Tuesday, December 11, 2012

An Interview With Comics Writer Michael San Giacomo

I've read Michael San Giacomo's comics articles in The Plain Dealer for a long time.  He even helped me out with some publicity when I was doing some research on comic books on cd-roms.  But in addition to writing about comics, Mike also writes comics such as Phantom Jack and Tales From The Starlight Drive-In.  I ran into Mike at the Akron Comicon recently and bought the latest Phantom Jack trade paperback, The Nowhere Man Agenda.  As is typical of his work, I enjoyed it and decided to find out more about it with the following interview.  Thanks to Mike for agreeing to it!

1) What led you to create Phantom Jack?

I had a long history in comics and journalism before Phantom Jack.  I've been a reporter for major daily newspapers forever and, like many reporters, came to think of myself as invisible.  The best reporter is not the jerk who shouts out "HOW DO YOU FEEL?" to a man who just lost his family.  Real reporters hate those loud-mouthed jerks.  A real reporter stands quietly off to the side and observes.  He listens.  He pays attention. He becomes part of the scenery.  Invisible.  Then, when the wolf pack is off to find its next meal, he sits with the news source and asks the questions the others forgot to ask, or never knew enough to ask.

That's how I've done it for more than 30 years.

So, when Marvel President Bill Jemas contacted me and said Marvel was starting a new imprint called EPIC and asked if I would like a shot, I said no.  After all, I had been writing a comic book review column for the Plain Dealer and a slew of other newspapers for 10 years and felt it would be a conflict.

On the ride home, I thought about it and realized what an idiot I was.  This was an opportunity that would never come again.  I'm the guy who covered the murder trial of his cousin.  I wrote the book on objectivity.  And if my comic took off, I wouldn't need to write a column about comics. 

So, in my hubris, I resolved to pitch a character with the weakest superpower I could imagine and do it with flair and creativity.

Earlier that year, I was covering a sniper in in the suburbs who had pinned down police.  Thinking I was invisible and not part of reality, I stood around watching.  Then a bullet zinged past my head and hit a tree behind me.  At that moment, I realized I was NOT invisible or intangible.  That inspired me to create Phantom Jack, the Nowhere Man, a reporter who was gifted with limited invisibility and who would use that power.

Jack is not a superhero, he's just a guy.  He tries to do the right thing, but is not beyond using his powers for his own good.  Living in Cleveland, the home of Superman, it was also a tribute to my favorite reporter, the guy with the glasses and spit curl.

Jemas loved it.  I chose the amazing Mitch Breitweiser as my artist and we produced five amazing comics under Marvel's watch.  But the EPIC project never really got very far.  Bill Jemas left Marvel and his replacement was not very keen on the project.  Marvel, who wanted Phantom Jack to go at least 5 issues and more if it sold, offered to publish the first issue.  Mitch and the rest of the crew finished five issues and I felt obligated to put all five out.  For the second time, I said no and took the whole five finished issues to Image.  The books were collected into a "Director's Edition"  graphic novel with almost 100 NEW pages including six new stories and an origin.  It was published by Speakeasy Comics, 15 minutes before they went out of business, and repackaged (with even more new material) by Atomic Pop Art Entertainment.

2) Yes, poor Phantom Jack seems to have had a convoluted publishing history, which is a shame because it's a better superhero comic than most of its contemporaries.  But you've managed to keep the series going.  What led you to return to the character with The Nowhere Man Agenda?

I had a specific storyline done for Jack.  I wanted to show how a character with superpowers is not always a superhero.  I also wanted to show realistically what a normal person would do if suddenly granted superpowers.  That's why I have a short story where Jack invisibly sneaks into the dressing room of the Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders.  C'mon, what guy wouldn't?

You know that scene in every action movie where the bad guy grabs a hostage and threatens to kill the woman or child unless the hero surrenders?  And what does the hero do?  He surrenders.  In the movies something always happens before the hero gets shot.  In real life, the hero would be shot dead in 2 seconds.

This scenario always bothered me.  In real life, a normal person would at least be troubled before laying down his own life for a stranger.  In the second issue, Jack faces that Sophie's Choice and does what a human would do, nothing.  He agonizes and while he's considering giving up to be tortured and murdered, time runs out and a little boy is killed.

Tough scene, but real.  And it adds to the body count.

Jack is not Deadpool or Wolverine, who casually gut people and laugh as they lay dying.  It bothers me that these characters, and many others in comics, seem to not give a whit about people they kill or wound.

Jack cares, a lot.

That's why I had to write THE NOWHERE MAN AGENDA, the follow-up book from IDW.  I had to follow through on how Jack redeems himself and finally becomes the hero he was always destined to be.  At great cost.

In addition, I had a whole lot more to say than could be contained in the medium.  So, the Director's Edition and the follow-up PHANTOM JACK: THE NOWHERE MAN AGENDA include more than a dozen text and/script stories that expand the adventures of Jack and his cast.

So, I HAD to keep going to tell the whole story.  There are clues to what's really going on in the series all over the place that are not resolved until the IDW book.  Ideally, these were all supposed to come out within a year's time, but then we ran into publishing issues and bounced around a bit.

I would love to hear from someone who read both trades cover to cover, and got the whole story.  I hope a few people out there managed to do that.

SPOILER ALERT; For Thor's sake, don't read the next few graphs if you haven't read Nowhere Man Agenda.

And then Jack had to die.  It bummed me out, but I needed to show that he was willing to make the supreme sacrifice to kill the super-evil Nowhere Man and save the girl.  I damn near cried when I wrote the graveyard scene that involves Jack's dog.  I won't say anything more about it.

Someday, I would like to continue the series with THE BLOOD OF PHANTOM JACK, in which unscrupulous folks steal Jack's body and create a new invisibility serum from his blood, a serum that grants a person 10 minutes of invisibility.  Jack's friends, including the last remaining invisible agent in the world, Madison Blue, would team up with the insufferable genius Peter St. John, Jack's reporter buddy Wolf Bigelow, and others to retrieve the blood and save the day.

We'll see.

3) Yes, I was wondering about the script stories.  It's too bad more issues of the comic didn't come out, as some of those text stories would have been nice to have seen fleshed out with art.  I hope you do get to do that third volume.  Why do you think such a good series had trouble in the marketplace?  Although there are problems with comic sales in general these days (though some would dispute that), why do some people buy really crappy corporate comics (and sometimes they don't even buy the good corporate comics) but won't try something better such as Phantom Jack?  Is it all marketing and gravitating to the already familiar characters such as Batman?  What are your thoughts on superheroes and the comics industry these days?  Sometimes I think that once creators' rights became more of a popular idea, the smart creators wouldn't give away their best stuff to the large companies so those companies have been just recycling their old properties with diminishing returns ever since.  Yet that stuff still seems more popular than most of the much more creative and interesting creator-owned work (with some exceptions such as The Walking Dead and Hellboy).  What's going on?
If you ever figure out the answer to that question, let me know.

It's not just comics, it's everything.  How does some Hollywood dreck film make millions while a wonderful film dies on the vine?  Why do more people know the music of (name a crappy artist here) than geniuses like Ralph McTell or the late Bill Morrissey?

Phantom Jack did quite well at Image, but the collected edition with its 100 new pages did not because the publishers had no idea what they were doing.  There was NO promotion, nothing, not a lick.  Anything that was done, I did myself and I tried a lot.  But my efforts were thwarted when the books failed to come out when expected.  So the people I reached assumed the book was dead when it didn't come out when promised.  I'm a pretty good hustler, but that hurt.

Bottom line is, no matter how good a book is, it doesn't matter if no one knows about it.

Only the big boys like Marvel and DC can afford advertising and publicity.  The rest of us just do the best we can to get the word out.

So, let me tell you about TALES OF THE STARLIGHT DRIVE-IN and my NEXT project: CHALK ...

4) Ha!  My next question was going to be about Tales.  Though the comic book industry may have seen better days, the medium seems to be doing wonderfully judging from events such as the Akron Comicon that I saw you at and the new respect that graphic novels, particularly the nonsuperhero ones, get.  While many comic writers seem to stay on either the superhero or alternative side of the comic book medium, you work in both.  What attracts you to the medium, whether it's Phantom Jack, Tales Of The Starlight Drive-In, or Chalk?

If I am going to do a superhero book, I would like it to be one of the established characters from DC, Marvel, Image or Valiant.  I have created a slew of superhero characters including AGONY AND ECSTASY (a husband and wife science-hero duo.  She has the power to basically make men and women swoon in delight and he makes them feel intense pain.  Catch is, there is a feedback and the heroes enjoy/suffer when they use their powers) and a bunch of others.

But the superhero field is just so crowded, I'd like to use what's already out there and give it a new spin.

I also believe the best writers are well-rounded, and not just physically.  I want to show that I can do everything.  Or maybe I'm just going to keep pitching things and see what sticks.  I have another series written and partially drawn called THE BASTARD SON OF JESSE JAMES, which I put together just to prove I could write a western.  Hopefully, that will be out sometime after CHALK (Horror [Original graphic novel] where the chalk outline drawn around a murdered priest comes to life and kills his killers.)

TALES OF THE STARLIGHT DRIVE-IN was a labor of love.  I was looking for a follow-up to Phantom Jack and was asked by a French publisher at the San Diego Comic-Con to "come up with something uniquely American that has never been done in a comic book before."  And like Monty Python's John Cleese once quipped, "Certainly. And would you like me to move the building a bit to the left?"

I never did get to make my pitch to him before he left, but it inspired me to do what he suggested.  I drove around the hills outside San Diego for hours and the STARLIGHT concept and the stories just kept on coming.  On the flight home, I jotted down my favorite movies:  THE BIG CHILL, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM and on and on.

The concept was to set a series of stories in a drive-in theater.  By focusing on certain characters, I could show the rise and fall and ultimate fate of the drive in through 31 stories that could be read independently, yet would come together like a quilt to form one, complete novel.  Also, to further torture myself, I would use my favorite movies, presenting every genre from horror, romance, disaster, comedy, political and even a western.  The movies would play some role in the story, even if only a spiritual one.  The amazing artist Francesco Francavilla drew "THOSE DARN HATFIELD KIDS" and the only connection to the Zero Mostel movie, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, was the chase scenes, a vital part of the movie and the story.

There are things that can be done in comics and graphic novels that can't be done in regular books.  There are many scenes in STARLIGHT which need to be seen, not read.  That being said, I have already turned STARLIGHT into a stage play and gave it to a group in London to market, though no one has actually put it on yet.

I would love to see STARLIGHT picked up as a 13-episode television show, come on AMC, talk to me!

And I also plan to turn it into a novel, a book book.

I do think superhero comics have hit a sour patch.  It's all gimmicks and "events" which seem to stretch on forever.  I also dislike the way so many comics open with an action scene and then go to "TWO HOURS EARLIER ..."  Sorry, but that's cheap.

At the finest, comics can show more than text can tell. I teach a course in comic studies at CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY in Cleveland and I get great pleasure showing the students a wonderful Alan Moore Swamp Thing (No. 34) story where Swampy and Abby make love.  It's not so much physical, but a chemically inducted joining of minds and souls.  The art by Steve Bissette and John Totleben is so incredible, words would never do the art justice.  It's a story that has to be illustrated.

I know book lovers will freak on that statement but hey, true is true.

5) Anything else that you want to tell the world?


Bottom line is, read what you like.  Don't be bullied into buying stuff you don't like.  When Spider-Man underwent that terrible  "One More Day" fiasco, I actually stopped buying the Spidey books.  Considering I bought EVERY Spider-Man book since Amazing Fantasy 15, it took a lot to totally piss me off and lose me as a reader.  I eventually started reading it again after the writing and art improved about a year later.

Do this, assume every comic you buy will never be worth what you paid for it.  So, the only reason to buy a book is because you like it, not because of the "No. 1" plastered on the cover.

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