If the state of Hollywood these days is any indication, we love our heroes. We find them in a variety of sources, some of us seeking out real life examples of great heroism, others clinging to fictional ideals. Nevertheless, now more than ever, in our confusing and dark times, the concept of a hero is not only attractive, but often inspirational.
Bestselling Author, and comic book innovator James Owen knows, possibly more than most, what it means to embrace the archetype of heroism to overcome near impossible setbacks. He has drawn from the experience of the often seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against him, to become a positive and inspirational voice, and to many…a real life hero.
When James Owen was 11 years old he suffered from a rare blood disorder that wreaked havoc on his immune system and his respiratory system causing extreme allergies to just about everything and making him very ill. During his long stay in hospital, he found solace in comic books, and despite a bleak prognosis, he fought with his mind through powerful visualization of his hero Superman, and he got better.
Right around the time that James was becoming reputable in the comics field for his StarChild comic, he was in a terrible car crash that shattered his drawing hand. Doctors told him he’d never draw again. Once again, through sheer will, and determination, and the concept of everyone having a choice, he beat the odds and continues to be a prolific artist, often drawing stunning dragon images for fans at conventions in mere minutes.
James Owen is a phenomenal illustrator, known for his eight book Fantasy novel series Chronicles of The Imaginarium Geographica, and known in comic book circles, as one of the major forces in the comics self publishing movement that began with Dave Sim’s Cerebus, and paved the way for creators such as Terry Moore, Jeff Smith, Paul Pope, and Owen himself. He has also written a series of stunningly written and honest meditations meant to guide readers to live their best life and use negative experiences to bring about positive change. James is a phenomenal creator and a great teacher. He wants us all to use our voice, to know that we have a choice, and to strive for a life extraordinary, and while on this subject, he likes to make note of a quote from his favorite big screen Superman, and real life hero Christopher Reeve: “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”
I’m very proud to be able to let you all in on the conversation I had with a true “Awesomist.”
FSF: Hi James it’s awesome to talk to you today! How are you doing? How has this past year and a half of global insanity been treating you?
JAO: Hey Michael – I’m doing pretty well, thanks. The last year plus has been full of ups and downs for me, as much as for anyone else, I guess. Mostly I’m grateful to have gotten through it without too much illness, and with fewer losses than a lot of people have had to endure. Personally, the whole issue of lockdowns was bearable for two reasons: lots of creative people are natural introverts, and I could lean into that and focus on my work; and the place where I live – The Coppervale Studio – is a massive building on a couple of acres, so I never had to contend with the feeling of confinement that so many others did. I guess my main feeling is one of gratitude overall, and relief that we seem to be nearing the end of that difficult, desperate phase.
FSF: I’m totally with you. I was working from home before it all went down, but it’s been nice having my wife home and the family time with my kids has been priceless. I find there’s a major focus on commercialism and a fast paced life, and it’s been great to be able to enjoy nature more, and get down to basics. That said I know many people who have been badly affected and my thoughts and prayers are always with them.
JAO: I hear that. One of the first victims of covid – before knowledge of it was really widespread – was someone I mentored through art school, whose parents are among my family’s closest friends. So I started last year in a very somber way. On an individual level, I haven’t had many losses like that. But on a more global level, despite all the grief, a lot of people have been able to find those moments of greater connectedness, and I think that’s a silver lining we need to keep sight of.
FSF: Definitely…now shifting to your work, I’m a fan of all of it. I discovered you as a Fantasy author, then rediscovered you as a comic creator, and one of your inspirational meditation books was integral in helping motivate me to find the career that has brought about a major positive shift in my life.
With all that said, when did you know you wanted to be a writer and artist, which came first, and give us a readers digest of the journey that led to your first published work.
JAO: Thanks for the kind words, man. And I’m especially happy that Drawing out the Dragons was so beneficial and helpful to you. Having that effect on readers was very much one of the reasons I wanted that book to exist.
I think I always wanted to tell stories, and coming from a family of artists, pictures were always going to be involved in those stories, one way or another. So I think the impulse to write and draw developed simultaneously. As far as a first published work, GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS PLUS SANTA CLAUS BY JAMEY OWEN AGE SIX may have been the watershed work that became the precursor to everything that followed: classic stories, combined in unusual ways; illustrated; published by my own imprint (Red Wagon Productions); produced specifically as a profit-making career move (I wanted to buy a ray gun from the toy section of the grocery store; my mom suggested I earn the money myself, thinking I’d rake yards or sell eggs – instead, I went into publishing.) Those booklets were fifteen pages and cost fifteen cents. I sold out the initial run, and used the profits to procure the ray gun, as well as a tin of sunflower seeds for my mom, because…diplomacy.
FSF: Santa Claus would be a big seller in just about any story. The beginnings of an entrepreneurial mind at work!
I wanted to talk comics first simply because they were my first love and I know that your series StarChild was a major part of the self publishing movement of the early ‘90s. Talk a bit about StarChild, how it came to exist, and what was going on in the world of comics at the time that made it the right time for such a complex creator owned work.
JAO: I actually started out in comics – professionally – in 1986, with a precursor to StarChild called Pryderi Terra. I had been inspired primarily by Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest to start my own imprint, and I launched the company at that year’s San Diego Comic-Con with a single magazine-sized issue and a handful of other things like art prints. I still had a lot to learn about the work and the business, though, and the second issue only saw print as a preview in the Comics Buyer’s Guide. Still, it was the genesis of what would lead to my doing StarChild in 1992, and the beginning of the second great wave of Self-Publishing.
The first wave in the 80’s was largely spurred by Eastman and Laird and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which gave rise to a tremendous number of titles, largely driven by speculation and a mostly artificial collector’s market.
The second wave was driven by different forces: Image had proven that it wasn’t necessarily the large publishers or legacy characters that made a venture successful – the creators themselves could be the catalyst for a shift in the industry.
Once that perception was broken, it left the field wide open for the trailblazers like Dave Sim to carve a wider path; for others who had been more established in the mainstream, but who had creator-owned projects that were closer to their heart, like Colleen Doran, Rick Veitch, and Steve Bissette, to make the jump like the Image guys did; and for relative newcomers like myself, Jeff Smith, and Terry Moore to step up and claim some ground with work we fully controlled. My first issue did well enough to pay for itself; the second did not.
And a week after my second issue shipped, I had a car accident in which I crushed my drawing hand. My response to that was to create a prequel issue, StarChild #0, which was typset and consisted largely of half-page panels that I laid out with my left hand and asked other artists to finish. I knew that it was the best time to be in comics as a new creator, and I didn’t want to lose any market awareness or momentum. And I knew if I could just find a way to push through, then I could get my plans back on track.
I told my friends that if they would help me out by inking the pages of this issue while my hand healed, I’d donate the originals to charity, and I’d never shy from a chance to pay it forward. The first one to step up was Will Eisner. Then Paul Chadwick, Dave Sim and Gerhard, Colleen Doran, Craig Hamilton, Martin Wagner, Craig Russell, and others. Alan Dean Foster wrote an introduction, and Kelly Freas wrote an afterword. And suddenly, because of their help, I had a book that every retailer on the planet heard about and wanted. The distributors promoted it, and, seemingly out of nowhere, we sold thousands and thousands of copies. Dave Sim introduced me to Jeff as “The guy who Jeff Smithed Jeff Smith” (and later, when the movement really exploded, Billy Tucci, with his amazing debut of Shi, was introduced as the guy who “Jeff Smithed James Owen”.) I had already done a couple of signings with Dave, and he approached me about doing some joint appearances – and sharing trade show booths – with himself, Jeff, Colleen, and Martin, with jam prints we could give to retailers.
That worked astonishingly well – because that year – 1993 – every distributor was putting on trade shows attended by the then thousands of retailers, and we were the only “talent” at the shows. The rest of the booths were manned by the publishers’ sales teams and marketing people, but WE could autograph books, and sign those jam prints, and do sketches. The lines for our booths stretched around the convention centers, and later, usually in Dave’s suite at the hotel, we would continue with sketching parties that would be dropped in on by people like Neil Gaiman.
We appeared together at a lot of the major conventions as well, and we all – mostly me – benefited from the association with the others, and we were all selling a LOT of books. I had reprinted the first two issues to meet the demand of all the people who had bought issue #0, and had healed enough to keep producing issues on my own, and for a stretch there that following year, I was producing them monthly.
Around that time, the next wave of Self-Publishers came up: Terry Moore, Billy Tucci, Teri S. Wood, Don Simpson, Batton Lash, Rick Veitch, and Steve Bissette. Tundra had started publishing with Kevin Eastman’s money, and Pete Laird had started the Xeric Grant. More prominent mainstream creators like Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti were going out with their own books. Wendy and Richard were deep in their extraordinary tour of having ElfQuest published by all the major publishers while retaining ownership and control, and Dave was giving speeches at Pro Con telling creators to walk away from publishers altogether. It was a great time for creator-controlled comics. Actually, it was a great time to be in comics, period.
FSF: And from what I understand, that #0 issue and the big names you mentioned ended up catapulting the book into people’s consciousness in a huge way.
JAO: Oh, absolutely. Those creators helping me out gave credibility to the book that would have taken years to achieve otherwise. And the awareness it created with fans and retailers still exists to this day, and has helped me bootstrap every stage of my career since.
FSF: Dave Sim’s Cerebus was one of the first Indie comics I read. Granted it’s gotten multiple re-reads and I realize that as a kid there’s no way I could have possibly understood it all, because as an adult I still can’t attest to understanding it all. That said, it is a major achievement in abstract art. One of the things I noticed recently was the mention of StarChild multiple times in the comic, as well as a certain character that originated in StarChild and became a mainstay in Cerebus. How did you and Dave Sim meet, and what led to this overlap of content between the two series?
JAO: I think my introduction to Dave and Cerebus was via two comics subscription services: Westfield, where I first saw his Wolverroach issues being promoted; and Lone Star, who my friend John used, and who did a great interview/feature on Dave, but with the Barry Windsor-Smith cover from Swords of Cerebus #5. That may also have been my introduction to Barry (who will figure prominently in the direction my illustration took.)
So I bought those few issues from the very beginning of Church & State, and then Swords of Cerebus, which I absolutely loved in large part because of the commentary by Dave between issues that were in each book. That is absolutely the source of the pattern I used for the big StarChild book. After that, it was about buying the story in chunks: getting a whole bunch of backissues from a store on a trip to Chicago; getting the High Society trade on my honeymoon; then starting back in on the regular issues during Jaka’s Story.
That was around the time I was planning StarChild, so I corresponded with Dave to let him know what I was planning – and even sent him an eight page story for consideration for his Previews feature in Cerebus. He didn’t use it, but he did send me photocopies of the entire story that he had relettered to show me how I should be doing my lettering. It was a very generous gesture – which vastly improved my lettering – and after that, on his ’92 tour, I interviewed him at his stop in Mesa at Atomic Comics, and he said he would be supportive of StarChild when I got it out. And he was.
I learned HOW to do signings from Dave, including the magic trick of being able to sketch on demand – which means that even if only three people show up, you’ll never have a bad signing. The fans and the retailers will always be happy. The satire elements in StarChild are a direct result of Dave’s influence, as well as the influence of the times we were working in – everyone was creating, working, talking, touring…and we all knew each other pretty well.
It was inevitable that some of those elements would infuse themselves into the work. My character Serbius, the multi-satire character that blended a Wolverine parody with Cerebus, came about because of the issue of Spawn Dave had written. It sold what, a million copies? So suddenly there was a HUGE awareness of Dave and Cerebus, but a lot of Todd’s (McFarlane) readers didn’t really get it – and NONE of them could pronounce “Cerebus”. So that character was a bit of a gentle poke at Dave, after I sat with him through an entire convention listening to people ask him if Todd Created “Serbius.”
He and Gerhard also inked and painted a StarChild cover – Crossroads #2 – after a discussion at that same convention. I had been saying something about how I could justify a war for a good pizza, and it was making it harder to get into shape. Somehow that evolved into a bet about whether I could lose 25 pounds between that day and the start of the San Diego Comic-Con, two months away. If I could, Dave said he’d ink a StarChild cover. I made it, but just barely – and only by an heroic effort in the second thirty days – I was doing 100 miles a night on an exercycle, and eating only nutrition shakes – I was NOT going to lose a chance for something people couldn’t pay Dave enough to do if he didn’t want to do it. The first night of San Diego, we went out for pizza to celebrate, and Larry Marder said they all got a contact high watching me eat solid food.
Dave had parodied several of our friends work – most notably Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman – but in the upcoming book Guys, he planned to involve the work of several of his friends and colleagues in independent publishing. I found out he was including my character Martin Humble when he showed me the pages at my studio during the Mesa stop of the Spirits of Independents tour. I was surprised, stunned, and not quite sure what to think. The earlier appearances of Martin were VERY much based on my character – I told Neil Gaiman that Dave could do me really well, and Neil said “Welcome to the club.” Dave’s version – which was in way more issues than I ever expected – culminated with a place called the StarChild Tavern being a large part of the story, to the point that Dave made the sign my actual logo on a Cerebus cover. I was flattered and annoyed, probably in equal measures, for the same reason fanboys asking about “Serbius” in Spawn annoyed Dave – with no other exposure, people thought Cerebus was Todd’s creation. Similarly, I wasn’t doing a storyline that included Martin in StarChild, so lots of readers weren’t making the connection. (I had a similar problem with the characters Oberon and Titania, from Shakespeare, which people accused me of stealing from Sandman. I asked Neil to write an introduction to the second collection to address that very issue, and he very graciously agreed to do it.)
The years that followed were contentious ones in comics, with a lot of upheavals, and a lot of relationships shifted and changed, including the one I had with Dave. But there were moments of mutual understanding and reconciliation that helped – I’d been involved in an online, well, tar and feathering of Dave over a number of things that had caused rifts between him and just about everyone, and I thought it went too far – so I wrote to Dave, and apologized for my part in it, which he acknowledged in print in both Collected Letters and the Cerebus covers, where he mentioned it opposite the cover with the StarChild logo; and also, which his first boss, great friend, and mentor Harry Kremer died, I sent him a condolence letter, which he appreciated very much. He is still a friend, still and always a mentor, and unquestionably one of the great influences on my life, my career, and my work.
FSF: So if you don’t mind me asking, what made you decide to end StarChild more quickly than originally planned? How do the mini-series that followed play into the entire StarChild experience?
JAO: I had always planned to do a series of stories within the larger work/series, and I think one of the influences for that was the changing of artistic teams with each storyline in Sandman. As a solo creator, I couldn’t do that, but I could shift the design a bit each time, and create a new visual template to distinguish each book from the others, while still keeping a cohesive whole.
Making them different miniseries was something I watched my friend Mike Mignola do with Hellboy – he kept a running numbering of all the issues, but each storyline starting with a new number one was a golden concept in a market where new first issues could outsell the previous issue just because it was a new first issue. So those stories I told were the ones I meant to tell all along, just packaged specifically for the market.
Towards the end of the original run, I was knocked over by another health crisis that threw me off my game for a couple of years, until we produced the first big hardcover collection. That was a nexus point in the comics industry known as the distributor wars, where Marvel bought their own regional distributor, and the two big distributors, Capital and Diamond, started vying for exclusive relationships with publishers.
Diamond was the heavy hitter, and quickly got DC, Dark Horse, and Image – but Capital was more creator-friendly, and the clear underdog. They signed Viz, which was the manga juggernaut, Kitchen Sink, which had The Crow – and me. StarChild was doing well, and they were looking for a show of loyalty. They made a deal with me for guaranteed distribution numbers on the next series, StarChild: Crossroads, bought all of my inventory, and prepaid for the entire next printing of hardcovers and paperbacks. With one deal, I became the third highest priority at one of the major distributors, and that gave me a solid base to work from, for a while at least.
Shortly after, the industry realized that nothing was really working the way everyone hoped; Diamond bought Capital, Marvel came back to Diamond, and I decided to take the next series, StarChild: Mythopolis, to Image, under Jim Valentino’s imprint.
At the same time, I released the second hardcover collection, Crossroads. That all gave StarChild another big boost, and I loved the Image team, but I also wasn’t able to sell copies of the issues they published directly to retailers any more, or to sell copies directly to readers at conventions – and my whole model up until that point was based on direct relationships with all of them. So when there was a point that I could step back, I did, leaving Mythopolis unfinished.
I also did some short stories for the anthology Negative Burn, and published six volumes of The Essential StarChild in paperback (modeled very much after Swords of Cerebus). That would be the last StarChild material for a while until the standalone story “Hobblesmith” (basically the fifth Crossroads story) and then the Mythopolis one shot from Desperado Publishing with the unpublished material from the Image run (and a big essay on Dave and Cerebus.) Then, several years later, in the midst of my success with the Imaginarium Geographica novels, I decided it was time to revisit it, and that’s where the big Twentieth Anniversary Nearly-Complete Essential StarChild came from.
FSF: I’m going to move to Imaginarium, and your novels, but I’d just like to touch on one more thing related to the comics. I noticed that there seemed to be a trend among some of the creator owned properties to make their characters avatars of themselves. Dave took it a step further by actually putting himself directly into the story, but Grant Morrison also brought his likeness in with King Mob, and one might argue that Dream was a personification of Gaiman. Did you employ the tactic of bringing yourself into your work, and if so, how?
JAO: When Harlan Ellison first read StarChild, he called me up, and with no preamble, asked, “How long have you been looking for your father?” Until that conversation, it hadn’t occurred to me that I had three different characters searching for their missing fathers, and when you add in some of the peripheral characters, almost all of them are missing a father and/or parents. I was raised by my mother after my father left when I was six, and maybe I was working through some of that with these stories. My brother used to identify with Homer. I tended to identify with Matthew or Ezekiel, and occasionally Anders. So I guess in a way, I’m the entirety of the Remarkable Higgins Family.
FSF: Novels…very different than comics. What made you decide to take the jump, and what led to the beginning of your most popular series, “Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica”?
JAO: Towards the end of my series with Image, I was looking at getting into magazine publishing with the arts mag International Studio – both because I thought it would be fun to design and publish, but also to hedge my bets against another disaster like the car accident that almost derailed StarChild.
I produced one issue in the 90’s, then a few years later published a few more, both of IS and of the nicely-formatted design-award-winning money-losing literary mag Argosy – and an enthusiastic fan letter about International Studio began a correspondence with my friend Kai Meyer, who had been a longtime StarChild fan. Kai’s publisher proposed that he create a concept for a series that he could edit – and which could be marketed with his name – to be written by other writers. He asked if I’d like to write one, and he sent me a few pages of notes for a project called MythWorld. I wrote what was meant to be Book Two, Invisible Moon, but to Kai, it read like a first book. I insisted it wasn’t, and since none of the other writers he’d talked to were really doing much with it, I wrote Book One, Festival of Bones, followed by two more.
The first one won the AI Award for Best International Novel that year, and the second contained a sequence about a massive library/museum that had copies of rare and obscure books, including an atlas of imaginary lands that had once been owned by H.G. Wells. That one line stuck in my head, and a few years later became the basis for HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS, the first book in the Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica.
FSF: While technically geared toward all ages, there was definitely a push for the school age demographic with Imaginarium. How did fans of your comics react to the work? Did you receive any backlash or was it a natural transition because it was the next step in your creative journey?
JAO: Writing and publishing for younger readers was never really in my gameplan – it happened because it was an editor at Simon & Schuster’s Books for Young Readers who liked it the most and made the best offer for HTBD. That said, it was that decision that made my career – because books marketed to younger readers can be marketed UP to older readers, but the reverse almost never happens. Authors who write for young readers get invited to schools and libraries much more frequently, too. So that absolutely was a lucky break that things moved in that direction – especially since, as you are aware, the books had done well enough for S&S to repackage the seven novels into three omnibus editions marketed specifically to older readers, and not a word of them was changed. They’re the exact same books, just presented differently.
Given that I now had many more young readers, I actually altered several pages in StarChild to make it more all-ages friendly, as well as revised passages in the first two MythWorld books (when they were published in english by Kevin J. Anderson’s WordFire Press) for the same reason. And particularly with Mythworld, which will tie in to the IG books, I wanted to make sure that younger readers and their parents and teachers wouldn’t have a reason to pull the books from the shelves. Most of my comics fans were happy to have new James Owen books – a big reason that I held out to be able to illustrate them and do the covers. Kai Meyer pointed out that I did scene transitions in MythWorld exactly the way I did in StarChild, so the reading experience is largely the same.
When I finished the seventh IG book, a lot of readers – me included – hoped I would pick up StarChild again and continue, and hopefully finish, the story I set out to tell. But my style had evolved too much – I couldn’t just pick up where I’d left off. For one thing, there was too much about the early issues and stories I would want to change, given the greater experience I’d developed while doing the novels. But at the same time, there was so much in the comics that was really good, and a lot that could not translate to prose. Some things can only be done in comics.
So the compromise I came to was to collect ALL of the existing StarChild material into a big hardcover, which could remain in print, to honor the work that had gone before. And then, to actually restart, continue, and complete the story as a series of illustrated novels called Fool’s Hollow – basically adapting my own story into another medium where I had developed a stronger skill set. I still have a few comics stories I want to tell in that cycle – as well as a graphic novel tied to the IG books – so really, the most important thing is that I’m going to keep producing new work for the fans who continue to love and support it, in whatever form or medium it happens to be published in.
FSF: Shifting gears once again, I wanted to touch on your series of “meditations” non-fiction books, beginning with “Drawing Out The Dragons”, which was actually a huge influence on my own life, and integral in helping me to start a brand new career after 15 years during a very stagnant time in my life. What was the impetus behind the series?
JAO: When Simon & Schuster sent me out on the first book tour, it was my first experience speaking at middle schools to huge audiences of kids. The students and teachers – and on occasion, the sponsoring booksellers – fully expected I’d either 1) do a sales pitch for the book; or 2) just read a couple of chapters and maybe answer some questions. I thought if I had the attention of five hundred kids for an hour, I should talk about something more lasting and meaningful than just selling my books to them.
So I started talking about how I got started when I was very young, and how I had the support of people around me, who saw that I was committed to my goals, and that all obstacles can be overcome if you persevere, and believe in yourself. It became a motivational and inspirational talk that evolved over that first year. But the next year, at the same schools, I saw kids mouthing along with certain phrases – and it turned out that the teachers and librarians had written down and posted the most inspiring phrases from the talk, and the kids had learned them. Then several librarians asked if I could provide a transcript for them to share it all more fully, so I took a recording one group had done and transcribed and edited it.
My manager didn’t want to try to sell it – she was just focused on the fantasy fiction work – so I did my first Kickstarter, and published Drawing out the Dragons: A Meditation on Art, Destiny, and the Power of Choice, in both paperback and hardcover. That book did so well that two other volumes, intended for more advanced readers, were published: The Barbizon Diaries: A Meditation on Will, Purpose, and the Value of Stories; and The Grand Design: A Meditation on Creativity, Ambition, and Building a Personal Mythology. The first book was meant to stand on its own; the latter two go together as a followup to DotD. There’s a fourth one coming soon called Everything Is Signal, and a fifth called One Hundred Perfect Days, both meant to be standalone volumes.
FSF: I recommend these to anyone. Your words really resonate and inspire, and knowing what you’ve overcome to get to this point and the way that you maintain the attitude of your coined term, “Awesomist” is an incredible experience to read. Describe what it means to be an “Awesomist” and how others can use this idea to help propel them through their own battles.
JAO: To be an Awesomist is to try your best to be a little better today than you were yesterday; to focus on the things that make you feel happy and fulfilled; to help others up when they have stumbled; to try to be an example that others can follow, not to do exactly as you have done, but to follow their own path, knowing that climbing the mountain is possible; and to realize that now, this present moment, is all we really have – and if you can do the best you can, for yourself and those around you, then your life can be a great line of brilliant present moments.
FSF: Looking back at your career at this point as a seasoned and prolific creator and entrepreneur, what would you say have been some of the high points that you will always remember, and what would you say have been your biggest stumbling blocks?
JAO: The high points of my career absolutely have to include that I became friends with some of my greatest influences. To be respected by those whom you yourself admired, and wished to emulate – there’s not much better. And to have been doing it long enough that there are now new generations of readers who know my work, and older generations who remember it with affection… those are moments to be cherished.
Any stumbling blocks I have had to deal with, large or small, had to do with cloudy vision; with listening to the opinions of others at times when my own experience and intuition would have served me better. And personal challenges are always difficult to manage, no matter how experienced or accomplished you may be. There were times when I suffered through the loss of people whom I thought were friends, and a few years ago, I went through a separation and a divorce that pretty much rocked me to the core. Steve Bissette said something I’ve quoted often, that when your personal story is fractured, it’s impossible to create new narratives, and it’s true. I had to heal from some deep personal grief to be able to create fully again. But once I did, especially with the help of a new partner who helps keep my path clear so I can focus on my work, I’ve been more productive and at a higher level of quality than ever before.
FSF: What takes up most of your time when you’re not being creative?
JAO: While my kids were growing up – my younger one just graduated from high school – they were the priority, and so I worked a lot of late nights so I could spend daylight doing things with them. Now that they are both grown, that commitment of time is a lot less – although I make sure I always show up when they need me to – and so a lot more of my focus is on my work. I spend time helping my brothers check in on our mother, but outside of that, my interests are largely centered on my Studio, and my work, and my partner Helen, and our dogs. One of my favorite poems is “Two Tramps in Mud Time” by Robert Frost, who wrote “But yield who will to their separation, My object in living is to unite My avocation and my vocation As my two eyes make one in sight. Only where love and need are one, And the work is play for mortal stakes, Is the deed ever really done For heaven and the future’s sakes.”
FSF: What are some of the biggest influences on your work, from comics, literature, and other media forms?
JAO: I’m pretty openly praiseful of my biggest influences. The single biggest influence, bar none, is the children’s picture book The D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. I had my own library card for that book as a kid, and I own several copies now. The books of Madeleine L’Engle and Lloyd Alexander. Ray Bradbury is an enduring influence. Getting a quote from Ray to use on my books was one of the happiest moments of my life. Terry Brooks has always been a big influence, then and still.
In comics, Wendy and Richard Pini’s ElfQuest was one of my original inspirations in both storytelling and publishing, as was Dave Sim and Cerebus. Nexus by Baron and Rude, was big for me. The Studio artists, too: Barry Windsor-Smith, Bernie Wrightson, Jeffrey Jones, and Michael Kaluta are a greatly dominant influence on my illustration work. Bissette and Totleben on Swamp Thing, with Alan Moore. Neil Gaiman’s stuff is always good. Miller’s Ronin is something I’m still passionate about, especially as it was one of the first creator-controlled graphic novels. Paul Chadwick’s Concrete.
Really, I could go on and on – I love so many comics and creators. And it’s been a great blessing that I’ve gotten to be friends with so many of my personal heroes. In literature, the Inklings are clearly influential in my life and work. And in cinema, I’m a big fan of Tim Burton’s stuff. If you read closely enough, you’ll find aspects of everything that influences me in everything I do.
FSF: So here’s the big question, and likely the answer that many of your readers are waiting for. What’s next for you? What can your fans look forward to in the coming year?
JAO: I’ve spent the first half of this year keeping my head down and working, planning on just exactly how I intended to deal with that question. I had just delivered – finally! – the eighth Imaginarium Geographica book, THE DRAGON KNIGHT, after delays of more than four years, and I absolutely did not want to put my readers or myself through something like that again.
At a number of times in the past, I had a hard-earned reputation for both productivity and reliability. I turned around the revisions on HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS in a single night; and in my StarChild days, at one point, I was the only solo creator in the industry who was writing, illustrating, and publishing a monthly book. I want that reputation back again – and I mean to work for it. I recently made the public announcement – at the last Superstars Writing Seminar – that I was going completely independent again. THE DRAGON KNIGHT was my first salvo in that particular war, and finishing it was a good start. But now, after several very difficult personal and professional years, I feel like I have my balance back.
So to begin with, no new Kickstarters will be announced and launched without the book being completed. When a campaign ends, I want to be able to send out the ebook version of that book the same day. The same goes with any other book I publish in any format: even if it’s just something we announce as a pre-order, the book has to be ready to go, first. And of course, the supporters of my Patreon are going to have access to all of the ebooks and pdfs first.
I actually have a publishing program that is going to be spread initially via my Patreon, that I feel is quietly epic. The bigger description for that can be found at my Patreon page. I’m not making any promises beyond this one: take a look at the Patreon page Friday. EVERY Friday. And we’ll see if and how quietly epic is truly done.
Now, because it very much feels like I’m stepping into a new world – personally, professionally, literally, and metaphorically – the next book really needed to be something that represented that. So the decision was made: the next major publication and Kickstarter will be the book that represents every aspect of my past to the present, and which will have something for readers of every project I’ve ever done, whether they are fans of the Imaginarium Geographica books, or MythWorld, or StarChild, or even my Meditations series. It’s going to be an oversized, full color art book and retrospective called ILLUSTRATIONS & ILLUMINATIONS – A Meditation on Thirty-Five Years of Illustration, Comics, and Pop Culture.
This is the formal announcement – we’ll be sharing the date the Kickstarter will begin soon. In the meantime, I’ve also just relaunched the three volumed Meditations series as updated, re-formatted ebooks, including a special Tenth Anniversary edition of DRAWING OUT THE DRAGONS, with a new preface by me. They’ll also be available as paperbacks for the first time. Those will be followed by the fourth and fifth volumes in the series, published as both ebooks and paperbacks: EVERYTHING IS SIGNAL, and ONE HUNDRED PERFECT DAYS. Also coming up will be the long-awaited reissue of the first two volumes in the MythWorld series, with new covers, and then, for the first time in english, the third and fourth volumes, followed by, for the first time ANYWHERE, Book Five. Book Four ties very heavily into the Imaginarium Geographica books, so these are stories I’m hopeful will be embraced by my longtime IG readers. These will all be released in ebook and paperback form. And then, if the rest of the year goes to plan, the Ninth IG book, A DRIVE OF DRAGONS. We’ll announce the Kickstarter for the series-matching hardcover for that as soon as I complete the book. So, yes, I have a lot on deck, but I’m excited and energized to be able to share it all with you.
FSF: I like to end my interviews with this question and I think in your case based on your role as a teacher your insight is truly priceless. What one piece of advice would you offer to new and aspiring authors/artists etc?
JAO: Whatever it is that you do, or want to do, find some way to make physical progress towards your goals every day. It doesn’t have to be a huge amount of progress – expecting that they’ll have to do too much paralyzes people. Just make a little progress, every day. If you want to be a writer, try 800 words a day. Just that. It comes out to around four manuscript pages. Sometimes it takes twenty minutes, sometimes it takes all day. But if you do just that much, consistently, in three months you’ll have a novel. It’s the same with anything else – just try to be a little better at something than you were the day before, and it’ll add up to great changes. Just don’t stop. Whatever else you have to do, just don’t stop.
FSF: James it’s been an absolute pleasure. Best of luck with all the upcoming projects. I’m sure many people will be super stoked to dive into what comes next!
JAO: Thank you, Michael! It’s been a pleasure for me as well.