Mark Chiarello is the editor and guiding force behind Wednesday Comics, which concluded its twelve-week run this week. The editor is the least glamorous (and least visible) member of the creative process, but without him or her, the books you hold in your hand wouldn't exist. The editor is responsible for corralling the talent, shepherding the sales staff, getting the publisher on board, and physically pushing the book out the door. If the editor has done his or her job, you never even notice that blue pencil.
To a person, every creator we've spoken to about their experience on Wednesday Comics has not only credited Chiarello for making their work better, but in many cases said that his stewardship was the reason they wanted to be a part of the book in the first place. So, for this penultimate edition of our Wednesday Comics column (we have a final recap/geek notes edition running tomorrow), we chatted with DC's Art Director about non-stop work days, why it takes five months to produce a 12-issue comic book, and why Supergirl is so much fun.
Newsarama: Every artist and writer we've spoken with has said that you spoke to them about the old-fashioned Sunday strips like Prince Valiant and Terry and the Pirates. Is it safe to assume you were a fan of the Sunday section growing up?
Mark Chiarello: Well, actually, when I was kid, the great days of the adventure strip in the Sunday sections was long gone. It was more humour and gag stuff. But, later in life, I became friends with the great artist Alex Toth, and he had this collection of old Sunday serials, like Terry and the Pirates and Prince Valiant. It was just incredible: I remember really marveling over the size and the scope of those strips, and how much drama that could be packed into these comics in that format. And I think the genesis of Wednesday Comics came out of that experience, with us wondering if DC could take this format and update with all the cool characters that we have.
Nrama: I don't ever recall seeing anything else like this on the stands in my 30 years of collecting, and I have to imagine this format was a somewhat difficult sale because it is so unusual.
Chiarello: I actually had to pitch it a couple of times, yeah. Paul [Levitz] and Dan [Didio] are my big bosses, and when I first pitched it, they looked at me kind of sideways. It wasn't a definite "no," but the reaction was that maybe this format was a little antiquated. What then I did, actually, was cut up a bunch of comics and I built a full size set of pages, about 20 inches tall that showed how modern comics could be presented in this format. And when they saw those pages, the light really went on. Right away, they gave it a go.
Nrama: All the creators we've talked to have said how much fun they've had on the project, and how they wish it could continue - but they've also said that your work has been immense. Brian Azzarello actually said he thought this project would kill you!
Chiarello: [Laughs] Yeah, it's been intense! It does sound pretty easy to the buying public on its face; y'know, each team has to do one page a week. That doesn't sound too horrible. And from the editorial point of view, I thought that we could build in a lot of deadline cushions.
Well, the reality was that the work caught up with everyone, especially the artists. The last five issues, I was really sweating. There were moments when I wanted to fall back on my Italian heritage and pick up the phone and drop a dime on someone, but it didn't come to that. I was smart enough to have two insurance pages created in case someone missed — a page of Plastic Man and a Creeper strip — which I fortunately ended up not having to use. I hope those will end up in the collection.
Nrama: So, there is going to be a collection?
Chiarello: Oh, yeah. They're working on it right now. It's a bit strange how we work it at DC, but once we're finished in editorial, the collection goes to a different department. I don't know the actual plan, I just hope it's going to be in a really big size! If it's a digest size, I'm going to kill someone. But I trust them!
Nrama: How much really was this? Was Brian exaggerating?
Chiarello: No. I've never worked this hard in my life. It really was coming in at 9am, and then working non-stop on Wednesday Comics until 6pm, and trying to jam everything else - you know, my "day job" here as the Art Director! - in sideways. Between working with the colorists, the letterers, the writers and pencillers... it just was a lot of juggling. It's funny, I've been done with it now for three weeks, and just talking about it now, it's giving me Nam flashbacks. It was five months, non-stop.
Nrama: Wow. Is it possible to do this again?
Chiarello: Well DC does want to do another go-around of this project. And, honestly, that is a bit daunting. Really, just thinking about wrangling all of those stories and writers and artists, and colorists and letterers, it does give me pause. But, having said that, the biggest part of the process was in building something from the ground up. We had never produced anything remotely like this at DC - we'd never printed anything this size, we'd never thought about this format - so from the conception to the actual execution really required building a whole machine to do it, and now that it's in place, it might be easier the next time around.
Nrama: You don't sound entirely convinced of that!
Chiarello: [Laughs] Well, no, I'm not! But, the cool thing is that I've had some really cool, top-end creators call me recently, all saying that if we do another that they'd love to participate, and that is really gratifying.
Nrama: Was there anyone you wanted to get on board but couldn't?
Chiarello: Yeah, both some creators and some DC characters. I had asked Darwyn Cooke to come on board, but his schedule didn't permit it, because he was knee-deep in the Parker novel project (The Hunter, released by IDW in July.). He really wanted to do it, so maybe next time. I'd love to see a Creeper strip, maybe even an Enemy Ace strip. DC has a lot of great characters, so maybe for the Return of Wednesday Comics — or the Son Of Wednesday Comics? — we can pull some of those folks and cool characters on board.
Nrama: Speaking of which, how hard was it to get people on board?
Chiarello: Actually, that was pretty easy. I used to work at Marvel in the 1980s, under Archie Goodwin, and he told me the greatest lesson an editor can learn is to simply to hire the very best guys and let them do what they do best. My job was just to get them in the front door! It really was a case of deciding how to fill each slot with a different flavor. You know, the Kuberts do something different than, say Paul Pope; and Azz does something different than Jimmy and Amanda, and it really was a case of just getting each slot up and running and then letting these incredibly talented artists and writers take over.
Nrama: And once the pitches were set, you just got out of the way?
Chiarello: Yeah. I don't think I got in anyone's way once they started. Every single strip worked that way. The visions were all very clear, and you know, there was never a case where things weren't working on a particular strip by the third week and I had to ask someone to change direction. It was pretty smooth.
Nrama: The reaction to the book has been overwhelmingly positive, too.
Chiarello: That's been really gratifying. It made me think I was a genius (ha)! The truth is, this whole thing worked because of the talent of the creators. You know, I'm the kind of guy that worries about everything. But, I kind of knew that with guys like Risso and Neil [Gaiman] and Joe Kubert and Jose [Garcia-Lopez] that this was a good bet. I mean, issue #1 sold 55,000 copies and the subsequent issues maintained around 40,000 each, which is pretty good for a weekly comic book. One of the coolest things was, we asked people to send in photos of themselves reading the book, and we got dozens of these photos, of kids and men and women and famous people reading it, and people out in the park or on the subway! They were posted on the DC Comics blog: The Source. That was great.
Nrama: Were you surprised by the fact that while you had the Big Three in the book, that fan reaction was so strong for strips like Kamandi or Supergirl?
Chiarello: No, you know, I wasn't. I mean, the reaction to Deadman and Kamandi and Metal Men - and all those are I guess, tertiary characters - was based half on the great creative teams and half on how cool the actual character is. I mean, Kamandi is so cool, and people want to read about the last boy on Earth. We didn't make decisions on characters for sales reasons; I wanted Batman in because I love Batman. And I think the whole result was that everyone had a lot of fun. I mean, look at Supergirl. That strip was so great, so immersive and just fun, it really brought the whole book back to its core. I'm old-fashioned, but I think that's what comics should be about, being fun.