GU Comics Day: Clarifying Comics with Copyediting

(This entry posted on behalf of Robin Mayhall, copyeditor for several Graphic Universe titles and author of Twisted Journeys #17—title still top secret! GU uses in-house proofreaders as well as the occasional freelancer when things get really busy. Any typos in this post are not Robin’s faullt,!)

In 20 years as a copyeditor and proofreader, I’ve worked on a wide variety of projects—from business and journalistic writing to novels, a movie script, short stories, and even poetry.

I came a bit late to copyediting graphic novels and comics, but I’ve done it for about five years now. Copyediting a graphic novel is very much like editing an article or story composed only of words. I carefully proofread the grammar, spelling, and punctuation. I go over every caption, thought or speech balloon, and word to check for typos, missing or misspelled words, or unintentional transpositions of letters or words.
But with a comic, a copyeditor has to be willing to break or at least bend a few rules. The author might misspell words on purpose to show dialect, emotion, illness, a foreign language the protagonist doesn’t understand . . . a technique used in prose as well.

When it comes to sound effects, well . . . depending on the story and the audience, I can live with multiple exclamation points. Let’s face it: in an action-packed sequence, words you won’t find in a dictionary—BIFF! ZZZOT! KER-R-RUNCH!!—are a lot more fun and effective than a perfectly grammatical description of a fistfight.

There’s wiggle room like this in poetry and other types of writing, too. What separates true copyediting from proofreading is the ability to use one’s experience, good judgment, and sense of humor to let authors exercise their creativity and their own judgment.

Part of the job is to make sure the writing makes sense. Copyeditors think about continuity (wasn’t the boyfriend named Justin in Chapter 2?) and catch problems that would confuse a reader. Continuity and clarity are just as important in graphic novels as in other types of writing, and I find it helpful to create a mini-index (style sheet) for myself. That way I can be sure we’ve spelled ZZZOT! the same way each time . . . or spelled it differently on purpose.

The obvious element that sets graphic stories apart is the artwork. The writer does not need to point out everything in text that is portrayed in the art, but sometimes text can clarify the art or complement it. Again, the copyeditor must use his or her judgment to see where clarification or even trimming is needed.

Graphic novels are gaining in popularity, and I think there will always be a demand for copyeditors. In the end, readers expect and enjoy quality writing, whether it’s in a local newspaper column, or accompanied by a ZZZOT! or two.

3 thoughts on “GU Comics Day: Clarifying Comics with Copyediting

  1. Laurie S. Sutton

    There is an aspect of proofreading comics that you didn't mention, and that is proofing the art itself for consistency (or lack thereof). My first job at DC Comics was as the proofreader, and I had to make sure that, from panel to panel, Batman had the same number of spikes on his gloves or that Superman's boots had their border detail. You'd be surprised that sometimes such iconic things were missing! Even when I became an editor, old habits died hard. I had one artist continually swap where he drew the gun holster on the title character. It was on the left hip in one panel and on the right hip in the next panel. (He and I laugh about it now.)

    It takes a lot of attention to detail to proofread comics. Kudos to Robin!

  2. hieran

    Thanks, Laurie! And thanks for the great comment — I'm very glad you brought up this important point. In comparing and contrasting what it's like to copyedit news copy and other prose vs. graphic novels/comics, proofing the art itself is definitely a standout difference.

    On the other hand, it's not completely dissimilar from a newspaper copyeditor checking to make sure a photo caption is accurate, identifies the right number and gender of people and generally makes sense. A newspaper copyeditor or page editor would also want to look at the overall page and make sure a photo or illustration isn't placed next to an unrelated headline in such a way as to merit sending to Jay Leno. 🙂

    Do you read the Comics Curmudgeon? Sometimes his observations of small problems with the art are enough to crack me up. He pointed out once that Mary Worth appeared to have two left hands in a particular panel, and he was right. Hilarious!

  3. Laurie S. Sutton

    The newspaper photo/caption example is a good one. Just think of a 22-page comic being about 60-100 photos and captions! (I worked as the copyeditor and proofreader on a lifestyles magazine, so I know what you're talking about.)

    I hadn't read the Comics Curmudgeon before, but I am now! Thanks for pointing me in that direction.

    P.S. If you are ever in need of a freelance copyeditor and/or proofreader, let me know!

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