Lettering for Comics Proposals

Many years ago, when I was first a full-time freelance letterer, I got a phone call from someone, a friend of a friend, who asked if I would be willing to letter a sample story he had written and drawn, which he planned to submit to DC Comics. He offered to pay my then current lettering rate. I had the time, and agreed. When I got the pages, I didn’t think they were terribly good, but not the worst I’d worked on either. I did the job, sent them back, and got paid promptly.

A few weeks later I got a call from one of my DC editors. “I can’t believe you lettered pages for XX!” He told me, chuckling. “They’ve been making the rounds, and everyone here is saying, ‘Is that Todd Klein lettering? How did he GET that?’ ” I heard similar things from other editors, and it soon became apparent that, while they liked the lettering, they didn’t like the story well enough to buy it. I realized that, by trying to help the guy out, I’d actually hurt his efforts. At the big companies at least, they don’t want to see completely finished submissions. They want to see what you can do as a writer, or as an artist, to see if you’ll fit into their established system, which breaks up the job of creating comics into various separate tasks. It’s rare for either company to hire an untried talent who wants to do it all himself. They will sometimes welcome a writer/artist who has already been successful with his own self-published projects, such as when DC recently had Jeff Smith do SHAZAM, but giving that kind of project to an unknown is almost unheard of.

The same sort of system applies in illustrated childrens’ books, from what I’ve heard. Publishers often get submissions of entirely finished work, but rarely buy them. What they want to do is hire talented artists and talented writers, and match them up as they, the publisher, sees fit: usually a proven writer with an unknown artist, and vice versa. I can’t say that’s the best way to discover talent, but it’s what they do.

So, when I received the following email recently, I thought you, my readers, might like to share the exchange and advice. Names and projects have been obfuscated. The emailer wrote:

I was just reading Alan Moore’s TOM STRONG, dug the logo and see that it is credited to you.  My name is ZZZ and I’m a comic writer.  I had an original graphic novel come out last year based on YYY. I’m preparing a submission proposal for a new project that I’ve been working on.  It has a crime/noir comic style with some sci-fi elements.  I want the logo to really make an impression with publishers. Let me know if you would be interested in this type of work.  I currently have 10 pages of completed art. Thank you in advance for your time.

I replied:

I make it a policy not to do work for proposals because it’s usually counterproductive. Publishers don’t want to see flashy logos or lettering, they’d rather commission those themselves IF they buy your proposal. It’s like trying to sell a book with the cover painting in hand. The business doesn’t work that way, and you’ll only mark yourself as an amateur. Put your efforts into making the writing really good, you’ll get further.

The emailer thanked me for my advice, but added:

I was just going by the submission guidelines for Image Comics.  Under the heading A PROPOSAL SHOULD CONTAIN THE FOLLOWING, number 5 reads:

Include a cover mock-up — this lets us know whether or not you understand the market and gives us a good barometer on your design sense. A good logo can be EASILY read from across the room. We DO make people change their logos OFTEN. Don’t be fancy or artistic — be CLEAR. You can send character sketches and or bios, but not in lieu of storytelling pages — we still need to see five finished pages of sequential storytelling, lettered and inked. DO NOT send script pages — DO NOT send unlettered pages accompanied by a script and expect us to follow along.

What is your advice for THIS particular situation?

That did change things. It seems like Image has become more of a packager than most comics publishers, at least for the young and hopeful, and this reinforces that idea. And they do seem open to working with unknown writer/artists or writer/artist teams. And there may be other smaller publishers set up the same way. Personally, I’d try to sell my work at the larger publishers first, or even explore the self-publishing route, but Image does have a following, so I can see the appeal. Here’s what I told him:

From what I’ve heard, working with image is much more like self-publishing: you bear most of the costs yourself, and they handle the printing and distribution. Essentially they give you a foot in the door, but one that you pay for. The passage you quote is geared for artists, really. I’d still suggest waiting to see if you want to go that route before commissioning anything. XXX, the cover artist you mentioned you’re planning on hiring, has a proven record, some cover art from him would probably be enough to get you in there.

If not, I imagine I might hear from him again. Personally I wouldn’t want to be trying to break into comics this way, but it does work for some, I guess. Certainly the Diamond Previews catalog is full of projects by newcomers, hoping to hit it big. I wish them well.

5 thoughts on “Lettering for Comics Proposals

  1. Ralf Haring

    Nowadays, I think it is quite common for people to cut their teeth in self-publishing or with the larger small publishers like Oni, Image, IDW. The cream rises and Marvel and DC try and pluck it after that. Just a few names that spring to mind that followed that route: Brian Bendis, Robert Kirkman, Judd Winick, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction.

  2. KentL

    I’m not sure I’d want to pitch to Image right now. I’d be afraid of getting lost in the shuffle. I suppose they get more exposure by being at the front of the book, but do retailers really look beyond books that have the Image founders’ studio logos or Robert Kirkman’s name on it? According to Kieron Gillen, they don’t. Even if the book is critically acclaimed. If I wasn’t going to self-publish, I think I’d aim for First Second or Oni, which seem to understand bookstores at the very least.

  3. Mark Hall

    There are also those that want to follow the path of Dave Sim or Mirage or any number of other self-publishers that have very little interest in working for any publisher but themselves.

  4. David Baron

    Todd, as always, I think you are amazing at everything you do including your advice. The people I know that look for talent don’t want something polished by an already established pro, they want something that is truly you. Now if you are shopping a complete package, then yes, they want to look at what you are selling, not an idea of what you are selling.

    I second Todd’s best wishes for everyone who wants to be in comics, and like to add that it is not easy and filled with heartache for most. But for those who accomplish their goal, there is no better feeling.

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