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.

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