IDW is mainly known for its publication of licensed work, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers and My Little Pony. But the publisher has been transitioning lately with a renewed focus on creator-owned comics, first by acquiring Top Shelf and now by starting the Comics Experience imprint, home to some great titles like Tet and Gutter Magic. Editor Bobby Curnow is a big driving force behind that line. I interviewed him to get some perspective on making IDW friendly for fans of cartoons, creators and everyone in-between.
Did you have a strong attachment to any of the licensed properties you’re editing before you started working on them?
I’m 34, so I grew up in during the first big wave of the TMNT cartoon. I loved the show, had the action figures, and would spend a chunk of my imagination in that world. I really loved Lego and G.I. Joe and some other things, but for some reason the weirdness of TMNT stuck with me. If you can put the four things in the title together and somehow make it work, you’ve got something special.
How do you, for lack of a better term, get yourself invested in properties that might not be in your usual realm of interest, such as My Little Pony?
My Little Pony is an interesting case because I always wanted to work on an all-ages comic. In college I spent some time studying children’s TV, and i’ve always thought all-ages entertainment is extremely important. As soon as I heard IDW was going to do MLP comics, I was interested in it. Then there’s the added bonus of it being a really fun world with unique and entertaining characters. So it wasn’t hard for me to get invested in My Little Pony.
I’ve been lucky with all of the licenses I work with. I’m interested and intrigued by all of them. But there are some jobs that are more creative service oriented where there’s no real inherent connection to the material. In those cases it becomes a kind of fun puzzle to find the art style that best serves the story. At the end of the day, it’s another opportunity to see some great art being made and figure out how to best tell a story, and that is always fun.
How strenuous does the job of satisfying the licenser (like in terms of characterization and likenesses) tend to be?
Every licensor is completely different, and each one has their quirks. Usually those peculiarities are more pronounced at the start of the project. It’s like dating; you don’t really know what the other person is looking for at first. But if things go well, you start to get to know each other and figure out the best way to make everyone in the relationship happy. Sometimes getting to that place takes a lot of work, and sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes there’s no connection and it never gets off the ground, and sometimes things blossom over time. The short answer is that it’s different with every licensor.
How do you seek out creators for the titles you edit?
It’s mostly just a matter of keeping a look out for creators who excite you in some way and figuring out if their strengths would be particularly well suited to the book you’re working on. From there, you hopefully have a pool of talent that might at least be intriguing on the book, and you approach individuals and see who is interested and available. Then you figure out who of those available have ideas or skills best suited to the project. It’s a constant whittling down process, which is dependent on having a good batch of talent to begin with. It’s basically just a matter of reading new stuff and following people whose work you enjoy and hopefully things fall into place from there.
What can a creator do to get on your radar?
The large majority of people I work with are folks who aren’t looking for me, but are busy creating cool things on their own. Hopefully I notice that cool thing and that gets me thinking about what they might be good on, as outlined above.
But anyone getting started can benefit from targeted submissions. There are a few folks who do their homework, and study who is doing what in the industry, and identify editors and publishers who their work might be a good fit for. It’s actually the same thing an editor does- – try and hunt down a good fit. The creators who do that well, and are easy to work with, usually find work. That’s easier said than done; it’s hard to know what editors and publishers want and are looking for. That’s why I think the easiest path is to just focus on making something great that is your own. If it works, it will get noticed.
What’s something up-and-coming creators need to know about your job, but often don’t?
Probably just the sheer volume of emails and submissions an editor gets. As a result, there’s very little time to interact with people who are cold calling. When I was a freelance writer starting out, I would get disheartened when I didn’t get a response from someone I was really hoping to work with. Most editors have too much on their plate, and as much as they might like to, they don’t have the time or mental bandwidth to respond to everyone that is reaching out to them. A plus side of that volume is an editor can usually quickly tell if someone is a professional and ready to work. If an editor doesn’t get back to you, they may have just missed you, or quickly assessed that you’re not quite there yet. Either way, don’t get discouraged and focus on making your craft better. It can take years, but if you SHOULD be published, you probably will be.
How did the Comics Experience imprint form?
That’s purely the brainchild of Comics Experience founder and former IDW editor Andy Schmidt. Andy has a big passion for finding and developing new talent (disclaimer: I first got involved in comics by taking Comics Experience classes) and wanted to figure out the best way to get a wider exposure for the new talent he was teaching. IDW was a natural fit, not only because of the personal connection he developed working here, but also because we have an interest in finding new talent as well.
You wrote 1000 Nights of Wolves for IDW, illustrated by Dave Wachter. Is the process of making a comics different in any way when it’s created by an employee of the publisher?
No, not very much. Speaking honestly, it’s easier to get that material in the hands of people who can greenlight the project. But you still need to do the work and make a good book. There’s no money fronted, no hand holding, you stand or sink on your own. The project has to be on time and under budget. That’s where being an editor, and dealing with those issues day-to-day, comes in handy.
Are you eager to write more?
Yeah, I’m always writing. Not necessarily well, but writing. A lot of creative energy goes into TMNT which I co-plot, but I’m noodling on some personal project at all times. I should have a graphic novel with Brenda Hickey out with Top Shelf next year, and there’s some other stuff I’m proud of in the works.
How do you balance that with your role as an editor? For example, is it acceptable for you to write for other publishers?
You simply have to keep it separate and work on your personal projects during your own time. In terms of working for another company, one would need to run it past folks here internally, but there is precedent for that at the company. IDW is very supportive of it’s staff creative endeavors though, so if it can be done at IDW, people are eager to keep it here. IDW employees like John Barber and Tom Waltz and others could all write at other companies if they wanted to, but everyone enjoys working with each other, and knows that IDW is going to put out a good product.
What is a book you currently edit that you’re particularly proud of?
TMNT. I mentioned I grew up with it, but i’ve got to work with many great artists on the series, a lot of whom I consider good friends now. It’s also been fantastic working with my buddy and officemate Tom Waltz. Then there’s Kevin Eastman, who along with Peter Laird, was my hero as a teenager, and turns out to be a truly awesome individual. All of those things make it a special book that i’m very proud of. But the secret truth is that TMNT is the only book I work on that regularly wakes me up in the middle of the night with an A-HA “we gotta do that!” jolt. There’s a lot of good vibes around TMNT, from a lot of different creators and readers, and I think that results in a special book.
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MATT CHATS is a weekly interview series that goes live every Tuesday conducted between Matt O’Keefe and a creator and/or player in the comic book industry, diving into subjects not broached by other comic news outlets.