“Editorial” is sometimes considered a dirty word in comics. Editors are convenient to blame when a storyline changes, when comics are canceled, and when your favorite titles take a sudden sideways turn. This makes sense, in a way; writers and artists have always been right out there with their names on the front cover.
It’s only in the digital age, as editors have taken first to the blogosphere and then to Twitter, that readers can begin to see behind the mask. We’ve begun to understand who editors really are and just how involved they are in our favorite books. Before this, the average reader was unclear on what, exactly, an editor did; even aspiring writers often thought of them as glorified proofreaders.
But editors are, and always have been, collaborators. They help to develop stories, help writers refine their ideas into cohesive narratives, and help to create characters that resonate off the page. Chris Claremont’s X-Men was never as laser-focused as it was when Louise Simonson was editing him, and when a creator goes without an editor for too long… well, the difference between Rose Madder and Desperation (Stephen King’s last two books with Random House) and Bag of Bones (his first book with Scrivener, and presumably a new editor) is incredible. The writing sharpened and King’s voice was clear and distinct for the first time in years. Don’t get me wrong, Stephen King’s entire body of work makes him one of the defining horror writers of our generation, but he was in desperate need of a good editor.
And Alanna Smith is a very, very good editor. She serves as editor on the upcoming run of Unstoppable Wasp, the new digital-first Marvel options (Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Quicksilver), the brand new West Coast Avengers, and the upcoming Ironheart to name just a few. Previous work has included the original run of Unstoppable Wasp, the 2016 run of Jessica Jones, A-Force, and Hawkeye: Kate Bishop. After seeing her name pop up on so many comics I’ve been reading, we reached out to talk to her about her role at Marvel and exactly what the mysterious “editorial” actually does for some of my favorite comics.
Talking to Alanna Smith
Please, tell me a little about yourself—who are you, what does your job at Marvel entail, what is your favorite snack food?
My name’s Alanna Smith, and I’m an associate editor in the Avengers office! The editor is, in a way, what a producer is in film. They bring the right talent together to make a book sing, keep their team on track, and supervise putting all the pieces together. So a lot of what I do is coordinating with writers and artists, keeping track of schedules, casting books, editing the scripts and comics themselves, and so on. My favorite snack food is pretzels—I couldn’t survive without them!
What got you started reading comics?
I got a box of cereal with a demo of the Activision Spider-Man computer game inside, and it completely hooked me on Spidey. There was no comic shop near me growing up, so I devoured whatever I could find in the library or borrow from my friends. What really hooked us back then was Runaways—we’d countdown to each new issue and speculate about who was going to end up with who, or who was going to betray the team—it was a fun time to be a reader!
What were some of your formative media experiences? I know you’re a Tales of Symphonia fan, which puts you high up on the list of people who rule, but what else?
The Hobbit was my first love—I was a really timid, shrimpy kid in elementary school, and reading about a timid, shrimpy hero saving the day without changing who he was made a big impact on my confidence and self-image. Because of The Hobbit, I understood from a pretty young age how empowering it is to see yourself reflected in the media you consume. And the Bionicle comics and novels that LEGO put out in the early 2000s continue to rock my world. I love the characters and the lore—they were so good at building an ensemble cast full of vivid characters that struggled to work together, and I think it’s a large part of the reason I have so much fun working on ensemble books. Bionicle really made me love messed-up team dynamics full of strong personalities.
How did you go from reader to editorial?
I started my first webcomic in high school, really just because I was mad that a pairing in my favorite manga didn’t turn out the way I wanted and I was trying to “fix” it. From there, I worked as an editor and cartoonist on my college newspaper, and started another webcomic after college as a way to teach myself different aspects of the medium. I didn’t have any connections when I applied to Marvel, I just went through the Disney jobs website. I was stunned when they reached out right after I graduated—all I can think is that I must have written a hell of a cover letter. But it was actually two years and over 200 pages of a webcomic before I accumulated enough experience to actually land the job. So, uh… keep grinding!
One of the reasons I wanted to reach out to you was that I started to notice your name on many of the books I’m reading (Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, West Coast Avengers) or was thrilled to hear about (Unstoppable Wasp, Ironheart). Can you talk a little bit about how editors work at Marvel? Too often, readers assume that editors do nothing more than check grammar and spelling, and I’d love them to see a fuller picture.
I say regularly that the types of people who make good editors don’t make good proofreaders, and vice versa. It’s a totally different mindset. I’m looking at the forest—does this line communicate what it needs to, does this character’s actions make sense, does this transition work, do the stakes feel high enough, etc—and a proofreader looks at the trees—misspelled or missing words, grammar mistakes, incorrect balloon tails, and so on. Sometimes you have to break linguistic rules for the sake of clarity, or to hit a certain tone–and that’s when you have to step in as an editor because it’s your job to make sure the reader can follow the story. But our books would be disastrous without our proofreading team.
How involved are you in the development process of new titles? What does that look like from your end?
Very involved! It can be one of the most enjoyable and creative parts of the process—finding a team that just clicks on every level and helping them refine their ideas. Development usually either starts with a creator coming to you with an idea, or you going to the right creator to refine an idea or pitch for a character. It’s a lot of work to come up with something that feels saleable, compelling, and exciting, but when something hits right, it’s so worth it.
I’d love to hear more about what the development process is like. We talked to Jeremy Whitley a little while ago about Unstoppable Wasp, and how the character was developed from her initial Free Comic Book Day appearance to the (uncancelled!) ball of sunshine she is now, but we didn’t discuss the process of creating an ongoing series. If you’re willing to go more in-depth on the subject, could you take us through the process of the initial idea to that first issue?
When we were creating Nadia with Mark Waid, we wanted someone who had the spunk and spirit of Janet Van Dyne along with the obsessive intelligence of her father, Hank Pym—it seemed like a fun and unique combination with a lot of possibilities.
Jeremy was actually the only writer we got a pitch from when we decided to spin her out of Avengers. He had a long history of writing great female characters, as well as stories with humor and heart. All we really went to him with was the idea that Nadia could be working on getting her citizenship, and that tonally, maybe it had a Kimmy Schmidt vibe—a girl who’s been through something horrible setting out to live life to its fullest. Jeremy came up with the idea that Nadia would form a lab, and recruit interesting new members throughout the first arc, all while dealing with her Red Room past. We had a few notes for him here and there, but we were mostly able to just let him run with it.
Elsa Charretier caught our eye on Starfire and we knew she’d give the book a unique and exciting energy, but I don’t think even we were prepared for how charming she made Nadia and her friends. And Megan Wilson had just finished Hellcat, so we snapped her up to create Nadia’s striking and colorful world. They really made magic together—I don’t know if we’d still be talking about Wasp without them.
The art in Unstoppable Wasp has always been incredible, and the team you worked to assemble has brought it to life twice now. I must admit, Starfire is a special book for me, and it’s good to know that Elsa’s work wasn’t just great in that book, but led to something like the finalized creation of Nadia as we know her now. As to the question: some of us may not know just how much time it takes to produce a series. How long was it to go from Jeremy’s initial pitch to the first issue, and is that timeline typical of the development you’ve seen at Marvel? And on your end, what is the longest development process you’ve been involved in for a book—and if you can share, what book was it?
Looking back at my old files, Wasp 1 had a pretty long gestation period—we got the first pitch from Jeremy in June 2016, and the first issue came out in January 2017. We’re not usually lucky enough to have so much lead time—it meant Elsa and Megan could both get cleanly through a full arc without interruption, and it also meant print-week production ran really smoothly. We don’t usually get that lucky! For instance, we really had to hit the ground running (so to speak) on Quicksilver: No Surrender because it had to launch right after Avengers: No Surrender. But we got it done!
I think the book I’ve worked on with the longest development period started before I even worked at Marvel. Genndy Tartakovsky’s Luke Cage book had been kicking around the office for years. It was created with an open deadline, and kept getting shelved for various reasons until the right combo of the Netflix show starting and Genndy expressing interest brought it back to life. That one was a blast to work on. I was happy to inherit it!
Since no single day encompasses everything you do at your job, what does a typical week look like for you?
Usually, we’re putting about 3-6 comics to print in any given week (though I’ve done as many as 11, I think). So those have to keep rolling through the system while you’re preparing books for next week, and working on projects in development, and reading scripts, and gathering ref for artists, and checking in about deadlines—basically, a lot of multi-tasking!
Do you have a particular comic or set of comics that you look to as a gold standard?
Cable and Deadpool has been my go-to for a long time. I think it’s spectacular—a buddy dramedy with mountains of heart and a wicked sense of humor, that keeps a complex and ever-evolving relationship at its center. And the Ouran High School Host Club manga still regularly blows my mind. It’s a masterclass on pulling off an ensemble book that gives each character a complete and satisfying arc, and it’s just completely magical.
I’m so excited to see Eve Ewing taking on Ironheart, and can’t wait to see what new perspective she brings to the series. Ewing is an incredibly accomplished writer, but she’s new to comics, and there’s no question that learning a new writing format is always a different experience. As an editor, what is your process in helping a new writer, no matter who they might be, get in the groove of crafting workable scripts?
I’ve worked with several new writers at this point, so I’ve gotten a sense of what resources to provide them and what common pitfalls to warn them about. Eve’s taking to it like a fish to water, but there are definitely times crossover writers have needed a bit more coaching. And that’s fine! It’s what we’re here for. I love seeing people succeed, so anything I can do to help that along makes me happy.
Luke Cage and Jessica Jones are running concurrently, but there’s not a ton of crossover (at least in their first issues). They’re both present in each other’s stories in the way that married couples are always kind of present in each other’s lives, but the stories diverge in important ways. Working on both titles, do you find yourself wanting to push for Kelly Thompson and Anthony Del Col to share story ideas and play off each other, or are you more making sure they aren’t directly contradicting each other? How do you keep the titles consistent?
It’s not as much work as you’d think. In Jessica, Luke has largely stayed out of things to protect Danielle, and in Luke, Jess is away on a case in Europe. So they’re still very much a part of each other’s lives, but it leaves each book free to do its thing.
Comics readers have existed across a diverse spectrum as long as there have been comics; fans sometimes seem to forget that many of their favorite books were created by a couple of Jewish guys in New York who were the children of immigrants. But over time, comics readership has been perceived as primarily white and male. Of course, that’s never really been true, but those previously marginalized readers—LGBTQIA folks, people of color, people of all genders—have been much more vocal about their love of comics. What do you think has sparked that trend, and how have you responded to it creatively? For that matter, how have you responded to it personally?
I think the films have made comics a lot more accessible to new audiences, and that’s wonderful. When I was starting out, it was definitely hard to find jumping-on points, which is why I found myself mostly embracing the Ultimate Comics line and books like Runaways. Now, anyone who’s seen a movie in the past few years has a good shot at picking up a comic and understanding what’s going on. Plus, for all the problems that social media can cause, it’s also given a platform to diverse voices in fandom that have been there all along but weren’t necessarily being listened or catered to because they didn’t adhere to an old-fashioned idea of who can be a comics fan. And I think that new platform is a net positive, even if I do just want to storm away from Twitter sometimes!
After the cancellation of Unstoppable Wasp, you encouraged readers to buy the trades to help support the series (which worked, and thank you!). Do you think that trade numbers are a factor in comics in a way that single issues aren’t, and if so, why? What about digital issues?
I think we’re definitely making an effort to get better at sustaining series that do well in trade and digital, which I find encouraging. The only downside is because trades come out so much later, we don’t always get those numbers fast enough to rescue a book, so pre-ordering single issues if you really love a series still helps.
The Marvel Digital Originals comics are a very cool new option for people like myself who don’t read single issue floppies for a number of reasons (storage, the complicated relationship between femme folk and comic book stores, or the convenience of a digital device). Why was this implemented, to begin with, and how, as an editor, do you take on digital-first titles compared to physical issues?
We realized that a lot of the books based on TV properties weren’t generating huge single-issue sales, but were excelling in the digital and trade markets. So the thought was, rather than expecting floppy sales to support them and having to curtail certain series before they can hit their stride, we see if we can take them directly to the markets where they fare best. I’m really excited for the potential of the MDO program!
For many years, New York was the place to be if you were any genre or type of writer, and comics was no exception—especially with Stan Lee scripting nearly every Marvel comic in the ’60s. That has been noticeably changing over recent years—Ms. Marvel focuses on Jersey City, West Coast Avengers is in L.A., and Ironheart will have a lot of involvement in Chicago. What do you think is bringing about this change, and how do you think it might continue to evolve?
I think giving individual characters a “beat” is a great way to build a whole world around them and explore how that world impacts who they are—in the same way that Daredevil has come to be defined by his relationship to Hell’s Kitchen. West Coast Avengers was born largely because Kelly was able to build such a distinct and wonderful world for Kate Bishop out in California.
Let’s use Unstoppable Wasp as a case model for a minute. For many fans, the return of Unstoppable Wasp feels like a sea change in terms of many different things: diverse characters, consideration of how modern books are selling, and what an audience for a particular comic might be. Do you think that comics that reach out in this way, not just in terms of popularity but in terms of the way they are popular, will be a continuing element in Marvel’s output? And if so, how?
I think they have to be—there’s an enormous audience out there in the YA, library, and bookstore markets that we’re only just beginning to tap into. And since that’s the audience that I was very much a part of growing up, I’m excited that we’re doing more to reach out to fans who are starting out like I did. Of course, the more support we see for those books and programs, the more we’ll do, so if there’s one you love, get loud about it! Every bit helps!
After talking with Alanna, I was struck by how passionate she is, both as a fan and as a creative force. To succeed in a creative field, I believe that you have to love both the general medium with which you’re working and the specific work you’re doing, and Alanna Smith has been very successful. Helping to foster an atmosphere of inclusion, of openness, of making sure fans are given every chance they can to enjoy the stories they love—that’s what I’ve been asking from Marvel since always; it feels fantastic to get to recognize her as part of the teams delivering exactly what I want and need in comics.
There have always been creators I followed in comics: Greg Rucka, Kelly Thompson, Jeremy Whitley, Mariko Tamaki, Nicola Scott, and Joelle Jones to list off a handful. Just like I pick up the new Alyssa Cole title without worrying about reading the back of the book, I snag copies of titles by these writers and artists without too much thought.
Going forward, when I see Alanna Smith’s name in editorial on a book, I will make sure it gets my attention. I feel confident I’m going to be reading a book that incorporates strong characterization, powerful themes, and deep emotional experiences without sacrificing the big scale conflicts that make superhero books so very fun.
(Cowriter: Mathias DeRider)
Want to read trades that Alanna Smith has previously worked on? Try: