Interview: Scott Allie on Pitching Comics, MySpace and the Digital Medium
Previously on ComicMix, I spoke with Dark Horse Comics’ Editor Scott Allie about a variety of subjects including Buffy: Season Eight, current and future Serenity spin-offs, how he deals with reactions from fans and other tidbits about the Joss Whedon universe. Recently, I got the chance to speak with Allie again.
For this interview, we tackled a bunch of new topics, revisited some old ones, and spoke at-length about Dark Horse’s upcoming online plans, his thoughts on the future of comics and what he looks for in artists and writers.
COMICMIX: Scott, thanks for talking with me again. The last time we spoke was during New York Comic Con. Since we’re in convention season now with more of them looming, can you tell me how a convention like New York Comic Con and some of the others compare to something like San Diego’s Comic-Con International for a publisher like Dark Horse?
SCOTT ALLIE: New York is second only to San Diego. The big difference with the New York show is that it’s more about comics for now. The San Diego show has become so much about anything but comics. Movies, videogames, actresses, whatever. With New York, even when you’re talking about a licensed property, the focus remains on the comic.
Sure, there’s videogames and all that other stuff in New York, but it really feels like a comics convention, and the San Diego Comic-Con just doesn’t. San Diego’s a great place to talk about the biggest things, like Buffy: Season Eight, but smaller stuff just gets lost in the shuffle.
Whereas in New York, you can engage directly with readers about all of what we do. And we do a wide range of material. New York is a good show for that.
CMix: I was surprised that you guys were accepting submissions in New York?
SA: Yeah, we weren’t really doing that.
CMix: It was in the program, though.
SA: Okay, well then I shouldn’t have been turning people away. [Laughs] No, we will always review people’s work and stuff at conventions. But accepting pitches is hard because if someone sits down and tells me the concept for their amazing new graphic novel, I’m so distracted I can’t process it right.
Someone who hands me a script and says, "Could you just read the first couple of pages?" I have to say I can’t I because I can’t pay attention with all the hustle and bustle going on around me. To entertain a pitch, I kind of have to do it back at my office, where I’m safe.
CMix: You want to give it due consideration…
SA: Yeah. And you can’t really do that at a convention. We do look. I have been reviewing a lot of portfolios, reviewing artists’ stuff and giving various encouragement or advice. But it’s hard to read anything at a con.
CMix: When people show you art or a pitch, what do you look for? Does something have to catch your eye right away to keep you interested?
SA: It doesn’t have to catch my eye right away but it it helps if it’s simply amazing. There’s such competition now, there’s so much stuff out there and good people are fighting to get enough work to stay alive. So for a new guy to break in, it’s really, really competitive.
I was talking to this guy a while ago, and I told him you kind of have to work on your faces and your anatomy. I think you just have to put in a lot more work and just get it tighter. And he says, "Okay, so what’s the best way to present the submission?’" And I said, "Well you have to improve your drawing skill. That has to be your focus."
SA: So then, he’s like, "But what about when I send it in?"
What happens is, they’re looking for "the trick." They think there’s some trick to pitching stuff, but there’s not. If it’s amazing, be an amazing artist. If you’re an amazing artist, I will find something for you to do.
If you’re a really good artist, then maybe you need some way to rise above the pack. But if you can’t draw yet, than you kind of… there’s no trick to presentation that’s going to push you over the top.
CMix: And maybe Dark Horse isn’t the place for you at this point, is that it? Maybe it’s better to approach one of the smaller publishers?
SA: Yeah, and work, work, work, work, work. Work at smaller presses, or self-publishing or whatever, and you get your stuff seen that way. And by doing the work, you get better at it.
CMix: Yeah, I guess people are just looking for that one hook. Is it easier for you to look at art, or read a script and know, "Hey, this guy might have something?"
SA: Oh, it’s a million times easier to look at art. It’s almost impossible for writers. It’s terrible. I feel real bad about that.
It’s really awful for writers, because with an artist, I flip through three or four pages and if you just can’t draw at all, that’s really, really evident. And if you’re amazing, that’s really evident.
If you’re somewhere in the middle, it doesn’t take more than five minutes for me to be able to tell. But for a writer, what is it? Is it good typing skills? Good handwriting? There’s no quick way to tell.
With a writer, the editor absolutely has to read whatever material it is, beginning to end, to be able to assess it.
Maybe you’re really good at dialogue, so your first page looks really good… but there’s no structure, your characters are really terrible, and your ending is non-existent. I can’t tell that unless I read the whole thing. And, to be honest, my time is at a premium, so it’s hard to put in the time.
There’s the law of diminishing returns, which makes it real discouraging to read a lot of unpublished writers because as with anything else, the majority aren’t going to be good, and you have to wade through every inch of every script to be able to assess that.
So you’re putting in a hell of a lot of time…
CMix: … for not a much of a payoff.
SA: Right. To maybe find a needle in a haystack. And maybe there’s no needle. But you know, with art, it’s different. If I get 50 portfolios dropped on my desk, usually I can eliminate the vast majority of them at a glance and then give due attention to those that really have something going on.
So for writers, it’s much harder.
CMix: As a writer, you’re probably better off self-publishing?
SA: I recommend self-publishing. I recommend online publishing. I recommend all that stuff. If you’re a writer who can’t draw, you can hook up with an artist. You can do a little thing here or there but don’t get hung up on one thing necessarily.
I just met a writer a little while ago who’s working on issue #10 of something. He’s never been published. He’s working on issue #10 of the ongoing series that he wants to do.
And I’m like, "Look out there, man." If one of those starts an online series, what do they do? Ongoing series get canceled. You’re a new guy, and the first comic you ever wrote was issue #1 of this thing? So, your first time out of the gate is the first issue of the series you want to be writing forever?
That’s not logical.
CMix: You’re limiting yourself a little bit.
SA: Spend some time improving your work. Spend some time learning how to do it. Don’t go buy your first violin and show up at the Philharmonic saying, "I’m ready!" That’s kind of the same thing.
Any other art form, you wouldn’t think of just showing up unpracticed. But with comics, people think of that a lot. Somebody shows me five pages of pencils that aren’t very good and I ask him, "How many pages have you drawn in your life, five?" And he says, "Six. I threw the first one away."
Yeah, that guy’s ambitious.
CMix: You mentioned publishing online comics. Do you thing there will be a time when there won’t be any printed comics? Do you think it will all go online eventually?
SA: Well, yes and no. I mean, I think it’ll all go online eventually. But I think that print, one way or another will, well… I think walking away with a physical thing in your hands will remain. 100 years from now, we’ll be reading comics on a book-stack thing like The Kindle or whatever… like the reading machine from Amazon. Maybe we’ll all be reading comics on those 100 years from now.
CMix: Or maybe with chips in our brains?
SA: Yeah, and holograms will just float in front of our faces. But there will be something that you have that isn’t just dialing it up on your screen.
CMix: Do you see Dark Horse doing more online publishing?
SA: Last year we launched MySpace Dark Horse Presents with Joss Weadon, a little writer we worked with on some stuff…
CMix: I think I’ve heard of him…
SA: We were written up in the New York Times, and we were kind of a big deal. We got an Ivan nomination.. So, we do MySpace Dark Horse Presents online, 26 pages of original content every month.
We’ve got a couple of regular strips on our website at DarkHorse.com. [We’re] going to be launching a Rex Mundi strip that will be ongoing for a while. But MySpace Dark Horse Presents is the only thing where the focus of the project is the online release.
We think online comics are part of the future, if not the key to the future, so we wanted to do something that would matter. We wanted to do something bold and experimental. And we wanted to go with the best, the most popular cultural web site in the world. That sounds like a good partner.
CMix: What about Facebook or something like Twitter?
SA: Twitter? I know about Facebook. I’ve never been on it, though.
CMix: Twitter is like a micro-blogging system. But they don’t publish or provide anything original… yet.
SA: Well, that’s interesting.
CMix: I was actually thinking more about a time when comics will come out in print and online at the same time or something like that. Like recently, where you had a film released on HDNet Movies and in the theater at the same time…
CMix: Mark Cuban is doing that. Steven Soderbergh is doing that. Or, at least, they have… So I was wondering if there’s any time in the future you can see where I can go to the store on Wednesday, or if I’m too lazy, I can just go online and it’ll be able to get the same comics from Dark Horse?
SA: Yeah, I think all that stuff seems like it could be moments away. The big problem right now seems to be our revenue stream for online comics. I don’t think anyone’s really cracked that nut.
That was the reason we decided to make MySpace Dark Horse Presents free. The big question mark is how did it make revenue? So let’s just not do revenue. Let’s just make a really good comic with no money involved. That’s cool.
Figuring out how to publish the stuff and to have money coming in seems like a big problem, because the companies that are charging aren’t making it work. Individuals that are charging are making it work, but that’s because they’re doing it on a smaller scale. On a different kind of scale.
CMix: Well, you guys can’t just go out and do some tiny little thing any more. It gets such a huge amount of publicity, so…
SA: Right. But also we have a huge infrastructure that we have to support. We have over 100 employees. So it’s not like if I was still self-publishing and I could say, "Yeah, I’m just going to publish my comic on my website and sell it for 50 cents per download and if that means I’m making $200 a month, I’m psyched."
You can’t run a company that way. Or even if you’re making $5,000 a month, you can’t run a company that way — especially a company like Dark Horse.
CMix: No, but if you’re an individual, you can for sure.
SA: Yeah. And then you’re doing amazing. So people haven’t figured out how to make that work. Like IGN. I think IGN is doing online comic sales. My understanding is that it’s not really working.
CMix: Is there any difference about how you approach a comic that’s going to be published online?
SA: That would be yes and no. On MySpace it’s all about the interface. The way MySpace is set up, to get the page wide enough to read it, on your average screen, you can’t view the whole page at once. So I’ve told everybody no splash pages and no panels that are more than half the height of the page.
Little things like that influence MySpace comics because I just find in my reading that if you do have a splash page, you have to read down and up, and I think that ruins the flow of the reading.
CMix: Unless the page is much smaller…
SA: That’s the thing. That’s not what we do on MySpace. But for the Rex Mundi comic, we’re formatting the pages in a certain way so that when you look at it on the Dark Horse website, there will be a computer screen format.
But they’ve all been drawn in such a way that they can be chopped up and turned into comic book pages for when we eventually print that stuff into trade paperback down the road.
Actually, what we’re doing is drawing them like standard comics pages, but then they’re being set up so we can chop them up to make them that way. So ultimately, the thing will more organically read when it’s in print because it will be read the way it’s actually drawn.
The way you see it online is actually a little different, which is similar to what they do in newspapers. I don’t know if you know that regular newspaper strips, maybe not all of them, but I know a lot of them are drawn in this particular template. Like Prince Valiant‘s drawn in a particular template, and then King Features cuts it up to make it fit the print template. I don’t know why, but they do that.
SA: Probably tradition. We’re doing it for a very pragmatic reason on MySpace. It’s because if I have to prioritize, the permanent print version of it should be the ideal version and the online version can be a little bit, well… not artistically compromised, but flexible.
The first one of those was Jason Pearson’s Body Bags. They did that with iTunes, but I think it’s the same problem IGN runs into. It just doesn’t cost out. But that’s the thing, iTunes works perfectly for video. It works perfectly for music.
Maybe someday it will grow to be the great thing for comics, or somebody else will be. Definitely it will happen. There will be an iTunes-type website for comics.
CMix: In order to read it on the iPhone, for example, you’d have to have the page very small, or you’d have to read it a panel at a time or something…
SA: Did you see David Lynch do this little thing that’s, ironically, on YouTube? People think that they can watch a movie on the fucking telephone and he thinks that’s crazy. He’s so funny.
Sometimes I’ll miss The Office and I’ll go watch it online, and even watching it on my laptop bums me out. I’m not going to watch it on a phone or an iPhone.
CMix: Comedy would probably be better, but if you’re talking about a big action movie or whatever, you want to see it…
SA: Well even comedy, like so much of The Office is the look on Jim’s face, the look on Steve Carell’s face, and when they’re that small, you lose something. Not like those guys are Brando or anything, but you lose a lot.
CMix: I don’t know. Steve Carell, Brando…
SA: So close. [Laughs]
CMix: Thanks for talking with me, Scott.
The latest installment of MySpace Dark Horse Presents online comics can be found by going to: myspace.com/darkhorsepresents