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Issue #303

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #303

Sympathy for the devil?

Was talking to an editor yesterday when he brought up last week’s discussion of the Brian Wood-Alex de Campi on The V-Hive (or The V, as I guess they’re currently calling it, and I apologize for calling it “The Hive” last week). Toward the end of our chat, he said, “Y’know, you’d really do us all a favor if you’d explain to people what editors really do?”

Right, like I’m going to do a favor for editors. For those who think that’s just a snotty response, I’ve been in the business for, what, almost 30 years now?, and damn near every single time I’ve done a favor for an editor, whether writing something for them overnight, making introductions to some other talent, dialoguing off Xeroxes of layouts so sketchy that imagining which blob stands for which character is a pure act of faith just to keep them from missing the shipping deadline because they don’t have the guts to tell off an artist, whatever, it has come back to bite me. So it’s not snottiness, and while you may not know it by the column I’m generally a pretty non-bitter, live-and-let-live kind of guy because, ultimately, and for some reason a lot of people don’t get this, the little slights and slurs and defeats are just a bi-product of life so what’s the point of getting your blood pressure up over it (and I’ve got very low blood pressure), but on this score, yeah, on this I’m a little bit bitter. Not storm and stomp and blow my stack bitter, but bring it up and see if you get more than a risible snicker bitter. Not that virtually anything you say to me isn’t likely to get you more than a risible snicker, but that’s beside the point.

There are a couple problems to speaking up for editors. As Brian Wood kind of found out, we work in a pretty stratified business, as most things in this country are pretty stratified these days. Speak up for an editor or a company in some sort of dispute with talent, and you get tarred as a shill for The Man. (Not that I’m especially worried about it, since I’m pushing ten years of weekly columns that demonstrate otherwise.)

The bigger problem is that there’s no industry-wide consensus on the editor’s role. Especially but not exclusively at smaller companies, a lot of editors don’t seem to know what an editor’s job is, or even what an editor is supposed to be. As I mentioned last week, in comics the mission statement varies, even within branches of the same company. In a line of company-owned properties, the editor might be expected to be the brains of his line, feeding the talent storylines that will keep the work in line with company policies and directions. Conversely, in many company-owned situations, the editor is the first gatekeeper for talent ideas that he passes up the approvals chain if they pass muster with him. In some situations, the editor is the only arbiter, and most times the court of last appeal as far as talent is concerned. If an editor says no, that’s usually the end of the discussion. But an editor’s “yes” is always provisional on the whims, tastes, dictates and policies of those up the approvals chain.

So editors straddle a thin line between absolute power and being buffeted on the whims of fate, much like freelancers do. Since Mort Weisinger shuffled off, dictatorial editors for some reason haven’t had much career longevity, so most editors are at least willing to discuss their objections to your ideas, and sometimes you can even persuade them to let you have a go at it anyway, until they’ve decided. If you want to do a Spider-Man story set in the 1890s and Axel Alonso says Marvel doesn’t do Spider-Man period pieces, you may as well cash out. On the other hand, a real professional would have either known that going in and pitched something else, or proposed a story so good it would have blown all other considerations right out of the water. But stories like that aren’t very easy to come by.

Editors on creator-owned comics, such as they are these days, theoretically take a different approach. Their job would notionally entail facilitating the talents’ “vision” of what the comic should be, in whatever ways the company allows. Theoretically.

Part of the perception problem about editors comes from prevalent fannish notions, many of which you could see at play in the V-Hive discussion, which many people, most of them having nothing to do with comics professionally, besides Brian and Alex took part in. There’s the semi-pro syndrome that promotes the idea pretty much anyone involved in the creative end of comics has espoused as least half-heartedly at some point in their careers, but which is really an almost idiotic oversimplification, that an editor is nothing more than a glorified proofreader. Or that they should be nothing more than glorified proofreaders. There’s also this fantastic sense of entitlement that pops up in the comics business, the idea that comics companies have a duty to publish whatever “the creators” (I’ve always thought the term was a smidge pompous, which is why I generally say “talent” instead) have brilliantly dreamed up. Which leads to all kinds of fascinating, self-serving theories, like that editors are intimidated by your talent and genius (I use the editorial your, so I don’t mean you, except the ones I do mean and you know who you are) and realize publishing your work will expose all those other hacks they already work with as the uninspired hacks they are. There’s also an interesting phenomenon I’ve run across many times with aspiring professionals and even some existing professionals. No matter how cool for school they talk about superheroes being bogus, trite and old hat, or how much indie cred they say they’re striving for, these are inevitably people who grew up reading Marvel and DC superhero comics.

Which generates a psychological schism that isn’t often discussed. While elements of ambiguity and delayed resolution have become part of the language of superhero comics, at base they’re still all about good guys and bad guys, and comics where the good guys don’t ultimately undo, if not flat out defeat, the bad guys are generally comics that don’t hold an audience for long. Because the superhero audience expects the hero to emerge victorious.

Which is a very appealing notion when you’re eight years old, or 11, or 15. By the time they hit, oh, 17 or 18, most people have figured out the world doesn’t really work like that, even if they don’t mind continuing to see it happen in superhero comics. Even people trying to get work in superhero comics usually know that the world doesn’t work like that. In their heads, they know. Their hearts, that’s something else. For some reason, even though they know better, emotionally a lot of people coming into comics want to believe the comics business works the way the world worked in the superhero comics they read as kids, and it doesn’t! Feelings and egos get bruised as unrealistic expectations get dashed, and the emotional – not conscious, not intellectual, emotional – response is that somehow the comics business has betrayed the “creator,” and for most aspiring freelancers the editor is the face and personification of that betrayal. The experience is frequently exacerbated by squads of online fans massaging the bruised ego – “see, they’re right, so the editor who rejected me must be a dip!” – and a long history of belief in comics fandom on the automatic sanctity of the creator (as long as “we” like him and he doesn’t become too popular) and the inherent mendacity of the editor.

But – and you don’t know how much it pains me to say it out loud – editors are people too.

What’s an editor’s job? Deal with talent in whatever way is appropriate to the project and the moment, get the books to press on time, interface with the readership, all that, sure. But an editor’s real job is this:

To waste as little of the publisher’s money as possible.

If you approach editors from that perspective, and understand that that’s their real job and guiding principle, it makes their behavior and decisions much easier to understand, and to sympathize with. Some editors may not even consciously realize this themselves, and I’m sure some will even be offended by the statement, because that reduces their existence to completely monetary considerations and most editors, whether they consider themselves “creators,” do take at least a little pride in considering themselves “creative.” Bringing us to another widespread misperception in the comics business that everyone knows isn’t true (publishing a new comic is a fairly expensive proposition, and while a lot of freelancers like to believe their work automatically deserves underwriting – I know I do – it remains that if you want anything you create published you’ll have to become your own publisher) but many people insist on believing anyway, that there is a binary separation between the economics of the business and the creative end. There isn’t. There are intersections and overlaps, and all of us at all levels of the business make decisions based on those blurred lines every day, because, and if the sentiment is corrupt, fine, it’s corrupt, live with it, there is almost nobody who is in comics purely for money or purely for creative expression, and that includes editors.

Even on creator-owned lines, or lines of comics where the creative decisions are left largely in the hands of talent, the editor remains a creative force, because usually the editor is the one who decides which projects they’d like to see in print and the project’s ombudsman with whoever makes the ultimate decision. Any project taken on represents a very large commitment of an editor’s time and energy (time alone is something no editor has enough of to start with) and it’s not surprising to find editors can be pretty unenthusiastic about making that level of commitment to projects that don’t excite them. You can push what you think is the most brilliant comic in the history of comics, and it might even be, but if you can’t connect with an editor on that level, that project most likely isn’t going anywhere, and not unreasonably, because if you can’t excite the person you want to edit your book then you’re going to have a tough time exciting enough of an audience to keep it going.

That’s where most pitches screw up. Most freelancers consider editors interchangeable, and don’t even begin to approach them as individuals. It’s not difficult to sort out an editor’s tastes and interests (or, if we’re talking company-owned comics, the limitations of their allowed scope) by assessing the books they edit and figuring out which would be most likely to be excited by your project. (Don’t take that as an invitation to pitch that half-assed HELLBLAZER knockoff you’ve concocted to the HELLBLAZER editor because you won’t get very far, but do take it as an invitation to hold off sending your giant robot time travel samurai epic to that editor whose office only produces westerns.) But most freelancers don’t even do that. Not that talent doesn’t often have real gripes with their editors, but the ones they bring on themselves are so easy to avoid. Getting new comics and graphic novels off the ground is a difficult struggle in any case, but behaving as if editors are indistinguishable functionaries with no definable tastes or personalities who have no right to their opinions and judgment (which, by the way, they’re paid to have and make) and no right to personal satisfaction from the projects they’re involved in aside from the pride of getting their names attached to your work is a great way to make the process much, much more difficult.

Let’s see. It has now come out that Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales was briefed on FBI abuses of the powers given them by the Patriot Act six days before he stood before Congress and swore there was absolutely no evidence of any FBI abuse of the Patriot Act. Since the FBI is forbidden now from collecting and rifling through the phone records of millions of average Americans, they’re concocting a plan to pay companies to hold onto those records for them. Rifle through them for them too, maybe? The White House is blanket telling staff not to testify during Congressional investigations into the still-growing attorney firings scandal, which looks to be triggering a court test of the limits of executive privilege any day now. Republican congressmen are deserting the White House war effort right and left while Michael Moore chews out Wolf Blitzer and the American press on national TV over their abject reporting failures involving the Iraq war and now the American health car situation, reports of systematic abuse of Iraqi citizens by American military and statistics indicating that more Afghans have been killed by allied forces than had been by the Taliban are making the news, Iraqi oil workers are strongly protesting the plan endorsed by Congress to rip control of Iraqi oil away from the Iraqi state and put it in the hands of foreign corporations, John McCain’s presidential campaign is in total collapse, and more facts about Reagan-in-waiting maybe candidate Fred Thompson’s past as tobacco company shill, lobbyist for foreign asbestos companies trying to relax American restrictions on use of the highly toxic substance, and White House spy on the Watergate investigation committee arrive daily. It’s just been one of those weeks.

So if all the chickens are finally coming home to roost, why are we still getting crapped on?

Notes from under the floorboard:

Sorry for the short column this week, but for some reason I’ve been sluggish all day. Sorry last week’s column didn’t go up until Thursday, but it had nothing to do with me. I had everything in well before deadline. Some people take their rare holidays so seriously…

Two weeks until San Diego. I’ll be there from Wednesday through Sunday, though I have no scheduled appearances. If you want to find me, check the Boom! or Moonstone booths if they have them this year. Maybe I’ll drop by Avatar Avatar, though they usually don’t have a lot of room there and this year they’re hosting the rare San Diego appearance of Warren Ellis so they probably have their hands full enough without me getting in the way. Because they have a couple more hands at home now, AiT/PlanetLar will be shorthanded at their booth this year and are cutting back their signing schedules accordingly. So while I will be there and am happy to chat with you and autograph books etc., it’ll be catch as catch can. Sorry about that, too. (But if you do see me, please don’t ask how I’m enjoying the show. I rarely don’t enjoy myself at the San Diego Con, but for me it’s business, not enjoyment, and if I wasn’t enjoying myself in the slightest, it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference.)

Saw Yimou Jhang’s CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER over the weekend. Great cast, terrific acting, really stunning sets, and very sharp directing. Yes, there’s a but coming up. Set in the Tang dynasty, it involves the ruthless machinations of the Emperor, played by Chou Yun-Fat, and the Empress, played by Gong Ji, as they try to outmaneuver each other in games of life and death and their various pawns, including their children, get burned in the process. While I enjoyed it a lot, and the Chinese are now doing more stunning and stylized things with color than anyone since Eisenstein – it’s a truly gorgeous film – I have the feeling it’s got the same problem a lot of comics have; I suspect character motivations and behavior would make a lot more sense if I was more immersed in the history of the period and the conventions of the genre, in this case quasi-mythic Chinese historical drama. (While it’s not a kung fu film, there are the requisite Peking Opera kung fu-inflected sword fights and “magic” wirework that allows hordes of Chinese assassins to appear to run on air.) Nonetheless it’s worth watching, especially for the unexpected delights of things like a woman going mad when she realizes her true relationship to her lover, and imperial servants cleaning up a bloody battlefield in practically the blink of an eye. I just wish I’d felt more of a connection and less like voyeur.

Congratulations to Bob O’Leary, the first to correctly recognize that the covers in last week’s Comics Cover Challenge all featured the names of prominent comics professionals: Hogarth, Wood, Kane, Wolfman, Kirby, Shooter, and the one almost no one figured out, Ellis, though Crumb works too. (The rest of you: I told you the answer had nothing to do with Harlan Ellison.) Bob wants to point you to Art Of O’Leary, his online gallery of fantasy, comics and sports art. Most of the pieces are ridiculously overpriced and he knows it, but trust me; there’s a method to his madness…

For those who came in late: you may notice several comics covers posted in the column. This is what I call the Comics Cover Challenge. The covers are connected by a single secret theme – it could be a concept, a creator, a character, a historical element, pretty much anything – and the first reader who emails me the correct solution may choose a website of their choice (keep it clean!) for promotion in next’s week’s column. If you need any clues beyond what’s here, you can search for them at the online source of our covers, The Grand Comic Book Database. As usual, I cleverly hid a clue to the answer somewhere in the column, but it’s so cleverly hidden I bet you could search for weeks on end and never find it, so you might be better off trying to crack the puzzle without it. Good luck!

As usual, you can find ebooks and other books by me and recommended by me available at The Paper Movies Store. Go buy something; I need the money. Then again, who doesn’t?

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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