Monday, August 3, 2009

The Pen is Mightier than the Revolver: Chatting with Jimmy Palmiotti

It’s the Saturday of the San Diego Comic Con, and the floor is packed with a mob of fans and freaks. The utter chaos makes finding a spot to do an interview in impossible, so Jimmy Palmiotti finds a relatively quiet hallway between both halves of the immense convention center, and we grab a spot of floor.

Palmiotti, in the past few years, has risen up from being Joe Quesada’s partner in both their company Event Comics and their revolutionary Marvel Knights imprint of the ‘90s. Palmiotti (with and without his writing partner, Justin Gray) has made an indelible imprint at DC Comics, particularly with their sleeper hit Jonah Hex, presenting the scarred Old West gunslinger as a hard-boiled bounty hunter. Hex is currently filming as a motion picture starring Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, and Megan Fox.

“I know it’s not our character, but he’s mine and Justin’s now,” Jimmy notes. “Honestly, DC could fire us tomorrow and put a new writer on it, and it’d still go on, and people might then like it more. I have no idea. It’s their character. Do I feel ownership? Of course I do. We’re up to #56 towards writing, and I’ve been living and breathing Jonah for five years; it’s funny, because Josh and those guys may go ‘What would Jonah say to this?’ I know exactly what he’d say. Justin and I are so deep into the psyche of the character.

“We could die today, and seven fans would be sad,” Jimmy adds with a laugh.

But, despite all of his recent successes, Palmiotti retains his old school Brooklyn attitude and is more than willing to poke as much fun at himself as the next guy.

Jonah Hex is constructed as a series of mostly one-shots, following the scarred and former Confederate soldier as he takes down badmen – and whatever other bizarre enemies come his way. He’s a hard-drinking gunslinger with few scruples, but occasional moments of tenderness that rise up when he saves or sacrifices himself for another. The action isn’t glorified superhero, but as down and dirty as an Eastwood Spaghetti Western.

“The philosophy is to make it as entertaining as hell,” Jimmy says with a shrug. “We understand that, even though we have a six-parter now, we mostly have one-parters. If you’ve never read it until now, we want you to be able to pick it up. It’s important to us that a book with that sales level is easy to grab for new people. The single issues sell like low-end superhero, but the trade books do really well. Therein lies where DC can make money off it.”

The stars lined up just right for the Hex movie to happen: DC Comics parent company, Warner Brothers, may have been poking around for properties ready to go to film, and the critically-acclaimed Jonah Hex book by Palmiotti and Gray gave them another reason to pursue bringing him to cinematic life.

“They had a Jonah Hex script years ago, and nobody liked it and it didn’t go anywhere,” Palmiotti says. “Then, we did the book and DC/Warner Brothers went ‘Hey, this is kind of cool and we’re doing something with this character.’ Our book exists, and now it’s becoming a movie; when there hadn’t been a comic book, nobody wanted it. The book does well on a certain level, but again, it’s not always certain numbers, but that it’s a good book and somebody else says ‘We should make a movie.’

“I’m happy that Josh Brolin is going around and throwing my name out,” he beams. Just ten minutes prior, he’d found out the star mentioned him in a press interview. “That’s wild. What a great guy. I’m happy for the movie and crew, even though I’ve got nothing to do with it other than that there’s me and Justin Gray writing the comic. But, on that level, we’re profiting from it because with a new audience we might get new readers.”

Jimmy Palmiotti first made his biggest splash with his old friend and partner, Joe Quesada, in the early '90s. The duo had become one of comics’ most noted penciler and inker duo, and finally decided to take the leap into self-publishing with their own Event Comics.

“We entered the self-publishing arena because we were frustrated with the lack of quality and care on a lot of the books we were working on,” Jimmy recalls. “It wasn’t a huge risk since we were doing well at the time, but looking back we could have just stayed big names doing Batman or Spider-Man, but we chose a different path. Again, we’d never written a comic, so it’s kind of bold that we chose to self-publish and write those books. Looking back, the writing on those titles wasn’t great, but there is a unique energy that comes when people create something that they own. The best part of the books was Joe’s artwork … very kinetic and beautiful. The guy’s brilliant. The whole Event experience was a great learning process for us.”

Event’s main two titles were Ash, about a super-powered firefighter, and Painkiller Jane, which follows an undercover cop with a hard-boiled attitude and a habit of coming back from the dead.

“I learned how to deal with printers, I learned how to do press checks, I learned a lot about publicity and how to go out and get it, and how important it is to do only positive press and not speak my mind about every little thing,” Jimmy rattles off. “I learned also about how Diamond works and how things are distributed and most important, how to work with others.”

Event came at an interesting time for comics: the market was on its way down, imploding from the glut of the speculator’s craze. By late 1997, Marvel Comics had declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, due to a rash of poor business decisions and a failing market. The newsstand distribution was all but dead, while the comic shops were starting to buckle under the pressure. Mainstream book outlets had yet picked up the soon-burgeoning trade paperback market (sparked, in part, from the injection of Japanese Manga comics).

Marvel was in bad shape, and went to Jimmy and Joe for help. The experiment was a bold one on Marvel’s part, but one that paid off, when they hired the pair to start their new Marvel Knights imprint. The imprint gave a branding to a handful of Marvel titles, primarily Daredevil, where Jimmy and Joe packaged the books into something slicker and (in some cases) darker and more progressive than Marvel had been doing for a while.

“We took over the penthouse on Park Avenue and had constant interaction with the company,” Jimmy recalls. “We changed the way the books were being produced the three years we were there. For us the coloring and production was important, and the stories got a little darker and a little more intense under our banner. At the time when we came in, a lot of the books were getting canceled, and it wasn’t a good time for Marvel. They figured they had nothing to lose with bringing us idiots in. It actually worked out pretty good, as we got a lot of hype for the company, which helped out with the Chapter 11 situation…

“The titles were being taken more seriously. A lot of people forget what the books looked like before we got there. We all benefited from the agreement.”

Their biggest coup was in approaching cult filmmaker Kevin Smith about writing a new arc for the relaunched Daredevil. With Quesada and Palmiotti on the art chores, Smith’s “Guardian Devil” arc revived the noir of Frank Miller’s run and married it to a coolness the book hadn’t had in a long time. Aside from ultimately revealing the identity of Daredevil’s mother, it also resulted in the death of long-time love interest Karen Page. When Daredevil leaves the arch villain to blow his brains out in the last chapter, it was abundantly clear the Marvel Knights line wasn’t playing around.

“It definitely made us better editors because we always approached things visually,” Jimmy says of the Marvel experience. “Even with the writing, we wanted stories to be told on a grander scale and the books to look much better than they have been. I think it has everything to do with us having our own idea of the potential for comics and how we didn’t think it was being reached by their titles at the time. We pushed the envelope on just about everything. Whether it worked or not, it’s okay, because we were pushing where other people were just gliding.

“Branding the line of books was a priority for us. It had a big effect on the way everything looked; even when we did our books, we had a separate logo and did a brand within the Marvel Universe, which had never been done. They stood out and we found that retailers were telling us that if people bought one, they bought them all, because they felt they were getting in on something. We were out there. Joe and I did the commentaries in the back of the books, and went to the shows to talk to the fans. We went out there and connected. People buying them felt that the people creating the titles were listening to them. It’s something that needs to be done more everywhere. Plus, we put our faces and names on everything to show we were committed. Although it seems like an ego thing, we wanted people to identify that we were doing these books, and that they can trust us that they would be good books.”

Jimmy and Joe were following Stan Lee’s example and putting both their faces and selves out for the fans to see.

“We did the fan model, because we felt it was right,” Jimmy says. “There was Tom DeFalco at the time, and Jim Shooter, but nobody was making a connection with the fans beyond a page in the back of the book. A lot of the fans, because we were creator-owned, were rooting for us to succeed. They felt ‘These are our guys’.”

The Marvel Knights were the superhero books that indy readers could go to and not feel ashamed of picking up. The use of Smith on Daredevil brought mainstream media attention to the book, just a few years before comic book movies increased the visibility of the characters.

“I think people take for granted how much stuff we actually did that started these trends,” Jimmy says. “We were just doing it because we were glorified fans who wanted to see some cool shit. It helped that Joe and I were actually guys who went out, met girls, and got laid. We weren’t guys that were introverts or mama’s boys, but just fanboys that made comics a little cooler. That helped everybody and comics image.”

Jimmy and Marvel Knights would part way, and he’d transcend being an inker and editor to carve out a niche as a writer. Quesada soon found himself inheriting the Editor-in-Chief position at Marvel, a job he still thrives in.

“We laughed and kidded back and forth with the audience, and felt it was important to connect that way,” Jimmy reveals. “We wanted to make Marvel Knights the go-to brand, and that everything we did would have a certain amount of cool connected to it. We hit some walls at Marvel, because our brand was doing well and they wanted to stick our brand on other books but fortunately we had a man there, Dan Buckley, who was in a different job than now, and would fight to not let that happen. Now look where Dan is: he’s the publisher. It’s funny how it’s a small world.”

“It’s an even smaller world when you look at my career: Joe is editor-in-chief and Dan Didio was my next door neighbor,” Jimmy continues. “So strange. Dan’s first gig was writing Superboy with me at DC, and they called him in the middle of the run and didn’t know it was the same guy, and offered him the editor-in-chief job. He called me and went ‘Dude, you’re never going to believe, but they offered me the EIC job.’”

Didio first came to DC Comics in 2002, following a career in television story editing and writing. Since his tenure at DC, Didio has implemented company-wide crossovers and events, such as Identity Crisis and Final Crisis. More importantly, though, is Didio’s willingness to experiment with how comic books are packaged: rather than done in a traditional single issue manner, a year of a DC book is like watching a season of a television show, and reading a few trade paperbacks is like sitting down with a boxed set.

“Here’s the thing,” Jimmy points out. “If Dan was a ball player in the major leagues, his average would be really good. He tries things, and sometimes they do and don’t work, and that’s okay because he goes ‘Okay, that doesn’t work. I learned what I needed to learn, so now I’m going to try this.’ A lot of what he has introduced into the DCU is just amazing…people forget how dull the books were right before he got there. If anything, Dan can muster up real excitement…”

Under Didio’s tenure, DC has published three weekly comic books that tell a year-long story (52, Countdown, and Trinity), and currently one (Wednesday Comics) that features Sunday funnies sized weekly installments by a bevy of creative teams.

“As much as people say Countdown was a failure they aren’t looking at the hard facts… it was a weekly book that sold 70,000 comics. That’s not a failure.’ Maybe the story was, but the concept was not a failure. Wednesday Comics is interesting, because who the hell else is going to do that? You okay something like that, and it’s interesting. He’s always trying to mix things up... He could have cancelled Jonah Hex eight times if he wanted to, but he said ‘We need genre books. Jonah Hex is good, and it’ll find its audience.’

“I admire him for it. It has nothing to do with him being a friend of mine, because Paul Levitz could say ‘It doesn’t matter about Hex, kill it,’ and Dan would have to. But Dan experiments a lot and I admire him because of it.”

Jimmy and his partner artist Amanda Conner recently moved to a house in Florida, though they do keep their apartment in Brooklyn and return home from time to time. Jimmy grew up on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, and then down to Gerritsen Beach; despite his relocation to a sunnier clime most of the year, his work shows that you can take the man outta New York, but you can’t take the New York outta the man.

His 2007 Painkiller Jane series for Dynamite Entertainment starts with Jane waking up in a bodybag in the back of an ambulance, and then casually finding her way onto the subway while wearing hardly more than thong underwear:

Funny…You know what’s funny about New York City? Jane narrates. Just take a look around this subway car for example…all these different races, sexes and age differences and not a single person gives a rat’s ass about me being pants-less.

The story takes an unusual turn, as Jane is seduced by a femme fatale, and then comes to terms with her feelings about the one man in her life. Jane was picked up for a short-lived series on cable’s Sci-Fi Channel in 2007.

Most recently, Jimmy, Justin Gray, and Amanda teamed up to produce Power Girl for DC Comics. Conner’s artwork handles the buxom heroine in a tasteful manner that crosses cheesecake superhero art with the facial expressions of cartoonist Chuck Jones. The combination yields an engaging superhero book that takes itself seriously in all the right places.

“I love Power Girl,” Jimmy proclaims. “I think she’s charming and that her character is completely charismatic. We write her with a little attitude, with a ‘I’ll punch my way out’ approach, but still a really intelligent gal. A lot of that goes back to Amanda’s drawing: she’s brilliant with conveying in one face and gesture, getting right to the soul of a character. When you read a book that Amanda draws, you can experience the person, and look into their features and see someone real there.”

In the second issue, set in New York City, people start jumping off the top of a building during a supervillian’s attack on the city. The image drives home the footage of victims of the 9/11 attack jumping from the World Trade Center tower as flames threatened to engulf them. The parallels are impossible to miss.

“We were in New York for that,” Jimmy says of 9/11. “The problem I always have with superhero books is that they’ll fight in a city or blow up a coast, and nobody gets hurt. There’s no collateral damage and they then move on with the rest of the story. People would be dying and the streets would be running with blood. We don’t want to make it morbid, but we do have to acknowledge that regular people are seeing these things.

“We see the footage from 9/11 of people falling out of a window. We look at that and go ‘Oh my God, how bad was it that they had to jump? What were they thinking?’ There was no choice for them but to jump. It was the only way that they would feel better was to jump and then die. We see the image and we never get burned out on it, because as humans our empathy goes out to them. They woke up that morning, kissed their wife and kids goodbye, and all of a sudden there’s a plane going into their building.

“We don’t have to get that heavy all the time, but we need to show that there’s collateral damage. We wanted to make sure readers understood that there are other things going on here. It’s funny, because we have something with the Brooklyn Bridge, and Amanda draws the Bridge with construction on it. They’re rebuilding from the earlier issues. It doesn’t get fixed overnight. We’re trying to do something a little different, to make people understand that it’s not a T and A book.”

After their initial storyline in Power Girl, with the huge supervillian attack, the plan is to make the book even less like the typical superhero title.

“We deal with a lot of things like her getting her apartment, and her pet cat,” Jimmy says. “I think that superhero fanswant to see this type of book every once in a while, because they can’t always have them fight – they want to see the crazy shit.”

Palmiotti continues to work out of their Florida house, and taking advantage of the greater peace offered him there as opposed to New York.

“It gives me more time to work without interruption and is a lot quieter than my New York place,” Jimmy admits. “I’m a lot more relaxed overall, which helps with my work as well as my work load these days. I love New York, but when I’m in the city, the phone literally rings 500 times a day and being local, DC and Marvel editors and friends want me to come up and visit all the time. So… I get more work done in Florida, my peace of mind is better and I am near the beach, which is important to me. It’s nice to have an actual house for a change, instead of a small apartment…and my yard in Florida offers me many hours of yard work, which I call exercise. I am like an old Italian guy with his garden…its good therapy as well, I find.”

Perhaps that’s the secret behind how prolific Jimmy’s been in the past couple of years: not only has he written a slew of comics for Marvel, DC, and Dynamite, but videogames like the unlikely but successful DCU vs Mortal Kombat and a column for the fan news site Newsarama. With his reach extending to the newer and emerging comics media, he’s open to the future of the comic book medium:

“I see comics going digital, big time, and into hardcovers and trade books,” Jimmy speculates. “I see the monthlies going down slowly and slowly. I see the indy publishers as the first ones to switch to trades, in about four years. They’ll go to books like Darwyn Cooke’s brilliant new Parker novel…Honestly, there is just a small amount of people and it’ll always stay popular with them. Other people will find something that appeals to them and make it their own. I don’t see the storytelling changing, but just the format, with trades being the way to go. As an adult, I don’t want the comics all over the place. I like my books.

“It’s happening as we speak. Everything we see something else, like the iPhone application. It may not be for me, but it’s like when I work on a book where I don’t like the art but understand that the audience loves it.”

A special thanks goes out to Alex Segura of DC Comics.

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