Success in Failure: Managing Expectations and Ambition
Written by Hugo Boylan
(Originally posted on Hugo Boylan’s website. Reposted with permission.)
Making your own comics is rewarding work. There is a unique freedom to try new things, to experiment with the form, to look at strange and uncommon themes and settings. You can tell stories for yourself, for your friends, you can make a statement or you can examine the human condition. You can just do you. That feeling you get when you see your script brought to life by an artist is one that can only be described in superlatives. I’ve made friends for life through my collaborations, I’ve seen these friends go on to succeed in the industry in ways that fill me with an irresistible mixture of pride and jealousy. The knowledge that we all started out writing, drawing, colouring and lettering our own work, that we all grew from that same garden is at the same time comforting and bizarre. For all of this though, there are so many pitfalls, delays and disappointments that we as creators need to deal with on an alarmingly regular basis. Oftentimes when you come up with that one great concept, the one that, to you, is going to make all the difference, you believe in it so fully that the idea that anything will go wrong is completely alien to you. You can invest time and money, heart and soul into that comic. You can do everything right, but it can still fall apart.
For all the individual work we do and for all those hours we put in, as a writer comics will always be a collaborative effort. For all that we create, and no matter how hard we try, comic creators are still human. Our collaborators are still human. Life can get in the way. I’ve written dozens of scripts that may never see the light of day. I’ve worked on so many projects that have seen the opening pages drawn and even coloured before something comes up – a collaborator is going through a rough patch and needs to take some time off, maybe they land their dream job drawing a comic they love or maybe it’s something as simple as time running out. It can be disheartening and it can set you back, but it happens. The important thing to remember is that, even though the setback can hit hard, we don’t have to get knocked down. We can keep our feet, grit our teeth and look to the next project.
The Vaulting Ambition of Bountech
Idiots in Space! Sounds like fun, right? Back in 2013 I really wanted to turn my hand to sci-fi. I had an idea for a crew of bobble-headed dopes, blundering through space and not really achieving anything. I wanted to satire the Five Man Band trope and write some ridiculous adventures. Turns out I was wrong.
Before scripting began, the idea was wriggling around in my hands and morphing right before my eyes. I hooked up with a friend and fellow writer Dermot McDermott and my long-time colleague from the Superhero Help Desk webcomic Kerrie Smith, to bounce ideas off of and within an hour of our first burger-and-banter, The Good Ship Mary Sue and her crew of hapless buffoons had been replaced with a deep-dive in to philosophical cyberpunk, frontier sci-fi and a healthy dose of political metaphor.
Even now thinking back on those early meetings reminds me why I love the collaborative process. The exchange of ideas was electric, suddenly we weren’t just going to do the Five Man Band, we were going to subvert it. We weren’t just going to do another frontier sci-fi, we were going to draw from Irish history and politics to create a lived in and deeply antagonising universe for our characters to inhabit. We didn’t want to settle for cyberpunk, we wanted to create an elusive, transhumanist pseudo-religion. I think you can tell this was an ambitious behemoth for any book, let alone a first graphic novel from three non-artists. Still we persevered, drafted a timeline of key events, and wrote extensive backstories for the political factions, key figures and of course our band of not-quite-heroes.
It was with these ideas still raw that we happened across artist Matt Shiell. Still in college, but looking to break out of fine art and in to comics, Matt approached the opportunity to work on this nebulous book with an attitude and enthusiasm that matched our own over-confidence in what we could do. Favouring a darker, inky style and relishing in the use of negative space, Matt was going to bring a brooding melancholic atmosphere to artwork in a way that would play up to the darker elements of our narrative. We were on a roll, and yet with all of this in place, we couldn’t stop. We kept pitching ideas. With the four of us now fully ensconced in the universe we just couldn’t help ourselves. We wanted frantic action and head-turning mecha designs. We needed to add more to our bounty-hunting quintet! More cybernetic augmentations! More political allegiances! More drama and more tragedy! Where once the political backdrop would have played out in the periphery, now it was taking centre stage. We needed another scene to show why the No-Mod terrorist group X-Machina might actually be justified in their actions, but then we’d have to balance that out with a few scenes juxtaposing the utopian cyberpunk cities with the dusty and brutal frontier. Twenty four pages wasn’t going to cut it anymore, we needed to do a double sized first issue! No, never mind, we’d just ditch issues altogether and shoot right for the OGN! What could go wrong?
Ultimately, time ran out. We’d set ourselves a strict deadline. We had to finish the first act, if not at least an ashcan by DICE that year. Working within that limited window seemed like the only way to get our work on track and still allow the various teammates to continue on with college, day jobs and other projects. With that deadline looming ever closer, it became apparent that we’d never have time to get the book done. Tensions were running high within the team – we didn’t give Matt enough time to finish his concepts and the artwork, Dermo had to get back to the law library and finish his essays for the semester, Kerrie was working forty hour weeks and managing a webcomic, and I had started work on an all-ages fantasy series that needed my attention if I was going to get the first issue written in time for it to see print for that same convention. Our last meeting didn’t go well. It was clear we didn’t have it – couldn’t do it. We couldn’t get this book finished and all of those hours were going to be wasted. None of us reacted particularly well. What’s the matter? Hadn’t I done my work on time? The script was finished after all; it’s the art that was late. Of course it wasn’t as simple as all of that. Yes, the art was late, but this was Matt’s first comic and he, correctly, had wanted to ensure his designs were finished before barrelling in to the sequential work. But why didn’t he tell us earlier? Well that’s probably on me. I’d taken on a de facto leadership role in spite of my best efforts, and hadn’t pushed for better communication. Speaking to Matt recently, he pointed out that he’d felt ashamed of not being able to finish the work on time and didn’t want to let the side down. He’d felt that admitting he needed more time might have made the team see him as disorganised and unable to deal with deadlines. That pressure might have caused him to buckle, but better communications all over could have mitigated his worry.
So it was with frustration that we all agreed to part ways, foisted by an overly-ambitious project and deadline, with nothing to show for it but a good first draft of the first page of what could have been a great first OGN.
When I find myself thinking back on what we lost, both in the Space-Buffoonery of the Good Ship Mary Sue, with her giant cook and his giant couscous and the heady misanthropic world of Bountech/SOBEK/whatever-our-final-title-might-have-been, I feel an uncomfortable rush of mixed emotions. I loved those stories, both of them and I don’t think I’ll ever truly be rid of the latter, but I learned so much. I took from that project skills that would follow me in to future collaborations and help me improve as a writer and as a collaborator. I set my sights on more manageable projects. A six-page sci-fi/horror here, a twenty-odd-page noir fairy tale there… and I never let communication on a live project suffer like that again.
The Clockmaker’s Granddaughter Expected Too Much
Following the story of Reegan the narrative of The Clockmaker’s Granddaughter would have been split in to two sections. First focusing on Reegan’s adventure after she was transported to a lush agrarian fantasy world at odds with the encroaching techo-magical cities who threatened to destroy it’s natural beauty and balance. Secondly it would recount the story of her Grandfather, the Clockmaker. The Clockmaker’s section would have been told in flashbacks by the characters Reegan met on her journey and would tell of how his grasp of clockwork mechanics had allowed him to bring a refined control to the techo-magic in a great war that had upended the old ruling class and established a new Oligarchy of the People. As the story unfolded however, we would learn that Reegan’s Grandfather had unwittingly installed a tyrannical maniac on the throne. Creating a religion based on techno-magic and obsessed with the return of his old friend from Reegan’s mundane world, the king would stop at nothing to attain more and more powerful and refined devices powered by clockwork-magic.
Teaming up with Iuli Niculescu on this project was going to present an interesting challenge. As the story was equal parts her ideas and mine, we decided that the best way to handle the script was with a highly collaborative approach. Rather than full scripting, I would break the story in to scenes. We would then discuss the layout and suggest page count for each. Following this I would begin writing a very loose script, focusing on dialogue and a brief description of the action we should see on each page. Iuli would then take an almost editorial role, dissecting the scenes as they came in, suggesting changes and sending them back to me. This worked well initially and I believe that for the first twenty pages of scripting, the collaboration was a success and we set a good pace for the story. Iuli chose an expressive style, reminiscent of children’s illustration treated with an ink wash to add depth and mood to each page.
CMGD was doomed to fail. Not through any fault of the narrative or the art, but the collaborative style. Working in this was was too alien to me at the time. Iuli favours art-first storytelling and is at her best when crafting the movement on a page. In essence, my job became less about writing a comic, and more about pacing the scene changes, pitching visual elements and guiding the narrative. While it was initially exciting to place myself so far outside of my comfort zone, writing the script in a quasi-“Marvel Method” caused my focus to slip. It didn’t take long to see that without scrapping already finished art and undergoing full script rewrites, we were going to go well over our page count and far beyond our deadline.
Working this way for the very first time on a long form OGN was a slow poison. It was nearly impossible for me to tell the story we wanted to tell. I felt I had to double and triple check every single page- every narrative element as I wrote them. I would stop myself from writing ahead, until I received feedback from Iuli. This led to a breakdown in both our deadline and the narrative pacing of CMGD. Elements were added to enrich the setting, but essential character moments were glossed over to fit the page count we had allowed ourselves. In the end, when the final draft of the script was put together we both knew it wasn’t good enough. We’d lost our focus on Reegan’s personality and had instead presented her as a flat character, swept up in a strange and magical world. Our villains had gone from complex and terrifying to outlandish and at points cartoonish. Even our “epic flight” was wasted, rushed through in half the space we’d initially envisioned.
We had overreached. We had expected too much of ourselves. Iuli for her part had other, more manageable projects on the horizon and the CMGD was no longer representative of the art style she was pursuing. I was just burned out on the narrative. I couldn’t make it fit and I knew it was unfair to ask Iuli to scrap her work and let me start the script over. In the end we could only shrug and say “maybe next time.”
Although CMGD may have fallen away like so much broken glass, I took a lot away from the experience. Time management and confidence in scene building are crucial when collaborating in any form. Better still, I actually write in that pseudo-“Marvel Method”, describing a scene loosely with a suggested panel count and dialogue beats, as opposed to full scripting, going panel for panel and marking out the movements of the page precisely, when working with Carlos Pedro. I can honestly say, without this learning experience, I’m not sure I would have been able to find right balance.
The Curious Case of Eunan Marlow
We all have that one idea. The story we can’t shake. The one that we still think has legs. You know, the one that we might actually get back to… someday.
For me that story is Mr. Marlow.
Tríona Tree Farrell had just finished up her season on the SHHD and she wasn’t yet sure if she wanted to keep working sequentially or if she was going to take all of her incredible talent for colouring and turn that in to a career. As we know now she chose the latter, and that was undoubtedly a great decision. Still at the start of 2014 and for the rest of that year, Tree was working solidly on sequential work, balancing the hours spent at her desk between drawing her own webcomic, taking on one or two indie books and colouring for hire. I was lucky enough to show her a pitch at just the right time.
“He’s a mage hunter, he kills mages for money.” When writing Mr. Marlow I created a fictional history of magic. I wanted to create a deep mythology explaining why certain people could use magic and what different kinds of magic there was in this world. I wanted to explore a world whose scales were constantly tipped in the favour of those who could manipulate it with innate and unfair powers, and I wanted there to be consequences for those manipulations. Enter Eunan Marlow, mage hunter. If you think your best life is beyond your reach, because your co-worker is a mage who messes with chance, or you’re so burnt by jealousy over a business partner who can summon spirits to do his paperwork that you just can’t think straight, Marlow can set it right, for a price.
Tree’s contribution was immediate. Upon hearing my ideas to categorise magic by type she suggested we colour code it. Blue – Marlow’s colour – would represent illusion magic. Red would represent destructive magic. Orange was for summoning; purple for prophecy. It didn’t take long to decide on a washed-out feel for the comic, all grey and dull, with sudden vibrant bursts of colour as magic, or powerful mages entered the scene. She also recommended we set the book in Europe, specifically in Paris so we could exploit the beautiful French language, draw on its fantastic architecture and, of course, build to a showdown in the catacombs. I took these suggestions to heart and began reworking the script to suit the new flavour. Suddenly the murderous Magus was the Crimson Magus, a being so overcome with his god-like powers he could never control. Ruined by self-hate his appearance was manipulated by the turbulent red energy and would shift from that of a man to that of a red-faced demon. Marlow’s tie would have a subtle blue glow to reflect his own minimalist use of magic. I pulled out my old English-to-French dictionary and thought back on the last time I tried to have some friendly banter with a Parisian waiter (it didn’t go well).
I fired ahead with the scripts, setting a pretty good pace and reducing the initial six-issue pitch to four. While Tree set about the art, Kerrie Smith offered to come on board as a letterer. I wanted to do something with the language of magic and Kerrie, as it happened, wanted to try her hand at designing a new font. We spoke at length about the best way to do it, finally deciding that doing something like the Al Bhed language in Final Fantasy X would be ideal. By creating a new alphabet, Kerrie could push her design skills and we would be able to put in a cool cipher into the book for our readers to use or ignore as they saw fit. Either way we were going to have a lot of fun coming up with stupid things mages might say while casting spells. We were firing on all cylinders and were, if you can believe it, within our deadline we had the first issue finished, coloured and ready for Kerrie’s brand new fonts!
By now you know it was all about to fall apart. As the lettering was coming in Tree mentioned that she had taken on more colouring work and would be scaling back on her sequential work. We’d need to move the deadline for the next issue. This was fine. We could work with this and even pull together a solid backlog or maybe even start pitching. I’d like to think by this point I wasn’t terrible at rolling with the punches. The more we moved back the deadlines though, the more colouring work Tree got. We could all see it happening now. Tree was going to explode into professional comics as one of the brightest up-and-coming colourists, and unfortunately that meant she just wasn’t going to have time to finish Marlow. The best part of working with Tree (that is if you ignore her incredible work ethic and unstoppable talent) has always been her honesty. If there’s an issue, you’ll know about it before it becomes a problem, and time had become that issue. Marlow had been cooking for too long and our team had to move on to other work. When Tree told me that she just couldn’t take on another issue right now, I understood. It was frustrating, but it was for the best. She laid it all out frankly, she felt that her sequential were OK, but colours were her future. She didn’t want to keep me on the hook for a project when she knew she may never have the time it required of her. Being a true class-act she immediately offered to colour the book should I choose to get another artist and I was enthusiastic in telling her that, if that ever happened there would be nobody else I’d rather work with.
Marlow was my last swing at a series for a pretty long time. I needed to refocus. There’s an old truism in comics: Start with four pages. Then do another four. And another. Most people who make comics will tell you to focus on small, easily managed projects when you’re starting out. Do short comics, but make them great. Build a portfolio. Make friends. Go to conventions. When you’re ready to do your OGN or series, you’ll have laid the ground work. It took me a while and a few abject failures to get the memo, but I got there in the end.
So Whatever Happened to the Black Neptune?
Out of all the books that I’ve had to walk away from, Black Neptune was the hardest. In 2016, Rapha Lobosco and I had been teaming up for a while. We’d put together a few short comics and had notions about maybe slapping them together in a black and white collection. We were doing pretty well out of it too; people seemed to enjoy our collaborations. Still we were both looking for a book that could elevate us a little further in to the industry. Black Neptune might have been that book. It started over beers, as these things often do. I had this idea for a time-bending military-industrial horror that would take place on an oil tanker. It would borrow elements from both the pulp and sci-fi genres and build to a grim nihilistic statement on greed, consumption and the human condition. Sounds cheery right?
We had it all planned out. The narrative was to play out in medias res, using a series of interviews as a framing device for the main action. Through this use of rotating unreliable narrators, the reader would be left unsure as to which of our characters could be trusted. Each of them would have ample opportunity and motive to act in bad faith and betray the mission to their own ends. As we delved deeper in to these interviews more of the corrupt behind-the-scenes influences would be revealed to the reader. The events on board the titular Black Neptune would slip from a claustrophobic, slow-building thriller to a bizarre and gruesome cosmic horror and back again. Reality itself would seem to melt away as the team drew closer to The Mineral. What we really wanted to do was draw the reader into the mental decline of our interviewees. Their versions of events would be challenged, their recollections scrutinised and their perception of reality would be thrown in to doubt as contradictions, lies and the inescapable consequences of greed, corruption and violence were brought to bear mercilessly before them.
Visually I think we were on to a winner. We had to balance the cold and clinical interview scenes with collegial and warm “squaddie banter” during the flashback sequences. To accomplish this we needed striking character designs and to comfortably swing from moody and alienating, to relaxed and professional body language. Rapha’s choice to use heavy shadowing to build the tension, juxtaposed to his crisp line work and sparse backgrounds would allow the reader to focus on the characters and to pick out any break in their artifice. Their attitudes and how they changed when pressured would be vital to the storytelling, more so than the dialogue. Once Rapha started drafting the pages, we knew we were in good shape. The art was dark and moody. The lettering was going to be crisp and clear. The colours were going to shift from a muted noir-influence to a vibrant assault on the senses. We had it all planned out.
You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t reveal too much of the plot. If there’s one book on this list that I truly think I might take another run at it’s this one. To this day I still look back on the script and my notes on key events and bite my lip in frustration. There really was something there with Black Neptune. I can still hear the character’s voices. I can see key scenes playing out in my mind’s eye. It’s been said that if you want to succeed in comics you need to be willing to kill your babies (no, not actual babies, you monsters), but for me; Catherine, de Souza, Chiaves, Don and Tom are still very much alive. This is however a great example of how a book that seems to have everything going for it can fall apart. We had a great cover. We had finished eight pages and were searching for a colourist. We were even talking about pitching or Kickstarting the book. So what went wrong?
I guess you could say everything kind of went right. While working on the pitch Rapha got some amazing news. He was going to be working on Dynamite’s next James Bond series, Black Box! Sure this would leave Black Neptune out in the cold, but this was what we had been waiting for; the book that would finally bring his incredible art to a wider audience. If anything was going to bring Black Neptune to a screeching halt, I’m glad it was this. We tried initially to work out a way to keep up the progress on Black Neptune while balancing it with the deadlines he’d have to contend with on Bond. Unfortunately this wasn’t tenable in the long run. We both knew this was Rapha’s shot and he had to put everything he had in to it. It was with a cheery resignation over beers, as these things often are, that Rapha told me he’d have to shelve the project, at least until he had finished with Bond. We enthused about getting back to it in six months or so when he’d have the time, but I think we both knew once his art was out there for all to see he’d have no shortage of work.
It was over a coffee, as these things rarely are, those six months on that Rapha told me he’d been hired to draw a Vampirella and Hack/Slash crossover. I knew it was finished then, and I kind of wish we had gone for a beer. But really I couldn’t be happier for my friend.
And in the End?
So here we are at the end of it all, having looked back at four of my biggest failures in comics (so far!). Each of them had potential. Each of them could have made for a good, engaging story. Each of them failed in their own way and for their own reasons. You might wonder why I wanted to share these failures with you or what they have to teach you, and you’re absolutely right to wonder. Not everyone will be foolish enough to try for a labyrinthine OGN right out of the gates. Not everyone will let deadlines and creative frustration be the downfall of a project. And not everyone will have the genuine pleasure of watching their friends and collaborators leave their project for ongoing professional work… but it can happen. Comic projects can fall apart at any stage and for any reason, but it’s so important that you embrace these failures and learn from them. At no stage should you take it personally. At no stage should you let your head go down and your shoulders slump. These things happen. Life happens. You still have your mind and your ideas. There is nothing stopping you from taking up your pen and moving on to the next project.
Though next time you might try for a short, sharp four pages. Maybe.
Keep reading and writing,
I want to thank Rapha Lobosco, Tríona Tree Farrell, Iuli Niculescu, Matt Shiell and John Quigley for allowing me to use samples of these cancelled projects for this blog. You should check out their work.