Comic books can often be a team effort, and teams sometimes break apart. While it’s challenging to build a readership and make money in the medium, one of the biggest stumbling blocks has always been the creative team getting along long enough for it to happen. While there are many pitfalls to collaborations, here are Comic-Com 101’s Top 10 Mistakes to Avoid in Creator Collaborations.
Defining the term
When you enter into a collaboration with someone creatively, you’re also entering into something financial. Collaboration is not a situation where one person pays the other. That is a work-for-hire situation. If you are paid, you are the employee and should follow the lead of the boss who is paying you. Collaborators are sharing the work and sharing the glory. Avoiding these pitfalls is crucial to the continued success of your project.
10. Doing Things in Secret: When collaborating on the project, you are essentially parents. The kid is your comic. One parent does not make a significant decision with the other parent without alerting them, so doing things secretly on that project is a no-no.
You may get along well and trust each other, which is fine. But it’s crucial to alert each other whenever you’re doing something to or for the project if it’s a true collaboration. Even if your partner is going to dismiss it and say, “No big deal. I don’t know why you tell me these things.” It’s important because, at some point, these tiny changes might become critical should the stakes get higher in your collaboration. (i.e., Should your comic start making actual money.)
In any working relationship, expectations are created. If your artist works hard on a cover and the publisher suddenly replaces it with a variant cover without alerting the artist— This could cause an unexpected reaction from the artist who expected his great cover to be the focus of promotion. Don’t let that kind of surprise damage your working relationship; lay the groundwork. “Hey, I’m talking to this artist about doing a variant cover for us. I think it could help our sales.” Odds are, if you tell the artist ahead of time, it’ll be no big deal. It’s the surprise that often sets people off, especially if they are nervous or insecure about their position. Don’t be secretive, and you won’t have a problem.
9. Not Having a Procedure: Collaborators need a procedure for producing the comic. This creates stability in your working relationship and expectations on both sides. For instance, one may be the writer and the other the artist. The writer in the first two issues writes scripts; the artist draws it in, say, two months. This becomes your procedure.
Using this schedule allows you both to create deadlines, schedule the printer, and schedule comic-cons and other promotional events. It also allows you to know when something is going wrong. For example, if a writer has yet to send you a script in four months or an artist is a month over the deadline, it’s time to meet to evaluate what is going wrong.
Initially, I wanted to do four books a year with The Pineys, and I’ve settled into three because it works better for my cover artist and me. Doing four would’ve been pushing it and allowing little time for marketing and promotion, which is crucial to my business model. With the twelfth book on the horizon, we both know when things are due. Until something changes, this is our procedure: I release a book in March, July, and October. Better a reliable schedule than something up in the air.
8. Not Vetting Your Collaborators: Artists are volatile. Sometimes it’s a phase that fades, but some people are just a-holes forever. You also may find great talent and do a great project but not get along personally. You need to understand with whom you’re getting involved.
Being collaborators is like being married. You’re going to have to talk, and you’re going to be around each other. If you can’t find a way to get along, it’s best not to start before investing time and money in a project. But how do you vet another collaborator?
Talk in Person
Physically meeting is ideal, but sometimes you meet collaborators online, and the distance is too great. One of my clients always insists upon us having sessions over Facetime. I didn’t understand it initially, but now I see the advantage. Seeing a person’s face when they talk gives you cues you wouldn’t otherwise get.
Do a Smaller Project First
My work on The Webcomic Factory allows me to vet artists in short runs on webcomics first. When I’m looking for an artist for a more significant project, I already have a stable of reliable artists to contact.
Always Act Professional
I’ve been guilty of playing fast and loose with my professional contacts because, like many creatives, I have a desire for all that crazy creative energy to come together and make everyone rich. That’s not realistic. Worse, if you somehow hit the lottery and stumble upon a hit that way, when it’s time to get serious and make some real money, your creative team will still think screwing around is the way to do it.
Creative teams that make big projects and real money act professionally or, at least, get more professional as the project makes more money. Some rock bands go on to make great albums after their first hit, while others let the fame and money tear them apart. By acting professionally from the beginning, you avoid this pitfall.
7. Reacting Emotionally to Problems: This is the single worst thing you can do in a working relationship. Flying off the handle, yelling, throwing stuff across the room in a rage— None of it helps. No matter how bad the situation gets, maintain a professional level of dialogue.
Even if your collaborator completely goes off the rails and destroys the project, you have to think of your future and reputation outside of that project. Losing control will likely fuel what’s happening, especially if your collaborator has gotten emotional.
By maintaining a level head, you can salvage the situation. For example, some people fly into a rage and then regret it afterward. You can use that regret to put in place the procedure to avoid that emotional rollercoaster. Then if it happens again, you can point to the first agreement (calmly) and say, “I’m sorry. We already discussed this, and you agreed to X, Y, and Z.”
If the worst does happen and you end up in court, keep your professional demeanor. Your former collaborator won’t look good admitting they chucked a lightbox across the room in a fit of rage while you calmly explained the deadline was two weeks past.
6. Entangling Relationships: In the world of comics or music or film, or any creative endeavor, you often want to work with your friends. Sometimes those friends become more than just friends, and you end up working with significant others and spouses. It can work, but it often puts a strain on both the working and friendship/romantic relationship.
My best advice is, don’t do it. Ever.
Doing creative stuff with your friends or S.O. is a lot of fun, but doing it for money— Especially when that money starts supporting the lifestyle, is a significant change in the paradigm and one that most relationships don’t survive. You might be the exception. You might be both very professional (or took my various articles to heart) and are so on the same page that it works. The chances are, however, very slim.
If, however, you fall into it— Maybe you start doing something for fun, and it just explodes into a business that supports everyone involved— You need to begin to have serious talks about everything in this article. Resentment is likely to build, especially if someone is doing the grunt work while someone else is basking in the glory.
In comics, doing the art tends to be the grunt work, while the writer has more time to promote and do interviews and podcasts— It’s much easier to be Stan Lee as a writer than an artist. Art is more time intensive and will likely stay the same in the next 20 years.
Acknowledge the Change
Gather your team, have a meeting, and acknowledge the change in the relationship. Hopefully, everyone can come to a consensus. Some participants only want to do these sorts of projects for fun, and once money comes into the picture, it becomes too much work for them. The novelty wears off, and complaints start piling up.
Doing creative stuff is fun, and doing creative things for a living is fun but also a lot of work. You can’t live in an artistic dream world while the bills go unpaid and angry fans demand your next issue. Hopefully, if you do part ways as co-workers, you can still maintain your friendship and relationship.
5. Breaking the Rules: Once you set up a procedure and a professional way of doing things, don’t flaunt your own rules. It might be fun and funny, but it can alienate your collaborator badly and damage your working relationship.
If it happens accidentally, apologize, even if no offense was taken. Sometimes, things happen, deadlines get missed, and people have life events that conflict with work and even real-life emergencies. Most people can forgive you when you break the rules under those extreme and rare circumstances. They are less likely to forgive if, for instance, you agree not to argue with fans online and then get caught doing just that.
And if you don’t hold yourself to your own standard, how do you expect anyone else to do the same? Even if your partner breaks the rules and you’re tempted to even the score, don’t do it. Maintaining the moral high ground can give you the leverage to steer your collaborator away from causing more problems.
4. Not Communicating: One of the biggest problems collaborators have is that they do not communicate. If you don’t regularly talk to your collaborator, the vacuum is going to be filled with something— Usually new expectations. Artists especially need this contact.
Artists work on a drawing board for hours a day, creating images. They tune out the world while drawing, and this isolation keeps them from human contact sometimes. Regularly contact your collaborators and keep it friendly, light, and professional.
Too much contact can be a bad thing too. I’ve had artists who considered me a close friend in a short time. They would ask personal questions and put personal things into the comics without consulting me first. That’s too much, and I was forced to keep an artist at arm’s length to keep him from prying into my life too deeply. Unfortunately, he had difficulty separating friendship and working relationship, and eventually, we parted company.
Have meetings and/or regular contact. It’s just a good idea if your collaborator starts having problems outside the project. Whether it’s divorce, getting fired from a day gig, or their kid is sick— You’re not interested in prying; your job is to manage the project when your collaborator has a crisis. Unfortunately, some people just aren’t happy unless they’re in a perpetual crisis. (This is why you must vet collaborators.)
3. Allowing Problems to Fester: This won’t be an issue if you communicate. You should be trying to resolve your problems as they arise.
Unfortunately, creative types love to live in their own worlds, and the temptation is to ignore problems and hope they disappear. That often works for a short time, but you may not see your collaborator’s resentment growing. If you don’t address a problem when it’s fresh, it can fester and destroy your project and the relationship with your collaborator. (Remember when I talked about entangling relationships?)
Regular meetings and talks can alleviate much of this unless your collaborator thrives under constant drama. Sometimes your collaborator will need to be forward more, and they’ll stay quiet rather than rock the boat. If you sense a problem, encourage them to come forward and talk about it sooner rather than later. Have an open-door policy of talking to your team when they need you.
Recently, I had an artist worried about backlash on a particular comic he had drawn. It was related to a hot-button issue in the news, and he worried that he would offend people. He lives in another country, so I gave him more context about that issue. This quelled his worry, and it was all good. Had I ignored him, he might have felt slighted.
New problems are typically minor problems. Long-standing problems, however, become a part of the atmosphere in which you work. Don’t allow that to happen if you can help it. That atmosphere can be poisonous and detrimental to the project.
2. Not Having a Contract: I am not a lawyer. However, I have signed contracts and written a few for myself and my artists. Almost any agreement, no matter how well written, can be litigated. You want to avoid court at all costs with your collaborators. It’s expensive and will drive a wedge in your previous relationship.
The purpose of the contract (at least for collaborators who aren’t lawyers) is to get down on paper the same rules, procedures, money, etc. I’ve been talking about. Any concern, no matter how small, should be addressed and put in writing. There are vital things you need to make clear:
True collaboration means equal risk and equal reward. As I see it, the Artist/Writer dynamic breaks down like this: The artist is doing the drawing, which will probably take a good month for an issue. Since most pro-level writers can crank out a script in three days or less, that gives writers more time to pick up the slack on the other end, they will probably be the ones doing promotion, marketing, and talking to the printer or publisher. Artists can be involved too if they want, but they often don’t have the time. It’s on the writer to keep them in the loop enough so they feel like the whole project is staying on track. That’s why you have meetings, regular contact, and these contracts.
The reward is simple, depending. In my case, I’m the writer and the publisher of many of my projects. That’s more work, plus I’m putting out the money for the printing, website, etc. Artists must put up half that capital if they want half the reward. That’s how business works. Otherwise, you can’t complain when your collaborator has to take a more significant cut to reimburse himself. He took a bigger risk.
Collaborators work for a percentage. Get that down on paper what that means. It should mean a portion of the net profit— i.e., profit after the costs are covered. This also means costs have to be approved. You can’t charge a sushi lunch daily to the project, or it’ll never make any money. (Typical costs include printing, advertising, and some art supplies.)
1. Not Planning for the end:
Working relationships end. Whether that’s because the project is over or you’ve had it with your collaborator doesn’t matter— Work that into the contract. Believe me; it’s a helluva lot easier working out how you’ll part company when the project is just starting rather than when you’re angry at each other.
Again, details are essential. Who owns the rights? Can both of you do a comic with the same name and concept, or can neither of you without the other? What happens to the leftover stock?
Are there royalties, and for how long will they be paid?
Having the plan to do an amicable split means that when the time comes, you go your separate ways without involving lawyers. If you’ve communicated, kept in regular contact, had a procedure, and kept things professional— Hopefully, this all goes according to plan, and everyone walks away feeling good about the situation.
I’ve seen creative teams tear themselves apart at this stage, and I have to shake my head. All relationships are temporary, especially working ones. What were these guys thinking?
Nothing lasts forever.
Unfortunately, when the money dries up, things can fall apart quickly. If your collaborator is spending money frivolously because he thinks the next four issues are going to cover his lifestyle— You’ll thank your lucky stars you had this clause in a contract if things fall apart.
The comic may simply end, and your artist or writer may be off doing something else. I’ve had artists poached by other comic book companies, and it’s okay. It was more money, a bigger project— We’re all freelancers, and I would do (and have done) the same thing. In this business, you have to move to where the money is.
For writers/publishers like myself, it’s best you retain the rights and plan for artists to leave you. It’s just the nature of the business. If you keep good ties, your former artist becomes successful and gives you a hand when you need work or exposure. If not, at least you’ve maintained a level of professionalism that builds your rep as someone great to work with.
Conclusion: Collaboration can be a rollercoaster. I’ve seen them become an absolute Hellscape for those involved, while others are simple, easy-breezy. Follow my advice; hopefully, you will be in the latter camp.
That’s all for now, fanboys. See you at the next comic-con!
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