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Interview with K. Thor Jensen
By Tim Leong
In the wake of 9/11, after losing his girlfriend, his job and his apartment, K. Thor Jensen got on a bus and traveled across the country. He documented his 10,000-mile journey in his new book, Red Eye, Black Eye (due in January from Alternative Comics).
What type of web push did you use for this book?
The phases of promotion for Red Eye, Black Eye were done in several stages over the last four years. First, it was run in three-page chunks every week at Serializer.net for about two years. After technical problems brought that site offline for a time, I quietly completed the book on my own time. Once the book was sold to Alternative, I bided my time waiting for a release date to be announced. Once I had that, I began identifying important comics forums and message boards and providing links to the preview and sales page. I created a signature line on every forum I post on regularly to push attention to the book. I revamped my Web site to include a prominent link to the book’s mini-site. I used Friendster, MySpace and other social networking services to bring the book to people’s attention. Basically, any action I take on the Internet right now has a little Red Eye, Black Eye attached to it.
Why was it important to use Serializer.net?
Red Eye, Black Eye is by far the longest comics work I have ever undertaken, so having Serializer both as a platform to grow an audience as well as the responsibility of a weekly deadline was essential to me in completing the work. I think the best thing a cartoonist can do for themselves is give them multiple small goals as opposed to one big goal - we as a species tend to get derailed o r demoralized. The book found a great response on Serializer and hopefully that will carry over into the print publication.
The book recounts your journey back in 2001 — why did it take so long to publish?
I started drawing the book in mid-2002. When Serializer was up, the steady weekly deadline kept me on track. I had the book first-draft complete by October of 2005, when I mailed it out to several publishers. Alternative agreed to publish it in early 2006 and I have been spending the past year doing edits and corrections to polish it up before it hits the stands. So it wasn’t four years of constant work. Plus during that time I published six minicomics, over 150 pages of anthology material, released a CD and got married. Hopefully my next book will come a little quicker.
What is your art process like?
It depends on the project — I am very format-agnostic and will use whatever tools are necessary to get the best result. Since Red Eye, Black Eye is meant to be read quickly and easily, I wanted the page layouts to be simple and comprehensible, so I stuck to a basic six-panel grid. Pages were drawn on Aquarelle Arches watercolor paper and inked with a Windsor & Newton #2 brush. Graytones were done in Adobe Photoshop. My next book will be finished primarily digitally from hand-drawn roughs.
Did you get a sense of the different comic scenes throughout the US?
A little bit. I didn’t spend a lot of time with other cartoonists while I traveled, as in some ways I was trying to cut some ties with the world and forge new ones. While I was traveling (and this isn’t in the book, because it complicates things and doesn’t add a lot to the story), I was stopping at a number of stores to drop off postcards for Jeff Mason’s 9-11 Emergency Relief book. So I made some connections and saw some stores, but overall comics wasn’t a big part of the trip. I was just trying to keep fed and alive.
Most of your work thus far has been contributing small stories to anthologies. How different was it for you to go from a 6-page story to a 304-pager like Red Eye, Black Eye?
Well, initially serializing it on Serializer.net was a help in bridging that gap - thinking of the book as 100 three-page segments kept it manageable to think about. Also, since the book is very episodic, with little nested narratives, it was easy to keep the progression going because I always had new things and new people to draw. I really didn’t start doing a massive amount of anthology work until after I started Red Eye, Black Eye, and for the most part that was done to let me stretch my drawing muscles in different directions.
Was it easier or harder for you to do autobiographical rather than fiction? Why?
Easier, for the most part, but doing autobiography has its own perils - it can be very difficult to make an autobiographical story that doesn’t slip into solipsism and who-cares specificity. It’s a difficult struggle and I’m happy that I had multiple people reading my manuscript to ensure that I didn’t get too far up my own ass in the process.
What have you learned from creating Red Eye, Black Eye that you’ll be able to use in your next project, “Downbeat the Ruler”?
My next book is very different - historical fiction about Jamaica in the 1970s is a far cry from autobiography, but I learned a lot. Red Eye, Black Eye was very loosely plotted, I had sketchbooks and journals to refer to, but I didn’t script anything ahead of time. With Downbeat the Ruler, I am scrupulously outlining each chapter, doing detailed character studies, and putting together back matter that will probably never be visible in the final product, but will lend realism and resonance to the book when it’s done. It is a huge challenge, but that’s why I’m excited about it. I always want to push myself forward. I don’t want to be the cartoonist where you can say “K. Thor Jensen, he’s the guy who does _______.” Unless the blank is “good comics,” I guess.
It seems like a lot of your stories involve bucking social norms. Why is that important to you?
Because I’m an asshole? I dunno. For me, I am always fascinated as to how the structures of societies build invisible rules around people, and how people act out and break those rules depending on their character traits. I have always felt like somewhat of an outsider, although that feeling has faded as I grew older.
With so many big people rooted in it, how influential was the Seattle comics scene to you?Posted by Tim Leong on November 7th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
Growing up in Seattle in the ’90s was one of the best environments a cartoonist of my generation could have ever asked for. I really think that the flowering of alternative comics began then, with so many new talents coming up from the minicomics scene, the institution of the Xeric grants, people really starting to think about formalism in comics on an academic level - I consider myself thrice-blessed to have been in my formative state surrounded by talents like Tom Hart, David Lasky, Ed Brubaker, James Sturm, Jason Lutes, Megan Kelso - I would not be the cartoonist I am without them. It was a vital, exciting time and I encourage other cartoonists to try to make the same social and professional atmosphere in their towns.
Comics: The Paper Problem
By Laura Hudson
THE PAPER PROBLEM
Maxeem Konrady loved comic books. He loved them so much, in fact, he decided to become an artist, and began pursuing Fine Arts in Comics degree at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. During his junior year, he took a class on sustainability called Graphic Design for the 21st Century: As If Life Matters. He found what he learned about comics, and the publishing industry generally, to be “devastating.”
The problem is paper. Comic books, like all periodicals, are printed on it, and the paper-making process is an ecologically ugly one. An enormous consumer of energy and resources, the paper industry is the number one industrial process water user in the country , and according to the EPA’s 2004 Toxic Release Inventory, the third-worst contributor of air emissions among all industries, and the fourth worst in discharges to streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Its production of greenhouse gases, though, is perhaps the most disturbing. The paper industry is the fourth-largest producer of carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming as it depletes the very trees that stave it off.
“The paper industry is one of the single most serious threats to our clean air, our habitat and our water because it’s so stubbornly ingrained,” Konrady said.
Although disheartened by the paper use of the publishing industry, Konrady remained committed to his dream of becoming a comic book artist. Later, when he decided to self-publish his first graphic novel, he knew he had to do things differently.
“I knew I could make a book that eliminat[ed] the waste and the dangerous chemical production that goes into a typical book. I decided that I wanted to see how hard it was.”
The answer: Not that hard. He located a printer who offered more ecologically friendly alternatives, and produced a comic with vegetable-based inks on 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, bleached with oxygen instead of chlorine. The impact of using alternative materials is significant: using recycled paper not only saves trees, it also conserves energy and natural resources, using only 60 percent as much energy , reducing water pollution by 35 percent, and air pollution by 74 percent . Not to mention keeping paper products out of landfills, where they account for almost 40 percent of all municipal solid waste .
“The sad, surprising thing is that anybody can do it,” Konrady said. “I wanted to show [comic book publishers] that if a kid can do it right out of college, they can too… Once I had the money, it was as easy as printing any other book.”
But ay, there’s the rub.
Konrady’s printing standards ended up costing him significantly more than typical printing methods, and although his small print run operated on a different scale than large publishers, he admits the biggest challenge is money. It’s difficult to convince publishers to make any change that increases costs, particularly if the benefits are not obvious. For a business trying to stay afloat, the right thing to do is the most lucrative thing, especially when profit margins are tight. After all, if comic book companies can’t stay profitable, they can’t keep printing comics.
Still, Konrady believes comic book publishers can make the switch in a practical way, particularly if they find a way to market the change to consumers.
“If they can make people want to buy four foil editions of the same pamphlet, I’m sure they can figure out a way to show the value in this really important thing.”
WHAT WOULD SWAMP THING DO?
There is the old and famous axiom from Amazing Fantasy #15: With great power comes great responsibility. It is the noblesse oblige of the superhero class–the ability to help means the duty to do so. Like a doctor with a scalpel or a policeman with a gun, every action or inaction can save people or cost them dearly; every choice has consequences.
It was a moral that weighed upon Adam Weissman of Wetlands Preserve, an environmental advocacy group, as he considered the paper use of comic book publishers. On one hand, he said, comic books advocate heroic ideals of sacrifice and responsibility, and on the other, “the comic book industry uses its financial power to subsidize environmental destruction.”
Sure, expecting comic book publishers to live up to the heroic standards of their characters is unrealistic, but one can at least appreciate the irony of indicting Marvel with the words of Spider-Man. The publishers have an obligation first and foremost to survive, else there will be no one to print the comics. But so far as they have the power, perhaps it is not unfair to expect that they exercise it with as much accountability as they reasonably can. Weissman said he believes it is possible to balance the two concerns, and allow businesses to make both practical and ecologically responsible choices.
He is betting on the consciences of the other powerful people in the comic book industry: fans. The comic book community was one of the major reasons that Weissman and his organization originally turned their attention to the medium.
“Comic book fans are people that talk to each other, that have strong feelings about their comics books [and] intense interest in all aspects of the product.”
Unlike catalogs, for example, which engender little lasting interest or attachment, comic books have a base of dedicated fans capable of applying pressure for issues that concern them.
So, are fans concerned? To find out, Weissman and other volunteers began surveying both fans and creators at comic book conventions in New York to gauge their interest in the issue. Overall, he says, he was pleased with what he learned.
“A very impressive percentage” of the 1000+ people he interviewed expressed concern over the ecological impact of their hobby. “No one is happy to have to pay more money, but the majority of comic book buyers would be willing to pay more.” Although, he is quick to add, raising costs may not be necessary.
“Lots of options now exist,” said Erin Johnson of the Green Press Initiative, a non-profit organization devoted to increasing the use of recycled paper in publishing. Not only is the quality of recycled paper now on a par with virgin paper, but there is “some price parity also.”
The small scale of comic book publishing may even afford more options than those available to larger book publishers, Weissman said.
“Where a larger paper user might be able to say they have trouble finding adequate supplies, with a smaller industry like comics, there are plenty of opportunities to find alternative paper sources.”
And with the use of recycled fibers growing twice as fast as the use of virgin fiber at U.S. paper mills , those opportunities seem like they are only going to multiply.
RECYCLED PAPER: SECRET FILES & ORIGINS
While that may be the reality, opportunity is not always practice, and the perceptions within individual comic publishers are far from consistent. Five different comic publishers had five very perceptions of recycled paper, ranging from dismissive to laudatory.
Marvel declined to discuss the issue entirely, calling their paper use a “trade secret.” But if paper is truly so classified in the comic book industry, Marvel appears to be the only one who feels that way.
DC Comics, in contrast, seemed happy to discuss their printing materials. Although they use only virgin paper (which they describe as “recyclable”), they have made the switch to soy-based inks on all domestic books, 90-95 percent of their line.
“Soy-based ink is more environmentally friendly,” said Alison Gill, DC’s Vice President of Manufacturing, “and as individual areas toughen up on laws, [our ink] meets and beats any guidelines that any state is passing.”
Archie Comics was once the poster child for recycled paper in comics; they broke ground in the early ‘90s when they made a bold move 100 percent recycled paper and soy-based inks in all their comics. Although the switch was highly praised, even garnering an invitation to the White House to recognize their efforts, they reversed their paper policy in the late ‘90s after their printer shut down and they selected a new one that offered no such environmentally friendly options.
Today, Archie prints on virgin paper, as does Dark Horse (with a few notable exceptions, such as the Concrete series). Darlene Vogel, Director of Purchasing at Dark Horse, said that she believes recycled paper is simply too expensive. “I’ve never even considered recycled paper because of that.”
But Jim Demonakos, former Marketing Coordinator at Image Comics, had a different story to tell. About a year ago, Image chose a new printer for their comics, and made a surprising discovery in the process. “We ended up switching to the printer because of their quality. But it just so happened that they [were] also pretty committed to using recycled paper, so it was a bit of a bonus,” Demonakos said.
In the equivalent of a blind taste test, Image chose recycled paper entirely on its merits, and 85-90 percent of their paper
now contains at least 20-30 percent post-consumer content. It seems odd, then, that some people call recycled paper impractical and unrealistic, if a large comic book company can make the switch without even trying.There is still reason every to hope, though, that more companies will come around. Despite some initial resistance or ambivalence towards recycled materials, all of the companies (excepting Marvel, who would not discuss it) said they would still be willing to consider switching to recycled content, assuming the cost and quality were equivalent to their current paper.
PUTTING IN YOUR THREE CENTS
If there is still any question whether the quality, availability and pricing of recycled paper can be practical in the competitive publishing world, the fact remains that Archie did it, Image is doing it, and Random House just completely reset the bar for everyone in publishing.
The nation’s largest book publisher, Random House shocked the industry earlier this year by announcing it would increase its use of recycled paper ten-fold over the next four years, accounting for 30 percent of all its paper by 2010.
Admittedly, Random House is a publishing behemoth, capable of absorbing the estimated three cents per book that the switch will cost them, but when weighed against the estimated 550,000 trees and 88 million pounds of carbon dioxide it will spare, three cents doesn’t seem like very much.
Tyson Miller of the Green Press Initiative, which helped Random House to draft its new policy, cited a survey that echoed Weissmann’s results, where 80 percent of readers indicated that they would be willing to pay more for books printed on recycled paper. “Publishers can do the right thing without it affecting their profits,” Miller said.
Nobody expects the comic book companies to be heroes, to sacrifice or even to especially inconvenience themselves. Businesses have to weigh bottom lines against ideals, costs against benefits, and so do the consumers who may end up paying for it. In the end, we all need to decide what is important to us, and what we are willing to sacrifice for it.
Companies are always going to prioritize the bottom line over idealism, while idealists do the opposite, but if faced with the choice between minimal sacrifices versus clear-cut forests, polluted water, and global warming, perhaps we can expect them to at least consider doing what they can, especially when the cost of indifference seems so much higher than the cost of responsibility.More information, including resources and guides for high-volume purchasers, is available at http://greenpressinitiative.org, environmentalpaper.org, conservatree.org, and fscus.org.Posted by Tim Leong on November 7th, 2006 filed in Story Archive | 1 Comment »
Interview with Koren Shadmi
By Tim Leong
A group of crème-de-la-crème illustrators from the School of Visual Arts worked together to create a comic anthology. Sound familiar? It was a success for Meathaus back in 2000 and it’s working now for Koren Shadmi and his peers with their new book, Critical Citadel. Shadmi, an experienced member of the group, published his first graphic novel when he was 17. With Critical Citadel still fresh on the stands, Shadmi is continuing more comics work and pursuing editorial illustration.
How did SVA shape you artistically? Specifically?
SVA was a type of visual lab for me. I tried various approaches to creating my work, each time absorbing something new from a different professor or artistic influence. It was a form of trial tasting, and I kept what I liked. The great thing about SVA’s illustration department was that I got to study with some of the top illustrators in America, like Steve Brodner or James McMullan. My sketchbooks are the best “historical documentation” of the changes I went through. The first one is exclusively ballpoint pen, somewhat immature and very conservative. the last one, from before I graduated looks like it was made by a completely different person and is much more diverse in content and mediums.
What was the best thing you learned from your time at SVA?
I learned to keep an open mind, and that that you need to make the creative process interesting for yourself, at any cost. It needs to be fun – it’s almost as simple as it sounds. This means that at least when your creating your personal work, there is no room for timidity. What interests you the most is what you should be dealing with, even if it’s embarrassing. If you feel passionate about certain subject matter and you have the guts to deal with it - this will show in your drawing, it will be born out of desire and not tedium. We all tend to fall on what is familiar and easy for us to approach, we take the same route to a finished drawing which we took a hundred times before – but sometimes you need to surprise yourself in order to keep the process diverse. Go against yourself and play a different role for a day.
How did Critical Citadel come about?
It was born in a party/rock show of Citadel member Ray Sohn’s band, Banana Oil. As Ray was shoving his guitar through the ceiling, Me and Jon Vermilyea (another member of the group) were talking about how we should really start some group project. This was one of the strongest cartooning classes to come out of SVA in years and we felt like it would be a waste no to take advantage of that opportunity. After that point we started to have group meetings to discuss the project’s look and direction and then all the members began work on their stories. At the same time I applied for a Shakespeare & Co graphic novel grant. We won, and could now go ahead and print the book.
What was your main objective for the anthology?
We wanted to have a general air for experimental spirit. At the same time we did not want to restrict any of the members, so the decision was to turn the format into the binding element - a horizontal “widescreen” that is sort of abnormal for comics for the most part. We also wanted to make it a diverse collection - generally speaking, the group is split into two — there’s the more refined/controlled artists and then the crude/primal artists. We did not want to discriminate – still, what we aimed for was an overall high artistic quality, no space fillers, everyone had to be in top shape.
How does the Israeli comics scene differ than the American scene?
Apparently the Israeli comics industry had been flourishing in the past couple of years. The problem in Israel is that it’s so small, and there’s absolutely no way of reaching a wide audience with such a specific medium, none the less you see groups like Dimona and Acrtus which have had international success, but they have to write their comics in English, which sometimes makes it a bit odd, especially when the stories have a very local atmosphere. Still, people like Rutu Modan and Tomer Hanuka are getting a lot of exposure worldwide, and it makes me proud to see that we are on the map. About the comparison with the American industry, I would say that the comics in Israel lean much more towards the underground direction, its very diverse and there’s no real mainstream. Some people are making superheroes and manga comics, but they seem to have nothing original about them, and don’t bring to light any of the authentic Israeli character.
Why was it important to print the book in Tel Aviv?
It was cheap! We got good materials for the book, good paper and binding, and all for about 30 percent less then any of the printers in the US or Canada. I don’t know if I would recommend this to anyone though, I had my friend supervise the printing over in Israel, otherwise it would have been much harder to produce the book.
You also do a lot of magazine work. Which is harder — illustrating for comics or for magazines? Why?
Comics by far are harder! They are laborious and demanding, and you feel very little satisfaction when they are done. A comic is a complex creature in addition to having drawings it has to have a story, pacing, rhythm, structure. It’s much more bound to fail then a single image narrative (as in illustration). Sometimes I question myself why I keep at it, but I guess there are some things that are too complex to be able to convey in one image. A comic is like your personal home made film, with an unlimited budget.
I think at this point I enjoy doing illustrations more, even when its for clients, but I’m not about to give up on comics yet just because of that. For me its refreshing working on one image for a longer period of time, and also working from written material, giving your own interpretation for someone else’s writing. In comics all the weight is on my shoulders.
A previous SVA anthology, Meathaus, produced some big names in comics.Was that something you thought about?
I know some of the Meathaus guys, like Tom Herpich and Angry Jim, and they are really great guys with incredible amounts facility. I don’t see Meathaus as an intimidating obstacle, the more the merrier, the better image there is of SVA being an incubator for great talent. The comparison is natural, but I try not to make it, the biggest goal for me was to create a really great collection, regardless of what’s going on right now in the world of comics anthologies.
How did you manage to publish your first graphic novel by the time you were 17? What was that experience like?
My first book was a collaboration with my former comics teacher Uri Fink, who is probably the most renowned cartoonist in Israel, I took care of the visual side, doing the drawings/color of the story and he basically wrote it. Uri had published the first Israeli superhero comic back in the ‘70s, and this book was basically a view of what had happened to the guy since. Its essentially a critique of Israeli society - the former hero is now a slacker officer in the Israeli army, and does his best to avoid using his powers. I think this was my last venture into the superhero world, and it’s a good thing it ended when I was 17.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since entering the comics industry?Posted by Tim Leong on November 7th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
Don’t count on comics to pay your rent!
Interview with Kazmir Strzepek
By Tim Leong
Even though critics can’t stop talking about his new book, Kazmir Strzepek can’t find words for it. “[I] sorta dread describing Mourning Star, because it always sounds so cliche and generic.” Well, we can. The Mourning Star collects the first three issues of Strzepek’s mini comic epic about survival in whimsical post-apocalyptic adventure story. Ahem, “cool” adventure story.How did you come to decide on a square-page format?
And how does that affect the story’s visual narrative flow?
Ha, ha. Oh man, I’m busted! Okay, I have to admit, part of the reason Mourning Star is square has to do with me being a bit of a cheapskate. But first off, odd-sized comic books have always been appealing to me. Half of the fun of mini comics is having these little handcrafted pieces of art that are built with love. My older stuff was usually the traditional half folded piece of paper size, and I really wanted to make Mourning Star a little smaller. The idea was to have a mini comic that someone could just flip into their pocket, say at school or at work, and when the teacher or boss wasn’t looking, could just whip out and read with ease. You can’t do that with most normal or minis without folding them into halves and quarters (and looking like a giant perv with a wad of comic in your pocket).
Originally I considered going for a more manga-shaped book, like 4 1/2 x 6 inches, but nixed that idea since I felt a bit guilty for wasting the paper I’d be cutting of at the top. So when planning it out, I figured 4×4 was the best size, because I’d be small, but I could fit four double-sided pages on one piece of paper. It accommodated my pocket mini scheme and made selling them not as painful on my wallet. Once Bodega picked it up, I decided to make it 5 1/2 x 5 1/2, which is closer to the original art size for image clarity. It no longer fits in pants pockets, but does in jackets and under most hats.
At this present time, I actually feel more comfortable working in the small-square format than in the traditional rectangle size. I blame habit. For me, fitting the narrative into small square pages wasn’t hard. There are some disadvantages, such as limited composition and balance. And I guess it can look a bit busy and cluttered (which can be a pleasing aesthetic in my novice opinion). A strange phenomenon I experienced was after solely working on a 5×5 comic for two years then switching to drawing a comic that was 9×12, I had a difficult time getting used to so much room. Initially my panels seemed stretched out and didn’t fit in the page right. I was overcompensating the size I was used to by laying-out tall, elongated panels. I also ended up automatically sketching huge borders between the panels to take up space. Thank god, after a while I got used to it, the pages started looking normal again. But yeah, that whole moment of readapting was fairly odd.
You have a tendency to use a lot of diagonal lines to create your panels. Why? What effect does that have?
To my knowledge, it seems like a normal technique used in manga. I took a break while thumbnailing sketches for the second chapter to try and examine what needed improvement and I kinda felt like my fighting sequences lacked something. Flipping thought books I’ve collected, I noticed Japanese artists such as Osamu Tezuka, Hayao Miyazaki and Takehiko Inoue would occasionally skewed panels during action and fighting sequences to heighten the action inside and make it more dynamic for the reader. It’s a little tricky, but hopefully I’m doing it correctly. I’m still learning.
How did you go from selling your own minis online to getting a collected edition printed through Bodega?
I seriously lucked out. I met Randy Chang, the big boss at Bodega, at the Alternative Press Expo in San Fransisco a few years ago. That was my first time tabling at a convention. Highwater Books had just ended and Randy took the surplus to continue distribution and selling to kids online. In the long run, I guess he’d eventually run out of the Highwater and other cool books, and would have to resort to the dirty business of publishing, himself. I think he had the first two chapters/minis of Mourning Star. He said he might be interested in doing some kinda business with the series. When I got back to Seattle, I saw he had e-mailed me about selling my minis on the site and asked what my future plans were with the MNS. We talked about it, and the idea of having a fat collected book sounded nice. He also said it would be a paying gig, which is always a good tactic in luring starving mini comic artists. We talked about the direction for Bodega and titles he had in the pipeline (such as Brian Ralph’s Daybreak and Dave K’s Last Cry for Help), and I was stoked to be asked. I worked on the third chapter and rushed it off to the printers for the SPX. It came in like a day before the convention. Like I said, very, very lucky.
How does your art process work?
I’m still working out the kinks of my comic making procedures. Sometimes I have a few false starts. After trying to plan out a page I need to rest and play some Tetris or go to a bar with friends to guilt trip myself back into in the mood. This sounds weird, but a lot of my brainstorming happens on the road. I tend to bike or walk around the city and just focus on the story and plot lines. I swear I don’t talk to myself. I’m not one of those guys (yet). Then I usually rough thumbnail a bunch of pages on Xerox paper or in a sketchpad. Lately I cut and fold the Xerox paper to the size of the comic so I can plan things more accurately (such as panel placement and timing of scene transitions). After that I do pencils on Bristol. Normally I ink four to six pages at a time, so I can jump back and forth if I’m not confident about a panel or page. While penciling and inking I also do side notes of additional character sketches and future plot ideas in the outside border of the pages. And then I just repeat the drawing steps with those notes and such. Once the interior is done, I work on the cover. I volunteer as a screenprint tutor/lab assistant at a local non-profit art organization for youths, so I’m able to use the facility to burn screens for covers and then after cutting and collating the Xerox pages, I bind them with string.
Before Bodega printed this, you were selling at conventions and through your site.
Are you a good salesman? What was your pitch?
Oh, geez. You’re asking the wrong person. I have no idea if I’m good or not.
And probably my lack of a straight answer is evidence how unprofessional a salesman I am. Ha, ha, ha! I think I have some kinda peculiar charm or quality that’s working for me. Naturally, I’m a shy person, but when at conventions I kinda get pumped up full of energy from being around friends I haven’t seen in a while and all the awesome talent and comics around. For me, trying to be as real and friendly as possible seems to work. Like the golden rule of treating others as you would like to be treated.
This is probably not the best thing to admit, but I also sometimes indulge in an occasional alcoholic beverage. I usually table with my good friend Gabby (aka, Ken Dahl), who is an extremely awesome artist, by the way. A combination of a few drinks and the comic con adrenaline pumping through my body does make me more gregarious — in a good way. When that happens I start giving out more and more high fives.
I don’t really have a pitch, and sorta dread describing Mourning Star, because it always sounds so cliche and generic. Especially to non-comic book people. I used to say it’s a post-apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy story. But it’s not really sci-fi. If anything, I’d categorize it as ‘adventure.’ And maybe throw in the word “cool.” “Cool adventure.” Lately I’ve given up and just try to string along as many qualities as possible. “It’s a cool pseudo-whimsical post-apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy adventure with sword versus scissor fights and ghosts.” Then follow up with a high five. And I like to encourage the idea that it’s a fun book. It was fun for me to make, and from the feedback I’ve received, it seems it’s transferred well to the reader.
How did you approach the typography throughout the story in Mourning Star? Any inspirations?
For the title and text used in the introduction, I was going for a gritty old typewriter kinda feeling. Strong and confident, yet mysterious. Which is funny, because I’m not very confident with typography. I *ahem* kinda failed that class in college. But only because the teacher was a jerkface dick and it’s so early in the day, I’d opted to sleep in. I’m sorta regretting that now. But I did graduate; Stay in school kids! Anyway, a friend of mine who designs posters for local concerts has instilled in me that artists should always hand-draw their type. Computer generated text has always felt amateurish and cold to me in comics. I know some artists design font sets with the computer, and most of those are cool. I can barely run Warcraft 2 on mine, so I just stick to the old fashioned way, which is fine by me.
I guess the gritty old typewriter text conjures up the feeling of the video game Resident Evil, although that’s not originally intended. Now that I think about it, I do remember a font I had in Photoshop on my old computer. I used to use it for art projects. I can’t recall the name, but I think it’s something like “Sissy ramero.”
Do you prefer working in B/W?
Yeah, I suppose I do. I feel more comfortable, since a majority of my work is in black and white. But I do enjoy coloring and it’s fun seeing my stuff come more to life with color. Since I don’t practice much, I’m not entirely confident about it either. I was experimenting with coloring my strips, back in the day when Jordan Crane was hosting SPAZ on reddingk.com. He was nice enough to give me a few pointers to play with. Jordan, for the few that don’t know, is not only a drawing god, but coloring god as well. Again, I lucked out and it was great to have him edit MNS and design/color the cover. A lot of people ask about the awesome choice of colors, and I just say, “Jordan Crane picked them,” and they always “ahhh” and nod in strong agreement. Dude’s rad!
Do you still plan to continue the series via mini comics after this? Or are you going to wait to collect them?
This isn’t 100 percent, but I’m leaning towards making the rest of the main story come out in collected book form. This is just so friends and people I meet at conventions won’t have to choose one from the other, or spend on buying two versions. That of course would prevent me from having minis in the meantime. A solution could be making supplemental side stories, like mini-minis about character backgrounds and such to just have something at shows till the next bodega book comes out. At the SPX and Stumptown Fest two months ago, I put together a sketchbook that was all extra bonus stuff. On the other hand, I’d be happy to take a break and make non Mourning Star minis too. I’d like to avoid being pigeon-holed into just the MNS universe.
Dirk Deppey, on his Journalista blog, said you were, “a rising star in the world of minicomics.” How does that feel?
Really? That’s awesome! Spending day after day at the drawing table, sometimes I worry readers won’t like my work. That’s very cool news, thanks for telling me that!
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since your first mini?Posted by Tim Leong on November 7th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
I’m not sure if I’m going to articulate this well… it’s easier to show in person; but If you’re planning on making a mini where you fit four 4×4 double-sided pages on one piece of Xerox paper, make sure you give yourself a lot of border leeway to match all four page centers correctly so your panels don’t get cut off when you use the paper cutter. Ack, that’s a mouth full. As much fun as it is to manually make small comics, if it’s not planned right, you can end up spending a lot of time at the copy shop realigning your images, and even more time cutting and collating it. Personally, I enjoy the process. Especially when I can trick good friends who can endure monotonous torture to come over and help. But it can be extremely nerve-wracking if you’re running out of time for a comic convention. Just plan your layout well and however long you think you can finish putting together your comic, add two days.
Gene Yang Interview - American Born Chinese
By Tim Leong
The National Book Award is the highest honor given to American literature. In the long history of the awards no graphic novel or serialized comic has ever been nomiated for a prize. Until now. Gene Yang’s graphic novel, “American Born Chinese” is up for the award in the Young People’s Literature category. A win would cement “ABC” among the ranks with Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize for his book “Maus.” With the awards just a few weeks away, Comic Foundry spoke with Yang about the nomination and life since “American Born Chinese.”
The book came out a couple of months ago to critical acclaim and you recently received a nomination for the National Book Award. Has it all sunk in?
It’s still crazy. I don’t think it’ll ever completely sink in.
What were your expectations when the book came out?
I was hoping to get good reviews and get people to buy the book, so I could justify trying to get my publisher to sign me up for another one. Being in the comic book industry, I’ve always thought about comic book industry awards. It never occurred to me to think about how the book industry would react.
Have you thought about what would happen if you won?
I don’t think I’m going to win.
I think it’s already so crazy that they nominated a graphic novel. If they actually gave it to a graphic novel … I don’t know. My brain would melt. Honestly, I really do feel like getting the nomination, I feel like I won already. It was completely unexpected.
How has your family reacted?
A Chinese-language newspaper did a profile on me the day after the nominees were announced. After that my parents started getting calls from all these people that they haven’t heard from in years about the article they read. It was featured pretty prominently in the newspaper. My dad got so excited he said he couldn’t sleep for three days.
This is the first time a graphic novel has been nominated. Do you feel like you’re representing the comics industry?
I feel like I’m standing on other people’s shoulders. There have been mountains of comics literature — real graphic novels that are worthy of the term literature that have been coming out for the past 10 years. More than 10 years — when Maus came out. I think Maus really set the bar pretty high. And people started having a place to go. There was suddenly a category for comics as literature and they started going for it. The generation before us, and our generation, have really seen the example of Maus and really gone for it. I kinda think that in a lot of ways I just happen to be in the right place at the right time. It’s kinda our time as a medium — as a group of creators.
Well what do you think the broader implications of the nomination are for the industry?
Well, I think it’s part of a trend that I’ve seen over the past few years of academia and the general public really seeing graphic novels in a different light. I think it’s sort of a revolution that people have been working for so long — since the ’60s. Even longer — Will Eisner was trying to do it since the ’40s. All this hard work that people have put is finally starting to bear fruit.
I’m a high school teacher, and I’ve been invited to talk to audiences of teachers and librarians at a couple conferences. Their attitudes are completely different than what you read about in the ’40s and ’60s. At best, librarians see comics as literature. At worst, they see it as an avenue to literature. So either case is positive.
Kind of like this culmination — what do you think it was about your book?
Part of it was that it came from a book publisher. I was lucky enough to get hooked up with First Second. And, First Second is an imprint of Holtzbrinck, which is this giant multi-national book corporation. The staff at Holtzbrinck and the staff at First Second are pretty connected in the book world. I think a lot of the graphic novels that have come out in the past two to five years have come out for top-notch comic book publishers, but they don’t have the same type of connections they do there. That’s part of it.
Another part is the length. I think my graphic novel is probably on the longer side. It’s not Blankets and it’s not Cerebus, but I think nowadays, the graphic novel seems to average around 100 pages and mine is double that. It feels more like a novel.
How did your parents respond when the book came out?
First Second decided to do collector’s editions, which were hardcover versions of a book. And they chose mine as one of them. So they sent me a bunch of the hard copies and I gave a copy to my parents. When they received it and saw my work in hardcover, that’s when my dad turned around. My mom always had an artistic side and was always supportive. My dad is more practical and wanted me to have a more practical job. When I gave him the hardcover he was really impressed and a month later I had my birthday and he wrote me this card about how I’ve finally arrived and that all the choices I made earlier that he didn’t agree with were finally bearing fruit.
Do you think having this book and writing out your experiences will affect the way you raise your son — or at least make you more cognizant of experiences and environment as he grows?
I think so. I went to UC Berkeley. And at Berkeley, there’s a really huge emphasis on cultural identity, so I’ve been thinking about these types of issues since graduating from there. Or even while I was a student there. And as a result I’ve really thought about how I want my own kid to grow up and what experiences I want him to have. I think it’s really important for people, especially in the modern world, to have minority experience and a majority experience. I think having those two experience gives them 1 fuller picture of what people go through. I think even apart from the book that’s something I wanted for my kid. I want him to grow up in a place where there’s signifcant fusion American population. And eventually, experience what it’s like to be in the minority.
How close was the story to your own experiences?
I took intimates from m own life and mixed them with fiction. It’s not all from my life. Some of it is from friends and stories that I hear from peers — from other Asian Americans. Actually one thing that I took from a couple friends was in the very first chapter that is focused on Jin Wang, the young Chinese boy. He has a friend named Peter Garbinsky, who is a couple of years older than him and kinda abuses him. I noticed that for a lot of my friends, especially if they’re immigrants. I noticed a lot of weird white friends who weren’t really able to get other friends besides the immigrants.
Some of the racist that comes out of the character Timmy’s mouth actually comes from a group of students from junior high that we nicknamed the Stoners — the bad kids. And whenever we’d pass these Stoners in the hall they’d always yell these crude and racist things at us. I think that really affected me when I was young and I really wanted a character that embodied that.
Do people contact you to share their experiences?
I’ve had people come and tell me that there were some truths to it and that it resonated with them. Which is good.
Who did you intend your audience to be?
I was hoping that Asian Americans were in there, obviously. Anyone from sixth grade to early 30s. And then beyond that, hyphen Americans or anyone else that feels like they have a connect. Which is probably most of the world.
So you really did write aiming for an Asian audience.
As the core audience, yeah.
The NBA is giving it a lot of prominence, opening the book to a wider audience. How differently will the book be interpreted?
Race relations are definitely in the top three issues in America these days. Everybody is aware of it — it affects everybody. Even in the Midwest it’s monoethnic communities. Race relations with all the stuff going on with Iraq, the borders, all the security checks and racial profiling — it’s on everybody’s mind. Because of that, I’m hoping my book can be part of that conversation. Even for a non-Asian, anyone who’s an immigrant, no matter of their skin color has dealt with stereotypes, has dealt with the tension between their parents culture and the culture they find themselves surrounded by.
With in that and opening up to a broader, non-Asian audience, do you worry that the Chin-Kee character might perpetuate Asian stereotypes?
I was a little worried about that. I guess I still am. My primary purpose with the Chin-Kee character was to tie him with things that are happening today. I wanted to take something that was very extreme and also that a lot about him (seems to be outdated). I wanted to tie it in with things that are happening today.
Even though the things today don’t seem as outrageous or abrasive as Chin-Kee, underneath they’re just as destructive. A couple of modern examples – one is a political cartoonist by the name of Pat Oliphant. And it makes some references to him, but I don’t know if anyone would get them unless they had a Pat Oliphant cartoon right in front of them. I made a couple of references to a cartoon he did during the Chinese spy plane crisis of 2001. It was horribly, horribly racist and I couldn’t believe that it was posted on all these national newspapers and nobody called him on it before they printed it.
Then a couple of other things are: I personally question the reason behind William Hung’s popularity. I think there’s something racist about it. Nothing against him as a person, but as William Hung the phenomenon, I think a lot of it comes from the fact that he’s this Asian Americana guy and in his performance, a lot of his characteristics coincide with the most negative Asian stereotypes you can think of. Then here’s this kid who is Asian that exhibits a lot of the typical Asian American behaviors trying to be the American Idol. That’s what makes it so funny. And what bothers me is that he’s probably the most famous Asian American male out there right now.
I’m currently working on a graphic novel with a friend of mine named Thien Pham, who does a strip called “I Like Eating.” We’re doing a graphic novel called “Three Angels” and it’s kinda based on my brother’s experience as a medical student. We’re trying to explore the tension between destiny and personal passion. The story is that these angels come and ask this video game addict to become a medical student. So he’s torn between this calling for medicine and his personal passion for video games. That will be out for First Second in 2008.
What was your process for American Born Chinese?
I thought about it for a really long time and then I wrote an outline for the entire book. Then I scripted the chapters. For some chapters I went straight to thumbnail sketches and for other chapters I would actually write it out and write out a script that looked like a movie script. It would basically break down the pages panel-by-panel. Then when I decided what I wanted to do with the text or the thumbnails was I looked at the content of the chapter. If it was more action-oriented I’d go straight to the thumbnails. If it was more dialogue-heavy, I’d do the script first.
What have you taken from that you can now apply to “Three Angels”?
One thing from that was the first time that I did an outline of the whole book before I started on it. So it was really, really helpful and I’m doing that for everything that I do from now on. Beyond that, I think I did learn a lot about story structure. With American Born Chinese I think I w as kinda flying by the seat of my pants and trying things that felt right to me without understanding why they felt right. And since then I’ve had to read more about story structure and how other writers and comic book creators’ structure their stories. And now I have a more intellectual knowledge of what I’m trying to do.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned in creating American Born Chinese?
On a personal level it has gotten me to think a lot more deeply for what it means to be an Asian American. From a creator’s standpoint, I’ve really learned the importance of having friends that could give me good feedback.
What are you hoping ABC teaches the readers?Posted by Tim Leong on November 7th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
The main thing I want is for people to think more about who they are and how their identity is formed. What it means to choose something and what it means to be stuck with it and that tension.
Jamie S. Rich Interview
By Chris Tamarri
Jamie S. Rich began his career in comics as a member of the editorial staff at Dark Horse Comics, eventually moving over to Oni Press, where he served for many years as the fledgling publisher’s Editor in Chief. In recent years, Rich moved away from editing in order to focus on his own writing, which has been most prominently displayed over the past several months. Since the spring of this year, Rich has released the first two volumes of his ongoing digest series, Love the Way You Love, with illustrator Marc Ellerby, sophomore novel The Everlastin and most recently, graphic novel 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, with illustrator Joëlle Jones, all published by Oni Press. Comic Foundry talks with the writer, examining each of these projects and the mind from which they came.
Within the last year, you’ve put three new projects on the shelves, all of them in different formats (ongoing digest series Love the Way You Love, prose novel The Everlasting and graphic novel 12 Reasons Why I Love Her). How do you feel about the way each has been received so far?
I’m pleased. The critical reaction has been interesting, though mainly positive, and the fan response has been overwhelming (and as someone who writes reviews, I can say 100 percent that critics and fans are two different bodies). Sales have varied, of course, but for the most part, people are getting what we’re all doing. It’s interesting to have one book that seems to be kind of a breakout hit (12 Reasons>), one a sleeper that from what I can tell is really enjoyed by those who have picked it up (The Everlasting) and one where the reactions are all over the place (Love the Way). If they were all the same, I’d worry I was doing something wrong.
Why the formal variation from one to another? Was it a conscious exercise, or just that it was what each story called for?
It was mainly what each project called for. The most conscious it gets is that both of the comics were formats I wanted to try my hand at. Prose is my first love as far as writing, but I wanted to give sequential storytelling a shot. I think I’m more of a done-in-one kind of guy, so I’ll likely do mostly original graphic novels, but Love the Way is really providing me with a wonderful experience. It’s been really fun dealing with the open-ended nature of the story, and the fact that it’s the most light-hearted thing I’ve ever done is very liberating. Doing the scripts is like a nice break in between my heavier projects. I really think stories suggest themselves, though. I don’t generally get an idea and then wonder how I’m going to do it. For me format comes hand-in-hand with concept. I’m a firm believer in instinct; I feel creative decisions of that kind really come down to something ephemeral. You just have to let your mind work, trust it to do its job. Which may be a little mystical/new age sounding, but it’s probably just laziness, really.
What was it about each of your three current projects that suggested its particular format? Why did Love the Way You Love feel more like a comic than a novel, and The Everlasting vice versa?
There’s really no reason it happens that way. It’s just a feeling. I don’t get an idea and search around for how I’m going to do it. An idea is usually born a comic or born a novel. There’s no need for it to come out of the closet later. The exception is 12 Reasons, which I had originally come up with as a screenplay idea. I was goofing around trying to formulate what would be the perfect romantic movie. I made my notes and realized that not only was I not that interested in writing a screenplay, but no one would ever make it the way I wanted to. Whereas with a comic book, I could have it be exactly how I saw it. To my lucky surprise, it’s actually turned out better than I saw it, but that’s more down to how Joëlle Jones has drawn it, so I can’t take credit. But there was never any question of 12 Reasons being anything else. Prose didn’t even cross my mind. I just knew comics were the way to go. Valuable lesson, though: some of the best ideas happen when goofing around.
Issues of medium aside, how close is the finished 12 Reasons Why I Love Her to your idea of a “perfect romantic movie?”
Pretty close. I can’t think of anything I didn’t get in there that I would have wanted, except maybe my ultimate ending (which is saved for a book called This Is the Way the World Ends). I like that it has all the imperfections, the personality obstacles and the jumping over them and the fixing. I really like how it weaves around different aspects of what is going on between these two, that it feels full. I read it myself and it gets a reaction out of me. I laugh and I cry and I really fall for [main characters] Gwen and Evan. I know for me a lot of that has to do with Joëlle’s work. So much of what I wrote is dependent on facial expressions, and that’s where she really kicked the book into the stratosphere. “Reason 6″ may be my favorite for that, the way she handles the shift so well from a light-hearted afternoon where the characters are goofing around to the conversation getting more serious. I think there are a lot of comics veterans out there who would struggle to achieve the level of acting she has. So, yeah, when I close the book, I still want the two of them to be together, which is what I think the reader will want, too. A love story isn’t just about the love of the characters, but it’s a romance between book and reader. When someone finishes it, she should clutch 12 Reasons Why I Love Her to her chest and sigh.
Going back to the idea of comics-as-collaboration, do you find it necessary to at all reconcile the relative loss of control that’s inherent in the writer-artist relationship? How do you approach that pairing?
Well, so far I’ve been incredibly lucky, and I’ve had good relationships with everyone I’ve worked with. It’s never been a situation where we’re both just showing up and doing a job and maybe we’ll wave in the cafeteria at lunch. And really, there’s no way that things should be that way on my side of the industry at all. Since monetary treasure is not our greatest reward, then we should at least be enjoying what we do. It was probably a little more lopsided at the start of Love the Way You Love. I was not at liberty to share the actual copyright line with Marc Ellerby due to the fact that the characters were pre-existing. Instead, I tried to extend what participation I could everywhere else and afford him a freedom in how he draws. We have a basic understanding that I’ll be a little more tight-fisted with characters like Tristan and Isobel, but I want it to look like a Marc Ellerby-drawn comic. I think we’ve really started to find that balance, and I hope he feels comfortable challenging me and offering ideas. Before I started the script for the fourth volume, I told him that was the time to tell me stuff he wants to draw and I’d try to work it in the script, because I want to make sure it stays enjoyable for him. So, yeah, I feel very fortunate to be in a position where I have full trust in the people I am writing for. If there’s any problem, I think it was swinging the other way, that Marc and Joëlle might have had a reluctance to speak up to me, to say, “This wasn’t working, I changed it.” That’s correcting itself now. And with both of them I feel comfortable writing dialogue sequences without art direction, letting them choose their panel composition. That to me is true collaboration, and I don’t feel any compromise at all.
Did you have to make any adaptations to your scripting style from Marc to Joëlle?
I think I scaled back in the same ways. In both cases, they began on scripts that predated their involvement, so Joëlle in particular I haven’t written too much for yet. I tend to get very conversational, though, and will refer to them or to things we’ve talked about, stuff I put in the panel descriptions that would make no sense to other artists. My next project with Joëlle should be interesting, as we’re going to discuss the script as I write it. It’s actually been started on her impetus. I asked her what she wanted to do next, and she said hardboiled crime. Immediately, I started making notes for a crime graphic novel called You Have Killed Me, which I describe as “Michelangelo Antonioni directing The Big Sleep.” I’d written the beginning and also a scene at the racetrack because she said she wanted to draw horseracing. As soon as she put that out there, my mind exploded with these images and I crafted some pages I’m quite proud of. I’d halted production, though, while I was waiting for her to be done with 12 Reasons so that she can have a more active role in the writing, critiquing me as I go and being involved in the shaping of the story. It’s very exciting for me, because I’ve never tried working so closely with someone as a writer. The thing is, I always have prose. If I feel the need to be a dictator, I can write another novel. I wasn’t sure how I would be as a comic book writer, because I know earlier attempts were a little rough and I can be very controlling. When Chynna Clugston and I collaborated on various things, we butted heads a little because we were both the type that would hot-dog on the field and not share the ball. It worked in its way, and we did some cool stuff—including things that never saw the light of day—but it took a little struggling and arguing. I don’t know if that was because I was still editing at the time and was not getting my ya-ya’s out or if that’s just the nature of our relationship. But I found I’ve really taken to the idea of working with an artist. I don’t know, though; Marc and Joëlle might say something different.
You mentioned that 12 Reasons began as a screenplay and of course, you’re well-know as a cinephile. Can you talk about the differences in writing for the two media?
Well, I’ve only dabbled a little in screenplays. The ones I have written will mercifully never see the light of day. From that experience and the screenplays by other writers I’ve read, though, I find them far less specific than comics. The rhythms are more open and malleable. 12 Reasons has a lot of dialogue, a lot of scenes where it’s just two people talking. In film, you can put those two people in a room and just write the dialogue and let the director and the actors block out action. In comics, you have to think about what will fit on the page and then what will fit in each panel. You have to choose carefully, because you don’t want the words to crowd out the images and you also don’t want to be stuck in one spot for pages on end. Your artist will get bored, your reader will get bored, and you’ll get bored yourself. So, you have to think about the back and forth of those characters and what sort of physical business you can give them so it’s not just static shots of their faces. In my case, fortunately, I have collaborators I can trust. I know how they work and I don’t have to worry about them being able to direct the actors, if you will. In some cases, I just write the dialogue out, split them in panels and give no specific direction beyond the initial establishment of where they are and different aspects of their mood. I think comics writers often get scared that if they didn’t choreograph everything with a heavy hand, they didn’t do their job. It’s why they overwrite and put in dialogue that’s redundant next to the expositional value of the art. We’ve all seen fans complain about silent scenes, for instance, as if it was somehow less of a story, that the writer was being lazy. This inspires the reverse reaction from the writer, where he or she overdoes it to make sure everyone knows he or she is there. I have no such fear. I realize a silent scene takes more control to write than one with heavy talking and I know that if I give Marc or Joëlle the space to do what they were brought in to do, it won’t mean they’ll eventually take my job from me. I wouldn’t have the same confidence if I were writing screenplays. I think it’s so much easier for a writer to get lost in the filmmaking process. First, you start writing in a vacuum, not knowing whom the director or the cast might be and how much any of those people might take over and reshape what you are doing. How many people actually know who wrote a popular movie, even ones with big-name writers like Munich, for example? How many times did you hear the name of the screenwriter in the ridiculous build-up to Snakes on a Plane? Never! For all we know, it sprang straight from the mind of Samuel L. Jackson. Yet fans know which Batman and Superman books Grant Morrison is currently at the helm of. There’s far more control in comics, and just because Frank Quitely is drawing All-Star Superman and he’s amazing, nobody shoves Grant aside.
Broadly, how do you approach prose as versus comic scripting?
On a very basic level, the tools are different. For prose, I work in Microsoft Word, and I pretty much write from the beginning to the end of whatever section of the story I am working on. For comics, I use a screenwriting program and I need to think in terms of pages, panels and overall length. Since a lot of my comics are “talking heads,” I might just write a scene as straight dialogue and then break it down by panels and edit afterwards, just to let the dialogue flow naturally without the pauses. Sometimes I break away from the computer altogether and sketch some pages out as thumbnails. That helps me think in sequential terms or work out an item of the story in the space I have available. The only time I write by hand for prose is when I’m not home. I carry a small notebook with me to scribble in. The main difference is really a matter of space, though. Prose has no limits, whereas comics by nature exist within a closed structure. Interestingly, though, comics can almost provide a break from prose. I can pull back, all the responsibility isn’t on me. In a novel, I have to describe every little thing, but it comics, I can work around the edges and let my collaborator fill in the detail. There is an interesting problem I encountered recently writing the fourth script of Love the Way You Love. I am used to a malleable process. Over the course of a novel, I can change things, alter as I go. This can include the environment my characters are in. If I find midway through the book it’s convenient for me to have the television on the far side of the room, but in the second chapter it was on the opposite end, I can just go back and move it. I can’t do that in comics. If I decide to redecorate in #4 what Marc has already drawn in #2, it’s no longer possible. This means I can’t always think in vague terms, filling in the details only as I need to. I am going to have to learn to be more precise right up front. How did you approach 12 Reasons, something both written (more or less) and consumed at once, differently than you do something constantly evolving, like Love the Way? 12 Reasons had its own self-imposed structure. There were only twelve chapters and each of them could only be so long. Actually, they all had a natural length, too. One was designed to be two pages long from the get-go, another four. So, it was a pretty tight ship by design. In terms of Love the Way You Love, there’s a soap opera element to it that could conceivably go on as long as I want it to, but I try to impose limits on myself, to think in terms of arcs. Right now, I’ve been thinking in threes, like each third volume or so should have a sort of conclusion so that if that were it, if a reader stopped there, they’d receive some satisfaction. Even within each volume, I tend to have three chapters, and those are around the same length as a comic book issue. I try to plan what might fit in each of those slots, moving the story along and giving the reader a full experience at the same time. It’s been really interesting, as I’m having to learn when to let the belt out so that part of the story can breathe, or to recognize that I over-planned and maybe need to speed it up a little bit. Like, after writing the fourth volume, I realized what I was thinking would be in the seventh volume might actually be ready to go with the sixth. I guess the real experiment for me will be You Have Killed Me. That’s genre, so it has a kind of structure going in, and it’s finite, so I have to think in terms of page count and so I’ll likely have to outline a bit more than I normally would. It should be good for me, because I tend to be wordy and to exceed limits most of the time. I was the guy in school who would turn in 1,000 words when the teacher asked for 500.
Why did you choose to use the structure (for lack of a more accurate term) that you did in The Everlasting, shifting points of view and format while keeping the narrative moving linearly?
When I started out, I wanted to use the varied styles—the third person, the journals, the e-mails—to expose different aspects of Lance’s personality. The third person would be how he presents himself to the world, the journals were how he really sees himself when no one is looking. You can see that pretty distinctly early on in the book, but as he grows more confused, the lines fade. It worked for me, because it gave me an opportunity to examine the story from different angles. It’s like when you’re watching a DVD feature about special effects and they show you their 3D model for building a creature or a spaceship or something and they spin it around and show you how it goes beyond just a drawing, it’s all the angles, it’s every side. That’s kind of like what I had with The Everlasting. The different styles, it was like toggling a switch and viewing the object in a new way.
So far most of your major works—Love the Way, The Everlasting and prior novels I Was Someone Dead and Cut My Hair—have had recurring characters, all of these stories taking place in a corroborable “Richverse”, of sorts. Why?
It just seemed to make sense for whatever reason. It wasn’t the original plan. I still maintain a notion that Cut My Hair was a very definitive end for that story, as open-ended as it was. I wanted to allow readers their own opportunity to decide where it went next. At the same time I had The Everlasting and the forthcoming Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? already planned, and I was calling them a thematic trilogy, my Romance Trilogy. Judd Winick suggested keeping some of the Cut My Hair characters around, even if I left Mason and Jeane to history, and it was like a puzzle piece I had been missing. It really opened up the possibilities for me, allowed me to connect all these various things in overt ways. Also, I have a real interest in point-of-view in narrative. When events crossover in the different books, each time allows me to come at it from a different angle. Like with a room with many entrances, I can choose to step inside through a different door. It really got me thinking about characters, and how people look different to the various individuals in their lives. One guy might like you and one guy may not and when they both see you do something, they’ll have opposing reactions. That intrigues me. In one novel, a character may be the hero, in another the villain, and yet he may be doing the same exact thing in both of them. At the same time, you can just read one and it makes sense unto itself. It just depends how far in anyone wants to go.
So why doesn’t 12 Reasons belong (at least not obviously) in this continuity?
I didn’t see a need to fold everything into the one. As this was a self-contained story about two specific people, it just stood on its own from birth. Plus, since there was an artist attached early on, there were certain ownership issues that needed to be addressed. If it’s something I am going to co-own with someone else, it can’t have the regular crew as its main characters. People should probably expect me to break away from the line a little more in the future, particularly in comics. You Have Killed Me is its own beast, as is another book Joëlle and I are talking about for after that. The graphic novel Christopher Mitten and I may do is also off on its own. It will really just depend. I Was Someone Dead was originally separate, until a way to connect it occurred to me.
As you write, do you maintain a sense of the overall arc connecting these projects? I’m thinking specifically of something like Tristan’s “appearance” in The Everlasting, nearly a decade after he’s featured in Love the Way You Love.
To go from one to the other is a bit surprising, because the first issue of Love the Way sets up a “will they or won’t they?” plotline, while The Everlasting suggests, to an extent, where he ended up. In other words, does my own content contain “spoilers”? I’m pretty aware of where everything fits and in what order the information is going to roll out. I am cursed with a mind that’s actually quite good at juggling stuff like that and I often forget that other people may not be. For instance, I always find it surprising when people get my current projects confused and need me to break it down for them. Maybe it’s because I’ve always kept track of how many bands Damon Albarn is in or how many comics Greg Rucka is writing and all that, I’m used to it. Or maybe this is just another of my mutant powers. It can be weird, because when talking to people about the work, I’m always a couple of steps ahead. For example, I recently wrote an online serial with Lance from The Everlasting that takes place six years after the novel. He’s been living all this time while he’s waiting for the book to come out, you know? But then I think it only seems strange because we’re watching it as it’s happening. Once time has passed and all this stuff has been out there, it’ll be just like any other series of stories. Philip Roth has quite a few Zuckerman novels, all taking place at different times. I’ve read the ones I’ve read in a sort of random order and I’m content with that. Again, it’s because The Human Stain doesn’t hinge on you having read The Ghost Writer. They are what they are. Comics fans do it all the time, too. Spider-Man can have eight titles, crisscrossing all over the place, drawing on several decades of history, and people process it. Sometimes in working this way, I plant seeds for myself without knowing why I did so. Only later, doing something else, do you realize, “Oh, I put this here for myself because I knew I’d need it somehow.” Love the Way You Love is interesting, because it actually grew out of The Everlasting. I knew where Tristan ended up and knew who Isobel was, but I never really knew when that would come into play. In the novel, he exists primarily as a sounding board for Lance, who sends him e-mail after e-mail raking over his past. One e-mail, however, is Tristan’s section, where he throws back one of his own experiences. It was a story I hadn’t thought about before I had written it, and when it was done, I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.” It was then that I realized I had a much larger Tristan story to tell, and when I started thinking about how. That anecdote is summed up in the first couple of pages of Love the Way. Given that the first issue also posits that the Tristan and Isobel romance is all fated, it makes me think the outcome itself is not going to be as surprising to the readers as the journey there.
I suppose what I’m wondering is whether you consider this to be a single broadly landscaped story, from Cut My Hair through to The Everlasting and thereafter (or not), or if they’re relatively autonomous, the Easter-egg character and plot overlaps more auxiliary than fundamental. Certainly there’s some resonant thematic overlap…
Yeah, it really is more thematic than anything. There are no cliffhangers, for instance. No need to buy The Everlasting to find out an answer to a question posed in Cut My Hair. You get some pretty fundamental cast changes each time, and the focus really shifts. I would probably say what you’re really following is my growth as a writer and as a person, and if I backtrack in some cases, reexamine an event from a different angle, I’m looking for some deeper understanding of what interested me in the first place. By that notion, I would probably end up just recreating the same characters over and over again, so instead of someone reading about a rock star in The Everlasting and saying, “Oh, that guy’s just like Tristan from Cut My Hair,” it actually is Tristan.
Looking more closely at the thematic resonance, what unique angle do you see each of your three current projects as examining?
Love the Way You Love stands apart specifically in tone. It’s much more light-hearted—though amusingly, a lot of the people who have reviewed it have looked at it like it’s gravely serious. It’s also open-ended, in a way. I can take my time to get where I’m going, since it is intended to be a soap opera. It should end up being a vehicle for me to try a lot of different things. The Everlasting is one man’s foibles, really, a personal search. You could call it an examination of the errors he makes, and by extension the ones a lot of us make, on his way to find love. Whereas 12 Reasons is about two people, about how a couple works.
You Have Killed Me will be your second major genre tackled in comics, then, after forays into romance of Love the Way You Love and 12 Reasons. What is it about genre stories, and about these two in particular, that you find appealing?
Perhaps it’s the Gemini in me, but these have always been the two genres I have been drawn to. I love romance and I love film noir (though I hate when that term is applied to other mediums). In one way, they seem polar opposites, but in another, they really do go together. For me, probably the biggest appeal is that they both deal in very grand, solid emotions. They are also rooted in lost ideals. The detectives of the best hardboiled fiction are men out of step with the modern world. They have strong personal codes of conduct that have firm connections to the past and they don’t waver from that code lest they lose themselves to the chaos. When people all around them are losing their heads, they stand their ground. I think the boys I write about in my novels are trying to maintain a similar stance. They are all trying to restore chivalry to the world, lost knights without a kingdom. Lance even says as much in The Everlasting. He wants to love strongly. Fantastic romance is his Maltese Falcon. I almost think the case he is on is more dangerous than if he were tracking a crook or a killer. You at least know what weapons those guys are going to come at you with. I used to think my adoration of these two particular genres in combination was something I was alone in, but then Joëlle and I bonded over them. I was also working at an indie video store, and I discovered I had a lot of customers like me. Not surprisingly, they were all women. I’m what they call a big girl’s blouse.
You’ve been a public participant in comics culture for a while now, from your time as a letterhack to being one of the Oni founders through random work like freelance editing Powers. But this year has seen your first published long-form writing in comics. Why’d it take so long?
Because editing took up so much time. It took a lot of the same energy that I needed to write with, particularly in the Oni years where I had one laptop for both work and home and it went back and forth with me. After sitting at it all day dealing with whatever fires were burning in the comics world, it wasn’t the most inviting thing to sit down again and type some more. Cut My Hair was in the can through most of my tenure at Dark Horse, and part of my move over to Oni was trying to create more time to do that book. But then Bob Schreck left and suddenly I was in the full thick of it again, so even though Cut My Hair came out in 2000, not much progress was made on The Everlasting for the four years after that. Plus, as the editor-in-chief, I wasn’t comfortable trying to print my own stuff through Oni. I did occasional pitches for DC and Marvel, but I didn’t want to force my original ideas on Joe Nozemack to publish.
Did experience as an editor, having seen the process from the other side of the table, so to speak, affect your writing process at all?
I don’t know if the process affected the writing. It certainly had an influence on how I handled my manuscripts after typing “The End.” I always find myself getting sucked into the process. I roll up my sleeves and attack the post-production and the marketing as much as Oni will allow me. I look at our relationship as a partnership and I’m going to do my part. I know how much work it takes. There’s no room in the indie world for crybaby prima donnas—even though they are around. Any direct influence on the actual pen-to-paper stuff is subliminal. With all the reading I’ve done, all the back-and-forth with other creative minds, I’m sure I’ve picked up storytelling skills I’m not consciously aware of. My relationship with Chynna Clugston, for instance, taught me a lot, because she was always very interested in talking through her scripts and working out the problems with me. Coming up with active solutions like that are great learning experiences. Even if I don’t reach a point in Love the Way You Love, for instance, where I think, “Oh, gosh, this is just like that time in Scooter Girl #3,” it doesn’t mean that Scooter Girl #3 didn’t smooth out something for me. I suppose there’s a certain mechanical understanding of a comic book page and how to structure a script, too. I have a pretty good idea of what fits on a page, what fits in a book. I am sure Marc Ellerby or Joëlle Jones have pages that instantly spring to mind where it didn’t seem like I knew what I was doing, but I swear, I’m just a soul whose intentions are good.
What do you see your role in “the post-production and the marketing” to be?
Right now, I’m helping Oni by finding press venues that they might not normally reach, finding places to send the novel to get it reviewed. I’m really ready to get into it and do anything. I even said I’d go into the office and pack the envelopes. On this side of the comics fence, the creator really has to be involved in all aspects. Granted, Oni would be fine if I sat out of the game when it came to the design and printing, but I figure I’m two feet in all the way. It really is a partnership. I put up the creative time, they put up the money, and then we dive in together. As an editor, I saw what it was like when a creator didn’t want to be involved, didn’t want to get out there and push his or her book. That person is the first one to turn around and accuse the company of screwing him. Really, if you want to talk about my years editing, it really has screwed me because I know what it takes to do that job, and if you’re good at it, you’re putting in a hell of a lot of work. (If you’re bad, you’re putting in more, I’d wager.) I don’t want to let my boys down, you know? My dream is some “big” publisher will eventually come down and try to steal me and I’ll be able to laugh at them and say, “Do you know how rich Oni has made me?” So, I’m really the greatest freelancer you can imagine. I know what happens when you miss a deadline, I know how hard you can make everyone’s job if you’re full of yourself and think it’s all about you. At the same time, I’m the worst freelancer because I also know if an editor or publisher is, in fact, blowing it. I’ve sat in that chair, I know what’s required and I want to be treated the way I would have treated myself. Thankfully, I trained James Lucas Jones, so he knows what I need.
Obviously, you had more than a little incentive to continue publishing through Oni. But did you ever consider shopping The Everlasting around to a more traditional publisher of novels, to possibly garner better exposure in that culture?
Sure, and I actually did. I spent about a year talking to agents and small houses. I just never found people who I clicked with. There were plenty who liked my writing, but either I didn’t fit in with their roster and so they decided to pass, or they wanted me to alter myself to fit in with what they thought I should be doing, which to me is not the way things should be done. I can’t style myself to fit someone else’s conception of me, I have to be me. Which isn’t to say I’m blind to good advice, but just because someone tells you their opinion doesn’t make it automatically right, regardless of their title. The thing is, I don’t lose anything with Oni. That’s what I had to learn. I actually gain in some ways. I give up certain upfront monies, but I have greater control and a much better back-end deal than I’d get at a traditional publishing house. When it came down to making a decision, those were things I thought about. I had to ask myself what it was I really wanted. Joe Nozemack had put his offer on the table. He hadn’t balked for a second. He never blinked when it came to me. When I made my decision, when I said, “No, I’m doing it with Oni,” I instantly knew I was right. It was like I was comfortable again, like I had finally put on clothes that fit after spending a long time in a suit that was too small. In the end, I needed to stick my head out of my hole and look around, because I needed to appreciate what I had. I haven’t regretted staying with my guys for a second. In fact, just the other night, Joe knew I was worrying a little bit, and he took me out for some drinks and we chatted and he made sure I knew his commitment to my talent. You don’t know how great it is, how lucky it is to have a publisher like that, until you go and confirm for yourself that most places aren’t concerned about talent over the long haul. They want a quick and easy score. They’re like bank robbers hoping to get into your vault and run out and enjoy the fruits of what they take from you without ever having to serve any prison time. The guys at Oni are going to pull the heist with you and keep going down the string of banks. They are going to take the risk because they want everyone’s loot pile to grow.
Towards the end of The Everlasting, two of the characters lament that their (or your) generation doesn’t have much to talk about beyond a shared pop cultural history. Is that something with which you’re concerned?
Yes, and no. I think there is a danger to that overtaking most of our entertainment, but the statement’s existence in the book is more to comment on how Lance is relating to people. Is he maybe using his favorite songs as a barrier to block other people out and not really deal with the emotions at hand? Another character earlier on thinks so. When I’ve had to boil down what I do recently, that is often my answer. If people ask what my books are about, I say, “How people relate to one another in the modern world.” Lance definitely has communication issues, whether it’s expressing himself too much or too little. It was one of my editors, Maryanne Snell, who first observed that it’s a shame Lance’s most open relationship is with his cat. Maybe because Sadie couldn’t care less about the Style Council.
True or false: Jamie Rich’s most open relationship is with your cat.
That’s between Sadie and I, and neither of us is telling.
Let’s talk about music, specifically, obviously a subject that’s important to you. Your work is filled with specific references to music, things like the posters in Love the Way You Love, the lyric-quote and song-title chapter headings in The Everlasting and 12 Reasons, respectively, to say nothing of how often this band or that song pops up in dialogue. Why do develop such a particular tableau? Is it proselytizing, a taste test, your own inclinations unconsciously slipping through…?
It definitely began unconsciously. In Cut My Hair, I just wrote the way I thought. An average conversation with me will usually come around to music. I spend most of my time with music playing in the background. Right now I’m in the middle of an iPod shuffle, for instance, and as I answer this, the Impressions’ “The Woman’s Got Soul” has just given over to the Postal Service and “Recycled Air.” My constant inclination is to tell you that kind of thing. In fact, there is at least one proofreading draft of The Everlasting that I did with the iPod shuffling and I wrote down every song as it came up, so all along the manuscript at the bottom of the page are these songs. I’m obsessive that way. So, that’s obviously a trait Lance and I share. There’s a scene where he lays out a bunch of records in the order he wants to listen to them as a sort of jukebox of his mood, building his own mix as he goes, and that’s something I do quite often. When I first started writing The Everlasting, I had in the back of my head that people had responded well to the musical elements of Cut My Hair, and that almost tripped me up. I started to try to contrive the references, and what had been so natural became something I worried about. I eventually had to work my way backwards and remove that self-consciousness and just let it happen. Once I got more into Lance, it got really easy again. The only worry then becomes whether or not it’s too much. It’s a definite tightrope, trying to make clear the intent of the reference without overly explaining. It’s why Lance says early in the book, “Don’t worry if you don’t get it all. It makes its own sense in the end.” That said, for the next book, Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? , I gave myself a challenge to keep pop music out of the present day of the story. There are flashbacks to when the main character, Percy, is a teenager, and he and his paramour bond over Depeche Mode, but that was it. I wanted to shake up my own way of doing things. The worst insult I may have ever been delivered was from Joëlle Jones, when she said, “That guy has the best music collection I’ve ever seen,” and she wasn’t talking about me! I started to sputter. “B-b-but, have you looked in my closet? Did you see the vinyl? Did you see the vinyl?!?” She meant that he had a lot of things she was looking for, that he could not be stumped by her. That was a logic I could understand, even if I didn’t want to. On the flipside, I am sure I could stump him, and he me. I worked retail at an indie record store. First lesson you learn is that the world is full of people with favorite bands you’ve never heard of, there’s too much out there. Even so, it stung, and I could probably write a whole Lance Scott novel based on that one perceived slight.
What’s your process for defining characters, moving from tabula rasae to being able to predict how a character’s going to react to a certain sort of music, or what he’s going to order in a Thai restaurant? Is philosophy, something like the “lost ideals” you spoke about above, an important fundamental element, or is that something that comes out in the wash?
A lot of it comes out in the wash. The writing process for me is kind of like learning about people I’ve never met before. I put them in a situation and see how they react—which sounds very precious, I know. I don’t want to dig out that silly line where I say, “Then Lance told me what he wanted.” It’s more about imagining a scenario and then imagining the ways people could behave within it, at least for the supporting characters. For the leads, it does need to be a little clearer, so I have to start with some kind of foundation. Still, even there, most stories are about discovery, so I think it helps the narrative journey if the author is open to the surprise of it. Like, with Lance, I don’t think I ever made a note that said, “Lance feels misplaced in a world where chivalry is dead.” Yet, at some point, in thinking about his predicament, that became an obvious problem. Lance wants to act one way, and most girls anymore will look at him like he’s positively nuts. So, he reacts against that, and it manifests in his talking about knights and old values. I remember when Say Anything… came out, I had a girlfriend at the time who said, “If some guy put his coat down in a puddle, I’d think he was stupid.” For Lance, and I guess for myself, the world is divided between people who think that was an awesome John Cusack moment and those who think it’s stupid. Then, of course, there are those in the middle, the ones Lance would probably chase: the girls who say it’s stupid while secretly wishing some guy would do that for them. From a more technical standpoint, most of the characters a writer has chosen to use have to fit the theme of the book. If chosen properly, they serve a function within the overall purpose of the story, and so their actions are also going to be dictated by the need to advance the narrative. In The Everlasting, it wouldn’t have made sense to have Lance start off dating a girl who was ready to dive right in to a heavy commitment and get married. The story isn’t about a guy running for love, but a guy searching for that kind of ideal love. If he gets it in the first chapter, book over. I chose wrong.
How important is your relationship with your characters? How much do you identify with Mason versus Tristan versus Lance?
That’s a tough call. I tend to look at all characters as extensions of me, and as extensions of one another. For instance, one could argue that because Mason idolizes Tristan, in some ways Tristan represents a sort-of Mason in ascension. There’s definitely an element of that character that I want to be. I’d love to be that cool, that mysterious. Where this gets into dangerous territory for me is that it starts to lead into what did and did not happen, how much of the books are stolen from real life. In most cases, not a lot. It’s kind of bizarre, because it’s such a common question, I wonder if people remember what fiction actually is. I think maybe sometimes it’s the drawings in Cut My Hair in particular, there is some passing resemblance. I need to quiz authors without drawings to see if it happens to them. Lance is certainly my closest avatar. He is the guy I intend to keep around for a long time, and I plan for him to star in my final book, The Short and Happy Death of Lance Scott. I don’t know if it’s odd to have a deathbed book planned, but I do. I’ve already written the opening, but I am stopping there for now. Anyway, I dump a lot of my stupid theories and psychoses on Lance. His rants usually correspond with what goes on in my head. I like to think that if he were real, we’d be that kind of intense drinking buddies where we love to hang out but every other pub crawl ends in us beating the living hell out of each other. I hope one day to have someone draw a picture for me where Lance and I are sitting across a table from one another shooting electricity from our brains and trying to see who can break through and kill the other first, in a bizarre character-meet-author, get-out-of-my-head scenario. But like I said, this is where it gets dangerous. What happens to Lance shouldn’t be assumed to have happened to me. Because I fiddle with a LiveJournal for him, I’ve had people try to blur that line, and I’ve had times where I updated that journal and I get e-mails wondering if I’m okay. They think whatever pitfall he fell into was one I stumbled over that day. Even if it were true, trying to get me to confess is sort of like asking a magician to reveal the secret behind his tricks.
But it seems as though you’re baiting readers a bit by drawing explicit connections between character and author in The Everlasting. You and Lance share a love of Audrey Hepburn, a birthday, even an e-mail address. Aren’t you inviting attentive readers to assume a certain degree of interchangeableness?
Oh, yes. I like to play with perceptions. I did a story with Andi Watson in an Image anthology, Four-Letter Worlds, called “(T For) True.” It was all about my love affair with fiction and my particular fascination with self-mythologizing. Which is a fancy way to say that the fun of writing is being able to lie a lot and messing up what is and is not true about oneself. It turned out to be liberating, because now I can get away with anything. If we were doing this interview in person, you would see my arched eyebrow and sly smile as I answer these kinds of questions. What am I giving you this time? The lady or the tiger? If you’re present (to a degree) in characters like Lance and Tristan and Mason, it stands to reason that their objets d’amour are likewise based in experience.
But how much is this so? Have you ever been called out by an ex-girl for crossing too far over the fictional line?
No. Most of my ex-girlfriends aren’t speaking to me, and vice versa, anyway. I just don’t see anything as exact enough, I wouldn’t even feel it would be honest to say, “Oh, this is so-and-so.” Different girls may see different things that bear some relation to some things that may have happened in our relationship, but I think the moment they started dissecting it with memory, the connection would fall apart. There’s a great moment in the graphic novel It’s a Bird…, perhaps one of the best books ever written about the process of writing. Author Steven T. Seagle, through his doppelganger on the page, says that writing from real life is never really taking from real life, because the moment you start writing the whole thing turns sidewise and it’s no longer the truth of what was lived. That’s entirely true. Even if I begin and think, “I’m going to write this exactly as it happened,” it starts to morph because I see a better way. I can’t even keep a journal, because I want to rewrite too much. I don’t see any of the love interests in The Everlasting or the other books as any one person. Anyway, did Zelda get mad at Scott for the way Daisy acted in The Great Gatsby? No. She just went insane instead. Much more class in that decision. Any creative person risks angering people in his or her life. Any decision of what to write about walks a tightrope. I write about families that don’t necessarily work as well, and I risk my family being offended. It doesn’t matter how made up it is if they can’t disassociate the person they know from the book he wrote. As an author, I just have to be true to the story and try to be understood. It’s funny, because Renée French once gave me a piece of advice. She told me to never go out with an autobiographical cartoonist, because no matter how much they swear you won’t end up in their comics, you’ll crack open the cover one day, and there you’ll be.
12 Reasons has what I think is the most well-developed romantic relationship in your work to date, possibly because the story seems more interested in this relationship than in the idea of relationships in general. Is that accurate, that you’re more concerned here with character than with theme?
Very much so. The title, after all, is why I love her. That seemed to demand a laser-like precision in the writing. In the script, a couple of the chapters even have descriptive moments where I explain to myself and Joëlle, “This is how Evan knows what he is telling us in this section.” I was very conscious of the point of view. Which half of the couple, Evan or Gwen, do you better identify with now? It varies from chapter to chapter. I think in romantic entanglements I’m most often the Evan, the guy a step or two behind who puts his foot in it when he tries to catch up. But there are some moments where I channeled myself into Gwen, too. Maybe it’s a lucky scenario where I’m dating myself. One reviewer tossed the autobio tag at 12 Reasons, and my response was, “I wish! My life would be so much better. I’d be dating Gwen!” Are you adverse to happy endings? Not at all. I just feel they have to be right. I Was Someone Dead has a happy ending, and I think you can argue that Cut My Hair does as well. In terms of a trilogy, The Everlasting is the middle, so it’s the dark one. I refer to it as “Love Fails.” That would make Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? the capper where “Love Reigns Triumphant.” You’re just going to have to slog through a lot of sad stuff to get happy. If you want to really get down to brass tacks, though, I don’t see a lot of happy endings for Lance at the present time. Given how much we have discussed his connections to me, how much his fictional life reflects my real life, I would say you wouldn’t be too far wrong if you said that element reflected a certain cynicism in how I live my life. I’m not sure it’s ever going to work out for either of us when it comes to matters of theheart.
Would you describe yourself as cynical? Would those close to you?
I can’t make up my mind on that one, to be honest. I lean more toward saying I am cynical, with the full awareness that a cynic is usually a natural-born romantic and thus contradictory by nature. How other people see me varies, I suppose. I am often bemused by the different views on me. My fascination with Mercutio is no accident. I think my friends hold me in a certain high regard that I don’t understand. I’ve been called trustworthy, and all I can think of is the times I have not been. I’ve been called generous, and all I can think about is what a selfish prick I am. Maybe I’m just more aware than anybody that I have an ability for masks and a well-honed skill at making my cynicism sound melodramatic and thus come across as false. Maybe this is my mask, this whole, “You think I’m good, but I’ve been a bad, bad girl” routine. I’m not being coy here. Most of the time, I don’t know. I’ve taken to saying, “The actions of the body are to atone for the sins of the mind and heart.” In other words, if I play well with others, maybe it’s just to make up for the darkness I carry. Which I doubt makes me special, just human.
Does your writing at all constitute emotional problem solving? Are you putting these characters through something that you’re either unwilling or unable to address directly?
I would say yes to the first part, no to the second. I discovered in adolescence how writing was definitely therapy, and I can use fiction to sift through my own issues and try to puzzle them out. I don’t necessarily feel, however, that I do so as an avoidance tactic. It’s probably happened from time to time, but usually I’m looking backwards and trying to find perspective so that hopefully I can avoid the same problems again. If it’s something I’m mulling over in the present, then it’s with the same goal. Except if we’re talking unrequited love, because then the bets are off for the obvious reason. Part of that is about the secret, about keeping it to oneself, and fiction can allow you to say the things you want to say but aren’t allowed to. Despite my hermit lifestyle, I feel pretty engaged with life at the moment. Is unrequited love more romantic than requited? In some ways, I think so, because it maintains its intensity. The past relationships that still smolder the most for me are the ones that never happened. They never had their chance to go sour. In fact, the only time I think I’ve really looked through at the other side and seen the real deal, it was with someone whom circumstances kept me apart from. The effects still linger. Whereas anyone who I actually went with for a real period of time and then broke it off with, I’m done with them. I don’t see the point of being friends, none of that, so if love was there, it has died. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t jump at the chance to make an unrequited romance cross over. To not try is worse than failure.
Back to the writing, why do you do it? What draws you to the work, what keeps you there, what do you get out of it?
I don’t really think that’s an answerable question. I write because I have to. Sometimes I have to work on something just to get it out of my head, to stop thinking about it. I’ll chew and chew and chew and finally spit it out just to get some peace. Which isn’t to suggest it’s not fun. When I hear writers complain about what painful, hard work it is, I want to kick them in the nuts. I don’t know what their problem is, maybe they haven’t eaten enough shit in their lives. Yeah, it’s a lot of work. It’s tiring. A full day of writing can wear you out just like any other job. But geez, when it’s working, when the words are clicking, what a blast! So, maybe I’m chasing that feeling, that joy of creation. But really, the stories keep coming in ways I can’t explain, from places that I can’t point to, and they really insist upon themselves.
What’s your favorite thing you’ve written, whether a complete story, a scene, a line of dialogue, whatever?Posted by Tim Leong on November 7th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
There’s a part in the first chapter of 12 Reasons where Evan says the line, “Me? You!” I’ve been waiting for what seems like forever to use that line. Over the years, I’ve written countless arguments in my head, both for stories and as rehearsals for fights in my own life. In each and every one, I’ve had someone respond to an accusation with, “Me? You!” Yet it never made the cut. Given how well Joëlle did with it, I’d say it was worth the wait. When I’m 60, I want people to walk up to me on the street and just say, “Me? You!” and then keep walking.
Jonathan Hickman Interview
By Tim Leong
JONATHAN OF ALL TRADES
With comparisons to Howard Beale already growing tired, Jonathan Hickman is gaining significant indie buzz over his new book “The Nightly News” (Image Comics). Is it because of the hot topic subject matter of wronged indviduals taking revenge on news outlets? Or becaues he didn’t just write the book, he also drew it, inked it, colored it and lettered it as well? Or maybe even because of his unique graphic design-meets-storytelling style? Find out, as Comic Foundry chats with Hickman.
Where did you get the original idea for the concept?
I’d say it’s a zeitgeist thing. People are pretty skeptical of the news right now. They’re obviously not doing a very good job. That coincides with the corporatization of news and how the less and less diversity of the news that you’re getting. In addition to that you’re getting more and more stories that crop up on the Internet where it’s clear that the stories are not only erroneous but they’re rapidly being discovered as being erroneous. There’s a loss of control even though there’s a greater corporatization of news.
But I’d say the story originally started when I heard the story of Richard Jewell, the Olympic bomber. He was hailed as a hero after finding [the bomb] then got torn apart and was actually completely innocent. It’s one of those things where you have to ask yourself a question — I wonder what would happen if instead of reacting in a normal manner by being embarrassed or ashamed or running and hiding, if some people decided to get even. People who had their lives destroyed by the media.
What type of research did you do for this?
I did a lot. Probably more than I originally thought. It was like a tree — it just kept branching and branching into different stories and different ideas about the media and consumers. It started off on stories of people that I knew — like Richard Jewell. Then it got into who owns what and who actually owns what companies and papers, and that’s an eye-opening thing. Twenty or thirty years ago there were 50 companies that owned all the media companies out there. Now, this year, we’re under ten. You get into reading things like Chomsky with the imperialist goals of the media and things like that.
You write, do all the art and letter the book. Why’d you decide to do everything?
That’s one of those things where I don’t feel like a control freak. I like other people. I like working with other people. But the reality of the comics business is that if you want to write stories there’s no way you’re going to be able to write something and find a competent artist to draw it. Whereas it seems to me if you’re a pretty good artist you can get work. More so than writers can. I’m willing to collaborate writing for people but as far as doing art for people, it’s one of the things where I end up not drawing things I don’t want to draw and it’s kinda like pulling teeth. And it just gets to not being any fun and I think you should enjoy what you’re doing. It’s pretty much a no-brainer. If I was going to get a chance to do comics and if I was going to get to do my own stories it was pretty obvious I was going to have to do the art myself. In the book you use spreads throughout.
What was the reason behind that method?
Some of it is influence. It’s not a new thing. If you look at what JH Williams III did in Promethea, he was doing the same kind of thing. Now obviously what I’m doing doesn’t look anything like that. I’d argue that in Powers, if you’ve ever seen how Mike Oeming does a page — he does two pages on one sheet of paper, so he’s really doing two pages at once. Also, I’m at Image so I don’t really have to worry about ads. I know that each page is going to face the other like it would when it’s collected into a graphic novel. One of the things I’m able to do is make a cohesive page instead of a panel a page with the whole spread working together. Now even though the pages are presented as two-page spreads, there’s enough stuff going on in the pages and there’s even panels in certain pages that makes it work like separate pages. It’s kinda funny because if you look at the art online, you’re looking at two flat pages without the fold. You don’t read the book without the fold in there and it plays a really funny trick on your eye whenever you look at two flat pages of art on the screen.
Why did you choose this particular art style — graphic design mixed with storytelling?
I’d say that besides the obvious influences comic-wise, especially (Mike) Mignola with all the blacks I’m using. If you look at some like (Bill) Sienkiewicz or Ashley Wood, it’s obvious that those guys who have a niche that they’re exploiting and have a pretty rabid following and they’re doing the work that they’ve always wanted to do. I think that’s a noble goal and a worthy one.
What is your art process like?
I draw with a brush and a crow quill nib. And I do all of my illustration with that. I don’t do pages laid out like you do in the finished product. I do each panel individually. At that point I scan it in and convert it all to a vector format and from there it’s pretty much all happening at the same time. I’m lettering it and coloring it and laying it out all at the same time.
How does that help the process?
I think it’s a lot faster. If you look at what I’m doing, I’m writing and penciling and inking and coloring it and lettering it. I’m doing all those jobs and producing a book a month. And I didn’t really have much trouble producing the second issue in that period of time at all. So, I just think that if you compare the process that everybody else goes through it’s faster. Then again, I don’t really know for sure because I’ve never really done any other way and I have no other comics experience.
Speaking of consolidation and fewer companies owning the market share — how relatable do you think that is to the comics industry?
I haven’t thought about that but that’s a fair statement. I think they’re very insular. Saying that, I really do like Marvel and DC Comics more than the Washington Post. There’s two schools of thought, in all fairness. And I don’t think this is comparable to the news. I think Marvel and DC do superhero comics better than anyone else in the world. I think it’s a niche that they have that they have exploited and will continue to exploit. People complain about doing superhero comics and people need to remember that Marvel and DC are the best in the world at doing this. It’s obvious that there are other companies in the US and certainly Japan that do a lot better job at telling other kinds of stories. I wish there was more diversity in the American comics scene but I can’t bitch about Marvel and DC because they basically keep all of us in business. I think Image, Dark Horse and some other companies do an excellent job of trying to push the product that’s out there and telling a certain type of story and branching out and diversifying. I think corporate news does a really crappy job. I don’t think Marvel and DC do a crappy job superhero comics. I think they’ve certainly done some crap in the past and some of it seems like formulaic mega-crossover stuff, but they’ve got really, really talented people working there.
What is the most important think you’ve learned since starting on the series?Posted by Tim Leong on November 7th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
I learn a lot every day. I told some people my biggest problem is how ignorant I am as far as comics goes. Starting out, I didn’t even know when the Previews dates were. There’s just so much that I don’t know that as good and different as I’m trying to make it, I almost feel like it’s a comics beta for me. If I had to say one thing, I’d have to say the thing that surprised how insular the business is, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. Everybody seems to know everybody else. It seems like once you’re in the door and you know people and you’ve got a card and you’re in some club.
The Comics Ethicist
The Comics Ethicist
Your moral dilemmas solved
Is it wrong to approach my favorite artist in the bathroom at a con?
The answer is “yes, it’s very wrong to approach your favorite artist or anyone else in the bathroom at a con.” Pure and simple. When people go to the bathroom, they expect a modicum of privacy to take care of their business and surprising them while they’re in the act can lead to messy results. A quick “hello” if you’re both washing hands is acceptable, but beyond that, wait until you see them on the floor.
This means that you shouldn’t wait right outside of the bathroom to ambush them, either. Artists at conventions generally find themselves getting very little alone time and they should be given space when they’re not in a position to directly engage the fans through a signing line or the like.
How many pages of a new issue can I read before I have to buy it?
Standing by the new comics rack and covering valuable retail space with your body hurts the business. Why do you want to hurt the business? 4 to 6 pages at very most, then move along. If you’re very curious and unsure, however, you may wish to ask your shop’s staff to set the book aside so you can do more investigation of a title online. Good publishers provide copious previews and using a search engine such as Technorati or Google Blog Search after a book has come out can give you reviews and opinions on the comic.
If you decide to not purchase a book, you should inform your retailer right away so they can place it back on the shelf.
I was recently in a comics shop, looking through back issues. One of them had been obviously creased when the last person had put it back in the bins. My question: is it wrong for me to put back an issue after I creased it?
You should, at the very least, point out your error and offer to pay for it. In The Comics Ethicist’s experience, most comic shop owners are willing to write off the loss of a single back issue of Iron Man if the person is honest about their mistake. Other people’s errors, however, are not your responsibility. You may wish to mention seeing damaged books to the staff when you are being checked out, however.
—The Comics EthicistPosted by Tim Leong on November 7th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
Investigating the Clear Line Style
WALK THE LINE
Comics often become synonymous with Jack Kirby’s heavy black inks, Joe Shuster’s realistic body forms and the bright, primary colors of the superheroes they each created. This is due, in no small part, to the popularity of the superhero genre early in the medium’s inception. A sparkplug for this popularity was the introduction of Superman in 1938, as the demand for American comic books that practically dominated the industry.
The popularity of American comics overshadowed significant European comics being produced at the same time. European comic artists often had to compete with the popular American comics imported in their countries.
But with the advent of World War II and invasion by Germany into Belgium and France, the possibilities of importing American comics soon dwindled to nothing. Faced with a growing demand for the increasingly popular medium, many publishers began to foster local, distinctly European, comic artists. This brief period of time, between the invasion of Germany, and the end of World War II, created a prime opportunity for European artists and their comics to come into their own.
The most influential of these artists was Hergé –the creator of the popular boys’ comic “The Adventures of Tintin.” “Hergé” was the pen name of the Belgian comics writer/artist George Remi. Responsible for some of the most memorable characters in European comics, his comic style soon became synonymous with European comic art as a whole. The clean, even inks paired with the cartoon-proportioned characters and detailed, intricate backgrounds created a surreal landscape where the antics of Tintin and his dog Snowy coexisted with the real world.
This style continued to evolve with the creation of the Tintin magazine in 1946. After World War II, Hergé found himself out of a job. Accused of collaborating with the Germans during the Belgium occupation, Hergé could no longer publish his increasingly popular comic. It was only after Raymond Leblanc, recognizing Tintin’s popularity, offered to start a new comic magazine using Tintin that Hergé was allowed to work again.
Hergé was given artistic control over the magazine, and this control fostered what would soon evolve into the style known as “ligne claire,” or in English, “clear line.” Coined by Joost Swarte in 1977, ligne claire describes comic art that gives equal weight and consideration to every line on the page. By forgoing shading with ink, the artist creates a depth of field on the page that brings equal amounts of focus to the background and foreground.
With artistic control of the magazine, Hergé was able to influence the other artists and writers on staff. He taught many of the artists in the style of ligne claire urging them to simplify not only the art, but also the story. The artists who worked with him on the Tintin magazine would later be known as the “Brussels school”: Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor, Roger LeLoup, Willy Vandersteen and Jacques Martin. All accomplished artists in their own right, under Hergé’s tutelage, their personal styles were molded and adapted to that of ligne claire.
By the 1950s, the popularity of ligne claire was at its peak. Hergé and his contemporaries overwhelmingly defined the art style of European comics, as the members Brussels school eventually left the Tintin magazine and started on their own ventures.
By the 1960s, however, ligne claire began to go out of style when a new crop of comic artists came onto the scene. Considered old fashioned, the crisp, detailed lines were soon replaced with the cartoony proportions of comics such as Albert Uderzo’s “Asterix” and Morris’ “Lucky Luke.”
But trends have a way of coming back in style, as ligne claire was back a decade later, thanks to a Dutch artist and graphic designer Joost Swarte. The first to coin the term ligne claire, Swarte championed the style to other artists in the Netherlands and was a defining factor in the ligne claire resurgence. The style was of particular interest to the Dutch underground comics scene, because of the nostalgia it provoked.
This resurgence continued all the way through France and into the 1980s with the popularity of Yves Chaland, Ted Benoit and other French artists. For many artists, the ligne claire style of art evoked a nostalgia for a time gone by. A retro movement emerged in France, began by Chaland, known as “atoomstijl/style atome” that paired the ligne claire with an appreciation of the future promised by the Atomium building in Brussels.
Just as Jack Kirby’s black inks defined America’s superhero comics during the Silver Age in American comics, so too did Hergé’s style come to define the Franco-Belgian comic scene during and after World War II.
Contemporary use of ligne claire often taps the nostalgic and historical implications that have become deeply associated with the style. In Dutch artist Peter van Dongen’s “Rampokan,” published in 1998, the story of the struggle for independence by the former Dutch colony of Indonesia was drawn completely in ligne claire. Dongen uses the clear line style, paired with the sepia tone coloring, to intentionally invoke the questionable colonial content of old Tintin comics such as “Tintin in Africa.”
Through the subversive use of ligne claire, French artist Yves Chaland’s “The Adventures of Freddy Lombard” invokes the style of Hergé’s “Tintin,” Chaland tells a distinctly mature story, following the adventures of three destitute, unemployed youths as they travel the world looking for money to pay their bills. The contrast, between a style of art traditionally used to tell simple, all-ages tales, and the cynical, adult story Chaland illustrates, becomes a prime example of contemporary use of ligne claire in comic storytelling.
ritish artist Geof Darrow, in his collaboration with Frank Miller on “Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot” (1996) used the nostalgia generated by ligne claire and paired it with the frenetic action of Japanese manga. In doing so, Darrow created a world defined by the hybrid art style that was at once fantastic yet instantly familiar.
French artist Jean Giraud, also known as “Moebius” often takes advantage of the crisp, even lines of ligne claire to create instantly iconographic moments in time. The use of ligne claire paired with detailed, otherworldly scenes, Moebius creates unique, surreal landscapes. The ordered normalcy of the inks belay often the fantastic figures they encompass.
The ability of ligne claire to be adapted and spliced with other artistic style can be seen to full effect in the work of Darwyn Cooke. While Cooke’s work is incredibly stylistic, and extensively uses shadows in the definition of its forms, the ligne claire influences –from the clean, evenly inked lines to the proportional anatomy of his figures - are many. Like Chaland’s “Freddy Lombard” adventures, Cooke often uses the wistfulness generated by ligne claire for an ironic, often cynical, effect. A prime example of this technique at work can be found in “DC: The New Frontier,” where the colorful nostalgic promise of the art paired with the gruesome realities of the Korean War, creates a powerful, indelible image.
With the introduction of “Superman” in 1938, the superhero genre was born. With their powerful iconic images –the tights, the capes, the heavy inks and detail- superhero comics not only came to define the American comic scene, but almost the entire medium.Posted by Tim Leong on November 7th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
In an ironic way, World War II came just in time – f it had not been for the isolating effects of Germany’s invasion, the Belgian/French comic book scene and the unique art style it produced may never have come into being.
MARC MASON’S BUY THE NUMB3RS!!!
Hola! And welcome back to BUY THE NUMB3RS! I’m Marc Mason, owner and Dark Prince of The Comics Waiting Room. Each month in this space, I take a look at a soon-to-arrive comic and attempt to predict how many copies it will sell. This month’s contestant: The return of THE AUTHORITY!.
When THE AUTHORITY first hit shelves back in 1999, it was the first shot fired in a revolution of sorts. Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch created a superhero comic that wasn’t quite like anything else on the market. The storytelling was on a grand scale, told through large, “wide-screen” panels. The characters were wildly flip and sarcastic, reveling in their powers and their status as living weapons of mass destruction. The pacing was very decompressed, leading to a full-fledged movement in mainstream comics that continues anywhere you find something written by Brian Bendis or Mark Millar to this day. But mostly… mostly the book was just damned great. To this day, it holds up as an example of what happens when things go right, and talented creators do career-level work.
Then… it all went to shit. Ellis and Hitch finished their run. Mark Millar and Frank Quitely got off to an interesting start, but it quickly devolved into an exercise of sadism, as Millar used the book as a way to work out some of his more disquieting concepts. Finally, Millar ended his run, and the book was put to bed. And rightly so. There’s only so much that can be done with the characters before the book becomes a brutal self-parody. So, of course, DC/Wildstorm waited little more than a year before resurrecting it. That time around, Robbie Morrison and Dwayne Turner to do the job… this, in 2003, was the equivalent of replacing Lee/Kirby with Don McGregor and Alan Kupperberg. Ugly. So after a year of that, the book was retired again, only to see it given mouth-to-mouth months later by Ed Brubaker and Dustin Nguyen. Better team, but still… the ultimate question was: what’s the point?
Now, DC/Wildstorm is trying again, and for the first time since Millar’s first few issues, there’s a creative team with the perfect potential to make the series return to greatness. The new AUTHORITY #1 is written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Gene Ha. Pure superstar creative talent. But how will it fare in the marketplace? Let’s check some numbers:
Sales for AUTHORITY #1, published in March 1999, written by Ellis and drawn by Hitch: 40,100. Good, strong jump out of the gate, especially considering that Ellis and Hitch weren’t “Ellis and Hitch” at that point. (Sales data from CBG Xtra)
Sales for AUTHORITY #29, published in December 2001, written by Millar and drawn by Art Adams: 40,314. That’s damned astonishing, really. To see that consistency in the number twenty-nine issues later is remarkable, especially considering shipping delays and creative team changes. Plus, this was the final issue of the first series.
Sales for AUTHORITY Vol.2 #1, published in May 2003, written by Robbie Morrison and drawn by Dwayne Turner: 44,351. There was obviously a market for the characters. Unfortunately, this creative team cooked that market a dinner made of poison mushrooms and it died a horrific, vomiting death.
Sales for AUTHORITY: REVOLUTION #1, published in October 2004, written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Dustin Nguyen: 26,572. My case in point. A far better creative team, a writer who was relatively hot at the time… and half as many people gave two shits. For DC/Wildstorm, this was still a decent number… but that’s putting lipstick on the family pig and taking it to the prom.
Sales for SEVEN SOLDIERS #0, published in February 2005, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by J.H. Williams: 53,217. Morrison has taken a Bat-book under his wing, but this was his most recent “audacious” move with characters that had been mostly neglected. Fantastic numbers.
Sales for TOP TEN #1, published in September 1999, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Gene Ha: 55,100. This was Ha’s last major debut work, and remains one of the most consistently beautiful comics ever created. Very solid debut sales numbers, too. (Sales data from CBG Xtra)
So how will this latest edition of THE AUTHORITY do? Even with Morrison’s presence, it’s difficult to believe it will top the Ellis/Millar series in sales. Even though Grant’s profile is huge right now, I don’t see that translating into readers for a series that has the stink of bad previous series to deal with. So I’m going to temper my expectations, and guess that the book will do somewhere a little over 29,000, give or take a few.
Do you buy my numb3rs?Posted by Tim Leong on October 31st, 2006 filed in Story Archive, Blog |
FOLLOWING UP: Column five featured my guess at C.S.I.: DYING IN THE GUTTERS #1. My guess for total orders was 5,500. ICV2 has released final sales numbers for August, and the total pre-orders for the book came to: 8178. That’s the first time I’ve really guessed on the low side, but I’m okay with it. This is really outstanding news for the folks at IDW, and they must have popped a bottle of bubbly when their orders came in. This may just breathe new life into the C.S.I. franchise.
Comic Book Street Vendors
By Laura Hudson
They said there was a man selling comics on the street at 43rd and Broadway, not far from the subway. For days I seemed to go at the wrong times, or in the wrong weather, until one night I found him right where they said he’d be, next to the Hard Rock Cafe, beneath the seizure-inducing lights of Times Square.
His name is Rich the Comic Book Guy — or at least, that’s the only name he’ll give me. He’s been selling comics for a long time — “too long,” he says, declining to specify. It all started years ago, when he decided to sell some of his comics for cash. “I went to the store, but I couldn’t get what I wanted for them. Then I saw people selling comics on the street and thought I’d try it.” When they sold well, he invested in more comics, sold them at a profit, and began making his hobby into his trade.
Although he used to buy new issues through a wholesaler, these days he gets his books through a combination of traditional stores, customers, and other vendors. His new titles now are limited to “stuff that’s hot,” like Civil War or 52, and “stuff I like,” which for Rich means X-Men titles and Vertigo books. He buys back issues from collections and prices them mostly from memory. “I don’t always keep up with Wizard,” he says. “I don’t particularly care for it too much.”
Many vendors, it seems, simply buy and sell off of each other when they need — or need to get rid of — comics. Often, says Rich, he’ll pick up a stack from another retailer looking to make more room on his table. Usually, he doesn’t need to seek out for people selling their books. “I don’t need to find them; they find me.” Customers, some of whom are regulars, often bring him their collections. I ask him why people come to his stand, rather than a large comic store, like Midtown Comics just three blocks away. “I dunno,” he grins, “They must like nice deals, or they like me.”
As an outdoor retailer, Rich is at the mercy of the elements, and a patch of bad weather can easily ruin sales. “Rain,” says Rich grimly, “is bad.” Winter is particularly hard on street vendors. While everyone else scurries from warm building to warm building, their jobs keep them stationary on the streets in the bitter cold. Last winter Rich had a day job, and only sold comics on the weekends, limiting his time outside. Since he was laid off in February, though, selling comics has been his primary source of income, and he grimaces when I ask him about the coming winter. “My goal,” says Rich, “is to be working inside again by then. I can make money in the winter, but it’s not as much fun.”
It has to be fun that motivates most of the vendors, because it’s not the lucrative sales. Shuaib Mewborn-Odin, a book vendor on Waverly and 6th who sometimes adds comics to his wares, certainly isn’t in it for the money. An avid comic fan sporting a T-shirt with a fiery Superman logo, Mewborn-Odin sells his own new comics back to customers for less than what he spends on them. “I just want some people to get entertainment out of what I already read,” he said. “And… I wanna get some of my money back. ”
Ron Johnson, a vendor at RJO Books on 8th Street and 6th Avenue, seems to do a little better with the comics he adds to his more traditional spread of paperback novels, though that’s not saying much. Like Mewborn-Odin, the comics he sells are only supplements to the novels, his bread and butter. “[Comics] are just nice to have. It’s hit or miss. Maybe I make a dollar here and there.”
When I first meet Johnson on 6th Avenue, I ask him if he’s seen anyone selling comics on the street in the area. He tells me that he, in fact, has some comics to show me, and goes digging beneath his tables through the plastic crates that hold his overstock. “I know they’re in here somewhere,” he mutters. I ask him how they sell, whether they make much money. He laughs. “If they were hot sellers, I’d be able to find them.”
It wasn’t always like this, says Johnson. “There was a time when all this used to be a comic book strip,” he says, motioning down 6th Avenue, “maybe six or seven years ago. Then it faded out.” When I ask him why, he merely shrugs, and says that things change.
Six or seven years ago, incidentally, is around the time when then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani began his “quality of life” initiative, which included a fierce crackdown on street vendors that nearly banned them from most of Manhattan. It was also not long after the ‘90s comics bubble burst, and the subsequent plummet in sales devastated retailers and put a tragically large number of comic book stores out of business. One can only imagine that being a comic book street vendor around that time was something of an unfortunate double whammy.
Times are tougher now for retailers both large and small, and Rich faces some of the same problems that haunt even larger stores. “I look through Previews sometimes and think ‘this’ll be good, and this’ll be good,” but then I just end up getting stuck with all this stuff.” Unlike large retailers, however, Rich doesn’t have any room to take chances and absorb losses, and his selection of new books has become a fraction of what it used to be.
“I remember when there were a lot of comics being sold down in the Village, but now…” he trails off. Here in Times Square, Rich says, there used to be two or three other comic book sellers on his block alone. When asked whether there was much rivalry between them, he shakes his head. “We were friendly. And anyway, now there’s nobody here but me.”
Rich glances at the handbag vendor next to him, whose table is crowded with customers, while Rich’s remains relatively empty. “I wish my stuff sold like that,” he says, motioning to the adjoining table. “Handbags are like drugs!” He pauses for a moment, and then laughs. “Comic books are like drugs, too. But it looks like there are no fiends around here. I guess I’m the only fiend left.”Posted by Tim Leong on September 6th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |
MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: JJ Harrison
Posted by Tim Leong on July 31st, 2006 filed in Story Archive |