Writer’s Best Friend? The Editor’s Role in Webcomics by Alexander Danner

A Defense

As everyone knows, chief among the benefits of producing an independent webcomic is the freedom from any sort of editorial input or criticism. In the absence of the editor's stifling presence, a comics creator can maintain a pure artistic vision, and is thereby free to reach his or her full potential.

That seems to be the prevailing opinion, anyway. That editors might actually have useful skills and services to offer is a little-considered possibility.

For instance, a good editor might:

  • Proofread
  • Spot continuity errors or inconsistent characterizations
  • Point out plot holes
  • Provide special expertise, helping to keep facts accurate
  • Act as a sounding board for developing ideas
  • Mediate disagreements between the writer and artist
  • Offer a reader reaction, to help the writer gauge whether the story is achieving the desired effect
  • Provide encouragement and moral support.

Ultimately, the involvement of a skilled editor will help the writer to produce tighter, more polished work. Work that's not only more enjoyable for readers, but that is also more satisfying for the writer. Unfortunately, most webcomickers will never reap the benefits offered by an editor, as the very word "editor" has become practically synonymous with "adversary." Internet gossip offers no shortage of stories about oppressive editors who view their job as controlling projects rather than facilitating them, regardless of the ill effects on the stories being told. What gets forgotten is that these people don't simply represent "editors being editors." They represent "editors being bad editors."

Within webcomics, the result of this misunderstanding has been a widespread disdain for editing, even among editors. Most take a completely hands-off approach, in the interest of promoting creative freedom. Even editors who believe strongly in the value of editorial feedback are gun-shy about offering their services, unless it's particularly called for. GraphicSmash.com's editor, T Campbell, for instance, comments: "Generally, I just proofread, unless the creator asks for help or I really, really feel the creator needs help to go from 'really high potential' to 'really fulfilled potential.'"

Helping creators to get from "really high potential" to "really fulfilled potential" is exactly what the editor is there to do—something Campbell learned first hand as a writer, through his experiences with his own editor, Greg Eatroff. Eatroff has worked with Campbell since the outset of Campbell's comic, Fans!. Far from being an adversary, Eatroff is a valued member of the creative team: "Greg…sees every Fans! script before the artists do and makes comments on about every other page…. He probably deserves more credit than he gets for co-plotting some of the stories."

What's more, as Campbell demonstrates, webcomics creators have the unique freedom to choose their personal editors. Eatroff's presence is no accident—Campbell wanted him specifically because Eatroff was particularly knowledgeable about fandom (the chief theme of Fans!), and was therefore able to provide an important perspective that Campbell lacked. The choice was a good one, and over time, Eatroff became as much a part of the collaborative process as the writer and artist.

Of course, not every writer wants his or her editor to be quite so intimately involved in the creative process. But the beauty of choosing your own editor is that the editor works for you, and not the other way around. This means the writer sets the boundaries, and decides just which editorial services to utilize, and how much input to accept. If the relationship doesn't work out, if the editor doesn't perform as well as hoped, or if the editor tries to exert too much control, the writer is free to move on.

The only real obstacle is simply choosing the right person in the first place. What qualities do you look for? This person should be intelligent and literate, of course. It should be someone interested in the genre you're working in, and ideally who is even knowledgeable about your subject matter. It should be someone whose opinion you respect—otherwise the editor's feedback will be useless. It should be someone who will be honest with you about your work's weaknesses, but who won't get offended if you don't follow every suggestion. But most importantly, this person should be someone who wants you to be the best, most successful writer, you can be. It should be someone who believes in the artistic goal you're trying to achieve.

If the bad editor is an enemy, then the good editor will be the exact opposite—the good editor is a friend. In the end, the chief benefit of being an independent creator is not that you can work without an editor—it's that you can ensure that your editor will be an ally, working to help you reach your full potential.


Rethinking the Editor

Editing comics is a tricky business, very different from other forms of editing. For starters, the editor needs to have a solid understanding of both good textual writing and good design, and how they balance and support each other within the comics medium. And when something goes wrong in that balance, the editor needs to be able to tell whether it's a problem in the writing or in the design. Or whether the problem is somewhere else entirely.

When asked: "Which do you consider to be your primary talent as a comics creator—writing or illustration," John Barber, creator of Vicious Souvenirs and an assistant editor for Marvel Comics, answered: "Probably that weird part in the middle that sometimes falls to the writer and sometimes to the artist…the part where the story is translated into physical relationships between words and images."

If it is true that making the translation from story to comics is a unique skill in itself—independent of both the writing and the illustrating—then this is an essential skill for anyone looking to edit comics.

Consider this: A prose editor usually has a good idea of what a novel manuscript is going to look like. A comics editor has no such a luxury. Did the writer create thumbnails? A full script? A Marvel-style script (a plot breakdown, with dialogue to be added later)? As Barber points out, each of these methods divides the "translation" responsibility between the writer and artist differently:

"If you were writing a comic…Marvel-style, then the artist is handling this part completely. The writer may be supplying some part of the general pacing, but the artist's doing most of the work in this middle area. If you're doing thumbnails for the artist to follow (and he does follow them), then it's all you doing this stuff. A full script favors the writer, but the artist still likely has a lot to add to it."

The editor needs to be flexible enough to adapt his or her editing to any of these creative methods, and to understand how and by whom the bulk of the translation work is being done. Without a solid understanding of the translation process, a comics editor won't even know which member of the creative team to talk to about problems in the work.

In many ways, the comics editor is less like a traditional editor, and more like a little-known position within professional theatre—the dramaturg. The dramaturg performs a wide array of responsibilities, among them the development of new plays for production. The dramaturg is neither director nor playwright, but works very closely with both. If the writer's job is to create a work of dramatic literature, and the director's job is to create a dramatic performance, it is the dramaturg's job to ensure that the end result is an effective synthesis of the two. This includes helping the director to keep the look and staging in accordance with the spirit of the script. This also includes helping the playwright to identify and rework areas of the script that aren't working as well as they could.

In other words, it is the dramaturg's role to facilitate the translation of the script into an aural and visual work that actually expresses the script rather than simply using it as a vehicle—to make sure that the production is not just a good show, but a good show that the writer will be happy with. And when something isn't "playing," it's the dramaturg who needs to be able to tell whether it's a problem in the script or in the direction.

The comics editor-as-dramaturg makes considerable sense. This person would approach the project as neither writer nor artist, but as someone who can work closely with both, to help each understand the other's needs. The comics dramaturg would work to ensure that the completed comic is not just fun to look at, but also expresses the spirit of the script to the writer's satisfaction. This would be a person interested in, and skilled at, the process of translating from words to comics.

In fact, the entire undertaking of editing comics seems much less tricky when viewed in terms of the dramaturg. Both roles operate in the middle of the creative process, shepherding the work from a textual presentation to a visual presentation. And like the ideal editor, dramaturgs are never "in charge" of the production. Rather, they facilitate the creative process when they can, then stand aside to let the creators work.


Putting it in Practice

Once you have chosen an editor and established the degree of input you expect, the next challenge is actually integrating the editor into the machinery of the creative process. This can vary with the number of creators involved in the project, the writing method, and the updating schedule.

The place of the editor within a writer/artists collaborative team is fairly straightforward. For starters, a collaborative team is generally more likely than an individual creator to work with full scripts for complete story arcs. This means the editor will have both a complete view of the work being edited and enough lead-time to do the editing.

Whenever a full script or thumbnail draft is available, it makes sense for the work to be edited before it's sent to the artists. The more polished the writer's work is, the less need there will be for changes to the completed illustrations later. What's more, if there are weaknesses in the overall narrative, it's far better to identify and fix them before the artist has illustrated the troubled pages. That way, you avoid finding yourself in the position where you need to choose between redoing large sections of artwork or settling for a less than perfect execution.

Once the script is finalized, the editor may serve as a resource for the artists, helping to locate reference material where necessary, serving as a sounding board for design ideas, or simply weighing in on disagreements between the writer and artist. Alternatively, the editor may not come in again until a draft of the artwork is completed, at which point the editor would read the final product with an eye toward clarity, flow, and faithfulness to the writer's story. Additional dialogue tweaks may also be suggested. It's worth stressing again, that in all these tasks, the editor is working in an advisory role. The creators may use or reject the editor's advice—the goal is simply to have a trusted third opinion.

For individual writer/artists who create full script or thumbnail drafts before illustration, the process wouldn't be substantially different. Again, the most extensive editing would be done at the script stage, with the art edit focusing primarily on locating instances where an idea that's clear in the artist's head is not so clear on the page.

The greater challenge is for the creator who begins directly with full artwork, since any major revisions would require major alterations to, or even new versions of, illustrated pages. In this case, it's a good idea for the creator to share notes and outlines with the editor before beginning work on the art. Through these notes, and discussion of the story, the editor can help spot larger issues, such as logical problems or inconsistencies in the plot, early on. Then, the editor can focus on more detail-oriented editing for the full pages.

Regardless of the method of production, maintaining generous lead-time is vital to making the most of your editor. After all, it's useless to have substantial, solid feedback if there isn't time to complete revisions prior to publication. This can be particularly problematic for creators who tend to create new episodes the same day they're due to update. Unless your editor happens to be someone always available, such as a spouse or roommate, it is essential to maintain a buffer of at least a few days, if not weeks. But that can be yet another benefit of having an editor—by creating an artificial deadline, they can help you to prevent late or missed updates.

Of course, all of these methods are subjective; how you choose to work with your editor should be tailored to fit your own creative process. The goal of working with an editor is to produce stronger, more polished work. Obviously, that can't happen if you have to change your methods so much that your creativity becomes inhibited. Finding the best way to work with your editor may take time and careful thought, but it's worth the effort.

The fact is the rise of webcomics does offer creators a new world of creative freedom. But how we use that freedom is up to us. Just because we are unencumbered by corporate stricture doesn't necessarily mean we have to abandon editorial guidance. Rather, it simply means that now is the opportunity to get the editors working for us rather than for corporate interests—and that means that editors can do more for creators now than they've ever been able to before. It's just a matter of seizing the opportunity while it lasts.


  1. Very nice article. I’ve always thought editors caught a lot of flak in the webcomics world that they shouldn’t didn’t deserve.

    Personally I think my editor an indispensable part of my comic! So much I that did my Online Comics Day Strip in honour of my editor:

    Oddly enough, the comic and this article have pretty similar overtones.

  2. Indeed. I’ve been thinking about inviting someone to do that for me as well.

    Even though my Online Comics Day Strip said the exact opposite. But it’s just because I still see editors as big mean figures with scissors in their hands.

  3. Having T Campbell edit my comic “Digger” on Graphic Smash is a Good Thing. And not just because he catches all the typos (which would otherwise litter the strip like flowers in springtime) and makes sure that the panel flow isn’t interrupted if people are viewing through a smaller browser than I am. It’s because, having great faith in T as a writer, I work on the assumption that if there was something worse than a typo there–if I’d suddenly veered off course into a festering mountain of suck–he’d say something. And being a little neurotic, and pretty inexperienced with comics of any sort, I have never quite shaken the feeling that the festering mountain of suck is only a turn-off away, so this is a great comfort.

    If the note that comes back says “A-OK” or “looks good” then it’s fine for another few days.

    If the note quotes one of the jokes and laughs–“‘simultaneous heart attacks!’ Hee!”–then I know that not only is it a working joke, it is a joke that I will probably be getting mail about.

    If the note praises one of the developments, then it’s all good. I know I’ve done something right. If it makes a statement, like “I’m curious to see what happens when…,” then I know what the majority of my readers are probably going to think, and I know I better address that.

    Very occasionally, the note will include a question, and we’ll discuss the plot, and where something’s going, and whether it’ll come up later. But not all that often–a handful of times in 100+ pages.

    The end result is that while I’m driving this bus, T’s riding shotgun, and he’s had a look at the roadmap. He’s not a crazy backseat driver, like I think people fear editors may be–he doesn’t keep shouting “Why are you taking that turn off!? Stay in your lane! Watch out for that squirrel!” and he doesn’t do that annoying thing where they stomp a nonexistant brake pedal. But if I was about to go off the road, he’d wake me up, and if the bridge is, out, he’s gonna yell. And this is much better than driving alone.

  4. If the note that comes back says “A-OK” or “looks good” then it’s fine for another few days.

    Or the “All’s well…” 😉

    Great post, Ursula!

    Having Mos and T as the additional safety nets give me a peace of mind I otherwise wouldn’t have.

    And IMHO, the best way to beat writer’s block is to talk things out with another person who understands your comic enough to appreciate what makes it it.

  5. I think the reason editors have such a bad name in the webcomics industry is the way the newspaper comics have become bland mass appeal crap. That is the nature of paper comics, however, once syndication ensured that all the strips would be available to any paper who wanted them. Things were a lot more interesting when cartoonists worked for individual papers.

    And the reason editors get flack from cartoonists is because the editors work for the syndicates and papers, not for the cartoonist. The relationship you described above is much more like a good literary editor, not a newspaper/syndicate editor.

    A LOT of webcartoonists would benifit from such a situation, myself included. I tend to make my girlfriend act as a pseudo editor. It’s not really organized, though, so many strips make it on the site without her looking at them, and those are usually the ones with typos or other errors.

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