Legendary comics creator Bill Willingham joined the Comics Experience Creators Workshop recently, to talk about his nearly-thirty-year career in the comics industry.
In addition to discussing the craft and art of comics, Willingham also offered advice on navigating the business side of the comics industry, including dealing with publishers.
“It’s a tough business, being in business with publishers,” Willingham said, “because they want something, and it’s probably different than you want.”
Understand the nature of contracts
Willingham noted that most contracts are designed to protect the publisher, rather than the creator. Anytime one party is paying another, they will feel the right to set the rules and control the terms.
As a result, he said “your obligations to them are carved in stone, and you’d better adhere. Whereas their contributions to you in that same document are kind of treated as helpful suggestions that they should probably get around to someday if they have a little extra time and some loose change in their pockets.”
Understand your role
Willingham said it’s important to remember, when working as a freelance comics creator, that you are not a full-time employee of the publisher.
“I have to sometimes remind publishers that I’m a freelance writer,” he said. “I’m not working for them, we’re working together, and what I bring to the table is valuable.”
At the same time, he said, you should conduct yourself in a professional manner, and remember why you entered into this business relationship.
“Be a businessman,” he said. “Be a polite businessman. Be firm. Learn how to count your money. Learn how to husband your resources, and know that you’re the one that needs to get the book out there. Treat your publisher as a method of doing that.
“If your publisher is a black-hearted pirate – and there’s been a few – find a way to disengage and go somewhere else.”
Understand the consequences of your actions
In conclusion, Willingham noted that if you do have problems with your publisher, and find yourself going head-to-head with them over a business dispute, “you’d better be creative in the way that you enforce it.”
The reason, he said, is that conflicts often lead to delayed or cancelled books. And if that happens, the blame is likely to fall on you.
“Readership and comic shops and all the people waiting on your comic book to come out, they will never assume, ‘well the publisher must be doing some shady stuff that’s causing this book to not come out,'” Willingham said. “‘No, it’s ‘the artist is lazy, the problem must be with him.’
“You always, always lose that argument with the public. So don’t make your ongoing fight with the publisher the battleground on which your readers lose.”
Other topics discussed by Willingham include:
* How he got started in the comics industry
* His origins as a comics artist, and how he transitioned to writing
* The grueling pace of a professional comics artist, and how to prepare for it
* How Willingham’s work habits have changed over the years
* Collaborating with artists, and how it changes from artist to artist
* The importance of working on projects you love
* How technology has made it easier to break in if you don’t live in New York
* Why there are so many gritty and decadent super-hero comic books
* Writing Big Two comics, and working with the continuity of other titles
* Working at Vertigo, and what he feels the publisher looks for in new creators
* How Fables developed over the years, and the amount of plot that was planned out from the beginning
* The development of Fables’ prose spin-offs
* The creative process for Fables’ covers
* Working with public domain characters, and how closely he hews to the origins of Fables characters
* The upcoming Fabletown and Beyond, and how it came about
* The importance of Mythic Fiction, and where Willingham thinks the genre is headed
* And many more
Creators Workshop Book Club sessions take place every few months, featuring guest writers and artists discussing the craft and art of comics, as well as the business side of things. Additional live Workshop sessions take place every month, giving members real-world knowledge that will help them succeed in their comics career.
There’s still plenty of time to sign up before the next session. We hope to see you there.