Don't Miss It A Second Time: Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti talk '21 Down'

Tue, November 4th, 2003 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

One thing's for sure: the DC/Wildstorm Eye of The Storm mature readers line will be remembered for producing some of the most critically acclaimed comic books to go widely ignored by comic book buyers. From the "'Watchmen' for villains" espionage of "Sleeper," to the challenging (in a good way) politics of "Wildcats Version 3.0" and the military-action of "Stormwatch: Team Achilles," Eye Of The Storm is producing books that 'net savvy comic book fans can't stop lauding.

But there's one "Eye of The Storm" book CBR didn't mention, which had a trade paperback now on sale. Can you guess it?

Come on, did you read the title of this interview?

Moving into the "'Storm," will be the superhero comic that's more "Unbreakable" than "Spider-Man," namely the Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray helmed "21 Down." Lead character Preston Kills is cursed- or is it blessed?- with the ability to see the final moments of a person's life after they died. Circumstances conspire to bring Preston together with the sultry FBI agent Mickey Rinaldi, who has a dark past of her own, and the two band together against forces they barely understand the danger they face. A superhero series only in that the lead has special powers, "21 Down" has impressed fans with it's focus on love, real relationships and finding one's path in life.

"The inspiration of the series was to create a book that we would actually read, not something created for 12 year olds, but a mature, serious and exciting book that is both sexy and violent," explains co-writer Jimmy Palmiotti to CBR News. "I think we nailed it on the head."

The other co-writer, Justin Gray, further defines the premise of the series and likens it to some films. "The premise is simple and the characters are complex. The male lead is Preston, a 20-year-old tattoo artist with the ability to touch someone and see the moments before and after their deaths. The female lead is Mickey a rogue FBI agent trying to track down people like Preston. The story arc for the trade involves a mysterious killer and a number of seemingly random victims. Preston's brother is a detective assigned to the case and he need's his Preston's special power to help track down the killer. If you're a fan of films like 'Seven' and 'Wild at Heart,' then you're really going to enjoy this trade."

With the aforementioned collection of the first half of the series now shipping, fans can expect those "extras" that people expect in their trade paperbacks. "It has some Jesus [Saiz, the artist] sketches, some beautiful chapter and intro design work by Kristy Quinn and a terrific introduction by Mr. Garth Ennis himself," gushes Palmiotti.

For those of you who are into the character aspects of the series, Gray promises you'll get some extra insight into the stars of the series. "We also offer commentary on character origins and inspirations for the series."

If you want to see more "behind the scenes" information about "21Down" or catch up on the first twelve issue "season" that completed recently, it's integral that this trade paperback achieve high sales numbers. "We would like a second one, but realistically, we would need this one to do well first," admits Palmiotti. "If there was to be a second, I would want it to probably include issue 8 -12 and maybe the first few issues of the new series. Better yet, all 12 in one book would have been perfect for us."

"Obviously we'd love a second trade and as far as extras go, I think it would be interesting to add some new material," adds Gray.

Looking forward to the next season of "21 Down," Gray says that both readers new and old have much to look forward to, in both writing and art. "I'm really pleased with the way the new series is shaping up, with the mature label it feels like the doors have been thrown open and anything goes. Starting with the first issue we jump right into the Eye of the Storm and the WSU character's we've been dying to play with."

But with the season having concluded in September, one might expect "21 Down" to launch sooner than… March? "March it looks like and no, its not our decision at all...if it was up to us, we would just have had maybe a 2 month break," says Palmiotti "There is a chance this gap might hurt us in the long run. Who really knows? If 'Monolith' does well, they might go looking at this new series in a different light. Joe public is never an easy read."

If you're looking for a different direction with the new series, you'll find it… sorta. "Well, in the first issue we have a semi topless girl robbing a bank and an Authority cast member shows up in the end," explains Palmiotti, smiling at the thought of the photo references for the robber. "There are some exploding heads and cursing as well. More of the usual fun stuff from your gang of fools."

After smacking his partner in the head, Gray explains what the tenor of "21 Down's" new season. "The second series ties up loose ends and sets the book back on a path similar to what you'll find in the trade."

Without spoiling the ending of the first season too greatly, it took a definite sci-fi twist and shocked many readers, but make no mistake- there's a method behind the madness. "Always planned...sort of," laughs Palmiotti. "Things evolve and we tried to read the audience as well on the book. The second series nails everything because we no longer have the 'Gen 13' book to worry about. We couldn't really move into certain places because of it.

The methodical and pensive Gray says there's even more of a reason for the spin-off. "The loop was planned for two reasons. We were hoping to build the foundation for a '21 Down' spin off that featured real teen superheroes, but as a mature book so that we could write something that was true to the teen experience. The other reason will be revealed in the new series."

While CBR News is on the topic of the new series, it's interesting to note that it's not involved with the "Coup D'Etat" mini-series that is re-establishing the status quo of the Wildistorm Universe (if you can have a status quo there) in February. "Could be that we are not in that universe officially till later in the year," hypothesizes Palmiotti.

"Yea, what he said," concludes Gray.

Despite all the acclaim surrounding "21 Down," it's not exactly burning up the sales charts, for reasons which Palmiotti and Gray believe they can explain. "It's easy to ignore something you don't know exists," explains "Mr. Keen" writer Justin Gray. "My focus is on getting people to try the book, not wondering why we have low sales. Exposure has been an issue and therefore people don't know what they've been missing. That's why the trade is so important, I'm confident that if people read the trade they'll like the book and jump onboard."

But the famous- or is that infamous? - Jimmy Palmiotti, inker of a thousand comic books, has a more direct reasoning for the series' low sales. "Yeah, retailers and readers playing it safe. We have a good fan base and with the trade we hope to bring it up even more."

Perhaps this is extrapolating too much, but could this perhaps be indicative of a larger symptom of the comic book buying populous? From "Gotham Central" to "Sleeper" to "21 Down," critically acclaimed books that don't bear the iconic superhero branding are often finding themselves in the lower sales echelon and when it comes to explaining why, these creators don't pull any punches. "Comfort food," states Palmiotti. "Feel safe. Buy what you know. Travel to the same spots every year. That's what 80 % of the comic buying audience is right now. It will change, but it will be a slow change."

Echoing his buddy's sentiments, Gray says that there's a conflicting message when looking at fans' "demands" and their actual purchases. "Spotting the trend is easy, the Diamond chart tells you all you need to know about how the business runs and what keeps it rolling. People have been calling for diversity in comic content for a long time, but the reality is there needs to be diversity in comic readers. You can put out books in every genre, but the majority of the comic purchases will still heavily favor established superhero icons."

You may have spotted the buff Gray or the people-person Palmiotti at some of the big conventions this summer and they say those appearances worked excellently for them. "Yeah, a lot of women came with complete sets of the book and the die hards came out in record numbers," smiles Palmiotti, thinking about those women, till his wife Amanda Connor slaps him in the head. "The fans are great and we are very thankful for them. We create this book for us and them, and we think they know it. We are glad that Wildstorm gives us a place to show our work, but make no mistake...we are there for the audience. Both Chicago and San Diego had great turnouts, especially Chicago, which seemed more like a comic con."

Taking a moment to flex his biceps, Gray says the convention circuit re-enforced their belief that they're delivering a top-notch product. "Conventions are fun and a way to make contact with people that support your work and to grab the attention of those that haven't been exposed to it. The past season showed me that '21 Down' is catching on with people, that the people reading the book are turning their friends on to it. Oh and yea, the ladies like it, which means we're putting out a product that appeals to a wide range of readers."

Committed fans will have noticed Palmiotti and Gray's names appearing on a lot of different comic books, so is there a chance we'll see them tackle some DCU mainstays? "We will be," promises Palmiotti. "The Monolith is a dc character set in the dc universe...it just happens to be created by us...and we have another book we are working on that has a lot of history in the dcu...so we will be playing in that battleground soon enough. The new perspective thing is only good when the old one is getting dry. If it works, don't fix it...spend the energy on something else that really needs the help."

Gray continues explaining what "Monolith" will mean (and gave even more details a few months ago to CBR News), saying, "Being set in the DCU, 'Monolith' allows us access to rich and exciting characters that people know and love. We'll also, like Jimmy said, be tackling a DCU mainstay sometime in the not too distant future. There are definitely characters I'd like to work with."

With the work of Gray and Palmiotti being very atypical for comics featuring super powers, you might guess that a) they hate superhero comics so that's why they're doing things their way or b) they love superheroes and want to present their own unique spin. CBR News isn't sure if anyone was ready for Palmiotti to jump on the table, in full cape and wearing his crown, with Gray and Connor bowing down in reverence and fear. "We are the creative renaissance!" proclaimed Palmiotti. "People who think and create like us! People who feel that the established heroes are great, but we need to create ones that are ours! Created by us! Representing what the world is like now!"

Gray tried to motion his "king" down from his throne, but alas it was to no avail. "Dude, come down off the table you're scaring everyone. Is that guy over [points to colorist Alex Sinclair, who spoke with CBR recently] there calling the cops?"

Performing a back flip off the table, Palmiotti continues his "magnificent" speech. "OK, I'm kidding. Superheroes have come back in a major way and there's a new excitement surrounding them with film deals and so on. Along with that success and mainstream exposure, we'd like to see books like '21 Down;' 'Sleeper,' 'Wildcats' and 'Stormwatch' reach higher sales and more people. There is always a need for new voices and new talent and we feel books like these are a good start."

Laughing at the venerable writer/inker/jack of all trades, Gray tries to be serious… sorta. "That was great Jimmy; you should have added a Germanic inflection to your voice and shook your fist at the crowd. Anyway, I can't comment on room for improvement because everyone has different tastes. Superheroes are great, they're the engines that power the industry and in the last few years that engine's gotten supercharged."

So once you pick up "21 Down" and get hooked, what else can you expect from this writing duo? "As we mentioned the '21 Down' Trade is coming out the end of October-- go buy it folks you won't be disappointed," assures Gray.

"'Monolith' our new DCU book is launching in February with a 44 page super-sized #1 with dazzling art by Phil Winslade," adds Palmiotti. "We're currently writing a tongue in cheek Vampirella story for the new 'Vampirella Magazine'- it's pretty funny."

If you enjoyed the short-lived "Resistance" series from the duo, they've got something else coming out you'll enjoy, according to Gray. "'The Twilight Experiment,' our cape and boots superhero sci-fi epic is coming from Wildstorm in 2004 with art by Juan Santacruz."

"I'm inking Paul Gulacy on 'Catwoman' and Amanda Conner on Warren's 'Two Step' mini. I'm also inking an issue of 'Fables,'" says Palmiotti, who tries to once again mount the table but is clothes lined by his wife.

Perhaps you're in the mood for something… different. Well, as fate would have it, Gray is working on some of that too. "I'm writing a three-issue mini for Moonstone Books called 'Mr. Keen Tracer of Lost Persons,' issue one came out this month; issue 2 will be in December. I'm also doing a project for another independent publisher that I can't talk about just yet, but it's a cool blend of technology and magic."

If that wasn't enough, Palmiotti teases fans regarding a project that he and Gray promise will surprise readers. "Oh, and we're doing a run on a DCU superhero…sorry, no details about that just yet."

And can these two be working on anything else? As Gray reveals, there's one more project and it's a personal one. "And finally we're writing a sixty page creator owned graphic novel called 'Cloudburst,' which is part western part monster movie and very mature. Image is publishing that book in early 2004."

CBR News

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