The Mainstream Version Of Everybody Sucks: An Interview With Joshua Hale Fialkov
Writer Joshua Hale Fialkov has been building a positive reputation in the comics industry for years now. His work for Marvel and DC — including Ultimate FF and I, Vampire — may be what he’s best known for, but his creator-owned work — including Oni’s The Bunker, with artist Joe Infurnari, and The Life After, with artist Gabo — has built up its own fanbase.
One of the most interesting things about Fialkov is his serious, business-like approach to even his most creative endeavors. Many comic creators have their own ways of getting work done — with varying success when it comes to meeting deadlines — but there’s something particularly fascinating for me as an editor about creators who plan and schedule their time, analyze their own work, and still produce art that is innovative and entertaining. Fialkov’s blog, How Fialkov Do, offers a thoughtful and entertaining view into how he gets his writing out into the world. I’ve spoken to Fialkov about his process a great deal over the years, and I thought ComicsAlliance readers might be interested to read more about it.
ComicsAlliance: Josh, I feel like for the first time ever you’re doing more creator-owned stuff, whereas for a while you were doing a lot of work-for-hire. Is that a purposeful choice?
Josh Fialkov: Yeah. I love superheroes; I have a wall filled with hard covers of graphic novels. But it’s also not necessarily what I got into comics to do. I got into comics to tell my own stories, and I’ve now spent three years telling those stories with those characters, and I want to tell stories with my characters again.
To be honest, we’re living in a time where that’s where the success is. I’ve had more success doing my own books this past year. I’ve made more money doing my own books then I’ve made writing superhero comics. It’s just a fact.
CA: Do you think the market has changed, or your profile, from doing superheroes?
JF: Maybe both? I mean, I think I lean indie. Even my superhero stuff is pretty weird and quirky. But I think the market is a really different place. The market is re-facing itself, I think after The New 52 brought all those people into comic stores, Robert Kirkman did something pretty incredible, which is, he made sure that those stores were stocked with the comic book that [was] also on people’s TVs. So all those people that came in to look at Superman and Batman were also confronted with Walking Dead … I think it changed how the market has grown, it’s changed how people think about comics, and they realize, “Oh, right – they don’t have to just be superheroes.”
CA: We had a conversation a while ago about how you changed your plan in regards to the format of Bunker. Is it because the market changed?
JF: Bunker was going to be all digital and then we changed our mind. When we started Bunker the point of doing it was we didn’t want to have anybody to say ‘no’ to us. We wanted to do whatever we wanted, and it was in a time where doing a smart, weird science fiction book was not popular. It was rejected by a couple of publishers who shouldn’t have rejected it. It makes no sense that they rejected it, but we wanted to do it so badly that we just said, “screw it,” and went all in, and the book sort of took off out from under us.
It was much more successful, much quicker than we thought it would be, and we realized really quickly, like, “Oh, we have the opportunity to reach a bigger audience and actually make enough money that we need to do the book.”
Oni Press reached out — literally the day the digital came out — I got an email from Joe Nozemack who owns and runs Oni, and he said, “the second you want to print this, we’ll do it, anyway, anyhow.” So, it’s interesting, because it’s definitely a growth of audience, but we’re seeing — especially as the first trade is coming out — we’re seeing that we can do these complex, smart books and we get to see readers fall in love with them.
CA: Do you approach the actual writing process differently on creator-owned versus licensed?
JF: I don’t, and that’s actually been a hardship for me. I have this theory that the way it works is that — in terms of responsibility — you look at a comic book cover, [and] what’s the first thing you see? The logo. The title. The title is the most important part, and the second most important — second biggest, most eye-catching thing — is the company name. The third biggest thing on that page? The third biggest thing on the cover is my name. That’s true of superhero comics, that’s true of creator owned comics. So at the end of the day, if I work on a book that sucks, nobody is going to be like, “Well, DC published it,” no one’s going to say, “Well, It’s Superman”; they’re going to say like “Oh man, Fialkov wrote that crappy Superman story.”
CA: Do you think that’s fair?
JF: It doesn’t matter whether it’s fair or not, it just is. That’s the thing, I treat everything as though it’s my book. Because, at the end of the day the buck stops with me. The responsibility falls on my shoulders, and rightly so, but the corporate comics want to protect their brand and they want their brands to reflect them and you absolutely have responsibility to them. But it’s not at the detriment of your own name and your own brand.
CA: Let’s talk about selling your work as a TV show or movie.
JF: I have a really good track record, I’ve sold almost everything I’ve created, to TV or film or whatever. Nothing has really gotten made, per se, but it’s something where I have the relationships. Hollywood is now keenly aware of what we’re doing and I live in LA and I’ve come up through that industry.
When I started it was the 30 Days Of Night era — when everyone was like, “Buy everything now!” and we’re kind of back in that place, especially for TV. The hope is that because I have a background in it — I actually did production for a long time, I’ve written shows, I have an Emmy nomination — because I’ve done a lot of other stuff, I’m in a position where we can be choosy and we can actually decide like, “This is what we want to do and this is what we don’t want to do.”
So when word gets out about what we’re doing, it’s pretty amazing. It’s a great package, It’s great people are really excited about what we’re doing, and Joe [Infurnari] and I are front and center. We’re a part of the show, we’re a part of the process, and again, not to sing the praises of Robert Kirkman because, God knows he doesn’t need it, but Robert has changed a lot of things for people.
The years that I sold all those books — my first book I’ve sold about five or six times — and never was there a conversation of, “You should write that,” whereas now with books it’s, “Do you want to write it? Is that OK for you to write it?” It’s totally changed the conversation. A lot of that is on that back of Robert with The Walking Dead.
CA: So do you want to write the shows of anything that you sell, or are you just too busy?
JF: I think the line between mediums is disappearing, right? The lines between the mediums is starting to be erased. Comic writers, I think, for a long time were looked at as a separate beast, and now people understand that we’re doing the job of five or six people, like five or six department heads on a film or on a TV show, and by nature of that, we have skills. We have skills that are useful.
And as you start to see, “Oh, when the creators are involved, the product is better,” that’s a big lesson that they finally started to learn. I love comics, and what drives me is to tell stories to the biggest audience possible, that’s number one. The reality is that giant audience is not comics; that giant audience is television. Television has a true mass audience. So for the chance to serve an audience — to get to show what I’m doing to people — TV is where you have to go.
But secondarily to that is, I love comics. But selling comics is really hard. You know what a great way to sell comics is? By having a 45 minute advertisement every week on TV telling people about the name of your book, and that they should go buy it, and that you also get to do it and make art as well. It’s sort of a win-win for everybody.
CA; Obviously the ideal is more people buy comics because they’re also into the other media, which in turn gets comics taken more seriously the more people see that it’s not just books.
JF: Well, and being able to actually earn the money to do weird books, to take the risk, is a big part of it too. I can only afford to do what I’m doing because of the success I’ve had in all these projects, because you’re taking risks and you’re hoping that you’re going to be able to ride the waves and get your stuff out there.
CA: You brought up how writers do six different jobs; I would love for you to talk about that specifically, because I feel like too often fans don’t really understand the different aspects of how comics are made.
JF: If you were to take the job that the writer of a comic does onto a film set, they would be the director, they would be the writer, they would be the producer, a lot of the times they would be the marketing person, they’re the studio executive, they’re the liaison for the distributor. We serve all these purposes because we’re sort of forced to, because it’s a much smaller world. We’re forced to wear a lot of different hats.
Even with artists, the artist is serving also as a director, as a cinematographer, as the actors, as the lighting crew. The artist is doing all these different jobs, so between the two of us — or however many you end up having — you’re building an entire world that in any other medium takes a hundred or two hundred people.
I think that’s a really special thing, and getting to experience telling stories that way, where it is just — especially on The Bunker and on Life After, where it is just me and Joe and me and Gabo — we’re creating something really unique that’s on one hand close to jazz music, right?
Punks is a great example of that. The work Kody [Chamberlain] and I do couldn’t be done if it wasn’t the two of us together, where what we’re doing is totally riffing off of each other and making what we do better because of each other. On the other hand it’s also like making a giant two hundred million dollar movie, because we’re doing things like destroying New York, or creating an afterlife filled with every era throughout all of history.
Those are big giant things, but then because of the medium we get to execute them in delicate, nice ways. We get to do it where it’s about character, instead of it being about giant robots flying across the screen. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
CA: Do you think it’s a pure expression of the stories you want to tell because of that?
JF: I definitely think [it is], depending on where you work, and if you’re working at the right creator-owned company. A place like Oni is a place like that, and Image is a place like that. But what you’re doing is passing through a filter.
CA: Is there anything particular you’re working on now that you’re excited about?
JF: Punks over at Image! Punks is the book that Kody Chamberlain and I did seven or eight years ago, and we did it on our own, we did it through a company called Digital Webbing, and it was always something that we did because we loved it and for no other reason, like we’re buddies and it’s a jam between the two of us.
But it’s funny, because we did it and we never thought it would find an audience, and over time it has built a following where I see t-shirts all over. I will just run into people with t-shirts and people know about the book. So, it felt like a good time to bring it back, so we’re doing it again at Image. It’s mostly new, in that it’s two new stories and one old story in every issue, so you get to re-live the old stuff that nobody ever saw. Then we’ll get to eventually do a big beautiful deluxe awesome hardcover that looks like it’s made with duct tape, I hope. That’s my goal – the goal is the duct tape cover.
CA: (laughs) High end duct tape.
JF: Yeah, we’re a fan of duct tape – but it’d be beautifully laid out duct tape.
CA: I have been to your house.
JF: You have been to my house.
CA: I have seen your studio.
JF: This is all sounding creepy now, see how it sounds creepy?
CA: (laughs) I’ve watched you work – you have a fairly elaborate set up in there.
JF: (laughs) Much to my wife’s chagrin.
CA: But you have a TV and DVDs and couch and stuff…
JF: I have a TV and a projector, because I’m stupid.
CA: What is the process of writing with you? Do you watch TV? Does all that stuff come in to the process?
JF: No, I listen to music. I’ll put movies on when I’m doing email or lettering proofs or any of that stuff, but I have a really nice surround system and I just crank up music as loud as I can to block out the world. I work in compact chunks. I’ll try to write from start to finish — a whole script or a whole section of a script, to essentially not lose my place.
I have a strong belief that you should write products in the same format that they’re going to be presented. If I’m going to write a comic and it’s going to take me like six times to write it, it’s going to feel like there’s six different breaks in it. So I really prefer to get a first draft out as fast as possible and then you spend time with fine tuning and changing stuff and moving things around.
CA: Do you feel like you do a lot of revisions because of that?
JF: I write in my head first, so I will jog and I walk and I play with my dogs, or I play with my daughter, and I will form an entirety finished script in my head. It was a necessity when my daughter was born, because I was also her primary caregiver, while being half of our income. So, I had to learn how to be a present father with her, but also be on the clock for work, and this channeling of story was the way to do it. I used to be able to hold a couple scripts in there at a time, but, now, it’s mostly just a single script followed by frantic typing to get it all out.
CA: What else is important to you about your work space?
JF: I use a standing desk. I alternate between sitting and standing and sitting on a couch.
CA: Do you stand for certain parts? Do you stand when you’re writing certain things?
JF: Sometimes. Sometimes, when I have to write an action scene or something like the pacing isn’t working, I’ll stand up because it will pick up the pace. It really hurts to stand up all the time. That’s actually the secret of the standing desk, is that it sucks. It makes you work faster because you’re like, “God, I just want to go sit down.” It goes a long way.
CA: What are some of your favorite comics?
JF: I mean Stray Bullets is pretty much it for me. Stray Bullets, I think is the best thing of the past twenty or thirty years. I mean – God, I love that book. The new one is really good, the new series is really good. I really like that, so that’s both an all time and a current favorite.
I love Saga, which I guess is now the cliche answer, but God that book is great. Oni has a book called The Auteur that is like those corny, gross comics that you create when you’re twelve — it’s like that, but good. It actually holds up and it’s actually really funny. I love Joshua Williamson‘s Nailbiter — it’s totally awesome.
Daredevil, Spider-Man, and Silver Surfer, those three Marvel comics are I think the best, those three books represent the absolute best of all superhero comics. Daredevil is this stylistic experiment every month where you’re seeing something new and innovative, and Amazing Spider Man is this gigantic soap operatic web, right? It’s the perfect version of that. Silver Surfer is these quirky, standalone stories. Between the three books you literally get the best of each. I think that even if you don’t like superheroes, all three of those work, which is the trick, and it’s something we don’t do a lot of.
CA: Now, you have a lot of DVDs.
JF: I do.
CA: Are there TV shows in particular that you find inspiring for the kind of stuff you write?
JF: If you live in the UK, you’re very lucky, because, you can stream a show called St. Elsewhere, and it’s a hospital show made at the same time — well, a little bit after — Hill Street Blues, and while Hill Street Blues is credited as this show that started the modern era of TV, it is in fact St. Elsewhere. Hill Street Blues, you watch it and it still feels like an old show, it still feels like a seventies show. St. Elsewhere is this spiraling crazy of amazing-ness, so if you live in the UK you can watch that. There might even be a way for people in America to get access to that now online, but I do not advocate it at all.
CA: Is it illegal?
JF: It might be. Although, I have it all. I’m not kidding, I have it all on VHS that I taped off of PBS when I was a kid, because that’s what I did as a kid. That is my life.
CA: Did you know you wanted to be a writer when you were a kid?
JF: Yeah, from the time I was little. Originally, I wanted to be a writer/performer, but then I got to college and I went to Emerson with beautiful people and I was like, “Oh, never mind, I’m out!” Like, even the stocky friend types are better looking than me, and I’m like, “Oh, well – I guess that’s that for me.”
When I was four — everyone has a tape recorder when they’re little. Mine, I had recurring radio shows with a programmed radio station and what I would do everyday was, “Well, it’s four o’clock I gotta go do the show” and I would do a show. They were like five minutes long, and I would watch the clock, and at 4:05 the first show would end and the next show would start. One of the shows, I will add — which I still think would be quite successful — was me flushing stuff down the toilet. It would just be different sounds where I would announce like, “today’s item,” and I would say what it was and I would flush it down the toilet.
CA: Like toys?
JF: No, I never really broke the plumbing, so it must not have been toys. But, it would be different food, paper and things, hair – hair down the toilet. How else was I supposed to get the sound effect?
CA: So you have a massive catalog of toilet sound effects.
JF: Well, I didn’t realize that you couldn’t just tape over the same tape, so I actually only have one tape, which is taped over and over.
CA: Aw, do you still have it?
JF: I have it somewhere, it’s in a box at my parents house.
CA: Have you ever thought about doing a podcast, given your earlier experiences in radio?
JF: I worked in radio as a teenager too, I was a DJ. When I was fourteen I wormed my way into being a DJ at small local AM alternative station in Pittsburgh. I loved it, I had a comedy show with a buddy of mine that we did on Saturdays and nobody listened.
The way we found out that nobody was listening is that we did the show for three hours one morning — there was no heat at the radio station — it was the dead of winter. So we get in and we do the show and three hours in we get a phone call, the phone call is a listener who say like, “Hey do you know that in between the songs there’s just dead air?” It had turned out that our microphone had frozen. It was so cold that the little crystal thing that vibrates to make the microphone work had frozen in place, and it took three and a half hours for someone to call. So in a sense, it was mostly the same audience as doing it on a tape recorder.
CA: So you have the chops to do a podcast.
JF: I would say bad things. I’m already out of control. I do interviews and I just say whatever the f*ck I think anyways. I can’t imagine if I was given a place to be even more pompous and egotistical, what could possibly happen?
CA: Is that part of the appeal of creator-owned too?
JF: Yeah, I can say whatever I want. I don’t have somebody listening on the other end of the phone during an interview. You know, crazy?
Marvel doesn’t do that, to be clear. Marvel does not do that. DC? Jesus Christ! That’s the thing, I can talk about what I want and I can focus on what I want. Both Oni and Image are really supportive of however we want to do stuff, and the hope is that when you’re doing work like this, the people who created it know best.
That’s not something that’s necessarily a held belief everywhere. I’m a strong believer in, you hire a person because they are the best person for the job, they’re an expert. So if someone’s an expert, wouldn’t you want to defer to them for their expertise? That’s actually what you’re paying for, you’re not paying for them to do the work. You’re paying for them and what they’re good at, and I think that’s not necessarily something that every publisher and every employer thinks about. But, when they do you get great stuff.
CA: So in creator-owned work you’re sort of hiring yourself to be the expert.
JF: Publishers are taking a risk, and it’s a much less calculated risk than, look, you put me on Iron Man, it’s going to sell because it’s Iron Man. Maybe it’ll sell more because it’s me, maybe it’ll sell a little bit less, but there’s still a baseline. Whereas, I’m doing a book about a guy walking through the afterlife for suicides with Ernest Hemingway. Who knows who wants to read that?
CA: I had a conversation with a fan on Twitter, and he said he didn’t know any creator names of any of the books he read. He just bought characters. But how do you know if it’s going to be good or not?
JF: That’s comics.
CA: Is it weird to be a writer on a book like that? Where you’re like, “I could do whatever, I could light sh*t on fire and people are still going to buy the book”?
JF: I have a funny problem, which is I do such diverse work that people frequently won’t know that it’s me. They don’t understand that I’m the same person. I get that a lot. I actually had a signing once where I was wearing a Punks t-shirt — which is my book, co-created it, there’s not a single page of Punks that exists that I was not involved in — and this guy comes up and he’s like, “Oh, I love your books. I’m a big fan.” He starts listing my books and how much he likes them.
I’m like, “Ah, thank you so much.” He says “And you have great taste in comics, too!” and points at my shirt. “Oh, you like Punks? Thank you.” He’s like, “Yeah, that book is amazing.” I’m like, “Oh, thank you so much.” So he’s like, “Why are you saying—” And I’m like, “Well I write it.” And he goes, “I thought you were cool, man. I can’t believe you would take credit for someone else’s work.” And I’m like, “No, no, it’s me, I write it!” He would not believe me, and I had to go and get a copy. I was so outraged, I had to be like, “See, this is me. Me. We’re the same person”. That’s been sort of a weird challenge, because I don’t have a brand, my brand is that I do weird books.
CA: Do you like it that way?
JF: Look, there’s times where I see people getting put on books that I’d love to write, or getting the jobs I wish I had, but, the truth is, the work I’ve gotten, the books I’ve done, they’re each a piece of me. If you took all of them and jammed them together, you’d get a pretty good picture of who I am and what I care about and what I believe in.
But, part of that is that I have broad, strange taste. Part of what makes me me is that there’s a lot of contradictions in who I am and what I want and what I feel.
My books, I think, capture that. And do I think, “Man, I wish I could make a mainstream digestible version of myself”? Sure. But, the fact is that that version of me sucks. That version of everybody sucks. Being myself and saying what I say and doing what I do, that’s what’s let me do the things I’ve done, and have the successes that I’ve had, and, yes, the failures, too. But, still, all of those things equal up to me.