In the final hours of this year’s Long Beach Comic Expo, as the attendees began to trickle out and a few vendors closed shop early, the panel programming was still vibrant with activity. One well-attended panel was the “Writer Seeking Artist: Finding and Maintaining Healthy Collaboration,” full of budding writers eager to be instilled with advice on how to partner with an artist in hopes to see their stories come to fruition. The panel was moderated by Rosie Knight (Cougar and Cub) with Kelly Sue Milano (Hex11), James F. Wright (Lupina, Nutmeg), Johnny Parker II (Elvish, Black Fist and Brown Hand), Joshua Henaman (Bigfoot: Sword of the Earthman), and Nick Marino (Cougar and Cub, Holy F*ck) participating as the subject-matter experts.
Knight began the session by asking the panelists who their first collaborators were and how the partnership came about. Parker met his first collaborator, Luis Calderon (Black Fist and Brown Hand), during a project in which creators attempted to create twenty-four pages in a day. He had developed a friendship with Calderon and one day while at Denny’s they decided to work together. Milano’s scenario was a reverse situation than most, as usually it’s a writer seeking an artist, but for her it was vice versa. She connected with Lisa K. Weber (Hex11) via other connections. Wright’s first collaborator was a tattoo artist named Tikka whom he had studied with back in the late nineties. In 2007 they decided to work together on a graphic novel that did not get completed, but he learned much from the process. His second collaborator was with Josh Eckert (Geek Zodiac) with whom he still collaborates with on projects. Henaman’s first collaborator was with Andy Taylor (Bigfoot: Sword of the Earthman). Prior to that partnership, Henaman allowed five artists to take a swipe. He traveled to a few conventions to approach artists to only find varying degrees of interest and commitment. Instead, he decided to do an advertisement which attracted artists that were hungry for work, and he found Taylor via this method. Marino’s first collaborator was a college friend named Scott, and they worked on their school’s newspaper together, while Knight’s first was her best friend.
Moving from first collaborations, Knight asked the panelists to talk about their current collaborators and their processes. Henaman stated that he and Taylor were continuing to collaborate together, and while Bigfoot was a work-for-hire, they were both interested in working on a 50-50 project together. The transition for them was easy, and they are both currently working on their pitches. Wright met Eckerd via the 100 Bullets Message Board, but this partnership led to recommendations for artists for other projects, eventually leading Wright to collaborate with Jackie Crofts (Nutmeg), who then would go on to recommend Liana Buszka (Lupina), because she could do wolves very well. Wright stated that working with these different artists, he had different methods at partnering with them. For example, working with Crofts, he would supply full scripts, but while working with Buszka, he would instead give plot styles and loose beats. He strongly recommended that when approaching an artist to work on a project, always ask them, “What do you like to draw?” so one can gauge what they would be excited to work on. Milano’s present collaborator is also her first, but they partner in a non-traditional way: Weber creates the story while Milano develops it. They get together for jam sessions before new issues and discuss character arcs and where they think they are going. Milano only makes outlines, dialogue, and scene notes while Weber takes care of the rest, allowing for her artwork to convey the dialogue’s tone and action. Parker said his original collaboration was based on friendship, but since then it’s become different, as he seeks out other collaborators for other projects. He searches online at DeviantArt and has artists contact him for a trial. Over time, these develop into friendships, but they start out as professional partnerships.
Knight used this opportunity to segue into places where writers can find artists. Parker suggested that aside from DeviantArt, one should try Digital Webbing. For in-person encounters, he advocated the meet ups at The Comic Bug in Manhattan Beach. Knight said that she had made friendships on Twitter, and that these sometimes blossomed into collaborations. Wright underscored that the comics community was a small world, and people always know someone else which can lead to work.
At this point, Knight opened the floor to any questions, and one attendee asked about rates. Knight pointed out that the industry proper has no fair rates. Henaman chimed in and said that you may expect to pay $30 to $150 a page for indie books for an artist, but one must also factor in the cost for a colorist, letterer, and other project costs. Aside from advising for the need for a budget, Henaman also encouraged writers to ask artists for their portfolios and page rates, which could lead to negotiations. Parker suggested for writers to look for artists that have styles that fit the project and to put the rates in the advertisement. Knight complemented this by stating the importance of deciding all of this up front, and being overt by what a writer can and cannot afford. Henaman advised to never pay the artist up front for the whole project, but at milestones; he paid every four pages. It becomes a wage.
The next question was about how to accommodate an artist once the collaboration is in full swing. Marino said that even beforehand, underscoring Wright’s earlier point, it is important to ask an artist what they like to draw, that way they are on board for the project. For Marino, he likes to plot together with his artist and take on the more production work of the project to assist as best as he can, such as formatting a page, cleaning the gutters, flat, and letter it. He also tries to offer as much encouragement as possible, but also constructive feedback. He cautioned that the worst thing a writer could be to their artist is being vague about what they want. Wright offers lettering and pays for the prints and tries to make the project feel like they are all in it together. He confessed that he is motivated by the art, and when his artists turn in their work, it makes him want to write more. Wright also suggested that on the cover of the product, put the artist’s name first. Parker added that once the project is completed, you need to provide the artists with contributor copies of the finished product, but also offer shared tabling at conventions to help them out and give them exposure. Milano and Weber built a publishing house around the Hex11 comic to foster their collaboration. Henaman wanted to stress this collaborative aspect, because this is the mindset to have, even if the project is work-for-hire.
Knight concluded the session by asking the panelists what they thought was the best thing from collaborating with their artists. Marino said it was the creation of something bigger, creating something special together. Henaman said he loved seeing the end product in physical format and the act of coming together to make something. Wright said he loved the memories that came from the projects and welcomed the pleasant surprises along the way. Milano said she got a family through her partnership, and if one is lucky, they even get fans. Parker agreed, saying the community was a family and that coming to the conventions was akin to a family reunion.
Panel photograph courtesy of Michele Brittany.
Nicholas Diak is a pop culture scholar of industrial and synthwave music, Italian genre films, and Lovecraft studies. He contributes essays to various anthologies, journals, and pop culture websites. He is the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Ad Victoriam! Essays on Neo-peplum Cinema and Television. He can be found at nickdiak.com.