Hannibal Tabu (writer, novelist, CBR reviewer/columnist and one of the writing winners of the 2012 Top Cow Talent Hunt) sat down and knocked it out of the park with this incredibly insightful interview. Check out what this talented writer had to share in this discussion about his career, thoughts on the industry and upcoming work.
MT: Could you share a bit of your background and how you became involved in the comics industry?
HT: “Industry?” Well, I suppose that all started back around the turn of the century, in a roundabout way. I was working at a dot com start up called eHobbies, and the company was considering expanding into new areas of interests. For the first time maybe ever in a meeting, I looked up from my Powerbook (to give you an indication of how long ago it was) and said, “We should get into comic books!” I’ve been reading
comics since the early 80s, and saw it as a means to get stuff for myself while helping the company.
I forgot about this meeting until the COO (who always did listen to me) announced that we were buying another startup called NextPlanetOver.com, a comics, action figure and memorabilia site based in SF that had spent all its investment money. They shlepped me and a team of eHobbies people up to San Fran, we learned all we could from people packing up their desks, got stuck at SFO due to fog for eight hours (I hate that airport) and eventually took over the site. I redesigned it within about four months and it was one of three profitable areas of the company. I interviewed and helped hire a cool guy named Eric Stephenson (who’s now the #1 guy at Image Comics, still a good friend of mine), who became lead editor for the site and he then turned around and asked me to review comics. “You’ve reviewed music and movies, why not?” he asked. I pushed some of my workload on one of my associate producers and leapt in.
Of course, as with most dot coms, everything imploded, the domains got sold and everybody was out on the streets, hustling. Eric and the associate producer I mentioned, Allen Hui, got the idea to start a site called Spinnerrack.com, like NPO but without the overhead of ten other hobbies. I started reviewing comics with them there, and writing a column called … what was it called? Oh, The Operative Word (Eric’s idea).
That lasted from the printing of X-Men #111 to the shuttering of CrossGen. I, however, liked reviewing comics, so I brokered a deal with the retailer we’d worked with, Comics Ink in Culver City, and kept going, releasing my madness on UseNet. After a while, I got an email from an editor at UGO.com, who asked if I’d like to bring my reviews to their site. I asked, “does it pay?” When he said “yes,” I started within about a month.
While doing reviews at UGO, Eric Stephenson had introduced me to the head honcho of ComicBookResources.com, who needed a writer to do a weekday column about comics properties being translated into movies and TV shows, as the writer of that got a writing gig at Marvel and left. “You’ll be seen by more people,” Eric told me. I just saw that it would pay, so I went along with it.
Things stayed that way — reviews at UGO, movie column and some convention coverage for CBR — for a *long* time until a new UGO editor came in that I didn’t get along with as well. In discussing my problem with Jonah, he asked if I wanted to bring my Buy Pile reviews to CBR, and offered me three times more money. I’ve been there ever since.
All that was my “tradesman’s entrance,” as I’ve been writing pitches and cobbling story ideas since easily the first year of SpinnerRack. At one point, a Canadian company called Speakeasy was gonna publish my work, but they ran out of money before it could happen. I had some artists disappear on me when I tried to self publish. Then, I entered the 2012 Top Cow Talent Hunt, and my story beat 10,997 others to be named one of the winners, which will lead to an issue of “Artifacts”
in late 2012 or January 2013. Almost immediately after, my old former CBR colleague Steven Grant, who just cashed a nice check from them adapting his comic “2 Guns” into a movie for Wahlberg and Denzel, asked me to co-write an issue of “Watson & Holmes” (a Black take on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle classic characters), which will be due out in the fall. Finally, Stranger Comics contracted me to write fantasy
prose fiction, and “Waso: Will To Power” will be out in … July, I think? July.
Long story short? Blame Eric Stephenson, and I owe him at least two
rounds next time I see him.
MT: As a writer, it is a little more difficult to find one’s way into the comic industry unless you self publish. How did you, in terms of your career, find a way in?
HT: Well, as noted, winning the Top Cow Talent Hunt contest was a big deal, but there were other elements in play. I’ve kept my name in front of tens of thousands of comics fans for almost ten years (and I’m not stopping — my reviews remain where they are). I lingered on the periphery, churning out millions of words of copy along the way, until I got a shot. When I got my chance, I responded with relentless research, enthusiastic preparation and every bit of talent and skill I could muster.
All while still working day jobs, getting out of one marriage and into a much better one, raising two daughters and everything else.Basically, I don’t sleep much.
MT: Any advice for aspiring writers on how best to turn their talents into a career?
HT: Well, of course, write like a crazy mofo first of all. Malcolm
Gladwell said it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. I’ve surely spent more than that writing — stories, journalism, poetry, advertising copy. Wherever a payday was available, I tried to write for it, because money (unfortunately) separates professionals from amateurs. As well, after a boutique press published my first novel “The Crown: Ascension” I republished it and followed up with a second (with a third just back from editors). My mentor Marsha Bray, who was my editor when I was an intern at the Los Angeles Sentinel, was always alarmed by how much copy I can generate. That impression carried me a long way.
Likewise, I worked on my craft. I graduated from USC with a degree in creative writing. I spent years at the World Stage’s Anansi Writers Workshop in Los Angeles, letting a Pulitzer nominee, LA & NY Times best sellers and college professors tear my work apart only to build it back even stronger. I read work from people I know are better than I am — right now I’m following almost everything the brilliant Thaddeus Howze does. When I found talented people — Vince Moore, who wrote Total Recall for Dynamite Comics, Chew/Detective Comics writer John Layman, Thundercats/Shadowlaw writer Brandon Easton, High Moon writer David Gallaher, and so on — I called in favors to get them to look at my work and let me know my weaknesses, things I may have missed. Peer review, editing, draft after draft. So basically, first, write a lot and then edit a lot. If you don’t have work to show, you’re not a writer, you’re a talker.
Second, don’t be a jerk. I try to be professional and cordial when I meet people — other fans, professionals, everybody — because no bridge needs to be burned when you haven’t gotten anywhere. There are people whose work I’ve savaged in my reviews, but when they met me, I was cordial because it wasn’t a personal thing, it was about the
writing. That way when people did have opportunities, they knew a) I was professional, b) I was unlikely to be a problem and c) they were already comfortable with me, even though I’m a weird tall Black guy who essentially lives in gang territory. Many opportunities I have been blessed with came through meeting and befriending the right people, which is not always easy for people of color in particular to do. It can be done, but it’s hard work in and of itself, especially because by nature I am kind of a jerk.
Third: like BIG said, “get money.” Look for paying opportunities. Submit your work whenever you can. Your work looks more credible when other people are willing to publish it, especially if they’re somebody. It’d be easier for me to pitch a story to, say, Forbes because I’ve written for Black Enterprise. I wrote for Black Enterprise, coincidentally, because the editor who hired me was best man at my first wedding and remains a fantastic friend, but he met me in a professional capacity and saw my work long before we started hanging out. The Top Cow Talent Hunt runs again this winter. If I could, I’d enter it again. Rob Liefeld, regardless of some people’s feelings about him, has a similar thing running. There’s literary journals, sci-fi web magazines … more opportunities than I have time to chase. Chasing them helps enormously, not just getting you braced for rejection, but also helping you hone your abilities to do that
second job of selling the work (more on that in a minute).
Fourth, don’t take it personally. It may be personal, it may even be racist, but that doesn’t matter at the finish line. Either you did or you didn’t, and as my great uncle used to say, “‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ aren’t.” I’m the same guy I was a year ago, but today my work got put out there and won something, which led to other opportunities and a chance for an interview like this.
Which leads to five, the thing I tell my nine-year-old every morning before she goes to school: “don’t give up.” If you don’t believe in your work, why would anybody else? With peer review and determination, almost anybody can improve, and if you keep improving with visibility and putting yourself out there, sooner or later it has
MT: What do you think is the greatest challenge that independent writers must overcome?
HT: Doing the work and selling the work are two wholly different jobs with wholly different skill sets. Each is a full time job. There are only so many hours in a day, and every second you steal for yourself and you work is stolen from someone else. Accept that or maybe it’s not for you. Don’t ask me where I found the time to answer your
In any case, time management and selling the work are hard, but vital. I recommend Wunderlist.com. Also, not sleeping.
MT: What can independent creators do to better compete in a market that is dominated by an exclusive few and filled with product of varying quality.
HT: 1) Churn it out. Keep going. Drown your critics in volume, or as
Yasiin Bey said, “burn through your argument with action!”
2) Keep working on improving the craft. I’m better today than I was five years ago, than I was ten years ago. If you think you’re the feces, chances are you might have become fecal. The market and the work keeps changing, so should you.
3) Partner where you can. If I could find a “suit” I could trust and rely upon, I could quadruple my business easy. I have a huge tag team of editors who help me not to suck (we all hope). If somebody believes in you, first ask them for concrete, tangible ways they can help and then reward them by doing things for them as well. Teamwork
is the best.
4) Spell check. Seriously. Even Big Two books come out without this. Get covers that look crisp. Pony up for professional lettering. Get edited by people who don’t like you (even though they might in time). Be more professional. (Yes, I’ll kick myself if there’s anything wrong in this piece, hahahaha).
5) Don’t give up. Once upon a time Alan Moore was where you are. Dwayne McDuffie was where you are. Stan Lee apparently created Spider-Man when he was forty. If you’re breathing, it’s not too late.
MT: Who are some of your creative influences, who’s work are you really digging right now?
HT: George Lucas is probably one of the biggest influences on my work and my life. I even love the prequels. Octavia Butler, in particular the Patternist series, looms large in my mind. Douglas Adams informs a lot of the humor and whimsy of my work, never abandoning the clarity of plot. Dwayne McDuffie was a scary talent of immense proportions, and I’m very blessed to have gotten to know him even a little. I learned a lot about visual design from Glen Larson‘s Battlestar Galactica. Brandon Tartikoff taught me how to really make disparate pieces of content work together for marketing purposes. Iain M. Banks really expanded my mind. Sharon Shinn was great at characterization, and I learned a lot from her. Christopher J. Priest is an inspiration
and a genius, and his Black Panther remains among the best comics ever made. Bob Johnson knew what Tyler Perry learned, but did it in a somewhat less embarrassing fashion. Paul Levitz & Keith Giffen helped me believe in the idea of a future with their Legion of Super-Heroes work. I wish I was as thorough as Tolkien. Mark Waid‘s Kingdom Come is a masterpiece, as is Warren Ellis‘ Transmetropolitan. Dr. Mark Dean made something out of nothing, and that’s amazing to me every day. I’m probably missing a lot more, but those are the ones in my brain right now.
These days, I love the boundless creativity of the aforementioned Thaddeus Howze. Kieron Gillen has a lot of good ideas, and his Journey Into Mystery was a beautiful tragedy. Geoffrey Thorne has almost never done anything I didn’t walk away from feeling wholly jealous that I’m not that good. Bill Willingham‘s one of the best in
the biz, and his Fables is the best monthly comic in the industry. Dani Dixon has some great work. Jonathan Hickman‘s creator owned stuff is always intriguing. Marc Bernardin has some great stuff, him and his writing partner Adam Freeman. Balogun Ojetade‘s sword & soul stuff is intriguing. Enrique Carrion‘s Vescell is great. I love the Stranger Comics stuff Sebastian A. Jones is turning out. I wish I could do street level stuff as well as Gary Phillips. Despite getting to the party late, I love Molly Danger from Jamal Igle and Miranda Mercury from Brandon Thomas. My daughter loves Princeless from Action Labs, that’s … Jeremy Whitley I think. There’s an embarrassment of riches in the marketplace, and whoever I missed there, blame it on
MT: Anything on the horizon for you and where can fans find it?
HT: In July, Waso: Will To Power will be available digitally from Stranger
Comics on all major online outlets (Kindle, Nook, iTunes, et cetera). Dark fantasy as the young chieftain of an almost obliterated tribe of dark elves struggles with a harsh environment and his own doubts to reclaim his honor.
By October (I think), my issue of Watson & Holmes should be out from
New Paradigm Studios. I can’t say much about that yet.
By January, my issue of Artifacts will be out from Top Cow Comics, an
Image imprint. Everything I can say about that is what’s at CBR …
I hope I’ll have my third novel, Rogue Nation, out this year. Lotsa
edits came back, and I’m pretty busy, so no guarantees on that one.
Hoping to publish A. Darryl Moton’s collection of music essays, The
Perfect Chord, this year too.
MT: In terms of your work, is there a particular genre you tend to enjoy more so than others (fantasy, sci-fi, historical, etc) or is it the act of creating in itself that you find to be the most satisfying?
HT: I was trained to be able to write anything. When I was an emcee a
billion years ago, I exhorted Freestyle Fellowship’s Aceyalone to
rhyme with me to the rhythm of the roller coaster when a group of us
went to Magic Mountain. The message barely matters, I’m a messenger.
That said, I lean heavily towards “speculative fiction” — magical
realism, science fiction. MV Media published a steampunk story of
mine in their “Steamfunk” anthology in February, and that’s a genre I
had zero experience in. I did the research, I applied my training and
it seems to have come out okay. Ever since I was little, I’ve found
what we refer to as “reality” to be insufficient, and in the words of
Warren Ellis, I’m always trying to build “a finer world.” When I
finish my fourth novel (it’s about 25% done now), I hope I’ll feel
like I did some of it.
HT: While Yul Brynner‘s creepy performance definitely remains burned on my
retinas and memory, as a Reagan-era kid, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say I could toss of dozens of Terminator quotes (from every movie except the Christian Bale one). It’s not the craft choice, but the gut choice: my vote would be for Arnold, spirit forgive me.