For Jamal Igle, 2015 can be summed up in one word: Action. And not just because he’s the Marketing Director for Action Lab Entertainment, where he works daily to spread the word of the various books and characters brought into the world by the publisher: but in life as well. Over the last few years Igle has moved from work-for-hire into creator-owned material, most notably in the form of his ongoing “Molly Danger.” In December Igle wrote about his decision to step back from material he didn’t own in order to invest more time on characters like Molly.
He also took part in the first step of Action Lab’s first ever crossover last November, “Actionverse” #0, which saw Molly cross over with several other Action Lab characters including Stray as the first entry into a burgeoning superhero universe. All in all, it’s been a breakout year of Action for Jamal Igle. To catch up on his eventful 2015 and look ahead to 2016 and beyond — which includes the recent Kickstarter success “BLACK” — CBR News spoke with Igle about what informed his big decision, the projects fueling his passion, and what he’s learned before and since about himself and the industry.
CBR News: You had a fascinating year in comics in 2015. What do you feel last year brought you as a comics creator?
Jamal Igle: I’m still trying to assess it. 2015 had a lot of challenges in terms of my personal output as a creator, juggling not just freelance work but my continued role at Action Lab. My overall visibility as a creator has increased a lot, which is something I aimed for. I think the thing I didn’t really expect has been the increased scrutiny that comes along with it — not to say it’s been bad, far from it, because some incredibly deep conversations have come from it. At the same time, I’ve had my fair share of trollish confrontations as well.
I did a lot more conventions as well, which was great on the one hand but it took me away from home a bit more than I was used to.
One of the main developments in your career over the last few years has been your work at Action Lab Entertainment, which you joined in 2013 first as a creator and then as Marketing Director. How has the publisher changed and subsequently developed over those years, for you?
The company has grown so quickly that it can occasionally be a challenge to keep up with all the things that need to happen daily. Luckily we have a very dedicated group of people behind the scenes who work incredibly hard to make sure that the books look good, read well and ship on time. For me my job continues to be the same as it’s always been, which is to promote both lines to my utmost ability. I have a credo I follow: “Promote everyone’s book the way you’d promote yourself. Don’t play favorites.”
It can be a struggle, because with two imprints we can have as many as eight books shipping in any given week. There’s a lot of things that leak over into the weekends, in terms of prepping review material and talking to reporters and retailers. I try to be as accessible and available as I can.
I think within the industry, there were a lot of people who scratched their heads a bit when I took the job, since most people know me as a comics creator. The people who knew my background prior to working in comics knew I had a marketing and advertising background. I still do social media and advertising work occasionally for companies like Edelman Creative, GSW Inventiv, Samsung, etc. Now, I think it’s sort of a 50/50 thing, although I still have people who remind me daily that I should just be a comic book artist!
I still enjoy being A.L.E’s man on the street, though. It’s fun — occasionally maddening, but fun!
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Action Lab seem to be reshuffling and organizing their comic book lines at the moment, and “Actionverse” is one of your latest additions. What can readers expect from the Actionverse titles in 2016?
Actionverse is an initiative that really came out of Vito Delsante, (the writer/co-creator of “Stray”), Sean Izaakse, (the artist/co-creator of “Stray”), Ray-Anthony Height (the creator of “Midnight Tiger”) and I all wanting to play in the same sandbox. Once we decided that “Molly Danger” and the others were part of the same universe, so many possibilities opened up. That’s how “Actionverse” #0, which shipped this past November came to be.
I had so much fun writing that and seeing the pages from Ray and Sean come in. So with the “Actionverse” crossover that runs through April and May we are linking all of the superhero characters in one series. It’s going to be a way for new readers to get introduced to new characters and is a launching pad for the next phase of each of the series.
The “Actionverse” crossover is a six-issue event which unites the characters from five creator-owned superhero series; Anthony Ruttgaizer’s “The F1rst Hero” which has completed its second miniseries and is currently available for order through Diamond; “Molly Danger”; “Stray,” whose first miniseries has been collected and is available; “Midnight Tiger,” and Shawn Gabborin and Chad Cicconi’s “Fracture,” which has two volumes in trade and are also available for order.
Now, the average person will say, “Another Superhero universe? Really?” And, in a way, I can understand the scrutiny. But what we’re doing is similar to the way the old Marvel comics were handled. It won’t be an intertwined continuity per say, but it allows us to use each other’s characters. It’s also not a closed universe: anyone at Action Lab is welcomed to play in our yard. For example, The Herocats of Stellar City make an appearance in the miniseries and if you look closely, you’ll also see an appearance by Action Lab, Dog of Wonder.
We’ll have other characters joining the lineup as we go forward starting this summer.
As you said, “Actionverse” really adds a spotlight to Molly Danger, your own creator-owned character. What motivated you to bring her into this universe and have her interact with the other Action Lab characters?
It would have been very easy for me to stick to my own continuity, be selfish about what I was doing. Here’s the thing: when Vito, Ray, Sean and I started talking about the possible connections between our characters, it gave me an entirely new angle to potentially explore. We all want to work with our friends when we can, and that’s what this is about. Vito and I have been building a history between Stray and Molly that goes back to his kid sidekick days. We liken it to the old Robin/Superboy silver age team ups. It’s something that I think that will play well as I build the world outside of Coopersville for Molly.
And as part of this, you’ve handed over the character to other writers and artists for the first time. How daunting was that prospect, for you? Are you quite protective of her?
A little, but I think you will always have a little trepidation when you lend your character out. I’ve been lucky that everyone involved has been incredibly respectful of my wishes. It was also a little weird to see other people drawing Molly, but everyone has done such a fantastic job with her, it’s hard to not be excited to see different interpretations of her.
How does this fit as a creator-owned product? Each of the creators involved are lending their characters into a central series, so who owns the story?
It’s a group effort. We all (Anthony, Ray, Shawn, Sean, Vito and I) worked together, banging out the plot over a six-month period and once we figured out the MacGuffin of it all, we all wrote our issues in concert. And when I say this, it’s not hyperbole — we had two hour-long meetings every week for six months. Our email threads got so long we had to break them up so that no one got eye strain! So, while Action Lab owns the “Actionverse” label, each issue is treated like a creator-owned project. We cover our own production costs, just as we would from any other issue, and the profits are going to be split evenly.
You wrote last year about your decision to walk away from work-for-hire properties and focus on your creator-owned work, such as with Molly. I wanted to talk about her for a bit — what made her the character you wanted to start telling creator-owned stories about? What captivates you about the character?
From the time I figured out what Molly’s story was back in 2010, I realized that there was an openness about her as a character that allows for me to explore things I’m interested in personally. I’m fascinated by the cult of personality around celebrity, but as anyone who follows me online knows I’m interested in politics, social justice, equality and a vast number of other things. There’s a view of the world that Molly has where she’s both observer of human nature and catalyst that I find interesting. She’s lonely and world weary, yet bright and exuberant. I think of her like the world’s strongest child star, which really makes her fun to write.
Then there’s the visual impact of this tiny thing ripping into an army of bad guys with a smile on her face that I just dig.
It must be tempting for a lot of artists to have familiar characters and faces on their convention tables. Is it hard to move away from that in favor of developing someone like Molly into a character who fans recognize themselves?
It is really tempting, especially with things like “Supergirl” and “Firestorm,” two characters I have long histories with, having such high visibility on television this season. That doesn’t change that I believe that ultimately, the only longevity you have in any creative endeavor is ownership. There’s always going to be someone who is going to write and draw “Wolverine” or “Harley Quinn”; there will always be hundreds of hands involved in those characters. I just feel that, for me to get to the next level with Molly as a character I have to make her my priority. It’s going to be a work in progress of course, because I’m not rich. I can’t suddenly show up at San Diego with a 10×10 booth and an interactive display.
Whenever I go to a show now, I see hundreds of artist pimping prints of the same batch of characters… I mean how many Deadpool prints can fans be expected to buy at one show? It’s like going to a store that sells nothing but spatulas. At some point, you have to bring them something they’ve never seen. I know that it’s going to be harder, but this is about the long game. No character hits immediately. It takes work and care to develop a following for a character, so I need to lay the groundwork now, continue to build the audience for my girl.
What’s the reaction to your piece been like? Have you heard much from other artists on the subject?
Overwhelmingly positive, actually. Of course when you make such a declarative statement, it brings a lot of questions as well. I think one of the misconceptions has been that I’m anti mainstream now, which is not the case at all. It doesn’t stop me from accepting work from other companies. I’m taking an approach similar to that of Mike Mignola, Terry Moore, Erik Larsen and others where the first thing I want people to see from me is “Molly Danger.” I have other projects that I will be involved in on a creative level, which will hopefully be announced in the next few months. There may even be a time where I’m doing more work for mainstream companies like I did this past year.
That’s interesting. How do you think working as Marketing Director for Action Lab has changed the way you market and approach your own projects to an audience?
Oh, it’s certainly had a big influence as to how I interact with the public and what’s more important to me as a creator. One of the things that changed for me was making the decision that I needed to be more honest with my fans. There’s a subtle silencing of comics creators who work for mainstream companies. It’s not insidious, it’s part of the comic book “cone of silence” to not disagree with fellow creators or company policies publicly.
Once I decided to just be me, speak my mind respectfully, things opened up for me.
You’ve been in a really focused place for quite a while. How do you keep that approach going? How do you maintain your creative energy so carefully and with such precision?
Kidding! I can’t help but be excited by my work and the opportunities I’ve had. This is the job I’ve wanted since I was five years-old. I’ve been a working comics creator since 1989 in one capacity or another, and in that time I’ve worked with Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, Sterling Gates, Stuart Moore, Dan Jolley and some of the best writers and editors in comics. I learned from them, and their work informs my own.
I’ve travelled and lectured internationally, I’ve spoken at the Library of Congress, I’ve been on national television. I’ve met some many great people over the years. I also have an incredibly supportive family, with a wife who encourages me and supports me in everything I do.
Ultimately, I was raised by a woman who taught me diligence and dedication. My mother, Clarissa, taught me by example to keep your promises, show up on time and do the work. I will always be grateful for her being the guiding star that informed my work ethic.
On a personal level, you’ve been working on losing weight, and have found huge success in that. Was that part of the process for you? Do you think changing your general health has brought new energy into your comics work?
For those who don’t already know, I’ve lost 140lbs over the last two years. When I was on contract at DC, I was very much a workaholic. Sometimes only getting three to four hours of sleep a night for months at a time. I did this for a decade and it took its toll. I was pre-hypertensive, pre-diabetic, on blood pressure medication… and I hated it but resigned myself to the idea that there was no way I could change. Then, just after my daughter Catie’s 6th birthday, I decided I needed to do something… anything… to try and mitigate what was going on. I had issues with my back, with my knees… Oy, I was a mess!
It’s not like I hadn’t been on a diet before. I’d join Weight Watchers, lose 20-30 lbs and call it a day, and six months to a year later be back to where I was previously. This time, I said I was just going to take it slowly and lose 20 lbs over the course of a year. I started walking every day, went from walking 20 minutes about a half a mile to doing a four mile walk every morning. I lost the first 20 lbs in 3 months and just kept going. Now I workout six days a week, I run five and half to six miles a day.
I do think it has helped my creativity, but I think that treating myself better in general does. I had to realize that I’m going to be 44 this year, and I can’t pull all-nighters anymore. So I set rules for myself and I stick to them. It’s certainly been a boost for me on a daily basis, and it’s funny that I actually feel weird on the days when I don’t work out or even oversleep.
Having worked both for larger companies and for yourself, you’ve seen many sides of the comics industry and really seem switched-on to what things are like. What advice would you offer people just breaking into comics now?
There are so many things I could say and have said to people who ask me this question. Here’s the bottom line: just do it. There are so many avenues to getting your work seen now that a lot of new creators are able to take advantage of, so much more than even when I got in. You have to figure out what your ultimate goal is. It’s not an easy question, believe me, because established creators are still navigating the same shark-infested waters.
If you want to be the next great Marvel/DC/Dark Horse/Valiant/what-have-you creator, you need to make sure your work is up to their standard. They have a very specific look they are going for and while you can bitch and moan about house styles, they work for those characters. If you’re shooting to be the next great Image/Action Lab/IDW creator, there’s a bit more flexibility but your work has to be on point. Not just creatively but also in how you handle yourself professionally and that goes the same way for the corporate comics crowd. It’s a small industry and all you have is your work and your reputation.
If your goal is to be truly independent, then like I said, just do it. Self-publish, start a webcomic, post your comics to Tumblr (make sure you lockdown those copyrights and trademarks!) and get it out there. Then collect your strips and find a publisher like Action Lab Entertainment, who is more than happy to work with new creators; or self-publish.
And more than anything, be patient. It’s going to take time for you to get into the position you ultimately want to be in, so do the work, go to conventions, and talk to other creators and editors. The days of the “Bar Con” may not be as frequent as they used to be but there are opportunities out there if you’re willing to put the work into it.
But that can be said about anything in your life.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Jamal Igle’s upcoming projects and “Actionverse” from Action Lab.