This is the first in a planned series of articles about the “Image Effect.” Over the past 20+ years Image Comics has grown from a vanity publisher for the top talents of the 90s into a trendsetter and home to a diverse range of popular titles and creators. How did they accomplish that? Image’s well-known zero ownership stake in the non-publishing rights of their titles is probably a huge component, but another cause is their laid back management style. Image, particularly the Image Central publishing house run by Eric Stephenson, essentially just lets its creators create, without setting too many guidelines for them to follow.
One of the things Image doesn’t require on their series that many other publishers do is an editor. For example, Saga, one of Image’s most popular books, doesn’t have anyone credited in that role. Editors on titles at Image have become more common in recent years, likely due in large part to more creators having the funds to hire them. For example, Sean Mackiewicz edits Image’s most high-profile comic series The Walking Dead, David Brothers edits titles like Lazarus and Wytches and Nicole Boose edits the Millarworld books. But it’s significant that editors on Image titles remain completely optional.
That new choice creators have begs the question of how the role of the editor has shifted since Image has started finding such massive success. Through some research and interviews with talent involved with both Image and the Big Two I learned some things out about the role of editors in the comic book industry. Here are my findings.
Editors are doing their jobs mainly out of a love for comics
This probably isn’t a surprise to many. I remember this belief being cemented in my brain when attending a panel at NYCC, during which Scott Allie (Dark Horse) and Filip Sablik (BOOM! Studios) wholeheartedly agreed/commiserated that they weren’t in comics for the money. My interview with Andy Schmidt, former Marvel and IDW editor as well as freelance editor of the Image series C.O.W.L., was also very enlightening. He said:
“The majority of those in the comic industry working in editorial are overworked. That’s in part because of the original demands of the job, but we were partially responsible for overloading our own schedules because we were excited about the projects we wanted to do and we would pitch projects even if we didn’t have time for them in the normal 9-to-5 of it all.”
Comics are usually driven by passion of not just the creators but many other parts of the production line.
Editorial interference is often overstated
Even if they had the inclination to do so, most editors simply don’t have the time to fully rewrite a script. On July 23rd, senior Marvel editor Nick Lowe tweeted:
“Editor-Driven comics” cracks me up. Most I do is try and change the oil and maybe point at the map if there are bumps in the road.
Once the project is rolling, comic book editors often don’t have the time to do more than ask for tweaks and play traffic cop. The deadline for comics at the major publishers is frequently too demanding for editors to do much more than actually edit the books. In fact, as Schmidt mentioned above, they barely have time to do that.
This isn’t to say there aren’t overbearing editors. There are. But even the editors that interfere more than creators would like might be doing so because they’re bound by mandates made higher up the ladder. The beginning of DC’s New 52 reboot famously saw an exodus of creators– mainly writers, but there were shifts in the editorial staff, as well.
A common theory is that many editors pigeonhole their creators because they’re frustrated writers who wish they were writing the books themselves. There’s truth to that, yes, but conflicts between the editors and their bosses is probably another major factor.
“The main role of an editor is to help make the project as good as possible while staying on time and within budget.”
This definition of an editor comes courtesy of Schmidt, and it seems like an apt one. It focuses on three key factors of production: quality, timeliness and cost to the publisher. Fans and creators would largely prefer the focus to be on quality, but financial realities force deadlines and budgets to play a role. At Image the creators have more control, which means that they can often take more time and spend more money to make a better product if they so choose. However, they still have to deal with the same realities as a publisher like Marvel or DC do. Just on a smaller scale.
The role of the editor is malleable
The role of an editor of comic books means different things for different publishers and different creative teams. Project management is always a priority, but the very definition of the term fluctuates. At publishers that license properties, character consistency is an important aspect of project management. At publishers like Image, realizing the creators’ vision might be more of a focus. Aside from the publisher, an editor’s role also changes based on who they’re collaborating with. Schmidt explains,
The first thing an editor has to figure out is how to work with specific creators. So, I didn’t edit any two projects exactly the same way. Editing New Avengers with Bendis and Finch wasn’t the same thing as editing New Avengers with Bendis and McNiven, even. So, the role is a malleable one. Some projects need more TLC than others. Some creators need more interaction than others. So, the role has always been one that evolves on a nearly daily basis. For me, that’s one of the things I like most about comics editing. I like that it never feels like the same old thing. Every project has something that feels new or some challenge that comes with it.
No two editing jobs are exactly the same, in regard to either working relationships or the different hats the editors has to wear.
Image creators sometimes take on some of the editors’ roles
Jim Zub has explained in the past that he handles most of the production responsibilities for Skullkickers and Wayward. At Marvel or DC an editor or another staffer would probably take on those duties, but at Image that burden lies largely with the creators. Zub told me,
Unless you’re independently wealthy or have a breakout hit, creator-owned comics are a tightly run ship. As much as I’d love to have an editor on Skullkickers or Wayward I’m not able to afford it with our current production budget. In turn, the whole creative team helps act as proofreaders and gives input on each stage as we go through the production process. Image also has production staff that looks over each issue as it heads to print, pointing out any spelling/grammatical errors and major continuity gaffs.
Justin Jordan said that the Spread team recently hired Sebastian Girner to handle project management, because that’s something that he doesn’t believe he does especially well and definitely doesn’t enjoy it. In the end, Image offers gives creators the prerogative to choose how duties such as project management get handled, one of many reasons a deal with them is such an enticing offer for many creators.
Most people need someone to look over their work
As Zub explained above, the whole creative team will often serve as a sort-of proofreaders to point out any mistakes or flaws. He also stated:
I also have a circle of close friends and fellow professionals I look to for input on my creator-owned writing. It’s not a standard editorial relationship, but it fulfills some of those functions, giving feedback and a fresh perspective on the work.
Understanding that people not already entrenched in the industry also need feedback, Andy Schmidt offers an online workshop called Comics Experience to connect writers and artists with a similar network of creators that will peer review each other’s scripts and art samples.
Jordan doesn’t really share his scripts with people outside of the creative team when working on Image titles like Luther Strode and Spread, but he readily admits that makes him an exception to the rule. In general, feedback prior to publication is crucial for creators if they want to deliver their best work.
The duties typically assigned to an editor will never go away
Schmidt says that it’s possible that editors could become rare on non-licensed properties, but he doesn’t know why that would happen for the same reasons that he doesn’t think inkers are going to disappear any time soon. In both cases, the work still needs to be done, even if no individual is tasked to solely that responsibility.
Even though editors aren’t mandatory at the biggest creator-owned publisher or used on some of the industry’s biggest titles, their roles will continue to play out. Their increased popularity on creator-owned titles, recently demonstrated by Mind MGMT editor Brendan Wright leaving Dark Horse to go freelance, shows that they remain highly in demand. And just because some series don’t have editors doesn’t mean the editing or project management goes undone. So it’s clear that the role of editors isn’t in any danger. If anything, in the wake of big creator-owned success, it’s thriving.