffers and creators up to the eighties it was – or at least started as – just a job. Howard had worked in marketing and spent 9 years or so in mining equipment export sales so, he jokes, comics were a ‘natural progression’!

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He was a friend of Mike Carlin, then working at Marvel, with whom – Howard reminisces – he went to New Wave British clubs. Having heard enough of his friend complaining about his job, to shut him up Mike suggested Howard interview for the Assistant Editor’s job he was moving on from. Howard wasn’t even a comic book fan but – given the major qualification turned out to be not being found offensive by the editor you were working under – an introduction, a test of reading a script and a few months wait and he was in.

He worked under the great (and sadly departed) Mark Gruenwald and – just as he’d had no particular ambition to edit comics – his first writing gig came about because Iron Man 211 needed to be written. Denny O’Neill had been fired from the title and Mark was brainstorming as to who should finish his story. It needed to be someone familiar with the storyline.

‘It’s going to be you,’ Mark told his Assistant Editor. ‘No, it’s you.’ And then:

‘You’re confusing that with a request.’

Howard’s first writing gig was on a lead superhero title – and was an unwanted chore!

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Jarrett came to the profession in more recent times and – I came to realise this was a slightly atypical pairing of panellists on the subject – had no particular ambition to enter comics either! He was a freelance travel journalist who’d found assignments were drying up. But he was at least a comics reader. And having a background in large event planning, he’d volunteered to help at the convention his local comic shop was running. He ended up working there as well and, between the shop, con and larger conventions he then attended, met numerous artists and other creators. And he did build a network, though this was really for future conventions he might be running.

Around this time he met his business partner and they created Comic Art House to represent creators – even then his intended involvement in the industry wasn’t writing!

But off the back of all this Jarrett was at an IDW party where the editor of their quarterly comics and culture magazine Full Bleed invited him to write for it… And that’s where it started.

As mentioned Jarrett has a graphic novel coming from Oni Press next year and two more planned in the years to come.

‘So it’s really just about putting yourself out there to people and networking?’ Duncan asks.

‘Yes,’ Jarrett replies. ‘Just be a good person: don’t be fake.’

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Again, anyone serious about getting into comics will have heard this before and, in whatever way they can, be getting on with it. The irony here of course is that neither of our panellists had any particular intention of working in comics. It sounds rather like the ‘dating game’ with Howard and Jarrett being at the opposite end of the spectrum to being too keen!

Howard brings us back to his editorial days, having become a full editor and submissions editor also. He tells us how he rejected the great Jim Lee who, in Marvel’s offices a few weeks after receiving his first pay check, pulled out Howard’s rejection letter to show him. Howard asked Jim if his critiques were inaccurate, at which point Jim strangely seemed to have to go off and finish the cover he was working on.

Howard returns to the subject of the panel and tells us that getting into comics is both harder and easier now. It really is about having published work, but at least you can do that yourself online; he uses Jim Zub as an example of someone who got in that way with his fantasy coming-of-age webcomic Makeshift Miracle, encouraged by the legendary Scott McLeod. He also notes how it can be a staffer at a comics company who’s a fan of an independent book who invites a creator to the professional scene, adding that editors are always surprised how many aspiring artists don’t have a website or even a page on Deviant Art. He had himself wanted to champion someone’s work but had no link to send to an editor… 

Jarrett picks up the thread: ‘If you don’t already have relationships just make comics. Find a friend and do something. Find a collective…’

It’s all easier said than done perhaps but, either way, the questions begin, with a parent seeking advice for a boy of 9. The answer is perfectly applicable to aspiring adult creators.

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‘Practice every day,’ Howard replies, ‘especially when you don’t want to.’

More specifically for artists – and this is interesting – he says to warm up a session of drawing by spending 5-10 minutes drawing hands. He could just have said to draw something you find hard but, from his experience and having seen so many depictions of characters with their hands in their pockets, it seems hands are an aspiring artist’s bete noir.

He goes on to say – more for writers though not specifically – to read everything, not just comic books. He’d gone to visit Walt and Louise Simonson with his now-wife and entered an apartment with every wall covered in books. ‘This is what I want,’ he told her.

On the writing process itself he received and relays the following from John Byrne: ‘Writer’s block is for amateurs’. Howard himself gets around writer’s block by having multiple projects on the go and switching between when the block kicks in on one. Further: ‘Don’t get too attached to any one idea. Be prepared to write rubbish. Don’t get distracted. It’s just about you, the keyboard and the screen.’ And, he quotes from something he read, ‘The craft of writing is getting the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair’.

Fans had been loving the work Howard and his many contemporaries put out, even if to a lot of them it began as just a job. Now the competition for aspiring creators to get into the trade is fierce, but the internet at least offers the opportunity for anyone to put work out there.

So get work done. Practice your craft. Read widely. Network. Be someone people want to work with and employ.

It’s nothing serious aspirants won’t already have heard but it serves as affirmation. Besides which, for all concerned, it was a thoroughly enjoyable panel where we got to hear from one of the established industry greats – and perhaps one from the years to come…

Tim Bayley

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Check out more Panel coverage on Carabas here!