|Interview by Lauren Berkley|
As my geek expertise goes, comics are not my strong suit, but I enjoy picking them up from time to time and I love seeing every comic book film adaptation.
To commemorate the event, I sat down with my friend Scott Allie of Dark Horse Comics to dish about the details of his job, working with Mike Mignola and Joss “The Boss” Whedon, and why fans maybe shouldn’t have a say in movie adaptations.
What are the differences between editing an original creation like Hellboy versus a licensed property like Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Conan The Barbarian?
I don’t feel like they’re that different. The biggest difference is when you’re doing Hellboy and working with Mike Mignola, you’re trying to make the book fit Mike’s vision. He’s the one writing it, he’s the one involved with the creative process…then that’s relatively easy to do.
If I’m editing, you know, Conan, Robert E. Howard’s dead and buried, so you have to do your best to do his version of his vision.
In the middle, like with Buffy, sometimes Joss [Whedon] is very involved and sometimes he’s less involved, so getting the book right, sometimes I have more participation from him, like I would with Mignola on Hellboy, and sometimes less.
So, the biggest difference is either you have the participation of the creator, who knows it better than anyone else, or you’re just trying to approximate that as best you can. That’s how I approach it, anyway. I mean, for different things, I’m sure, it’s different. My approach to Conan was to always try to “do” Howard, if Howard had been a cartoonist. I don’t know that everyone doing licensed comics has that in mind.
What is it like working with Mignola and with Whedon?
I used to say that it was like my Master’s class, my Master’s program in comics, because I would work with guys like Mike and Joss, from whom I would just learn a lot all the time, and just soak up as much of it as I could to apply it to my own work.
When I’m editing somebody who’s newer or who’s more in need of some kind of guidance, I’m hopefully teaching them some of the stuff that I learned from Joss and Mike, and guys like Craig Russell, among others.
You know, it’s just inspirational and it’s educational; I learn a lot about how to do my job as an editor, as a writer – whatever I’m doing – I learn it from my work with guys like Mike and and Joss.
Describe an average day in your job as an editor.
My job has changed so much in the last couple years with more management responsibilities – Editor-in-Chief – and just things that were coming my way already…I’m in meetings way too much of the time and the rest of the time, I’m working with other editors, fielding questions, or getting them support or whatever, and I feel like the 8 hours I’m supposed to be in the office, I’m not doing nearly as much editing as I’d like.
Now, the average day for an editor at Dark Horse, I think, a great deal of your time is spent responding to emails. So much of what we do, we do through email – whether hitting a creator up about a deadline or receiving script or receiving pages, which you then have to forward to somebody…So much of what we do, we do on email.
We’re all making a little more effort to spend a little more time on the phone. I think there’s a way of relating to your creators, your artists on the phone that you lose with email a little bit; there’s an intimacy and a connection that you don’t get if it’s just email all the time. So, trying to spend a little bit more time talking through stories, talking through problems over the phone. A lot of the day, too, is spent dealing with production issues – in-house, like the people putting the pages together.
Everybody who writes, draws, colors, letters a comic, they work out-of-house – they’re freelancers, they work from home or wherever – so they send their stuff in. They generally send it in digitally and there’s various departments in the production part of the company that deals with it. If letters come in, colors come in, they have to be put together digitally…you’re dealing with production issues, mainly, making sure it’s merged properly, fine-tuning it, that kind of thing. Looking at a lot of print outs, looking at a lot of stuff on screen and, you know, doing a lot of paperwork – budgets and schedules and that sort of thing. That’s a big part of editing.
Somebody asked me recently, “Oh, so you edit comics! So you edit the little word balloons?” Yeah, that is part of what you do, but you’re supervising this entire project; you’re running the budgets, you’re running the schedule. You have various freelancers all over the place that you have to keep motivated, have to keep happy, so you’re a project manager in every way and the really narrow notion of the word ‘editing’ – fixing mistakes and the like – is a relatively small part of it.
How did you get started in this?
One of the things with everybody in comics is that everybody got into it a different way. Anybody who says, “How do you get started as an editor?” It’s like, “I don’t know, because everybody that I know got there differently,” so it’s not like there’s one way to go about it.
What it was for me was that in college, I got involved with the campus publishing group – me and a couple of my friends started it and kept it going for a few years, and I just found that I loved…I think the reason I got into it was because I wanted to write stuff and have people read it, so this seemed like a way to do it. But what I found was I loved the various parts of going to put a book together beyond doing the pure creative part of doing the work. I loved the whole project management of it. Figuring out how to make something out of nothing and getting into people’s hands; I just loved that.
So when I got out of college, I just wanted to do anything in publishing at all, and I moved out to Portland – not realizing that Dark Horse was there. I got a job at a little literary magazine that was amazing, like, an incredibly fun job, just a great job in every way; they were generous. It was 4 of us, and everybody fully believed in what we were doing, everybody worked really, really hard, and it was great working for such a small company that had so much heart, you know?
It’s a really unique experience to be a part of such a tiny team that has such a shared sense of devotion, so that was great. I continue to work for them today, but as a full-time job, it was a limited thing to me. I was with them for, like, a year and a half, and then I went freelance – still doing a little bit of work for them, but not much. I used the money that I had saved working for them to self-publish my own books, so in 1994, I self-published a few issues of a comic book that I wrote, drew part of, had other people draw parts of it, and again, I just loved putting it together.
I loved doing the creative part, but I also just loved working with all the various people to get this thing out on a monthly basis. I felt like I was pretty good at it, and through doing it, promoting it locally, I met a bunch of people at Dark Horse, forged some friendships, and then when they were looking for somebody, they started interviewing me, and that’s how I would up with the job.
Is it difficult to be an editor for certain comics, but then as a writer, having to report to a different editor?
The way I look at is that it’s all kind of part of the same process, and because of the way I do my job, there are some books that I work on where practically all I do is proofread it and send it to the printer.
Like, I used to work with Sergio Aragones a lot and you know, the guy’s been doing it since before I was born; he’s amazing. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and creatively, I had very little engagement with it, because he just did it; he turned it in, and it was good. On one end of the spectrum, you have that.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are books that I write, and in the middle is all sorts of other things, like, with all the Mignola books where I talked to Mike a lot about the story.
I have some hand in shaping some of the stories, and I’m a sounding board for some, I participate more in others, and sometimes, I write them with Mike, and when I do co-writing jobs with Mike or with Joss Whedon, it’s generally, like, I’m editing the book, writing the scripts, and they’re editing my scripts, and that’s again, further to the education idea.
The process of doing that, what I did with him in Season 8, taught me more about Buffy than I’d been able to learn in the preceding, you know, 10 years or whatever that I’d been working on it, because seeing exactly why he was having me change a line or exactly what he was trying to get out of me, really helped me understand what he tries to do with the character, in general.
And so now, that experience of having him edit me just makes it that much easier or maybe makes me better at editing another writer writing a Buffy script, you know?
So there’s just a real continuity for me in that spectrum between being a light-handed editor and a writer.
There’s a big range in between those two walls, and it all just kind of fits together. It’s not hard; it’s easy, in that I think one job makes the other one easier. Being an editor makes me know some stuff about writing and also makes me very receptive to feedback.
I’d be a hypocrite if I was a heavy-handed editor on some stuff – which I am – and then I was resistant to notes on something I was writing, you know?
Being an editor teaches me to be a receptive writer; being a writer teaches me to respect the space and the attitude of the writer on another book when I’m editing, so I like the way they feed each other.
Why should we preserve comics? Why should we continue to print them, fight for them, etc.?
The “Why comics?” for me individually is really easy; it’s just what I’m super-passionate about and what I’ve always been motivated about, but I think I have a very democratic view of art beyond that.
Art is important.
Comics are important to the extent that people like them. If we get to a time when nobody wants to read comics, I don’t believe in the whole “historical preservation of an art form, because it’s good for you.” Like, I hope people just always love the art form and that there’s always another guy like me being born who loves it so much that it’s all he wants to do and that there’s lots of casual people who don’t devote themselves to it as much, but enjoy picking up a comic book every once in awhile.
That’s what all the arts are for, you know, in my opinion.
I understand the perspective of “this is an art form and it’s important and needs to be preserved,” but it’s like, “Well, really it needs to fight for itself, like everything else does,” but people are going to have so many different opinions about that across the spectrum: People who feel like it’s really important to preserve opera in the original Italian, because it’s good for you, and it’s like, well, the people that are passionate about it will work to preserve it, and the people who don’t care about it, you’re never going to convince them, you know?
How you feel about digital comics?
I think it’s great! It’s just part of the evolution, you know? I, personally, don’t like reading stuff digitally, but I think that’s because in my job, I spend so much time looking at a computer screen, I’m very happy to look away from it, you know?
So, like, reading comics on an iPhone is, I think, a fairly terrible experience. Comic book pages are laid out on a page this big (gestures) – 7-by-10 – and if you try and shrink that down to an iPhone size, it looks pretty terrible, and there’s all these ways to make it work that I just don’t think is great.
Reading them on an iPad, I totally get. A tablet device – whether it’s Nook or iPad or whatever – that I get, because it’s pretty close to the size the comic was written – originally published on paper at – and the color reproduction is so good, so I really get reading them on tablet devices. I can understand why I new generation of readers is going to love reading comics on a tablet.
So you don’t think it will ruin the printed word of comics, so to speak?
I don’t know. I mean, right now it kind of feels like it’s two different audiences, like the digital sales of comics have not cannibalized print sales at all. All evidence suggests that that hasn’t happened, and that it’s actually, whatever digital sales we’re seeing, is for the most part, a new audience coming on, because it doesn’t seem to be taking away from the existing audience, which is great.
The stuff that thrills me the most is usually horror comics, and my favorite comics right now are Fatale, Revival – both from Image [Comics] – Hawkeye from Marvel [Comics].
There’s a bunch of good ones from Marvel, a bunch of good ones from Image, IDW. A lot of the other publishers are doing great stuff, and I probably read more comics now than I did for a long time. I read so much at work, it’s hard to find time to read, but I find myself fighting to find that time because of what’s coming out these days.
What about the portrayal of women in comics? Do you have an opinion on that at all?
Yeah, I got a pretty strong opinion about it, but I also think there’s kind of a place for everything. I like doing comics that don’t perpetuate that…thing.
I’m very proud of what we do with the Mignola books. I’ve very proud of our portrayal of women in the Mignola books – generally, I think the women are pretty much written like the men and their plots and their arcs are pretty much like the male arcs and plots. I don’t think we’re blind to the differences between a female character and a male character, but I don’t think we’re guilty of the things that give comics a bad name and that alienate people.
The reason women read comics in fewer numbers than men is because comics talk down to women and they alienate women. In large part, the superhero genre is so much like the result of teenage boy fantasies that those boys’ fantasies aren’t very inviting to some women. There’s always been women who were passionate about superheroes – they love superheroes or they love Conan [the Barbarian] or whatever – but I can understand them putting that audience off.
My wife is more passionate about superhero comics than I ever was. She loves mostly Marvel…she reads a ton of that stuff…but I think that there’s a need for some evolution in the portrayal of the characters. I think having Kelly Sue DeConnick write Captain Marvel is going to make that a better female character, and little by little, mainstream superheroes are going to evolve because of things like that.
And it’s not just women writers who can correct the problem. You have writers like Greg Rucka writing female characters and that corrects the problem, as well.
But sometimes, you have male writers writing female characters and they don’t progress, right?
Yeah, because they write the women as just, like, sexual fantasies or juvenile psychotics and that doesn’t advance a truthful portrayal of female heroism. But writers like [Brian] Bendis and [Greg] Rucka are capable of doing that and Joss Whedon is really good at that, and then some of the female writers, like Gail Simone and Kelly Sue [DeConnick], they’re gonna do it right.
I know you love HP Lovecraft, but when did you first fall in love with comics? Was Lovecraft first?
As far as that goes, comics came before Lovecraft, but Stephen King came before both of them.
Stephen King was an early passion. I discovered him when I was, like, 8 years old and just voraciously read whatever I could get, and at that time, I wasn’t reading comics at all. Then when I was, like, 12 years old or something, I made friends with these guys and one guy read a couple of comics, and he had an issue of Wolverine drawn by Frank Miller, and it blew my mind, changed my life. I got really into Marvel Comics, mostly because of what Frank did to Wolverine, but then I read Spider-Man, read Frank’s Daredevil, and a lot of other stuff, and that’s what really made it take off for me.
Sometime shortly thereafter, my love of Stephen King led me to discover Lovecraft. King has some stuff that refers to Lovecraft, and it made me go seek out those roots, and then find that Lovecraft wrote about the part of Massachusetts that I grew up in, and that gave me this real personal connection with the material. I really found myself identifying with something about it, just because I knew the geography.
What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew way back when? Any advice to impart on someone wanting to get into this?
Oh, man, um…stuff to put in an nutshell? The stuff that I can put in a nutshell would be quotes from Joss Whedon, because I’m very bad at boiling my own thoughts down into any kind of concise lesson or anything, but I feel like I learned a lot about storytelling – visually, narratively, in terms of character – from working with some of the guys I work with and the experience that I have.
I think one of the things I believe most in, for whatever you’re doing, is to pay attention to your instincts and to hone your instincts. Something I believe is that creative instincts are probably the hardest things to teach or to learn. When I see a young editor who I can tell they’ve got good instincts, I feel like everything else they can be trained; they can learn everything else they need to learn. The fact that they’ve got good instincts about story and about art and about character…if they’ve got good instincts for that, then I think they can be shaped to a great editor or a great writer or whatever else, but if they’re instincts are non-existent or bad, I don’t know what to do.
But if you have good instincts, good instincts are just, like, very raw material – you gotta turn them into something – you gotta know how to work with them, listen to them; you gotta know how you can tell “this guy just gets it.” He gets it in a way that puts him ahead of the crowd, and being able to trust those instincts is a real talent and a confidence that people need to listen to, and it’s the same thing for a painter. You’re with some young painter who needs to be able to trust and follow their vision.
One of the things I believe about that is that some visions are better than others. Some of our visions are gonna lead us to huge success and big audiences, and some of our visions are gonna put us in a corner, where nobody really wants to look at us, but maybe you’re being truthful to your art. I think if you’ve got that shitty vision that nobody cares about, you can try to shoehorn yourself into something more acceptable and marketable, but it’s never gonna be inspired work.
The luckiest people are the people that have a vision that’s strong and that a lot of people can relate to, and if they can do that, then they can be incredibly successful and incredibly happy with what they’re doing. But you can’t just come up with that vision, either – you can’t just look at Mike Mignola and say, “I’m gonna have a vision like Mike Mignola and create that thing myself and then I’ll be able to get a lot of work!” You can’t fake vision, although, I think it evolves.
Hollywood sells out a lot or they do sequel after sequel, reboot after reboot. Now that comics are “popular” and “cool”, do you feel like there’s still a last line of defense with comics and not really selling out?
Well, what’s “selling out,” though? I don’t know what that is…
Okay, I mean, for example, The Avengers was amazing, but a lot of people were disappointed with Green Lantern, dismissing it with, “Oh, it’s a comic book, we’ll make it into a movie!” and then the result on screen gets all Hollywoodized and strays from the source material. We’re on Iron Man 3 now, then Thor 2, Captain America 2, The Avengers 2….When does it stop being Hollywood taking control of the comic? Does that make sense?
Well, Hollywood doesn’t necessarily take control of the comic, they take control of the movie.
There’s so much money in movies – not just what you can make, but what you have to spend to get it made – that it would be crazy for Hollywood to let – and many of my peers would disagree – but it would be crazy for Hollywood to just let the comics guys make the movies. There’s so much money in it and it’s such a racket, you know? The way they make movies generally is terrible, but you do get really good ones – you get really fun ones, ones with great integrity.
I remember reading “10 Questions with Roman Polanski” in GQ and one of his comments was that it’s so hard to get a movie made and there are so many factors at work that it’s amazing that any of them ever get made, much less that any of them are ever good, and it’s seems as though he’s right about that. I mean, it is amazing that any are good and it is amazing that as many of the superhero movies have been as good as they’ve been, you know? That’s great.
How much input, though, would Marvel or DC have when it comes to a production studio?
I don’t really know. With Marvel, they seem to have really worked it out where the guys that know the characters best do have a lot of input, but I think, also, the guys on the movie side just “get it” a little bit better than maybe some of the other places do, so they know to let [Matt] Fraction or [Brian] Bendis or [Joe] Quesada into the conversation, but it’s not like they’re letting those guys run the show, you know? They’re not letting them run it, but they’re making the most out of their expertise and winding up with some really good ones [movies].
But I can’t imagine, you know, with the Batman trilogy, when I think about it, I can’t imagine DC or anybody at DC had much say over the movies. The reason the movies worked to whatever extent they did is because of the talent making the films, you know, what they brought to the table. So whether you like [director Christopher] Nolan or not, whether you like all three Batman movies or just one of them, the successes probably had more to do with the talent – the guys making the real creative calls.
The reason Iron Man is so good is you had a guy who could tell a story and you had an incredibly charismatic actor that was just perfect for the part and it all worked. All these factors conspired to make that one actually work. You know, when I was a kid, the idea that anybody could ever make an Iron Man movie, it’s like, “You’re kidding me?!”
No, Iron Man was a third-rate superhero that nobody ever cared about, nobody talked about very much, and then it winds up being the most exciting superhero movie in ages. The talent made it work and part of the credit, I think, goes to the guys higher up who I hear really good things about, like [producer] Kevin Feige, who seem to listen to the talent and give the talent some room to do what they do best.
That’s why I really happen to love The Avengers movie, and I think it’s partly because Joss had a really good relationship with the guys at the top who were calling the shots and he got to do it, to some degree, to the way he thought best, but you can never think that even a guy like Joss or Nolan or any of those guys have what you might call “autonomy” in those movies, but they’re the guys who make them good or not and I think with Green Lantern…where was the creative genius behind that movie?
Was there one? Was there anybody inspired and really doing something special with that? Maybe somebody felt they were, maybe at some level, somebody was, but it doesn’t seem like that’s what was in operation, getting that movie made.
I think the biggest argument amongst fans is that Hollywood doesn’t listen to fans’ input about their beloved characters.
But should they? I don’t know if that’s really how anything should get made. There should be some talent behind it and the talent should do their thing. If the talent’s good, you get something good, and if they’re not, listening to the Vote of Fandom…because fandom doesn’t speak with a monolithic voice, you know? Never is there anywhere where everybody got together and said, “This is who should play Spider-Man,” you know?
Yeah, that’s true. I guess it’s just that people get really passionate about their characters and if Green Lantern is their guy, they get excited about the movie and then they get crestfallen when they watch it. I guess that just feel betrayed, in a way.
Yeah, sure, but making art by committee is never the best way to go and making it by public committee would be absurd, you know?
What’s coming up next for you?
There’s an Abe Sapien series that I’m writing – “The Dark and Terrible” – where Abe Sapien, Hellboy’s sidekick… you know, this is one where there were a couple of successful movies and they did well and that was great.
They sold a shit-load of comics for us; they moved a lot of comics for us. They increased the profile of the property, but they never changed what we were doing creatively, like, we’ve just continued to do the comic the way Mignola wants to do the comic. Where the stories have led us to right now, Abe was shot, left in a coma, while he was in a coma, he sort of metamorphosized into a weirder-looking version of himself, and now he wakes from the coma to find that things are going to Hell on Earth. – there’s monsters coming up out of the ground, earthquakes, terrible things going on all over the Earth and some people in the organization that he’s a part of think that the has something to do with it, so he escapes, he goes on the lam, he finds out Hellboy died.
Abe runs away basically to go try to figure out what’s happening on Earth and it’s gonna lead to this new monthly series that we’re doing that I’m writing with Mignola. These two amazing South American artists, Sebastian Fiumara and Max Fiumara are trading off art duties – three issues drawn by Sebastian and two issues drawn by Max and back and forth – and it’s fun because the B.P.R.D. comic has really evolved into this big, paramilitary adventure story with monsters, but Mignola and I really like straight-up horror stories, so with Abe, we’re gonna get to keep it more one character, down-to-Earth, not a lot of guns.
It’s really more focused on mood and atmosphere, as opposed to big, multi-character battle sort of things. With Abe, we’re gonna do his travels across America as the world literally crumbles around him and do a lot of really weird, short horror stories over the next couple of years, so I’m really psyched about that. The artists are amazing on it.
Working with Mike on this is really great, because I get to evolve a character who’s been a part of my life for 18 years and now we really get to take him to the next point of his existence and it’s the first time he’s ever had an on-going monthly series dedicated to him.
Abe Sapien: The Dark and Terrible #2 is in stores today!