Publishing fanzines has both its pleasures and pitfalls. As the team behind the popular 2000AD and Judge Dredd-inspired Sector 13 zine discovered, one of the potential perils was how best to deal with rejecting submitted stories…
I’m currently publishing a series of articles on the background to publishing the Sector 13 zine, a title edited by myself and Laurence McKenna, on the title’s Facebook group. This article is based on events that occurred just after Issue Four of Sector 13 came out. It is a musing on the pitfalls of editing a fanzine and the responsibility of an editor to both the contributors whose work that editor decides to use, and to those he decides are not suitable to publish.
Comments, more than welcome.
With Sector 13 Issue Four complete and an increased enthusiasm and confidence among the whole team, we started work on Issue Five. We’d had a drama free time and garnered a lot of attention among small-press artists. The volume of submissions began to ramp-up.
The quality, particularly from artists, varied from the exceptionally good, through some very promising submissions to quite a few from artists who were, in our view, simply not ready for inclusion in Sector 13. We only have 44 pages an issue, and we had now worked with artists who were both excellent and to whom we felt we owed some loyalty. Consequently, we found ourselves having to say no to people we would really have liked to have published in our pages.
As far as we were able, our rejection notices followed one general principle: we’d be honest but constructive – and never cruel. We would always to aim to say what we liked about an artist’s work, what we felt needed to be improved upon and, if appropriate, give advice on what specific changes or developments would make acceptance of a future submission more likely.
Our response to scripts fell into the same category. There were stories that we were simply not certain about or where one member of the editorial team liked them more than the others. We decided to try something, to find a way to link these writers and artists in a way that would be fair to them and give them a chance to be published, somewhere.
If both agreed, we’d pass the scripts we were unsure of to the most promising of the artists we had felt had to be turned down. We’d look at the final product and then decide what to do at that point.
If the story didn’t make the print zine, we promised to either publishing them online, or return them to the writer/artist to submit elsewhere. Our self-imposed rules on the use of Rebellion’s intellectual property meant that this plan would not apply to stories set in the worlds of 2000AD.
The idea seemed to go down well with the first couple of sets of creators we offered it too. For the writer, the prospect of seeing their first script take form was reward enough and the artist was happy to practice, working on a brand-new script for the first time.
In the end, when the finished product from the first set of creators came back, the artist had done a fantastic job and had brought the story to life in a way we had not foreseen, and we decided to include the strip in a future issue.
The second story never materialised, and the amount of work involved in keeping the process going, particularly in terms of editing scripts, meant that the idea trundled to a halt. It had been an interesting idea, but time pressures and other projects were getting in the way.
From then on, we thought more carefully about our rejections. I felt strongly that we needed to balance our policy of honesty with respect for the effort and care that contributors put into their submissions.
Submitting work to an editor, either for a fanzine or a professional magazine, is a brave thing to do. You are taking something that you have put your heart and soul into, that you care about and are handing it over for a stranger to judge. Sector 13 is a fanzine, we are fans, we do this because we love 2000AD and the act of creating a comic. The writers and artists who send us scripts are just the same. We owe it to them to treat their work with respect and to balance the danger of giving false hope with that of being overly discouraging or cruel.
It’s a balance that is difficult to hit and, sometimes, we get it wrong.
Two examples from this period stick in my mind, mainly because of the vastly different reactions we saw from two artists who received quite similar ‘rejection’ e-mails.
The first artist, who had sent quite a modest submission letter that played down his skills, was a difficult one for me. I’d liked a lot of what he’d done, but it just wasn’t going to work in Sector 13. I sent my rejection back fairly quickly. He almost immediately came back to me, thanking me for my comments and asking a few more questions about the advice I’d given.
We had a bit of a to-and-fro, discussing his work, identifying what I liked and what I thought needed improvement. There was a lot to like. His initial submission was a short sequence of panels that communicated an excerpt from a longer story, and did it really well. There were minor issues with poses and eyelines and, as an editorial team, we were not keen on his linework. Most importantly, there was a stiffness to his poses and a little bit of awkwardness around exactly where arms and legs joined the torso.
We kept up a friendly correspondence and got to know each other a little. It was, I think, a fun and useful exercise for both of us. He was working hard on improving his artwork, absorbing advice from all over, and his drawing visibly developed over the weeks and months.
I still felt it wasn’t right for Sector 13, it A4 format would have meant his flaws were magnified, and his work looked untidy and unfinished to me. But his skill at storytelling and the work he did in other areas, particularly facial expressions, came on in leaps and bounds and made it obvious that he would be well-suited to strips drawn in a smaller format.
I was, therefore, delighted when I saw his work appear in another fanzine and thrilled when he completed a larger scale project for a successful Kickstarter. He did a great job on a comic that really played to his strengths and we could not have been happier.
The other artist, unfortunately, did not take rejection quite so well. My initial response to his submission was that he was not ready for us to offer him a script. He needed to practice and seek out advice from other, more experienced artists to deal with a rather untidy style and some awkward figure drawing. He’d laid out a pretty dynamic and action-filled sequence, but they looked like layouts, not finished pages.
His response was to resubmit the same pages, over and over, as he made a series of small changes to them. In the space of just over a week he made something like 14 separate submissions, each time with tiny changes. Each submission designed to deal with one specific, minor comment after another, without tackling the main problem. The pages were badly drawn and incomplete.
I quickly got the impression he was using some sort of drawing program, and the changes resulted from tweaks to the settings. Sometimes the pages would arrive with thicker lines, with thinner lines, with a little shading, with a lot of shading, with colour or with a red wash. But there were no changes made to the actual figures. After a while, I began to wonder if I was being pranked, especially when told that one submission, that looked identical to the others, was “in the style of Art Adams”.
All of the submissions came with minimal commentary, no introduction or chat, just “Art Submission” as the subject of the e-mail and a new set of enclosures. My replies remained polite but got shorter and shorter.
Eventually, he began to engage, telling me I was wrong, there was nothing “off” with the anatomy of his figures and since everyone else loved his work, it was obvious that I did not know what I was talking about and I should send him a script forthwith.
At that point, I asked him to stop submitting, saying, once again, that he needed to practice and get advice from a good artist. That his storytelling was pretty good, but his drawing was simply not of a standard that we could use in Sector 13. I also suggested that barraging an editor with submissions was likely to be counter productive. That most editors would probably have stopped replying after the third or fourth message, but, as a fanzine we felt some responsibility towards those prepared to put their work on the line.
I asked that he wait and practice, for at least six months, and if he felt he had made substantial improvements to the areas I’d asked him about, he could come back to me, then. I also suggested that reading an issue of Sector 13 might be an idea, even if just to see what the competition between was like and to gauge what the editor (me) wanted from an artist. As far as I know, to this day, he had never seen an issue.
Submissions stopped, for a month. Then we got new versions of the same pages. Little had changed. His shading had improved, but the other issues were the same.
I was losing patience.
The next few weeks followed the same pattern. Multiple submissions, sometimes two on the same day, all of which got responses that were short but still polite.
Finally, I started a reply with the word “Enough!” and asked him to stop, now. I told the artist he was making it less, not more, likely than he’d land a script from us and I once again asked him to go away and practice. I made it clear that a substantial improvement was going to be needed before he could hope to be published in Sector 13.
It was my most negative response to a submission yet, but at this stage, it was all I could think of doing.
By now, I was sure that either, this was some kind of joke, or the artist concerned was vulnerable. I checked on some of his social-media pages and it appeared that he had been taking lessons from an artist, that money was changing hands and that he had been convinced by this person that he was a professional-standard, comics artist.
Members of the fan community had been very supportive about his artwork, so when I had rejected his submission, he had received a real and very unexpected knock-back. I was building up a picture of who this guy was.
His response came as a public message on a Facebook group. He accused Sector 13 of being closed to certain art styles and not being capable of “recognising good art when they saw it”. He then, quite correctly, pointed out that the editor who had replied to him could not draw himself and before I could think whether to respond had banned both me personally and Sector 13 from the large online 2000AD group he moderated.
The editorial team had some lengthy discussions on how to deal with this. In the end we decided to do nothing. To wait it out and see what happened. We’re a fanzine, we love producing Sector 13. Most of the people who submit to us are cut from the same cloth. If one of them reacts badly to a rejection, then that’s down to how much they care about what they are doing.
It made me think, it’s great that people on Facebook and elsewhere are encouraging to would-be writers and artists, that’s a wonderful part of the fan community. But for a few, a very few people, that can also lead to a dramatic over-estimation of their ability and the formation of totally unrealistic expectations. With those expectations built-up, a rejection from the editor of 2000AD, or even someone like me from a fanzine, can be truly hurtful.
This artist had been told by a few people in Facebook groups that his work was excellent. When an online friend told him how much he’d improved and that he should submit work to Sector 13, it was meant in the best possible way. But for a vulnerable individual, whose hopes had been built up, the unexpected rejection was a real blow.
I’m not sure I could have done anything other than what I did. His work was simply not suitable for Sector 13. I’m pleased to say that he has continued to draw and has even made a couple of further submissions to Sector 13, but I’m afraid I’ve rejected them again, going back with similar comments to those I made before.
I do wonder if there is someone still taking money from him for lessons and feeding his over-estimation of his abilities and building unrealistic expectations. I hope not, but I do hope he finds a mentor, a decent artist who he can talk to and he keeps working on his art and keeps enjoying it.
It won’t be me. He doesn’t think much of my opinion and I’m don’t know enough to give him decent advice, but I do hope that the fan community can find a way to be both supportive of fan artists, without building up unrealistic expectations in the very small number of people who find disappointment difficult to take.
Sector 13, or more accurately, me, has done the rejection thing badly a few times. I’ve learnt that works with one person does not with another. We’re sometimes slow getting back to people (do send reminders!) and we’ve not been great at dealing with difficult conversations. Sadly, there have been a few fallings out as a result and I, personally, regret every one of them.
But decisions have to be made. We only have 44 pages in each issue, and scripts will be rejected, and artists will find themselves turned away. Our – my – decisions might be wrong. I might be missing something spectacular in the work of a writer or artist. Something I just don’t see. But in the end, I’m the editor of Sector 13 and, like all editors, I’m the one who gets to be wrong.
Editor, Sector 13
• Copies of all six issues of Sector 13 (five comics, as Issues One and Two have been reprinted as a compilation) are available for £7 each including UK P&P. Or all five for £28 – PayPal: to Sector13@boxofrainmag.co.uk. Outside UK, please e-mail Peter to the Paypal address, for an up-to-date international cost. There are a few copies of first prints still available for all issues, apart from Issue Tree. Again, please e-mail me Peter
Peter Duncan is editor of Sector 13, Belfast’s 2000AD fanzine and Splank! – an anthology of strips inspired by the Odhams titles, Wham!, Smash! and Pow! He’s also writer of Cthulhu Kids. Full details of his comics activities can be found at www.boxofrainmag.co.uk