Create vs. Mandate?
Years ago, I sat in the late Archie Goodwin’s office up at DC Comics. I think we were talking about the story that eventually saw print just last year as “Batman: Hidden Treasures,” by me, Bernie Wrightson and Kevin Nowlan. I can remember explaining the story, and even as the words were coming out of my mouth, thinking I must’ve been sounding like an idiot. I mean, there I was trying to convince the Archie Goodwin that I had a story worth telling. Archie must’ve realized this at some point, because before I could actually get the whole story out, Archie gently stopped me and said, “Well, that sounds fine, I’m sure you know what you’re doing. I don’t like having to tell my stories to people either, because I always think I sound like an idiot.”
That might not be verbatim, but it’s pretty damn close. Something else Archie told me that day was his editorial philosophy. It stuck with me all these years. Archie essentially said, “My primary job is to hire the right people for a project, and then leave them alone. If I do that, it makes my job easier. I can put my feet up and read a book.”
The operative phrases there are “the right people” and “leave them alone.” That’s the hard part. I’ve worked for some excellent editors, as well as a few who were not so excellent. But I think Archie is still the benchmark by which all other editors are judged (and found wanting), even though he’s sadly been gone more than a decade now.
There’s always been a push-pull between creative and editorial. There always will be. Each side needs the other. It’s a necessary aspect of the business, and has produced some truly great comics. Creative teams come and go (with increasing frequency, it seems), but editors safeguard and even nurture these characters we all love. Ultimately, someone has to be lead dog on the sled team. Someone has to set the tone and the direction. So — do you want your comics driven by creators, or driven by editorial? I’m not sure there’s a right answer, or at least an answer that’s right all the time.
It’s not a stretch to say comics are in a period of increased top-down editorial content. And that’s to be expected, really. Many of these characters have become multi-million dollar franchises. As a creator, when you work with company-owned characters, you’re playing with someone else’s toys, in someone else’s playground. Entertainment conglomerates are not about to let some scruffy writers and artists go crazy in their playground.
Add to that the present vogue of event storytelling. We are in the age of the never-ending, multi-part, multi-tie-in crossover, a way for a higher tide to (hopefully) raise all boats. These projects are ultimately, and necessarily, editorially-driven and coordinated. The purpose is to get you, the audience, to buy more books. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the business publishers are in — selling books. If publishers could move half a million copies of a book with a one-legged, three-armed, obscenity-spewing hermaphrodite, they would. Or, you know, Deadpool.
Event storylines have made the de facto storytelling unit the entire universe, rather than individual titles. The bigger the event, the more coordination necessary, the more editorial oversight. That can mean stories are handed down to creative teams, rather than those teams being allowed to create. But that wasn’t always the case. I started on my first monthly assignment, “Silver Surfer,” when Jim Starlin departed to concentrate on “Infinity Gauntlet” and his new “Warlock” series. A number of my first issues were “Infinity Gauntlet” tie-ins, but beyond the edict of intersecting with the “Infinity Gauntlet” series, I was pretty much left to my own devices to come up with the stories. And I think it actually made me a better writer, because I had to figure how to tell a story within the confines of a pretty specific framework.
A few years later, when I was offered the “Green Lantern” assignment, the extent of the notes I received for “Emerald Twilight” worked out to less than two full pages of typewritten notes. That was it. The broad strokes of Hal Jordan’s downfall were there — though not a great many details — and the last line of the notes was something to the effect of “…and a new Green Lantern is introduced.” There was no direction as to who that new GL should be, other than urging us to make the character male when I asked if it could be a woman. The creation of the new GL was left largely to me, artist Darryl Banks and our immediate editor. What we did was offered up for approval, certainly, but we simply made it up, without any of it being dictated from above. I seriously doubt that same scenario would unfold in this era of comics.
Obviously the amount of editorial input is a sliding scale, depending on the editor’s general ethic, the particular project, and how much guidance a creator needs. Somebody just starting out is going to need more hand holding than a veteran, or at least that’s the way it’s expected to work. One of the primary reasons I’m doing so much of my current work at Top Cow is their editorial philosophy is to let creators create. I’m given enough latitude to pursue my best work. Even on something like “Artifacts,” which spans the entire universe and includes literally dozens of characters, I’m allowed to tell my story. Sure, there are discussions and input, but I’m trusted to steer the ship. It’s a huge boon, and an increasingly rare one.
In my experience, a good editor doesn’t force you to tell his or her story. A good editor helps you tell your story better. Very rarely, I’ve worked with editors who were frustrated writers. What they invariably turn out to be is frustrating editors, pushing creators to execute their vision, whatever that happens to be. Honestly, creators hate it. There’s an amount of compromise almost any time you’re in a work-for-hire situation. But there’s a vast gulf between compromise and being utilized as an Art Monkey or a Writer Monkey. Those are the times when this job really feels like a Job, and I think it shows in the finished product.
Obviously, creator-owned books are the truest reflection of what the creators want them to be. Whether it’s “Hellboy” or “The Walking Dead” or “Criminal” or any other creator-owned book you’d care to name, the creative team runs the show. I don’t want to get into the creator-owned vs. company-owned debate here (I’ll do that in a few weeks when Image solicits my new creator-owned monthly). But I think the argument can be made that the best work is creator-driven, no matter who owns it.
The conventional wisdom is that Frank Miller was allowed take “Daredevil” and run with it because when he took over the title, sales were low enough that nobody from on high much cared what he did. By the time he’d turned it into a top seller, the success was hard to argue with. Walt Simonson has told me stories of being left alone to create his “Thor” run because his editor, the late, great Mark Gruenwald, trusted him and insulated him from any meddling originating elsewhere in editorial. Archie Goodwin was pretty fierce about protecting “Starman” by Robinson and Harris, allowing it to stand on its own rather than become mired in crossovers and guest stars. It’s not an accident that Jack Knight didn’t appear in many places in the DCU other than his own book, which kept the character true to the vision of his creators.
I’m cherry-picking here. I realize that. There are many, many more examples of creators who were allowed artistic freedom and promptly steered their titles right into the ground. But my point here is that the best material comes from letting creative people be creative, rather than giving them marching orders. The best material is almost always the product of the vision of a few, rather than a committee of many.
As always, it comes down to sales. The consumers ultimately dictate what they get. You vote with your wallet. If you’re buying every part of a sweeping crossover, even reluctantly, because you don’t want to feel left out, what you’re saying is, “Give me more of this, right here. Just like this.” It’s a vote for big storylines, and the kind of editorial oversight that goes with them. And if that is indeed what you want, that’s perfectly fine. But the more of that material there is on the stands, the less room there is for something a little more unique.
I’m freelance editing a project that will be announced at Emerald City Comicon in Seattle next month. I hired the creative teams, and everybody I went after is a pro with a track record. Someone who knows what he’s doing, and is easy to work with. I’m giving them their assignments, and then getting the hell out of the way. I’m letting creators create. Because that’s what Archie would do.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts,” “Witchblade” and “Magdalena” for Top Cow, and his upcoming creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image, set to debut in May, 2011. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, ronmarz.com