“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.
Alanna Smith is one of those who pulled off the magic trick of parlaying an early love of storytelling and comics into working in the halls of one of the Big Two publishers. Since arriving in Marvel editorial, she’s been involved with a list of titles that reads like a primer on some of their most-talked-about characters: Ms. Marvel, Deadpool, Hawkeye, West Coast Avengers, Jessica Jones, Falcon, Winter Soldier, and many more.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Editor
Your home base: New York City
Current project title(s):
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: What attracts you to making comics specifically over other artforms? From an editorial perspective, why this over, say, traditional book editing?
Alanna Smith: I also love prose and YA, but I think comics editing is great for instant gratification — instead of working on something for two, three years, you have new books coming out every week that you can see your audience respond to in real time. The downside is that you have to work at a breakneck pace, but it’s definitely never boring!
KS: What initially set you on the path toward a creative career? Was there an “a-ha” moment?
AS: I was set on a creative path since fourth grade when I wrote a poem about owls and my teacher told me it was good. I’m sure it wasn’t, but the praise went right to my head! I was fortunate to have a long string of encouraging teachers who spurred me along. And even outside of school, I just couldn’t stop creating stuff.
KS: What about comics? How or when did that field enter into the equation?
AS: I made manga fan comics in high school and realized I was pretty good at it, then I kept the ball rolling by starting a weekly comic strip in my college newspaper. After I graduated, I was underemployed for a while (graduating during a recession is rough) and what kept me going was working on webcomics, so after a while, it just felt like a no-brainer. I tried a lot of other things — film, theater, casting — but the only place I felt at home was in comics and publishing. That’s where I found my people!
KS: Would high-school-age Alanna be surprised at where you ended up?
AS: High school Alanna was pretty cocky, so maybe not, haha! I could use some of her blind confidence, to be honest.
KS: To get into the nitty-gritty of what you currently do… What’s something that comics readers may not understand about the role of an editor in this world? For example, is it fair for fans to blame “editorial” for things like late books, storylines that drastically change on a dime, sudden creative team turnover, etc.?
AS: I think people don’t realize that no one beats themselves up more than editors when a book goes late, or ends early, or has to change teams or pivot directions because of some wider mandate. We get ludicrously invested in our work, and stuff that hurts the book hurts us every time. To do a job this challenging, you have to care a lot, but caring a lot opens you up to heartbreak when things go wrong.
KS: When you hear someone in comics described as a “good editor,” what does that mean to you?
AS: I think it means an editor who respects the talent and respects the story but also speaks up and offers solutions if something needs a little work. It’s crucial to be a good communicator. You also have to know when to intervene and when to get out of the creative team’s way. It’s a delicate balance.
KS: Backtracking a little… Around what age did reading comics first become an important part of your life?
AS: I think I was about 12 — I became obsessed with the Spider-Man Activision game and checked out every Spidey comic I could find in the library. And then Marvel Ultimate Alliance got me into Deadpool and expanded my horizons more. But even before that, I was getting super into manga, which was really a gateway drug to other comics. I was one of those kids sitting on the floor in Waldenbooks reading Inu Yasha issues until the employees kicked us out. I’m not sure why they let us get away with that, haha!
KS: One of Fanbase Press’ 2020 themes is “Stories Matter.” Looking back at your early reading, what was a story that particularly struck you?
AS: This is perhaps a weird one to be sentimental about, but I still think a lot about the storyline in Cable & Deadpool where Cable burns out his brain to give everyone a telepathic glimpse of a better future, in the hope that even a few people will try to pursue that future.
KS: These days, are you able to kick back and read comics for pure pleasure, or is there always some part of your professional mind at work as you turn the pages?
AS: It’s much harder than it used to be, unfortunately. Even though I try to keep up where I can, it’s hard not to feel like I’m doing work while clocked out! But obviously, it’s important to keep up with what other people in the industry are doing, otherwise you risk falling out of touch with what readers are responding to.
KS: Aside from reading, does what you do for a living affect your own creativity at all? For example, do you come home at night with enough bandwidth to work on any personal projects?
AS: It’s definitely hard to find the mental energy sometimes, but I try to be very disciplined about working on my own writing and art in my downtime. I actually had a harder time being creative back when I worked as a writer full-time, so the separation between editing and writing has actually been helpful.
KS: Looking back over your comics career thus far, what’s a special moment of pride or joy that stands out (and maybe still makes you smile)?
AS: I’m really proud that we got to come back for a second arc of Unstoppable Wasp. It was a book I believed in and loved so dearly, so for it to get a second lease on life because people responded so positively to it was really validating and special. And I think we told a hell of a story with the ten issues we got, one that the whole team worked incredibly hard on. And it’s living on as a YA novel!
KS: If we set aside books you worked on and are proud of, what’s a comic that you look at with admiration?
AS: I’m perpetually impressed with Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, the little comic that could — it’s unreal how long that run went, and how consistently good it was throughout. It’s a testament to editor Wil Moss’ eye for talent that he assembled a team that struck such a chord, and a testament to the talent that they knocked it out of the park every issue. Squirrel Girl — who woulda thought?
KS: Finally, tell us a little about what you’re working on now, and what we should be on the lookout for in 2020.
AS: I’m really psyched for Outlawed and Champions — as well as the other books that are tying into the Outlawed status quo. I love our younger characters, especially since I helped bring some of them into the world, and I really think people are going to love these books. All the creative teams are knocking it out of the park, and I’m so proud of them.
Chapions cover: Toni Infante
The Unstoppable Wasp cover: Stacey Lee