Between the Comic Book Pages

What Goes on Behind the Scenes at a Comic Book Company

By Michael George O'Connor, Assistant Editor for Marvel Comics

When you pick up an issue of your favorite comic book and feel that rush of excitement, and wonder what will transpire within its pages, do you ever think about the reality behind the fiction? About how that comic was created and all the people's hands it passed through before it ended up in yours? Obviously, all the glamour goes to the writers and the artists, but a comic book doesn't become a comic book without the proofreader, legal workers, production artists, letterers, colorists, deadline managers, editors, and many other diligent, hardworking people. For those who have wondered what the credits pages in a comic book means and what these people listed actually do, I've written this article to shine some light on at least part of what goes on behind the scenes. It's my hope that while enjoying these stories (or tearing them a new one online), you will also consider and appreciate all the hard work and trouble that went into them.

So, who am I? And what connection do I have to the industry?

I am a former contributor to the Superman Homepage. Last April, I had to say goodbye, and it was very difficult for me. I had spent nearly nine years here and reviewed more than 150 comics; additionally, I was (and still am) a huge Superman fan, and I had especially enjoyed speaking with other fans from all over the world. I knew I would miss that community and the fun that came with having my views expressed on the Internet and discussing them with fellow enthusiasts. However, amidst the coming gauntlet of college finals, a thesis, and simultaneous job and apartment searches, I knew continued participation would be difficult, if not impossible, and that the work would only suffer for it.

Back then, I was a fellow fan, venting my enthusiasm and frustrations on the continuing adventures of a comic book character that I had loved since childhood. As a Superman Homepage writer, I was granted an honor, in that my opinions became a representative viewpoint for all fans on matters pertaining to the Man of Steel. Nevertheless, I was little more qualified to these opinions than anyone else on the Web with a couple of bucks to buy a comic, a decent understanding of the English language, some writing skills, and the time and dedication to spend on this activity several times a month. Now, however, I'm in the rather unique and ironic position of being one of the few caretakers of such characters and actually shepherding them into the future, while worrying that some guy like the Old Me will disagree with my decisions or those of the other editors.

To clarify, I'm an assistant editor at Marvel Comics, the arch-nemesis and bitter rival of Superman's home, DC Comics. Does this make me a traitor? I hope not. I still love Superman and, like the rest of you, eagerly await his upcoming adventures, whether it's in a comic book store, on the television, or at the movie theater. I will say, however, that I think there are many great characters at Marvel Comics and that those who choose one company over the other are inevitably missing out on some cool stories and a lot of inspired creativity. Also remember that many great ex-Superman talents have spread their innovative work back and forth between the Big Two of the industry. For instance, I've worked with Super-artists like Dan Jurgens and Mike Wieringo on titles, "Hyperion" and "Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man" respectively, and have spoken with Super-writers Jeph Loeb and Mark Millar, who have some exciting things planned for Marvel's future.

I know that many of you out there would love to talk with some of these individuals or other creators, and I can honestly say that while interacting one-on-one has been exciting and often left me star-struck, what was most shocking was just how down-to-earth many of these creators are and how unaware they are of their immense legacy. I think especially of guys like Klaus Janson and Tom Palmer, both of whom have been in the industry for awhile and have contributed to some of the greatest comics to ever hit the stands. Both of these gentlemen live in the New York area and often visit the offices. I am consistently awed at their humility, strong work ethic, and the sacrifices they make for their editors and their co-creators in the interest of providing the best work possible. I wouldn't say that there aren't any divas in the comic book industry, because there certainly are, but those cases are rare and most of the men and women involved are just so grateful and enthusiastic to be a part of something that produces so much enjoyment, that they don't see any point in aloofness or arrogance.

So, how did I get so lucky as to work at Marvel Comics with such terrific creators? Well, luck had something to do with it, but so did a lot of determination. I decided to leave my home state of North Carolina to attend college at New York University, and it was there that I learned of the internship opportunities at both Marvel and DC. Submitting applications to both, I waited and waited and waited, and in the summer of sophomore year, I got very worried. I hadn't heard back from anyone for three months and was just about to return to another dull, humid summer in North Carolina, assisting at an accounting firm or working deliveries for a beer wholesaler, when I heard back from Marvel Comics and was asked to come in for an interview.

You can imagine that first sense of awe I had, walking into a company where the walls were plastered with images of Wolverine, a life-size statue of Spider-Man was leaping out at me, and on every desk, sculptures and action figures of every variety were poised for a fight. I swallowed hard and explained during my interview that I had experience in proofreading, writing, and was holding up a 3.9 GPA. And when it came time to explain which comics I loved, I mentioned all the Marvel ones and left out all the DC stuff (hey, better safe than sorry!). As I left, I was confident that I had passed with flying colors and that I would be accepted into the Marvel Knights office, the home of characters such as Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Punisher, and (back then) the Incredible Hulk.

The internship experience lived up to most of my expectations and exceeded them in some respects. It was a tremendous opportunity, and I emerged from it with some great contacts at Marvel and a realization that my instincts for narrative and character (some of which were cultivated over the many years spent reviewing at this site) jived with the editors' own predilections. After a second successful internship at Marvel, I began to consider a job there.

I won't bore you with all the details, except to say that it was never a sure-thing and that I felt (and still feel) very fortunate to be an assistant editor at Marvel, having a say on where these classic characters go next, what they do, how they sound, and what villain they should meet up with again. For a comics junkie like myself, who has been stuck on this medium since I was old enough to read, it doesn't get much better than talking comic books all day long at work.

Of course, I don't want to give anyone the impression that working at a comic company is a party, because that couldn't be further from the truth. It's a very demanding, fast-paced, detail-oriented profession, and it really does require someone who is good at juggling a thousand different things at once without going insane. Working as an editor is essentially like being on a football field and keeping the ball moving in the right direction. It's fun, but it's a lot of hard work, especially when some of the people you pass the ball to keep dropping it or losing it or aren't moving fast enough. The ball has to get passed through a lot of hands very quickly, and while that's being done, you're also worrying about 10 other balls that are also in-play on other fields. As soon as you've got one ball moving somewhere, it's time to move to the next one and make sure it isn't just sitting on the field. Once you can visualize yourself chasing down so many balls and keeping them going in the right direction, you'll begin to understand what it's like to work at a comic book company, and you may even gain the slightest bit of empathy every time you notice a tiny mistake that has managed to evade us.

In the interest of further challenging your preconceived notions of the comic book business, I'd also like to point out that despite all appearances, it is a business. I read and hear (and had occasionally written myself) a frustration with the lack of edgier and less mainstream material. For instance, if I were to use a Superman example (which seems appropriate), the mini-series "Superman: Secret Identity" was, in my opinion at least, one of the best Superman books to emerge in the past decade, but the sales figures were disappointing to say the least (according to artist Stuart Immonen, no issue made enough in royalties to even cover the advances paid out to the creators on the book). When this kind of thing happens, it makes the companies justifiably nervous about producing other similar material and convinces them that the market isn't interested in it. Now, many fans get upset by this and justifiably so, but their rancor is often directed at the companies rather than their fellow fans who didn't buy the book or the retailers who didn't order it. DC and Marvel have to generate projects for their audience - essentially, they have to cater to what the fans will buy, and if the fans won't buy more nuanced, introspective, mature work like "Secret Identity," it becomes less likely that the company will want to bankroll that kind of book in the future. While editors work hard to put out the best stories they can, there is always a pressure to make things more marketable and buzz-worthy. If the fans want more great projects like "Secret Identity," they have to start voting with their dollars and not just their voices.

Speaking of fans' voices, another thing I've often noticed is that the angrier fans get about something controversial happening in the comic world, the better those issues will sell. Controversy has always been good for business, and this is why editors look for stories that will shock fans, maybe even outrage them. Editors know that as much as fans may complain, most of them won't be able to stifle their curiosity at what big changes mean for their favorite character, and they'll pick up the issues they are expecting to hate. The more fans talk about what they don't like, the more that concept gets spread around for others to hear about and either gets them interested and excited or angry but still curious. If anyone's wondering why Superman was killed or turned blue and given electricity powers, there's your answer. These kind of things aren't always designed to be "marketing stunts," but like I said previously, there is a real pressure to make a book buzz-worthy and that usually means looking for ways to upset the status quo with a big change to a character or characters.

At this stage in the article, I'd like to answer a few common questions that I'm usually asked about the industry.

1) How does one break into the comic book business?

There are several ways, but I think the best is through interning. Though the work can sometimes be mundane, the exposure to editors is priceless. Plus, if you sacrifice your semester working for an editor, they'll remember you and might show their appreciation by reading your pitch for a miniseries or taking a look at your art samples and providing you with some advice. Or, if you're hoping to be an editor, being able to show off your skills in story analysis, proofreading, and work ethic gives you a step ahead of other potential candidates in applying for a job there. If you're not in school, or not located in New York, the best option is to show up at a comic book convention with your art portfolio or story pitches. Before you go, research which editors do which books, and you might get a clue for their tastes. Obviously, you don't want to give a silly, off-the-wall, sci-fi fantasy story to an editor that only ever works on hardboiled pulp books. Also, talking with an editor in a respectful, confident, and polite tone will go a long way in getting the editor to take your pitch seriously.

2) What exactly does an assistant editor do?

An assistant editor is not just an assistant to the editor; rather, the assistant editor is involved with a book at every level, while a full-time editor usually focuses on the script and the penciled pages. The editor has the final say on all decisions to be made for a book, but depending on the project, the assistant editor may take a larger role in directing the book with the writer and artist and hold greater creative control over it. In any case, the assistant editor is always responsible for keeping track of what work has come in and where it must go next. If a script comes in, the goal is to get it ready for the penciler; when pencil pages come in, they need to get to the inker; from there, finished pages have to be distributed to the letterer and colorist, who will work on them simultaneously, and once these have come back, they are composited in-house. Once the letters and colors come together, the book is almost finished, but it has to be signed off by all the appropriate departments and undergoes a final close scrutiny for any proofreading gaffes or color mistakes. It's the assistant editor's job to shepherd the book through all the different stages - to keep that ball moving downfield and make sure no one drops it. The main editor usually conceives the project, decides on how much control of it he will hold onto and how much he will cede to the assistant editor, and then keeps an eye on the progress from afar, relying on his assistant editor to keep things moving smoothly.

3) What's a normal day like for an assistant editor?

Well, there is no "normal day" per se. Some days are insanely busy. Those are the days when I am rushing back and forth to get things in and distributed to all the right people in time for the book to go to presses. Other days are more relaxed and allow me to read scripts, speak with the creators about ideas, and check with various people to determine their progress. What's fun about the job is the variety; one minute I could be ballooning an issue (which involves taking photocopies of the art and figuring out where to place the dialogue balloons and captions) and the next, I could be going over dialogue changes with a writer, or researching the last time a character appeared and what happened to him, or editing a script, or proofreading a lettered copy, or checking color proofs to make sure that Wolverine's shirt color, for instance, doesn't change in the middle of a fight. Working at a comic book company is definitely not sitting in the same place all day, pushing a button when it lights up. That's what keeps the job fresh and fast-moving.

4) What are the perks of working at a comic book company?

One of the best perks is having the opportunity to express yourself creatively and to talk with others about ideas and concepts and how to implement them in stories. Another great benefit is being present when astounding works of art arrive. I love holding a beautiful page of artwork in my hands while discussing with the artist what was going through his mind in his portrayals of a character or a sequence. There is truly a lot of excitement at a comic book company and it becomes infectious. A particularly cool concept or image will totally erase a day's worth of stress and fatigue.

Oh, and we get free comic books, too. That's pretty cool!

5) What's the hardest part of the job?

For me, the hardest part is having to turn down submissions or explain to people that we can't use their work. As a writer, I know how frustrating it is to spend so much time on a creative pursuit and to feel like no one appreciates it. However, the sheer number of pitches, art samples, and other requests are enough to bury us, and we're so busy trying to keep other things moving, that we often won't have time to give these works the attention that they deserve.

6) What books do you work on?

I work most closely on "Amazing Spider-Man," "Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man," "Wolverine," "Book of Lost Souls," "Underworld," and "Fury: Peacemaker," but I also help out on "Marvel Knights Fantastic Four," "Ares," "X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl," "Supreme Power: Hyperion," and "X-Men Unlimited."

And, for anyone who's interested, I've just written the 48-page special, "Squadron Supreme Saga," which will be available at comic shops this Wednesday. It recounts the series "Supreme Power" in prose narration to give first-time readers a full summary of everything that has happened in that series and its spin-offs, "Hyperion" and "Nighthawk," in preparation for the upcoming, new series, "Squadron Supreme." For anyone that hasn't followed the "Supreme Power" series and is interested in "Squadron Supreme," this book has everything you need to know, and I think it will be a book of considerable interest to fans of this website in particular, based on its principle character, Hyperion, whose attributes may ring familiar.

So, I guess that's about it! I hope you enjoyed this article and found some interesting new tidbits about the comic industry that you didn't know about (or didn't think about) before. If you have any further questions, feel free to shoot me an e-mail and I'll try my best to respond. Also, if you liked this article and/or the reviews I've written for this page over the past 9 years, please pick up a copy of "Squadron Supreme Saga" on Wednesday, February 1st (coincidentally, my birthday!). I am indebted to the Superman Homepage for the practice it gave me writing synopses and summaries, and that talent has certainly served me well in my position as an assistant editor and as a newly-christened comic book writer.