Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Fireside Chat with Scott Allie, Editor-in-Chief of Dark Horse

It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to our latest Fireside Chat.  Our special guest is the one and only Scott Allie, Editor-in-Chief for Dark Horse Comics and all around nice guy.  He graciously took time out of his infinitely busy schedule of overseeing a bajillion comic books to talk with us here at The Weekly Crisis.  Scott is a man with lots of experience behind him and lots to say.  We covered a variety of topics, including the storyarc he recently cowrote with Mike Mignola for BPRD (part 2 of which drops today), his history at Dark Horse, the great city of Portland, and much, much more.  Please join us on the other side of the cut for our in-depth talk.

Scott Allie is a man who needs no introduction.  But just for kicks, let's do one anyways.  Kind of a big deal in comic book circles, Scott Allie recently hit 18 years of working with Dark Horse.  He's been hard at work at the company for each and every one of them, starting to edit Mike Mignola's Hellboy only one month after joining the editorial department.  All his hard work was most recently rewarded with a promotion to Editor-in-Chief at Dark Horse.  However, the change in title has not changed his output, as he continues to edit all things Hellboy, Dark Horse's Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics, The Goon, and plenty of other books.  He also somehow finds time to write comics, the most recent of which is BPRD #104 Hell on Earth: Abyss of Time Part 2.

Grant McLaughlin: Thanks for taking the time, Scott. Let's start this off with a couple of broad questions. What drives your passion for comics? And how did that bring you to Dark Horse?

Scott Allie: I didn't read comics as a real little kid, started reading at about 13 or 14. I always thought that was a little weird, that I fell so much in love with this medium, but didn't start as early as other people. But last night we had this big dinner party over here with a bunch of writers and artists, including a couple from out of town since not every creator lives in Portland yet. But I found it funny how many of us came to comics as teens instead of preteens. That's probably very common these days, but I thought it was still the exception in people my age. Maybe not.

I got really serious about them in high school, moreso in college, and then after college I got a job as an assistant editor at a literary magazine, Glimmer Train. I loved that, loved having a job putting a book together. I only did that for a little over year, and that led to self-publishing, and I was doing that in Portland and promoting the book, which led me to making friends with a bunch of people at Dark Horse. So when they were looking for an assistant editor a few months later, and I'd run out of money self-publishing, I jumped at it.

GM: Steering us towards these two BPRD issues, why did you and Mike want to tell the story of Abyss of Time? And why now, right after the big "The Return of the Master" arc (especially considering that this tale takes place before the events of that story)?

Allie: It's funny—we started doing this group of stories, beginning with Pickens County and The Transformation of JH O'Donnell, because John Arcudi has been so focused on action stories, and we wanted some horror stories in BPRD. So we said, Let's do some cool horror stories, and I love what we did with Pickens and O'Donnell. But as we went forward, Mignola came up with this crazy-ass time-travel story, involving some caveman stuff that he'd been wanting to do, and the Hyperborean origins of the current end-of-days threat that we're facing in BPRD. So in all honesty, the reason it happened now has a lot to do with everyone's schedules and whatnot. It was not necessarily the story that needed to be told after Return of the Master—although it did need to be told before some other stuff we have coming up.

GM: You've written a few stories with Mike before. What is your collaboration process like? How does it compare to when you're editing his work?

Allie: I always say that my job as an editor and my job as a writer are just different points on a spectrum, and that each book falls at a different place. There are books I edit that I basically cowrite, books I barely have to proofread, and everything in between. Even when Mike and I cowrite, there's a real range. Abyss of Time was his story. He gave me a pretty rough outline, then we talked it through a lot, I wrote the script, and he had a heavy hand in rewriting it. Of all the books that Mike is credited as cowriter on, Abyss of Time is more his work than many others. With the upcoming Abe Sapien series, he gave me some notes, we've had a lot of conversations, but he's been far less hands on with those scripts.

As his editor, I've been his primary sounding board for eighteen years. He talks through his stories a lot. This may sound goofy, but in a lot of ways Mike is sort of an oral storyteller—he tells me a story over and over, maybe tells it to Duncan Fegredo, Arcudi, maybe his wife, god help her. And in telling it over the phone, he's refining it before he ever gets around to putting it on paper. I think that lends the story a certain kind of life. Also, he does a lot of revision out loud, so less retyping.

GM: How does The Abyss of Time stand out for you or differ from your earlier writing credits in the BPRD universe?

Allie: James Harren brought a tremendous level of crazy to it. In our quest to do horror stories as opposed to John's action stories, we wound up with something that's like 45% fight scene, because no one does action like James Harren. I'm really trying to write to the artists' strengths, and James does wild monsters, and explosive action. This story also allowed me to do some Robert E. Howard-type stuff that I never got to in the Solomon Kane stories I wrote. Working with James is just great all around. He's got a ton of energy, really creative, adds a lot to whatever you give him, and is just terribly gracious.

GM: Could you speak a little about the BPRD agents we meet in this story? How do they differ from other Bureau Agents to make them the appropriate protagonists for Abyss?

Allie: We love the BPRD, and we love the idea that the BPRD is this huge organization way beyond Liz and Abe and Hellboy. So in doing these side series, these horror stories Mike and I set out to do, we wanted to deal with regular agents, working stiffs dealing with this craziness. None of the characters in Abyss have appeared before. Their limited but specific level of knowledge was important to this story—Mike and John and I like the idea of these missions being carried out by people who don't necessarily know a lot about demonology and whatnot, but they've got bits and pieces.

Howards, though, he was fun to create because I knew I was creating him for really just a small handful of pages, as Howards, and that most of the time we'd see him as Gall Dennar, and when we see him as Gall Dennar, even he isn't sure if he's more Gall or Howards. Doing him in a long running story could have been a lot of fun for me, but just seeing this glimpse of this adventure with him required a character shorthand that I had fun with.

GM: On a related bent, this story revolves around a sword that has appeared (or looks like it has appeared) in a number of Hellboy stories before. A similar sword was pretty central to the first Witchfinder series, and blades similar to it appeared in the first BPRD story as well as the first Lobster Johnson series. Are these all the same sword? Is this the last we'll see of the blade?

Allie: They're not all the same sword, but it is the same sword a couple times. And you will see it, and other versions of it, again. But most importantly, the sword is tied to a certain period of Hyperborean history, and that's a period that is important to what is happening today.

GM: You've mentioned horror quite a bit already here, and your writing often seems to have a certain horror flair to it. What is it about this genre that grabs you?

Allie: Unlike comics, I connected with horror as a genre at a very young age. I'm a pretty laid back guy, low affect, never really athletic. Horror always got my blood pumping. The adrenaline, the catharsis. I think that's what I got out of it at a young age. It was more my love of that emotional reaction than anything else. It's not that I loved monsters, or certainly not violence, but it was that feeling I got. I remember running out of the room the first time I ever saw the Wicked Witch of the West. Whatever it was that caused me to literally run out of the room, that's the feeling I've been chasing the last forty odd years. Since then I've grown real fond of a lot of the tropes of the genre and the various subgenres, but I would always rather get or deliver that creepy feeling than see two monsters fight each other. 

Comics are great for horror. People forgot that, because superheroes dominated for so long—to the exclusion of everything else for a long time, whereas now they just dominate by a wide margin. But the nature of comics, the way you're given the image, the words, but are still left to put the story together in your own head, this is a great way to take in a horror story. 

GM: Are there any horror tales burning a hole in your psyche right now that you're just dying to tell?

Allie: Yeah, but that's not the most driving thing for me. I'm more obsessed with how to tell a story, effects I want to try to get out of storytelling, and then finding the story that best achieves that. I have a few personal things, true life stories, I want to do. I have a thing with Tim Seeley, but right now writing Abe Sapien is giving me the greatest opportunity I've ever had to tell the kind of story I want to tell. 

GM: That's good to hear. Will definitely have to check it out once it drops. Back on the subject of Hellboy, with the title going on for 18+ years with anywhere between three and five (if not more) Helloby universe books coming out ever month, how do you (and presumably Mike) keep everything in place and in order?

Allie: My assistant, Daniel Chabon, is key to that. Dan does a lot to keep it all straight. We keep various spread sheets to help keep track of it all, but there's fun involved too. Mike's brain is such that he can juggle a lot of things, remember a lot of things. We're working on a map, now, to track the damage we're doing around the world. We keep wiping out cities, and it's hard to remember what shape they're all in, so you need various reference tools. The Hellboy Companion helps in some ways as well.

GM: When it comes to working with Mike, do you just let him run wild or do you have to rein him in at times?

Allie: No, I have no interest in reining him in! I want him to do whatever crazy stuff he wants to do. I think I help keep him focused and on track with his vision. None of it is about the editor, it's all about the creator. I help Mike execute his vision, just like I help Joss execute his vision, or Steve Niles, or Eric Powell. Sometimes with Mike and Joss that means I get to write, because I think what I do fits closely enough with their vision we can make it work.

GM: Speaking of your length of time with Hellboy, how did you end up editing the title? It's my understanding that you were pretty new at Dark Horse when Hellboy launched. Was it right place-right time, or was there something more to it?

Allie: Barbara Kesel was the original editor on Hellboy, and I came in a few months later when she was leaving. I was assigned as the temporary editor on Hellboy until they could get a real editor in. But Mike and I hit it off, we had all the same interests, and so he ultimately insisted they let me stay on as his editor. In part it was me asking him to redraw something I thought was unclear. He told my boss that it was the first time in fourteen years someone had asked him to fix something, which I assume is an exaggeration, but that was what he wanted from an editor.

GM: While we're on the topic, could you talk a bit about what it means to be a comic book editor. While I understand that the position can be somewhat nebulous, what are the type of things that you have to do and keep track of?

Allie: Sometimes people say, So, you're a comic book editor, you edit the balloons? No. Or not just that. We're project managers—if anyone in the company has a question about a book, they go to the editor for answers. We are the hub of information. We "edit" the art, the color, the text, all that. And we art direct the covers, we run the budgets, the schedules, we supervise teams of creators as well as assistant editors.

I remember when I was a newly minted editor at Dark Horse and I was lobbying for a parking space, and someone said, Parking spaces go to managers. At the time I was managing Mike Mignola, Joss Whedon, and probably thirty other creators in a given month, but I was less of a manager than someone who just had a single assistant. So the Editor in Chief thing is nice, because now I have a parking spot.

GM: With all the editing and writing you've been up to, I have to ask how the move to Editor in Chief affected your day to day work at all? I read in an interview shortly after the promotion that you'd already been working at a lot of the responsibilities you'd be assuming. Have you found that to hold true after these initial months in the position?

Allie: I greatly underestimated what the title was gonna do. I thought I was already doing the job, Mike Richardson sort of thought I was doing it, but when I got the title other members of the staff started involving me in ways they hadn't before. Things have changed pretty significantly, but I'm still editing a pretty fair roster of books. I have really good coworkers on my books—Sierra Hahn, Dan Chabon, Freddye Lins, Shantel Larocque—and I think we're in on the same goals enough that it's really easy for us to collaborate in a way that gets the work done. 

GM: With all these different responsibilities you have to contend with on a daily basis, do you have much time for reading outside of your work? If so, what have you been digging lately (comics or non)?

Allie: None at all, and it depresses me. I have issues of Hawkeye and Revival stacking up unread. I have books about voodoo half started, and this crime series my wife and I read together that we haven't gotten anywhere with in ages. But I'm reading The Hobbit to my son, and that's going well. I hadn't read it since fifth grade, and it's amazing to me how much fun it is. So even though I'm reading it for Sid, it's reminding me to make comics fun, informing my work in a certain way. Everything does.

GM: Building a little on your mention of the dinner with Dark Horse creators, how often do you see the creators that you work with? Do you find that there's a difference between communicating with them via phone and internet versus face to face?

Allie: Thanks to being in Portland, I see creators all the time. My social circle is mostly writers and artists.

There's a huge difference between working with people by phone and email, and a much bigger difference with the in person thing. I've talked to Mignola on the phone nearly once a day for eighteen years, and so we are able to do everything we really need by phone—and that's somewhat built on a foundation of him having lived here for a number of years. But whenever we can use a convention to get Mike and John Arcudi and me together in one place, we try to make it happen. When we launched Buffy Season 8 with a writers summit in Santa Monica, with everyone face to face, it really helped kickstart that thing properly. And there's a project I'm pulling together now with a team of writers all based in Portland. Portland provides an opportunity that we try to take advantage of. Communication is just far more nuanced, clear, specific, and intuitive if you're face to face. A wise man once told me, "It's all about relationships," this work, and it's much more effective building relationships face to face. It can be done, but it's easier doing it face to face. The best thing about conventions is that face time you get with your key creators. The connections you build that way are irreplaceable. Face to face is invaluable; the phone is the next best thing. If you rely solely on email there is a level of connection that at the very least is much harder to attain, in my opinion. But society evolves. Probably some of the associate editors do all their correspondence through twitter and no one finds it weird.

GM: Haha, well I'll admit that that sounds a little weird to me, but maybe I'm behind the times. On the topic of Portland, do you have any idea how it came to be such a comic book mecca? I mean, New York is obviously still kind of a big deal, but there seems to be a real confluence of all things comics in Portland.

Allie: It evolved over a long time. I moved here in 1991, and Dark Horse was already here, and some creators moved here thinking it made sense to be near their publisher. That's how Mignola wound up here. I think artists were discovered here, because they had access that you don't get if you're not in the same place. And then some more companies sprung up, in part inspired by Dark Horse's example, in some cases springing up from former employees, the way Wieden and Kennedy's presence here guarantees there'll always be new ad companies starting up in Portland. Then people move to be closer to those publishers, and then other people come to be near their freelancer friends, and other people come thinking that something's going on they want to be a part of.

It grew so much that I remember a couple years ago going to a Stumptown party, and it was a very hipster-oriented young crowd—and these guys were so passionate about comics, and didn't care or think too much about Dark Horse or DC or Marvel—here was a subset of the comics community that bore no connection to what we do, and yet probably exists here in some sense because we're here. It's amazing how dynamic the local comics community is. 

GM: That's amazing. When it comes to conventions, beyond getting the chance to see the people you're working with, what are the other things that appeal to you about attending them?

Allie: I like connecting with retailers, and cons are good for that. In Portland there are a lot of comics shop that represent a lot of different styles of modern (and not so modern) retailing, but they're all Portland. So I like talking to retailers from other parts of the country, because they have really different experiences, different perspective on the business. I like seeing readers and hearing what they think about the books. It educates you, it informs how you do your job.

GM: Do you have a favourite con? Con memory?

Allie: Most of my "favorite" con memories are embarrassing stories about other people. We thrive on human misery. My favorite shows are New York Comic Con and ECCC in Seattle right now, but I'm trying to get to Heroes this year. I'm excited for C2E2 in Chicago to continue to grow. And I miss Wonder Con in San Francisco. 

GM: Fair enough. As we move towards the end of our chat, do you have any other upcoming projects that you're working on that you'd like to draw attention to here?

Allie: So much ... Hellboy in Hell is the most exciting thing right now, but there's a lot of other things happening. Obviously I am incredibly jazzed about the Abe Sapien series, in large part because of the artists, the amazing Fiumara brothers. They're fantastic. We're starting up the motor on Buffy Season 10, as we wrap up Season 9, and both of those are at once terrifying and exhilarating. And I have some new creator-owned stuff that's warming up right now that I'm excited to announce. Some creators Dark Horse has been eager to work with for a while ...

GM: Wow. That is quite a number of things. I'll have to keep my eyes out for them. While we've touched on bits and pieces of this in passing, what is it that keeps you at Dark Horse? And more globally, what keeps you in comics?

Allie: Well, the other part of that equation is Portland. I might get frustrated with parts of my life, but I can't imagine living anywhere but Portland. Portland is wonderful. I love it. And I can't imagine working in another comics company than Dark Horse. I love some of the other companies, but this one is very well suited to me. And the longest constant in my life has been comics. Comics has remained the focus, the reward, the place where I feel most confident I know what I'm doing since I was in college—this is leaving out, of course, aspects of life that aren't a part of this conversation. There might be days where I like the idea of moving on, either from comics, or Dark Horse, or Portland. But the math doesn't work—I can't abandon one of those and keep the other two very effectively, and there's never a day when I take all three things for granted.

GM: Alright. All that's left at this point is what we call the Literary Rorschach Test. I have ten words and I want you to respond to each word with the first thing that comes to mind. It can be everything from a word to a paragraph and anything in between. It's up to you.

Character - Driven
Collaboration – Fight (Ew, that's not good)
Backstory - Boring.
New - Exciting.
Horror - Comics.
Technology - Thumbs.
Like a Boss - Bruce.
Stumptown - Coffee.
Life - Death.
The End - Next issue.

Allie: This was great, Grant.

GM: Thanks so much, Scott.

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