THE COLOR BARRIER is a “magazine” spotlighting discussions on diversity in comic books, graphic novels and popular culture.
The interviews, profiles, and subject matter featured focuses on men and women whose accomplishments serve to create a more informative and culturally diverse landscape of entertainment.
Phil Jimenez broke into the comic book industry as a penciller at DC Comics in 1991 and has been a fixture at both DC and Marvel ever since. His resume includes runs on “The Invisibles,” “Tempest,” “New X-Men,” “Infinite Crisis,” “Amazing Spider-Man,” “Astonishing X-Men,” “Adventure Comics” and most recently “Savage Wolverine.” But he is perhaps best known for his work on “Wonder Woman,” including a two-year stint as both writer and artist on the series that introduced Diana’s first Black love interest, as well as co-authoring “The Essential Wonder Woman Encyclopedia” with John Wells. Jimenez publicly came out as gay during his work on DC’s “Tempest,” and much of his work has featured progressive storytelling and diverse characters.
In the second part of his conversation with THE COLOR BARRIER, Jimenez touches on the responsibility he felt depicting the 1920s Harlem Renaissance in “The Invisibles,” if he feels pressure as a gay Latino artist working in comics, and juggling different hats as an artist working for other writers and as a writer/artist responsible only to his own vision. The creator also teases whether or not he’ll ever create his own version of Wonder Woman, what advice he gives to young creators and how his career has doubled as a way for him to grow as both an artist and a person.
As a gay Latino creator in comics, have members of the fan community ever projected any expectations on you to be an advocate or symbol for either or both of their communities?
I’m not sure. I certainly know I love being a representative of the gay community in our business, and I’m certainly a better gay (read: white urban gay) than Latino, in terms of visibility and representation. More technically, I’m definitely a lousy Hispanic, if one thinks of Hispanic as a language-specific designation, although some Latin friends of mine say I represent just one more aspect of an incredibly diverse and nuanced field of types, groups, and subgroups in the Latino “category.” Still, I think people who seek representation in the mainstream probably do so from folks who “read” more Latino culturally, either via language, experience, or even food; certainly my aunts, uncles, and cousins are better reps for Mexicans than I am, if for no other reason than their Spanish is far better than mine (and their upbringing and experiences are far more Latin-culture specific than mine, which is primarily that of an American white male from Los Angeles and NYC).
I’ve always seen myself as a “professional” gay, someone who combines my politics and social outlook as a gay man with my work and how I choose to represent myself in my business. I claim it, find no shame in it, and I’m proud to represent, even if I’m keenly aware that I do so from a place of privilege — I have to be very careful to remember that “gay” doesn’t simply mean white and male, and so if I choose to embrace this advocacy as I do, I have to advocate for all gay people, and make sure the symbols I use in my work represent the many diverse facets of the LGBT community. It’s the least I can do.
To my knowledge, the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s has only been shown three times in mainstream comics — or at least by the Big Two publishers, Marvel and DC. One of those appearances was in Grant Morrison’s spy series, “The Invisibles,” for DC’s Vertigo imprint, and you were the starting artist for that arc.
How important was it to you to accurately and responsibly depict such an important era in Black history and American history?
Super important. Childhood and college-age experiences — let alone living in diverse cities like New York City and Los Angeles and coming from a diverse household myself — have made me keenly aware of the importance of proper representation, especially of history and costume that seems enormously underrepresented in my field.
The Harlem Renaissance was this insane time in American history — like, this fifteen-year chunk of time that spawned all these amazing writers, artists, musicians and totally helped reshape the way Americans, and the world, thought of African-Americans and their contribution to the culture (including African-Americans themselves). How can one draw that and not want to do it the justice it deserves?
Also, I just love research — there are a million stories in all that research — in the people, the period, the objects, the costumes; for me, it’s a way of learning more about the world, and of infusing the fictional world, and its characters, with a little more life (and, hopefully, showcasing a whole new facet of history to consumers).
That said, these characters and ideas were the brainchild of Grant Morrison. Without him, I may have never had the opportunity to draw this material, or tackle the Harlem Renaissance artistically. He’s the real hero here.
Throughout your career, you’ve gone back and forth between being an artist, solely, and being a writer/artist, including your recent story in Marvel Comics’ “Savage Wolverine.”
Are you on a career trajectory to being a full-time writer/artist?
I always say, I only write and draw when writers aren’t writing me anything I want to draw. Or when I have a specific story to tell, and I seem to be the only one interested in telling it.
Otherwise, when I’m working with masters like Grant Morrison or Warren Ellis, I’m perfectly content letting them do the writing work, while I draw the pictures that bring their words to narrative life. This lets me learn about writing and pace, gets me thinking bigger than I’m used to about things and characters I might have only seen one way. And usually, these writers create content that lets me play, knowing my goal is to bring out the best in their work, too. I love that kind of collaboration and generally prefer it.
I’ve only written for the “Big Two,” DC and Marvel, so my experiences are limited to the big superhero companies. I think I’m an adequate writer with a pretty even number of successes and failures at those two houses. I definitely have certain weaknesses and specific strengths. The most successful pieces I’ve ever written and drawn were very tightly plotted from beginning to end — and, believe it or not, had minimal changes inserted along the way. The least successful were the most hampered with editorially, the ones where I was forced to change the organic flow of the story to accommodate some company need or editorial caveat.
But that’s often part of the game. Making adjustments, adapting, sometimes quite suddenly, to the larger needs of the corporation you’re working for. I’ve gotten better at it over the years, but certainly in the early days of my career — when I was probably doing the most writing and drawing, I was way too thin skinned about it, and had a hard time dealing with some of the changes I was forced to make (especially the ones I knew would be bad in the long run, and were). But that’s what happens when you do work for hire; when you’re just one of the workhorses; when you play with toys that aren’t yours; when you’re not one of the “untouchable” writers whose work is passed along with little or no edits. At the end of the day, I took the money — so the buck really does stop with me.
On my most-acclaimed works as a writer-artist, the editors were really divine caretakers who guided me to completion and mentored me without altering the content or story direction too radically; they pushed me hard without annihilating the work itself. They knew how to read my personality and accommodate me and my creative needs (I can be a demanding freelancer, but only because I know what kind of reader/critic I am, and always seek to challenge the questions/problems I’d bring up if I was reading the work myself).
My stories tend to be dense. I tend to cram my stories with pictures and words, and not always to great success. My rationale, misguided as it may be, is simple: the work that I used to love when I was younger was fairly dense with art, words and ideas. It was not quick reading. There was a lot to look at, a lot to read. So, in this day and age of expensive but disposable entertainment, I always like to “fill” the pages with as much information as possible, to make the purchase one that consumers can go back to over and over, like I used to.Â I like to give them enough where they’ll always find some new detail or tidbit when they open the pages.
I continue to strive to learn to be more… economical and efficient in my storytelling, though I do still love the “dense” approach, and enjoy the challenge of trying to incorporate a lot of story-telling information into a limited space. Hopefully, I can take what I’ve learned from the great storytellers of my medium and carry those skills elsewhere in my business and others. Practice makes perfect as the saying goes, so I’d better start practicing!
Will we see the Phil Jimenez idea which explores the female hero archetype, without the restraints that come with a globally-recognized intellectual property like Wonder Woman?
My goal is yes, in two specific projects, one of which is a full-on genre piece; the other of which is definitely not.
Admittedly, I have one or two more Wonder Woman stories I’d like to tell. One of the great things about that character, I think, are the expansive ways one can interpret her. It’s built into the DNA of the character, and even though I object to certain creative directions on metatextual grounds, I cannot deny that nearly all these interpretations can track their roots to the original iteration created by [William Moulton] Marston and are popular and valid among a wide variety of readers and consumers. Indeed, she speaks to different people in different ways; it could be argued she is the perfect mythological construct in this way — adaptable to the needs of the people of the day; mutable; evolving without stagnation.
It’s one of the goals I’d have with any character I created inspired by Wonder Woman (figuratively, not literally) — to create a myth so profound and yet so malleable it can survive the ages in different forms through different stories and interpretations, yet still have roots in, and be true to, its archetypal origins.
You did an interview a few years back in The SVA Journal, the monthly magazine of our mutual Alma Mater, New York City’s School of Visual Arts. In that interview, you offered practical career advice to aspiring artists.
In what other ways are you using your wealth of knowledge in the comics industry to help the next generation of artists?
Ha! I’m not sure I’d call what’s in my head “a wealth of knowledge.” I certainly know some things, and believe others with all my heart — but just because I think it is, doesn’t necessarily make it so. But I am good at teaching, and connecting with students (although a few might disagree); I do know how to offer practical advice and how to hone their skill sets, and I know how to instill both hope and practical thinking about their future in the business. I think I have a pretty good idea of the various directions my industry is taking, and encourage students to explore a variety of options professionally and artistically, to make sure their bases are covered, so to speak.
I still teach at the School of Visual Arts. I also mentor design students in a program run by the Cooper Hewitt, the National Design Museum of the Smithsonian Institute. The winner’s original design work becomes the DOE’s logo and is seen by literally hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.Â I’m a judge for the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, which is an amazing organization with many famous alumni (i.e. Andy Warhol) — so that’s a gig I take very seriously. I do portfolio reviews and shows and conventions, and I try to connect people when I can (although I’m terrible about this without reminders), so that they can help each other make better comics, and better art.
As an artist and writer working in the comic book medium, full of metaphors and high concepts, has your decades-long career been a vehicle for personal growth? Has it impacted you profoundly on a personal level?
Oh, yes. These characters and the metaphors they stand for have had a profound effect on me. They were affecting my lives in ways I couldn’t begin to imagine back when I was a child, just discovering them.
Through these characters and concepts, I’ve been seriously forced to examine issues of masculinity and femininity, race, power, politics, war, sex, gender and sexuality, beauty, commerce, story and all the so-called “big issues” of the day. I’ve created and worked on characters that challenge my preconceived notions of the world I live in, and interacted with readers and fellow creators who do the same.
One of the things I love about superhero comics is that, by their very nature, they deal with concepts of heroism, of love, of villainy, of war and destruction; of good and evil and what lies in between. If you truly contemplate these things — not simply to peddle them in a commercial space but really truly ponder the meanings of these ideas — what is a hero? What is a villain? What is goodness? What is evil? Do these concepts truly exist? What are the roots of our conceptions of good and evil? Why do we aspire to heroism? Why do we fall into villainy? Why do so many readers revel in villainy — and often, the most hideous kind (the Joker, for example, is a child-killing, sociopathic mass-murderer/serial killer on a scale that makes Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer pale in comparison, and yet people dress up like him, call him out as their favorite character, cheer his appearances, and even claim he’s the sane one in the Batman universe)? What is the visceral and sociological thrill it gives them? And what type of heroes (and villains) do I want to write about? What do I have to say about it all?
I tend to be in the minority when it comes to this, but I was never the biggest fan of heroes who were “just like” me. The characters I love and “relate” to the most were ones I aspired to be more like; who represented goodness and ethics and kindness and self-sacrifice, as well as fun and adventure and a view of the universe that’s bigger than my own. They were reminders to me of the things I felt I should be, because it would make my life better and would make the world better. They were people I looked up to. They were characters who didn’t always affirm the world I lived in, but challenged me to think about how I wanted to live in it, how I wanted to impact it, and with whom. My favorite characters made their worlds better, and therefore, my world better, and whom I believed could do the same for other people like me — giving me guidance, hope, something to aspire to, a world far bigger than my own to dream about, grasp for, live for. So yes, these stories and their characters have had a profound effect on me and I suspect the most important characters to me will always be there in my head, and heart.
This is why I take my job so seriously. I know the impact other creators had on me while telling their stories through this medium. Because of them, I’ve had a particularly wonderful and gifted life, been able to live my dreams and impact others in the same, almost generational way. Like all businesses, I know mine exists to make profit and to make shareholders happy. But I always think it’s incredible when businesses end up making money and impacting lives for the better. I gladly spent my money on comics when I was young, because of what I got out of them — because of the amazing effects they had on my life. I cherish the medium for its potential, for the times it’s lived up to that potential, and for allowing me the opportunity to impact others the way I was impacted. Isn’t that a thing most people want in their lives, to know they’ve made a difference? To know it all meant something?