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Breaking In: The Birth of a Comic Book Writer —
Part One: It Has To Start Somewhere

By Michael David Sims
What follows is the first part in a continuing series of columns detailing my birth as a writer and struggle to break into the comic book industry. Some will be long while others won't, and I don't have a publishing schedule — chapters will be published as I write them.

This — the first chapter — chronicles my high school years, introduces several people who would be integral to my career choice, and sets the stage for what was to come.

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It was never my intention to become a writer — especially a comic book writer. My lifelong dream was to pursue a law degree, and defend the innocent or prosecute the wicked. But, somewhere between grade school and high school, that all changed. Maybe it's because LA Law had ended its run, and so I no longer had lawyers to look up. Or maybe it's because I tired of the idea and no longer believed in The System. I don't know.

However, just because that dream had faded doesn't mean I instantly gravitated towards writing. On the contrary as a matter of fact. Photography was my new passion. In fact, over the course of the next five years — all throughout high school and one year of junior college — I spent the majority of my time behind a camera. Not to toot my own horn — because I hate doing it — but that fact of the matter is that I was good. The praise of my instructors and peers, as well as winning First Place in a contest told me so. Working with the enlarger and chemicals was second nature. It provided my meticulousness with an outlet previously unavailable to me. In this case, it's not clichιd to say perfection wasn't good enough for me. I was never done with a print, not even after handing it in for evaluation. Junior year, however, is where the seeds of writing were first planted — but by no means was I ready or willing to put my camera down. (That would come later.)

Mr. Lynn

Without a doubt, my favorite play is Death of a Salesman. The tragic crumbling of Willy Loman's life is just that — tragic. However, it was Willy's relationship with his sons, Biff and Happy, which struck a cord with me. Even as a sixteen/seventeen year old kid with hardly any life experience, I felt how true their stories rang. After reading and viewing the play (the one with Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich), Mr. Lynn — the instructor — assigned us a task: Write a letter from the perspective of one of the characters. Simple enough I thought, and instantly knew my take — a suicide note from Willy addressing each member of his family. I cranked it out that night and was pleasantly pleased with my work.

See — writing has always been hard for me. It doesn't come easily. For instance, I started this piece over two weeks ago, and promptly quit because it didn't flow right. But, one of my traits as a writer, is procrastination. (Didn't writers invent the term?) Not that I'm lazy or don't want to write. No, no, no. It's that I need time to think things through, and once I have it clear in my mind, then and only then can I set about writing. On the rare occasion, such as the Death of a Salesman letter, lighting strikes quickly and I'm swept up in the idea — forced to furiously scribble the prose until my hands literally cramp.

Another reason I was pleased with my work is because I actually tried. Somehow — and don't ask me how — I was able to coast through high school without ever really trying. (The only time it showed was in my three AP classes and Physics.) So to know I had worked hard at something and to see it receive the grade that it — 49/50; the highest in the class — fluttered my heart with glee. It was akin to the joy that photography brought. And, as with the praise leveled upon me in the photo labs, the instructor singled me out and had me read the mock-letter so as to demonstrate to the class how the assignment should have been tackled. Sure, I was embarrassed, but it was a change to see somehow appreciate my work and not my art. (At the time, as with many students, little did I see writing as an art. It was homework or after-school punishment. Something one was told to do.)

Despite the high grade and praise, I wasn't satisfied. Nope. Not in the slightest. After class, I stormed up to the instructor and asked why I was docked a point. He calmly explained, "You used an ellipse here," tapping the spot without really looking. "Willy might pause there if he had said this, but not written it." Sure, it made sense, but it didn't mean I had to like it. So I went on my way, grumbling at the stupid ellipse, which I knew I should have erased before handing the paper in.

The previous year I had taken to drawing. Truthfully, I wasn't any good — but I could copy illustrations from comics with stunning accuracy. (Or so I thought at the time. I cringe at the thought of digging out my old sketchbooks to see just how horrid the art truly was.) Outside of English and Photography, I'd spend most of my class time doodling egg-shaped heroes and their cheese and pickle adversaries in the margins of my notebook. Several times throughout AP American History, the girl who sat in front of me (and who I often looked over the shoulder of during tests) would turn around to compliment my work. Often, my response was a grunt or gruff, "Thanks." (This girl, as I called her, was Jenny — who would become my biggest supporter and girlfriend.) Frankly, like many brooding teens, I couldn't care less about what was going on around me, even if it meant failing. (As I did the first semester of Physics.) But writing and photography — those were things I cared about. Drawing was just a way to pass the time during class lectures and stuffy, lonely weeknights at home.

Westsider (and more Mr. Lynn)

During high school I had two best friends — Matt and Rob — each who would play very integral roles in my fate. Rob, the slacker artist of the two, was an artist, and reintroduced me to both comics and Star Wars — two items I had fallen away from since starting high school. He also persuaded me to join Westsider — the school news paper — as an artist. Frankly, I didn't want to because I knew I wasn't any good at anything besides copying Andy and Adam Kubert, Ron Lim and other artists I had — and have — a fondness for. But I joined anyway, if only to have something to do after school that wasn't falling asleep on the couch watching Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers or fooling around with the neighbor's daughter. Another factor in joining was the advisor — Mr. Lynn. Having a rapport with him meant I wasn't walking in blind to all those who surrounded me. (It also helped than a grade school friend wrote for the paper and was often in the office.)

After several weeks of inking Rob's pencil or drawing my own items for print, Mr. Lynn approached me with an assignment — I was to interview the Girl's Swimming Coach and write and article. Panicked, I protested: "Joe... I — I can't write."

His response was simple: "Like Hell you can't."

Nervous and with no idea what I was supposed to ask, I sat down with the coach for a few minutes as he mumbled this and that about his girls. Later, I returned to the office with the semblance of an interview, and wrote something — pretty much making up the quotes as best I could remember them. From there on, I was no longer an artist for Westsider, but a writer — and later an editor. (Later, I would write an article about the Girl's Bowling Team, as well as a follow-up — both of which were toted by Mr. Lynn as perfect examples.) Mind you, photography was still my passion, but Westsider was quickly becoming more than just something to do.

Because Westsider's reputation was growing and because Mr. Lynn truly believe in it and us, he was able to resurrect a long-dead Journalism class. If we — the Westsider staff and editors (which included Jenny and Rob) — wanted to remain a part of the paper come senior year, we had to enroll. However, Joe (Mr. Lynn) levied an extra requirement my way. I also had to enroll in his other English class — a college-prep class with some elements of creative writing. At the time I felt it a burden to take two writing classes, especially with the same instructor. However, looking back, I see what Mr. Lynn's intentions were, and in now way begrudge his efforts. Why would I? He was the one person (at the time) who stood behind me and my writing. Everyone else — from friends to Westsider staff, and other instructors — was all wrapped up in their own little worlds — too busy to pay me any mind. But Joe — he took me under his wing and allowed me free expression without the constraints of censorship.

Mid-way through the semester, one of our assignments (in the prep class) was to write the same letter (again with the letters) twice — once to a close friend with whom we could say anything, and the other with a relative with whom we'd hold our tongue. Everyone, save myself, played it safe and pretty much churned out homogenized, merry This is what I did today letters. On the other hand, I had something to say and let the words fly.

That very weekend I had quit my short-lived job at McDonalds. Long story short, I was asked to fill-in for two hours for another employee who had a dentist appointment. She assured me that she would arrive at seven to finish-out her shift. However, when seven rolled around and she hadn't arrived, I left — my commitment filled. With my uniform in hand, I arrived the next day — Saturday — and was shocked to find that both the manager and the girl who I filled-in for had nasty words for me. One has to assume she (the employee) was yelled at for not showing up for her shift, and, in an attempt to cover her tracks, lied about the deal she and struck. On top of that, she (the employee) claimed I called the manager a bitch. (Which I most certainly did not.) So, it being before we had opened, I placed my uniform on the counted, called the girl the worst thing anyone can call a woman and quit — on the spot.

So when Joe told us to refrain from holding back in the letter drafted to a friend, I did the four letter words fly. And I mean fly. Nary a sentence went by that I didn't use at least two F-Bombs. When it came time to read these letters allowed, I looked at Mr. Lynn with puppy dog eyes and said, "I can't." He frowned, asking, "Why?" I handed him the letter, to which he smiled, and said, "So...?"

So I read it — and the class ate it up. They hung on my every word, and widened their eyes and laughed every time I used am otherwise inappropriate word.

Afterwards, Joe smiled and quietly commended my work.

Rob's Sketchbook

Then one morning before school I was lounging at my desk in the Westsider office, when Rob walked in — a thick sketchbook tucked firmly under his arm. He tossed it at my chest — nearly knocking me out of the chair — and said (not asked), "Wanna write a comic." I flipped through his latest sketches, nodding as ideas for each new character struck me. Without looking up from the book, I replied, "Yeah. Yeah."

Over the following days I plotted out and scripted a horrible little story involving time travel and the Unabomber. Which for no apparent reason I set in 2077. I would go on to write more tales featuring the same characters, each one more convoluted than the last — featuring twin sisters, more time travel, abduction, rape clubs (you read that right), another Unabomber story, death, alternate realities, and lots of mayhem. But comic book writing was new and fresh, and I couldn't stop. Literally couldn't stop. From that point on, no matter where I was, everything gave me an idea for another story.

As it does, high school ended, and my future lay ahead. Except it wasn't my future. Me — I wanted to go somewhere to do something while continuing to focus on my photography. But I didn't necessarily want to make that my major. However, before I could head off, my mother made it quite clear that I was to stay behind to get a few electives out of the way at a local junior college. Whatever. As long as I could continue to take photo classes, I didn't care where I was.


Matt — my other best friend who couldn't keep a girlfriend — and I would often spend late nights at a local 24-hour diner. He'd drink coffee and smoke — looking so very tired — while I ate soup — just glad to be out of the house. One day, just out of the blue, Matt proclaimed, "You know what you should write?" I looked up from my cream of whatever soup, surprised he was paying enough attention to realize I was a budding writer. "The Twilight Zone. You'd be good at that shit." (Little did he know I was raised with an appreciation for the show, and held fond memories of many episodes.) I filed his comments under both Weird and Oddly Perceptive, and, shortly thereafter, stopped speaking with him.

The Flood

Not too long after Jenny and I began dating, a flood ravaged my basement. Not an ordinary flood, mind you. Due to some ridiculous move on the part of the neighboring town, all of our basements were flooded with sewage. Everything was ruined — including my portfolio. Both the negatives and originals were garbage. Gone forever, and with it my hopes of getting into a college as a Photo major. (Okay — well I could have. But with no portfolio, I would have had to start all over again with the basics that I had learned five years prior. And there was no way I was starting over again. No way.)

So, the following fall, I majored in the first thing I could think of: Fiction Writing.

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Next: Part Two: The First Pitch

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(After writing this, I realized as part of another assignment I rewrote/updated a scene from Julius Caesar during my sophomore year of high school. It was filled with horrible jokes and lots of shooting. Being the head of my group, I assigned parts and took on the role of Caesar as he was assassinated. As a matter of fact, the blood splattered (red dye) script is still somewhere in the basement. Every now and then I pull it out for an embarrassed chuckle.)

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