One of the more unique events at this year’s Baltimore Comic-Con was a lecture given by Marvel’s Tom Brevoort – the same training lecture he gives to new, and up and coming Marvel Editors each year. The rare opportunity to hear about the inner workings of a major comic book publisher came courtesy the Hero Initiative, which charged a well worth it ten dollars extra to see the event.
Getting right into it, Brevoort said that the lecture is given about once a year because, “It became apparent that at Marvel we’ve come up with a philosophy about how we do what we do, and what goes into the process of being an Editor.” He added that for the higher-ups, they have a short-hand when talking about how to edit, while younger Editors may not have the same language. So Brevoort gives the lecture, usually when the Senior Editors are away at San Diego.
He also noted that not only would the lecture be – mostly – common sense, but it’s also applicable to Marvel Editors, specifically. “I’m hoping I can give you ten dollars worth in the next two hours!” said Brevoort to laughs from the audience. Then the lecture began! Here’s some general highlights, and summary by your faithful reporter from the two hour long talk:
First, the main philosophy of Marvel is that, “Creators get the credit, Editors get the blame.” Brevoort added that isn’t opinion, it’s a fact, and that if you’re editing right, you’re not noticed by the public. “The creators are the stars, the actors, putting on the show for the audience,” continued Brevoort. “You as the Editor are support. You’re behind the stage, pulling curtains and whatnot. That is the division of labor. Trying to back-seat write the comic book only leads to crappy comic books.”
Next! “Be responsible as the Editor.” Meaning, basically, do your job, and get the stories out on time, and make sure that the stories are, “in the bounds of the Marvel Universe. And, ultimately, the job of an Editor is to sell comics; and good comics sell better than bad comics.” It’s also the responsibility of the Editor to make choices, and take responsibility for those choices. Particularly in a big company like Marvel, it’s easy to pass the buck; so don’t do that.
On the same note, “the creators first loyalty is to the story, while the Editor’s first loyalty is to the book.” Brevoort clarified that often those two are the same, but sometimes, a writer may have a big, bold choice you can’t let them make, because an Editor is the caretaker of the book not just issue by issue, or arc by arc, but for the long term. “That doesn’t mean we don’t want to make changes, but we want to break the toys in a way that makes sense,” said Brevoort. Continuing, he said that it’s the responsibility of the Editor to say no sometimes. “Editors that can’t say no are not really effective, and don’t last long.”
The Editor is also the “first reader” of the book, and needs to figure out whether the story works, it’s exciting, and, “do I care at all,” which Brevoort said was the biggest point. Quoting Tom Defalco, Brevoort said that, “The Editor is a walking opinion. You have to have that opinion, use that opinion, and defend that opinion. While you have that no power, its not a club to be used often.” Brevoort also mentioned that it works upwards to other Editors, as well, that even if there’s Senior Editors telling you otherwise, “You are the authority.”
Next up, Brevoort said that, “Despite what the Internet might make you believe, good strong accessible stories lead to good sales, and bad, weak, inaccessible stories lead to bad sales.” He continued that an Editor should make stories they want to read, but not so specific to you that no one else wants to read or understands them.
On the topic of responsibility and talking to the public, “If you are an asshole, you are not the asshole, Marvel is the asshole. We don’t particularly like that, and it will not lead to a long career.”
Moving on – and Brevoort noted this wasn’t quite applicable to the crowd in attendance – one of the biggest jobs of an Editor is making sure everybody gets paid on time. “This is their mortgage, and the food on their tables… And we do not screw this up. we do sometimes, but we try not to,” said Brevoort. “The creators like telling stories, and new avenues in their career, but they like money the most.
“Trust breeds trust,” said Brevoort, noting that building good relationships can pay off for years, while bad relationships will pay off badly. He mentioned that nobody knew Joe Quesada would be in the job he is currently in, so, “If you were an Editor who was bad to him in the ‘90s, you’re not in a good position right now.”
On getting back to artists and writers, Brevoort said that, “these are people who sit in rooms coming up with stories all day. If you don’t get back to them, they will come up with a story about how you hate them, and their work, and want them killed.” He told a story about an artist at Baltimore Comic-Con who told Brevoort he was moving on to other work, because he hadn’t heard back from the Editor… When they actually had another job lined up for him. It seems simple, but Brevoort said that as an Editor, you must stay in contact with your freelancers, and give specific feedback whenever possible. “Communication is at the heart of every aspect of editing,” said Brevoort.
On putting together successful comics, Brevoort said, “Ninety percent of the job is hiring the right people. You want to have people on each character in a way that is simpatico on that book, and with your ideas.” He added that you need to be able to look at work someone else has done in other places, and extrapolate that onto your books. “It’s almost entirely instinct,” said Brevoort.
“The characters make the creators, and the creators make the characters,” continued Brevoort, clarifying that there’s an ebb and flow, where if, say, Jim Lee is on “X-Men,” he’ll get more attention – and vice versa – rather than Jim Lee on “Punisher.”
Editors also must develop a, “signature style, so act like your name is on every project,” said Brevoort. Similarly, since books now cost four dollars, you need to be able to look at a book and say, “I put four dollars of effort into that. Editors who s**t out books will be s**t out themselves.”
However, you don’t have to like everything Marvel publishes, but you should be able to appreciate what’s being done. “Figure out what it is about that property or premise, what appeals to people, and then do that well. If you follow that thread, it will probably start to appeal to you, because you worked on it, and we’re all geniuses,” said Brevoort to laughter.
More specifically though, “What is the point of this project?” Meaning, what makes it unique. “Sometimes the reason is purely fiscal. ’Spider-Man’ books sell, here’s another ’Spider-Man’ book,” said Brevoort. That said, it still needs to have a hook, either a different take, or even specific creators.
Still, said Brevoort, “You can do everything right, and still not have a successful book, because this is art, not science.” That doesn’t mean Brevoort doesn’t have a simple equation for a successful book: “A project is characters plus creators plus concept. You can get by with one or two, but you want all three if possible.”
Brevoort noted that when pitching a project, you have to make sure you actually like what you’re doing, and hit all three points, because, “as night to day, the thing you like the least, we will choose and then you will have to execute it. Editors can NOT make a project good, they can only make a project better.” Part of that, sometimes, is doing absolutely nothing. If a story is good, and reads well… Stand back, and keep your fingerprints off of it.
“If you are doing the easiest thing all the time, you are not doing the job right,” continued Brevoort. As an Editor, sometimes you need to fire people, or tell them not to do something… And regardless, it’s a tough job, and you need to push yourself to do it correctly. “It is never fun to call someone up and say, you’re done. Do not fire someone by e-mail, or like one a**hole in the nineties, by fax. Shoot ‘em in the face, don’t be wishy washy or pass the buck. It sucks, it’s not fun, but you have to do the hard stuff to do the good stuff.”
Brevoort then introduced the next section, which is, “’What is a Marvel story?’ At heart, more often than not, the story is about the person in the costume, than it is about the costumes and the powers. The stories are ultimately about individual people.” He continued that every story they do is, “ultimately about metaphor,” using the example of “X-Men,” which is always – in some way – about tolerance. If you understand your metaphor, you understand how to make it relatable to readers. Even with “Thor,” Brevoort said, you can make the story about a man’s relationship to his Father or Brother. “The trick of stories is to reveal an emotional truth. You want to effect the reader, make them feel…something.”
He added that if you can make a reader feel something, those are the stories people will remember for years. On Brian Michael Bendis’ writing, Brevoort said, “Brian is not the strongest plotter in the world. But what he’s better than anyone else is hitting those emotional beats, and making you feel what his characters feel.” He joked that he could force Bendis to focus on plot, and knock sales down to twenty thousand copies with no problem, but that those emotional truths he put into the books are what make his books work.
The next step is to ask, “Why is this is a story that can only be told with these characters? If this is a story that can be taken out and do a global find and replace for Spider-Man, this is not really a story about Spider-Man.”
On the other hand, you don’t want to just make “stories about stories,” meaning books that just reference other comics, or exist only to fix a continuity mistake from five years prior. “Our projective audience is every human being on planet Earth, so any story we want to tell wants to have the emotional resonance for the widest audience possible,” said Brevoort. If you DO want to explain a continuity bit, you need to first find the emotional reason, not just the plot reason. “We make mistakes in every book we release,” said Brevoort, noting that finding an error isn’t enough of an engine to power an entire comic. He also added that with seventy years of stories, it’s impossible to line everything up.
As an example, he said there was a story where Donald Blake built an android early on, and it’s never been referenced since. So if a writer wanted to do a story that contradicted that, if it worked for the story THEY were telling, it would not matter to him. “You don’t get points for coloring in the lines,” said Brevoort.
Then it was on to individual stories or scripts, Brevoort said that you need to make sure scenes work in the context of the book, not just as funny scenes that show off how witty a writer is. Similarly, you need to be clear on everything, including characters and scenes, noting that the recap page can be a crutch: he prefers the clarifications come in the book. Characters names and powers need to be said at some point, or it’s bad news. He noted that on TV, viewers will come in at any point to find that people will recap the plot, or the character’s names after pretty much every commercial break.
On the other hand, he called out the “Claremont” panels that describe exactly what’s going on as passé. You need to work it fluidly into the story, but, “Even if it is Dr. Doom, you have to tell them it’s Dr. Doom! If you’re relying on the history or the continuity to tell the story, you’re not telling your story.”
Brevoort suggested that you get out the info you want through action, not just dialogue; the ol’ show, don’t tell. Interestingly, Brevoort said that a story should be told as linear as possible. Sure, open in action, but figure out a way to tell the story in the right order.
On another note, Brevoort said, “Readers like to read dialogue more than thought balloons; and thought balloons more than captions.” On sound effects, he said it’s fine to not use them, as long as you can visually get across what you want to get across.
Then, Brevoort said, “What are the pictures? We are a visual medium. They must be interesting to look at, but also interesting to draw,” continuing that emotional scenes are great, but if you do a scene that’s all headshots, the artist is falling asleep too.” And on that note, at Marvel he said six or seven panels on a page is too much – you want to aim for at least a few big exciting splash pages, or double page spreads, or just large action panels.
Quoting Klaus Janson, Brevoort said, “Storytelling is the ability to transfer information to the reader: who, what, where, and when,” continuing that in the nineties it was flash over substance – and they still want the art to look good, but not while sacrificing the story, too.
Somewhat reviewing, Brevoort gave the three “Golden Rules” of creating a comic:
1) Always show or dramatize and visualize information.
2) New information needs to be the focus of the panel.
3) Always set up information before you need to use it.
…Clarifying that it’s really about making sure all the information is readily available.
He continued that there’s a thing called “dueling captions,” which has two speakers off panel, with similar looking captions, with slightly different drop shadows. Brevoort said this happens a lot with movie or TV writers, because they’re thinking about two different voices on the screen… But in comics, there’s no movement, and no sound, so it doesn’t work. “Anything that pulls the reader out of the story needs to be avoided in every shape and form,” said Brevoort.
Similarly, if your eyes don’t follow the balloons on a page, “Your page does not work,” with Brevoort noting that if a page isn’t working in general, sometimes you can use balloon to force the eye to go the way you want.
Jumping back a bit, he noted that as often as possible, reiterate where the story is taking place, and any important elements – and that the biggest cheat he sees from artists when time is short is a lot of close shots.
On simple tricks, Brevoort said that people read from left to right, then top to bottom; so panels that are stacked on the left don’t quite work. You can force the eye with the balloons, “But it’s not optimal,” said Brevoort. When the storytelling doesn’t work, Brevoort said they have a saying called, “The arrow of shame, where you literally have to draw an arrow to where you need to go next.” In that case, it’s time to call the artist and have them change the page.
Then Brevoort read a few panel descriptions that came from actual writers, that just did not work. Basically, they were panels with multiple actions, and one a far away shot of the Hulk that also somehow showed his eyebrow arching.
Moving on, as a rule of thumb Brevoort said you don’t want more than twenty pieces of copy per page, including sound effects, captions, and dialogue. “You don’t need to worry about the pictures at this point, because they’re not there anymore,” said Brevoort, adding that even that is a lot for modern Marvel. You also can’t have more than twenty-five words per balloon, unless it’s for a specific effect. More than that, and it’s two balloons.
Wrapping up, Brevoort said that there will be times when you have to fight. “When those time comes around, make sure you are fighting for the right reasons,” adding that as a younger writer, he would fight easier to get the rep as “the guy who would put up a fight,” and that would only take you so far. Instead, get ego and pride out of the discussions because, “I don’t care where the good idea comes from.”
And that was it! With the time left, Brevoort opened to questions:
– Asked about what creators can do to help Editors, Brevoort said, “The best thing you can do is do good work. It sounds so simple, but one of the things I’ve liked about working with Ed Brubaker, when Ed sends me a script, it’s ready to go. The other thing is be up front about what you’re doing. If you need my opinion, talk to me about it. Also, if I give you deadlines, even if they seem bogus, every f**king one of them is real. If life has gotten in the way, tell me.”
– On how much reference materials Marvel will send, Brevoort said it was a time management issue. They’ll do what they can to get you up to speed, but, “If you’re doing the ultimate Mandarin epic, you’re going to track down some of those books yourself.”
– The next few questions were all about breaking in, with Brevoort reiterating the regular company lines that you can’t just pitch a new character, Marvel doesn’t accept unsolicited pitches, and in order to get your foot in the door, you have to do other work. However, he did note that you don’t need to be published by anyone other than yourself, noting that Joe Quesada will fly back and forth just looking at weird things online and forwarding them to the staff.
– Clarification: weird comics, and comics related videos, not just funny cat gifs and things.
– Asked about something that could make Brevoort not want to work with an artist or writer, Brevoort said arguing, lying, and talking smack about Marvel.
And that was it! We’ll see you back here for more from Baltimore Comic-Con.