Whiskey in a Bar: The Big Picture with Jimmy Palmiotti

Superstar creator Jimmy Palmiotti talks about PaperFilms, his most newest KickStarter project, Denver, and his mainstream success, but none of this in an actual bar.

We don't sit down in an actual bar, not really. That's just the headshot, but over the course of the conversation, it begins to feel genuinely like the kind of conversation that would play out in a bar. With Jimmy keeping the taps flowing, with honesty and enthusiasm in the mix, and just a bit of awesome. The longer we end up talking, the more it begins to actually feel like whiskey in a bar.

And of course, as with every conversation in every bar ever, we wind up talking about the grander ideas, the Big Things. And as with every conversation in every bar ever, we come to discover that the Big Things are sometimes the little things also.

What makes Jimmy unique, brilliant, singular in a time of conformity to the notions of what constitutes freedom (which isn't really freedom, just conformity), in other words, what makes Jimmy cool, is how human and how accessible and how down-to-earth he is. He's just a guy, just like you. And maybe his secret superpower is that he's in a battle against tomorrow.

Jimmy P. versus the Power of Tomorrow

It's not the kind of tomorrow you and I are familiar with, but an older, angrier tomorrow. Call it the darkest gift of the Baby Boomers; the idea that whatever comes next is better than what we already have.

Jimmy opposes this in the most amicable way, with wit and that Old World charm that cautions to take life slow, to take it easy, to live life to the fullest. And most of all to remember that the good things that matter, matter still, and are the good things for a reason.

"Well y'know," Jimmy begins, "we're in a world where branding is important. With Justin (Gray) and Amanda (Conner) and Paul (Mounts) and everyone involved in the website, we figured it gives us the advantage for the first time that we can actually sell our books, rather than depending on retailers. Over the years I've done many books that I own. Whether it was with Image Comics or Joe Quesada or just putting them out myself or even the Kickstarters… So I had a pretty good library of books. And over the years, especially with most of my work, what happened is it's great to have 'em available because unlike with print you have to have a place to keep them, they run out of stock, but with the digital age I can actually have all of my work available to anyone, anywhere in the world. And I'm not chopping down trees, that's always a good thing. But I think the digital age is wonderful, especially for comics. And having a website is having 'em available and it's great. Things like The Pro go outta print, and I can now have them forever out there. And I think this is where a lotta people are taking stock in the fact that maybe they've worked too long for these big companies and maybe they don't own their work. And part of my career has always been about owning my own thing, about creating my own thing. And I think with the digital age, I get to take advantage of that. So I have let's say 60 books of my own for sale, and let's say it's minor, I only make a coupla dollars, but I usually use that to feed my next project, I usually use it to rollover into the next book. So it's a snake eating it's own tail (tale? [;)."

It's hard to resist the "Power of Tomorrow," a way of looking at PaperFilms that frames it as the next big wave to hit, the next new "cool." But that kind of "cool," isn't what's really cool.

What's really cool is exactly what Jimmy, and Amanda, and Justin, and Paul and Frank Tieri and others are doing. To build a gateway into the comics industry, to provide a point of access that they themselves as experienced creators control, and with that, can produce us as end-users with the high quality of reading experience we've grown accustomed to from them as creators. The key difference is that now, they're producing the kinds of projects closer to their own hearts, and they're building access to new kinds of popculture which can compete more established forms of popculture.

Think back to Spider-Man, which you can do if you're into comics popculture, without ever having been around in the '60s. Spider-Man? Spider-Man was the birth of the Silver Age, and the Silver Age was never about what you thought it was. Never about infusing human storytelling elements into tales of pulp heroism, but rather about, whether or not the cultural project of infusing human storytelling elements into tales of pulp heroism would succeed as an idea. Never about will Spidey save Gwen Stacey while fighting the Goblin, but about whether Spidey will make it as big as Batman.

And it's that idea, that question of whether or new modes of popculture can succeed, that will always be the central issue. With PaperFilms, we as readers at least have a bat and ball when it comes to novelty. Not simply finding new ways of telling Spidey stories (I'm picking on Spidey it seems, but I'm not, not really, just as easily it could be Batman or Superman, Wonder Woman or Flash or Fantastic Four (Go, Reed!) of Thor or Captain America or Daredevil…) but finding new stories altogether.

I talk to Jimmy and I want to read Denver. I want to read Denver because it's new, because it's near where the edge is (only those who've crossed over, the Great Dr. Hunter S. Thompson reminds us Dear Reader, truly know where it is). I want to read Denver because…

The Mile High Yacht Club

It's not during the conversation, but in the process of writing that we return to the Great HST, to "The Great Shark Hunt." It is the Good Doctor returning to Hemingway (to "Mr. Way") by the strangest of roads. Not visiting the murder scene of Ketchum, ID, where Mr. Way snuffed out a human life, his own, but to Mr. Way's Caribbean, where Hemingway enjoyed big game fishing. And what the Good Doctor found there was authentically his own voice.

Long before The Curse of Lono, HST travels to bluer waters to observe a sports fishing competition. And not at all unlike his landmark "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved", where not the sporting event but the structure of a society that can produce such a sporting event as that becomes the subject of the piece.

HST finds himself again, and again, and over again in "The Great Shark Hunt." It's about that jaded point of view that produces as Senator George McGovern suggested "the most accurate and least factual" accounts of HST's encounters. Not the truth, but the lived-in, worn-out, distressed-denim truth. And the longer Jimmy talks, the more it becomes apparent that he's on the same-same vector. This isn't the truth about comics, not even a truth, but something far more useful, something closer to the kind of effect you find from wearing Acronym unashamedly--a future that comes tailored from the evolved sensibilities of the present. Something genuinely cool, and yet at the same time, genuinely NextGen.

Denver feels cool and NextGen in a way that other dystopian scifi seems to miss (except maybe Hugh Howie's Wool, which honestly, no googlage for you on this one, you should already have heard about it).

When we begin talking about Denver, we begin talking about the obvious--the Super Bowl (or "Superb Owl," if you're part of the Colbert Nation). How is it Denver could get funded in time, with the Broncos getting so badly beaten? (All kidding aside, just a week into it's month-away deadline, Denver's already just three thousand bucks and pocket change out.)

There's a raucous chuckle from Jimmy when I try to conjoin comics and sport. "I've been working on this book with Justin and Paul for a year and half," Jimmy half-confesses, "So if Denver wins, we're going to get lost in the headlines, but who knows, y'know? We were just laughing about the Super Bowl, hopefully it has no impact on us. The project is less about the surroundings and more about the story. Our hero's a bodyguard in the city, he controls who comes in and out of the city, the government boats. The city gives permission to people to come in, but only a certain amount of people can get in. When somebody dies the can let somebody in, because they've figured out how many meals, how many, whatever. It's like a very modern way of running a city, and every so once in a while a monkey-wrench gets thrown in and screws everything up. And their biggest problem is that there are thousands of people out there living out in boats and outside the walls that want to come in and be citizens of the city.

"In the story we get less involved with how it came about, and we fall directly in with this massive bodyguard, and how things go to hell. I had this story in mind for a while, and I was at New York Comic Con, and I met a guy. And, actually Jim Steranko introduced us and said to me, 'Just take a look at this guy's work!' And I was like, 'Dude, these are beautiful,' and he was 'Yeah I'm looking for work,' And I put him right to work, and he's been working ever since for me.

"The thing about looking at somebody's art (I'll always look at somebody's art, I'm the guy you bring art to at a convention)… So we put this thing together and I gotta tell you, it's very Heavy Metal, there's nudity, there's graphic violence, there's over-the-top mature themes. It's our fifth Kickstarter. So the last book I did was an all-ages book, my reflex is to go right into the crazy stuff again. And it just looks beautiful, I don't know if you've already seen any of it, Pier's just doing a wonderful job."

Drawn Together, or Happy Valentines

We wend our away into speaking about mainstream success, like Jonah Hex or All Star Western or most recently, Harley Quinn. But there's really no way to began to get into Harley Quinn without getting into Jimmy's collaboration with his wife and superstar creator, Amanda Conner.

"It's your first time working with Amanda since Supergirl, I ask," referencing the Wednesday Comics story from '09 that saw Jimmy take up writing duties with Amanda on art, and Supergirl hilariously dealing with the fallout of super-pets Streaky the cat and Krypto the dog.

Jimmy struggles through the idea a little. "Y'know, I think that was the only time we worked together. I'm going to remember something else, I know, but yeah I think that's the only time."

We get right into it, the transitional between mainstream and indie publishing.

"I think Kickstarter's interesting because you have to earn you audience with Kickstarter. A lot of the time there's a Kickstarter and you don't deliver on time, or the project falls apart, or you don't sell it correctly. You really have to know what you're doing with Kickstarter. I look at Kickstarter as the most grassroots thing I can ever do. Meaning, I actually pack every single book, I put a note, or I sign it, because I look at every name that I see as a customer. It's one of the few times that I can sit and I can do it, and I know it's going to each person. I mean living room looks like a post office exploded, but it's such a personal thing the Kickstarters, and I put in time with each one. And you keep earning as you go, meaning you have to earn it. People that get your packages and are happy usually back the next one. I think the problems people have with Kickstarter is that they offer things they can't deliver, they're not on time, or they don't factor in shipping, they don't factor in delivery time or they don't connect with the audience. The one thing I'm absolutely clear on, is if it's damaged, all you have to do is write me, and I'll get you another one. Or if you have any problem, you just hit me up, and I'll look it up. I make sure everybody gets what they have. And it does take time, but I think if you do it any other way, I think that's where the problems start.

"But to get back to Harley Quinn, Harley is a character we didn't create, and Amanda and I, we're doing our take on the character, and until the numbers came in on zero and one, we just had no idea."

It takes us the next question to loop around to the Valentine's Day magic of this story. The story of how Jimmy and Amanda see each other through popular culture.

"There's Painkiller Jane," Jimmy says. "Painkiller Jane is Painkiller Jane. Painkiller Jane's my little baby, even if nobody buys it… I love the character, when Joe (Quesada) and I created her in the '90s, Amanda calls it the female version of me. She says, 'If I wanna hear your voice in a comic, it's Painkiller Jane. It's whatever sounds like, she sounds like you to me.'"

And then the fade-to-black moment.

"And I've always had a fascination with the strong female character archetype. The kind of no-bullshit, this is the way the world is and in spite of it, I'm still gonna move forward and get through it."

Does sound a lot like Jimmy, doesn't it?

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