The First No(el)

DC StationeryWhile scrolling through Tumblr the other day, I came across the image at right on Brian Michael Bendis’s account.

This is artwork by the late, great Dick Giordano, and it appeared on official DC Comics stationery. Take a close look and you’ll notice that the characters’ insignia are backwards. That’s because the image was printed on the back of the paper, so when you read the front, the characters would show through and would appear to be holding the DC logo in the letterhead.

I know this for a fact because my first ever rejection letter was printed on DC Comics stationery (the art on the back at the time was, I believe, by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, another DC legend).

The backstory: I was at the time a student at the Joe Kubert School. I enrolled with the intent of becoming a comic book artist, but as I realized I was very limited as an artist and didn’t have a future there, I started transitioning to the writing end of things. Many of my other classmates were already submitting their artwork to DC and Marvel, as well as coming up with creator-owned projects to pitch to the smaller publishers.

I followed suit in my own way. DC’s then brand-new Vertigo line was gaining momentum, and I found an old and mostly forgotten character in Dr. Occult that felt ripe for a rebirth under the Vertigo banner. I wrote a spec script, put together a submission package, and sent it all to editors Karen Berger and Jonathan Peterson. They passed it on to Tom Peyer, who rejected it, which he absolutely should have; I don’t remember the specifics of my proposal, but I’m certain that it was terrible.

I wasn’t surprised by the rejection, nor was I disappointed. I was actually quite thrilled that I had been acknowledged by DC Comics, one of the “Big Two,” and bonus, I had a really cool piece of official DC stationery to show off to everyone — and here it is:

Snapshot_20151215

As you can see, I still have that rejection letter, along with every other rejection letter I’ve received since then, primarily to serve as motivation to keep going and succeed at my craft. I wanted to one day be able to take all those rejection letters — all seventy of them — and symbolically laugh at everyone who turned me down before trashing them, thus putting that phase of my writing career behind me for good.

Seventy rejection letters spanning more than two decades — and this doesn’t count the e-mails or those publishers and agents who never bothered to respond at all.
Beatrix helps me take out the trash.
Beatrix helps me take out the trash.

Well, it’s time to do just that.

Bye-bye, failure phase. We had a good run, but I’m sure not going to miss you.

The Art Of Criticism

Fun fact: before I found my calling as a writer, I was an aspiring artist…specifically, an aspiring comic book artist who was, for two and a half years, enrolled in the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon & Graphic Art.

Long story short: I didn’t belong there. I wasn’t a great artist, and art was not my true calling, so I left. Today I rarely draw, and certainly not with the zeal I displayed back in high school, so going was, for me, ultimately, a waste of time and money.

However, I did learn some things there that have benefited me as a writer, and one of those things was how to properly view criticism.

One of my teachers was a character named Benito Ruiz, who taught human figure drawing (we often joked that his name made him sound like a boxer. Sometimes, as he entered the classroom, students would call out, “And in this corner! Weighing in at 220 pounds! Hailing from Dover, New Jersey…Benito ‘The Human Figure’ Ruiz!”). He had a Cheech Marin-esque accent and would punctuate his monologs with his unconscious catchphrase, “I mean, shit, baby!” It was hard not to dig the dude.

His most famous speech came one day when he overheard some students assessing some of their favorite (and most reviled) comic book artists in one of two absolutes: “He’s good” or “He sucks.” Ben then challenged these students to qualify what they meant; he wanted to know why a particular artist was good or sucked.

It proved tougher than it sounded — not so much because these guys had never really thought about what made an artist “good” or “bad,” which they hadn’t, but because they were using the terms as substitutes for “I like this artist” and “I hate this artist” respectively.

Benito forced us to consider what made a given artist, in our minds, good or bad; how to properly express our thoughts and opinions when delivering a critique; and made us understand that it is entirely possible to reconcile our critical judgment with our personal tastes, i.e., we can hate something that is, from an objective perspective, high-quality and/or love something that we know in our heart of hearts was utter garbage.

That lesson has carried over into my writing life in a big way. When I ask for criticism of my writing, I explicitly ask folks not to simply tell me whether they liked it or hated it, but to tell me why they liked it or hated it. I demand detail. I insist on specifics.

Fortunately, my reader squad always delivers. I’ve received some excellent analyses from them on my various projects, and my writing — as a whole and in regards to specific stories — has improved because of it. Thoughtful constructive criticism is one of my best and most reliable tools.

I don’t offer critiques of others’ writing anymore, because I give what I get, and that has not gone over well in the past. My criticism, no matter how thoughtful or how tactful, has too often been taken as an attack on the writer him/herself, a tacit insult to their very ability as a writer. To them, I’m not offering advice on how to improve, I’m pissing all over the fruits of their heartfelt labor.

I know that this isn’t my fault; people who react badly to well-stated criticism don’t really want an honest opinion, they want a pat on the back. They want encouragement, even (perhaps especially) when it’s undeserved, but I’m not wired that way, so I decided it would be better to simply refuse to take a look at other people’s writing and maintain the peace.

What I will do is throw out a few suggestions for would-be critics for the writerly family members and friends in their lives. But! You use this advice at your own risk, because people who hit you up for an “honest opinion” might not in fact be looking for an honest opinion, and will hold it against you for giving them one.

1 ) Be honest

This is deceptively difficult. When someone you care about says, “Hey, could you take a look at this and tell me what you think?”, they of course want to hear praise and encouragement, and you want to give it to them, but if they are at all serious about becoming a writer (or, for that matter, serious about pursuing whatever their chosen passion is as a career), false praise will do them no favors. To use a metaphor I’ve used before, you strengthen a chain by fixing or replacing the weak links, not by acknowledging the strong links.

2 ) Start with the good stuff

This is a little bit of psychology at work here, but the criticism goes down easier if you start by acknowledging the stuff that works, the stuff that’s solid. Dive right into the negative remarks and it might feel like an attack, so start with praise, follow with criticism.

Related note: never leave your feedback at “I think it was great. There was nothing wrong with it.” No first draft is perfect. Ever. That’s the kind of response parents give their five-year-old kid when he draws a farm with pink horses and a green sun. Serious artists want, need, and deserve more than a feel-good platitude right off the bat.

3 ) Don’t just like or hate something; explain why you like or hate it

Last year I wrote a comedic sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel manuscript entitled Strongarm & Lightfoot – Adventurers for Hire. Two of the characters were female elves, and were often referred to by others as “she-elves.” I didn’t think much of it. It sounded good to my ear. It gave the narrative and the dialog a faint otherworldly flavor by dint of its unusual nature (I mean, we don’t call woman “she-humans”).

My wife (and best critic), however, hated the term. She loathed it. To her, it sounded somehow denigrating or insulting rather than a neutral descriptive term. I did not initially agree, but as I thought about it, I understood her position, so I removed all uses of “she-elf” to see how it read, and it did not impact negatively impact the prose, so I left it out.

Having had ample time to think back on that decision, I realize she was right — not so much because of the insulting air of the term, but because the setting I created is fairly gender-balanced; the cultures are more likely to be gynocracies or gender-neutral. In that context, “she-elf” makes little sense.

The point: if you dislike a certain element of the story but cannot articulate your distaste beyond, “I just don’t like it,” you can’t help the writer fix it — or, at the very least, make him think about his choices and if they’re the right ones for the story he’s trying to tell.

4 ) Don’t try to re-write the story yourself

Personally, the phrase “You know what would be cool?” fills me with dread. This is because it’s often followed by a truly awful idea. Well, maybe not awful in a general sense, but awful for the story I’m trying to tell because it clashes with everything I’ve established in regards to plot, characterization, theme, etc.

If you’re critiquing a story for someone, stick to pointing out what works or fails and why and don’t try to help write it. If the writer asks for suggestions, okay, but don’t offer extensive advice on how to fix a problem or make improvements.

5 ) Be prepared to walk away

There are certain times when, as a test-reader, you will need to withdraw from the process: when the writer takes offense at your comments (see above); when you honestly have nothing else to contribute (which should NEVER happen on the first draft); and when you find yourself getting into an argument with the writer because he won’t accept one of your suggestions.

People nowadays are very argumentative, and it’s natural to want to be on the winning side of a debate, but critiquing someone’s writing has only one potential winner or loser, and that’s the writer — and whether he proves the winner or loser depends on whether the story goes anywhere or languishes on the author’s hard drive for all eternity, and whether your specific criticism played any sort of role in its ultimate fate.

If the writer adamantly disagrees with one of your remarks — even if your argument is valid, completely defensible or, yes, right — you need to let it go, because it’s not your story. It’s not your creation. At the end of the day, it’s not your name going in the byline. You did your job, so let the writer do his.

Stand Up, Comics

Ahoy-hoy! Spoilers abound in this post, so proceed at your own risk.

Years ago, during my ill-advised and ultimately unsuccessful time at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon & Graphic Art — an excellent institution, by the way — one of my instructors compared writing for comics to writing for sitcoms, in that the characters are constantly undergoing false growth.

One of the major tenets of fiction is that the characters should come out of the story differently than how they went in. They should learn from and be changed by their experiences, but sitcoms and comics alike defy this principle constantly. Classic sitcoms would in any given episode present the illusion that a character had grown and changed, when in fact nothing had changed — so much so that when a similar situation rolled along later, characters apparently suffered amnesia…

FONZIE: Yo, Cunningham, I’m sacred I’m losing my cool.

(FONZIE illustrates this by striking the jukebox. Nothing happens.)

FONZIE: See? Nothing! …amundo.

RICHIE: Gee whiz, Fonz, what are you going to do?

(POTSIE enters.)

POTSIE: Hey guys! I won some free tickets to the circus! Who wants to go? They have clowns and tightrope walkers and a cage filled with man-eating lions…

FONZIE: That’s it! Potsie, you’re a genius!

RICHIE: What are you going to do, Fonzie?

FONZIE: I’m going to prove to everyone I’ve still got it by jumping my motorcycle over the lions’ cage!

RICHIE: But Fonz, you kind of did that already.

FONZIE: What are you talkin’ about, Cunningham?

RICHIE: The time we were at the beach and you jumped a shark on water-skis?

POTSIE: Oh, yeah, that was cool! A little silly, but…

RICHIE: And there was the time you jumped a bunch of cars in the parking lot.

FONZIE: When did I do that?

RICHIE: Long time ago, back when Mr. Miyagi owned Arnold’s.

FONZIE: Who?

POTSIE: Hey, whatever happened to Arnold? Or your brother Chuck for that matter?

RICHIE: My what who?

FONZIE: Ayyyyyyy!

(Audience applauds.)

For younger readers: See, there was once a show called Happy Days, and it starred the guy who directed The DaVinci Code the guy who played Barry Zuckerkorn on Arrested Development

Point is, The Fonz was always losing and regaining his cool, Ricky was constantly letting Lucy perform at the club to disastrous results, Homer continues to overlook Lisa…the characters’ core remains constant and never changes. Even when something earth-shaking occurs like a marriage or a pregnancy or a death, the characters do not change. Their behaviors, quirks, flaws, they’re all firmly in place.

Sitcoms have since grown up a little, abandoning compartmentalized and extremely short-term character arcs for series-wide continuity and, yes, character growth. It’s usual incremental and almost invisible, but look closely and you’ll see it.

Comic books have yet to follow suit, which is ironic considering how, during the 1990s, the media was glutted with stories about how comic books have grown up (biff pow zok).

While classic sitcoms effectively hit the reset button with the start of each new episode, comics play the long con: a title will present a storyline that changes everything you know about (insert character here)! and then, after some time, backtracks to re-embrace the status quo.

Superman? Died, reborn; powers became energy based, got old powers back; revealed identity to and married Lois Lane, Clark Kent is single and Lois thinks Superman is a totally different guy.

Batman? Had his back broken by Bane, handled mantle of Batman to Azrael who later lost it to Dick “Nightwing” Grayson, got better and took it all back; got killed by Darkseid, Dick Grayson becomes Batman (again), Bruce Wayne returns from the dead and becomes Batman again.

Spider-Man? Got an alien black suit, went back to classic red-and-blue suit; Green Goblin dies in a fight, turns out he never really died; discovered he was a close, discovered no, he was the real Peter Parker all along; marries Mary Jane, never married Mary Jane.

Captain America, Green Lantern, Iron Man, The Flash, Green Arrow, Aquaman, Iron Fist, Dr. Strange, Martian Manhunter, Hawkman, Phoenix, just to name a scant few, they’ve all died and/or given up their costumed identity to a successor and then returned.

The problem here is multi-leveled. Readers love these institutional characters just as they are and lose their shit whenever a major change is made. Couple that with the fact creative teams on corporate-owned characters — which said corporations want to keep recognizable to the masses and therefore marketable — are always looking to put their own fingerprints on a title, it’s inevitable characters will return to the status quo, no matter what kind of crazy crap happens to them.

The most unfortunate drawback of this is that there is an invisible, unspoken safety net beneath every story, giving readers a subconscious reassurance that in the end, everything and everyone will be okay and, given time, it will all go back to normal. As a lifelong comics fan, I just roll my eyes when I read mainstream news stories announcing that “Marvel Comics will kill off the Human Torch in an upcoming issue of The Fantastic Four” or the industry publications tease “A major change is coming for Superman” because I know damn well that in a year or two, all the changes will be undone.

In mainstream comics there are no stakes, there is no character growth, there is no such thing as a permanent condition. In other words: mainstream comics are dull and predictable.

There are exceptions all around, but they are few and far between in mainstream comics’ major players. Dick Grayson assumed the Nightwing identity in 1984 and never looked back. Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman got married in 1965 and have remained husband and wife. Gwen Stacy? Still dead.

Both Marvel and DC are more willing to muck about with secondary and tertiary characters, but the  closest either of them have come to throwing all the conventional rules out the window is Marvel’s Ultimate Marvel line, where no one is safe. The Ultimate Universe has introduced — and killed off, permanently — its versions of Daredevil, Doctors Doom, Octopus, and Strange, Magneto, Spider-Man, and Wolverine — and even then, a few of these characters have made a return of sorts as others have assumed their identities.

If mainstream comics is going to continue to play it safe, they should at least abandon all pretenses that any given issue will offer readers something so monumental that it “will shake the Marvel/DC Universe to its very foundation,” because it won’t. Any comic reader worth his salt knows that.

Personally, I’d love to see Marvel and DC truly shake things up by throwing all the time-honored cliches out the window. Make death a permanent thing, for the big guns all the way down to the minor supporting characters so that it has meaning again. Let the characters develop and change, organically and realistically. Let their actions have permanent consequences, for themselves and the people and world around them.

I know that none of this will ever come to pass, but the thought that a storyline in The Amazing Spider-Man or Justice League of America could sucker-punch me with as much fearlessness and ferocity as a single issue of The Walking Dead or move me emotionally like the finest issues of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman — that comics could once again be as thrilling as they were when I was a kid — makes me tingle.