Thursday, March 24, 2011
One Page At A Time Interview...Pj Perez
This week's interview is with Pj Perez...writer, artist, publisher and editor (along with musician, journalist and no doubt, a lot of other cool things too!). PJ is based in Las Vegas, and you can check him out on the web right here:
DC: The earliest memories I have of reading comics are Peanuts, Richie Rich, and some tattered old Brave and Bolds. After that I started to gravitate to DC Digests, which I still think are an amazing way to get cheap reprints out there. Then I started to get a bit more fanboyish and collect specific titles and creator runs. How about you...were you into comics as a kid? Any memories of your earliest issues or titles?
Pj: I've been reading comics for as long as I can remember. The very first actual comic books I distinctively recall reading were two different titles, both featuring Superman: One was a comic DC produced for Radio Shack, featuring the TRS-80 Whiz Kids, I believe. It might have co-starred Wonder Woman, as well. The other was an issue of DC Comics Presents, though I don't remember the specifics. All of this was around 1980 or '81, I'd guess.
Like you, after that I gravitated to specific titles, becoming a HUGE Marvel Zombie at an early age, probably about the time Secret Wars came out. There was this used book store around the corner from my townhouse in Panorama City, Calif. that sold old comic books for 25 or 50 cents each. They just had shelves packed with boxes stuffed full of unbagged, variable condition comics. The store smelled musty, like a good used book store should. I still have the copy of Marvel Tales reprinting a Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin story I bought there.
From there, I moved up to buying pre-packed comics at toy stores, and then drug stores/newsstands, and then full-on comic book stores by the time I hit my pre-teens.
DC: Did you have any interest in humour comics like Mad or Cracked? Did comic strips (dailies in the newspaper or collected editions) make an impact on you?
Pj: Oh, heck yes. I was a Cracked fiend. I liked Mad too, but Cracked felt a bit more contemporary. Plus, it had John Severin doing art, who's one of my all-time favorite artists. My mom used to take me to lunch every week and she'd buy me a new issue of Cracked. For a while, I wanted to pitch story ideas to Cracked, but, well, never did.
As for comic strips, you have no idea. I've loved every form of sequential art, but comic strips actually have a special place for me. Like most kids (or, I guess most kids), I grew up ravaging the Sunday comics section out of my parents' paper, but I would also get the daily paper for two things: the comics page, and the stock reports (don't ask). I bought collections as well, everything from Garfield and Heathcliff to Bloom County and Doonesbury. Heck, I just got the Calvin & Hobbes treasury for some holiday a few years ago.
In my collection of homemade comics from my childhood, I have a bunch of newspaper comic strip-format stuff I made, from funny animals to superheroes. That was the neat thing about newspaper comic pages to me -- you could go from absurdist humor to wrought drama. There was something for everyone. Anyway, I actually developed a strip to pitch to the Philadelphia Inquirer when I was 13 or 14. I don't remember what it was, but I remember working on it and thinking it might be worthy. Not sure if I ever did submit it. A few years later, I had an even crazier idea: Adapting the TV soap opera "Days of our Lives" as an action-oriented comic strip.
Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous
DC: Good point about the multiple genres available in "the funnies". I always thought that it was strange that comic books were looked down on by adults (when I was a kid...I know it's different now) but comic strips in the newspapers were generally well respected. There's not that much of a difference at the core except for the delivery method. I wonder if the various genres in the newspaper is what appealed to adults, as opposed to the superheroes on the spinner rack.
(Not sure if there's a question there Pj, just enjoying the discussion...)
Pj: Well, the comic strips come disguised in an already "adult"-geared medium (the newspaper), so maybe that's the thing. It's just another section you hit between the crossword puzzle and the sports page.
DC: Who were the writers (in any medium) and artists that made/make the biggest impression on you (in your youth and now)?
Pj: Ah, the old "who are your influences" question, eh? I don't really think I can horn in on specific influences, especially when it comes to writing. I mean, I learned how to tell stories by reading comics & books and by watching movies & TV, so technically, ALL of the writers behind all those things made an impression on me.
Now when it comes to art, this is a little more specific. I spent years trying to ape John Byrne, John Romita, Jr., David Mazzucchelli, John Buscema, Frank Miller and Jack Kirby. Especially the first two in that list. Especially, in my younger years, Byrne. It took me a while to come around to Kirby, but he's probably overtaken anyone else in terms of setting the bar for visual comic storytelling. No news there, right?
DC: How did your love of comics feed into your desire to tell stories? Do you think your appreciation of the medium helped to light your creative spark?
Pj: Hmm. I honestly don't remember a time when I wasn't telling stories. I had a really active imagination as a kid. My artistic talents were encouraged at a very early age (recovering hippie parents), and I've been able to read since I was a toddler, so I've been communicating through words or pictures since before I can recall.
I guess comics honed that, in one direction. It merged my love for writing and drawing, and from ages 9 to about 15, I created HUNDREDS of homemade comics (including those comic strips I mentioned earlier), starting off with rough, one-page ditties featuring my favorite Marvel characters, and eventually turning into an entire line of comics averaging about 12 pages. A month. No kidding, I was writing and drawing probably eight to 10 monthly titles of that length by the time I hit high school, all intertwined in one "universe" of stories.
But I also loved journalism (though surely I didn't know the term at the time), and started multiple homegrown publications throughout my youth, starting with a photocopied, hand-distributed school newspaper in junior high, all the way through self-publishing a 'zine in my late teens. I guess I got bit early by all of my creative interests!
DC: I'd like to talk about process, a topic that I'm really interested in...When I was first starting out, I would always be looking for that winning formula that would allow me to come up with a perfect script. I soon realized it doesn't exist and every writer does things differently, and every story is arrived at via a different process.
Having said all that...is there a "typical" way that you come up with a completed script? And how does the process change for you when you're working on a story that you're going to draw yourself versus one that's for another artist?
Pj: As you figured, there is no "typical" process. It all depends on the venue, the creator situation, etc.
For example, with The Utopian, which was a webcomic I did as a one-man show, I started with a loose plot featuring tent-pole moments that needed to be reached, but in the process of filling in the paths to those moments, things would change and shift around the arc of the story. I rarely wrote full scripts, instead outlining general emotions and actions in thumbnail sketches, and then writing full dialog after the artwork was finished (Marvel method, I guess).
That's usually the way I'll work when it's just me. General plot, thumbnail layouts, art and then script. Or at least layouts and then script and finally, art.
When I'm writing for other artists, I basically use the same method -- I'm a very visual person and have trouble pacing a story without drawing it out. So I'll write an overall plot synopsis, again, noting the tent-pole moments of the story. Then I'll do thumbnails to break the story down into pages and panels. Then I'll write the script from that, basing the descriptions of the panels on my breakdowns. That's what the artist gets, plus any character designs and thumbnails as needed. Usually, after the art actually gets done, the dialog might change a bit, of course.
DC: What's your elevator pitch for The Utopian?
Pj: Elevator pitch, eh? "Kick-Ass meets V for Vendetta."
Actually, that's not it, but that's what a comic shop owner recently called it. I do have a standard line that I use at appearances, something to the effect of "It's the story of a disillusioned teenager trying to change the system but finding himself changed instead -- dramatically."
Problem is, that doesn't say much specifically about the Utopian, and because of the nature of its unexpected twists and turns, it's hard to say more without giving it all away.
DC: Continuing with The Utopian...can you describe your process for arriving at the character and the story? Now...that naturally feeds into another discussion about the core of this story...is the focus on the character or the plot? In your mind, is there a big distinction between those two things?
Pj: Well, the Utopian had its/his birth with the less-gracious name of "P-Man." "P-Man" was one of a batch of those homemade comics I mentioned earlier. It was not the first or last to feature a character who was basically my avatar. I think I created it when I was 14 or 15, and I was hyper-aware of having to make changes in my own life. I was -- and I know this will come as a TOTAL shock -- kind of a nerd for most of my life through freshman year of high school. I was your standard, non-athletic, unpopular comic book geek (I suppose now comic geeks are much cooler). People knew me only because I was also a smart-ass (which earned me "best sense of humor" in my 6th grade yearbook) and I could draw stuff. But between my freshman and sophomore years, my family moved (back) to Las Vegas from the suburban quiet of Eastern Pennsylvania, and I took that as an opportunity to reinvent myself. Bleached my hair. Got contact lenses. Bought a new wardrobe. Changed my name. (You didn't think "PJ" was my birth name, right?)
"P-Man" was my way of dealing with being a nobody -- in the story, the fictional PJ Perez is also a relative nobody, but when he dons his hat and coat, people take notice. So much so that the football star tries (unsuccessfully) to emulate him. Even at that tender age, I was aware that my "uncool" was not just a personal feeling, but a symptom of a larger institutional inequality -- the same caste system that seems to exist in every level of school I've ever attended.
At some point in that story, much like in the middle of the Utopian saga, fictional me undergoes this intense near-death experience and comes out the other side armed with weird mystical powers. But that was for real in the context of the story, and actually played into this magical mythology I had built from an earlier PJ-avatar character, and ... we're getting off topic here.
Somewhere down the line, maybe a year or two later, from a very different perspective in my life (having been tainted by sex, drugs, cars, girls, violence, etc.), I reworked the story about to where it is today -- a teenager so frustrated by the system and the bullshit around him, he decides to use his own anonymity to do something about it, to attempt to force a "Utopian" world. And ... here we are, 18 years later.
One more thing: Where it concerns the Utopian, the character IS the plot. Almost the entire story is told from James' perspective, and that's because we're just along for the ride inside his mind and life. Everything is colored through his perception. One of my readers wrote to me to presume that James is the "unreliable narrator," and that even stuff in the story that seemed to happen "for real" didn't.
DC: Can you give an example of a particularly difficult scene that you had to write? ... One that was keeping you up at night? And what strategies did you use to break through?
Pj: I can tell you that I struggled with how to get from point A to point B with The Utopian. I knew what happened to a certain dramatic point, and I knew how I wanted it to end, but I had no idea how to connect the two. It certainly didn't keep me up at night, but for weeks I kept scribbling down ideas for scenes, but still no reasonable plot conclusion. As usual, the solution came to me while in the bathroom.
I don't want to gross out anyone, but most of my "ah-ha!" moments when it comes to storytelling happen in the john. Or brushing my teeth. You know, quiet time. ;)
DC: You're publishing, editing, and contributing to an anthology, Omega Comics Presents. Personally, I'm a big fan of anthologies. I love to get a variety of voices and art styles in one package. However, every time I read any articles about them, they all seem to make the point that they're a hard sell in the marketplace. What's your take on anthologies, from each one of your perspectives (publisher, editor and creator)?
Pj: It's funny: when comic books first started being published, they were all anthologies. It wasn't until particular characters became very popular that they would star in "feature-length" stories.
But I get why anthologies are a hard sell. For the most part, especially in the indie market, they're a hodge-podge of untested, unfamiliar material. This brings up a point I think is important: to me, there are two kinds of comic book readers. One is a fan of the medium, and it's capacity for storytelling beyond books or movies. They will take a chance on new things, because they love good stories being told.
The other type of reader is the fanboy. I don't mean to be patronizing, but these are the people who buy every issue tied into Blackest Night because they're conditioned to, the people who bitch on forums and refuse to read anything else other than the core titles featuring their favorite characters. Unfortunately, these people are the rule, not the exception -- though I think that is changing as, to be honest, that generation of fanboys ages and makes room for a new type of reader. Who knows what they'll be like?
To be honest, the anthologies I've published have not done well. Diamond hasn't picked them up. They haven't sold well at conventions or really even online sales. That's partially my fault for being too democratic with my editorial process. The stories -- and I think all of them have been quality, otherwise I would have never published them -- have been too different in style, genre, pacing. We're going to try something different this year. Something more like one-shots with backups. More focused, more robust. We'll see.
DC: How did Tales From The Boneyard come together, and was the process of putting it together different from the way you put Omega Comics Presents together? Are there plans for a second volume?
Pj: Tales from the Boneyard was very purpose-driven: To create an anthology by Vegas creators to benefit a Vegas institution (in this case, the Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival). Unlike Omega Comics Presents, a general call for submissions was not put out. I hand-picked the talent featured in the book from the great pool of folks we have here in Sin City. And because all the stories had to be based around the same theme, there was much tighter editorial control.
We had a great response (both financially and critically) to TFTBY, but I'm not sure I'm ready to do another anthology on that order in 2011. Other forthcoming projects are already sucking up my time.
DC: You've got extensive experience in music and journalism in addtion to your work in comics. Perhaps a bit of background is necessary before you get to my actual question, but basically...what I'm wondering is...Do these various forms of creative output all feed into each other for you, or do you keep them compartmentalized?
Pj: Every aspect of my life blends together when it comes to complementary skill sets. As early as my teens playing in bands, my skills as an illustrator came in handy for designing album and flier art. My journalistic skills play into writing web content and press releases. My editorial experience obviously allows me to be very hands-on in many aspects of publishing comics. And all of this stuff actually comes together for making comics themselves. I often liken the indie comic industry to the indie music industry, and with good reason: They're both struggling against a larger (failing) corporate machine, and both trying to stay one step ahead of the changes in media consumption formats and habits.
DC: Is writer's block an issue for you? If so, any strategies or suggestions for how to combat it?
Pj: I don't know if writer's block is as much an issue as schedule block for me. Between constantly changing hats, from editor to publisher to writer to illustrator to webmaster to drummer to housekeeper to boyfriend, the only real block to getting writing done is my own constant need for multitasking.
DC: Do you try to keep a regular schedule for writing? Or do you just fit it in whenever and wherever you can?
Pj: This is actually an issue I've been trying to get a handle on. I'm full of ideas. I come up with new ideas for comics or TV shows or movies or songs every day. But I'm bad at execution, at sitting down and hammering out the nitty-gritty details. What I've been trying to force myself to do is stop taking on so many projects and focusing on just one or two per month (as much as possible). So yes, ongoing I have my band, I have Pop! Goes the Icon business, etc., but this month I'm finishing a screenplay. And next month I'm drawing a comic. And the month after, I'm writing a novel. It rarely works out that way, but if I give it a go, at least I can say I tried.
DC: Do you have any advice for creators who are trying to make a name for themselves and break into comics?
Pj: Let me just say that when I have figured out that particular conundrum, I'll get back to you. :)
DC: Do you have any upcoming projects that you'd like to promote?
Pj: I've been doing a lot of planning and writing, comics-wise, not as much production -- at least nothing the general public will see. I don't know when this will run, but my latest work is the concluding chapter of "Omega," the action-espionage serial that's been running in the anthology I edit, Omega Comics Presents. That drops early in April. Oh, and hey, I think there's a Dino Caruso joint in there too. But seriously, I think this chapter is the best drawn one yet, which is good and bad, because it makes the others look miserable by comparison.
DC: Thank you so much for your time PJ. It was a pleasure chatting with you!
Pj: Thanks Dino!!
As always, thanks to Derrek Lennox and Crystal Fractal Comics for hosting this interview. Check 'em out at: www.crystalfractals.com!