Writing Tips: Malcom Harris

The Call: Pitching Comics to Marvel and DC By Malcolm Harris

My agent works tirelessly; in fact, I believe she works harder than I do. Her job is straightforward—get me in front of people to pitch ideas for comics, television shows, and movies while preventing me from sabotaging my career with online rhetoric. The latter, unfortunately, she has had very little success with. However, the former has led to some intriguing situations.

First and foremost, regardless of what you may hear, it’s challenging to get in front of an editor, producer, or studio without an agent. As much as you might think you can go it alone, there’s a significant chance you can’t unless you’re lucky or have connections. Nepotism plays a role in success in many creative industries. If you look at the movie industry, you’ll notice that knowing the right people often outweighs merit. I’m not mentioning this to discourage you but to provide a realistic perspective.

So, what does an agent do? They act as the battering ram for all the gatekeepers out there. They use their contacts and experience to represent you to people who wouldn’t pay attention to you otherwise. Agents also represent not only you but your intellectual properties (IPs). They are the ones who hear about opportunities. If Netflix is looking for a new IP for a movie or series, they get you in front of a producer. If Marvel or DC is seeking to revamp a comic series, they get you in front of an editor. So, what do they get out of it? In my case, about 10% of whatever the deal means for me if it works out.

To many, what I’ve said might sound as unfair as nepotism. There shouldn’t be gatekeepers, but that’s not the reality. The hustle is real in the world of being a creative, and having an agent helps.

But what happens if you get the call to pitch in the big leagues? Well, as the song says, “Don’t waste your shot.” You have to be ready to do your very best and know what you’re pitching, who you’re pitching to, and what failed in the past.

My recent pitch was to one of the big two for a revamp of a book that always seems to have issues. I won’t disclose the company’s name, so let’s call it “AC” and the book “Lots of Teen Heroes in the Future.” If you know, you know, right?

The first thing I did was check out who I’m meeting with, what they’ve worked on, and what they like. I investigate like a madman, even checking out their social media. I tend to get political sometimes with my writing, and I don’t want to pitch something too radical if that person isn’t leaning my political way.

The second thing I do is research what has failed in the past. In the case of this book, it has not had anything truly stable, in my opinion, since the 1970s/1980s. For me, the research was fun, as I’m a big fan of the book and have read lots of issues. At this point, you figure out what works and what is the foundation you need to build your pitch upon. I may have also pitched the same thing earlier for the parent company, and I knew what they wanted to do there too.

Third, you build your pitch and keep it simple. People hate long-winded pitches, and they love to get to the point quickly. If you have art or visuals, that helps too.

In the case of this pitch, I was thrown a curveball after I finished my first pitch outline. That curve was “We want a few Legacy characters and no characters from that planet that blew up and made all the green rocks.” Thankfully, I had already decided on no members from that dead planet. As for Legacy characters, that was easy.

What comes next is the practice part. You write up your script or, in my case, the things I wanted to cover, and you practice it with someone you trust to give you feedback. You then take that feedback, tweak the pitch, and keep practicing.

Now, before all of you start cheering, thinking the pitch worked and I’m now working for “AC,” it didn’t, and FYI, it rarely works out. I’ve pitched “Kid gets hit by lightning and turns into an adult.” I’ve pitched “girl in a top hat.” I’ve even pitched an ongoing series about “good-natured Russian made of metal.” None of it worked out. Was it something I said? Who knows, the industry is mercurial, and things happen behind the scenes that you may never know about that might cause things not to go your way. But that said, I haven’t given up yet.

Dealing with failure is a significant part of what writers do. Publishers might not like a book, editors might cut your writing into tiny pieces, and people might not like your writing because they don’t like anything new. Still, I’ve had other successes with screenplays and other projects, and I succeeded by following my pitch method. My hope is that what I’ve shared here helps you and that you don’t give up on your dreams and don’t waste your shot!

Also, get an agent.

Malcolm Harris is an award-winning comic book writer/artist, game designer/screenwriter, and pop-culture blogger. One of the few African American pop-culture icons, Malcolm is a frequent guest at conventions and bookstores and is the imaginative mind behind a world of diverse characters including Youthquake, The Witch Girls, Princess Lucinda, and Adventurers Born. An avid cook, social gamer, LARPer, and all-around “pro-nerd,” Malcolm is still living the geek dream. Check out his audiobooks on Audible!

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