How to be a comics writer

How to be a comics writer

Interview with Caryn A. Tate, webcomics writer and creator of Red Plains. What are the perks and pitfalls of writing webcomics? Is there money in it? How does one get started? And can girls enjoy the violence and corruption of the Old West?

Red Plains is a webcomic that takes place in the American Old West, and doesn’t hold back when it comes to hard, gritty realism. It fills a little touched niche in the wide webcomics world, and certainly isn’t one for the kiddies. Red Plains shows the Wild West as it really was, and is packed full of violence, crime, murder and political corruption. Even if you wouldn’t normally be interested in a western comic, Caryn skillfully combines the Wild West with modern themes to make it accessible and interesting to all.

Caryn takes influence from her own childhood experiences, having grown up working on ranches, and this shows in her writing. Her characters are believable and multi layered, with far more personality than the cowboys in Hollywood movies ever had. Historically, Red Plains is very accurate, which promotes a sense of realism to the stories. The backdrops, buildings and clothing are authentic and detailed. I was also impressed at how Caryn mastered written dialect, which is often difficult for even the most talented of writers.

What I really like about Red Plains – and not enough artists do this – is that it makes for easy readability. There are no main characters as such, although all relevant characters are thoroughly explored and giving sufficient character depth. Instead of one long story, Caryn writes various story arcs, all of which last around 10 pages. The stories are all separate so you can dive in wherever you want if you don’t have time to read the entire comic.

Caryn has worked with various artists, all of which have fitted her writing style perfectly with their brooding black and white artwork, fluid lines and graphic detail. Often when a writer uses several artists, it can be difficult for their readers to adapt, as they have become accustomed to a previous artist’s style. Thankfully Caryn’s artists share a dramatic, atmospheric style which suits the comic’s mood, with strong shading and textures. They all have their personal strengths which differ from the others, and the change in artists keeps the comic looking fresh.

How did Caryn get into writing webcomics? What are the perks and pitfalls for any aspiring webcomics writer to learn from? Best ask her, really…

How did you get into this profession?

I’ve had the need to create from the time I can remember. But when I was about ten years old I went on a reading streak that lasted for months – it was during a particularly nasty Rocky Mountain winter, when you could hardly stand being outside – and not long after that I started to write. I started by writing my own versions of some of my favorite stories, since I didn’t know the craft and wasn’t yet creative enough to think of my own ideas. But that helped me to learn the process of writing and the flow of it, and as I got older I began to study the craft itself, and to branch out in my search for great storytelling. I checked out film, television, children’s books, novels, comic books, theater, and verbal storytellers like a lot of the cowboys I grew up around who were always telling their tales. When I was a kid I never would have thought those guys were some of the best authors around.

I’m a big lover of comics and graphic novels as a medium, and when the initial concept for Red Plains came to me, I just imagined it being told visually. I wanted folks to really be able to see this world, to be able to jump into it and experience it.

Red Plains is a vital, realistic world, and to have it revealed to us on the page, as if we’re stepping into a place that truly does exist and we’re just looking in on it, was exactly how I wanted it to be. And I am proud to say I think we’re accomplishing that.

How long have you been creating comics?

It’s been about five years now, I think. Much like my prose writing, it started out as this burning desire to create my own after reading some phenomenal comics like Watchmen, Lone Wolf & Cub… Lone Wolf especially pushed me into creating my own.

At that time I had written a couple of children’s picture books (Sunny Bear’s Rainy Dayand Sunny & Polar Bears’ Big Christmas Adventure), so that really helped me have a better understanding of writing with in a graphic medium. So it wasn’t as much of a jolt as it could have been I think.

How well does it pay?

Right now not all that well, but I expect that to change soon!

I’m actually in the process of getting Red Plains(as well as my children’s books) available for sale on the iPad, iPhone, Kindle, Droid, what have you. We’re going to add some really cool extras like concept art and script excerpts for the sale versions. That’ll all be out soon!

What skills are needed to become a comic creator? Are there any relevant qualifications that are worth taking?

Well as far as writing comics, the same skills and education that are needed to write for any other medium. I don’t think you have to major in journalism to be a good writer, but I think it’s vital to seriously study the craft itself – the storytelling craft. Read a lot, all kinds of different genres and subjects. Watch a lot of theater, film, television. Learn what works and what doesn’t, and why. Write every day, but also get out there and live life, experience people and who they are and how they speak and interact. If you do all of that, you’ll find your voice and what you have to say.

I’d recommend also taking some business classes, things of that nature, since as a freelance writer – or artist – you really need to be a good businessperson. Starting out at least, you manage your own publicity, creative rights, money and what not, so it’s vital that you don’t take these things for granted. Of course most artists hate doing this stuff, but even so, it’s important to take charge of.

What are the perks of the job?

I get to create my own stories, my own worlds. Nothing’s better than that!

One of the reasons I think the medium is so satisfying as a creator is because the final result manifests faster than prose work. And I’m a very visual writer – I have a visual art background – so I tend to see things very clearly and I have a desire to see that on the page. Paired up with a great artist, as I have always been blessed to be, it makes for really fantastic and fun sequential storytelling. I love seeing the story of Red Plains manifest on the page.

Everything else is icing on the cake.

What are the downsides of the job?

Well, again, managing your own business affairs isn’t always fun. I think most artists don’t really want to have to do that – we’d rather be creating. But if you get good at it, it makes it go faster and easier, so you spend less time on it and get to focus on what you really love.

Of course being a freelance writer also lends itself to some instability as far as a paycheck is concerned. But when you have that burning need to create, none of the negatives matter. You’ll make it work, no matter what.

What is the best thing that has happened as a result of your job?

Getting to see the impact my work has on people who read it. I’m not creating Red Plains to change people’s lives or anything so serious, but my intent is just to create something that people really enjoy reading and come back to read more of. Hopefully, something that sometimes makes them think. But I’ve already had the joy of talking to fans who really love the comic and its characters, and I just can’t fully express how much that means. It’s truly the most I could ask for.

What is the worst thing that has happened as a result of your job?

Hmm…can’t really say anything bad has happened as a result. And I have a family that understands and supports the need to create and the time it takes to do that. So writing hasn’t caused any problems in my personal life or in any other area.

Can you see yourself doing this in 20 years time?

I can’t see myself doing anything other than this in 20 years!

Where do you get your inspiration?

Everywhere. I’m influenced by everything around me. I think it’s vital to not allow yourself to to be limited to a particular medium or art form for inspiration. Everything feeds my creativity, and anything can spark an idea. I always want to grow and improve, and the only way to do that in my opinion is for me to be open to learning from everything.

For example, one of my biggest storytelling influences is the TV series The Wirebecause there’s so much more to it than you may expect going in, something I’m striving for with Red Plains. I’m influenced by a variety of sources, including filmmakers like Scorsese, Hitchcock, Spike Lee…writers like Cormac McCarthy, Greg Rucka, Grant Morrison, David Simon, James Yoshimura, Ed Brubaker, Kazuo Koike…musicians ranging from Marty Robbins to Metallica. And so much more. I actually like lettering Red Plains to Marty Robbins music!

Of course on top of my creative inspirations, I’m writing from experience with Red Plains. From real life inspiration. I grew up on working cattle ranches in the West, and when I got older, worked on them – breaking and training horses, herding cattle, you name it. It’s a deep-seated love of mine, and coming from a long line of cowboys/girls, I’ve always wanted to tell our stories. That’s where Red Plains comes from. With plenty of extra violence, of course.

What advice would you give young people who are interested in becoming a comic creator?

Make it your first priority to get on the road to mastering your craft – whether that’s writing, pencilling, coloring, whatever. Of utmost importance, especially as a writer, is that of creating a finished comic. It doesn’t matter how long it is. Have something complete, with art, that you can hand to people as an example of your writing. Start going to comic conventions and introduce yourself to publishers – be professional and treat it like what it is, a potential working relationship. The right opportunities will come along if you do that, and don’t give up.

And please, please don’t give up your creator rights. No matter what. Nothing is worth that.

If there anything else our readers would be interested to know?

I’d just like to emphasize that Red Plains is very accessible to new readers. There are no long, drawn out origin stories, no detailed backgrounds that you need to be aware of before you can start reading. We have each storyline clearly labeled on the Red Plains website so it’s easy to jump on at the start of any one of them.

Red Plains is a historically accurate Western – we don’t fall back on any of those tired old Hollywood tropes. Honestly, I think that lack of realism is part of what makes a lot of folks think they dislike the genre. It conflicts with the rough, wild, and dirty world that the West was, and it just doesn’t ring true. I’m not saying all westerns should be gritty and dark, but I do believe they should all have realism to them.

Also, it might surprise folks who feel that they aren’t Western fans. I’ve even had a few people who have never thought they liked Westerns reach out and tell me they really enjoy Red Plainsand have become regular readers. There’s a lot more to it than a tin star and gunfights.

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Free webcomic: Read Red Plains by Caryn A. Tate