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by Jamie S. Rich, with art by Joëlle Jones
The comic book creative process is a mysterious, fascinating thing to both fans of comics and non-fans alike. People always want to know how a writer/artist team works. What comes first? The images or the words? How much detail does the writer demand in the script? How involved is the artist in plotting?
So, to clear some of this up, I decided to pick a four-page sequence from the middle of You Have Killed Me and show you the script pages side by side with the final art.
When planning a job, there are only a handful of basic steps. We begin with the germ of the idea, which generally gets discussed between Joëlle and I before I move on to Step 2, which is basically laying down notes. I am not a heavy outline guy, nor do I create detailed synopses. Usually I just keep a running computer document full of ideas that I can pull from whenever I need to. That also includes stuff that I might put into my Moleskin and then transfer to the computer. Later notes will usually be put into the script itself, either as a space marker or ahead of the last page I’ve written.
PART I: THE RETURN OF BLACKSAD!
When planning out my week here at Robot 6, I considered writing something about how someone needed to get the rights to Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido’s Blacksad series and not just put the first two volumes back in print so folks could get them at an affordable price, but finally release the third Spanish volume stateside so the fans of the wicked cool crime series could see how it ends at last. Then, lo and behold, Dark Horse Comics announces at Comic Con that they have gotten hold of the series. My prayers were answered! So, instead of writing about my wish for the book, I thought I’d talk to the editor responsible for the new printing, Katie Moody.
JAMIE S. RICH: So, Blacksad had become a bit of a Holy Grail for its fans over the last couple of years. I originally saw the book at Matt Wagner’s house. He had just gotten the sketchbook that had come out from its previous publisher, and it was the first time I had looked at the work closely, I think I had always dismissed it prior. It was then a game of catch-up to actually read it. I eventually tracked down a reasonably priced second volume at a used bookstore, but could only get the first volume from the library–and they had to borrow it from an out-of-town library as the local copy had been stolen. Dark Horse bringing it out is a great boon to comics readers. Can you tell us a little bit about how that came to pass and how you’ll be presenting it?
KATIE MOODY: Blacksad had been on my radar for a few years–I remember seeing the first album’s solicitation in Previews and reading the series after the 2004 Eisner nominations–but I hadn’t been proactive about getting my own copies of the albums. By the time I decided to get it in gear they were already out of print and I was out of luck. (A situation familiar to many by this point.)
Chris A. Bolton is relatively new on the comics scene, but the Portland-based writer is in the process of finishing the first run of his successful super-powered humor series, the online comic Smash (http://smashcomic.com/), drawn by his brother Kyle Bolton. Chris is also a filmmaker and a prose writer, and the fact that both he and I contributed a story to the pulpy literary anthology Portland Noir (Akashic Books, 2009) seemed like a good enough excuse for us to sit and chat. Especially since we’re two guys who cross back and forth between media–in fact, his story in Portland Noir, “The Red Room,” is prose, as is to be expected in the Akashic Noir series, while the story Joëlle Jones and I contributed, “Gone Doggy Gone,” is comics, a rarity for the venue. Of course, these are topics we cover in the conversation, so without further ado….
JAMIE S. RICH: So, Chris, I suppose the best way to start is how you and I met. We both have stories in Portland Noir, the Kevin Sampsell-edited anthology that features crime stories set in the town where we both live. You and I started talking at an event for the anthology that was at Powell’s Books, where you were reading and I was just hanging out. How did you end up in Portland Noir?
CHRIS A. BOLTON: First off, Jamie, thanks for inviting me to chat. In my day job, I work for Powells.com, sometimes doing data entry for book pages. A few years back, in 2005 or so, I was beefing up the pages for Akashic’s Noir series when it occurred to me that there should be a Portland Noir. I emailed Akashic to inquire about it and they said they were planning to do one at some point in the future.
Occasionally an editor hangs on to samples that artists send him, afraid they may never see this material again. Somewhere in my files, I have little gems sent to me by sometimes famous artists, sometimes soon-to-be-famous artists, and somewhere, I may still have some that never became either, young hopefuls that never carried through or people who I failed to find a place for.
Francesca Ghermandi is one of the people whose packages I cherished when they used to come to me. I think she wrote me twice, and as a result, I have copies of Helter Skelter and Hiawata Pete, both in Italian, both absolutely brimming with amazing cartooning. These would be great candidates for that Robot 6 column where they demand books get translated, and boy, I’d sure love to read them someday. For now, I just look at the pictures.
In with these is a plastic comb notebook with a clear cover and photocopied pages of the first several chapters of Pop. 666, then called Suburbia. It only had one chapter in English, the one published by David Mazzuchelli in Rubber Blanket, the rest was not translated. Like the hardbound cartoon books Francesca had sent me, however, the strange and grotesquely beautiful world she drew sucked me in. I really wanted to publish this stuff in Dark Horse Presents. I don’t know why it didn’t come to pass, maybe I couldn’t get anyone else to see what I saw. There is no date on the letter, Francesca could have sent the same packet to Fantagraphics right about then. The timing makes sense. They started serializing the story off and on in their anthology Zero Zero beginning with the 19th issue in the summer of 1997. They eventually printed all 90 pages, but unlike some of the other strips from the magazine, Pop. 666 has never gotten its own collected edition.
I’m not sure who came up with the title Pop. 666, but it calls to mind the title of Jim Thompson’s western novel Pop. 1280. Thompson is one of the best of the hardboiled school, having written classic genre pieces like After Dark, My Sweet and The Grifters, inspiring many a modern crime writer and filmmaker. Thompson’s book is about a sheriff at odds with his town, the kind of squalid community where all life is a give-and-take proposition. These people are damned by their own evil deeds, they are the future populace of hell. Pop. 666.
“Yes, and her tears flowed like wine
She’s a real sad tomato, she’s a busted Valentine
Knows her mama done told her, that the man was darn unkind”
When it came down to writing You Have Killed Me, style came before plot. Joëlle Jones and I knew we wanted to do a comic book that paid tribute to the private detective lore that we loved, but we had to decide how. No irony, no modern context, no gimmicks–we wanted to do it straight. But how straight was too straight? Where does homage become rip-off?
Before I sat down to type a word, I had what could be called “the Hollywood pitch.” It’s that thing they do in the picture business, where everything is broken down into two comparable things and, by their combination, we can believe the new thing will be twice as successful as the old. I want to make Movie C, and it’s Movie A meets Movie B.
You Have Killed Me is Michelangelo Antonioni directing The Big Sleep.
A couple of years ago, Matt Fraction started a Flickr pool where comics professionals took photos of their work desks and posted them. It was then, looking at all of these images of neat and clean surfaces, that I discovered that most people working in comics are liars. Okay, that in itself is a lie, I already knew that. I was an editor long enough to hear every excuse a cartoonist could invent. (“How many grandmothers do you have, and why do these old ladies keep changing apartments? It’s the third time you’ve had to ‘help move’ in six weeks!”) Lying about why your work isn’t done isn’t necessarily the same as lying in every day life, though, and so posting photos of your work space that were dishonest and staged was a whole other thing as far as I was concerned.
Desk after desk was spotless, immaculate, the very height of order and organization. Yeah, right. Just like I wore that nice shirt and had my cowlick pasted down every day I went to school, not just yearbook day. Pull the other leg, Swifty, that one gives milk.
I know those scumbags all cleaned up their desks and then took the picture. I know that, as a species, comics creators are dirty, sloppy, scatterbrained louts. No way do they keep a clean desk! So, I took pictures of my desk as it was every day, a paper and pen version of a trailer park after a tornado.
You know, just like it is now:
Hey, everyone! Before I get started, I thought I’d take the time out to give a brief wave and also thank the Robot 6 crew for inviting me to be Robot 7 for a week.
My name is Jamie S. Rich, and I am a crime junkie. Movies are my major poison, particularly of the classic film noir variety. You know, moody black-and-white flicks from the 1940s and 1950s featuring tough guys in nice suits slapping bad guys in even nicer suits all because of something going on with a girl who may or may not be nice, but who cares, because she dresses better than both of the fellas combined. That said, I also like crime comics, and thanks to some gentle urging from my artist, Joëlle Jones, I decided to act on that love and write my own. My week amongst the CBR blogosphere is meant to promote just that–the newly released Oni Press hardcover comic book You Have Killed Me. Written by myself and illustrated by Joëlle, it’s got all those things I mentioned above–including the slap!–and more. It’s been about two years in the making, and we’re excited to be getting it out on the shelves.
I realize that, for many, the idea of me writing a hardboiled crime comic book seems like a departure. I’m known as the goopy romance guy who likes to write dark relationship stories full of references to excellent bands no one has ever heard of. It’s a fair reputation, though a limited one, and soon to be shaken all to pieces once You Have Killed Me drops its foot on the collective neck of the reading public. I think followers of my work will be a little surprised that I have more range than they might have expected, but also that what I have done with Joëlle is exactly where my other work has been leading all this time.
Folks would also do well to remember that I spent a decade editing comics, starting at Dark Horse in 1994 at the tender age of 22 and then moving to Oni Press in 1998. In my time, I naturally gravitated to certain crime-related books. I assisted on some comics starring the Shadow, as well as Paul Pope’s futuristic con The One-Trick Rip-Off. I was part of the team on the Whiteout books by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber, one of the more straightforward crime/mystery series you’re likely to find in comics, as well as editing Scott Morse’s more off-center Volcanic Revolver and Spaghetti Western. I even worked with Ed Brubaker, long before Criminal, serializing stories he and Jason Lutes were doing together and separately in Dark Horse Presents.
What I’m saying is, I have a pedigree. This dog is ready to show!