Former Editors Embrace Their Id as Writers and Artists

Pornsak Pichetshote, Sebastian Girner, and Cliff Chiang on Shifting Roles and Ideologies.

There’s a reason Ernest Hemingway famously advised to write drunk and edit sober. Writers often find themselves wading through a visceral soup of emotions and deep thoughts, and the messy pursuit of universal truths cannot be stymied by caution. Scribes are right there with their characters, enmeshed in their minds, hellbent on making them real and relatable. Editors, on the other hand, take a loftier perch. They offer an analytical detachment—the superego to the writer’s id. The editor’s realm is that of big-picture circumspection, while the writer can benefit from a bit of recklessness. What’s the process like, then, for those editors who switch sides—from smoothing out rough edges to hurling metaphorical paint like Jackson Pollock?

The comics editor is something of a factotum. Every issue is a Frankensteinian effort, bringing together a multitude of talents and perspectives, and it’s up to the editor to keep the trains running on time. They manage schedules and deadlines, and oversee the pencils, inks, colors, and letters as they move through the process. “You’re the central hub for every person working on the book, and you’re trying to support them in every possible manner,” says Pornsak Pichetshote, who currently writes the exceedingly creepy series Infidel and spent seven years editing Vertigo titles like Swamp Thing, The Losers, and Sweet Tooth. “You’re a development executive, story editor, art director, production coordinator, scheduler, and therapist, all rolled into one.”

With Infidel, which follows a Muslim woman living in a building that is haunted, literally and figuratively, by the ghosts of a terrorist attack, there’s a second layer of the story that benefits from his inner editor. “When dealing with cultural/political topics, it’s that much more loaded, because you’re outright inviting the audience to look at your stories through a political lens, but you have no control on how exactly they’ll do it,” Pichetshote says. “So you really have to try to step back and look at your choices from every angle you can.”

Above: Pornsak Pichetshote, Sebastian Girner, and Cliff Chiang

He relates it to a Swamp Thing story called “The Curse,” which was written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben with edits from Vertigo founder Karen Berger. In the comic, a female werewolf’s lycanthropy represents how women struggle in patriarchal society. The werewolf dies at the end, and that symbolic message didn’t go unnoticed. “[Berger] flat out acknowledged in the letters page that they hadn’t considered that reading, but acknowledged it was valid and promised to try harder next time,” he says. “At the time I read it, I had no idea who Karen Berger was; all I knew was that I respected the hell out of anyone who could do that.”

Another former editor bringing his sensibilities to the creative side is Cliff Chiang, who co-created and draws the wildly entertaining coming-of-age/time-travel romp Paper Girls alongside Brian K. Vaughan. Chiang got his start working on the kids magazine Disney Adventures before segueing to Vertigo titles like Transmetropolitan, Preacher, and 100 Bullets. “Creatively, I've always thought the editor's duty is to facilitate the creator's vision,” Chiang says. Whether line editing, commenting on dialogue, or suggesting structural changes, “You're there to help them get out of their own way.”

While drawing comics was always his endgame, Chiang says his knowledge of the editorial side continues to serve him, allowing him to work more smoothly and with less inhibition. “It requires me to be honest about what I'm trying to communicate,” he says. “Times like that, I don't want to be too judgmental or self-reflexive, but eventually I do have to step back from the drafting table to assess what I've just done. At that point, the editor's hat can go back on.”

Sebastian Girner is another former editor who made the leap to creating; his all-ages fantasy series, Scales & Scoundrels, released its first collection in February. He also co-wrote the absurdly hilarious Shirtless Bear-Fighter! with another former editor, Jody LeHeup, and edits a slew of Image titles including Black Science, Low, Southern Bastards, The Goddamned, and Savage Town. For Girner, the dichotomy is internal. “It’s a heart vs. mind battle, with the gut acting as referee,” he says. While, at its core, it’s a matter of passion vs. calculation (or drunk vs. sober)—it’s not a Jekyll/Hyde battle for supremacy. “I tend to be more lenient when I’m writing, more playful. I allow myself time to just toy around with ideas, concepts, themes, and topics,” he says. “Then, when playtime is over, I bring the editor in to tidy things up, toss out the trash, and polish what’s worth keeping.”

After spending formative years in comics with an editor’s hat on, muting an inner mediator can be tricky. But, if editors have one perk over writers, Pichetshote says, they never have to contend with the scribe’s ever-present antagonist: the blank page. Editing is reactive, working along a rigid set of rules—ones set by genre, writer’s voice, or those of the storyworld. “With writing, I get to exercise my voice and have an almost delirious amount of control over the story,” he says. “For me, the biggest shift is that writing is constantly battling the blank page and finding different ways to tame it.” And while it stands to reason that a writer or artist who self-edits as they create can be more efficient, shaving a step or two off the overall process, the inner editor can also serve as an obstacle, cutting down ideas before they’ve had a chance to bloom. Cliff Chiang elaborates: “My secret fear is that I may be too critical of an idea that should be nurtured.”

Chiang, Girner, and Pichetshote all consider their editorial experience a benefit to their creative pursuits. Success, it seems, lies in embracing the bifurcated mind—treating it like a dance, with each side of the brain getting a chance to lead, rather than an intellectual tug of war. “As a creative writer, I’m in the weeds, rubbing my face in the mud, and just really getting into the world and characters, shaping it all out of clay like a loving god, obsessing over every detail,” sums up Girner. “As editor, I dust myself off, float high above my creation, observe it, and then start smiting and blowing stuff up.”