Saturday, March 18, 2006

Bad Friday

It's been a cranky and unpleasant week here in the Hatcher household, all things considered. Some of this crankiness is comics-related; some is not. In an effort to alleviate at least the comics-related part of it, I'm going to snarl about it and you all get to listen. Amazingly, I didn't plan this with Greg Burgas, it must just be some sort of astrological convergence thing or something. It's Angry Greg week here at Comics Should Be Good. Buckle up.

*

First up: editorial mandates. Tadhg touched on this in an earlier post but I'll amplify his kvetch a bit here, having dealt with it first hand. Good stories come from writers. Bad stories? Well, some of those are from writers too, but I will bet you a year's pay against a jelly doughnut that the vast majority of them come from editors who SCREW with writers. I have done a lot of magazine work over the last ten years and the times the story went sour were because some idiot editor called me and said, "Yeah, loved it, we need you to add this." Or subtract that. Or whatever. It's never actual criticism on the merits -- that stuff I listen to and will cheerfully use to make the piece better, I'm a pro, okay, I know better than to go all prima donna over stuff like that.

No, I'm talking about things like yeah, it's a great job but we have a lot of subscribers in Canada so we need you to add a Canadian angle. Or Your work is amazingly strong; incredibly powerful emotion in this piece... but our typesetter was a little freaked out by the bad language, now we're worried, can you cut all that out? Or this story is one of the best things I've ever read, it's going to be great, but we need you to cut it by forty percent because advertising just told us they sold an extra two pages. These things have all really happened to me. Those are exact quotes. And I don't even write full-time for crying out loud.

I just had my first brush with what this can mean when you are taking brief custody of someone else's character, in a shared-universe, comics-like situation. Without going into details, I had an opportunity to pitch a story to an editor at a fairly large concern for a short-story collection about a company character. After a week and a half of wrestling with various Great-idea-I-like-it-but-our-character-wouldn't-be-in-that-situation e-mails, I've decided that this is like navigating a minefield, but with all the suspense and excitement of double-entry bookkeeping. Except it's less fun. Any enthusiasm I originally had for getting to tell a story about _________ is getting buried under the soul-killing load of rules and restrictions I have to keep in mind when trying to plot out my little whodunit.

Take this kind of editorial-safeguard thinking and project it large-scale. Imagine what it does to stories about icons like Superman or Spider-Man. The miracle is that anything artistic ever happens at all, given the maze of restrictions storytellers have to navigate through. There may be good and valid reasons for these restrictions but can we all at least quit pretending they are ARTISTIC reasons? There's no art involved in suddenly having to cut a third of a story's content to make room for more ads. But it happens.

Yeah, so I'm just another pissed-off writer grumbling about his damn editor and his damn publisher. But the reason these things become cliches is because they are so common. The next time you are annoyed with a writer for screwing up a character or a series' direction, check and see if there's a new editor coming on board. Because as my friend Mary (an award-winning writer of children's fiction, who has her own collection of editorial horror stories that would curl your hair) likes to say, "An editor always likes the taste better if you let him pee in it first."

***

So I've grumped about editors. Who's next? Fans. Comics fans suck. I'm sorry, but a lot of you are JUST PLAIN GODDAM WEIRD. Especially in person.

This came up because I am trying to prepare my students for another stint at the Emerald City Comics Convention on the first weekend of April, and someone reminded me of the time last year when an odd little man wanted to sign up for my kids' classes. He had that glassy-eyed stare that comes with decades of badgering people to read your slash fan fiction. Somehow he had the idea that, because we had flyers advertising our children's cartooning classes at a community center, we could get him published. It took me a month to get rid of this guy. Hazards of advertising your e-mail on a flyer, but hell, I thought I was pretty clear that these were kid's classes and the published books were a class project. How desperate do you have to be to get into print to think that's a viable option for your erotica?

Then there was the guy who wanted my twelve-year-old students to add to his collection of nude elf sketches. And the guy dressed completely in a collection of belts, bungee cords, and cardboard. And the guy with the tail. And on, and on, and on.

I'm not talking about your garden-variety geek who gets all upset if you say something rude about the X-Men or who will argue for hours about whether or not regular Thor would win over Ultimate Thor. Those guys are fine. Hell, I am one of those guys, and so are half my students, bless their little nerdling hearts. No, I'm talking about the REALLY WEIRD fans, the guys that even the furries are a little skeeved about running into. Comics attract a lot of these people. More than SF conventions or Star Trek conventions or even -- though some will argue this -- Doctor Who conventions. Why, I don't know, but we really wish you'd go away. At least leave my kids alone at the show next month, okay?

(Everyone else should come and say hello if you're in Seattle, though. We'll be right up front, between Dark Horse and Image, sharing a booth with Brandon Hanvey of thegeekout.com. My students will be thrilled to sign a book for you and probably even throw in a sketch. As long as it's not of, say, a nude elf.)

***

Who else in comics got on my nerves this week? Publishers. Publishers, you're on notice. If you're going to pay somebody to scan old comics into Photoshop so you can reprint them, pay them enough to do it RIGHT. Here's a tip -- if you can't read the final printed piece, they didn't do it right. I'm not talking about muddy art (though that sucked too) I'm talking about captions and word balloons that are illegible. I remember when these stories first appeared on cheap newsprint that soaked up ink the way a paper towel would, I own a few, and I still can read those books easier than your sucky reprint job. Take the time to get page proofs and a goddamn press check. Your printer's your pal, he makes you look good, work with him. The job is done when it comes OFF the press, not when you e-mail it off to the printshop, so don't be lazy about it. Look at a proof. For the gouger's prices you charge for these books retail, I think being able to READ them is a fair expectation. That means clear printing, pages that don't fall out, the whole nine yards. And hey, here's an idea -- print the pages in order, too.

Marvel is far and away the worst offender here but I've seen bad printing from all comics publishers -- bad plates, bad binding, pages out of order, you name it -- with one exception. Oni Press. Their books -- at least the ones I own, which is the entire trade run of Queen and Country, both Whiteout collections, and a Jingle Belle trade -- are uniformly gorgeous. So Oni gets a pass from me. The rest of you, get your act together.

There were a lot of other things that annoyed me this week too, but school accountants and the community center's art fair administrative committee and the church ladies bugging me about building their website don't really fall into column territory, so I guess that's it.

See you next week. In a better mood, one hopes. Grrrr.

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20 Comments:

Blogger Michael said...

I must be in some kind of contrarian mood today, but I can't help but immediately think of the archetypal example of editorial interference making a story better: The Dark Phoenix Saga.

For the non-X-nerds, it goes like this: Claremont and Byrne had Jean go nuts, destroy a planet full of broccoli-headed people, and then, at the end, lose her powers and get turned into a vegetable (I'm not sure about that last part). Jim Shooter said, no, she committed genocide, she doesn't get to live after that. So they rewrite the ending so the X-Men are fighting the Imperial Guard, Cyclops gets hurt, she starts getting out of control again, and commits suicide in her last moment of lucidity.

It's one of the greatest X-Men moments ever, and it would never have happened if the editor hadn't, to use your friend's metaphor, peed in the story.

3/18/2006 01:59:00 PM  
Blogger --Greg Hatcher said...

"It's one of the greatest X-Men moments ever, and it would never have happened if the editor hadn't, to use your friend's metaphor, peed in the story."

Okay. Say I grant you the premise. (I'm not sure I do; that strikes me as falling under artistic criticism, which I was careful to single out as being an exception to this sort of thing -- I was talking about mandates handed down for non-artistic reasons) but let's say it counts. That's one in the plus column.

Against that we have HOW many dunderheaded business-driven X-editorial decisions? Let's start with resurrecting Jean so she can take part in X-Factor, and work our way forward from there. If you're an X guy you probably could rattle off the list a lot quicker than I could. I'll stand by the statement that this kind of editorial fiddling, by and large, is not really a good thing.

3/18/2006 02:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Jer said...

I suppose it depends on your interpretation of what "artistic" means. The version of the story I always heard was that Shooter thought that because she had murdered a whole planet, she had to be punished for it, and that if she escaped punishment it wouldn't be suitable for a superhero comic.

I'll take issue with the fact that Shooter necessarily made the story better, though. We have no way of knowing if the story was better or not, because we have nothing to compare it to. It could very well be that Claremont and Byrne would have written a powerful set of issues with a now sane Jean Grey, divorced from the Phoenix Force, forced to live with the fact that she murdered an entire planet of people. We don't know and we'll never know. We can only take the story as is on its own merits.

3/18/2006 02:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually Jer we can as the issue was published with the original ending as a special edition.
Plus, I'm going from memory here, it was either in the issue itself or a companion article in a magazine where Claremont and Byrne talk about where they were heading with the story. It's pretty much as Michael said, but Jean would suddenly wake from the coma, still powerless, and then there would be a guessing game on whether or not she was still Phoenix or not because odd things kept happening.

3/19/2006 03:39:00 AM  
Anonymous JR said...

One of the instances of editorial mandating that's kinda bugging me as of late is Marvel's recent ban on smoking. Honestly, I'm not a smoker and have lost several relatives due to cancer but I still think it's a bad idea to let one's personal feelings get in the way of storytelling possibilities.

Think back to Frank Miller's work on Daredevil for instance. There are several sequences where he would use a character lighting up and/or smoking to establish the noir mood he wanted the series to convey. One scene (that I may be misremembering) was when the Kingpin's character seemed to instantly change from joke of a Spider-Man villian to an actual threat simply by lighting a cigar.

It's a shame that they've prohibited themselves from doing anything along those lines now. Not that a competitor can't beat them over the head with it or anything though.

3/19/2006 04:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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3/19/2006 05:47:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

We can read the original ending of the Dark Phoenix Sage, true, but we can't read, as Jer mentions, the issues that Claremont and Byrne had planned dealing with Jean POST the Dark Phoenix Saga (which would have led to #150, where Magneto would offer to give Jean back her powers).

3/19/2006 05:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Joe Gualtieri said...

Actually, you can read what Claremont would have done in condensed form since he co-plotted the "What If.. the Phoenix had Lived?" from the second series which follows the outline he and Byrne laid out.

3/19/2006 09:09:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

"which would have led to #150, where Magneto would offer to give Jean back her powers"

Now that's interesting, in light of the trailers for X3.

And I wish I knew what bad decisions, X or otherwise, were editors' fault, and what were writers'. It'd probably be enlightening. (I always thought, for instance, that Jean's return was Byrne's idea, and someone else just ran with the idea of reuniting the originals and calling it X-Factor).

3/19/2006 09:48:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

"Actually, you can read what Claremont would have done in condensed form since he co-plotted the "What If.. the Phoenix had Lived?" from the second series which follows the outline he and Byrne laid out."

I was thinking about that issue. Obviously, it definitely referenced a lot of the ideas Claremont and Byrne had prepared, but I think it veered away fairly dramatically, as that issue was plotted POST Claremont's "I Love The Phoenix Force Oh So Much" phase, and that was reflected in the story, ya know?

So, yeah, there is definitely a good deal of their original plans in that comic, but I don't know HOW much.

3/19/2006 12:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Iron Lungfish said...

"It could very well be that Claremont and Byrne would have written a powerful set of issues with a now sane Jean Grey, divorced from the Phoenix Force, forced to live with the fact that she murdered an entire planet of people."

Yeah, that's exactly what I want to see: two hundred issues of Claremontian soap operatics involving Jean Grey periodically breaking down and sobbing about how she committed genocide, akin to Peter Parker's periodic moaning and groaning over That Goddamn Bridge.

From a storytelling perspective, Jean Grey's story pretty much peaks when she realizes she's committed an unspeakable atrocity and takes her own life to stop it from happening again; this is the reason why so many other writers have revisited her death and rebirth (to the point where it's utterly gutted her character). The alternative Claremont and Byrne had in mind is almost a parody of the hokiest elements of their era: an inability to let go of pet characters, random depowerings and repowerings, and Magneto shows up to fix everything. I'll take the editorial interference this time, thanks.

3/19/2006 12:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Haerandir said...

All of which goes towards Greg's off-hand assertion that the death of Phoenix was an artistic editorial decision, rather than an 'unwarranted' editorial decision.

3/19/2006 12:46:00 PM  
Blogger T. said...

"Think back to Frank Miller's work on Daredevil for instance. There are several sequences where he would use a character lighting up and/or smoking to establish the noir mood he wanted the series to convey. One scene (that I may be misremembering) was when the Kingpin's character seemed to instantly change from joke of a Spider-Man villian to an actual threat simply by lighting a cigar. "

Kingpin was not a joke of a Spider-Man villain. He was taken pretty seriously. Hell, he used to actual beat Spider-Man's ass and had an extended storyline dedicated to him (the stone tablet one). People like to retroactively say he was a joke before Miller so that they can credit Frank Miller for yet something else. Also, Kingpin always smoked.

3/20/2006 12:12:00 AM  
Anonymous JR said...

"Also, Kingpin always smoked."

Yeah he did, but I was refering to how showing him lighting up in that sequence helped establish a mood. I'm not even a big fan of Miller (especially post year one) but I thought that was an impressive sequence.

And by "joke" I had meant that Kingpin didn't seem like someone the writers who had previously worked on him (save for Stan himself) cared all that much for. At least that's the impression I get (the fight with The Red Skull comes to mind here). I probably should've phrased that better though.

3/20/2006 12:54:00 AM  
Blogger T. said...

Fair enough. I never read the Kingpin appearances between Stan Lee's use of him and Miller's use of him. Maybe he was made into a joke between those two periods.

3/20/2006 09:06:00 AM  
Blogger David said...

I believe the original source for the idea of the editor peeing in the work and liking the taste better is in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, where Jubal Harshaw intentionally writes a non-rhyming poem just to give the editor something to do...

3/20/2006 11:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Chuck T. said...

I can think of lots of books where editorial interference runs pretty rampant, but I can also think of books that could use an editor, and badly. But then again, when I think "editor" I think Mitchel from Transmetropolitan, screaming for his goddamn pages while trying to start an IV of unidentified fluid. The editor shouldn't be writing/co-ordinating the 90 part crossover, he (or she, I guess) should be getting the work in on time, and maybe some basic continuity work.
Whenever a book is more than a month late, I think it's the editor's fault. For instance, I'm not a fan, but consider Battle Chasers. Was there any editorial guidance on that sucker? Probably not.

3/20/2006 11:34:00 AM  
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Blogger Angela Dixon said...

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