Friday’s Editorial Conference
There have been two recent news stories that seem to fascinate the comics world; partly, I think, because of the one-two punch style of timing involved, and partly because it lets fans yell at a major superhero publisher (a pastime that I often suspect outweighs the pleasure of actually reading superhero stories for some people.)
The first was Grant Morrison blithely telling Newsarama that as far as he was concerned, plot points in Countdown To Final Crisis and Death of the New Gods shouldn’t have any bearing on Final Crisis since he’d written his story before those two series came out.
This despite the fact that A) they directly contradict what Morrison wrote in his Final Crisis script.
And B) the other two series were released first, with one billed as being the direct prequel leading up to Grant’s book.
Now, you can argue the merits of adherence to continuity or not as you please, but that wasn’t the weird part. The weird part, to me, was that it seemed to befuddle him that fans were bothered about it at all. Does Mr. Morrison work in some kind of sterile bubble? Has he not ever met a comics fan? Has he blanked out all his years on JLA?
Anyway, how the internet caught fire over that. We even had quite a back-and-forth over it here. The argument seemed to break out as roughly, “Grant’s an artist! It’s not his problem what other writers do!” versus, “Grant’s supposed to be a goddamn professional! Why didn’t he revise his script to match his colleagues?!”
This was followed by Chuck Dixon’s stealth-bomb announcement on his Dixonverse board that he was “no longer employed by DC in any capacity.”
So much for Dixon’s much-ballyhooed return to DC, and particularly to the Bat characters.
Right now — as I write this, anyway — no one knows anything. At least no one who’s willing to talk about it. DC and Dixon are both keeping mum. (In fairness, the reasons are none of our business…but clearly, something went wrong somewhere.)
And naturally this has led us to another outcry all over the blogosphere, more calls for Dan Didio’s head on a platter, etc., etc.
Oddly, though, nowhere (at least nowhere I’ve seen, and I’ve read a number of pieces about these two news items over the last week) does anyone ask the question that I’d think would be first one out of the gate, especially for anyone that’s been around any kind of actual publishing.
My first thought (both times) was, who the hell were the editors on those books and what were they doing?
It was easy enough to look up. Eddie Berganza is the editor of record on Final Crisis. His assistant is Adam Schlagman. On Countdown it’s Mike Carlin assisted by Elisabeth Gehrlein. And on Death of the New Gods it was Mike Marts and Jeanine Schaefer. Over on the Bat books Chuck Dixon was working on, for Robin the editor is Jeanine Schaefer, and on Batman and the Outsiders it’s the team of Marts and Schaefer again.
As far as I know, no one’s calling for their immediate lynching. (Nor should they. I mean, come on, it’s just superhero comics. People need to get a grip.) Nevertheless, some criticism is in order here.
Now, before we get into this, I want to make my position clear. I’ve worked in and around magazines, publishers, and editors for almost twenty years now, and I assure you that editors have the most thankless job in publishing. No one ever puts down a book or a magazine or a comic and thinks, “Man, that was great. That was one hell of an editor that put that thing together.” Yet most of the time it’s the editor that makes it happen.
He (or she) is the person that’s usually responsible for the birth of the project, either by soliciting talent for a story or by coming up with a premise and hiring the creators to flesh it out. He (or she) is the person that has to make it all come in on time and under budget, also often overseeing the production and printing long after the creators have collected a paycheck and departed. He (or she) is always the one that the publisher expects to solve any problems that come up; ideally, solving them without having to spend any money. The job invariably involves long hours, headaches, ulcers, drama, and the occasional tantrum. For these routinely herculean efforts editors get… no credit. And all of the blame.
I’ve worked for bad editors and they have always, always been people who let the job beat them down to the point where they didn’t care any more. And I’ve worked for good editors who refused to let that happen and they verged on the saintly. I’ve been an editor and discovered quickly that I’m not a saint and I have limited endurance, so I got the hell out and counted myself lucky not to have alienated all my friends during that brief period (though I daresay that job was a contributing factor to the end of my first marriage.) Believe me, I have a lot of respect for people who do editorial work, especially at major publishing houses.
Still, it is my years of experience in and around publishing that leads me to think that if there’s blame to be handed out in any of these instances, I’d think the editors would be coming in for some…. and by some I mean “a lot.”
Let’s take a minute to unpack the Morrison thing first.
Put continuity debates off to the side for a minute. Let’s not forget that DC Comics is a business. A business where the boss just announced a major new policy.
I mean it was in all the goddamn books shipping that week. This is how it’s going to be. Continuity is a big deal for us, line-wide. We take our fictional history SERIOUSLY, as seriously as you do, loyal readers. Our books will be an unfolding tapestry of consistency.
Then, just a month later, comes a major gaffe — okay, perceived gaffe — in the biggest book DC is putting out this summer. The one they’ve been hyping for a year.
Here is the thing I am really baffled about. How is Eddie Berganza not all over Mike Carlin about what’s going on in Countdown for the last two-three months’ worth of books leading up to Final Crisis #1? Checking in at least a couple of times a week, if not daily?
These guys are both professionals. Carlin, especially, knows the headaches involved in coordinating this kind of thing after years of being the Superman editor during a bunch of big event stories (done as a weekly serial!) during the triangle-number era. Hell, Carlin used to have big flowcharts, with the story beats all mapped out, posted in his editorial meetings. Where was the chart listing the beats in Final Crisis #1 during the Countdown conferences, if Morrison had it all done in advance? “Okay, guys, this is where we end up.”
And why wasn’t Eddie Berganza sitting in on a meeting or two? “Remember, this is where Grant needs us all to be. Here’s a copy of the script to the first issue. We’d like you to tease this part and this part, but for Chrissake keep a lid on this part.” How hard is that?
Or Mike Marts telling Jim Starlin, “Hey, Jim, FYI, Grant’s got this lined up for #1 in Final Crisis. It has a serious impact on what you’ve got planned and Jones already did the pages for this. What are our options? Can we tweak this story of yours a little?”
The reason this has me flummoxed is because more than anything else I’ve seen, this is what editors do. That is the job.
Most people think of the editor as a sort of two-legged spellchecker. That’s not it at all.
The editor’s the foreman. He’s the one who’s in charge, who makes sure everything happens like it’s supposed to. Editors not only plan, they are constantly making contingency plans. “This story’s late? Okay, we move that one up and we slot this piece instead. Press broke down? Okay, get this other printer on the phone and see if he can run it. I thought we were supposed to have a first draft on that ninja thing. Wait a minute, he says he’s still researching? Research my ass, researching the ponies is what he’s doing. Screw him. We eat the advance and we call Smith instead. Tell him we need to see a draft in four days.”
It’s not art. It’s commercial art. It’s a business. In the publishing business, serious money rides on getting these things right. Good editors check on things while they’re being worked on.
…but all right. Editors are human. Shit happens. Maybe the flowcharts were all in place and everyone knew the storybeats but something got garbled. Maybe it was too late to pull the books and fix them. Maybe it was too hard to decide which creator it would hurt the least to do the revisions and as a result no one took the initiative. Whatever. It’s done. All right.
Where was the damage control?
Because that’s the part of the editor’s job that’s not contingency plans, basically. Fixing things that have gone wrong.
Instead, we have Grant Morrison going off the reservation and telling Newsarama, well, yeah, whatever, people shouldn’t worry about it. Right on the heels of his editor’s boss announcing to Grant’s readership that hell YEAH, this matters, we all worry about it, we’re putting a special logo on the books so you will all know how MUCH we worry about it.
Bear in mind that it’s not about the merits of continuity. Bottom line, it’s a writer declaring that the new company policy (the policy that is barely a month old) is now inoperative, at least for the book he’s working on… which is, oh yeah, the most important book of the line this summer.
In real, grown-up publishing, that writer usually gets his ass fired. Or he gets a stern lecture. If the writer’s too big of a rock star to fire, and okay, Morrison probably is… then you can bet the EDITOR gets his ass handed to him. “Can’t you put a muzzle on him? He’s making us all look like idiots. Hell, he’s calling us incompetent in a major news outlet. Shut him up and get out there and fix this.”
But not a peep out of any of the editors involved. Not even a hey, okay, we dropped the ball, but the book’s still good, wait’ll you see what’s coming up! Just Grant Morrison chatting away about how he and Mr. Jones are doing great work and too bad about those other idiots, but really, why are you even interested in them?
I don’t get it. It doesn’t make business sense to me. Never mind the artistic considerations… honestly, I’m not convinced there are any serious artistic considerations. I don’t actually care that much about how the DC Universe matches up to itself. I have no problem compartmentalizing my brain to accommodate Death of the New Gods and Final Crisis and even Countdown, if I were masochist enough to read Countdown. I might amuse myself speculating about ways to reconcile contradictory plot points, because I’m a big nerd that way, but I wouldn’t get all upset.
However, simply in terms of how a big publishing firm is supposed to work, it sure looks staggeringly incompetent.
Or take the Chuck Dixon thing. Whatever’s going on there — and we still don’t know, except that now Mr. Dixon has gone on record that he did not quit and he did not believe it had anything to do with politics.
Whatever. The point is, he was, ahem, “let go.” I have to wonder, what is the editorial thinking behind that?
This is Chuck Dixon, after all. A guy who’s a consummate pro by all reports. (In fact, I use a video he did for CrossGen years ago, talking about how to write comics, as an introductory piece in my class.) So I’m going to go out on a limb and hazard a guess that the problem did not involve constant shouting matches, lateness, refusal to do revisions, or any of another half-dozen arrogant prima donna-type possible problems. Dixon worked on quite a few of the major Bat crossovers, he knows how to be a team player.
Which leads me to speculate — I know, it’s bad form, but I’m writing for a blog, I can’t help myself — that it might be the bane of every freelancer’s existence, the editor who suddenly decides that ‘it’s time to go in a different direction.’
There are lots of reasons for this. Most of them are rooted in anxiety. Trying to ramp up sales. Trying to get some buzz on a book. Trying to create an opening with an idea of getting a bigger marquee name. Could be anything. We don’t know.
Which is, again, the weird part.
I understand that Chuck Dixon is taking the high road with refusing to talk about it. I even approve of it and wish we saw more of this brand of restraint from creators in comics.
What I don’t get is why Jeanine Schaefer or somebody isn’t out there talking to Newsarama or CBR or The Beat about why this isn’t a disastrous meltdown, but rather an Exciting New Direction.
Because it’s bad business not to try to get out in front of something like this… especially if you’re the one making it happen. Remember, Chuck Dixon didn’t quit. So someone, likely an editor, fired him. Surely not on a whim? Or in a fit of pique? Firing Chuck Dixon off Robin — the guy that essentially created the Tim Drake character for all practical purposes — well, you better have a damn good reason. Why aren’t we hearing what it is? If you’ve decided to ‘go in a different direction,’ shouldn’t you, y’know, have one?
It sure looks like they don’t. But again, that’s because no one’s telling us any different. “No comment”? Is that the best DC’s editorial staff has for this?
When a publisher leaves a news vacuum, fans will invariably spin it into a worst-case scenario. Those fans are out there right now, posting and blogging and crabbing, with far less charity towards DC Editorial than I am showing in this column. (And I’m not showing all that much.) Considering the sales numbers DC is doing right now, can they really afford to manage their image this badly? Do they just plain not understand that if they aren’t out there persuading the internet to help them, then it’s going to hurt them?
Where’s the planning? Where’s the strategy? Where are the editors?
Just wondering. A lot.
See you next week.