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By Justin Jordan
One of the things that separates comics from, say, television is that most of the people watching television don’t seem to harbor a burning desire to work in television.
In the world of comics, on the other hand, it almost everybody who passes by a comic shop wants to work in the field. The big guys, and even the little guys, are swamped with people trying to break in as writers or artists, showing their work to any who’ll listen, and quite often those that won’t.
Comparatively few people want to break into the glamorous world of editing, despite the wealth and fame editing brings.
Editors are often just regarded as potential landing zones for submissions or the people behind the letter columns, and despite the increased presence of editors online through blogs and forums, editing is still one of the least understood aspects of producing comics.
We talked to Aubrey Sitterson, an assistant editor at Marvel Comics polishing off his first year, about what he does, how he ended up in purgatory..er, editing, and the sweet southern syrup of Robert Kirkman’s voice.
What did you study in college?
Initially, I arrived in New York ready to be a studious Philosophy major, concentrating in the continental philosophers. Pretty quickly, I realized that, while I enjoyed philosophy in small doses, it really wasn’t something that I wanted to immerse myself in, so my focus changed directions slightly and I ended up majoring in Language and Mind, which was like a Frankenstein’s Monster of philosophy of language, psycholinguistics and syntax studies. All of which means that I’m keenly aware of how much I say doesn’t make any sense.
So have you always been interested in comics?
Actually, (and this is where all lifelong comics fans will start hating me) not in the least. Growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, comic books were pretty accessible. That, together with my cousins’ interest in comics and my own love for the X-Men animated show, meant that I was pretty familiar with, if nothing else, the aesthetic of mainstream comics, especially Marvel. It wasn’t until later that I actually began to take a strong interest in the art form and industry as a whole.
Were you intending to work in comics?
I originally planned to go to grad school after graduation to continue studies in Philosophy or Linguistics or something. After a couple years in college though, I was near ready to be done already and knew that I wouldn’t be able to stand 2 or 3 more years of classes after graduation — not to mention the prospect of finding a career somewhere in academia.
Sophomore year, though, in the midst of a very trite, hackneyed, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life, because I’m so deep and misunderstood,” a very patient friend gifted me with Watchmen, which was my gateway drug into the world of comics.
After reading Watchmen a couple times in a row, it was a quick hop, skip and a jump to a whole new obsession. Cerebus, Lone Wolf and Cub, Preacher, Ennis’ Punisher, Strangers in Paradise, Understanding Comics, Lee/Buscema Silver Surfer, Ronin — over the next couple of years I worked really hard to give myself a crash course in comics, and during that period I realized it was something that I could, and more importantly, wanted to do.
The idea of simultaneous communication by way of words and pictures was something that fascinated me from an academic standpoint, and as a young guy enthralled with genre fiction, comics seemed like a natural fit. So, I started to take steps to find a place for myself within the industry.
So how’d you get the job at Marvel?
As a junior in college, dredging the Internet for information on how to break into comics as a writer (something I had no idea about and was totally unprepared for), I stumbled upon an old posting on the Marvel Web site about internships.
So, I sent in my resume and cover letter and started brushing up on Marvel’s current line, so as not to make a total fool of myself in my interview. After a couple weeks, however, I still hadn’t heard anything from the e-mail address the Web site directed me to, so I started making daily calls to the very patient Mary Sprowls at Marvel, who eventually set me up with an interview in Tom Brevoort’s office.
I was very nervous, made more so by the fact that I was totally overdressed for the interview (no one in editorial wore a tie), but somehow, was able to stumble my way into an internship in the Marvel Heroes office, which at the time consisted of Brevoort, Andy Schmidt and Nicole Wiley (now Nicole Boose).
After a couple semesters of interning, when folks at Marvel realized I wasn’t just going to go away, they brought me on part-time as an editorial assistant, until I finished up school. Then, as I was graduating, I was fortunate enough for a position to open up, and I was able to start work only a week after getting my diploma, as one of Tom’s assistants.
What does an assistant editor actually do?
When people ask me this, my typical answer is, “Making sure the things come in on time and that they don’t suck when they get here.” Everything else we do is in service of one of those two things, or finding a balance between them.
I, along with Molly Lazer, assist on all of Tom’s many books, as well as having a couple books that we edit on our own with Tom’s supervision. Currently, I’m editing Marvel Team-Up, which I’ve run into the ground as of issue 25 and Tom has been kind enough to hand off to me The Irredeemable Ant-Man and Blade as of issue 3 of those titles.
So, how does the Marvel hierarchy of editors work?
Easiest way to do this is to start at the top and work our way down.
First up is Joe Quesada, Editor in Chief, undisputed champion. Underneath Joe are the various senior editors, who each control their own office and lines of books, and occasionally do battle for editorial office supremacy.
Two of those seniors are Executive Editors, which means that they have more of a hand in guiding the Marvel Comics line as a whole. Next come the full editors, who, while still reporting to an Executive Editor, have a fair amount of autonomy in running their own books, usually between four and six separate titles.
Associate editors are next down, and work slightly more closely with their senior or Executive editor, working on three to five of their own titles, as well as assisting on their boss’.
Finally, at the bottom of the totem poll are the assistant editors. We do a lot of the day-to-day scheduling and communications on our boss’ books, as well as editing up to two or three of our own books, and getting 20 lashes for every late one. Whew! I think that makes sense.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Since all of the creative duties on a book (writing, penciling, inking, coloring, lettering) are done out-of-house, a big part of my day is making sure that component pieces always get to the next guy/gal in the chain. That means e-mailing scripts, posting tiffs on our FTP site, and getting lettered files to our in-house production team.
Along the way, we always check to make sure things are good and right, which entails script conferences and notes, checking storytelling in pencils, clarity in inks, proper reference in colors and readability in letters, among other things.
Squeezed in with all that, we have internal meetings, make plans for upcoming books and events, argue about whether Spider-Man should be married or not, and make sure that our freelancers get paid for the work they’ve done.
Also, after lunch everyday, I like to call and flirt with Robert Kirkman a little bit — that Kentucky accent just drives me wild.
One of the best parts of the job is that everyday is a complete mixed bag, in terms of duties and activities. It keeps the work fresh and interesting, and it’s impossible to get bored with so much to do in a day.
Is working in comics what you expected it to be like?
I was lucky in that I spent long enough interning at Marvel that I had a pretty clear, somewhat accurate idea of what the work would be like. That being said, nothing could prepare me for the sheer volume of work that gets moved through our office — we’re doing something like 25 monthly books at the moment.
At times, it’s like being a traffic director in Manhattan, in that I’m sure it must look like absolute madness from the outside.
What’s the best part about your job?
The fact that everyday I get to come in and learn ridiculous amounts about a medium that I’m absolutely in love with. I’ve picked up tons of knowledge just from working so intimately with every aspect of comic book production.
While I still couldn’t produce a competent comic book package to plate on my own, I’m learning what it takes to get it done, and even what it takes to get it done well. On top of that, I get to work at a place full of people who are just as infatuated with comics as I am — not a lot of claims adjuster fanmen get to say that.
On the same track, what’s the worst part?
Seeing a finished product that should have been better. Whether it’s the result of miscommunication amongst the creative team, an honest mistake, or my just not catching something I should have, it makes me sick to my stomach to see even a minor flaw in a comic book that I could have possibly fixed.
Most of it is stuff that probably only three people notice, but nonetheless, a printed publication is such a permanent thing that I always feel absolutely terrible when I find something I should have taken care of when it was on my desk.
What’s it like to be an editor at a con?
Cons are great things for everyone involved with the industry, be they professionals, fans or people dressed like Stormtroopers, because it’s such a great opportunity to be around people who share your fanatical interests.
For an editor though, it’s especially great since it’s an opportunity to meet professionals and show them that, despite hounding them with deadlines year-round, you’re actually not a bad guy.
At my first con as an editor, I was a little worried about being hounded by people on the floor, but I didn’t have that problem at all. First off, people in general tend to be significantly nicer and more respectful than the national average. On top of that, I had overestimated my own importance — who the hell cares about me when they can get something signed by John Romita Jr.? Really, my con-experience isn’t that different from any fan’s — I even dig around for half-price trades and back-issues like a crazy person.
Has being on the inside changed how you read and enjoy comics?
Without a doubt, being an editor has caused me to look at comics in an entirely new way. This has been a great thing though, in that I’m now better at both recognizing what I love about specific books, as well as being more prepared to speak about what’s great in a particular comic. I’ve heard people talk about how the magic can disappear once you see the man behind the curtain, but for me, it’s much more akin to learning the best way to appreciate a fine wine or a great cigar.
And finally, any advice for people trying to break into the industry?
The absolute best advice I can give is deceptively simple, so much so that most people ignore it: Do something. If you want to make comics, then make comics — that’s all there is to it. Our industry is lucky in that self-publishing doesn’t carry any of the stigma that it does in the prose fiction world. The best way to get noticed is to do something great.
After that, it’s just a matter of getting it under the right person’s nose or allowing your product to find an audience. Too many people say they want to break into comics, but still do nothing beyond talking about the great things they’d do if they were allowed to write their long-planned 12-issue Scarlet Spider maxi-series. In the name of Ben Reilly, just go out and do something — it’s a lot easier for me to hire you if you’ve ALREADY shown me that you can make good comics.