SKTCHDxTiny Onion: Part Twelve, Taking a Look Forward at Journey’s End

For the past 12 months, SKTCHD has co-hosted an ongoing series of interviews with writer James Tynion IV as a collaboration with Tynion’s The Empire of the Tiny Onion email newsletter, and with this interview, that twelve-month journey is at its end. It’s been quite the run, and we’ve covered a little bit of everything along the way. The overall shape of the comic market! How he builds comics! Variant covers and their value! Work-life balance! So much more! It’s been an interesting, fun, and unique challenge to take on as an interviewer, as it’s one thing to talk to someone once a year like I do on Off Panel, and an entirely different one to do so once a month. But it’s been a rewarding one, too, as we’ve dug into a whole lot of things I suspect we wouldn’t have gotten into otherwise. In case you missed those previous conversations, here’s the previous eleven for your reading pleasure.

Today brings our final conversation, one that touches on a little bit of everything. Consider it a mirror image of our first conversation in this series, as we discuss where the comic industry — and, more specifically, the direct market — is as the calendar turns to 2024, and how that’s affecting the way he’s thinking. It offers fantastic insight into the way one of the biggest names in comics is viewing this moment in time, and as per usual, it blends the creative and commercial sides of Tynion’s brain into one place. I think you’ll get a lot out of it, if you enjoy this sort of thing.

As per usual, this conversation has been edited for length and clarity. It’s also open to non-subscribers, so if you enjoy the chat, consider subscribing to SKTCHD for more like it. This chat is also a co-production between Tynion’s Substack and my site, so if you haven’t already, make sure to subscribe to Tynion’s newsletter to keep up with what he’s up to in general. Lastly, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone for reading along with this interview series, and for those who have discovered the website thanks to these ongoing conversations. It’s been a blast to do, and I appreciate you all reading along the way. Let’s get to this final chat, though! Enjoy!

It’s the end of the year and the end of this interview series. It’s been a crazy year, one with a lot of doom and gloom, but also a lot of great comics. In this final chat, we’re going to go full circle on our original State of the Union interview, as we talk about the wild world of comics these days. To start with, how are you feeling about the health of the comic industry and in particular the direct market as we exit 2023? Are you feeling good, bad, scared, nervous, nothing? Where are you at?

James: (laughs) I would say anxious is probably the word. I think that right now on a larger level, there are a lot of trends that are actually promising and exciting about the comics industry at large. And I see a lot of opportunities that I’m excited to explore over the next few years, but it does feel like we’re in the middle of a moment like we’ve had in the past where it feels like the direct market is struggling and it feels like people are having a harder time than ever to get through that struggle.

And I think some of it is psychological more than necessarily numbers based. It kind of goes hand in hand with everyone talking about the larger economy and how it’s like, “No, but the numbers are going up,” but everyone feels bad. It’s how much of this is vibes and how much of it is numbers, but vibes affect things. I write a few comic book series about how the vibes literally shape the world. So, it’s all stuff I’m taking very seriously.

I do sometimes wonder how much the conversation colors perception, because there are two things that are true simultaneously. One is that there are a lot of shops that are struggling. That is real. And then the other thing is that if you constantly talk about how something is dying, then suddenly everyone thinks something is dying. And I think the answer is probably somewhere in the middle, and that’s a lot trickier to deal with. And I also think the answer is, as you said, related to overarching economic trends, overarching retail trends, and things like that. Reality is a lot more nuanced than the conversation is.

When you’re thinking about what you’re doing at a larger scale, do you have to sometimes put blinders on about this stuff and just make the right decisions based on how you perceive the market?

James: Oh, absolutely. I’m trying to do some very long-term planning right now, and long-term planning means you have to be conscious of what’s happening in the moment, but not beholden to it. Especially because a lot of the long-term trends do look positive. I’m less worried about my plans at the moment. It is more the question marks of how much is the landscape going to change over the next 24 months before I get to some of these plans and how adaptive am I going to have to be in the face of that. And it’s frustrating not to know, but there’s no way to know. I think that the hard thing heading into next year is if we’re talking about there being a psychically bad emotional environment around comic books, we’re also about to head into an election year.

Next year is not going to be a psychically good year in the US by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s already fraught times. I think that it’s one of those things…I’m glad I’m diving back into Department of Truth to come out next year because it allows me to actually talk about all of this pretty directly in my work. But I think that we have to be resilient for the next few years. And I think that this is where, and I think this is the thing that gets lost in some of the bigger conversations around this, a lot of the big guns are going to be safe through the next few years.

Bluntly, I’m confident enough in my work and my sales power at this point and my stature in the industry that I will persevere. And then beyond that, it’s a lot of the big comic retail chains, they’re going to do great and as they have been doing great and all of that, but it’s the mid list to lower tier creator, the creator that’s just getting started out, and the mid-tier to small comic shop that are going to keep struggling. And that struggle doesn’t have an immediate end in sight.

And because that struggle doesn’t have an immediate end in sight, we’re going to lose a bunch of creators and shops that in a healthier environment would help us five, 10 years down the line by making great books and selling great books. And that’s always a tragedy. I think there are some people really going around talking about how the sky is falling and I’m not fully in the sky is falling camp, but parts of the sky feel like they’re probably going to fall if things don’t change a little bit. And then we’re all going to have to adapt in the face of that.

Do you feel markedly different about everything today than when we first started doing these?

James: It’s so interesting because there’s an angle to this conversation that I was hoping by the end of the year I would be able to sort of unveil one big aspect of what’s been shaping my thinking through this year, because there’ve been some pretty major developments behind the scenes that are going to define the next era of my career. But what I can say is that I’ve spent the entire year thinking about how I’m interacting with the industry, what I want to improve, and where I see room to grow.

And I think a lot of what has marked my career for a long time has been kind of staking ground in areas that I feel like the other publishers are leaving behind. In an era that everyone was pulling away from long-form creator-owned comics, that’s where I’ve built my name. I think more and more I see where the other companies are retreating, and I am looking to see where I can hold my ground. There’s room for good comics and services that you can make money doing.

That’s a lot of what I’ve been thinking about. So, at this exact moment last year, a lot of that was still abstract in my mind. I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of this is what I am going to do and now I’m eager and ready to start doing it. But now I’m ready and eager to start doing those specific things, so I’m going to have to put my money where my mouth is, which is scary. But it’s also exciting.

You and I talk to some of the same people, the same retailers, the same creators, etc.. And I think that when we first started talking last January or in this January that a lot of the conversations were the same. It was more about are we going to start seeing things change as time passes? And it seems like for you, the conversation around comics is still the same, but you’ve started to build towards something that is your vision of how we can go forward, or at least you can go forward.

James: Yeah, exactly. And it’s figuring out how can I use what has worked for me and pull along the creators that I want to see succeed in this next era. It’s trying to build an infrastructure around myself and my peers. It’s an interesting problem, and I think the thing that gets to me in some of the conversations around all of this, and I do think that this is kind of a psychological thing, is that I think a lot of comic retailers got into this business because of how much they loved superhero comics.

In the US, that is the reason they started their shops, even if they like the occasional creator-owned Book. It is an occasional creator-owned Book. And I think that the big unspoken part of why superhero sales have been lagging for the last few years is that the comics have become the least important part of the superhero industrial complex. Like the films, the television shows, the video games, you can be a massive fan of Spider-Man and spend every cent of your allowance on Spider-Man and not read a single Spider-Man comic in a year. And then the same goes for a bunch of the other characters.

And I do think that we’ll see a resurgence in the next five years in the superhero space in comic books, but I think it will happen at the exact moment that we see the film and TV industry go from there being 10 superhero movies and TV shows on the air at a given time back down to maybe there’s one good one a year. Then people who love superheroes — and there are probably actually a lot more people who love superheroes right now than there were 15 years ago — will need to come to comics to get that fix.

And that’s going to be a moment that I think a lot of retailers hope would happen in the next 12 months, but I don’t think that’s going to happen in the next 12 months. I think that that’s going to happen two to three years from now.

In the meantime, what we’re seeing, and I think that this taps into some of our conversations from earlier in the year, I think we’re seeing the American market turn a bit closer into what we see in the rest of the world, which is there are certain things that comics do particularly well. It’s like we need visually driven stories with cool iconic characters and things that you want on a T-shirt and statue of. But the superhero trappings and the superhero genre are just one small sliver of what the global comics market is, and as the global market becomes a much more singular thing…right now I’m not betting big on superhero comics in the next 10 years of the American comic book industry.

Part of this is I see success outside of that, so it’s just like of course I’m going to continue chasing that kind of success and building on the sorts of stories that I have made that I see succeeding out there. But whenever I leave the U.S., I’m reminded that every other market has 20 series like Something is Killing the Children running at the same time, and so should we.

Werther Dell’Edera’s cover to Something is Killing the Children #1

The conversation largely about this topic has orbited all the things that are wrong with comics, but you mentioned long-term trends and opportunities. I don’t know how much you can get into those, because those might be revealing of your next plans, but what are some of the long-term trends that you view as positive for comics?

James: Bar none, the best development from when I was a teenager to right now is that virtually every child in America knows how to read a comic book and understands the visual medium of comics. And most people read a few manga when they’re in middle school or high school. Some of them gravitate towards it as a fan, but the visual literacy of comics is back at a level that we haven’t seen since the newsstand era, and that’s what’s behind manga sales going through the roof and that’s what’s behind a lot of this stuff.

There being an audience means that the medium has a future. Period. The end. The big questions right now are about where does that readership go to buy their comics and who are they buying them from and by who they buying them from, I mean the publishers. When I was a teenager, all the major manga publishers would license their works to American publishers, but now we have Kodansha here in the U.S. making big moves and I think we’ll see the other big manga publishers make big moves as well. There are a lot of Americans and a lot of them read comic books and the Japanese publishers know that they’re winning. And so they’re going to continue to come in and dominate the space.

And a lot of those sales come more through bookstores and online vendors than they do through comic shops. And that isn’t to say that every comic shop in the country should become a manga and anime shop, but it’s just like it is understanding that these are the same thing. We can pretend they’re different things, but manga is comics and there’s no difference between an anime and an Invincible. If anything, I hope in the media space here in the U.S. that we learn some of the lessons of Invincible where the fact that it’s like animation is a much clearer driver into comic sales than live action to comics.

An animation audience will pick up the comic it’s adapted from because they’ll get to the end of where the season has gotten and they don’t want to wait two years to find out what happened. So they’re going to read through the entire comic series. This is just like it is the math on which the entire anime manga system has rested for 30 years. I hope we are starting to figure that out over here.

We’ve talked about this in our previous chats to some degree, but there’s this positioning of manga and comics as these adversarial products. That’s never made sense to me because…well, there are two parts to it. One is what you said where manga is getting people to understand comics, they’re reading right to left, but they’ve read left to their entire lives. I’m sure if they figured out one, they could figure out the other. The other is, I’m not saying this is going to happen with everyone just in the same way it hasn’t happened for everyone with superhero comics, but I think at some point some manga readers are going to be like, “What else is out there?”

I just had this cartoonist from France, Lucie Bryon, on Off Panel and we were talking about how popular manga is there, and she was talking about basically…what comes next for the readers of manga? What are the comics for them? And she’s making comics that kind of fit in that space. And I think that with a little bit more intentionality and a little bit more planning, and I don’t mean this in a cynical way, manga isn’t a roadblock. It’s an opportunity to build.

James: I completely agree. I think you can see it in my work. Something is Killing the Children uses some of the visual language of manga. Both Werther (Dell’Edera, Something is Killing the Children’s artist) and myself are big manga fans. It’s me blending the storytelling tropes that I love from manga with the storytelling tropes that I love from superhero stories with a layer of my love of Stephen King tying it all up in a bow. That math has worked well for me, and it doesn’t come from an inauthentic place.

I think this is one of those things where I am very grateful that I came of age during that big manga boom at the turn of the millennium. When I started reading comics, superhero comics were the smallest pillar of what I was reading. I was reading lots of webcomics, lots of manga, and then I started in on Western comics because I was near a Borders and I would walk over to the Borders and I would just pull a trade off the shelf and then I would start reading it. That is why I’m more of a DC person than a Marvel person, because DC had a better trade program. It wasn’t for another five or ten years when I had a car that I could actually get to a comic shop regularly.

I just want to say I feel like there’s a generation of comic fans and manga fans that owed that to the fact that Borders Books allowed that to happen and had really comfy chairs.

James: Yeah, exactly. And they sure did. And I sat in them for hours.

I did too.

James: And then I ended up working at that Borders and I reorganized the entire comic section because it was chaos, even though I definitely didn’t organize it the way the store said it should be organized. I organized it in the way that made sense to me, and I got in trouble for that a few times, but it was just like, no, this is the sensible way to do this, so I’m going to keep reorganizing it this way.

But manga has always been a very authentic part of my comic reading diet, and even though I shifted pretty hard into superhero comics once I got into going to a local comic shop in high school, it stayed as one part of a larger ecosystem. My work is always a blend of all my influences and it’s not just from this one singular place. So, I think this is also where that gets into the kind of psychological stuff that I was saying before.

Some creators see that there is this growing manga influence, and they try to adapt to it, but it doesn’t come from a genuine love of that kind of storytelling. They want to make comics in the style of the comics that made them love the medium. I think that the same thing happens in retail. There is an entire alternate universe of comics that’s coming to crash into ours, and it’s all different rules and all of a sudden what you spent 40 years learning every little piece about it matters less to the long-term health of your shop and the industry. That’s really hard, emotionally.

And if suddenly you don’t enjoy going into the shop every day, and there are only ever a handful of people that are massively successful at a time in our little industry, especially on the retail side. At a certain point, why are you doing it if it’s not a passion? That’s hard.

That is hard.

Fernando Blanco’s cover to w0rldtr33 #1

I wanted to bring up one other thing involving manga, and it ties into something you said earlier, which is that you were leaning into ongoings. I wrote about this on SKTCHD, but while I’m not saying this is the reason why manga boomed again, but it’s interesting to see how manga has popped with these long-form stories that run for years and years and have all this complexity to it at the same time as American comics…a lot of them, which for a long time thrived on long runs and complexity and all these different things has switched to a more limited series focus. And I am not saying that the reason why you’re successful is because you’ve been doing ongoings while the rest of the market has been like, what if everything was four issues long. But I think it helps.

James: I unquestionably think it helps. I think that everything that I love about comic book storytelling happens in a long-form comic…Okay, maybe not everything. Some stories are designed to be smaller, more focused things like the books that I’m building for DSTLRY right now. It’s all my focus contained in high concept, big, beautiful art ideas. But then I have my long-form series like w0rldtr33, which is going to run for years, and I’m coming back to Department of Truth. Something is Killing the Children’s going to run for a long time. All of that matters. It just expresses what I value and what made me want to spend my life making comics. (laughs) I didn’t get into this to do miniseries after miniseries.

I want to create big worlds and live in them.

We’ve been talking about this environment and you’ve talked a little bit about how it’s affected your plans and everything, but I think that there are two really interesting aspects of what you’re up to right now that are fascinating through the overall prism of the industry. One is that The Deviant is your most recent launch, and it came out in a slightly different format with a bigger package for a bigger price, but it’s also nine issues. It’s a focused story in a somewhat atypical way for you. Then also in 2024, you’ve said this before, what you’re focusing on in 2024 are the books that you’ve already been successful with returning for new arcs.

Do you feel like to some degree this market has affected the way that you’re thinking about certain books and how you’re timing things, or is this just when those longer running books were always destined to return?

James: Yeah. I work on so many of them that, and some of them are long-form projects, so there was always going to be the year that I was slotting in a bunch of new stuff and then now I need to cycle back and finish a few things. And until I land one of my long-form projects, you won’t see another long-form project from me. But I’ve talked about Department of Truth. I don’t want to put an exact number on it, but let’s say it’s roughly 15 more issues of that and it’s time to start wrapping things up and then who knows, there might be more Department of Truth in the future after that, but first we’re going to tell a complete story and then I’ll be satisfied with that story sitting on the shelf.

Other projects like Wynd and a few other things, it’s time to land the planes. And the only true ongoing ongoing is Something is Killing the Children, where I see that running three times as long as it has currently run. I do have an ending in mind, but it’s going to be 10 years before we get there, as long as the market continues to support it and all parties involved are still existent in the world.

It is a lot of, I didn’t make the decision to make this year, this coming year a kind of, “Oh, I’m not going to launch a new ongoing.” It was just what naturally happened. And then on top of that, I will launch the first of my DSTLRY books. I do have new launches that I’m going to be moving heaven and earth to sell, but it is one of those things where in terms of the long-form storytelling, this year is going to be about celebrating the series that I’m probably best known for, which I think will be good.

Christian Ward’s cover to Spectregraph #1

Yeah. Especially for launching Spectregraph when you have all these other ones coming. It’s a nice little, I don’t know, positive area of effect you have going for yourself there.

James: It’s the benefit of being a high output writer. I have been able to make sure that I have a steady flow of books coming out in the market and they’re all doing pretty well. And that means that when one series goes on hiatus for a month, if someone’s just like, “Oh, there isn’t a w0rldtr33 right now,” it’s like, “Okay, but have you checked out The Deviant,” or do you want to start checking out some of James’s backlist? It is keeping a steady flow of stories out there so that readers always have something to connect to, and then it’s going to be seeing what happens over the next few years.

I think I’ve said before. I can’t work at this output level for the rest of my life. I think the next two years I’m going to be continuing to juggle quite a bit on the writing front, but I hope that as I get closer to 40 years old, I get down to just a couple of books at a time and then I do a special little fun thing every now and then outside of that, maybe I can take vacations. Exciting little things like that.

That sounds nice.

James: Yeah. These are all hypotheticals. (laughs)

One thing I really like about Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ collaborations is that when you finish one of their books, you look at the back of the book and what do they have? They have a double page spread of everything they’ve ever published. That’s a lot easier for them because all of their stuff is housed at the same place. It’s all at Image. You dip your toes in a lot of places.

This might be a spoiler for your future, but have you ever thought about something like that where if somebody discovers you through Spectregraph next year and they’re like, “What else has this James Tynion person done? What is his back list?” Something that makes it a little easier for them to do that? I think that’s one of the quiet things that is affecting comics right now is discoverability, and pathing readers from point A in their James Tynion journey to point B, C, D, and E is probably your best path to having the sustainable career that you’re looking for. Is there anything that you’ve thought of trying to build?

James: Yeah. (laughs) I’ve been putting a lot of thought into this, and a lot of it are things that I can’t really talk about, but the big thing that I’ll point to is I started my newsletter because of this exact problem. I knew that Something is Killing the Children had overperformed. I knew I was about to take over Batman, and I knew I was about to launch my first Image book with Department of Truth. That was a one-year timeline right there, and that’s three separate publishers. And as much as I’ve gone in to try to see what’s possible in terms of intercompany advertisements and stuff like that, there’s a huge resistance towards it. I’ve found little workarounds like pointing people towards, where I can sort of point to the merch from one of my books.

I can point to Something is Killing the Children merch in the back pages of Something is Killing the Children. And then if you go there, you can see evidence of all my other titles. And so that’s one path in, but this is something that I spend a lot of time talking about, and also it’s part of why I’ve been pretty firm about trying to build up what that Tiny Onion logo means.

It won’t surprise people that I’m going to be leaning even further into that in the new year. It is the fact that I am an independent entity that does work with many different publishers, but I want you to understand what you get when you pick up one of my books and that the books that I write or the books that I develop are all going to have certain core principles of storytelling, so that a retailer understands that it’s just like, “Okay, if this is coming from that machine, we understand how to sell it to a reader in our shop.”

Yeah, it’s like seeing A24 and knowing you’re going to watch something you haven’t seen before in any way, shape, or form.

Obviously, there’s a lot of focus on bad things these days, but you have big plans, many of which you can’t talk about yet. But without getting into details, we are heading into a new year. What has you the most excited about your future in comics and the future in comics in general?

James: I mean, there are years that are pitching years, and there are years that are building years. This last year was a lot of behind-the-scenes work putting together a machine, and now I get to use the machine. I am excited to get to work. That is the biggest thing that I’m excited about January 1st. There are a lot of things that I’ve just been talking about that now I will be able to make happen.

The way I think about things is always in kind of two-year cycles, especially because historically that’s usually the development cycle for a new project. So I am putting into motion now the books that you won’t start seeing until the end of 2025 into 2026. And I’m very excited about those books, especially because that’s going to be the generation of books that pushes out of me starting to close down some of my current projects.

This is when I need to come in with some real heavy hitters. So, I’m developing those heavy hitters. The other thing a moment of trial for the industry is the moment to experiment. And I love experimenting, going all the way back to self-publishing Razorblades: The Horror Magazine that came from a place of, okay, half of the artists in the industry are pencils down right now. What if we just got them all to do a little horror story and then it was building out from there? It’s those little things. It’s the play involved with all that and the actual creative development rather than the strategy of it that I am most excited about in the next few years.

I think that I’ve managed to drum up some security for my ecosystem, and in having that security now, I can do some long-term planning without needing to push something unfinished out the door. Not having the development time is a huge problem industry wide. Not even just our industry. This I think is happening in film and television. People aren’t letting things cook the extra six months that they need to take a C+ idea and turn it into a B+ idea or a B idea into an A+ idea.

And I think that having the time to actually do that is immensely important, especially in a weird little industry like comics. I think people should expect more experiments from me in the next few years, and I don’t expect all the experiments to work. But that’s the joy of experiments. This coming year, I think it’s going to be a tough year, but I have the benefit of heading into this year knowing that this is going to be a big BOOM! year for me.

It is the five-year anniversary of Something is Killing the Children. It is the 10 year anniversary of The Woods and Memetic, my first two series with BOOM! And then Wynd will come back. And so, I understand a lot of the math of what this year’s going to be, and I am grateful that this is lining up at a moment like this. I’m happy that the book that is my biggest sales driver in the direct market is going to have a big year in a year that I think retailers would appreciate that book doing well.

So, a lot of my short-term efforts are going to be focused on that and focused on a few other projects coming back in Department of Truth. And there’s another big one that I’m not going to hint at, but I hint at constantly that we’ll be coming back…it’s going to be coming back.

I think that that serves me well in the immediate chaos, and that allows me to take a deep breath and start putting my brain to what I think is going to do well in two years and what’s going to do well in three years and what’s going to do well in five years. I’m hopeful that some of the experiments pay off. And then beyond the experiments, some of the things that I feel pretty strongly are going to work, I hope that they work. It’s going to take a while to find out one way or another, but I enjoy that process.

I love that in your big BOOM! year, one of the things that’s going to be kind of like an exclamation point on the whole thing is that the current cover for their Free Comic Book Day release is basically just your name, which is hilarious. It’s like a black cover with your name on it in a huge font.

James: There’s a real cover. (laughs)

Oh, I know that is a temp cover. But the fact that they’re just like, “Alright, we currently have nothing. What are we going to do with this? The Worlds of James Tynion IV, we got it.” And people are excited, because that’s how it works.

James: I mean, it feels pretty good.

It should! That’s awesome.

Just to conclude, this is not a question. I just wanted to say thank you for the opportunity to do this. I have no idea if these 12 interviews have proven to be what you expected, but it has been a very exciting and challenging and fun experience for me. So, James, thank you for doing it, and I hope readers have enjoyed it as well.

James: Thank you for doing this. I’ve always enjoyed talking comics with you, and it’s something that I used to have a little more time to sit down and sort of just wax poetic about everything I thought about the comics business and my work. As my life has gotten busier, that’s become harder and harder. So having these conversations where I can dive into what I’m thinking and not just in a, “Okay, this month we need to sell comics.” I’m happy that we did one that was about work-life balance. This year has been such a weird transformative year, and I think it’s going to be very interesting once some of my secret machinations become public, to be able to go back through the year. And it’s just like, Okay, this is where that conversation happened. This is where I thought that all my plans were falling apart and I was going insane, and my dating life wasn’t great, and this is when everything was going great again.” It’s an interesting map of the year, and I’m very intrigued to see what this next year will bring.

And I hope that the readers who have been following me all this time get excited about what I’m going to do next, because I’m going to try to keep making lots of new cool comics. I still have no plans on going back to superhero comics. That doesn’t exist in my 1, 2, 3 year plan. And I’m not going to say never, because every now and then, do I have a superhero idea that I would love to do with one of the big characters? Absolutely. But I’m much happier doing this.

I plan to keep on doing this, and I’m going to keep on making series that I think will perform well in this market. And beyond that, it’s just series that I want to read, and I want to exist in the world. I think my core ethos, even beyond the series that I write myself, but series that I kind of develop around me, part of my evil goals are to just…put the comics into the world that I want to exist. I want the industry to look how I want the industry to look, and I’m going to put all my energy and willpower into making that a reality.

And I’m excited for people to come along on the ride with me.