Wednesday, June 6, 2012

ONE FOOT IN THE SARCHOPHAGUS: What a Long Strange Trip It's Been, Part 3

Painted cover by Tony Harris

It’s hard to describe how important having a good editor is.

One universal truth is that every writer needs an editor. It doesn’t matter who you are, or how skillful or talented you are, or how many millions or billions of dollars you’ve made, if you don’t have an editor your work won’t be as good as it can be.

Sometimes that’s because a good editor can be a sounding board for new ideas, or help you make good ideas into great ones. But most of the time it’s because a good editor will tell you “no.” As in, “No, you shouldn’t include this sub-plot, because it undermines what the whole story is about,” or “No, you shouldn’t use this bit of description, because it breaks the tone and ruins the immersion,” or “No, Jar Jar Binks doesn’t really work as a character.”

I was incredibly fortunate that the first editor I worked with at some length was very, very good. His name was Dan Thorsland, and he was the editor at Dark Horse Comics to whom Joe Phillips introduced me.

Dan didn’t have to give me the time of day but, for whatever reason, he chose to do so (maybe Joe was very persuasive), and we ended up on the phone one weekday afternoon. I told him I was just starting out, and that nothing I’d written had been published yet, because my issue of Vampirella was in something like its sixth month of delays. (It eventually came out a full nine months past its deadline.)

So Dan started describing a page of a comic book he happened to be looking at just then. “There’s a guy getting off a bus,” he told me, “and he’s carrying an oblong box under one arm. And the caption reads, ‘The stranger carries an oblong box under one arm.’”

I burst out laughing.

Apparently that pleased Dan, because he said, “Now that’sthe proper reaction,” and he really started talking to me in earnest - in fact, that conversation became my first lesson in Comic Book Scriptwriting 101. “If the art shows you something, really clearly shows it, then you DO NOT describe it in a caption,” Dan said. “That’s what you call ‘explainy,’ and it’s bad writing.”

He and I went on to have about an hour-long conversation, just sort of feeling each other out, figuring out if the creative chemistry was really there or not; we talked about favorite comics and novels and movies, and our individual senses of what made a good story, and at the end of it he decided to give me a shot.

That shot became a 16-page, two-part story in the anthology title “Dark Horse Comics.” (Yes, the series had the same name as the company.) It was a story called “Cargo,” set in the “Aliens” universe, and when all was said and done, and I held my free copies of the actual comic book in my hands... wasn’t very good. I was still on the vertical side of the learning curve, and there were just a lot of things I could’ve done better. But thanks to Dan Thorsland, it wasn’t awful, and also thanks to him I got introduced to an artist I’d go on to work with on quite a few other projects: John Nadeau.

An aside on John Nadeau: I don’t think I’ve ever met a comic book artist who’s more stable, more reliable, and more grounded than John. He started out as an engineering student, and it’s given him an amazing connection to what’s real and physical. Not to mention that he’s insanely talented.

So. “Cargo” might not have been brilliant, but it did serve one incredibly important purpose, which was that it proved to Dan Thorsland that I was a writer who could be given a task that would actually get done, and done on time. You wouldn’t believe how rare that is, apparently, among creative people. I got the work done on time, the work was not horrible, and I was friendly and relatively easy-going.

(I say “relatively” because, especially early on, I’d occasionally flip out and lose my $#!+ over some minor detail that didn’t exactly fit my vision. Sometimes I still flip out - if the issue is big enough - but I try to keep it under control as much as possible. Here’s Rule #1: don’t flip out and lose your $#!+. It makes you look unprofessional and can cost you jobs. Depending on the circumstance, it can also be a lot easier said than done.)

So after “Cargo,” the next firm project I got brought me back to working with Tony Harris, this time under Dan Thorsland’s watchful eye. It was an adaptation of the 1932 Boris Karloff film, “The Mummy,” and it gave me a new appreciation for the whole concept of “on-the-job training.”


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