10 February 2011

Comics and Children’s Publishing—When Worlds Collide

As traditional children’s publishers issue material in comics form, their editors are being challenged to develop new skills and working methods. A couple of web interviews this month gave hints at managing the creative process.

First, at the Brown Bookshelf, Randy DuBurke describes his work on Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, scripted by G. Neri. With experience drawing mainstream comics that goes back to DC in the late 1980s (I think I have some of the issues of Action Comics that he contributed to), DuBurke was the veteran on this project:

Jennifer Fox at Lee and Low Books…contacted me partly because this was their first foray into graphic novels and since I had experience in doing comics they thought it would be a good idea if I worked on the project. . . .

Before I started, I told my editor I would need to make changes along the way, which is not unusual when doing stories for comics. Comic book stories are collaborations between the artist and writer. I did change some scenes to strengthen the visual impact. Once the page art was completed, Greg and our editor would do a rewrite to accommodate the changes if necessary.
Meanwhile, over at Cynsations, artist Neil Numberman writes about creating the art for the Joey Fly, Private Eye comics, scripted by Aaron Reynolds. One of his responsibilities is “to thumbnail the entire book”:
There’s a good reason they call these sketches "thumbnails," but even though they’re super tiny, they do give me a number of things I need to know before starting the real sketches. They help me pace out the entire book, to make sure scenes and act breaks end at the end of a page or spread. I also need to roughly figure out where everyone in the scene will be and their word balloons, in each panel. . . .

Our editor, Reka Simonsen, always requests to see these little thumbnails. I love that she wants to be so involved in the process, and she claims she loves looking at my thumbnails, but I have no idea how she gets anything from these sloppy little drawings.
That step was especially important in this project because Reynolds did not specify page turns, as his sample script shows. That’s how picture books are created; it’s up to the artist to decide what goes on which page. In contrast, comics scripts usually state where the page breaks fall, and often other details about page layout.

It struck me that neither DuBurke nor Numberman mentions interacting directly with their scripters. For example, Numberman describes a later stage like this:
So, after the sketch stage, I hand ’em over to Reka, and she hangs onto them for a month or two, making notes and passing them around to other folks at the publisher, so when I get it back, I have a giant printout of the entire book, with little stickie notes on them.
The editors of these two books appear to be working as children’s-book editors have usually done, standing between author and artist. In contrast, writers in mainstream comics—at least the more successful ones who get asked to write introductions to their collections—often describe direct interaction with their artists. They sometimes approach publishers as a team, and comics scripts can contain notes directly to the artist, though the editor is always in the loop.

There’s no evidence to suggest that one method is preferable to the other, or usually produces better results. Rather, these two parts of the publishing industry have different cultures, but now they’re starting to overlap.


Richard said...

It's not always like that, though, and it wasn't really the norm for most of comics history. Traditionally, the major comics publishers preferred to act as gatekeepers between writers and artists, to maintain control over the finished work and prevent collusion between creators. Obviously there are exceptions to that practice in comics history -- all the way back to Siegel and Shuster, in fact! -- but it's not like encouraging contact between writers and artists was considered official policy in the old days.

(I can imagine the more autocratic DC editors such as Mort Weisinger or Robert Kanigher hearing about a writer talking directly to an artist and saying "If you've ever got something you think the artist needs to hear, you tell it to me…and if this happens again, you'll never work for me again." A more laid back Marvel editor might have said "If you guys want to work something out, clear whatever you come up with through me before you draw the issue.")

Obviously, things work a bit different now in a more creator-centric post-Watchmen era…but there's still a lot of micromanagment involved in running all these event-oriented crossovers. Not everyone enjoys the carte blanche extended to star creators. And the independent creator-owned scene is something else again.

J. L. Bell said...

Yeah, Mort Weisinger would never have wanted his freelancers talking to each other—especially since he would reportedly take an idea from one guy and assign it to another as his own.

And there are examples of close collaboration between author and artist in a book: Baum and Denslow on their bestsellers Father Goose and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, for instance.

But these days the two fields have diverged. Picture-book authors are told that they should never try to find an artist before a publisher while aspiring comics writers are encouraged to find an artist and self-publish. Picture-book authors are trained to put nothing in a manuscript about visual details or page breaks unless it’s absolutely imperative, while comics scripters are asked to supply visual references.

Of course, there are exceptions. The Magic School Bus books were products of close collaboration between author and artist, as were the Harris/Emberley books about adolescence. In both those cases, the authors were old pros, and their editors trusted them. On the other side, I recall some really disappointed comments from Christopher Priest about how his Impulse: Bart Saves the Universe script was illustrated.

But generally there’s a split when it comes to standalone original graphic novels. It’s interesting to see traditional book publishers adapt to another method. For instance, the scripters of Rapunzel’s Revenge made artist Nathan Hale part of their pitch to Bloomsbury. If a novelist who had never written a picture book did the same thing, it would probably have raised eyebrows very high.