Okay: first, I have to apologize. This should have gone up this morning, but I my day was utterly consumed by the last gasp of Girl Scout Cookie sales. So let’s talk about something other than cookies, okay? Like comic books.
For almost four years I was comic-book editor. What was that like? Short answer: it was great. I got to play with superheroes! I met talented people and worked hard and made a few actual contributions to an artform I really love.
I have been a comic book reader (to my mother’s dismay) since I was seven and was bought a copy of World’s Finest (then a team-up magazine featuring Batman and Superman) to keep me quiet on a train trip. Within a couple of years, a friend of my mother gave my brother and me her son’s comic collection which “he had outgrown” (I suspect that meant, in Mom-speak, that she wanted them out of her house). Suddenly we had over a thousand comic books in the house, and as soon as we’d read those, we started adding to the collection. We wrote letters to the editor (my first taste of textual analysis!), argued over plot points, had our favorite artists and writers. And in the fullness of time, we grew up.
And found ourselves working in comics. My brother got there first: he has been a letterer for something like 30 years. I came in much later (at age 40) when I was hired as an editor at Acclaim (formerly Valiant) comics. Unlike most of my co-workers, I was 1) a girl; 2) old; and 3) from a prose-writing background, editorially speaking. Comics were part of my vocabulary, but by the time I started working at Acclaim I’d published five novels, a bunch of short stories, gone to Clarion, participated in other writing workshops, done some freelance editing. I was one of two people (my friend Teresa Nielsen Hayden was the other) hired because they wanted someone who brought something more than comics to the table.
So we did. And startled some people. Like the writer to whom I returned a script with editorial comments. “What’s this?” Jorge asked, not affronted, but curious. “Corrections. I think it’s basically solid, but you’ve got some logic gaps, and I’d like you to look at the character of the kid you introduce on page 12.”
Jorge was one of the good ones. He grasped immediately that I was trying to help him make the story better. “I’ve never been edited before.” And he took to it like a duck to water, and was a pleasure to work with. Not so much another writer who, when I pointed out a flat scientific impossibility, something akin to saying the sun orbits the Earth, stood on principle and refused to make a change, because who was I to correct him? As with every business, there were people who were really talented and people who were, um, less so; there were people who were a joy to work with, and some 800 pound gorillas who demanded tact and hand-holding. There were writers and readers who were obsessive with continuity (and the Valiant universe had layers and layers of canon to adhere to) and those who played fast and loose with everything, including the stuff they’d drawn three pages back. There were people who’d destroy canon because they could, or blow up the moon (but ignore me when I’d ask, plaintively, what effect that was going to have on the Earth, as if the moon were just a big white night light in the sky).
But the single thing that I hated hearing even more than “I’m going to be late turning in my script” was this: The kids’ll love it! What this was code for was: I loved it when I was twelve so readers will now. What’s wrong with that? Well, the graying of comic book readership was part of it: the current readership was comprised in significant part of people who had been reading comics for twenty years or more, and had likely loved it when they were twelve but would be jaded now. Second problem? “Kids” in ’97 were being raised on Sandman and The Watchmen and The Dark Knight, and their expectations were different than the kids who were raised on, well, World’s Finest. But my biggest single objection to the kids’ll love it was that it was a code for laziness on the part of the writer. I didn’t hear it when someone handed me a script: I heard it when I came back with problems; it was a way of blowing off my attempts to make a comic better, of saying, “Whaddaya want, it’s just comics.”
Some of the people I got to work with–Bob Hall, who did the gorgeous black-and-white noir series Armed and Dangerous (cover above), about the Irish mob in New York; Jamie Delano and Ashley Wood, who did a run on Shadowman with me; Tom Peyer, who reinvented Magnus Robot Fighter and Mike McKone, who drew him; and Kevin Kobasic, a superhero artist who begged me to let him draw our Classics Illustrated version of Pride and Prejudice and did a killer job–made going to work in the morning a joy. So did my co-workers, from whom I learned a great deal.
Comics is a business that runs on crazy; you’ve got creative people on tight deadlines, writing and drawing and coloring and lettering books that are supposed to meet specific schedules. More than once (all right, more than twice) I had books miss their ship date because a writer missed a deadline, which meant a penciller missed a deadline, which meant an inker missed a deadline…and then we tried to make it all up in coloring, lettering, and production, with predictably sorry results. The people in production were heroes, because production is always where rubber meets the road. But for me it was always about the writers and the artists, and, truth to tell, more about the writers. I can critique a drawing, or say “I can’t fathom what you’re telling me is happening in this panel,” but I can’t draw.
But I could look at a story and try to find ways to make it better. When the writer I was working with let me do that, it was a very happy day of work for me. And I think the kids loved it, too.
Madeleine Robins blogs regularly at madrobins.livejournal.com as well as at the Book View Cafe Blog. Visit her bookshelf.