Continuing our interview with Oni editor-in-chief Jamie S Rich, this week Ninth Art talks to him about the Hollywood movie boom, the Oni 'clique', and remaining adamant in the face of the fans when controversy comes calling.
12 August 2002

Following last week's interview with Oni editor-in-chief Jamie S Rich and creator Chynna Clugston Major, this week we grabbed Rich for a few more questions on the state of the industry - and Oni - today.

Life rarely provides a totally smooth ride, and life in the comics industry is no exception. One of Oni's flagship titles, QUEEN & COUNTRY, is currently in the middle of a story arc with art from Argentinean newcomer Leandro Fernandez. His style was quite a departure from the previous issues' look, and for some readers it wasn't what they were expecting at all. Letters bemoaning Tara Chace's sudden voluptuousness flooded in, and Jamie S Rich found himself having to defend his artist.

"If we had listened to initial reaction on Q&C, we'd never have worked with Steve Rolston again. Same for Brian Hurtt. They were both bitched about in the initial stages, too," he says.

"The fans have a forum to express themselves, and we do listen, but at the same time, we have to be true to our vision, and true to the vision of Greg Rucka or whoever else is creating whatever book might be getting complaints or whatnot.

"The Big Companies have sort of created a feedback noose, at times, by encouraging the idea that fans should be able to influence the direction a character or title takes, and I think it can be a tremendous disservice to creation. Which may be a difficult thing for fans to hear and not feel slightly insulted, but the whole notion of creator-ownership and creator-rights is there to give creators an outlet for creating that remains uninhibited. Right or wrong, we stand by that."

Would he ever consider using big-name 'hot' artists on an Oni book, even if they didn't seem to fit that particular book's style?

"Of course not," replies Rich. "You wouldn't hire, say, JG Jones to illustrate Alison Dare. You could, but it's not the sort of tone we are going for. But where we hit the slippery slope is where we get into the question as to what a book's style is.

"Again, QUEEN & COUNTRY - we stood behind Steve Rolston because we knew he was an exceptional talent, but at the time, the majority of mail we got bitched about the 'cartoony' style not fitting the serious script. But we knew what we wanted to do, and we stood our ground, and now the comics community at large is rewriting history and suddenly it's, 'We want Steve Rolston back'. So, as long as our vision is clear, we do it as we see it.

"Many people flipped out when they heard Terry Dodson was going to do the covers for HOPELESS SAVAGES: GROUND ZERO. I know at least one person said, 'You can't do that,' and well, I'm a pretty contrary person, and we damn well did do it, and it's brilliant. So, ha!"

Oni Press is a company that has clearly fostered a strong sense of community, and the staunch defence of Fernandez shows that the editors back the creators to the hilt. However, does the fact that the same names appear on a great deal of Oni's output mean that the company can be a bit cliquey'?

"Yeah, I do think we have that in some degrees more than other companies might," says Rich, explaining, "in general, the Oni group has been pretty friendly, because when we started out, it was just a handful of people. It was very easy to just be at cons and do nothing but hang out with each other. We're a little big for that now, kind of an unwieldy group, and some folks have gone their separate ways.

"We feel that once someone's working with us, if they're worth the long-term investment - and we're interested in people who will have long careers - it does then foster an environment where the same names tend to stick around. I don't think that's necessarily that different from most companies."

Of course, it takes more than good will for a publisher to thrive, and while many people are seeing a Renaissance in the comics industry at the moment, Rich isn't so confident. "We're in a stronger position [as an industry]," he says, "but at the same time, I'm worried that we're building a house of cards again."

Rich believes that a kind of complacency is threatening to creep over the industry, and the 'bubble' created by overconfidence in what is a relatively fragile state of affairs might burst again. "I think over the last year, especially with the resurgence of Marvel (and it's been quite an interesting creative resurgence - the fact that they're actually putting out books that even I'm reading is testament to that), it's sort of lulling people back into a state like the early '90s, late '80s heyday, getting right back to the big and flashy superhero thing again.

"[The state of the industry] was very tenuous, which nobody saw at the time, and I think we've definitely seen a shift of readers back to the comics mainstream and moving further away from the fringe elements, but what a lot of people don't seem to be paying attention to is how shaky it was the previous time, and what a sort of false influx it had been."

These are dire warnings, but what about the massive success of such high-profile properties as the SPIDER-MAN movie? Surely that will help the industry to stay strong once again, or will at east shift a great deal more comics?

"I think the Spider-Man film is actually probably going to contribute to [the shakiness of the industry] a lot," says Rich, "and I think it's going to trigger another Hollywood feeding frenzy that is going to be just like previous ones, where lots of people get caught up in this great big machine just to get ground up and dropped behind, so I'm hoping that people will be a little cautious and I'm hoping that as an industry we'll be able to build around what's going on, in an attempt to strengthen the industry and not just get caught up in the bright colours and the quick cash."

Ultimately, Rich thinks that the comics industry has its fate in its own hands; he thinks that if the people who have to make top-level decisions do so wisely, the outlook is rosy, but that there is a danger of history - and the crash of the early '90s in particular - repeating itself. "I think we've reached a kind of crossroads, and we could go down the path we went down before and really screw ourselves up again, or we could take what's happening and try and make it a positive element."

Would Rich be happy for BLUE MONDAY or other Oni titles to be picked up by Hollywood?

"If it's what the creator wanted, I'd be supportive of it," he replies. "As a personal taste, I'd rather they weren't. I'm never all that excited to see adaptations particularly - I think if it's a good comic or novel, it should be so alive in your head when you read it anyway that I feel the screen is redundant."

This doesn't mean that he's looking a potential gift horse in the mouth; "I'm not going to begrudge anyone some of the Hollywood paydays - I'm not going to discourage people. I'd be more like, 'just go in with your eyes open as to what's going to happen'. Obviously, as a company we would benefit, so I'd just grit my teeth and ride with it."

Oni has fostered an impressive raft of talents over the past few years - so who's next in Rich's sights? The first name to come to his mind is Francesca Ghermandi, who he thinks is "amazing and who I have traded some emails with, but she's kind of in-between projects right now, or working on some stuff that's not quite ready yet.

"The last time I talked to her, she has some project she's working on and there are some questions about American rights and things. It's hard because our languages are different, and so communication is a bit rough, but basically we've extended an invitation that any time she has a project that she'd like us to consider, we'd love to. Also, I wouldn't mind seeing some new stuff out of [Jamie] Hewlett, Phil Bond, that whole DEADLINE crew. I'd love to do more comics with Pat McEown who just can't seem to keep working - actually I haven't worked with him since DARK HORSE PRESENTS." says Rich, becoming rather misty-eyed as he contemplates his comics wishlist.

As for what the immediate future holds for Oni Press, one book that has Rich especially excited is J Torres & Mike Norton's JASON & THE ARGOBOTS, which launched a couple of weeks ago. "It's so much fun, I am really jazzed," says Rich. "Torres wrote the most open script I've ever seen from him, and Norton just ran with it. Grand adventure, fighting robots, all told with a sense of wonder.

Then there's Rich's "new baby", ONE PLUS ONE by Neal Shaffer & Daniel Krall. "The story in the ONI COLOR SPECIAL 2002 is just a glimpse," explains Rich. "These guys are real talents. It's hard to explain exactly what they're doing. It's like if Godard wrote HELLBLAZER or something. ... The main character, David, is sort of an agent for fate, steering certain unsavoury types towards their inevitable comeuppance. But the joy of the series is the characters he encounters. Shaffer and Krall are building full lives here."

And finally, there's a little something from Rich out this month as well: "We're bringing my novel, CUT MY HAIR, back into print. It's got great drawings by Andi Watson, Chynna Clugston-Major, and Judd Winick. I'm very proud of it. Please help Oni not to lose money on me," he laughs.

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