Five Stars: Jimmy Palmiotti Guides Us From Eternity to New York City
Jimmy Palmiotti knows the comics industry. I don't just mean that he knows how it operates, although his thirty-year career has proved that to be the case; Jimmy Palmiotti literally knows everybody in the comics industry, having started out as a freelance inker working with people like Gene Colan before turning his hand to writing and publishing.
After several years as an inker, he formed a publisher with his frequent artistic collaborator and friend Joe Quesada, Event Comics, which introduced the enduring characters of Painkiller Jane and Ash. But it was also a decision that paved the way for Palmiotti to make the move to work at Marvel and DC, as the success of the publisher across its five year existence brought them into orbit with a then-struggling Marvel Comics. The duo were asked to oversee a new line of comics at Marvel called "Marvel Knights," which took the street-level Marvel characters in new directions.
Yet it was at DC that Palmiotti really made his mark as a writer, most notably on Jonah Hex with co-writer Justin Gray. Palmiotti used his place in the still-booming New York comics scene to bring in new writers and artists, and to experiment more with his storytelling and freelance work.
Palmiotti was also an early adopter of Kickstarter, which he used to publish a string of graphic novels, allowing him to keep building a roster of creator-owned comics alongside his superhero work on series like Power Girl and Jonah Hex. Several of these comics were either drawn or co-written with his wife, Amanda Conner. Conner also joined him during DC's New 52 reboot in 2012 for a Harley Quinn ongoing series that helped cement the character's position as a fan-favorite, and arguably the publisher's "fourth pillar" after Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
Palmiotti has been at the heart of the industry throughout his career as part of the New York comics scene, and his work has pushed publishers to be more bold and creative. Five Stars spoke to him about five of his career milestones.
Published by Eternity Comics, 1986
ComicsAlliance: Your first work in comics was as an inker, for comics like Ninja, published by Eternity. How did you first make your way into the comics industry? Did you have an arts background at college?
Jimmy Palmiotti: I went to college to study advertising, but my love for comics was always in the background --- it’s just that my experiences with comic creators and the business while I was in high school were not great ones.
When I was at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, my major was in comic book art, and I picked up a freelance job inking backgrounds for Chic Stone that lasted one day, and one page: Invaders #41. He didn’t like what I did, paid me $5 bucks, and when it printed, it was unchanged.
After that I did “ghosting” work for other artists and inkers, and although the experience was exciting (getting to ink over Gene Colan and Don Newton), I was paid horribly and saw how the guys I was working for, that were established comic book artists, lived just above the poverty line. I thought maybe I should look into another field.
It wasn’t till I was almost 30 that I met up with some good people that were doing comics for Eternity and I started inking and drawing for them… and I slowly got more interested in comics again. I took the experience I learned in advertising and applied it to comics, and have been working ever since. I have a lot of people to thank along the way for helping me get here… and the list is neverending.
CA: If you were feeling disillusioned about the comics industry, then what was the setup like at Eternity at the time? Who was running the place, and what was it about the publisher that made you realize that comics could be a rewarding career for you?
JP: I was approached by Brian Marshall at Eternity Comics with inking work, and at that time, unlike when I was in school, I already had a full time paying job in advertising. So I looked at doing work for Eternity for fun, as almost a hobby, so the terrible pay wasn’t a big deal to me. If I had to take that pay to make a living and pay rent, I would have been homeless in no time --- especially living in New York.
I would do most of my Eternity work at home, after my work hours, and a percentage of it in a house in Bensonhurst that a few of the guys rented. I would go there in the evening and sit and ink while others were working on their books, and guys like Evan Dorkin, Brian Marshall and Tony Eng would all be doing stuff till we ordered some pizza from L&B Gardens (and beer) and took a break. It was a fun time mainly because we felt we were doing something important, and for me, I made a lot of lifelong friends along the way.
I honestly thought, while working there, that it was a step to get some real paying work at Marvel or DC and work on my skills while I made some side cash. In the end, it all worked out. Small steps.
CA: I’ve seen you say in interviews that you consider yourself to be a ‘loyal’ inker, in that you don’t want to impose your own style, but instead want to accentuate and elevate the style of whoever’s pencils you’re working on. I’d like to go a little further on that, if I could --- what do you see as the role of an inker on any given story?
JP: The role is to enhance, separate and clarify the pencils given to you. Honestly, there are some amazing inkers out there that would do that… and redraw what they were given, but that was not the job I was hired to do. My artists, for the most part, asked for me by name, and they were happy because I gave them a more finished version of what they gave me, ready for color and print.
I feel now that I have done all I could as far as inking: I’ve won over two dozen awards for my work, have said what I needed to say about the art, and have moved on. People always ask me if I miss it, and I really don’t. Not one bit. I am loving writing and creating, and if I have an urge to draw, I do it for myself, not to make a living.
Writer, Inker and Publisher
Published by Event Comics, 1996
CA: Painkiller Jane is your best-known creation, co-created with Joe Quesada when you moved away from inking to form Event Comics together. What motivated you to first form an imprint with Joe, and to put out comics together like Ash and Painkiller Jane?
JP: At the time, the Image guys were an inspiration as well as the fact that we felt, on some level, we could do a better job than Marvel and DC --- ah, youth! Most importantly, we wanted to create and own our own characters. We talked to each other about working for other companies and not getting a share of the licenses, reprints, and foreign sales. We decided to put our money where our mouths were and start Event Comics.
Guys like Chaos and Crusade came about the same time. It was a fun time --- and an exciting time as well, mainly because as soon as we got our characters out there, Hollywood came knocking at our door and we sold Ash to Dreamworks, and Painkiller Jane to the Sci-Fi channel…and it kept going from there.
To this day, my only regret is spending so much of my time on other people’s characters, and not taking advantage of the offer from Marvel to integrate our creator characters into the Marvel Universe when we were doing Marvel Knights.
But, making mistakes is all part of the process, and I am extremely proud of all our work there with Marvel Knights --- and seeing how just about everything we did there has now either made its way to film or TV. Those years were very important time for us, mainly for branding our names, which we did each and every chance we got. We were also taking chances that Marvel was not doing at the time, like how we brought digital coloring to the company. With that move, the look of the books took an immediate step up. We had a lot to prove to the world back then, and that was our main drive together.
These days, I have to say I am also extremely proud of what Joe has been doing since becoming editor in chief (at Marvel), and now --- after all his work on the films and Netflix series --- he is even directing, which he was destined to be doing. We both have come a long way, and we are not done yet. That’s what keeps me going and pushing so hard… I feel the best work is yet to come. I think it’s important for every creator to feel this way.
I try to not look back too often though, it trips you up at times.
CA: The character of Painkiller Jane has managed to endure as long as you both have, moving from several publishers to your most recent miniseries over at Marvel’s Icon imprint. What is it about the character that has kept her interesting for you, to the extent that you’ve returned to her several times over the last two decades?
JP: Joe and I always talk about the fact that although we both created these characters together, Ash was more his attitude, and Painkiller Jane mine. If you know us personally, you can see it.
With Jane, we really tried to take the character in a different path, and I think creating a bisexual action-oriented female character back in ‘94 was something different than what was popular at the time. I think focusing less on the action and more on the character development made the character stand out from the pack; and when we moved Jane to Dynamite and then Icon, I got to explore the character and the world around her even more.
People in Hollywood have always seen this character as something that can translate to film pretty easily, but as always, they messed with it a bit too much along the way. The first two-hour Sci-Fi movie took a military approach, while the TV series went with a reflection of the channel’s themes and took Jane into a sort of science fiction-route. Both were not what I was looking for exactly, but were entertaining in the end, and the experiences of these productions, and the friends I made along the way, were the true gift. To this day, I am still working with Kristanna Loken on projects together.
And now with Jessica Chastain behind the wheel, I cannot wait to see what her take is on it. I don’t sweat these things too much because with me always writing the new books, no matter what happens, I can feel sure that the book stays true to the character. The next book will be a graphic novel and a Kickstarter later in the year.
CA: You came to comics at a time when New York was the center of American comics, with most publishers having a base there. I’ve read interviews where both you and Joe have said that gathering a friendly creative community around you, "schmoozing," was essential to building your career in comics. How did you cultivate those contacts and friendships to begin with, and how important has that aspect been for your career?
JP: It was a great time in comics, which we will never have again. All in one place, we had a ton of publishers --- almost all of the major comics companies --- and it was easy to get a group of people together and have a party... which we threw a lot of.
I think the two things that sell your work to companies is firstly your actual work being good; and secondly the way you act and treat the people you work with. I was brought up to respect others, and to never badmouth the people I work with in public, and try to add to that by being a dependable person that really cares about the books I work on. Adding to that, Joe and I cultivated a friendly idea-sharing community that didn’t play sides and celebrated the artform and the people creating the books we love.
My career has always been about doing the best work I can, and working with my crew and not against them; and people know this, editors respect this. At the end of the day, they know if I am upset at something it is because something isn’t working, and not out of anger. Life is about building relationships, and after managing to work in this field for over twentysomething years, I have made a lot of friends along the way. These are people who, even if I left comics one day, I would still be friends with for life.
Published by DC Comics, 2006
CA: You’ve worked with co-writers on several comics, like Amanda and your long-term collaborator Justin Gray, who was with you for a notably long run on Jonah Hex. What is it that you prefer about working in a collaboration with another writer, rather than simply by yourself?
JP: Well, to tell the truth, it is easier working by myself, but with these partners, I have found people much more talented than I am, and I learn from them. Both of them bring a voice to the work that I do not have, and I absorb everything they do.
I want to get better at my craft, and I am the first guy to tell you that the learning curve I’m on is a big one. It’s also fun to work with another person and to throw ideas around --- it inspires you to go places you may never go by yourself, and that alone makes it worth it.
I know I’m a bit of a steamroller at times, and have a tendency to take control of things, so working with others teaches me to sit back and relax and accept change. I am extremely proud of everything I have worked on with both of them. They are both super talents, and with Justin exploring more and more of the world of prose in his Kickstarters, we are seeing the beginning of a big time novelist in the making.
CA: Your career has also been marked with long-term commitment to characters --- Painkiller Jane, Power Girl, and certainly Jonah Hex. When you come onboard a comic like Jonah Hex, do you have long-term plans in mind?
JP: I loved the Jonah Hex character when I was young. I love Westerns, and never understood why the book and character didn’t sell more. Justin and I found Jonah to be the perfect opportunity to tell some wild stories in a done-in-one format that I think will stand the test of time.
Our long-time plan for Jonah was to write the character forever, or until it got cancelled, which it finally did. It is sad really, because all of the trade books of the original series of 70 issues we wrote are out of print, and there aren’t plans for any collections. I find this especially sad because they feature some of the greatest artists in comics. The movie and its misfire destroyed the character in print, and with All Star Western we did everything possible to try to get new readers to appreciate the genre and character... but it didn’t work out. One day DC will figure out Jonah Hex and Tallulah Black will make the greatest HBO or Netflix series ever, and maybe this time they will pull us into the project on a consulting level.
As far as staying with other characters --- with Power Girl we felt we did something special, and when Amanda had to leave the book, we felt it wouldn’t work the same without her, so it was given to another team. Looking back, it was a good move, because those 12 issues will always stay something special for us, and the book sells more these days than when it originally did.
With Jane... she is my baby, so I will never again give her character to someone else to write unless I really trust them, like we did with Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn years ago. Jumping from title to title is fun, but investing time to develop a character pays off in a million different ways in the end. Being associated with a character brands you as a writer. I don’t take on work anymore that is a “throwaway” gig, thank God. I am over those days.
Published by DC Comics, 2013
CA: How did you come onto Harley Quinn? Did you pitch it to DC, or did they approach you, knowing your previous success on Power Girl?
JP: I was at the right place at the right time and Dan DiDio offered the book to us. He already had confidence we could do something like this after Power Girl, and our other comics like "Supergirl" from Wednesday Comics. He’s a huge fan of Amanda’s work, so he’s always trying to get her more involved with the line. It was the perfect situation.
CA: Anyone could see that Harley was a hugely popular character --- you could go to any comic convention, even before Margot Robbie, and you’d see she was one of the most common cosplays. But how do you take that popularity and turn it into a comic that people want? What did you want to put to the forefront of your series with Amanda and Chad Hardin?
JP: We wrote the character as we saw her, mostly based on what Bruce Timm and Paul Dini introduced, and took her to new surroundings. We had no idea it would become so popular with the comic readers and inspire so much, but we are happy and really enjoy working on her; and watching Harley grow in the process.
As with anything, you follow your gut and see how it is received. It could have just as easily failed, and we know that.
CA: Can I ask, as you're so hands-on and I believe you know them both --- did you speak to either Timm or Dini before you took on the project? Have you been in contact with them since?
JP: We didn’t speak to them before we took the book on, because we had no clue the thing would sell, and figured if we were going to do our own thing, we should just do it and hope they like what we did. They’re both friends of Amanda and I, and some of the busiest guys in the field, so it wasn’t till after the book started doing well that we spoke to both.
Happily they both told us they enjoyed what we are doing, and were glad she was getting another life under our title. We even featured them both in the comic in our San Diego special.
It was important to Amanda and I that we were doing right by them, and we were relieved when they were happy with the book. We are in contact with them both, and we even have a plan to work with one of them more in the future --- but I cannot discuss that yet.
CA: Looking through your past work, it feels like you always have an editorial eye on each series you work on. Is that something that’s been important to you --- not just being invested in the series as a writer, but also working to almost curate a Harley Quinn franchise within DC, which has brought in people you admire like Dave Johnson, Frank Tieri, and Darwyn Cooke?
JP: I buy comics; and don’t buy comics that are boring, look bad, or feel like throwaway stories --- so I take that with me with everything book I work on. I have worn every hat and know how to put together a good-looking book, and although I may drive my editors crazy at times, they understand where I am coming from and respect my opinion. I only work with the best people in the industry, and I expect nothing short of their best work on my books. The people I work with know this and up their game each and every time.
With my own publishing, you see this in each and every Kickstarter project I do, and if you go to my site at Paperfilms.com, you can see the range of talent we have on board. Besides being super talented, the people I work for are professionals and, as well, some of the nicest people I have ever met.
Although I am not sure who told you I admire Frank Tieri… It must have been Frank, am I right?
CA: How much free range do you have with DC on the series? You’ve not only cemented Harley as one of their most popular characters, but you’ve done so while making lasting, notable decisions for the character --- having her come out as bisexual, for example, and exploring her relationship with Poison Ivy. I wonder how hard in particular it was to have that decision approved, and put it into text within the comic after years of it being subtext?
JP: I think Paul Dini and Bruce Timm did it early on, and we just built on it. I will say we have had our conversations with the publisher regarding how far we can take things, and we always find a comfortable middle ground.
With all of Harley’s relationships, there’s risk involved. We see this in the Rebirth issues, and will see more of that in the future. Harley is a character driven at times by her passion for everything and everyone --- it’s one of my favorite things about the character.
Initially self-published; published by Image in 2012
CA: Alongside your work from DC, you’ve also worked as a fairly early adopter of Kickstarter, which has helped you print a series of graphic novels, starting with Queen Crab. What was behind the decision to continue making creator-owned comics, but away from publishers like Image, Oni, etc? What made you want to directly fund, control, and publish your comics through crowdfunding?
JP: It was a matter of more control and having a connection with my audience and producing things directly aimed at them. With Kickstarter and Paperfilms I can have that. It’s not a ton of people, but they’re like minds whom I would do anything for.
I still do work for Image, Boom, IDW, Dark Horse, and so on, but some projects are a better fit close to home. I hope to do more in 2017, because 2016 wasn’t as a productive year as I had hoped on this end with my personal storytelling. This will change soon.
CA: Do you see this as where your long-term future as a comics-maker lies? Work-for-hire will come and go, but how important is it to make sure that you also continue to make and tell your own stories --- which you own yourself --- and get those out to your readers as well?
JP: The most important thing is to grow and get better at my craft and create more original content. At the end of the day, this defines a creator the most, and I can see a real payoff to a second life for some of my creations in other media --- which will only go to fund even more projects. I feel I have so much more ground to explore.
Probably the saddest thing that happened this year was watching my best buddy Darwyn [Cooke] lose his battle with lung cancer. We would meet for lunch a few days a week, hang out at night and talk about projects we were gonna do, books together we would pitch, and Darwyn told me about a ton of awesome stories he couldn’t wait to put on paper. He had so much he was going to do… so much of his own creator owned work lined up, and he was only starting to get it done when he was taken away from us.
I watched this happen and it made me look at everything differently, especially what my goals were and my priority was. We all got ripped off big time by not having his voice anymore. My heart was broken to say the least, and then Steve Dillon, another close friend, was taken… well, to say this has changed my priorities is an understatement.
Everything is different now, and I am not going to waste any more time on things I have no passion for. 2017 should be very interesting.
Jimmy Palmiotti is the current co-writer of DC's Harley Quinn, alongside Amanda Conner; as well as the upcoming Hype, which will be published by Adaptive Books, re-teaming him with frequent collaborator Justin Gray. In addition to comics, he is currently involved in several multimedia projects through Paper Films. He can be found on Twitter @jpalmiotti.