Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Working with the The Nib on Medium.com

About a year ago, a new digital platform called The Nib on Medium.com opened up its binary doors online. This publication, led by Matt Bors and Eleri Harris, seeks to promote the best in comics journalism, political cartoons, humor, and non-fiction that is being produced by some of the most talented author/artists today. Words with pictures, kicking butt. And recently, I was contacted by one of their editors to see if I'd be interested in collaborating with them on stories about current events and social issues.

My first story up takes us to the Gulf nation of Qatar, in which migrant workers from all over South Asia flock to in order to make a living. But that living comes at a price...

A Debt-To-Slave Pipeline is Building You a World Cup Stadium now on The Nib!
Click the image above to get an in-depth view about the conditions that migrants workers have to face over in Qatar, along with the key players that continue to perpetuate this modern-day slavery. Be on the lookout for more of my comics journalism in the future and check out some of the other awesome comics on The Nib!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The American Immigrant: Philippines


Last year, American student loan debt for the first time in history exceeded $1 trillion dollars, becoming the number one form of financial liability in the USA. Young people who were promised the same standard of living as their parents now find themselves jobless in an economy that doesn’t want to pay a living wage. Many are choosing to move back with parents and are delaying marriage and owning property. Others are abandoning their country altogether. The American Immigrant: Philippines is part one of a graphic memoir trilogy that follows myself, Erik Thurman, as I work as a young migrant teacher traveling the world in search for solutions to this growing unaffordability and inaccessibility of public education.

With work scarce in the US, I travel to Southeast Asia to be reunited with my Filipina fiancée of three years, while being pressured by our in-laws towards a quick marriage. In order to stay within the Philippines and have my visa supported, I take on an unpaid internship working at a rural high school.

Somewhat disgruntled by my former education and bitter that I'm not working in a field that I studied for, I find the work as a teacher to be overbearing, to say the least. As I settle into my new Philippine life, I begin to uncover many parallels between Filipino and American public schools and experience where both systems are failing. And amid growing trouble with my relationship at home and my work at school, I find the struggles of my students to be not unlike mine, and rediscover a love for education that I thought was all but lost.

The American Immigrant: Philippines, already nominated for the Reportager Award, merges the hard journalism from Joe Sacco’s Palestine with Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical Persepolis in order to tell the struggles our young generation faces around the globe to inspire positive change in education. Join me in this adventure that spans worlds, as I bring you a tale of romance and adversity that will kindle a passion for our public school systems. The book hopes to find a global release in the near future, so stay tuned for updates as they come. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Start Small: The Importance of Short Story Comics

When I was in high school, I worked on a comic series of mine called “Zack the Pyromaniac,” a story about a 20-something-year-old who suffered from mental issues and was recently framed for the murder of his roommates by his former best friend. His journey takes him from the deserts of Arizona to the streets of New York, where he befriends a homeless ex-Senator and the rich daughter of a banker, in order to uncover government conspiracies. He also wielded two knives and had the power of pyrokinesis because… it was supposed to be edgy and cool.

The plan was to map out the first season of this series into a 50-issue megapalooza, ending it around 1,000 pages. Without any direction beyond that, I furiously began work on my first pages, determined to bring to life what I thought was the most amazing comic idea ever conceived. But in the end, I didn’t manage more than seven fully watercolored and lettered pages before I gave up, discouraged because they looked like utter crap.
Dat anatomy yo.
Just like the vast majority of young kids who wanted to translate their dream stories into illustrated epics, Zack the Pyromaniac never saw completion. Hell, it didn’t even see half an issue of finish. Where did I go wrong? How did my incredible adventure crash before it even took off the runway?

One simple theory I have on why it failed is that… I had never really produced a single comic before in my life. I didn’t have a solid grasp on the medium of comics, and that I assumed my enthusiasm for this story would trump my lack of experience in producing sequential art. So how do you gain experience telling stories through comics, if you’re not working on a larger book? 

You create short story comics, self-contained stories that communicate an idea quickly and efficiently. This allows you to experiment and learn sequential art correctly, so that you are able to challenge larger and more complex bodies of work at a later date. 

So what are the benefits of creating smaller comics before larger epics?

1. You learn to finish things.

This is where the vast majority of people that are interested in doing comics end up failing. Most comic artists who want to do this for a living (or even as a hobby) are never able to finish a single comic, no matter how much time they put in. And oftentimes, it’s not because they can’t draw well, it’s because they set unrealistic goals for stories that, at the time they are trying to produce them, are beyond their ability.

Sit down and learn how to tell a story from panel to panel, then panel to page, then page to chapter, and you’ll start to discover what is working and what isn’t as you go. There’s no easy way around it, you just need to produce comics to get better at comics, and you don’t learn by talking about what’s going to happen in a series five years from now that you haven’t even planned out yet.

Try setting a goal of writing and drawing a two-page comic and give yourself a realistic deadline to complete it, possibly a week. If you find that at the end of the deadline that you haven’t even started, consider not pursuing that longer story of yours, since you already confirmed that you can’t do it yet.

Create a project that is manageable and is something that you can complete. Learn to finish things.
      2. You learn not to redo.

Many beginning comic artists get caught up with trying to make their first story perfect, so they keep redoing it and never make it beyond the first five pages. It’s frustrating, sure, but you know what? Your first few pages are going to look like crap no matter what you do, and that’s perfectly fine. Most people have to burn through 100 pages to get some understanding of the medium their working in, and the best way to do so is by breaking it in manageable, smaller chunks.

If you completed the two-page comic that I suggested before, put it away and don’t touch it ever again. Whatever you do, don’t redo that comic, as you’re only going to be wasting your time. Instead, consider a slightly more ambitious comic, maybe four-pages this time, and complete that one. Revisions are extremely important, of course, but redoing a comic that has flawed storytelling from the beginning will not help the finished project, no matter how good your drawing skills may become.

Do the work, don’t redo it.

      3. You learn to develop a workflow.

Some artists’ thumbnail their whole series front to back before doing any finished work, while some put ink to paper and draw straight through. There are people that will work in four-person teams to get the comics done, while sometimes you have one-man armies that can complete entire books alone. What works best for you?

When you’re putting together a comic, there are certain specifics that you need to familiarize yourself with before pressing too far. Are you aware of page bleed, live area, and standard page size for your comic pages? Do you know how quickly on average you can produce pages consistently? Do you have any idea if you’re going to publish it, how you’ll do it, or with who? And please don’t say Image, because you need to learn these things before you even craft a proposal to a publisher.

Most likely during your first comic, you’re going to make mistakes on the technical aspects. That’s fine, because you’ll be learning from these mistakes to apply to comics in the future. You’ll tighten up the speed that you do things and you’ll start to notice that your work will be more consistent from it, and you won’t feel pressured to go back and redo them as you would with a longer piece.

A while back, I made a blog post about my work process, but keep in mind that what works well for me might end up horrible for others. Find what works for you, develop that workflow until it becomes a process.

      4. You learn to become very precise in your storytelling.

Can you sit down and establish a premise, rising action, climax, and close it out, within a single page? If you can’t, chances are you’re not able to do this within 1,000 pages.

Break a story down into its essentials. Get the point across. Close it out without needless filler.

One of the problems that the person who wants to do a 3,000- page epic doesn’t realize is, why would you possibly need 3,000 pages when you can do it in less? What could possibly warrant that much space? Some of the greatest graphic novels of our time were completed within 150-200 pages, with stories ranging continents and time periods, and I bet you the writers/artists of these works never felt too constrained by their target page count.

Most likely, you can trim a story, and most likely it’ll flow better once trimmed.

      5. You’re able to explore genres and worlds that you wouldn’t be able to if you committed yourself to such a long project.

Referring back to Zack the Pyromaniac, if I had somehow managed to continue with that story and complete it, I wouldn’t have been producing any of the non-fiction and comics journalism that I do now. And quite frankly, there are a million other artists that do urban fantasy better than I ever could, but the same is not true about the genre I work in now.

By doing shorter comics, I had the opportunity to explore the horror and slice-of-life genres in the earliest parts of my illustration career, and I’m a better storyteller because of it. And because I allowed my other passions in real-world social issues and politics to seep into my work, my voice in the comic medium has become that much more focused.

As you explore shorter comics, allow yourself to discover certain themes that you enjoy that you can incorporate in future work. The theme of mental illness from Zack the Pyromaniac found its way into my single issue comic The Intellectual Ramblings of Samuel Flower, while the love of everyday life from that story weaved itself into my earlier travel comics like Seven Hours to Kill.

Step out of your comfort zone. If you are confident in your storytelling abilities, you should be able to translate that into type of story that you want. And I promise you, in a longer piece of work, you will have to use a variety of storytelling devices to tell a full and complete story.

Allow your shorter comics to evolve naturally, so that you can discover your voice in the medium.

6. You can publish these and build valuable credentials for when you try to publish a longer comic in the future.

If you keep working on shorter comics, eventually you’re going to end up with several that look pretty sharp. What do you do with them? You publish them, of course!

This is one of the most underrated benefits in putting together short story comics. When you finally do get around to pitching your larger book to publish, you already have past credentials that you can attach to your proposal.

A simple Google search of Comic Anthology Submissions 2014 (change date to current year) brings up a multitude of anthologies and literary journals that accept short comics. All you have to do is apply. It’s also a good way to learn how to work with an editor and handle feedback and revisions. This experience will be invaluable to you in the future, as you’ll know how to respond to critiques and edits proficiently, and have the know-how to put together your future book.

Not to mention, doing short comics gives you something to put together for a portfolio, if you choose you want to pursue a work in the Marvel/DC route, as they typically hire artists per staff and not by assignment.
I hope that this information can help convince you, if you’re a comic artist, about the benefits of starting small so that you can learn the craft before you find yourself overwhelmed. Just as you don’t expect an architect to craft a castle as their first assignment, don’t wander into something that’s too challenging for you without properly preparing yourself. You’ll thank yourself when you have the tools you need to craft your larger stories in the future.

In closing, if you’ve never produced short comics before and you’re a comic artist (or even if you’re not an artist), tell me what type of short story comics you would like to produce? If you have done shorter standalone comics in the past, what were they? Is there anything that you’ve learned from these attempts? Feel free to leave your take on this subject, and if you have any relevant work you’d like to link, please do so in the comments section below.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

How I'm Building a Career with an Agent

So um… you know that whole plan on giving updates regularly about the querying process for an agent? Yeah, that’s not going to be necessary. A few days ago, I was officially offered representation by Ella Kennen of the Corviserio Literary Agency, and I couldn’t ask for a better agent going into the next step of the process, submissions to publishers.

I wish I had a really long inspiring story to share about the process that went into querying, that I preserved by going to writer’s conferences for years, used professional services and critique centers to sharpen my query to a razor point, that I hit low moments where I stuffed my face full of cookie dough ice cream while watching Game of Thrones, but sadly I don’t. I spent three years writing the best manuscript that I could, then I sat down and wrote the best query I could for that manuscript, and I sent it out. That’s it, nothing more.

My final total success rate went something like this: 

24 rejections, 4 partial requests, 1 full manuscript request, and 1 offer.
I don’t want to make this post about the process of how I got my agent, as if an agent is some prize you find out of the bottom of a Cracker Jack box that you can wag around to your friends and say “Hey, I’m a writer!” Instead, I want to talk about how I found an ally whom I’m excited to share a career with.

Before I started sending out my batch of queries, I began with a "wishlist" of what I was seeking most for in an agent, beyond just representing my genre. The usual suspects were a given (needed to be a good agent, part of a good reputable agency, good sales, and so on), but I was also seeking qualities and experiences in a person’s life beyond their resume. This would be someone I would be working with for decades, an entire career even, so I wanted someone who would be passionate about all the issues that I wanted to address in my future work. So I sat down and drafted the qualities my dream agent would have, and here’s the list I came up with before my agent search. I wanted…

  • Someone who's worked as a teacher, who has a deep love and appreciation for education.
  • Someone who's traveled often, who understands that the world is much bigger than their own country's borders.
  • Someone who's lived in a foreign country, who knows the challenges it presents to do even the simplest of things like paying bills or taking public transportation.
  • Someone who speaks more than one language, who knows the frustration of what it's like to be in a culture where you might not understand what's being said.
  • Someone who's a strong editor, who isn't afraid to do what it takes to revise a manuscript to make sure it's ready for submission.
  • Someone who's progressive, who feels deeply about women, minority, LGBTQ, and human rights.
  • Finally, someone who I can get along with easily, who doesn't feel like it's an inconvenience for me to ask them about any concerns that I have.

I'm pleased to say that the agent I finally signed with, Ella Kennen, had every single one of those qualities on that wishlist, and more.

I think what I learned most about the querying process is to choose the agent that is going to fall in love with your manuscript. Choose the agent who writes back the very next day after your query and asks for the full. Pick the one who then reads through that full manuscript in two days and then comes back ready to start revisions. Who then proceeds to stay up until 2AM and gets only five hours of sleep, because she/he is excited to polish that manuscript with as much passion as you put into writing it in the first place. Because this is going to be your leading advocate who’s going to put your work in front of an editor and tell them, “You’re going to buy this book.”

It’s been three years since I left the US to start researching and writing The American Immigrant, and while the road to the publication is nearing the end for this book, there’s one more major push to clear. In the next few weeks, we’ll be finalizing our submission packet and collecting information on various editors of some of the largest publishing houses in the world. After that, we submit, we wait, and we hope that the book arrives out on bookstore shelves soon, so that readers can learn what they can do to reclaim and preserve our education system. 

Cheers Ella, let’s go get ourselves a book deal!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Long Road of Querying

Roxas Avenue, the University of the Philippines Diliman.

The last three years of working on The American Immigrant have been an amazing ride. During that time, I've had the pleasure of traveling to six different countries, teach over 1,500 students, and gain some working proficiency in two different languages. All that came to a crescendo back in February, where I traveled back to the Philippines for two weeks to conduct several interviews to fortify my research on the situation of education there. With consultation and support from current and former members of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, E-Net Philippines, the Kabataan (Youth) Party List, the Department of Education (DepEd), the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), the Commission of Higher Education (CHED), and the University of the Philippines, it's finally time to traverse the long road to find a publisher.

At this point, it's advised that I look for a literary agent that can try to shop my work to various publishing houses so that it can find its way to print. In order to get a literary agent, one simply has to craft the most beautiful single page of their lives, the query letter, and mail that out to the overflowing slushpiles of various literary agencies that represent your genre. Countless hours are spent stalking agency websites, twitter accounts, and interviews, in order to woo that perfect agent who feels just as passionate as your work as yourself. Think of it like dating, except they typically take only 15% when a contract is signed vs. +50% when you settle on a real marriage. Nikki Smith's resource on literary agents open to graphic novel queries has been invaluable on this front, and I highly recommend it for any aspiring graphic novelist looking to publish their work.

During the next few months, I'll be listing updates on the hunt to grab the right agent for The American Immigrant: Philippines, so keep an eye out! Already halfway done with the initial outline for the second book of the series, The American Immigrant: South Korea, and I'm already excited to dig into thumbnailing it.

In other news, The Cartoon Picayune now has Issue #5 of their anthology up on Comixology! In addition to my comic Seoul Grind, check out the works of Josh Kramer, Andy Warner, and Emi Gennis in this issue. Cheers!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Art for The American Immigrant is Finished!

It's been about a week since I posted any updates here on the blog, but finally I have great news on the graphic novel that I've been working on for the past 2 1/2 years...

The art is done.

This doesn't mean by a long shot that I'm finished with the whole book, there's still plenty to do until it's time to publish it. I still have about 20 more pages to finish up the lettering on a second pass, beta-readers are taking care of feedback for a 3rd pass through the whole book. Beyond that, I'm hiring a professional editor soon to copy-edit and fact check the entire manuscript before sending it off to agents. And that's not the only thing that's going into this book...

Coming up during February, I'm going to the Philippines for 10 days in order to do a detailed account of the state of education within the country to put into the graphic novel. I'm hoping to inject about 30 pages of prose into the back of this book, though still working out the contents of what I'll include at this time. I'll be traveling to Manila, Pampanga, and Bulacan during my stay, so let me know if you're in those areas!

Expect more frequent updates to this site and new material, 2014 is going to be a big year.