A few Delilah Dirk 2 “character designs.” (Because really, they’re more costume design than anything.) I’m particularly proud of the old dude; the second image.
I spent most of December resolving character design needs. V.1 of the book is done and is in my editor’s elegant, well-manicured hands. While I’m waiting for feedback, I’ve been trying to lock down character and location designs. Must start working on actual pages soon.
It’s an inherent problem that pops up when working on any long-term creative project. It’s true for movies, for video games, and in my case, it’s true for making a graphic novel. There’s a great discussion of it in this episode of the Giant Bombcast podcast; basically, as you are making Your Thing, you are having to make many very important decisions, and you will not know the outcome of those decisions for a very long time. If you are a comedian or a musician, it’s easy to know how people will respond to your work. If you’re up there on stage, based on the response from the live crowd of humans at your feet you can have immediate feedback as to whether or not the decisions you’re making are working out as intended. Presumably, if you are a comedian, people will laugh. Presumably, if you are a musician, people will fall to the floor as great heaving blobs of emotion. Music success!
I’m working on a graphic novel, Delilah Dirk and the Blades of England (or Delilah Dirk 2, or just DD2). I am making decisions right now about the story. I want the story to make people laugh and to make people fall to the floor as great heaving blobs of emotion. The problem is, it’s going to take at least a year for me to complete all the final artwork for the book, and then a whole bunch of additional time for the book to go through the publication process. Will that happen? Beats me. It’ll take two years to find out.
This is disadvantageous. I would prefer to know whether my story is being effective right now, not only so I can adjust it if it’s failing, but also so I can take those lessons and apply them to other projects.
Additionally, I’m trying to move through the production of this comic quickly and efficiently. I know there will likely be spots down the road where I will make revisions, but I’d rather do as much work as possible ahead of time. After this rough-pages stage, each page is going to be a lot more time-consuming to produce. I’d rather make fundamental story changes right now, while mistakes are cheap and quick to change, and where it’s easier to get an overall perspective on the story. The alternative is that I end up doing a bunch of expensive re-drawing of final art.
I want to cut through that two-year gap in the feedback loop, so I’m taking a couple extra weeks to make my rough page drawings clear and presentable. I’m making the text legible, cleaning up the borders, and where the drawing is not particularly readable, I’ll clarify the drawing. I’m not sure at what stage of the process real comics people do their lettering and balloon layout, but right now I want some feedback on the story and how the comic is reading, so I am cleaning up the whole thing now in order to present it to a few trusted readers. Maybe my editor if she’s lucky.
I could simply enlarge my rough drawings — blow ‘em up to 11 x 17” and start drawing the final art, but I’d much rather take the time to finish this intermediate step for all the benefits it provides.
Perhaps this page isn’t the best example. It already reads relatively clearly, except for the text, and I don’t usually take the cleaned-up rough to as clean a state as seen below (that Delilah panel is a real exception — drawings are usually much rougher than that). Nevertheless, you get the idea. I’m taking something borderline-illegible and making it 75% more presentable.
The border sets the proportion for the page, and is an “average”of the North American First Second page dimensions and of the French Akileos page dimensions that were established with Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant. Eventually these pages will all get printed out on paper in blue ink, and that’s what I’ll use as my rough to start completing the final line artwork.
More importantly, though, these pages will be combined into a PDF so that I can present the entire graphic novel to someone and they will be able to read it in a more-or-less complete fashion. Their reactions and feedback will be used to both improve the story and reduce the anxiety I have about groping blindly down a dark hallway of production, not sure whether the product I’m working on is going to hit its narrative target. I’ll be able to move forward secure in the knowledge that my comic is effectively crippling people with laughter and emotions.
This past week, at NYCC, I had my first in-person, in-depth meeting with Delilah Dirk 2’s editor, Calista Brill, about that book’s story. We made the appointment about a week in advance. That was… not a stressful week, per se, but I was not sure what to expect. I had given her my complete script a few weeks prior. What would she think about it? How extensive would her concerns be? How much of the book would I have to re-do? I had already pitched the book with a detailed outline, which she had approved and (as I was to learn later) enthusiastically shepherded through the publisher, but still - you never know, right?
Perhaps you are wondering exactly what an editor does. I know I often have. If you’d like to hear it all straight from Calista’s mouth, watch this video.
Going in to the meeting, I was worried about a few things.
- There are a few sequences that I worried were superfluous or trivial but that I really liked for the sake of character development, or colour and tone. I worried that they could be interpreted as distracting or diminishing from the tightness of the story. I wanted to keep these sections.
- A section in the middle of the story felt like a big dip and plateau in the pace and development of the story. It was a swampy section in the middle of a racetrack. I was struggling to figure out a solution to this problem.
- One of the characters was carrying a tone and performing actions that didn’t seem quite right, but that I thought might be an amusing or interesting way to take the story. I felt… uncertain about it, though, like it was playing a slightly off note, but I didn’t know why or how to fix it.
So we met, and I hauled out my thumbnails and notes and roughs. I quickly stepped through the parts I had already cut, got into the thumbnails a little bit, and walked us both through the roughs up to that point. I called out some areas I was concerned about being unnecessary, which I think universally received a positive response.
Eventually, time was pressing, and I think I was getting antsy to find out if there were any big beefs that Calista had with the story. As it turns out, there were two points she had that were concerning her. And this is why you want an editor:
The two issues that she mentioned were both things that I immediately recognized as problems that had been sitting in the back of my mind. Since they weren’t up front, I was pushing the story in ways that were not as constructive as would be ideal. She made two simple statements that, as soon as I heard them coming from someone else, I recognized them and could deal with them constructively.
Let’s see if this analogy makes sense: I wanted to build a road from Vancouver to Seattle. I was going south. So far, so good - that’s generally the right direction. I was showing you the sights along the way, too, but maybe around Bellingham there was a hill in the way, and I deked left, then right, not quite sure which way to go to get around the hill to Seattle.
I think in that video interview, Calista mentions that an editor’s job is to help an author figure out the best way to tell the story they want to tell. Something along those lines. I thought, “yeah, that is a good explanation,” though secretly believing there’s an element of blue-sky idealism to it.
Well, Calista and I blew a damn hole through the middle of my metaphorical Hill of Bellingham, and I’m happy to say that DD2 is now on a clean, straight path to Seattle. (Someone get me a metaphor award please.) One of her concerns was something that, if I addressed it properly, would nip the mid-story monotony in the bud. And that character-tone thing that was bugging me? The solution to the mid-story problem would help resolve the character-tone issue, among other things. I brainstormed some solutions, threw them at her, we chatted, did some more brainstorming, and at the end of only an hour and a half, I was feeling much more confident about the story. That’s important, because can you imagine spending a year-plus on a story about which you have weird little uncertain concerns?
Yes, I have some re-writing and re-shaping to do, but I would much rather spend a little time doing that than I would continue forward on a lengthy production, all the while worrying about whether the story is “landing right” and doing what I want it to.
Here’s a better analogy: as you’re putting together your story from puzzle pieces of your own imagining, maybe you don’t even know what the picture on the box looks like. A good editor will come along and reveal that box-cover to you, or remind you to look at it more closely. Maybe you enjoy putting puzzles together without knowing what they’ll look like, but not me. Of course, early on in the process, there is a lot of not-knowing-the-picture-on-the-box, but as soon as you have enough pieces in place, you may still need that extra insight to come along and reveal the part of the box you had accidentally covered with a slice of cold pizza.
Does all this editor-praise is going to seem sycophantic? Hopefully not. I’m legitimately grateful to Calista for her insight and constructive criticism, because not only is the book going to be better for it, but my anxiety level for the next 14 months is going to be much lower.
I wish this post had been edited by Calista. It probably would have been half as long and twice as meaningful.
Calista Brill in conversation with Jerzy Drozd on the Comics Are Great podcast, discussing exactly what an editor actually does.
It’s the last day of NYCC! Be sure to stop by the First Second booth (#2237) today, Sunday, October 13, at NOON O’CLOCK.
I will sign you a copy of Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, I will have travel posters, and I have it on good authority that there will be a very pleasant surprise - mostly for me, perhaps, but also for particular fans of Delilah.
Hey, it’s time for New York Comic Con! I am going to it! Do you want to find me? Here are your best leads:
THURSDAY, October 10th
• I’ll be part of “an informal discussion of the universal appeal of comics,” among other things, at 7:00pm at The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, 236 East 3rd Street. I’ll be there with Calista Brill (who bloody lives up to her surname) and George O’Connor (who I haven’t met but who seems to know A LOT about Greek mythology, which is exciteballs).
FRIDAY, October 11th
• I’ll be signing any book you want at Books of Wonder, 3 West 18th Street, from 6:00pm to 8:00pm. If you don’t come to see me, come to see the delightful Cat Valente, Frank Cammuso, and George O’Connor. Now, there is also a Paul Pope Society of Illustrators Battling Boy launch happening at the same time, but don’t be confused. We’ll be where the fun is at.
SATURDAY, October 12th
• I’ll be inside the actual comic-con, signing books at the First Second booth from 11:00am! Assuming I can sneak ‘em into the booth and trick the First Second crew into looking the other way, I WILL HAVE TRAVEL POSTER PRINTS. ALSO THIS ONE:
• At 2:45pm, in room 1A17, I’ll be joining Lucy Knisely, Tim Leong, MK Reed, and Emma Vieceli to talk about The Graphic Novel. THE Graphic Novel. Which I can only assume is The Turkish Lieutenant. I hope everyone else has done their homework.
• After that panel, all of us panellists will be signing things in “Autographing Area #21.”
SUNDAY, October 13th
• Come by the First Second booth at Noon to celebrate the day before Canadian Thanksgiving, or “Snickersmas” as we call it. Also I will sign things for you!
If you can’t find me at any of those times in any of those locations, I’ll be in the middle of Central Park, re-enacting my favourite scenes from Enchanted.