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Interview: Diana Schutz on editing (circa 2007)

A bit of Drawing Words & Writing Pictures history: when Matt and I began working on that book, back in 2005 or so, we planned a 30-chapter behemoth. The idea was to have one chapter per week for a full academic year of work at an art school like the School of Visual Arts, where we teach. Once we got into it, we saw how long and unwieldy that would make the book, and we also realized that the work in just 15 chapters might easily take an academic year to do, if one were so inclined. So we cut the book in half.

Part of the plan for the second half was to teach professional practice, and one idea we pursued was to have a series of chapters that focused on various aspects of the comics world, from mainstream American genre comics, to minicomics, to European comics, to manga. Each chapter would have examples of work from that area, and an article about the ins and outs of that segment of comics, possibly in comics form, with interviews with creators, editors, and others. Well, the second half of DWWP became the new textbook we’re working on, and the focus of the book changed, as it’s now a stand-alone text. But I’d already done a bunch of interviews.

Ever since, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with them. These interviews were fascinating to conduct, and reveal all kinds of stuff I didn’t know before about what it’s really like to work as a cartoonist and/or editor (circa late 2006 and early 2007, anyway). Finally, Matt suggested we post them here.

The first of these interviews, with veteran comics editor (of Frank Miller’s Sin City, Paul Chadwick’s Concrete, Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, and Matt Wagner’s Grendel, among many others), comics teacher, and good friend Diana Schutz, follows. More interviews will follow with various American and European artists and editors, irregularly in the next few months.

Please bear in mind that this interview was conducted at the beginning of 2007, so “upcoming” releases are of course long-since released, and “recent” events and books are not all that recent. That said, this information pretty much holds its value. The focus of this interview was approaching publishers, making proposals, and working with editors. In other words, breaking into the biz, from Diana’s, and Dark Horse’s particular point of view.

How do you find projects you want to work on?

I find projects any way I can, really.  Some come to me—either through the mail or in person, at conventions—and some I actively go looking for.  At this stage in my career, however, I no longer accept blind submissions, though I did for a long time.  Additionally, in order for me to consider a submission nowadays, it’s got to be the complete package: writing and art.  Let’s face it, comics is a medium utilizing words and pictures, and as a senior editor juggling a client list that includes people like Frank Miller, Stan Sakai, and Matt Wagner, I don’t really have the time to try to “marry” writers with artists anymore.

Besides, that whole division of labor (writer and artist, I mean) is an arbitrary one that arose entirely from commercial deadline constraints.  The best work tends to be produced by an individual creator with a singular vision.  And that’s what personally interests me most, so that’s primarily what I look for nowadays.  Admittedly, that’s not consistent with the approach of most editors working in commercial comics, where the work is still done via “group process” (or what I, unkindly, call “assembly line”).

An ideal proposal form depends on the source.  If it’s someone I’ve already worked with, or whose work I’m familiar with, it can be as simple as a phone call!  If it’s someone new, then the ideal proposal form is a good handful of actual story pages: written, drawn, and lettered for me to read.  Recently, at the Small Press Expo, a young artist handed me photocopies of the first 200 pages of his proposed 750-page graphic novel!  That was actually great—not only could I really sink my teeth into what he was doing, but his level of commitment to the project was also damn obvious!

Minicomics are the perfect way, I think, to show an editor your chops.

Anybody can make an eight-page mini; even I have made minicomics, and I can’t draw to save my life!  The minicomic is a quick and easily digestible showcase of one’s talent for making comics, because it is an actual comic and immediately makes visible the writer’s skill for story, language, and pacing, as well as the artist’s skill for visual storytelling, figure drawing and illustration, layout and design, or the individual cartoonist’s skill for all of the above.  And it takes only a few minutes to read a mini, so it’s a relatively painless process for the editor and therefore more likely actually to get read than the traditional style of submission (plot, character designs, and sample script pages).

How often do you need to find artists or writers for a project that’s already going with Dark Horse? How do you go about finding them?

Not too often anymore, though I think I’m probably the exception to the rule here.  Because Dark Horse publishes a variety of licensed properties—like Star Wars or Conan, for example—editors are generally handed a project once the deal has been negotiated with the licensor, and then it’s up to the editor to hire the creative team.

I have, in the past, had to hire writers and artists for projects—like The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, for instance, which was a comic based on Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Or every couple of years, I come up with my pet anthology projects, like Sexy Chix—or right now I’m putting together an anthology of crime fiction, called Noir—and in those cases I have to find people to participate.

How do I find them? I call them up! I don’t mean to be glib here, but that’s what happens. Look, I take it upon myself to keep up with what’s going on in the field. I spend a fortune on comics and graphic novels! I read some of the more intelligent trade magazines. I go to conventions, especially the alt-comics shows, and scope out new talent.

I spend an awful lot of time reading—both professionally published stuff and Xeroxed minicomics. So, when I put together an anthology, I hire cartoonists who seem appropriate for the book’s theme: and that will range from established professionals to kids getting their first break.

I feel very strongly that I have a responsibility, in fact, to young artists trying to break into the business. So, when I am putting together an anthology, I now make a point of including someone whose work hasn’t been published before (or, at least, not in any kind of significant way). It’s a karma thing.

When I was in my twenties and trying to move from comics retail into publishing, there were some people who not only inspired me—like Trina Robbins—but who actually went out of their way to help me, like Chris Claremont and Denis Kitchen and Tom Orzechowski and Frank Miller. Now that I’m in a position to help others struggling to break in, I think it’s important to keep that circle unbroken.

It’s a kind of payback, and you just don’t mess with that shit.

What are the qualities that make you think: this person is ready to make comics? What are tipoffs that he or she is not ready?

Well, first and foremost, the publishable artist has to be able to tell a story visually. A certain amount of slack can be cut for almost any other aspect of the creative process—but not storytelling. That’s critical, it seems to me.

That said, however, the realities of the current market are such that there are far more people vying for work than there are possibilities thereof. Consequently, the young artist looking to break in must offer something special: that je ne sais quoi or creative spark, a unique vision coupled with an absolute dedication to one’s work…

In the case of writing, in particular—whether writing with words or directly with pictures, telling stories is the foundation of what we do, after all—I have often told people that it’s no longer enough, even in commercial comics, simply to tell a competent story.  If I’m going to pay attention, that story has to knock my socks off.

And how do you get there? Thomas Edison said it best, “Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” I see a fair bit of inspiration, but without the accompanying perspiration—or determination and patience—the young artist might easily be derailed.

Making comics is hard, man, really hard. I don’t think enough people truly understand just how difficult a medium it is to master.

How would you describe your job? (I.e., what do you actually do every day, or every week/month)?

Being an editor means different things to different people—and to different companies. At Dark Horse, editing is very like a combination of project management and quality control: overseeing the creation and quality of a tangible thing, whatever that thing may be, from the start of an idea to that finished thing being produced and available for sale.

So, in the case of comics and graphic novels, I’m involved as early as the dream stage: discussions as to what we (the creator, the publisher, or both) want the project to be. Or maybe even sooner: during negotiations to sign up a particular creator for an as-yet-unspecified project. But ultimately the job extends all the way to overseeing the quality of those final digital files that get sent to the printer to become the comic or graphic novel in question.

And at every stage of that lengthy process of creation, I oversee—proof, approve, discuss, correct, make changes to—each stage of the work. Naturally, this involves working both with the creator(s) and with all the resources the publishing house has to offer: the people in our Production department, who do the scanning and design work and digital file prep, for instance; the Marketing and Sales department, who handle the order solicitations, the advertising campaigns and individual ads, the conventions and other promotions; the Accounting department, who make sure not only that the creators are fairly compensated but also that each book is properly budgeted—which can sometimes be a pretty intense juggling act on their part!

So, really, the editor is the fulcrum point: I believe it’s my obligation to represent the creator’s best interests to Dark Horse while at the same time representing Dark Horse’s best interests to the creator—as you know, these are often not at all the same thing!

And, in fact, hearken back to the age-old conflict between art and commerce. And that’s generally where you should find the editor: stuck in the middle, between a rock and a hard place!

Nobody said it would be easy. And it’s damn hard, really, but that’s what makes it so gratifying when it all comes together at the end of the day, with a book that everyone can be proud of.

 

 

What would you describe as the main genres or areas of storytelling that work in “mainstream” American comics? How does Dark Horse fit in to that scheme as a publisher?

Man, this culture is hooked on action-adventure! I mean, that’s the stuff that sells the best, both in comics and in movies.  Even in novels—mysteries and thrillers are big business. Dark Horse’s best sellers in both markets—bookstore and comics—are Star Wars and Sin City. And now, I guess, various manga titles.

Dark Horse is a little bit different than other comics publishers, though. We follow a more traditional publishing house model in that we produce a wide variety of books for a wide variety of readers—all the way from Little Lulu to Emily the Strange, with Hellboy and Gremlins and Russ Manning’s Magnus Robot Fighter in between, along with the English-language edition of a Marc-Antoine Mathieu graphic novel that I sneak through the cracks from time to time!

We’re all over the place, in a way that neither Marvel nor DC—nor Drawn and Quarterly, for that matter—are.  Other comics publishers tend to be a lot more restrictive in terms of their genres or styles of publication—all superheroes; all manga; all alternative—and consequently their respective readers are kind of locked in those categories. Dark Horse readers aren’t so immediately typecast: they range from little girls to men over sixty.

So, where Marvel rests at one end of the spectrum, primarily serving up superhero fare, and Fantagraphics sits at the other end, publishing more sophisticated, adult material, Dark Horse isn’t so easily pigeonholed.  We have something for everyone: a strong horror line that includes Mike Mignola’s Hellboy; crime comics like Sin City and the upcoming Noir anthology; comics for girls like Little Lulu and Emily the Strange; a huge line of manga; humor comics like Eric Powell’s The Goon; nonfiction in the form of biographies like Cravan by Mike Richardson and Rick Geary; a very successful Star Wars line of comics for fans of the movies; and what Warren Ellis called my “quirky little duchy” (!) which includes Paul Hornschemeier’s Mother, Come Home and Farel Dalrymple’s pop gun war; comics about a giant rock man with a conscience and about a samurai rabbit living in feudal Japan; comics based on a Pulitzer-winning novel; and my black-and-white comics lit anthologies, like AutobioGraphix, Sexy Chix, and De:TALES, all of which are labors of love.

Once you have a project signed up, how does it work procedurally? Is the full script in place when you sign? Do you see thumbs, pencils, inks? At what stages do you edit?

At every stage. Depending on the creator’s needs and/or the particular type of project it is—work-for-hire vs. creator-owned; creator-produced vs. group-process—I see as little or as much as I need to, always preferring to err on the side of more is better, especially if I’m working with someone who’s new to the industry.

In what form is the work turned in?

That depends entirely on the artist.  Stan Sakai, who writes and draws Usagi Yojimbo, turns in each issue completed: written, inked, lettered. And he almost never asks for—or needs—advice on a story. Frank does the same on Sin City—hands in each issue completed—though while he’s working on a story, I’ll hear about it constantly over the phone, as Frank totally lives and breathes each story while he’s working on it. Paul Chadwick, who writes and draws Concrete, prefers to submit pencilled page layouts with captions and dialogue roughed in on 8-1/2”x11” sheets of paper before he goes to work at full-size on art board. Matt Wagner first submits pencils on Grendel and then delivers the script with his inks. Because these creators own their own work, they get to call the shots as to how they prefer to work and how much, or little, involvement they want from me as their editor.

With work-for-hire, of course, it’s a different story. Our work-for-hire projects tend mostly to be licensed properties, all requiring approvals at various stages from the licensors, so in those cases, the process is a step-by-step one, starting with plot, script, pencils, and so on—and each stage of the process is submitted for approval first to the editor, and then to the licensor, before the next step is begun.  At least, that’s how it works in theory!

 

How fast do you expect artists to work?

As fast as I need them to.  As fast as they agree to. We create individual production schedules for each graphic novel, or for each issue of each comics series. But scheduling algorithms differ from project to project, from creator to creator. At the end of the day, if you’re publishing a monthly comic, the rule of thumb is that your artist has to be able to draw one comic per month.

What happens when deadlines are blown?

Heads roll!

Seriously, that depends on the project and the artist.  No one is going to fire Frank Miller if he runs late on a Sin City story; he owns it! With work-for-hire projects, however, people who consistently blow deadlines tend to lose their jobs.

A smart editor builds a certain amount of lag time into the production schedule to take into account the fact that we’re all human, and no matter how well you plan, something unexpected is bound to happen. A simple cold, for example, can throw off a deadline by an entire week—and if it’s a group-process book, then that creates a domino effect on the deadlines of other people working on the book.  Publishers build their budgets around these schedules, and seriously blown deadlines can create problems of cash flow, which, in a worst-case scenario, can then impact artist payments, employee salaries, and more.

Experienced editors have various strategies and tactics for recouping blown deadlines. What we can’t deal with are artists who lie—or disappear. I can almost always work with late artists, so long as they keep me posted about their progress. But when an artist is late and continues to lie about it—or worse, refuses contact—the editor is left in limbo, as is the project.  Those are the people I absolutely won’t work with again.

How do you hire staff—as in colorists, letterers? Is this a good way to break in?

We don’t really have colorists or letterers working in-house.  We have “digital production technicians” (!)—some of whom also freelance on the side as colorists. Dan Jackson, for example, is a terrific digital colorist, who works on staff, scanning art, digitally correcting color and lettering, and otherwise pulling off unimaginable feats of computer wizardry in Photoshop. But I hire him on a freelance basis when I want him to color a story; typically our in-house guys are too busy scanning and correcting to spend in-house time coloring or lettering. (Though, in a pinch, they can sometimes get pulled into quick service that way.)

But Dan broke into coloring gigs by way of his in-house work. Mind you, he wouldn’t get the amount of freelance that he does get from several editors, myself included, if he weren’t so good! He’s really progressed through the years.

So, sure, getting a staff job can be a foot in the door to more creative-type work, but that’ll dry up quick if you don’t keep honing your talent.

As to hiring freelance colorists and letterers, generally, the process is the same as hiring writers or artists.  People send in samples of their work for consideration or I’m aware of their already published work; in either case, I call someone who seems to me appropriate for the project.

Contracts: any advice or insights?

Contracts are of two basic types: work-made-for-hire and creator-owned.

The U.S. Copyright Office defines work-made-for-hire as “a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, a translation, a supplementary work, a compilation, an instructional text, a test, as answer material for a test, an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.”

When creators are hired to work on an existing property, one that is either owned or licensed by the publisher—like Superman or Star Wars, for example —they will be asked to sign a work-made-for-hire contract, which specifies that they (the creators) have no rights whatsoever to the material.  This lack of rights is usually offset by a healthy page rate plus royalties after a certain sales level, which varies from company to company.  Alternatively, the page rate might be considered an advance against a royalty that kicks in with the first issue sold.  What’s critical is the actual amount paid per page along with the percentage of royalties.

It is important for young creators to remember that absent signing an actual work-made-for-hire contract, they own the copyright rights to whatever work they have written or drawn.  It gets messy, however, when that work is “derivative,” meaning roughly that it’s based on an already existing property.  So, just because someone has written an all-new Darth Vader story doesn’t mean he or she “owns” that story or has the right to publish it.

In fact, perhaps the most important point here is that contracts are legal documents, and contract law is a complicated subject with its own specialized language. I strongly recommend that beginning creators invest in a consultation with a lawyer—or at least a paralegal—before signing any contract, if for no other reason than that they understand what they’re signing.

Contracts specifying creator ownership essentially allow the publisher to license various rights from the creator-owner, including the rights to reproduce, publish, and distribute the work for a certain defined period of time.  The purchase of these rights can be set up (a) in terms of page rates and royalties based on sales or (b) in terms of advances paid against a back-end profit split. In the case of the latter type of financial arrangement, sometimes part of the advance money is paid upon signing the contract.

In contrast, in the case of work-made-for-hire, it is highly unusual for money to be paid before any actual work has been completed.

Although complicated, a contract is a written agreement specifying the points of a deal between a creator and a publisher.  Ultimately the deal will reflect the existing status of the creator and how much, or how little, a given publisher wants to work with that person.  Actual rates paid vary from publisher to publisher, and at Dark Horse, they also vary from project to project: the creator budget on a book like Star Wars will perforce be higher than the one, say, on Concrete, which, despite being an award-winning, critically acclaimed series, simply doesn’t sell in the same numbers as Star Wars. The trade-off, however, is that Paul Chadwick owns Concrete, and therefore maintains total creative freedom as well as control over all ancillary rights, such as merchandising and media rights, including film. These rights can wind up being extremely lucrative.

In the end, everything in a contract is negotiable, but no publisher is going to bankrupt the company on a beginner!  As in any type of deal-making situation, it boils down to the value of the deal to each party. A beginner simply doesn’t wield the kind of clout that, say, Frank Miller does and so shouldn’t expect to make the same kind of deal.

What is the one piece of advice you’d like to give a young cartoonist before he/she starts sending out portfolios and proposals?

Do your homework! Each publisher is different, and so is each editor. By that I mean it makes no sense to send a superheroproposal to Drawn and Quarterly; Chris Oliveros is unlikely even to look at it, let alone publish it!  And while that’s an extreme example, I think the point remains.

Dark Horse publishes many different kinds of comics, and the young cartoonist should decide, first, what it is that he or she would most like to draw—of the books that Dark Horse is publishing! Investigate who’s editing what at a given company, and then approach that particular editor about contributing to his or her particular line of books or his or her specialty. For example, Dark Horse publishes a line of horror-type comics, and there are two editors who love that stuff and edit it almost exclusively.  Those are the editors to approach with your horror proposal. There are another three editors at Dark Horse working exclusively in manga; those are ones to go to with your manga-style storytelling.

DC Comics has a number of imprints.  An editor overseeing titles in the so-called DC Universe, the company’s superhero line, is probably not the right person to go to for your sword-and-sorcery fantasy concept. And so on.

Also, fewer and fewer companies these days even accept blind submissions.  Before you waste time, energy, and postage, it’s worth checking out whether a company will actually open up what you send.  For most of us, submissions are not part of the day-to-day workload; there is absolutely no time during the regular workday to look at the countless submissions we receive—let alone is there time to respond to them!  And some people expect a lengthy critique!  Well, give it up.  That’s simply not what editors are paid to do.

Additionally, some of us are old-fashioned enough that, if we are to read a submission at all, a hard-copy submission is preferable. A digital submission can often take so long to download—and output—that it’s just not worth the editor’s time.

Those of us who actually do take the time to read submissions do so pretty much out of the goodness of our hearts, and we do it in our spare time, for the most part.  So it behooves the young cartoonist:

1) to send the editor something in his or her particular area of interest;

2) to be patient;

3) and to understand that there will likely be no response unless the editor is interested in pursuing the project.

All that said, blind submissions through the mail are probably the worst way to get published, and I generally don’t recommend that route. An aspiring cartoonist has a much better chance of getting his or her work into print by making some kind of personal contact with an editor, generally via conventions.

 

 

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