Wizards & Warriors: Jeff Limke talks 'D&D: Black and White'

Wed, April 3rd, 2002 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

[Dungeon And Dragons #1]Unless you shop at "The Mind's Eye Comics" or go to high school in Minnesota, chances are that you've never heard of Jeff Limke. This mid-west high school teacher is a life long comic book fan who has been trying to break into the comic industry for years- with varying degrees of success. His most famous work to date is as copy editor of Sean McKeever's acclaimed "The Waiting Place" but come this summer, chances are that you'll see Limke's name adorning the cover of "Dungeons & Dragons: Black and White."

"With everything I do, I never truly feel I've made it into that field," explains Limke. "You know, get to eat at the cool people's table. I've written some books that have been published, but my motivation is tiered. I'm happy to have been published. That was my first goal. Outside of comics, I teach and the old adage of "those who can do, do and those that cannot, teach" drove me crazy. I work my ass off as a teacher. I try to bring relevance to what I teach. Whether it's 'Macbeth,' 'Brave New World,' archetypal patterns or writing. It also meant having to prove I could do what I talked about. For some reason, the fact that I can pull out a comic book that says "written by" makes my students all think I know what I'm talking about even if I don't think that's necessarily true, either. I'm happy everyday I wake up and have a job because I feel like I've fooled everybody for one more day."

"So why comics and not prose? I did prose to a feeble success. I managed to get prose accepted but the magazine promptly folded before they actually got to the issue my stories would appear in. I wrote a novel on spec for L.A.W.'s 'Shadow World' game that went to the final cut. It was a good experience to work with an actual editor, but the result was still not published. I backed off from writing after that due to a combination of frustration and a conscious decision to focus on another aspect of my life - coaching."

"Later, a few years later, actually, I became active on Compuserve's Comic Book Forum - which is still alive and kicking on the net, by the way - and met up with other fans, would-become pros, and pros. With some urging from Sean McKeever, he of 'The Waiting Place' fame, Paul Storrie, who now writes for DC and Marvel, and others, I sent out a pitch to Caliber who at the time was developing a series based upon characters from public domain. And I sent another. And I sent another. And I sent another. Like clockwork, I pitched them and Joe Pruett finally broke down and said, "No mas!" and passed me off to Joe Martin who was editing a series called 'Legends of Camelot.' I ended up writing two adaptations of Arthurian tales for them. That was the breakthrough. I'm pretty sure only a handful of people outside my immediate family and a couple of my students even know the books exist, let alone have seen them. I know they're value is purely sentimental because they don't even exist on e-bay, the ultimate arbiter of not only value but also existence."

"Then… nothing. Mainly my fault since I'm not an aggressive personality. Ask my players and students and they'd laugh at that since my teaching style has been called Robin Williams-like, but more manic. But out of the public light, I'm pretty quiet and unassuming, so I didn't hit the circuit meeting people and schmoozing. I tagged along. And got nothing. I met a lot of other creators and made friends, but I didn't meet editors, which, ultimately, is where the work comes from."

"Finally, a friend, Teri Boyle, told me that I really wasn't working all that hard to get work. I was, more or less, going through the motions. You know those times when you want to get pissed off because your dignity has been attacked? That was one of those. But what was I going to say, she was right. I didn't want to admit it, still don't, to be honest, but she was right. Right there at the San Diego Con, between silicon enhanced booth babes and vacuum-sealed Golden Age comics, she straight out let me have it. And then she did the next best thing - nothing. She made me make the decision about what I wanted to do about it. It would've been nicer if she'd have hooked me up with some of her friends and I could've been the next David Fincher. No, she had to make me own the friggin' decision. Okay, the irony of it all is I have a master's degree in counseling and that's like counseling 101 for reality therapy - you control your world. What happens to me is to own my decision, accept the result and figure out how to change the result if I don't like it. I hate when that happens…. Of course, my wife, and Storrie continue to beat that into me to this day. Basically the advice is the advice I now pretty much use as the first approach to most everything -- when my head clears after self-pity - 'Do something about it, or live with it the way it is.'"

"So, I did a little book for Arrow Comics that Rob Davis and I own entitled 'Camelot's Last Knight,' which was another piece of Arthurian work, but was original as opposed to adapted. That gave me a published piece to work with and led to an original Arthurian script for Moonstone."

"About this time, Sean was gearing up for 'TWP Vol. II.' Since I teach and we're good friends, he asked if I'd copy edit. Big mistake, Sean. Most of my waking hours are spent in the exact setting Sean's using, so it seemed like a good fit. So what started out as a simple job of correcting spelling errors, most of the punctuation errors and few of the grammar errors became a devil's advocate type of thing. Sean's scripts, by the way, come in 99% on the money, but I began looking for things that didn't ring true to what I was seeing at work or at home - my daughter at the time was 16. BUT, let me get one thing straight, though, I am not taking any credit for 'TWP.' Sean and Mike did a helluva job. I was like that friend who never got to ride shotgun when the gang went out. I could throw all the comments I wanted, but if the car got pulled over, I'm in the back seat where I didn't have to take any of the heat. Of course, I never got any of the women, either…which makes my wife incredibly happy and me incredibly still healthy."

"The confidence of working with Sean got me to start researching the market for publishers I thought, hoped, and prayed would be open to some pitches. I hooked up with a local artist through sheer luck - I was doing a local con and sitting next to Pat Gleason - now doing 'Noble Causes,' so check it out - and we're doing the usual con conversation thing, and a friend of his brings some art with him. Me being too intimidated to ask Pat if he wants to put a pitch together, asks his friend Matt. It worked out nicely and we put together a professional looking pitch that I mailed to every independent I know and… nothing."

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"Back to the research. I started contacting more companies about their being willing to take submissions. At the time, Kenzer and Co. was, so I went back to the Caliber strategy and, once more, I somehow manage to get hired. This time for a six-issue mini-series that will debut their 'Black & White' line of D&D books. Of course now, my editor there is about to be deluged with more of my sideways glimpses into the world of Greyhawk. Ironically enough, again, I played in this world way back when Fido was a pup and G.W. Bush was maintaining that C average."

But why go through all these trials and tribulations to simply write comic books? The fact is that Limke loves every aspect of the comic book medium; something he hopes translates into his work. "I'm a reader. No, that's not quite right. I'm a voracious reader. Less now than when I was a kid. I mean, I gorged the Donaldson trilogy in about two weeks, in addition to other reading assignments. In college, the lit courses were like going to a buffet line. I loved to read. And I read any and everything. Comics. Magazines. Billboards. Bartlett's. The Bible. Trashy. Profound. Formulaic. Unique. I read and read and read. But comics were a different type of reading. It's that space between the panels that [Scott] McCloud talks about that I loved. I loved the color. I loved the simple moral theme throughout. It appealed to me. I wasn't a popular kid, but I wasn't unpopular. I was a geek, by my description, but I was also a free spirit. I've never been overly concerned with public acceptance, so comics weren't a form of escape per se, but they were escapist, just like playing sports or playing music were as well. I've never really thought about the initial attraction."

"The attraction now is two things. I like the short format. It's a challenge to work in a restricted format. I've got 22 pages to work with and that's it. If I write prose, I can play a bit longer or shorter as the story dictates. But here, the format dictates. Some people complain about this, but I look at like writing a haiku or sonnet. Not to equate my writing by all means, but try writing a truly good haiku or sonnet. It's tougher than hell to pull it off. The format dictates everything and within that format the writer has to say something. That doesn't mean novels or short stories are easier, it's just the challenges are different. I write prose, too, but it's a different canvas, so to speak and to mix metaphors."

"The other thing I love is working with an artist. I envy people like Dan Jurgens, Frank Miller, Los Brothers Hernandez, Brian Bendis and Terry Moore because they write as artists and understand very clearly what can and can't be done, what's efficient and what's not. I'm this stumbling writer who tries to visualize and make it clear for the artist, but I'm never sure until the product comes back. And I learn what I should've done more clearly and what worked pretty well. That symbiotic relationship is unique to this form and it's integral to the creation process. In prose, I can have someone edit me, but it's different because it's still me, ultimately, on the byline. In comics, it's not just me; it's an us. And when I don't even know the artist before going in, then it's even more important that I hit the mark."

This admiration for comic book professionals has been a constant in Limke's life, stemming out of the deep impact that comic books have had on him during his entire life. "I loved, absolutely adored, comics as a kid. My grandmother worked in a true general store in a tiny village in North Dakota called Lansford. I mean, it was everything about America we lost when Hardware Hank and Home Depot invaded. In the front of the store, on a wooden magazine rack bolted to the wall they sold comics. I'd go to visit at work and I'd just camp there reading and reading comics. I dimly remember reading some seminal works like Kirby's 'Sandman' and 'Captain America,' Goodwin and Simonson's 'Manhunter,' the 'Inferior Five,' Shooter and Cockrum's 'Legion of Superheroes.' It's no wonder I became a comic geek. But what did I love. I loved 'Richie Rich' and 'Casper' and 'Hot Stuff' and the 'Ghostly Trio' and 'Little Lotta' and just about everything by Harvey. When I learned whom Ernie Colon was when he did some work from DC, I just flipped. I love his art and storytelling ability. Every time I read '100 Bullets,' my mind flies back to Colon's art on 'Richie Rich.' Again, Azzarello just grabbed his hear and did an imitation of Fred Sanford, I just know it. If I could work with Colon someday, I'd be a happy, happy man. Later I discovered the JLA.

"Later, I became a stereotype - I went for the Claremont/Byrne 'Marvel Team-Up' books - yeah, those are before the X-Men stuff, Paul Levitz/James Sherman/Bob McLeod 'LSH,' Frank Miller 'Daredevil,' Englehart/Rogers 'Detective' - and a shout to anyone with Sherman/McLeod pages, if you have a decent price, I'm interested. I was living in the middle of North Dakota and making weekly treks to the local spinner racks trying to find the books. I'd read the Warren books in the stores, but couldn't afford any. The art was just phenomenal. I could never understand why those guys weren't drawing for Marvel and DC. I'd read all the Corben stuff in Heavy Metal, but again, I couldn't afford to buy the magazine. Buying the Goodwin/Simonson 'Alien' adaptation broke me for about two weeks. But it was worth it. That, to me, is still the best adaptation of a movie done in graphic form.

"Then I went to college, had a baby, got married and learned of things like Moore, Gaiman, Ostrander and others who were emerging on the scene and life changed. But, the OCD stayed the same.

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"As an adult, I fall into a new camp. When I was younger, which to me means last week but to my daughter means way back sometime last millennium, I really felt continuity was important. I had it all down pat in my head - not in a Mark Waid sort of way, but well enough. I understood Earth-2 and Marvel Time and all that. Then I began to age. I forgot covers and issue numbers. I began to forget secret identities of lesser villains. I forgot which characters were actually from other companies before being bought out by others. And I realized that was okay. Now I read stuff that intrigues me, even if I'm not always sure why it intrigues me.

"I like Warren Ellis' take on archetypes, I like Morrison's skewed views of the same, I enjoy the powered fluidity of Charles Vess' work, I laugh at the whacked energy of Winick, I like the nostalgic feel of Shanower, the daring of Jay Hosler and the cutting edge zeal of Brian Wood. There is so much on the market that I feel a lot freedom in choosing across the genres, which I think is fantastically healthy."

As Limke mentioned before, his "career" hasn't been too extensive, but he has worked on a few projects before getting to "Dungeons & Dragons." "Here's where we betray my credits, or the lack thereof, right? My earliest work is the adaptations I did for Caliber - 'Legends of Camelot: Merlin' and 'Legends of Camelot: Sir Balin and the Dolorous Stroke.' The Merlin book is a retelling of the myth of Merlin's origin. It was my first attempt with writing a script and I was extremely fortunate to work with Rob Davis on it because he helped make the story work in so many ways. The Balin book is a partial re-telling of the first part of the 'Story of Sir Balin,' which focuses on Balin's brashness resulting in a disaster that destroys part of England. Both stories were a learning experience because I was able to use the source material as the story outline and concentrate on adapting it. Now the outlining is natural part of my prewriting routine and it tends to look a lot like those old tales."

"After those two books, I had an Arthurian series I wanted to sell, but King Arthur, proven seller that he's been for the last 500 years, isn't an easy pitch. Arrow Comics' Randy Zimmerman read the pitch and felt a prequel that set the stage for the series would be a good way to gauge fan interest. I teamed up with Rob Davis for what would become 'Camelot's Last Knight: Camlann,' which would become my first truly original piece of fiction in comic form. It's a coming of age story set during Medraut and Arthur's final battle that focuses on the squire of Bedwyr as he learns what war and heroism truly is back when battles were fought up close. I really liked the tale and everyone who has read it has enjoyed it -- even my toughest critics, my students. Unfortunately, we couldn't get enough pre-orders to break even, let alone to warrant a continuing series."

"From that came an offer to write for Moonstone. They have my script, another Arthurian script, which is also an original story but this time features a young Arthur who is brash and has a bit to learn about kingly responsibilities. Hopefully the market will welcome this one as well. It's currently in the hopper at Moonstone, but we don't have a release date yet."

"And of course, Kenzer & Company is publishing 'Black & White' this summer. Kenzer is stepping out with this into a newer territory. It's not a straight ahead classic heroic quest. I love those types of stories and know they'll never end because those are stories that we humans love to hear and read. Whether it's 'Beowulf' or a Clive Cussler thriller, we love those stories."

"But, 'Black & White' is not that cut and dried. Kenzer wanted to do a story that wasn't quite the classic romance adventure story, published in black and white and where the hero is a little less archetypal, a little less easy to cheer for… you know, something that is a little less black and white. I keep telling my editor the ad line should be 'Black & White -- the only thing without a shade of gray is the art.' Too cheesy, but it's the basic underlying philosophy. So, I'm playing with anti-heroes in a world of irony. Right up my alley."

As one can plainly see from Limke's past work and his upcoming endeavors, the man is a very big fan of the fantasy genre. "Money. Sex. Power," cites Limke facetiously as the appeals of writing fantasy. "The usual perks. Actually, as a writer, I write and work within the genre I'm in. Fantasy is no easier or more difficult than writing an adventure or spy thriller. Research aside; I have to work with certain unchanging rules of the universe just like in the other more reality based genres. Being its fantasy, everyone assumes I have the freedom to do what I want. That's not true, especially with a D&D title. The laws of Greyhawk's universe dictate what can be done. Magic has certain consistent rules just like physics has certain consistent rules in our world. Even if I wasn't working within D&D, a fantasy world has to have a consistent set of rules that are followed; otherwise, the stories become completely unbelievable. Fantasy requires a pretty hefty suspension of disbelief the way it is, so if I don't follow rules, no matter how arbitrary they may seem, no reader will believe the story."

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"Okay, technical stuff aside, I've read more than a couple of fantasy novels and series. When I was little, I still remember reading Edgar Eager's 'Half-Magic' - which is a classic piece of juvenile fiction. Think of it as Harry Potter before Harry Potter, right down to the English setting since Eager was British. I've read many of the classic 'must reads' from Tolkien to LeGuin to Donaldson to Lieber. The latest real fantasy writer I've enjoyed is Charles deLint. I think his urban fantasies are extremely good reads that have a spiritual edge to them that sets them apart from a more sword and sorcery oriented novel. That's the goal I want to reach: to write a story that not only fulfills the demands of fiction, but also has a spiritual component that gives a sense of integrity to the story without being preachy."

Within the fantasy based options in comic book writing, Limke found that Kenzer's D&D property offered him exactly the opportunity that he'd been looking for in the industry. "Part of my research was trying to find companies whose material I felt comfortable with," explains Limke of the D&D appeal. "That doesn't mean I don't want to work with others, but I figured I had better try to play to my strengths rather than play to my weaknesses. Since I don't have that comet up my ass to show I'm a rising star, I have to build a career the old fashioned way - write good stories, turn in my work on time, and be willing to write in whatever genre is willing to take me in. I had also written fantasy material so a company could see that I could write in that genre. But I also knew I had put myself into an Arthurian ghetto, so I knew I couldn't just run up to someone at DC, Marvel or Dark Horse and say I could do a great job on this character or that with maybe the exception of the Black Knight. Whether or not that was true or not, I don't know, but I felt I better build up a body of work before I barged up to some poor, unsuspecting editor and introduced myself."

"Anyway, I knew I had written fantasy, I knew Kenzer & Company were publishing a licensed fantasy property and they weren't doing it as a serial, but rather as mini-series. I hoped they would have an opening or I could put together something they would like enough to offer me an opportunity. So, I put together the most professional looking pitch packet I could - following their guidelines. Doing that is a lot of work in some ways, but it's a good writing exercise, even if it doesn't sell. Later I talked to my now current editor at Chicago, who at that time I was hoping would be my editor. Not only the pitch, but also the professionalism of it impressed him. The combination of the two must have been enough because about six weeks later I got the e-mail I was hoping for that offered me the chance to write. Cold hearted research aside, I also have affection for Romance Adventure. I make no qualms about enjoying that type of story. Unfortunately, many people wrongly assume that these types of stories are too simplistic. Trust me, they couldn't be more wrong. So, I sat down to write a story set in Greyhawk that I would like to have read or played."

After all this, one may still wonder: what exactly is "D&D: Black and White" really about? Limke, being his usual jovial self, is more than happy to answer but stays away from spoiling too much of the story. "The main character of Black & White is a thief who has messed up and attracted the attention of some people she would rather didn't notice her. As impressive as being a thief can be, especially in a dark alley, these people have real power, political power. The kind of political power that trumps even magic. So she does what anyone who stumbles into a situation where they don't belong does; she runs. But because her enemies can call armies after her, splash her face on wanted posters anywhere in the kingdom, destroy those close to her, what should she do? Such is Tinlith's predicament. She goes from being a rather good cutpurse barely surviving on the streets of Rel Mord to being someone who may be erased from existence because she stole from the wrong people. With 'Black & White,' I'm walking a bit of a tightrope. The expectations of the 'D&D' audience are on one side and the non-fantasy audience's are on the other. I will not alienate one to get the other, so I'm writing the fantasy story I would do if I were a DM. That means all the fantasy elements are present, but the story is also filled with intrigue, passion, conspiracy and romance. The reader isn't sure who to cheer for and once they pick someone, I'm hoping the story makes them a bit uncomfortable because these characters are noble, but not always honorable. I'm playing with contradictions and loving every minute. The type of stories I like to read are those that have plots that spin inside plots inside plots so that I'm never sure who's on what side. Add to that the fact I'm a sucker for a good caper novel, and you can probably guess what I'm trying to do: tell a story that doesn't let the reader become satisfied with the status quo in the story. I want them constantly second-guessing the character's actions and what the consequences of those actions will be. It's not only got a nicely layered plot, but the characters drive the action rather than the other way around."

Despite the fact that Dungeons & Dragons is well-known worldwide and has a large fan following, Limke says that he doesn't find writing D&D- on fantasy in general- any harder than writing a different genre of comic book stories. "I don't find anything more intrinsically easy or difficult in writing fantasy than anything else, which may seem irresponsible for me to say since my published reputation so far is based upon fantasy, but as a writer, I've written other genres, they're just not published… yet. All writing basically boils down to working with believable characters the reader can empathize with going through a plot that has some tension, a climax and a resolution. The genre may dictate certain plot devices be present, but a lost ring that can control all rings is not all that different from a secret code that can launch all the nuclear warheads in the United States' arsenal. The hardest thing for me in regards to D&D is, because I'm working with licensed characters, they're not my own. I created them and know their backstory, but they're not mine. Everything has to be consistent with not only the World of Grayhawk, but Wizard's of the Coast wants everything to also be based upon the D&D rules. I have no problem with that at all, but it does mean doing some research to make sure a spell I'm thinking of using actually exists, and if it doesn't what would work. In a lot of ways, it's like Dming. Of course, the easiest thing about D&D is the fact I do have consistent source material to reference rather than having to make sure I'm consistent with myself and with what I've had come before. Todd Dezago and Mike Weiringo did this very well in Tellos, and CrossGen is doing an excellent job with this as well. It's not as easy as it looks.

"Also, these stories are based on the new 3rd edition rules. Now, I've been out of the gaming world for about 20 years. I knew the 2nd edition well at that time, but over the years, those bits of rules, spells, weapon classes, and such have disappeared along with more than a few other bits of memory. So, I had to go out and buy the books and relearn the game all over again. It's still awfully similar, but I don't think I could go out and run a campaign right now. I have quite a bit of freedom to do whatever I want within certain limits - I can't make wholesale changes to the world. It's no different than when Bruce Jones writes the Hulk or Dan Jurgens writes Thor or Jeff Loeb writes Superman. I have to leave everything the way I found it. That said, I can do anything I want with anything I create. I can kill, maim, mutilate, blow up, burn, and/or ascend anyone or anything that comes out of my little mind. That's an incredible amount of freedom, when you think about it. And I'm using every centimeter of it."

Gauging not only Limke's thought, but also the reader reaction to Kenzer's "D&D" comic book series thus far, it would seem that this role-playing worlds translates excellently to the comic book medium. But Limke himself says that the actually creative phase of adapting role-playing "rules" into the script for a comic book can be somewhat arduous. "For me, it's tough to translate because fantasy many times is not always a plot-oriented genre. Many times the stories showcase the setting rather than the plot or character. That's part of what makes fantasy fun to read and view because the reader can visualize this new world in their mind's eye or on screen and it's strong enough to not need the characters really be fantastic or the plot be all that dynamic; the setting is so remarkable it can hide them. That doesn't mean the characters in fantasy aren't needed, just that sometimes the setting will dominate while the characters are relegated to the background."

"In comics, it's difficult to do that because character is so important due to the reliance on dialogue to carry the story. Dialogue is the master of comics and makes or breaks a story. So a good fantasy story needs the character to carry it, which is a shift. Fantasy, especially that based on role-playing, tends to emphasize setting, not character because gamers don't necessarily want to play the characters in the book, but they may want to set their campaign or scenario in that setting. The visuals of the comic are perfect for this aspect of the D&D in comics. So, in essence, I think elements of D&D, such as the visuals, help make the translation successful. My job is to help make sure my plot and character can live up to those visuals and ensure a successful book through and through."

But with the superhero still lamentably the only aspect of comic books that interests a good portion of fandom, one must wonder if a D&D comic book series- no matter how excellently written- can realistically thrive in today's comic book market. While the success of "Lord of the Rings" in theaters can be used as proof that the fantasy genre still has multimedia legs, the comic book industry is much more of a niche medium than movies, something that can work against fantasy comic success. "Oooh, a loaded question," salivates Limke when asked if he thinks that "D&D" can be appealling outside of the existing fantasy fans. "I'm going to deflect this by quoting the old maxim - there are no bad stories, only bad storytellers. The right person telling the story can sell any genre. I saw Warren Ellis single-handedly make cyberpunk work with 'Transmetropolitan.' I saw Sean McKeever make teen-age drama work in 'The Waiting Place.' I saw Eric Shanower make what many high school kids say is the most boring stuff they've ever read, the 'Iliad,' into a compelling read with 'Age of Bronze.' Rucka and Lieber proved a spy thriller can work in comic book form with 'Whiteout,' which I think was a hell of an accomplishment. The question isn't whether a 'D&D' book can work; I see no reason why a 'D&D' book couldn't work. The question is whether or not I'm the writer who can take it to the next level? My wife thinks I am, but she's a bit biased, which is why I love her, of course."

If you're finding yourself interested in Limke's work, he briefly outlines the kind of reader that will probably like his "Black & White" mini-series, emphasizing the fact that the series is not just for fantasy fans. "Someone looking to see a different wrinkle in the genre should pick it up. Having worked with Sean's [McKeever] character driven work, I think that's rubbed off. Rather than a story emphasizing purely the adventure nature of the plot, the characters I 'Black & White' act in ways other than to purely advance the plot. They make decisions that seem pretty odd in terms of the plot but make sense when you think about the characters themselves. And I try not to blatantly explain why the characters do what they do. It's like when you meet someone, you don't always understand their motivations and why they do what they do, but that's the way we are. We make decisions based upon what we believe will make us feel better in the long run or at least keep us safe, even though it doesn't always look that way to someone else and often times turns out just the opposite."

"The story itself starts out pretty typical, but as the series progresses, I begin branching away from what's expected. It's not a cut and dried hero quest, and I think that sets it up as different from most fantasy, superheroic and D&D alike. I'm not trying to bring a grim and gritty realism, either, but I am making the characters a bit more hard-edged, a bit deeper than the archetypal characters normally associated with fantasy. What begins with actions having simple consequences ends with those consequences being much more complex and far-reaching than expected. Things happen for a reason, no matter what the appearance seems."

Join CBR tomorrow for part 2 of this interview, when Jeff Limke talks about the true difficulty in becoming a comic book professional, his views on the industry and how understanding "Fight Club" may be the key to getting new readers.

 
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