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Dan Jurgens Interview


[ Dan Jurgens ]

This interview with comic book writer and artist Dan Jurgens was conducted by Director Sebastien Dumesnil via email during the making of Adventures Into Digital Comics. This interview is a part of the first set of interviews, which means that Dan Jurgens received a part of the shotlist, and was asked to answer the questions as if they were actually shooting the interview together. Dan Jurgens was offered the possibility to interact this way with the members of the cast.

By sending the same questions to all interviewees, Dumesnil wanted to get the most necessary element of narrative filmmaking: conflict. Despite the repetitive aspect of the questions, we hope you will be surprised by the large panel of answers and opinions offered by the interviewees.

Can you tell us about your background?

I was born and raised in Minnesota and still live there. The Batman TV series of the 1960s got me interested in comics and I've been hooked ever since.

Writing for comic books is a very special exercise. What do you find in comics as a writer that you wouldn't find in another medium? What about the artistic part?

There's actually a great deal of freedom. The writer/artist gets to control every aspect of the story. Only novelists get to do that, but they supply no visual aspect.

You've been a comic book artist for a while now. What was the overall mood in the industry when you began? What was its commercial state?

At that time (1982), the Direct Market had just begun to emerge. It was a much healthier industry in those days with much higher sales.

What would you consider as very important events in the comic book industry since the early 20th century?

The creation of "Superman" and "Batman," the Senate Hearings of the 1950s, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko's early brilliance at Marvel, the beginning of experimentation in the 1970s, the emergence of the Direct Market, the creation of Image and Marvel going public.

The comic book audience nowadays is older than the one we could find in the 60's or even until the mid-80's. Has the industry in the US completely forgotten its younger target audience?

Yes. This industry has gutted itself by dumping any notion or attempt of bringing younger readers to the industry. We have created subject matter and story telling techniques (multiple issue stories that go on for months) and a price structure that are barriers for younger readers.

Comic book stores were created during the 70's as a boosting solution for a decaying market. But as years went by, the direct market became the major distribution channel at the expense of the "newsstand" channel. Do you think that the industry is now paying the price for what was considered as the only viable solution back then?

Absolutely. More and more, comics are being created by the disenfranchised for the disenfranchised. It's a ghetto hobby now.

1993 was the last profitable year for the industry. The market has been shrinking ever since. What do you think are the causes of the industry's collapse in the 90's?

First of all, the speculation bubble burst. But there's been no way of getting readers back because the proper product no longer exists. It's now a product that is being produced for an older audience.

The recent numbers for 2002 show us that the sales have increased for the first time in years. Do you see it as a sign of better things to come?

No. Marvel has made some strides while other publishers are suffering. And the numbers are still a fraction of what they were.

Writers don't really use captions or thought balloons anymore. Comic books look a little bit like finished storyboards with movie dialogues. Do you think that writers have a tendency to find their style in movies instead of building a particular comic book "school of writing"?

Yes, which I think is a mistake. Cinema storytelling and comic storytelling are entirely different.

For the past few years, we've seen the big companies trying to improve quality: better paper, big names from other industries, etc. Do you think that it had an impact on sales? What could be a key to solve the sales' problem?

We've added more quality in terms of the art, writing, production values etc. That has also added extra expense. If I knew what would absolutely be key to solving the problem of low sales, I'd fix it. We suffer from many problems, not the least of which is a lack of general outlets. We have very few comic stores and we just aren't available in a general, more easily accessed market. That hurts us a great deal. It certainly prevents us from picking up newer, younger readers as many comic stores are places mothers, who'd have to bring their kids, would never feel comfortable.

Between 1993 and 2001, many readers left comic books in the US. Some people in the industry blamed video games and movies, two media now able to offer visual miracles. Do you agree on this point?

Yes, I do. In part. But I believe we did ourselves even more harm. There was a huge following who thought adults would begin reading comics, coming in at the Vertigo level. I never bought into that and never will. I don't think Americans are likely to pick up their first comic as an adult. Not in large numbers anyway. We have to get them early with appropriate material and pricing and then get them to stay with us as they age.

The early 90's saw the first digital lettering and coloring in American comic books. Do you think that it opened a new world of possibilities as far as storytelling is concerned?

Not really. Some of the best stories ever done were printed on cheap paper with cheap production values.

Also around the same time came the internet. Did you guess at that time that the internet could become a distribution system for independent artists?

No. I never bought into that and still see no evidence any real money will be made distributing comics on a mass level over the internet. Nor has it functioned as a promotional tool to lift sales.

In the 90's, publishers began to create alternate covers, and made a lot of-sometimes unnecessary-relaunches. What do you think of those "gimmicks"?

Some were fun, some were not, and it ultimately became excessive and detrimental.

To make more money and be able to reach different places such as bookstores, the publishers have created the trade paperback. As an example, many people have read Sandman when it was available on paperback, but not before. Do you feel that the comic book format had its days, and could be replaced by the paperback?

It seems possible. The publishers can make a profit at the appropriate prices that way though it's not terribly profitable for creators.

It is always interesting to see that, in the film industry, the North American box office x 2.2 = foreign box-office. A success of the American film business has always been not to ignore the foreign market. Do you feel that the American comics industry has been successful abroad?

That seems to come and go. I just don't know enough about total sales elsewhere to offer much of an opinion.

We have seen comic book adaptations: 4 Batman movies, 2 Blade movies, X-Men, Spider-Man, Superman and JLA series. Those were big money makers, but at the exception of the first Batman movie, none of them has helped to improve the comics sales. Do you think that the studios are able to reach an audience that your industry can not communicate with, whatever the reasons may be?

Sure. The studios understand the notion of accessible material geared toward a general audience available through as many outlets as possible. Honestly, it's simple, yet we as an industry have turned away from it.

Comic book conventions are typical in North America. What feedback do you get from your peers over there?

Every comment, feeling or opinion imaginable.

When you go to comic book conventions, do you feel that people come to buy comics... or toys, busts, and whatever merchandising has to offer?

What do you think of that merchandising? It's fun, people seem to love it. Everyone needs more stuff to put on their shelves! :)

It seems that fans complain that the big US companies don't produce enough diversity. On the other hand, the big sellers are only super-hero books. What do you think of the fans?

It seems to me that DC publishes a wide variety of books. And if not them, certainly other publishers do as well. Right now, there seems to be something for everyone, as long as you're over the age of 20.

Some artists, tired by the publishing system, or wanting to try something new, have left the paper industry to create digital comics. Do you read any of them?

From time to time.

Most digital comics use animation. For you, what is a digital comic? What would be the aesthetic definition?

As soon as it moves and has sound, it's not a comic, in my opinion.

Many forgotten artists who can't find a job in the industry because they are told they are "outdated" make money thanks to commissions on their personal websites. Others create those digital comics but can't make money out of them. Do you think that the internet could be the solution to the current state of the comic book industry?

I think the internet has been detrimental to the industry. It's allowed a very, very small group of people to exercise more influence than their dollars represent. You'd be amazed at the amount of marketing and editorial decisions which are now made based on the grumbling comments of a handful of loud, cantankerous people on the 'net.

As for those artists who are out of work, consider this. On their worst days, they probably sold far, far more comics than today's creators could ever hope to. Is it possible they actually were more accessible to a general audience?

Do you think that digital comics offer much more diversity than the paper market?

At present, yes. But until they become truly profitable on a larger scale, it's not an alternative.

There are many issues that could prevent digital comics from growing, such as piracy. Also, and even novelists ran into that wall, it seems to be hard to get paid, even with systems such as PayPal. (Usually, creators ask for donations per chapter and/or story called micro-payments.) Scott McCloud talks about those issues in Reinventing Comics. David Lynch has recently created a website to show series he would shoot specifically for the web. The audience would pay a monthly fee to get the new episodes. What do you think is the best way to be paid on the web for digital creations?

I'd have to give that some more thought. Probably a monthly or annual subscriber fee.

Only big publishers would have the financial asset to afford the legal support needed in the piracy issue. How do you think that the big companies will make their way into the digital world?

You'd have to ask them.

Those same big companies have what we could call franchises, characters very popular such as "Superman" for DC and "Spider-Man" for Marvel. If readers can follow their adventures on paper and on their computers, could it mean that the idea of continuity will become obsolete?

It already is. Marvel is publishing quite a few different versions of "Spider-Man" now and no one seems to object.

The Marvel dotcomics program is very successful (1,600,000 downloads per month.) One can read scanned paper comics on the company's website for free (which shouldn't last.) How do you explain the difference between the number of downloads and the sales?

You said it... free. Would we get paper comics into the hands of more readers if we gave them away free?

Why would artists choose to make digital comics, even if they don't really make money, instead of becoming independent publishers?

Hopeful optimism?

Some artists think digital comics are the solution to the decaying paper market. My guess is people actually reading digital comics are reading paper comics as well. They probably specifically look for digital comics on search engines. How can those digital artists hope to reach a wider audience who is not even aware that digital comics do exist?

I don't think it's likely to happen, frankly.

When we take a quick look at digital comics, it is obvious that some of them use the internet as an unlimited space to compose panels. That's what makes them so particular next to a paper comic book that looks like imprisoned in a sheet of paper. Do you think that those composition principles could be the foundations of a whole new internet art form, not just digital comics?


One can find digital comics on the web, but also short films produced especially for the internet. Do you watch such films sometimes? What do you think of them?

Can't say I've been hooked yet.

We talked earlier about composing "within" an unlimited space. Do you think that we could apply some of Scott McCloud's compositional ideas to moving pictures, instead of just drawn panels?

Probably, though I wouldn't call them all McCloud's ideas. The study of composition has been a foundation of art for centuries.

Now that comic books have become a niche market (whether they are on paper or digital), pretty much like painting, do you think that we're going to see a peak of creativity and quality as a reaction to the current situation?

Only if the market demands and/or accepts it. I see no indication of that yet.

Finally, do you think that you need to touch a comic book to enjoy it, or would a computer screen be enough for you?

Personally, yes. I enjoy whatever I'm reading much more when it's a physical, tangible thing. I saw a study recently which stated that retention is much higher from a physical book than something read off the screen. There's a connection between the reader and product that is stronger when it's a physical object. That may change for younger generations.


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