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.
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
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
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"
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.