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Don't Count Your Chickens

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I make no secret of it: I hate pitching. The great thing about working on an ongoing monthly is that you don’t really have to pitch anymore. It’s more a case of discussing with the editor where the storyline is headed and shooting ideas back and forth. On Spawn for instance I have a very good idea what’s happening for the next couple of years’ worth of books. These days though, half the books out there are limited series and virtually everything I’ve done for Marvel has come into that category.

There are two ways to get a mini-series. You can pitch an idea blind or you can be invited to pitch. This means an editor already has an idea for a book and it may well already have been discussed and okayed for further development all the way up to the top. When I was invited to pitch for District X the X-office knew they wanted a cop/detective series featuring lower level mutants in New York’s Mutant Town. Joe Quesada and Mike Marts wanted to try me out so they gave me the very loose premise and asked me to come up with a story to run six issues with the possibility of an ongoing. No one else was pitching for the book so it was a case of meeting the criteria and telling a good story.

It didn’t seem that difficult and in retrospect it went surprisingly smoothly. I was asked to make a couple of changes. I started with three main characters and Mike suggested I concentrate on Bishop and his non-mutant partner, so I conflated a couple of characters and we were go.

Most of the other series I’ve done for Marvel were also offered to me as loose outlines that were already set for publication and it was just a case of pitching a good enough story line. In the case of Son of M, Tom Brevoort said he’d like me to come up with a six-issue series that started with Pietro losing his powers and ended with the Inhumans declaring war on the human race. In other words, the high concept was already in place.

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On one occasion I was invited to pitch against four other people. This was Phoenix Endsong. It was going to be a big series and in cases like those, Marvel likes to see a few different ideas. But I knew that going in and I’m not surprised that Greg Pak got the gig. I remember reading an interview with him when he announced the book and when he presented the idea in a few lines I thought “Man, that guy knows how to pitch.”

Pitching blind is tough. It’s best to approach an editor early in the process to see if the characters you want to write about are available and that what you want to do with them isn’t going to conflict with the company’s global plans for the next year or so. Not so tough if you are present at the editorial retreats but a nightmare if you’re stuck in south London and only seeing editors once or twice a year at conventions. And the competition is hellish. Everyone knows that two out of three, or more likely four out of five pitches are going to be rejected so every writer in the business is pitching at least half a dozen ideas at once.

Whereas a few years back you were pitching against other comic-book writers, right now you’re going to be up against the Hollywood pros. I was one of the last writers to break into the big two from a comics background. Can you name any new writer at Marvel or DC that doesn’t have a background in movies or TV or at least have a couple of novels to his or her name?

And all these guys are total pros at pitching. They know how to sell an idea in a paragraph – strike that… in one line. If you can’t hook an audience with one line, forget it…

A perfect example on TV is Lost: “Lord of the Flies with grown-ups.” Half a dozen words has it nailed. The king of the comic-book high concept is Brian K Vaughan and to give him his due, he doesn’t have that movie/TV background. In fact he’s gone the other way, cutting his teeth on comics, then breaking into TV.

Here are some examples of the BKV high concept: Y: The Last Man – “What if all the men in the world died, except one.” That’s irresistible. It’s every adolescent boy’s fantasy, right? Then there’s Ex Machina: “A super hero runs for office as Mayor of New York, and wins.” Not quite so easy to sell, but intriguing enough to get an editor to read the two-page version of the pitch. And Runaways: “A bunch of kids find out their parents are super-villains and go on the run.” Who needs to read an outline? The series is in the bag.

Brian of course, has followed up with some of the finest writing in comics today, but there are plenty of books that probably sounded great when they were pitched but fail abysmally because the writer doesn’t deliver on the promise. Beyond the pitch, there’s no substance. That’s the problem with the pitch and toss system (you pitch us the ideas, we’ll toss them in the trash), it doesn’t encourage you to think beyond the immediate selling points. Why make an investment in a well-crafted plot, fully-developed characters and meaningful themes when four out of five (or maybe it’s nine out of ten) of those pitches are going to be trashed.

It’s actually not that tough to come up with a high-concept. I’ve witnessed a couple of inebriated creators come up with half a dozen in the space of an hour in the pub (and two of them made it into print). But what about the ideas that can’t be reduced to that magic one line? What about the ideas that sound totally uncommercial? Can you imagine Harvey Pekar pitching American Splendor to Vertigo? “Middle-aged guy moans about his crappy life in a dead end job.” You can bet Pekar would never have been able to sell Vertigo on the book out of nowhere, without the awards and the movie and all those American Splendor strips drawn by Robert Crumb that were already in print.

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If I’m sounding grouchy this week it’s probably because I actually sat down and added up all the time I’ve spent pitching over the last couple of years to one publisher. All of these were invitations to pitch, not blind pitches. A total of nine pitches! The latest of these went to full breakdowns of a four-issue mini-series and then went through several re-writes. This was a pitch produced with an artist lined up, ready and waiting for script. As far as I was concerned it was all but an inked deal…

Last week I was told it wasn’t happening.

Three solid weeks of work over the last six months, not to mention the $100 of comics I bought to research the characters. I can’t say why the book fell through, but it wasn’t a problem with the concept or the quality. It was just one of those things. And the publisher offered to commission and pay for the first script as a goodwill gesture, but I couldn’t bring myself to write a script that was going to languish in a drawer.

I realised that over the past two-and-a-half years I’ve worked for more than eight solid (unpaid) weeks on pitches for that one publisher and there are still editors asking me to carry on pitching, but to be honest I can’t work up the enthusiasm right now. The work isn’t entirely wasted of course. At least two of those concepts will see print one way or another under different names and from different publishers. And it does give me practice at pitching. One of these days I’ll get it right.

Meanwhile, I have another pitch underway at another publisher. I’m told it’s inches away from being green-lit.

But I’m not counting any chickens.

This week the art is all by me. There’s the cover for Strange Embrace issue #5, published by Image later this year and a selection of my non-comic book illustrations produced for Artgang , an illustration collective consisting of myself and my partner Vikki.

Visit the Strange Embrace website at www.strangeembrace.com

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