WHAT THE HELL DO EDITORS DO?
This week, we dip into the WHERE THE HELL AM I? mailbag to answer a question from a reader:
Hey, Jason, can you do a WHERE THE HELL AM I? on the relationship between an editor and a writer and how that works when you’re actually writing a book? I think to some readers it can be a very vague, ambiguous job to edit a book. I think most people don’t even look at who’s editing it and think just the writer and artist matter. Anyways, I think it would be really cool. Thanks.
Good question, Jared, and the answer really depends on what sort of company you’re working with and what sort of project it is. But generally, an editor is like an air traffic controller. Their job is to shepherd all the planes through the sky and bring everybody in for safe landings and avoid any outright disasters.
As a writer, my job generally just involves writing a script and turning it over to the editor. After that, I’ll see art come in and offer any notes I might have, generally relayed through the editor instead of directly. Then I’ll see a lettered PDF of the book and make any last minute lettering changes I might have. And that’s it. I rarely have any direct contact with the colorist or the letterer on the book. Sometimes I won’t even have direct contact with the artist. The editor manages all of that.
Even if it’s the writer who’s setting the course, the editor is still the one piloting the ship.
The editor chooses the artist (though I may sometimes have a say), as well as the colorist and letterer and cover artist. The editor gives you deadlines and hounds you about sticking to them in order to keep the books coming out on time. The editor tells you, “No, you can’t have Spider-Man call someone a ‘bowlegged chicken-fucker.'” The editor tells you, “No, you can’t kill off Random Old Character #647, because he’s about to get his own new ongoing.” The editor tells you, “Thanks for turning you work in. You can get paid now.” The editor says, “I like your work, you’re hired,” or maybe, “You suck, don’t ever call me anymore.”
Now of course, there are different kinds of editors. A regular full-time editor, who usually edits multiple books at a time, sometimes will have one or two assistant editors working under them. These assistants are usually just editors in waiting, so while they’re assisting on some books, they may also have a few books of their own where they’re already the full editor.
Take note, those of you looking to break into comics. The assistant editor could be your best friend. While full editors have usually already assembled a regular stable of talent they like to pull from, the assistant is still putting their stable together. They’re also usually working on projects that are far more accessible to new creators. If you’re a struggling creator and you don’t know your assistant editors, you should seriously get with it.
Most companies also have senior editors or group editors who oversee a whole team of editors and assistants. Group editors may not do much actual hands-on editing anymore, but will instead be more involved in the big picture, guiding the overall direction of several titles at once.
So on one book, a writer is likely working with a few different kinds of editors, all of whom have different jobs and responsibilities.
As far as story input goes, it varies from project to project. Some series are going to be way more editorially driven than others, just by their nature. If you’re writing a big franchise title, one that has lots of spinoffs and tie-ins, then your editors will have a lot more say on story. When everything you do in your book is affecting a whole family of titles, then editors are the ones who have to guide that entire family. Some big events or over-arcing storylines might originate with the editors instead of the writers. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve written those kinds of stories. My “Get Mystique” arc of Wolverine was a tie-in to the big ‘Messiah Complex’ event in the X-Men universe. Basically, editor Axel Alonso came to me and said, “I need four issues of Wolverine going after Mystique because of what she did in ‘Messiah Complex,'” and I said, cool, no problem and had a blast with it. Same with my “Black Panther” tie-in to “Secret Invasion.” Those are editorially driven ideas. By contrast, the current “Wolverine Goes to Hell” storyline was my idea, and then my editors figured out how to branch that out into the rest of the Wolverine family of titles.
On a book like “Scalped,” which is creator-owned, I obviously have more say in guiding the direction, but my editors Will Dennis and Mark Doyle still offer a lot of story input. Sometimes something as simple as “change this line” or “lose this panel,” or sometimes helping me rewrite entire issues to make them work. Will especially when I was first pitching “Scalped” helped mold it into the book it became. I just had a lot of jumbled ideas and Will helped me focus them all. We were on the same page in that he saw the same potential I saw and he just helped me whittle away everything else we didn’t need.
Sometimes that’s exactly what you want: an editor who’s on your side. Other times, you might get the best results when you have someone who’ll butt heads with you a bit, and force you to work a bit harder.
You want an editor who recognizes what you’re good at and puts you in a position to succeed. Not someone who wants to change you into something you’re not.
You don’t want an editor who rewrites your work. Who tweaks dialogue just for the sake of tweaking it. Who doesn’t keep you in the loop. Who continues to run you in circles on a pitch when it’s obvious it’s not going anywhere. Who doesn’t have your back.
Thankfully, I’ve been really fortunate with the editors I’ve worked with, from Mike Marts who first picked me as a talent search winner at Marvel back in 2001, to Ben Abernathy at Wildstorm who gave me my first work-for-hire gig, to all the folks at Marvel and DC that I’m working with now.
Good editors develop an identity, one that you can see in the books they edit and in the creators they choose to work with. Good editors have strong opinions and firm ideas about what they like and don’t like, but still know when to let a creator go their own way. Working with an editor you didn’t see eye to eye with I would imagine can be a pretty frustrating experience. But when you find one you really click with, it seriously makes your job a thousand times easier.
Hope that answers your question, Jared. See you all next week!
Jason Aaron is an Eisner and Harvey Award nominated comic book writer whose current work includes the critically-acclaimed crime series “”Scalped”” for DC/Vertigo and “”Wolverine,”” “Astonishing Spider-Man & “Wolverine”” and “PunisherMAX” for Marvel. He was born in Alabama but currently resides in Kansas City. You can follow him on Twitter (@jasonaaron) or his blog. His beard is bigger than yours.