Palmiotti & Gray Talk Cell Block Earth and Life Outside of Superheroes

Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray are known to many comics fans for writing superheroes like Power Girl or Hawkman, or for their lengthy runs on Jonah Hex and All Star Western. But the two have also spent years working on a long list of comics in other genres for different publishers. They’ve published a number of books through PaperFilms including Sex and Violence and Retrovirus, and they work with Adaptative Studios where they’ve written and edited books such as Abbadon and Hype.

Late last month, Dark Horse Comics released Cell Block Earth and Other Stories. The book consists of two stories that appeared in Dark Horse Presents -- "The Deep Sea" and "Wrestling with Demons " -- along with the titular all-new story. Palmiotti also has recently launched a a href="https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1397702842/killing-time-in-america-a-hardcover-adult-graphic" target="_blank">Kickstarter campign for a new hardcover graphic novel, Killing Time in America.

RELATED: Palmiotti and Gray Dive Into The Deep Sea

CBR talked with the duo about Cell Block Earth and Other Stories, writing short comics and self-contained stories, and what they’re working on now.

CBR: So what is Cell Block Earth and Other Stories?

Jimmy Palmiotti: The "Cell Block Earth" story is a brand-new 24-page story about aliens dumping their criminals on earth and leaving, featuring the amazing art of Juan Santacruz, my artist on Painkiller Jane and The Resistance from a while back. The second story, "The Deep Sea," is about a bunch of explorers lost at sea that are found 40 plus years later, and haven’t aged a day. That features the art of Tony Akins and Paul Mounts.

Justin Gray: All three stories are rooted in pulp fiction genres ranging from deep sea and kaiju to demons and monster and finally an alien invasion of sorts. In "Wrestling with Demons," an MMA fighter and his daughter are traveling to his first big fight in Las Vegas, but when they stop in an old ghost town his daughter is kidnapped by supernatural creatures. That features beautiful and moody art by Andy Kuhn and John Rauch. The book has 96 pages of story.

How did you two end up writing comics for Dark Horse Presents?

Palmiotti: We wrote the two older stories a few years back for DHP and the third recently. We were asked by the guys there to pitch some new ideas and we went out trying to cover something different than just superheroes. We chose these three particular genres because they each have something fun to them.

You were writing these stories in eight-page chapters -- how did that shape these stories, or how you wrote?

Palmiotti: We had to get to the core of the stories a lot quicker than usual and not spend a ton of time developing small details. Justin and I have a lot of experience how to do this after writing done-in-one Jonah Hex books for 7 years.

Gray: Exactly, they had to be lean, sharp and very compact, but that was a great opportunity to focus squarely on packing as much punch into each tale as we could. Creatively, it was very challenging and rewarding because when you tell short stories they need to grab the reader immediately, and never let go.

I was going to say, the two of you wrote Jonah Hex for years which were mostly self-contained stories, which is something we don't see in comics, and short stories, or eight-page chapters, aren't something that we see in comics much anymore, either.

Palmiotti: I think it’s coming back. We did that a lot with Harley Quinn as well. It goes back to classic comic book storytelling, where the companies weren’t dragging out stories to get you to buy a ton of books. I love the idea that someone can read one book and get an entire story.

Gray: It is funny that you mention that, because it is exactly the kind of thing I think we need more of. I’m currently developing a new supernatural western called Billy The Kit, that works with the model of short contained story arcs in much the same way as Jonah Hex. We have so many serialized forms of entertainment that I think have become watered down by being so drawn out. They also reach a point where the only thing holding them together is what came before and a sense of nostalgia.

Were you two interested in writing more stories with these characters, picking up plot threads and doing more? Or did you also intend each as a one-time thing?

Palmiotti: Given the opportunity and if this book does well, we both would like to finish up "Deep Sea" and do more "Cell Block Earth." As far as "Wrestling with Demons," I feel we told the whole story, but you never know.

Gray: We tend to create these expansive worlds and each of these stories have room to grow and more stories to tell, but I think that’s the fun of creating things. "Cell Block Earth" and "Deep Sea" are both very cinematic.

You guys have written short comics elsewhere, for some of the books you did through Kickstarter. What do you like about them, and do you wish there were more outlets and more places to make them and read them in print?

Palmiotti: I really do, but it’s not always what readers want. When we published Sex and Violence – which is still available at paperfilms.com – we loved the idea of done in one type books and we have more Kickstarter’s coming where we explore this format, such as the one I have out [now] called Killing Time in America, it’s a done-in-one hardcover graphic novel. I just think things like that are always a hard pitch unless you do them as a graphic novel. The monthly floppies of new ideas are getting harder and harder to sell unless you have a big-name talent attached.

Gray: Absolutely, Kickstarter gives creators an opportunity to craft material for ourselves and for those stories to find an audience thanks to really amazing and supportive people in the comic community. I go over this all the time if someone asks me why I think more people should use Kickstarter and self-publish with all the tools now available to them. Large publishers are beholden to moving massive volume. The average mainstream superhero comic is cancelled at roughly 10K units. If you move 10K units a month as an indie comic you’re making 4X what you’d get paid to write that cancelled superhero comic. Yes, you’re working more and you have to pay people, but in the end you’re generating more revenue for yourself.

So, yeah, I wish there were more outlets, I wish there were clearer lines of demarcation on mass market bookstore shelves. Graphic novels at chain stores are shelved in such a way that discourages market growth. It’s disgusting because there’s Manga in one area and there’s everything else smashed together in a big shiny mess, including pop culture material like handbooks, Doctor Who memorabilia, movie tie-ins, and that completely discourages anyone not familiar with navigating that content.

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