Can’t touch this – talking with Joe Pruett

Published On October 12, 2006 | By Joe Gordon | Comics, Interviews

FPI: Today I am talking to a man who has worn many hats in the comics biz from writer to publisher, worked with a number of publishers (large and small), collaborated with some of the best names in the business, been behind the Eisner and Harvey-nominated Negative Burn series and worked hard to bring fresh talent to comics publishing: please welcome Joe Pruett.

Joe you’ve been involved in a lot of work via Image recently, but I believe your original break into the comics industry was working with Bob Burden on the Flaming Carrot (a character I still have a soft spot for) – could you tell us a bit more about how you actually got into the industry?

JP: I had graduated college (University of Georgia) and, like most recent college graduates, didn’t really know where the next day was going to take me. After having dropped out of the comic book collecting scene during college (needed to save my money for girls and books) I had only just recently started picking up scattered issues of titles again. One title I discovered a bit late (around issue #21) was Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot Comics. I quickly bought up every issue I could find around town and gobbled them up. They were great!

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I noticed that Bob lived in Atlanta, right down the road from my University, so I took a shoot in the dark and wrote Bob a letter. I introduced myself and told him that I was interested in trying to break into the comics industry and, having noticed that he used and, even better, “credited” his assistants in his comics, I asked if he might be willing to take me on as an assistant. To my surprise, about three weeks later, he called me up and asked me to come visit him. It’s was a fan boy dream come true! I met with Bob, we hit it off, and I was hired! I started on Flaming Carrot Comics #23, only two issues after I discovered the comic in the first place. What’s the odds?

FPI: You’ve worked with a lot of different publishers, large and small and on titles from the small-scale to the world-famous as well as working with Caliber and your own Desperado (and now Image) and bringing in new projects and talent. Care to share how you think the industry has changed for better or worse since you started in it? Is it easier or harder for new talent and new projects to get somewhere or more difficult than ever? Any advice for those trying to break into the business?

JP: Without a doubt it’s harder. It seems that now more than ever Marvel and DC (and Superheroes) dominate the marketplace. It’s seems that everyone wants the tried and true. Add another X-Men title. Revamp Justice League yet again. Recreate the Marvel Universe with the Ultimate Universe. That’s the formula. Take something old and make it new again. For instance, name one or two series that have been created at Marvel or DC over the last decade or so that was a new, original idea that has been started up and been successful. Pretty hard to do so, isn’t it? If it’s that hard for the Big Two it’s even harder for everyone else.

Sure, there has been a few success stories (Walking Dead and Powers, for instance), but to start a new, creator-owned series and have that series not only last beyond a few issues, but thrive is almost impossible nowadays. Fans and retailers have been burned way too many times to believe that a creator will stick through the growing pains of a new series, as they are almost guaranteed not to make money at the start. I’m almost guaranteed that any new series I start, even using the biggest names in the industry, will be a struggle just to break even. It’s kind of sad really. Creators want to create their own stories, but unless they do so using an iconic character then the comic community really doesn’t want to read it.

My advice to those breaking into the business is only do this if this is what you absolutely want to do. If it means working a day job and doing this at night than that’s what you have to do. If it means that you do this even knowing that you might not ever make money at it, but just because you HAVE to create comics as it is in your blood and nothing else will make you content than you have no choice. This is not a career to get rich. This is a career because something tells you that you have to do it no matter what (I’m sure many of our friends in the British Small Press are nodding at all of this – Joe G).

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FPI: While your Kilroy Is Here project was gestating you pushed Caliber Comics to get the first issue of Negative Burn published. At the time most thought a general comics monthly anthology would never sell; years later you had published the landmark #50, attracted a raft of top flight talent from P, Craig Russell to Brian Bolland to contribute and had a brace of Harvey and Eisner nominations, so you obviously proved the nay-sayers wrong. What made you think that it would be worth doing back then? And did you ever dream it would go on to be so long-lived and to attract the critical acclaim it garnered?

JP: Honestly, I just thought it would be fun. It would give me a chance to work with a number of friends and it allowed me the opportunity to reach out to a lot of creators whose work I admired and respected, with a number of them also becoming good friends to this day. Did I think it would ever become what it did? Of course not. It was originally only going to be a one-shot. Once I realized how many people wanted to do short stories and that there weren’t many avenues for them to do so it became like an obsession of mine to allow them that chance. It mainly succeeded because people told me it wouldn’t. It gave me that extra kick to prove to people that you don’t have to go by the rules to be successful.

FPI: Did you find Negative Burn helped to open more doors for you in the industry between the critical acclaim it achieved helping to make your name known and obviously forging links with so many others who contributed? Did it give you more confidence to create Kilroy?

JP: Negative Burn made my career. As I said, it allowed me to reach out to top creators and ask them to be in the series. It became a challenge to see who I could get. Wow, could I get Alan Moore. Yep. Could I get Neil Gaiman? Yep. Moebius? Yep. It was a fun game. Heck, at one point I reached out to John Mellencamp as I knew he was an artist and thought maybe I could use one of his paintings as a cover. I hunted down his address and sent him a package, but never got a response. My thought was “well, the worse anyone can say is “no,” so what’s the harm?”

It didn’t really give me more confidence in regards to Kilroy as I had created him before Negative Burn, but it did allow me to help to develop the character as I could do as many short stories as I desired in the pages of NB. By the time the first issue of Kilroy came out I had the character pretty well defined. I worked out the kinks with the short stories.

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FPI: Is there any chance we will perhaps see a trade paperback collecting a ‘best of’ Negative Burn some time in the future? I’m sure I’m not the only one who would like to see that, I’m sure the folks who pick up D&Q Quarterly, Kramer’s Ergot and so on would love to see a Negative Burn collection – we’d certainly want to sell it! Heck, we’d want to read it!

JP: Actually, we did do a 200 page “Best of Negative Burn: 1993-1998” through Desperado/Image back in 2005. It didn’t have everyone in there that I would have liked, as some creators declined to allow me to reprint their older material for either personal or legal reasons, but it was a pretty nice package, if I do say so myself!

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FPI: How did I miss that one? Guess that’s the big releases stealing most of the headlines again… Among the early contributors to Negative Burn is one of my favourite artists, the frankly brilliant Brian Bolland. I know you have been very busy working on The Art of Brian Bolland for Image, can you tell us a bit about how that came around and what we can look forward to when it hits the shelves? How difficult was it to select art out of such a vast body of work as Brian’s? I presume it must have been a form of exquisite torture looking at them all but knowing only so many could go in.

JP: Well, like when I started Negative Burn up back in 1993 I thought who could I get in the series to attract attention to what we’re doing here. With Negative Burn I went out recruited Brian Bolland, Bob Burden, Tim Bradstreet, David Lloyd, Jeff Smith, etc. for the first few issues. When I started Desperado Publishing in 2004 I went with the same model. I went and got Bob Burden to bring back Flaming Carrot. I went and got Bruce Jones, Bernie Wrightson, Tony Harris, Phil Hester, John McCrea, P. Craig Russell, Mike Ploog, Andrew Robinson, Keith Giffen, etc. I’m a realist. My name is not going to sell a comic or a comic company, BUT if I can bring my friends along then I have a pretty good shot!

I’m a big fan of art books and, after looking around, I noticed that iconic artists like Bolland and P. Craig Russell didn’t have any art books. But what I didn’t like about the art books I’ve seen, for the most part, is that they’re basically just pin up books. I wanted a book that not only showed the art of an artist, but told me about the artist himself. That’s the approach I took when I started talking with Brian and Craig about their art books. I wanted the books to be about THEM, with the art secondary. They liked my idea and so we started to work!

The Art of Brian Bolland is about Brian’s life, from the 1950’s when he was born to the present day. We originally planned for the book to be about 176 pages. Once we started working on it we decided to do it in a chronological order rather than break the book into chapters about specific characters, etc. By the time the book was finished we were over 300 pages! We then had to go through and pick through the DC Comics material to make sure we didn’t have too much copyrighted material in the book. We added a few things back in and the book finished at 312 pages. Now THAT’S an art book!

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FPI: Now, to me as a reader and a bookseller that does sound like a more interesting approach; putting the art into the context of the artist’s life is bound to be not only more interesting for fans it helps to understand more where the art is coming from, so kudos for taking this more arduous approach.

As if this wasn’t a big enough workload you have your own trade, Untouchables, which has just come out from Image this very week. I’ve read that it is set after the fall of Al Capone to Elliot Ness and his original Untouchables and is an alternate take on the prohibition era – could you tell us a bit more about it?

JP: Sure. I’ve always been fascinated by gangsters and the such. So I started thinking. What if things had turned out differently? What if Prohibition had not been repealed? What if history didn’t follow the same path that we know it did? So I took all these thoughts and made my own little alternate reality up. I decided to move Eliot Ness out of the way, as I really wanted to create my own Untouchables, my own personalities, my own characters. Eliot Ness has been missing for 20 years. He became such an icon that he couldn’t live up to it. Imagine Eliot Ness as Elvis (who actually makes a cameo in the story if you’re smart enough to look). He couldn’t go out to eat. He couldn’t go shopping. The only thing that he could do is disappear. Crime is on the upswing and a new group of Untouchables has been formed. And let’s not forget the return of Al Capone. He may have died in prison in real life, but this is MY world!

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FPI: Ooh, sounds excellent! I had a quick look as it arrived the other day and the art made me think of a pleasant mix of Chester Gould and Will Eisner, perfect for this kind of genre; now I’m really going to need to add Untouchables to my tottering pile of books to read (but it’s always better to have too many good books waiting to be read than too few).

When I was interviewing David Lloyd recently about Kickback he commented that when he first started working on it the market for crime fiction in comics was pretty poor. In the last year or two though we’ve seen new collections of crime works like Joe Kubert’s Jew Gangster and Neil Kleid’s Brownsville and a new collection of Hawaiian Dick on the way and, of course, your Untouchables now; do you think the whole crime/thriller/noir genre has become a bit more popular in comics again? It certainly remains one of the bestselling genres in prose fiction; I’m surprised there aren’t more in comics. Actually given the number of SF authors recruited into comics I’m surprised the same isn’t happening with crime writers (with the exception of Scottish crime author Denise Mina who is now doing Hellblazer).

JP: I don’t know if I’d say it was becoming popular. There’s still only a small handful of titles that can be classified as “crime” comics. I just think there are some GOOD ones being produced right now and that’s why people are taking notice. In fact, when I was talking to Ron Marz about what type of series he’d be doing with us we both looked at the Desperado line-up and asked what was missing. The answer was a good crime series, thus Russian Sunset was born (debuting in November…hint…hint).

FPI: Another one to watch for. Now, once you have wiped the sweat from your brow after the Art of Brian Bolland and Untouchables can I ask what’s next for you?

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JP: Well, the Art of Brian Bolland has been a smashing success, so might as well go back to the well on that one. Of course, the P. Craig Russell art book has been in the works for the past couple of years (since the start of Desperado). It looks like we’re planning a July 2007 release for that one. We’ve also signed up to do an art book for Joe Jusko. May 2007 is what we’re thinking right now.

Then there’s Desperado Publishing, which takes ALL of my time. We’ve increased our output by about double right now, so not a lot of free time left there. BUT, having said that, I have decided to do some more writing and have scheduled two new projects through Desperado in 2007. Messiah is an 8-issue series which Matthew Smith will be illustrating and Seppuku will be a 5-issue series with Dalibor Talajic, the current artist on Deadworld. I may be a publisher, but writing will always be my first love.

FPI: Quite right too; personally I think the best publishers are those crewed with people who genuinely love books, be it reading, writing or both; it is a business, sure, but good publishing is more than just business, it needs people who love the medium. I think that’s a quality in any artform that the readers pick up on. And I think I will be one of many who welcome a P. Craig Russell art book.

You’ve obviously worked on many projects with a lot of creative people over the years – do you have any special favourites? Budgets and schedules aside, is there anyone you haven’t had the chance to work with yet who you’d really like to collaborate with?

JP: My favourite comic I’ve written is Gen 13: Go West one-shot with Andrew Robinson. That issue is just a fun, wise-cracking story with a little bit of heart that is probably the closest to my personality than anything else I’ve written. I’m a sarcastic, smart-mouth with an extremely dry sense of humour. This story is me talking. 🙂

I also can still look back at Kilroy Is Here #6 – 8 and think that’s the high point of that series. Magneto Rex #1 – 3, my first published work at Marvel, still reads fine to me as it wasn’t as heavy-handed handled (say that fast!) as the rest of my Marvel work was. And Untouchables still holds up, and I’m not just saying that as it’s coming out now. I really think it’s some of my best work. In fact, it was Untouchables that got me work at Marvel.

FPI: Which authors are on your bedside table just now? Assuming you get any time to read!

JP: It’s tough! But right now I’ve got Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things and Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars (which we publish the comic spin-off). I read a lot of non-fiction work as well, mainly history and current events.

FPI: Any upcoming new writers and artists or projects you think readers should be looking out for?

JP: There’s a few really talented artists that we’re publishing from Europe right now that I think American audiences will enjoy: Jean-Jacques Dzialowski (artist on Common Foe #1 – 3), Mirko Colak (artist on Ron Marz’ Russian Sunset series), Dalibor Talajic (artist on Deadworld and Seppuku) and Frederico Dallacchio (artist on Common Foe #4 – 5 and who’ll be taking over Deadworld as Dalibor moves to Seppuku).

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British artist Will Volley, who was first published in the new Negative Burn #1, will also be doing a couple of projects with us and I, and everyone I’ve shown his work to, think he’s something special. Kind of a cross between David Mazzucchelli and Gene Colan. Another Negative Burn guy is Dove McHargue. He’s got such a great work ethic and nice style that I think he’s going to be around for a long, long time.

As for writers, Mark Chadbourn and Frank Beddor are my two “new” writers to watch for from us. Of course, British fans probably know Mark Chadbourn from his series of fantasy novels in the UK and his work for the BBC TV (indeed we do, in fact an anthology of some of his earlier work – Age of Misrule – has just come out along with his new novel Jack of Ravens. He’s talked in the past to the blog about Jack and his comics – Joe G). He’s extremely talented.

Frank Beddor is probably best known as the Producer for the mega-successful movie “There’s Something About Mary.” His Looking Glass Wars novel has been out in the UK for over a year, but it was just released stateside last week. He’s quickly building up a large cult following over here and I think he’s going to shortly better known for his novels than his movies.

FPI: Joe Pruett, that was a real pleasure – thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us and feel free to drop by and let us know how the new projects are going.

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About The Author

Joe Gordon

Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk’s chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.