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    DIANA SCHUTZ: Reading Between the Lines

    ]

    In her 25 years of editing, Diana Schutz has worked with some of the most prolific talents in comic history and in doing so has become one herself. The Dark Horse editor has overseen projects from Will Eisner, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, Matt Wagner and Dave Sim and continues to corral top talent and create top books. In fact, Michael Chabon Presents The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist won a 2005 Eisner Award for Best Anthology. Schutz took time out of hectic schedule earlier this year to talk with Comic Foundry about what it’s like to edit the elite and what she’s learned from the experience.

    This is part one of Comic Foundry’s interview with Diana Schutz. Check back Friday the 16th for second half.

    [color=FF6600] How exactly would you describe what an editor does? What their job is. [/color]
    I can only speak for how things are done at Dark Horse comics, because depending on the company you work for it could be a very different entity. But being an editor at Dark Horse essentially means that you are a project manager. You oversee whatever the project happens to be — for us, comics, graphic novels or an interview book or a prose book…you oversee that project, from the start, which is the idea stage, to the final publication — that is the completed printed book. So every stage of production along the way, you as the editor, are overseeing; adjucating , yes or no, this is good, sort of an amalgam of project management and quality control.

    [color=FF6600]And when you say oversee the process, what’s the process? [/color]
    Well again, it’s different for different books. In the case of Usagi Yojimbo; if every creator out there were Stan Sakai, I’d be out of a job. Because Stan is so good at what he does, he doesn’t need me. For instance, I don’t get sent a script, or thumbnail breakdowns or pencils — I get each issue completed. Inked, lettered, the story told, every issue comes in done, basically. So my job at that point consists of reading the pages if there are any little art mistakes or touchups or cleanups I’ll do that. If there are any spelling mistakes…once in a blue moon I’ll call Stan and I’ll say, “You know, I don’t really understand what’s going on here and I don’t think you’ve explained it enough in terms of the story,” and then Stan comes up with some ingenious solution some way to fix that’s so ingenious that it just involves a little bit of re-lettering that it makes whatever was cloudy completely comprehensible.

    So that’s at least part of the process, at least with Usagi Yojimbo. With something like The Escapist, it’s very, very different. I’m hiring creative teams, I’m either soliciting writers and artists to do something for the book, or people are approaching me to do something for the book. I’m reading plots, and if the plots are approved, if both Michael Chabon and I approve the plot then it goes to the script stage, and if Michael and I both approve the script then it goes to a drawing stage, sometimes I need to find an artist for a script and vice versa. So once it penciled, then inked, lettered, colored, so on all those various stages of production I’m overseeing every step of the way.

    One thing’s that common amongst all the books is I have to oversee the marketing thereof. Editors have to generate solicitation copy, we make sure people have the artwork in on time for the Diamond solicitations. If we want ads we usually have to go to our Marketing department and often we have to supply or write the ads ourselves. Again I’m only speaking for how things work at Dark Horse.

    [color=FF6600] Right. [/color]
    Again, my involvement as an editor depends on the kind of book it is. If it’s a work-for-hire book in the way that The Escapist is work-for hire — hiring people to write and draw stories that they don’t own — in other words engaging people to do comic work under a work-for-hire, my involvement is very heavy. When I’m working with creator/owners, then I’m working as much or as little as the creator wants me to be.

    [color=FF6600]And for something like a work-for-hire or a Dark Horse property, what are you looking for? What do you see? [/color]
    Actually it doesn’t matter if it’s work-for-hire or creator owned material. What I’m looking for in any given instance, are the mistakes, the things that don’t fit. It’s really a kind of sickness, you know? Just on a very simple level, when reading text, or you know, checking lettering, or preparing a script for the letterer,…the base level is there had best be no typos in there. So you know, typographical errors are mistakes. I have to notice those. As a point of fact they jump out at me, that’s what I mean by it’s a kind of sickness — the things that don’t fit, the imperfections. Those are what jump out at me, and thankfully so, as that is a part of my job, finding the things that don’t fit, or that need to be fixed somehow.

    [color=FF6600]What are some of the more common errors, or mistakes? [/color]
    Oh gosh, you know I must say that at this point, Tim, I’m so used to working with guys who really know their stuff. After 25 years of doing this I’m in a little bit of a privileged position here. So, the guys that I work with don’t often make the mistakes that beginners do. So it’s a little bit hard for me to speak to that. However, that said, with Escapist, which is my only work-for-hire book, I try to let that be a forum in part, not every story, and not even one story per issue, but I do try to let that be a place for some new talent — generally writers. And I guess the common mistakes there would be not doing your homework.

    For instance, for any writer whom I might enlist to work on Escapist — they’re entrusted, or they approach me, they get a “bible” from me that basically describes the characters, they get copies of some of the comics, and they get a history of the Escapist, they get a larger history from the novel. I recommend to all my writers that they should have read the novel and in most cases they have. If they haven’t, I probably wouldn’t t hire them to write the story. But I will nonetheless send them this reference package and I have thought that stories, that indicate to me that the writer did not bother with the reference material I sent. The characters are not in character, the voices are not even close to what has been established, sometimes they’re in direct opposition to what’s been established. Someone made Tom Mayflower, for instance, raking leaves from his house, when he doesn’t live in a house. He lives under the Empire Palace Theatre, which was contained in the reference material. So that’s not very smart, first of all. You should always know the character that you’re attempting to write. You can’t write a Batman story where he’s going to go out dressed in pink and go, “la la la.” That’s not Batman. So that’s one mistake that’s a pretty significant mistake that I see from people who are trying to get in the business.

    Other things…Descriptive prose, not giving enough information to the artist, for the artist to draw the story properly. Sometimes writing it like a screenplay, forgetting that comics is a static medium, and that each panel is both silent and unmoving. Sometimes when you have to write your script, you can’t have in one panel, for instance, you can’t have a single character performing two actions — it won’t work in the space of one panel. You can’t open the door and walk through it in one panel. People who are not used to writing comics come from a different medium — usually writing for movie or TV, often forget that comics move very slowly. Oh I don’t know, too many freaking words on a page. The page is a finite physical entity. It can only support so many words before being covered in copy. It can only support so many panels and so much copy. So those are a few of the most common mistakes for writers.

    [color=FF6600]And for any new writers you may include, what jumps out at you, what are you looking for? What qualifies them? [/color]
    That’s a really hard question to answer. That’s an almost impossible question to answer. You’re looking for some really base things obviously. Someone who can’t put a sentence together, I don’t have time to mess with that. Go back to school and at least get some rudiments of spelling and grammar and learn how to type. And be careful with your manuscripts. Don’t call someone John on the first page and all of a sudden he’s become Rob on the second page. So those are just some real rudimentary things. What am I looking for…? Well, let me speak first to whether I’ll even look at a pitch or not. And then I’ll go to if I do look at it what I’m looking at. I will no longer accept any pitches, unless I have actually gone out of my way; in other words, I will no longer accept blind submissions period. However, at conventions, I will take a mini comic from anybody — and I will read it. So I recommend to people who want to get in as writers that they hook up with an artist. And it doesn’t need to be a great artist, just somebody who can draw, or use stick figures yourself. These days there are enough lettering programs that are available online that anyone can type in their own lettering and create a mini comic. A mini comic is something that’s easy for an editor to read, it quick, it shows that you understand certain mechanics of comics. It’s a quick way for the editor to see whether a writer understands the mechanics that we were talking about earlier. You know, do they put too many things in the panel, are they trying to put too many actions in the panels, do they understand that comics are silent and motionless? And on the strength of the mini-comic I could potentially hire a writer. Or I could hire an artist — or both. In a few minutes I could see if someone has the chops or not. Whereas getting a typed out, written out manuscript, I don’t just don’t have the time, physically, to read those. I don’t even have time to read the manuscripts I actively commission. I read those at home in the evenings or on the weekends. So for budding writers, I generally recommend they hook up with an artist. For people looking to pitch me things — first of all for the most part I won’t even take unsolicited submissions, just because I am so busy. When I am less busy, I will look at unsolicited submissions, but they have to be the whole package — the writer and the artist. Comics is a medium that involves words and pictures. If someone is going to pitch me a project they have to pitch me both, words and pictures.

    [color=FF6600]What are the better parts of the pitch? What’s the winning pitch to you? [/color]
    Well, that’s when it gets really tough. I can tell you the two baseline things. The two questions that any editor will ask him or herself when looking at a pitch, the first and most important is, “Is it good?” If it’s not good, forget it. If it is good, the second, and equally important question is, “Will it sell?” And if it won’t sell, then you better have some other justification for wanting to then pitch it to your publisher. New comics at Dark Horse go through a pre-budgeting where we try to figure out what you should price it at, black & white or color, would we get enough sales for a color book? Should we do color, or should we do black and white? What kind of package should it be? Should it go straight to graphic novel? There are many, many publishing variables to take into account. And there are people presenting pitches every single day. I mean from the unsolicited submissions that come in the door to the various writers and artists, who we’ve worked with in the past, or maybe you haven’t worked with them but they’ve been in the industry for a while. They call you up, they say, “Hey, I’d love to work with you, I have this great idea…”

    Again, is it good? Will it sell? If it’s good, and I’m not sure it’s going to sell, how am I going to go to my publisher and explain why I want to do it? “Hi, Mike (Richardson), I want Dark Horse to release 20 grand on this project.”

    [color=FF6600]Sounds good! [/color]
    That’s not how you get a publisher to agree to something. As an editor you have to be able to basically argue for the project. Why is it good, why do you think we can sell it? And if you don’t think we can sell enough, are there other extenuating circumstances? Are there other reasons you think we should do this?

    [color=FF6600]What would be one of those reasons? [/color]
    Oh god, I don’t know…some Hollywood type who’s got a movie, or who thinks he can get a movie made and will cut the publisher in for lots of dough, but first he’s got to have it released as a comic.

    Sorry to say that happens — not in this particular editorial office if I can help it. But, stranger things have happened.

    Some projects, for instance, the Will Eisner Sketchbook, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, $50 hardcover, released January 2004. Beautiful, beautiful paper, printed overseas, printed in two-color, so you can see Will’s pencils, and underlying blue pencil, and each section is introduced by Will himself where he talks about the process — each section represents different preliminary drawings for different graphic novels and is introduced and written by Will, talking about his process for that particular graphic novel. Beautiful pictures, gorgeous, gorgeous book; when Will saw, he was so impressed.

    Well, anyway, beautiful book. $50 price tag. We knew, given our printing and production expenses, we knew we would have to sell X number of copies. We weren’t sure if we could sell X number of copies, but there were other important reasons to do this book and keeping it in that very upscale format, mainly because this was Will Eisner. And you don’t do some cheap, shoddy product and call it his sketchbook. This is Will Eisner, the grandfather of our medium. And if you were going to do the Will Eisner sketchbook, you should do it right. And if you lose some money, well that’s the choice you make, as the publisher. There’ll be other projects, there are other Will Eisner projects, and other projects where we make money, and sometimes you need to save that money in order to subsidize some other things. You know maybe you’re taking a chance on someone brand new, they have a great proposal, the art is beautiful…it might take some time to reach an audience. The publishing house might be moving money for several issues until you reach that audience. And so books that are making money will help to subsidize that. Because you make the decision for a writer or writer/artist team that you as the publisher want to get behind. So you’re willing to go in the hole, because you think that eventually you’re going to come out of that hole.

    There are a lot of editors out there, but not a lot of them seem to have the respect, and critical acclaim, and talent pool that you have. What sets you apart?

    I think you have me confused with someone else. Well, that’s another hard question. First of all, I love to work with the people that I’ve worked with. And like I said earlier, I’ve been in this game 25 years, so I can pick and choose at this point. And nobody picks and chooses someone really hard to work with. First of all, I’m very lucky I get to work with stellar creators. So that’s where the acclaim comes from. It’s all them, it doesn’t have anything to do with me.

    I think one of the ways that I view my job differently than other editors, is that…you know an editor is kind of an awkward??? Person between the freelance talent and the publishing house. You’re caught right in the middle. You represent the publishing house to the creator, you represent the creator to the publishing house. I’ve always seen that it’s not really an equal job, where most editors see themselves as primarily publishing house representatives. And that’s absolutely the case at Marvel or DC, who own all the properties. I have always seen myself primarily as the representative of the creator to the publishing house. I’m in it for them. I see my job as doing whatever I can to ensure that the creator is going to be able to do the best work possible, and that the publishing house will be true to that vision — not to the accounting people or the marketing people, but to the creator’s vision. So that’s one part of it. The other part of it is that I think, in general, other editors — and this has now finally happened to me in the last two years, and the acclaim you’re talking about probably falls by the wayside because of it, in general editors are overworked. We have way, way, way too much work to do. And currently, the types of courtesy that for me were very standard in the past, those things are starting to slip, because I don’t have time anymore.

    Do you have an example of that?

    Phone calls, email. If I were to answer every single e-mail that I got every day, I wouldn’t do anything else all day. That’s how much e-mail I get. That should be a courtesy thing, ditto the phone. I do try to answer all my phone calls, but sometimes I just can’t. And sometimes I can’t answer them on the day I get them. Somebody says I need to talk to you right now, you know, sometimes I have deadlines and I’m so up against the wall, I just can’t do it. And e-mail, forget it. There’s just no way. Email is such a tremendous help, and a huge bane. And I don’t just mean unsolicited fan letters or anything — I mean from the talent. And it’s just almost impossible to keep up with it. The kind of quality control I like to do before a book goes to press, is that it’s proofed, and re-proofed, and re-re-proofed, and the color’s been fully done. I’m finding that I have less and less time because I’m getting more and more projects. And I know for a fact that at DC comics that the editors are in that position. You know when you’re so busy that you don’t have time to even edit a script before it goes out to be drawn and lettered and colored, you get back a job, and your computer people put it all together for you, and you’re reading it for the first time before it goes to the printer…that’s horrendous. That seems to be my own life, that’s the direction my own work life has taken in the last two years. Thankfully I’m not at that horrible point yet. But I think in general editors are given too many projects. Too many projects to edit conscientiously and thoroughly. And I think that’s one of the reason why mainstream comics have suffered.

    Because the editors are overworked?

    When you have too much work, it’s very difficult to give the attention that I’m used to giving, that I like to give. That’s very hands on. So yeah, that’s an issue. Also, you know, other editors have lives. They go home to a family. They have to do an eight-hour day. I don’t. This is my life. I live and breathe my work. I always bring my work home — and I always work at home and on the weekends. Not the whole weekend, but I certainly put in anywhere from four to 14 or more hours on the weekends, but I can do that, because I don’t have other people depending on me for other things.

    Right.

    People depend on me to be their editor, so that’s all I have to worry about. So I’m able to give my extra time. I don’t work in the office on Fridays but I do work from home on Fridays and the idea being that editors need time to read, and most editors need quiet time to edit things. I’m paid for a four-day work week, but I go home on Fridays and work. And my creators have my home number and call me…but again, I’m in a position that I can do that.

    I’m going to throw out a couple of names and if you could tell me what’s the most important thing you learned from them.

    Oh good, I hope you’re only going to try the names that are on the list here, because that one I’d really have to think hard about.

    no curve balls.

    Bob Schreck .

    He’s big time now. Well, you know, I actually taught Bob [Diana, the tape actually snapped right here] Bob taught me something much more fundamental — more a life lesson, not an editing lesson, not a comics lesson. Bob taught me how to love. And how that is a comics lesson is that you can’t love somebody or care about somebody without being able to put y ourself in their shoes and see things from their perspective. And I believe that’s critical in working with people as their editor. But it goes well beyond that. That was a major life lesson. Bob is a very open and very loving person and I learned some of that from him.

    Neil Gaiman.

    From Neil, just before Violent Cases was published, so really before he was published at all as a comic writer, from Neil I learned a respect for fantasty. [Can’t understand] It really was working with Neil that I began to have a much deeper appreciation for the fantasy genre, than I had had.

    Frank Miller.

    From Frank, there are so many things I could say here, but I think the most important lesson that I learned was the importance of…it’s a kind of courage. The courage to go out and take chances no matter what your fans, your audience should have to say. Frank is nothing if not daring. No doubt he’s constantly challenging himself. Even if your fans knock you down for it.

    Will Eisner

    From Will again, many, many things, and I have to note here that your question was what I learned from these guys as opposed to what impresses me most about these guys. Those could be two different things. At least one would be a subset of the other. What impresses most would be more than the things I had specifically learned from them But here is something that I specifically learned from Will and that is the importance of content. That if comics are ever going to really make it, as a literary art form, we must, must get, or move into stories that are meaningful. Who Superman punched last week is not going to cut it. I know that, sure, more and more pro publishers are publishing graphic novels. But, that’s the flavor du jour right now. And it’s not necessarily an indication of the acceptance in the literary world of comics. The fact that I just attended a book festival in Portland called Wordstock but it had a bevy of authors, people like John Irving, Norman Mailer or Alice Sebold, Glen David Gold, a myriad authors were guests at this thing, and I found myself at one point at a cocktail party speaking to a female author and she snipped down her nose at comics. And it sort of came as a shock to me because I guess I had kind of begun to assume that, oh, sure, comics are accepted by part of the book world, but no, not necessarily. And there was part of her that was right. She was talking about bagging and trading away your superhero comics and it’s no wonder she was snipping down her nose at that, because we must choose stories that are meaningful.

    You were also formerly the editor in chief of Dark Horse. What in that experience made you a better or worse book editor?

    Absolutely nothing. And that’s why I resigned from that job. I had been editor in chief at Comico for four years before I came to Dark Horse. And when I got here very shortly thereafter, they asked me to be managing editor. And even though I had sworn I would never take that position again, I told Mike I’d do that for about a year. I resigned. He put someone else in that position. About two years later, I was asked to go over as editor in chief, and I said, “No I really hate that job!” And I was asked, “Would you please do it because things were a mess.” So I said I would do it for a year, but they got almost two years out me that time — that was ten years ago, and I know I will never ever go back to that.

    When you’re — and again, this is how it works at Dark Horse, I can’t speak for other companies — editor in chief of Dark Horse is really the head of t he editorial department. And what that means is you’re in meetings most of the day, your job consists of mostly personnel issues, hiring and firing, giving performance reviews. Your job consists of dealing with your editors. You’re no longer dealing with the talent. You’re no longer actively making books. As the editor in chief you make more money, even as a senior editor. I’m 50 years old, and what it’s about to me, is getting up in the morning and doing something I love. And what I love to do is working in the trenches, getting my hands dirty and making a book. I like to make books. I don’t like to hire and fire people, I don’t like to work on departmental budgets, I don’t like to worry drafting master schedules for the entire company, and cracking the whip on each editor when they start blowing deadlines and the creators start blowing deadlines. I can do all that stuff, but I don’t like it. At the end of the day, I don’t get the same satisfaction as I do, when, for instance, today I received advanced copy of the Eisner/Miller trade, which will finally be in stores next Saturday. And the satisfaction that I felt looking at that book, touching it, opening it, seeing it finally completed, done, was immense, and that at the end of the day is what’s important to me.

    Posted by Tim Leong on October 31st, 2005 filed in Story Archive |

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