“I Want to Make Comics Better”: James Tynion IV Discusses His Approach to Comics + His Career
James Tynion IV isn’t just one of the biggest writers in comics, thanks to his work in titles like Batman, Something is Killing the Children, Department of Truth, and an array of other comics. He’s also one of the most thoughtful people when it comes to considering how this medium and industry works from the inside, as the scribe regularly shares his perspective on all of that and more in his email newsletter, The Empire of the Tiny Onion.
I’ve observed both from a distance for a while, as his creator-owned work has impressed me — particularly his purely renegade efforts on Razorblades: The Horror Magazine — in particular, while I’ve been enamored with what he’s had to say about the larger world of comics in his newsletter, especially considering we share a lot of similarities in how we view things. With that in mind, I recently reached out to Tynion to see if he was interested in an interview that wasn’t about any specific projects as much as it was about the thinking that goes behind it. Today, that interview arrives, a sprawling chat about the thinking that goes into some of the most popular titles in comics today.
It’s a beast of an interview – although one that’s been edited for clarity – with a ton of insight from Tynion on how he views and approaches comics. Because of that, I’m leaving this one open to non-subscribers. If you enjoy the conversation, consider subscribing to SKTCHD for more content in this vein and a whole lot more. It’s funded purely by subscribers, so your support helps interviews like this come together.
Let’s start with what have you been working on today. What does today bring your way?
James: Right now, I am working on a Batman-related thing that I can’t get into more specificity on, but it is something tied into everything I’ve been doing in Batman. I’m working on some scripts there. Most of my stuff is announced right now, but today has been talking about a handful of projects that will be launching around September or October, that I can’t get into just yet, but yeah, I’ve been chatting a bit with a writer who’s working on something with me. I’ve been chatting with some editors about some deep-dive planning, and I’ve been talking to a bunch of people about my larger schedule and how not to kill me.
That’s fitting because all this is exactly what I wanted to jump into. What we’re here to talk about today are your larger views on comics and how that all fits together. I find myself both aligning with a lot of what you’ve written about in the past, which we’ll get into, but also, some of my ideas build off what you view everything as. One thing that’s clear from everything you do is you have a plan and that you’re regularly considering the scope and shape of the industry. Tying into what your average day looks like, how do you fit that into what you do? Do you have dedicated time to not just think of individual projects on a scripting or planning level but larger approach-type things? Or is that planning just an offshoot of what you’re already thinking and talking about?
James: I’ve been honestly trying to work at building a more concrete schedule that has dedicated time for specific things, but honestly, I work on so many different projects that a lot of it is really, “What is the thing that is closest to me, that is the most on fire?” And that’s the one that needs to be dealt with. I spend a lot of time thinking about the industry at large and that’s something that I think happens just by happenstance throughout the day. It’s something where it’s what I’m typically talking with the handful of creators that I’m in G Chat or text threads with all day.
Then beyond that, my partner Sam is also a part of the industry. I go home and I talk more about comics. In a lot of ways, I wake up thinking about comics and I go to sleep thinking about comics. Honestly, to be a full human being, I could probably do a little less thinking about comics, but this is a certain moment in my life and my career where…I’m someone who for a long time, the biggest thing standing in my way was just the fact that I hadn’t proved that I could sell things. Once I proved that I could sell things, now I have the opportunity to do the things that I want.
The scary thing is always, “Okay, how long am I going to have this moment in my career where I can really have the control to do things the way that I think they should be done?” That pushes me to work harder, because those were the two options. When I took on Batman, the options were I could have put half of my creator-owned stable on hiatus and then just focused on Batman and then I’d be making enough on Batman to sit back and relax a little. But it was a moment where I made the decision, “No, I want to dig in.” I am at a moment in my life where my partner is in a master’s program, we don’t have kids and I can burn the candle at both ends for a little while.
I know it’s not sustainable forever. But this is the moment where I can design what I want the future of my career to look like and position myself, so five years from now, I can still be making the kinds of comics that I want to make. That’s the kind of power I’m after ultimately. I’ve worked on too many comics and there’s pieces of each of them that…this isn’t saying anything against anything I’ve worked on in the past, but I’ve done enough work (where) I’ve just been playing by other people’s rules. Now I want to see, “If I follow my instincts and my gut, can I create the sort of work that people want to engage in?” The answer seems to be yes. I want to push further and I want to see what more I can get away with.
Getting away with things is something that goes back to my high school and middle school (days), getting assignments and trying to do the assignment, but seeing if I could get an A on a paper by completely ignoring the prompt. That was an asshole thing that I used to do in my English classes when I was in high school. It’s still definitely part of my core philosophy.
It’s hard not to think about Robert Kirkman when he departed Marvel and went to Image and totally bet on himself. He had that whole Kirkman Manifesto where it was about how build up your name at Marvel or DC and then do your creator-owned stuff. Then you can take that heat from one and move it over to the other.
One thing I think is really smart is to do them concurrently, because then you can say, “The writer of Batman is doing Department of Truth.” It seems weird to describe Batman as almost an advertisement for your creator-owned work, but there’s a certain element of it being a feeder system into building your name and interest in these other disparate works. There’s a lot of value in that.
James: Absolutely. It’s absolutely a billboard and that is intentional. The thing to remember is the Kirkman Manifesto came out after both Walking Dead and Invincible had been running for a while. And then he stepped away. He was doing Marvel Zombies and his run on Ultimate X-Men and a handful of other things while he was building his creator-owned empire. Then ultimately, he did step off into something that’s fully his own.
I was watching the Kirkman Manifesto a couple of months ago. I went back and I was chatting with some friends about it and I was checking it out because it’s one of the models. You look at some of the key creators over the last few decades and you can see the different shapes that different careers have taken. You look at (Brian Michael) Bendis. Bendis built up this whole Jinxworld Library and now the Jinxworld Library is an entity that he carried with him to DC, but he has this whole catalog that he has created and the catalog, that very much is the Brian Michael Bendis brand.
Then you have Millarworld with Mark Millar. Once again, it’s something that he’s built over the course of years, but then at the end, he has this tangible thing that then is his security as he enters this next era of his career. Security is, I think, the biggest thing because it’s not like there’s an option that you can just get to the top of the Big Two and then just stay there forever. Bendis is probably one of the only people who has done that for a decade or longer, but it is something where typically you have a few years in the spotlight. Then that doesn’t mean you can’t ever be in the spotlight again, but you have to be smart about how you use your time in the spotlight to give yourself long-term security, because long-term security is the most elusive thing in the comic book industry.
We don’t get health insurance through our jobs. There’s a lot we don’t get, even at the highest rung of the ladder in corporate comics. Right now, DC has a really good royalty and equity system. I think DC’s is better than Marvel’s from what I’ve heard, although I’ve only ever written two Marvel Comics. But it is something where at the end of the day, AT&T could decide two years from now that they’re no longer going to do royalties. It is one of those things where the idea of long-term security will never come through Marvel or DC.
The best you can hope for is to build a back catalog and you cross your fingers that somewhere in that back catalog there’s an evergreen book that you’re going to continue to get royalties on that will continue to be a safety cushion as you enter the years of your life where you’re not writing comics that sell a whole lot. There’s no way to plan to be in that pole position forever. It’s too elusive of a thing. When the opportunity comes, you have to make the most of it.
I think the funny thing is if you translate it to, let’s say, a salaried day job, your Batman work is your salary. It’s your basis. Then Something is Killing the Children is your 401k. Wynd is your Social Security. It is interesting because there’s today and tomorrow and the back catalog is both about today and tomorrow in a lot of ways.
I wanted to talk about…I mentioned Kirkman. I think Kirkman is a very interesting playbook, but there are all these different ones. You can look at a lot of different people throughout comics history and see how they approach everything and there are a lot of other models, as you put it. Another I wanted to highlight was someone you wrote about in one of your year-end write-ups, Rob Liefeld. You mentioned how much you love Robservations, his podcast. So many people make easy jokes about that Captain America drawing of his or his feet, but something that might surprise people who are newer fans is Rob is everything we’re talking about in some ways because he was never about doing things the way everyone else did before.
He was about the energy and creating a buzz and making magic happen. He was about creating characters almost first and foremost. It wasn’t for everyone, but there are so many people that are inspired by that and it has continued to pay dividends for him decades down the line. I am interested in…which creators inspire you in terms of how they manage their careers and keep innovating and doing comics in a way that you think is sustainable?
James: The people I was looking to when I first really fell in love with comics, when I was in high school — I loved comics as a kid, but the appreciation became something more — was honestly Brian K. Vaughan. He was a figure I’d look to a lot. I remember back in my message board posting days, I would point to in the mid-to-late 2000s that he had the platonic ideal slate of books coming out simultaneously. The moment that I was talking about was when he was writing Ultimate X-Men at the same time as doing Runaways, at the same time as doing Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina.
He had his ageless superhero book. He had the book in the superhero universe, but entirely his own spin on it, something that only he could do. Then he had to creator-owned books that were dealing with deeply interesting things but were wholly different from each other. That was the “holy shit,” amazing slate. Even just in that moment where he was doing all of that, his career beyond that, you look at the next step where he took a little break (from comics) for a while and worked on Seasons Three, Four and Five of Lost while doing a handful of other things. He got to play in the Hollywood side of things as a part of one of the largest geek properties in the world and then ultimately came back to comics and launched what is the top-selling comic book of the century with Saga.
Then on top of that, in his young career, he was this big figure online and I was young, so I wasn’t a major poster on it, but I was on the BKV.tv forums that existed around then. Then there was the day he just up and vanished from the internet. Then he has never had to come back to the internet, despite still being this major powerhouse in the industry. That is very much still something that I looked at as a very ideal template for what he did. The one thing that he didn’t do is he never went out and tried to create his own company and try and cultivate a new generation with his priorities in the way Kirkman did with Skybound…I think it always depends on the type of creators. It’s like, “Who are the creators who want to go out and build something of their own, beyond just their work and who just wants to sit down and do the work?”
It’s entirely different person to person. I don’t think one way is better than the other. But there are these different paths that open to you when you get to a certain level in the industry. There are the people who are happy to take the jobs at any company they can and aren’t really looking to organize their backlist into something that transcends the companies. Then you get the people who do try and organize their backlist and give it a brand and a name that moves between publishers as your career moves forward, like Jinxworld and Millarworld. Then you get the people who don’t care as much about branding but set up shop at a place like Image and just do the work they want to do. Brubaker’s the best example there. And then there’s the model of Robert Kirkman and Skybound where he went out and built a publishing entity, even if it’s still in the larger Image family, that can make the comics that he thinks should exist in the world, even if he’s not the one writing them.
Some people didn’t get into the comics business for the business end, and I understand and respect that. It’s a fuck ton of work. But I do wish we had an industry that was filled more with creator-driven publishers with a Point of View, rather than a bunch of IP-farm publishers, where Image Comics is really the only game in town when it comes to fully owning your work in the direct market space.
There are so many different paths to consider. There’s no one right answer or one wrong answer. It’s all about the fit for you. I do think it’s interesting that you pointed out Brian’s run in the mid aughts, but you could say that his creator-owned books in the past 10 years as well were all completely different genres. Paper Girls and Saga are much different flavors. When you think about what could do for creator-owned, there are two different things you could do in that regard.
This is definitely not me besmirching Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, but when you think about Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, you know what to expect from Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips to a certain degree. Fatale is different than The Fade Out and The Fade Out is different than Criminal and Criminal is different than Reckless and etc., etc., but you sort of know what a Brubaker and Phillips book is, in a good way. Then there’s the other way you could go which is what BKV does. It always feels like a Brian K. Vaughan book, but it’s always different kind of looks at what a Brian K. Vaughan book could be.
Related to that, how much do you consider format and genre and distribution and product production value and everything else? Because really, as great as a comic could be, these are the things that could in some ways determine whether a book is a good comic that some people read versus a good comic that a lot of people read. Is that a factor in your brain when you’re mapping out your next big projects?
James: That’s a really good question. You do get a feeling sometimes where it’s just like, “This is an idea that really could connect.” I knew from the start that I could see the hole in the market as it exists right now that the Department of Truth would fill, and I had a strong feeling about it. My contract means that I always have to show a new creator-owned idea to DC before I take it to another publisher. It’s part of the reason why I showed it to DC. I had a couple of conversations there, but I knew pretty quick I wanted to do it myself. I wanted to publish it somewhere I had more control over it because I also knew that I wanted to deal with sensitive subject matter. I didn’t want to be a part of a corporate system that would get nervous about me dealing with sensitive subject matter.
I felt like it could be something, but I knew that I could not tell the whole story in five issues. It was one of those things where even in a world where it hadn’t hit, the shortest version of Department of Truth was 15 issues, and I outlined the 15-issue version of it. It was basically like, “The budget of 15 issue series, I need to be willing to be that much in the hole in order to do this book.” I planned for that for a long time and I made sure that I had built up a war chest to help pay for the book. Honestly, I put a bunch of it on credit cards too, but then thankfully, it hit and then is now paying back in a big way.
I expected that that was hitting something that nothing else was hitting at the moment and that was an expected thing. Something is Killing the Children is an example of that and almost the polar opposite. Something is Killing the Children is a title that’s been in the back of my head for a while and I’ve had a few different things that I wanted to use that title for but they weren’t the book that as it exists now with Erica Slaughter in the lead. But when I first pitched the current version of it, I saw it as like five standalone one-shots featuring this mysterious character who would show up and solve some shit and then disappear. It was like doing it in a series of the standalone issues of Hellblazer.
That was the kind of vibe that was in my head, but then I saw the design that Werther Dell’Edera drew and I started writing the first issue…it wasn’t that book anymore. It’s something where I let the book guide me to what it is. Part of it was, in seeing the design of Erica, I realized that we had something that was more than what my original pitch was and then the series grew from there. Then honestly, it was the success of Something is Killing the Children that taught me a few things about, “Oh, this is part of how you sell comics.” It feels strange that this was the thing I needed to realize, but it was the realization that, “Oh, I need an iconic central character that’s visually dynamic in a way that people want to draw when they see it.”
That is one of the core things that make comics different from other media. If you don’t have that core visual element, you are missing something. Honestly, in that moment, Department of Truth had been in development for a year and a half and that was the moment I started realizing, oh, these little throwaway things, half ideas, the idea of an embodiment, a Watcher-style figure for the history of conspiracy theories and the idea of there being this Satanist in the past of one of our characters, the Star-Faced Man and the Fictional Woman, I realized, “No, no, we need to make sure these designs sit with people because not only is that the thing that is going to draw people into the book, it’s also going to be the thing that people want to dress up as and get a tattoo of and get someone to draw the character at a convention.”
Seeing how important that math is in all of it and realizing, “Okay, that’s something that I need to bring out,” even in the series like Department of Truth, which is people in suits having conversations, but it is something that is…it’s like, “Okay, that is still very important to this medium in this world.” And then seeing the reaction to a new character like Erica that just showed me, okay, there’s just a hunger for the new audience that exists right now to own their own characters. That comics haven’t given them that many new characters.
There are a whole bunch of creator-owned comics out there, but so few of them come with a core iconic character that they can become a fan and become a fan of in a way that’s separate than being fan of the book.
In one of your year-end writeups on your newsletter, you wrote about how you discovered Age of Apocalypse when you first went into a comic shop with your dad. You wondered whether you would be a reader today, let alone a writer, if you hadn’t fallen in love with Blink and Morph and you were stuck with Nick Fury and Thor like your dad liked. I think legacy characters are one of those things that people think about when it comes to superhero comics. My guy was Impulse. Impulse was my jam. He was what made me in a lot of ways fall in love with comics, but I think one of the interesting things is I think people think about that idea almost exclusively in the superhero realm.
I think that’s fundamentally a mistake because when you talk about the biggest hits in the last two decades in creator-owned comics, you talk about Alana and Marko over in Saga, actually, more than that, you talk about Lying Cat. Everyone loves Lying Cat or Ghus. Ghus has plushies! You talk about Rick and Michonne over in The Walking Dead. Even in Chew, there’s Poyo. That is such an essential hook because there are a lot of great stories out there and I’m not meaning to be diminishing of them, but not every great story has a character that readers can either embody or connect with in a really substantial way. I don’t know if Something is Killing the Children would have been the same thing without Erica being such a core focus.
James: Absolutely. To be blunt, I don’t think it would have been. That is the magic of seeing that Werther design. If I had just done the version of the book that originally popped into my head, it would be a less … I hope that it would still be a good book and it was a five-issue volume, like single volume trade. People would still enjoy it as a good, compelling horror story. But without Erica as a character that existed outside of it, I don’t know that it would have connected as hard as it did. In fact, I feel pretty certain it wouldn’t have.
This is a funny thing to say to the person who writes this comic, but I don’t think people really understand how popular Something is Killing the Children is. I’m not saying it’s necessarily as popular as The Walking Dead was at its peak but Walking Dead started small and it dipped from there but then it built. That’s very rare for creator-owned comics, but I think that’s more or less the path you’re on, right?
James: Yeah, the amazing thing is that our issue 11 completely outsold our first issue in all of its printings and our issue 16 has outsold even that.
James: It’s something where the trades just keep flying off the shelves everywhere. Honestly, it’s intimidating. I go to the shops and they tell me when the new batch of books show up, they put in the order for the next batch. I know that’s not true with every single shop. It’s good when you find the retailers who are really in step with the kind of work you do and their audience in that shop is really in step with your work because you really get a sense of what’s connecting and what isn’t. Then honestly, just seeing (how) Something is Killing the Children started just picking up steam, especially when that first trade came out, and then kept that going. Then the demand just keeps going up. It’s an incredible feeling. It is a really, really incredible feeling and intimidating too.
I read Way of X #1 last night. I don’t know if you’ve read it yet, but I know you’re reading the X-Men line. It’s fascinating. It’s Si Spurrier and Bob Quinn. I think that it’s really interesting reading a comic like that and then talking about all the stuff that we’re talking about because, particularly in superhero comics, I feel like so many — actually I guess even creator-owned to a certain degree — but so many comics are designed to feel familiar. They’re designed to be like comfort food in some ways. There’s a lot of value to something like that. But I do think it’s interesting that almost every great title that becomes a lasting work, you could almost say is fundamentally built on being different.
Look at Frank Miller in the ’80s. Year One, so different. Dark Knight Returns, so different. Born Again, this is Ultra Daredevil. Matt’s life sucked before, but it’s going to suck even worse now. Everything he did, it wasn’t designed to be what preceded it. It was designed to be something that it could be. Reading Way of X really underlined that to me because it is so fundamentally different than even the rest of the X-Line. It’s really fascinating for that reason. I don’t want to say that you’re trying to counter-program, or you could even try to do that, but is that something you deliberately try to avoid? Trying to deliver the same flavor as everyone else’s?
James: Yeah, that is 100% what I’m doing. It’s definitely true with my creator-owned, but I think looking even at my work in Gotham, in terms of a comparison point to what’s happening over in the X-Line, there’s a level to which what I’m doing is the same. The biggest thing that I was setting out to do (in Batman), especially once I knew that I’d be continuing carrying that mantle into this year, is I wanted to work closely with the entire line of writers to create an incredibly interconnected line of books. Because the thing is, when you have that, you can go down these rabbit holes featuring all of these characters that play off of this, the new moment. You get to appeal to the new fans and the old school fans all at the same time.
That is the benefit. There are some books that are more for the old fans and some for the new fans, but in Batman in particular, it’s part of my math. What I’m building in Batman is knowing that I’m living in a world that I was going to be running simultaneously to Batman/Catwoman, Three Jokers and Death Metal. And knowing that no matter how long I stay on Batman, there are going to be digital first Batman series and titles like the Tom Taylor, Andy Kubert book (Batman: The Detective) and I knew about all of these different flavors of Batman that are happening all at the same time.
There are some people who I think get very caught up on the idea of, “Well, there’s this core thing of what a Batman books should be.” Frankly, I’ve written those Batman comics and I love those Batman comics, but if I was just delivering the exact same flavor of Batman that you can get five other times that month, then what makes the main Batman title important? What actually is the driving essence of that book that makes you feel like you have to pick it up? I do think you have to push the boundaries. Frankly, I’m more comfortable pushing the boundaries, knowing that there are still Batman comics for meat and potatoes Batman fans who have been reading Batman comics since the ’70s and have a very specific thing that they’re looking for.
There’s a comic for those readers right now. There’s another one coming out with the Garth Ennis and Liam Sharp Black Label Batman book (Batman: Reptilian). I’m really excited for that. The thing is, I’m a huge Batman fan. I like a lot of Batman stories. But the thing is there is a certain amount of counter-programming that you have to do in order to make sure that what you are selling is distinct from everything else. It’s like you have to put yourself in the shoes of the retailer who has to be able to say, “Hey, this is the reason you have to pick up this book,” and the thing that I think retailers can say about my Batman line is I’m creating a whole bunch of new characters. This is the first time you’re getting these character’s stories.
There isn’t another place you can get the stories for these new characters. I think the second thing that they can say is this is the book that helps inform the status quo for the rest of the line. If you follow this book and then you’re interested in what’s happening with this side character, then you can go pick up this other book. That’s how a shared universe ecosystem is supposed to work. Then on top of that, I think the other thing that you get to sell is that it’s also got amazing Jorge Jimenez art every single issue, which is an incredible selling point. I pinch myself about how lucky I am I get to work with him every month.
I do think you have to be conscious of who you’re selling to because there’s a component of this where every book has its audience, and I’m fully aware. My slate of books, there are books that I do that don’t have a crossover. There’s no better example of that than Wynd. Wynd is a book that, I think … Back when I was doing Detective Comics, I think Detective Comics might have had more of a crossover because there’s a bit more teenage banter in it, but in terms of everything else I’m doing, Wynd is the outlier because it is my YA book that features a bunch of teams going on a magical adventure. There are still elements of horror in it. There are still the touchstones.
I think if you read it, it feels like a James Tynion comic. Someone who’s interested in hardline conspiracy theories and big scary images or someone who’s interested…there’s more of a crossover between Department of Truth and Something is Killing to Children. Something is Killing the Children has more of a crossover with Batman than I think Department of Truth and Batman does. I think Department of Truth has more of a crossover with what I’m doing on Joker right now honestly than what I’m doing on Batman. But Wynd exists on its own, which is why that’s the one that I’m very fascinated about now that the collection is finally coming out. It was written to be OGNs. It wasn’t written to be single issues originally.
This is the actual moment that I’m going to find out whether or not the audience exists in a bigger way for that book. I hope it does because it’s something that I am deeply passionate about.
One thing I think is really interesting about Wynd though, and actually, I took a picture of this because it’s the type of nerd I am. I saw the Wynd hardcover yesterday in my shop. There’s some Death Metal-related trade that came out yesterday as well. I took a picture of them stacked on top of each other just because I wanted to emphasize the different shape and the production of the Wynd book. The thing that really surprised me about that hardcover, because it’s so beautiful, is in my mind, I instantaneously thought, “This is a book market play. This is for somebody who’s looking at it and compares it to books.” But is that hardcover exclusive to comic shops?
James: The hardcover is an exclusive and it was supposed to originally come out last month. There was a bit of a mix up of how quickly it got to comic shops. Next month, the softcover that is the same size comes out in wide release. The hardcover is a collectible edition, similar to what we did a special edition of Something is Killing the Children Volume One that used the Jenny Frison cover. We did a small batch release of those about four months before the standard edition of Volume One came out in stores. We were doing that again and to give comic shops some love, we let them have a more exclusive thing. But the goal has always been that final mass market form. It was drawn to be this size, but that’s also why it’s in the size of a more standard book market-style comic, not a direct market-size comic.
I think that’s super smart. That’s actually part of the reason why I even brought up format to begin with…one of the things that frustrates me with the world of comics is that a lot of times publishers and maybe even to a certain degree creators serve the type of comics that have always come out expecting that readers will adjust to the comics versus comics adjusting to the readers. That’s always been a very strange thing to me. Doing a book that is very similarly sized to another book that you would find at Barnes & Noble, for example, that to me is trying to speak the same language.
If you did it digest size, so it’d be similar to manga, so at least manga readers would be used to it, that type of stuff makes sense to me because you’re translating it to an audience that might not normally jump into comics. That was one of the things that struck me about that Wynd collection. It was trying to connect in a different way. I think that’s smart. The idea that we should treat comics as a one size fits all answer feels regressive to me.
James: Honestly, this is the thing that I’ve said this to my bosses at DC. “I wish that we were doing some superhero comics that were more in a manga format.” Not necessarily trying to mimic a manga style, but it’s just like, “You know what? Kids these days know how to read.” If you did a Batman Volume One that then came out at digest size and then there were three volumes of that that came out every single year and it just told the story of Batman from Volume One onward, I bet you’d sell a shit ton of those. Honestly, I think we should be being much more aggressive in a lot of places to go after the formats that people read. But there’s a line. Because the line that people cross sometimes I think is they will, with that intent, just try to mimic what’s working in another format.
James: Because it is one of those things, you can’t go chasing. You can’t just slap another label on it and try to sell something as something it’s not. You do have to lean in and recognize like, “Okay, this is what this series is. This is the product that I have created,” and I think this is the thing that some creators have difficulty with. It is both creating a work of art, but it’s also trying to sell a product to a customer. When I think of the balance between art and commerce, that is always a thing that artists are going to struggle with, but you do have to consider it. It’s like, “Okay, I am making this thing. Who am I trying to sell it to and what is the best way to sell it to those people?”
The real thing with Wynd and why Wynd is the outlier in my current lineup is that all of the single issues…I’m proud of the single issues and we sold well and all of that and I’m excited for the second round of single issues going out there, but the audience I’m chasing with Wynd hasn’t seen the book yet, because they won’t until it’s in bookstores in the bookstore format for the series. That’s when we’ll find out whether or not the series connects. It was the same thing…it’s like Department of Truth is trying to capture early ’90s, mid ’90s Vertigo feel, which is the true expression of what I want to this series to be, but in order to sell that, you have to consider, “How do those things sell?”
Getting that first trade out there is the moment that I knew…I knew that I was very happy with the success of the series up to the trade, but the trade is when we find out whether the book is successful and whether it hits the mass market. Thankfully it has and that’s tremendous.
One of the things I want to bring up from your write-ups that I found really interesting — and this is a core thing that’s always been in my head — is in 2021, actually really for the last, let’s say, 15 years since Scholastic Graphix and First Second first came to be, we’ve been in this position where we have this massive influx of new readers coming in because they’re getting into Dav Pilkey and Raina Telgemeier and Kazu Kibuishi and Jeff Smith, and etc. etc. They’re discovering comics with these books that are serving them, but the problem becomes keeping them. How do you develop material that serves this audience after they age out of that and into the next level before maybe they get into like, I don’t know, I don’t think that a kid is going to go from Raina Telgemeier to Fantagraphics or something like that, maybe not even superhero stuff, so that translation.
You wrote about that, but there’s another wrinkle to that too, where something like Batman/Fortnite: Zero Point comes out this week, and all of a sudden, there’s this massive influx of Fortnite fans that come in. Then there was an article in Publishers Weekly that was about all these different trade paperbacks that are blowing up because they’re also streaming shows like The Boys or Invincible. These shows that are blowing up and lifting the collections along with. I think maybe the biggest question that comics has to face isn’t necessarily, “How do you get readers?” it’s, “How do you keep readers?” Why do you view that to be as such a core problem to solve?
James: Well, this is me paraphrasing something that I said in a previous newsletter, but I think that we have spent way too long catering almost exclusively to the readers we already have and the diehard readers who will be…It’s the Wednesday Warriors, the people who were going to be in the comic shop every single Wednesday. Those are the people who are going to pick up the most comic books, bar none. Of course, they are central to the existence of comic shops and those are the books that are going to be celebrated the most by comic shops, but the thing is it’s recognizing that those priorities, they hurt us, they hurt us tremendously if they are the only thing we’re doing.
That’s the thing, because as you pointed to earlier, if I had gone to that comic shop as a kid, if they only had books that my dad still liked as an adult, I would not have wanted to read comics. But the other thing that I added on a paragraph later in there was that the winning situation would have been where I had Age of Apocalypse with all these cool new characters that I wanted to go home and draw and there was the equivalent of a Black Label Thor book with a beautiful art that my dad wanted to pick up. You need to attack the audience from both sides at the same time.
I think that culturally, we have a nostalgia problem. This goes beyond just comic books. There is an echo chamber of nostalgia that everyone is trying to tap into the things that they loved when they were kids and it’s because of all of the weird instabilities in the world right now. It’s like everyone is reaching towards a certain kind of comfort. I do think that there should be the sorts of books that speak directly to the geek community, but I do think that there needs to be…Sometimes you have to strip back all of the elements of history and continuity and all that and just look at what actually made kids start reading comic books back in the day.
I’m trying to figure out the right way to say this because I think if you look at those original titles, like Stan and Jack’s early Marvel Comics…they’re weird. They’re weird and funny, but they’re not trying to be more than what they are. They just are what they are. They’re people putting on silly costumes and getting into fights with each other. There’s a joy of like, “What can this character do? How does that character connect to that character?” Then on top of that, now they’re all key parts of Marvel mythology, but there were all of these stories about aliens and even Hollow Earth, and all of those things were the sorts of things that were running in articles in science fiction magazines that were coming out around the same time.
They were subject matters that the kids were already interested in and now it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I was reading about the flying saucers and here’s a book where it’s superheroes fighting things that are coming out of flying saucers.” There’s something to that I feel, and I’m not saying this eloquently and I wish I was, but I feel like there is a disconnect between the actual core pieces that made people love superheroes, and that are the reason superheroes are still around today. The impulse is to reward longtime readers of superheroes. I feel like they are going after very different things.
This is a funny example, but I grew up in the ’90s reading X-Men comics. I think that when people look back on that, it may not be the greatest time in the history of the X-Men in terms of quality, but the thing about the ’90s for the X-Men that people really underrate is there was a constant sense of energy and new to it, whether you’re talking about the art, whith Jim Lee handing off to Andy Kubert who handed off to Joe Madureira. You talk about the fact that there were constantly new characters and some were great and some were not so great, but at the same time, it was like you were constantly giving something new to somebody.
While it was a target rich environment at that time, because there was the X-Men cartoon and there were X-Men cards and all this stuff like that, at the same time, I think it was at least in part that, I don’t know, for lack of better phrasing, YOLO energy to it that people really latched on to. It always felt like it was going to be something new. It’s like if you were comparing a band that’s constantly evolving versus a cover band that’s covering their old material. It’s like, “Yeah, sure, I would really enjoy a band that’s covering another band that I really like,” and sometimes building on that and iterating on that idea isn’t necessarily going to be for everyone, but it could be for someone new and it could be building an audience for what’s next. I think that’s something that gets lost quite often, especially when it comes to superhero comics.
James: Honestly, and this is the thing that will probably get me in trouble because I pissed off friends when I voiced this specific point, but sometimes the pursuit of “good” is at the detriment of what the strengths of what mass market, pop comic books should be. Especially because good is so subjective to go after and there have been legitimately great like giant works of art, but when you look at what people are trying to get out of superhero comics, when they read them, a lot of it is it’s fuel for their imaginations. That is the transaction that’s happening.
It’s not necessarily the story, it’s not necessarily a clever line of dialogue or this or that, it’s literally like, “What are the things that you can stick in someone’s head that stay in their head later and make them wonder about what can happen next?” I was having a conversation with a friend who was bemoaning that a handful of recent adaptations of things from geek properties were not very good, but the thing is I actually think that’s probably good for the geek community in general, because what geek shit has always been is a bunch of nerds getting together and deciding why something that the rest of society decided was bad is secretly good.
It’s like, what is the thing that you can take and sit down with a group of five of your friends and be like, “No, this is all amazing if you think about it in this way.” You create the thing that is good, separate from the process of actually reading it and you create that as part of a community. I remember one of the most enlightening things that I did, I did it right before I started working on my Detective Comics run with Rebirth is I read all of Claremont’s X-Men. I read big chunks of it before and I loved a huge chunk of it, but the biggest thing I was surprised about was the fact that so many of the relationships, they only give you little pieces of it. It’s the fans that went home and created all of these relationships.
A lot of times, it was the material that you take away and then go home with that, then fans sit and think about for years and then that also is the thing that I think creates the next generation of comic book writers because then they bring in a bunch of people who want to tell the stories that they only got glimpses of before. I think that there’s something to that. I think we’re seeing a lot in the streaming era is that there’s a lot of B+ content in the world right now. Or maybe B-.
I was going to, that B+ felt a little generous.
James: Where it’s just structurally, it’s very sound and it’s got good parts and there’s a good idea there and all of that, but it doesn’t have that raw kinetic quality that makes you actually connect to it. There are plenty of things that are…If you go down and do the actual structural analysis of them, you can’t make the argument that they’re good in a story sense or something like that, but they capture something so raw that is part of the id of the moment that you just connect to it and you love it.
I think a lot of times in comics, it is much more important to hit that id than it is to hit something polished because the polished version of a superhero story only appeals to the people who have been polishing that superhero in their head all of this time, as opposed to someone who we’re giving the raw pieces to go and have an emotional reaction to it.
This ties into a couple things I just talked to people about on the podcast. I had Ram V on the podcast recently. One of the things that Ram mentioned to me was that Brian Azzarello told him that he doesn’t want 100% good reviews, he wants some people to hate it. You don’t want everything you do to perfectly satisfy everyone because then you’re just like checking boxes. You’re not actually pushing things. You’re not challenging things. I actually think that’s a good perspective.
Tying into something else that came up on the podcast, I talked with Gerry Duggan about the X-Men line and about how so much of what they’re doing on it isn’t about giving readers what they think they want. It’s what these creatives think that they need in a really true sense. Related to that, one of the interesting things about WandaVision when it came out was, for better or worse, whether you loved it or you didn’t, because of its weekly format, it had people talking after the show ended. It kept the conversation going. The X-Men line has been exemplary at that as well.
I remember when House and Powers was coming out, #XSpoilers was the hottest game in town. And it was because people finished the book the story continued. I think that’s one of the things that a lot of comics struggle with is you finish the book and the book is done and you don’t think about it until you read it the next month. But you want that, that vibe, that energy, that continuation of the story in the heads and the minds and the conversations of the fans. That’s where the real juice comes from.
James: Yes, 100%. I could not agree more. I think that that’s the bullseye that you have to try and hit. I think there should be books that appeal to a certain core readership, but there’s a huge limit to only targeting those readers. I think there’s also a kind of delusion that happens when you’re a part of the community, that you think the sorts of comics that you, personally, would like to see in the world are the comics that will appeal to the widest audience. But we all know that there are lots of books that get really critically acclaimed on the comics internet, but they do not connect with a mass market audience. And then there are books that break all the rules of what should succeed in the space, that manage to hit that central nerve and get everyone riled up. I think the X-Line is a great example of that. There were a lot of ways that what’s being done could have alienated the core audience, but they’ve managed to do something so high concept that it’s fascinating to outsiders, while using every part of the X-mythos, so it’s satisfying to insiders. But most importantly, it’s hitting a raw nerve.
There is this weird disconnect that happens, both on the comics internet, and within publishers, where there’s what I think can be a sometimes willful ignorance of how quickly the comic book readership turns over. The things that made a comic book sell yesterday will not necessarily make a comic book sell tomorrow. And the things that made a comic book sell thirty years ago will definitely not make a comic book sell tomorrow. And there are people who think they know that, because they ran into those same sentiments when they were breaking in, but then when they get to a position of power, they are bemoaning that comics aren’t what they were 10 years ago and they don’t see the hypocrisy of it.
The belief that the only perfect comics that ever existed in the medium were the ones that existed when you were 15 and first getting excited about superhero stories…when you’re only trying to replicate or celebrate the sort of books that made you get excited about comics when you first fell in love with the medium, you’re limiting the potential of the medium and the reach of the medium. That moment of time came and went, and we should be looking more at what is connecting today rather than trying to replicate yesterday. That doesn’t mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. But there are ways to embody the core of an idea or character without the limitations of nostalgia.
And like I’ve said before, there should be comics made for the core long-term geek audience that weave continuity and character into gold that satisfies the curiosities of the people who read dozens of comics a month, and there should be artful books that push the limits of what the medium can be using popular characters because it gets the audience to think outside the box and appreciate how far you can push the medium in new direction. But at the end of the day, the frontlines of the superhero business need to hit that id, that x-factor, that delivers something energetic, colorful, exciting, and new. Something that they can’t get anywhere else, that is novel to readers. Only appealing to readers within an existing ecosystem might get wide appeal and celebration within the community that exists but it will not and cannot expand that community.
I really loved your generations theory that you wrote about in your newsletter. For readers who didn’t happen to read James’s newsletter that touched on this subject, basically the idea is that there are five different generations. The first generation is the original stuff, the second generation the good stuff, third generation the important stuff, these are all building on each other, fourth generation is the regressive stuff and then the fifth is the convoluted stuff. So much of comics really does exist in that convoluted realm because so many comics are in some ways about comics. I don’t mean that in an awesome Grant Morrison sort of way. I mean, in a, “We’re always playing back the hits” sort of way.
I just think it’s really interesting looking at like X-Men line or looking at what you’re doing on Batman, where in some ways you’re both almost in conversation more with the idea of these characters and what preceded them more than what literally preceded them in totality. You’re always focused on doing something new with it and trying to introduce new elements to it like all the new characters you’ve had in Batman and even Joker. It’s been really interesting to see how people have responded to that because, on one hand, there is the speculator element to it, but on the other hand, like we talked about with Blink and Morph earlier, people want their own characters and people want their own version of a story. If that’s Krakoa or if that’s Bruce Wayne as a millionaire instead of billionaire, then that makes it better. For some, that’s what makes it work.
James: Honestly, a lot of what I’m doing in Batman is I’m trying to see what works. I’m playing around and I’m throwing some things at the wall, but the thing that makes me feel vindicated is I see fan art coming in of the new characters and it’s just like, “Okay, that’s it. That is the thing.” The moments that get me extra excited are when I see fan art from teenagers. It’s the sort of thing I would have drawn when I was 14 years old, but it’s a drawing of Clownhunter on lined paper on the edge of some school notes. Then I hit the nerve I wanted to hit there.
That’s the thing that I wanted to do. Talking to people in some comic shops, I know that those are the elements that have driven some people into the books. I understand that’s not for everyone, and if anything, I think for the more conservative Batman reader who has a specific thing that they want, I think Joker is more of their book in terms of the two that I’m writing right now because that’s the one where I’m going to go with some deep-dive places with continuity in that one. Literally, I’ve got books that I pulled out for research there that are more in line and I’m still trying to do with through the lens of new characters and all of that, but it is much more about actually engaging with Jim Gordon’s history and Joker’s history and the Gordon family’s history.
I do want to lean into that, and I want to introduce new readers into the classic Batman stories that I love while I’m doing something that is much more…I don’t know. There are two different flavors in what I’m doing in Batman and Joker. I think Joker is a little more in line with the sort of work I did on Detective and Justice League Dark where I have specific touchstones that I am looking to evoke and say something about – Joker is a book that is an expression of how I think about Gotham City – it represents my insular geek interests about the Batman mythos, specifically the history of Jim Gordon, the history of The Joker, the history of Santa Prisca and Bane, and the history of the Court of Owls.
Batman, on the other hand, is a book that’s more of an expression of how I feel about Gotham City – I’m trying to capture a specific energy more than I am trying to connect continuity dots. It’s a kinetic approach, trying to make the most of Jorge’s immeasurable talents, while building a whole new version of Gotham that feels purely Gotham, but feels exciting and new, that you can only get from core continuity Bat-Titles. We started very strong on Joker, and I bet we continue to hold strong in sales by the nature of it being a Joker book, but at the end of the day, I know that the Joker book is going to be the more critically successful title within the comic book community because it is for the comic book community, but Batman is going to be the bigger sales winner month in and month out because it’s deliberately trying to appeal to a more mass market audience, and in particular, a new audience… Honestly, I wanted to do both at the same time, in the same continuity, with some interplay between the titles because I do think that’s the balance you need in the core superhero business… One for the community as it stands, and one to try and build the community that should exist tomorrow.
One really great point you made in your end-of-the-year writeups was you talked about how in some ways, to paraphrase it, in some ways art in comics has become underrated in a sense. You’re talking about how your writing is almost in service of creating great art. You look at Department of Truth, you look at Martin’s art and there’s nothing else like it. It immediately makes you feel things, even if at first you’re like, “I don’t totally understand what I’m looking at,” and then you’re just like, “I feel things I don’t understand.”
Another great artist that does that for me is Daniel Warren Johnson. I know that whatever version Daniel Warren Johnson is going to give me is going to look so much different than what anybody else will. That’s spectacular. It is really fascinating that art has become underrated in some ways, but in the same sense, I think that’s part of where that vibrancy comes from. If Clownhunter didn’t look cool, that kid would not have been drawing Clownhunter.
James: That is the most important thing. It’s the key. If you don’t have a cool design, it doesn’t matter how cool the idea of the character is. That’s an overstatement, but it is one of those things where at the end of the day, having the cool design is absolutely crucial. The design is what lodges a character into your head and makes them memorable. Then you need to give those characters their context, which is strangely more important than their personality or the story you put them in. Who are they in relationship to characters we already know and love?
Punchline is obviously Joker’s new girlfriend, and a foil for Harley Quinn. She’s her polar opposite. That is her context and that context will shift and grow in time, in relationship to how Harley evolves as a character and Joker evolves as a character. Similarly, there’s Ghost-Maker, who is Batman’s teenage rival, come back in the present day. There’s always going to be a show-off tension between them, and if you can get the reader to connect to their context, then the character can start living in their minds. They start telling their own stories with them.
But the art is crucial. First they need to look cool, and then the role they fill in the universe needs to be clearly defined. Characters don’t “stick” until they live in the minds of the readers. And they grow and change in other people’s hands. Going back to Punchline, I have a story that I am going to tell over the course of this year and next year that will climax with the end of my whole run on Batman. I am very excited to tell that full story, but what will be interesting to me is seeing how she evolves once she enters the larger toy box of the DC Universe. How will she evolve in the hands of other writers and artists?
But the design is a key, crucial element. Part of it is that for a design to connect it needs to feel very much of the moment. You need to have your finger on the pulse of what visuals people are going to connect to. That is why working with Jorge Jimenez is so incredible. His design instincts elicit a visceral response in the readers which makes them want to know more and more about these characters. We’ve been getting fan-art of The Gardener and Miracle Molly and the both of them have each shown up in a couple of panels so far. That speaks to the design connecting, and it’s powerful. And in that moment I could get huffy that as a comic book writer, I can’t just create an image that people connect to, or I can live in and love the fact that I work with all of these incredible artists and just let them unleash themselves on the page. You want to be a writer that gives artists incredible opportunities to make vibrant, exciting work, and then you want to get out of their way.
That’s true in mainline superhero books, that’s true in an independent like The Department of Truth, and that’s true in a YA fantasy series like Wynd. Every artist comes with a whole set of amazing tools, and you learn how to lean into each of those tools to help them deliver the best possible work.
Comics work better if you let the art stand front and center. I work with so many incredible artists right now, and the joy of my life is getting amazing comic book art in my inbox.
Bringing back Batman/Fortnite and the speculation angle, I know that a lot of people view those as a lot of people are just trying to get the code and everything like that. They were in there for a Harley Quinn skin or for the Batman skin you get at the end, or with speculators, some people are just buying Joker #2 because it had the first appearance of Vengeance, Bane’s daughter in there. Some people are looking at that as, “This is a purely bad thing,” or not purely bad thing, but you know what I’m saying, it just cuts both ways.
The thing I think people forget about it when it comes to these things is sure, sometimes that type of thing might happen, but let’s say the Batman and Fortnite comic, let’s say it sold 200,000 copies. If all of those are new readers and 10% of those people stay around and keep reading comics after that…20,000 new readers being introduced is a life changing element for one comic. That is unbelievable. I think that people forget that. Comics has a tendency of being doom and gloom and they throw out the good with the bad. I do think it’s a fascinating thing.
James: It is a fascinating thing. I think the speculator market, I think our industry has a lot of built-in trauma from the end of the ’90s and not even the end of the ’90s, even the peak of the ’90s and the center of all of it. What was happening in the ’90s, and other people can speak to this much more than I can, but the thing that kicked it all off was the first time classic comic books, like Action Comics #1, I think Action Comics #1 selling for like a million dollars was the thing or whatever was what kicked off this speculator boom that had people thinking that picking up a number one that had a multimillion print run was something that was going to have value and that value would be something that would turn around quick.
Then obviously that collapsed when people realized like, “No, those books are not going to ever be worth millions of dollars because there are just too many of them that exist,” but I think the broad brush that paints all collector behavior is…I’m trying to think of the best way to answer this. I do think that collector behavior today gets painted with a broad brush because of that. Right now the collector’s market is wildly different than what that was then. It’s a little economy and it is something where there are people who are trying to buy a book to see, “Is that book going to basically double in value in six month?”
It’s like betting on like rookie baseball cards. It is a base collector thing that feels healthy to me, not unhealthy. The issue before was that it was people getting duped, that’s the thing that I think gets people in trouble. When people are getting duped into trying to buy into something as a collector’s item that will never be a collector’s item, that can become a problem. When it’s something where like, “Hey, if you get this rare book and you spend $25 on it now and then that book becomes a TV show in a few years and then you resell it for $50 and then that person is making the bet, where, “Okay, I believe that that TV show isn’t just going to be optioned, it’s actually going to get made,” and then that’s going to be worth $100. Who knows?
I think of it as a dad hobby. It’s one of those things where it is a way in which people are engaging in the market and the fact of the matter is the collector’s market is what created comic book shops. It was all of the people who are going through and gathering, “What are the missing pieces in my backlog collection?”
The fun people have on the collector’s side of this is something that I don’t think you can discount, and I think that that is a valid expression of being a part of the comics industry. I love my fans that are reading and engaging in the books, but it’s like, there are a bunch of people who have read some of Something is Killing the Children, but they like Erica Slaughter and they’re basically buying like themed trading cards that they can see like, “Oh, is this one?” It was $2, now it’s worth $4. I think that that’s fine. I don’t think that that’s like this big dangerous thing we need to worry about.
I think that there’s some behavior that is a little wonky, but at the same time, if it is creating more or sustaining fans, that’s a win. I’m pretty sure the entire objective to all this, going back to what I was saying about the readers who have grown up on Dav Pilkey or the readers who are jumping in because they love The Boys and they want to read the series…it’s all about finding a way to sustain these readers. It’s all about finding a way to sustain readers and then building from there. That’s how you build a stronger future for comics.
Last question for you, building off all this, again, it’s clear that you think about all this a lot and I think that’s a very good thing, but for you, whether it’s on Batman or it’s on any of your creator-owned comics or anything that we don’t even know about, how important is it to keep experimenting with everything you’re doing? Are you always trying to find better ways to do this thing?
James: I think it’s extremely important. Honestly, I think I have a responsibility on a certain level. I started in comics very young. I started in comics very young because I had the benefit of someone vouching for me at a very early point in my career in Scott Snyder. That means that I started in comics five to 10 years before a bunch of people in my age group. Now that I’m in this pole position, I want to pay that forward and I want to see how to make the industry work better, so that people who did not have the same opportunities I had coming up can benefit from what I think is a really incredible medium that is supported by an often frustrating industry.
I think that it is something where I want to find better ways to make comics because I see in every single comic I’m doing, at every publisher I’m doing it, I see the compromises that I need to make in some places and I see the ones that I don’t want to make and I don’t want to continue making. I don’t want the people that follow me to have to make those compromises. It’s the basic tenet of superhero anything is, “With great power comes great responsibility.” That is the driving ethos that should come at the heart of comics and I think a lot of times it doesn’t necessarily.
It would be very easy for me right now, like I was saying, to dial down and not try to make inroads. I can’t pretend that that making these inroads benefit me. They absolutely do. That’s why a project like Razorblades is really important to me and it’s also why like … When I have opportunities to do little one shots or shorts connected in and around DC, I want to bring in interesting artists who might be outside the norm of what people read. I hope that some of those teenagers who read the Batman Annual I did with James Stokoe are now diehard James Stokoe fans and will be for the rest of their lives.
That is what I want. I want more people to see the breadth of what comics can be and I want to use the platform I have to point people in the direction of the people who I think are doing really, really great work and then elevate that work. Honestly, that is a lot of my long-term future plans that I don’t even want to hint at just yet is that they involve paying it forward. That is crucial to me. Yes, I do think there is a responsibility to experiment because, frankly, I think too many of our forebearers in this industry haven’t done enough experimenting. I think it left a comics market where there are too many traps that exist that basically scare people off of making the kinds of comics that they could make or should make.
I think the industry is lesser because of it. To the best I can, I don’t want to perpetuate those things and I want comics to be better and I want to make comics better.
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