ymmv .19 – Asking Permission to Use their Toys
Lemme share a story about pitching some licensed characters with you.
The tl;dr – it’s hard.
Well, it is for me. But I’m going to share the following in the hopes it might make people feel better about themselves.
I often feel like loads of other people have these hot takes for all these characters just loaded in the chamber and ready to fire. Fully formed, totally ‘about’ something, and going to be completely rad.
They’d put Spider-Man on another planet for an epic that’s about how much he misses high school.
They’d make Judge Dredd a ghost who sees everything, but can’t do anything about it, so how does he try to create justice?
Batman is all about darkness so they put him in the arctic circle in the months where there’s 22 hours of sunlight a day. And they make him fight Dr Phosphorous– that is all, how awesome does that one actually sound, what more would you want?
I hear barcon talk about these things people would do with these characters and I realise I don’t have all this fanfic in my head ready to make real fic at the greenlight of a publisher/licensor. I mean, I have a killer Elektra story loaded, and I naturally know how I’d rock some amazing Daredevil stuff, but beyond that I’d be pretty dry going in.
So I constantly have to ask myself, is it okay that I’m not this story fountain for everything I love, and I’m not ready to write an opus on each one at the drop of a hat?
My process seems to be waiting until I have an opportunity to pitch a story and then doubling down my time to make some narratives form. Doesn’t that sound stupid and crazy?
My ultimate dream writing gigs for other properties, besides the aforementioned bruisers of Hell’s Kitchen [and Iron Fist, natch], are as follows:
- Snake Plissken
- Lois Lane
- Most of the characters from Lost, Faraday first and foremost
Beyond those, there’s obviously a millionty and eleven other characters/places I’d love to write, but these are the real ones owning property in my head [correct at time of publication]. How many of those do you think I have preplanned stories ready to roll on right now?
Yep, that’s right.
I don’t know if I should be devoting brainspace to creating Snake Plissken stories or whether that energy is better served working on actual things I can make now with my own characters. I’ll level with you; I feel like a failure that I’m not walking around holding a bag with a dollar sign printed on it full of licensed character story ideas.
I feel like a fool. Like I’m unprepared for the Big Show [™].
But then I consider – maybe the story I thought up and was certain was rad when I was 24 isn’t the story I want to be leading with when Amalgam call me up to write some more Extreme Legends of Dark Claw.
I should, hopefully, be a better writer now than I was then. Better than I was last year. So doesn’t it make sense to come up with new ideas because they’ll be my best yet?
I want to unpack real life some examples that might help explain all of this in real detail.
Years ago, I was asked to pitch for My Little Pony. It was hard for me because I wasn’t a big Pony guy [I grew up on the Care Bears, son], but you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Plus, I also found out days after getting the invite to pitch that I was having a daughter. So I wanted to write something for her.
I pitched probably half a dozen stories to no avail. Too dark, too horrific, too stupid, too gd dark [not actual notes from editorial, just how I felt at the time]. I just couldn’t get one through. And I spent my time watching episodes, chatting to some Bronies, reading up on it. But it was a new landscape for me, and writing pure all ages stuff wasn’t something I’d really delved into before. Thankfully I was familiar with many tropes and tone tricks from being a teacher as well as reading plenty of junior fiction. But I was still finding it hard.
Eventually, I got one through and we were off to the races writing the Rainbow Dash one-shot. It was hard to write, I edited that script within an inch of its life, and the result was something that was well received in editorial and through the licensor, and I was proud with the issue Tony Fleecs and I put out. Reviews were good, people dug it, and it was a totally fun experience.
Which is why when I was offered to pitch again, despite it still not being something I loved or felt was in my wheelhouse, I jumped at the chance. But try as I might, I couldn’t get another goal past the keeper. My ideas just didn’t click with this world.
I could see that maybe I got lucky once, but it wouldn’t be happening again. I was pushing a rock up a hill and getting flattened every night. This world just wasn’t mine to write in.
And a good writer can probably do anything, and I think I’m an okay writer, but I just couldn’t do this. I was happy to swallow my defeat, it made sense to me.
Thankfully, editorial was cool, and they later let me pitch on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This was the dream gig to get to pitch for, I grew up on the Turtles, going from the comic about the show, to the show, and then finally to the real comics. TMNT is a huge part of my childhood, it’s something I inherently dig and also wanted badly to play with.
But I didn’t come in with any ideas. So I set aside some time, quite some time, to spin some gold and wait for the slow clap to start. And ideas came, but they were rubbish. I knew they were rubbish; the few I polished enough and sent through got knocked back because you can’t polish a turd.
I sunk myself hardcore into this and despite some positive feedback, and some decent vibes, I just couldn’t get the right story across.
In short, I didn’t land the gig.
I got the chance to pitch TMNT and I couldn’t seal the deal. It was horrifying.
Missing this chance put me into a quick and deep spiral. What good was I if I couldn’t even land one of the main gigs I’d been drawn to IDW for? Why didn’t I have that hot take loaded up and ready to drop? Why couldn’t I figure one out in like two weeks? What was wrong with me and why did I think I’d ever make it in this industry?
What if I got the chance to pitch Iron Fist and I clammed up with mediocre pablum like I did with the TMNT? What’s the point of working hard and getting the opportunities if you are just going to squander those moments like a complete rookie?
My brain was a horrible place in which to reside for a little while. I didn’t even tell my wife that I got the op and missed it, I didn’t want her thinking all this time I spent in the office was a waste of time, which it quite obviously was/is.
I sank deep and I just bloated down there. Until, I got an in at Vertigo to pitch for the Magenta issue of CMYK.
I can’t tell you how seriously I took this pitching opportunity. I cleared all the slates, I was determined to land this one. I had to, I knew if I didn’t then I’d probably pour gasoline all over my writing career and just light a match. If I wasn‘t going to land gigs then what was the point of it all?
That sort of stress is no good, and no good to be creative with, but I soldiered on. I got one story knocked back, then the second one got interest. But they wanted a better ending, something with real punch. I was an absent human for a few days – I might have been in a conversation, I might have been playing with my kids, I might have been doing anything with my corporeal form, but inside my brain was playing with this narrative Jenga tower and trying to make it balance on water for the applause.
Thankfully, I landed the gig. Then Tommy Lee Edwards, John Workman, and I made a short and I’m still proud of it to this day because it’s one of the best things I’ve been part of.
That story is a huge reason I’m still writing at all. Or, at least, taking myself seriously as I do it.
I’ve had the chances and I’ve seen that pitching stories is hard, and I never quite know how to tackle it. My whole process seems so fate based that I honestly feel like if I was asked to pitch for a Care Bears comic then if you ask me last week I might nail it, but if you ask this week then I might be poop out of luck. And I’m not even sure if admitting such a thing is career pestilence or not. I guess the title of the column finally comes into hard play now.
I could tell you the tips and tricks I try to use [boil down what makes the character tick, break the character, set the character against something that they are not good at or good at dealing with, make the story crossover with Batman/Wolverine, etc], but that would be tantamount to telling you how to craft a perfect [or, let’s be realistic, even just good] story every time. Art isn’t a formula, and sometimes you’ve got it, and sometimes you don’t– I know, shitty advice from a ‘writing process’ column, right? Trust me, this was always going to be more slice of life than anyone expected.
My problem with the whole game is this: at least when I’m breaking my own story/character/world I control all the parameters. I decide if there is magic and spells or not. And if halfway through imagining this tale I decide that magic is ruining it, I take it out and retroactively tweak the plan, and no one knows, and my story now works like a Swiss clock.
Whereas pitching licensed characters means you have to know their background, you have to understand canon, and you have to [mostly] stay true to it [it’s a better and bolder creator than I who can fly in the face of continuity and forge their own truth in their story].
For me, I constantly feel overwhelmed and then caged in by the continuity in place. But the positive shine on that apple is, the fact this character has such a rich continuity, and you don’t have to honour every single slice of it, means you have crutches on which to rest. You don’t need to introduce, explain, invest, and then use a certain character, plot token, environment. You know the audience understands and loves Swamp Thing so if you draw upon that, and do it well, then it’s going to strike into many hearts and enrich your story.
In subsequent years, I’ve pitched on the characters of others, and the results have obviously varied. I’ve landed shorts, I’ve had minis come close, and I have a one-shot right now being sent to the licensor. Amidst that, I have creator owned stuff in the hands of editorial right now, I have rejection letters, and I have things hitting shelves this year.
Like I said, a great writer can probably do it all, but I have to realise that all writers face their moments of rejection and that’s across Big 2, Kickstarter, CO, and licensed. You win some, you lose some– but you feel like you only ever see everyone else win some and you forget they lose some, too.
For me, I don’t think I’m a certainty any which way. I’ve nailed pitches on the first go, I’ve had to train to get across the line, and sometimes you just don’t get a block on the starter’s line. You have to come to grips with that and never give up. It also helps if you plug away at licensed, CO, minicomics, everything.
I do believe some are better than others. Dan Slott is the posterboy for writing a licensed character right now– he’s not angling to parlay his Spider-Man readers into an Image book, he wants to write the Webbed One. Whereas bloody good writers like Brian K. Vaughan and Robert Kirkman never really struck a chord with me at the Big Two, unless they were creating their own things in these worlds [scope out Runaways and The Irredeemable Ant-Man to know what I’m feeling]. Those guys just seem to work better on their own sprawling projects than they do trying to fit into the patchwork quilt of decades of the Marvel U.
I don’t think you can make excuses for yourself, though you can set yourself boundaries for what you think/know you can do, as well as what you want to do, but in the end, it’s about getting back up and giving it another shot.
There’s a great pic that says: NO ONE ASKED YOU TO BE A WRITER.
And it’s true, so no one’s going to keep asking you to stay one, either.
But that shouldn’t stop you. And I know it won’t.
Ryan K. Lindsay is a comics writer who has logged time at Dark Horse, Monkeybrain, Vertigo and other esteemed publishers. He currently writes Negative Space, a comic we here at Loser City love quite a bit. You can (and should) pick Negative Space up from your local comic shop or directly through Dark Horse.