Jamie S Rich Gives it All to ComicsA comics interview article by: Keith Silva
How often do we think about honesty when we think about comic books? I don't mean in the “Truth, Justice and the American Way” kind of way; I mean the feeling we all get when we know a creator is giving it their all, that joy of seeing another human express something and mean it. It Girl and the Atomics' creative team, writer Jamie S. Rich, artist Mike Norton, colorist Allen Passalaqua, and letterer Crank!, make the comic they want to make, they're no one's placeholder or clock-punchers. It Girl and the Atomics ain't no attempt to ape anybody else; no covers here, only originals.
It's easy to think of an on-going series as disposable: read, bagged/boarded and forgotten. It Girl and the Atomics breaks the banal and the boring with a hit of pure joy that knocks the sarcasm and cynicism out of the comic book system. It Girl becomes anything she touches, the same goes for the story Rich and company tell with each issue. Rich's pluck and sophistication combines with the talents of Norton, Passalaqua, and Crank! to deliver a story that goes anywhere and does anything, it's honest. It's comics.
Keith Silva for Comics Bulletin: The plotting of this series is tight but loose. What's your creative process when it comes to serialized storytelling?
Jamie S. Rich: I tend to have an overarching goal. I know what the main conflict is, and usually the resolution, and I will at least start with a rough outline of the very basic description of what is in each issue, almost on the level of what you might see in the Diamond Previews catalogue. It can be that basic. In terms of building ''Dark Street, Snap City,'' it was based a lot on notes I made when re-reading the old comics. I did one level of note taking that was really just writing down names and powers and things, but then I also had side notes that were, ''What if this character did this?'' So, the big explanation about LaLa Wah-Wah, how she became who she was, that was something I was armed with going in.
Things change, though, from planning to execution. Originally, I thought we’d be doing a lot more of a fairy tale world, something more Mirror Mirror for the interdimensional stuff. But it eventually made more sense to make the fantasy world a more direct analogue to the real world. That led to the parody elements of the design for how the characters look in the game. We jokingly referred to them as the Nu52 versions.
CB: What's a Jamie S. Rich script look like for It Girl and the Atomics?
JSR: I do a fairly traditional full script, page by page and panel by panel. I try to give enough to spark the artists so they can take it in whatever direction they choose, but without being overbearing. I rarely ever pull out the script and compare my descriptions to the art, virtually never. It's too easy to get hung up on the specifics and wring the life out of it. I am a big fan of starting sentences with ''Maybe'' or ''Perhaps,'' because I am always ready to see a better idea. A lot of the time, my collaborators really distill the moment to its essence on their own, but the faster we can get there, the better for both of us. There's no sense forcing details at them that aren’t necessary. Most of the time, they won’t be afraid to ask for more.
With each new project, and the longer I work with an artist, I get more adaptable. Mike Norton is really a breeze to work with, and I know what I can count on him to do. I don’t get too fancy. He draws about eight books every month, so no sense confusing him with flowery language. In ''talking heads'' books, I might just forego panel descriptions; let the dialogue lead the conversation. Joëlle Jones and I are experimenting with our first genuine co-writing project, and that so far has been me creating a first draft in Marvel style, and her thumbnails being a second draft, and then unless I think there are story problems we need to go over, I don’t come back until pencils, when I write the dialogue. It's been hard at times, feeling like I’m not doing enough, not calling out every beat, but I am acclimating. Plus, I'm really enjoying how the ideas flow between us, and seeing Joëlle acting as a more aggressive creative engine.
CB: First arcs (and first issues) can become so cliché. As a storyteller,how do you approach world-building and character development while keeping the narrative moving and the story fresh?
I didn't think about it all that much. The world was already built; I just had to step inside. I think it's important to display a level of comfort in the story itself. There isn't a need to rush around pointing everything out and explaining it. I think if the storytelling is confident, the readers will go with you wherever you want to take them. We also didn't have to really worry about the origin story, there was no getting powers/learning to use powers, which to me is just so tired out.
Though, there is a ''damned if you do, damned if you don't'' element. Some reviews hammered me for explaining too much, others for not explaining enough. I tried to stick with bringing in only what it seemed absolutely vital to know. It’s a balance, and I took it as a compliment when we got a lot of reviews and fan feedback from people who never read Madman and loved It Girl and the Atomics.
CB: What was your relationship to It Girl prior to writing this series and how has your understanding of the character changed as you've been writing her?
JSR: I edited the original run of The Atomics when the Allreds were self-publishing, so I've been on Team It Girl from Day One. She was always the most appealing of the characters. I am not sure how to really define it. In life, there are just people who everyone is drawn to, you can’t help but look at what they are doing, and that happens on the page sometimes, too. It was always obvious that It Girl was the Atomic that most of the readers liked – including myself – and I know Mike enjoyed drawing her. We also published an It Girl one-shot at Oni Press, written by Mike and drawn by Chynna Clugston Flores, which is why it was just a natural choice to ask her to fill in on #6.
Any time you write a character, you're going to learn something about her. I think for me, the thing was to remove Luna from the dynamic she has with her boyfriend Adam Balm, a.k.a. Metal Man. And also remove Madman. We know how she acts when they are around, and they kind of run the show, so let's see what she does when she’s stepping into their roles, when she is the focal point. Allowing her to take over the narrative meant I could explore her motivations and also look at her relationships. It was interesting taking a character known for being a sweetheart and revealing that there are people who might resent her, to pull the rug out from under her emotionally. As much as the first issue made it about her becoming a real hero, I think what she goes through as a sister in ''Dark Streets, Snap City'' is actually more crucial to her as a person, and that sibling relationship provides a lot of the foundation for how she eventually stands on her own two feet.
CB: Video games and gaming play an important role in this first arc. Are you a gamer and how will you and Mike Norton develop this theme of “playing someone else” i.e. appearance vs. reality as the series continues?
JSR: I am so far from being a gamer, there isn't an ocean large enough to represent the divide. The only system I ever owned is the Atari 2600. I tried playing Tomb Raider when I got my first laptop, I bought the CD-ROM, and I never got past the first level. I'm terrible at them and lazy enough to be easily bored and dissuaded from trying to be better.
That theme kind of runs its course in the first arc, ''Dark Streets, Snap City;'' I suppose there are undercurrents of it in the future, because there is always an element of concealed identity, adopted persona, and dubious motives, but now that It Girl is settled in her role as Dr. Flem's go-to agent, she will grow more active. The second arc starts with a two-parter, ''The World is Flat,'' where she goes on a mission to the Alps.
CB: The ability to change, to be someone (or something) else, is literally part of It Girl's DNA. How does this aspect of the main character inform the overall story?
JSR: It was kind of subconscious. I didn't think that hard about that metaphorical aspect of her special abilities at the start, how it tied into her powers. I was more intrigued about what I could have her do with them, setting up scenarios where she has interesting things to use. I will say, though, in the future, I have a plan where maybe not taking the power as seriously as she could and not thinking through what she puts to use will have its consequences.
I can't speak for Mike, but there is definitely something inherent in her character where she is a woman who is always ''becoming.'' All of the Atomics went through a period of reinvention, of transforming themselves from outcasts to heroes, and for her, transformation is a far more regular thing, it is her everyday power. She is the It Girl in the classic Clara Bow sense, but she can also become IT, whatever it is.
CB: It Girl and the Atomics is essentially a team book. What are your plans for the rest of the Atomics as the series progresses will Dr. Flem and Gail Gale ever get out of the lab?
JSR: Actually, I have written at least one scene with Dr. Flem in the flying car, out in the open, springing into action.
The Atomics will continue to provide back-up, with occasional shifts of the spotlight. Like I said, I am taking It Girl solo for a little bit, but the team will still hover around. Issue #9 is a team adventure, but with Black Crystal and the Slug as the focal point, I wanted to take some space and look at them as a couple. It’s a story full of action, but also a little romance. Right now I am writing the third arc, issue #12 and beyond, and I want to give the team dynamic a much stronger place in the overall narrative for that one. It’s still a nut I’m learning to crack, making sure everyone has an essential part to play.
CB: How did Mike Norton get involved in It Girl and the Atomics, and what has his art brought that's changed how you think (and write) about the characters and this story?
JSR: It was happenstance, really. We were just hanging out at the first Trickster in San Diego when he mentioned we should work together. It was a definite slap-upside-the-head moment, as it was obvious the moment he said it that he was the perfect guy for the job. Part of it is he has a clean, retro feel to his art. It has a similar panache as Mike Allred's but in a different way.
Where Allred is ''pop'' in a kind of 1960s Andy Warhol sense, Norton is more pop in the comics sense. He represents the best of what mainstream superheroes, in my opinion, looked like at their best and should look like today. I would have dug him drawing Detective Comics back in the 1980s when I was a teen reading Batman books as I as I do now seeing his ink all over It Girl or Revival or Battlepug or The Answer or whatever other thing he's drawing that I don’t know about yet.
The 13-year-old Jamie wishes he were drawing Uncanny X-Men, but the Jamie of the here and now is glad he’s drawing It Girl and the Atomics instead.
As for what he brings to the project, it often just boils down to thinking of things that I want to see him draw, abusing my powers to see him draw a giant robot or a man made out of paper or what have you. It makes me stretch my imagination, because I have to write to be as good as he draws. It’s the same with all my artists: Chynna, Joëlle, Natalie Nourigat, Nicolas Hitori de, all of them.
I don’t understand why some writers seem content to work with mediocre talent. I collaborate with artists who make me look better, and thus make me want to write better, who move the goal posts by being awesome and keep me running to catch up.
CB: Colorist Allen Passalaqua deserves a lot of credit for the look of It Girl and the Atomics. How much of your writing informs Pasalaqua's coloring?
JSR: I never give color notes beyond maybe suggesting something in the script, so it’s really down to how he and Norton work together. From what I can tell there’s a real rapport there, and a real level of trust, and really, when the artist and the colorist like each other’s work, it can be an unbeatable combo. I know we were all stunned when Allen did the night club scenes in issues 3 & 4 and added a disco ball lighting effect. That was all him. It really was something I don’t believe I’ve seen before.
We have a really creative team. Crank! makes lots of great choices, too. He designs the color schemes for the caption boxes to distinguish the characters, he does balloon placement, and the sound effects are all his. There’s a reason these three won an Eisner for Battlepug.
CB: Some of the criticism – on Comics Bulletin for example – you've received for It Girl and the Atomics was that it's “not Mike Allred's Atomics.” Making such a comparison shortcuts any discussion of your work and the current series; how do you deal with managing this kind of (understandable?) fan reaction?
I don't worry about it, honestly. I'm the biggest fan of Mike Allred there is, and I know the work backward and forwards, and as long as Mike continues to be our biggest cheerleader and give us the thumbs up, then I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
It was obvious going in that some people were going to complain that Mike wasn't doing it himself. At the same time, Madman has often caused a lot of extreme reactions and there have been regular disruptions to the fanbase because it’s a book that continually reinvents itself. I’m actually rolling back the stone a little and going back to the days between Dark Horse and Image, to the self-published material, and picking up on the vibe that was in The Atomics.
For many, that’s closer to what some see as the ''pure'' Madman, which was the first couple of years that Dark Horse was doing it. But we really are talking about a creative endeavor that has always zigged and zagged based on the artist’s pleasure. There are some people who want it to be dark and odd like the original three-part comic, there are others who only know the experimentation of the Image series. My hope is, in the end, folks will see that the Madman books all serve as one piece – like Jean-Luc Godard and Wong Kar-Wai films, where even as different as some entries in the filmography may seem, when taken as a body of work, it’s one unbreakable canvas. Except in this case, we have a little side appendage called It Girl and the Atomics.
CB: Is Mike Allred (and Madman for that matter) an “elephant in the room” and how do you deal with that as the writer and storyteller?
He is so hands-off; he makes it easy. I try to pretend I am putting on a Mike Allred skin suit, though. I want to channel him, to be true to his voice, and become him. I almost treat him like his own genre. The way you work with any genre, you begin with the basic rules of the game, and then you figure out how to play as yourself inside of it so as not to sacrifice either the original truth or what makes you the creator you are. It Girl and the Atomics lets me indulge a joyous side I might not otherwise allow into my own work.
CB: In your notes to issue #1 you refer to It Girl and the Atomics as the Madman version of B.P.R.D. What is Mike Allred's motivation to see this series (and these characters) continue and does it leave the door open for him to further develop this world he created?
JSR: What it comes down to, is his hands were full with iZombie when this started, and he immediately rolled from that into FF with Matt Fraction. Allred has taken breaks from Madman before, but when he does, the characters just disappear from the shelves. It seemed that Mignola provided a good example for how to create a vibrant universe that had other creators peek in, but was still controlled by one mind. There had been people who did short stories for Madman – Joëlle Jones and I did one in the penultimate issue of Madman Atomic Comics--but nothing longform. This is the experiment to see how these characters might thrive – and let's be honest, how they might earn – while daddy is off playing with other toys.
The plan is always, always, always for Mike to return to his own creations. He won't be able to stay away, it's too personal, it's his most pure and unfiltered means of expression. We're supposed to do another large special like we did a couple years ago, where Mike will do a stand-alone story and we'll get multiple guests to do crazy short stories. The last one, the Madman All-New Giant-Size Super Ginchy Special, had Emi Lenox, Matt Kindt, and Tonci Zonjic. We'd like to make that annual. Hopefully, It Girl and the specials would tide people over until Mike is ready for the next phase of his Snap City explorations.
This is his world first and foremost, and the main reason Madman isn't really in this book is I didn't want to interfere with wherever he ends up wanting to go with Frank Einstein. It's his door; there is no opening or closing it on my end.
CB: You've worked with Joelle Jones on several of your own creator-owned projects (You Have Killed Me and Spell Checkers). How do you use that DIY ethic when you write for an established character/series?
JSR: Well, for all intents and purposes, this is a creator-owned book, it’s just the owner is letting us on board. So, while, yeah, it’s technically work for hire, we’ve been afforded all the freedom and the perks as if it were our own material. So It Girl doesn’t really apply, except in the way I mentioned, of trying to wear the Allred armor. But that’s like learning how to write private detective fiction in order to do You Have Killed Me: it's not about writing to please someone else so they’ll cut you a check, it’s about craft.
I've had some good work-for-hire experiences and I've had some bad. The higher up the food chain, the worse it’s been. The times it’s sucked, it’s because it usually began with someone approaching me with a project and doing so in a manner that would suggest they like what I do, want what I do, and respect it. Only, the further you get into it, it turns out that they don’t get you at all. It’s like being in a bad relationship. ''Why did you even go out with me if you just want to make me something I’m not?''
On the other hand, Joëlle and I just finished a short story for the February issue of Creepy for Dark Horse, and it was awesome. Sierra Hahn and Brendan Wright were our editors on that, and they really were enthusiastic and they had the attitude that they were bringing people onto the anthology to bring something unique, to make the book interesting. There was some give and take between us and editorial, but it never felt like they were laying down the law, that if we didn’t adopt their notes, we’d be fired.
As an artist, you want to be able to at least be able to defend your choices to a degree, otherwise just hand me a map and tell me where to go, I don’t need to waste the time finding my own way. (And for the record, there was no note from their office I felt compelled to argue with, so that was pretty great, too). We all worked together to deliver a better story. And I get to be in the same comic as Gilbert Hernandez and Amy Reeder, two of my favorite people doing comics, both personally and professionally.
CB: An independent title (even one with a cult following) depends so much on retailers, in some ways, taking a chance rather than sticking with a more mainstream titles. How important is this aspect of the comics market for a title like It Girl and the Atomics?
JSR: It's still pretty essential. The best impulse buy is going to be in a comics shop. I am not sure if people really browse the Comixology new release list and look at the previews and decide to buy, it doesn’t seem all that practical. There is something that you can’t replace about having the book in your hands, being able to flip through it, the tactile sensation of “this is mine,” and this is speaking as someone who buys both digital and paper, there is good and bad to both.
The internet may go anywhere and everywhere, but that doesn’t mean anyone will ever land on you; whereas if they walk in a store, they see the cover, there you are. So the more stores around the world that exist and order your book, bless 'em each and every one, they are extending my reach!
CB: You write criticism as well as fiction and non-fiction. As a critic, what's your approach to a work (movie, book, etc.) in terms of audience i.e. what do you feel is the critic's responsibility to the art as well as to the audience?
JSR: Well, I keep two things in mind: (1) I am an audience member, too, so I want to react as someone watching the movie, not someone who is being tasked with writing about it; and (2) in that vein, if I am going to tell someone how to spend their money, then I damn better be honest. Because you can disagree with what I wrote, but you can’t call me a liar. I mean, people try, but if I give a review, positive or negative, it’s because that was how the movie worked on me.
A real pet peeve of mine, actually, is when people read a review and say something like, “Come on, was it really that bad?” They never seem to realize how loaded that statement is, how insulting it can be. What if I actually responded, “You’re right, I exaggerated for the sake of attention”? I would hope they never read me again.
What drives me nuts across the board, in comics and movies and music and what have you, is the sense that the people behind the material cheated, that they didn’t do the best they could do, they did what they thought they could get away with. Hand in hand with that is an audience that then makes excuses for them. Like when someone says, “What did you expect? It’s Transformers! It’s giant robots fighting each other?” Or, “They did about as good with Watchmen as you could expect.”
Why give the mediocre and the truly awful a pass when there is so much out there that is genuinely good? There are people doing quality special effects pictures (the Total Recall remake was pretty damn entertaining; Looper was amazing), there are people doing good adaptations out of impossible books (Cloud Atlas, for instance, or the new Anna Karenina), it can be done. So until they start charging you less for a piece of crap like Transformers 3, why let them give you less?
Actually, speaking to the ''What Did You Expect?'' crowd, I give you Fatboy Roberts.
CB: Besides Creepy and being the It Girl guy, what other projects are you working on?
JSR: Well, It Girl and the Atomics is a monthly ongoing, so that’s going to keep happening for the foreseeable future. The first trade collection is on the horizon for probably March. Right now, Norton is putting the finishing touches on #8 while a surprising guest artist is finishing #10. I am writing #12. This is gonna keep happening, so get used to it!
In January, Oni Press is going to start the online serialization of the graphic novel I did with Natalie Nourigat. It’s called A Boy and a Girl, and it’s a ''date night'' comic set in a not-too-distant future, a place where artificial intelligence is starting to become more commonplace, changing the whole meaning of human connection. It’s fun and romantic and Natalie’s work is amazing. Between Gears is just a small sliver of what she’s capable of, this is a more traditional comic style for her. It's going to be online for free at onipress.com.
I have a lot in the pipeline. Expect many announcements in 2013. Particularly, the official word on my books with Dan Christensen and Megan Levens, and hopefully Joëlle and I can finally talk about what we're doing. She's about done working with Cullen Bunn on Helheim, and we’re rolling right into our own series. It’s based on her idea and it’s killer. Also, Spell Checkers vol. 3 will be out by the end of the year!
CB: Image Comics is on an incredible run right now. Why is happening and what's it like to be a creator at Image Comics right now?
JSR: Well, Image Comics is just crushing it right now, and it's definitely good company to be in. I like all the people there, and Eric Stephenson has been trying to get me to do a book for them for years. Hopefully this won't be my last.
But creator-owned has been a way of life for me for my entire comics career. Even before, as a reader in the 1980s, my favorite comic book company was Comico, my favorite comic was Matt Wagner's Grendel. I've always edited creator-owned. To me, it's not a marketing tag, it shouldn't even be such a big distinction, it should just be the way things are. Corporate comics are fine, they are entertaining, I read a lot of them, but the future is really in individual artists and individual creations. Not just in comics, but in all things.
Technology is causing a shift. Kickstarter and Soundcloud and webcomics and Kindle and streaming video and digital cameras: all this access to technology that make creation and distribution easier, that puts the control in the hands of the creatives, and then allows a direct connection to the audience, who are not thieving pirates looking for everything for free, but are a new generation that would rather give their money to the band rather than the record label--this is the future.
Keith Silva would one day like to have the professional cache of Jamie S. Rich. Damn hyperbole! So, Mr. Rich, if you wanna' expand this Madman BPRD thing, here's this @keithpmsilva and this http://interestedinsophisticatedfun.blogspot.com/