Finally, the stars aligned, and I managed to connect with someone whose work I've admired for some time: Justin Gray. You know Gray from his solo work on Legends of the Dark Knight, MA Fantastic Four, and numerous titles with Moonstone Books. You also know him from his work with Jimmy Palmiotti, as they've been behind such cool titles as Jonah Hex, Heroes For Hire, Friday the 13th, 21 Down, and Hawkman, plus the Ghost Rider and Punisher video games. Check out their official site for more info, and buy up anything with their names on it to keep those single issue sales up and thriving.
Now, enough of me! You see enough of me every week. Let's just jump right in with Justin, who graciously answered my questions about Jonah Hex, the comic industry, Hollywood's newfound love affair with it, and just what it's like to be a successful writer. The interview is after the jump, and I really hope you enjoy it.
You have an incredibly diverse background -- you've done everything from paleontology to working in an Alaskan fish processing plant. How did you move from that into comics?
JG: I was back to working twelve hours a day six days a week in a restaurant, which is where I landed after I left the fossil company, so I decided that I'd take another shot at writing comics. I'd tried breaking in in the early nineties, but I was living in Seattle. I'm the kind of person that reacts to things like "impossible" and being told I cant do something. Young and stupid, I plunged headlong into trying to get a job writing comics. At the time I had a very limited understanding of both the medium and the industry. I'd work from ten in the morning to ten or eleven at night, have a few drinks, then go home and write proposals and scripts. Eventually I started getting positive feedback from Joe Quesada. Joe introduced me to Jimmy and eventually offered me a job interning with Marvel Knights.
More people than ever dream about writing for Marvel and DC. What is it REALLY like to be a successful comic book writer? And what does it take?
JG: It is humbling, not everyone gets to make money doing what they love, which in my case is writing comics, film, TV, short stories and so on. I've been lucky, I have a great friend and writing partner who believed in me after I left the industry in '98 and fought to have me work with him when people just wanted his name on their products. I've had varying degrees of success over the last eight years, but it has all been an invaluable learning experience that has helped me grow creatively. As far as what it takes to get into and survive in the industry I can only speak for myself. Joe and Jimmy opened a door after I spent a number of years being relentless and dedicated to proving it wasn't impossible for a writer to break in. After that I feel I've had to continue to prove myself on every project. Sometimes the industry can be frustrating, but this frustration is much sweeter than many others I've faced. At the end of the day I know I keep pushing myself to do what I love.
How has this insane, superhero/comic book movie trend affected you, your work, and the industry as a whole? Is it as much of a gold rush as it seems?
JG: Yes and no, film is a much bigger machine, it takes more time to get up and running than comics do. A number of people I've spoken with feel you have to lead with a comic because it is the best way to get attention from producers and film companies, but often they have very little understanding of the financial and personal investment involved in making a comic that you own wholly. I feel fine in saying that sometimes I do things in comic form to be sold as a film. I don't feel it damages the integrity of the comic book art form because both can work and, to be honest, I like money and there's much more of it in film. I love comics and I love movies so naturally the two blend in the work I do. The creative sandbox continually gets smaller and more specialized. Superheroes rule the American industry. Anything outside of that better have pirate zombie ape robots if it is even going to generate a tiny profit. I have a desire to tell all kinds of stories and there just isn't that kind of leverage in comics, so if I can tell a story that someone who produces for a larger audience then I'm going to go for it. I think that is something the film industry needs to encourage if they're going to look at comics as a rich medium full of talented people.
What superhero films and franchises have been your favorites? Any filmmakers you would love to adapt your work?
JG: The difficult thing for me in enjoying a superhero movie is that I know what to expect going in, years of reading the material the films have been based on turns the experience into a question of execution rather than wide eyed excitement. Iron Man as an example, because I've always liked John Favreau and Robert Downey Jr., was successful in its execution and worked. Ghost Rider not so much. Say what you will, but I think Unbreakable is a great superhero movie because it respects the genre and offers a very different perspective. As for directors, off the top of my head I'd like Danny Boyle to direct The Resistance, David Fincher to direct Monolith and Aronofsky to helm 21Down.
Jonah Hex isn't a character that originated with you and Jimmy Palmiotti, but you are creating what might be the definitive version of the character, and I think it's safe to say you helped him make his way to the big screen. I know your work has been an influence on the upcoming film.
JG: I was actually surprised how much of an influence our run has had on the film and that the cast and crew are such big fans of what we've been doing. I can't go too deeply into what's happening, but I feel really good about the film and what Jimmy Hayward is doing. He's this tornado of energy and enthusiasm for the character and the same kinds of westerns that influenced us when we started writing Hex. That was a great feeling going in. I especially liked how many people involved in the film were fans of Tallulah Black.
How much have you gotten to be involved? What has it been like to see "your" character being made over for the big screen? How do you feel about the approach the filmmakers have taken?
JG: The first time I saw Josh Brolin dressed as Hex was dizzying, I mean there's Jonah Hex right in front of me in a surreal moment I'll always remember. Josh is an amazing actor and a hell of a nice guy, very grounded. He was very happy to sit and talk with Jimmy Palmiotti and I about the role, his portrayal and overall feeling of the film. He was loving the role and you could see it pouring out of him during takes. The approach they're taking is exactly right, straight western with a style that breaks from the perception that a western should be slow moving. I wish I could talk more about it in greater detail. Being on and around the set was surreal. Having dinner with John Malkovich in the swamp while baby alligators stared at us from five feet away begging for scraps isn't something you'd expect to happen, even in a strange dream.
What projects do you have coming out?
JG: Aside from Power Girl with Jimmy and Amanda, there are a few new comic projects that will be announced in San Diego. This year I've mainly been focusing getting film work and putting original screenplays into the hands of producers. I've also been writing children's comic strips for a number of magazines including, Turtle, Humpty Dumpty and Jack & Jill, which reach about six hundred thousand readers so that's a very rewarding feeling.