MAKING COMICS: Keeping it Original, and Coming up with Ideas

In this week’s MAKING COMICS I’m in conversation with Grayhaven editor Glenn Matchett, talking about coming up with ideas, and keeping it original.

Almost every writer, or even artist, starts out imitating the work they admire. It’s a natural part of the process, but before you publish your work, you should try to get past this and be further along the curve, adding your own voice to what you are doing; your own splash of originality. If you want to put your work out there for a wider audience than your Mam and your cat, you need to look at it critically, and ask yourself are you writing in your own voice, or trying too hard to sound like Bendis?

Again, there is nothing wrong with influence, it helps to shape what we create, but what we create should not be merely a slavish devotion to this influence. As a writer, you need to be capable of bringing your own take on things; your own voice to the page. A lot of this comes with experience and confidence. The first story you ever write is not likely to be good enough to be published. And that’s fine. But having written it, you are one story closer to being that good. And the same is true of every story you write after that first mash-up of Spider-man and Sandman that you thought would change the face of comics forever.


Joining me to discuss all of this is Grayhaven editor and writer Glenn Matchett. Glenn’s next project is the four-part Living with Death: Murder at Oxford. Murder at Oxford is the first in a proposed series of Living with Death comics, which were devised as Glenn’s own personal homage to Sherlock Holmes. He says of the series: ‘I love mysteries and it all started with Holmes. I use elements of that mythology plus sprinkles of other stuff I’ve added in. It’s my love letter to crime fiction in essence’

The series follows two young women at Oxford in the ‘80’s studying separate subjects when a murder occurs on campus. One of the girls, Jenna Wakefield, is the roommate of the girlfriend of the victim and is blindsided by fellow student, amateur detective and genius Stephanie Hawkins. The only problem is that Stephanie is bad at only two things and one of them is people. She doesn’t play well with others and although she is very good at solving mysteries the human element is lost on her, which is where Jenna comes in.

I talked to Glenn at length about where the idea started, how it developed, and crucially, how he managed to find his own voice, allowing him to create his own take on such a well-worn genre, and to keep it interesting for his readers:


GLENN: It was difficult at first. If I’m being honest I was writing Stephanie initially as a Holmes clone rather than her own character. I also had a bunch of homages and so many winks and nudges that I likely would have lost of potential readers right away. It was Will Eisner I believe who said it best ‘Do not honour me by doing what I do, honour me by doing what you do.’ I started to really delve into who Stephanie was in her own respect and the story is much stronger for it. Everyone from Greg House to Patrick Jane has a little Holmes in them but they’re very much their own characters and it was my job to give Stephanie her own voice which I think I ultimately did.

COLIN: You’ve mashed genres with this story. Was this a deliberate decision in order to separate your story from the source material, to make it more original, or was it more organic than that?

GLENN: Mystery comes in so many aspects I wanted to include a bunch of elements from some of my favourite tales while dealing with some issues that the time period offered. I didn’t want my characters running to the internet or their mobiles every time they wanted to look something or someone up. I wanted to give them real challenges where they would have to rely on more old school methods of investigation to solve the crimes they were faced with.

I also didn’t want to move it too far away and I thought the 80’s was a good time period for several reasons. It’s still relatively modern but miles away from where we are today in terms of technology. It also gives me an excuse to delve into some of the deeper issues that Britain was facing around that time politically, and also within the police force.

I wanted to give a more practical reason why this young girl is being allowed to run around solving murders rather than the police simply not being capable of doing so. With ‘Living with Death’ it’s not a matter of ability, it’s a question of whether the police are willing to have the crimes be solved or not.

Everything really spawned from that so I think it was a mix of me doing it on purpose but also the material that flowed naturally from the situation and time period I placed my girls in.


COLIN: Sherlock Holmes has seen a glut of iterations and adaptations recently, in film, TV, and comics. Did this encourage or discourage you from adding your voice to the mix?

GLENN: It’s really intimidating because you have to think ‘how can I do a mystery in a different way’? I kept trying to figure out how to show crime scenes or things from Stephanie’s perspective and then realizing ‘Oh wait that’s how Sherlock did it’ or ‘that’s from Basil the Great Mouse Detective’.

Again the further I moved away from trying so hard to make it another coming of Sherlock Holmes the better the story got.

COLIN: What do you think you are bringing to the crime/mystery genre that is new or different to what you’ve seen before?

GLENN: One thing I’m especially proud of with ‘Living with Death’ is how I’ve been able to blend in peoples’ perspectives.

We’re going to see things from people’s point of view but it may not be necessarily what actually happened. It may not be an outright lie either but simply how people process the information within their minds. You can have 5 people witness the same event and when asked later you will likely get 5 different stories about how it happened.

This is where Jenna really comes in and benefits Stephanie. She’s there to recognize the human error that Stephanie really can’t comprehend.

I’m also dealing with a protagonist who is able to identify with her victims in a very real way.  It’s not the living Stephanie can identify with, for reasons that will become clear when people read the book she feels she has more in common with the dead. In her mind she is just like them but she just has the advantage of walking around a little longer.

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COLIN: When writing, do you show the work to others and look for feedback, or do you have an editor at Grayhaven to perform that function?

GLENN: I like to share my work with as many people as possible. It’s important to get feedback both good and bad. You might hear things you don’t want to but it’s the only way you’ll improve.

My editor on this project is the extremely talented Erica Heflin who I think is trying to outmatch Brian Bendis for comic output this year. I’ll be honest and I’m sure that she wouldn’t mind me saying that myself and Erica have had many disagreements about Living With Death but in all honesty she was right every single time.

Most of the points I made earlier about Stephanie not being her own character and such comes directly because of her very effective and often brutal editing style. She was right and you do need that person that’s willing to slap you round the head and tell you that you’re wrong.

Living with Death wouldn’t be the same without her input. I do have an amusing little thank you for her in mind for the second mini that will amuse me to no end. With each issue of Living with Death her notes have been less and less extensive, which shows me I’m on the right track, and shows to me that in her eyes she’s enjoying it. She certainly would have no problems telling me otherwise I assure you.

Being an editor myself I’ve dealt with many people that find it hard to take feedback. I’ve had to pull stories because people refused to play ball. I’m not a hard ass and I’m certainly not in the same league of editors as Erica or my fellow Irish Man James O’Callaghan are, so it often puzzles me how these people expect to deal with professional editors at Marvel or DC or any other company if they can’t handle a lightweight like me.

I’ll admit I do put up a fight when necessary but ultimately your editor is God and you have to trust their judgement. Don’t let an editor’s punch knock you out, just absorb it and make your story better.

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COLIN: Grayhaven produce a number of anthologies on different subjects, and accept open submissions for these books, with a particular emphasis on new creators, that are not yet established in the industry. As an editor, I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of good, and bad, work cross your desk. Have you any advice for aspiring writers when submitting work, or creating their own comics?

GLENN: See above about editing! Seriously apart from that I’d say that you should really pay attention to the guidelines when submitting. Our guidelines honestly are quite lax but people will just continually not adhere to them. Pitches that end on a question or without the whole story in place is one we get a lot and that’s not the right move. You have to sell us on everything: beginning, middle and end. Save the mystery for the reader not for the people reading your pitch. Having a pitch end on a question personally indicates to me that you haven’t come up with an ending yet whether that is the case or not.

I believe I told Andrew [Grayhaven editor-in-chief] when I pitched both ‘Living with Death’ and ‘Sparks’ who the killer was. I know for a fact Erica knows who the killer is in mini 2 and mini 3 of ‘Living With Death’. In the back of the Invincible Vol. 1 hardcover Robert Kirkman included his pitch for the book. It clearly lays out the twist the book has for any potential editor reading it.  You have to lay it all out because otherwise it makes me think you don’t know yourself and you should know every aspect of your story inside and out.

Another thing I’m a real stickler for is deadlines. With artists not so much because I understand that is a longer process. With writing a script there’s no excuse for missing a deadline or even delivering a script only a week before. Our stories are 5 pages at the most and you are given a deadline for completion to compensate for edits and such over the space of several months. Waiting until the last minute is a mistake and drives me batty, as does people asking for extensions. There’s just no excuse in my opinion for that. If you want to be a writer you should be writing every day. You need to be dependable and you need to be able to trust us to help your scripts get better. Some people only submit last minute because they continually tinker to make their script ‘perfect’. Your script is not going to be perfect.  Do the best you can and your editor will tell you what needs to be corrected, that’s what they’re there for.

The earlier you get in your script, the more time your artist has to draw and the faster the story gets finished and the quicker it gets to print. It’s not rocket science.

One final thing I think needs to be said that I don’t think is talked about enough in comics is don’t be afraid of disaster. You can do everything right but things beyond your control will inevitably happen and the most important thing to do is not to panic. I’ll admit I do panic easily but I’ve learned to be a bit more controlled about things. I’ve been doing this long enough to know I have people out there I can count on if necessary. Some stories in the Gathering {Grayhaven’s regular anthology series} go through 3 or 4 artists before you see what you see on the page. It’s just events beyond my control and I just have to roll with the punches.

Sadly I often can’t take my own advice!

Living with Death is out later this year from Grayhaven comics, and you can see an impressive preview page here.

Again, if you want to submit an article, suggest a discussion, or what you think we should be covering, let me know. I know there are plenty of creators that read ICN, so get in touch!