Writer, editor and all around creative dynamo, Scott Allie has been working in comics since the mid-nineties. Currently the Senior Managing Editor at Dark Horse Comics, Allie oversees such popular comics as “Hellboy,” Joss Whedon’s various “Buffy” series, Lucasfilm projects and much, much more. He has also written a number of titles for the publisher, from Robert E. Howard’s “Solomon Kane” to “Star Wars: Empire” to his own creation, “The Devil’s Footprints.” This week sees the release of “Exurbia,” a graphic novel created and written by Allie with art by Kevin McGovern.
Allie recently sat down with CBR News to discuss his career, going in-depth into the origins of his love affair with comics as a child, through his college years, his self-publishing era and on to his current responsibilities and writing gigs at Dark Horse, including, of course, “Exurbia.”
At what age did you discover comics? Do you remember the what comic made you a fan?
As a little kid, around seven, I had an issue each of Marvel’s “Star Wars” and “Man-Thing.” I was into Spider-Man, but only the old cartoon – I didn’t read the comics. When I was around eleven I stumbled upon a couple issues of “Skull” and “Slow Death,” which remain some of my favorite comics, these great horror comics with Richard Corben and Greg Irons. Those made a big impression, but I got them out of the stash of this drug dealer, and couldn’t imagine where to get more. For all I knew, those were the only horror comics in the world. Then a couple years later, my friends Brooks McPhail took me with his family to their cabin in New Hampshire, and on the way we stopped in this little country store, and they had a spinner rack. Brooks grabbed an issue of “Wolverine,” by Claremont and Miller. I read it on the trip, and that was it. I had to get all four issues of “Wolverine,” and then I got an issue of “Spider-Man” with Cloak and Dagger, and then I bought more and more.
Was it always your intention to work in comics? Or did you have other aspirations?
My sophomore year of college, I needed to pick a major and a concentration. I was trying to pick between literature and writing, or art. My advisor was this very proper Shakespearean scholar, a great guy named Bill Nye. So, of course, he was pushing for lit. But this other teacher, who may or may not have been the head of the Humanities department, said, “The reason you’re torn between lit and art is that what you really care about is comics. So major in that.” This was 1989, and comics were not much in the curriculum of colleges, not the way they are now. But “Dark Knight” and “Watchmen” – the comics, not the goddamn movies – were still news, and “Maus” had won the Pulitzer, and that helped get the faculty on board, and they let me design a comics curriculum. A couple years after I graduated, another kid used my curriculum, and that felt like a much bigger deal to me than having done it myself in the first place.
What drew you to become an editor?
Well, college was great, but what mattered to me in school was when my friends, Spencer Norcross, Phil Salmon, and Dave Crouse, took over the publishing group. We didn’t so much take it over as bring it back to life, but we published some lit mags, and I felt like I’d come home. Putting together a publication felt right to me. I’d always been the sort of artist – writer, musician, actor, illustrator, whatever, in college we’re all artists, right? – who got things done, who completed projects. My work in theater had shown me how to manage crews, and that helped a lot in putting together the magazines. So when I graduated, I moved out to Portland to get away from some personal stuff, and I focused on getting a job in publishing. Anything. I was trying to get work publishing brochures, or printing circulars, anything. Just let me put type and images on paper. As it happened, I lucked into an insanely great job, not in comics, but at a lit mag called “Glimmer Train,” where I got to deal with work from Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen Dixon, Ron Carlson, great writers. I still do some freelance work for them, for “Glimmer Train,” and I’m still inspired by what “Glimmer Train” does.
You started producing your own comics before working for Dark Horse in the mid to late 90’s, namely “Sick Smiles.” What was that time like for you, working on your own comics and stories?
“Glimmer Train” also inspired me by paying incredibly well, generous in every way, and I saved a lot of money working for them, which I squandered by following my dream publishing my own comics, with help from some of the guys I’d originally done the college lit mag with. “Sick Smiles” was published under the company name AIIIE! Comics, named for the lazy way I signed my name without putting feet on the L’s. Spencer designed that AIIIE! logo, and every once in a while I use it as a sound effect in a comic. Doing “Sick Smiles” was the best time for me. It was a massive education. I was really developing my aesthetics. There’ve been moments over the years where I’ll look at something I’m doing in my work that’s evidently inspired or influenced by Mignola, but then I look at some old self-published thing, and I was sort of doing it then. As you develop in your craft, you sort of hone those initial impulses, the better ones, hopefully, and gravitate to the people from whom you can best learn how to improve your own game.
This new graphic novel you have written, “Exurbia,” saw its beginnings during that time. What’s the concept of the book? And has it changed much since you and Kevin McGovern first worked on the idea?
This is a unique thing for me – I had this idea in college in 1990, and it took shape as “Exurbia” in Portland in the mid-nineties. I’ve carried it with me all the way to 2009. I’m not a guy who believes in clinging to your first ideas, but I never lost my commitment to this one. It started as an idea for a stage performance, about my main character, Gage, talking to his TV. Kevin and I eventually did a little vignette based on that idea as a four-pager in the second issue of “Sick Smiles.” Kevin and I spent a lot of time together back then, and we didn’t talk much about comics – we talked about more real-life stuff, cultural stuff, and that’s what created “Exurbia.” “Exurbia” doesn’t preach about the world, and it’s pretty goofy, but it’s a goofy perspective on the world. It reflects the world as Kevin and I see it, as we’ve seen it over the last fifteen years or so, which have been a pretty interesting fifteen years.
How did you begin working for Dark Horse?
I put out the first self-published issue [of “Sick Smiles”] in June 1994, and started hitting conventions, especially local ones. Doing that, I met more and more people at Dark Horse. I remember giving Mike Richardson copies of “Sick Smiles.” It’s so funny, looking back on that – I was just another self-publisher trying to get his attention. Now I’m one of his right-hand men … still handing him my books with a certain sense of pride and hope of validation. Anyway, I was meeting people from Dark Horse, and putting my own books together. Some editor either quit or got fired, and so someone suggested I come in to interview. I interviewed with four or five people, and ultimately they decided not to hire me. They decided on this other guy, who was older, had more professional experience – though none in publishing. So I stuck to self-publishing, but just a few months later, another editor left, and I’d all but gone broke on the damn self-publishing. Without another interview, Dark Horse offered me the job. Before too long, that guy they hired instead of me blew up, punched another editor in the face and quit.
Barbara Kesel picked you to succeed her on “Hellboy” after her departure. Were you a fan of the character and Mike Mignola prior to your work with both?
I was. But I hadn’t been for long. I wasn’t a fan of his stuff until my high-school friend, Rebecca Guay, sat me down and took me through his “Dracula” adaptation, page by page. Rebecca had done a stint on “Black Orchid,” was a professional artist further along in her career than I was, and we’d been looking at comics together for years. She’s doing a painted graphic novel for Dark Horse now. Anyway, we talked about simplicity, focus, clarity, flow, storytelling … she gave me a foundation for understanding what Mike was all about. By the time “Hellboy” came out, I was really excited about it. Around the time I was starting work on “Sick Smiles,” working with Kevin, Mike was at a local Portland convention. My girlfriend Amy and I went to see his panel. He talked about what he wanted to do in comics, and after the panel, Amy said I should go talk to him, try to work with him. I told her that she didn’t understand how it worked, that he was a big established pro, I was starting out. She was, to say the least, very encouraging. We broke up before I got the Dark Horse job and I started working with Mike, but I remembered that conversation when Barbara put me on “Hellboy.”
It’s been mentioned in previous interviews that you and Mike hit it off quickly and have worked together ever since. What’s your working relationship like?
Oh, it’s intense. We’re both pretty work obsessed, and we’re very devoted to each little detail of what we do. I’m probably on the phone with the guy an hour or more every day, although today we didn’t get on the phone. Normally, though, we’re pouring over details, talking things through a hundred different ways before we move on something.
Did you imagine back in the early days of “Hellboy” that it would one day grow into the franchise it is today? How much of a role did you play in helping see it grow to this size and scope?
When it was smaller, things were a lot different. When it was smaller, I had fewer other responsibilities. I spent most of my time on Mike and “Hellboy.” And he spent all his time on the book itself. Our days were pretty much devoted to perfecting every page of every book he did. It was sort of a luxury. I’d love to only have to worry about a couple comics, but I’ve gotten to where I’m doing so many different things, I can’t give any one of them the same attention I used to give each issue of “Hellboy.” I didn’t imagine “Hellboy” growing into what it’s grown into, Mike’s line of books. I figured there might be a movie, but I didn’t know how much that would change things, how much it would expand the audience and bring this weird goddamn thing Mike made into the mainstream of the culture.
At Dark Horse, what role does an editor play on a book? It’s not simply grammar and spellchecking a book as some may think, correct?
It varies. There are books where you mainly proofread. I mean, it varies a lot. I’ve edited books where I’ve cowritten the scripts, where I’ve drawn layouts. Sometimes I have to go in and meticulously redo the color with the digital artists on staff at Dark Horse. Sometimes I’m teaching writers or artists how to do their jobs. And other times I email them deadlines and wait for the stuff to come in and sign the vouchers. Like I said, with Joss and Mike, it’s like I’m in school, and other times I get to instruct the undergrads. And a lot of the time I’m filling out paperwork, balancing budgets, and trying to figure out how to keep people all over the world on schedule.
It’s often easy to see a creator’s mark on a book or character based largely on style and approach, but how do you feel an editor leaves their mark on a project?
That varies too. Mostly it is not about the editor, and the editor’s mark should be invisible. But sometimes the editor does drive the book, and then he leaves a mark. I like to think that people can’t tell which books bear my mark and which don’t. I sure didn’t leave a mark on Sergio’s books when I edited those, though.
Your title is currently Senior Managing Editor, what exactly does that position entail?
Mostly I’m editing books, but this job does involved overseeing my department. I have input on other editors’ books, I help coordinate efforts with Marketing, and I have a role in deciding what we publish and how we publish it. So there are some management responsibilities, some oversight of the rest of the editorial staff, problem solving at a higher level than simply affecting my own books – but mostly I’m editing.
What type of hours do you work? One would imagine an editor is not strictly a Monday-Friday 9am-5pm type of position. Is there such a thing as a “typical” day for you?
In terms of hours in the office, I try to stick to a normal schedule of 8:30 to 5:30 or so, and I make an effort to take a lunch break, all for the sake of sanity, but I bring a lot home with me. I feel better limiting my hours at work, even if I don’t do such a good job of limiting my hours working. But my days aren’t wildly different, one from the next – I’m not spelunking one day and performing colonoscopies the next – but they’re pretty fast paced. I often feel like I’ve been running all day.
During your time at Dark Horse you have written a number of books as well including some of the many licenses Dark Horse has held as well such as “Star Wars,” “Titan AE” and “Planet of the Apes.” Is it challenging working on a licensed property with regard to making sure the story meets the property’s approval? How much creative input does a company such as Lucasfilm have in the process?
Yes, it is a challenge. The challenge for me is making sure that the right person is writing the book. The Star Wars story I wrote was the right story for me to write. I knew how to write that story, and fit it in the Star Wars milieu. However, I should not be the regular writer on “Star Wars” – I wouldn’t be a good fit, I wouldn’t be able to come up with a lot of stories that naturally, comfortably fit into that world. John Ostrander and Mick Harrison belong in that world. I wasn’t a good fit for “Titan AE.” I probably did a fine job, but that is not my schtick. I do think I’m the right fit for “Solomon Kane.” Not to say that I’m a great writer, but what I do fits with Kane, and I think I can sort of write limitless Kane stories. I get it, I get him.
There was another license we were this close to getting, and I was gonna write that. It fell through, and I was talking to Dave Stewart about it the other day – he was gonna color it. I told him we lost it, and then we were talking about some other books we have coming up. He suggested I write one of those, but none of them are right for me.
To answer your question, the licensor, the property owner, has as much input as they want to have. The editor’s job is to make them not want to have a lot of input. Editing “Conan” with Kurt, writing “Kane,” I’ve been able to do that. When I did my big Star Wars story, Lucasfilm was pretty hands off. “The Fog” comic I wrote – which I just saw Dark Horse was resoliciting in “Previews!” Buy it now! – that was a perfect fit for me. It didn’t feel like writing a licensed book, because it was so much what I do, what I like to write, that they were pretty hands off. When looking for a writer on a licensed book, that’s what I’m looking for – the guy that will fit the natural style and tone of the book that neither the licensor nor I will feel compelled to camp out at his desk.
One of the Star Wars titles you have written for is “Empire”, which follows the timeline of the original movie trilogy from a uniquely Imperial perspective. Is it creatively enjoyable to write a story from the villain’s point of view?
Ohhhh yeah. I love that. I loved that in Star Wars. I like villains. I approach Kane, to some degree, as a villain – or an anti-hero, as my pal Jeremy Atkins likes to say. But that has everything to do with my self-image. I see myself as a bad enough guy that I get a very useful catharsis from villains, admirable villains.
“The Devil’s Footprints” is a creation of your own you published with Dark Horse. Do you find yourself typically more drawn to stories that are horror in theme?
Absolutely. I’m real drawn to that genre. I’m always looking for the next great horror story, subjecting myself to a lot of bad horror movies and comics. Most of my ideas go that way, and my approach to “Solomon Kane” is very much as a horror book, probably more horror-oriented than other writers would do. It’s what I find interesting in the Howard stories, so I dwell on it, make the most of it. Horror really lends itself to comics, and vice versa, so I’m happy to be so preoccupied with it. Exurbia is the only thing I’ve done in a long time that doesn’t have some strong horror element to it. I’m pretty inclusive in my take on horror, and I think it can be anything from the moral horror of “Apocalypse Now” to the juvenile horror glee of “Jennifer’s Body,” or humor with horror elements, like the early issues of “The Goon.”
Were you a fan of the Robert E. Howard character Solomon Kane prior to writing the recent series? What made you choose “The Castle of the Devil” for your adaptation?
I wasn’t specifically a fan. I hadn’t read much Howard prior to taking the job editing “Conan,” but I loved other pulp writers like Burroughs and Lovecraft. So I jumped at the chance to do “Conan,” and then I became a Howard fan. When it was time to put together a Kull comic, I read a bunch of the Howard prose, and thought – like I was saying above – Who would be a good fit for this …? Arvid! Then I got started reading Kane, and when I tried to think of what that book needed to read like, I just felt like I was really well suited to do it. But I was not a fan, and had not started reading it until it was time to edit it. But then I quickly became a big fan. I had no desire to write Conan or Kull, but I felt I had to do Kane.
Is it difficult at times with the busy schedules of creators like Gerard Way and Joss Whedon, given their work outside of comics, to have their books come out on a regular basis?
Bwah hahah haha haha! Why would you ask!? Oh, Jesus, it’s the worst thing. I feel like anyone who has a job, anyone who’s not homeless, has spread themselves way too thin in these modern times. We’re all overworked. It’s the cultural disease that will kill us all. Maybe I’ll make that the sequel to “Exurbia.” But I dunno if anyone has this problem worse than guys like Joss and Gerard. So many people rely on them for their livelihoods. I sympathize with them, really, even when I’m banging my head against a wall wishing I had a script. Joss just turned in two scripts to me in the space of about a week – he’d been working on them simultaneously – and I felt like the luckiest little boy in comics. They were both great, but more than that, I was just grateful that he’d made the time for it all, because I know how busy he is. Or at least, I have an idea of it, and I fear it’s even worse.
What’s the creative process like with Joss? Does he set the basics for the upcoming “season” of comics and let the process unfold from there? Or is he much more hands on with each individual issue?
It’s complicated, and there’s some variety to it, but basically, he mapped out the overall arc a long time ago. We’ve adhered to that original plan. Along the way, we pick writers for an arc, or the oneshots, and Joss generally has a one-on-one session where he tells them what major beats the story needs to hit, and they tell him what sort of things they’d like to do. And they meet in the middle. A lot of the ideas in the upcoming arc by Brad Meltzer came from Brad himself, but they’re all in service to the story Joss worked out, and they’re all the product of a lot of back and forth between Joss and the writer. So they work up the storyline like that, and then the writer turns in a first draft directly to Joss. Joss gives notes, the writer does revisions, and sends it to me. Sometimes I’m in on that first draft, sometimes not. The most important part, to me, is that Joss breaks the story with the writer, in person or on the phone, the way he broke the stories with the writers on the show. He steers the overall arc, he shapes the individual arcs with the writers, and then he edits the scripts. That’s pretty hands on.
When producing a new series or book, how much of that begins with a creator approaching Dark Horse versus Dark Horse soliciting a creator for a pitch?
Well, for a new creator-owned thing, generally it’s sort of in the middle. You’re talking to a guy about doing some work, you’re involved with them one way or another, and the conversation gets to a point where you’re talking about this particular project. There’s not a lot of surprise arrivals in the mail that turn into miniseries. Sometimes it happens like that, but not that often.
I know it’s much like asking a parent to pick a favorite child but is there any single work over the years you feel most proud of or connected to? Either as a writer or editor.
Right now it’s “Exurbia.” And I take a lot of pride in “Umbrella Academy.” I take pride in whatever responsibility I feel I have for the existence of a book. Some books I look at and know that if I were never born, you’d still basically have the same book. Careerwise, longterm, the most pride I get has been from “Hellboy,” from working with Mike. But right now when I look over at my advance copy of “Exurbia,” that’s the biggest feeling if pride I’ve got. I’m gonna be doing a little West Coast tour to promote “Exurbia,” hitting Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, L.A., and Vegas, and I’m just excited to being out there with the book like that, showing it to people.
Are there any creators you’d love to have come work with you at Dark Horse?
Yeah, tons. A lot of them are dead. But Alan Moore’s alive. Clyde Phillips. I want more of John Cassaday, I’ve worked with him some, but not enough. Joyce Carol Oates. J.H. Williams. Mark Andreyko. Marti Noxon. I will work with Marti Noxon before I die. Joe Quinones. I want Kurt Busiek back, I loved working with him, goddamn exclusives. And Cary Nord. Joe Hill. Kristian Donaldson.
Given the chance to work with another publisher’s character, as either an editor or writer, which would you like to take a crack at and why?
Agh, I don’t wanna say. The license that I thought we were gonna get, we didn’t get it, and that’s the one. And the reason is because I felt that I had something really unique to contribute to it. Like I was saying about licensed properties – sometimes you’re just the right guy for the project, because some part of you synchs up with it. And when you’re working creatively on something like that, you have the opportunity to learn something about yourself, to experience yourself in a new and bigger way. That’s what writing can do for you when you’re real plugged in, even genre-based, licensed comic-book writing.
Caring this much about writing an existing “property” is rare for me, though. There’s not a comic at another publisher that I feel that way [about]. The comics I love the most are the ones that some other writer did something amazing with. But I don’t want to be the next guy to not live up to Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing,” you know? I guess when I’m asked this question I usually say “Hellblazer,” because I could write John Constantine and make pretend it was “The Devil’s Footprints,” could basically write my character Brandon. But I don’t know if that’s right for Constantine. Better to just write the next volume of “Devil’s Footprints.”