A young woman reads comics on the floor of a bookstore.

Dynamic Strategies for Editing Comics

The Pacific Northwest is becoming known for producing high-quality comics, and the Portland area alone is home to big-name publishers like Dark Horse Comics, Oni Press, and Image Comics. With its growing popularity, the field of comics offers a significant number of unique challenges to editors both as freelancers or as part of one of these esteemed houses. Some publishers that don’t typically focus on comics sometimes include one or two in their catalog, so even if you’re not looking to specialize in comics editing, it can be useful to know how to handle a comic if it comes across your desk. Here are some strategies to help you feel confident in applying your editing skills to a comic.
Image and Text, Not Image or Text
One of the most crucial things to keep in mind when approaching a comics editing project is that there are two mediums telling the story: the image and the text. Whether you’re looking at a script, a formal comic proposal, or a completed draft, it’s imperative to keep in mind that the words and images are working together to tell the story. That being said, it’s important that you feel comfortable critiquing the imagery as well as the words on the page. If an image isn’t serving the scene in the way it should be, it might need to be redrawn or reimagined. Ask yourself some of these questions for solving this problem: Does this picture work here? How can it be better shown? Can it be compensated for with the addition of a caption or by modifying dialogue? By paying close attention to this kind of interplay between image and text, you will make sure the project is more effective overall.
Dialogue is Crucial
While there are some notable examples of comics that don’t use dialogue at all, for most it is an integral part of comics storytelling. More than almost any other medium, the dialogue in a comic must work to further the story, doing much of the textual heavy lifting to advance plot and characterization. On top of this, the dialogue is usually the only way to offer a glimpse of a character’s interiority in most comics, even in the cases where a narrator is present in captions or other framing devices. Because of the limited options for narrative intervention, it’s important to try to balance how the characters are expressing themselves. This can be difficult, as you want to make sure the characters are giving enough information to keep the story going, but you also want to make sure they aren’t overrunning the page with text. When confronting dialogue in a comic, the question you should keep in mind is this: Is this helpful? If the dialogue isn’t helping advance the plot or develop a character, cut it. The trickiest part of all of this is making the dialogue still sound natural while you’re making sure it conveys what it needs to. Here, you need to trust your gut as an editor, but don’t be afraid to ask yourself: Is this how a person would really say that?
Showing versus Telling
The old writing advice to “show, not tell” couldn’t be more true than in comics writing. Because of the often limited expository space, it’s even more critical to make sure the images are compensating for what might otherwise slog down the story. Whenever possible, try to suggest to your client that the image should be doing the bulk of the work showing the action. A comic that describes a person “putting a glass on the counter” in a caption or a piece of dialogue is simply not as effective as one that simply shows the character performing the action in a piece of art.
Pay Attention to Page Layout
It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not necessarily just the pictures that are doing this job of showing, but the page layout as well. The composition of a page carries weight because the way the story is shown can impact the way the story is perceived. The layout of a comic page can build tension, assert the flow of time, or otherwise give visual impact to the story. For a comic to be effective, it has to make a visual impact. Using a “splash” page (a page that is entirely composed of a single image), for example, can not only add visual drama to the comic, but can also be used to contrast with more regular, multi-panel pages so that the scene stands out from the rest.
While this list is by no means exhaustive, it should help you feel more confident about applying your editing skills to comics. Whether you’re a freelancer or looking to work in comics full time, keep these strategies in mind when you take on your next comics project to gain a leg up in the industry.

Editing Comics With Oni Press’s Desiree Wilson

In addition to her job as an editor at the Portland-based indie comics publisher Oni Press, Desiree Wilson is also a part of the Book Publishing graduate program at PSU. I recently had the chance to speak with her about her career in comics and what it goes into editing them.

—What is your background in editing? What background do companies look for when hiring comics editors?

I’ve been editing forever, but I sort of slipped into comics editing. When I was in elementary and middle school I figured I wanted to be a writer, and I was always a fan of comics, but like a lot of people I thought it was one of those jobs that wasn’t really a job you were allowed to aspire to. I started out writing novellas and short stories, and doing a lot of collaborative storytelling with friends, which I think helped lay down the foundation I needed for developing stories.

When I started at Portland State, I actually ended up in the comics studies program completely by accident. I needed one writing class to fill out my degree, and I landed in a comics writing class taught by Brian Bendis and David Walker. Through them, I met with a lot of pro comics writers and editors and basically soaked them for all the knowledge they have. I was an editorial Intern with Kelly Sue Deconnick and Matt Fraction, and later I did two stints as an editorial intern at Dark Horse Comics.

I’ve never done hiring, but honestly, with exception of the Big Two (whose ways are mysterious to me), what comics publishers look for is pretty standard, with a little bit of extra knowledge. Since comics are a visual medium, it’s really critical that an editor understand how visual storytelling works. A background in art or film helps, but failing that a really strong familiarity with comics as a medium does wonders. Like any book, comics editors need a keen sense of how to develop a story from that seed of an idea into something whole. Readers don’t see all the work comic editors do from script drafts, just the final work from the team, but sometimes we go through a dozen revisions before we start putting things down.

—Why do comics need editors?

There are a load of micro-reasons that comics need editors, but they all boil down to the same thing in the end. It’s the same as editing anything else: quality, timeliness, and clarity. Like any form of writing or art, it’s hard to see the flaws of something you’ve made without a pair of outside eyes, but I think comics have a way of making that even harder. It’s not just missing a serial comma or using the wrong stylesheet. It’s making sure that not just one person–the writer–knows the story and expresses it well enough that a reader knows what’s going on. All the pieces of the puzzle have to fit together almost flawlessly, and if they don’t you will almost always end up confusing someone or losing an emotional beat.

Comics are such a unique medium because there are usually multiple people working on a single title throughout its life, and making sure those pieces come together well is critical to the success of the book. When you edit a regular book, you often get a reasonable amount of downtime with that specific title as you wait for the author to rewrite 100,000 words based on your suggestions, but comics isn’t quite like that. A comics editor carries that book almost constantly: when the script gets turned in, it usually needs minor edits and then it goes to the artist; when the artist turns in pages, they need approvals before it gets colored and lettered; when colors and letters come in, they have to be checked for errors, and colors have to be balanced if they’re over-rendered. There’s logos and covers to deal with, marketing and publicity to discuss, and the ever-present deadlines to enforce.

I’d be lying if I said most of my day wasn’t spent keeping everyone up to date on deadlines and making sure things are processed in a timely manner.

—If possible, could you walk us through the steps you take when editing a 22-24 page serial comic?

This is a hard question, because each of the teams are different. I have a couple books with a single creator, and they really just stick to their workflows. I check in with them weekly, give them deadlines, and the rest is on them to turn in the work on time. If they’re late, the book gets pushed back.

For a monthly book, we have hammered out the script and the entire arc before it goes on the calendar with a release date. I know what each issue is going to be, and the team gets to work. Usually there are at least two or three revisions to each individual script, but sometimes there are none…and sometimes there’s not even a script, just an outline. Some teams finalize the script and work independently, delivering the final files to me to get to the letterer; other teams send me each stage (script, pencils, inks, colors) and I act as the go-between to get the pieces to the next point in the assembly line.

Ideally, I get the first two or three issues of the book in before the release, and the team is allowed to work at a kind of leisurely pace with that lead-up time. The Reality™ is that it rarely works that way. Life happens, work happens, and creators are often working on more than one project, sometimes with multiple publishers. The best I can hope for is the ideal, but there are weeks when I’m actually just hoping to get all the final assets in a couple days before we go to print, and buying our production department brownies to thank them for cranking out the final touches in time.

—What are some unique aspects of editing comics that one might not see elsewhere in the publishing world? How is it different? How is editing a comic different than, say, editing a novel?

The major difference in editing a comic and editing a novel is that the final product often doesn’t have many of your hallmarks. When you read a novel, you can sometimes see the touches of the editor in the way a phrase turns or the way the story flows, but in comics it’s harder to detect. There are so many fingerprints on a comic that usually the editor’s influence gets drowned out by the dialogue and art and vibrancy of colors, and honestly I think that’s how it should be.

One of the neat things about comics is the simultaneity of it all. In novels, you can get a lot of serious downtime (and you can in comics, too, especially in early stages), but once a comics project gets rolling, provided there aren’t problems, you get a lot of processes happening at the same time. I’ll have an artist drawing the interiors of a future issue, a letterer and a colorist working on copies of the same inked pages from the current issue, the writer working on the first script of the next arc…all at the same time. It’s a lot different than sending a DE pass to an author and waiting a month or two to get it back.

Comic Book Writers Invited to Learn from the Best: Write to Publish 2016

In the world of comic books, Portland ranks among huge metropolises like New York City, San Diego, and Los Angeles. This is largely due to the city’s rich history of comics and the many vibrant comic conventions held here. However, the main catalysts behind the success of Portland comics are the creative comic book writers themselves. Ooligan Press, through Portland State University, hosts a convention called Write to Publish, which began as a simple fundraiser designed to publicize Ooligan Press. Write to Publish is now celebrating its eighth annual year and has grown from a fundraising event into an esteemed conference aimed at connecting emerging writers with those in the publishing world. It includes panels, workshops, vendors, and speakers––many of whom are professionals in the publishing industry. This year’s conference will be held on January 30, 2016 in the Smith Memorial Student Union, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Breakfast, including coffee, and lunch will be available.

We at Ooligan Press would like to reach out to all comic book writers and invite them to join us at Write to Publish 2016. Facets of the conference are geared specifically towards comic book writers, including a large raffle prize of two free tickets to Wizard World Comic Con, held February 19–21 and featuring special guests, such as William Shatner and New York Times best seller Colleen Houck. Alongside amazing vendors, such as Patterson Proofreading and PDX Writers, will be Oni Press. Oni Press publishes graphic novels and comics with genres that are popular in other media forms, like thrillers and romances. Aspiring comic book writers should not miss out on our instructional panels and influential speakers. The Writing for Comic Books panel is a great opportunity to learn. Panelists include Sara Ryan, creator of the Bad Houses comic; Virginia Paine, cartoonist of The WHYs; Bess Pallares, a freelance comics editor whose works include the comics Enormous and Spiritus ; and Jenn Manley Lee, senior production designer for Ziba Design and the creator of Dicebox.

Though Write to Publish is a conference aimed at helping all writers learn from those in the publishing industry, we want to especially reach out to the comic book writing community. Taking advantage of workshops and speakers is a great way to not only hone one’s craft but also to make connections, valuable assets in an industry where networking plays such a big role. We encourage those who wish to attend Write to Publish 2016 to purchase their tickets here. Portland is the home of many popular and successful comics creators. The diversity and talent of these individuals are what makes the city such a successful comic book hub. Attending Write to Publish is a wonderful way to get your foot in the door of this flourishing industry.

A Look at Portland’s Comic Book Publishers

When you think of the hubs of comic book publishing, cities like New York and Los Angeles likely come to mind. In recent years, however, Portland has come to be a mecca of comic book publishing in its own right. Home to indie comic staples such as Dark Horse Comics, Oni Press, and Top Shelf Productions, Portland boasts at least seven comic book publishing houses and an ever-growing number of comics artists and writers. In this post, I’ll be taking a look at some of Portland’s local comic publishers, beginning with the one that started it all.

  • Dark Horse Comics
    Today Dark Horse is America’s largest independent publisher of comic books and manga, but when founder Mike Richardson started the company in 1986, it launched with just two initial titles. By the end of that first year, Richardson had added nine more titles to Dark Horse’s list. Two years later they would revolutionize the comics adaptation market with the release of comics series based off of Aliens, Predator, Star Wars, and more. Since the beginning, Dark Horse has treated writers and artists as partners, offering them more control over their work than other comic publishers might. Dark Horse and Mike Richardson are credited with bringing the world of comics publishing to Portland.
  • Oni Press
    Oni Press founders Bob Schreck and Joe Nozemack believe art can be used to tell any story. With that in mind, the two former Dark Horse employees started Oni in 1997 with the goal of bringing a more innovative and diverse set of stories into comic form than had ever been seen before. Specializing in publishing original stories of the non-superhero variety, Oni has published hits such as Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley and Wasteland by Christopher Mitten.
  • Top Shelf Productions
    Chris Staros and Brett Warnock met at a comics convention in 1997. Soon after that, they decided to go into business together and form a new kind of comic book publishing house. Originally publishing under the name of Primal Grove Press, Top Shelf publishes everything from autobiographies to erotica to all-ages genre fiction; they specialize in handsomely crafted graphic novels. Alan Moore’s Lost Girls and From Hell and Craig Thompson’s Blankets are just some of the award-winning books that Top Shelf has published.
  • Sparkplug Books
    Founded in 2003, Sparkplug Books was founder and publisher Dylan Williams’s attempt to put more of the “book” into “comic book.” Williams ran Sparkplug from 2003 until his death in 2011, after which his wife Emily took over operations along with Virginia Paine, who is now the owner and publisher. In keeping with Williams’s original vision, Sparkplug is still a small company that publishes mainly avant-garde comics graphic novels. Sparkplug also acts as a distributor for multiple zines and comics from creators all across the country. Many in the industry are calling Sparkplug the next Portland comic publisher to watch.

Interning with Sparkplug Comic Books, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tumblr

I knew when I decided to work towards a career in publishing that I would be satisfied with that track. Publishing, after all, would utilize my creativity and language skills, not to mention provide me with a sense of personal satisfaction. However, when I realized that I could choose to work towards a career in comics publishing, I went from feeling merely content with my chosen path to feeling downright charged with excitement. A desire to learn the skills I need to be an asset to the publishing industry led me to the book publishing program at PSU, but I’ve always known that I would need to find a place where I could learn the tricks of the trade that pertain to comics alone.

This summer, my light class load gave me time to explore the possibility of an internship with a comics publisher in town. After extensive searching online, I narrowed my options down to a few companies: Dark Horse Comics, Oni Press, Top Shelf Productions, and Sparkplug Comic Books. Dark Horse wasn’t offering any internships at the time of my inquiry; Top Shelf wasn’t offering any internships at all, ever. I applied for an internship with Oni Press and was told that I had just missed the application deadline. My heart began to sink; I knew that Sparkplug was a long shot, since they were a very small operation and had just undergone a significant structural change (their founder and owner had recently passed away, and official ownership had just been transferred to a longtime employee). That being said, I also felt like Sparkplug could potentially benefit the most from an intern’s help. So, crossing my fingers, I sent Virginia Paine (the new owner and publisher) an email and hoped for the best.

To my surprise and delight, Virginia emailed me back quickly, saying that she had just been considering an intern. It was perfect timing! We met for coffee the next week and spoke about what I might be able to help out with; since I had just finished working within Ooligan’s marketing department, we decided that I would be of most use in that capacity. I was a little disappointed to learn that there weren’t any major projects in need of editing coming up in the near future, but figured that any experience with comics would be good experience. When she offered me the position, I gladly accepted it.

So, for the past five months or so, I’ve been working with Virginia at the Sparkplug office twice a week. Though I have been able to help proof a few upcoming comics, the majority of my time has been spent working online. Sparkplug is not only a publisher, but also a distributor of self-published/small press comics and zines, so I have been learning a lot about updating and maintaining an online store. While writing marketing copy and creating product pages don’t necessarily provide electrifying excitement, these mundane tasks (among others) are imperative to the success of a press, and it’s good to have the opportunity to hone my skills in these areas. I’ve also had the opportunity to handle some of Sparkplug’s retailer relations and have learned of more small publishers, comic shops, zine distros, and independent bookstores across the country than I ever probably would have on my own.

As I’ve been getting the hang of running an efficient and easy-to-navigate webstore, I’ve also been concentrating on increasing Sparkplug’s online presence. When I arrived, Sparkplug had Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook accounts and a blog. Virginia spent a fair amount of energy on the Facebook page, writing frequent posts that mixed personal interest pieces with business news. The blog had regular posts, though they were mostly informational. The Twitter and Tumblr accounts were used relatively rarely. I decided to take a good look at how many people were looking at Sparkplug’s posts (and where) and found that the blog received steady traffic (though people rarely commented on posts), which was heartening. During my time here, I have been writing all of the blog posts, trying to to be more creative in how I present information and more upbeat and excited in my general tone. These updates are then cross-posted to Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook and interspersed amongst those sites’ respective content so that we can reach our maximum audience across these platforms.

I should interject here that I’m not a big social media fan. I quit Facebook in 2010; I don’t blog anymore, and I’ve never tweeted or tumbled (which I can only hope is the verb for posting on Tumblr) about my life. I’m the asshole in groups who kills the mood by asking people to please not post my picture on their digital walls. I retch at articles suggesting that people without an online presence should be viewed with suspicion, I have to physically restrain myself from throwing the phones of friends who can’t stop updating their various streams into an actual stream, and I’m consistently horrified by new stories about social media harassment, online social justice crusades gone wrong, and relationship catastrophes (both personal and professional) created or exacerbated by the Internet allowing someone to see or say something they shouldn’t have.

In-person networking at the IPRC

I prefer to do my networking in person (for instance, here I am at Content: A Publication Party at the IPRC for Design Week Portland)

That’s why it came as a surprise when I found that Tumblr, particularly, is actually awesome for small publishers—Sparkplug in particular. For anyone else late the the Millennial party, let me tell you: there are a lot of people on Tumblr. Not surprisingly, a huge chunk of those people are into comics, art, combating forms of oppression, and supporting local artists and businesses, which means there’s a huge audience there just waiting to fall in love with a comic or zine from Sparkplug. Since I began posting on Tumblr (tumbling?!) more frequently and reblogging posts from like-minded artists, writers, and publishers, Sparkplug has gained multiple new followers a week and received dozens—sometimes hundreds—of views, likes, and reblogs every day. Publishers all agree that a recommendation from a friend or trusted source is still people’s preferred way of learning about new books, and word of mouth travels fast and widely on Tumblr. The people our posts are reaching are all potential customers, contributors, fans, and spokespeople for Sparkplug, and I feel confident that maintaining our presence in this corner of the Internet will pay off with a better, further-reaching reputation and—hopefully—financial profits.


Thanks, Tumblr.

While I’m still not likely to start posting about my lunch, my thoughts on sexism in popular television shows, and my turtle (perhaps another sign of how ill-suited to the Internet I am—no cat!) on a personal profile anytime soon, I am glad I’ve taken over as the de facto social media manager for Sparkplug. Understanding how to network and connect with an audience via Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr is invaluable in the modern publishing industry, and you can bet I’ll be talking about my social media skills in future interviews. Let’s just hope my interviewer doesn’t ask if they can friend me.

Oni Press Internship

There was something magical about reading comics as a kid that, when I think about it now, really paved the way for my lifelong love of literature. Reading X-Men comics in the early ’90s, collecting trading cards, and watching cartoons opened my life up to a grand universe of fantasy and drama. Though I don’t necessarily remember ceasing to read comics, I definitely didn’t begin buying them regularly until my early 20s. I credit my friend Brian, a veritable compendium of knowledge on comic writers, creators, lore, and continuity. His passion rekindled mine.
Fast forward five or so years and I’m in Portland, attending graduate school at Portland State. I knew that in addition to Ooligan Press and my courses, I wanted to intern during my time here, but I struggled with where to go. Then at Wordstock in 2012, I came across the Oni Press booth. Oni Press is a comic book publisher in Portland, most famous for their titles Scott Pilgrim and Whiteout. I began talking to one of the editors at the booth and inquired about internships. She told me that they do their hiring at the end of the year and I should wait until then. I held on to her business card and propped it up on my desk until I could reach out and apply.
In December, I submitted my applications and waited for several weeks. I then received an email offering me a summer internship. Imagine my surprise at that: I didn’t even have to interview. I thought it was a sort of strange way to handle the hiring process, but I wasn’t about to complain. I started in June, scheduled to go in two days a week during the summer as an editorial intern.
Going into the office for the first time was a bit scary. When you start a new job, you are never sure what to expect. Will people be friendly? Rude? Pretentious? Luckily, the staff I met initially were friendly and communicative about what I would be doing. I was tasked with basic editorial support for the department, the duties of which included proofing pages for typos, updating databases with tombstone data as needed, and creating work orders for book reprints, to name a few. My assignments came in small chunks for the first few weeks, mainly because the rest of the staff was preparing for an upcoming show.

San Diego Comic-Con.

Luckily, I had planned to be in San Diego that weekend to visit friends and family, and I offered to volunteer at Oni Press’ booth (provided they shell out a pass!). I have gone to San Diego Comic-Con since I was a little kid, but working at an exhibitor booth for the first time was a truly awesome experience. I felt like I was a part of both the comic book community and the team at Oni. By this point in the summer, I had built up a good deal of familiarity with the backlist and frontlist as a member of the editorial team, so I was able to recommend titles to customers and share insights about some of my favorites.
The rest of the summer, Oni had me doing maintenance for the forthcoming website—uploading digital comics from their backlist and blog posts—which really put my organizational skills to the test. I also got to create book maps for some upcoming trade paperbacks and sat in on a pitch meeting where the editors discussed recent submissions to the press.
Overall, I felt that my childhood love of comics got an adult outlet in the form of my internship. I learned that working in comics really demands that you constantly keep up with new creators and works from all over the industry. Oni provided a great first look at a side of publishing that I never would have seen otherwise. The most important and rewarding aspect of my time there was having work in front of me before publication and being asked to contribute, in my own small way, to the process of making it the best version it could be.

Stumptown Comics Fest: Searching for Greg Rucka

By Sarah Soards
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I arrived at the Stumptown Comics Festival. Maybe some live reenactments of Superman’s death? Were catgirls going to be trolling the booths looking for hugs? I had been to an anime convention a few years ago, and was shocked to see cosplayers lined up in the hotel hallways with cardboard signs saying “Hug Me” in thick black Sharpie. Luckily, I was saved from having to give any hugs to strange, sweaty teenagers dressed up like Snake from Metal Gear Solid.
Booths were packed like sardines into the event space—it was a veritable comic book-filled labyrinth. It took a little getting used to, but once I figured out how to navigate the narrow aisles, it became less overwhelming. Dark Horse, Oni Press, and Top Shelf were just a few of the companies that filled the room at the Oregon Convention Center. With my trusty press badge around my neck, I plunged forth into a sea of comic books, graphic novels, merchandise, paintings, and chapbooks.
Know Your City
Now, I love comic books and graphic novels, but I am certainly no connoisseur. I can generally tell if the art is not so great, and I can separate a good story from a bad one. But there were so many amazing comics to look at and choose from! A bit overcome, I stumbled into a booth where a man declared that he had created a new type of superhero graphic novel.
The story follows a young man as he battles the forces of evil in order to save his city from destruction. The young man also happens to be gay. The comic’s creator explained to me that as a young, gay teenager he enjoyed the action and storylines of comic books, but was never fully able to relate to the protagonists. So he created his own superhero that he and other people in the community could connect with. He stressed that the comic still contained non-stop action and all of the standard superhero tropes, but that the lead character just happens to like men instead of women. It’s a story about a modern superhero for a modern audience. We had a great conversation, and I realized that this man was not the only one writing LGBT-themed comics.
I walked around a little longer, breathing in the stale air and smiling like an idiot. I ended up purchasing two graphic novels, even though I had told myself that I was attending purely as a press person. But there was so much excitement and hope squashed into that little room, how could I not buy anything? It’s an incredible community—they constantly support one another, which is how they have been able to keep growing over the past few years.
There weren’t any hugs, catgirls, or people yelling in Japanese, but there was still a sense of giddiness. There are so many paths that the industry can take—the possibilities are endless. Whether it’s a web comic or a perfect bound hardback, the comic book world will continue to push and explore boundaries, and that is something we can all look forward to.