Must Read: Tom Brevoort On Editing the Marvel Way (but really any way)

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tom brevoort Must Read: Tom Brevoort On Editing the Marvel Way (but really any way)
Each year, Marvel SVP of Publishing Tom Brevoort gives a lecture on editing to younger Marvel staffers. At this year’s Baltimore Comic-Con, he presented the two-hour talk for the audience, as recounted by Alex Zalben. Although there’s definitely some “Marvel Way” in the talk, most of it was the kind of common sense that everyone needs drilled into them. However, it’s also a pretty interesting glimpse into the day-to-day thinking behind Marvel’s editorial decision making. The whole thing is worth a read, but a few selected excerpts to give the flava:

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.


But good books don’t always sell, as we all know. Brevoort presented a three-tier scheme for what makes a comic that we haven’t heard put quite this cleanly before:

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.”


As for individual stories, it didn’t sound like the caption was forbidden, just unpopular:

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.”


Tons more info in the link.

Comments

  1. Shawn Kane says:

    They may be passe but those “Claremont” panels are one of the reasons that Tom Brevoort works for the company that he does. I hope that by saying they are “passe” he acknowledges that their success at one point in time.

  2. MBunge says:

    ““The creators are the stars, the actors, putting on the show for the audience,””

    No, they’re not.

    Let me put it this way. When the new James Bond film comes out, how is is going to be promoted? Are they going to push it as “The New James Bond Film” or “The Latest From Daniel Craig”?

    Mike

  3. @Shawn my take on this is that they did work back in the 70’s/80’s. But in the 10’s, it’s a very blunt instrument.

    That said, I’m kind of surprised he didn’t mention the one page recaps in all Marvel books (and I’m kind of amazed DC doesn’t do it_. Those pages are perfect for quickly bringing readers up to speed so they don’t have to “lay pipe” on the basics and any other details can be done in the narrative seamlessly during the story.

  4. Hardy Gilbert says:

    @Noah, actually he does mention the recap page, but he feels that it can be used as a crutch, and thus her prefers the points to be made in the story proper.

    @Shawn, I could be mistaken (I usually am), but I believe the “actor as star” comment was directed towards editors who wanted to make their presence known, or as he says, “…trying to back-seat write the comic…”

  5. Glenn Simpson says:

    In the actual interview he goes a little further into why they put particular creators on particular projects, but I wish we’d get more info on that. While I know the more successful creators get to pick and chose a bit more, still, within the bounds of what they can control, I don’t know why they don’t put more successful creators on more risky projects and let the successful characters be carried forward by the newer talent (with maybe senior editor control). Putting a no-name artist on the new Captain Marvel book, for example. Books featuring solo female leads don’t generally do well – can’t they give her a known artist?

  6. Shawn Kane says:

    I guess I took exception that Chris Claremont was used as an example of something being passe. Times (and tastes) change and the recipe for a popular comic changes but I felt that referring to a particular style that many used in the past by singling out one creator was a bit of a cheap shot. I’m just from the generation where Claremont’s X-Men sold alot of comics for Marvel in the days that you didn’t need crossovers and leaks to USA Today to be a hit.

  7. Hardy Gilbert says:

    @Shawn, mea culpa on my part – my comment was actually directed at MBunge. Lord, I should proofread….

  8. Glenn Simpson says:

    BTW what’s the temperature like up in Baltimore these days? That outfit Brevoort is wearing seems more stylish than comfy.

  9. MBunge says:

    “I don’t know why they don’t put more successful creators on more risky projects and let the successful characters be carried forward by the newer talent (with maybe senior editor control).”

    1. I would imagine the more successful creators are, shall we say, somewhat interested in getting the more high profile books and the higher sales and higher pay that comes with them.

    2. The downside of emphasizing the creator is that you train the audience to pay attention to ONLY the big names. True, there’s still probably an audience that will buy Spider-Man or Superman no matter who’s writing or drawing them, as long as the books are good. That number is pretty damn small compared to the day when Roger Stern on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN or Denny O’Neil on IRON MAN sold average, unexceptional issues to twice as many readers as today’s highest profile “event books”.

    Mike

  10. Diana Schutz, Dave Elliott, Mike Gold, Kris Simon. All top notch editors with strong presences in their books.

  11. Glenn Simpson says:

    @MBunge, I don’t know that I necessarily think that number is as small as you might think. While I’m the last one to depend on such things, I can say that a thread on CBR about “creators or characters?” that went on for a while seemed to be pretty much 50/50. And speaking for myself, I buy for characters mainly – there are a few writers or artists that I might cringe over or get more excited about, but it’s not going to affect my buying decision. So maybe putting JR JR on Captain Marvel and that Soy guy from CM on Spider-Man might not affect sales (in a bad way) as much as you might think.

    (Those might be perfectly terrible examples from a style point of view, but you get the idea. It could be argued that I pay so little attention to creators that its hard for me to come up with names for fictional examples.)

  12. LobsterAfternoon says:

    MBunge – it’s promoted as both a James Bond movie and a Daniel Craig movie. In that particular case, Bond is a bigger draw than Craig. But on something like Minority Report, Cruise is a bigger draw than the the fact that it’s based on an Asimov story.

  13. LobsterAfternoon says:

    @ Glenn – the pic shows him in front of a sign for Rockefeller Center, which is in NYC. So it’s not from this con, could’ve been taken at any point in any season. Still, the hat is very odd looking.

  14. MBunge says:

    “I don’t know that I necessarily think that number is as small as you might think.”

    When Roger Stern was writing Spider-Man, it averaged sales well over 200,000 issues a month. No crossovers. No big events. No massive online hype machine. Just your average, well written and drawn, “Spidey punches this month’s villain in the puss” comics.

    Mike

  15. Synsidar says:

    There is a lot of common-sense stuff in the article, but there are also statements such as Brevoort’s “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. Unless he gives several examples of significant mistakes, what is the reader supposed to think? That the editors can’t do their jobs well, or that since mistakes are unavoidable, there’s no point in trying for tight continuity?

    The emphasis on characters is a bit misleading, since publishing series that star specific characters is a marketing approach, not an editorial approach. It’s not as though the presence of a character guarantees that a story will be good; it does ensure that people who follow that character will be interested in buying the story. Whether the story succeeds artistically depends on the same factors that any other story does. If Marvel were to publish anthologies featuring stories set “in the Marvel universe” and have different characters in every release, the stories could be just as good as the character-based series issues, but they would be much harder to sell. Marketing would be required.

    As far as the characters are concerned, I’d argue that any given character, from Spider-Man to Woodgod, is only as good as the writer who handles him in the story makes him. A character concept can be flawless, but that doesn’t automatically make him good. The writer has to do his work.

    SRS

  16. Glenn Simpson says:

    @MBunge – the difference in sales levels of Big Two comics today vs. 20 years ago has absolutely nothing to do with the “creator vs. character” discussion. I thought you were (more logically) talking about relative sales levels within the span that is generally possible in 2012.

  17. Glenn Simpson says:

    @Synsidar: I think he’s trying to say “We’re trying to accomplish something that cannot actually be accomplished by human beings, but bear with us, we’re trying.” I think that comes across as managing expectations that there will always be flaws in the system. McDonalds gets my order wrong sometimes, but I don’t doubt that they intend to get it right.

    I’m not sure I follow your comment on characters, other than to point out there are people who will purchase based on character alone – not everyone will do so, and that’s no guarantee that it will be good, but money definitely changes hands.

  18. “If you’re editing right, you’re not noticed by the public”?

    So have you told Stephen Wacker yet how he’s doing it all wrong? Cause he’s noticed A LOT!

  19. And yet he was never noticed at DC until he left. So does that mean he did it right there?

  20. I wish Karen Berger would give a two hour talk on “the Vertigo way”. Now that’s an editor.

  21. Apollo9000 says:

    The biggest difference in comic book sales between now and 20 years ago is that kids don’t buy comics. More often than not, they are bought for them by regular comic readers. Big 2 monthly comics as they are now are a commitment. Kids, as well as many adults, don’t want to commit to a form of entertainment that doesn’t have a definite end or break point.

    TV has seasons. Novels are self-contained installments. Movies and plays are a couple of hours in a day.

    Big 2 or most ongoing comics are open-ended.

  22. Synsidar says:

    I think that comes across as managing expectations that there will always be flaws in the system.

    An example of an insignificant mistake: getting a character’s name wrong. Bruce Banner, David Banner, Bruce David Banner, Bruce Babbitt Banner–a mistake of that sort doesn’t ruin a story, and no fix is needed beyond admitting it was a mistake. A hero using a power he doesn’t have at a climactic moment, fights resolved off the page, a logical flaw in the story’s climax–those are significant problems.

    Adamantium poisoning is an ongoing plot error at Marvel (e.g., AVENGERS ACADEMY #36) because it’s biologically impossible. It doesn’t matter how many times writers have used adamantium poisoning as a plot point before; they should just stop using it. No further explanations are needed.

    The “marketing the character” approach to storytelling actually encourages bad forms of writing, because the creators routinely assume that the character sells the story, and getting the material out there is more important than trying to be original. Contrast that with an editor at a fiction magazine, who has writers competing for slots in an issue. Genre fiction isn’t literary fiction, but if a writer sends a story with an idiot plot, or uses a formula that’s been used hundreds of times, the story will be rejected.

    The systems used at Marvel and DC cause continuity problems through the repetitious use of villains. If Superman has fought Lex Luthor dozens of times, or Spider-Man is fighting Doc Ock again, a writer using them yet again can hardly be expected to know all their previous encounters thoroughly–but why is he using them again? Because a certain percentage of the readers just love Spider-Man vs. Doc Ock, because of the villain’s name recognition, or because the fight is so easy to write–“the story practically writes itself”–that doing Spider-Man vs. Doc Ock saves time and effort for everybody without hurting sales?

    I prefer distinguishing between the character concept and the character as written in the story. The concept can be wonderful, even amazing, but until the finished story sees print, the character is only an idea. If the plot in a story is a failure, or even worse, the premise is, the hero can’t possibly save it. If the reader thinks that the presence of Spider-Man does, he’s reacting to his fascination with his idol, not the content of the story.

    SRS

  23. This is very much a side-issue, but why is adamantium poisoning impossible? Given that adamantium is just a (fictional) metal with hand-wavy properties, it could have the same effects as lead, right? Elevated levels of the metal cause toxic reactions in various bodily organs.

    I’ve said this before, but I loved Tom’s talk. Best, most concise summary I’ve seen of what an editor does, and what he/she shouldn’t be doing, too.

  24. >> This is very much a side-issue, but why is adamantium poisoning impossible? >>

    Presumably, the theory would be that as an indestructible metal, adamantium isn’t going to dissolve and spread through the bloodstream and tissues like a softer metal such as lead or mercury. If it’ll dissolve in blood, even slowly, then it’s not really as durable as it has been so-far established.

    On the other hand, since adamantium can be grafted to someone’s bones before it was invented, adamantium is capable of some darn tricksy stuff, and shouldn’t be underestimated.

    I agree with you on Tom’s talk, though. He knows his oysters, editorially.

  25. Synsidar says:

    This is very much a side-issue, but why is adamantium poisoning impossible?

    To be indestructible, adamantium has to be chemically non-reactive. The body can’t detect the substance in that case.

    Adamantium was just an example. There are similar problems with time travel, since the light speed limit reportedly makes time travel impossible. One could reason that if someone could create a wormhole with its other end at a point one thousand light years away, say, exactly where the Earth was then long ago, and travel through the wormhole instantaneously, he’d have effectively traveled through time, but that method relies on three theoretical impossibilities. A writer can do practically anything he wants to do in a time travel story by having his hero go to a parallel universe, including having the hero meet himself or go to a dystopian future, but there’s no threat of a paradox. Why do an old-fashioned dramatic time travel story, then, unless the intent is to raise the threat of a paradox? Why do ALL-NEW X-MEN?

    Brevoort also said:

    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.

    That’s just a way of saying that the character’s presence makes the story succeed, independently of other factors. If the situation the character’s in isn’t believable, then why does his reaction to it matter at all?

    SRS

  26. That’s fair enough, guys. Of course, adamantium isn’t really indestructible; it can be forged. Again, its properties are pretty hand-wavy.

  27. Forged? Nay, cast!

    Adamantium is the product of two resins! That’s, like, science-ish! It’s also a steel alloy _and_ an element!

    And it takes a molecular rearranger to reshape it once cast, but only from the inside. Molecular rearrangers are next to useless from the outside, or what would be the point…

  28. If unstable molecules were real, nobody would ever get their panties in a bunch.

  29. b.t.t.c. says:

    I liked the books he edited 10-15 years ago. I loathe almost everything with his name on it in the last five years (one exception being Hickman’s F4 stuff). Around 2006 or so he seemed to start getting way more interesting in being a loudmouth and public blowhard than in really editing anything for continuity or story content.

    He gives lectures about how to be a good editor. Meanwhile Bendis teaches classes on writing. This is why our world is upside-down. Both guys just rest on their laurels and rely on an ever more dumbed-down audience to keep purchasing their books no matter what.

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