What Do Graphic Novel Editors Do? Ask Calista Brill!

Calista, left, with First Second designer Colleen AF Venable.

Love stories? Want to spend your days making them come to life? Well, here’s one woman who has a very cool job doing just that—and she’s here to tell us all about it!

Calista Brill is the Senior Editor at the graphic novel publisher First Second Books. In her four years there, she’s edited titles like Anya’s Ghost, by Vera Brosgol (which won an Eisner Award last year), Feynman, by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick (which was a #1 New York Times bestseller), and Relish, out this week by Lucy Knisley. Read on to learn what the life of a graphic-novel editor is like—and get some awesome recommendations to add to your spring-break reading list!

What was the first graphic novel you really loved?

It’s hard to say, because I’ve been reading comics for as long as I can remember – and loving them! Some of my early loves were Uncle Scrooge, Little Lulu, and Tintin. But in terms of long-form work, it’s probably the trade paperback collections of Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest. I think I started with Elfquest when I was seven or eight years old.

It’s hard to overstate the effect that comic had on me—I pretty much lived in it, imaginatively, from ages 8-14 inclusive. There’s a moment at the end of the third volume when the main character—Cutter—is terribly wounded in a battle, and the book ends on a cliffhanger. It really looks like he’s going to die for sure. I remember crying hysterically when I got to the end of that book, just absolutely freaking out. It was like my best friend was dying. I was probably nine or so.

(Spoiler alert: Cutter is miraculously and unexpectedly saved in the fourth volume, which I found out pretty much right away because it turns out my parents had also bought volume 4 but had been hanging on to it with the idea of giving it to me later for my birthday or something. Needless to say, they took one look at me utterly falling apart, and trotted out volume 4 post-haste. Whew!)

What does editing a graphic novel actually entail? 

It’s sort of a kitchen-sink situation! My job involves:

  • Scouting for new talent (at conventions, art schools, and online – tumblr is a great resource!)
  • Acquiring books to edit and publish.Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Kinsley
  • Representing those books and advocating for them within our company.
  • Setting and managing budgets for the books I edit.
  • Setting and managing schedules for the books I edit.
  • Story editing (working with the author on big-picture stuff, like “Hey, should we kill Cutter off in the third volume? No? Okay then!”)
  • Line-editing (adjusting the text, fixing awkward language problems, clarifying plot points, making sure the text works for the intended audience, and that character’s voices are consistent and plausible).
  • Copy-editing (fixing technical problems like typos and incorrect grammar)
  • Art direction (working with the artist to find an art style that best fits the book; commenting on character designs and page layouts).
  • Continuity editing (making sure that characters and settings are consistent from page to page, etc).
  • Working with our design, managing editorial, production, sales, marketing, and publicity departments to make sure everything goes smoothly in the birth of a new book.
  • Being an all-purpose creative partner and supportive friend to the authors and illustrators I work with.

It’s a lot! On any given day, it can be hard for me to tell what my top priority should be.

Feynman by Jim Ottoviani and Leland Myrick

What kind of skills does an editor need to have?

Patience, organization, empathy. Oh, and also, a knack for storytelling and a very strong grasp of the English language in all its weird glory. And a willingness to work 70-hour weeks here and there.

What’s the best part of your workday?

Toss-up! It’s either when I get new material from an author or an artist who I love working with… or when I’m selling our books to people at comic conventions. I love it that I get to be part of the birth of these amazing works of art, and ALSO that I get to see them go into the hands of readers. It’s really satisfying!

Can you share a page or a spread from a project you’ve worked on recently that you’ve really loved? And tell us why it’s so great?

I hope you don’t mind, but I chose four pages (two spreads). They’re the opening pages of Thien Pham’s Sumo, which came out this winter. I love this book with the burning passion of a thousand fiery suns, and these two pages are a good example of what’s so great about it.

So when you first open it, the book throws you into this scene with no explanation, no set-up. You’re in a room, there’s a window, the sun is moving across the floor, it’s quiet. Lots of straight grids and square geometry. Spare Japanese interior design. There’s a dude lying on a mat on the floor.

“What am I doing here?” he says. You were just wondering the same thing. Now the sense of disorientation is doubled, because you’re not the only one disoriented: the main character of your book doesn’t understand his situation either.

Next page: three beats as he opens the paper screen/wall panel thingy (what are those called?). It’s got a sense of rising tension. What’s behind that screen? Is it going to answer his question? This is a big guy, with a fierce, bristly top-knot. Is he a warrior? Will his battle be revealed?

Second spread, below: the left page has this gorgeous, unexpected, poetic reveal of a cherry tree in bloom. A stark contrast: the strength of the man opening the door vs. the delicacy of the blossoming branch and the little bird perched on it. This book is all about unexpected contrasts.

Also, beyond reinforcing that this is definitely Japan, this page does NOTHING to answer the character’s confusion or our own.

Next page: A balletic foot, delicately pointed, a gentle organic curve against that elegant, square grid. Another page of contrasts. Delicate gestures vs giant, scary dudes. The strength and bulk of these guys against the quiet, slim lines of the windows. The way their movements combine dance and threat, grace and brute strength.

This, we realize, is a sumo studio. Our main character is practicing sumo.

But we still don’t know: what is he doing here? That’s a question that takes the rest of this book to even begin to answer. And it does it by employing all the themes of displacement, contrast, and poetics that have been so beautifully established in these first few pages.

When you’re looking to acquire books for First Second, what do you look for?

 Some very specific, tangible things, and some very vague, intangible things.

The specific ones:

  • Does the book tell its story clearly, both in text and art?
  • Are the characters relatable, likeable, complex, persuasive, and interesting?
  • Does the book have a point of view? Does it have something real, sincere, and interesting to say?
  • Is the book the right format for us? (ie, comics, not illustrated fiction)
  • Is the book the right size for us? (ie, not seven hundred pages long or ten pages long, or two inches high or fourteen inches high)
  • The vague ones:
  • Do we like it?
  • Do we think the art has the right look for us?
  • Do we think we can sell it?
  • Do we have good chemistry with the author/artist?

Are there certain kinds of stories that work better as graphic novels than others?

I’d say not really. The miraculous thing about comics is it’s just a medium. It’s not a genre. “Comics” is like “film” or “prose” or “diorama” – it’s just another way of expressing something. I’ve read and loved comics about math, about love, about crime, about cooking, etc. There’s really nothing you can’t do with a comic.

Let’s say you’re teaching a class called Graphic Novels for Writers Who Don’t Know Graphic Novels. What 5 books would be on your syllabus?

Oh! This is such a fun (and hard) question!

1. Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics (The seminal, indispensible introduction to the form)

2. Lynda Barry: What It Is (not specifically about comics, but so brilliantly about creative expression that it’s really indispensible)

3. Sara Varon: Robot Dreams (a wordless comic! It’s a good example of how little you need to use text to move the action along. Often people who are new to comics really want to over-write them.)

4. Alison Bechdel: Fun Home (a very beautifully written comic as a good example of a harmonious combination of spare art and fulsome text)

5. Vera Brosgol: Anya’s Ghost (a terrific example of well-paced, well-constructed storytelling that lets the art and text each bear their fair share of the heavy lifting, narratively)

BONUS! Thien Pham: Sumo (aforementioned) (for a look at the kind of storytelling you can ONLY do with comics)

Some of the graphic novelists First Second works with have experience in webcomics, like Jen Wang, Mark Siegel, and Faith Erin Hicks. Are webcomics a good option for young cartoonists? 

Webcomics are a WONDERFUL option for young cartoonists. Consider!

  • A webcomic keeps you on a regular schedule of drawing and writing
  • A webcomic gives you instant feedback and encouragement from your readers
  • A webcomic is your own, only your own. You have total creative freedom.

Basically, webcomics are an awesome way to learn to make comics because it’s a low-risk, high-return way of getting your work out there, and if you do it right, a webcomic can create great productivity habits and help cement your work ethic. People like to say that you only really know how to draw a page of comics after you’ve drawn 1,000 pages of comics. Why not put those 1,000 on the web?

And then the next 1,000 after those?

Can someone without art skills find a place in the comics world?

Absolutely! There are a lot of people who write comics and graphic novels but don’t make the art for them. There are also editors, publicists, publishers, bloggers, journalists, reviewers, designers, production people, convention organizers, retailers… you name it! Working in comics isn’t just about picking up a pen.

That said, there are a lot of ways for people without conventional technical drawing skills to make – and illustrate – their own comics. Some of my favorite self-published mini comics are pretty crudely drawn, but that doesn’t make them less expressive or fun.



4 thoughts on “What Do Graphic Novel Editors Do? Ask Calista Brill!

  1. You know, it’s not really a western-style comic, but Jun Mochizuki’s manga Pandora Hearts is very entertaining. And heartbreaking. Especially chapter 59.

    So, Miss Brill, and anyone else reading this, I would recommend it. You have to read it backwards, though; it’s published in the original Japanese style, so it’s right-to-left.

  2. I am really impressed with the bit I read about Calista Brill. I love the questions and her answers. I just finished the first volume of one of my graphic novels and I need the help of a good editor. I am a Nigerian and I know that my graphic novel: ‘Dark Viragos’ will become #1 world bestseller. Hope to hear from you. Many thanks.

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