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By Tim Leong
For DC Comics editor Stephen Wacker, the challenge isn’t managing a book with four writers and five pencilers, it’s finishing the book in time every week. For an entire year. The aptly titled comic “52” tells about the year of continuity missing when all DC titles jumped ahead at the end of the blockbuster book “Infinite Crisis.” In a business where shipping a book late is common practice (DC has already announced 12 monthly titles in May will ship later than their original solicited dates), Wacker has a lot of work ahead. We talked to him about how he plans to pull it off and what roadblocks lay ahead.
Take us through your process on a monthly book.
Ideally you have the story conference with the writer and in a couple cases with the artist, too. Like the Legion (of Superheroes), in particular, is Barry (Kitson, artist) and Mark (Waid, writer) as a team, so they work together. You work it out, you get the script, knock it around a couple times, make sure it’s all there, send it to the artist and just keep checking in. The job is mostly about relationships and how you work with people and how you communicate with people. Saying, “Hello,” and giving constructive criticism. But, still, a couple things happen here, someone gets a cough, it’s a three-day weekend, there’s a convention…and it starts eating away at the schedule. You tend to look at these production lists. If I’m working on Legion 18 and I need to be at the separator on 4/19 and today is the 25th and I’m just making it now, I can tell I should be looking ahead and get something done for the next couple issues or we’re going to be screaming late. So, right now it’s that times eight running. You juggle as best as you can.
How far in advance are you working on 52?
Pretty far. We had all the writers plus (Keith) Giffen and JG (Jones) in August and we planned out roughly to about week 23-24. We knew where we were going in general and then we got the first month of scripts nailed out. And that was in really broad strokes. Then we talked on the phone to really nail out the first month or so and that pretty much threw 50 percent of our plans out the window. Then we kept a regular weekly or biweekly call ever since and right now we have solid, set story plans up to week 26 or 27. We know where all the stories end but we added a few things along the way. Subplots, we worked things in and out, but in a very general sense we worked out to the end and in a specific sense, probably until about 27 or 27.
What steps are you taking to make sure you’re on top of the deadlines?
We started early. I’m a big believer in pre-production. You have to understand that on any new project there are going to be bumps when getting started. With this project it’s very reference-intensive in the beginning. I have two great assistants with Harvey Richards and Jan Jones collecting all that stuff. So I know they can get it out to someone really quick. A lot of artists, a lot of pencilers are involved. Giffen’s breaking down and storyboarding it like a movie, so that’s a huge help. That keeps us more on time than we probably would be otherwise. Because for most artists the most difficult part, and the most rewarding part too, actually, is the storytelling – figuring out how the pictures all work together and how the page composition works together. But Giffen’s doing a lot of that, so ideally it becomes more of a meat grinder, but it’s an important step to give us a unified sense of storytelling. So the number of artists on top of Giffen’s pencils is a huge step. Production here has moved mountains for this book. DC’s an old ship and it can steer in one direction and trying to move it is difficult because there’s a lot of old systems. We try to do new things and the plus and minus of having a big machine behind you. Production has been great in finding ways to speed things through and look at things differently. They gave me an FTP site where I can send things straight to the artist rather than by e-mail because it locks up my e-mail constantly. And I do a lot of work from home. In this global environment, some guys are in the middle of the work day when I’m at home feeding my baby in the middle of the night.
Has anyone missed a deadline yet?
Yes. Here’s a secret in the comic book industry: Everybody misses deadlines. It’s just the way it is. It’s a constant game. It’s like working with a contractor. You say you want it by Tuesday so they’ll be done by Friday. Everybody pretends they don’t know that but there’s been no one who hasn’t been on their best behavior. If they take three extra days it’s because it’s a really intensive book. There’s clues laid out in every panel and they want to make sure they get it right. Sometimes they’re waiting on me – I’m looking at stuff as fast as I can. The writers are looking at it next and see something I botched up or didn’t catch. [The hard deadlines] I keep close to my vest so I can pull them out at the 13th hour. No one has been egregious. Everyone’s been working steady. I’ve been gravitating toward freelancers that I can get a hold of, who I know are working, who I know aren’t BSing me. I run my shop that if a guy wants to spend two days at the beach or just needs two days off to unwind, as long as I know about it, I can plan around it.
How do you have it all planned out, is it all in a big notebook…?
(Wacker opens a cabinet above his head to reveal close to a dozen different binders full of scripts, layouts, art and ideas. He takes a 3” thick binder from the shelf that is completely full).
Here’s weeks one through eight. I kinda improvised this as I went along. When I got the gig I was just smiling that I could organize it all. Usually I work in file folders with the script and art stuff. But it’s so easy just to throw shit in here and not know where it’s at. I’ve never been particularly happy with the folder because I misfile stuff and the stuff I have to file gets so big that I just don’t feel like doing it. So I needed something I could get to easily and started doing this. I talked with (Senior Group Editor, Mike) Carlin a little bit because his Superman books used to run essentially weekly. During the Death of Superman stuff they were weekly for the most part. Waid was around during the Action Comics Weekly run, so I got a little bit of ideas from him. I looked at the way Paul (Levitz, Publisher of DC Comics) organized his storytelling beats when he was doing Legion. So, I fished from a few different ponds and then made up my own thing. First I put in the cover, then the final version of the script with my notes, then come Keith’s breakdowns, then as the penciler starts delivering things I put in each penciled page once it’s approved. Then I replace it with the inks and the when the color comes in I make a master copy. Sometimes one of the writers will send me a nice, gentle e-mail reminder or note, “Hey, I thought we talked about this, make sure it gets fixed…” So I’ll make a copy of that e-mail and put it in here. Pretty much at every stage it’s a lot of redundancy, checking stuff twice, but I have to. My mind doesn’t catch everything. When I get each proof I look though every page, make sure I don’t miss any notes. It’s happened a few times. Last night I took home week two because I wanted to read a bunch in one big block because I was working on week six and wanted to read it all for the 5,000th time to make sure we were all cool. And I realized that at the end of week two there was a misspelling on week two on the last page. And I couldn’t believe it because I saw my note saying, “Fix this.” And I either never gave the note, which is what I suspect happened, or I gave the note but I neglected to follow up and make sure it was done and so we just fixed it at the last second. Thank god that I did that. I’m sure there’s 15 other mistakes, but there’s nothing worse, for me, than getting the printed comic. Then I’m the most eagle-eyed guy on the planet. Then I can catch everything….[A new three-hole punch at the center of his desk] was huge, actually. DC administration actually got me a new three-hole punch because I broke two of them. They were the little ones where you could only do like five pages at a time, and it was killing me. It was taking so much time so they got me an industrial one.
One other things I do to stay organized is that I’ve got a 52 folder that pretty much contains what’s in [the folders] except it has everything. If Geoff (Johns, writer) did a first draft of a scene but then changed it, I’d only have the final one in the folder. But I’ve got all the pieces in here plus the art. Once or twice a month my assistants put this on the server and I let them copy it down so they have everything.
You were talking about asking Mark about Action Comics Weekly, what were you able to take away from that?
That book, particularly, was brought up when this idea was starting to get floated around. Everybody kept mentioning that book because there were several people that considered it…failure’s not the right word. There were so many reasons why it didn’t work. I read it when it came out and I didn’t consider it a failure at all. I loved it. I was just starting college when it first came out and was really into it. I thought there was a lot of good stuff in it. It is, I think, a pretty different beast – not that it’s easier or harder. Guys working on that book had six features they had to keep track of. Even more freelancers probably than I have, which I’m sure wasn’t easy. I don’t know what kind of schedule they were on or how much work they’d done ahead of it. And it was a bigger book, too. I don’t know anything in particular from that. I think the job has changed so much from then to now in terms of delivering digitally. The fact that I don’t have a type writer, and I know they still did back then, is huge. If you’re doing a weekly book before the Internet and e-mail and computers, that’s how you had to do it. There wasn’t this instant communication or at least it wasn’t as easy. It would’ve had to have been an anthology without the way we can communicate now. This, 52, is a product of its time. In 20 years when some other new technology they’ll be able to do a daily comic that will be downloaded to your ipod and you’ll find out about the missing year then with Don DiDio. It would be probably hard to compare when Mike (Gold, editor) was working on it with Action Comics Weekly with when they did it in the ’60s.
What’s going to happen if one of these books runs late?
It’s not going to happen.
It’s not going to happen?
Well, you’ll have a new editor on 52, basically. I almost went as far in one interview to say, “You have my word it won’t be late.” But Geoff kinda talked me off that ledge a little bit because there could be a blizzard in Bozeman, Montana that screws up UPS for months. But, those external things out of the way, it’s not going to happen.
What kind of unexpected challenges have you met so far?
There is an aspect that’s been taking a lot of time away that I didn’t see coming, which is, when the book started getting so much attention in the press and the feeling is that’s it’s going to be pretty huge. I don’t think that’s arrogant to say it’s going to be a big deal. The number of different departments around here that need more information and wanted to be involved – and I mean that in a good way. No one wants to change everything, they want to be a part of this and do stuff with the website, lots of interviews, promo art – that makes me wish I had one more person who could handle that stuff, sometimes. And that’s a good thing. I’m not at all looking a gift horse in the mouth. If I have to get up and go to work, it’s fun that I’m working on this. I’ve been a DC fan my whole life, I can’t imagine looking at this from the outside. But, that has been a pretty unexpected amount of work.
I didn’t expect the covers to be so good. That sounds like a real political answer but JG has been phenomenal. He’s been batting 1.000 every time he gets them. I didn’t expect that to be as easy as it has been. My first thought was that this was going to be like adding four new monthly books so I could lose four monthly books and that would be fine. But I wound up having to lose six or seven. I put a couple of projects aside for after 52 because it’s not just working on four. Because the things are so intertwined – I’m working on issue six this morning and it actually affects three other issues down the line with stuff that’s about to get penciled so I have to make sure people have the right reference. And the change that we made in week three we have to change some dialogue to production. To me it’s like editing eight new books in terms of time. I still have a couple of books on tap, by the way. One that my publisher is writing (JSA) and the other one that my publisher reads (Legion of Superheroes). (Laughs)
Have you built in a buffer at all for precaution?
You know, I started to. When we first started this we didn’t know what form it was going to take. We didn’t know if it was going to be one issue by Grant (Morrison), one issue by Mark, one issue by Geoff. When we were in the room for the first time it was all over the place. I thought coming in that I’d get 10 issues by people on other books. Like, here’s the Firestorm issue of 52. And I could just get it done, slot it anywhere and I’d be fine. But we worked on it and after the first couple of really intensive days and we talked about it again. And I think it was Grant that mentioned that he didn’t think we would need anyone to fill-in and that we wouldn’t want anyone to because it’s gotta feel like the same. It’s like the Beatles. You don’t bring…who’s hip? You don’t bring Ludacris in to sit in because the guy from Maroon 5 can’t make it. It’s gotta feel like these four guys. I thought very politically at that moment that I’m not going to fight this, because I want these guys to feel invested. That if they fall behind it’s on them and they have to impress each other. So, I just shut my mouth and said okay, but I was scared to death. It blew away any cushion that I had. It’s gotta be those four in each issue. I just kept throwing ideas at them on how to catch up and we finally have come to a couple of different ways we’re going to build in stuff we can get done way ahead of time that can sit there and keep a couple pages open to bookend it so we can slot it in at any week, if we need to. If they keep working the way they’re working, we’re going to be fine.
How are dealing with quality control with a shorter turnaround and faster pace?
It’s not a shorter turnaround – at least it hasn’t been yet. If anything, the time has almost been too much because it’s given me time to think and catch things that in a normal book we’d just let slide. Eh, it’s not perfect but it’s out. The editing job is both of those things – quality versus time. Choosing your battles. Quality control has, and this is where I’m bad at delegating, most of the stuff is just in my head and it’s in my notes and only I can read it and I have to carry my folder around and make sure I go through everything. It helps that the book has one colorist, Alex Sinclair. He knows what he’s done. Again, it was slow getting started but once all that stuff is established, then we have a template and we’re fine. The first four issues had a lot of art batches from Joe Bennett (artist) because I wanted him to do the first month, and we realized that some things down the line…let’s change it to this, which required some art corrections. The quality control is just a matter of keep looking at it and sharing information. And faith. Sometimes you’re fixing one thing and see another major mistake and perhaps the guy is already feeling down for having missed that one thing, I don’t want to hit him with that other thing so I just save it. Or I try to get it fixed here because I know Hank Manfra and all the guys down in production can help me out.
Story-wise, do you know where everything ends?
We know where the individual stories end, but we haven’t constructed the last issue because we know there’s going to be some new things on the horizon. It’s going to be rough. We can’t have all the stories end in the last issue. We were just talking about this on the last conference call. We have to figure out how we’re going to beat that ending out. Some things are going to have to climax a couple issues before we finish up. It’s not like this is the story of a super team where these seven people band together and become the new…Inferior Seven. They’re seven stories that cross over and meet each other. We’ve been kinda pushing that off.
Mark and I have discussed [ending an issue on a cliffhanger] that you can do it in specific situations. If it’s the end of day seven, you can pick up right there. Other than that particular case, you can’t pick up right where the other issue left off. It’s opened so many other things, too where you can see…just the sheer discussion of them discussing what happened three days ago and what we know is going to happen next week – watching them discuss it is really a cool feeling because you know those pieces are going to meet up.
What is your biggest fear with the book?
That the writers ask for a revision that I totally bollixed up. Or they ask for some note or an artist asks for some color –I’m going to miss someone’s note, I think. I’m also very scared now – this was my night last night. Each issue we’ve got these headers – “Week 1, Day 2,” “Week 1, Day 3” etc. Most of the time when I get the script the guys haven’t put those in so I do all that. I am so scared I’m going to have a scene that says, “Week 7, Day 1” and the guy’s going to be talking about earlier today. That the days won’t plan out , so I’m pretty nervous about that.
A couple of things happened that made me think some of our secrets were spilling out. That made me pretty nervous. That would just fuck everything that we’re doing. If people have a year where something’s going, they’re going to write such a better story in their own head and then we don’t match it. But for the most part, I don’t think anyone knows what’s happening with this book. I’ve been trying to be really vague. I went online this weekend to read about and there’s a lot of conversation. I think for the most part people think it’s going to be almost like a walking tour of the DCU. “Hey, there’s Ollie Queen running for mayor…What’s going on?” And it’s nothing, nothing like that.
Lateness. I worry about that. I worry about that I’m going to take a week off, and this isn’t a comment on anybody, but that I’m going to need a vacation and the whole thing is going to get screwed up and I’m going to spend my vacation working. I fear about that because I do keep it all in my head. I’ve been bad about sharing certain pieces.
In talking about covers, how far in advance does JG work?
He started way in advance. Now he’s about a month ahead of what we’re soliciting.
Is he just going off a quick description?
Yeah, I get him on the phone and after the story conference we work out the beats and I get him on the phone and I know the biggest thing in each issue or what I think is the most marketable thing. I throw that out at him and he comes up with ideas. Sometimes he points out too that, “Hey, we haven’t had The Question on a cover in two months, maybe we should do him.” So that keys into me. There is a bunch of images he came up with just from a story meeting that we planned stories around.
Whose idea was it to bring in Keith Giffen, or at least someone, to do breakdowns?
It was probably Dan (DiDio, Executive Editor of DC Comics), or at least I heard it from Dan first. I worked with Keith a lot on those Formerly Known as the Justice League things and that Justice League stuff we did together. Dan was working out some deal with Keith and this fit right in and I was happy to have him. Keith just jumped in head first…or is it feet first? Whichever is more positive.
How much time is he saving for the hardest?
It’s hard to tell, every guy is individual. For some guys it could be up to a week. Other guys have struggled working off someone else’s thumbnails. I think Keith has the storytelling gene. He just has it. It’s like that senator said about good art: “I know it when I see it.” Keith has the storytelling thing and it’s not to say the pencilers working with him can’t tell stories because I think all of them are incredibly talented. But, there’s a cohesiveness that has to happen in this. And also I think Keith has been doing this for 30 years now. Even if you’re the best storyteller in the world you can learn something from Giffen’s layouts. Those show you some new avenue. He’ll do something with a silent beat, adding a panel or just page composition that you didn’t see before. That said, the guys have freedom to present new ideas and I have freedom to say, “No, I want exactly what Keith did. Sorry.” Or, I can say that was great. We just had a situation with a penciler who had real trouble drawing a scene the way Keith had done it. Keith doesn’t always keep room for all the dialogue we need. He’s not thinking like that and there’s just no way the panel was going to work with all the dialogue. He sketched up a quick new version. And it stayed in the spirit of what Keith was doing. I think it’s pretty hard to quantify how much time Keith is saving because everyone works so differently. It’s also a potential schedule thing too because if a guy is running late on pencils, I could just say, “Alright, I got layouts for the last eight pages, they’re going to somebody else, I can’t wait for you.”
And in talking about the pencilers, why do you have so many?
I’ve got a lot of scripts and layouts waiting until one guy is done or I can have someone working on them. I’m a big believer in just getting stuff done now. I hate anything to be sitting around in the office. I also think there’s a level of artist where’s he’s not quite that superstar. I don’t know who’s on that top tier – Adam Hughes, (George) Perez – I’m leaving out a million people. But I think we all know who that top, top, superstar tier is where it’s money in the bank. I think there’s a lot of guys who are at that level talent-wise, but haven’t had the right project and combination of things happen. And while they might be real fan favorites, it’s not yet a slam dunk. But this project is so big that it’s going to push a lot of people to new awareness. When (Oliver) Coipel, who was a great guy and did terrific stuff for us, and then he does House of M and just shoots through the roof. It’s just being at the right project and I think this it the right project for a lot of guys who I personally want to work with because I think they’re extremely talented and they’re extremely professional.
How many artists do you have?
Some guys are just on for an issue or two. But at any one time I’ve got five pencilers working.
How does having so many tie in with consistency?
It was a scare. There’s certainly people up and down this hallway who didn’t think it was a good idea. I think for most projects that’s probably true. I think 1) for this one you’ve got someone doing storyboards and 2) the hook here is that it’s weekly, and you can’t play around with that. If we ship one week late, the whole thing is fucked up and no one buys the rest. Well, they might buy it but they won’t believe in it. So, that trumps the consistency argument, I think. What you try to do is not get people who 1) aren’t excited by the opportunity or 2) guys that just can’t do it and aren’t good. And I don’t think anyone is looking to hire anyone who they don’t think is good anyway. You can tell when there’s a different penciler on the different issues, but, I’m totally biased, but my personal feeling is that I’m using people who are in the same family enough where there’s not a huge stylistic change.
How are you personally dealing with this? I’m sure it’s a bear time-wise?
I’m up a lot. I do a lot of work at night. I take a lot of work home. I’ve never been good at reading scripts in the office anyway. I can’t concentrate, people come in. That’s been the general rule anyway. I’m generally a pretty calm guy. I never yell, which I think is a problem. I can’t take myself seriously. I sound like an idiot. The mantra that always goes off in my head whenever something big happens – there have been a few blowups with this book and I hopefully have been the calm center of the storm – is that these things always come out. The book will come out no matter what. We’ll do everything we can. Hopefully people don’t walk away with a bruised attitude. Our worst with the most mistakes if it came out the way it was, I feel, is better than most comics ever in terms of sheer quality. I’m not saying anyone’s better than Jack Kirby or Will Eisner – I’m saying that kind of facetiously. It’s never such a huge problem that it’d destroy the integrity of everything we’re doing. I know how to fix problems, I know how to figure it all out. I generally just stay pretty calm. That’s how I deal with it.