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James D. Hudnall Interview


[ James D. Hudnall ]

This interview with comic book writer James D. Hudnall 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 James D. Hudnall received a part of the shotlist, and was asked to answer the questions as if they were actually shooting the interview together. James D. Hudnall 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'm from Northern California originally, but have lived around a lot. After a short stint in the Air Force I went to college and got into Computer Science. I was a programmer for a while. But I always wanted to be a writer, so at 28 I got in to doing comics and never looked back.

You've been a comic book writer for years. What do you find in comics that you wouldn't find in another type of visual exercise?

The medium has the advantage of both being visual and textual, so on one hand you can see what is happening (supposedly) but also get the benefit of written narration like in an internal monologue. You can then play around with things in a way that wouldn't work in any other media. It would be too confusing to have a narration that has nothing to do with the pictures, for example, in film. But in comics, it can work well.

What was the overall mood in the industry when you began your career? What was its commercial state?

It was great in 1986. But then the industry had a mini crash and a lot of distributors went away. I saw this repeated several times until the big crash of the mid 90s. The industry has never been that stable since I started. But it has seen growth and improvement in many areas, so I remain convinced it can work someday. Just not with the same old thinking of the past. The mood of the industry is always a cross between desperation and hope. Though for a brief time, like the early '90s, it was something else. A kind of mindless orgy of excess and greed.

Comic book stores were created during the 70's as a boosting solution for the 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?

The problem is, the business alienated almost everyone except fans. It catered to Superhero geeks and virtually ignored everyone else. There has been more of a serious movement to expand the content and that holds hope for the future. I think the greatest thing that hurt us is ignoring children. We lost a whole generation or two of kids. We need to somehow get them back.

1986 has been a turning point for the industry with works like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. It seems that since then, the comic book audience has grown up with the industry and that there is just no new readers. Has the industry at that time completely forgotten its younger target audience?

Yes. We need fresh blood or our audience will get too old and die out. We have fans now in their 30s, 40s and 50s and not too many young people. It's bad and we need to change that.

Art Spiegelman's Maus has also been an important moment of 1986, and, at the opposite of the two other works, has been independently released. Maus also was the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer prize. Do you think that this media coverage for a comic book story changed the industry?

Somewhat. It took time because the main players don't know how to do anything new. The problem with Marvel and DC is they only show a serious interest in exploiting their corporate icons. That leaves little room for new ideas. So it takes independent creators to make up the slack. But they are working without much resources. This needs to change. We need to get our ideas out to a wider audience.

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

A lot of it is what I discussed above, plus there is an entrenched attitude that somehow we must maintain the status quo. This is bad news. But a lot of people in comics are still refusing to realize that superheroes are not the only way for us to branch out.

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?

They play the game of self fufilling prophecy. Hiring the same "hot" talent who are hot because they say they are hot. None of these people are really doing anything new. Just putting old wine in new bottles. Sales are pathetic, but they get all self congratulatory when they sell 100,000 comics. We should be selling millions. Look at the success of Harry Potter. We should be selling to that market, but the old school thinkers are still mired in trying to make Spider-Man hot again.

During your career you worked for the big publishers, but also for much smaller companies. How would you compare both experiences?

Working for the big companies got me more notice. I enjoyed that and doing some fun stuff, but there were more rules one had to deal with. Small publishers meant more freedom but a lot less notice because there is still a fan boy mentality that prevents non-branded content from being looked at the bulk of the public. People want to wear Nike and not some brand they never heard of. So it's a lot harder.

The big publishers aren't doing anything new, so we're stuck in a time warp.

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"?

A waste of time meant to sell books to speculators. It hurt the business big time by making a lot of worthless crap hot for 15 minutes.

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? Is it perceived as a "prestige" format?

Yes, I think the trade will win out in the end. Books have been selling 60% or more of their "backlist" for decades. Comics are just wising up to this fact that old material can be resold if it's good. So we will hopefully see a call for more quality material in trades.

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, and I think it's wrong. There is no right a way to do things. We should see all sorts of techniques but the herd mentality rules all in these scared times. I no longer think creators are very inventive if they stick to the same formula everyone else is.

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? Only a slicker method for making things shine. Comics can look a lot cooler, but we're noting seeing better story telling. The old comic strip of the '30s has not really been improved on much.

It's all about a good story. Everything else should serve that.

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?

It really hasn't reached its potential but I think in time it will. The old distribution systems need to change and the internet is the best way we can do it.

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?

If the fans want diversity, they need to buy diversity. Too many people are stuck in the rut of buying the same thing over and over hoping it will get better. But we're seeing changes, slowly. If a comic can keep going long enough it can gain a following that's earned. The problem is a lot of independent books only last a couple issues.

Diversity seems to be a key problem for the industry. Do you think that current comic books are oriented mainly toward a male audience in its 20's?

Yes. And that's the same deal as in the last four or five decades. It needs to change. There are some efforts to do something new. Let's hope we can maintain them.

A success of the American film business has always been not to ignore the foreign market. Do you feel that the comics industry has been successful abroad?

Somewhat, but not as much as it could be. Japanese comics are bigger overseas than American comics. There should be a lesson there.

The average price of a comic book in the US is around $3. Do you think, regarding the production and distribution system, that it is too expensive?

Yes. When I was a kid in the '70s we could buy a large stack of comics for $5. We could afford to try different things to see if they were any good. Now it's hard for anyone to try out something fresh for fear of getting burned. But unless we try something new, we will just wither away. At these prices, that's hard to change.

LCP is the main distributor of graphic novels and paperbacks for many independent publishers for bookstores such as Barnes and Noble. They recently filed Chapter 11. Do you think it is a new hard blow for the industry?

Yes, but it's too early to tell how it will all play out. Bankruptcy takes many forms. This is not a liquidation. I think they will recover. Marvel did from theirs.

Comic book conventions are typical in North America. What feedback do you get from your peers over there? Is there a positive mood within the industry?

Lately, no. But there is always hope and stubborn doggedness. I refuse to give up. I believe the old Football cliché that "Winners never quit and quitters never win."

We can win.

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?

People buy everything, but non comics material seems to be slowly squeezing out comics for space. But without the stories, the other stuff wouldn't exist. So we'll see a cycle.

In the biggest comic conventions we can find paper and digital artists. Some paper artists seem to be ferociously anti-digital. Do you feel that there are now two clans of comic book creators?

A lot of comics people are old fogeys. They might only be 30 years old, but they are stuck in the past. Eventually digital will become a force to be reckoned with and the old school people will have to wake up.

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 don't really make money out of them. Do you think that the internet could be the solution to the current state of the comic book industry?

Absolutely, but as a web professional I can tell you the key will be getting the public aware of the sites, and that means promotion again. You always need it. But on the web there are much cheaper ways to get it.

Some digital comics use animation; others sound, etc. For you, what is a digital comic? What would be the aesthetic definition?

As long as it's a series of images, it's comics. A series that can be paced by the viewer. One at a time. When it plays on its own it ceases to be comics. Anything therefore in the range I discussed is valid. Animation, sound... as long as it doesn't keep playing without the user's intervention.

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

It all has to do with content. If there are more ideas on paper, paper wins. If digital explores more territory then it wins. But comics are comics and that's what's important, not the medium.

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? Do you think that independents will have to wait for those companies to make money in a safe way?

No. People with money always have an advantage, but a poor person can come up with the working idea. Ultimately, the idea wins out. Whomever is first is the winner.

Do you think that readers are into comics for collecting and need to touch a comic book to enjoy it, or would a computer screen be enough for them? What about you?

To each their own. I have always been an open-minded person. I read "foreign" comics when no one else did. To me digital comics are fine. A lot of people have provincial attitudes, but what else is new?

We may develop a new market in digital without the help of paper sniffers. We'll see.

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. Subscription, advertisement, micro-payments: what do you think is the best option to be paid on the web for digital creations?

Pirates are always going to exist. We may not have a system yet before one works. But I think it'll happen eventually.

There are different ways to compose a comic book story on the internet. Some artists like to consider the screen as a page, others still use a typical comic book format. Finally, we can use the screen as a panel/link leading to another panel and so on. What do you think of those ideas?

I think it's all valid. I don't believe in absolutes. It's art. Do your thing.

On the other hand, other artists use the internet as an unlimited space to compose a story, the screen being considered as a window to an unlimited reality. What do you think of that idea?

If someone can create unlimited material they have to be pretty fast. :)

Like I said, art should not be limited to any one way or doctrine. Comics suffer from too much dogma on the part of the creators. Creativity shouldn't know any bounds.

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?

I like them if they are good. As I said, anything goes. I am not a bigot. I find distinctions between paper and web to be artificial concepts. A form is a form. Art is art. Things have their own life. I don't believe in the silly ghettos of the old school crowd.

Bad artistic, and moreover marketing, decisions have been the main reasons of the industry's downfall. The digital technology seems like a good solution to create art without any form of concession. Do you think that the internet is an open door for new creative voices?

For now it is. Let's hope it stays that way. The money people will always try to constrict everyone. Digital piracy measures and "spyware" are always something to watch as they attempt to box us all in and control what we can do. Let's hope freedom prevails.

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?

It's up to the creators. As long as people do things for money and not for inspiration we will have limits. But if more people have something to say, hopefully things will see a new beginning.


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