Between the Panels: Editor Brian Cunningham on the Perfect Superhero for a Fifth Grader, Comic Stories He’ll Remember Forever, and Why a Good Editor Is Like a Baseball Player

“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.

To list all of Brian Cunningham’s DC Comics editorial credits would take most of the space we have here: Doomsday Clock, Green Lantern, Superman, Batgirl, Deathstroke, Constantine — you get the idea. While the life path that took Brian from Wizard magazine to DC has now led him away from the comics business, he still carries with him years of experience and wisdom.

First off, the basics…

Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Editor and jack of all trades… master of none.

Your home base: Currently, I’m in Iowa near my wife’s family.

Social Media

Instagram: @bcunningham171

Twitter: @bcunningham71

Facebook: Brian Cunningham

Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: What’s the appeal for you of working in comics? From an editorial perspective, why this over, say, traditional book editing?

Brian Cunningham: Comics are truly magical. It’s a special medium that can tell stories in so many different ways that other media simply can’t. And those stories are only limited by the imaginations of those telling them. No special effects budget, no commercial breaks, no restrictions on length… and anyone can do them. All you need is a pen and paper — literal or virtual — and doodle away. “Professional” is a subjective term, so tell your story with stick figures if necessary.

KS: To get into the nitty gritty of your specialty, can you explain the comics editorial hierarchy? In the credits of books, we might see titles like Assistant, Associate, or just plain Editor, but then there’s sometimes also a Group Editor. What does that role entail that’s not covered by the others?

BC: At DC, a group editor manages both a group of editors and a group of series. The group editor will edit between five to seven of those titles, while also helping out the group with various decision making and the like. Then, either a senior editor and/or editor will handle between six or seven series, working with an assistant — although I did the job of a group editor when I was only a senior editor, so circumstances vary.

An associate editor will assist on a few books, while solo editing two or three series with guidance from the group editor.

Assistant editors are really just learning the process of making comics. Something I liked to do as a group editor — if I was able to — was let an assistant get more involved in the day-to-day management of one relatively low-stakes book, just to dip their toe into the waters of editing. And I would always be supervising and having conversations about the various obstacles that always come up. If I were an assistant, it’s something I would really value, so that was always important to me.

KS: When you hear someone in comics described as a “good editor,” what does that mean to you?

BC: There’s a term in baseball called “the five-tool player” — someone who can hit for a high batting average, for power, runs the bases well, throws well, and fields well. To be a solid comics editor, you want to be comics’ version of a five-tool player.

You need to be someone who is organized and can multitask, able to identify good visual storytelling (in script, art, color and lettering – it all matters), adept at managing the various personalities involved in comic creation, be able to pivot with planning if you need to, be a good team player, and hire the best people for the job at hand. Bonus trait is you can understand how to sell your books, knowing what the “hook” is.

So many people want perfection in their work and I tell them that perfection is impossible because humans are imperfect beings. But it’s doable to strive for excellence — that’s my North Star.

KS: A question I’ve raised with other editor guests is to what degree readers do or don’t understand their role in company decision making. For instance, is it fair when fans blame a monolithic “editorial” for issues like creative team turnover, late books, storylines that change on a dime, etc.?

BC: Every situation is different, so it’s hard to say. Editors do a lot of juggling. If you’re not a good multi-tasker and can’t pivot nimbly, then being a comic book editor is probably not for you. [Laughs] Sometimes, the bosses want something specific with a book — talent change, direction change, what have you — and the editor needs to roll with it whether you agree or not. That’s when the monolithic “editorial” comes more into play, generally speaking.

Sometimes, a book will be running behind schedule — a late script, artwork is coming in slower than expected — and a publisher needs to make a decision. Do you drop in what they call an “inventory issue,” which you had in the proverbial drawer for just this occasion? Do you let your team finish out the book and let it go late? It’s never just up to the editor because there are financial consequences when a book doesn’t ship on time — the printer has time slotted to print it, distributors have trucks scheduled to get it to stores, not to mention those stores holding an empty bag when they expect to be able to sell it on its scheduled date. Lots to consider.
At DC, it depended on the book, but most of the time, management’s preference was often to let a book ship late. Inventory issues were always ready to go, but rarely were they ever used.

Some editors really risk pushing to the brink of the schedule and it can burn you — Lord knows, I’ve been guilty of that sometimes and gotten lucky [Laughs] — and sometimes our bosses wouldn’t like a book at the eleventh hour and pull it from production, which is never pleasant, but it’s perfectly inbounds to do it.

KS: What initially set you on the path toward a creative career? Was there a particular moment of inspiration that you recall?

BC: I can’t say there was a single moment, but a cascading effect over time. The introduction of the 1960s Batman TV show and Super Friends were both hugely influential, along with the Mego toys of the 1970s.

When I was around four years old, my older cousin Eddie graciously gave me his copy of Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes, which I think he had just received as a gift himself! That’s how nice he was about it! Seeing all those reprinted Golden Age stories in color blew my mind. The reprint of Batman #1’s story with the Joker left a deep impression on me, especially how it was so tonally different from the TV Batman! This Joker was downright terrifying. And Will Eisner’s Spirit story was a bit too mature for me — a lot of it went over my head — but I understood how it made me feel.

KS: I can’t resist pausing on Mego for a moment, as kids of a certain era will have fond memories of that toy line.  

BC: My favorite Mego was probably Iron Man, because it was molded differently from the other figures — his gloves, boots, and belt were all different from the generic ones. I had heard the Iron Man figure was originally supposed to be Dr. Doom, which is why Iron Man’s mask has a nose on it. I’m not sure if that’s true but I’d like to think it is! Mego introduced to Captain America. I had no idea who he was at the time! Outside of Spider-Man and Green Goblin, I was pretty ignorant of Marvel characters. I knew DC’s heroes from the Super Friends, mostly.

KS: Getting back to comics, when did they enter the picture for you as a reader?

BC: I was never a regular reader of comics until fifth grade. A fellow classmate would always refer to the latest issue of Marvel’s Ghost Rider that he collected every month, which sounded really cool: a flaming skull guy riding a fiery motorcycle doesn’t get much better when you’re in fifth grade! [Laughs] So, one day I bought a copy of Ghost Rider — issue #71 — and was so taken with it, I went back a few days later and bought Avengers #222. And then, Marvel Two-in-One #91. And then, Amazing Spider-Man #232… I never looked back.

KS: Can you recall which titles you first start actively collecting vs. buying at random?

BC: The starting line was really Ghost Rider! I was completely hooked and knew I’d buy this comic forever. Which wound up only being 11 total issues when it was canceled! [Laughs]

The one thing that Ghost Rider comic did was introduce me to the concept of a living, breathing shared universe. So, I dabbled with lots of other series at the time. Some I loved, like Avengers and Amazing Spider-Man… others I loved a little less like Team America and most of the DC stuff outside of Firestorm and New Teen Titans. Even X-Men took a little patience on my part; I found the text a bit cumbersome and self-referential. This would be specifically the Xavier/Magneto flashback story in Uncanny X-Men #161 — the cover hooked me. But I’m glad I stuck with it, because the Brood Saga was about to start, which pulled me in whole hog.

KS: One topic we’ve discussed a lot during recent months is the impact of story. What was a comic story that particularly hit you as a younger reader?

BC: Two stories jump out at me from my early years of collecting:

“The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man” (Amazing Spider-Man #248) showed me the hero doesn’t need to throw a punch to have a massive impact. Roger Stern and Ron Frenz deftly demonstrated that a comic book — considered “kids stuff” back then — can have a maturity to handle themes and emotions on a much deeper level.

Daredevil #191’s “Roulette” just depressed the heck out of me. Daredevil plays Russian roulette with his paralyzed nemesis Bullseye inside a hospital room… and it just haunted 11-year-old me. I felt so low when I read it in the store, and yet I still bought it. Something about it lingered with me. When I got home, I had to lie down for a bit. [Laughs] It was that kind of gut punch. Looking back, I’m actually amazed that story got published, that it passed the Comics Code Authority. It’s a testament to Frank Miller’s clout in the business.

KS: Why were those right for you at the time?

BC: Anytime a story makes you feel something is one you should treasure. And while a lot of comics back then made me laugh or feel exhilaration with action, when comics go a few steps beyond that, I will remember them forever.

KS: And what about the leap from being a reader to actually working in the field?

BC: I’ve always liked drawing, and once Ghost Rider entered my life, I would draw him a lot. And then, I created my own “character” called Ghost Man, who also had a flaming skull/motorcycle and went on comic strip adventures with Ghost Rider.

About a year later, I was introduced to How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, and I became obsessed with figuring out how to draw comics. I was terrible at it, but I kept at it in the hopes of someday drawing comics professionally. That was really my singular goal.

While I was in high school, a new store opened up locally, and a friend of mine told me I should check it out. It was called The Wizard of Cards and that’s where I met the store manager, Pat McCallum. We’d talk about comics every time I went in; he would constantly steer me towards a series I wasn’t reading that I wound up really liking. They also had a lot of cool action figures that gobbled up all my spending money.

Eventually, the store created a newsletter, and Pat asked me if I wanted to contribute — of course, I said yes, that sounded like fun, which it was. I remember my first column was lamenting the state of Avengers at the time. I guess Pat liked what I was doing, because he told me the store was ditching the newsletter to launch a magazine called Wizard. The idea sounded crazy to me. “Do you want to write a toy column?” It paid $25 and was wonderful.

KS: Was that your first-ever paid writing gig?

BC: It was! I really just thought it would be a short-term gig and that the magazine would fade away. Who knew? [Laughs] I was 20 years old and not looking much past that particular week of work and school.

That toy column led to me eventually joining the small staff and become a working professional in the comic book business. My first issue was #2 and I stuck around in various roles until… gosh, issue #204, I think. Fifteen years later I joined the staff at DC Comics, which was a dream come true.

KS: Looking back now on your time at DC, is there any special moment of pride that comes to mind? Maybe a series with your fingerprints on it that you think really hit all its goals?

BC: The first one that comes to mind is the 2015 revival of Omega Men that writer Tom King and I initially developed, based on work from Marv Wolfman, Joe Staton, Keith Giffen, and Roger Slifer. I had a very specific vision for what I wanted from it, which asked the murky question, “Are you are a freedom fighter or a terrorist?” in a post-9/11 world, and Tom explored that with a lot of nuance through a sci-fi allegory. He and editor Andy Khouri took the ball and ran with it, making it something really special. It didn’t sell very well, but it seems to have a cult following. I think that was Tom’s first ongoing series. It’s been really nice to see him develop a deeply personal style on Omega Men that he elevated in his later projects like Vision and Mister Miracle.

Another one is the [new] Crime Syndicate series, which I had wanted to do for years. Basically, “evil versions of the Justice League” but treat it like Sopranos/Game of Thrones in terms of these twisted versions of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. all not trusting one another — where their greatest enemies are really each other.

Anyway, Crime Syndicate was originally approved for a 2019 release, so I started working on it with writer Andy Schmidt, and then it got pulled from the slate. When opportunity knocked last summer, I jumpstarted it right back up with Andy, because a lot of the hard work of development was already done on it! Kieran McKeown, Dexter Vines, and Steve Oliff jumped aboard for the art, and I couldn’t be happier.

[Author’s Note: The first issue of Crime Syndicate is now available.]

Doomsday Clock is obviously very dear to me, given my reverence for Watchmen. There was a lot of painstaking detail that went into that book, including stuff outside the actual story like the matte paper, matching how close the art comes to the trim line of each page, the size of the lettering and balloon shapes… it was a total team effort. One of my more visible contributions was coming up with the back cover concept — the bait-and-switch of trading blood dripping down with Superman’s cape, which designer Kenny Lopez executed to perfection.

I’m sure there’s more but these come to mind first.

KS: Is there something you’d want young Brian — the version of you just breaking into comics — to know, in order to make his professional path smoother and maybe let him avoid certain pitfalls?

BC: I probably would have nudged him to leave Wizard sooner to become a comic book editor. I had several opportunities to join marketing departments and online divisions of Marvel and DC — and they might have led to editorial positions, or not. I was firm on wanting an offer to be an editor, and it eventually happened.

But career-wise, I really don’t have many regrets. I’ve learned a lot along the way from so many people, and I’m happy to say I still am.

KS: What’s a word that sums up an important trait for being successful in this business?

BC: Nimble. Conditions change at a moment's notice, and the most successful people I’ve encountered were quite dexterous whenever that happened. At DC, plans were in a constant state of flux and it trained a lot of us in Editorial to be able to tap dance all the time. While I was there, DC in a lot of ways was like the “New York of Comics” in that if you can make it there, you’re gonna make it anywhere. [Laughs]

KS: Are you able to kick back and read issues for pure pleasure these days, or is there always some part of your professional mind at work as you turn pages?

BC: Oh definitely — to both! It’s hard to turn off “editor mode” when I read, but often that vantage point will reward me by appreciating a story well told. Sometimes, I’ll see storytelling blips — even by the best in the biz — but, like I said, no one’s perfect!

KS: Please tell us about a passion of yours totally outside the world of comics. Something you collect, study, practice…

BC: I’ll be candid with you — comics are such a huge part of my life, just ask my wife! It’s really the only passion I have. I enjoy movies, TV, music like anyone would, but comics are the thing I keep wanting to learn more about. My curiosity is insatiable about what makes this incredible art form tick. I can probably talk about the craft 24/7/365 with anyone who wants to.

KS: As we wrap up, what’s a comic or graphic novel from any era that you look at with admiration?

BC: Oh man. I’ve gleaned so much from so many. The obvious ones are Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Byrne FF and Superman, Crisis on Infinite Earths (anything by Wolfman/Pérez, really), Akira

More recent series I admire are anything by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, The Walking Dead series (which I found more entertaining than any of its TV show counterparts), anything by Darwyn Cooke, Saga. My favorite series right now is probably Firepower by Robert Kirkman, Chris Samnee, and Matt Wilson — it ticks off a lot of boxes for me.

People might be surprised to see on my bookshelf all of IDW’s reprints of Milton Caniff’s body of work, which is tremendous. I have a “Howard Chaykin section” with a lot of his work. When I was in college, I really got into buying the entire run of Tomb of Dracula by Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan, and Tom Palmer — Marv’s versatility as a writer never ceases to amaze me. Recently, I’ve gotten into Fantagraphics’ black-and-white EC Comics reprints, especially the Kurtzman war material, which is a masterclass in storytelling.

KS: Finally, with comics editorial in the rearview mirror (at least for the moment), tell us what’s on your plate for 2021.

BC: I’m dipping my toe into the teaching waters, so stay tuned for announcements!

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