Between the Panels: Editor Allison O’Toole on Kickstarter Challenges, the Freelance Life, and Accidentally Working in Comics

“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.

Most of the well-known editors in comics are on a publisher’s payroll, but what about someone in that role plying their trade as a freelancer? Allison O’Toole’s journey has taken her to different corners of the industry, as she’s built her reputation on a variety of projects by an equally wide variety of creators.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Freelance editor
Your home base: Toronto, Canada
Social Media
Instagram: @allisonmotoole
Twitter: @AllisonMOToole

Bio image art by Sophie Paas-Lang.

Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: What attracts you to working in the comics field over, say, traditional book editing?
Allison O’Toole: I love the collaborative nature of comics! I often get to work with a team of creators, and I really enjoy working with artists to tell stories visually. It’s so gratifying to be able to flip through a book you worked on and see all of the incredible artwork that jumps off the page — I’d hate to lose that if I made the switch to prose!

I have always loved traditional prose, but I’m more excited about the possibilities with comics. Crowdfunding has opened doors to many creators who weren’t finding success through traditional publishing, and a lot of incredible work is being done online without a publisher at all. As an example, look at the hugely successful Mr. Boop, a bizarre (and extremely NSFW!!) comic published on Twitter that’s just four black-and-white panels per update. There are still great things being done at traditional publishers — Nancy, which has been around since the 1930s, is one of the most beloved comics of the past few years because of its reinvention by Olivia Jaimes. Meanwhile, publishers like Webtoon are constantly trying new approaches to format and finding new talent. I’m excited to be a part of this industry while it’s growing and changing so rapidly.
KS: Fanbase Press launched the #StoriesMatter initiative this year to highlight the impact that stories can have on their audience.  What’s a particular comic story that really wowed you as a younger reader?
AO: I actually didn’t start reading comics until I was around 20! But when I was still new-ish to the medium, I jumped headfirst into the world of Hellboy. I’d seen the movie as a kid, and I was transfixed by it; these days, I have more complicated feelings about it, but at 12, it blew my mind. I’ve always loved monster stories, and the combination of these cool, kind of scary monsters with themes of friendship and teamwork really spoke to me.

KS: Why do you think it was the right story for the right reader at the right time?

AO: I happened upon the comics when I was struggling with stuff in my personal life, so I was looking for an escape and the Hellboy and related series provided it. I love Mignola’s atmospheric storytelling, and his desire to find the gentle humanity in his monster characters. That compassion, mixed with cool monster fights, is exactly what I needed to keep me going!
KS: Since you didn’t come to comics until later, do you remember how the idea of working in the field first came to you?
AO: It was an accident, to be honest! I was reviewing comics online, and my buddy Jason Loo asked me to edit The Pitiful Human-Lizard when he was preparing to get the first issue up on Kickstarter. I learned a bit more about the role of an editor while I was working on that project, and I realized that it combined a lot of things I was looking for: I could use my storytelling instincts on a very collaborative medium, but also use the skills I’d been developing in administrative roles.

Since that’s not very exciting, I will say that it was ECCC 2015 when I decided that I’d start to work toward a full-time career in comics. I was at a convention outside of Canada for the first time, but I met up with other Torontontians in the evenings. I felt like I was part of a community even in an unfamiliar place, and that made me want to find a permanent place for myself in comics!

KS: Was there a “Plan B” career idea just in case?
AO: I was working as an administrative assistant before I started working in comics, so probably that. It also requires a lot of working closely with others, creative problem-solving, making spreadsheets…. A lot of the same things I do as an editor!

KS: As a freelancer, how do projects typically find their way to you these days — or vice versa?
AO: People mostly approach me, especially folks who I’ve worked with in the past. I’m lucky to live in Toronto, where I was able to network aggressively at the beginning of my career — and by “network” I mostly mean “make friends in the industry.” As friends, we wanted to make things together, and I was able to build my portfolio alongside other people who had the same goals.

Since I started editing anthologies with international creators, I’ve been able to meet so many amazing people outside Toronto. I’ve continued to work with a number of my anthology contributors on other projects. And now I’ve got enough experience under my belt that people approach me frequently enough with new projects to keep me busy.
KS: While this might vary wildly depending on what’s on your plate from month to month (or even week to week), can you give us an idea of a “typical” workday for you?

AO: Since I work freelance, my days can be whatever I want them to be, so I usually start my morning taking care of chores. I tend to use my unread emails as sort of a to-do list, so I go through the emails and take care of those tasks. When that’s done, I run through all of the series I’ve got ongoing at that time and try to follow up on anything I might be waiting for. I walk my dog and sometimes work out in the late morning, and after lunch there’s usually more emails, and then I take care of any additional admin stuff that’s less pressing, like updating spreadsheets and organizing files.

A lot of my job is sending and receiving emails, so the exact structure of my day fluctuates based on what comes in!
KS: A question I ask to everyone in your club: When you hear someone in comics referred to as a “good editor,” what does that mean from your perspective?
AO: The things you’d expect an editor to be good at — grammar, storytelling, etc.--are important, but I think that creators’ favorite editors are effective and empathetic communicators. A good editor will answer emails promptly, offer criticism constructively, champion your work, and be able to solve any interpersonal conflicts that come up between the creative team. I think people skills are some of the most important skills an editor can possess.

Time management is also key — you have to be able develop a schedule that works for everyone involved, and then stick to it, which can be tough. People skills come into play here, too, since you often have to coach creators through any difficulties that come up during the process!

KS: You’ve been involved in different comics Kickstarter projects, a route creators seem to be exploring more and more. If someone came to you before launching their own and asked you for the #1 bit of KS wisdom you’ve gained, what would you tell them?
AO: Make fulfillment as easy on yourself as possible! Shipping will always cost you so much more than you think it will. If you can use any kind of mailing service to cut costs for shipping or ordering supplies in bulk, do that. We’ve done enough books at TO Comix Press that we even consider the shipping weight and price of the final book when we decide how long to make it!

If possible, also keep your additional rewards to things that you can fit into the same size of envelope you’ll be using to ship the books alone. It’s tempting to have a wide variety of rewards to entice potential backers, but it’s so much easier and faster if there are only a few different tiers to pack. If you’re already burnt out from promoting and finishing the book, you’ll thank yourself for minimizing the number of different reward packages you have to keep track of!
KS: Because editing is more of an invisible job than a comics creator whose work is seen on the page, can you give readers a sense of what you do on a script? Is there an overall “to-do” list you make for yourself when first diving in?
AO: I don’t have a “to-do list,” exactly, since each script and project has different goals and requirements — a first-time writer’s 6-page comic for an indie anthology will have very different goals and a different audience from a script Chip Zdarsky writes for a comiXology series. So, my first thought when I’m approaching any script is: What is this trying to accomplish? My job as the editor is to help the comic accomplish those goals to the best of the creators’ abilities.

My job also doesn’t end with the script! I do edits at each stage of the process, and different formats also have different demands, so I’m mindful of what our target audience will likely want from the art and letters, too. Besides that, a lot of an editor’s job is project management, so when a book is coming out regularly on schedule, that’s the easiest way to see the editor’s impact!

KS: To what degree are you able to turn off your editorial brain as a fan? Can you read comics for pure pleasure or is there some part of you always “on duty?”
AO: I can definitely turn off my brain to enjoy things! But when I find something that excites me for being especially well-made, my editor brain clicks on and I start dissecting it — but usually after I’ve finished reading it, thankfully.

I do notice lettering or printing format errors, though. My editor brain has a harder time ignoring those, probably because I always go over them so painstakingly at the end of a project.
KS: Let’s spread some love on the last two questions… First, can you tell us about a person who really helped you out on your professional path? Maybe they gave solid advice, opened a key door for you, or whatever else.
AO: I have to give credit to two people: Firstly, I mentioned Jason Loo earlier, he was the person who led me down this path in the first place, and if he hadn’t asked me to edit The Pitiful Human-Lizard, I don’t know if I’d be working in comics at all. He brought me to all kinds of events and shows, and helped me meet a lot of people who are now good friends and collaborators. Some of my fondest memories in this business are with Jason at conventions.

The other is Steven Andrews, the publisher of TO Comix Press. He needed an editor when I was looking for an editing job, and we were lucky that we happened to work quite well together. I think our strengths are complementary. He was the first one to really take a big chance on me, asking me to edit the first anthology that TO Comix Press published beyond the flagship Toronto Comics Anthology series. The book I made, Wayward Sisters, opened a lot of doors for me, so I’m grateful that Steven supported me on it!
KS: What’s a comic  or graphic novel from any era that you look at with admiration?

AO: That’s such a tough question! There are so many, but one I always want to talk about is Haruko Kumota’s Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. I admire Kumota’s deft handling of messy, complicated characters and relationships, and how she builds a compelling human drama while educating the reader about rakugo, a traditional Japanese form of storytelling. Rakugo is meant to be performed for a live audience, but the art is so expressive, both the figures and the compositions, that you’re drawn in with a clear sense of the different characters’ storytelling styles. There’s a trick later on in the series, where one character is doing an impression of another character’s performance, so Kumota recycles the same page layouts from the same performance much earlier in the series. It’s so clever!

It also makes me cry every time I read it.

KS: Finally, tell us a little about what you’re putting your energy into at the moment and what we should be on the lookout for the rest of 2020 and beyond…
AO: I can’t talk about anything I’m currently working on just yet, so keep an eye on my Twitter! I’ll announce things there when I’m able, and in the meantime, you can get all of my opinions about anime.

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