J. Michael Straczynski may have shifted away from monthly superhero comics a while ago, but even as the writer's Hollywood projects grow in number, the man known to his fans as JMS isn't leaving the artform he loves so much anytime soon. Instead, like any number of mainstream comic best-sellers, he's shifting focus to his own work, though he's hoping to make the move different for him, different for comics and very different from the comics-to-Hollywood pitch model that's attached itself to the medium.
In May, Image Comics releases "Ten Grand," a new series from JMS and artist Ben Templesmith that kicks off a number of new creator-owned projects from the writer under his own Joe's Comics label. A mash-up of horror, crime and romance, "Ten Grand" tells the story of Joe Fitzgerald -- a former criminal murdered in the act of getting out of the game for the love of a woman named Laura. When both Joe and Laura lose their lives, Fitzgerald makes a deal to serve angelic powers on earth by sacrificing himself to save others. Each time he dies for a noble cause, Joe earns five minutes in Heaven with Laura before being returned to earth for another case.
CBR News spoke with Straczynski about the book, the imprint and his future in comics. Below, the writer digs into not only why he's continued on the creator-owned path years after his breakout books "Rising Stars" and "Midnight Nation," but also how he's approaching these new series in a way that's different for him and removed from his screenwriting work. Plus, JMS drops some real -- and surprising -- sales numbers for "Ten Grand" #1 while explaining why he and Templesmith's book was the right one to return to Image with.
CBR News: Let's start on broad, big picture stuff. The return of Joe's Comics is a return to creator-owned work for you. Why was this the next step after you started to make a transition away from monthly superhero work for hire gigs?
J. Michael Straczynski: Before answering that, let me make kind of a big announcement exclusively to CBR that’s kind of mind-blowing. We just got in the final number on pre-orders for issue one of "Ten Grand," and they’ve completely blown out our expectations. In our most optimistic dreams for the relaunch of Joe’s Comics we were hoping to crack 40-50,000 orders in presales, and everyone thought that was insane, that given the marketplace right now we would be doing really good to crack 30,000.
Well, the number isn’t 30, 40, or 50,000. The precise number on the pre-sales is 67,218 copies. That’s a big, whopping, astonishing number that (pending final numbers from Diamond on everyone else) should put us in the top 15-20 books, among the core DC and Marvel titles, right alongside "The Walking Dead." For a book without a media tie-in, an established title or characters, that’s just amazing. There’s always some drop-off on second issues of any title, but that number means we’ll land at a very, very comfortable place. We’re thrilled and excited and deeply appreciative to the fans and retailers for their support for this endeavor.
As to the whys and wherefores...what I said early on was that I was taking a sabbatical from monthlies so that I could a) focus on doing minis and original graphic novels and b) take the time to look over my body of work to this date with a critical eye to see what I’ve done, what I haven’t done, what I suck at doing, and where my strengths are. I’m a big believer in taking time to assess the work so that it’s constantly being improved, and when you’re doing monthly books, there really isn’t that same window of opportunity when you’re done and can look back and reflect. There’s always another deadline right behind the last one. A two-year sabbatical allowed me the time and space to do that, as well as to finish the second volume of "Superman: Earth One," start volume three and finish the three "Before Watchmen" minis, all well ahead of schedule.
When I felt I’d learned as much as I could from that process, or at least this round of it, the question became: okay, if I’m going to return to monthly books, where should I put my energy? Into creator-owned titles or mainstream books? This was about the same time I was deciding to launch my own independent mini-studio, Studio JMS, to produce movies and TV series. I’ve wanted to relaunch the Joe’s Comics imprint for some time, when I had the right stories to tell -- stories that I needed to write -- so that seemed like the best time to do it, and put them all under the same roof.
So the result is that I’m doing monthly books for the Joe’s Comics imprint, starting with "Ten Grand," but I’m also still doing outside work on limited series and GNs, including the aforementioned "S:E1v3." I’ve also recently signed on to do a 24-issue maxi series for one company, and an eight-issue run for another, but I can’t give details at this time. Suffice to say that this is kind of the model I’m going to be using for the next few years. Monthly books from Joe’s Comics, minis and GNs from the mainstream companies. This lets me play with the big toys and have a place to retreat to tell my own stories about my own characters without any kind of editorial interference.
That's a lot on one plate, and of course, this iteration of Joe's Comics is working differently than the last one did. Last time out, you were working primarily with the production crew at Top Cow on a few long form comics series. This time out, it's Image Central and what appears to be some more self-contained works. Is that a fair assessment as to how you're approaching the comics side from here on out? Was there a way you wanted to differentiate these books from your past work?
That’s actually a bit reversed of what we’re actually doing. "Midnight Nation" was always planned as a 12-issue series, as "Rising Stars" was intended to be a 24-issue maxi series. That’s in the public record. They were never intended to be ongoing monthly books. By contrast, the new books coming out from Joe’s Comics are intended to be ongoing...though again, we’re doing things a bit differently in that respect.
Each of our titles will run in six or 12-issue arcs. At the conclusion of each arc, we’ll take a month or three to assess where we are with the story and the characters, do any needed course corrections, and get ahead on scripts and art if we feel there’s another story we really want to tell in that universe so that we can stay on schedule. Our model in this respect is similar to how the BBC produces TV series like "Sherlock." You do a few shows, do them well, then take a break, then go ahead once you’re sure that the next installment is where you want it to be creatively.
Because we don’t have any editorial mandates we have to follow, no events we have to include, no need to keep constantly pumping out pages if the story’s told, we can focus in exclusively on just doing good work for as long as it’s fun to do, and as long as it’s worth readers paying their hard-earned bucks.
We’re also working in some genres that I haven’t worked in lately, such as horror/suspense, in art styles that are wildly different from my previous work, which is fun. It’s good to take chances and try new things and bring the readers along for the ride.
Comics don't stand alone in this, though. We know you've got a number of film projects coming up, including your directorial debut with "The Flickering Light." Is the Joe's Comics shingle more or less a banner for you to take your own projects and run with them in any medium they fit? Will you be looking to take some of the comics projects to Hollywood down the line?
Not really. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but we don’t feel a pressing need to *CREATE IP* for movies or TV, or have media driving publishing, because we have a division that’s totally dedicated to that. If we want to make a movie or a TV series about a given subject, we can just go off and make it. We don’t need to back-door it through the comics side. I know a lot of folks who are putting out comics as basically proof-of-concept or storyboards for movies they want to sell or make. This turns the comic into a delivery system for a movie rather than a thing unto itself.
Let the comics be comics. Let them be good stories first and foremost. The rest is ancillary. That’s why after one unfortunate experience I’ve never allowed either "Rising Stars" or "Midnight Nation" to be optioned. They’re great comics. Maybe they and the new ones will also make great films one day, but that really needs to come second to the necessity of being good comics first.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t synergy between the three arms of Studio JMS. There is, it just doesn’t always do what one might expect. For instance: there was a property I created on spec that a major studio wanted badly enough to put a massive amount of money in front of me and bring in a half-dozen A-list actors to do a round-robin staged reading of the thing. Just as they were getting ready to close the deal, I looked at the thing one more time, and thought, "Y’know, on the one hand this will make for a good movie, but on the other it would make a really, really good comic." So I pulled it back. Everyone said this was crazy, because even if it sold a hundred thousand copies per issue it wouldn’t make a fraction of what the studio was putting on the table...but that’s not the point. The whole reason for Studio JMS is to be able to match the story to the best venue, sliding back and forth as necessary.
Let's talk about "Ten Grand" for a bit. As the first comic in the new line, you couldn't ask for more than a book with Ben Templesmith. Was there a specific reason "Ten Grand" became the launch book? Is there something about it that's indicative of what you'd like to do across the line?
There was a lot of backing-and-forthing between me, the production team and Image about which title to go out with first, because there were several really good options. The safest route would’ve been to go with "Sidekick" or "Protectors Inc.," first because they’re closest to the superhero genre which I’ve been working in for a long time and are largely associated with. But in the end we decided to go with "Ten Grand" because it’s absolutely unlike most of my recent work. It’s in the supernatural vein, it’s a noir kind of story, and the art is more impressionistic than realistic, which has been my preference to this point. This has the most risks attached to it, so that’s the one we should do.
That’s also indicative of what we want to do with the imprint overall: take chances, do the unexpected, and have fun doing it. And frankly, the work being done by Ben may be some of his best; it’s just stunningly beautiful stuff. He’s ridiculously talented.
The story involves some familiar ideas of the crime genre -- particularly a man trying to atone for his past sins -- but it also shakes them up with the "die to see your lost love" twist. What in that whole premise did you find most engaging?
It’s not really possible for me to pull out one aspect or the other because what I like about the story is the contrasts between the horror and the romance, between what this guy had been and what he’s become -- it’s the relationship between A and B that makes both more interesting. It’s like looking at a fudge brownie and saying, “of that, do you prefer the milk ingredients or the flour?”
I'm not sure I've seen this addressed elsewhere, so I'll just ask flat out: what is the titular "Ten Grand"?
It’s the amount Joe Fitzgerald charges for his services. Ten thousand dollars. Enough to weed out the flakes but not out of the reach of the most desperately in need of his help.
Of course, with any story the big question is "Why now?" If we assume that Joe Fitzgerald has been dying in order to get glimpses of Laura for a while, what happens at this particular moment in time that makes it the story in Joe's whole situation worth telling?
The reason we dial into him at this point, two years after his deal was made, is something we’ll slowly reveal over the course of the book. There’s a lot he assumed about what happened that day, and much he thinks went one way when in fact it was something very different...so in this arc we see what put him on this road, where he is, and his discovery -- now and in his view of the past -- that the road he’s on may not be the one he thought he was on.
Like I said, Ben Templesmith is a big draw for a lot of folks to any story. What's that collaboration been like? What about his particular artistic strengths do you feel suit this angelic crime story?
Working with Ben has been just an ideal situation. For a book like this to succeed, it’s not just a matter of illustrating the action; it’s about creating a mood and a sensibility that’s perfectly attuned to the story. What David Lynch does in film Ben does in art. Sometimes you want to go to town visually and show everything, and other times you want to suggest or hint at a greater visual than could ever be rendered in a comic, and Ben can move that dial effortlessly in either direction. Every time we get a new page in, I just stare at it thinking goddamn that’s beautiful.
When Joe's Comics was announced, there were a number of other titles teased including "Falling Angel," "Guardians" and "Sidekick." Any update on where those projects are at or who will be working on them with you?
We’re still fine-tuning which books we’re going to release this year versus next year, the order in which we want to release them, and making other tweaks. Peter David asked as a personal favor if we could change "Falling Angel" to something else so it won’t bump against his "Fallen Angel," so that’s been changed to "Angel Descending," and we’re probably going to move that to 2014. "Sidekick" is well underway with Tom Mandrake doing a phenomenal job on the art...it’s fun and dark and deeply subversive stuff. We will be debuting "Sidekick" at San Diego Comic-Con this July with a convention variant. We changed "Guardians" to "Protectors, Inc." and have Gordon Purcell working on that, with a rough target date of November. There’s one other book I’m hoping to do this year as a six-issue mini with a major A-list artist, but I’m still waiting on final world as to his availability.
One way or another, though, we should have three titles coming out per month by November, all of them titles that I’m very passionate about and excited to tell. We’re out to have fun, break some conventions, and tell some good stories, and we hope that the readers out there will continue to check us out and come along for the ride.
"Ten Grand" #1 ships in May from Image Comics and Joe's Comics.