Recently, we received a request to help creators navigate the world of comic book collaboration. More specifically, we were asked to help compile a list of the most common red flags to watch out for when you’re approached by another creator for a project.
In this list, you’ll find red flags that our peers have experienced over the years. The specific focus here is our fellow creators (as opposed to red flags from publishers), but many of these apply to the industry-at-large as well.
INITIAL CONTACT RED FLAGS
In this section, we break down some of the red flags that creators have seen when first being approached to work on a project. If you’re seeing someone break any of these rules, you should be wary of them, and whatever project they may have in mind.
- Introduction – An initial email should be to you directly, and not some copy and paste form letter to a number of different creators. If you receive an email without your name, or from someone who clearly has no idea of what you do, be wary. If someone is reaching out to you to hire you for work, they should be aware of the kind of content that you produce, and ideally, a fan of it. They should be hiring you because they want to create something in your wheelhouse that you can help bring to life.Sometimes it can be the case of a phone or computer’s overzealous autocorrect, but an email should most definitely have your name spelt correctly, and if pronouns are used, they should be aware of them and using the correct ones.
A lot of creators will have specific guidelines for the work they’re accepting on their web sites, so if you ignore those or try to go around a contact person that is listed (ie. an agent), your email will probably be dismissed (or deleted) immediately.
- Payment – If an initial email dances around the topic of budget/payment or immediately paints a picture that you can’t/won’t pay, you’re looking at someone who will likely exploit you as a creator, whether they mean to or not. As Cully Hamner points out, an even bigger red flag is the classic, “We can’t pay you, but…” which typically leads to a person asking you to work for exposure. If what you’re being paid with can’t pay your bills, you should definitely consider turning that job offer down.
REMEMBER: Even if you don’t mind working for exposure (or little to no pay), you’re setting a precedent for the rest of the industry and encouraging that person to continue their exploitative search of people who will work for free. Not valuing your work hurts everyone.
- Contracts – Contracts can seem like a needless legality when you’re working on indie comics. Why go out of your way to draw something up for a short story? The truth of the matter is that you should always strive to have a contract for a project of any size, type, format, etc. Contracts lay out what’s expected of all parties, as well as strictly stating the pay, the timeframe to pay, and all deadlines for the team. While emails can be handy to reference, they’re not technically legally binding, and you should have a document that fully outlines everything discussed so there are no miscommunications along the way.
If someone says that they don’t want to do a contract, or tries to say that they’re opposed to them on principle, that is a huge red flag. No one should ever be opposed to putting everything down on paper for clear, concise guidelines to your working relationship.
- Communication – Nowadays, talking on the phone and/or setting up a meeting in person is not necessary to connect with a creator. Furthermore, a lot of folks are strictly opposed to talking on the phone, and causes a lot of needless anxiety. But there’s also a larger legal reason behind this: creators want everything discussed in writing. What you say on the phone can easily be brushed off as a “miscommunication” if not directly referenced in a later email or contract.
If someone is insistent that they can’t work with you unless you’re willing to talk on the phone or in person, that’s no good. Being flexible with collaborators is vital.
PROJECT RED FLAGS
Here we’re going to talk about things to look out for in the project pitch, script, etc. Sometimes you may really like the idea of a project, but there are definitely a few things that you want to watch out for, even if this is the case.
- Paranoia – There is a fear amongst many creators that their project idea will be taken out from under them or stolen or whatever, but realistically, one of the best ways to improve your story and grow as a creator is to talk about your ideas with your trusted peers. With that being said, if you’ve received an email about a story and the creator is unwilling to give you any information about it or show you a script unless you sign up for the project, that is a big ol’ warning sign.
- Incoherency – On the flip side of paranoia is someone who doesn’t have a really solid grasp of the story that they’re pitching. If what they’re selling you is paragraphs upon paragraphs of ideas, there’s a really big chance that they don’t have the story well thought out, outlined, and in good shape to be worked on. A creator should be able to give a concise synopsis of their story and a good elevator pitch to sell their idea. If they can’t do that, be wary.
- Deadlines – Vague information on deadlines as well as unrealistic deadlines can be red flags as well. As a creator, you should have an idea of how long it takes you to work so that you can tell if a project deadline has unrealistic goals, whether that’s in general or specifically for you.
- Format – When you’re getting the script from the creator, it should be formatted for comics, and not written as a screenplay. Again, comics and movies have similarities, but they’re different mediums and need to be treated as such. Format your scripts for comics!
- Criticism – If someone you’re working with is unable to receive feedback or any constructive criticism of their work, that’s a very big problem. In this industry, you absolutely have to be able to take notes from your collaborators, and from your peers. It’s less important (aka not important at all) to listen to fans, and critics, but if you can’t take feedback from the people you’re working with, that’ll ultimately lead to bigger problems.
CREATOR BACKGROUND CHECK RED FLAGS
This area is focused on a thing that you should always do upon being approached for a job: do a background check. You don’t have to hire a P.I. and do a deep dive, but checking out their web site, and their social media will serve you well. Who you work with and choose to associate with is (whether you like it or not…) a reflection of you as a creator. Even if they’re the picture of professionalism to you as a creator, a bad reputation for harassment or other such things can bring you down.
- Comicsgate – This was a really common (and unsurprising) answer from creators. This group has made a name for themselves by harassing creators who don’t make comics in their exact vision. These are folks who largely don’t want to work with women, creators of colour, queer/LGBQT+ creators, and definitely don’t want to feature those people in any progressive ways. There are lists online of prominent people who are at the forefront of these groups, and unless you yourself are a part of them, you do not want to be associated with them as a creator.
- Social Media – This was kind of covered in the previous point but social media as a whole is important. Obviously it’s key to check out what kind of people your potential collaborator is associating with, but what kind of content are they putting out into the world? Are they trolling people, harassing, fighting a lot, and generally filled with negativity? That can be a big red flag. It can depend on what they’re fighting about (I will go to bat for all the amazing folks who spent (and continue to spend) ages combatting the mentality of Comicsgate harassers), but you can use your discretion to decide what is considered a Big Yikes.
- Professionalism – Obviously professionalism is a word that can encompass everything here, but I’m going to use it directly in how a creator treats past collaborators. Another common red flag that came up was creators who badmouth folks that they’ve worked with previously. It’s one thing for a creator to reach out to another creator for a reference on their experience working with someone, but if you’re going out of your way to say, “We were working with so-and-so but they were _____________,” out of the blue, that’s not giving future much confidence that you won’t do the same to them.
ADDITIONAL RED FLAGS
This area is general red flags that didn’t quite fit in one specific subsection, so they’re here. Most of these are worded (and formatted slightly) by the original creators who suggested them online.
- Asking your age and say that they look into working with industry newbies. They just take advantage of your naivety. This happened to me when I said I had just graduated art school. Did a whole book for a creator with 50+ illustrations and I have not seen a single dime after almost 3 years.
- When the proposal includes “we asked several other artists/artist X, but they all turned it down.”
- When royalties and/or Kickstarter are mentioned as an alternative to a page rate.
- When you’ve given feedback regarding an aspect of a collaborator’s work that is not working, but they keep doing it over and over, disregarding your notes.
- If a creator makes no attempt to establish a personal rapport, it can be a red flag. I get the sense they just see me as a tool or a necessary evil rather than a true creative partner.
- If their influences are a long list of white men.
- A lack of consideration for what is in my wheelhouse and what isn’t. Ex: wanting sci-fi mechs from someone who draws cute anthropomorphised animals, or cute slice of life from someone who draws high-octane action, etc.
- When they already have a full idea and it’s clear you’re only being asked because they need someone to represent the marginalization they want to write about. It’s hard to explain how this is different from someone genuinely wanting to make the book representative, but it’s obvious in the moment.
- From Vita Ayala, “Not caring about who the rest of the team will be. “It doesn’t matter, whatever” etc. Not the same as not knowing (that is fine). This is a huge one to me because it indicates they will not be properly taking care of the rest of the team, no matter how well they treat you.”
What are some of the things that you think are red flags? Feel free to add yours to the comments below, and help creators be aware of things to avoid bad collaborations.
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