Secret Origin part 3: Time Flies

In Part 1, the author first began reading comics and described his growing fandom over the years.

In Part 2, the author described how he went about preparing for and applying for his present job in comics.

And now, part 3:

In the summer of 2008, I was splitting my time between paralegal research, teaching cartooning to high schoolers, blogging, and fighting with my girlfriend. Our February trip to New York, where I attended NYCC and had my resume rewritten by C.B. Cebulski, was the last time I remember us enjoying each other’s company.

I spent my days in my underwear, listening to wiretaps of a couple of people traveling to different pawnshops in Oregon to sell assorted merchandise, which they were now accused of having stolen and carried across state lines. I made corrections to the official FBI transcripts, read interviews, and used software called Casemap to cross reference people, places, and events to help the defense attorney create a complete portrait of the timeline of the case. It was repetitive, frequently boring, but on the whole fascinating. Once a month we met for lunch and synched our hard drives. The rest of the time it was pretty solitary.

Except for my occasional trips across town to plan for the coming school year at the Northwest Academy, my high school where I was now about to enter my second year teaching electives. The previous year I had had a blast teaching a high-school level class on cartooning, and was signed up to repeat that, as well as teach the middle-school level and to revive my old, abandoned pop culture studies class that had failed to materialize a few years earlier.

In the high-school class, I created assignments where we dissected short silent stories, created character model sheets, read and discussed Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and progressed from editorial cartoons to comic strips to three-page stories to eight-page stories. The comics fans in the class were a distinct minority, the rest of the class made up of the curious, which I enjoyed, as I watched them develop an affection for telling stories in the comics medium even as they didn’t necessarily cultivate much in the way of fandom. Unable to avoid bringing in broader cultural theory, we discussed how visual literacy was poised to become as important as verbal literacy in the coming years, and I was thrilled to see even the non-comics readers take to communicating through the medium.

(I was apparently mildly popular as a teacher and received good marks for my handling of the class, though I did have to spend some time conforming my attendance log to the master log after being less than diligent. The closest I recall to getting into any trouble was for my poor choice of listening material during a drawing period one day. We often listened to music while the students drew, but sometimes we’d put on other things, like standup comedy. We had Margaret Cho on (I know) one day when the principal came in to tell us that the school was on lockdown while a bloody fistfight went on out front. Cho was talking about being present at a friend giving birth, and the principle entered the room (which was in an adjunct building across from the main campus and mostly empty while we were there) just as Cho said the words, “Then her pussy exploded.” Had she come in just to check up on us, I’m sure I’d have been in serious trouble, but the lockdown had her preoccupied enough that she either didn’t hear or chose not to.)

In the meantime, I’d been applying for an assistant editor position at Dark Horse, and was somewhat on edge about the question of whether I would be the person hired sooner or the one hired later, since I had been told I’d be one of the two. Thing is, the economy was on the verge of collapse, and I worried the second position wouldn’t really materialize once things got bad. I was therefore very nervous when I got a call in the end of August from Dark Horse’s editorial director. I don’t actually remember the feeling itself, but I do remember him remarking on my tone of voice after he said who it was and I replied, “Yes?”

I celebrated a bit. A lot. I’d never had and have never since had enough whiskey to become sick not that night but the morning after, excusing myself from breakfast twice to throw up. I was in kind of a bad way generally at the time. After the fight a day or two later that led to the end of my relationship with my girlfriend, I spent the long weekend in a cocoon and only emerged to have my first day of work the day after Labor Day.

In the meantime, I resigned from the case, feeling a bit guilty, and helped NWA find a replacement for the comics classes. Fittingly, my replacement ended up being Shannon Wheeler, who had guest lectured an earlier version of the same class when I took it ten years earlier. For whatever reason, the high school version didn’t fill up this year, so he ended up corralling a rowdy bunch of teens, and I ended up at the Dark Horse offices September 2nd, ready to work but without bosses.

For reasons I forget, both Diana Schutz, DH’s executive editor, and Dave Marshall, her previous assistant, now promoted to associate, were out of the office my first week. I was assigned to read up on the comics I would be assisting on, go through the Chicago Manual of Style, and help out with odd jobs where I could. I think the first things I did for anyone were to transcribe a phone conversation between Zack Whedon, Evan Dorkin and Gerard Way for a MySpace Dark Horse Presents collection and retype a letter sent to the Hellboy letters column. I was also introduced to the editorial library, a room with (in theory) two copies of every DH comic and one copy of every book, and given the responsibility of restoring order to it, weeding out duplicates, and ordering replacements for missing books.

Dave got back first, and he started in training me on the basic assistant tasks. The first book I learned was Usagi Yojimbo, essentially the perfect training wheels comic. Cartoonists don’t come better than Stan Sakai, and Usagi is edited the way it always has been, which is to say not much. Stan doesn’t submit story outlines or thumbnails or any of that. He just gives us a two to three-sentence synopsis from which we can write tip copy. The first time we see an issue it is complete, and all that remains is to do minor cleanup, proofread, and get the design pages made. Still, the process from this point on is similar to other books, so it’s a low-stress way to learn the in-house steps.

Dave’s main projects at the time were getting Mass Effect off the ground and finishing a Mister X series. Mass Effect had been assigned to him partly on the basis of his affinity for the material, and it’s since become one of Dark Horse’s important franchises, but at the time it wasn’t entirely certain it would go ahead, for several reasons. Even when the first issue of that first miniseries, Redemption, came out, things seemed questionable. The sales weren’t there, and it began to look like Mass Effect would prove to be a big mistake. Then Mass Effect 2 was released to enormous sales and acclaim, and the comic became hot, selling out and doing well on eBay. I think that the first two issues of Mass Effect: Redemption are still the only comics I’ve worked on that have gone back to press for a second printing.

With Diana I first worked on Usagi, some Grendel collections, Beanworld, a reprint series of The Amazon, and two Frank Miller projects. One, The Spirit Storyboards, was solicited but never released when the failure of the film killed interest. It’s too bad, since the book’s designer did wonderful work, and the Miller art in the book includes some wonderful images, a reminder that the man is always experimenting, always having fun, even in a medium that at the time he likely wasn’t intending to be reprinted publicly. I hold out hope that the best material from that book will somdeay be repurposed elsewhere.

The other was The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-first Century, my introduction to the kind of intensive, prestige projects that make up a lot of Diana’s portfolio these days. 600 pages and the size of DC’s Absolute editions, reproduced from a few different generations of materials (film, old format digital files, modern files), and featuring coloring tweaks from the original colorist, it was a huge project, and one that I spent a lot of hours in the digital art department going over. It was also among my first experiences coordinating with big-name comics talent, phoning artist Dave Gibbons in his studio about the new cover art and getting the signing plates to him. It also turned out to be great training on working on large projects with lots of moving parts.

I worked solely for Diana and Dave until late 2009, when I took on a few projects under Scott Allie and Sierra Hahn. I worked on Buffy for a few months, during the Brad Meltzer–written “Twilight” arc, in which the secret identity of the season’s big bad was revealed. On that book and Serenity I proved to be one editor too many, as they each had an editor, associate editor, and two assistant editors, so I didn’t stick around long. Still, it was deemed useful for my training to be exposed to different types of projects and a different editorial style, so I was found projects with each of them to do for a while. With Scott I worked on The Guild, and developed a fondness for the web series and the writing of its creator Felicia Day, and with Sierra I got to help reinvent the Terminator in Zack Whedon’s and Andy MacDonald’s 2029 & 1984 miniseries, which remain my favorite licensed series I’ve been involved with. The other major project I helped Sierra with was Green River Killer, an original graphic novel about the detective who worked on the Green River Killer case longer than anyone, written by his son Jeff Jenson and illustrated by Jonathan Case, and it is another of my favorites.

I also worked during this time with Scott and assistant Freddye Lins on MySpace Dark Horse Presents, where I edited my first short stories, Damon Gentry and Aaron Conley’s “The Horror Robber” and Andi Watson’s “Hen and the Door-to-Door Ogre,” and coedited Art Baltazar’s “Grimiss Island” with fellow assistant (now associate) editor Patrick Thorpe. Damon and Aaron had submitted some work to DH and as I was at the time the submissions editor (a right of passage for most assistants, replacing the editorial library and passed on to me by Patrick, the newest assistant until I was hired), I was the one who read it. During my time as submissions editor I hired people I found there twice, the other being Jake Murray, the cover artist of the Kult miniseries, which I started out as assistant on and became coeditor of. Andi Watson, of course, I had been a fan of for years, and have since had the pleasure of working with on new the new Skeleton Key one-shot. Patrick invited me to coedit the Art Baltazar story because of my Tiny Titans fandom.

Because I was probably one of the only people in the editorial department buying and reading Archie, I was also teamed with editor Shawna Gore on the Archie Archives series. This was the peak of my overextension as an assistant. I’m as busy now as I was then, but split fewer ways, which makes a big difference. Over time, Scott eased me off of his projects until The Guild was the last one left, and I finished that with this year’s Free Comic Book Day issue and the Fawkes one-shot, and as limited projects with Sierra ended, they weren’t replaced.

My first projects as editor came as they often do at Dark Horse, handed down from other editors or reassigned after editor departed. My first reprint series was Little Lulu, which moved naturally from Dave to me as he got more original projects, largely videogame tie-ins after his success with Mass Effect. Tarzan: The Jesse Marsh Years and Archie Archives were passed down to me from departing editors. Finally, MIND MGMT went to me to help ease Diana’s schedule, which at the time was dominated with the huge Manara Library reprint program and a few others.

Around this time I began getting the opportunity to originate projects. The first graphic novel I brought in is actually still in progress, so I can’t go into detail, but it was greenlit last summer and is moving along steadily. As my first project, it took a ridiculously long time to get it ready to present to the decision makers, a year all told from when it was first pitched to me to when it was approved. Part of that was my learning the process, part was getting the pitch into the right shape, and part was the fact that I simply couldn’t devote very much time to it because as an assistant my work on other editors’ books had to come first.

It doesn’t take me as long to navigate stuff anymore, and I felt bad for the creators who were having to wait for me, but in the end we did get approved. Since then a few projects I’ve championed have been rejected, a few others have found a home in Dark Horse Presents, and some others are in their early stages. Nearly all of the lengthy Tarzan planning I wrote about earlier in the month is over, and my time is split currently between helping Diana, training assistant Shantel to take over a lot of my work on Dave’s books, and managing Bucko, MIND MGMT, Archie, Tarzan, and the unannounced stuff. I’m finally starting to feel like a real editor.

All this time I’ve fought to get my life back from the personal low point that coincided with starting at Dark Horse. For about the first year I poured all of my time and emotional energy into the job and ignored the rest of my life. Not particularly healthy, particularly because while one can feel proud of what one does for work, it’s just not a way to get real emotional sustenance. I hopefully have a more normal work-life balance now, thought this monthlong blog project, which takes up way more of my time than it should, suggests otherwise. I definitely stunted myself a bit, and getting back into the dating world and developing new hobbies hasn’t come terribly easy.

I’ve become a better person than I was those years ago, not because I necessarily wanted or tried to, but because I pretty much had to to get through everything. Probably the job has been a part of it, as it’s much more social than my last one and requires a lot more getting along and motivating people. Things do seem to be coming together professionally in a way they hadn’t for a while, so hopefully the future bears that out.

 

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