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KC: What Does an Editor Do?

 height=(WoW JUL 08)

by KC Carlson

Heck if I know!

Goodnight, everybody! Please tip your waitresses!


Ow! OW! Cut it out!

Excuse me. My editor, Roger Ash, is poking me with a big stick and telling me that I have to answer the question.

You'd think he would know the answer to "What does an editor do," since, after all, he is one. I was only an editor in another lifetime, in a galaxy far, far away.

But he is still (ow!) poking me with the big stick (quit it!), so I guess this is what I am talking about this month (OWW! #@^$!). Here we go...


An editor is someone who gets tremendous pleasure out of poking poor, undeserving creators with a big, pointy stick.

And that's pretty much th--

WHACK! OWWWwwoooooooh....


Seriously, what an editor does is one of those great mysteries of life. It's up there with "If the police arrest a mime, do they tell him he has the right to remain silent?" or "If Superman could stop bullets, why does he always duck when somebody throws a gun at him?" It's probably one of the most misunderstood job titles in comics.

Dick Giordano once told me that he thought that editing comic books is one of the most difficult editing jobs in existence. Not only do you have to be good at knowing everything that a good prose or text editor knows, you also have to understand art and illustration and everything that goes along with that. And to be exceptional at it, you must have exceptionally good taste in both story and art. Finding people who can do both well is very rare. Dick would know, as he was one of the very best editors in the comic book business.

Tom Brevoort, another exceptional editor, once ran a simulation of being a comic editor at his Blah Blah Blog (http://www.marvel.com/blogs//entry/412) with a follow up at http://www.marvel.com/blogs//entry/739. Although the exercise was super-compressed, it was pretty darn close to the actual experience "real" comic book editors have to go through every day. There was some discussion about the "talent management" and dealing with the fan press scenarios that Tom added to his sim - that they were unrealistic or overblown. I remember sitting back and thinking, "if they only knew..."


The first and foremost goal of a comic book editor is the same as most every other editor: be the point person in enticing creative people to produce a publication of quality and merit in a predetermined amount of time. There are, of course, hundreds of add-ons to this basic statement involving periodical publication, deadlines, contracts, payments, schedules, back-up plans, and dozens and dozens of other details, but the bottom line is "get it out on time and make it good." Period.

With corporate comics and related situations, there's another very important mandate for the comic book editor: the characters and concepts owned by others must be protected and maintained. Which means that if you are editing a Batman story, you've got an entire corporation to answer to, so you better know what you are doing!

In practice, the role of an comic book editor includes all of these other roles, in varying degree: friend, boss, mother- (or father-) figure, confidant, psychiatrist, carny shill, critic, expert, truth-teller, liar, secretary, filing clerk, manager, accountant, production artist, graphic designer, historian, librarian, researcher, and photocopier tech. In dealing with stories, you must know about physics, time travel, ancient murderous cults, astrophysics, ancient philosophy, metaphysics, politics, religion, genies, monsters, UFOs, weaponry, hypertime, cosmic cubes, amazons, eternals, ultimate nullifiers, moebius chairs, cutting edge robotics, welding and forging, spelunking, oceanography, mythology, unstable molecules, genetics, mutation, strange visitors from other planets, Commodore Schmidlapp... need I go on?

You also must not be allergic to - or afraid of - paper. (Although in the computer age, this might be less important than in my day.)

You must be aware of every notable book, magazine, movie, TV show, Broadway show, old radio show, famous quotation and catchphrase, and virtually anything that might be referred to by a pop culture-savvy writer - or at least be able to fake it. You must have a vast knowledge of art and images, from classical to pop to photography and iconic images from movies and TV (because you never know what your artist is going to slip into the artwork when you're not paying attention) - or at least be able to fake it.

And you must know comics. Period. At the very least, you must know the classic characters, stories, and concepts of the company you are working for. And it won't kill you to learn the history of the company you work for. If you don't, you will lose the respect of your peers and superiors in pretty short order. It's also very helpful to know as much as possible about all of the other companies' characters and stories, in case one of the creative people you work with accidentally "borrows" a concept or name or pose from them. I'm still not sure which hurts worse: being screamed at by the Publisher or being scraped off the window afterwards.

You also must have a working sense of legal concepts such as public domain and fair use. You don't need to be a lawyer (most big companies have one or 12), but at some point someone creative will want to do a "call-out" (NOT a legal term) to something from the past and there will be questions. Most corporations will err on the side of conservatism and will say NO, so be prepared to get caught in the middle of your bosses and your creators. "But the other guys are doing it!" is not a good defense.


As an editor, your key role is to make the creative people that you work with look great and inspire them to produce exceptional art. You are, confoundingly, the most important and the least important part of the creative team. You are also, generally, the least creative person on the team, but you are expected to come up with creative solutions to insolvable problems at any given second. You must be able to work with massively creative and talented creators without jealousy and without fear. You must always remember that what you are doing is a "team sport," even if others do not.

You have to be the coach, team captain, quarterback, cheerleader, referee, timekeeper, the guy who paints the lines on the field, and the guy who makes the hot dogs - all at the same time.

After all that, when it comes to the actual work of editing, it is this: Editing is the ability to say (or think) "Huh?" and then having the skill to fix it so that no one will ever say (or think) "Huh?" again.


You can cut down on the number of times that you have to say "Huh?" by following one of the very best editorial philosophies of all time (and I'm paraphrasing here): Hire the very best people that you can, give them everything they need to create magic, and get the hell out of their way. I wish I knew for sure who said this first.

This simple philosophy was followed by most of the great editors in comics, including Archie Goodwin, Dick Giordano, Stan Lee, Mark Gruenwald, Julie Schwartz, and a few others. I was very fortunate to work with three of these gentlemen (Archie, Dick, and Julie) and they all taught me a lot, even if they didn't always know they were doing so.

I don't think that there ever should be a single person named as "Best Editor Ever" in comics. First of all, who would be qualified to decide such a thing? One thing I am pretty sure of is that if there were ever a "Best Loved" or "Best Admired" comics editor, Archie Goodwin would be it, hands down. In my 40-some years of reading, studying, working in, and hanging out in the comics community, I have never heard a bad thing said about Archie. (And this is an industry that frequently badmouths its saints.)

Look at his editorial career: Classic horror and war tales at early Warren, Editor-in-Chief at Marvel, key architect and editor of the creator-friendly Epic (and look at how fast that fell apart after he left), two unique stints at DC. Plus, as an A-List writer, Archie was responsible for some of the most memorable stories in comics. Everybody in comics wanted to work with Archie. As testament to this, the inventory on Batman: Legend of the Dark Knight was so deep that Archie-edited stories were still appearing in the title three years after his death! Archie's Secret Editorial Codeword: Mood (for his very large body of noir-ish crime, detective and espionage stories). There is no editor in comics that lived up to the bold-faced editorial philosophy above better than Archie.

... Unless it was Dick Girodano. Best known as Comics' Kindly Uncle, Dick always seemed as if he had to be in motion at all times. Refusing to give up his day job as one of comics' best inkers (if not all-around best artists), when Dick was editing, he frequently woke up at 4am to spend a few hours at the board before catching a train into the office to start editing. Dick's career as editor includes the 1960s "Action Hero" period at Charlton, a run of fondly remembered and truly innovative titles at DC in the late '60s (including Deadman, Bat Lash, and Teen Titans) and a lengthy period as DC's Executive Editor during one of the last great Renaissance periods of comics, before the field collapsed into pretty much just superhero comics. During this time, Dick was largely responsible for green-lighting such memorable, and industry-changing, projects as Watchman, Batman: The Dark Knight, and the entire Vertigo imprint, as well as genre-busting fan-favorite projects like Ronin, Camelot 3000, Amethyst, Atari Force, Blue Devil, and Captain Carrot. Dick kept fans in touch with DC's many changes with his popular (and occasionally controversial) "...Meanwhile" column. Dick's Secret Editorial Codeword: Innovation.

Over Julie Schwartz's long career at DC, he edited virtually all of DC's major superhero characters, most notably long stints on Superman, Batman, Justice League of America, Green Lantern, and Flash. Beginning his comics career in the Golden Age editing the "All-American" line of comics (including All-Star Comics, home of the Justice Society of America), Julie was literally the bridge between DC's Golden and Silver Ages, becoming the primary architect of the latter with the successful reintroduction of The Flash, Green Lantern, the JLA, The Atom, and Hawkman.

Julie story-edited nose-to-nose with his two main writers, John Broome and Gardner Fox, in his office most mornings. Julie's stable of regular artists were some of the finest craftsmen of the field, including Gil Kane, Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino, Mike Sekowsky, and Murphy Anderson during the early Silver Age, and later with Neal Adams and Dick Giordano on Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson on Superman. Plus, Julie provided editorial guidance to a number of younger creators in their early careers including Denny O'Neil, Cary Bates, Len Wein, Elliot Maggin, Gerry Conway, Marty Pasko, and later on, Mark Waid, Keith Giffen, and Alan Moore. Not bad company to associate with! Julie's Secret Editorial Codeword: Super-Science!

Stan Lee, although better known as a writer/creator, was notable as an editor for the longevity of his career, the sheer amount of material that he was responsible for - in good times and bad - and for being the keeper of what had to be one of the most amazing rolodexes in comics. From Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch in the Golden Age, to Westerns and Teen Humor, to the beloved Monster books of the early 1960s and the development of the foundation of the Marvel Universe, Stan could do it all. (And wrote most of it too!) The Marvel Bullpen Page and "Stan's Soapbox" were an odd combination of editorial information and carny-style huckstering, but it's the single most-fondly remembered touchstone of the Silver Age of comics. Stan's Secret Editorial Codeword: Excelsior! (Of course!)

Mark Gruenwald brought an incredible sense of foundation and scholarship to comics. He is noted for creating and largely writing the much-imitated Marvel Handbooks, taking what Stan, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Roy Thomas, and others had created and organized and (largely in the pages of Avengers) giving it a sense of reality and grandeur at the same time. If nothing else, Mark should be remembered for teaching the world of comics to its readers through his long-running series of "Mark's Remarks" columns, where he pulled open the backstage curtains of comics and inspired hundreds of fans to become more than fans, most notably Mike Carlin and Tom Brevoort. Mark's Secret Editorial Codeword: Foundation.


As in everything, there are good and bad. So what makes a bad editor? You know, the kinds of editors that are discussed in well-traveled stories of being dangled out of windows by their feet by disgruntled creators, or of being spoken ill of at their own funerals. If you ask some creators, they will tell you that all editors are bad. During my stint at DC, I got to work alongside some very good editors (some mentioned above) and some not so good. Here are some things that I observed while I was there that might shed some light on why comic book editors aren't always the most-liked people in comics. Welcome to:

Stupid editor tricks!

Editor as entertainer - At least one editor that I knew took becoming "buddies" with your creators a little too far. He felt that it was his job to keep his talent happy and content by telling them jokes - for the first half hour or so of every phone conversation. This ran through a lot of material pretty quickly, and the editor took to keeping his desk stocked with joke books. (I felt sorry for the assistant who had to hear the same jokes, over and over, all day long.) There was no question that much of the industry felt that this guy was one of the funniest guys in comics, but many of his freelancers secretly commented to me that the long phone calls actually prevented them from getting work done.

Editor justifying his blue pencil - This is the editor who thinks "Hey, they hired me to edit, so I better edit a lot." Lots of problems with this one, especially completely forgetting the "getting the hell out of the way" part of the perfect editorial philosophy. Another thing: if you really have to edit that much, maybe you'd be better off working with a better creator. Or it just could be a case of...

Editor obsessive - This primarily happens in the final stages of putting the book together just before it goes into production for final corrections. This is where the editor must decide between something "being" wrong and just "looking" wrong. We're talking about esoteric things like broken lettering, odd balloon shapes, balloons creating odd tangents with the artwork or extending into other panels, and hundreds of other judgment calls that need to be made by the editor. Of course, things that are wrong are wrong and need to be corrected, while things that just "look" wrong are a judgment call. The judgment call is often: do I "fix" everything and put the book in with hundreds of corrections, knowing that the more corrections needed means extra days in production, or do I "pick and choose" and get a quicker turnaround for my late book. Unfortunately, the obsessive editor almost always picks correcting everything AND browbeats the production people into the faster turnaround with these results: a) the production people grow to hate working with you in the long run and either do bad work or slow work, and b) the more things you change at the last minute means more chances that something that changed will irritate one of your creators. (Of course, the cure for all of this is get your books in ahead of time!)

Editing "on the boards" - This is the situation where the editor fails to correct mistakes or problems earlier in the production process (like the script stage or the penciling stage) and does ALL the editing at the last minute (or "on the boards"), leading to many of the problems mentioned above. This is otherwise known as "being lazy." In one extreme case, the editor failed to notice that the writer of his 64-page Prestige-format special actually had written 65 pages of script. Since it wasn't caught, 65 pages of art, lettering, and coloring were produced, which meant that one full page of story had to be cut, and the surrounding pages had to be re-edited so the cut wasn't obvious, leading to much extra work and extra frustration all around. Plus, the book went over budget.

I am curious if "editing on the boards" is still a problem with the current technology, in that most (if not all) work is done via scans on the computer. Can some current editor clue me in, please?

Editor as frustrated writer - There's no point in denying it - a lot of comic book wannabes take jobs as editors because they think it's a stepping stone to becoming a comic book writer. (And it does work occasionally, but you still have to be a talented writer. It's not like you automatically get promoted from editor to writer.) This leads to many unfortunate clashes between editors and writers over perceived script problems. Is there really a problem with the script or does the editor think it should be written the way that s/he would write it? There's never a good solution for this one. And if you manage to piss off an A-List guy and the fight goes above your head, who do you think the company will back? Always a good idea to keep separate careers separate.

Editor as crazed fanboy - Okay, so you need to know a lot about comics to be a successful comic book editor, and it's worthwhile to develop a healthy point of view about what is a good comic book, but if you come roaring into your new editorial job as one of those crazed serial posters you often see on the message boards or you slavishly suck up to the pros to the extent that you're begging for sketches or collectibles instead of doing your job, then you are going to lose the respect of everybody you work with. If no one wants to work with you, you will eventually be gone. It may be comics, and the dress code may not be as strict, but you still have to be professional. Remember, you are the "designated adult" in each of your creative teams, and it's your job to get everybody else home safely, each and every issue.

Editor as total jerk - Can't be helped. Some people are just jerks. In general, a good editor should strive to be organized, forthright, professional, sympathetic, trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. Cheerful and reverent are the tough ones, however. Comics is a tougher business than you think.


Hopefully that's a good overview of what an editor is. As far as what an editor does, well that's a little bit more complicated - and esoteric. While the basics will always remain, the nuts and bolts of comic book production has almost entirely changed in the 10 years that I've been away from professional editing. A lot of the cutting and pasting that I remember is now a lot of scanning and on-screen work in the computer age. Computerized coloring and lettering was just getting started as I was preparing to "retire." I'd love to do "a typical day of an editor" piece, but my experience would be almost totally irrelevant compared to today's world.

Unless some current-day editor would be interested in a team-up? I'd love a present day tour of current production and editorial processes. Any takers? Contact me here at AuntieKC@WestfieldComics.com


KC CARLSON edited comic books at DC Comics, roughly from 1989 to 1997. Some of the titles included Legion of Super-Heroes and Legionnaires, five Superman titles, Zero Hour, DC Secret Files, various mini-series and one-shots, about 18 trade paperback collections, and the DC Universe hype page. I'm still on speaking terms with most of my freelancers (and I wrote this column in Legionnaires penciller Jeff Moy's house - 1,000 miles away from my home office.)

p>To link to this column, use this link (right click and copy)

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