Welcome back to FROM THE EDITOR'S DESK, Comic Book Resources' series of in-depth interviews with the editors of Dark Horse Comics. This week, we bring you a discussion with Vice President of Publishing Randy Stradley, who also edits the Star Wars line of titles including "Legacy," "Knights of the Old Republic," "Dark Times," the recently-announced "Invasion," "Clone Wars," and assorted miniseries. Stradley was also responsible for early Dark Horse highlights such as the first 87 issues of "Dark Horse Presents," which debuted Paul Chadwick's "Concrete" and Frank Miller's "Sin City" and introduced many now-prominent creators; the original "Aliens" and "Predator" runs; Bryan Talbot's "The Tale of One Bad Rat" and "Heart of Empire: The Legacy of Luther Arkwright;" and Miller and Dave Gibbons's "Give Me Liberty," among others.
Stradley is rather amused by his fate as Star Wars editor, because his first project in comics was writing an issue of Marvel's "Star Wars" series back in 1983. "Back then, after I had written my one issue and Marvel asked me to submit more story pitches, I came up dry. I spun my wheels for a long time, and in the end decided that maybe I only had that one 'Star Wars' story in me," Stradley told CBR News. "Now, a new idea occurs to me almost every day. Luckily, writing and editing are two jobs at which experience and time on the job only make you better. As long as you keep trying to find new ways to approach the job and you don't allow yourself to get complacent or burned out, your skill level increases."
Obviously, Stradley is having a blast editing Dark Horse's assorted Star Wars series. "I'm working with some really great writers and artists," he said. "John Ostrander (the writer on 'Legacy') understands how to construct a story -- and how to people it with characters whose motivations keep pushing the plot forward -- better than anybody I've ever worked with. And I'd put Doug Wheatley (the artist on 'Dark Times') up against any artist in the business -- his work is so rich in detail yet so clear in storytelling, I'm practically speechless every time he turns in pages.
"Really, everyone I'm working with is great. Artists like Jan Duursema, Omar Francia, Colin Wilson, the Fillbach Brothers, and Scott Hepburn each have their own style and way of telling stories, and they're really good at what they do. I know when I give them a script that they're going to turn in truly professional jobs.
"And my writers are all top notch, too. Tom Taylor is an Australian TV writer who's writing comics like he was born to it, and Henry Gilroy, who was head writer on the first season of 'The Clone Wars' show, is writing 'The Clone Wars' comics, so that makes perfect sense."
In addition to the debut of the new title, "Invasion," Stradley said that 2009 will be a big year for the other Star Wars books as well. "Coming out of the events in the just-completed 'Vector' crossover, the storylines of both 'Knights of the Old Republic' and 'Legacy' are veering off in some unexpected directions," he said. "We promised that 'Vector' would shake up the status quo of the Star Wars books, and we weren't kidding."
Stradley continued, "'Dark Times' returns in April after the current online stories on 'MySpace Dark Horse Presents' are completed. The focus in this arc shifts to ex-Jedi Dass Jennir, who wasn't involved with 'Vector'--but readers will see bits with Vader and the crew of the Uhumele, and those characters have all definitely been affected by what transpired.
"Then, we've got more of 'The Clone Wars' --both digests and standard comic books. Director Dave Filoni is drawing another cover (he drew the cover to issue #1) and writing a story. Running parallel to the 'Clone Wars' digests is another series of parent-friendly stories in 'Star Wars Adventures.' Like the 'Clone Wars' digests, each book is a standalone story, and the volumes can be read in any order."
Randy Stradley's adventure into the comic book industry is somewhat of an ironic quest. "I got into comics because I couldn't get into movies," he confessed. "Well, that's not exactly true. I could have done something in movies, but I realized that everything in movies goes through a committee -- even if that 'committee' is just the director and producer. I decided that I could have more creative freedom -- and control -- in comics. I really wanted to write, and comics gave me that chance, but the surprising turn was that I ended up editing and enjoying it. Now I'm the committee."
The editor joined Dark Horse in its earliest days after conversations with publisher Mike Richardson, just before the company's founding. "I knew Mike Richardson from talking to him at the comics shop he was then running, and we realized that we shared many common likes and goals where comics -- and the comics medium -- were concerned," Stradley recalled. "Mike had told me how he had always wanted to start a publishing company, and we had talked about the kinds of comics we'd like to see in the market. One day he called me and said, 'I'm ready to start a company. Do you want to be the editor?' I said yes, and we were off. We knew only a little about what we were getting into, but I think history shows that we had good instincts about what the market wanted.
"That, and being lucky, got us through the first couple of years. By then, Dark Horse had taken on a life of its own, and we were pretty much unstoppable."
Stradley said that from this beginning forward, "Everything I know about editing has been learned on the job. It took me years to finally codify for myself how to approach a script or story pages as an editor, but now I feel like I can handle anything thrown at me."
The editor explained his typical workflow thusly: "I always insist on a full story outline that clearly spells out the Plot, Story, and Theme. I want the whole story, beginning, middle, and end--no ambiguities. Not only do I want to know who does what, but I want to know why they do it and what it means to them and to the readers. Why does what happen matter? An outline like that allows an editor to know if the writer understands his or her story, but it's also a good gauge by which to judge whether the story can fit within the given number of pages. Page space is the bane of writers in comics and more great stuff has been lost for the want of a few more pages than readers can ever know."
Once the outline has been approved, a full-script is a must for Randy Stradley. "There's no other way to know whether the dialogue a writer intends to use will fit on a page along with the requested visuals, and no other way to know whether the artist has been cued to draw the necessary image (or the correct expression) at the right moment in the story," the editor explained. "I've found that the more time you spend polishing and shaping a script -- honing it, really -- the fewer problems you'll have on the art end."
Stradley continued, "My first read through is pretty much just to take in the story. I might make a few notes along the way about obvious errors, or to indicate story points that raise questions in my mind, but I'm not really editing yet, just reading the story like anyone would. If, after the initial read, I don't feel that the story has quite jelled, I'll talk to the writer. Maybe I'll send it back for a rewrite; maybe we'll figure out a fix that can be done during editing. Once the story is solid and all of the characters and plot points in place, it's time for a different kind of editing.
"The next step is to make sure the script works for comics. Working at the pace at which most comics are produced, even experienced writers sometimes ask artists to draw things that just aren't possible. Like a seven-panel page of which three are establishing shots and the other panels each feature a minimum of two speaking characters. Or a panel description that asks for two (or more) separate actions. Or simply writing more dialogue than a panel or page can support. Or the classic request for the scene where the hero has his back to us as he confronts the villain, but we can also see the expression on the hero's face. There are a million ways to make unintentional screwups.
"Fixing those kinds of errors can either be easy, or a couple of days' work, depending. Sometimes it's as easy as moving panels from one page to another, or cutting dialogue. Other times it calls for whole scenes to be rewritten or restaged. Again, because of the pace at which the work needs to be turned around, I usually do the minor rewrites myself. Sometimes the major ones, too. I'm pretty brutal with the scripts, and I have few qualms about cutting someone's favorite character bit or a bit of difficult-to-follow action for the sake of the overall story. I'm sure some of my writers think I'm a tyrant, but I've also had some well-known creators thank me for opening their eyes to the way in which the comics medium really works. Again, since I started really dissecting the scripts, I've rarely had to send pages back to an artist for redrawing."
Stradley edited actor-turned-writer Bruce Campbell's script for an issue of Dark Horse's "The Hire," a tie-in project with automaker BMW. "It was his first comics script, and there were a couple sequences that needed to be rewritten to make them work in panel-to-panel art," the editor recalled. "I told him I was going to jump in and make the changes, and I did. A year later, I ran into him at Comic-Con. It had been probably twelve years since we had last met face to face, so I reintroduced myself to him, adding, 'I'm the guy who butchered your BMW script.' He looked at me with a dour expression and deadpanned, 'Yes, you are.' I sorta hope he was kidding, but I was just doing my job."
As to what he looks for in a comic, Stradley said his preferences tend to be more mainstream. "I don't know if it's because I'm old fashioned, or just because I'm old, but I prefer to work on straight-ahead action-adventure comics. I like 'realistic' art, and I like my storytelling old-school conservative -- you know, panels aligned with one another, white gutters between panels, bright colors, etc.," he said. "I'm a firm believer that what an artist draws and how they decide to draw it within a panel is much more important than how they arrange panels on a page. For the reader, each panel is a frozen moment in time and each gutter is the second or the 'beat' between that moment and the next. You start screwing with that, and you run the risk of losing or confusing the reader. Pulling a reader out of a story -- causing the reader to break the flow and ask themselves what just happened or to which panel their eye should go next -- is a sin. It's about the story, not about the artist who's drawing it."
Comic book conventions are still the best place for wannabes to network with editors like Randy Stradley, although the Star Wars editor is not able to attend as many cons as he has in years past. "Almost every year, I find artists who are really good and who are ready for a professional assignment. Most of the time the problem is finding an assignment for them," he said. "Writers have the hardest time of it, simply because assessing a writer's abilities requires the time it takes to read their work. With an artist, you know within two seconds if they're any good; for writers you need ten times that long. I would say to writers who want to pitch stories to me, think small. A well-crafted eight-page story is likely to be better received (and take a lot less time to read) than a proposal for a twelve-issue series. I want to know 1) if you can tell a story, and 2) if you can tell a story in comics format."
Of course, the the same is true for artists. "Show me you can tell a story with pictures. I have absolutely no interest in seeing pinups or sketchbook pages," Stradley said. "All of the jobs in comics - -even for colorists -- require the ability to tell a story. Just drawing pretty pictures ain't in it."
Despite the challenges, Stradley said there are success stories of breaking in with Dark Horse, like Tom Taylor, an Australian playwright and television writer who was recently announced as the scribe for "Star Wars: Invasion," the fifth ongoing series in Dark Horse's Star Wars franchise. Additionally, Stradley met artist Omar Francia at Comic-Con the year before last, and Scott Hepburn's samples "came in over the transom, so-to-speak." And, Stradley added, "Oh, yeah, I met artist Carlo Sinfuego Soriano in San Diego last year, and he's drawing one of the upcoming 'Star Wars Adventures' graphic novellas. So it's totally possible to land a job either showing your work at a convention or sending samples through the mail. But it's not easy."
In conclusion, Stradley said a lot of work goes on between a comic book editor and its creative team that readers never see - and that they shouldn't see it. "An editor's contributions to a books should be transparent, invisible," he said. "I always shake my head whenever I see some award being proffered for 'Best Editor.' Unless you're the writer or the artist on a particular project, how would you know what -- if anything -- the editor did, beyond hiring the creative team? I really wish comics were more like 'real' books, where unless it's an anthology, no editor's name is listed."