A Conversation with Justin Jordan Part 3

I interviewed comic book writer, Justin Jordon. He has written for DC and Image comics. I learned about his work from the comic book Reaver. Reaver is one of the best dark fantasy comics I’ve seen. You can read the first issue here. It’s packed with brutal combat, unspeakable sorcery and colorful characters reminiscent of Michael Moorcock, Howard and other Appendix N writers that inspired Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. It is available in print from your favorite purveyor of comics and in digital form at Comixology.

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.

What is Urban Animal and what do you have going on with that?

Urban Animal is the web comic I have going on at Webtoons. It’s about a kid named Joe Gomez. And Joe gets bullied one day and lashes out and finds out that he can turn into a saber tooth tiger. It actually turns out he can transform into a bunch more stuff than that. Because Joe is a chimera, which in this universe is basically a nature spirit in human flesh. They’re supposed to be the guardians of nature. All of which is kind of an excuse for me to do a fun Buffy the Vampire SlayerSpiderman style sort of romp. I’ve kind of taken on some “chosen one” tropes and some hero/superhero tropes. It’s one of those things where as we get ready to do the print edition, it’s hard to talk about what makes the book cool without massively spoiling big parts of the book, which is alway a problem.

It’s a fun thing with a lot of heart. I’ve found that working in the web comics format, because the expectations are different in terms of how much content you’re getting. When you’re doing single issue stuff, you’re limited to 20 ish pages. And that, I feel like each of those 20 page installments should have a rhythm and be satisfying on its own. But that necessitates a certain sort of writing. And with Webtoons you’re essentially putting out the equivalent of six pages a week. It’s a slightly oversize single issue’s worth of content a month, but the expectations are different. I can get away with having a heart to heart conversation between Joe and his parents that I can let go on longer than I could in comics, or I can have these small beats between his friends that would be hard to fit into a 20 page comic without feeling like we’re, we’re eating up space. With the kind of infinite scroll that you have with digital, that’s less of an issue.

It’s led to what I feel is kind of really one of my emotionally richer books. People seem to really dig it. We’ve been massively surprised at just how popular it has become. It’s interesting because I do most of my work and most of my living in the direct market where nobody has any idea it exists. There are a few people. I’ve got this big, monster thing out here, which like nobody in my professional life is aware of really, which is kind of weird but it’s a fun book.

I’m working with my buddy, John Amor. John and I have been friends for 15 years now and we’ve been trying to work together for a long time. It’s this really good fusion if you like the sort of high drama, but high action stuff that things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer were doing back in the day Urban Animal is probably something that you would like.

You have a Kickstarter rolling out, is that right?

We are doing a print edition of the first season of it.  It is going to be somewhere north of 200 pages of content. It actually is a pretty meaty book by comic standards. That’s a pretty long trade. We decided to go the Kickstarter route because there’s a company Rocket Ship Entertainment, which has brought a number of other  Webtoons things, including Let’s Play to print. We had at one point, considered seeing if Image would publish it. That would have been cool, but the nature of that meant we would have to convert it from the digital format into the print version ourselves, which is not nearly as straightforward as it sounds. And it turns out we are too busy making the book to do that.

I contacted Rocket Ship to see if they wanted to get in on it, but I had also been just interested in the Kickstarter sort of thing. Certainly straying into the world of RPGs and tabletop gaming; crowdfunding has become an enormous presence there. And I very much think something similar is happening with comics. The last month has really borne that out because Keanu Reeves is doing a comic on Kickstarter and Scott Snyder who wrote Batman is doing some Kickstarter stuff. I suspect the future of comics is something of a hybrid model where we will still be distributing through comic book stores and bookstores, but we will also be working more directly with the fan base to source the books and get them different additions. Which, even outside of fantasy, that’s not uncommon.

I know Brandon Sanderson did a The Way of Kings Kickstarter book that did like $7 million. I think that sort of thing is  probably the way forward. It makes the economics work a lot better. It’s one of those deals where if I’m selling a book through the direct market, I am getting, at best, 40% of cover price. Whereas if I could sell direct to you, the customer, I’m getting essentially all of it, but the print costs, that can distribute among my team. On the internet, there’s the very famous,  thousand true fans thing by Kevin Kelly.  That becomes a lot more viable if you can get a bigger percentage of the income coming in. And also if you have a thousand true fans who want fancy ass additions, that would not be practical for you to do otherwise. 

If somebody wants a very fancy hardcover or something, it might be hard to get a publisher to do it. If I can get a hundred people to do it on Kickstarter that suddenly becomes viable in a way that it wouldn’t be otherwise. This is sort of my first foray into seeing about that world. That is where I’m trying to guide my career. I’m trying to be more, more self oriented and more diverse in how the income streams are coming in. Which I’ve done a fair bit so far, I have worked pretty extensively, I’ve done a lot of direct market work, but I’ve also got a couple of graphic novels out. I’ve got digital first stuff through Comixology originals, and of course I’ve got Urban Animal through Webtoons. Now Kickstarter is just an extension of that of trying to make sure that I don’t ever have to get a real jobs. Cause I am totally unqualified for any sort of other work after 10 years of this.

Is there anything else you want to say about the Urban Animal? The comic itself? Or anything you’ve learned that’s different from doing that through Webtoon rather than the direct market? Was there anything about that that you’re like, “Wow, this is totally different.”

What is different is that you get a lot of direct and immediate feedback from fans. Because Webtoons actually allows comments, and shockingly, despite how it is on virtually every other place in the web, the comments are not awful. You actually get to see how people are reacting in real time. Now the nature of our work process, it doesn’t affect next week’s episode, we’re not running like that. We’re, usually well ahead, but there is something uniquely interesting and gratifying and creatively useful about being able to see what people are responding to or what they do and don’t understand.  That allows you to adjust on the fly that you flat out cannot do in print books that the lead time is too long.

There’s an immediacy to it that is actually really gratifying on a creative level. So it’s been fun. It’s also, in general, it has overall improved my writing. I don’t think I have ever been bad at the emotional aspects of things, but I do think that I tend to be a plot and action first writer and despite Urban Animal being a pretty high action book, there’s usually a lot of stuff going on. The focus on the relationships between the characters and the emotional beats of that has really paid off. And that has transferred into my other writing. I think it has generally made me a better writer in my direct market stuff, which is good. I think that goes the other way too. You know, we get a lot of people that are commenting and they’re like, “Wow, this is really good. And really professional.” I’m like, that’s because we are literally professionals.

I always laugh about when I first broke in the comics, I broke in with Luther Strode and I actually got a fair bit of, “wow, this is really polished for this guy’s first comic.” And what was true then is , because I had spent 10 years writing comics and small press and self publishing that you’ve never read. So it wasn’t my first rodeo. And, and it’s funny that the Urban Animal thing has been kind of that again, because that whole market of people has no idea that I have this other comics career for the most part. So as far as they’re concerned, Urban Animal  is my first thing, and John’s first thing. So they’re all like, wow, you guys are really good. Thanks. Awesome.

You’ve spent 20 years building this level of skill and people assume, because they’ve never heard of you before that you are new.  It’s always interesting how that goes. 

My breaking into comics is very much that classic 10 years to an overnight success, because I languished in obscurity for a long time. And then when it hit, it was, I had a full fledged career in like six months. So just weird. I’m not knocking it. There was a lot of swimming that people didn’t see before I finally surfaced.

I think there’s a lot of that in the creative world, whether it’s comics or whatever. You look at a guy like Frank McCourt who wrote Angela’s Ashes. He was  65 or something when it was published, wins a Pulitzer and it was his first published novel and he’s like, “yeah, I’ve been teaching English literature for 40 years.”

It is actually funny though, because as much as we’ve talked about Joe Abercrombie, he’s like the exact opposite of that. Like a little bit, “The Blade Itself” was his first novel and like the first novel he ever wrote, period.

Even with Joe, he took five years to write the first one and now he can manage a novel a year. Nobody sort of just picks it up, picks up a pencil and starts writing and figures it out without some pain. That just doesn’t happen, right?

No, I get asked pretty regularly about “what’s your writing advice?”  Write lots of stuff, finish it and move on to new stuff. That’s 90% of it. The rest of it is details. I actually got asked the question today, so it was on my mind. Make sure you study the stuff that you’re trying to write. You want to try to deconstruct that and take it apart and see how it works. Most of it is just doing the work and doing the work for a long ass time.

I don’t have any secrets for you. It’s as boring as everybody makes it sound. It’s just, you know, one day after another, until enough of them stack up.

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