Open Your Mouth: Issue #2

Thu, May 15th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
J. Torres, Columnist

This is the first in a series of chats with editors and publishers about submissions guidelines, looking for new talent, new stories and the realities of breaking into the comic book industry as a creator. Kicking things off: Jamie S. RICH: of Oni Press.

Mr. Rich and each of these interviewees talk about themselves, their company and the comics they publish but, really, this is about you. Yeah, you. The dude taking a break from writing up a story proposal to check out what's new at CBR. The artist cutting back on his June comic purchases so he has a photocopying budget come convention time. Yes, for those about to pitch, we salute you.

And if you really pay attention, we just might help you…

Is it really so hard to love me for me?
TORRES: Let's pretend like nobody reading this knows who the hell you are. How would you introduce yourself?

RICH: "Hi, I'm Jamie S. Rich. Is that me I see in your eyes?" Then, when we're smoking the cigarettes after, I tell them that I edit comic books. Once I explain to them that as an editor, no, I do not put the words in the "bubbles" or draw the pictures, I generally say, "Yes, I do get paid for that."

TORRES: You started out at Dark Horse. Tell us a little bit about that. And stop flirting with me.

RICH: Dark Horse was interesting, because it was a small company that had actually gotten pretty big, but was still trying to walk in its smaller shoes. It gave me the experience of both working on creator-owned comics as well as answering to the corporate concerns of licensed books.

TORRES: Who were some of the creators that you got to work with over there?

RICH: I started off in pretty good company. I was assisting on "Grendel," so I got to work with Matt Wagner. My first solo book was "Usagi Yojimbo." I worked with Mike Allred and Dave Cooper and John Bolton. It's where I met Renee French, and I still have the scars.

"DID YOU WANT ME TO SAY WE'RE YOUNG, SEXY, AND HIP, AND EVERYONE ELSE IS OLD AND RETARDED?"

TORRES: And now you're working with French and Allred on projects at Oni. I've heard it said that "Oni is what Dark Horse used to be." How would you interpret this?

RICH: I wouldn't. I think people like to make comparisons because it's easy, but I don't really think that applies. Dark Horse didn't invent the model for doing creator-owned books. We just jumped in the ring with them, Fantagraphics, SLG -- both of which had also published those folks.

TORRES: Well, you're no fun.

RICH: Did you want me to say we're young, sexy, and hip, and everyone else is old and retarded?

TORRES: No, but keep going...

RICH: I think people perceive that, in the past, Dark Horse was much more focused on creator-owned work, and used to create a bigger balance between their kinds of books, and perhaps our beginnings coincided with their seemingly being fewer of those kinds of books from them...so it made for an easy categorization of Oni. I know we were often the new Slave Labor, as well. We prefer to be the new Oni, since I think we're all different from one another and do what we do better than anyone can copy.

TORRES: So, I suppose you'd be just as hostile against any kind of pigeonholing of Oni as a publisher of certain genres or types of comics?

RICH: Pretty much. I think we're still pretty diverse. The problem becomes that the pigeonhole perception eventually ends up being a bit difficult to dodge. There are certainly some kinds of books that people don't expect form us, so they then don't really accept them.

TORRES: What do you think people do expect from Oni comics?

RICH: Teenage girls, cursing, teenage girls.

TORRES: Is that okay with you?

RICH: Well, those are three of my favorite things. I think we're very much looked at as the publisher of "Blue Monday" and "Queen & Country," and things like that. People see us doing all-ages material, and we'll get critical praise for it, but we find it as tough as everyone else to make work. Same goes for crime. But it can be really hard to pinpoint. Sometimes people seem very stuck on what we were in our first year of publishing, and usually, they don't even have the right idea of what it was we were doing at the time. You'd be surprised by how many people seem to cry themselves to sleep four-and-a-half years after "Oni Double Feature" ended.

TORRES: So, did your cry yourself to sleep over the performance of the books you published in those other genres?

"Look! Another shameless plug!"
RICH: I would say with the all-ages material, definitely. I think we have some real amazing books, "Jetcat Clubhouse," "Magic Pickle" and "Jason & the Argobots." I think the problem is that this is not a "build it and they will come" business, so you can't just publish a comic for kids and hope they will come into the stores and buy them. So, we're facing the same hurdles everyone is facing in trying to reach different audiences and finding avenues to get the books out there. The edition of "Jetcat" sold through school by Scholastic Canada, for instance, is a step in the right direction.

TORRES: Did you set out to diversify your product line and expand the business by saying, "Let's try these kinds of books" or did people bring you certain properties that gave you a direction? Or was it something else that compelled you to attempt certain things over others?

RICH: A little bit of both. I can say the stuff like "Blue Monday" and "Cheat" came out of my personal tastes and wanting to do that. Sometimes a proposal came along, though, where we thought, "Gee, we haven't tried that yet, let's do it." It was largely based on the fact that as people, myself and James (Lucas Jones, Oni editor) and Joe (Nozemack, Oni publisher), we enjoy a lot more than just one type of story, we like a lot of things. "Days Like This" is a perfect example of someone pitching a book that was completely different, and us really wanting to take a shot at it. And I think it paid off.

"I DO THINK A PROBLEM IN OUR MARKET IS THAT OFTEN, TOO MANY PROFESSIONALS ARE FANS."

TORRES: It must be nice to be able to publish the types of comics that you'd like to read, but how much does the bottom line factor into your decisions to publish something? Oni is not a vanity press, it's a business. So, what happens if your tastes don't reflect what's selling in the comic market?

A Marvel editor who shall remain nameless.
RICH: Well, the hope is to get those things out of the comics market--but essentially, you have to adjust. You can only try something so many times and not have it really take off before you have to say, "Okay, new tactic." And these days, the market is changing so fast, it seems like we just have to try to stay one step ahead of the change and make sure we don't turn into a publishing house where we're just tossing money around and not acting smart. And there have certainly been cases of books coming in where we see that the material is good, but it might fit better at a Top Shelf or another publisher. That book "The Yellow Jar" is a perfect example. NBM was a much better home for it than we would have been. I do think, though, you touch on something interesting. I do think a problem in our market is that often, too many professionals are fans. As a result, they make decisions based on how cool they think it is, but never stop to ask if anyone is going to buy it.

TORRES: Okay, so how do you know it's right to pass on something because it's a better fit elsewhere? And how do you define "better fit"? Especially, if you're looking to expand and tap into other markets?

RICH: Well, in the case of "The Yellow Jar," it was a bit more literary...arty, perhaps? It fits right in with other stuff they do. It would sit just right next to one of their Proust adaptations. So they know how to market that sort of thing, they know how to make it look right. It's almost a gut reaction, a feeling, knowing that maybe this would be something better left to someone else. But, then, I do know you can always counter with something like "Breakfast After Noon" and point out how that is almost like a D&Q book. It's not a science. I guess if it comes down to new markets, we have to use the well-worn motion picture comparison--do we want to do blockbusters, do we want to do art house pictures, or do we want to play it down the middle and try a little bit of everything while leaving those two ends to the studios that specialize in them. And at the same time, with some of the things we do play with, make an effort to have books that fit in with them so when we do pursue a new audience, they can have more than one title to read. They can go from "Blue Monday" to "Hopeless Savages" to "Sidekicks" to "Madman."

"DO YOU LIKE BEING POOR?"

TORRES: This leads us rather nicely into the submissions stuff. Say I'm a creator who wants to show you some new material. What's the first thing you say to me?

RICH: "Do you like being poor?" No, seriously, it depends. Like where are we meeting? Are you stalking me on the street, calling me on the phone?

TORRES: Why don't you tell me the best way to approach you then?

RICH: With DVDs in hand. For the most part, our "recruiting" goes on at conventions, since we don't take stuff through the mail anymore, unless it's a minicomic or a web portfolio. And the first question out of my mouth then is going to be what you want from me. If you are coming to talk to me, what exactly is it you are looking to do in this business. You'd be surprised by how many people don't know.

TORRES: The wannabe says: "I'd like you to publish my comic." What do you want to see from the guy next?

She helps the poor, but does that include comic creators?
RICH: Everything. This is an audition. You don't go and try out for a play not expecting to act, so you also don't show up at a comic book audition without some kind of physical evidence that you can do the work. And the work you have better pertain to the answer you have to my first question. If you want to do your own series, then I don't want to see Batman pages. I want to see actual written and drawn pages by you, the writer/artist. That would mean at least one whole issue scripted, and at least 10 pages of sequential art, preferably showing different moods and settings. You would also have a nice, concise synopsis of where the story ends up going. Don't sell me by being mysterious, but give me the ultimate purpose. Also, be prepared to maybe have a leave behind, but listen to the words I say to you if I say either, "I'd rather you send it to me," or "If you don't hear from me, please send it to me because I might have lost it" -- that likely is a truism for all editors.

TORRES: Let me backtrack a bit and talk more about genre, and this "fit" thing. Is there a type of comic you absolutely positively won't look at?

RICH: Fantasy, sci-fi, superheroes. Doesn't mean we won't do those ever, but if you're some dude off the street, then forget it. Not what we're looking for. Also, your fully painted comics. It's never going to happen. The reality of how expensive it is would blow your mind. Besides, if we were going to go color, you don't think we'd let guys like Scott Morse and Andi Watson, who have been there since the beginning, go first? Which, I know this sounds a little harsh or blunt, but why sugarcoat it? People need real advise if they are really going to make it.

TORRES: This is what I wanted to hear from you. The truth. The real deal. Good on you. Too bad it makes you look like a bitch. Anyway... Book publishers tell people to research the companies they're submitting to, make sure they publish the type of book you're looking to place. Then should people not bother showing something to you if it doesn't seem to fit the Oni type?

RICH: Most likely they shouldn't, that's correct. I do admire a bit of brashness and people who might say, "I know you don't dig this, but I'm different." That's how we get a Mike Allred. And certainly that's how we get a Ted Naifeh. But then, you always know with Ted, it's going to hurt.

TORRES: But don't you stand the risk of submission after submission involving Mods and kids on scooters or cursing teenage girls comics with a "soundtrack" listed in the gutters? Or whatever people perceive to be the Oni's thing.

RICH: We haven't had a huge problem of that. The most has been just getting punk rock comics, and we've had to turn some down because we have had too many--as was humorously skewered in Kieron Dwyer's "Pounded" introduction. We're not against the idea of punk rock comics, we just can only do so many. But for the most part, what we end up seeing are the exact same things I saw at Dark Horse--lots of power fantasy stuff, Twilight Zone style stories, that sort of thing. A lot of horror. So, yeah, it's a concern that everyone might try to be Chynna, but as long as they actually all are like Chynna and are cute girls, I am cool with it.

TORRES: Is there anything in particular you guys are looking for right now? In terms of genre, style, topic, format?

RICH: That's always impossible to answer. Because we do have stuff run in waves, where all of a sudden everything is about a spooky girl in a big house or whatever. I think really, it comes down to the intangible, and I want to see that there is a story some guy is dying to tell and he's going to do it well. So much of what I see is just a knock-off of something else, or a potential creator making his own version of the big character or license he or she wants to work on but can't. Or an homage to what they liked as a kid.

TORRES: Then I did get published at Oni because of my good looks!

RICH: Yes, Joe Nozemack had a big crush on you. Anyway, like I said before, so much of my job depends on gut. How did I know 9 years ago that Chynna Clugston-Major was worth keeping my eye on and decide to watch her talent grow?

TORRES: Getting back to format, should people consider whether or not to pitch you a three-issue miniseries versus a graphic novel? Oni wants to publish more of the latter and cut back on the former, no?

RICH: I think you should be malleable. You can easily say, you see the book as a three issue miniseries or a 72 page graphic novel, and let the publisher do their job and figure out what works best. Though, think longer these days. The bookstores want bigger books, as everyone is learning, so think in terms of five or six issues... don't pad unnecessarily, but be aware these might be concerns you face.

"IT'S YOUR DREAM TO DESTROY, NOT OURS."

TORRES: Okay, let's talk odds. Approximately how many submissions do you get in a given month or come home with from a convention? How many of those end up getting the green light?

RICH: We used to get maybe 40 submissions a month in the mail when we took them, and 0% ever made it. Last year, over 7 cons, we hired two people. There was 1 more who we really like but haven't found a job for. I'd say that's a good year for us.

TORRES: And by "hired" do you mean you gave an art assignment to someone as opposed to picking up their miniseries?

RICH: Either. This year, yeah, it was putting people on projects that needed artists--Christopher Mitten on "Last Exit Before Toll," a graphic novel Neal Shaffer is writing; and Ross Campbell, who is doing work on "Too Much Hopeless Savages!" and working with Antony Johnston on "Emily Spook" and eventually will have his own series. Last year, it was Neal Shaffer and Daniel Krall and "One Plus One." It just depends.

TORRES: So, two or three new properties from newcomers per year? That sound about right? Out of how many vying for those spots would you estimate?

RICH: That sounds about right, yeah. And geez, I don't know. I'd say we see a couple hundred people at San Diego every year, at a very low estimate. So, over the whole year, I'd say over 500 people. But I really never counted. I always put it this way, that our publishing schedule is like a table, and only so many people are going to be able to sit down and eat at the same time. We're not going to ask Judd Winick or Arthur Dela Cruz or even you to get up before they are done, and we can't just add new places willy nilly. So it's a rough business.

TORRES: If there's food at this table, even Superman couldn't pull me away from it. Anyway, something for people to consider when pinning all their comic book hopes and dreams on you, huh? 1 in 166 odds of winning in an annual lottery. Good luck, kids!

Keep dreaming, kids…
RICH: People need to understand how tough it is, though. Look at "American Idol." How many people came to try out, and how many actually ended up making it on the show? 30? Then 10? That's not much...but that's the reality of a creative business, or entertainment. It's what no one in comics likes to talk about, and I am sure there will be many people who read this who will think I am a huge jerk. But consider how when Simon is particularly mean on "American Idol," and next week the person he slammed tries much harder. If you think I am a big jerk--which I am not, I am just being honest--then channel that anger you have at me and be that much better. It would be wrong to think I, or any editor, wants you to fail. We only want you to succeed... but you have to be aware of the facts to do it. It's your dream to destroy, not ours.

Next week: Terry Nantier, founder of the aforementioned NBM Publishing, discusses the graphic novel format, the European comic book market and your chances of getting published alongside names like Proust, Eisner and Manara.

Meanwhile, visit the Open Your Mouth message board and talk trash about Jamie Rich …

Thank you for your attention.

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