Thursday, February 01, 2007

28 Days of 2000 AD #1: Loving the Alien

Thirty years ago this month saw the launch of a weekly anthology that would change the face of British comics. 2000 AD is still going strong today and to celebrate this I'm posting insights into life behind the scenes at the comic and extracts from rare interviews with key creators - once a day, every day this month. [Regular readers of Vicious Imagery who aren't big comics fans need not fear, I'll be covering other topics too.] Welcome to 28 Days of 2000 AD.

LOVING THE ALIEN: The Bluffer's Guide to Publishing 2000 AD

When I quit editing the comic to go freelance in the summer of 2000, I decided to write a rough guide to running the weekly. This was before digital technology revolutionised the way the comic is put together by its editorial team, so the information below is now wildly out of date. But hopefully it offers a snapshot of what the job of editing a weekly anthology comic was like seven years ago in Britain. It contains much that is subjective, approximated, or both - so expect strong opinions.

1. Who does what for the Galaxy’s greatest comic

2000 AD is currently put together by a dedicated editorial team of 1.8 people. That breaks down to one full-time editor (David Bishop – DB hereafter), a part-time assistant editor (Andy Diggle – AD hereafter) and a part-time designer (Steve Cook – SC here after).

• DB has resigned as editor of 2000 AD and finishes on June 29, 2000.
He will be replaced by AD as editor, effective June 30, 2000.

• AD is currently editor of the Judge Dredd Megazine (40% of his time), editor of Sonic the Comic (20%) and assistant editor of 2000 AD (40%).

(From July, Sonic the Comic will pass to another editor at Egmont Fleetway. The Megazine will be edited by DB on a freelance, out-of-house basis from July, leaving Andy to work solely on 2000 AD.)

• SC designs 2000 AD on a part-time contract with Egmont Fleetway, two days a week. His official title is Art Editor of 2000 AD.

(N.B. Egmont Fleetway is currently advertising for an Editorial Assistant to work on 2000 AD full-time. It is hoped to have this person in place before DB’s departure from Egmont Fleetway.)

2. The Commissioning Process

All 2000 AD stories, artwork and cover images are created by self-employed freelancers who work from their own premises. They are commissioned by the editorial team – usually the editor, although there is flexibility about who deals with whom on a daily basis.

Covers: these are commissioned at any time up to a week before they are needed to go to repro. Ideally key cover art should be available four months in advance of publication, so it can be supplied to Diamond Comic Distributors for promotional purposes in the Previews catalogue. Some covers are fully painted but most are either fully rendered on computer by the artist, or else drawn in black and white by an artist and then given to a colourist to fully render on computer.

Artists are required to submit a sketch first for our approval before being verbally given the go-ahead. Sometimes we pre-design covers to show artists the sort of thing we want, but we still require a sketch from them to confirm mutual comprehension of the concept.

Scripts: these are commissioned from freelance writers by the editorial team. Some stories are driven by ideas from the team, sometimes ideas are suggested as springboards for stories, but most are the creation of the writer. Generally writers are required to submit a plot synopsis first for approval before they are commissioned to script it. John Wagner’s work on Dredd is the sole exception – he can be trusted to produce the goods without having to submit a synopsis first.

Most scripts are now submitted via email. The bulk of 2000 AD is written by a handful of scribes. Longer serials are generally written with a specific artist in mind, as this helps build teamwork between the creators. Most 2000 AD writers work for more than one employer. They also tend to be writing more than one series for 2000 AD at any given time.

Once a synopsis has been agreed, the story is verbally commissioned and terms agreed by phone or email. We do not use commissioning forms, simply because it creates a layer of paperwork administration which leaves less time for the creative aspects of the job. We operate on trust. In the past 10 years there have only been two disagreements about whether a series was or wasn’t commissioned – both personality driven by individuals who no longer work for the weekly.

All stories for 2000 AD are commissioned on the basis that we acquire all rights in the material, in exchange for paying the creators a royalty and acknowledging them as the creators wherever possible. Contracts are only issued when a new series is being created for 2000 AD, to establish precedent. Thereafter all subsequent commissions for that series are made on the same terms as the initial contract. We currently issue a publishing contract and a separate audio/visual rights contract, which are prepared by the editor based on templates from our lawyers.

Artwork: this is commissioned from freelance artists by the editorial team. We send the artist a full script for each episode they are to draw, having verbally agreed terms and a timetable for delivery. In some cases artists are issued with a written timetable, particularly if a job is time sensitive or the artist requires time keeping guidance.

Some artists are required to submit thumbnails or breakdowns of their work at an early stage. This is used to watch for any potential problems with story-telling, style and the art size – particularly with new artists being nurtured or artists who have a particular storytelling problem.

Some artists only pencil their pages, some deliver fully inked black and white art, some fully paint their jobs, others computer render their work. They are commissioned to do whatever they do best. The only exception is where artists are only asked to do part of a job (e.g. just the mono art) because it enhances productivity if the colouring is done by someone else while the artist is already at work on the next episode.

Like writers, artists who create new series are issued with publishing and audio/visual rights contracts. Virtually all commissions are made verbally. Unlike most writers, artists can require much more nurse-maiding to get their best work from them in a timely fashion. 2000 AD draws from a stable of about 40 artists, although only a dozen are in perpetual work for us.

We are moving towards having artists scan their mono art and supply that digitally to us – either on disc, via email or on “blind” pages on their own websites. This has already been done successfully as a pilot scheme with artist Simon Fraser, who lives in Vienna. It cuts down on courier and postage costs, and speeds the editorial process by days.

Colouring: About half the strips in 2000 AD are coloured by specialists, rather than by the original artist. All specialist colouring is now done on computer and supplied on disc, which has dramatically cut the cost and time required for the production processes. Colouring is commissioned verbally with the colourist sent a copy of the script along with the physical art to work on.

Colourists get between £50 and £60 per page for their work. This may seem high in comparison to writers rates (between £35 and £80 a page, the average is £50), but colourists receive no royalties or secondary income from their work. Star colourist of the moment is Chris Blythe.

Lettering: All the strips in 2000 AD are lettering by self-employed freelancers on computer. We use four letterers on five strips – Tom Frame (Judge Dredd), Ellie De Ville (Sinister Dexter and others), Annie Parkhouse (Nikolai Dante and others), Steve Potter (whatever’s left). All the letterers have developed their own unique fonts, based on their own hand lettering style. Letterers are paid £20 per page.

Lettering could be done in-house, but it is quite time consuming. At current staffing levels, it is more practical to job the work out. Lettering costs 2000 AD about £28,000 in fees per year.

3. The Editorial Budget

Page Rates: These are set by a combination of historical precedent, budgetary constraints and quality. 2000 AD’s base rates have hardly shifted in the past 10 years. Base rate for new writers is £35 per page; for artists it is £120 for mono art and £180 for colour art. Lately we have been having more pencil and ink art splits, where base rates are £70 and £40 per page respectively. Base rate for colouring is £50.

Rates vary depending upon length of service – stay in work long enough for 2000 AD, your rate will creep up. Quality of output is another major factor, as is its importance to the comic – that’s why John Wagner gets more for Dredd than for writing other strips. Generally, colour art is set at mono page rate plus 50%.

As a rule of thumb, pages rates are set at the following levels for budgetary reasons: script costs should average £50 per page across an issue; art costs (including colouring) should average £200 per page; and lettering is uniformly £20 per page. Cover art usually costs £350. Where a strip is being published in black and white, we expect to pay up to £150 to get the best quality mono art.

Editorial Budget: From July 2000, the weekly will have 27 pages of strip, of which five pages will be mono art. This means the average editorial cost of each prog will be as follows:-

27 pages script @ £50 £1350
22 pages colour art @ £200 £4400
05 pages mono art @ £150 £750
27 pages lettering @ £20 £540
01 page cover art @ £350 £350
Total average cost £7400

Each year 2000 AD publishes 49 standard 32-page progs, plus an end-of-year 100-page special issue which features 67 pages of strip. So the editorial budget for 2001 using the current format and page rates would be about £382,000. (It’s worth noting the 1996 editorial budget was over £500k – this has been slashed through editorial prudence.)

4. The Backwards Extrapolation Art of Scheduling

2000 AD is an anthology title which usually runs five different strips in each issue. Judge Dredd appears in every prog over six pages. The final strip in each prog is also six pages long, while the three middle stories are five page episodes. Stories can run to any length, from one-off completes like Tharg’s Future Shocks to 26-part mega-epics. Over a year 2000 AD publishes nearly 1400 pages of new strip by dozens of different creators all working at different speeds in different locations.

As you can imagine, scheduling stories in 2000 AD can be a tad tricky.

A few simple rules have been developed over the past 23 years to make easier the process of keeping this almost infinite assortment of plates spinning successfully. Never start running a multi-part serial until you have at least 70% of the artwork in hand. Choose your artists very carefully and monitor their time-keeping rigorously. Most crucially, use the art of backwards extrapolation when doing forward planning.

When trying to estimate when a new serial is available for publication, we always calculate when the final episode will be completed and work backwards from that date. No artist works fast enough to produce an episode a week, all are slower than that. So we have to stockpile artwork in advance to make sure we don’t run out halfway through a serial.

Here’s an example. In mid July John Burns will be available to begin painting Book IV of Nikolai Dante’s Tsar Wars saga. Book IV will be 12 episodes of six pages each. John Burns can happily produce one episode every four weeks on average. That means it will take him about 48 weeks to paint Book IV, not allowing time off for holidays or illness. So John Burns should finish painting Book IV by mid June 2001. Allow a week for lettering and the final part of Book IV should be ready to go to repro by the end of June, 2001.

2000 AD currently goes to repro about five weeks before it appears in shops. So at the end of June 2001, we will be sending Prog 1254 off to repro. That means Part 12 of Nikolai Dante: Tsar Wars Book IV could appear in Prog 1254, which goes on sale August 8th 2001. By backwards extrapolation, that means the serial could begin with Part 1 being published in Prog 1243, due to repro April 16th, which goes on sale May 23rd, 2001.

In fact, we have scheduled this serial to begin seven weeks later in Prog 1250 (due to repro June 4th, on sale July 11th). That issue will be the Summer relaunch with a line-up of strong, new Thrills beginning inside. This also allows an extra seven weeks safety margin. It’s worth noting that in this example, John Burns will have completed 11 out of 12 episodes before his first episode goes to repro.

Obviously, this stockpiling of work in progress requires financial investment and careful planning. 2000 AD has about £150,000 tied up in stock (scripts and artwork for future publication) at any given time. If you want great stories and art by top creators next year, you have to get them working on that material now!

5. Getting the Prog Ready for Repro

Being a weekly, 2000 AD sends a new issue off to repro every seven days, usually each Monday – this is called our “press day”. It happens five weeks before the comic is due to go on sale. For example, Prog 1205 goes on sale August 9th, 2000. It is due to repro on Monday, July 3rd.

Where we have painted colour artwork to appear in the prog, we send this to repro ahead of the rest of the issue for advance scanning. Our repro house supplies these high resolution scans to us on CD, from which we create low resolution images for use by the letterers. At present, it is rare for more than six pages in any prog to be painted art.

Ideally, all the colour artwork is ready a week before it is due to repro. The editorial team sub-edit the scripts and artwork for the episodes which will appear in that prog, to create the best version of the script for telling the story in harmony with the finished artwork.

Low resolution (72dpi) versions of the art for each page are positioned into a Quark Xpress document, along with the standard series logo, story title, part number and credit card EPS. A hard copy of this document is printed out for reference, while the low res art and Quark file are loaded onto a zip disc. This disc and the subbed script are given to the relevant freelance letterer, who has a week to letter the story and return it to the editorial team.

Three of the four letterers working for 2000 AD (Tom Frame, Steve Potter and Ellie De Ville) letter their strips in Quark, using unique fonts they have developed for the job. The other letterer, Annie Parkhouse, does her work in Illustrator and supplies EPSs of each page of lettering. Again, this is done in her own, unique font.

The lettering process has recently been stream-lined to go all-digital, but there are further improvements to be made. For example, most scripts are now supplied via email, so the subbed scripts could be supplied to the letterers on disc. Equally, the judicious use of ISDN for trafficking lettering files would also speed delivery. (Why not use email, you ask? Emailing 5MB files can be time consuming…)

By press day, we should have in hand all the colour strip artwork, already lettered and pretty much ready to go – from Prog 1200 that will constitute 27 pages of each 32 page prog. The other five pages are editorial content – the front cover; Nerve Centre (our contents page); a house ad page for the Megazine, subscriptions or relevant merchandise offers; Input (our letters page); and the Next Prog page.

These five pages are written by the editorial team and designed by Art Editor Steve Cook. Steve also designs all the DTP elements on the strip pages, usually just on the first and last pages of each episode. Steve Cook works two days a week designing 2000 AD, on a part-time contract. With the stream-lining of the lettering process, the amount of time required to design a standard issue of 2000 AD is decreasing. But it does require more design work by the permanent editorial team.

6. The Production Process

Once a week a new issue of 2000 AD is sent to repro. At present, our repro house is Elements in Leeds (formerly Pre Press Services). They take all our digital files and run these through a rip, bringing all the elements of each page together as a single digital file. Elements outputs a set of digital proofs for each page and sends these to 2000 AD for checking and approval. Where alteration or correction is required, these changes are communicated to Elements.

Once the editorial team is happy with the final version, the proofs are sent back to Elements. The repro house then creates PDFs (portable document formats) of the issue and supplies these on disc to the printers (at present this is Goodhead in Bicester).

2000 AD used to be printed conventionally using four colour films. But the shift to digital lettering made it possible to shift to film-less printing. Previously the printers created photographic plates from the four colour films, now they make laser-etched plates from the digital instruction on the disc supplied by the repro house.

The printers create running sheet proofs from the PDFs for final checking by the editorial team, to ensure no elements have been lost during the repro process. Once these are approved, the issue is printed, bound, trimmed and bundled for collection by TNT.

Attached to this document is a copy of a typical 2000 AD production schedule, showing the amount of time allowed for each part of the editorial and production process. Elements are allowed a week to do the repro work on 2000 AD – it takes nine days in the schedule because the job travels overnight between London and Leeds coming and going.

It’s worth noting that the change to all digital repro has brought substantial savings. At the start of this year the cost of repro was cut from £40 per page to £32 per page, in recognition of the increasingly digital nature of the material supplied. The official repro budget for 2000 AD this year is £51,916 in total, which equals £1018 per prog.

Now that 2000 AD’s lettering is all digital, Elements have agreed to a split differential for repro. Pages with painted art requiring scanning now cost £30 per page, while the all digital pages cost £22 per page. This brings the average repro cost of an issue down to £752, saving more than £250 per week (about £13,000 per year).

It may be possible to eliminate using a repro house for most of the process, but this would requiring employing someone to create the PDFs – a time consuming and mind-numbing process. This could shave nearly £30,000 off the repro budget – but money would instead have to be spent on staff and equipment.

As with the issue of lettering, paying an outside company or freelancer to do this work may not be cheaper but it is the easier option at present. Also dumping the letterers just a few months after persuading them to spend thousands of pounds of their own money upgrading to computer is hardly likely engender goodwill in the creative community. If someone in management suggests doing this, just say no.


Bolt-01 said...

David, that last post was superb. Nuts & bolts stuff amy seem dry but for myself (Small press) it is a piece of history.

Paul Crilley said...

Hey David. Love the behind the scenes stuff. Thanks a lot. Still can't decide if Pat Mills is an egocentric maniac or a tell-it-like-it-is straight shooter though.

Ad Production Company said...

Nicely post of "28 Days of 2000 AD #1: Loving the Alien".