Talking Comics with Tim: Joshua Hale Fialkov

This interview with Joshua Hale Fialkov (creator of the acclaimed Elk’s Run from a few years ago and current noir work at Archaia, Tumor [which reunites Fialkov with his Elk's Run artist Noel Tuazon]) took an interesting route before finally getting here. The initial interview started as a suggestion from Johanna Draper Carlson back in October 2008 (thanks, Johanna) and was intended for my pop culture blog, Talking with Tim. Fialkov was more than game to do the interview and we completed the initial interview in late 2008, right around the time I signed on to contribute my comics interviews to Robot 6.  So, savvy, yet disorganized guy that I am, I set the interview aside--and promptly misplaced it. When news of Fialkov's Tumor (available here for Kindle and here for free for those of without Kindles) started making the rounds, I realized my mistake and  tracked the emails down. I contacted Fialkov (offering my sincere apologies)  and he was kind enough to entertain new questions about Tumor. So please note, after the initial Tumor discussion, the interview moves on to the initial 2008 interview, which while it is understandably dated in some aspects, much of it is still quite engaging and relevant. My thanks to Fialkov for his understanding and for his time both in 2008 and 2009.

Tim O'Shea: How pleased have you been with Tumor's Kindle sales? How much has the story's word-of-mouth been boosted thanks to the website?

Joshua Hale Fialkov: Well, just using our placement in the ranks on Amazon, the fact that a Kindle only comic book can get up to be the 8th most ordered graphic novel on all of Amazon, including print, is pretty damn amazing. I think there's a lot of reasons that we're up there, including that we're giving the first chapter away for free, but, still, that says to me that there's an audience for comics on the device, and it's one that in some ways may soon rival the audience for print comics. At least, for those readers who use Amazon to get their fix. My whole career has been built on a lot of goodwill, and from the support of friends and fans with big mouths and wide audiences, and, frankly, in a niche business like comics, that's really how the whole thing works. What I hope to do is go the extra mile to really reward my readers, first with what I hope is excellent content, but secondly by giving them access to the stuff over on the website, including behind the scenes material, and special features that not only enhance their enjoyment of the book, but hopefully show them a side of the process they haven't considered. To that end, there's a healthy amount of traffic who make it over to the site every time we release an issue, so, I know that in some respects, it's working.

O'Shea: How did the idea to release it through Kindle first come about?

Fialkov: Both Stephen Christy (of Archaia) and I have Kindles, and love them to death. Within twenty minutes of receiving mine, I was playing with some of Noel's art on the device, and instantly fell in love. When I went to talk to Stephen about it, he'd been thinking the same thing, so we approached Amazon, and they told us how excited they were about having graphic novels on the device, as well, and it just snow balled from there. I think that realistically the device has some ways to go before it becomes the paper killer as far as comics go, but, the experience is so much more like reading print than virtually any other option, that as far as I'm concerned it's way ahead of the pack.

O'Shea: In a recent CBR article about Tumor, you conceded that while you tried to make the book as realistic as possible, you still took some dramatic license with some aspects. How challenging was it for you decide where to draw the line between realism and dramatic license, so as to keep the drama engaging?

Fialkov: It's just sort of a gut thing... My father and brother are both doctors, and I know from watching movies and tv shows with them how irritated they get when things lack verisimilitude, but, I also know that when the story is engaging and the characters are painted realistically, they both seem to notice less. I think that's the same for all professions, and it's just one of the tricks of writing real world stories. With Tumor, the time I spent with the neurologist who I consulted with on the book, as well as most of my research actually helped to give the story a lot of shape that it missing in outline form, and I think the details really enhanced the story into something unique. Probably the best compliment I've gotten was actually from my father, who when I initially explained the story to him he told me it sounded completely unrealistic, but now, as the books come out, he's amazed at how real it feels. That's with the exact same story beats and everything, it's just for the most part because of the notes and research.

O'Shea: What is it about Tuazon's creative approach and artistic style that makes him a good fit for a noir tale?

Fialkov: Noel's work feels like it's straight out of the 1950's. He's a guy who's in love with the 50's EC artists, and every panel he draws just bleeds that stuff. Add to that the thing that Noel is really remarkable at is capturing emotion, which, for me, is one of the key things to noir. Despite the melodrama inherent in the plots of so many of those films, there's an earnestness and realness to the actors and their emotions that resonates across all of the best of the genre. I think that Noel has that in spades.

His work is an acquired taste for a lot of people, because he's just so unusual, but, when he's on his game, his storytelling and acting is genuinely some of the best in the business, and I'm proud to say that he is definitely on his game with Tumor.

[Initial 2008 interview begins here]

O'Shea: Given the rough publishing path that Elk's Run traveled, when it finally landed at Villard did you feel like you could rest a little easier? Or did you have enough industry experience to know you would need to hit the ground running, hunting for that next writing gig?

Fialkov: Yeah, I was psyched for Elk's Run to have a home, but, I come from a freelancing background, doing tv and film production, and, what that teaches you is you are ALWAYS running. But, that being said, there's always a need to take a few minutes and be proud of a job well done, too. For me, I was able to bridge the success and acclaim of Elk's Run into a lot of freelance work, but, for my, ahem, more exotic creator owned stuff, I've still been forced to find unique solutions to getting them out there.

O'Shea: Do you think most people realize that when you make it in the comic book industry, you truly don't make it per se, but rather have to prove yourself repeatedly?

Fialkov: I don't know that i 'made it' per se, so I might not be the right person to ask. What I've found is that like anything, you have to do the work, do it well, and then hope for the best. Every guy who seemingly 'comes out of nowhere' had to bust their ass to get where they are. This isn't Hollywood, it's much more of a small, insular circle of people than that. It takes gumption, and perserverance, and all that other stuff, but, I also think it requires a certain understanding of progress. You can't keep doing what you do. You have to keep growing, reaching, and trying to create something new and different.

O'Shea: Like any career, succeeding in a work-for-hire focused industry, how important is it to play the political/networking circles? How do you think you've grown, be it on the creative end or on the business end?

Fialkov: I think that aspect isn't just WFH , but creator owned as well. Being able to interact professionally, and rise above the rest really is a big part of the challenge. Look, again, the thing with making comics that's so wonderful is that it's easy to do. The money you need is fairly small, and, if you have the money, you can put a book out, and have it go to a national audience through Diamond. That means that along with allowing newcomers a chance to break in, there's also a lot of crap that gets through. So, just having published a comic (or having your comic published) isn't always enough. But, to make the leap to being someone other publishers and editors will take a risk on, you need to bring something special.

O'Shea: Rightly or wrongly, Top Cow finds itself trying to prove itself as a diverse publisher, despite the efforts it has made like the pilot season competitions. Were you hesitant to enroll in the pilot season competition for the fear of some sort of Top Cow stigma (which exists in some industry "group think" circles...)?

Fialkov: Not at all. First off, work is work. Anybody who turns down opportunities to work with professional companies on professional quality work is a fool. A writer takes whatever opportunities in front of them, and learns what they can. Now, as far as Top Cow, I think Rob, Filip, Mel, and all the guys have really done an amazing job at changing the face of what Top Cow means. They're not just trying to change the reputation, or alter the brand, or any of those things. They're just trying to make better books. And, if you look at the work Ron Marz is doing on Witchblade, Phil Hester is doing on Darkness... hell, the other creators on the Pilot Season books... Top Cow has found great people and let them do what they do best. I think that just about every other mainstream publisher could learn something from that. Now, how the hell I tricked them into hiring me is a whole other story.

O'Shea: Once you won the first Top Cow pilot season, did you see renewed interest in your work? What other benefits (other than getting Cyblade a publisher)?

Fialkov: There was a little bump in interest, but, not really. At the end of the day, the comics audience is deeply divided between mainstream and indie. While Top Cow has some indie sensibilities, it's still fairly mainstream, audience wise. At the same time though, I think my comics in general skirt somewhere between mainstream and indie audience wise, so it's always been challenging.

O'Shea: What will it take to effectively bridge that divide between mainstream and indie--or is that even possible?

Fialkov: I think it's happening a bit with publishers like Oni, IDW, Dark Horse, and Top Cow each attempting in their own way to make something new in comics. It's going to be slow going, and those books will always sell lower amounts than Infinite War Crisis of Secrets or whatever crossover is going on. But, Hollywood has realized (more and more it seems) how valuable having a fleshed out story, character, and tone can be, and that comics provide all of that. And, I think we're all learning how better to make comics that are comics first, rather than movie pitches, which is what happened five or six years ago during the first so-called boom.

So, give me a couple more Sin City's, History of Violence's, Wanted's, etc. and let the publishers start aggressively trying to capitalize on the books as they go alongside the movie. It might not reach the current comics audience, but, expanding beyond ou fanbase is more than just wishful thinking... it's the only way we can survive.

O'Shea: Did you approach your second pilot season marketing efforts differently than your first time around?

Fialkov: Yes and no. I think I was just a plain better writer the second time along. I learned so much about writing straight action in the year between writing the books, that I think Alibi is a better version of what I'd like to do in a more mainstream setting. I'm immensely proud of that book, and heart broken I won't get to do more of it... for now.

O'Shea: How does your work as head writer of LG15: The Resistance (and the creative process you're immersed in with episodic development for the web) influence your comic book writing (if at all)?

Fialkov: It really lit a fire under me creatively. What Eqal is doing as a company is so amazingly exciting... it literally challenges everything about how to tell stories. From actually using the internet for what it is (integrating web 2.0 into the storytelling) to letting the audience be a part of the narrative itself. It's just a wholly different way to tell a story, and seeing the sheer number of possibilities in this kind of entertainment really opens my mind up to what the true potential of comics are. Comics in America really haven't had to stretch in nearly forty years. Stan and Jack reinvented the form and damn near 80 or 90 percent of what's come since is just variations thereof. For me, bucking the system and the rules has always been in my nature, and working in a brand new medium where there are no rules, because we're literally the people who are writing them, is amazing.

O'Shea: Do you think the folks that enjoy your LG15: The Resistance work are aware of your comics work--or do you think they're not interested in exploring comic book/sequential art reading opportunities?

Fialkov: I really don't know. Despite how hands on we are with our audience, it's still quite a bit like television, where certainly the fans know your name, but, they're so into the show that they don't even think to look beyond it. And that's great... I want them to be as in to the show as humanly possible while they're watching it, But, I think a lot of them would enjoy not just my comics, but comics in general. So many young people (God, I sound old...) don't even know that comics exist. They think that Spiderman is a movie and Inu Yasha is a cartoon. There's such an amazing selection of books available these days, it's a shame so many people still aren't even aware we exist.

O'Shea: You have had your name attached to some fairly diverse projects, for example,  you did a run on Harris Comics' Vampirella?

Fialkov: Every project I do is something that I love. I learned a long time ago that taking on something that you're only lukewarm on ends badly. Vampirella was a book I read and loved as a kid. So, getting a chance to write her now was really just a little bit of selfish wish-fufillment for me. I had a blast, I only wish the series was more regular so I could really do some of the long form storytelling the book was so beloved for in the early days.

O'Shea: You do a variety of genres in terms of your writing--is there any genre you have not tackled that you would love to tackle?

Fialkov: I'd love to write a straight romance, and for some reason I just haven't. I'm doing it a bit in the Dark-Hunter manga for Dabel Brothers, but, that's still pretty much an action/horror thing. Early on, when I was a self-publisher, I had this crazy idea that after doing 5 issues of Western Tales of Terror, I'd end the book, and start a new anthology, say, Broken Hearts and Sizzling Love, or something. Just spend a few years producing a different genre every year. I'm a big fan of the pulps, and just love genre film and literature. Using the somewhat rigid rules of a specific genre, and finding a unique way to tell a story within those boundaries is probably my favorite part of writing.

O'Shea: I read with curiosity that your wife is a librarian and historian, specializing in California and film. Given her knowledge of film, do you ever find yourself tweaking a story or exploring an element in a story due to feedback/insight from your wife's wealth of knowledge?

Fialkov: Oh absolutely. She's a treasure in more ways then one. She's got an encyclopedic knowledge of California, and, is a master researcher, so, as I'm working on different projects, she's completely amazing. She'll pull articles from 100-year-old newspapers, pull addresses and business names out of census records, small detail stuff like that, which while minor, adds a whole other level of realism to what I do. It's literally a match made in heaven.

O'Shea: You've gone on record about your respect for manga. In fact in a post at your blog last year, you wrote: "Until we embrace not just the style (I'm looking at you, Marvel Mangaverse), but the ethos of these far more successful (and in many ways far superior) comics, I fear that there might not be much of an American comics industry left in a few years." Would you still agree with this statement, and do you think your call for change in the industry might hurt your chances to get hired by some editors/publishers?

Fialkov: When I talk about that stuff, I think it's pretty clear that I'm not telling Marvel to stop publishing Spiderman. And, I think there's an envy amongst a lot of the folks in the industry of the freedom you see on the other side of the Pacific. I mean, what writer doesn't lick his lips at the thought of telling a 2000 plus page story about a serial killer, or a wizard, or... whatever. I love American comics. I grew up on superhero comics, but, unlike most other kids, I got lucky, and read independents, European, and Japanese comics. I was reading TinTin, Asterix, Omaha the Cat Dancer, Ranma, Concrete, AND the Archie's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles simultaneously. And when I look at the progress made outside of North America in terms of the sophistication of storytelling, I really think most times, there's no comparison. But, the difference is that the guys who do the different stuff are starting to break into mainstream comics, so, hopefully, they'll bring that change with them. Certainly, Ed Brubaker has done that with his work at Marvel, and Brian K. Vaughan does it on everything he does. I think, despite the huge crossover comics, Grant Morrison is another guy who's done more to make American comics a freer place than just about anyone else in the past 20 or 30 years.

As for editors... look, any publisher who doesn't want their comics more diverse, different, or unique probably isn't going to hire me anyways. At least, that's what I keep telling myself.

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