Strange Animals 09nov2020: See Me Work

Nothing important happened last week, huh. How about that?

Weirdly, though, while everyone was glued to their timeline, my October social media hiatus managed to give me the discipline to only check the US election results twice a day, and I had a reasonably productive week (also, there were deadlines), despite being slightly jittery like everyone else.

In fact, Saturday, even before the election was called, felt like the first normal day I had in a long time. I had breakfast at my favourite neighbourhood café (which now has a socially distanced outdoor seating arrangement), chatted with the owners and other regulars like I used to do, and read a book. Kinda depressing how good having a normal afternoon felt. Same with the result, I guess.

1. Notes

Books-wise, I don’t think I have anything new releasing this week. (If I’m wrong, I’ll correct it next week. I’m not sure why publishers don’t send their contributors a list of books releasing in the week, but they don’t.)*

* Precisely one of my writers ever sent the whole team an email right before an issue released, with a press package that included the cover and the first few pages which we could use on social media. It’s a good idea, and more folks should do it.

Work-wise, my frantic run of the last 5-6 months finally came to an end (fingers crossed). I’ve been saying I need a week off since at least July, and I’m finally getting one now, and once I get back from that, I’ll be on a normal two-to-three-books-a-week schedule. I haven’t accepted any new projects in a while, but that’ll take a few months to reflect in my schedule to the point where I can control it and designate my long-desired one day per week for fonts or writing. In fact, that’s what I wanted to talk about in my main essay this week – a nuts-and-bolts rundown on what a letterer’s schedule looks like, and how one pays for all those tiny overestimations of one’s own abilities one constantly makes.

Other than that, I’m currently working on my story for the Doctor Who Forgotten Lives anthology. It was difficult finding the time for this last month, but I have a few days now when I can just work on it, and I should be done with a good draft by the end of the week. It’s the first-ever story I’m consciously trying to write as fun. I’ve done three Doctor Who-related stories so far (two Faction Paradox, and one Iris Wildthyme), but this is the first time I’m using the character of the Doctor, and that’s quite a different proposition. It’s not a Doctor you’ve seen on screen beyond a single picture, but it’s still the Doctor. Plus, the idea of a fun story fits with my pitch, which can be boiled down to an inversion of Dan Slott’s Silver Surfer run. He wrote the Silver Surfer as Doctor Who, so I wanted to do Doctor Who in a Jack Kirby universe. It changed along the way, but it’s in a similar arena, and I hope it will be an enjoyable read. Finally, the most difficult part of me with this story is, while I want it to be smart, it is also a Doctor Who story, so I want it to be sincere. And good lord, it’s surprisingly difficult to write sans the ability to fall back on irony. (You should check out Paul Hanley’s illustration for my incarnation of the Doctor here – the second in the post – where he both digs out some very interesting information about this Doctor, and goes in a fantastic direction with the design.)

2. Organisation (Part 1)

I wanted to do an essay on the evolution of my scheduling setup for lettering – not because I have it all figured out, but because this moment feels like an important point of transition for me, where the work I put in for the last months will hopefully pay off, so I want to remember how complicated and difficult it was getting through this bit, and to avoid falling into the same traps over and over.

When I started freelancing, in the dim past of late 2015, I was both unaware of how comic-book scheduling worked, and desperate not to lose ground on account of living on the other side of the world from the rest of the industry. Scheduling wasn’t a big problem, because I wasn’t working on that many projects at once, but on the other hand, for the first couple of years, I frequently pulled all-nighters to get books to print, or to get them in on the day someone had asked me to, without ever questioning the process. I simply assumed everyone around me knew better, not yet realising how haphazard a lot of the organisation in comics tends to be.

I’ve always felt that, practically, one of the main parts of the letterer’s job is to make things easier for the rest of the creative team. Other than maybe the designer, the letterer’s work on the book takes the least amount of time, and as one of my writers said to me, “There’s a limited amount of rope, and you folks are at the end of it.” For sure, clients want good letterers, but they also need someone they don’t have to think about too much, because their focus is on getting the rest of the thing done.

Say, a book needs to go to print on the 28th, and the artist is supposed to finish their work on the 20th, and the colourist on the 23rd. If the artist happens to finish on the 25th, you still have to wrap things up by the 28th, so you’ll have the colourist and the letterer working on the last few pages concurrently, and all your lead time as the letterer is gone.

For a letterer, this means that you have to constantly shuffle books around so that, say, you thought you’d work on it on the 23rd and the 24th, and now you have to move other books to accommodate this one. And sometimes, one of the other books also doesn’t come in till the 25th, so you’re now finishing up two books in the time you’d allotted for one.

I’ve been asked by people outside the industry why letterers can’t simply push back and say that since the delay wasn’t our fault, we would take the time we’d originally allotted to finish the work. This is mostly down to how the direct market works. You decide your book’s on-sale date three months beforehand, when it’s solicited in Previews, and then retailers put in their orders, and finalise them by the FOC – the final order cutoff date. If your book slips from your on-sale date by a week or two, retailers get to change their orders, and usually, you end up losing sales. In the early issues of a direct market series, the amount of money you lose from this is often more than you’re paying your letterer, so a letterer who pushed back is in a difficult position. Bigger companies will sub in a different letterer for an issue, but if you’re a creator-owned book, this is probably something both the creator and the letterer would like to avoid. Plus – and here’s the danger – that letterer is no longer making things easier for the rest of the creative team, and that can affect both your relationship with a particular team and your reputation.

I’ll add the caveat that this has changed in the last five years, especially since the pandemic. The market itself has changed, books often get completed before they’re released, people don’t pin all their hopes on single issues, and the direct market itself is a smaller component than it used to be. Still, this is something one needs to choose one’s moment over.

In any case, I was trucking along, busy but mostly doing fine, until the pandemic hit. If you recall, comics stopped shipping for a while, and the number of projects on my desk dropped, though some people were still working ahead. I took on a few more projects for the future, because of the uncertainty. And then, when things started back up, instead of the break I’d expected, I was lettering an overfull slate of books – both the older books that had now started back up, and newer books I’d agreed to with the expectation that they’d be coming in much later – with way fewer hours per day available to work on them.

This bit was entirely my fault – for the last many years, I’d coasted on a lifestyle of working a lot and living on takeout. I hadn’t ever faced up to the labour that it takes to simply keep your life going if outside help is no longer available. I was assuming I’d be doing the same amount of work per day, not realising that had only been possible because I’d outsourced the essentials.

By the end of May, I was in over my head – I had way too much work to get done, clients who had already lost months of potential income and didn’t want further delays, the usual scheduling messes plus new messes because of the shutdown, and unlike before, I couldn’t just devote every waking moment to work. The next five months, till the end of October, were genuinely miserable. Most of my working days were 20 pages rather than the previous average of about 15. I didn’t think about anything but work, and I was mentally and physically wrecked.

On the other hand, by the end of October, I’d finished all the work I owed, without the quality of the work suffering, and I didn’t blow any deadlines, despite no breathing room. This was down to the organisation I brought in over those five months. Every time I had a free moment, I’d sit and figure out what my next big problem was, and I’d create an organisational solution that would give me some measure of control over it. Something that wouldn’t necessarily eradicate the source of my misery – which was too much work with limited time – but that would maximise the amount of information I had to take the next set of decisions. The last six months taught me more about the sheer labour of being a letterer than the last five years.

I started May with one worksheet and a Trello board, and ended October a nervous wreck, but one armed with tools that I’m quite sure are going to make the future much easier.

And I’ll talk about those specific problems and their solutions next week, because this has already ended up slightly too long, and this seems like a good place to split this up.

3. Sundry

Linkblogging for the week:

  • Stewart Lee interviewing Alexei Sayle on his autobiography.

  • Stuart Immonen occupies a strange place in comics in terms of being a workhorse and an incredible comics grammarian at the same time – often on the same project. I’ve generally felt that his collaborators (other than his wife Kathryn, and some shorter collaborations) are not worthy of him, and this novella-length Comics Journal interview explains why when you see his approach to picking up projects and how he collaborates with writers.

  • This is a lovely essay written by a Dalit woman about her father and life in the pandemic.

  • Awkward, an animated film about life’s uncomfortable moments.

This week’s reading:

  • November Vol. 3 – Matt Fraction, Elsa Charretier, Matt Hollingsworth & Kurt Ankeny: Possibly the strongest entry yet, which is saying a lot. Each volume focusses on one main character’s backstory while moving the overall narrative, and that continues here. I can’t wait to see what the collective effect of all four volumes is going to be.

  • Oracle Night – Paul Auster: First new Auster in a while, read on Ram V’s recommendation. Loved it through and through – read the whole thing over the weekend. I’m always amazed at how Auster balances formal deftness with the weight of human emotions. Might actually like this a little more than City of Glass, but that might just be the novelty of reading this for the first time, while I’ve probably read City of Glass far too many times.

4. Recommended Listening

I’ve recommended Behind the Bastards before, back when they did their “Behind the Police” series. This time, I wanted to recommend their recent two-part series on the Satanic Panic, which both illuminates how QAnon is working right now, and which is personally interesting to me because the Satanic Panic forms a big part of The Department of Truth. As usual, it’s a detailed look, with lots of grounded information and commentary, and frequently quite darkly funny. Part One and Part Two.

5. From the Commonplace Book

From John Higgs’s Stranger Than We Can Imagine, this is the author explaining why French anarchist Martial Bourdin targeted the Royal Observatory at Greenwich for his failed bombing attempt:

In ancient history there is a concept called an omphalos. An omphalos is the centre of the world or, more accurately, what was culturally thought to be the centre of the world. Seen in a religious context, the omphalos was also the link between heaven and earth. It was sometimes called the navel of the world or the axis mundi, the world pillar, and it was represented physically by an object such as a pillar or a stone.

An omphalos is a universal symbol common to almost all cultures, but with different locations. To the ancient Japanese, it was Mount Fuji. To the Sioux, it was the Black Hills. In Greek myth, Zeus released two eagles in order to find the centre of the world. They collided above Delphi, so this became the Greek omphalos. Rome itself was the Roman omphalos, for all roads led there, and later still Christian maps became centred on Jerusalem.

On New Year’s Eve 1900, the global omphalos was the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, South London.

The Royal Observatory is an elegant building, founded by Charles II in 1675 and initially designed by Sir Christopher Wren. In 1900 the world was measured from a line that ran north-south through this building. This international standard had been agreed at a conference in Washington DC sixteen years earlier, when delegates from twenty-five countries voted to accept Greenwich as the prime meridian. San Domingo voted against and France and Brazil abstained, but the meeting was largely a formality; 72 per cent of the world’s shipping used sea charts that listed Greenwich as zero degrees latitude, and the USA had already based its time zones on Greenwich.

Here, then, was the centre of the world, a seat of science bestowed by royal patronage. It overlooked the Thames in London, the capital city of the largest empire in history. The twentieth century only began when the clocks in this building declared that it had begun, because the calibrations of those clocks were based on the positions of the stars directly above. This modern, scientific omphalos had not lost the link between heaven and earth.

Filed under #history.