LHR: Were comics something you have always loved? What are some of your early favorites?
I don’t remember exactly what age I was when I discovered comics, but I remember them as a big part of my childhood. I liked superheroes — first the DC characters, and then the Marvel stable — but I absolutely LOVED Turok Son of Stone. I mean, American Indians in a “lost valley” fighting dinosaurs with bows and arrows? My nine-year-old brain could scarcely conceive of anything better. Though, looking back, I realize that many of my childhood imaginings were hijacked by seeing the King Kong (1933) on TV at an early age. Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine also played a big part in shaping my tastes. It’s probably a good thing for me that Star Wars didn’t show up until I was in my twenties. I can only imagine how insane I would be if I had seen A New Hope as a kid!
LHR: How did you become involved in the comic book industry? With Dark Horse?
By the time I was in high school, I was convinced that film is where I wanted to go. I was still reading a few comics, but my thoughts were directed toward realizing those kind of adventures on film. My friends and I would get together and make Super-8 movies (video cameras were still in the distant future) — kung-fu stories, sword and sorcery, horror, science fiction, even historical dramas. We’d create masks and make-ups for monsters and aliens, sew costumes, formulate our own pyrotechnics. Where does all of that energy of youth go? I’d love to have some of it now.
Anyway, I was obsessed with telling stories on film. But as I learned more about the realities of professional filmmaking, I realized that doing what I wanted to do in film was a long shot. By the time the producer, director, cameraman, and the actors have done their part, your story might no longer resemble what you wrote originally. But in comics, telling the story boiled down to a writer, artist, and editor. The likelihood of being able to tell your story is greatly increased. At about that same time, a lot of exciting things began happening in comics — both in the storytelling and in the publishing possibilities — so, along with artist friends Chris Warner and Mark Badger, I decided to focus on comics.
I had a couple of years haunting Marvel and DC’s editors when I heard from Mike Richardson. I knew Mike because he ran a comics store where I spent most of my money, and he had told me of his ambition to one day start a publishing company. He called and said he was ready to start, and would I like to be the editor? The rest is history. We knew just enough about publishing comics to get us through the height of the “black-and-white boom,” and by the time it ended Dark Horse was ready to fly on its own.
LHR: Tell us about your involvement in the Star Wars EU? How has it evolved?
My very first job in comics, believe it or not, was writing a Star Wars story for Marvel. I hadn’t pursued that specific job, it just happened to be the one the editor had available. Since I was a big Star Wars fan, I went into it thinking it would be a cakewalk. But as I struggled to make the story work for myself, I realized that just having a bunch of Star Warsy stuff happening wasn’t enough. I saw that I had to say something new about characters who already had extensive histories. That realization made the job a lot harder, but it also taught me a lesson about writing that has stuck with me: have something to say.
After that, I pitched several other Star Wars stories to Marvel, but even I knew they weren’t what they should have been. I didn’t know it then, but I was still too much of a Star Wars fan to be able to look at the franchise dispassionately and effectively. Even when Dark Horse obtained the license some years later, I was happy to allow other editors to take that helm. Several more years passed before I was able to get the “fan” out of my system and begin to have an idea of what should be done with the franchise. Now, I wake up almost every morning with a new idea for a story or an aspect of the Star Wars galaxy that we could explore. But I had to get far enough away from Star Wars to see what it could become.
LHR: Do you have a favorite Star Wars character?
I do, though perhaps “favorite” is the wrong word for my affection for them. I have characters who I enjoy writing because of what they represent within the franchise, and because of how multi-faceted or malleable they can be. As a writer, I love strong characters like Leia. She’s so sure of herself, it can be as interesting to force her into situations where she doubts, or where she has to admit that she’s wrong, as it is to watch her steamroll the opposition. Certainly, of any of the movie characters, she’s the easiest for me to write, and the one I have the most fun with.
I always want to write Obi-Wan, but I just don’t have a good handle on him — I can’t see how to put him in a new light. That’s my failing, not the character’s, of course. So even though I like to hold Obi-Wan up as the quintessential Jedi, Dass Jennir, my character from Dark Times — the self-admitted most average Jedi of all time — is a more interesting character for me as a writer.
LHR: There are so many details to keep track of in all the Star Wars comics. Is that part of your job as editor?
It is a part of my job, but thankfully it’s not all on me. I mean, after eleven years of virtually nothing but Star Wars, the amount of stuff I know is staggering. But it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what Keeper of the Holocron Leland Chee knows, and he has my back. Still, even with Leland on watch, errors still occur. All you can do is your best, and try to fix things when the individual comics are collected into graphic novels.
LHR: How are artists and writers matched?
Usually artists are faster and stronger, but writers are smarter and fight dirtier. What? Is that not what you meant?
There’s no set way in which creators are paired. Sometimes a writer will request a particular artist, other times I’ll have an artist who’s available and I’ll find a writer to work with them. And then you’ve got established teams like John Ostrander and Jan Duursema who will insist on working together on certain projects.
LHR: What keeps you inspired as a writer? Do the same things inspire you as an editor?
Interesting. I don’t know that I would have ever considered the two compare if you hadn’t asked me about it. But now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I’ve realized how different the two aspects of this job can be.
As a writer, I’m looking at telling a story — relating a “truth” that is larger than, but reflected in, the events in my tale. But what keeps me inspired is the opportunity to surprise the reader with the small things — the character reveals, the visual gags, that sort of thing. For instance, there’s a point in the Dark Times: Out of the Wilderness graphic novel where artist Doug Wheatley and I managed to convince many readers of one thing, only to reveal that the exact opposite was true several pages later. We received some very nice reader feedback on that, and I was glad that we were able to get our readers so caught up in the story that they didn’t suspect what we were doing. Again, it was a “small” thing — only a ten-page sequence out of the whole book, but for me as a writer it was immensely satisfying.
When I’m editing, I’m generally looking at a bigger picture, like getting Dawn of the Jedi off the ground. Believe it or not, that project actually began about eleven years ago with a verbal pitch from fellow editor Chris Warner. Chris was interested in putting it together as a heavily illustrated novella, with the illustrations actually carrying a great deal of the storytelling. That idea went through a number of false starts, but we could never get a satisfying story to come together. Finally, under pressure from Lucasfilm to either develop the idea or allow another licensee to run with it, I offered the era to John Ostrander. He said he’d love to do it, I just didn’t know it would take another five years to get it to print.
But, on that kind of level, there’s a lot of world-building, which can be fun, interesting, and frustrating by turns. I think I mentioned earlier about waking up each morning with new ideas of places, characters, and time periods to explore. That’s the part of the job that can be inspiring.
Obviously, I’m also editing at a “lower” level—the editing of outlines and scripts for individual issues, though I’m not sure a great deal of “inspiration” is involved in that (said Randy, smiling).
LHR: How has the comic book industry changed in terms of women as readers and creators? Do you think the Star Wars characters reflect this also?
Women? Aw, c’mon, everybody knows girls don’t read funny books!
Seriously, I’m not sure if I can answer this. Your question assumes that women in either role would change the nature of either the industry or its output, but I don’t think that’s the case. There certainly seems like there are more women reading comics these days (though I hasten to point out that it’s a proportional increase in percentage of readers — the overall number of readers has dropped over the years).
As far as female creators, I couldn’t say that from my experience I have noticed a difference in the way women writers tell stories, or the way women artists draw them. Jan Duursema, for instance, draws amazing comics, period. If there has been a change in the industry — besides increasing the talent pool from which we can draw from, I’m afraid I’m not aware of it. Does that make me a bad person?
Where Star Wars is concerned, the franchise has always had strong female characters, so maybe we had a leg up on the rest of the industry.
LHR: Do you think e-Readers will impact the comics industry? How do you see comics hanging with digital media?
Digital e-readers, tablets, etc., have already had an impact on the industry — though not as large an impact as you would expect from all of the press they receive. Last year, digital sales accounted for around ten percent (maybe a little more) of comics sales. Not an insignificant percentage, but not the digital tsunami some predicted. Of course, that number is on the rise, and will continue to increase as more and more tablets are used. I think the estimates are that something like 750 million tablets will be in use in the next two years. If that makes comics more accessible to more readers, great.
But accessibility is a technical condition over which we in the industry have little control. What we (comics editors, writers, and artists) need to do is find a way to make comics more desirable to more readers. Because here’s what the digital numbers are telling us: many of the people now reading comics digitally used to purchase the physical comics, but have switched platforms. So, as digital sales increase, sales of printed comics are declining. There has been no appreciable increase in comics readership as a result of this expanded digital accessibility, we’re just exchanging one sale for another. Certainly, in an all-digital market there are efficiencies which could help a publisher’s bottom line, but we’re a long way from that.
Man, I’m a downer, aren’t I?
LHR: Do you have any advice for the aspiring comic book writer or artist?
Run fast, run far?
I would say the best advice I could give is keep on doing. Don’t wait until someone has hired you for a paying gig to write or draw something. First of all, without a substantial portfolio of your work, no editor is going to hire you. Secondly, the only way to get better is to practice. Produce as much as you can, and try to make each new story — each new sequence — better than the last.
For writers specifically: As I said previously, have something to say. A story isn’t just a string of events; it’s a chain in which each link leads to another, revealing new things about your characters and — hopefully — through your characters, revealing to your readers something new about themselves or the human condition.
For artists: Never forget that your job is to tell the story clearly and concisely to the reader. Stick to the basics. Force yourself to work in a classic six-panel grid for a while if necessary. If you ever find yourself concentrating on tilting, or overlapping panels, you’ve missed the point of what you’re doing.
LHR: Dark Horse has a long history with Star Wars comics, with varying levels of maturity and intensity. Where is a good place for the beginning comic book reader to start?
For kids, that’s easy. Start with the Clone Wars or Star Wars Adventures graphic novellas. Those books are specifically designed with new or young readers in mind — simple layouts, easy to understand stories. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: we always tell our writers not to “write down” to a younger audience. The presentation is simpler, but we try to pack the same level of intensity and emotion into the “kids” stories as we do into the other stuff we publish.
For everyone else, I would say choose your favorite era or characters and dive in. Over the course of the past two decades, we’ve covered everything from Dawn of the Jedi, to Knights of the Old Republic, to the Clone Wars, to the Dark Times, to the Rebellion, to the Yuuzhan Vong Invasion, all the way up to Legacy, set over a hundred years after Return of the Jedi. I’m pretty sure there’s something for anybody with even a passing interest in Star Wars.