Bix sits in confusion (Detail), from "Heaven's to Betsy!", Club "16" comics

Comics Editors and Requisite Organization and Software Development

Forrest ChristianManaging, Reviews - Articles Leave a Comment

Comic Book Artist #3Just to show that every workplace is ripe for the picking when it comes to RO consulting, allow me to present to you three different comments from a recent issue of — all things — Comic Book Artist. I’ll go through the quotes and then comment.

From “Darwyn Cooke New Fronteir: From Batman Beyond to Catwoman to New Frontier, the brilliant ‘newcomer’ gives us a comprehensive look at his life”, Comic Book Artist Vol 2, #3 (March 2004), pp. 98:

One thing I can’t seem to communicate very clearly — or nobody seems to really want to accept this as a fact — is that the company I work for is not really relevant to me. It’s the editor. It’s the person. I follow people; I don’t follow companies. Each company has characters that are interesting enough to do something with, so it comes down to people. If Axel [Alonso of Marvel Comics] went to Dark Horse tomorrow, you’d probably see me working for Dark Horse. If Mark [Chiarello of DC Comics] was to go to Marvel tomorrow, you’ll probably see me doing more work for Marvel, because the relationship is important to me.

Mark Chiarello, same issue, on legendary comics editor and writer, Archie Goodwin:

[Archie Goodwin] was the weirdest mixture of a super-intelligent guy who was a complete nerd, who also happened to have this great sense of humor, was one of the great writers — one of the top three — in comics history. Archie was also the best editor ever in comics, bar none. The underlying thing was, he loved comics.The man really, really loved comic books….

Everything I know about editing came directly from Archie. I saw the way he treated freelancers and, more importantly, for someone like me who just wants to be liked, I saw how much his freelancers loved him. I saw his relationship with Al Williamson, Walt Simonson, and all these guys, andthe advice Archie gave me was, “Editing’s easy. Hire the best people you can possibly get and just let them do what they do.” Don’t tell Mike Kaluta how to draw a hand, don’t tell Wally Wood how to spot blacks, because you’re just getting in their way. Let them do what they do best. [emphasis in original]

Returning to Darwyn Cooke, he also talked about what a good editor needs to be able to do [pp.96]:

I no longer understand where the emphasis is on the editor’s role. For example, if you’re pencilling a mainstream monthly title, depending on the editor, you can only get him on the phone once a month. I’m trying to figure out what it is they do. There must be a lot of stuff they do, but I don’t understand it. If you can’t get the guy on the phone, how can creative concerns be addressed? A lot of people are like this. I don’t even know what the criteria are for being an editor, because a lot of them come through from the company’s political system. You can’t even talk about story structure. The writer sends you the script. You phone the eidot and go, “Look, there’s a major plot hole here on page 12, it’s foreshadowing this event, but it contradicts what we did in the issue last month.” But the editor doesn’t know what the [expletive deleted] you’re talking about, you know? So you get into a pissing match with the writer, because the editor doesn’t have a clue.

And CBA’s Jon B. Cooke (no relation) started this off with his comments about the real goal of the CBA magazine [pp. 96]:

I often say that it’s an open secret that Comic Book Artist isn’t about artists at all; it’s really about editors. It’s about what makes a good editor and what makes a bad editor. It’s about the virture of facilitating artists and writers, bringing them together, making an environment to make them feel safe, protecting them from interference, and the result just might be exceptional work done quite often to please the editor. But if the priority is not the work, but the product, well, you can take the Mort Weisinger approach and scare the [expletive deleted] out of people and make them not produce their best work but work that comes in on deadline.

Some thoughts:

Other authors (including O’Connell’s How to Run Successful Projects III: The Silver Bullet and Obeng’s Project Manager’s Secret Handbook, which I briefly reviewed in my look at Project Management books) have cited the similarity between software develop projects and movie-making. Obeng makes the argument better than O’Connell, by the by. From these comments, I’d say that Comics works pretty well, too.

Although Jon B. Cooke (JBC) definitely does not think that Mort Weisinger got good work out his artists and writers, fact is that he developed the Superman mythology that we all know and love. It wasn’t about the individual artist’s vision but about the coherence of the product, namely Superman himself. Weisinger was a jerk editor who created a classic comic mythology.

JBC’s statement about the difference between Weisinger and an editor like Archie Goodwin is interesting. Archie, from both Chiarello’s and D Cooke’s comments, was a guy who took on the idea of what Jim Collins called “The Level 5 Leader” in his Good to Great study. (His researchers called it “servant leadership”.)

Weisinger looks like he was really doing what Elliott Jaques called “Assisted Direct Output” (ADO). Weisinger controlled the results. He directed all the stories. Ideas that were not his directly or directly under his control, he threw out. He operated National’s (later called DC) Superman bullpen like the old comics strip greats managed their own. Even if all the work on the strip was done by others, they still all reported to the single vision. Think about Will Eisner’s work on The Spirit after his interest had waned and the great ghosts (notably Wally Wood and Jules Feiffer) had left the team for their own work. Others came up with ideas, wrote the stories, drew the art — but it all reported to Eisner who still would even redraw whole pages when they really made him mad.

  • Archie Goodwin, by contrast, worked more like a manager. He went out and hired the best team he could, especially giving younger artists a break. Chiarello’s comments about Archie being “super-intelligent” may also reflect an understanding of the man’s CIP level. Artists, including some great ones, liked working for him because he sat one stratum above them. This is all speculation, of course.

    It is not speculation that Goodwin and Weisinger had completely different jobs. Weisinger ruled the entire Superman line (at least Action, Superman, Superboy, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane; and probably World’s Finest, Legion of Superheroes) during the 1950s in a company dominated by the top-down mentality that drove proudcts at the time. Goodwin worked at Marvel in the 1970s after Stan Lee had stopped writing, Kirby had left for DC (and then returned), in a company who had started valuing a more artist-centered vision, as opposed to one coming from the editors. I’m not entirely sure that either of them could have gotten the other’s results had they switched places. Goodwin’s team-building would not have created the Superman mythology because it required a single vision’s control. Weisinger would not have created the masterworks of Goodwin’s lines because he would have driven away all the art-driven creators.

    I’m not saying that stratum and such doesn’t play a role: I am arguing that it has to be interpretted in light of the particular situation that of the Comics industry. Sparky’s Peanuts had to be totally controlled by its creator. Had he started down that road, the brand would have been destroyed even before it began. But Jim Davis has had massive success using the ghosting method for his Garfield comic strip, one of the most enduringly and globally popular strips currently in production. You may hate it, you may decry its crash commercialism, but it’s not that much different than Peanuts in that way (and even making less money) but you have to admit that it works. Garfield can never achieve the artistic vision that Schulz achived with Peanuts (he reinvented the form so thoroughly he made most older strips inaccessible). But that wasn’t the decision Davis took.

    Both Sparky and Jim work in a Direct Output mode, although Davis uses Assisted Direct Output. Goodwin and Weisinger were different, since one used a DO model and the other a managed team model. But there’s something about managing artists/professionals in this that’s important.

    I’m not sure that Sparky’s CIP is greater than Davis’s. And I’m not sure that Goodwin was bigger than his artists while Weisinger wasn’t. I think that the idea of Assisted Direct Output comes into play. And that this idea, coming from this reading (in the context of my twenty-five years studying comics history and form), has a great deal to say about the construction of software.

    In some situations, you have a single controlling visionary, whether person or organization. And that’s how it should be. Consider the US Army’s requirements for defense computers, or SAC’s requirements for guidance systems for ICBMs. These systems must be fully documented and set out prior to making. Rigorous change management must be in place. These have to be run like Weisinger ran the Superman line. You can do what you want as long as it’s in these very strict limits and fits my complete vision for the product. It’s not that developers do not come up with creative solutions in this case. They simply cannot have the amount of freedom in their creativity. They must keep the brand pure.

    Other systems, like most Internet development, is more organic. It tends to be “we will know it when we see it” on the part of the business sponsors. The development team is the best people that they can hire. The manager then gets out of their way, and gets other things out of their way. This is more like the Microsoft way.

    Both forms can be deranged. The Single Vision can become autocratic and controlling. The Team Vision can be anarchic and unproductive. Pure forms of either are probably irrational.

    Not that this made much sense. Still, the ideas that these guys talked about is interesting.

    Image Credit: Bix sits in confusion (Detail), by Jimmy Thompson. From “Heaven’s to Betsy!”, Club “16” comics

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