This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on October 27, 2016.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
How has working as a freelance comics editor changed you?
I’m not sure what the origin of this question was. Are you wondering what you should look for in an editor as you start on your own comics career? Do you just want to see me get wistful and reflective? (That may be my best look) Or is this simply an opportunity to promote myself as a freelance comics editor?
Did we mention that I am a freelance comics editor? People pay me to edit their comics and you can too, if the price is right. I’m just sayin’.
Anyway… Before I can answer this question, it’s probably worthwhile to specify exactly what I mean when I discuss my work as a comics editor. There are a lot of people who utilize that title and the jobs they perform are varied and multifaceted. When someone tells you they are the colorist or flatter for a comic, you have a pretty clear picture of what their job entails. Editor is a much broader term that include a whole lot of different roles or just focus on a few.
At a lot of publishers editors function as much as project managers as anything else. They track schedules and budgets, keep creative teams working to meet standards and ensure the final product comes together on time. I’ve heard this project manager role used to insult some editors, especially at the Big Two, and I’m here to tell you that is grade-A nonsense. That’s essentially the role I fill in my day job and it is a very difficult and very necessary function in any collaborative project. I’ve got nothing for respect for the editors who fulfill this sort of job, but it’s not the one I currently do.
While I’m starting to step into the project manager role more, primarily what I do is creative in nature. The closest word I’ve found for the spot I fill as a comics editor is one borrowed from theatre: Dramaturge. It’s also delightfully pretentious for our low-brow medium, so of course I like it. Now the dramaturge is a flexible role within theater as well, but its essence is that of an expert in the medium who can consult with the director, cast, and other participants to provide suggestions, commentary, and context. They understand the history of the medium, the form, and the criticism, then use this knowledge to enhance the production. That’s what I try to do when editing comics.
I provide feedback on three key levels: development, creation, and market. Development refers to the discussion and creation of a pitch. It’s that essential first step of deciding upon an idea and boiling it down to its key bits before engaging in the long process of making a comic. Creation is that long process and it’s the majority of what I do. This can refer to vetting character designs, revising major story beats, or reviewing a page breakdown. It’s the big stuff and the small stuff, providing an outside set of eyes to talk over creative choices and offer feedback on every level. Market is the last element and it’s primarily strategic in nature. I look at questions of how to publish and market a comic in order to hopefully get it in as many interested hands as possible.
What all of that boils down to though is my being an outsider to the creative team that can offer help at every stage of creation, a consigliere to their mafia don. The goal is to create the best possible version of the comic the creators intend to publish.
So how has this changed me? For the better, I hope.
I can tell you for certain that it has made me a better comics reader, critic, and interviewer. Looking at comics as a finished product is a vastly different proposal than considering their creation. So far I have been lucky enough to come into projects both at their conception and in the middle of production. Both circumstances have come with unique challenges, but they have always put me in a position to see all of the hard work being put into each element of the work.
That goes for the big choices, like how many issues are required to tell a story and how that story should be broken down between them. It’s a tough thing to determine page count from a 10,000 foot view, but you have to create a general map for a big story and that means recognizing roughly how much space each plot point will require. It also requires you to evaluate those plot points and whether they are all necessary, or if they ought to be altered, or even expanded.
It goes for decision that fall somewhere in the middle, like what sort of body types the main characters ought to display. This goes beyond simply representation and diversity, and into considerations of personality, history, and semiotics. Without getting into the weeds, I’ve had conversations regarding a character’s appearance and how this interacts with outside narratives to understand whether what was on the page would be perpetuating something the creator didn’t intend. Again, every decision is important.
And then there’s those little decisions, like where to place a word balloon. It may not seem like a big deal, but when you’re working with a tight budget and inexperienced letterer, then it’s great to have multiple eyes all considering the work and making sure it is turning out as well as possible. Because some awkward lettering can ruin a page.
On top of all those things, you still have to make the comic. If you don’t actually make the thing, then who cares how much thought you put into it? While it’s important to put in all of this thought, you have to be sure the comic actually exists at the end of the day.
All of those levels of thought and consideration, especially when topped with deadlines, makes you appreciate the incredible work that goes into each floppy you see put out every Wednesday at your local store. Editing a comic will teach you that nothing in a comic should be described as “lazy”. Sure, Vince Colletta inks might be rushed or take short cuts, but that man also worked under some incredible deadlines and put out an awe-inspiring amount of work. He may still be my least favorite Kirby inker, but that doesn’t make him lazy. Even if you find something to be sloppy or ill-considered, I’ve learned to not assume creators are ever actively ignorant or destructive. Too much goes into these things to not think about what you’re doing.
That’s led me to focus more on the results. Sure, every choice may be considered and purposeful, but that doesn’t mean the choice is ultimately good. Hard work doesn’t dispute criticism, especially in art. However, it also means that we shouldn’t take those being criticized for granted. Artists, letterers, colorists, writers, and every other creative contributor to a comic deserves a fair shake. Even if you dismiss their work, don’t dismiss them.
In turn, that’s led me to being more considerate when writing reviews and attempting to distinguish between creator and creation in a more purposeful way. While the ideas and themes on the page belong to creators, the work itself is something they most likely care for. I hesitate a bit more than I used to before pulling the knives out for a review. It won’t stop me, but I am conscious of what went into the thing I may decide to tear into to. On the flipside, it has made me strive to be more conscious of the value of creator’s time when conducting interviews. I strive to avoid obvious and lazy questions because even in the most seemingly basic comic, there is a lot being invested. That work should be acknowledged if you’re going to speak with a creator about it.
Essentially, editing comics has made me more respectful of what goes into them. I haven’t stopped reviewing comics in any particular fashion or balked at interviews, but I’ve taken them more seriously. I also hope it has made my reflections in either form of work better for knowing what goes into making these things.
Now here’s the part where I get wistful, because I think my time working as a comics editor has also improved me a bit. Honestly, I think doing any sort of work you really care about ought to change you some, hopefully for the better.
When someone asks me to edit their comic, they’re trusting me with something that’s precious to them. I don’t edit X-Men at Marvel or sexy fairytales at Xenoscope. These aren’t comics designed to perpetuate properties or sell enough to keep a business afloat. The books I work on are one thing above all else: They’re dreams that someone is willing to sacrifice for. These are the stories that matter so much to artists that they simply need to get them into the world with no promise of return.
And they want me to help them make it happen.
It’s something I take very seriously. Not only am I being asked to help, but people are paying me out of what is often a very limited budget to make this precious thing happen. So you can be damn sure that I’m going to do my best to fulfill the role of a comics editor. I’m going to be honest with my criticism, I’m going to be clear with my responses, and I’m going to do whatever I can to help their idea become the best comic it can.
If you want to know how being a comics editor has changed me, that’s it. Editing comics has taught me the value of someone else’s dreams, and that it’s an honor to hear stories as they are prepared for the world. Whether we’re talking comics or any other creative medium, it’s people like editors, dramaturges, producers, and so many others that are tasked with bringing something complex and unique to an audience. They don’t always succeed, but it always has the potential to be something great.
So whether I’m in that role or considering how someone else has succeeded in it, it has made me take comics a bit more seriously. For the people making them, it’s no laughing matter.