Based on this image, you can probably assume that I have submitted my comic proposal for The Aristocrats to Image. While it could be a red herring, and that I merely WROTE the email, but never sent it off, I can assure you that the proposal actually did go off. It was a birthday present to myself.
As I write this, there are a number of emotions roiling around inside, and rather than succumb to the post-submission anxiety, I chose, instead to chronicle the process. This is due largely to the fact that there appear to be a shortage of GOOD guides to a submission process like this. Will this count as one of the GOOD ones? I leave that for you to decide. What I will do is break down the various steps in the process, I will present the methodology, the materials, and programs, as well as a step-by-step guide of the past 6 months to get to this point.
Image Comics is one of the biggest comic book companies out there. It was founded in the early 1990’s by some titans of the comics world, people who were THE IT of the 90s. These were gentlemen who were essential cattle-herders, guiding mass quantities of cash into the corrals of Marvel Comics. Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Jim Valentino, Erik Larsen, Whilce Portacio, and Marc Silvestri were the biggest names in the American comic book world, and they upset that world with the announcement that they were abandoning Marvel in order to start their own company. Image was the result, a label entirely for creators, run by creators, and whose content was owned entirely by its creators. Image was the first major publishing house that really did that, and it did it very well. 2019 is about 27 years into its run, and while the type of book published has diversified greatly from its superhero origins, Image produces some of the most critically lauded books in the marketplace today .
Image has always been a shining pillar of potentiality and talent. In many ways, it is a dream company, one that shouldn’t really exist. I’m just glad that it does. I’ve published novels independently, and in the more intimate publication field that is comics, I’d rather not do the same. For once, I’d like to be a part of a group of people that might be able to offer guidance, and who actually have a name for themselves. While I expect the heavy lifting will fall on my shoulders, I’m fine with that so long as there is a group behind me saying “You can do this,” and if they actually have some specific suggestions and guidance, all the better.
The trick, then, is figuring out how to get Image Comics in my corner. That meant researching their website for submission guidelines. The key points are the section headers below.
- Image Comics only publishes creator-owned material.Great news for this guy! While I grew up reading countless other books by a number of different publishing companies, I have more often than not felt that my stories of other people’s IP (Intellectual Property) aren’t the ones that should be sold on bookshelves. While, of course, I’m open to the idea, I’m much more the type of creator to look at the world, identify what isn’t there, and then use that as the basis of my own stories. The Aristocrats is all about that. It takes inspiration from the joke of the same name, and plays on the idea of the appropriation of a word, of an idea, and uses that as the foundation of this ensemble tale. The main point, however, is that this idea belongs to myself and the supremely talented David Dace, and this is perfect for a submission to Image Comics!
- WE DON’T PAY PAGE RATES.This is also not a problem, not as far as the proposal is concerned. However, implicit in this is that we, the creators, will have to manage our own funds. For you other creators out there, this is an important detail. You will need to figure out your own deals with your crew; contracts will need to be written up, royalties and day-to-day rates will need to be considered, and finances will need to be discussed. David and I have a contract splitting all royalties and ownership 50/50 between the pair of us less a monthly amount that I pay him to help balance out the work that he is doing, which is paid up front. To be honest, for the past year or two, since getting the bulk of the first issue whittled down into something digestible, my role in the creation process has been somewhat limited. I’ve been taking copious notes in the hopes of figuring out just how the first story arc will go, and how it will connect into the rest of the 60-issue journey, but aside from that, it’s largely editorial. Since David has been busy with the creation, we agreed that he should be making something in the event that this book goes nowhere. At the moment, the book isn’t colored, but only because we don’t have the budget for that yet. More on color later.
When all is said and done, because this is our book, it falls to us to manage the funds. Anyone we bring into this would be brought in either for-hire or as a partner. The money that will provide this will be coming from our own pockets – which, if you read between the lines above – means my pockets. Thankfully, I was born to both the Stark and Wayne families. Not really. To be honest, I don’t know where I’m turning up the money to pay these wonderful talents, but what matters most is that they are getting paid, which is really important to me.
- Things often change from proposal to the printed page.Not a problem. This is expected, and from what I can tell, there will be some time between acceptance of the proposal and when the first issue hits the stands. Indeed, I plan to pick the brains of everyone involved during this time. I’m not in this to make a crap product. I want The Aristocrats to hit the zeitgeist and help people (real-world people!) to find a measure of peace in their own lives. Because I’ll be putting 120% into this book, I plan on using this time well. The changes that will be made will ultimately help make the book all that better. Honestly, I want this time. I’m going with Image exactly for this opportunity. I want that team to tell me what sucks, and offer advice on how to make it better. Once it hits the newsstand, that’s it – that’s the final product. Whatever we can do to improve it before then is a godssend (yes, autocorrect, I did write 2 S’es in that word.).
- Writers: We accept proposals only—please do not send storyboards, scripts, notes, or manuscripts—anything other than a proposal that meets the below specifications will be automatically declined.
Ok. See below.
Looking at this now, I realize I’ve probably read this over about 100 times by now. I’ve read it so many times over the past several years that I have picked up on one or two changes in it. If you are planning on submitting to Image, I would recommend getting just as familiar as I have become. Take this webpage on a date. Buy it dinner, do 20 questions with it to really get a feel for it. One thing that I’ve read over and over again from any and all publication companies is that deviation from the requirements is a “No-no.” Do. Not. Deviate! If a publisher asks for something, give it to them. If a publisher doesn’t ask for something, it means that they are either unequipped to deal with it or that they don’t want it.
I’m based in Washington State, not that far from the Portland, Oregon, the city that houses the offices of Image Comics. My Big Dream was for David and I to head over to Portland and practice a pitch presentation in a hotel room for a day. Then, when the time came for our meeting, we would strut into the office in dapper suits, whip off our Ray-Bans, and proceed to knock out Eric Stephenson and his team with a killer Aristocrats presentation. It was supremely cinematic, and I was giddy with these visions when I called up their offices to book an appointment.
“Sorry. We don’t do that,” the receptionist told me.
“What if I come in and drop off the presentation?” I asked, hoping to slyly sneak into an impromptu meeting with one of the execs when I arrived to deliver the proposal.
“Sorry, but submitting it by email is really the only way that we do this,” he said, dashing all my hopes.
Sure, it’s right there on the proposal page, but you know… one can hope. With a sigh of anti-cinematic disappointment, I resigned myself to the fact that when I submitted the book, it would be done exactly as Image asked for: via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- A brief, typed cover letter that summarizes your project and your previous work, if relevant. Include contact information (name, e-mail address, address, phone and fax numbers) clearly printed on the top of the page. Submissions are responded to via e-mail only.
If The Aristocrats is picked up, I’ll be sharing the actual cover letter with you all. One of the biggest problems that I faced was what to write on the cover letter. I know that sounds ignorant, and that “it’s all right there.” The difficulty was in ascertaining just what was relevant to the project. I mean, does this mean “I have self-published two novels through Amazon.com”? Does it mean “I have one previous comic publication in Subcultures: A Comics Anthology”? I decided that, no, it does not mean either. After doing exactly what it asked for, I looked it over, and sent it off to my editor to review. Ultimately, the hardest part of the cover letter was knowing which belonged in the cover letter, and which belonged in the synopsis. She helped me cleave the two components from one another, and trim the fat. What resulted was a lean piece of writing that was as perfectly cooked as I could get it.
- A typed, one page, synopsis of the overall story arc (not just of the first issue). Please keep this as succinct as possible and do include major plot points and spoilers. Tell us what sets your story apart from other comics and be clear as to who the target audience is (“Everyone” is not realistic—there is no single book on the market today that everybody buys). You can tell us whether you see it as a full color or a black-and-white book, a miniseries or an ongoing series, a prestige book or an original graphic novel. There are times, however, when we may suggest what format we think will be most successful for your story in the current market.
So how does one know what is important for the Cover Letter and what is important for this, the Synopsis? I’ve got a novelist’s background, which means that I was able to identify this as essentially the Back Cover Blurb of a novel. Only more formal. And riddled with spoilers. On a novel’s back cover, you never want to give away the ending, as that would nullify any passing interest a reader might have in the book. Since this synopsis is going to the people who will publish it, it makes sense to show them exactly how the book will look, and that includes showing off my vision for this. I’m thinking 60 issues here, and if I haven’t already figured out where it’s going to go, then it might not give Image much faith that I will be able to carry this book to fruition. As a result, there was a ton that I wanted to say about The Aristocrats. I wanted to introduce a dozen of the main characters, how they all worked together and created conflict among one another, where the story was going, how it was going there. I wanted to include a bit of Muse’s personality and how she managed all of the small details within the story, but after doing the rough draft of this, I decided that there is a bit of a difference between the requisite one page and the 15 pages I wound up with. With the help of a butcher’s cleaver and my wonderfully talented editor, I was able cut it down into a single page. It hit every beat requested in this, and it filled the single page that I had. One thing I included, which I felt was a very visual and succinct way to describe a book, is by connecting two pieces of popular culture: “[The Aristocrats] is Transformers: More than Meets the Eye / Lost Light meets Strangers in Paradise. Hopefully, that reference will give them the sense that this is a book that they need to publish. Of course if I never hear back from them, then I’m sure it’ll be because they made a note to “Research MTMTE/LL and figure out what makes it different from Michael Bay’s Transformers movies,” and then never followed through.
- Photocopies of fully inked and lettered sequential story art pages
Image’s Submissions page specifically requests the following: photocopies only (not original copies of the art), no character sketches or bios (a detail that has changed over the years), and 5 sequential pages that have been fully lettered and inked. They said that they might make suggestions based off these, but they are primarily concerned with our understanding of the medium and how to tell a sequential story. Finally, color is optional. This is a lot to go on, and it also allows for a certain degree of flexibility as far as exactly what to include in the package is concerned. One of the best things about their digital-only (mailing is an option, but it is one that they do generally discourage) submission requirements is that the first detail (of submitting original art) is pretty much null-and-void.
The “no character sketches or bios” required a certain change when the submissions page was updated to this (so stay up to date with to the requirements! It might change on you – and indeed, might even have already changed from your reading of this guideline), but that wasn’t a big deal. Really, what this did for us was to get us focused in on the main thing, the grand poo-bahba, the star: the book. It kept us from getting distracted on unnecessary things, like non-shown worldbuilding. After all, when we sell the book, it will be the BOOK that we’ll be selling, not additional art or background that shows “look how smart we make world!” Honestly, if the book sucks, then nobody will care about the other details.
5 pages of sequential art. What surprises me so much about this is how little is actually required for the submission. A single comic book is between 20 and 22 pages (22 being the more traditional length over on this side of the pond, and weekly 11-page stories being the traditional format for my British cousins, at least back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.) long, and graphic novels are anywhere from 48 to 64 to even upwards of 100 or 200 pages. The 5-page requirement was probably established to allow for maximum display of a book’s potential while also staying somewhat affordable to the creative team. If it is a writer putting the project together, then they only have to pay the penciler, inker, letterer, and colorist for 5 pages of work, rather than the full 22 pages, which does amount to less than a quarter of the cost! Thank you, Image!
After writing the whole first issue, David and I put together 5 pages of sequential art that we thought rocked. “Surely this will be enough to get the staff at Image to go in on The Aristocrats,” we said, giving each other high fives (virtual, as we live in different cities). As we were still in the process of getting our proposal together, we started second-guessing our plan. The Aristocrats is a story that builds on what comes before, and story-wise, we wanted to have the staff at Image to be able to see how story arcs would work – both within a standalone issue – and as a tease of what the overarching story would look like. I guess what it all boiled down to is transparency. We wanted to show them the finished product. David then set out to get the whole first issue done while I set out to figure the words of the proposal, the cover letter, the email, and as many of the words that would help set up the next 59 issues of the book that I could put together.
“Color is optional.” Thank Primus. Time between acceptance of the proposal to the actual shelf-drop gives me the chance to figure out where the hell to find the money to pay for a good colorist. David and I have discussed how we want the colors to be, and David even did a mock-up of colors for one of the pages (which looks great!) but we want to get this book out either monthly or bi-monthly. David is an incredible talent, whose pencils, inks and colors are all gorgeous. However, there is only so much that one person can do in one month (or even two), and we opted to find a separate colorist. Colorists cost money, and by not needing to get all 22 pages done up front, it gives David and I time to try out some colorists. One thing that Image even offers to possibly do is set us up with a connoisseur of color. To help them visualize just what a completed copy of The Aristocrats will look like, we opted to include a one-page color mock-up in the pitch package.
The cover mock-up was done in full, sparkly color, and it looks fantastic, with two of the main characters front and center, and the unique title banner that we created off to one side.
Every visual item that I submitted was a TFF file. David and I started out using a specific program that he is quite comfortable with (Clip Studio), but our letterer, HdE , requested that the images we sent him be high resolution TFF’s. As a result, the final images were big and beautiful, but not too overwhelming for our hard drives.
The total package consisted of 5 parts (plus the email that we sent it all out in):
- Pdf 1 – The Aristocrats 1 – 22 pages uncolored in their entirety in a high quality that will be easy to zoom in and out of without any change in resolution.
- Pdf 2 – The Aristocrats 1 Cover – Colored, beautiful, and again, culled from a high-resolution tff.
- Pdf 3 – The Cover Letter – Yup. Even this was turned into a pdf. The pdf format prevents adjustments, and it creates a body of work that is a little more professional than an impermanent word document.
- Pdf 4 – The Synopsis – Just like the Cover Letter, this was made a pdf for more permanence.
- Pdf 5 – The Complete Package – This was a single Pdf that contained everything mentioned above: the book, the sample colored page, the cover, the synopsis, and the cover letter. Each section was partitioned off from the others with a separate page announcing which section the readers were getting into now.
At the top of each page of these pdf’s we have the project name, my name, and my email address. In the event that a copy is made, but pages are lost, at least the fine folks at Image will be able to reach me. Before converting each document into a pdf, I tried to fill the images as close to the borders of the pages as possible so as to more closely resemble the finished comic.
As evidenced at the top of the page, I kept the email simple. The Cover Letter and Synopsis would be doing all the hard work for this. The email is simply a formality. It answers the questions of “Who am I?” “What is the name of the book?” and “What is included in the package that I have attached to it?”
The hardest part of this was actually clicking the “Send” button. Oddly enough, it wasn’t that difficult a thing to do. There comes a time when you dot your I’s, and cross your T’s, and go back and check that you’ve done it not once, but about 20 times. After a while, you’re just spinning your wheels, and nothing you can do can really make the end result any better than it already is. I was there. The time had come.
The big question now is how Image will take the book. Will they love it and say that they have to publish it? Will they say that they love it, but that they don’t see a market for it now? Will it get lost in the Slush Pile? Will they ignore it, and then, after a month of waiting, will I have to submit it all over again? Will they get back to me in a week with a rejection?
Right now, I have no idea. I will certainly let you know. One thing is certain: if Image does pick up The Aristocrats, I will be sharing with you whatever specifics of this process that I can (with their permission, of course). Every book is different, and what sells one will most certainly not sell the next, but if I can show you a success story, then by all means, I will.
Feel free to ask questions if you have them, or share your own success stories, rejection stories, or experiences. I’d love to hear what you did to get your own comics on bookshelves. And if this did turn out to be one of the GOOD guides, I’d love to hear that I hit my target. Hell, if I didn’t make a good one, let me know what is preventing that.
The Queen has spoken.