Comics Interview: Gerard Jones On Writing For The Big Two & The Small Press
Gerard Jones is the Eisner Award winning author of Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. He has written for Marvel, DC and Malibu (remember Malibu? They had Prime). He has been featured on NPR, the “Today Show,” and BBC World News. His other books include Killing Monsters – Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes and Make-Believe Violence and Honey I’m Home – Sitcoms Selling the American Dream.
Nicholas Yanes: You are fortunate enough that you get to write for a living. How did you begin to establish your career?
Gerard Jones: I decided I was going to be a writer for a living at 15, although I had no idea what that involved yet. Over the next several years I wrote a lot of short stories and a few novels, all deservedly rejected. Along the way I started collaborating on humorous short pieces, just for fun, with my friend Will Jacobs. One of those ideas turned into a whole book, The Beaver Papers, which was odd enough and in tune with the humor market enough to appeal to an agent and then sell to Crown Publishers. I think I was 24 when it sold. On the basis of that we got an invitation from the National Lampoon to submit humor pieces, and it also enabled us to sell Crown on the idea of publishing our first nonfiction book, The Comic Book Heroes. I still didn’t manage to quit my day job until I was 29, but those were some pieces to build on.
Yanes: So many academics seem convinced that significant writers all have high end college educations. What is your education background?
Jones: I did a couple of years of community college, just short of enough to transfer to a four-year college, and then quit. A lot of my literary heroes of the time, like John Steinbeck and William Saroyan, had foregone college in favor of working and writing, so I thought that was a glamorous thing to do. I was impatient to get published, too, and started to see college as a time impediment. I have to say, though, I think I’d have been a better writer if I’d ever actually taken some classes in it.
My buddy Michael Chabon once said of his time at a university writer’s program that it saved him from having to make a lot of new-writer mistakes. Looking back over all the mistakes I made and how long it took to figure things out on my own, I wish I’d had the boost. I guess you can use me as an example of why you don’t “have to” study writing in an academic setting, but I don’t want to be an argument for why you shouldn’t.
Yanes: You have written comic books for the big two publishers and some smaller ones. Is there any significant way that big publishers differ from smaller ones?
Jones: The big difference isn’t so much big publishers versus small ones but creator-owned versus company-owned properties. Editors at small companies can be just as control-freaky as editors at DC and Marvel when you’re working on their company-owned universe. But I always had tremendous freedom when I was working on my own creations. I even had a lot of freedom on certain projects at DC, especially Green Lantern: Mosaic, because there was sort of an informal assumption that that was “my” project, since I’d developed it. Way, way less freedom on the main Green Lantern title.
Yanes: I tend to describe Men of Tomorrow to potential readers as a book that deals with the establishment of the comic book industry, its relationship to organized crime, and the period it occurred in. What other aspect of this text do you think should be mentioned to potential readers?
Jones: I’ve found it’s most interesting to tell people it’s the story of the guys who created Superman and their battles with the businessmen who bought it. Then I can talk about how it also looks at the whole medium in its formative years, the Jewish immigrant experience in America, the building of the pop-entertainment industry from the ’30s to the end of the century, depending on what people seem interested in. Maybe my approach has been shaped by pitching it as a movie several times–and writing a screenplay–where finding the core human story is so important.
Yanes: Men of Tomorrow seems be the pinnacle text dealing with the establishment of the comic book industry. Is there anything that you wished you would have covered or that you now feel you should have done differently?
Jones: I didn’t give myself as much time for research and fact-checking as I should have, so there are mistakes in it. A few times I also didn’t adequately question why I thought I knew what I thought I knew, which is why I passed on a few of other people’s old errors. I had a chance to correct some of those problems in the paperback, but there are other inaccuracies still in there.
Yanes: What inspired you to write Men of Tomorrow?
Jones: I used to love to listen to the old guys in the business tell stories. I started in comics in the ’80s when most of the founding fathers were still alive. Gradually I could see one big narrative emerging, linking American history in the 20th Century, Jewishness, the immigrant experience, popular art, and the particulars of comics. Actually, the first story I really wanted to write was the weird relationship between Jerry Siegel and Mort Weisinger, which had to become a pretty small of the book but seemed to say so much about the conflict of creativity and financial survival.
Yanes: As a nerdy grad student, the aspect of the text I found the most interesting was just the sheer amount of information you had. How did you manage to get the information in Men of Tomorrow? What research archives did you go to? How did you get so many interviews?
Jones: Getting the interviews wasn’t too hard, being connected to so many people in the business. You just ask people to ask other people. I didn’t do a lot of archive work, although I did look up what I could about the families and lives of some of the people at the New York Public Library. My main “archives” were fans’ collections of old fanzines. Mark Waid was a huge help in that.
Yanes: Considering that so many comic books are being turned into movies, is there a hope that Men of Tomorrow might get turned into a movie?
Jones: I sold the screenplay to Michael Uslan at Comic Book Movies, but before we could put it on the market he declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which tied the rights up for over a year in court. The court’s now assigned the script to someone else, but nothing’s happening yet. Meanwhile, a couple of other producers are interested in adapting. Something will happen sooner or later.
Yanes: What do you think comic book fans and pop culture academics could get from Killing Monsters – Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes and Make-Believe Violence?
Jones: I’ve heard from a lot of people who found that book by way of Men of Tomorrow. Most of them say it helps them understand their own fascinations with superheroes and comics. Some say it gives them good arguments to use against the “violent entertainment is bad” crowd. Especially the parents who are trying to raise their kids with the same pop-culture exposure they had.
Yanes: Finally, if you wanted your fans to add false information to one Wikipedia entry, what entry and what information would you want added?
Jones: I’d like to see “Gerard Jones won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath.”
For more information about Gerard Jones feel free to check out his website: http://www.gerardjones.com
Additionally, if you are interested in some of his books feel free to learn more about them here:
- Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book
- Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence
Remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes
Nicholas Yanes is a comic book academic who has written two theses focused on graphic literature: “X-Men as a Reflection of Civil Rights in America” and “Graphic Imagery – Jewish American Comic Book Creators’ Depictions of Class, Race, and Patriotism.” Additionally, he was privileged enough to create and teach “American Comic Book History”; a junior level course in the American Studies Program at Florida State University. His first publication is the essay, “The Super Patriot: World War II Warriors and the Birth of Captain America,” and will be published in Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero: Critical Essays. He is currently working on an essay that has been accepted for publication in an anthology about African Religion in mainstream American Comic Books, and putting together a collection of essays that look at Obama in Popular Culture: http://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/node/32305
You can find out more about Yanes’ credentials by looking at the following linkedin.com page: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/nicholas-yanes/a/84a/518
Furthermore, he has begun creating group pages on social networking sites for the Institute of Comics Studies. Feel free to learn more by going to any of the following pages:
- Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/group.php?gid=46122310763&ref=ts
- Myspace: http://groups.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=groups.groupProfile&groupID=107838767&Mytoken=6412DF62-BDBB-4297-ADD615AD8C473E9832982324
- Linkedin: http://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=1915726
- Ning: http://instituteforcomicsstudies.ning.com