Mr. Limke's Opus: talking breaking in, teaching and how 'Fight Club' could help the industry

Thu, April 4th, 2002 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

[Jeff Limke]
Jeff Limke
In part one of this interview with high school teacher and relative rookie writer Jeff Limke, the scribe described his career in the comic book industry thus far and his new project, "Dungeons & Dragons: Black and White." In the second part of this extensive interview with CBR News, Limke talks about his thoughts on the industry and how hard it is to become a professional comic book creator.

"Hard. Really hard," says Limke of trying to break into the industry. "When I first got serious about this, five years ago, I asked this same question of pros, some of whom have become pretty good friends. They gave the same answer that my dad, who teaches, gave me when I told him I was going to be a teacher: 'Are you crazy? It's hard. Really hard. And nobody on the street respects what you do.' Now my dad was half-joking, but it's the truth with writing comics. And it's a paradox. To get work, you need to have done work. So how do you get work if you've never done work? I've found a couple of answers so far."

"1) Self-publish. But that takes money. More money than most people have lying around and not everybody is going to end up like Mike Richardson, so I think maxing out your credit cards is a foolish and financially irresponsible thing to do in so many ways, but that's just my opinion. A minor option to this is to do a mini-comic and show you can do the work. The key is to make it look as professional as possible and to find editors who are willing to look at it. It's a good way to show what you can do for a minimal cost. The added bonus is you get to know the staff at Kinko's much better than you ever expected. They're nice people. Really. But it's an uphill fight every step of the way."

"2) Find someone willing to publish you. This is much tougher and requires a strong ego that doesn't take rejection personally. If you go this route, you must, and I stress this intensely, present yourself as a professional. This is a business just like Microsoft, Standard Oil, and Krispy Kreme. You may love Flight Simulator, but the moment you go to work for Microsoft programming it rather than doing little mods at home on the side, it's business. You have to respect people and the fact their first loyalty is to their families who are fed by the paycheck they bring home. If you're good enough and they figure you could help them to keep feeding their family, the odds are pretty good they'll work with you. It's nothing personal if they don't like your stuff. It's business, not personal. These people don't have the time in their schedule to go out of their way to play out Machiavellian plans to keep you from ever making it to the big time."

Many comic book fans dream of becoming famous comic book writers, composing enthralling tales with their favorite characters, but Limke says that being a work-for-hire writer isn't a walk in the park, at least early on in your career. "The difference is coming to terms with what I do, I don't own," explains Limke. "It's the way the game is played when you're at my level. I could self-publish, and someday maybe own the next 'Garfield,' but it comes with some concerns that work-for-hire doesn't. With work-for-hire I'm trading my creative abilities for my piece being published, but I don't incur any debt from that. I get paid an agreed upon fee and I have to accept that. If 'SpudWarrior' becomes a huge hit, I have to hope that the company will share some of that wealth with me, but know that they don't have a contractual agreement to do so. That's a fact of life I may not really like, but it's one I've accepted and have to hope doesn't come back to haunt me. My goal, like all writers, is to gain enough marketability that I can get to a point where I can do a deal with a major company like Ellis has recently done and others have done. Then I'll unveil my 'Garfield,' and when that happens you're going to think Jim Davis really under-marketed 'Garfield.'"

The inherent difficulty in making it big as a comic book writer, much less making a lot of profit, hasn't deterred Limke because of his love for writing, but he admits this isn't an easy avenue to pursue. "I'm too stubborn to quit when I should," laughs Limke. "I've also managed to hook up with some friends who have had some success and it motivates me to not be left behind. But it's hard. Good people can't find work. People who are better than me. Add to the mix the number of people who also work in other more high profile media that also do fantastic work and you get the idea. I like to use the professional baseball metaphor and I think it fits. You start in the rookie leagues and work your way up to the majors, but not everyone makes it to the major leagues. The percentage reaching success is quite small, actually. Some people emerge at the right time when a certain thing is needed and they get to skip the minors. They're the comic book equivalent of the 18-year old who can throw 100 mph strikes. They're rare and they're good and worth every penny. Others have to just keep plugging away and show persistence pays off. There is no guarantee, of course. I may plateau at AA or AAA or Rookie League, but I'm in there working to succeed and learning more as I go. That's another key, I think, to be willing to learn rather than being so focused I have tunnel vision."

"But it's hard and it takes time. In our world of instant coffee and 30-second microwave hotdogs, people expect immediate feedback. Well, writing takes months just to get rejected. I'd love to be able to send stuff in and know within 6 weeks my status, but it just doesn't work that way. I'm still waiting, more than a year later, to hear back from some publishers about pitches I've sent out. That does not dishearten me. I understand. People like me overwhelm them and, to be honest, most companies already have books being created and those have to be their first priority. When they run out of books, which isn't very often, then the slush pile becomes a priority. Until then, they go through the slush when they get time. That's the rules to the game, so if I'm going to play, I have to accept that. I can't piss and moan about the rules because I don't like them. All I can do is keep plugging and hope that someday maybe I can get a chance to change them."

Another obstacle that Limke faces as a work-for-hire comic book writer is that he often won't see his artist's work before he begins scripting, as with "D&D: Black and White." "It's not frustrating per se for me because I know nothing else, but I can't speak for anyone else," says Limke of not knowing his artist's style. "I write full script because I don't know who my artist will be. This leads me to also have a tendency to put too much detail in. I'm just trying to cover all the bases since I don't know what my artist will want to draw. I've seen a couple early pages, so I get a bit of an idea about how to set things up. As the series progresses, I tend to get less detail oriented and try to focus on those things that tend to be showing up in the art, or what I've seen. It's kind of frustrating, in the same way cooking is. I have to wait until the book is done and then I know if it really worked. But, like I said, that's been my experience so far. The exception was the book I did with Rob Davis. Rob had drawn my work before and he knew what I was talking about and he could give it what I had expected. I suspect he's a telepath to have been so accurately in tune with what I was envisioning."

As mentioned before, Limke is also a high school teacher and this does lead to some of his students developing an interest in his comic book work. "They always ask. Constantly. Some even buy the books and bring them in. It's pretty cool, but it's no big ego trip. Getting people to read for enjoyment is just about impossible now, so I'm just happy to see them read something other than what I assign, be it comics, magazines or books. I see Chicago has a citywide reading event just to get people to read. The video generation is here and they're dictating what works and doesn't. The old guard complains that the world is going to hell in a hand basket because this generation can't do what generations before it did. The same cry was raised when movies were introduced, and the world has gotten so much worse since then, hasn't it? I mean, the fact that people now watch films rather than stage presentations has destroyed the fabric of America, right? And I don't even want to talk about what the electric revolution did to America. Let's face it, that steam technology should never have been changed, right? We're at a moment of paradigm shift and that makes people nervous, especially those who aren't part of that shift. My daughter is an extremely sophisticated video viewer. From the moment she was born, she was assaulted with video images. We read to her and she read, but she also watched videos for enjoyment, learned information from videos and even created video presentations. Hers is a different world than mine; where 'Video Comics' on Nickelodeon impressed me, she can create Flash animation for class on her computer."

"That said, the tech explosion has pushed us as a society, perhaps as a world, away from reading for enjoyment, which is interactive in an intrinsic way as opposed to video enjoyment, which is interactive in an extrinsic way. I mean, 'Everquest' and 'Ultima Online' are only the beginning of what to expect. Once we figure out how to do full-body immersion into 3D worlds, you can completely forget about the US having a drug problem. Nothing will compete with being able to move into a fantasy world. And reading? It isn't going to happen since that skill isn't appreciated for much more than school assignments and to kill time while commuting as it is. When you or your children can put on your Microsoft X-suit and walk Dickens' London and interact with Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger as they imagine them, you're going to be hard pressed to come up with a good argument why the general population should read the original text. And trust me, I know most of them and use them constantly, but it's a tough sell."

"So when kids come in with books I've written and they've actually read them, I'm overjoyed. They think they're overpriced, especially since for the same price they can rent a game and play for five days non-stop, but they like the novelty of knowing the author. It's better than having them write, "Limke Sucks" on the blackboard, that's for sure."

Surprisingly, Limke also says that he doesn't find it too hard to balance his teaching schedule with his comic book work, noting that it is also a nice break from the mundane activity of correcting papers. "Juggling the writing and teaching isn't as difficult as it would seem because my daughter is now away at college, so I'm not watching her activities like I did when she was younger. That time is now filled with writing. And correcting papers. Lots of papers. I mean, hours of papers. I truly enjoy it, but it can be daunting as well. The truly ironic part is I used to coach basketball, and probably will again, at a varsity level and currently coach badminton at a varsity level because I like the activity. My days are full, but that's better than sitting down on the couch and flipping through channels and commenting on how right Springsteen was. Given a choice between the writing or teaching, what would be my choice. If I had one? Each is so different from the other and each complements the other, too. By teaching literature, I'm constantly immersed in some of the best writers the world has ever known. I mean, we know writers tend to be influenced by what they're reading, so it's a great thing for me. I'm constantly reading a classic of some sort, so I'm hoping a little of that maybe rubs off and enters my writing. I'm probably delusional, but it'd be nice if it were happening."

"However, if Mark Alessi [founder of Crossgen Comics] stops me at a show and offers me the chance to move to Tampa, what would I do? In my fantasy world, I start working on a tan as I fulfill my teaching contract. But the real-world truth is comic books are a freelance vocation that carries no guarantees of work tomorrow, which is all based upon the vagaries of the market. I'm not that brave yet. If I can do both, I'll do both. I'm not looking to write four to six books right now, anyway. I'm trying to do one book, a limited-series, very well and try to turn that into another gig and that gig into another and so on. I'm trying to get my foot in the door. I'm not at that level where I can cock off about anything. I'm just like many teachers; I have two jobs. My second job happens to be writing comics. I used to work summer basketball camps for a second income. I have friends who work retail for a second job. Others paint houses, do woodworking, stock shelves or teach at learning centers. I guess because of that I haven't looked far enough into the future to believe I'd ever be able to not work two jobs. Right now, that's as much a reality for me as winning the Powerball lottery."

Limke may not like the fact that he has to have a second job, but being a comic book writer is definitely a second job that he enjoys. "I love the medium. Plain and simple. It's a unique challenge to write in this industry. I also love the collaborative process. Prose is a very lonely world. Comics, while isolated, are less lonely. But, I love the medium. I have a friend in a modern Celtic folk band called the Dust Rhinos, whose music I love. Now I love a lot of music, but generally I lean toward a harder edge than that, but I listen to that genre because my friend's band is one of the best in Canada. Still, why does anyone play modern Celtic folk music? The sales are terrible compared with other types of music. He plays modern Celtic folk music because he loves it. I write comics because I love comics."

If you're also an aspiring writer looking for the "secret" to becoming a professional comic book creator, Limke says it's ok to admit that you really know very little about what you're getting into and that you'll make mistakes, no matter your intentions. "Just starting out I really had no clue. At 13, I sent in a handwritten script to DC for a Justice League of America story without any qualms about how it looked. It was, after all, my best cursive handwriting. I got a very nicely written rejection letter that I still have to this day. Lesson number one - it's gotta be done professionally. The most pleasant thing to ever happen to me was actually a correspondence with Paul Levitz in the mid- to late-80s. I was teaching a business writing class that consisted mainly of a final review of grammar and real-world writing skills: memos, résumés, letters and such. I wrote Mr. Levitz about his advice in regard to working in corporate America. He not only answered all the questions I asked him, but asked for questions from my students. So, I sent off another dozen questions, which he replied to rather quickly and professionally. My students were impressed by that fact anyone in the corporate world would respond. And, in fact, he was one of the very few who actually did. I've never had the chance to actually thank him in person, but the class did send him a gift as a token of their appreciation."

"The biggest personal failures are almost universally my fault. Early on, during that after-college time, I pitched Comico and didn't do a very good job, in my opinion. I had great ideas, or at least they seemed like it at the time, but I didn't bother to flesh them out all the way or work them over until they were what that publisher was looking for. I'd get rejected, get pissed and stop for a few days. Failure is exactly that. Quitting instead of trying to figure out what I did incorrectly, fix the problem and try again. For those taking notes, that's called Reality Therapy. It works for raising kids, quitting bad habits and becoming a writer. Too bad I had to take classes to learn what's blatantly obvious."

"My heroes in writing are not only people like Stephen King, who basically said if you want to write, write, but also people like athletes who just outwork everyone else even though they already are better. People like Larry Bird, who used to come out on the court an hour earlier than anyone else on game days to shoot, and people like Michael Jordan, who after ball games would go into the weight room to do his workout. I'm convinced that's the key to success-- work harder than everyone else, work longer than everyone else and never believe that you're better than anyone else. Failure is just admitting defeat and stopping. Failure is not changing my tactics when it's obvious they're not working and, in fact, may be hindering me. Stubbornness and failure are only separated from perseverance and success by a thin line, but it's a razor sharp line that takes no prisoners. I want to believe I'm on the perseverance side of the line, but I'll find out soon enough… whether I want to or not."

One's personal writing style may change over time, but Limke isn't sure he's always had a writing style as much as a goal for each individual piece of work. "I don't consciously write in a style. If anything, characters interest me much more than plot action. I think as I've gotten older, I've come to watch people more and try to figure what makes them tick. People are such a fascinating thing to study. I can people-watch for hours, eavesdrop on bits and pieces of conversations, and carry on Q&A with students about their lives, their dreams and future plans. Once I know how a character will react, the writing becomes a lot of fun because the characters take over. I've had this discussion with a writing friend that every character does what the writer dictates. I know what's being said there, but it's more than that. I know how the story ends and I know how it begins. I know the major beats in the story, but sometimes the characters reactions aren't true and that's when I know the character controls what happens. The actions have to be true to the character, and if that happens, the story will work. For example, if Johnny Jane doesn't like Jimmy Jule and he has to work with him, the chemistry is probably going to decide whether the story is successful regardless of the plot. The characters, more or less, dictate my stories."

But even though Limke's work in comic books has been focused on the fantasy genre, he is excited at the thought of possibly writing his favorite superheroes. "I'd love to write for the Bat books. I'd like to write Huntress, Robin, an X-book or Marvel universe book. I'd love to write some of the Young Justice characters in solos series. I'm showing a bias toward young characters, but I'd love to write some of the Wildstorm universe as well, such as some of those corners of that universe that have been kept in the shadows. At Marvel, I'd love to write some Mutant Academy stories as well as some of the mainstream heroes. I have this unhealthy desire to write the Jack of Hearts and characters like him who haven't been in the spotlight much. I think Nighthawk could be fun, too. But to say if there's a particular hero that would be most interesting to write, that's a tough call because they're all interesting in their own way. Sure some seem lame, but after seeing what different writers have done with characters I thought had no future, I've learned to think otherwise. Give me a character, I'll make him or her work and be damned exciting."

Even though his exposure to the comic book industry has been minimal, at least in a professional sense, Limke's years of reading comics and studying the industry have lead him to some interesting conclusions about attracting new readers. "What's really interesting about this type of question is I stare down the 120 members of the precise base of consumers that every marketer wants to target. 120 16-18 year olds every day. That's where the broader base is - seeing the entertainment trends that dominate. Right now the favorite movie of almost every male I see in that age range is 'Fight Club.' They love the anarchy and the irony. It's what springs to life for them. It's not all that different from the adoration of 'The Wild One' in the 50s, honestly. But that's the market of the minute. It'll probably be different by next fall, but the attitude is pretty consistent. This is an intelligent market, too. They've been raised with a bit of cynicism mixed with an optimism about themselves that we Gen Xers don't have. We got the cynicism as we watched those kids nurtured like we weren't. I mean, my milk cartons had facts about the states, not missing kids. I learned who was cherished. Partially due to this, they can appreciate a hero, not disdain him or her, but they also realize the world isn't the golden age the Boomers had shown to them. They're not into Batman the murderer because they realize he's a hero in a rugged world that disdains heroes. They're more appreciative of Tyler Durden and his anarchist sensibilities all within a complex, ironical, set of rules. That's their interpretation of a hero… for the moment. Maturity, taxes and parenthood will change that and, as result, alter what they want for entertainment, too."

He also believes that the success of non-spandex comics, like "100 Bullets" or "Hellblazer," result from the cyclical nature of fiction itself, not the death knell of superheroes as a whole. "It's a cycle. Now, I'm not defining superhero as a character in spandex here either. A superhero to me is the mythic hero. Superman, Spiderman, and Batman are not all that different from Achilles, Siegfried, and Odysseus. The superhero cycle has gone on for quite awhile and it seems to be losing steam, but the fire's not going to go out. The market has such a plethora of titles on the racks, but superheroes make up a large portion of the major companies' titles, but the independents don't seem to be having the success with superheroes that they do with other genres. Superheroes are going to always be there, in my opinion, and I don't find that to be scandalous. If comics make it back to the spinner racks in the drug stores and supermarkets, superheroes will be what they sell there in addition to Archie. It seems to be the way it is. BUT, specialty stores all seem to market to more mature aficionados of the product. I'm talking all specialty stores. Walk into a Dept. 56 store sometime. That's not the same stuff I find in my local drugstore's glass showcase. That's some upscale product aimed at a mature collector. Same with gun shops. Walk into Wal-Mart and look at what they offer for guns, then go to a gun shop. Same with CDs. Same with chocolate. Same with food, period. Same with candles. I mean, I'm not a big candle kind of guy - they give off horrendous scents that irritate my sinuses, but when I walk into a candle shop, I have to admit I'm impressed by the variety of things that are created from wax and have wicks in them. I'm not sure they're supposed to even be burned… even though I would because I'm not sophisticated enough to understand that. That's how I see comics. As for what's going to be big? The next big thing is everything. We've got product that people never suspected could be done in the comic book medium and we have them in all sizes and shapes. But we have to get people into the stores just like the candle shops get candle people into shops. Like Dept. 56 gets people into their stores. We need to do that with comics. You want superheroes? Great, check out aisle 3. You want horror? Aisle 4. Romance? Aisle 7, bottom rack, but there's more coming so check back."

But even with this elaborate, fanciful view of the industry, Limke is loathe to make any concrete predictions as to the next big trend in the industry. "Candle books," replies Limke facetiously when asked about upcoming industry trends. "Unscented, soywax comic books that you can burn so you have the light to read them by. Seriously, I'm not good at predicting trends. Never have been. If nostalgia holds true, a modified form of grim and gritty should prove to be the market followed by an interest in responsible bad girl books with good girl art. Or are we there all ready? I think trends tend to reflect a bit of the current zeitgeist at any given moment combined with a recycling of what was popular twenty years or so ago. Right now, kids have this fascination with mullets that I just don't understand. It's like the fascination with disco music of a couple of years ago. Check out what fashion is coming back around and you'll probably have a chance at a reasonable prediction. I think Micah Wright may be one no one suspects. He's got a project that's controversial with fans and that'll make him a lightning rod -- and I think he'll answer the call. I like what I've read in the press releases and web sites and even though I've never met him personally, I think I'm going to like his work."

"Upcoming creators are a tough thing to predict. Some seemingly come out of nowhere to the public, kind of like Brian Azzarello did, and they just light up the scene. Others toil for a long time only to break out as ten-year overnight success stories like Brian Bendis. I don't know who's coming and who's not. I do know there's a fifteen-year old kid somewhere putting together a philosophy of life, reading Tolkien and King and Machiavelli and Solzhenitsyn who will someday put out a book that no one expects and it will force a turn in the industry that's been a while coming. I'd like it to be me, naturally, but I'm past fifteen now."

Knowing that Limke is both a comic book writer and a high school teacher, it'd be natural to wonder which comic books he enjoys. "To be honest, the criteria vary depending on my mood," concedes Limke. "I love 'Barry Ween.' Everyone compares it to Calvin and Hobbes, and I see the parallel, but for me it's more like 'Leave it to Beaver' or 'Dennis the Menace' - the TV show - on acid. I remember watching those shows on WTBS, that's TBS before it reached puberty, after school and it all comes screaming back at me. What's really hilarious is I have some students who read it and when I tell them I read it, they don't know whether to greet me with a "Hail, brother, well met!" or run screaming from the room. '100 Bullets' is a ton of fun, too. Somewhere, Brian Azzerello just upchucked his lunch when he read that description. I mean, I know he's sitting at his keyboard going, "I didn't write that so some nobody in the heartland could call it a 'ton of fun.'" Imagine that on a tpb blurb - Jeff Limke, nobody, says, "It's a ton of fun!" That's like an ad line for that seedy sideshow fair that comes to town once a year because the restraining orders finally ended. Anyway, I'm a sucker for conspiracy stories. Any. If you tell me that the US Postal Service is the real force behind alien crop circles in Bangladesh, I'm on it. I envy the writers of Weekly World News. Man, to just let the id go wild and let the ego and super-ego fight each other in a locked closet is so tempting."

"'Powers' isn't a new riff on heroes, but it's fun in that Jerry Springer sort of way. I mean, in a world with heroes, they're going to have dysfunctional bits of society that cops have to put up with. 'Age of Bronze' is a brilliant piece of work. I love what Shanower's doing. I have to teach 'The Iliad' the way it is, and his stuff just allows me to bring a depth to it I couldn't before. I've done some Arthurian work that I wish was that good. I mean I love Arthur, but Eric's love of 'The Iliad' just comes through so clearly. To be able to have that much passion is something I'm incredibly envious of. From the bigger publishers, my interest runs the gamut from 'Transmetropolitan' to 'New X-Men' to 'Thor' to 'Batgirl' to 'JSA' to 'JLA.' I grew up with the superhero genre and still enjoy it a lot. I don't find shame in that any more than I find shame in admitting I am a sucker for testosterone movies. You know, the one's that have stuff getting 'blowed up real good!' I also can sit down and watch Romeo & Juliet (Zeferelli version, not the Jet Li or DiCaprio versions - I gotta make a stand here) and enjoy that immensely. Okay, bad example since guys run around hacking each other up there, too… That Shakespeare was such a populist. Let's say 'Memento', instead.

Chances are that if you've read this far through both interviews, you're curious as to what work one can expect from Jeff Limke and, besides more high school tests, he does have some comic books on the way. "For the next few months, Kenzer is publishing the six issue 'Dungeons & Dragons: Black & White' mini-series, which is scheduled to hit the stands in July. I'm also going to be doing some work with another smaller publisher, Dead Dog Comics, on a mystery oriented series dealing with, what else, conspiracy type stories. It will be a kick. Everything else is either in consideration or being pitched. I'm like everyone else in that I've got stuff up for consideration but nothing pinned down. So after that point, I'm pulling for some positive buzz and some name recognition. Right now, I'm working in the trenches, a grunt on the front lines trying to be noticed without getting shot down. I believe I can write the type of stories that will attract readers and entertain readers, but I have to keep building up the writing portfolio. I'm like everybody you see working at conventions - hoping to be noticed, wanting to tell stories for other people to read."

When asked to deliver a final message to readers of this interview, Limke instead opts to pontificate a little and let readers take away what they like from his comments. "This is like the 'what kind of tree would I be' type of question, isn't it? I don't know if I consciously have a message. I'm not cute with the jingoistic bumper sticker philosophy. I just want my readers to enjoy my story and pull out of it what seems to be relevant to their experience. I'm not trying to duck anything here, but I just write stories that seem to make sense to me. They tend to be a bit on the ironic side with my heroes always paying some price for their boon. I'm not Tolstoy or Kafka or Vonnegut. I'm just this guy who five days a week tries to help others discover how cool stories really are. Then on my days off, I try to see if I can actually write a story that someone will decide is cool, too."

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