Not Enough and Never Enough: An Interview with Daniel Chabon
By Colin BeinekeJune 23, 2018
Since its founding by president and publisher Mike Richardson in 1986 — a watershed year for American comics — Dark Horse has established itself as one of the major comics houses in North America, consistently maintaining a high profile in terms of both artistic prestige and sales. Dark Horse has also employed some of the most influential editors of the contemporary period, including Diana Schutz and Karen Berger. And although he is still relatively early in his comics career, Chabon is already well positioned to garner a slot alongside these well-respected figures. He is behind some of Dark Horse’s most acclaimed recent comics, including Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston’s Eisner Award–winning rural superhero tale Black Hammer, the smash horror hit Harrow County by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook, Matt and Sharlene Kindt’s Dept. H, P. Craig Russell and Scott Hampton’s comics adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s legendary novel American Gods, and novelist Margaret Atwood’s Angel Catbird, the Booker Prize winner’s first foray (with artist Johnnie Christmas) into the comics form.
COLIN BEINEKE: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became involved in comics publication?
DANIEL CHABON: My family has always been involved, in some way, with comics. My paternal grandfather worked at a print shop in New York where they printed comic books in the 1940s. My father is an avid collector of comics, cards, stamps, and more. We lived in Washington, DC, when I was a kid and we would go to comic shops and conventions almost every weekend. My mother was instrumental in the creation of a comics studies certificate program at Portland State University. My older brother, Michael, wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about the Golden Age of the comics industry. I had been a big fan of comics, put them aside when I was in high school, and then returned to them after college.
In 2008, I moved from Kansas City, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon, to attend graduate school at Portland State University, where I received a master’s degree in writing and book publishing. While at Portland State, I spoke with Dark Horse about how to obtain employment in their editorial department. Michael’s Escapist comics were published by Dark Horse, and he put me in touch with editor Diana Schutz. Diana interviewed me initially, and then put me in touch with Scott Allie, who had edited all of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy titles. My second interview was at the H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, where I was asked to assist on all the Mignola books. From there, I moved on to editing my own.
While working full-time at Dark Horse, I was also attending law school at night. I graduated from Lewis & Clark Law and, since then, have focused solely on editing comics. My interests are primarily in creator-owned comics, and I hope to utilize my law degree by helping creators understand their contractual rights and advocating for creator-owned work.
What drew you to editing, rather than, say, writing? How aware were you of what comics editing entailed?
I began to write in high school and in college. I wrote short stories, plays, and screenplays. I wrote a play as an undergrad that was actually performed by my school’s theater program. Post-undergraduate school, I lost interest in writing or, at least, in my own writing, and became more interested in the concept of helping other writers and artists to realize their visions. I had very little understanding of what a comics editor did, and I am sure that it varies from company to company. It took some time to learn the skills, but I think it helped that I am a voracious reader.
Regarding your background in law and championing of creator-owned comics, what are some of the more immediate legal (or perhaps ethical) challenges that creators are currently facing? And how do you see your background in law as a means of addressing those challenges?
My background in law provides me with an understanding of how I can help creators and publishers find the most beneficial deal possible for both parties while still allowing creators to retain ownership. My role as an editor at Dark Horse positions me as an intermediary between the creator seeking to pitch the project and the publisher who wants to publish it. The creator comes to me with their original idea, and if I like it I present it to our publisher. If the project is approved, I negotiate a final contract with the creator wherein they retain copyright and media rights, while we hold the print and digital rights. I work between creators and Dark Horse as an advocate for both — an advocate for the creator and their vision as well as an advocate for the publisher and their line. It is in my best interest that both parties are represented fairly.
Can you describe what exactly it is that a comics editor does, and how it compares to editing prose literature or even film?
A comic book editor has multiple roles. They handle acquisitions and work as project managers. With most of the titles I edit, I contact the creators — I am hardly ever assigned a project to edit. Once a project that’s interesting comes my way I pitch it to our publisher, and if all goes well it is approved. After that I work with the creators (writer/artist/colorist/letterer/cover artists) to set up a creative schedule that works for everyone. I work on each stage in the creation of the book: the submission of a plot summary, the establishment of an issue breakdown for the story, scripting, the creation of rough layouts, penciling, inking, coloring, and lettering. I review covers, too. I work on all of these stages for several titles at once, so it is a lot of work and a lot to keep track of.
The story feedback that I give at each stage of the process is never mandatory, as I believe a lot of editorial notes are subjective. My own notes are based on my education in literature and publishing and my avid reading in prose and comics, and so a lot of my suggestions come from seeing what other successful creators have done to make and market their books.
For example, one big note I always tend to give creators is to ask whether the first issue script they turn in gives enough of a story in 22 pages that it will bring the reader back a month later, when the second issue must compete with a bunch of new number ones. Getting the comics reader to want to come back and get that second issue can be challenging, so you really want to make sure you’re giving them a lot in that first issue to hook them.
When you reach out to a creator, how do those calls usually go?
It is actually quite informal and relaxed. Most of it is done through email. If I am reaching out to an artist to do a cover or interiors on a book, I will introduce myself and let them know what I work on, what the project entails, who the writer is, and the proposed page rate. Then I send any attachments, such as the pitch document, that I might have already.
Do you select and assemble the entire creative team for a given comic, or is it more of a collaborative process?
It depends on the project. Some books get pitched to me with full creative teams already in place, and some teams I need to assemble. Every project is different, but I try to make it as collaborative as possible. American Gods the comic started out with no creative team attached. I put P. Craig Russell on the book because of his previous outstanding work with Neil, and because working with Craig is always a pleasure. I met Neil for the first time a few years ago at my nephew’s bar mitzvah and I asked him about his thoughts for an interior artist, which led to hiring Scott Hampton for the book.
Would you say that some editors are more skilled in certain aspects of the process? For example, it seems that having an eye for talent with respect to acquisitions and providing feedback on narrative arcs require different sorts of skills.
Sure! Certainly everyone has their own special skills, and many have more than one. Acquisitions is a part of the gig that I enjoy, but it’s tricky to navigate as you’re competing with so many different comic titles being released each month. You really have to strongly consider a book’s ability to perform well and survive in the market. I see many great books get canceled each month just because everyone’s cannibalizing each other by trying to produce more books than the market can handle.
Can you map out the editorial structure at Dark Horse?
I believe we currently have 20 editors. That includes a mix of editorial interns, assistant editors, associate editors, editors, and senior editors. This is a fairly large department compared to other comic publishers. When I started, I was an intern and worked my way up.
What sorts of backgrounds do Dark Horse editors come from?
Many different backgrounds. Some folks have college degrees in English, film, and other fields. Some have master’s degrees, some have no college education. Our editor-in-chief has a degree from an Ivy League school. Dark Horse editorial comes from varied backgrounds, which gives us different insights into the books and the process of producing them. But they are very well read, which, as mentioned earlier, I consider important to the success of a good editor.
Would you say that Dark Horse’s large editorial staff is a result of the diverse type of work Dark Horse publishes, or does it perhaps reflect the amount of work put into each project?
I think it’s both. There are a great variety of books that require someone who can handle a high workload. I feel like each editor has the opportunity to focus on the kind of comics that they enjoy on a personal level. I edit primarily creator-owned titles, Carl Horn edits our manga line, Ian Tucker and Patrick Thorpe edit the lion’s share of our art books. Everyone is doing their own thing and what they enjoy working on, and that’s what makes this a great place to work.
I would argue that one of the most fascinating things about Dark Horse’s “house style” is how difficult it is to pin down. Popularly, the house is known as a leader in horror comics, manga translations, and licensed/franchise works. But Dark Horse also produces archival and historical reprints and original, creator-owned titles. What is it, to your mind, that makes Dark Horse distinct within the larger field? And what is it that unites these diverse projects?
We also publish coloring books, prose books, art books, and books for younger readers, and we have a large product development line where we create figures, models, and more. The big positive of this approach, of course, is that it never feels like you’re limited to one kind of story, character, book, property, or creator. Having all of these different things under this publishing umbrella meets the vision of our publisher, Mike Richardson: a publishing house that works tirelessly to bring in the best books, creators, stories, and licenses out there. I suppose a lot of publishers think of themselves as publishing the best books. But I feel like when I talk to fans at conventions and see them talking about Dark Horse books, they really project an enthusiasm for the types of stories we are putting out there, which is very encouraging.
We have spoken previously about the idea that the body of comics overseen by each editor (or editorial team) might be conceived of as constituting an “unofficial imprint” of Dark Horse, yet not quite (I would say) along the same lines as previous (Dark Horse Heroes, Legend, Maverick) and current (Dark Horse Manga, M Press) official imprints. Playing with this idea, how would you describe the aesthetic and/or mission of your own unofficial imprint?
My line is predominantly creator-owned titles. Those are the books I read myself, and they are the types of projects I have the most fun working on. When I was growing up I found myself strongly attached to the mature content titles being published by Vertigo Comics — which is great considering that former Vertigo founder Karen Berger is now editing her own creator-owned imprint at Dark Horse called Berger Books.
The creator-owned books I edit are by innovative creators working in a wide mix of genres. I do tend to look for and edit works by creators who have a body of work that I just enjoy reading as a fan. After I read all of Oni Press’s The Sixth Gun, I knew immediately I wanted to edit a book by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook, and that led to me acquiring their popular horror series Harrow County. A few other titles I am editing include work by Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Jeff Lemire, Matt Kindt, Dave McKean, Geof Darrow, and Evan Dorkin — all stellar creators!
What was it about The Sixth Gun that made you want to pursue a project with Bunn and Crook?
It’s a damn good book. Well structured, the art kicks butt, the characters are all really interesting and memorable — and it’s a super engaging read. The whole series is a fun ride! I had worked with Tyler Crook for some time on B.P.R.D. and I was interested in seeing him work on a creator-owned title after that. I knew he did a few fill-in issues of The Sixth Gun, so after I read that series I encouraged Tyler to reach out to Cullen to see if he had any stories percolating. What arrived later was an early version of Harrow County.
Black Hammer won “Best New Series” at the Eisner Awards in 2017. Do you view that as a validation of your approach to editing?
Not really — that series was initially pitched to Diana Schutz at Dark Horse almost 10 years before my arrival, but by the time the book actually started coming out I was the editor. The whole story of Black Hammer was really in great shape before I came to it. If anything, what I suggested to Jeff later was to expand the universe of Black Hammer. Initially the series was only going to be 13 issues total. After I started the project and read all the scripts by Jeff, I told him I thought that this was a great universe and that he could really do more with it. He thought about it for a while and then we just kept adding more issues to the main Black Hammer title and also produced some tie-in series to the world of Black Hammer: Sherlock Frankenstein, Doctor Star, The Quantum Age, and several more unannounced Black Hammer–related tie-ins coming up down the road.
In your opinion, what is it about creator-owned titles that makes them distinct? And what makes them more fun to edit than others?
They just feel a lot more liberating. You work with the creators on fleshing out their ideas and making the project as great as can be. You’re not confined to the limitations of a license where you’re stuck with a preexisting canon. The process of working on creator-owned is exciting because you’re sharing new ideas with people who are creating an original story, you’re coming up with new titles and characters, you’re asking questions about these characters and what motivates them, you’re creating events for these characters, and more.
Would you call editing an art form in its own right?
I think so. You’re managing the way a story is being told, which in some way makes the editor a collaborator to a small degree. But really my main goal is to act as more of an advocate and coach for the creator and their work, by using my knowledge and skills for the advancement of their book.
You have mentioned both Diana Schutz and Karen Berger, major innovators in comics editing who have achieved a level of celebrity comparable to popular artists and writers. What do you think it is about their approach to editing that makes them stand out? And were either of them an influence on your own work?
Good question! Both are certainly innovators who I very much look up to, and both certainly have influenced my own way of thinking about editing and managing a creator-owned line. Both established wonderful relationships with their creators, and I feel like the sort of responsiveness and attention they gave to their creators had a great impact on my own work. It is really an honor to be colleagues with both of them. I still see Diana at the Dark Horse offices even though she retired not too long ago, and I enjoy working with Karen and reading the amazing books coming from her creator-owned line Berger Books: Incognegro, Mata Hari, Hungry Ghosts, and more.
What would you like to see happen in comics publication over the next 10 years, and in your own “unofficial imprint” specifically?
More diversity in stories, creators, and publishers. Not just in comics, but in everything. There’s not enough and never enough.
Colin Beineke’s research and writing focus on contemporary comics and the institution of the publishing house. He has recently been elected to a term as member-at-large for the Comics Studies Society.
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