by Roger Ash
As some of you may know, I do some freelance writing about comics, most often for TwoMorrows’ Back Issue Magazine. My latest piece is on Comico’s Jonny Quest comics and appears in Back Issue #59, which is available for pre-order now. The theme of the issue is “Toon Comics” and features a gorgeous Space Ghost cover by Steve Rude. People enjoy “how it’s done” stories, so I thought I’d give you a peek behind-the-scenes at the process I typically go though in writing an article for Back Issue.
The whole process starts with writing a pitch. Editor Michael Eury sends out an email to the Back Issue writers announcing the theme for the issue, stories he’d like to see in the issue, a call for other story ideas, and the pitching begins. Writing a good pitch is a talent in and of itself, and one that I’m still learning. You’ve got to show why you’re the best person to write the article, what you can bring to the article that no one else can, and the direction you intend to take the article. That may not sound that difficult, but trust me, it is if you do it well. And you have to do it well because you’re competing for a job against many other talented writers.
If you’re lucky enough to be given an assignment, you also receive a word count. If that phrase is not familiar to you it simply means the number of words you have for your article. This is important because since Back Issue is printed, there are only a given number of pages for story and art and you need to stick to what you’re given. It’s kinda like the Price is Right rule; you should get as close to the word count as you can without going over. Again, this seems like a simple thing, but it’s not as I’ll demonstrate shortly.
So let’s talk specifics. Once I was given the Jonny Quest assignment, that’s when I started doing research; the most important part of which was re-reading the comics. I don’t care how well I may think I know a series, there are details I’ve forgotten so re-reading is essential. Also, I find that I read differently when I’m reading for pleasure vs. reading for research. When it’s for research, I’m looking for things to focus on and good things to ask questions about. Aside from that, I’ll look at fan sites and interviews with the creators of the comics to add to my base of knowledge about the series.
I also started thinking about who would be good to interview. Some are obvious such as editor Diana Schutz, writer William Messner-Loebs who penned the series as well as the Jezebel Jade mini, artists Marc Hempel & Mark Wheatley who became the regular art team on Jonny Quest, and Adam Kubert who drew the Jezebel Jade mini. Others fill in details such as Bob Schreck who knows behind-the-scenes info at Comico, Dan Spiegle who drew the most issues of the series apart from Hempel and Wheatley, and Michael Eury who was Schutz’s assistant and edited one of the specials. This story also presented an issue in that someone whose voice I felt needed to be in the story, Jonny Quest creator Doug Wildey, had passed away. Luckily, Howard Whitman interviewed him for the Jonny Quest Classics series and allowed me to run an excerpt from that. That may seem like a lot of folks to interview but I strongly feel that readers would much rather hear what the people involved have to say about their experiences working on the book than what my opinion of the series is. I know that’s what I look for in articles such as this. (In case you’re curious, I really enjoy Comico’s Jonny Quest comics.) Occasionally there are people who I can’t track down for an interview or who aren’t able to participate due to time constraints, but I’ve been pretty lucky in having people saying yes to being interviewed.
Once the interview process begins, the article starts to take shape in my head. There are almost always additions or alterations that take place due to people telling me something I didn’t know about. That’s one of the thrills for me when I’m working on an article is running across those tidbits that I never knew before and then getting to share them with others. The interviews also present a real challenge in that I almost always have more material than the word count will allow. Sometimes this can be fairly easy to deal with such as when two different people tell the same story. Sometimes I’ll choose to just use one response; other times I combine the two yet keep the word count down. Then there are those things that just kill me to cut. Often they’re great stories but don’t quite fit for some reason. Here’s an example of that. William Messner-Loebs told me a great story about Jonny Quest #11, an intense issue in which Bandit is stolen by people involved with dog fighting. And with his permission, I share it with you now.
“I was at a school in connection with a convention we were doing in Jackson, Michigan. The school invited us in and they wanted to have a reading of books. I picked the first Bandit episode, only slightly remembering it. I thought that would be good reading for the kids. My friend who had organized the convention had brought in an opaque projector so we were able to project on the wall a huge version of the comic and then I would read in all the voices. I don’t think I really knew how young the kids were going to be. They were from all levels of the school. There were some really young kids in that auditorium and it was completely filled. I sort of quailed a little bit. I had a chance to read over the story once and I’m realizing this is actually a pretty heavy story to be reading to 5 and 6 year olds. Dying dogs and mean guys; what dog fighting is really all about. I went ahead and did it and I’ll tell you it was quite spectacular. The kids were completely mesmerized. The teachers and parents had questions themselves about the format because this was an hour worth of reading. Just listening to someone read out loud to them for an hour, the kids were going to be all over the place. But there wasn’t a sound during the whole reading. They were completely gripped. You can underestimate what kids can understand and what they can appreciate.”
Great story, right? So why didn’t I use it? I wanted to keep the article as much as possible about the time period when the book was being published. Since I had more than enough material for that, I decided to cut this more recent story.
I tend to write in my head, so once all the interviews are done and I sit down to start writing I have a pretty clear idea of where I’m going. I was trained in creative writing so I think how I write differs somewhat from someone who was trained in journalism. However, if the article is well written and the research is solid, that shouldn’t matter to the reader. Plus, it gives the article a small bit of personalization. The Jonny Quest article is fairly straight ahead as far as the structure goes since it’s following the series, but there are decisions to be made such as do I include the related series chronologically or in a separate section of their own? For my first draft, I write not being concerned with word count. Once that’s done, I revise it a number of times, taking out material where necessary to reach the word count. Once I’m happy with it, then it’s on to proofreading, formatting (there is a Back Issue style guide), and sending it to editor Michael Eury by deadline.
And that, in a nutshell, is generally how I go about putting together an article. As presented, it seems pretty linear but it’s not. Things overlap quite often. For example, sometimes I’ll do the main interview with someone and then do some follow up questions if I need clarification or if new information has come to light since our initial interview.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little peek behind the curtain. Hopefully it’s piqued your interest enough to read the article in Back Issue #59 which also includes articles on Space Ghost, Star Blazers, Marvel’s Hanna-Barbera comics, and more.
Now, go read a comic!
Special thanks to Michael Eury and William Messner-Loebs. This article wouldn’t have been possible without them.
Jonny Quest covers from the Grand Comics Database.