16 January 2011

Sean McKeever and the Editorial Mandate

One aspect of American superhero comics that I find most interesting is how each of the major publishers—DC and Marvel—built up a complex universe of overlapping, interlocking stories.

Other examples of elaborate fantasy “world-building” depended on individual authors. L. Frank Baum did it sloppily. C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and J. K. Rowling did it carefully. Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas oversaw the same challenge as heads of large production companies with licensing arms. But the comics companies did it over decades through a shifting cast of writers, artists, and editors. The results are works of vast, collaborative storytelling, quite possibly—as Neil Gaiman said on NPR’s Talk of the Nation—“the largest stories ever created by humanity.”

In-house editors are in charge of maintaining continuity, coordinating the different moving parts, and defining parameters for writers. Sometimes the editorial staff makes detailed plans involving dozens of separate magazines. Those magazines’ writers can make suggestions and determine how things happen, but editors usually decide what happens.

Bill Walko and Tarcísio Aquino’s recent interview at Titans Tower with writer Sean McKeever opens some windows on that process. McKeever scripted the Teen Titans magazine and related stories for DC Comics for three years starting in 2007.

Back in 2008, McKeever spoke about starting with his first plotline laid out for him:

When I came onto the book, editorial had plans for the big anniversary issue #50, and they also had the idea for me to write a sequel to the Titans of Tomorrow story. I know people throw around the term “editorial mandate” like it's some great horror, but I was actually really grateful for everything they had in place for me. Titans Tomorrow was a story that I really wanted to revisit, and it was also really nice to have a premise thrown at me that I could dive into, so that while I was working on that, I could think a little more on my long-term plans for the book.
More specifically, according to the recent Titans Tower interview, the DC editors’ idea was “a sequel to the popular ‘Titans of Tomorrow’ arc where the Tomorrow Titans beat up and kidnap the JLA in the present day, and the Teen Titans have to step up and save them.” The mandate may have been little more than those basic plot points, but in the superhero genre plot counts for a lot.

Despite editors’ control, the people getting first billing on comic books are the writers—which means they can get blamed for plot developments they didn’t choose. During McKeever’s Teen Titans run two characters inspired by figures in the old Superfriends TV cartoon get mauled by their dog. Some fans lambasted him for that. For example: “McKeever CAN write good Teen Titans stories..., But now as we can see, apparently he prefers a hack story to one that's actually entertaining.” And: “Who is the idiot in editorial that let McKeever get away with this?”

But McKeever hadn’t come up with that plot twist. His recent comment on it is: “When the idea was brought to me, I thought it was darkly hilarious. I still feel that way, and I think it provided a successfully horrific turn of events in the issue.” Some fans blamed magazine editor Dan DiDio, who had extra visibility and notoriety as DC’s editor-in-chief.

Serial storytelling means that writers leave loose ends for their successors to pick up—sometimes deliberately. When Walko and Aquino asked McKeever about the powers of Wonder Girl’s lasso, he had to answer:
You know, I'm sitting here drawing a blank! Oh, I remember what our idea was now, but I'm afraid to say in case they're still planning to reveal it. We knew what the power was but we didn't have the rules in place and wanted it to remain a mystery for a time. That was two editorial teams ago, though, so who knows what the plan is now.
McKeever was still part of the Teen Titans scripting team when he gave this January 2010 interview with Newsarama. Such interviews are part of the company’s marketing, and are always about expressing enthusiasm for the next few issues without spoiling plot twists. I therefore find them nearly useless for learning how the storytelling actually takes place.

But then McKeever moved back to Marvel. In an April 2010 posting and in the recent Titans Tower interview, he described the less positive side of working on Teen Titans under editorial direction:
  • “Things were really in flux at the time because almost from week to week there would be a change in whether/when Bart [Kid Flash] and/or Conner [Superboy] were returning to the series.”
  • “Add to that that the book had 4 editorial teams in my 22 issues, and other ‘creative differences’ that I won't get into here, and you get a fairly good idea.”
  • “I generally find my teeth grinding when I pick the [comic] book up because of some stressful memories related to the series. . . . Marv [Wolfman] and I were left to put together this story that was never our idea, and we gave it our best, but we couldn't read minds and so we weren’t making editorial happy. After two passes on the plot, we were sent a new document with a terse message like, ‘here—write this.’ It was really, really great to work with Marv, but I won’t kid you—the poor guy had to talk me out of quitting altogether more than once during that period.”
McKeever even asked for an “altered credit” on a couple of issues because, he said, “my approved-and-drawn scripts were altered by other parties to my dissatisfaction.” (I’m not sure which issues those are.) So “editorial mandates” can be a “great horror” after all.

Finally, since this is supposed to be the weekly Robin, here is McKeever’s take on Tim Drake: “Always weighing his decisions against what Bruce would do. Pushing himself too hard to be perfect.”


LC Douglass said...

Interesting insights aren't they? Wonder what would happen if editors stuck to maintaining consistency of continuity and characterization and that was all.

mordicai said...

Sounds like a real BLAST. There are comics that I read with lots of "event" stuff that make me stare at it REALLY hard until I can see the ghost of the original story in there. Sad.

J. L. Bell said...

Indeed. And yet most “events” and crossovers increase sales, at least in the short run, and some become landmarks stories that sell for years, so the publishers will keep planning them.

J. L. Bell said...

Brigid Alverson picked up this posting at Robot 6, prompting further discussion, including a comment from Sean McKeever about how he stands by all the quotations in his interviews. They refer to different times and situations, after all.

And to clarify my own attitude, I don’t think “editorial mandates” are necessarily a problem, either. Indeed, when a company is building an amazingly complex story on tight deadlines in a competitive environment, they may be vital. Corporate control is an established part of this form of collaborative storytelling, in which the trademarks of the hero and publisher are bigger than any of the creators’ credits, whether writer, artist, or editor.

It’s just interesting to see how it works.