A Conversation with Justin Jordan: Part 2

I interviewed comic book writer, Justin Jordon. He has written for DC and Image comics. His Webtoon Urban Animal has over 100,000 weekly reads. He has gone live with a Kickstarter for Urban Animal graphic novel with a lot of cool add ons. It including the scripts for the comics, art books and a lot more.

In part 2 of my interview, Jordan talks a bit about his “origin story” and how being from a part of America that has seen some significant decay has impacted his writing. He gives us a run down on how comics are sold and how creators are able to have more control over their destinies than ever before, thanks to the internet. I hope you enjoy the second installment.

Talking about dark stuff. You’ve written a lot of dark stuff.  You and I have a commonality in that we’re both from, rural factory blue collar areas that have been hollowed out by the economy of the last 30 years. There are lot of interesting creative people who come places like that. Local to me there are Jim Jarmusch, Marilyn Manson, a sculptor named Jason Hite who makes art reminiscent of HR Giger. All three of them are from Akron.  I guess I should say there’s places like California where there’s weird creative people doing weird and dark stuff too; but it seems like there’s an awful lot of Gen Xer’s doing this sort of dark gritty art who come from these industrial hollowed out places.

You know, that’s an interesting question and, and you’re not wrong. I think my speculation on it would be that you get a particular flavor particularly of people of a certain age.  I’m at the tail end of Gen X, I’m in my early forties now. I think you find you have a generation of people from a place where they have seen… this sounds more cynical than I am. The short way of saying it is, they’ve seen the failure of the American dream, right? They have seen something reach a peak and then go away and are left with what remains afterwards. And I think that does actually kind of change your perspective.

It’s interesting around here. Where I come from is that kind of industrial area, but before that it was a coal mining area. And so we’re actually a couple of waves deep into industries coming in, exploiting the area and then just leaving nothing but ruins, in some senses, behind. That’s happened even within my lifetime to a fairly impressive degree. I, myself am from a village that has like 20 people in it. It’s extremely rural. But the place where I went to high school was a small town of , I think, it was less than a thousand people. My high school kind of consolidated several towns. I still graduated in a class of like 90 people, which is larger than some, because there’s a high school nearby here that has classes of 10.

On the other hand, I have friends who graduated who are like, “yeah, we had 500 people in my class.” That is madness. But in the 25 years that I’ve been out of high school, I have watched that town go from having a main street with stores and restaurants on it to being empty storefronts. There were three factories and a bottling plant that were operating when I was there and they are all out of business. There were three elementary schools that fed into my high school and two of them are now closed and have been sold off. But even even further beyond that, if you look at kind of like the remains of the coal industry; if you were here, I could take you to a place where you look at this thing and it’s 50 or 60 feet high and it looks like a cliff face.  And then you realize that’s not a natural thing that it is actually a gigantic pile of slag that is probably half a mile square. That is just the remnants of where they were dumping out coal after they processed it, after it came out of the ground, that is this artificial thing.

You’ll be out in the woods and you will just find these big metal or concrete sort of artifices that were,parts of a railroad that has long since ceased to be. And all that is, the point I’m making there in this rambling sort of way, is that we have seen prosperity come, but we have seen it go. I think if you’re of a certain age, you are at the tail end of the American World War II economic boom. But you have seen it go away earlier than other areas have. And I think that that does lend a certain kind of perspective to things, or it can, a lot of people come from those areas and seem to have that same sort of darkness in their work. And I suspect that having seen all that is probably a foundational part of it.

That basically sounds like the town I grew up in. I left when I was 18 and haven’t really gone back more than to visit. We had two grocery stores and three gas stations and half a dozen other decent businesses and an elementary school. That’s all gone now. That’s not that long ago.  Twenty five years ago.

When I was growing up, there were a couple of gas stations. There’s one left. There were a couple of restaurants, there’s one left. And it is genuinely depressing. It’s hard to shake the feeling that no one outside the area gives a shit about it. You know what I mean? Which is also I think part of it.

Yeah, that’s true.

It’s one of those things. I am very much not going to take this too far into a political vein, but when people get angry about how rural areas act, I don’t necessarily think you’re wrong. If you haven’t been here, I get it. I get why people were pissed. I get this feeling of, if you, if we’re not economically useful to them, they don’t give a shit about these areas. And that’s one of those things that I’ve tried to impress on my friends who come from urban sort of backgrounds was, “Dude, you don’t care. It does suck.” The county over from me right now, it has a death rate that is higher, a homicide rate that’s higher than like fucking Baltimore or Chicago because the opioid thing has really caught fire there. Now that’s on a per capita basis. And there’s not that many people there. But you have one year where there’s 13 drug murders in a county that has 60,000 people in it. Things are not going great.

If you get to Pittsburgh or Philly here in Pennsylvania, nobody cares. They don’t. And I laugh, that’s just sort of the fundamental thing.It’s hard to have a circle of empathy outside the world in which you exist. But it’s one of those things where having had a foot in both worlds, I get the anger and the despair, you know, that, that comes out of places like this.

And I think that probably does filter into the work. It’s in there overtly sometimes. I did a comic for DC last year called Brimstone. Brimstone is explicitly about that. Just set in a sort of superhero version of it. I think that’s probably foundational to how I approach fiction.

One thing that I’m finding interesting is that people who are storytellers are finding new avenues. It used to be that this guy does comics and this guy does novels, and this guy’s a screenwriter. And now you’re getting people like Neil Gaiman and George Martin, who write comics, write screenplays, write TV shows, write novels, write short stories, write children’s books. It seems like there are more opportunities for story tellers than there used to be. You wrote up an essay I read a week or two ago about how the business has changed for you.

Oh yeah. The internet era is generally a net positive, I think, and there are downsides, but one of the net positives is that it makes that kind of thing much easier. It makes the ways in which people are getting paid much easier. And it allows you to do things that were, if not impossible, very difficult to do. 10 years ago, if I wanted to create a comic, I was obligated, if I wanted it to have an audience, to go through a publisher like Image. Don’t get me wrong. I love publishing through Image. I have no intention of stopping, but I have other options now as well. It has made it possible to, to interact and work with fans in a way that would not have been possible even 10 years ago, it would have been difficult.

And 20 years ago it would not have been possible at all. That allows a diversity of creativity that I think was not possible before then. Things have also gotten kind of cheaper and more accessible.  Not just for comics, but just across the board. You know, if you want to film a movie, now, it is way cheaper to do it. It would be way cheaper to film, Permanent Vacation now than it would have been thirty odd years ago. Because you’re not working with actual film, you can get a movie quality camera for a thousand bucks. It makes it easier to connect with people.

And, and honestly, my career, as it exists now is entirely a function of the internet existing, I can’t draw. And as we have discussed, I’m from a very rural area, so were it not for the internet. I would probably have not been able to get into comics because there would not have been a path for me. With the internet existing, I was able to connect with other creators and other artists and submit my work in ways that led to a thriving career that I’ve had 10 years going now. And were I a decade older and had the same sort of development curve that just wouldn’t have happened because the technology wasn’t there to enable it.

Could you talk about ways that creators are selling comics right now?

In the U S in particular, when people talk about comics, what they’re usually talking about, something called the direct market and the direct market is essentially comic book shops. When I was a kid, when you were a kid, you could actually get comics a lot more readily because they were typically available in gas stations and grocery stores, and that sort of place. That is no longer the case. That was the mass market. The direct market was selling directly through comic book shops.  The bookstore or the grocery store, or a magazine market aspect of it collapsed in the early to mid eighties. That was true across the board for magazines. There were just a lot more magazines back then that as a form has sort of withered just because grocery stores and gas stations have become a lot more corporatized.

And it’s not necessarily that there’s anything inherently bad about corporations, but what they do tend to optimize for is efficiency. And it turns out that magazines are just an awful way of having your real estate earn money compared to things like candy bars. They take up a lot of space, they are a lot of weight and require a lot of touch for relatively small margins. So the comic book industry to survive moved into the direct market, and there the market is comic book shops of which there are not many. There are at most, maybe 3000 comic book shops in the USA which is not a lot of shops in a country with 300 million people. And as a result, that sort of aspect of comics has withered a bit.

And certainly in the early nineties, it was borne up by a lot of people buying a lot of copies because they thought they would be worth money. They thought they were getting the comics equivalent of a Babe Ruth trading card that they could sell later.  But still you were having comics that would sell millions of copies fairly routinely. You would still have legitimate sales in the hundreds of thousands. Now, in comics, that doesn’t really happen. But again, when I say comics, I am always, almost always meaning the direct market. What has happened is that while the direct market has been kind of, iffy.  Comics have expanded into a lot more things that are unquestionably, sequential storytelling, they are for sure comics, but they are not happening in the direct market.

So there’s the bookstore in the library market which is where you get people like Dave Pilkey, who does Dog Man or Raina Telgemeier, who’s done Smile and Guts. And now Dave Pilkey’s stuff is early reader, middle grade. We’re talking kids in elementary school. And Raina Telgemeier is kind of that precipice between YA and middle grade readers. In either case Dave Pilkey’s latest Dog Man book had a print run of 5 million copies. In any given year for the last three or four years, Dave Pilkey, by himself, just his books will come very close to selling more trades than the entire direct market sells in aggregate. So that market is enormous. That market is vast. There is the market for manga and America which is not as enormous.

Manga is also generally sold through bookstores, but you can get them in comic book shops as you can with Dave Pilkey stuff. But it’s funny how many comic book shops you go into, and if you mentioned Raina or Dave Pilkey, they just look at you with a blank stare. I’m like, dude, they are the biggest thing going, you should know who they are. But even the manga, you get something like a new volume of My Hero Academia will come out and that will sell 60 or 70,000 copies, which very few direct market things are selling that many trades.

And then you have web comics. I do the comic Urban Animal. And I do that at Webtoon. And as a matter of comparison for people that are not really comics people; Urban Animal has just shy of 475,000 subscribers.  It has a weekly readership of 80 to 100,000 people of which on any given week at a minimum of 5,000 people are paying just to read it early which is good for us. 

By comparison, the top selling comic in the direct market it’s usually something like Batman. Now, if you’re excluding big events, you’re looking at maybe a hundred thousand copies sold. Whereas by Webtoon standards, Urban Animal is just a mid-list book. So their big dog in America is Let’s Play and Let’s Play has 4 million subscribers. I have never asked her what her weekly readership is, but judging from the publicly available numbers, she’s probably getting close to a million people a week reading her comic.  So those markets are vast.

You can also have stuff that is available for digital sales. So any book that I do is available any book I do in direct market is, by virtue of being in direct market available in print, but it is also available digitally to buy. And some of them are available as parts essentially the comics version of a streaming service. And then there’s also the Webtoons models. Urban Animal is  a feature book at Webtoons, which means that they pay us a licensing fee to run the book, but we also get a part of ad revenue and we get part of the FastPass payment, which is where people pay early pay to read it early, which has always fascinated me. I know I am surprised. We’re not getting rich off of it, but I am surprised at the amount of people that are willing to spend 50 cents to read something early they will just have to wait a week to read otherwise. It’s an interesting sort of dynamic. There are increasingly other ways. I also have, a Patreon where I post up blog entries of my comics that I have the ability to post, which isn’t all of them. You can make money from ad revenue and various sorts of things. It has diversified substantially the things you can do. And there’s ones I haven’t even used yet. In 2021, time allowing, I would like to do a “how to write comic books”, course, that I would sell. It would probably be a video course. So there are a lot of potential streams of income coming in. That’s even without getting into things like foreign rights sales and that sort of thing, which can all, can represent a pretty substantial secondary stream of income.

Netflix and Amazon Prime, have created shows from comics and science fiction niches that probably wouldn’t have gotten any traction in cable and terrestrial TV. There is some draw when a creator can prove a story has a built in audience of a million people. That’s a good base audience for a TV show. 

The webcomics thing is actually kind of fascinating because I do some Hollywood work. That’s part of what my endless stream of phone calls this couple of weeks is about. I’ve got a couple of things that are in development, which sounds fancier than it is. Don’t get me wrong. It’s awesome. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything’s going to come of it. Cause you got to expect that they mostly won’t. But I’m doing that kind of stuff. And it is actually interesting when I point that out. There’s this weird stigma, right? I’ve sold options on Spread a few times now, actually. And that’s great, but that book has like a tenth of the audience that Urban Animal has, but because Urban Animal, as yet only exists as a web comic, it is nigh impossible to get people to look at it.

You would think, or I would think, Oh, Hey, we’ve already got a built in audience a hundred thousand people a week. Imagine if we were doing that on a television scale and just, nothing. It’s weird. The kind of inbuilt prejudices people have against certain media. And it goes away over time. Things like podcasts being adapted to television, is sort of changing that. I’ve made that point too. You know, there are podcasts that have gotten shows made. They get a lot fewer listeners than I get readers of Urban Animal. But it still has this inbuilt sort of prejudice. It’s partly getting around that. And that actually goes into the monetization thing too. Some of it is when you’re doing direct market stuff, a lot of people were like, “Nope, gotta have my single issue, got to have it in print. And that’s the only way I’ll consume something.” That’s okay, man. There’s a lot of people out there who are, you know, agnostic or uninterested in that.

I’m a person who buys print books. I’ve got a shelf of Joe Abercrombie up there and while I’ve listened to two or three, in audio book form, I just wouldn’t even consider listening to the new one I haven’t read in print yet. I am also not big on the Kindle/

You know, I prefer print, but I will tell you, I do have a Kindle and I am glad that the 500 books that are on it are not in my little ass house. Because,I have a long since run out of book space. I would prefer to have more house and more books, but the convenience of the Kindle is sorta hard to beat. And also frankly, I’m at the age now where apparently I need a lot of light to read print books.

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