And we’re back. It has been a while, but Panel Bound is back…back with a vengeance. Luckily in our vengeance-seeking, we were able to set up some time to talk with the astonishingly talented team behind the Archaia graphic novel Feeding Ground.
The creative trio of Jonathan “Swifty” Lang, Michael Lapinski (great comic advice blog here), and Christopher Mangun, as I’ve heard at several “how to pitch a comic” panels, put together one of the best comic pitches the gang at Archaia had ever seen. We figured if you’re coming to Panel Bound to read about how to pitch your book, why not learn from the best there is? So, we asked team Feeding Ground about it and they were kind enough to oblige.
After checking out this pitch, you’ll agree that this is how it should be done. If you’re looking for a template, a gold standard in pitching then read on, this is the interview for you. Also, check out Feeding Ground, it’s about werewolves, which in my book is always a Michael Jordan circa 1986 backboard-breaking slam dunk.
It’s been said that the Feeding Ground pitch is one of the best the team at Archaia has ever seen. Did you guys go into pitching the comic with any previous pitching knowledge, with comics or otherwise?
Michael – I come from a background working as an artist on children’s television shows like “Blue’s Clues” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” when it was on Fox. There was a while when, besides my day job, I was constantly pitching new show ideas. Some made it through early stages of development, and one aired as a pilot, but “pitch book designer” became a craft unto itself. Chris was the man responsible for making our finished book look and feel as swanky as it did.
Chris – At the end of 2008, Feeding Ground evolved from concept into a full plotted story with characters and specific design. We knew we had something worth showing to publishers and the opportunity presented itself in NY Comic Con of February 2009. A month before the con we decided we would leverage Michael’s art, Swifty’s storytelling and my production skills to create the pitch book. For years I’ve worked in the advertising world which demands a its own level of presentation craft and for years it was my job in small studio to create compelling well packaged pitches for companies like Pfizer and Bayer. Marrying these skills of print production with some heavy stock-full color paper and a Look-book style (common in the film industry with scripts being viewed quickly by producers and media companies) seemed like something that would best showcase our story series quickly to an editor (which Mike did an amazing job of using to engage Archaia at NYCC).
Swifty – My background in visual storytelling is rooted in film (I studied film studies at the University of Amsterdam). I had been writing since I was a kid, but hadn’t really tackled comics before. As far as comic reading, I truly grew up reading Mad Magazine. Sergio Argones and Jack Davis were some of my favorites. My pitching experience, and this is the chief responsibility of a writer, is to get other talented people hooked on a concept. I had to do this working with directors in theater and simply trying to convince friends to read my work. Translating this into a visual package was unchartered territory. While I had a very strong sense of what I imagined the packet might look like, I lacked the experience and technical knowledge to manifest this. Chris and Mike are magicians.
The Feeding Ground pitch features an incredible amount of detail and planning not often seen in comic pitching. Why go about it this way? Did any past experiences foster this pitch’s detail?
Michael – I’d say past experience informed the intention to make the book a whole, complete, package but it was Robert Kirkman’s guidelines in a reprint of Walking Dead #1 that laid out what we should include.
Chris – After 2 weeks of work, our pitch book was finished with roughly 40 pages of content: a synopsis, a series beat breakdown, a map of our story setting, character designs, sample art, cover art and a sample our first script.
Swifty – Something we believe as a team very strongly in is the concept of “curb appeal” that one experiences in real estate. From the moment one pulls up to the house, the buyer should have a strong, visceral reaction. When someone picked up our book, it was important not only that Feeding Ground conveyed our narrative, but we knew our world so thoroughly we could drop a reader into it. The more firmly that the aesthetic demonstrates the act of conscious decision making, the more trust a publisher will have in a creator. You saw our cover and you knew right away the landscape you would be traversing.
In your opinion, what is the best thing a comic team can do to get their pitch looked at, let alone picked up?
Michael – As best as you can, know who you are talking to. Before the show, I researched what different publishers were printing and who I’d ideally talk to. You save yourself a lot of time and fuss just by having some sense if your material is right for someone and what their pitching requirements are, often posted on their website.
Swifty – Be assertive. The odds that someone will stumble on your work amidst all the amazing content being made is unlikely. Be a champion of your ideas and confident . I can’t tell you how many people I see sitting in artist’s alley waiting to be discovered. It may happen that way, but there is something about reaching across the table that is powerful. Practice your elevator pitch on friends. If you can tell someone in a sentence what makes your story unique it increases the likelihood that you can do that for an editor.
Originally, it has been said that Feeding Ground was planned for a movie. How has transferring it into the comic medium been different with both mediums being so visual?
Swifty – After a couple of sessions with Chris and I attempting to tackle this as a screenplay, it became clear that film was not the ideal medium to tell this story. It was simply too vast and the absolute freedom that comics allows was magnetic. Mike and I had a very specific set of visual concerns and an understanding of how this story could be best represented. I think what comics allowed us to do was be very specific about our graphic references (in this case EC Comics meets Mexican Day of the Dead iconography). Whenever a story is created, I really think it’s important to consider not only the what, but the why. Why should something exist as a book, as a physical object, versus a novel, or a screenplay. For us, we wanted Feeding Ground to appear as an old object that conveyed a mythology, almost as if someone stumbled upon it within a barren landscape.
Michael – I’ve been a comic fan since pre-school and I had done comic strips in college but got excited to do my own comic when I saw a number of friends self-publishing their books. I’m also a horror fan and the story for Feeding Ground immediately appealed to me as staking out new territory. Swift and I are both into EC Comics and the woodcut prints of Jose Posada and wanted to illustrate a print object that was a marriage of the two. Presentation is everything and, like Swift said, we created a visual style that was as sun-baked and broken as the story.
As successful creators, how much do you believe a team should have completed in their pitch packet before actually handing it to editors? (art, script, plot, etc)
Michael – When you look at the list of what we included, it’s really about including as much as you need to take what’s in your head and present it on paper without actually showing up with a fully completed book. Especially with including the cover designs, the goal is to place something in a publisher’s hands that conjures what will be on the stands. By printing and binding the book as a traditional comic, I think it made it even easier to visualize. All said, you leave enough evidence that you could get the job done.
Chris – Getting story right from the start is important. Tell people about your story, they will let you know what’s working or not. Since there’s not a ton of time invested at this stage with production, which can eat up a year plus, it’s easy to move ideas around, cut and slice or invent characters. Having that conversation with a small audience and sharing with peers early on is key to knowing if your “elevator pitch,” a two sentence synopsis, the story and overall materials are working for or against you or simply require just a little more editing. We actually practiced and targeted our elevator pitch prior to Michael going to NYCC to ensure we all were on the same creative page, but also to see how our concept held up in other peoples’ minds on the fly.
Swifty– Even though your script will be revised (both internally and by an editor) I think it’s incredibly important to demonstrate that a writer knows how to complete a story. A complete script showcasing an ability to tell a story both panel-to-panel and with a narrative arc is essential. Mastery of all of the elements of storytelling (dialogue, panel description, establishing character moments) are necessary ingredients to gaining the confidence of an editor. An understanding of the larger beats and how they fit into the complete story is equally important. You are taking the reader on a ride and you must know where the exit is.
Reading the Feeding Ground pitch story, it would be easy to say you were very lucky. However, in reality, it seems that it was a combination of extremely hard work and a little luck. Do you believe that a team needs luck? Or can they thrive on virtue of their hard work alone?
Michael – What’s the quote, something like “Fate is when timing meets preparation.” The fortunate timing in our history came when I was taking a break from talking with publishers on the Comic Con floor and inadvertently found myself talking with Stephen Christy, the editor-in-chief at Archaia, while I was just browsing their table. I thought I was just having a passionate conversation about comics with a salesperson. Even with my handy list of publishers, Archaia wasn’t on my radar at the time and soon I found myself handing over the pitch book and I was all set to talk about it as it made it’s way up their chain of command. To this day, they’re still great about making time to meet with aspiring creators at conventions in their swanky library of a booth.
Swifty – I agree to a certain extent that one makes their own luck. If you don’t do the work, nothing will happen. A strange thing occurs when one keeps pushing ahead, and I don’t mean to sound too mystical, but the effort attracts opportunity if the intention is pure. We truly did this for the love and that came through with all of our interactions. We stayed humble, and we stayed open to possibility. The right people emerged. My luck began when Mike and Chris wanted to partner with me. From there, as a united front, all things became possible. If there were a recipe to guarantee the opportunity to get work out there, I certainly do not know it. I do know that you are only as good as your team and being someone people want to work with greatly increases your chance for success.
If people haven’t read Feeding Ground yet, why should they now?
Swifty – Feeding Ground rose from a conversation between myself and a good friend of mine, Thomas Peyton, who is a documentary filmmaker. He had been working for the past couple of years on a documentary about border crossing. What struck me as remarkable about his story was his desire to put a face to the numbing statistics we hear about people crossing the desert. Even a second-hand account proved far more harrowing than anything I could concoct.
We also tossed around ideas about the most underutilized mythology during the horror renaissance. He believed it was the werewolf. I couldn’t argue. The silly talismans and mythology hungered for a reexamination. The legend of the werewolf coupled with the horrors of a man crossing the Mexican border proved revelatory; there was a genuine “a-ha” moment that I think translates into a modern myth of transformation.
Feeding Ground is vital in that it examines one of the most important issues that define our country; the role of immigration and what it means to sacrifice for opportunity. This is the story of America. Yet, this is also a story that resonates on a universal level. It asks the question, what would you do to save your family. The stories I most admire are both uniquely linked to their current historical circumstances and ask questions that are timeless. Mike likes to say that some of my best ideas are “myths of the moment”. I agree, but the reason that we still watch shows like the “Twilight Zone” is that anxiety and fear of the unknown have no expiration date. I hope readers recognize this in the work.
Any last minute advice for aspiring comic creators?
Michael – If you don’t know it already, comics are an extremely time consuming artform. Your work will most likely be a labor of love so make sure you believe in it before sitting down at your drafting table. But, the sooner you get something on paper, the sooner it becomes a reality. Beyond that, the comic community is relatively small. You’ll learn a lot just by being nice and engaged with other creators of every level of experience.
Swifty – Your energy and enthusiasm for your project must be boundless. If you can’t communicate the urgency of your need to tell your story, you will not find the artists who will best bring it to life, you will not find the publisher who will shepherd it into the world. Be kind to everyone you encounter, creator and fan alike. Their support is essential to completing your work. You may meet someone who can offer a piece of advice that will propel your project forward or make an introduction. Accidental mentors are there. Don’t be a jerk.