Whether it’s through DC Comics’ New 52 title “I, Vampire” or Marvel’s “The Monkey King,” or previously for the Harvey-nominated “Echoes,” comics fans will probably recognize Joshua Hale Fialkov’s work. Nominated for multiple Harvey and Eisner Awards, Fialkov has been on the comics scene for ten years. Whether it’s indie comics, his own publishing company Hoarse and Buggy Productions, the Kindle-exclusive “Tumor,” his original webcomics or his more mainstream work, Fialkov has worked at and learned virtually every aspect of creating comics.
Originally a Pittsburgh native, Fialkov now lives in Los Angeles where he writes comics on a full-time basis with side projects including the 2008 SyFy Original Movie, “Infected,” “Afro Samurai Resurrection,” the “LG15: The Resistance” web series and video game work for some of the industry’s most well-known publishers. As a comic creator, he’s explored the darker side of comics in the tradition of his favorite childhood comics such as “Creepy” and “Eerie” and is currently delving into the more philosophical issues of superheroes in Image Comics’ “The Last of the Greats” — but did you know about his love of Japanese comics or how his Emerson degree in Writing and Directing for the Stage and Screen began his career in comics? Fialkov took some time out to speak with CBR News about that and more — including his views on the evolution of the comic industry and what he feels the future will bring.
CBR News: You went to Emerson and graduated with a BFA in writing and directing, is that right?
Joshua Hale Fialkov: Yeah, my degree is ridiculous. It’s a BFA in writing and directing for the stage and screen, which means that I essentially made my own major because I wanted to do theater, I did acting and it was all that stuff. Unfortunately, there’s not really much of a living to be made in theater. I was writing, I had a writing partner back then, and we were trying to get movies and TV pilots and were doing all that stuff from Boston. We sold a TV pilot to an independent producer when I was 20 and we picked up to move to LA to get the thing going. Essentially, by the time we got to Los Angeles, literally the time that the road trip took, the entire thing fell apart. [Laughs]
We quit our jobs and everything, so there was nothing to go back to. So we continued out here. I got here, and this was right after September 11, and I write really, really dark stuff. There wasn’t a place in film and TV for that stuff. Everything I did was too dark or too political or too heavy because everybody was trying to stay light and positive instead of facing the challenges that our nation was in the middle of.
I loved comics when I was a kid and 2001 was right when comics were really spectacular. You had Bendis and Brian K. Vaughan and Ed Brubaker, all those guys were just breaking through and doing the work of their careers, just really reinventing what it meant to be a writer in comics. The reality is the point of entry is so much easier. It’s just cheaper, it’s physically cheaper to make a comic book than it is to make a movie or a TV show. There’s this great distribution network, you can create for a few thousand bucks, a book and you can have it in comic shops across the country. That’s an amazing thing.
Coming from theater where you just sort of get it done and do it yourself, it was a natural progression to do comics. I had a publishing company in 2003. That was probably when we were really starting to gear up. I bought Richard Starkings’ “How to Letter Comics,” I bought every book on Illustrator and books on Photoshop and I just learned how to do it. I did a webcomic for about two years that I wrote and drew. I learned just from doing that about not just writing, but the production of it that goes into making comic books. There was a time when I could do literally every job from writing to pre-press to marketing and PR. That’s always been the sort of person that I am. I’m a control freak. I like having as much authority of something that has my name on it as humanly possible.
[Laughs] I guess that sort of explains the BFA in Writing and Directing for the Stage and Screen. So, you just fell into doing comics because you thought it was cool, or were there other reasons?
The truth of it is that I, as a creative person, because of my OCD and because of my general obsessive nature, I have a hard time — this comes off terribly — but I don’t like taking notes from people who aren’t better at their jobs than me. I’ll put it that way. And that’s what working in Hollywood is. Unfortunately. Sometimes you’re really lucky and I’ve been really lucky with the projects I’ve worked on where that isn’t the case. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, you’re backed into situations and — there’s a reason there are so few truly fantastic movies and that’s because it’s so hard to get anything made, bad, good or otherwise. Doing comics gave me that feeling of complete control. At the end of the day, what comes out and what people see is infinitely closer to what I envisioned and the story I want to tell than if I did it in literally any other medium except for straight prose — and I’ve written prose. I’ve done short fiction, I’ve got a couple novels in my drawers. The difference is that I’m a visual storyteller and being able to tell a story visually is what excites me and gets me passionate. It speaks to me. Comics is a great way to be an auteur. You get the same level of control that Martin Scorsese has. Unfortunately, the way you do that in comics means you’re giving up having access to the audience that Martin Scorsese has in terms of numbers but it’s worth it to be able to tell the stories you want to tell from the jump.
It’s interesting that you bring up comics as a medium for storytelling because one of your projects that gained a great deal of exposure was “Tumor,” a Kindle-exclusive graphic novel from Archaia. What prompted you to put it out digitally instead of in print?
There are a lot of reasons. I started in webcomics, so I was doing a webcomic almost ten years ago. I’m not really saying anything progressive here, but digital is clearly the future. Digital is clearly the more cost-effective way to get the early adopters onboard with what you’re doing. For me, everything I do I talk about what the digital component is. It’s a big, big part of what we’re doing because the fact is there’s nothing else. The print market is shrinking, everyone’s having a hard time surviving, especially the independents. So if there’s a way to build buzz and word of mouth on a project that doesn’t cost you a ton of money, you have to do it.
Actually, I think we did that book too soon for the Kindle because the software wasn’t there yet. If you go and download the individual chapters now, it’s almost unreadable because the software has changed so much since we put up those files. Archaia has not made much of an effort to update them. Like I said though, comics — especially independent comics — are all about the early adopters. That means there’s a great crossover with e-readers and digital.
You’ve done digital as well as webcomics, but now you’re doing much more mainstream books such as DC’s “I, Vampire.” As someone who came from webcomics, do you feel like you have a different reading background than other writers?
The comics I read as a kid were not the comics that most other people read when they were kids. I know that. The thing with writing “I, Vampire” is that I was psyched because I read “House of Mystery” as a kid. Literally, my five favorite comic books were “Creepy,” “Eerie,” “House of Mystery,” “House of Secrets” and “Omaha the Cat Dancer.” That was an odd one because I probably should not have been reading a semi-pornographic comic about an anatomically correct cat lady who just really likes to fuck. Man, did that girl like to fuck.
I grew up reading more horror comics and more genre comics. I remember getting my first DC comic when I was 7 years-old and it was an issue of “Tales from the Crypt,” the one with Enoch, the two-headed boy. That’s the stuff that really liberated me as a kid. As I grew up, my brother had a friend who was a real manga and anime nut. I remember reading “Ranma 1/2” when I was 7 years old, reading “Appleseed” and “Akira” and everything like that. I read “X-Men,” I read “Spider-Man,” I read “Batman” and “Superman — I read all that stuff, but it didn’t make as much of a mark on me as those other books. Even in the ’90s when I drifted away from comics, I would buy every issue of “Usagi Yojimbo,” I would buy every issue of “Concrete” that came out. There was stuff that always drew me in. I’m really, really in love with the Golden Age superhero comics because there’s a purity and experimentalness to them that got lost in mainstream comics post-Lee and Kirby. They were the last bastion of those progressives; experimental, let’s do something entirely new.
Every other month when my copy of “20th Century Boys” comes is the most excited I get for a comic book. The thing about manga is that those guys are rewarded for being different. They’re really rewarded for being outside the box. Can you imagine pitching “20th Century Boys” to an American publisher and having them be like, “Sure, why not?” Or “Monster?” That’s the thing. In Japan, there’s a way to foster talent when you can actually make a living as you’re learning and getting better whereas for a lot of us, you are in a race to break in because you’re working a full-time job and trying to write comics on the side. I’ve been lucky because I’m in LA and I do other stuff. I’ve been lucky that in the 9 years I’ve been writing comics, probably about 6 of them have been without a day job without work from Marvel or DC. This is the first year that the bulk of my income has been from Marvel and DC.
Besides “I, Vampire,” you had a “Fear Itself” tie in, “The Monkey King.” How do you feel like you bring the sensibilities you mentioned to your work? How are you able to do that so effectively?
The number one thing I think about, and I think about it too much for my own good, is technique. That’s what manga has that we don’t have. They’re telling you stories in such a long, sprawling way. They get to really experiment with how you tell the story. What is the best way to tell the story? A lot of what happens in American comics is that we’re on a treadmill. We’re on a treadmill to fit in with what everybody’s doing and building a cohesive universe. “I, Vampire,” in particular, is free of that and I think that’s part of why the book turned out so well. I’m not really forced into anything. I’m doing my own story and doing what I want to do, versus something like “The Monkey King” where it’s a “Fear Itself” crossover. I hadn’t read “Fear Itself” when I wrote it. I was sent a script for “Iron Man 2.0” that he appears in. That’s all I had to go on. So, how do I tell the best story that I can while appeasing the banner that’s on the front of the book while also appeasing what I want to accomplish? It’s genuinely hard. I’m not happy with that book because it’s like writing to a moving target. I think that happens a lot. I might be wrong, but in my experience, that happens a lot where we race around far too much for our own good.
Whereas, on “I, Vampire,” I just turned in issue #9. I have had the time, not only for my own story, but I’ve had the time in terms talking to everyone else working and really getting a sense of what my friends and everybody in general is doing in the universe to tell a big, long story — to tell a story that I’m free, within reason, to tell what I want to tell. And that’s awesome. All the work I’ve done for Marvel or DC was one-shots or fill-ins and frankly it’s not what I’m good at. I’m good at long-form story. The first multi-part story I ever wrote for Marvel or DC was a “Superman/Batman” arc earlier this year. It’s that funny thing where I’m writing it and I’m like, “Oh! Right! I can totally take my time. I can actually spend the amount of time required to tell a story.” That was the first time I did work-for-hire for Marvel or DC that I was really happy with. It’s a weird business because it’s personality driven but only to a point — personality like creative talent — whereas in Japan, that’s all there is. It’s not about the publishers, it’s about the talent.
Honestly, I think it’s one of the things that has really hurt us because you’re got Marvel fans, DC fans, people who are indie comics fans, but the fact is there’s not enough people to subdivide like that. What we really need is people who follow books they’re passionate about and excited about. You get more out of them and it’s fine if you’ve got somebody who’s bought every issue of “The Incredible Hulk” or whatever. It’s better if he’s buying every issue of “The Incredible Hulk” because he loves it and he thinks it’s genuinely compelling storytelling. I think that gets lost a lot in our business versus, again, in manga where you prove yourself by doing it. You prove yourself by doing something and if you have an audience, you have an audience as opposed to having to conform to something they want you to be.
Do you feel the transition from independent comics was a little more difficult because of the kinds of stories you tell and the limited space you had to tell stories when you first started working for Marvel and DC?
Oh yeah, look, I get it. No matter how good my work is or isn’t, if you read “Echoes,” what in that book makes you think I can write “Superman?” Nothing. The hero is a child murderer, for god’s sake! I write dark books about morally grey characters. Superheroes sort of portend to that, they aspire to be that, but at the end of the day, Superman is a good guy and Lex Luthor’s the bad guy. No matter how much you try and twist that, that’s what it is. I think what I do is almost scary narratively to other people and I’ve seen that. I’ve had editors say, “Your work is terrific, I just don’t know where to apply it. I don’t know what to do.” For me, I come from a family of workers. We are worker people. And it just so happens that’s what I do, when I have a job in front of me, I do the absolute best job I can no matter what it is.
I think “I, Vampire” is actually a pretty good example. Even though it’s in my “genre,” the book as J.M. Dematteis created it and as the series went, it’s gothic horror in the bodices and over-the-top emotion and that’s the opposite of what I do. My horror has nothing to do with monsters. Actually, I think the parts of “I, Vampire” that reverberate with people that I’ve talked to when they read it aren’t the monster parts. It’s the monstrousness of their relationship. You have this relationship that feels, I think, super, super real. It feels like everybody who’s had a bad breakup — like when you’re in love with a girl and then she breaks your heart and then you have to see her every day in English class — it’s that, except 500 years of it.
It’s finding a way to convince people to give you a shot and that’s hard. But once you get it, maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m overconfident, but once you do it and once people see what you can do, it gets considerably easier. Everyone has a path, everyone has a road — for some people that road is a lot shorter than other people. I have moments where I realize I’ve been doing this for 10 years. When “I, Vampire” was announced, there was a chorus of, “Who the fuck is that guy?” I’m like, “Seriously? 10 years. Tons of awards. Book published by Random House, biggest publisher in the world. Seriously? Anybody?” And then you realize that well, no, I have 3000 fans. I have those 3000 people who read everything I do and now you’re given this opportunity with the relaunch and with this book to reach twenty or thirty times that audiences and it’s fucking great. Truly, truly exciting.
You have been nominated for Harveys and Eisners, and you also had “Elk’s Run” released by Random House — coming from this independent publishing background, are you excited to have your books reach a more mainstream audience?
It is really exciting! On one hand, I’m writing really far ahead. Issue #1 [of “I, Vampire”] is out, I’m already on issue #9. It’s just a weird place to be in the head space where this book is coming out and I just want to be looking forward. I’m doing dozens and dozens of things where I have to talk about this thing I wrote six months ago. But yes, it is rewarding, but it’s rewarding in that it’ll be on a bigger stage. I know what “I, Vampire” sold and I know what “The Last of the Greats” sold and I would be way happier if “Last of the Greats” sold what “I, Vampire” sold because I would be making a fortune. So, the hope is that doing all the mainstream stuff and getting to play with all these awesome toys will actually channel people towards my other work. Creator-owned and doing my own stuff will always be my heart and soul and to really enjoy work for hire, I have to have that kind of freedom. The reality is that freedom for the most part doesn’t exist. So with “I, Vampire,” I feel about it as though it were a creator-owned book and I have the same love and passion for it because the book is exactly what I want. Not a word got changed by editorial, everything is exactly what I want. Everybody who’s working on the book from Matt [Idelson] and Wil [Moss] who are editing it to Andrea [Sorrentino] and Marcelo [Maiolo] who are drawing it, everybody who’s working on the book is working toward making it awesome with a genuine passion. That’s something that I think isn’t always the case in mainstream comics. We treat it and we argue about it with the same passion that you would something you owned outright. That’s really rewarding. That part of it is wonderful. The trick is, how do you get to do that every time?
In addition to writing comics, you’ve also done work for feature films, video games, movies — where would you like to go in comics? What’s your eventual goal?
I love this medium. I mean that genuinely. I’ve worked in everything. Literally. If there is a creative medium, I have worked in it. I’ve worked in radio, I’ve worked theater, I’ve worked in TV, I’ve worked in film, I’ve worked in music — I have literally gone across all media — video games — I have done just about everything you can do and nothing excites me and lights a fire in me the same way that comics does. That being said, I have a beautiful 18-month old daughter sleeping upstairs and unfortunately, comics are not the most lucrative business in the world.
Luckily, I love writing, period. The way I’ve survived the past ten years is that every two years I take a job outside comics, whether it’s working on a web series, I worked on “Afro Samurai Resurrection,” more recently I wrote a SyFy Channel movie, I always try to find something that’s a fun, big paycheck to balance things out. I would love more than anything in the world — my dream world is me, Scott Snyder, Jeff Lemire and Paul Cornell running DC Comics creatively. That would be amazing. It’s almost not just for the work. For me, the exciting thing is that my kid is growing up in a world where comics won’t be the same thing. By the time she’s five or six years-old, print comics will be minimized. By the time she’s a teenager, there certainly won’t be the direct market the way it is now.
That’s what’s great about the New 52, the thing that I talk to all my buddies about — it’s the idea of let’s build this thing. Let’s fix it. Let’s take the opportunities that we have in front of us and all our creative energy to make sure that there is an industry, to make sure that these companies that are producing the most recognizable icons exist so that there are people filtering to me in my independent comics. It’s a little different now because you have movies and you have boyfriends pushing books on their girlfriends, but the reality is that most people won’t walk into a store and be like, “Oh! Echoes! Child murderer! Let’s buy that!” because it’s not what you think of in a comic book. But having quality, sophisticated mainstream books for people who go to the movies or watch the TV shows or just love the characters — like every girl who has a Wonder Woman notebook and then sees a copy of “Wonder Woman” on the shelf — they should pick that book up and be really excited by it and want to explore more of what we do. The thought of being one of those people is very, very exciting to me and getting the opportunity to put my mark on what the medium can do in a broader way. Or I’m also perfectly happy doing creator-owned books off in the corner and making a living on it. I will take either option — or both!
For more on Joshua Hale Fialkov’s upcoming projects keep it tuned to CBR and visit his official site at www.thefialkov.com.