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Behind The Scenes

Something about my engineer’s view of the world makes me fascinated by all the things you don’t see on the surface of things; I want to know how things are constructed and how all the construction fits together. Thus, Pat Race and I made our way up to the panel rooms for the Editing Comics panel moderated by Chris Butcher. You may recall that about a month ago (that is, long after the panel was set for inclusion at the show) Butcher left his longtime position running The Beguiling and took a new job with VIZ as an editor, which made for an interesting (if initially unanticipated) dynamic at the front of the the room; he would have the opportunity to ask some of the best editors in the history of comics how they do their work such that (and I’m quoting here), I will take all your best information and then crush you.

[Self-editor’s note: when I italicize a passage of text like that, it’s as direct a quote as I was able to type in realtime; when left plain, I am paraphrasing the gist of what the speaker said.]

Fleen extends its condolences to the future crushees, people with distinguished careers to this point, who will shortly find themselves bereft of all they once held dear in their careers. In the meantime, though, they were awfully collegial and welcoming towards Butcher; they brought examples of their work and processes, and were generous in sharing how they approach their jobs. From right to left in the photo above, they are:

  • Robin Hererra, Oni Press
  • Cassandra Pelham, Graphix/Scholastic
  • Shannon Watters, BOOM
  • Mark Siegel, :01 Books

… all of whom came to editing via different routes. Hererra interned at Oni for a summer, then was an administrative assistant for a year before joining the editorial ranks; Oni is the only place she’s worked. Pelham worked a summer fellowship with Scholastic for three years that shifted towards graphic work in the third year. Siegel founded :01 in 2005 (within the much larger environment of Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan/Holtzbrink) to be a publishing house for authors rather than franchises¹, with broad themes and age categories. Watters started at BOOM in 2010 as an assistant editor, ran the KABOOM (licensed) line for a time, and now runs the creator-owned BOOM Box imprint.

They spoke for a while on the camaraderie in comics; Butcher noted that he’s friends with lots of folks, but now that he’s going to be in an editing role and competing with the to a degree, was worried that would have to end. It was nice to learn that wasn’t the case, everybody’s been very nice and welcoming in the community so far. He threw out an invitation to talk about the network editors have with each other:

Watters: There’s a special relationship, you understand this very specific thing you do that most people in comics don’t understand.
Pelham: It’s a small community, and we’re competitive but also supportive of each other. We’re cheering for others because a win for one of your books is a win for comics in general, for reading, and for kids. The most competition is at an auction, when you might be bidding against each other to acquire a book that’s been offered to several houses.
Herrera: But it’s a solitary kind of work. The most I’ve been able to talk to other editors is when I go to SCAD on Editor’s Day for portfolio review. At the end of the day you get out exhausted, but we talk. And they hold it at this old mansion with a giant porch, and there’s bourbon …

Butcher had each of them choose several books they’ve worked on and talk about how they edited each; the key takeaway from this discussion is that no two books, no two creators need to be handled the same way. Herrera opened with three books that featured three entirely different processes, and noted at Oni there are just editors, not story editors or copy editors, or other kinds of specialization; any project could require any of the kinds of skill.

She edited Space Battle Lunchtime (and continues to do so) from its pitch, ran all edits from start to finish, and gets to nudge creator Natalie Reiss in needed directions from time to time, relying on a very experienced creator’s abilities. By contrast, Ted Naifeh pitched Night’s Dominion with two issues already done; it’s a very different process when there’s little to no development of concept, story arc, and so forth. Finally, Oyster War by Ben Towle came in fully complete; Hererra made a few specific changes, then thorough copy edit, but a penciled-and-inked book is too late to do major structural changes on. Since SBL was the book that went through the most development with Herrera, she showed a lot of process: cover treatments, thumbnailed scripts and pages, Reiss’s writing style that lacks the cinematic approach many take in comic writing (but it works for her).

Butcher interrupted to ask the panel about an observation he’d had. Creators are reading fewer comics themselves these days, and does this translate to editors? Do they read fewer due to time or to avoid accidental influences? The answer was a pretty solid no, as the panelists are all enthusiastic (and wide-ranging) readers.

Siegel: I read fewer comics and more prose, but things pop up that I’ll get enthused about.
Watters: I read graphic novels more than single issues (there was a lot of head-nodding at this point).
Herrera: Since starting at Oni, I read more manga which we don’t publish; there’s no chance I’ll ever work with that creator, which lets me read and admire the work.
Siegel: Younger creators, I often try to get them to read wider than their favorite zone. I’ll recommend a book on writing, or nonfiction relevant to their project. A lot of times, they’re still moving out of being fans and into being authors, and I don’t think you can be both. I think you have to leave fan behind to be a creator. And of course they can have blind spots, so I’ll say Try some Stephen King to learn about pacing ….

Returning to process, Pelham talked about editing not just different projects differently, but different creators with different approaches. For example, the different approaches she takes with Raina Telgemeier and Kazu Kibuishi have less to do with their subject matter and more to do with how each does their best work. Raina tends to do full thumbnails, Kazu works straight to final art with little drafting or sketching.

Butcher’s next discussion point had to do with the craft of editing: when comics and graphic novels started breaking out of the direct market and into the traditional publishing houses, people didn’t know how to edit comics as comics. He noted some of earliest editors at the major houses were from children’s books, because they had a history of working with had words and art. Pelham noted that she did start editing in prose, but realized comics were my passion, that I wanted to lean into. During her third summer fellowship she moved to the Graphix end of Scholastic; like many, in college she read first graphic novel (Persepolis) and found it life-changing. Part of what was surprising in learning about editing comics was how my title was an editor-track job title, but I found myself also learning to be an art director.

Siegel dug the most into how the graphic novel sausage is made; given the :01 doesn’t do single issues, he focused on whole books as the unit of production and story, and the traditional publishing process starting from the pitch. He had a pretty detailed discussion about how a lot of people try to pitch graphic novels that come from Hollywood or animation, and are used to doing in-person presentational pitches, trying to sell a project on personal charisma, and that’s not how books work. They’ll say, we want to set up a meeting and I say no, I’d rather not meet you at all. It doesn’t matter what happens in that the pitch meeting, all that matters is what’s on the page. In the book world, you need to send a presentation and it either works on the page or it doesn’t.

To that end, Siegel also tries to be very open about the process; People outside the business have a hard time seeing what actually goes on in the publishing world; it’s not what you see in the bookstore. Authors really have no idea what we do. With :01, we try to open the curtain and reveal what happens. [Marketing director] Gina [Gagliano] posts a lot of stuff on our blog, a lot that seems obvious, so creators understand what we do in publishing and marketing. … It helps them to understand so we’re partnered … with us, your agent, the designer, the production people are all your allies in making that book.

Back to pitches: sometimes they’re a few pages typed up, describing story, characters, what the book is going to accomplish, and then editor and writer can find an artist to pair up on the project. Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor came in as a presentation package, almost the Hollywood-style approach that Siegel said to avoid (McCloud is an unusual case, he said in an understated manner). Normally, it’s a few finished pages, character description, some script, enough to have the shape of the project and have a conversation with creator.

The next stage is scripting. He shared a sample of a Gene Yang book (looked like Boxers to me) which featured the traditional typed dialog and page thumbnails. Siegel pointed out that this approach shows the creator is Thinking in both words & pictures at the same time. Sometimes you get something that works or doesn’t in words, then the art comes in and it doesn’t work or it does.. The thumbs let the editor see in a very small size — each page about the size of a postage stamp — how a scene will play out, meaning you can sometimes spot a problem and fix it before the art progresses too far, but mostly it’s at the pencils stage that you fix problems with story or scene setting.

Butcher added that he always thought these stamp sized thumbnails were just about proving to the editor that you were working, but Siegel has the opinion that the thumbnail stage is the the hardest mental work, because it’s where you’re pulling out the story. The execution (pencils, inks, color) is actually simpler (but naturally, more labor intensive and time-consuming). Watters described thumbs as the skeleton you’re throwing the meat on, and Siegel as the first conversation with the creator. You’re not talking about dialog, it’s about the large structure of the story.

He demonstrated that by showing scribbled-up thumbs from Nidhi Chanani’s forthcoming Pashmina and remarked that he’d get on Skype and have a conversation about how the story is structured.
Watters: I like doing dialog passes on Skype.
Siegel: It’s good testing dialog out loud.
Butcher: It’s not like how people imagine comics with the old Marvel bullpen, everybody in one room. You could be working with people across the country or across the world.

Pencils and inks follow, which are a monumental amount of work, so you have to catch problems early before all that work goes in; the worst thing is having to make corrections at the end of the process. Siegel noted that one issue of people working on long graphic novels is that of stamina, mental fatigue, mental breakdowns, there’s a much higher casualty rate than working in prose. For that reason, I’ve evolved a process and become a better editor for it, as soon as we pass the architectural stage, I invite the authors to send in small batches. I don’t keep them waiting [for feedback/direction], it does marvels for morale.

Watters brought a series of different projects with different approaches, noting that at BOOM Box things come to in differently — Backstagers came to as a full idea but Goldie Vance was a completely different process. I hit up Hope [Larson], and said I really want to to a teen detective book, I know you have time in your schedule, it’s already greenlit because I trust you. You own it, let’s work together to develop something. Sometimes the pitch is complete, sometimes I develop the pitch with them. It’s produceresque.

Butcher had one last big question of his own before opening to the floor: when you acquire a project, when you start that process, do you represent the creator’s interest to the publisher or vice versa. Whose side are you on? Siegel asked if he could start the response² and then was pretty emphatic: Both. You’re the punching bag in the middle, and you can get bashed from both sides [all nodding in agreement]
Pelham: Even if it’s not an editorial issue!
Siegel: You’re kind of forced at times into a diplomatic relationship. Sometimes you’re forced to choose and that puts an editor to the test. Sometimes the pressure’s from great big corporations, you have to make a decision and it’s hard. But something I learned from an editor I respect a lot [Self-editor’s note: I didn’t catch the name, sorry], is that if you have to choose between the company and the author, you try to go with the author.

From the floor: I’m freelancing as an editor now. How do I make editing a full time job?
Pelham: Have a website.
Watters: Communicate with others and have relationships.
Hererra: Edit pitches as well as whole projects.
Butcher: Sometimes houses will have a pitch they don’t have editors to manage and will go looking for freelancers.
Watters: Sometimes creators have editors they want to work with, and will bring you in on their project.

From the floor: I took a prose editing class last semester, how do I practice comics editing?
Butcher: Read a lot of comics.
Hererra: Read manga; it’s read in reverse and that actually teaches a lot about story structure.
Watters: I took McCloud’s Understanding Comics and read it with comics I liked and thought worked, and figured out why they worked.
Butcher: I worked with creators with great editors, so I could see the process.

From the floor: I’m a freelance editor, I have a script I want produced. Do I go to company with script, script and a few pages, or the whole thing drawn?
Watters: Put together a pitch document.
Hererra: Have a few pages to look at.
Floor: Not a whole book?
Siegel: Right, unless you’re the greatest creator ever, you can’t bring in a complete book.

From the floor: How do I give notes on the whole story arc, not just details?
Siegel: You can practice that, but there is a craft. It’s still Is a character shallow, is this cliche? There’s nothing wrong with starting from a cliche, but it’s bad to land on one.
Pelham: Break it down: character, plot, theme, story; see if it all works before the art gets added.
Butcher: It’s macro/micro — the whole project works, then break it down. Story works, then thumbnails, then pages, then panels. Don’t start at the smallest scale and work up.

From the floor: We have a pitch, I’m an artist, I have a writer, I’m trying to understand the relationship with the editor because I think I need one. Can I expect a publisher to help me out with others … finding inkers, colorists, can an editor help me with that?
Watters: Yeah, that’s production, if they buy the project at the stage you have it at, they’ll help you finish it. It’s all about expectations with the project at the acquisition stage.

[Self-editor’s note: And what none of them said but which is probably self-evident, you need an editor. Trust me, it’s an almost-impossible chore to edit yourself.]

¹ See our coverage of the :01 tenth anniversary panel last year for more on that theme; Siegel has succeeded at that goal admirably.

² One of the delights of this panel is that the panelists were considerate of each other — not speaking over, looking to others to prompt their input.

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