After managing the ASA’s Comics/Graphic Novels Portfolio, creative team Julie Ditrich and Jozef Szekeres have relaunched Comics Masterclass as an assessment service, providing feedback on unpublished works (check out this clip). For the purposes of full disclosure, the first comic I ever wrote was given a thorough once over in the service’s pilot phase. Suffice to say, it was some of the sharpest and smartest advice my team has gotten yet. In the interest of paying it forward, I quizzed Julie further about what this new service offers new creators…
ANTHONY: Jozef and yourself have been fostering new talent for some time. How did the idea of an assessment service arise?
JULIE: After we held the Comics Masterclass weekend with Colleen Doran, which we organised with the Australian Society of Authors in November 2011, we became increasingly aware that there was a demand for critical feedback on comics projects in development but that no professional services were available. We did some research and found that the majority of manuscript appraisal agencies both here and overseas focused only on fiction and non-fiction books in various genres. There were no dedicated services that specifically looked after the comics medium.
We then talked to some emerging comics creators and ended up doing a few test assessments. We received an overwhelmingly positive response. We also received some great advice from some of our comics peers, including Jan Scherpenhuizen who used to be the director of the Lynk Manuscript Assessment Service, as well as Bruce Mutard, Tim McEwen, Stephen Crowley, and Jules Faber who are now all part of the assessment team.
We decided that the Comics Masterclass brand could transform into the professional development arm of Black Mermaid Productions, with the intent of nurturing Australian comics talent. So now there will be three aspects to Comics Masterclass—the first of which is the Comics Script Assessment Service, which was launched in September 2013.
ANTHONY: What takes place in the assessment process? What is it that you are looking to examine in a comic script?
JULIE: Firstly, a comic script assessment is a confidential written report that identifies strengths and opportunities in a work-in-progress in various comics formats. This includes the actual script plus the artwork in various stages of its development. It is contingent on the raw material, as well as the creators’ talent and determination, and an openness to learning.
The submission process is quite intricate because emerging and developing creators need to orient themselves towards industry protocols and standards, as well as to understanding how marketing influences storytelling. Consequently, we ask our clients to prepare their submissions to specific templates, as well as to provide marketing information on their projects. We found from our own experience that it ups your professional game and understanding of what is required when pitching.
We match up submissions with the most appropriate assessor in the team. The assessor will then deconstruct the work and write a professional critique taking into consideration the comics format, genre, audience / market, story structure, plotting and pacing, characterisation, page / panel layouts, etc. The purpose is to give the comics creator or team some useful feedback to realise the potential of the work and hopefully help usher it to publication standard.
ANTHONY: I’ve often found that feedback can consist of objective corrections and subjective preferences. For instance, give the first draft of a script to a number of editors and they’ll all catch the same typo, but they might make entirely different suggestions regarding characterisation or pacing. How do you negotiate the differences between corrections and preferences?
JULIE: Corrections are black and white. The assessor will pick them up if the client has broken a set of specific rules. For example, if somebody is using incorrect grammar in their script. Similarly in terms of art, if the artist is demonstrating a lack of knowledge of the rules of anatomy (unless of course he or she has decided to do an experimental piece for that panel, or the story calls for this). These are objective corrections and in theory anybody doing an assessment or indeed any editor or proofreader should pick up these mistakes.
However, subjective preferences are recommendations on other kinds of fixes where there may be many angles to look at. The assessment team has been assembled because of their collective body of professional published work. The feedback they provide is in context with their experience. Ultimately only the originating creator is the expert on the work, and only he or she makes the final decision about how the work is to be realised.
ANTHONY: For those creators working with more established publishers, you have an editor to offer guidance and catch glitches. With so many in the Australian scene self-publishing, is there a sense that an assessment service offers an editor-for-hire scenario?
JULIE: Comics Masterclass does offer an editing service. In this scenario the editor will deconstruct an entire comics work page-by-page and panel by panel, and then will write a detailed report on their observations. They will examine visual storytelling, continuity, layout, character design and consistency, themes, plotting, dynamic, lettering and sound effects (if they are already in the work), dialogue, and much more. This service is particularly useful for those comics creators who want to get into specifics. It’s a way of fine-tuning a work before it gets to the point of no return.
ANTHONY: Was there anything like this when you guys were starting out?
JULIE: No. Jozef and I worked blind. There were no mentors, only pioneers some of whom were on the scene well before us. There was a small Australian comics community but it was fractured and everybody was self-publishing. There was no social media or networking during those days.
We can’t speak for the rest of the comics community at that time but we can say that to some extent we were deer caught in headlights. What helped us succeed in the first instance was that we had a natural love for the medium. It must be said that comics was never offered up as a potential career path—we just stumbled on it fortuitously and found that it was a natural fit for our storytelling talents and vision. You must understand the landscape. This was well before the first release of Scott McCloud’s pivotal book Understanding Comics. We learned the hard way and so we wanted to help newcomers to avoid the traps and pitfalls we had encountered. We both have a deep seeded need to pay it forward…
If you’re a new comic creator in need of professional feedback, then check out comicsmasterclass.com.