The best career advice I got before graduating from film school (besides the cliché but true “It’s not a sprint it’s a marathon”) went something like this: You need to be open to the different paths your career can take, and be willing to embrace a different route to your dream. This is definitely true for any kind of creative career, especially something as fickle, unsteady, and unpredictable as film. If I hadn’t listened to this piece of advice, I never would have entertained the thought of writing comic books. I’d probably be crying in a corner somewhere, wondering why I wasn’t raking in the dough and winning Spirit Awards a year after graduation. I know Spirit Award winners aren’t necessarily buying yachts with their Black Amex, but when you’re naïve and green your dreams tend to be a little fantastical.
Comic books and films are obviously intertwined, but I never read comic books as a kid and I never paid much attention to them growing up until someone gave me a copy of The Wild Party by Joseph Moncure March with drawings by Art Spiegelman. It wasn’t Batman, but it was pretty cool and I loved it. Then Marjane Sartrapi’s Persepolis came along. She told a beautiful, funny story and reading it did feel a little like watching a movie. Still I never thought, “I want to do that!” I didn’t think I could do that. It kind of seemed like a boy’s club, to be honest, despite Sartrapi’s success.
Then one day I read a CNN article about a publisher who was doing comic books about people like Tina Fey, Olivia Newton-John and Sarah Palin, which sounded pretty campy and fun. I love campy things – Mommie Dearest and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane are very dear to my heart – so I found their website and did a little sleuthing. I wrote the publisher an email and sent some writing samples. Their site said that they weren’t looking for new writers but I figured, “What the hell?” I’ve lived through worse things than not getting an email response. This is key when you’re pursuing any kind of creative career, if you’re scared of a “No” or of radio silence you probably need to rethink that five-year plan.
About a week later I heard back and had a call with the publisher. He asked me to pitch some ideas and since they’d already immortalized my childhood hero Olivia Newton-John I suggested a comic about Elizabeth Taylor. I got the gig. Then I realized I had no clue how to write a comic book.
I got some samples of other comic book scripts, studied the panels. I didn’t even really know what a panel was or how many panels should be on a page until I got this gig – and went to work. There was a ton of research involved (first for the Elizabeth Taylor book and then for a comic about Marilyn Monroe). The research knocked me out, especially for the Monroe book. It’s not the most organized set of notes but this is what happened after reading, watching, and listening to everything I could:
There’s no strict three-act structure to comic books necessarily, but writing them is slightly similar to making a film. You’re telling a story visually, imagining storyboards in your head only you don’t have to hire an entire cast and crew and wait for the planes and screaming neighbors to quiet down to shoot. And if you want to set one scene in 1920s Paris and then cut to futuristic Shanghai with fireworks and spaceships, it doesn’t implode your budget.
Comic books always felt like a closed club to me, and granted I’m not writing X-Men for Marvel, but the point is, I’m writing. It’s not really just about writing the pilot or the feature script these days anyway. There’s “transmedia,” cross-platform, webisodes, blogs, comic books, games to name just a few. As long as you’re creating, you’re moving in the right direction.
Dina Gachman’s blog Bureaucracy for Breakfast has been featured on NPR and Chelsea Handler’s Borderline Amazing Comedy. She writes for Forbes, Huffington Post, Red Bull, and several other publications. Her comic book about Elizabeth Taylor just came out and her Marilyn Monroe comic is coming this spring. Find her on Twitter @TheElf26.