3 Things I Learned about the Art of Editing a Comic

by Jean Mathew

Published at 2018-05-02

Behind every delicious comic is a very sharp-eyed editor. Or at least I'd like to think so! I'm mostly a comic writer/illustrator, but over time I learned how to be a comic editor as well. As an editor, I learned that comic editing is a very finicky business. I've been sharing some of my comic-making conundrums with the staff at The Editing Company as I put together a small book for this year's Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF). They asked that I share some of my experiences, so here is a small list of things I learned while editing my comics.



1. The Final Product Looks 1000% Different From the First Draft

The comic’s style does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to meaning, pace, tone, and atmosphere. This means that even the best of scripts can fall short if it’s not paired well with an equally compelling style. For example, to achieve a comedic tone in a comic, the dialogue needs to be witty but the illustrations need to be just as flamboyant! Consider Garfield. His rotund belly, googly eyes, and wide grin ease the reader into a world of cheeky mischief.


As an editor, it was my job to judge the effectiveness of the comic’s textual AND visual language just as any editor would consider the effectiveness of a writer’s prose. Since I wanted to put together a comedic autobiography of quirky anecdotes, I needed a style that would convey humour, vibrancy, and excitement. Unfortunately, when I started putting together my comic, I chose to work in a very tedious style.




Not only was the style exhausting to repeat page after page, it wasn’t terribly exciting or funny on its own. So I looked at the visual elements of the comic’s earliest drafts and identified weakness (parts that I didn’t enjoy). I began to realize that both my text and visuals were too cumbersome. There was always a lot happening on every page.


With each iteration, the comic began to take shape. A shape that was much different from draft 1 or draft 4. Many times the surprise of comic creating is that you never are quite certain what the finished product will look like. With a lot of editing, that final draft would certainly be a historic landmark for editors and creators alike.      



2. Text-Art-Graphic Design: You have to know it all!

Every comic showcases a unique intertwining of narrative, dialogue, illustrations, and design. If you remember back to your favourite comics, many of them were created by a team of artists. As an editor, you have to be able to keep an eye out on each of these unique aspects of comic creation.


For example, there are two ways you see text in a comic: text boxes and speech bubbles. I discovered that despite adjusting for font size, a speech bubble has limited space before it bursts! Since your eyes are moving very quickly across a page, the pace will be slowed to a halt with unwieldy text in the middle of a page. So instead, many speech bubbles are quite small. A small bubble will allow you to look at the image and the text at the same time—like subtitles in a foreign-language film. Not to mention, no one wants to cover up the hard work of an artist with a speech bubble.


So as an editor, in many cases I edited dialogue because of a very specific image I wanted on the page. If the images were large and I didn’t want it covered up, I would edit my dialogue down to short quips. I was more generous on pages where white space was in abundance. In respect to images, like I mentioned earlier, the visual language becomes a key feature in conveying tone and meaning.


My editing didn’t end with images and text though. I also have to keep an eye on the design, layout, and formatting of my comic. I have to keep in mind what will work and look good in print. In my particular comic, I include collaged materials and photographs. Though the idea sounds wonderful, some images and materials will not look clear when scanned. For example, I occasionally used clear tape to attach a photograph to a page. I wanted a homemade feel. But when scanned through, the tape would not be as visible as it would be on the original. With that in mind, I chose to use coloured tape or to crinkle the tape a little before attaching pieces together. This became a solution that worked well and one I applied throughout the book.



3. It’s not what you want, but what you can do. (And do well!)

While editing my comics, I learned how to compromise. In my head, there are a number of things I would like to execute—from ambitious illustrations and prose to unique ways of formatting. But the greatest editing skill is to have the foresight to recognize in the earliest stages of comic making, the things that will work and those that will not. I ask myself these questions:


  • I would like to tell a particular story, but do I have the skill to execute what I envision?
  • Can the things I want to say fit physically on a single page?
  • Do these two images complement one another on a spread?
  • How does the book look on the whole?
  • Do I have a range of formats from page to page? 
  • Do I have the financial resources to print the amount of pages I want?


At the end of the day, editing for comics is all about playing into your strong suits. Keeping things simple. Be willing to cut and revise. And certainly a lot of heavy-duty compromising in order to produce a clear, wonderful, spectacular work of comic art!

I launch my work “Brown Kid in Korea” at TCAF 2018. The comic fest will be held on May 12-13 at the Toronto Reference Library. Enjoy this sample of my forthcoming comic book!