From Pitch to Page With Nick Spencer
Joshua Yehl: How did Morning Glories come about? Did you pitch it to somebody?
Nick Spencer: I had already done the script and actually the first person that I talked to about the book was Rodin [Esquejo], our cover artist. I was a big fan of his work on Deviant Art. Originally, there was some talk of Rodin doing the interiors, but Rodin is really a cover artist by nature. He likes to really take his time with the pieces. He still did a lot of the initial character designs, but he kind of disappeared for a bit and I gave up on him being a part of it and I contacted Joe, who I knew through the Bendis Boards.
I was really impressed with Joe’s work – he’s a natural-born storyteller and a very professional guy, very committed. So he did some character designs and Rodin showed up out of nowhere, literally the same week that Joe turned in his character designs, and sent his to me. I hadn’t heard from Rodin in six months and I thought, “There’s something here.” I took that as a sign, and the characters ended up looking like an amalgamation of Joe’s designs and Rodin’s. I asked Rodin if he’d be interested in doing the covers for the books and he was really enthusiastic about doing that, so we had the team together at that point.
I had Existence 2.0, and Forgetless and Shuddertown at Image. We had been holding back Morning Glories for a bit because the feeling was getting those first few books out to get my name out a little bit so when Morning Glories came out my name would be semi-recognizable based on those little-read indie books. The reviews on those books were good, so there was a feeling that we were always a project away from breaking through. We had shown the book to Image in San Diego of 2009 and it wasn’t until August of 2010 that the book actually came out.
JY: Who was your biggest aid at Image Comics?
NS: [Publisher] Jim Valentino and [Editor] Chris Simon, I really owe my entire career to Jim and Chris. They really invested in me and really green-lit my first four books just on faith alone and really took a chance on me. So I certainly owe everything to them. [Publishers] Eric Stevenson and Robert Kirkman and all the staff at Image have really been fantastic.
JY: How did you form your current relationship with Image Comics?
NS: It’s nothing too exciting. I work on the Shadowline imprint, which is the sub-imprint of Image, and back in 2008 Newsarama had a “Who Wants to Create a Superhero” contest where they had writers send in a one paragraph pitch. And they were inundated by thousands of pitches. And I didn’t make the cut, but I made enough of an impression on the community threads there with the pitches that I sent that Chris remembered me. We kept in touch and I continued to send Chris stuff and he turned down me about three times.
But some of the best advice I can give is to not take rejection so personally and take it so hard. You shouldn’t do that. It’s an opportunity to learn something from an editor and it’s usually something you should listen to, and I think what they saw with me was that I was taking their advice to heart, that I wasn’t giving up, that I wasn’t getting angry with them for rejecting things, so I think that made a lot of difference. I’ve watched people get very close and they just toss it away because they get hurt feelings and they personalize it in ways that they shouldn’t.
The publisher doesn’t want to tell you no. The publisher wants you to have the best idea in the universe and for it to be the most successful book of all time. That’s all the publisher is looking for. That’s the only reason they’re going through their submission pile. It’s ’cause they want something new, they want a new idea. So just keep that in mind when you’re getting it back. Maybe the publisher is wrong; I was turned down on ideas by publishers that Image picked up and did okay for Image. Not every editor and publisher is right, but they’re making a decision not based on personal animosity, they’re making a decision based on what they think will do well on the market. So listen to what your editors and publishers say when they turn your stuff down.
JY: What pitching advice do you have for aspiring writers?
NS: Keep it short, keep it very brief. If you can’t explain what your book is in a few sentences, you don’t have a book. Brevity is key; clarity is key. Your publisher does not want to hear “to be continued” at the end or “you have to pick up the book to find out.” They don’t want to hear that shit. They want you to give them the gist of your story and where it’s going and why it could connect with readers and why it’s a worthwhile story. But again, my pitches were a paragraph. That’s all you should be doing. Five sentences max. Find a way to boil it down to something essential. The first sentence is the only one that is going to matter. If you don’t have that first sentence, they’re not going to respond in all likelihood.
I used to have a system where I would pitch finished pages. I would take them to the editors at conventions and I had a system where I could tell how the conversation was going based on about the first five seconds of their eye hitting the page. You can see so much in people’s eyes: whether they’re connecting or they’re not. Sometimes you just put it down in front of them and they’re just “bleh” and you knew there was nothing there. Other times you see them stop for a second and they just look a little closer. You see the eyes kind of squint a little bit more, focus a little bit more and then you knew you were onto something. I always tell people it’s that first page, that first panel, that’s it. When you’re first starting and you’re cold submitting that’s everything. You don’t have five pages to hook them. You don’t have 22 pages to hook them, you need page one.
My first book that got published, Existence 2.0, we lay out the basic premise of the book on the very first page. The very first panel gives you half of it, and that’s what you need. You need to hook them from the get go because you’re brand new. You’ve earned no capital with anybody. Once you’ve been around for a little bit, your first page can be somebody walking up to a door and knocking on the door, lets not say you should always do that, but when you’ve got a little capital the reader will say “ I’ve read this person’s stuff. I’ll stick around for a few more pages.” When you are brand new, you don’t have any of that, you need to give it to em’ right there.
JY: What was your pitch for Morning Glories?
NS: I can’t remember the entirety of it, and I couldn’t actually say the entirety of it I don’t think, but I know that the first sentence was, “Six gifted but troubled teenagers find themselves recruited and accepted to a prestigious academy, only to find themselves trapped there by the sinister forces that run the school.” That was the first sentence. There are a couple more sentences that explain why it mattered and everything, but that was the first sentence.
JY: Does the rest of the pitch give away the ending?
NS: No, [Image] doesn’t know the ending. I had enough faith and goodwill built up at Image that by the time we pitched Morning Glories they didn’t ask me for that. They trusted that I knew where I was going.
JY: You’re the only one who knows the ending?
NS: My manager at Circle of Confusion knows the ending. That’s it. If I get hit by a bus or whatever, Circle of Confusion are going to be the only people who know what happens. Which is good because they get to sell the intellectual property. [laughs]
JY: How did you come to work with artist Joe Eisma?
NS: I knew Joe from the interwebs. He would post his art regularly on the Bendis Boards and elsewhere and on Deviant Art and I really liked his stuff. Most of what artists tend to post online are pin-ups and commissions and Joe’s are beautiful, but what really stuck out were his sequentials. He really understood sequential storytelling in a very fundamental way that’s very hard to teach. You either have it or you don’t. There are a lot of great artists, a lot of famous artists, a lot of A-list artists that don’t have that and Joe very much had it. If you had the eye for that, you could really see it in his work in spades. He was someone I really wanted to work with and so I reached out to him and I said “Hey, I got this idea,” and that was really enough. Joe’s a very good-hearted and professional guy. He was looking for a good story. He was genuinely an artist that seemed to really care about making comics as opposed to drawing things. It was a good connection.
JY: How did your publishers respond to the graphic violence in your book?
NS: Your publisher won’t really give you too much resistance on it. They don’t care as long as the book is going to find a marketplace and everything. It’s not a big concern. I’m sure you get to some level like Crossed or something where a publisher is going to be a little more involved in that kind of thing, but it’s always been a fundamental part of the book.
One of the big influences on this book is really 90s teen slasher flicks and science fiction flicks like “The Faculty” and “Disturbing Behavior” and “Scream” and “Urban Legends.” I had a big goal on the book that we wouldn’t pull our punches just because it had teenagers in the book. Everybody always does this in comics. When they have a young cast they suddenly start pulling all their punches and all their villains aren’t scary anymore and there’s nothing unsettling about it because “We got to be careful ‘cause there’s kids.” Kids don’t want that. When I was like 16 and “Scream” came out I loved it. That was what I loved. That’s what I responded to. It was the same way in the 80s with “Nightmare on Elm Street” and all that. Kids don’t really want you to be talked down to and all that so I just looked at what I liked back then.
JY: What upcoming projects do you have?
NS: Ultimate X-Men just got announced – that’s pretty awesome. I’m psyched about that. Cloak and Dagger is coming out this fall. I’m excited about that. And obviously Morning Glories and Infinite Vacation.
JY: I know you heard what I said about why Marvel should cancel the Ultimate Comics line. What is your response to that?
NS: What I would tell you is everybody working on the books care about that a lot, making sure that it’s reasonably entry-level again. But you’re right; it’s 10 years old now. The Ultimate books are always going to have continuity in stories. I think it’s become something else now. What it was then is different from what it’s going to be.
I think that we more embraced the idea of keeping a fundamental sum of truth for a character or a team or a book, but then we are really trying to go in directions that we really just couldn’t in Marvel 616. Both me and [writer Jonathan Hickman] are the kinds of guys who really think like that. We really want to break things. We really want to go as far as they’ll let us. I think that that’s what we’re going to be able to do in the Ultimate books, so personally I’m really enjoying working on this because we’re allowed to do crazy things.
Many thanks to Nick Spencer for a wonderful and enlightening interview! Hopefully this can provide some of tomorrow’s pros with the help they need today. And stay tuned to Comic Booked for more great interviews and other exciting content as we move forward into convention season!