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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Secret Origin part 2: Plan B

2007 and 2008 were the years comics took over my life. Before then, I had evolved from reluctant comic store visitor to hardcore fan (covered in Secret Origin part 1), but in those two years I interned at Top Shelf, took a series of comics theory and comics making classes, taught my own class, began working with the Stumptown Comics Fest planning committee, launched this blog, and ultimately landed my current position at Dark Horse.

There was a time in my life when people would ask me if I wanted to work in comics and I didn’t hesitate to say no. Not because I didn’t love comics, but because I was coming down off of another passion and didn’t want to screw this up too. For so long I’d intentionally left a job in comics out of my plans for the future, precisely because I loved comics, and I was convinced that it was a mistake to turn a hobby into a career, fearful of the damage letting the twain meet would do to both. But plan A, film, for which I had gone to school, was fizzling both due to my mistake of pursuing it in Portland and my growing distaste for the business, which if I am honest took hold even before I finished my degree.

In retrospect I think moving back home with a vague notion that film in Portland would take off in the next few years was deliberate self-sabotage. Sure, I sort of worked in the Portland film business for a little under a year, gripping on corporate films and car commercials, and flirted with storyboarding and teleprompting. During the year I was listed in the local directory as a storyboard artist I was contacted only once and never got a second call after submitting samples. Teleprompting never took off at all. With that dead end reached, I realized I hadn’t made a plan B, a fine strategy if you’re backing yourself into a corner in order to make failure not an option, but no good if you realize you no longer want to succeed.

For a while I got into what proved to be my most lucrative career option, paralegal research, which earned me considerably more money at the age of 23 than I had ever made before and a good deal more than I make four years into my comics career. It was fascinating work, and I threw myself into it. Immersing myself is the only way I know how to work. My first case involved a massive offshore bank fraud case that was essentially a Ponzi scheme. In addition to logging long hours in front of the computer I was lent for the job, I enrolled in an investigation class (though I didn’t stick with it long) and even read a biography of Charles Ponzi.

Eventually the case ended. I got another similar one later, but by then I’d started thinking about a job in comics, as it seemed to offer a lot of the creativity of film without the same stakes and type-A personalities that come with the money involved. (In some ways that was wishful thinking, but the type of money and status-obsessed person I’ve met a few times in comics is far less common and generally less capable of destruction than the similar types I avoided working with in film.)

At first it was just a vague notion. I wrote first to Jamie S. Rich, whom I’d met when I was 16 and my high school set me up with a job shadow at Oni Press, where he was then editor in chief. I’d kept in occasional touch with Jamie since then, and he recommended a few local publishers I might contact. I wrote letters to Oni, Top Shelf, and Cellar Door. After a month or so I received an e-mail from Brett Warnock, Top Shelf’s copublisher, who was impressed that I’d actually mailed something rather than just send an e-mail. We arranged a time to meet for coffee, and at the meeting he offered me a marketing internship.

The position involved basic packing and shipping, researching likely venues to publicize projects like Jeffrey Brown’s Incredible Change-Bots and Renée French’s Micrographica and getting in contact with them, the barest pretense of helping lay out books, and working the Top Shelf booth at Stumptown. Truth be told, I wasn’t very good at it, but it got my foot in the door, and Brett generously allowed me to list him as a reference when I looked for work going forward.

The same day I started at Top Shelf I also began Art 217: Understanding Comics Art at Portland Community College. Taught by Dark Horse editor Diana Schutz, whose name I knew from Sin City and Usagi Yojimbo, the class is a largely introductory course, but I had little experience hearing the concepts involved anywhere but in print and was happy to get to take it in in a classroom context. There were definitely ideas that were new to me as well. I think Diana explicitly said in the first session that we shouldn’t be there looking for jobs, but it really was an opportunity too good to pass up.

One of the final sessions included a tour of Dark Horse, the second time I’d been there after a visit to hand-deliver an application for a marketing position, but the first that I’d seen anything beyond reception. As one of our final assignments, we created 8-page minicomics. Mine was an autobio story about the perils of visiting a church for clueless types like me who didn’t know what goes on there. It went over well, and I just recently learned it was the first thing connected to me that Dark Horse’s editorial director ever saw.

After the term ended, Diana and I got lunch, and I asked her advice on what I should be doing next, as I’d settled on a job in editorial as my goal. This went back to one of the films I made while at USC. Shot in Portland but planned while I was in LA, the film required me to coordinate shooting times and casting from a distance, delegating to people I’d barely met and overseeing preparations for the shoot date in a different city over the phone. I found it more exciting and more gratifying than actually writing and directing the film or any of the others I made during that time. (Though, as a fan of winging it, I did get a kick out of a film where I wrote the key scene in the stands during halftime of a Trojan football game and then rushed back to the soundstage to shoot it when the game finished. My favorite filming technique has always been to meticulously storyboard a scene and then, upon arriving on set, chuck the storyboard.) If I’d stayed in film, my skills better fit producing than writing or directing, and in comics they best fit editing.

Diana gave me several ideas, the best of which was starting this blog, which in its earliest days served as a writing sample generator. When I first met DH editor Scott Allie at the Portland Comic Book Show, I was able to give him not just a resume but a folder containing some of my stronger reviews and interviews. As more interviews accumulated on the site, I continued sending them to him. I count my interview with Brian Michael Bendis, conducted at Stumptown 2008, as one of a series of turning points in getting me the attention that made me a strong job candidate, especially once it was reprinted in the back of Powers vol. 2 #29 and I was able to hand people the comic instead of a printout.

All this time I was familiarizing myself with the Portland comics scene through the interviews I was doing for the site and through the Stumptown planning committee, in which I would eventually develop a role (see yesterday’s Stumptown post), and just becoming a face that people recognized at events. I took another class from Diana, this time at Portland State University, where she taught the more rigorous Art History 399: Contemporary Comics Theory. I also attended Jesse Reklaw’s PCC course Cartooning: Tricks of the Trade to keep my hand in drawing and work on storytelling, which editors should obviously try to know as well as the talent, even if we may lack the actual creative writing and drawing ability.

Around this time I ended up teaching my own class at the high school level. My old high school, the Northwest Academy of Art, prides itself on staffing its art classes with professionals working in each field (which I kind of was, a little) and doesn’t require teaching degrees for its electives teachers, so I was able to make a little extra money and solidify some of my thoughts on comics. A few years earlier I pitched a class on pop culture, which combined semiotics, a look at the way movies, television, etc., reflect and reinforce cultural norms, and an excuse to talk about silly crap. I distinctly remember one student making a beeline for my table at open registration and telling me my class was their first choice, but due to a scheduling snafu, my class was at the same time as a few required classes, leaving fewer available students than were needed for the class to run (it’s a small school).

This time I’d been asked if I’d be available to teach animation, as another teacher had had to change plans. I admitted that I lacked the expertise in animation but would be happy to teach comics if the opportunity ever arose. Soon, it did, and I found myself teaching a mix of basic drawing lessons, storytelling, and comics history. It was a very small group, but an appreciative one, as the school’s focus was more on college prep and less on art than when I attended, and it was a pleasure to see the students pick up drawing and storytelling principles. When one told me a quarter of the way through the year that they already saw their drawing improve, it was among the more gratifying professional experiences I’ve had to date.

One day after class at PSU, Diana mentioned that an assistant editor position would be opening up at Dark Horse. I guess this is how editorial jobs largely come about here, as they’ve hired assistant editors on a few occasions since I’ve been at the company, but none of those positions were ever listed on the jobs portion of DH’s website that I know of. I don’t recall writing a cover letter, but I did have a newly updated resume to show.

Earlier in the year I had attended the New York Comic Con and visited the table of Marvel’s C.B. Cebulski, who was doing portfolio reviews. I wasn’t trying to be an artist, but I went to C.B.’s table anyway and handed him my resume, asking him to give his opinion on it and notes on how it could be better. He struck some information, suggested how other parts could be more prominent, and generally gave guidance on how to make it impressive in as specifically a comics was as possible. As this is the resume that I used for my Dark Horse application, I put a healthy portion of the credit for my hiring on this incident.

I interviewed mainly with Scott and with DH’s editorial director, as well as a brief visit with VP of Publishing Randy Stradley. My understanding is that it was between me and one other applicant, and at one point I was told that we would both be hired, one sooner and one later, with me as the likely candidate for the later position. Sensing the prevailing economic winds (this was August of 2008), I agitated to be the first person hired, which paid off when I was called and told I had the job and the other candidate was never actually hired (shed no tears for them, though—they eventually got a job in a different department at DH and now have a cushier position in animation).

My initial assignment was to assist Diana and her previous assistant, then recently promoted to associate editor, Dave Marshall. By weird coincidence, both were out of the office my first week, and I spent the time reading up on the series I’d be working on and doing small odd jobs for other editors. My first day was September 2, 2008, the day after Labor Day, which in Oregon is when school starts, so it took about a month before the whole thing stopped feeling like an extended school field trip.

Secret Origin part 1: They Make Me Think of You

This series of three “Secret Origin” essays were originally written as part of the monthlong feature “A Life in Comics” on my blog WrightOpinion.com. During that month I wrote essays nearly every day, breaking my then-rule of not writing much about myself or the the job I had at Dark Horse. It was an exercise in self-promotion, which has never come naturally to me, and along the way I took several trips down memory lane to tell, among other things, the story of how I got into comics and broke into comics. All three Secret Origin entries are represented on this site, and the rest of the Life in Comics series still live on the blog.

I came to comic books slightly later than many do, and I came to them backwards, by way of a younger sibling rather than an older one. Before that, my interest was exclusively in newspaper comic strips, and as late as high school I likely expressed a preference for strips, my ambition at the time to be a newspaper comics artist. I grew up surrounded by Calvin and Hobbes books, and that strip in particular was among the most important things to me in the world.

I distinctly remember my sixth grade classroom getting a daily copy of The Oregonian, which we students completely ignored, except for the comics. My best friend and I would both race into the room in the morning to be the first to get it. Probably most of the time one of us walked in to see the other already reading, but my mind latches onto the times that it came down to seconds, both of us risking censure by running, and who prevailed could be decided by where exactly the paper had been placed.

The Oregonian ran two pages of comics, but at that age and after that level of competition, sharing was unthinkable for either of us. When I lost, the wait before my turn was excruciating, more to do with the loss than the comics themselves, which even then I knew mostly didn’t deserve the love I heaped on them. My very first website, made around this time, when I was learning HTML, contained my first piece of criticism, a condemnation of Jim David and Garfield. It would later house some of my first tries at comics, and for that I am glad no trace of it remains.

By now I had started reading comic books as well, but only just. My first comics purchase had been the previous year, when I was 11 and my brother Dylan was 9. We both attended the same school, after which we would be picked up by Nick, the au pair who lived with us, and taken to Sandy Grand Slam, our long-gone first local comic shop. I was merely dragged along at first, staring into space while Dylan bought X-Men and Spawn, until one week out of boredom I selected one Batman comic and one Superman one, neither one anything special, yet somehow capturing my imagination.

 
Despite not being that great, these two comics are probably the reason I’m not a lawyer.

Continue reading “Secret Origin part 1: They Make Me Think of You”