Acclaimed comic book and graphic novel writer, columnist, and filmmaker Alex de Campi shares her secrets for getting into writing comics, working with comics artists, tackling multidisciplinary creative projects, and more.
Alex de Campi is an Eisner-nominated comics and prose writer who has written everything from Wonder Woman and Judge Dredd to groundbreaking multilingual digital comics. She recently published the highly acclaimed Twisted Romance (Image Comics), and her latest book is the graphic novel Bad Girls, published by Simon & Schuster in July. In addition, de Campi is a filmmaker who has directed music videos including Amanda Palmer’s “Leeds United,” and she will be Kickstarting her first novel soon.
This year’s pre-conference program at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference will include an invaluable series of workshops on Writing Comics and Graphic Novels. There, de Campi will present Making Your First Comic, From Pitch to Production, an intensive session that will teach you how to write and format a comic script, highlighting the differences in process between comics, screenplay and prose; find and work successfully with artist collaborators; strategize your best place in the joyously diverse comics industry; and get that comic published. The session will also address agenting, contracts, rights, and earnings.
We were fortunate enough to speak to de Campi ahead of her book’s publication and her workshop at the conference:
The range of work you do (and earn awards for) is—and I have no other term for it—damn impressive. Would you classify yourself primarily as a comic writer, a filmmaker, a columnist or a general multidisciplinary creative professional? Which of your mediums do you prefer working in, and why?
I consider myself a writer first and foremost. I do other things, of course—direct music videos, draw and paint, do a bit of voice work/audiobook recording (hey, I didn’t smoke all those cigarettes and drink all that whisky to not use the resulting voice). But writing is my home base. I’m never happier than when curled up in bed or propped up in my favorite coffee shop or pub, working on a story. The other disciplines are great for added perspective, though. It’s restful to draw for a bit. It uses other parts of my brain, makes me look at things in a different way. Directing and editing film has helped my story pacing and visualization tremendously, too. And exercise is my meditation—so I stay quite fit as well.
How did you get into writing comics in the first place? What advice would you give a writer looking to do similar work?
Oh, you know. I fell in with a bad crowd, basically. They wrote comics, and they suggested I write comics too. So I did. I got into it quite late—not until my 30s. I’m happy about that, though. There’s so much pressure to do things by the time you’re 30 but you don’t have to. I took the Hemingway route: had a lot of adventures overseas, came back, wrote much better work than I would have done at 22. Your first thousand pages are still going to be garbage, but it’s a better class of garbage. And you’re more likely to realize its weak points.
How do you get into writing comics? Write a comic. It’s that simple. In any creative writing profession, there’s this burden of permissioning we put upon ourselves—you don’t believe you can just start writing. Hey, I’m telling you: You can. You don’t need to read a book or take a class or get an agent or get a pitch accepted before you’re officially a writer. Just go do the thing. Then do it again. And again. Along the way, once you get in a habit of completing stories rather than just beginning them, sure, take a class. Go back and learn the craft, because craft really is important.
But the learning is 90% in the doing. The habit is key. And also: Your education doesn’t matter. It’s okay to be struggling with grammar and spelling, there are programs (and subeditors) for that. It’s okay if you don’t look like all the people in your genre who are famous. There’s space for you, and people who will gladly welcome your stories. Do the thing.
Your comic writing spans several genres—political thrillers, superhero comics, noir, even children’s manga. Is there a particular genre you prefer to write in, or do you prefer genre hopping? What have you learned from writing in multiple genres?
I default to suspense and action thrillers. I’ve tried to write romance, and it just turned into an action thriller with a lot of sex and stronger than usual emotional arcs. I grew up on trashy pulp books and Ian Fleming, and Sam Peckinpah films, so it’s just ingrained in me that every chapter has to end on a cliffhanger. And because of the comics background, I’m very comfortable choreographing thrilling action scenes. Now, emotional arcs and sentimentality? That was something I really had to go back and work on. So I did. It was fun, and made my writing so much stronger. But as a working writer, you do a project—like, say, my Mayday series (a Cold War spy noir), and you finish it, and you feel a bit done with that style of writing for a while. So you go do something that feels fresh and different. I am a little in awe of people who can stay within the confines of a genre, to be honest. I’m too much of a magpie for that. There are too many fun new things to try. I do always circle back to action-thriller, though.
How does writing comic books compare to the other types of writing you do? E.g., what aspects to you have to prioritize or take into consideration when writing comics vs. novel writing, etc.?
The hardest thing for me in terms of multidisciplinary work was finding my prose voice. I love ornate, lyrical writing styles but my comics scripting voice is SO stripped down and efficient. So many of my comics have extensive wordless sequences, and I think are stronger for that. How do I convert that, which feels genuinely like “me,” to narrative prose? It took a while, and a lot of experiments under pseudonyms, until it clicked. My prose is as stripped down and efficient as well, with the odd baroque flourish here and there, but now I know I can nail an action scene in prose as well as I can in script. And people think my prose is quite descriptive, which is hilarious to me, because there’s only the illusion of descriptiveness. It’s all very tactical.
What differences do you find between writing original indie comics and series like SMOKE or VALENTINE and writing for established series/franchises/characters like JUDGE DREDD or ARCHIE/PREDATOR?
There’s not a ton of difference, to be honest. The process is the same: outline, breakdowns, script. But in the work-for-hire, there is someone else reading and approving the outline and breakdowns. I’ve chosen my work-for-hire/franchise work very carefully, only specific, high-profile franchises who have great, visionary editors. Working for a bad editor is just… it’s not worth the money. It really isn’t.
What’s it like collaborating with other comic writers and artists? Do you find that the art can influence the direction of the story? How involved are you in the visual representation of what you’ve written?
It’s a great part of the joy of the process. With a novel, you’re working on your own for an extremely long time, to the point where you begin to wonder if you’re not a little crazy. Comics scripting is similar, but then you have people giving you feedback and interpreting your work, and that’s just so nice. I always write full scripts, but then the artist is free to interpret it how they want, and since it comes back to me for lettering, any changes and improvements they make are very easy for me to cope with. I always tweak my dialogue in the lettering stage, anyway.
The art doesn’t necessarily influence the direction of the story too much, but I will write to an artist’s strengths, and around their weaknesses. You can see this especially in my Twisted Romance series which came out from Image in February (trade in August), where I wrote four love stories for four wildly different artists, each story specifically made to their strengths and to what they wanted to draw. It’s fun to do that, every so often, trying to become invisible in someone else’s style. I also did that for my upcoming Ghost in the Shell story (Kodansha, September), where I was trying to immerse myself in Masamune Shirow’s style and pacing.
What are you working on right now that you’re excited about?
So much! My second novel, a strange literary sci-fi story (first novel is Kickstarting soon). Just finished the Mayday sequel, which is set in Berlin in 1972, and that starts getting drawn in November. Midway through writing another Image miniseries, which is a wild, psychedelic young adult story, and noodling around with a very irresponsible action thriller about two veterans from South Boston going on a road trip of vengeance. My crime noir Bad Girls comes out from Simon & Schuster in July 2018, too, and I have a YA graphic novel that I think is the best thing I’ve ever written out on sub now, pray for me, it’s weird as hell and I just hope an editor loves it as much as I do. And if they don’t, well, I’ll crowdfund it. This one’s getting out ythere, come hell or high water.
You’ll be leading a session at the Writing Comics and Graphic Novels workshop at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference. Can you give us a little taste of what you intend to address there?
There’s so much ground to cover, but I’m going to talk about the structure of writing a comic book script and how it’s different from a novel draft or a screenplay, how to find an artist, how to approach publishers, the many possibilities of where you can go in the industry, and a lot more. You’ll walk out of there with a lot of practical knowledge about how to make a comic book and get it into people’s hands, as well as a broader understanding of the comics industry as a whole and your potential career path within it. And of course there’ll be Q&A, too.