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10 Points On The Craft Of Comic Book Editing

Comic book editing is a very particular skill distinct from editing books, magazines, and other media. It is, to, my mind, a noble trade; one that is traditionally (key word: “traditionally”) taught from generation to generation. There is no handbook I could provide that would definitively teach one how to be a comic book editor; it is something that needs to be observed, then attempted oneself and practiced.

That said, I have always been meaning to get some of my observations and advice down on one list. Here it is.


1. Proper Editorial Is Key For A Good Comic

Good editing is key to the success of a comic book. KEY. The editor not only edits content: he or she advocates for the project with upper management, interfaces with the talent in a way that brings out the best work, and even helps shape how the comic is marketed and presented to stores. A project without a strong or consistent editor(s) is like an orphaned baby left in the wilderness. If you are a comic book creator and your new project has either been abandoned by your editor (due to a change in job position, etc.) or has passed through several editors already in a “hot potato” type situation…the baby is not going to survive. And even if it does survive to see print, it might not thrive.

A successful comic needs LOVE.


2. You Must Love Both Words And Pictures

Being an English major or an avid reader is not enough for being a good comics editor. You also need an appreciation of art and good design. This is not merely a matter of good copyediting; one most also have an intuitive sense of how images and panels work on a page, how action flows.


3. Everybody Needs An Editor

When a creator specifically requests that no edits be made to his or her work—and the person in question has the fame to back up that request—you, as editor, are kind of screwed. But more than that—he book is screwed. Indeed, there are bad editors (usually frustrated writers) who are more concerned with “leaving their mark” on a piece than providing constructive criticism.

A creator has reason to fear these editors. But there is no creator who couldn’t benefit from another pair of eyes looking over his or her work, if those eyes are indeed competent and empathetic.

If you are faced with a non-editable creator, getting angry at them and the situation may be a losing battle, especially if they are on the high-end of the Comic Book Gods spectrum.

That said, you can always comfort yourself with the fact that their name will be on the credits, and books with such “no edit” policies often read that way—the audience scratching their heads and wondering: “What the hell happened to that writer? S/he used to be so good.”


4. No, You Sorta Have Serve Both God And Mammon

As a comic book editor, you will probably often find yourself in the middle of the “art versus commerce” debate. You will not only deal with the needs of the artists but that of the Suits. Your job is to balance these two needs. Ignore the needs of the creators and see them as only cogs in the machine—well, the work you will get back will look like it was produced by a machine. Completely ignore the Suits and their requests for a marketable book…and you’ll have a comic with really big integrity that will not sell very well.


5. A Word About Administrative Thingies

Comic book editing requires a lot of administrative thingies. If you are lucky, you might have an assistant who will do a lot of those administrative thingies. If not, you are going to have to do them: banal tasks such as filling out forms, working with spreadsheets, coordinating contracts, research, even writing ad copy. These things are not quite as fun and diving right into the script or art and getting your fingers smeared with the ink of Comics Awesomeness. But if you neglect these things, your books will die and you will literally have a scary pile on your desk that you will barely be able to see past. I’ve seen these piles; they have eyes and if you listen carefully they draw long, ragged breaths. They look like that Fraggle Rock creature.


6. Diversify Your Skills If You Want To Live

You don’t need comic book editing experience to get a job in regular (read: Muggle) publishing; but in order to get a job in regular publishing, you have to have more experience on your resume than just comic book editing.

And you must keep in mind that due to the paucity of job opportunities in your chosen (relatively tiny) field, skill diversity on your resume is a must—if only to keep you afloat between comic gigs.


7. From Apprentice To The Master

As I’ve mentioned, ideally comic book editing is a skill transmitted from elder to junior staff members.

If your boss shows no interest in teaching you new skills and is only relying on you for your administrative thingies abilities, this is a problem. If you have been an assistant editor for more than 5 years without a promotion, this is a problem. If you have been told point-blank that there are no opportunities for promotion within the company, this is a problem; unless you’re happy being a professional assistant editor (and perhaps also have a rich uncle or girlfriend/boyfriend to support you).


8. From Editor To Comic Creator

Using your position in comic book editing as a means to break into comic book writing/art is dicey. You can get really lucky and have an opportunity to participate creatively in a comic fall right into your lap—even if you’re only an assistant—or your company could purposely keep you from any opportunities due to a “conflict of interest” policy.

Also due to conflict of interest, you might be held back from pursuing any opportunities with another publisher (or even self-pub!) while still employed at your job.

But the biggest factor involves not your bosses specifically holding you back, but that of your workload itself. Comic book editors work really really hard; you know, unless they are slackers and don’t care (and as the economy is still tight, the industry has less and less tolerance for those). You may get so caught up in your career as an editor that you won’t find the bandwidth to pursue your own projects—and that may be fine, if through your work experience you’ve realized that you are far more “at home” as an editor than a creator.

But if you really want to break into creating comics, taking a job in a non-editorial position within the publisher might work better. My personal suggestions: go for Advertising/Marketing/PR (for comics writers) or Production/Design (for artists)—they just provide you with the sort of flexibility (to to mention skill diversity and far more pay) that being directly in the editorial trenches might not provide. Because if you’ve been hired to be a comics editor, they need you to be an Editor…not really an aspiring author/artist who is just doing time until his or her big break. As mentioned before: editing is hard work!


9. How To Apply

Here is my four-pronged approach to landing a job in comic book editing:

  • Posted Job Listings: Check the official websites of these publishers as well as job-hunting sites for these listings.
  • Personal Contacts: While corporate HR might often require that you go through the proper channels to apply for the position, having a friend refer a job to you, or even refer you directly to staff at the department, could be helpful. Keep your ears to the tracks and your networking cap on.
  • Contact The Company Directly: My first job in comic book editing was referred to me by a contact; by second was the result of a “cold call” unsolicited letter campaign directly to editors. This is becoming less and less an option these days, but you never know. The worst that can happen is that you will make a contact in Editorial at your fave comic publisher.
  • Get An Internship: Snagging an internship at a comics publisher—via one of the methods described above, or through your school—may be a good way for you to get your feet wet in the business. It might even lead to a job offer at some point.


10. The Future Of Comic Book Editing, And How To Get An Edge

The comic book industry is swiftly changing; consequently, you need to cultivate the ability to swiftly change and adapt as well. Many years ago, the structure and day-to-day operations of comic book editorial departments were far more static, more “secure.” Yes, you had your periodic purges of staff, but an editor also had the ability to stick around for 10, 15 years or more, working his or her (but mostly his) way from bright-eyed assistant to seasoned full editor. There was a certain continuity: an apprentice/mentor relationship.

But continuing developments in both the economy and technology have caused a radical interruption in this sort of glacial progression. The trend is for less autonomy of big comic publishing houses and more integration with the parent company. The particular culture of the comic book publisher—both at-times charming and annoyingly insular—gets slowly replaced by the standard operating procedure of the corporation.

This all requires a more professional presentation and ethic than might have been the case a decade or more ago. Your cut-off jeans and open-toed sandals (I’ve worn both) might not fly in your new comic book editing job. Your HR department may not be connected directly with the publishing imprint at all. Point being: carry yourself as if you are applying for a Real Job, not just something that is more like an extension of your hobby. Because: you are applying for a real job.

Expect tons of people—many of whom you might know in your travels through comics fandom—to be applying for the same position you are. Competition is fierce. How do you stand out?

In the future of comics editing, the skills and experience you are going to bring from the world outside of your favorite reading material is crucial. You need to balance your obvious love and knowledge of the medium with your experience in, and willingness to learn, other skills. Examples of useful skills and interests: Photoshop, marketing, advertising, social media, business, web-building. Having a well-rounded list of interests outside of just comics and other fan activities might win you points as well.

This is not to say that a near-fanatic devotion to comics—or at least an encyclopedic knowledge of the many shades of Kryptonite and what they all do—will not be important or appreciated. It’s just that they will not be as important to the person (more like, a team) hiring you as they were many years ago. The comics editor of the future is going to need to bring more to the table.

So, my dear potential comic book editor, one last word of advice, given to me by editor-extraordinaire Denny O’Neil more than ten years ago: “You’ve already read too many comic books. Go read something else.”

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