GUEST BLOG: Dark Horse Comics Editor Scott Allie On Celebrity Writers & The Art Of Storytelling

Scott Allie is a Senior Managing Editor at Dark Horse Comics, and works with such writers and artists as My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon, and “Hellboy” creator Mike Mignola. In this guest blog, Allie talks about the challenges and rewards when it comes to working with some of the biggest names in entertainment, and above all else, his love of the medium.

I love telling stories, and I’m lucky to get to spend the majority of my day making sure that stories are told well. That’s how I see my job — trying to get stories told through a medium that I find incredibly compelling, and not reduced to a poor science. There are not focus groups for comics. It’s a medium that is still being figured out, one comic at a time, with nothing but possibility in front of us practicing it.

I get involved in telling stories in lots of different ways. I get to write some—I’m writing a series based on Robert E. Howard’s “Solomon Kane” right now, in which I’m playing around with the idea of faith—I was born to parents who had no interest in religion, grew up atheist, and have finally found some point of connection only through the writing of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. In Kane, I can play with the grandiose language of the Bible while telling a story about fighting monsters.

After editing “Conan” comics for a few years with a variety of really good writers, I get to approach the stories from the inside, now, as the writer, and approach this sort of eternal champion in my own way. Although really, with any book I write, I’m as interested in working out the best way to formally move action through static images as I am in balancing character with genre—which is to say I’m deeply interested in both.

The job of getting stories told well turns into different things on different books. A disgruntled “Buffy” fan recently described me as “a Project Manager supervising a creator way above my pay grade, and getting lots of free PR” (like a blog post on Well, that’s one way of putting it. But my work with Joss Whedon — on DH’s bestselling title, “Buffy Season Eight“; as on his first comics work, “Fray”; and subsequent work on “Angel” and “Serenity” — has mostly involved working with a writer whose ability I envy and respect, in that order, and trying to combine his aesthetics about storytelling with what I understand about how comics work.

Joss’s ideas about subtle acting in television mixed with bursts of humor have been hard to get across to some of the artists over the years, but making that connection has everything to do with getting the story told right. We found two people who meshed with those aesthetics in Georges Jeanty and Karl Moline. When “Buffy” fans have complained that a character from the comic doesn’t look enough like the character from the show, I think about how Georges handled Buffy’s dream sequence in the first arc, or Mel’s reaction to Loo’s death in the “Fray” miniseries. I know that what’s important is telling the story Joss’s way—that the light and pretty but realistic style these artists draw in reflects Joss’s vision in the same way that Neil Patrick Harris revealed himself this summer as the perfect Joss Whedon Player.

A couple years ago I got a pitch from a guy in a band. I’d never heard of Gerard Way or My Chemical Romance, so it took me a couple weeks to get around to reading the pitch. I can vividly remember the rush I got while reading “The Umbrella Academy” for the first time. I’d never wanted to edit superhero comics—except that this was the superhero comic I hadn’t known I’d wanted to edit. This was a surrealistic superhero epic with heartbreak, Grant Morrison with a soft spot.

Here was a story I wanted to tell, a story that I desperately wanted to be involved in, and with which I’ve found myself more intimately involved than any book I’ve ever edited. This superhero book expresses my storytelling aesthetics more than any of the horror books I’ve edited. Knock me over with a feather.

Getting a new book up and running is hard these days, to be perfectly frank. The economics of comics, like everything else, is harsh, and many start only to fail. It may sound cowardly, but I don’t like to start it unless I feel like I know how to make it work. So it was a relief to find out that My Chemical Romance and Gerard Way were household names among the growingest demo, the same kids that were picking up manga, and who I was betting would soon be looking for something to move on to. Could “Akira”-infused “Umbrella Academy” serve that purpose?

All very mercenary, that thought process. But honestly, all in the interest of telling this story that I fell for before knowing anything about MCR, and before “The Black Parade” was even recorded. But I’m very clear, and Gerard is clear, that that other career of his allowed us to tell the story we wanted to tell. But MCR wasn’t why mainstream comics fans got behind the book, and it wasn’t why we won the awards we did. Although, yeah, My Chemical Romance probably is responsible for all those teenaged girls heading into comics shops for the first time.

One of the things I like best about the job is the changeability. It evolves over time. Ten years ago I was just starting “Buffy” as a comic, with little understanding of the real meaning of the work, and no access to Joss Whedon. Five years ago I’d’ve told you that superhero comics held no interest for me as an editor.

But fourteen years ago, I was already working with the guy that still keeps me the most busy, my biggest handful, Mike Mignola. For fourteen years I’ve been studying his work, learning on the job. Things I’ve learned from Mike have deeply affected “Buffy Season Eight,” “The Umbrella Academy,” “Solomon Kane,” “Conan,” and every other book I’ve edited.

My allies in the quest to tell a story just right go way beyond Gerard Way and the celebrity roll call MTV asked me to write about here. Almost as long as I’ve been working with Mike, I’ve been working with multiple Eisner Award-winning comic book colorist Dave Stewart. On many projects — including “Solomon Kane” and “The Umbrella Academy” — I hire Dave before I’ve got an artist worked out. Because I know that in the big picture of telling the story, through every means available to us in the medium of comics, Dave will bring something through in the color that can make up for things missing on other levels. The way Keith Richards seems to place Charlie Watts in importance above Mick Jagger, when I’m writing a book, I stand with my back to the crowd, making sure my colorist and I am in sync.

I love the collaborative nature of comics, and that collaborative nature makes you work on forming a tribe. We bring a lot of people into the “Hellboy” creative team, but only certain ones take root, like Guy Davis and John Arcudi. Because they help Mike and I tell the stories the right way, by our limited definition. Sitting talking story with fellow writer/editors Randy Stradley and Sierra Hahn, or agonizing over how to get a unique lettering effect with Nate Piekos, or sweating “camera angles” with one of the greatest cartoonists working today, Gabriel Bá — this is how I keep my brain firing, this is how I spend my day obsessing over the possibilities of telling a story in comics. And for all of them, from John Arcudi to Joss Whedon, I’m thankful.

Scott Allie
November 25, 2008

To learn more about the books Scott Allie mentions here, be sure to check out!