SDCC: Editing Comics the BOOM! Way

"First and foremost, I always like to ask the question of what editing comics means to people in general. So, what is the job? What's the right way to edit a book? What's the wrong way to edit a book?" asked Matt Gagnon, Editor-in-Chief of BOOM! Studios at their "Editing Comics the BOOM! Way" panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego.

The panel -- the largest in BOOM! history, according to Gagnon -- consisted of seven people including "Fairy Quest" writer Paul Jenkins, "Dead Letters" writer Christopher Sebela, "Black Market" writer Frank Barbiere, "Will O' The Wisp" artist Megan Hutchison, "The Woods" writer James Tynion IV and editor Dafna Pleban.

Jenkins took up Gagnon's prompt first. "I had the particular affliction of being an editor in this business before I was a writer," he said. "The best part about that is that it taught me to write and collaborate with my editors. I understood what was needed from a writer, so it's always been helpful to me in my career." Jenkins went on to point out the qualities that he felt were essential in a good editor. "A good editor is somebody that understands how to get the best from their talent, whether their talent understands it or not." He also contrasted the qualities of a good editor with what he considered to be poor editing. "The poor example, I'd say would be 'I don't like pages three to seven. Change them.' The good ideas come from editors that understand how to listen. The trick is to serve the story. The story is everything, and if you serve the story with the art, and the writing, and the editing: everything like that, that's what tends to work."

Jenkins pointed over to Pleban and said "Now, I just told my amazing editor, Dafna, that she's my favorite editor, and she really is. I've worked with plenty of editors, and Dafna's great. The way it works is I hand in the script [and] we walk in with no ego. We just say 'How do we serve the story the best?' I want the best finished product. I don't want to boast of 'me' in it. The first rule of writing is 'kill your darlings.' Get rid of things that you may like but don't serve the story. So once I send in the script, Dafna and Alex [Galer] read it, then we start looking through, and then we ask questions about it. 'Is this correct? Does it fit?"

"That's such a good answer!" said Sebela. The writer said he had more of a learning curve since he started his career with the mostly self-edited series "High Crimes. "I did it myself, which was ignorance." Sebela went on to talk about how much he enjoyed working with the editorial staff at BOOM! "They're very helpful at just sort of getting my head straight about what is actually required and where I'm just kind of drifting off the path. They're very gentle about it. It's not like they hand me notes and say 'You have to fix this, this and this.' Gentle is the word for it. It just feels friendly and nice."

Smiling, he said "That's what I need. I don't know, maybe I'm just super fragile or something."

Frank Barbiere asked the audience how many of them were looking to become comics writers. About a dozen hands went up right away. He went on to address the concerns of those transitioning from indie comics to working with a publisher. "It's certainly a very scary thing when you start transitioning. Chris and I, we started off with our own stuff. We had no editor. We were publishing our own comics," he said.

He went on to note how good editing goes far beyond grammar and spelling assistance. "The way I look at it, good editing is a conversation, wherein you as an individual understand that your editors just want the best work possible. Like any conversation, there will be good and bad. And at BOOM! specifically, it's wonderful to have someone there who comes in at the ground level and understands what you're doing, and understands intent. No one's going to tell you how to write your script verbatim, but when you have that sounding board..." Barbiere paused a moment. "I would always much rather hear it from my editor than a journalist in a review after the fact. It's a really nice net to have."

As the editor on the panel, Pleban agreed with everyone's statements to that point. "One of the best parts of working at BOOM! and being an editor at BOOM! is we get to choose the projects we want to do. When it comes to editing, we're not here to form the story to some vision we have. We're here to service the story that we want," she said. "We are here to work as collaborators. We are here to bring that to the front, because we already think it's something special. We exist here to polish it."

Pleban went on to compare working on franchise editing projects and creator-owned original properties. "What I love about both disciplines, so to speak, is because comics is inherently collaborative, everyone comes in with some degree of setting aside their ego to all work toward a collaborative vision. It's the same thing with franchise in that sense, that we're all trying to service the franchise 'Planet of the Apes' or 'Sons of Anarchy.'"

"When we ask questions, being forced to articulate it often helps the writer to discover what they're really trying to say," Pleban continued. "It's just a really awesome experience when the editor and writer both know what the thing is and are working to bring that to light."

Megan Hutchison then spoke up as "the designated artist." She asked if there were any artists in the room and a few hands went up. She shared that "Will O' The Wisp" is her first graphic novel. She stressed the importance of collaboration and communication. She talked about working with her writer and editor, Rebecca "Tay" Taylor, at BOOM! imprint Archaia. "We were just constantly going back and forth, and there was an equal level of communication where all of us were getting our story across so that we could make a cohesive piece."

After she spoke about the pain of having to erase art that didn't work with the story, Gagnon asked Hutchison if she had any problematic experiences with getting editorial notes "after the fact." Hutchison agreed that it's more difficult to make changes to existing art than it is to adjust a script. "On this project, because we did so much extensive editing during the writing process, there weren't that many edits. But I did have to re-draw a couple of pages." She went on to say that it's a humbling experience to have to re-draw a page, but that it's a great learning experience. "It can be painful, but that's because you're growing," she said.

Tynion was able to speak to the experience of working with the editorial staff at DC, Marvel and BOOM! "There's a different tenor with every editor you work with," he said. "Every editor has a completely different way of handling it. With BOOM!, that's been the thing that's made it very special: it's the connection, the synchronicity. I know I can call up my editor and we'll immediately be on the same page." Tynion went on to say "I enjoy working in both pools, but it's fascinating to compare and contrast."

Gagnon said that he started BOOM! Studios in 2008 with the goal of building loyalty between artists and the editorial staff. "My thing is, I've always loved helping people tell stories. I find that very rewarding." He said that he wanted BOOM! to be both a sounding board and support structure for its artists. "Where that all starts is with trust between two people that are working together. There is an element of trust that is, I believe, critical in what we do as editors. And it's not something that is inherent, right? Trust is something you have to earn, and the only way you earn trust is by working with people and giving them your best.

"Trust is very important because it sort of calms everybody down, once you have it," he continued. "You can't put any sort of drama or ego into the equation; or if you do have any ego, then the editor's ego and the creator's ego have to be pointed in the right direction. The ego has to be a missile!"

Then Gagnon asked the panel how they went about forging trusting relationships with editors and artists. Jenkins spoke about respecting the process. "It comes from process that includes artists, writers, letterers, colorists, editors, publishers, readers to some extent. Everybody's in this creative process together," he said.

The veteran writer then told a story about a time when he was working on a book and called his editor Eric Harmon with a story development that he thought would really upset him. "And it didn't upset him. He said, 'Tell me that again,' and I told him twice so that he understood it. And he said 'This is exciting.' When you're a creator and you hear that -- that your editor not only gets it but trusts you to completely change direction on the things you've already pitched -- that creates a kind of confidence."

Sebela talked about pitching "Dead Letters," and the first conversations that he had with his editors. "'Listen guys, the paragraph I sent you is all I have on this book. I don't have anything else, and you're going to have to work with me.' Once I laid that out on the table, it was a lot easier." He went on to talk about sacrificing a certain amount of control when working with an editor. "It's a little bit frightening at first, but it was probably within the first or second phone conversation that I was like 'These guys get it, so I can relax a bit. It's a weird process opening yourself up creatively to strangers, by and large."

Gagnon noted that the relationship aspect of the business is very important. "As a creator, you want to find an editor you can trust and you can work with, right? As an editor, you want to do the same thing on the other end. You want to find creators you believe in," he said. "For us, it's all about finding the right people. Maybe that's analogous to life." Gagnon went on to say that no one on BOOM!'s staff had interest in being just an average editorial department. They want to be the best. "That's our mission. That's our goal. Let's do it better than anybody else. That point of view when paired with the creators we have, who are exceptional and who bring us these wonderful works, that's where you get the 'Suicide Risks' and 'The Lumberjanes' and all those wonderful books that we publish."

"I'm curious," he asked. "Are there any brave souls in the audience that want to be an editor?" A couple of hands go up. "Welcome," said Pleban. "You'll never sleep again." Jenkins laughed and added, "For those who are about to die, we salute you."

Gagnon then asked Pleban to describe what editing life is like. "We joke that editors are part military generals and part therapists," he said. Pleban said, "In terms of being an editor, it's both 'always on' but also remembering that what your doing at the end of the day is making a creative work." She described deadlines as "the lifeblood of the industry." By keeping books on time, that allows the books to flourish because they reach their audience.

Gagnon said "Those are the people I want in the bullpen. The people who want to be in comics." He talked about the crackle and energy in an office where everyone is passionate and motivated. "One of my favorite things is when creators come into the office. George Perez said this when he came into our office: 'This feels like when I would go into Marvel Comics in the '70s. I haven't felt this energy since I went into Marvel Comics in the '70s."

Gagnon then opened the panel for questions from the audience. The first question was about BOOM's diversity of titles. "Is there a voice or a commonality for BOOM!?" asked a man from the middle of the audience. The consensus among the panel was that diversity was important to the company, and that different skill sets and point of views were key to success. "If I've done my job right, I'm surrounding myself with people who are really smart and I want to empower them," said Gagnon. Gagnon also said that the opportunity to acquire Archaia Press was amazing because it brought over a roster of creators who brought fresh insight and sensibilities.

The next question was related to pitches. "When you're accepting pitches like the 'Dead Letters' pitch, what was attractive to you to do that story, and also what would be a big turn-off?"

Gagnon said "With 'Dead Letters' in particular, we're big fans of 'guys with guns.'" He talked about how successful "Two Guns" had been and said that the pitch aligned with their sensibility. They were interested in the "Parker in Purgatory" sense of story. He went on to dispel a common misconception about editors: that they're just looking to shoot down pitches. "As an editor, I actually want creators to do well. So when you turn the pitch, I'm hoping it's a really good pitch. I'm already looking at it through rose colored glasses." He said that the only thing that would turn him off of a pitch is if it's completely outside of BOOM!'s sensibility.

When asked if the writers had ever run into a situation where the editor was wrong, Tynion said "Yeah, that's definitely happened. It hasn't happened with my BOOM! stuff yet." "Thanks for a really divisive question," joked Pleban.

Jenkins indicated that there was a difference between a suggestion and a "strong suggestion." If asked by an editor to trust in his or her decision, Jenkins said "My answer is almost always 'Absolutely.' No worries. That's what we do. We collaborate." Barbiere agreed, saying, "It's really important, especially when your a new writer, to learn to be reflective on your work. If someone's telling you that they sense something amiss, I should investigate what that is. Nine times out of ten, you have the intent of what you want to say. You're just saying it incorrectly."

When asked what the career path to become an editor is, Gagnon responded "It's almost different every single time. When I was coming up, there's no college courses in how to become a comic book editor. So more often than not, its about becoming a part of the comic book community. You need to meet people. More importantly, you need to be a student of the medium." He went on to say that every editor at BOOM! came to their job by a different path. The most important steps are to become part of the comics community and to self-educate.

Pleban pointed out "You edited a book before you came to BOOM!. If you help your friends, if you have friends who are creatives, they need help. They need someone to keep them on deadline, to keep them on task. Be there for your friends, and that's the best job training you can get."

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