FAN ABOUT TOWN – Interview with Justin Peniston

Hunter Black by Justin Peniston

Hunter Black by Justin Peniston

One of the many great aspects of being a Small Press publisher in Los Angeles is the close proximity of all of the local talent.  As such, I’ll occasionally feature interviews with LA Indie Creators on this column.

First up is the very talented and, as you will soon read, very hard-working Justin Peniston of Big & Tall Tales, Inc.  Justin is the currently the writer behind the webcomics HUNTER BLACK and PLANET PANTHEON, among other projects.

I suppose now might also be a good time to point out the fact that I didn’t realize what the acronym for Fan About Town was until the writing of this article.  Oh, well, I suppose it’s too late to change the name now.

Anyway, without further preamble, let’s hear from Justin…

 Fan About Town:  First of all, Justin, why comics?  What made you feel the need to enter this industry?  Certainly not the money?

JP:  Well, I never set out to write comics exclusively…and I don’t. If I take a look at the list of projects on which I’m currently working, or have worked on in recent months, they include online comics, comics for print, a video web-serial that I’m hoping to produce, a screenplay, and animation for television.

I can’t really discuss too many specifics, because most of these things are in development. The animation writing was done for Man of Action Studios, with whom I’m fortunate to have a good relationship, because they’re exceptionally talented and generous guys. With any luck, I’ll be doing more of that with them.

But to comics in particular. I LOVE comics. I grew up reading comics and once I understood that comics is a medium that has been all but ghettoized by snobbery (and I can be a bit of a snob, so I know snobbery when I see it), I found myself wanting to do comics even more. If I can find a way to help bring more legitimacy to the medium, I will. When I think of new ideas, more than half of the time, they’re ideas for comics.

People NEED TO READ. Comics are easier to read than prose, which is huge in this era of stunted attention spans. Maybe most of all, though…comics are thought of as fun. I like fun.

FAT:  And what would you say to those readers who claim they want to read fresh stories and ideas, but don’t support new titles with sales in the marketplace, what do you say?  How do indie creators get potential customers to not buy, say, the latest X-Book and instead spend their hard-earned money on a new small press title?

JP: What would I say? I’m not sure that anything I have to say would mean anything to anyone. First off, in my experience a lot of people making that claim are doing so in response to some change that they don’t like. I’m thinking specifically of changes like replacing Ted Kord with Jaime Reyes in Blue Beetle or Peter Parker with Miles Morales in Ultimate Spider-Man. Maybe I’m jaded, but a lot of the bellyaching about wanting something fresh usually means, “Don’t do ANYTHING fresh with MY comics. Why don’t you go over there and do something COMPLETELY fresh and new?” (And some people don’t want to see brown faces replacing the white ones that they’re used to, although I think they’re a relatively small minority…albeit a VOCAL one.)

Now, I do understand the reluctance to try new things in the average consumer. People spend money on these things, and they have limited budgets. They want to know they’re getting value for their money, and in a lot of cases they equate value with familiarity.

At the moment, independent creators have to recognize that they have to be in it for the long haul. They have to build a brand, whether for themselves or for their comic, that people will trust enough to spend their money on. Building a brand is HARD, take it from me. I’m in the beginning stages of it now, and I’m probably having more success than a lot of others. And it’s HARD.

We have to earn our readers one at a time…and with any luck, some of those readers will become advocates for us and our work.

Only one thing will consistently convince readers to try new things, and that’s good work.

FAT:  You’re obviously going the web-comics route with HUNTER BLACK and PLANET PANTHEON, and I believe you cited the current comics market/economy as being the a big reason behind that decision.  Could you speak a little more to your choice to forgo print and go digital?

JP:  A couple of things went into the decision to do online comics. When Will and I began working on what eventually became Hunter Black, we were not looking to do a comic of any sort, print or otherwise. We’d attempted to do a comic together before, and Will had found that his heart wasn’t in it. We’d decided that when we made our annual trip to San Diego Comic-Con, we needed to have something put together for Will to showcase his work to animation studios or networks. We wanted to do something for kids and something for the Adult Swim crowd. Hunter Black was going to be our first animation pitch, something aimed at a more mature audience.

Well, once the ideas started flowing, and the stories that we wanted to tell started taking shape, we started thinking that Hunter Black might be a bit much, even for Adult Swim. I mean, our main character is an assassin looking for revenge on the criminals that did him wrong. This is a story about a killer doing his job for personal reasons rather than financial ones. But we loved what we were coming up with. It was something we wanted to see…or maybe read. We toyed with a variety of media choices, but in the end, doing an online comic was the only way that we could think of that we could control the story, do it on a shoestring budget, and use our individual strengths to capture the attention of an audience.

Once Hunter Black took off, and we found that we were able to keep it going, and further that we enjoyed the work, I decided to launch Planet Pantheon. Planet is a comic I’ve been wanting to do for years and years. Myke Turda, the penciler, has been attached for most of that time. After producing a full first issue for print, but finding that it was too ambitious, and maybe too ambiguous, for a publisher to take a chance on, it was dead in the water. But of all the ideas I’ve ever had, and I have ideas all the time, it’s quite possibly my favorite. I had to get it done.

Online comics represent an opportunity to create for an audience on my/our terms. No one has to approve the work but the creative team. I do want to make money through my writing, through my comics. But at the end of the day, writing for an audience is an incredibly fulfilling experience. Online comics guarantees my ability to do that. I’m enjoying writing Hunter Black more than anything else because it has thus far afforded me more interaction and feedback from my audience than anything I’ve ever done, and I’ve been published by DC.

FAT:  Speaking of digital comics, what’s your take on the current debate?  Does digital threaten to drive brick and mortar stores out of business, or is it a separate demographic that will actually add to the industry?

JP:  It wasn’t that long ago that I was convinced that I would never warm up to digital comics. But I’ve become a regular reader of dozens of online comics, and the stuff I read from the Big Two is almost exclusively digital these days. I don’t have a lot of time to go to the comic store, and I find that I enjoy reading comics on my Kindle Fire.

That said, when I like something, I want the collection. I just bought and read the latest Atomic Robo miniseries on my Kindle, but I’ll definitely pick up the trade paperback at some point.

I think I’m an exception to the rule, too. I’m working two jobs (one being the writing) and I have a fiancée. Those are full-time commitments. Not all readers are like that. I think if time weren’t an issue, I’d still like to buy comics in the shop.

Digital comics are going to bring in new readers. I love comic book stores, but the Direct Market was a mistake in that it became so insular. Even today, the prevailing image of an LCS is that it’s a dark place designed to keep women and children out, and that image isn’t always inaccurate. There are still horror stories from women about their experiences in comic book stores.

Digital comics are exactly what the industry desperately needs. I think that savvy comic book stores will be around for decades to come.

FAT:  Do you think there’s a way for those less-savory LCSs to rehabilitate their images as boys-only dungeons?  Can we ever get to a place where people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds visit a comic shop as they would a clothing or grocery store? 

JP:  Image rehabilitation is pretty tough; there’s a reason why people say you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That said, there is one GOLDEN opportunity, and that’s kids. Unfortunately, kids are going to be the readers most attracted to digital comics over printed comics.

Recapturing kids and continuing to attract and hold on to the burgeoning female segment of the geek market is VITAL to the industry’s success.  If I ran a comic store, I’d diversify as much as possible. I’d have an abundance of genres and titles, including a healthy manga section (although I don’t know if manga’s as cool as it was just a few years ago). I’d also carry toys and games and DVDs. I’d try to carry anything that seemed like a logical offshoot of comics.

Lastly, I’d be looking into my own digital comic apps. I’d be trying to embrace digital as much as possible. I don’t know how feasible this stuff is, I’m still in the earliest stages of considering apps for Big & Tall Tales.

Oh, and I would employ as many women as I could. That should be a no-brainer, but…

FAT:  We recently ran some articles on our experiences at Wonder-Con in Anaheim, and I know you were there, too.  What was your on-the-floor experience?  How do you feel about comic conventions in general?

JP:  I’ve loved cons since I was a little kid. I love comics, comics creators, and comics fans. I’ve gone to San Diego for something like twelve years running…although I’m almost certainly not going to go this year.

WonderCon was my first experience being on the other side of the table. There were parts of being an exhibitor that I didn’t love. I didn’t get to go to any panels, I only saw a few of the people that I love seeing. But I met a whole new group of people in the Small Press section of the industry, and we got to create new readers. I got to talk with fans about geekery in general in ways that don’t always happen when I’m wandering the floor.

Unfortunately, I got a nasty case of the nerd flu and had to miss Sunday. But we’ve got a table at C2E2 in a few weeks, so we’re gonna do it all again soon. We’re definitely still figuring out how to get the most out of our booth presence.

FAT:  Just out of curiosity, why no SDCC on the books for you this year?  I only ask because I’ve been having similar conversations with my cohorts here at BuyIndieComics.com.  I’ve exhibited at SDCC since 2006, but didn’t make it last year due to the impending birth of my second child, and I can’t say that I missed the costs or the time commitment… 

JP:  That’s easy. It’s just about time and money, and both are better used on conventions where we have an exhibitor booth or table.  I mean, our booth at WonderCon didn’t even begin to cover our expenses for the convention, but we did make SOME money.

There’s a very long waiting list for exhibition space at San Diego, unless you’re Small Press, which requires an annual vetting process(!) that we were too late to apply for this year. We’ll try to get a booth at SDCC next year, for sure.

(Disclaimer: I brazenly submitted Hunter Black for Eisner consideration. If we somehow get nominated, which I hardly expect, I will be going, if only for a day.)

Planet Pantheon by Justin Peniston

Planet Pantheon by Justin Peniston

FAT:  You get my vote, Justin!  Now, this will either be a softball question or a brain-buster, depending on your demeanor.  Favorite comic of all time?

JP:  Yeeeeah. This is not a softball question. I love SO MANY COMICS. I can’t give you a single answer. (If you asked about movies, that’s easy. The Empire Strikes Back, hands down.) Let me run down a few things that I love.

- John Byrne’s Fantastic Four

- Matt Wagner’s Grendel and Mage

- Walter Simonson’s Thor

- Levitz and Giffen on Legion of Super-Heroes

- Terry Moore’s comics: Strangers In Paradise, Echo, Rachel Rising

- Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier and Parker series

- Alan Moore. Watchmen, V For Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,   and Top 10

- Frank Miller. The first Sin City arc. Batman: Year One. Daredevil, especially Born AgainDark Knight, obviously.

- Grant Morrison’s JLA

- Joe Kelly’s I Kill Giants, JLA, and Deadpool

- Jeff Smith’s Bone

- Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country

- Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo

Atomic Robo!!! Wegener and Clevinger rule.

This is hardly exhaustive. It doesn’t include the webcomics I read almost every day like PVP, Questionable Content, Girls With Slingshots, etc.

Totally unfair question, because I left off so much deserving stuff.

FAT:  Hey, we ask the hard questions here at BIC. 

Okay, let’s switch gears a bit.  Many indie creators view creator-owned books as an entree into the “Big Two.”  Have you given much thought to your own career trajectory?  Does the future hold DC and Marvel work for you?

JP:  Well, I’ve worked for DC before, and would gladly do so again, and I would love to do some work for Marvel. I was weaned on the Big Two, and their place in my heart is unassailable. I would kill to write Batman or The Fantastic Four. Writing a Martian Manhunter ongoing series is my dream job.

But Big & Tall Tales is MINE (and Will’s). I have no intention of ever leaving creator-owned stuff behind. It’s not a gateway to working for the Big Two, at least not by design. I like writing comics and I like getting paid. I want to do both. I intend to do both.

FAT:  Well, A Martian Manhunter ongoing is one mainstream book I’d get behind.  I’m reminded of Ostrander’s brief, but excellent, run and Darwyn Cooke’s interpretation in New Frontier.   Without divulging too much of your take on the character, would your Martian Manhunter jibe with his current status in the New 52?  What do you think of that line-wide reboot, in general terms?

JP:  Well, anything I did with a DC character would HAVE to jibe with the New 52. That said, DC did a lot of work to show Martian Manhunter choosing Earth over long-dead Mars. Personally, I think the New 52 provides an opportunity there, because such a choice means very little if Mars is dead. That just makes J’onn a poor man’s Superman.

But if Mars is still around, which it very well could be in this new universe, and he chooses Earth anyway…I think you could tell a really cool story about being an alien, a foreigner, and an immigrant with Martian Manhunter. A lot of people try to shoehorn that sort of story into the Superman myth, but he’s a lot more a Kansas farmboy than he is a foreigner. I could get a lot of stories out of those themes combined with superheroic tropes.

And Darwyn Cooke is the man. John Ostrander is the man. I try not to think of it as following in their footsteps, or I’d start getting intimidated.

As far as the New 52 as a whole, there are things that I love about it and things that I really don’t. But it’s their ENTIRE line of comics, so of course it’s that way. There is a bit of a 90s sensibility about some of it that leaves me scratching my head…but then again, I’m currently listening to Blood Sugar Sex Magik by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. 

FAT:  Finally, Justin, you hail from DC, but now reside in LA.  What’s the comics “climate” in both locales?  Is one city more comics-friendly than another?

JP:  Honestly, reading and writing comics are such solitary pursuits that I’ve never been as big a part of the comics community in either city as I should. I was never a working professional in DC, so I was never a part of the scene there.

I’ve been a part of the scene here in LA. I’ve gone to Comic Book Sunday (nowhere near as often as I should), I’ve attended the Comic Book Dinners, I’ve gone to events at Meltdown. LA has been a much bigger part of my life as a creator than DC ever was.

I need to participate MORE in the LA comics scene. That’s a big goal of mine that I never seem to get closer to realizing.

***

Once again, my thanks go to Justin Peniston for his time and thoughts.  I personally found it educational and am currently enjoying the hell out of HUNTER BLACK and PLANET PANTHEON, so please do yourselves a favor and check ‘em out!

Richard A. Hamilton is a Los Angeles resident for 12 years running and the writer/publisher of Return of the Super Pimps and Miserable Dastards.  On his free time, he seeks out new Indie comics, local beers, and –on good days — both.

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One Comment

  1. KWS
    Posted April 10, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    Great interview of a fantastic writer, storyteller and Imagination-Adept…I have all of his published, and some of his un-published work…all great stuff! Looking forward to more from this Bard-Extraordinaire!

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