In April 1995, I had lined up a job interview with Diana Schutz of Dark Horse. My unsupported optimism had me believing that - with my journalism degree (forthcoming) and my comic book idea and work (all unpublished if you don't count what I accomplished at the local Kinko's) - I was a shoe-in for a job at the Milwaukie, Ore. comic book publisher.
I sat in the hot seat as she quizzed me for about 45 minutes why I wanted to work in the low-pay, little-material rewards industry. I trotted out my senior thesis (on the current conditions of the industry), some prospective comic book writing and art (a still unpublished title about altered humans), and my general love of comic books.
She's a tough cookie. Not easily impressed. She told me she had written her own thesis and I had the feeling that I was stepping on some jealous toes with showing her the one I wrote. Strike one.
The comic book idea I had written, inked and lettered was a black and white reproduction with a color-copied cover, hastily put together for this event. In hindsight, she must have laughed about it with her editors five minutes after I walked out the door. I had the blessing of ignorance and hubris to believe that she might consider it as a plus in my favor. Still, strike two.
The final straw was really one I couldn't have seen coming. She asked me what I was reading. I answered honestly, giving her a brief list of the stuff I was taking in. Of course, some Dark Horse books were mentioned (X was there at the time, Hellboy, Sin City stuff). I'd have to be a congenital idiot to not mention Dark Horse right.
But then I remember the point at which the room got a degree or two chillier and the air seem to stop moving. I said, "â€¦and the Savage Dragon."
There was a slight, but perceptible slight change I felt from her. It was an air of amusement and condescension.
Instead of letting the moment sit, I felt the need to fill the silence with a defense of it with something like, "Well, it's a guilty pleasure." Sill, silence and the smile widened, but not in a good way.
For me, this sums up the impression with which Erik Larsen's work in the industry tends to be treated. It's dismissed as some sort of shallow, eye-candy, not worthy of true praise reserved for maybe like Will Eisner or Frank Miller.
Larsen started out humbly enough working with Gary Carlson at Megaton, where he introduced the Dragon for the first time over 20 years ago. From there he worked his way into the good graces of Marvel's then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, who helped him to get in at Marvel (and DC as a result).
What followed, however, was a hodgepodge of random assignments that did more to confuse folks as to where Erik Larsen was going to end up. Doom Patrol, DNAgents, Punisher, and an Excalibur story for Marvel Comics Presents.
It wasn't until Todd McFarlane had run out his artistic duties on Amazing Spider-Man that he got his break. He proved himself critically and financially, following up Todd's run with a successful run of his own on the title.
Erik's itch, however, to return to his own creations and start building his own books was coming to the fore. With an invite from Rob Liefeld in the early 90s, Larsen joined with McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino and Jim Lee to create Image Comics. The Dragon resurfaced as the Savage Dragon and Larsen was on his way to building a character that he is most known for these days.
I went back to that day with Schutz and tried to figure out exactly what it was that I liked about the book, as well as most of Larsen's spin-offs that he wrote during that period. And it really wasn't until the Authority came out that I figured it out. Savage Dragon is unapologetic for its stories and its use of over-the-top violence. It revels in its use of obvious parodies of established characters and still manages to tell a serious story without losing any of the emotional resonance held within the context of the story.
Larsen's art also tends to belie the story it's telling. It's very cartoony. Squared jawed heroes and big-breasted heroines in what sometimes is reduced to a big old fight sequence. But watch for moments where Larsen shows subtler emotions and silent subtext for stories you're missing if you dismissed it as a "fight book."
Because of Larsen's real time policy on the book (each month between books is a month in the book) the book moves and it doesn't sit and ruminate on consequences of the actions and how it makes characters feel and why they will never do that again. It doesn't have time to do that. The story has to move and get to the nut of the story. It's refreshing, really.
Interviews with Larsen are almost redundant. At conventions, he talks to you and will discuss whatever. He writes letters to magazines or Internet sites on a regular basis on any number of hot topics concerning comic books. His letter pages are some of the most extensive, both in content from readers and his responses in full to said letters. He is probably one of the most accessible creators in the business today.
Before last year, Larsen was writing and drawing for both Marvel and DC, but his bout with pneumonia and its lingering aftermath have forced him to cut back those duties to his Savage Dragon work.
Larsen's work is certainly has a polarizing effect on people; there's rarely an in-between. But the beauty of it is that behind it all (the comic, the letters and the incendiary quotes) is a passion for the medium and his characters that none can deny him. This is the book he will be doing for as long as he is physically and mentally able. The standard cliché about prying the pencil from his cold, dead fingers applies here.
When it all comes down to it, it's about the medium. And nobody talks it up better than Erik Larsen.
Enjoy the conversation you read as much I had conducting it.
Michael David Thomas: A lot of creators - if they have their own creation - talk about the last story they have planned for the character, like they know how it's going to end. Do you have something like that for the Savage Dragon?
Erik Larsen: No. That's so far from now, I can't conceive 100% where things are going to be where I'm going to get there. Why start thinking that way? It's one thing to be doing a book like Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four, where the status quo is pretty well the status quo. Y'know, ongoing. In a situation like the Dragon, who would've thought that when I was doing issue #1 - where he was a cop - that he would be a fugitive on a totally destroyed world. Things change a lot and that by the time I got around to something, I might think my cool idea was such and such, and then 30 years later when you get around to that point, you think, nahhh, maybe not.
MDT: Out of all the people who started Image, you're the only one who continues to write and draw your own creation. Have you considered having anyone else writing or drawing it?
EL: Not at all.
MDT: Why not?
EL: I don't wanna. This is my book. This is what I wanted to do. This is what I worked on my career to get to where I could do this. Why would I give it to somebody else?
MDT: Is that part of the reason that you've had delays in productions, among other things? Is that the reason that you've not brought somebody else in, cause you wanted to do it alone?
EL: I wanted to do it. That would be like having a fill-in on Cerebus or Groo. What? Why would you have that? It seems weird to me. The Dragon to me is me. Me doing the book. Now especially that I've been on it for 90-some odd issues, it justâ€¦ It seems like it's a little too late.
MDT: You've been experimenting a little with your art style on Savage Dragon lately. Just wondering if there's any particular reason or if it was jus for the hell of it?
EL: Just wanted to try it out.
MDT: Anything that stuck that you like that you'll keep doing?
EL: Not really. It's fun stuff to do, but I'm not sitting there, "Yeah, I want to draw like this every month." It's something to mess around with. I'll be messing around with other stuff in the future, trying things out. Seeing how I like it.
MDT: I had an interview with Diana Schutz about seven years ago. She was asking me about what I read. I told a bunch of books, one of them being Savage Dragon. When I said that, she got this weird look on her face, like smirky and condescending. It seems like Savage Dragon gets a rap as an underestimated book, like people don't take it seriously enough. Something like that, that it doesn't get enough respect. I was wondering if you got that senseâ€¦
EL: It does and it doesn't. â€¦ Most people who haven't read it have this assumption thatâ€¦ it's this fistfight book or something. So when they do read it, they're generally surprised that there's as much going on as there is. I don't know. Whatever. There's certainly enough people that have come up to me that Diana Schutz would very much respect who are fans of the book.
When Harlan Ellison comes up to me and says, "That's a beautiful book!" I'm like, OK. I don't know what you've been drinking today, but pass it over. â€¦ I don't think I'm doing a book for other professionals, but it certainly has happened. Chris Claremont was coming up to me asking where I was going with all these different threads in the book, which made it real obvious to me that he was reading it. OK, this is weird.
MDT: You have a vision of what you see the book as.
MDT: Are you surprised at what people draw out of that book that you never intended to have in that book? Interpretation of storyline and characters?
EL: I am and I'm not. A lot of times, people know how other stories have been done in the past. They approach it as, "I know where this is going because I've read other comics." More often than that, they don't have a clue. Because there's only a certain parameter of things they've come to expect in any given comic. All you have to do is not that and you've got it made. You've got a cover with Dragon and some character on it. And you're perception of what that comic is going to be is, "Well, Dragon's going to fight that guy in that comic." My thing is that would be a small part of it, rather than the whole of it. I think the cover of #5 is Dragon smacking Doubleheader. In the issue of #5, he smacks him on page 1 and goes on to have an adventure completely unrelated to that. So if you were buying it based on that cover, expecting that this is what this issue is going to be dealing with, then you're going to get a far different thing than what you were set up to believe what was going to be in there.
MDT: When you started it, were primarily writing it for yourself?
EL: Still am.
MDT: I was wondering if it wavered at all, if you started thinking about sales or something else crept in?
EL: Every once in a while, those things get me worriedâ€¦
MDT: But you still feel if it's for you?
EL: Yeah. If I don't have enthusiasm for it, how can it continue? Pretty much, it's got to keep me entertained all the time, keeping it an exciting book for me to be working on in order for it to come out. â€¦ If I was going to just cater to my audience and just go, "They're going to want this, even though I don't want to do this," I would get so bored with it that I would probably not last very long. I can't really start doing that.
MDT: From what I read and my perception, you tend to take a lot of flak in the press for your statements or the books that you write or draw or both. Do you think you'd take as much flak for your work if you didn't speak your mind?
EL: No. [laughs] There are certainly times when I think, "I should just shut the hell up!" What can happen and has happened is that certain readers feel they need to take sides or if they don't agree with a statement that a certain creator says that therefore I can't enjoy that person's work. That's where it hurts a person. There are people who go, "Erik had a disagreement with creator X. I like creator X's work, I also like Erik's work. I have to make a decision which guy I want to go with. Because I can't like work from two different people who don't like each other." It ends up hurting everybody. I gotta watch my ass.
MDT: Have you become better at that in your old age?
EL: No. [laughs] I still say things that piss people off. I've got to learn to couch things in a more aesthetic way. I need to slam this guy, but I need to slam him in a nice way. I haven't quite figured that out yet.
MDT: You letters page is one of the biggest I've seen and very interactive. I don't see a lot of creators who answer their own mail. Besides what we've already talked about, what kind of price do you pay for printing your letters and the time you take in answering them?
EL: If I wasn't putting that stuff in there, it would just be advertisement for other books. My thought on the matter has always been, if you don't want to read them, you don't have to. There have been people who say, "Aw, man, I don't even want to get into your letters page. That's gonna take so long. I don't read 'em." There also people who just scan 'em, read my answers and not read the letters. A lot of people say that's what they do. If there's a list of answers, they'll read the letter for the questions.
MDT: Some comic book creators get to the point where they shut themselves off from fans in general; they don't show up at conventions, they don't do a letters page like this. You seem to be pretty accessible through the pages, at cons and being able to talk to you like this. Is that something that's a conscious decision to make yourself available?
EL: I still think of myself as a comic book fan. So when I go to conventions, a lot of the fun for me is to be able to hang out with other comic book fans. And to talk about comics and what's going on. It's cool that these people have a common interest with me in that we both read the Dragon. But beyond that, they've got other things that they read or where they think things are going. It entertains me and people entertain me. I enjoy their company. Why the hell not?
MDT: There was a while there where you were doing spin-offs and mini-series from Savage Dragon and other titles. Then it stopped. Is that something you were picking up again?
EL: What happened was that it was economically unfeasible to do it. What tends to happen is that when it comes to ordering comics, people will go the easy route. The easy route is, "Oh, here's a spin-off from Savage Dragon. How many copies of Dragon am I buying/selling? I will base my order on this mini-series of how many copies I'm buying of the Dragon?" For some people, that's none. For some people, that's quite a few. But what ends up happening is that the other series would sell 2/3 of what the Dragon would sell. Which isn't, at this point, enough revenue generated from that book to pay the help basically.
On the Dragon, it's one thing, I'm the guy: the writer/penciller/inker. It's fine for me to do a book and say, "I made a few grand this issue." But when you've got to spread that around to another penciller, another inker and another writer, it's expensive. Even the fledgling writer and beginning penciller require something and if it's selling 2/3 of Dragon, that number barely pays for printing, let alone coloring and everything else that goes into it. It became unworkable.
MDT: Until that improvesâ€¦.
EL: I also got tired of keeping track of all of it.
MDT: Yeah, because once you start making a mini-universeâ€¦
EL: I like Dragon being a self-contained universe. Once I got back to that, I kind of liked that. My only problem now is that, now that the comic book is set in real time, it ends up being characters that end up getting the short end of the stick.
If there was another book out there, we could see Beast Boy go from being a little boy to being a man. But because he's a character in the Dragon and we only see him only every 20 issues, we're going to miss out on all the kid stuff that he's going to do. Real aging can mess a lot of the relationships you've set up real quick.
Once Robin starts aging how long can he be Robin? Let's say that he starts helping Batman at age 8. That's awfully young for him to be punching out adults and knocking them unconscious. Let's say we start him at age 12. How long is he going to work as robin? 6 years? Then he's 18 and then he's the teen wonder and then soon after that, he's going to college. Or he's hanging around the house as Bruce Wayne's loser son. â€¦
In the context of the Dragon book, anyone who has a teen sidekick is suddenly, "Sorry, that doesn't work anymore." What I've ended up doing is fudging parts of it. But that's going to catch up with me at one point. You're going to go, "Waitaminniitâ€¦ This character has gone from being a baby to being a teenager. Why is this guy still a teenager? No sense at all." At this point, it's been nine years; I can get away with some stuff. I don't think I've got too much longer that I can pull this off.
MDT: Chris Eliopolous is linked with you on practically every project as your letterer. I've had him tell me or read it somewhere that he'll do stuff for you anytime, anyplace. Why do you continue to hire him?
EL: Because he's good! That's basically it. He's one of those guys who can do good real lettering. Dragon isn't done on the computer. It's lettered on the boards. I need someone who can do a good clean job and turn it around when I need it turned around. Chris is awesome in that he'll do a fantastic job and turn it around instantly. Get him pages on Wednesday and get 'em back Thursday. The process of Dragon is that I lay it out very quickly. Then I'll draw an issue on Monday, send it off to Chris. I'll script half of it on Monday night. Chris'll get it on Tuesday and letter whatever he can. By the time Tuesday is over with, I've scripted the rest of the issue. I'll be getting pages in Wednesday and start inking the stuff. Then pages go to the colorist by Thursday. It can be a pretty quick process. Inking is by far the most work and the most time-consuming. I'm basically drawing in ink overâ€¦ not much. Just the barest figure placement and story telling. The real basics there. It works.
MDT: Have you guys become friends because of your working relationship?
EL: Yeah. He's not been here, but I've been over there a couple of times. I've gone to New York and hung out with him. He lives in New Jersey. Last fall, I went out to a convention and stayed out for a couple of days. Perpetrated an act of sheer stupidity by sitting up and doing a 24-hour comic together.
MDT: Are you going to try that again?
EL: Probably, but not anytime soon. I don't know if he's still recovering, but I am.
MDT: After Sept. 11, 2001, everything and everybody is looking at entertainment through that experience. Are there any conscious changes in the way you work because of that?
EL: I don't think there's going to be a bunch of conscious changes for much of anybody. People are giving it lip service right now, but I don't expect movies to suddenly get less violent. Movies where they might not get made right now because they're "It's too sensitive right now to do a terrorist show." Mostly I think they don't want to be seen as cashing in on somebody else's misery. If somebody was to put out a show that had that terrorist element in it, it might be very successful. People would be, "I want to see a show where the good guys defeat these bad guys." We're all for that. I think if anything, things are going to get more extreme rather than less. People will look at what's going on in the real world and go, "Sheesh! Blowing up the World Trade Center isn't so much anymore. Blowing up Detroit, there, now we're talking!" Already done that.
MDT: Your health has become an issue in the last year or so. Are you recovering from your illnesses?
EL: The weird thing is... my hands are numb. It feels as though my hands are slightly asleep. A tingling sensation. 24 hours a day. It doesn't go away. It's been like this since March. It was March when I had pneumonia when I was laid up in bed, but it hasn't gone away.
MDT: They haven't been able to pinpoint it?
EL: They haven't been able to pinpoint it; they haven't been able to tell me for sure why it's there, why it's not getting better. But it's there and it's not getting better. It's getting a little bit better as time goes on. I'm just assuming that this is something I'm going to have to live with for a while. It just means that I can't do as much as a volume of work I would like to. Sitting here typing for hours on end is something that I'm not all that comfortable doing. I tend to not do so much of that and concentrate on the drawing and stuff. It certainly was a situation between doing the Dragon and doing the Defenders, I could see that it was not working, that I could not do both of them at the level I would like to do them at. Something had to give and like a fool, I gave up the job that gives me a dependable income. [laughs]. Whatever.
What am I going to do? It's not like I'm going to give up the Dragon.
MDT: I was reading a news article about Busiek's illness. It was strange that both of you were ill on the same book.
EL: It kind of sucked. He's got way more work than he should probably be doing. And I've taken on more than I'm capable of doing. Between the two of us, it's just terrible that we managed to make it work.
MDT: Did you trade stories? You had to have talked about it.
EL: It's pretty pathetic. "Quit your whining! You want to hear about me?"
MDT: I was gonna say, does it become like a pissing contest for disease?
EL: The one thing that I have to say, it's just a lot less physical work to write than to draw. There's no two ways around that.
You can write up a reasonable plot, a reasonable script, in a day. That's acceptable. You can't draw a reasonable comic book in the same time. It's not possible. It just takes longer. Anyway, the end result is that I'm leaving the Defenders.
MDT: Kurt went into the details of his illness. Deep detail. Part of it was in response to people bitching about the lateness or non-existence of Astro City issues. Someone afterward was saying that he felt it was crass of readership that Kurt Busiek even felt the need to explain why his own book wasn't coming out. It made think that there's a point at which fans feel they own a piece of you. I wondered if you've ever gotten that feeling from them.
EL: Not really. I can'tâ€¦object or complain about people wanting the product that I'm producing. That's flattering to me. People are chomping at the bit to read this stuff, it's great. So one of the things that got me to seriously consider dropping the Defenders was just the Dragon not coming out not as frequently as I wanted it to. I was losing more and more time as it went on. I would just lose another day here and another week there. It's gotten to the point now where the book is just too damn late. I need to get it back into shape. That's gonna mean that I gotta stop doing all this other stuff and concentrate on the book I'm supposed to be doing.
MDT: Would you do an animation project wit the Savage Dragon again?
MDT: What were your thoughts about the first one?
EL: It sucked.
MDT: How involved were you?
EL: I was as involved as I could be under the circumstances. I'm not willing to give up my day job to do that. What kind of ended up happening is that you have to let stuff go and hope that the people you're working with can pick up the ball. There were some very good people who were working on the Dragon and some people were not so good. The unfortunate thing is that when you have a kitchen full of cooks - and one of them is shitting in the chili - you going to have some bad tasting chili, no matter how good the other cooks are.
MDT: I'm not eating chili today. Who was doing the production?
EL: It's kind of tough to pinpoint that. You get one guy who gets into bed with somebody else in order to make something happen. Universal is the guy that's supposed to be doing the show. But is it Universal themselves, was it their animators who are doing it? No, they're contracting out to some company up in Canada. Well, who are these guys? They're guys who do animation for a bunch of different guys. So, they're not Universal guys at all? Well, no. When you talk about having Universal doing something, you're talking about possibly the same people who Nelvana have doing it? Yeah, pretty much. Then why go with one over the other. Why even have these discussions? They're all going to be done up by the same guy. What are we doing here?
MDT: Is it one of these things where you know the questions to ask before you do it again?
EL: I don't know that it would be any better next time. I think I would go in and say I want this to be more like some other show on TV rather than what it was. I would rather have Dragon be like Dexter's Lab than G.I. Joe. I'd rather have it be more Ren & Stimpy than. Some other show. Where you can look at it and say, "Those characters are distinctive and got unique shapes, unique shadows, but they're more expressive. I'd rather have it more like Jonny Bravo â€¦
MDT: Where it has its own style as opposed to every other style.
EL: Like the X-Men, that show sucked. That's what the Dragon was like. They were trying to make it look like a poor man's version of reality. And somewhat realistic shaped characters, somewhat realistic settings. It just wasn't very good. I'd rather have it be that exaggerated Chuck Jones Warner Bros. Look where you go, that just looks cool. That shot, that frame. There's just a neat quality to it that's not there in the Dragon show. Painful to watch.
On the other hand, there were a lot of people who got turned onto the comic because of the show. A lot more people watched the show than ever read the comic.
MDT: So maybe as bad as it was, it had some purpose.
EL: Sure. Even at the Dragon's peak, the best it was selling was at the 700,000 range. If you have a television show and that's all the people that watched it, it would be the biggest bomb ever. So, you're going to get exposed to a lot more people than you can possibly expose through the comic. People watched it, people liked it. It was a different animal than the comic book. Whatever. Somebody's out there reading and watching something with characters I created. There's something cool about that even if the show's not everything that it could be. Being able to have this thing exist that I can look at. That's my guy. He's walking around. His head turns. It worked. Something cool about it. Even though at the same time, you're saying, that's awful.
MDT: A lot has changed with Image Comics in the last 10 years, but it still seems to retain that stigma it had from the beginning.
EL: We worked hard to get that stigma.
MDT: Sure, sure. Do you think it's a deserved stigma today?
EL: Being what at this point? That we put out late books that are no damn good or what? Most of our books aren't late anymore, so that part's gone. They're pretty good now. We don't have an Extreme Studios. We don't have a body of books produced by kids who are all trying to draw like Rob Liefeld and failing miserably. There just isn't that anymore. I think that our stuff is at least professional. But then that was a whole different period of time.
MDT: Speaking of Rob, what do you see that happened with him that led to him getting kicked out or leaving, depending on one's perspective?
EL: He got kicked out. There's no two ways around it. He left the way Nixon left. He was two minutes away from being impeached and he said, I quit. Did you quit or were you kicked out? Had you not quit, you were gone. Our rules were that there had to be two votes taken a week apart. So the first vote came and we all voted him out. He voted to stay. When it came around for the second vote a week later, it was literally minutes before that he said, I quit. Fine. OK. Did you quit or were you kicked out? Well, I think it's pretty clear that you were kicked out. You can say otherwise till you're blue in the face. You're not fooling anybody, especially not the guys in the room.
MDT: Was it pretty clear-cut why? Any gray area?
EL: No, it had gotten down to a situation where, had Rob not gone, the companyâ€¦ Todd would have gone. Marc had left, remember? He was on his way out the door, because of Rob. When it became clear that we would take Marc over Rob. Marc coming back would mean that Todd would stay. It didn't take much brainpower to figure out that was more beneficial in the long term for Image Comics. Rob was the biggest headache we had. He was perpetrating all the things that people dislike about Image comics. All the ugly late books. And none of the good on-time ones. Why keep this guy around? There were other things, too, that I'm not supposed to talk about. Mainly because I can't back them up 100% and there's no point opening myself up to a lawsuit. Let's just say that there were some people that should have been paid for competing comic book companies that weren't being paid. He was leveraging us against them. It was just a mess. People were pissed off. I know that there were people who supposed to be outputting film and all sorts of other things that just got the shaft. [This guy] was going out of business because his bills weren't being paid. I've said too much.
MDT: Speaking of people exiting, did Jim Lee ever talk about why he wanted to leave Image?
EL: Jim Lee, from day one, was looking at Image Comics as this great opportunity to make a huge amount of money. And it's been something that he would always deny, but his actions always pointed in that direction. That he was in this to make a killing. He thought that we should have pooled all of our characters and gone public when Image had started. I didn't want to be any part of that. You start giving up ownership of your own characters, and then you're in trouble. You can't have the freedom that you have when you do own them yourself. If I decide I have a cool "Death of Dragon" story that will actually end it forever and somebody else actually owns that character, they want to have some say-so. I was not for that. So apparently, he had been talking to several people over a long period of time about selling his characters. And buying what was his. He found one. When the time came, he basically said to us, "My books won't be coming out from Image this month." And left.
MDT: There was no send-up?
EL: There was no delay, no forewarning, no anything. We found out he was leaving when he left.
MDT: Does anybody keep in touch with him now?
EL: No. Keep in mind, we've never lived next to each other. The times when we'd hang out would be at Image meetings or conventions. Jim Lee didn't come by the house. I've been to Rob's place a couple of times, but it's been mostly at image meetings or when we were very much starting out. Me, Todd and Rob were much closer than any of the other factions of Image comics. Even now, I probably talk to Todd on the phone five or six times a year. That's not a hell of a lot. If there's something that comes up, something going on that we need to talk about, we'll be on the phone to one another. I don't think of myself as not being Todd's pal by any stretch of the imagination. I enjoy talking with Todd a tremendous amount. He's got a lot of stuff to do. I've got a lot of stuff to do and we can't necessarily get the stuff we want to do done if we're chatting with each other on the phone. He does what he needs to do. I do what I need to do. It's not like the FF where we have a secret headquarters and somebody was moving out. When Jim Lee pulled out. It wasn't like he was physically leaving anything. He just wasn't sending solicitations to Image Comics, which is a separate place unto itself.
MDT: Speaking of Todd, when I was talking to him this summer about doing work for other companies, he said, "Todd doesn'tto do work for other companies, what's it going to get him? Blah, blah, blah." You, on the other hand, do quite a bit of work for other companies beyond Savage Dragon. Some would say you're a glutton for punishment, some would say you're in it for the money and all the other theories. Why do you go do work for other companies? Love, money, both, neither?
EL: It's mostly because it's what I want to do. It's books that have appealed to me. There's always been this love of certain comic book characters that to me is like, "Oh, I would love to work on that. I would like to try that out. I would like to come up with an idea for that." Something like that. The thing is, when I went and did stuff for Marvel, I didn't go in and negotiate some special deal. It's not like Heroes Reborn thing. I just did the stuff and got a page rate or whatever. Give me whatever you think is fair and let's move on it. There's nothing that I've done that's been remotely money related. Although I don't know why there's such a stigma to things being money motivated.
It used to be in the old days that guys would be doing comics, not because they have this strong love of comics, but that they wanted to provide for their families. There's something noble about people who do right what's for their families. These days, we would look at these guys who are trying to provide for their families and say, "That guy just wants as much money as he can get. He's not doing it for the love of the medium. He just wants to get a big pile of cash." We frown on that. I don't think anyone ever asked John Buscema about his love for any of these characters. I don't think there was any.
MDT: It is strange. You would have thought it would've switched. That today, it would be the money. Yeah, comics, but it's the money. You talk to Jim Shooter and he doesn't talk about particular love for any of those early characters he did. He says, "Well, I needed the money."
EL: Yeah. These days there's not much money to be had. The reason that people would go and get jobs at Marvel and DC is that is a dependable check, whereas my check from Image Comics can fluctuate wildly depending on expenses any given month and my sales level and all that sort of stuff. I don't really care when it comes down to it. My wife's got a good job. She gets paid a decent amount of money. Image Comics did very well early on. I did very well early on and I didn't blow all my money. I've still got my animation nut. At this point, my house is paid for. It's not like we have a lot of outstanding bills.
MDT: The money aspect of comics always fascinates me. I don't think people in general think of the medium in those terms. I think everybody talks about it for the love of comics or this character. But when it comes down to it, it's a business. If something catastrophic happened - your illness got worse or something else as bad or worse -- and you weren't able to work, where you couldn't get a stable income from comics, are you set up from that early money where you could just live?
EL: Yeah. There's times when I look at what's going on in the world and in the comic book community and go, "Why am I participating in this? I don't even like a lot of what's being done in the market these days. These books don't appeal to me." I look around and all these character and all these things as a kid I loved, everybody all around me is wrecking and shitting on what I loved about these characters. Why would I want to participate in that? Why would I want to be the next guy? I don't know. It's like a fucking pińata. Why do I want to take a another whack at that pińata? Everybody else is wrecking it. In some ways, it seems like an uphill battle to fight that fight, to keep that stuff as something that I would want to read. It's tough to me. It's depressing in some ways. There's these characters that I always wanted to do as a kid. Do I want to do child abuse Hulk? No, I don't. The Hulk I read as a kid was not like some guy who's dad called him a monster. How dopey! It seems like every character, well, we have to find out that they were abused as a kid. I don't know why it's so important that everyone was slapped around as a kid. These days, it's pretty much it. Everyone has to be slapped around as a kid, otherwise, they're not going to grow up to overcome that adversary.
MDT: Comics are a mirror of the times in which they're produced. Think of the stuff that came out 20 years ago. Now, we have, for most intents and purposes, psychobabble comics. We have child abused Hulk.
EL: How can you as a company look at this and say, "We're doing the right thing when your sales are plummeting like a stone? It's happening across the board that comics are going in the shitter. Meanwhile, you know what we need? We need more continued stories and more convoluted continuity. We don't have enough of that. When I was a young reader, I could pick up a comic, read and know who was the good guy, who the bad guy was, what the fight was all about. If nothing else, I would get caught up in a comprehensible chunk of the story. These days, you buy a comic, it's either all fight, all set-up. Nothing is complete, everything is a fragment.
I do a lot of grazing. I don't sit and read a lot of series. I'll go and just read a stack of books. I'll read isolated issues of stuff and it's almost always unsatisfying. Nobody tells a complete story. Like the X-Men Annual, drawn by Leinil Yu, I don't know who the good guys are, I don't know who the bad guys are, I don't what the plot's about. There are some cool shots, but I don't know who the hell anybody is. Nobody's introduced. What I got out of that is that Wolverine willing to schtup Domino at the drop of a hat. Great. Other than that, I don't know. I don't really get it. I don't really know what's going on. That shouldn't be the case. Everybody would be complaining that we're not getting in new readers and the audience is getting older and that it's not growing. Yet they're not producing the kind of work that will help it grow.
See there's a rant that will get me in all sorts of trouble. [laughs]
MDT: You just secured yourself five letters, buddy!
EL: I'm a glutton for punishment, what an idiot! [laughs]
MDT: On that note, whatever limited success, Marvel is having now, with their new creatorsâ€¦.
EL: It's so limited. What they're success has beenâ€¦ There was a month there when there wasn't a comic book that sold over a 100,000. That's unheard of.
MDT: I wasn't looking at the numbers that this one web site was reporting. I haven't actually seen actual numbers for a while. They're pretty low.
EL: Shockingly low.
MDT: I've been talking to people like you for about two years and it seems like whenever they start talking about numbers, especially past numbers, when you start getting down around 30-40,000 for a comic book produced by a major publisher, you're barely breaking even.
MDT: And a lot of these books are scraping that or going well below that. So then I keep wondering that they keep going.
EL: Or how Dragon keeps going?
EL: The reason that Dragon keeps going is that you have a guy that's working on it that willing to just go, "Fuck it. I just want to do the book." I have done well enough in the past that I'm willing to go, "I'm just going to do the damn book the way I want to do it." I'll do it until I'm paying for the privilege of seeing my name in print. At that point, that's when I'll give up the ghost. Until that happens, I'll sit here and continue to do it.
MDT: What do you tell people who come to your table at a convention and say, "I really love your book, I've been reading it. How do I do my character, how do I publish my own stuff?" Based on what you just told meâ€¦
EL: Based on what I just told you, it's impossible. How could you do that? You have to put food on your table; you have to provide for your family. How are you going to make that work? And when this guy over hereâ€¦ The reason I can make it work is because I did well early on. If I was to start out today and this was it, it'd be tough.
MDT: 10 years ago, you guys had a great beginning. Today, would that situation be almost impossible. Today?
EL: Certainly with that level of numbers. Absolutely. What book is going to start out with 1,000,000 copies now? Spawn sold like 4.4 million copies. There's not a book now that sells 1/10 of that on a regular basis. How are you going to start out a company selling 10 times the best selling comic book? I don't care who's doing it. How are you going to do it? How can you make those numbers work?
MDT: I think that's the question everybody's trying to answer.
EL: The best way is make all of the comics incomprehensible and late. That's the solution I have.
My concern is that this doesn't sound overly like negative. I think that's the problem with it. You end up on a note, "you're all going to Hell and we've all got pistols in our mouth." There are people who do want to do good books. I think what it's going to take is a ground swelling of people who are just willing to just go, "We need to get back to doing books that are comprehensible." I think we're going to get there, but these lessons are going to be not necessarily easy ones to learn. I think it may take a little while, but I don't think that the comic book field is going to go away anytime soon. And I think that people are going to learn these lessons and come to the conclusion that maybe Stan was right in the way those books were being done. Not in the way that 30 years out of date and seem as corny as those seem to us now. There's still ways of doing that that can work. You don't have to write every story as part 6 of a 14-part epic and still entertaining readers. There are ways of catching readers up to speed in the context of the single story. And people are going to do them. And people are doing them. And it's going to happen. We're in kind of a tough point right now. We're at this point right now where if you're 17 years old and been reading for a while, it's a great time for comics. You don't want things to be real different because it's working real well for you right now. But if you're 10 years old and wanting to get into it, it's a really tough periodâ€¦.
There are people who really love comic books and a lot of a people who in comics doing it now. I don't think that there's anybody out there who's going, "I doing comics, I hate comics and I'm doing it and I hate it and I want comics to go away." Every one of us who is working in this field is striving to do the best comics we're capable of doing. And I think there are some people who are a little misguided, but it doesn't mean we're not all trying to accomplish the same goal. Which is to make this medium work. I think we'll get there. But I think there's a bit of learning curve that going on right now where people haven't figured out why their isolated comics aren't working out quite the way they ought to be. I think we can get there. I think that we can get there. I hope that we do. I don't want this to go away. I want to do whatever I can to keep from going away.