11: Punching Onions
Fuck, I’m tired.
There’s the obvious, macro cosmic exhaustion of living in 2020, with the election, coronaviruses, and big shake-ups in the hierarchy of the company I do most my work for. There’s also the micro side, where I had to get up almost two hours before I usually do to bring my dog to the vet so she can have a growth on her belly removed. I’m using the head start on the day to finish the newsletter I started in fits and bursts yesterday. Forgive me if any of this doesn’t make sense. As I said… I’m tired.
Turns out, writing a weekly newsletter is about as tough as it sounded when I first set out to do it! Weirdly, it was easier in the chaos of the early year when I was wildly behind my deadlines on pretty much every front. My brain was running at full speed and I was knocking out scripts and pitch documents left and right. I needed a release valve and this was it. A cure to writers block and anxiety (or at leave a salve). But it’s been a wild few weeks and there’s been a lot cooking in the back of my brain. I’m going to ramble a bit in a few directions, but it’s all going to come back to this image…
But I’ll get to that in a second. I said a few things on a panel this last weekend in Chicago, and they’ve been sitting with me ever since I’ve gotten home.
It was a panel for the ALA (the American Library Association), and it was about stocking and shelving comic books in libraries (which, if you’re not a librarian or a comic book creator, you should know is a huge part of what keeps this business alive). There was one question, and I wish I could remember it exactly, but the question essentially asked if we considered what age group we were writing for as we were creating new things. But it was framed in broader terms… It was about what audience we write for.
I was honestly a little worried about the panel, going into it. I am a difficult comic creator to shelve. I don’t stick to any single age group or genre. Backstagers is Middle Grade fantasy adventure. The Woods is, more or less, a Young Adult Science Fiction book. My Apocalyptic Trilogy (Memetic, Cognetic, and Eugenic) is straight horror with no cursing, and Something is Killing the Children is straight horror WITH cursing. And this was the question I was kind of dreading, because I knew my answer was essentially that I DIDN’T consider my audience when I was creating, except that was wrong, too. My oeuvre is, more or less, just a reflection of my taste in fiction.
But there’s a cool moment when you’re writing or public speaking where you kind of start building a bridge to nowhere without any real answer to the question at hand, and find yourself somewhere interesting after all. Sometimes that’s just bullshitting, but sometimes bullshitting is a good road to revelation. I started by saying that the audience, first and foremost, was me. And not just the me that exists now, but the me that existed in middle school and high school and was falling in love with comics as a medium. I am trying to capture the spirit, and feel of the books that made me fall head over heels in love with comics and decide to spend my life making them.
And then I started talking about Steven Spielberg. Now, I’ve always loved Spielberg, which feels a bit like saying “I like Pizza” or “I like Ice Cream”, but is undeniably true. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of my favorite movies. I could rewatch Raiders of the Lost Ark every day for the rest of my life without getting bored. But there’s something more… There’s this commonality of spirit across all media he’s helped bring into the world I find really admirable, and fascinating. It’s difficult to put your finger on it, but it’s always there. You look at what he was up to in the early nineties, where he was working on Schindler’s List at the same time as Jurassic Park, while also helping bankroll the creation of Tiny Toon Adventures and Freakazoid. You look at the 80s, where he was helping make An American Tail, Poltergeist, and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. There’s an Amblin spirit to his work. A collection of themes and interests that feel primarily interesting because they reflect him entirely, from his Jewish Identity to his Genre Roots, but despite that… He’s a kind of Mass Market auteur, because he’s tapping into his own intensely personal pure joy and creativity, and broadcasting it to the masses.
And I think the commonality in all of this is that he’s trying to capture the wonder and joy that made him love movies, from roughly that same time in his life. Even his most adult pictures still have an eye for the adolescent audience, it gives them a way in. He never makes something alienating. He wants people to feel what movies make him feel. And that’s what I want to do with comics. Which is either a more or less rambling version of the answer I gave on that C2E2 panel.
Now, I’m no Spielberg. I don’t have that Spielberg polish (I wish I did). I’m not claiming that in any way that I’m on that level, but I do think there is a baseline connection between what he does on the big screen and what I’m setting out to do in comics. People talk about a story having an Amblin feel (for Spielberg’s production company), and usually they just mean his 80s work, particularly when talking about a movie like Super 8, or a tv show like Stranger Things… But I think there’s a larger Amblin feel. A childlike sense of wonder that you can even feel in a movie like Lincoln, that ties it all together. And I’ve been working to distill what that feeling is in my own work, and give it its own identity.
My two audiences are myself, and everyone else. Or maybe it’s more that my product is myself, and my audience is everyone else. Or it’s both of those things at the same time.
And what I’m after is capturing a kind of spirit… or maybe the better way of saying it is that I’m trying to capture a kind of “id.” A pure emotional reaction, the inner child… I keep calling it an “inner 13 year old.” That is who I am trying to write comics for. Even my most adult comics, I want to capture how it felt as a high school freshman reading my first Vertigo Comics and seeing the potential of storytelling. But with my Batman, it’s that dialed up to eleven. I’m operating with the kind of math that says “if this wouldn’t feel cool to thirteen year old James, what’s the point in doing it?” Like, look. I know there’s a lot of chaotic elements happening in my Batman run right now. Disparate pieces flying at you from all directions. I’ve got lots of Bat vehicles, and new characters, and classic characters, and literally Batman hasn’t been out of costume for a single panel of it. Now, I think with #90, you’re starting to see the ideas underpinning all of that, because they DO exist as a compass guiding me, I don’t want you to think it’s all just on the fly for the hell of it. But I DO want it to capture a kind of pure expressive joy that hits all of us RIGHT in our id. I want you to feel “holy crap, that’s a cool vehicle.” I want you to ask yourself “who is this new character, and how could they change the story that’s being told?”
I’m trying to let my gut guide me in the right direction, which is the same thing I do in Something is Killing the Children, which feels like a polar opposite book in some ways, but is honestly trying to do the same exact thing. SIKTC is the reason Punchline exists. I know from Erica Slaughter there’s a hunger out there for new characters. The audiences in comic shops want the comics to be special. They want to be the first ones to meet the characters who might appear in TV or film years from now, and they want to own them and think about them and draw them. It goes beyond superhero comics… I did a really cool thing in February, which is probably the most in depth interview I’ve ever been a part of in PanelXPanel #32, which you can buy HERE.
There’s a line in there I like a lot in there, that encapsulates a lot of how I’ve been thinking about the market and my place in it…
I think there’s been an element missing to the last generation of creator owned titles. Like a bunch of people writing Transmetropolitan, but forgetting to create Spider Jerusalem. Mainstream, mass market comics have always been driven by iconic characters, with iconic visuals.
Seriously. Read the interview. It’s got a lot of really cool, in depth stuff on the creation of SIKTC, including the original pitch document and pieces of script. The link, once again is HERE. And while you’re at it, go order these awesome longform essay novella things PxP is putting together. BUT the larger point is that I want to create new shit that hits you right in the gut, and I want to do it in a way that can capture all of your attention, and try to create figures that stick in your mind. Iconic characters that intrigue you and make you want to read more comics. I know you’re not going to like everything I’m going to make, but I hope you do.
Anyways, the big reason I created this newsletter was because I am currently standing at the bully pulpit of the American Comics Industry. I am writing Batman. I am also writing other books, like Something is Killing the Children, Wynd, and projects that I’ve only started hinting about that will be coming from a variety of publishers over the next few years. And I want you to read those other books, if you like reading Batman. Since they’re at a number of different publishers, and being made for a number of different age ranges, I know that I am the central thing they all have in common. But like Spielberg and Amblin, I want to give you a way of thinking about them, all together.
I called this newsletter the Empire of the Tiny Onion, because my company is called Tiny Onion Studios. Tiny Onion Studios is the entity that DC Comics has under an exclusive contract to write a few comic books a month. Tiny Onion Studios is the entity that owns Something is Killing the Children and all my Boom! creator owned work. It is also the entity that will be releasing a book with Image Comics later this year. And so I decided that it was time to give it a logo…. And here it is again.
The name Tiny Onion comes from all of the mispronunciations of my last name, amalgamated into one turn of phrase. Tinny-Un. Tiny-On. Tin-Yun. Tinny-Yun. When I asked Dylan Todd to design it, I said…
Looking for something graphic and simple here. The feeling is, for a lack of a better word, being presented with something unusual. Like a hand that has picked up a bizarrely tiny onion and now wants to show it to you. I also like the idea of using the hand to help indicate the scale of the tiny onion in question. But I might be coming at it all a bit too literally…. I know the two key words I’m giving you aren’t cool, but I think there may be something in presenting something mundane with a bit of frivolous extremity. Like we took the style of a company called DEATHBLADE Comics and took that spirit and injected it into these mundane words. I think there may be something in the juxtaposition. Something that says something roughly similar to what I was suggesting with the tiny onion in hand. Presenting something extraordinary and strange in an unusual, unassuming package.
When you look at the sum total of what I’ve created… Punchline. Erica Slaughter. Wynd. The Colony and The Victim Syndicate in Detective Comics. The Sloth from Memetic. The kids from The Woods. The kids in The Backstagers… I want you to see think about that Tiny Onion as the cosmic force binding it all together.
Or, if you don’t want to do that, I hope you still pick them up and read them.
Okay, so the Punchline stuff has been nuts, right? Like sincerely, sincerely nuts.
Batman 89 sold out. Year of the Villain: Hell Arisen 3 sold out. Batman 90 sold out. I know a bit from my bosses about what’s happening to the sales for the following issues and I don’t want to spoil you… But folks seem really excited, and I could not be more grateful for the buzz and excitement. And the Artgerm variant for #92 (which used to be the #94 variant) is definitely lighting the world on fire a bit… And you can see why!
And they just announced the super rad new Mattina variant of 94….
And those are just the covers I can show you! I saw a Joker 80th cover last week that made my brain explode. It’s all incredibly exciting. Particularly all of the fan-art and cosplay that’s been flowing through my timeline on Instagram and Twitter the last few weeks. That is an EXTRAORDINARILY gratifying feeling. It means we hit a bit of a nerve with this character and there’s some genuine excitement about them, just as a cool looking figure they want to learn more about!
BUT, I also know there are folks out there getting burned. Readers of the book who can’t get their hands on a copy of 89 or Hell Arisen. Retailers upset that DC didn’t let them know that it was coming. Everybody upset with me for tweeting that a certain issue was a “real first appearance” but not meaning that literally. And I understand where everyone is coming from (especially regarding my dumb tweet). So I apologize if Punchline mania has gotten you down, and I hope the reprints coming help calm that a bit. But I want you all to know what’s up and how all this happened.
So, back in December, when discussions were starting about Joker War, I knew I needed Joker to have a lieutenant in that war. A Number Two. We started cooking up the idea of a polar opposite to Harley Quinn, and Jorge designed Punchline. The design was fucking awesome and I didn’t want to wait to use her in a comic.
I had written in some generic gangsters helping out Joker in Hell Arisen #3, so I emailed my editor on that book and said that rather than a generic person in a clown mask, let’s slip Punchline in there. Then I realized that she was going to appear in Hell Arisen #3 a full month before she showed up in Batman, which wasn’t going to happen until issue #92. Thanks to the joy of double-ship comics, #89 hadn’t been written yet, so I decided to slip her in there, because it felt weird for her to pop up in an event mini that didn’t really tie directly into Joker War. So we snuck her in a couple panels to set her up in Batman first and foremost, in issue 89. Then I got permission to post her design online, and everything went nuts. Books started selling out, and I made the dumb comment that I was excited for her REAL first appearance in 92 (by which I only meant her entering the story and interacting with the other characters), and then folks were saying I was trying to say Hell Arisen wasn’t her first appearance, so on and so forth.
The real truth is that new characters don’t always equal buzz. I think it’s the power of the design, the power of a dark new rival for Harley, and the excitement for a Joker story where readers don’t know what’s going to happen, because now there are new elements in the mix with the potential to change everything. We weren’t expecting it, but we’re thrilled it’s captured folks attention and interest.
And now the responsibility is on US to make her matter, to make her a character worthy of all that attention.
But honestly, that’s what I am MOST excited about with Punchline. It’s all the incredible story potential I get to tap into in the book. It’s how she changes the dynamic of a massive Joker attack on Gotham City and Batman. It’s her first encounter with Harley. Her first encounter with Batman. Her first time on the page interacting directly with The Joker. All of that is why I was excited to create the character in the first place… And I am VERY VERY excited for you all to read her origin story in the Joker 80th Anniversary special. Mikel Janín knocked it out of the park. (Don’t tell anybody I showed you this…)
And I promise, in the future, we’ll be more upfront when we’re about to introduce someone new we think is really cool.
Jorge and I just created a new character named CLOWNHUNTER, who shows up in Batman #96, part two of Joker War. I am very, very, very excited about him, and the absolutely brutal wrench he’s going to throw into the mix of that story.
More to come in the next newsletter… Maybe I’ll even get to show you a design >:)
SOMETHING IS KILLING THE CHILDREN
A few things on this, but mostly I am going to let the pictures do the talking. Boom! Studios does a neat thing where they release “Discover Now” editions of some trade paperbacks to give the direct market a head start selling comic book trades. So you can get this, with an amazing Jenny Frison variant cover, from your Local Comic Shop now. If you’ve been tradewaiting this, let your LCS know you want a copy! The regular edition doesn’t hit bookstores until May!
Issue #6 starts the next arc, and is out the week after next, and I am just posting the main cover and the Jenny Frison (?!?!?!) variant because they are fucking beautiful.
How am I so lucky?!
FULL PROJECT RUNDOWN
WYND - Michael is chugging along on pages, and I finally finished the whole first volume, so he can draw the whole dang thing. I need to cut TWO MORE pages out of it, and start doing letter edits. And then I need to start breaking down Book Two. Ahhhhhhhh! IT’S REAL!
PROJECT DALLAS - Holy shit, I want to show you the cover to this, but I really really can’t yet. But I promise you it looks so cool. SO SO COOL. Hoping I can start talking about this series in earnest in the next few months.
PROJECT LAKEHOUSE – Getting ready to enter active production. Character development is starting for real. Artist is about to be free. This’ll be my next big thing in the direct market after Project Dallas.
PROJECT TEETH – Finally in for a green light. Cross your fingers. Don’t let me bite them.
PROJECT CHAOS – The first Character designs are in… They are fucking rad. I’m hoping for this to come out mid 2021, but we’ll see how we can get it all moving forward.
PROJECT GUNHAND – Artist conversations moving forward, and a publisher has been informed it exists. Probably going to spend a few years on the backburner, but it’s alive!
I’m forgetting something… But that just means it’s a bit further on the backburner than the others.
I announced yesterday that I will no longer be attending ECCC, given the current state of affairs. I’m sorry to miss it, because it is one of my favorite shows every year.
I’m in discussions for a few signings the next few months if you’re in the east coast, so stay tuned there. My next domestic comic convention is SDCC in July. My next international show is MCM London in May. More info to come on both.
I need to go pick up my Dog from the Vet soon. Everybody hug your dogs! They’re good!
James Tynion IV