Jamie S. Rich: The Delightful Competition

Thu, November 29th, 2001 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

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[Jamie S. Rich]
Jamie S. Rich
In recent years, the name Oni Press has become synonymous with high quality and creative comic book material, resulting in a great deal of critical acclaim. While not a major superhero-centric comic company, Oni has made an indelible mark in the minds of all fans that have sampled their products and has also become one of the industry leaders in trade paperbacks (TPBs) and free online comics. One of the principle players in the success of Oni has been Jamie S. Rich, resident editor in chief and one dedicated professional. Jamie often appears in satirical comic strips within some Oni comics and can often be found answering reader's queries in the Oni Press letter pages. Some of his funnier quotes would be, "...we've got more fucks than you can fucking shove up a fuckin' fuck's fuckhole." ("The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius 3: Monkey Tales #3" letters column) and "Are you sad and lonely because you're an asshole, or an asshole because you're sad and lonely?" ("Jay & Silent Bob #3" letters column).

If you haven't noticed, Jamie is one funny guy, too. Who else would list Bob Schreck as both their favorite DC hero and heroine? The man says that the number one reason to read Oni comics is because of, "Girls, girls, girls (and boys, boys, boys)," but being a hilarious guy isn't his only job. He recently took some time out of his day to talk with me and candidly answer some questions about Oni Press.

[Killer Princesses #2]
The cover to "Killer Princesses #2" from Oni Press.
Arune Singh: Explain your background in marketing, management, writing and how it brought you to Oni.

Jamie S. Rich: I began as an editorial assistant at Dark Horse comics at 1994 when I left school and worked my way up to associate editor. I moved from Dark Horse to Oni in 1998, and became the editor in chief in 1999. It was a pretty straight path from point A to point B. The move to Oni was because I was grooving with their plan to do something different. I wanted to be different, too.

AS: What attracted you to medium of comic books? What do you feel it offers that other forms of creative expression don't offer? Is it your preferred medium for creative expression?

JSR: Nothing engages the imagination like comics do and demands as much from a reader. Comics force you to create movement, to put the pictures in motion. The brain capacity it takes to put the words and pictures together should not be underestimated. It's a dynamic medium with no limits.

AS: Which creators and/or comic books inspired you as a child? How about as an adult?

JSR: As a youngster, I was really into Comico Comics--specifically, Matt Wagner's "Grendel". I was a pretty healthy Matt Wagner fanatic, following him to "The Demon" and "Sandman Mystery Theatre" and his Batman projects. I spent years compiling my "Mage" collection. I got into comics mainly in my adolescence, so while I had my superhero flirtations, I came into the medium at the height of the creative '80s. I was buying "Watchmen" on the days of release. I was also into the Vertigo revolution, particularly the work of Pete Milligan on "Shade, The Changing Man."

Now, I sit in an office and let comics inspire me all day. All the Oni creators are people who really kick in that spark. I also love Stan Sakai's "Usagi Yojimbo," Jill Thompson's "Scary Godmother," Warren Ellis' "Ministry of Space," Jason Lutes' "Berlin," Brian Azzarello's "100 Bullets," the stuff Mike Allred does, that Paul Pope does. I read a lot of manga, and I am really getting a kick out of the outlandish stuff Marvel has been doing lately.

AS: What are your dream projects? Why are they so desirable?

JSR: One need only look at my editorial resume to see my dream projects come to life.

AS: Getting back to Oni itself, what responsibilities does your job as EIC entail?

JSR: I oversee the creative aspects of the company, and manage the projects and make sure the wheels are staying on the ground. I lay down on the couch and open the phone lines and play therapist, making sure Christine Norrie doesn't sell the house and move to Mexico, or Greg Rucka isn't climbing into any clock towers armed to the teeth. I answer silly questions in silly interviews. :)

AS: Please give a brief explanation of how Oni Press came to be.

JSR: Oni Press formed in late 1996 by Bob Schreck and Joe Nozemack, who both had a desire to do something to different. The goal was to create comics that we wanted to read, since we didn't feel the industry was serving our needs.

AS: Define the creative direction for Oni Press and how it differs from other companies.

JSR: I don't know. It's not nearly as calculated as all that. We just do what we like.

AS: How is Oni's relationships with other companies? There never seems to be any criticisms of your efforts or business policies.

[Kissing Chaos]
"Kissing Chaos" from Oni Press.
JSR: Oh, there's been some. But truth is, comics companies rarely clash. We all just do our thing. It's not like a cutthroat business where we are stabbing each other in the back to get someone's latest project. I mean, Marvel and DC like to sling mud at one another, but to me that's good ol' marketing!

AS: There is no "Oni Universe" per se, but do you think there will ever be one? Or will the meeting of other characters only happen in the "Oni Press Color Specials?"

JSR: Anything is possible, but I doubt it.

AS: Why does Oni keep their comics (generally) black & white? Any plans for color comics?

JSR: Economics. The difference in price between printing black-and-white and printing in color is quite a lot. Doesn't mean we won't do it, but we'd rather the project warrant it than just arbitrarily decree something might be in color.

AS: What makes Oni an exciting company? What unique content does it offer when compared to other major comic companies? Why should comic fans try out Oni's products?

JSR: I'll guess what you mean by major. The main thing we have is unrestrained creator ownership. We don't muck around in a creator's vision. We give them a safe haven to go wild.

AS: Describe some of Oni's more unique business strategies/philosophies.

JSR: Man, I don't think about this stuff. Is this really my place to come up with? These questions about what sets us apart, to me, are questions of ego that I don't want to address. We just do what we do and don't think about it as seriously as all that. What sets us apart, good or bad, is up to other people. The minute we start thinking about it, we're doomed to failure. Nothing cracks me up more than people who set themselves up as saviors of the industry. They're going to trip over their own feet because they're too busy looking at their heroic reflections in the mirror to see where they're going. We just do the comics. We leave the high-minded categorizing up to everyone else.

AS: How does Oni fit into the comic market? What is its "role?"

JSR: Retarded little brother.

AS: Jamie, could you also provide teasers for upcoming stories and brief descriptions of some "key" Oni titles?

[Queen and Country #6]
"Queen and Country #6" coming from Oni Press.
JSR: Jeez, you're going to make me do all the work, aren't you?

In December, we'll be premiering "Killer Princesses" by Gail Simone & Lea Hernandez. This is one of the funniest things I have ever read. Gail's scripting is amazing, and it's got Lea so jazzed, she's producing the best work of her already distinguished career. The basic premise is that a college sorority is really a front for an international league of assassins--but the three girls in our story (Faith, Hope, & Charity), are those vile, beautiful girls that made every average guy's life hell in high school, who ruled the social cliques with an iron fists and ridiculed other girls as inferior. They're about as bright as burnt-out fuse, too, which makes them really dangerous. Vicious and stupid is a bad combination.

In February, we will continue two of our more popular titles. Chynna Clugston-Major will return to "Blue Monday" for the romantic one-shot "Lovecats" (After that she will be doing an all-new six issue miniseries called "Scooter Girl," another romantic comedy). We'll also have two issues of Guy Davis' "The Marquis." The new series, "Devil's Reign: Hell's Courtesan," sees Vol De Galle back on Earth, and cleaning the streets of demons.

Steve Rolston, who made his mark on "Queen & Country," will be teaming with Brian Wood (creator of "Channel Zero") in March for a new series called "Pounded." It's a great social satire about spoiled, yuppie punk rock kids. Heavy Parker thinks he's all that, but when he messes with the wrong girl, he ends up on the run for his life and finding out how "hardcore" he really is. And even though Rolston has left "Queen & Country," Greg Rucka is keeping it going with a new three-issue story arc. Featuring art by Brian Hurtt, Bryan O'Malley, and Christine Norrie, it's an extremely relevant story given our current world situation. Rucka decided last June that for the second arc, he wanted to shed some light on the situation in Afghanistan, to show how horrible life under the Taliban really is. We, of course, had no idea that this issue would come to the forefront of our society this past September. Greg finished the last script literally a week before the tragedies of September 11. We felt, though, that more than ever, we needed to forge ahead. The atrocities in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. made it even more important.

Also in March is Ted Naifeh's new project. The "Gloomcookie" creator and "Gunwitch" artist has a brand-new miniseries called "Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things," about a strange girl in a frightfully normal town.

Solidifying our reputation for off-the-beaten track, gritty crime dramas--something we made a name for ourselves on with the Greg Rucka books, we have two series ready for next year that will really knock people's socks off. Nunzio Defillipis and Christina Weir have created a book called "Skinwalker," about a rogue FBI agent who has learned the sacred Native American art of jumping from body to body and is twisting it to his own end. Two very different law enforcement officials go on a cross-country manhunt to stop him. Art will be by Brian Hurtt, with covers by Durwin Talon (cover artist for the "Batman: Officer Down" event at DC). Following that, we have a series called Shot "Callerz," written by hard-bitten crime novelist Gary Phillips (author of "Perdition U.S.A." and "Shooter's Point"). Gary will be joined by artist Brett Weldele ("CousCous Express"), and they are putting together a story that mirrors the dark and cynical underworld of crime that exists right here, below the surface of polite society.

Later in the year, we'll also have Christine Norrie's debut solo project. People really dug her stuff on "Hopeless Savages," so I think they'll really go for "Crush." It's a romance comic. I loves me Christine Norrie, and I loves me romance comics.

In addition to new books, we will be reprinting classic independent comics for the early '90s: the first two "Madman" books by Mike Allred; Oddville and "Atomic City Tales" by Jay Stephens; and The Copybook Tales by J. Torres and Tim Levins. And we'll be finishing books already in progress, like Scott Morse's "Magic Pickle" and Arthur Dela Cruz's "Kissing Chaos," and new series of some of our regulars like "Alison Dare" and "Hopeless Savages."

Many upcoming books can be previewed here: http://www.onipress.com/sundaycomics/

AS: Oni has very few ongoing series- what is the reason for this? Any plans to launch more ongoings?

JSR: Most of our books are single creator efforts, and thus too much work for most creators to do on a monthly basis. We find it's more realistic to approach the material as a series of miniseries, and release them in self-contained bursts, like "Blue Monday" or "Barry Ween."

AS: Without a doubt, Oni Press is one of the industry leaders in TPBs, both in timing and quality. What is Oni's perspective on the TPB market now and where it'll be in the future?

JSR: TPBs are essential to the growth of the industry, and for reaching beyond the regular boundaries of our sales base. Oni is committed to having a healthy collections program. I think eventually the sorts of comics we do will phase out serialization completely, and the standard monthly comics will be maintained by the superhero contingent, while more independent and adventurous fare will be sitting on bookshelves of stores, libraries, and readers' homes.

AS: Describe the marketing approach of Oni Press. Also, Oni doesn't seem to engage in all the same kind of "hype" as some other companies do- explain the philosophy behind this.

JSR: Most of our marketing approach is seat-of-the-pants-tell-as-many-people-as-will-listen tactics. Of course we engage in hype! Who doesn't? The philosophy is simple: you have to make your books sound good. Sometimes that means shouting loudly and shoving it in people's faces. That's selling!

AS: Can you shed any light on Oni's plans for adapting their properties for other media? Or on plans for Oni products being distributed in forms other than comic books?

JSR: We explore options as they come. Joe Nozemack, our publisher, has teamed with Graphitti Designs' Bob Chapman and Chip Mosher to form Big Blast, a company devoted to aiding Oni creators in straddling the world of comics and other forms of entertainment. So far, we've had a couple of nibbles. Big Blast sold our book "The Coffin" to Lighstorm, Jim Cameron's company, for development as a film. Scott Morse, Judd Winick, and Greg Rucka have all developed things on their own for possible films. Paul Dini is getting "Jingle Belle" toys and merchandise made. We've looked at video games and publishing partnerships. However, we try to keep that separate from the comics. We do the comics for the sake of the comics, not as a springboard to movies. When I'm being totally honest, I dislike creators who seek other deals as some kind of validation. The work should be good enough on its own, and the rest is secondary. There is nothing wrong with anyone developing their work for other media, but make sure it's not the only reason you're here. Comics don't need you if you're just using us as a cheap way to get your idea together. I've known creators who couldn't care less about the art form--its just good developmental ground, and that's wrong. It makes for crappy comics.

AS: How successful do you believe Oni has been? What expectations has it defied?

[Hopeless Savages]
"Hopeless Savages" from Oni Press.
JSR: We're still here. Every time there would be a big change at the company, a creator or a principle staff person would leave, people would think we were out of the game. We get stronger every month. I'd say that's pretty successful.

AS: People often use the Diamond top 100 or 300 charts to gauge success, though it is slowly becoming evident how antiquated that system is. What is your view on the Diamond Top 100/300 lists, how do they influence your decisions and should fans pay attention?

JSR: Zero importance on all counts. Sure, we like it when we rank well, but really, if you're doing it for that, you're doing it for the wrong reasons. We've had some wonderful books sell low numbers, but they were still wonderful and we stood behind them. A lot of what sells--in all forms of entertainment--is pure shit. If you gauge art by popularity, through the ages, you have a lot of bad art that made a lot of money that no one cares about or remembers.

AS: Please share with us some of your favorite Oni success stories.

JSR: I've managed to get myself into a ton of our comics as a character. One day I'll have my own comic. "JAMIE S. RICH, SCREAMING EDITOR."

Really, the greatest success one can feel is when you release something that you really believe in, and it receives resounding approval. Things like "Blue Monday" AND "Breakfast After Noon," that not only held their own sales wise despite not being your average comics fare, but ended up being nominated for awards and being lumped in with other very amazing comic book works. Next year we are also doing things like bringing older work by Jay Stephens and Mike Allred back into print, which is exciting. Oni's greatest success is being able to balance the fresh new faces of independent comics with the legends who built this side of our industry.

AS: How do you feel that Oni has influenced the comic industry thus far? How do you see it influencing the industry in the future?

JSR: Who knows? Have we had an impact? When you're in the center of what you are doing, it's too hard to have the perspective of what you're doing beyond the deadline tomorrow. I guess I'd say we've given a lot of people an opportunity to pursue their ideas that hadn't gotten the chance before. Really, what we've done is step back and let other people--Greg Rucka, Judd Winick, Mike Huddleston, Chynna Clugston-Major, etc.--change the face of the industry with their work. We didn't do it. We've let them.

AS: People seem to want to put themselves in camps- Marvel Fan, Indie Fan, DC Fan- but Oni doesn't seem to be trying to create a cliquish fan base, as evidenced by the recommended reads in each issue. What is your view on this "to be good, someone has to suck" mentality of many fans/pros and what is Oni's approach to maintaining a strong fanbase?

JSR: I think all that stuff is inevitable. I think if you look at how we're raised in this culture, and the focus on sports, etc., you automatically create a mindset that causes people to focus on their differences. Our culture isn't about "it doesn't matter if you win or lose, it's how you play the game," it's about, "My team kicked your ass!" Oni has its devoted fans, but really, down here in the trenches, we don't have time to hate one another. We don't have time to diss Slave Labor or Top Shelf, because we're all too busy keeping the books coming out. Plus, since we're all readers, why would we want to diss one another when we can be enjoying the fruits of each other's labor. Why would I want to spend my time talking about what I don't like? I occasionally do, but it's not nearly as fun as reading "Rare Creature," "Sparks," or "Good-bye, Chunky Rice."

AS: Share your thoughts and feelings on DC and Marvel. IE: PR, content, direction, attitude, structure etc.

JSR: They both create fantastic entertainment that appeals to many people and has done so for many years. More power to them. I read the stuff of theirs that I like, and appreciate that they provide a nice backbone for this industry. As for the other stuff...well, they sell a lot of books, so they seem to know what's what.

AS: Where do you see Oni in: 1 Year? 2 Years? 5 Years? 10 Years?

JSR: Oh, we'll have totally sold out by then. I can't wait! It's gonna be big money and drinking fruity drinks on some beach somewhere. Well, for Joe Nozemack and James Lucas Jones. I'm going to be completely insane by them, eating bugs like Renfield in some asylum.

AS: Do you feel that perhaps the timeliness of your TPBS eats into the sales of the single issues? How do you gauge when to announce/release a TPB?

JSR: It doesn't significantly hurt. In some books, we see a balance, and we know there is an audience that will wait for the collections. I'm one of them! Our policy is really that we will try not to do a trade any less than six months after the last issue of the series. In some cases, like "The Coffin" or the third "Barry Ween," demand is higher, as early issues sell out, so we put them out faster. But otherwise, we wait and generally announce things as they are ready to go to Diamond.

AS: What are your thoughts on the health and future of the industry?

JSR: I think the future is no less optimistic or bleaker than it's ever been. We've been changing, growing, finding new footholds. Comics won't go away. They may be more marginalized, or they may gain wider acceptance--it's hard to say. But as long as there are people who want to tell stories through words and pictures, this art form will survive.

AS: With comics like "Red Star, Hellblazer" and "100 Bullets" becoming more popular, do you see a move away from the superhero archetype happening in comics? Or will the superhero remain dominant? What are you feelings about where the industry is or should go?

JSR: Superheroes will never go away completely, but their death rattle has been one of the longest ambient remixes in history. I think ever since "Watchmen," it's been hard to look at the genre the same. I think, though, if we ever want to move out of the ghetto and into the mainstream, we need to accept that our mainstream is not the mainstream of the rest of the entertainment industry. We cling to this illusion that the general public would like superheroes if only they knew how good they could be, and I say, for the most part, that's crap. We keep trying to get them to accept comics on our terms, when really, we need to figure out where our medium fits with general tastes. The comics you cite are a good start.

AS: What do you think will be the next big trend in the industry? Any specific upcoming creators that you think will impact the industry?

JSR: Well, I think as we've seen for a while, we're moving away from pamphlet comics and more into bookstores. I think that people who feel we should jump out of the monthly floppy format right now, though, are a little too blindly hopeful. It'd be like a feed store stopping to carry horse feed and only selling gas just because Henry Ford just invented the model T. Not everyone is ready to accept the horseless carriage. I think there are a lot of creators who are very exciting and who will change the face of this industry in years to come. Craig Thompson, Christine Norrie, Metaphrog, Scott Morse, Chynna Clugston-Major, Lawrence Marvit, Andi Watson--they're reaching new people and new audiences that have traditionally been ignored in this field. Their enthusiasm and boundless creativity will stretch us as far as we can go.

AS: Which comics do you currently read and which are your favorites?

JSR: I have been on a real Brian Azzarello kick, namely on "100 Bullets" and "Hellblazer." I just think his storytelling is extremely compelling. He writes tight crime thrillers, the best of any medium.

Peter Milligan and Mike Allred's "X-Force" is a gas. I love the dark humor and the over-the-top, take-no-prisoners approach.

I have been reading a lot of manga. Viz puts out some amazing titles of incredible diversity, from the political "Eagle" to the total fantasy of "Video Girl Ai." Tokyopop's "Clover" has been another recent favorite. It's full of grace--in both presentation and content.

"Berlin" by Jason Lutes is always a favorite. It's an example of just how diverse this industry can be. "Usagi Yojimbo" by Stan Sakai is consistently addictive and amazing read. "Scary Godmother" by Jill Thompson is full of wondrous joy, while Dave Cooper's "Weasel" constantly redefines what can be done in a comic book. Scott Morse has strayed from Oni to do his "Ancient Joe" comic, but we won't hold that against him, because it's absolute godhead. Morse is a genius!

AS: If you could send one message to all comic readers, what would it be?

JSR: Drop the crap. Kick the habit. Get back to being a reader and challenge yourselves to think different. If you hear some guy talking about how he keeps buying a book even though it's sucked for the last two years, but he's been collecting it for five and won't stop, punch him in the neck. There are too many good comics going unnoticed on the racks so people can keep up their collections of drivel. If you take pride in what you buy, then you can take pride in sharing that material and getting more people into comics.

 
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