Home What it's like to write a comic book

What it's like to write a comic book

A few years back I was ecstatic to be given the opportunity to write the Stargate Universe comic books.

As a test, the publisher asked me to pitch a one-shot storyline with the characters from Stargate Atlantis on vacation. So I had them in Ireland, caught up in a classic mystery with a small village of folks terrified by the legend of the Dearg Due, which, if you’re an Atlantis fan immediately would give you give you images of a Wraith. They liked the story, but the studio hated it because there was a ‘No Wraith on Earth’ rule that nobody had told me about.

But it was enough to get me onboard to write the prequel series, based on outlines from series co-creator Robert C Cooper. I had written some popular sci-fi novels, which, while not best-sellers, did earn enough in royalties to get me membership of the Science Fiction Writers of America. So I had the credentials.

I also made it no secret that I’d love to get into writing tie-in Sci-Fi, and this would be an excellent start.

Or so I thought.

I had no idea what a comic book writer would earn. And to be frank, I didn’t care. This was a six-issue series, that would end up bound into a trade paperback. Of course I’d do it.

That was my first mistake.

The Science Fiction Writers of America recently published the results of a survey of comic book writers pay rates. The median amount was $60 per page, with a high of $155 and a low of $40.

I was offered $10 per page. Six issues, at twenty pages each, making 120 pages, for $1200. I didn’t know how low this was at the time, nor would I have cared if I did.

I was excited to sign the contract, and got writing right away.

Now I mentioned the outlines were by Robert Cooper, and this was a selling point of the comics. It wasn’t really an outline – more a log line. I no longer have them, but they were simply along the lines of “When some of Young’s crew get killed in an explosion, a heroic Greer saves the day.”

From that I had to come up with a story, write it, and lay it out for publication.

So, for the first issue, I came up with a story called “The Xi’an Gambit”, with the goal of linking the well-established TV Universe of SG-1 with SG-U, crossing over the characters, while driving an interesting story forward. I also wanted to do something that was generally difficult with TV, but easier in comics, and that was to show a totally different culture – following a Chinese theme. I was really proud of it, and you can read the synopsis on the Stargate Fandom wiki, and all the scripts are linked on my writing page.

This was to set up a 6-story arc that would eventually take the reader up to the opening events of the first episode of ‘Stargate Universe’, answering a lot of the ‘why’ questions, and setting up a sequel and potential spinoff.

The publishers loved it so much that they instantly got me writing a spinoff cross-over series with comic book legend Greg LaRocque that was to be called “To Align the Stars”. Additionally, they had done a kickstarter project for which top donors would star in a comic-book of their own alongside the characters from ‘Stargate Atlantis’. Both of these projects I eagerly dived into without a contract, or any kind of agreement of payment. That was my second mistake.

The first issue got a cover, and was listed in comic retailer catalogs for upcoming release.

It really felt like something was happening.

And then the wheels came off.

I had written three scripts and was partway through the fourth when, for undisclosed reasons, the publisher cancelled Icarus. Not only that, they cancelled anything ‘Stargate’ that I was working on, including ‘To Align the Stars’. The kickstarter project, which by this time already had art in place, had to be completely rewritten by someone else. It was weird to see the art that was created for my story be given entirely new words. I was left to speculate why.

Instead, they asked me to write for a different series. The 15th anniversary of the movie ‘Equilibrium’ was coming up, they had the comic-book license, and they liked how I had linked the Stargate stories together. How about taking a crack at a prequel for Equilibrium. I made a pitch of a prequel, equal, and sequel all in one, where the 6-part series would start in today’s world, and show how we get to the world of Equilibrium, it would then tell a parallel story to the movie, before moving into a sequel to wrap it all up. It would be called ‘Equilibrium: Deconstruction’. Sold.

And you can probably guess my third mistake. I wrote the first issue, submitted it, worked through the art etc. I helped them through editorial. I even spotted an Easter egg left in by the artist that could have caused trouble for the publisher. The book made it through production. And I’m really proud of it. I even helped come up with the design for the main cover, which incidentally was influenced by a bizarre theory in ‘The DaVinci Code’ about the painting of ‘The Last Supper’. (Note the V shape)

The book had some great reviews, and great feedback, but didn’t sell. The publisher didn’t go for Issue 2.

….and then they sent me a check.

For $20.

$1 per page.

I’m glad that I don’t need the money. But it was a good lesson for me, and I hope a good lesson for you.

I never cashed that check. I keep it as a reminder that if you work for free, you’ll be treated like you’re worthless.

I was.

The F-U note I sent to the editor and publisher upon receiving it was probably the end of my comic-book writing career. But that’s ok.

So if you want to get into comic books, please heed my tale of caution, and please read the SFWA survey results before signing any contracts. And realize that while one could sue for breach of contract, it’s not always that easy, and not always worth it.

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.