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.