In Classic Hollywood, Anderson and Duchovny might have been the franchise, not The X-Files

February 23, 2016 by

Anderson and Duchovny - image from The Guardian

The X-Files completed its brief revival run of six new episodes last night. Apart from a standalone film released in 2008, this was the first time its lead characters Dana Scully and Fox Mulder had investigated the paranormal since 2002. The opening and closing episodes directed by series creator Chris Carter attempted to advance the world of the series into the present and acknowledge the differences in conspiracy culture then and now, but the show still leaned heavily on nostalgia, and many episodes were hampered by their need to acknowledge story details from more than a decade earlier.

Fans were elated when The X-Files’ return was announced, most of all because of the full participation of its leads, Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, who became less involved in the original series’ final years. Now that the new miniseason has finished, their presence and undiminished chemistry was the most enjoyable aspect of the series and the best argument for its existence.

Which made me miss the days when screen pairs stuck together through multiple projects rather than repeatedly sequelizing a single project. Anderson and Duchovny went on in the intervening years to individually head other TV series, but never again together. Their other projects saw varying levels of success, but never anything like X-Files. The pair weren’t the only thing that made X-Files a hit, but it’s not hard to imagine a new project reteaming them would have been at least as popular and probably more so than their separate work.

The great advantage of long-running screen pairings built around performers rather than characters—think Astaire-Rogers, Hepburn-Tracy, Bogart-Bacall, or Hope-Crosby—was the ability to repeat a pair’s chemistry without getting stuck with old continuity or confined to a single set of writers/directors/showrunners. Those screen pairings were very much franchises in the sense that we now use the word, but they were franchises built around the performers and their personas/chemistry rather than around intellectual property. When fans talk about the Astaire-Rogers movies, they generally refer to Fred and Ginger, not the characters they play in the various films, none of whom I can name, despite owning all the films on DVD and having watched them repeatedly.

Similarly, every X-Files fan I know speaks mainly about the leads’ dynamic, and while the characters as written are part of that, fans talk as much or more about Anderson and Duchovny—or Gillian and David among the hardcore—as they do Scully and Mulder. The performers were what fans were excited to be revisiting, more than the conspiracies or aliens or Chris Carter’s scripts and direction. It’s difficult to envision the new series being as anticipated if the roles had been recast; it’s unlikely it could even have been made.

Outside of a few comedy ensembles (the phenomenon belongs more to comedy in the first place, but the Bogart-Bacall example is a potential model), franchises today are almost exclusively built around intellectual property that can be leveraged across media and continued indefinitely. The movie star as a cultural figure has greatly diminished as a result, and specific pairings of performers has gone with it. That business model is so ingrained that Fox brought back a series whose best days are far behind it rather than bet on a new Anderson-Duchovny series that would be less immediately buzzy but potentially have longer legs.

I have no idea if a brand-new Anderson-Duchovny project that wasn’t tied to an already-beloved show from the ’90s would have gotten the same level of attention the revived X-Files has, or if Anderson and Duchovny themselves would have been interested. Had Fox presented a new series unrelated to The X-Files, but reteaming its leads, and made sufficient noise that this was a reunion of the parts of The X-Files fans loved most, I think there’s a chance. In its way, the first time Anderson and Duchovny play new leads opposite each other is as big a story as the latest time they play the same leads. In any case, I have no doubt it would have resulted in more interesting and almost certainly more entertaining television. It’s just not how Hollywood works anymore.

Millennials’ Issues with Clinton Are Rooted in Iraq and 2008

January 25, 2016 by

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A couple weeks ago Slate‘s Double X Gabfest discussed why Millennials don’t support Hillary Clinton for president in greater numbers. Something I think everyone failed to mention is when people in their late twenties to early thirties came of age. 

Some of my earliest political memories are of the farce of the Clinton impeachment and the tragedy of the stolen 2000 election, which is a recipe for growing up cynical about politics.

9/11 was a few weeks into my freshman year of college, and surrounded by scared kids and people who hoped this would put the divisiveness of the election behind us, it was devastating to see how quickly it became just another tool to be exploited for political gain. It remains so to this day, with politicians still invoking 9/11 to get out of answering all manner of questions, like when Clinton was asked in the current cycle why so much of her campaign money comes from Wall Street.

Political Science became one of my majors, and I followed the lead-up to the Iraq war—one of the most disastrous blunders in American history—obsessively. Even though the rationale was so obviously made up (those who voted for it now say they were lied to, but so were the rest of us, and somehow many of us weren’t fooled), Clinton was among those who embraced it. I feel sick at the thought of someone who voted for that war in the White House.

The economy tanked in 2008, in large part due to deregulation of the banks during the Bill Clinton years, policies Hillary Clinton had supported and been rewarded for with tons of political money from Wall Street.

All of this gave Millennials plenty of reason to already distrust Clinton leading into the 2008 election, and then her campaign gave them so many more.

The 2008 election was only the second presidential election I was old enough to vote in, and while I was never as swept up in Obama mania as some (Joe Biden was my guy until he dropped out; I still fantasize about the ticket being flipped, with us coming out of eight years of Biden and a seasoned Vice President Obama now the frontrunner for the 2016 nomination), his message of hope came at a very important time for those of us who had been shaped by the compromised 90s and the nightmarish 00s. In the course of her racist, fear-mongering campaign, Clinton seemed outright hostile to that message, dismissing MLK-style activism in favor of LBJ-style politicking, and sounded like no one so much as George W. Bush when she lectured us all about how afraid we should be and only she could keep up safe. She went in the frontrunner, but when her more-of-the-same message was overcome by Obama’s charisma and argument that things could be different, she continued to viciously attack Obama after it was mathematically impossible for her to win the nomination and it could only hurt him in the general. More so than John McCain, who actually looked like he didn’t want to win after the banks collapsed, or Sarah Palin, who is a lunatic, Clinton felt to young voters like she was actively running against hope.

Obama couldn’t live up to the hype, and some of the criticism about his naivety turned out to be accurate in his efforts to compromise with people whose only goal was to see him fail, yet he’s still turned out to be the best president of my lifetime (admittedly not a high bar) and I’m grateful we’ve had him rather than the candidate who now promises to continue his legacy but eight years ago sure sounded like she wanted to continue George W. Bush’s. (Unfair? Probably, but it’s sure how she sounded to 24-year-old me when I was so sick of politicians screaming, “Terrorism!” all the time.)

Clinton is a throwback to a deeply traumatic time in America’s politics, and it’s hard to imagine her election not resulting in an unwelcome relitigation of those years. Her party and many voters have clearly forgiven her for her disgraceful conduct in 2008, but for those of us who know her better from that time than we do from her earlier years as First Lady, that’s a foundational political memory that it will take a lot more than tweeting “Yaaas” and other condescending acts of pandering to overcome.

Self-Promotion from the Shadows

January 7, 2016 by

Four months into freelance editing, my daily life isn’t much like it used to be. Instead of commuting to Dark Horse, I work at a cleared-off desk in my apartment or, weather permitting, at one of the long tables with electrical outlets at the public library. Instead of chasing artists, I chase publishers. Instead of receiving invoices, I send them.

But I’ve done all that before, having freelanced in the legal field prior to breaking into comics. The biggest and most difficult adjustment in my new endeavor is the need to remain visible through active self-promotion, something which does not come naturally to me, to say the least. I’ve always preferred a behind-the-scenes role.

As a staff editor, that’s no problem, since you get paid every week whether or not the field at large knows who you are, and when attracting talent you trade on the reputation of your company at least as much as on your own. For the majority of my time at Dark Horse I made virtually no effort to be recognized by comics websites or fandom, though I worked hard to maintain relationships with talent, which is a separate matter. I pushed all my books on social media, but kept the focus off myself.

Recently the creative team of an upcoming title I’m editing offered to list my name along with everyone else’s on the series’ covers. I was flattered, and from a mercenary, self-promotional angle, I was tempted to take them up on it. Ultimately I declined, as it just didn’t feel right. Not immoral or anything, but simply in keeping with my belief that comics editors should be invisible, appreciated in some general sense but rarely if ever singled out publicly.

It is, as I understand it, an accident of history that comics editors are credited for each title they work on, while book editors are not. Though many book publishers today have their own comics imprints (often not including editorial credits in books), what we think of as the comics industry derives from the magazine business, where editors are known and credited. Even as comic books became graphic novels, the tradition remained.

Because editors are routinely credited, they end up getting a great deal of attention in online press as ambassadors of series and sometimes as members of creative teams or svengalis. This focus warps the audience’s understanding of editors’ roles and invites a level of ego that is at odds with the job of supporting someone else’s vision. I have worked with editors whose actual talents lay in finding new places to add their names rather than in their facility with story or their people skills, to the detriment of the books and the reputation of editors as a group.

But it’s hard to deny that those editors who court the spotlight become the ones people hear about, and the ones people hear about are the ones they think of when hiring. Now that I work for myself, I only work if I convince creators and publishers that they want me specifically to edit a project, which requires being visible on a regular basis, and therein lies the dilemma.

I am used to writing up books I’ve edited, pushing stuff out through social media, and contacting friends and colleagues to share. Knowing I would go freelance in 2015, I stepped up efforts to do the same for myself throughout the year—starting to tweet (@BrendanWasright), doing more interviews, and attending SDCC for the first time—but the actual announcement was the test. I think I swung it, scoring articles on a few sites and having congratulations come in all week through social media and e-mail, but it required going against my natural wiring.

I still briefly forget that it’s not enough to acquire a gig like editing comics for Starburns Industries; you also have to announce and promote it, because success breeds success. You get hired because potential clients see other people hire you. The same goes for periodically reminding Facebook and Twitter, as I did yesterday, that you are open for business when much of what you work on as a consultant goes uncredited (as it should).

It’s immensely gratifying every time someone wants to work with me on my own and not as a representative of a company, but it’s a strange feeling telling the world to look at me after spending the previous years of my career pushing all the attention at others. It still doesn’t quite feel like what an editor is supposed to be doing, but it’s the price of working for one’s self, and the benefits have been tremendous, so I’ll get better at telling people to look at me, and once they do, I’ll tell them to look at the people who hired me, because it’s really their show.


Say it with me: for all your comics editing needs, as well as pitch and crowdfunding consulting, write to editing@brendanhwright.com.

A Tale of Two “Spoilers”

December 31, 2015 by

thehateawakens

WARNING: This essay contains no spoilers, but only because I don’t care.

Was 2015 the year of the spoiler? Aversion to any public discussion of plot details has been bubbling up since DVRs became commonplace and even more so once streaming services began releasing entire seasons of debut shows all at once. As a result of the two, or simply as a byproduct of the lessons learned from the Golden Age of Television, television dramas, and even comedies, became more serialized, meaning learning a plot detail could reveal secrets of multiple episodes or a whole season instead of just this week’s caper/case/folly.

But spoiler warnings became industrialized this year, with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, highly competently directed and cowritten by a flesh-coated vessel of the Walt Disney Corporation. Reviews, even those from serious outlets, carried seemingly obligatory promises that they didn’t contain spoilers, and think pieces made sure to warn readers that they did. My Facebook and Twitter feeds filled with people bemoaning the possibility that some evil people somewhere might spoil The Force Awakens, followed by threats that they would either leave social media for a few days until they had seen the movie (mostly not actually carried out) or unfriend anyone who revealed plot details (carried out in at least some cases). Some claimed that even saying whether a person liked the movie or not constituted a spoiler. In what I hope was good humor, comics stores posted signs threatening to ban for life those who spilled plot details. They probably don’t do that if you shoplift or punch or grope someone, at least not the first time. (It is worth pointing out that the story of the person beaten up for shouting a spoiler in a movie theater was not real.) The whole thing was spoken of as though to reveal anything about the movie was an unforgivable crime, an act of violence against the poor nerds who had already suffered so much. Spoiler warnings somehow became trigger warnings.

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The whole thing was so fervent and so universal as to feel unnatural, as if it were all part of the marketing campaign, the publicity teams at LucasArts and Disney expertly playing fans. As a friend pointed out, there is plenty of precedent, going back at least to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which the marketing materials warned that no one would be let in late and implored viewers not to reveal the movie’s twists to anyone. In the era of social media, marketers have perfected making fans believe that such a thing is their idea, not something they’re being told. I never actually saw any Force Awakens spoilers, and while I didn’t go out of my way to find them, nor did I make any effort to avoid them. Other people I know did see some and dutifully unfriended the offenders, but none seemed as desolated by whatever details they had learned as they’d feared, just annoyed.

To be clear, I’d be annoyed too. If I know I’m seeing a movie, I prefer to go in knowing as little as possible to let the experience unfold before me with a minimum of prior expectation. I don’t tend to see trailers for movies I know I’m going to unless they show before another movie I’m at, and I save the reviews of my favorite critics to read after I watch. Surprises are fun, and I went to at least one movie this year knowing literally nothing about it other than that people I respect had raved.

So I understand all that. However, I cannot relate to the recent mania over spoilers, the apocalyptic manner in which the faithful spoke in panicked, hushed tones of their fears of The Force Awakens being “spoiled”—and how I hate that word, reducing the experience of a movie to its plot points, with the implication that foreknowledge of them ruins everything. If knowing a few plot details in advance ruins one’s enjoyment of a movie, then that enjoyment was taking place on a narrow register of what movies offer. Fandom, at its worst, is a fetishism of details over aesthetic, and it’s distressing to those who actually care about movies and other forms of storytelling.

A movie is so much more than its plot. At risk of being sent to editor jail, I’m not sure that I place plot in the top five of things I care about in a film story, not when there are voice, tone, theme, performances, dialogue, cinematography, rhythm, and so many other aesthetic elements to consider. All of these are dismissed when fans fixate on spoilers. I like a good plot, and some of my favorite movies have some of my favorite plots, but the majority of the movies I treasure, I do not primarily do so for the plot, for if plot were truly primary, there would be much less incentive to once again revisit something I had watched so many times before.

A plot, at its most basic level, is simply a device to make a story take place over a period of time, since we are not capable of experiencing the above list of aesthetic elements in a single instant. At the commercial art level, the plot exists to move the characters into place so that audiences are teased to return for the next installment. It is in the interest of a studio like Disney to make its Star Wars movies primarily about what happens next, as that is ultimately controllable, and it’s easier to keep fans in a state of anticipation by constantly emphasizing the next movie over the current one. More so than the films themselves, this is the innovation and the art of the Marvel movies.

Ironically when I saw the movie (disclaimer: for free) it didn’t contain a single surprise or unpredictable moment, with nearly everything that takes place obvious almost from the first act. That it so closely follows the beats of the original Star Wars is a factor, but everything is telegraphed anyway, and I doubt those who have never seen a Star Wars film before would have much difficulty guessing where the story is going. The more I think about it, the more clearly intentional that decision must have been, with the movie serving as a soothing pat on the head to those fans burned by the 1990s–2000s Star Wars trilogy. Those few elements that are genuinely new appeared only in vague “mystery box” form, all part of the tease for the new episode. The marketing machine has already geared up to insist that next time big, unpredictable things will happen, and maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t.

And inevitably, fans who love the new movie do not do so primarily for the plot. Even its loudest defenders feel compelled to make excuses for its many repetitions, coincidences, and illogical turns. Instead, they are taken with its new characters, its action sequences, the nostalgic rush of its skillful callbacks (with attendant groans at its clunkier ones), and the unprecedented sight of a Star Wars movie composed entirely of good performances. Those who have seen it a second time mostly report enjoying it more on that subsequent viewing, despite knowing the entire plot in advance. While those who stumbled upon unwelcome plot details before their first viewing likely had their initial enjoyment diminished by a percentage point or two, I’m willing to bet that they got over it once they were sucked in, and for all of the time they spend with the movie in the future it will simply be a nonfactor.

Nor are the pleasures of the original Star Wars movies in their plots, but rather their themes, worlds, humor, busted-racecar aesthetic, and sometimes characters. This is not a condemnation of their plots, which are serviceable, but simply an acknowledgement that, like any other good movies, the Star Wars films are more than their plots. While The Empire Strikes Back contains a plot detail that has resulted in the most notorious spoiler of all time (with the possible exception of Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud,” although the entire point of that film’s MacGuffin was that it actually revealed nothing), it continues to be frequently rewatched after the cat’s been out of the bag for decades. I’m reminded of how I knew the twist in The Usual Suspects before I saw it and had a good time anyway, and how I didn’t know the twist of The Sixth Sense and had a bad time anyway.

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In the course of my original social media rant about the all-consuming fear of spoilers, I invited people to spoil The Hateful Eight for me, as Quentin Tarantino’s films often have clever plotting, but hinge far more on visual moments and extended dialogue exchanges, things that can’t really be spoiled by someone letting a detail slip on Twitter. No one took me up, but it was quickly pointed out to me that The Hateful Eight contains a mystery with multiple suspects, and I wondered if I’d set a trap for myself. Yes, obviously I would prefer not to be told before seeing the movie which character would ultimately be unmasked. I felt generally confident that whether or not I enjoyed the movie wouldn’t turn on that alone, but maybe it would be central to the film after all.

As it turned out, Tarantino is Tarantino. A lot happens in the course of the movie’s three hours, and the mystery, such as it is, doesn’t feel very important. It takes up a relatively small portion of the film’s runtime and there’s only a single major clue, which is underlined in voiceover and which eliminates almost all the suspects in one fell swoop. The mystery was by far the least interesting part of the story, and it appears that Tarantino thought so too. After we learn the truth, there’s a flashback to events before everyone arrived at the inn and, even though we know exactly what’s going to happen and to whom, it’s riveting. Kind of like The Force Awakens, but to vastly different impact, as there’s unlikely to be a sequel, much of what’s most compelling in The Hateful Eight are the questions we never learn the answers to.

The Hateful Eight is a flawed movie that I had some issues with, but I enjoyed it more than Tarantino’s recent efforts, and it is considerably better than The Force Awakens. I am certain I’ll see it again to savor its dialogue, gorgeous cinematography, and hilarious and frightening performances, and will likely groan again at its excesses and confused politics, but I doubt I’ll spend any of those viewings searching for clues I missed the first time around, because they aren’t the point. I’m sure I’ll also end up seeing The Force Awakens again someday, as life is long and I’ve been lured to Star Wars movies by cute girls before, and if I’m feeling soft in the moment I may get lulled into its carefully calibrated simulation of playfulness and, like I did before, have a decent but not great time. I’m sure there will be some pleasure in the plot being already known rather than merely obvious.

We’ll have to wait until 2017 to see if the next Star Wars whips up this level of frenzy over spoilers. The fact that they ultimately didn’t matter much in the case of The Force Awakens will hopefully be taken into consideration, but Star Wars is a corporate product and the plot of the next movie will be highly speculated upon by fans and treated by Disney as supremely important, and the marketing team has an incentive to restoke those fires that played so much to their benefit this time around.

New Gig! Starburns Industries!

December 15, 2015 by

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I tried to bring Dan Harmon’s ingenious sitcom Community to comics for years, and came close a couple times. I could see what it would look like, could imagine the fun the writers and characters would have with the comics medium, just as they had with stop-motion animation, anime and countless film genres before. The show’s rabid fanbase resurrected it again and again when so many other shows fell for good, and I believed they would follow Harmon to comics. A lot of them were clearly already comics fans. “Six issues and trade,” I told anyone who’d listen.

But it was a very complicated thing to get done. I originally talked to Harmon during season 3, when the show’s future was uncertain, and picked back up with him toward the end of season 5, when its cancellation by NBC made a comic appear the likeliest chance for continuation before its stay of execution came one last time, in the guise of Yahoo Screen. After a bunch of white-knuckle ups and downs, the project ended up in my list of the ones that got away (every editor has them). Buy me a beer at a con sometime for the super dramatic blow-by-blow of those three years.

Even though Community never happened, the time and effort have paid off. In the summer of 2014, in what turned out to be the final days before Yahoo made the deal that brought Community back, I visited Harmon’s animation studio Starburns Industries for the first time. I had reintroduced myself to Harmon at a podcast taping in Portland after the previous attempt to bring the show to comics had fizzled, and now over tacos and beer we discussed what a comic version could bring to the series. I’ve rarely had a more educational conversation than I did talking story with Harmon that day, and it was clear why the show and his Adult Swim series Rick and Morty are so brilliant.

In retrospect, the other thing we talked about that day turned out to be more consequential. Harmon was interested in Starburns Industries creating original comics, and pitched several possibilities. It made total sense: in addition to the numerous comics references in his various projects, like the Kickpuncher comic that came packaged with the DVD of Community season 1, plus the fact that the Harmontown podcast tapes at Meltdown Comics in LA, Harmon’s history with comics goes back to writing for the original run of his friend Rob Schrab’s wonderful Scud: The Disposable Assassin and its spinoff La Cosa Nostroid.

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I took the second try at Community and another project back with me to Portland and set to work going through the approvals process. Meanwhile, Starburns’ comics line SBI Comics got underway and announced its initial projects at San Diego Comic-Con 2015. At the same time, I had started to plan a move into freelance editing, having spent seven years at my staff editing job at Dark Horse Comics and itching for a new challenge. After I gave my notice in August, I again flew to LA and took another meeting at Starburns, this time with SBI Comics president Simon Oré, who laid out the studio’s ambitious plans for its new comics line.

Several details remained to be hammered out, but the arrangement we put together was a freelance gig as one of Starburns’ two comics editors, along with Oré. Initially this covered a handful of projects generated by Starburns writers and artists, but over the following months more were added, along with the ability to accept pitches for Starburns’ consideration. With Starburns on the rise between the success of Rick and Morty and early buzz for its feature film Anomalisa, written by Charlie Kaufman and codirected by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, these were busy days, and the agreement wasn’t ready to be announced until last week, but we’re now full speed ahead.

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It’s been a crazy few months, leaving the job that I am known for and not being able to announce what’s next right away (there’s more to come), so naturally going public with this is a pleasure, and I couldn’t be more excited about the projects that are currently greenlit, as well as some pitches I’ve got in hand. I’ll be editing one of the currently announced projects, but most are still under wraps, and they will surprise and delight Starburns fans once they go public. I’m so proud of what I’ve done to date, but 2016 is shaping up to be my most exciting year in comics yet. Every project I’m on is something I believe in, and in the case of Starburns I am working with personal heroes on titles unlike I’ve ever done before. In a way this has been years in the making, and this is just the start.


And don’t forget, I am still freelance, so I am available for editing, project management, and consulting at editing@brendanhwright.com.

After you pitch, it’s the editor’s turn

November 12, 2015 by

Making comics is a skill that takes a lot of practice, a lot of effort, and a lot of failure to master. Pitching comics is also a skill, a very different one, but with the same learning curve. It’s also every bit as important, because the single best thing a project can have going for it is a publisher’s confidence that it will sell, and selling a pitch is selling the comic. (Michael Moreci’s recent essay on pitching makes a strong case for the primacy of sales potential in pitching.)

I’ve never pitched a comic I’ve written or drawn, but I have nonetheless made countless pitches. That’s because when an editor likes your pitch they must next pitch it themselves. There are instances where you’re pitching directly to the people who can greenlight something, but if you’re in that position you’ve probably made it past the point where you need the following advice. This pertains largely to pitches for original projects from lesser-known or unknown creators. In most cases the editor you pitch to has some degree of influence but still needs the support of higher-ups to make a pitch happen.

Editors want to say yes. They get paid the same if they edit four series a month or ten, but they love comics and want to make as many of them as possible, and regardless of where they work they put in countless extra hours to fit in those additional series. They have diverse tastes and don’t want to get stuck with one type of project. If they like your pitch, they will fight for it against all reason. Publishers and marketing departments want to say no. They are painfully aware of the cost and risk inherent in each project they approve and have to be realistic about how far resources can be stretched. They are harder to convince than an editor is, and they should be.

So your pitch must serve two purposes: it is both the document that sells your idea to an editor—making the case for why it is at minimum a good read worth paying $4 per issue for and at maximum a game changer in the comics medium—and also a blueprint for an editor to translate their excitement for the project into something that meets the internal guidelines and needs of the publisher where they work—why it will stand out on the shelf and therefore why it will sell. Of course, it is your responsibility to research the output of a publisher and make sure you are pitching the right project to the right place (that is, don’t pitch a mainstream superhero comic to Fantagraphics), but in many cases it will not be your exact pitch document that reaches the top people.

Instead, an editor will take the information in your pitch and tailor it to the tastes of their bosses and, often, the publisher’s marketing department. This may involve a verbal pitch or, at some publishers, fitting the information from the pitch into a standard form. As many pitches as individual editors are inundated with, an editor in chief, managing editor, or publisher gets many more and has even less time to look at them. Accordingly, what is presented to them is stripped down to its essence, with creators’ bibliographies, comparison titles, and unusual selling points emphasized at least as much as story. You have to sell your story well to get an editor’s attention, but those other elements need to be there too so the editor can use them to get their bosses’ attention.

(This is not to say higher-ups never read your pitch. In most cases the original pitch will be a part of the package submitted by an editor to their boss, and if the process is going well, your pitch may be what clinches the deal, since the writer and artists’ voices are ultimately what they are buying, not just an idea.)

So provide those comparison titles. Focus more on what existing series you believe your series will sell like than on what it is narratively similar to, or include both and draw a distinction between the two. Research how the series you want to compare your series to sell and be honest with yourself if your project can really match those numbers. A lot of pitches list series like The Walking Dead or Scott Pilgrim as comparison titles, and marketing departments tend to roll their eyes at those references. Find what makes your comic part of a movement on the upswing rather than too similar to things that are already overfamiliar. Think about how your series will be marketed and suggest some high concepts, some taglines, a target audience, a hook that makes your editor’s boss want to know more and ask followup questions in a meeting where they thought they only had two minutes to spare.

This is always hard advice to give a writer, but comics is a visual medium, and your chances are exponentially better with art. Some editors will help you find an artist, but the truth is that they don’t have much time for pitches to begin with, and unless you already have a relationship with a publisher, finding an artist isn’t something they can take time away from other things for. Once your pitch is being shown to the higher-ups, art is something they can evaluate at a glance, and that coupled with a few key bits of information from the editor go the furthest in helping them feel confidence about your project.

Confidence is the key word. As in any other job, the currency of an editor is their track record, and it can be fortified consistently to make a career from a series of solid projects or saved up to make the pitching of a risky project go smoother. Their credibility is put on the line every time they pitch, and how a pitch is received affects the confidence their publisher has in what they bring to the table next. If you want them to go to bat for your pitch it has to give them the ammunition to face a series of people with every financial incentive to say no to your comic. Research who edits comics that yours will fit alongside and how they sell. The editor who works on comics like yours that sell well is sympathetic to your aesthetic and has the credibility to pitch it. Give them an exciting hook, an accurate and compelling comparison title, a valuable demographic, and some eye-catching artwork, and they will have confidence that your comic is not only a good story but also one that they can pitch, and their bosses will have confidence that you can deliver.


Thanks for reading, and don’t forget that I offer consultations on pitches. I can give you feedback from the point of view of an editor who’s received thousands of pitches and help make yours a clear, organized, and compelling showcase for your story. Inquiries go to editing@brendanhwright.com. I look forward to reading your pitch!

Tomorrow

September 1, 2015 by

SEVEN YEAR ITCH

Seven years is the longest I ever did anything. Tomorrow will be the seventh anniversary of my first day at Dark Horse Comics. I started at the age of twenty-four, and since then I have changed so much, as have my friends in and out of comics, the company, the comics field, and Portland, where I live. My title has changed three times, from Editorial Assistant to Assistant Editor, then to Associate Editor, and finally to Editor. The only thing that didn’t change was that I worked at Dark Horse.

Yesterday was my last day. Given all that has changed in my life and in comics, I’m excited for thirty-one-year-old me to strike a different path from twenty-four-year-old me and am thrilled to announce the beginning of my career as a freelance editor. My initial client list is made up of projects I am honored to be a part of, and I’m available to take on more, so keep reading.

I noticed several months ago that, by a quirk of the publishing schedule, the two series I have edited the longest and with which I am most associated, MIND MGMT and Grindhouse, would end at the same time, with my most nutso project, Archie vs. Predator, concluding shortly before. As it happened, the final issues of MIND MGMT and Grindhouse were both released last Wednesday. At the same time, some intriguing freelance opportunities presented themselves, and I decided to take the plunge.

I’m leaving Dark Horse on good terms and intend to keep up my relationship with the company. I love many people who still work there, and I look forward to continuing to see them outside of work and to reading the comics they’re working on. I’m sad for all the projects I won’t see to the end, but I’m proud of each of them and confident in and thankful to the editors taking over for me.

SEVEN YEARS GOOD LUCK

It’s difficult for me to imagine the opportunities Dark Horse provided a kid just starting out in his career happening anywhere else. The very first thing I worked on was an issue of Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, a favorite since my first year of high school. Within a month or two I was on the phone with Dave Gibbons, discussing the mammoth Life and Times of Martha Washington. Both happened because I was working for legendary editor Diana Schutz, and assisting her it sometimes felt like I got to work with just about everyone in comics. Assisting Diana is how I first came to work with Matt Kindt, Alex de Campi, and Jeff Lemire, three of the talents who, along with Stan, really defined my last years at Dark Horse (Jeff and Dean Ormston’s Black Hammer has been delayed until next year, and missing its debut is one of my biggest regrets about leaving, but I am immensely proud of the work we did and know it’s in good hands).

Once I undertook my own projects, not everyone at Dark Horse always understood what I was trying to do, but that didn’t stop them from letting me make moves like bringing Jeff Parker and Erica Moen’s webcomic Bucko to Dark Horse, opening the door to Monkeybrain with Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover’s Bandette, abetting Alex de Campi as she transcended every boundary of good taste in Grindhouse, developing a model for digitally serializing original graphic novels in advance of their order periods, creating the template for our Gallery Edition books and adding complicating features like massive foldouts, updating Creepy and Eerie for a modern audience, or giving weird newcomers Damon Gentry and Aaron Conley their first shot with Sabertooth Swordsman, which went on to win the Russ Manning Award for Promising Newcomer. They also put beloved franchises like Archie, Predator (and therefore Archie vs. Predator) and The Terminator in my hands, as well as acclaimed game studios like Naughty Dog, with comics based on The Last of Us and coffee table books of Uncharted and the art of the studio. I even have my name in a few Star Wars comics for some reason.

And, fatefully, I was assigned MIND MGMT #1, back when no one knew whether it would make it as an ongoing or end up a six-issue miniseries. Last week saw Matt Kindt finish the series on his own terms, after thirty-seven issues and a little over three years. I don’t know what my life or career would look like right now if not for receiving that assignment, and for that alone I would have always been grateful for my years at Dark Horse, but I am fortunate to have so many other reasons.

SEVEN YEAR PLAN

The future is a little terrifying, but I’m also the most excited I’ve been in years. I don’t know how long I’ll stick around Portland, but it will remain my home base for the time being, with more frequent visits to Los Angeles mixed in. One thing I don’t plan to change is my being a part of comics. I am as enchanted today as I was when I started by the possibilities of words and pictures and believe to my core in comics’ central role in innovating visual storytelling today. I hope to stay in comics as long as I am working, even if my role in it is evolving.

It’s probably more accurate to say my role is expanding, and I’m very pleased that the immediate future includes a continuation of my old one. Dark Horse will be among my first new clients, as I’ll be finishing a handful of projects on a freelance basis. I’ll also be starting immediately on some new Image series I’m excited about and lending a hand to a few existing ones that I read devotedly, and I’m currently in talks with a couple of nontraditional publishers about their upcoming comics lines. After years of doing things one way, I look forward to doing things five or six ways at once.

And that’s just the stuff I know about. Equally compelling are the projects that I don’t know are out there, the other Image series in search of an editor, the self-published books by authors who want a sounding board, the brilliant pitches in need of a helping hand to shape them, the graphic novel that’s complete except for a final proofread. I’m throwing the net wide, and I look forward to consulting/editing/proofreading on all kinds of projects.

If you’re looking, please send inquiries about experience, services, and rates to editing@brendanhwright.com. I’ll also be roaming Rose City Comic Con and New York Comic Con. And if you’re interested in seeing how this whole being-my-own-boss thing goes, follow me on Twitter at @BrendanWasright. Let’s keep comics the most vital entertainment medium going—together.

Howard the Duck

November 23, 2014 by

Howard_the_Duck_Vol_1_12

I was two years old when the George Lucas–produced Howard the Duck film was released, and by the time I became a comics reader nearly ten years later, it was largely forgotten except as a cautionary tale. Though I’d heard of the character from time to time, I don’t think I ever encountered him in comics form either until Marvel published the Essential Howard the Duck collection in 2002, at which point I was a freshman in college. It was also my first prolonged exposure to Howard’s cocreator Steve Gerber, and the collection made me an instant fan.

As I wrote when Gerber died, I was immediately struck by how angry the writing in Howard is, a quality I would later find in other Gerber-written comics I read on the strength of my love for Howard. It’s right there in the tagline, “Trapped in a world he never made”: life is unfair and so much of the world’s suffering—suffering being a theme Gerber returned to again and again, notably in his final work, Dr. Fate: Countdown to Mystery—is created by the callousness of forces beyond our control and people beyond accountability. A classic outsider, Howard has the insight to question elements of society that those who grew up within it take for granted and the lack of social graces to make those questions forceful. A classic outsider, much like Gerber himself in many ways.

Over the years I’d go on to read a lot more of Gerber’s work and learn more about his history with Marvel Comics, including his lengthy and hard-fought series of legal actions over Howard’s ownership and the suits filed against Marvel by Disney over an allegedly infringing similarity to Donald Duck. While Robert Stanley Martin assembled a very compelling case earlier this year that Gerber repeatedly affirmed his understanding that Howard was created in a work-for-hire environment and was unambiguously owned by Marvel (going so far as to promise never to sue over ownership), the case was still valuable in shedding light on how work-for-hire has been and is interpreted by the major publishers and the courts, and in spurring debate over the difference between a character’s legal ownership and its connection to its creator, who I believe can and should be said to “own” the character in a sense. That ownership is more meaningful to me than instruments like trademarks and copyrights, but as Gerber’s situation shows, the two can come into conflict, and the company’s rights to the character easily trump what since 1928 have been known as “moral rights.” (Correction: Disney’s actions regarding the Howard/Donald situation did not actually include a lawsuit. See Martin’s comment below for a better explanation.)

After all, the circumstances that led Gerber to attempt to claim ownership over Howard appear to have less to do with his ability to profit from Howard—he already licensed the character from Marvel for posters and buttons, which reportedly sold in great quantities—than with disagreements with Marvel stemming from his firing from the Howard comic book and strip, and Marvel’s acquiescence to Disney, in a settlement over the Donald Duck lawsuit, which allowed Disney to redesign Howard and enforce that design on Marvel and Gerber. (The Disney suit appears to have had more to do with overseas confusion in translation than concerns that Howard represented any threat to the Disney brand domestically, and the enforcement of the redesign, which mostly involved the shape of Howard’s head and a mandate that he wear pants, was lax to begin with, and abandoned after the failure of the Howard movie, until the last decade.)

Gerber’s attempts to win ownership of Howard has always seemed to me (and in case it’s not already clear, this essay is entirely my point of view not an objective declaration of how things are) something Gerber had to do because Howard meant so much to him personally. Gerber’s situation was not like the one faced by Jack Kirby, who had cocreated the bulk of the Marvel universe in a time of vaguer contracts and was repeatedly promised more than he received. Gerber appears to have completely understood the legal side of Howard’s ownership when creating the character, but the degree to which legal ownership allows businessmen with no investment in the character itself, only its earning potential, more say than the creator to whom that character is incredibly personal seems to be a grievance that built up over time, until he felt he had to take action. The case was ultimately settled out of court and nondisclosure agreements have kept the exact terms of the settlement private.

In the years since, Gerber has written the character a few more times, most memorably in an in-story smash-and-grab of the character in a crossover with the Savage Dragon and Destroyer Duck (a character Gerber cocreated with Kirby to fund Gerber’s suit against Marvel) and later a mature-readers miniseries from Marvel’s MAX imprint, in which the Disney redesign was obviated by Howard’s transformation into a mouse, surely a move aimed at tweaking Disney, if the company still cared at that point. Howard has shown up in occasional miniseries by other writers, none of which I’ve read, with the exception of Fred Van Lente’s Marvel Zombies 5, which includes Howard as part of an ensemble. I’ve never had much interest in Howard not written by Gerber.

Gerber died in 2008, and in 2009 Disney acquired Marvel, placing ownership of Howard with the company that once claimed he infringed on its trademarks. This year Howard appeared in an after-the-credits sequence of Disney/Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know anything about the Howard part beyond the still frame below, but there he is, wearing pants, owned by the second largest media company in the world. Looking at that frame makes me feel, in the kind of reductionism comics readers like me sometimes fall prey to, like the bad guys have won.

HowardTheDuck

People remember Howard exists now, so naturally a new comics series has been announced. I like the work of both its writer and artist, and I wish them well with this series and their future endeavors, but I can’t feel anything but disappointment at this announcement. I don’t begrudge any writer or artist taking on a gig like this—for all I know they are huge fans of Gerber and Howard and intend to create this comic in his spirit—but I am saddened that the series will be published at all. There is already evidence that Marvel misunderstands Howard and Howard‘s value: in explaining who Howard is for readers unfamiliar with past stories, the word “everyman” has been thrown around. That’s incorrect. As mentioned up top, Howard isn’t an everyman; he’s an outsider. And more to point, in many ways he is Steve Gerber. Howard’s worldview, his anger, and his bouts of depression are Gerber’s. The series is full of things that interested and angered Gerber personally. Over the years, this has been remembered as general social satire, but it was explicitly satire from Gerber’s point of view.

It’s not that no one else can write angry, outsider work or skewer social mores that offend them personally, it’s that Howard is an alter ego of his creator, and the idea of someone other than the person to whom a character is an alter ego writing that character is uninteresting to me. I wouldn’t be able to care about someone other than John Updike writing Henry Bech, someone other than Kurt Vonnegut writing Kilgore Trout, someone other than Hunter S. Thompson writing Raoul Duke, or for that matter someone other than Woody Allen directing a film about Alvy Singer or someone other than Francois Truffaut directing a film about Antoine Doinel. And so on. I feel the same way about Steve Gerber and Howard the Duck. I’m confident that other creative teams, including probably this one, can create funny, clever Howard the Duck stories, but I read Howard the Duck for its look into Steve Gerber, and no one but Steve Gerber can provide that.

P. S. Earlier this year I sold my Essential Howard the Duck reprint and started assembling a collection of the original comics. It’s been a brand-new experience reading them in their original colors and with the letters columns and ads for the Howard for President buttons and so forth, and simply a pleasure rediscovering the work itself, which I hadn’t read for a few years. When Guardians of the Galaxy was released and word of the Howard cameo came out, I was worried this would boost the prices I was paying for the old comics, but that doesn’t seem to have happened yet. The series is available digitally, and Marvel is reissuing the Howard the Duck Omnibus, so hopefully the newly curious will be able to find out how great the original material is without making my efforts too much more expensive. (I’ve put together about half the series so far, with the Howard the Duck Treasury Edition standing in for the severely underprinted #1, and including issue #13, which costs more than the rest for the irrelevant-to-me reason that it is KISS’s first full appearance in a comic.)

Bring on the Surfer Bats!

October 31, 2012 by
The Southern California Surfer Bats #1
By Ryan Shepard & Ian Crowe

If you were a kid in the late ’80s, you loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon show. Don’t bother telling me different; it was the law back then. In fact, Federal love subsidies made the production of animal superhero teams so cost effective that Saturday morning TV was flooded with them. Perhaps you remember Street Sharks, Biker Mice From Mars, Extreme Dinosaurs, C.O.W.Boys of Moo Mesa, Dino Squad, Dinosaucers, Samurai Pizza Cats or The Mighty Ducks (not the movies; the cartoon show about humanoid ducks who come from a world where hockey is the supreme religion (it was a weird time)).

You’re reading a comics blog, so you probably know that the Ninja Turtles started out as a gritty black-and-white independent comic parodying Frank Millar’s run on Daredevil. What you may not know is that the comic book was also massively popular, so much so that it spawned a slew of imitators, like Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, Pre-Teen Dirty Gene Kung Fu Kangaroos, Cold-blooded Chameleon Commandos and dozens more I can’t actually remember off the top of my head.

Funny animal comics were actually pretty big in the ’80s; an old comic shop ad I have lists the price for a #1 issue of Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters at $13. But that was the ’80s; by the ’90s, the black-and-white bubble had popped, and the comics-buying public realized they had bought a bunch of instantly dated, not terribly funny cash-ins. As comics taste changed from the flash in the pan of fighting animals to the timeless art of Rob Liefield, the Ninja Turtles Parody genre largely dried up.

Until now!

Ryan Shepard and Ian Crowe’s Southern California Surfer Bats aims to take us back to that mutant filled time of our youth. How well does it work? Let’s listen to the SCSB Theme Song and take a look.

Well, first off, let’s talk about the elephant in the room here: This art’s not very good at all! That’s really all I have to say about that, except dude, go a little easier on the gradients.

So, with the art out of the way, allow me to summarize the story. The time is 1979, the place is Venice Beach, and our heroes Slater and Jenny are too busy making out to notice that a Nike-shaped spaceship is crashing into the beach.

The next day, we meet Emmette, an old-school nerd complete with bowl cut, sweater vest, and bow tie. He asks the somewhat Muppet-like Jenny to go to prom with him, but she gently turns him down, since she’s already going with Slater.

Emmette’s not just a nerd, though, he’s also a mad scientist! He puts a tracking device on Jenny’s car, but signals from the alien ship interfere with his tracker, and when he shows up at the crash site, he finds enough alien technology scattered over the beach to feed his mad-science habit for years to come.

Meanwhile, the aliens, having been injured in the spaceship crash, are forced to take over the bodies of some nearby bats in order to survive.

Then everybody spends the next ten years and eight pages not doing much of anything.

The End.

And that brings me to the major problem I have with this comic: There aren’t any surfing bats in it. I mean, how does that even happen in a comic called Southern California Surfer Bats? I came to see humanoid bat monsters catching gnarly waves and foiling Emmette’s totally bogus plots.

I think this is a particular disease that American comics tend to fall into a lot, both in print and on the web. Since comics are very often written with the expectation that they’re going to run for dozens of issues, creators seem to pace them out as one long story, forgetting that we readers are only going to be getting tiny chunks parceled out over long periods of time.

So you get things where web comics that only put up one page a week will have an eight-page fight sequence, forgetting that, for the audience, that’s two months with no advances in plot or characterization. Or you get Southern California Surfer Bats, which delays all the money shots until issue two.

All of the exposition and set-up in this first issue is justified, and if I were reading it as the first 23 pages of a 48-page comic, I wouldn’t even blink at it. But I’m not; I got a review copy of issue #1, and issue #2 isn’t coming for at least a couple of months.

Honestly, I can get past the art, and the occasional typo, but darn it, I want to see some Surfer Bats!

My fear for the new season of Community . . .

October 29, 2012 by

. . . is not that it won’t be as good, but rather that it will be. Which sounds weird, because I love Community and will be sad and will miss it if it returns and isn’t the same. But at the same time, if the show’s creator, Dan Harmon, can be fired for being too difficult for the studio/network to work with and for being a self-described asshole and crazy person, and a team of showrunners can be hired to replace him and the difference is minimal, then what does that say for the assholes and crazy people of the world?

The characters of Community are great because they are so messed up, and the show is great because it is so messed up, and they are messed up because they are the product of a specific mind, vision and personal experience, which are themselves probably messed up. What’s left for the world’s prickly, maladjusted people if that can be replicated by professionals who play well with others and don’t appear to be crazy?

I guess this is just another of my illusions about the world falling down (and I’m only just recovering from the realization when I started working in an editorial department that editors drinking whiskey out of their desks all day seems to only be a thing in movies from the 1940s and ’50s—imagine my disappointment). A part of me really wants to think that the entertainment I love could only come from the damaged people that make it, and I do seem to gravitate toward entertainment created by people who aren’t shy about sharing their damage. I know that this isn’t entirely true, since I’ve worked with plenty of professional, seemingly well adjusted writers and artists in my job as a comics editor. But if Community comes back and still feels like Community, that would shake my understanding of the world a little bit, just like how drunk I’m not at work every day shook it (I hasten to add that this is not the entire reason I became an editor).

No one I’ve explained this to has been sympathetic, largely because this is the complaint of a crazy person, albeit one without any particular creative talent. I should want the show I love to stay good. I want the best for the cast and everyone else who’s still with the show, since they’ve brought me so much entertainment and pleasure. Dan Harmon has other projects starting up (and his uproariously funny podcast) and doesn’t particularly need my loyalty in this respect. But I still believe that even more than it is anyone else’s, Community is his show and a product of the particular, unique way in which he is crazy—I understand that it’s perfectly likely that the new showrunners are equally crazy, but not in the same way, and apparently in a more network/studio–pleasing way—and as sad as it would be if the show was no longer as good without that particular crazy, it would just be disturbing if it was.

My God, I am placing so much more emotional energy and anxiety into the return of a TV show, whenever it comes back, than is remotely healthy. Once again, Internet, family, loved ones, people who are worried that I might be drinking at work: I’m sorry.


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