Graphic Novels: Going the Long Way Round – Tim Eldred Guest Blog

It’s a process that places abnormal demands on you and on the people around you. If this is the way you choose to express yourself creatively, there is a price to be paid for it. But there’s also a great reward at the end.

Tim Eldred

I’ve been writing and drawing comics of one kind or another since I was a kid. My family tells all sorts of stories about how I never came out of my room, how I never wanted to go on vacation, how my focus on my craft was so intense that their only recourse was not to get in my way. And it’s all true—ever since I can remember, words and pictures have been colliding in my head so ferociously that I’ve had no other option but to chain myself to a drawing board and get it all on paper.

Naturally, such a lifestyle requires a huge commitment of time and energy. But if you’re sufficiently driven, you might not even notice. You could end up as one of those types who loses all track of time and forgets that there’s a body attached to your brain and hand that occasionally needs to get up out of the chair. But if you have family around you, they will definitely notice. They’ll probably complain that you don’t pay enough attention to them, that you’re becoming distracted or absent-minded, that you often seem to have “other priorities.”
Add to this the fact that you’ll be working on something over quite a long time for little or no money, certainly only pennies per hour at most, and you have to start wondering if this is the sort of life a sane and sensible person should lead. But those are just the everyday personal obstacles. While you’re occupied with all of them, here’s what’s going on in the back of your mind:

First, you’ve got competition. Every day, countless others are working on their own stories. Many of them are better at it than you are, and maybe even faster. Every time you visit a comic shop or a bookstore, the shelves sag deeper under the weight of all those other graphic novels and that wonderful, intimidating Japanese manga. If your book gets out there, it will have to hold its own against determined opposition.

Second, you have to find a publisher. This subject alone could fill an entire book, and in fact it has many times over. The gateway to a publisher is an agent who will have to know something about the graphic novel market and guide yours to a publisher who will know how to handle it. This is the route you’ll take if you’re aiming for the book trade. If you instead want to ally yourself with a comic book publisher you might find them easier to approach, but remember that graphic novels are nothing new to them and it will be a tough sell if you don’t already have some name recognition.

Third, your book will have to be sold by others. This is a fact that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. At some point, unless you intend to be your own sales agent, you’ll be required to sacrifice all control of your baby to someone you’ve never met. They’ll be the ones to decide how your readers come into contact with your book. You can only do two things in this equation: load up your book with the qualities you believe in and package it in a way that communicates those qualities to a potential reader in the few seconds that you’ll have their attention. Remember that lots of people, customers and retailers alike, still don’t make much of a distinction between genre and format. This alone could be your greatest obstacle.

Those are the prices to be paid in your endeavor. I’ve frontloaded this article with all the scary stuff on purpose—to help you decide if your determination to create a graphic novel is enough to withstand the process. If you’re still reading, then it’s high time I told you about my own book, Grease Monkey, and how I navigated it through all those obstacles toward the finish line. (Though, as we’ll see, even the term “finish line” needs a heavy qualifier.)

I’ll skip past the formation of the ideas and characters, since that is fully-documented in the book itself and I’d much rather focus on what came afterward. But as a quick intro, I started the project way back in 1992, when I was still a full-time comic book artist/writer. Although it began as a personal exercise since I was sick of all the one-note superhero comics that were crowding the shelves, I fully intended to find a publisher as soon as I had enough material to show around. There was some initial resistance. Strangely, publishers at the time weren’t interested in “fun” comics and said so using that exact word. Comic books in general weren’t much “fun” in the early 90s. You can imagine my surprise, then, when someone from a completely different sector of the business contacted me to ask if I had anything to offer them for publication.

This was a comic book distributor in Canada (now defunct) called Styx International, who published a monthly catalog of comics called Up’n Coming. They wanted to add a serialized comic strip to it, they knew who I was, and they called me at exactly the right time. This gave me the impetus to write and draw six chapters of Grease Monkey on a monthly basis, which laid the groundwork for everything that was to come later. Over the next four years, this material would be reprinted by two actual comics publishers, Kitchen Sink Press and Image. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t notice; there was very little fanfare attached to these editions and they only ran for two issues apiece. The real benefit to me was proof that Grease Monkey could find an audience if the stars aligned correctly.

A brief but unsuccessful attempt to get an animated version off the ground landed me a career in TV animation (which continues to this day) and freed me up from having to draw comic books to survive. This meant I could now devote all my spare time to Grease Monkey and lavish it with the attention it needed for as long as it took. Between 1997 and 2002, I cranked out another 18 chapters (plus some extra material) with the aim of packaging it up as a graphic novel with a shelf life rather than yet another flimsy periodical to be ground up and spat out month after month until its eventual cancellation. (Doesn’t that sentence just make you wanna run out and publish a comic book today?)

The other half of this equation would be finding a publisher with the chops to handle such a project. Fortunately, graphic novels in general had made some important progress during these ten years. When I started Grease Monkey in ‘92, graphic novels were largely reprints of monthly comic books and could only be found in comic book stores. By 2002, they had evolved to include wholly original material and now rated their own section in most mainstream book stores. This is still sort of ironic to me. Other than audiobooks and magazines, everything else in bookstores is organized by content. If you’re looking for science, literature, or biography your path is clearly marked. Graphic novels, regardless of content, are all grouped together with no distinction between superhero action and slapstick comedy. It’s a confusion of format and genre that I’d like to see cleared up in another ten years. But back to our story, already in progress.

I made a new  attempt to pitch the now 350-page Grease Monkey to comic book publishers, but it soon became apparent that they hadn’t come very far since my previous try. Few of them had the resources or the will to properly promote it, which meant that it might be visible for a month or two upon release but then fade into the background, and I wasn’t willing to watch that happen. That’s when I decided to up the stakes and find myself a proper book publisher with a wider reach. This was a whole new arena for me, and I was going to need a guide.

A paper guide (a phone-book-sized directory of literary agents that I found at a Borders store) lead me to a human one, Ashley Grayson. I should stress that Ashley was not the first one I contacted. I began this process by identifying agents who were based in my area (Southern California) and contacting them ten at a time with a properly-formatted query letter and a photocopy of my first chapter. When the first ten responses came back negative I sent out the next ten. When they came back negative, I did it again. I think Ashley’s name was in the fourth batch. It turned out to be a miracle of timing; he had just read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and thought it might be “fun” to represent a graphic novel. Finally, the word “fun” was working in my favor.

It also didn’t hurt that comic books in general and graphic novels in particular had their status elevated in 2002 when Spider-Man broke all those box office records and brought a new level of attention to the medium. Graphic novel “properties” were getting bought up by movie companies left and right, and suddenly it was a good idea to have one standing by.

Within just a couple months of signing our agreement, Ashley found for me our first publishing candidate…a little mom-and-pop operation you might have heard about called Random House. My heart stopped when I heard that name. Ashley wasn’t fooling around. He went right to the top and they opened their door for him. (Speaking of Spider-Man, I happened to be working on the animated TV series when all this developed.) The staff at RH liked Grease Monkey enough to fast-track it, even asking if I had any plans to write a sequel. Everything looked good until a couple months later when, to my astonishment, they dropped it. Distribution was the lynchpin in their decision. One of the major bookstore chains announced that if RH published Grease Monkey they wouldn’t carry it and that brought the whole premise crashing down. (I won’t name names, but the next time you see a store that rhymes with “Shmaldenbooks,” just keep on walking.) Fortunately, Ashley was a canny individual and already had a backup plan in motion.

After delivering the bad news, he told me that his next target was Tor. Being the largest SF publisher in the English-speaking world, he reasoned, they ought to know a thing or two about how to handle Grease Monkey. And he turned out to be right. About a year later, my phone rang again. It was Ashley, and his first words were, “this is the call you’ve been waiting for!”

The good people at Tor, particularly my editor, Teresa Neilsen Hayden, were nothing but gracious and enthusiastic whenever we spoke. The tradeoff was that it took quite a bit longer than I thought to go from signed contract to finished product. Having come from the lightning-fast (by comparison) worlds of monthly comic books and weekly TV shows, I was unprepared for the snail’s pace of the book trade. From the date of the phone call I’d been waiting for, it took another 2.5 years to get Grease Monkey into the release schedule, list it in catalogues, run it through the gamut of production, and box it up for a May 30, 2006 release. In any other sector of the entertainment biz, something that fails to materialize in that amount of time is usually presumed dead. To Tor’s credit, though, I never got the feeling that Grease Monkey was in jeopardy. Instead I relaxed and envisioned a a massive juggernaut gathering its energies for a worldwide assault. That’s just how my brain works.

So here we are at the other end. Fourteen years after I started it, the book is out and seems to be doing okay. It spent a couple weeks in Amazon’s top 25,000, the reviews have been consistently positive, and my website (www.greasemonkeybook.com) has proven a steady draw. What I enjoy most is the initial reaction to the physical presence of the book itself. Once relegated to flimsy comic books that could be rolled up to kill measly ants and flies, the hardcover is a sturdy two-pounder capable of dispatching the largest cockroaches with ease. But it’s still not out of the obstacle course.

On the first day of release, I phoned up my local Barnes & Noble to find out if I could rush over and actually see it on a shelf. Their answer was no. They were only planning to carry it as a special-order item (though they offered to stock it as a result of my call, bless their hearts). I asked family and friends to investigate this in other cities, and everyone reported the same results. “No, we don’t carry it but we’d be happy to special order it for you.” It was a cold slap to learn that after all the time and preparation, such a basic step in the strategy could go completely wrong. My friends at Tor reassured me that this was common for new authors whose books debut at a higher-than-usual price point. (Most graphic novels retail for $12-$15, and Grease Monkey is over $25. They weren’t terribly concerned about it, having much more faith in online sales to stoke the fires and spread the gospel. That’s where we are six weeks after the release, and I’m keenly interested to see what transpires next. Especially since the sequel, Grease Monkey: A Tale of Two Species, is already well underway.

Meanwhile, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to take stock of what this all means to me on a personal level. As always, the best part of any endeavor is the immaterial reward. The pure satisfaction of pointing to a finished project and saying “I did that” is hard to match. A graphic novel, like any creative work, can be greater than the sum of its parts—it’s much more than ideas, ink and paper. At its best, it’s a symbol of a passion that was so strong the author literally couldn’t hold it in. For whatever reason, they were compelled to make all the requisite sacrifices to shape that passion into something others could share. There are plenty of talented people in the world, but only the passionate ones drive the world forward.

To conclude, I’m delighted to report that while still in the process of drawing the book I finally concocted an explanation for the abnormality of it all. Like I said at the top, taking on such a project pushes you into an abnormal life that demands sacrifices. One day my wife expressed her frustration at how much time I spent at the drawing board, and that my book seemed like a higher priority than her. I could have told her that I’d been with the book for a longer time, but that wouldn’t have helped my case. Instead, I found a better answer.

This is my religion. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Religion (in its original form, as opposed to modern secularism) requires much of the devout: faith, sacrifice, effort, and unflagging commitment. It also provides much in return: harmony, satisfaction, meditation, and ultimately transcendence. I feel all of those things when I’m deep into a project. “Honey,” I said to my lovely wife, “think of this book as my church.”

Anyway, I think she bought it.

Tim Eldred updates his website, www.greasemonkeybook.com with new material every two months. He also writes and draws a free webcomic which can be seen at www.starblazers.com. He spends the rest of his time on TV cartoons and sleep. He lives with his wife and two cats in Southern California.

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