Joseph Illidge: Creating comic industry milestones

Credits: Milestone Media
Credits: Milestone Media

Joseph Illidge: Creating comic industry milestones

Jospeh Illidge took time out of a very busy schedule to share some of his thoughts on comic book creation, the digital medium, projects in the pipeline and much more. For those not in the know about this talented creator and visionary, check out his bio. Setting a great example in work ethic, industry knowledge and how to create tales that break barriers of all kinds, Mr. Illidge is a model for aspiring creators and industry insiders alike.

Joseph Illidge started his editorial career at Milestone Media, Inc., the first Black-owned mainstream comic book company and creators of “Static Shock!, the award-winning Warner Bros. cartoon.

Joseph was the first African-American to become an editor of the Batman line of comic books and graphic novels for DC Entertainment, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Joseph was also the editor for the company’s top-selling female action-adventure comic, Birds of Prey.

After his tenure at DC Comics, Joseph became the Comics Editor for the critically-acclaimed independent graphic novel publisher, Archaia Entertainment. Now the Head Writer and Editor for his own production company, Verge Entertainment, Joseph works for various clients on film and graphic novel projects.

Joseph has been a public speaker at Digital Book World’s forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, Purdue University, on the panel “Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books.”, and most recently at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art’s panel on the subject of blacklisting in the comic book industry.

Joseph has written, and been interviewed, on the subjects of race, comics, and politics, and his newest project is a historical graphic novel for a top book publisher (The Ren will be published by First Second Books, a division of New York City-based publisher, Macmillan)

MT: Thank you for taking this time to share with us Mr. Illidge. As a writer, who are some of your influences? How did you get into comics?

JI: Too many influences to mention in one shot. Graphic novelist Warren Ellis. The departed Editor-in-chief of Milestone Media, Inc. and graphic novelist / animation writer Dwayne McDuffie. Novelist Denise Mina. “Breaking Bad” creator / writer Vince Gilligan. All of their work has such a sense of character truth while being succinct, and you never know what’s coming next.

Oh, and novelist Lee Child. The man is a writing machine, and I love the Jack Reacher series. Again, his style is succinct. Lots of short sentences, utilizing active language to create a beat that makes you keep turning the pages.

My entry into comics was through Milestone Media, Inc., the first mainstream Black-owned comic book company. I took the P Diddy approach and started at the bottom as an intern, working my way up to becoming the assistant to the President, and becoming the Editor of the company’s flagship title Hardware a few years later. I wanted to learn how a comic book company worked, across every area of the business structure. The Milestone founders gave me that opportunity, for which I will always be grateful.

The editorial and managerial skills I developed while working at Milestone helped me to excel as an editor at DC Comics on the Batman line of comics and graphic novels. While managing my corner of the Batman universe, I started my own production company, Verge Entertainment.

Co-founded with Shawn Martinbrough, artist for the graphic novel series Thief of Thieves by the creator of AMC’s “The Walking Dead”, and videogame developer Milo Stone, Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for transmedia development. Live-action and animated television and film, videogames, graphic novels, and web-based entertainment.

MT: What do you think are the most important components that contribute to determining an independent creator’s success?

JI: Talent, consistency, and the ability to self-promote. The absence of any of the three makes it extremely difficult in the comic book industry, because there seem to be more creator-owned comics out than ever before, thus more competition.

Be good at your craft. Have the work come out on a regular schedule. Either learn to get the word out or ally yourself with someone skilled in the marketing / promotion / PR arena. Too many independent creators try to self-promote, but don’t have the savvy for it. It’s best to creators to honestly assess their skills and abilities.

The most important thing is that creators enjoy producing their own projects. If they’re counting on making lots of money and getting their book optioned by Hollywood, it’s an invitation to disappointment and disillusionment.

MT: If you had to recommend a book that you felt would be an invaluable tool for pencilers, what would it be? Writers? Inkers? Colorist?

JI: There is no single book to help creators from any category of artistic labor. Creators should read regularly, practice their art regularly, and learn every day. Be willing to learn and take criticism. If you cannot take criticism and alter your art to the needs of a client, do not go into business as an independent contractor…unless you can get lots of people to pay lots of money for your work without any changes.

Creators also need to be willing to get professional instruction and, or counsel, if their work is not up to a certain level of quality. Not everyone with an idea is a writer. Not everyone who started drawing as a kid is a penciler. Not everyone who can dip a brush in ink is an inker. Not everyone who likes to color with their computer is a colorist. All of those roles require lots of work and learning.

MT: Anything that you would consider to be your favorite read right now? Any creators you think are worth watching? What types of comics do you find yourself gravitating towards as a reader and as a creator?

Right now, my favorite read is The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois, as it’s been an invaluable resource for writing my upcoming graphic novel, The Ren, which takes place during the Harlem Renaissance.

In the comics and graphic novel world, favorite read is probably Valiant Entertainment’s Harbinger, written by Joshua Dysart. I had grown tired of the superhero genre, but Joshua’s work on Harbinger is making me a believer again. I’m also enjoying Voltron, written by Brandon Thomas. He’s performed archaeology on a cartoon-based world and created an intriguing tale of military counter-espionage, intrigue, and romance.

I mostly buy creator-owned comics published by Image Comics. Saga, Thief of Thieves, and Bedlam, to name a few.

All of the above works and more were creative fuel for working on The Ren.

MT: The Ren is currently slated for a 2015 release. Would you care to share a bit about it and anything else that you have on the horizon?

JI: The Ren is the upcoming 200-page graphic novel I’m writing with Shawn Martinbrough, and it will be illustrated by Grey Williamson, artist for DC Comics and Valiant Entertainment. Set in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s, two Black teenage artists fall in love and pursue their dreams of fame, amidst the dangerous war between two criminal empires.

I don’t want to say too much too soon, but if you’re a fan of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”, then The Ren will be your kind of book. It will be a graphic novel in the truest sense of the term; a full, meaty, character-driven story told in the illustrated sequential format.

The Ren will be published by First Second Books, a division of New York City-based publisher, Macmillan.

I have a few other projects on deck, but it’s too early to discuss them.

MT: Digital or Print? Which do you prefer and why?

JI: No preference. Both have their virtues, and the two should work hand-in-hand for maximum exposure and reach. I usually buy print. My first e-book purchase was Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins.

What is interesting for me with graphic novels is the change of direction in format. Print used to be first, but now more projects are coming out digital first and print second. I think we’re going to see an expansion of that business model as a means to determine consumer-ship. For independent creators with a limited amount of capital, digital first may be a better option.

Provided the material is good, and they promote the site/comic for all it’s worth.

We haven’t touched on this yet, but what is your favorite part of the process of writing? Editing?

For writing, my favorite part is that moment where you come up with The Idea. The one that solves a series of problems while, at the same time, serves to propel the character or characters forward in a way that makes sense. The “Ah. Gotcha.” moment.

As an editor, hmmm…there are so many good parts about collaborating with a talented and mature team of creators. I think it’s the moment where the person takes it to the next level. In their script, or pencils, or inks, or colors, or letters. When that creator ups the ante with their skills, and it’s apparent on the page. You know that creator is enjoying the project, and you’ve created a climate to allow that person to excel in their chosen craft.

MT: Given that we are observing the 20th anniversary of Milestone Comics and what it accomplished in the industry, what would you say is the reason we haven’t seen anyone else replicate that model? Why do you think there hasn’t been an organized/unified effort by people of color, LGBT creators and women (with moderate success in the indie scene) to unite together (all together under one banner, much like IMAGE) to become a force in the industry? What would it take for something like this to happen?

JI: I think the answer to all three questions is the same: MONEY, and fear of loss of independence.

Milestone was able to produce an impressive line of comic books and graphic novels for at least four years, in part due to their publishing deal with DC Comics. That was twenty years ago, and the industry does not have half the number of consumers as it did in 1993. Now, both Marvel and DC are heavily influenced by their corporate masters in terms of financial decisions, as they relate to the marketability of the fictional universes. I can’t see either company making such a co-publishing deal and diverting monies to promoting another company’s characters. So an investor or group of investors would be a necessary ingredient.

A bunch of creators of color and sexual orientation could all want to work together, but it would take a certain kind of company and authority structure to help facilitate such a business model. Creators, due to their increased opportunities and resources for putting out their own works, may not want to sacrifice any of that independent time to become part of such a business mechanism. Yes, you have Image Comics, but that’s basically an island on which a lot of houses reside. One house is called Saga, another house is called Revival, another one called Morning Glories, and so on.

Milestone was a shared universe created by a group of individuals, and they hired creators to perform work-for-hire duties. For creators to tumble to that, you would need money, lots of it, to start up and sustain such a company. A company that would have to compete with Valiant Entertainment, Image Comics, Dark Horse Comics, and so on.

So there are a handful of significant obstacles…but don’t give up hope. The next publisher to follow in the footsteps of Milestone may be right around the corner.

MT: Any advice, as an editor, for aspiring creators on how to break into the industry? How important is branding for creators?

JI: Put out your best work by yourself. The time of going to Marvel and DC hat in hand looking for work is dead. They are the gatekeepers, with the ability to cherry-pick the best and most marketable talent. So put your work out, get it published (or self-publish), promote, get a following and fan base, and inevitably, if your work is good, one of The Big Two will come to you.

Also, if you’re breaking into comics to make money, and you manage to succeed, make sure to start a retirement account. Immediately. There are no 401K accounts in the comic book industry unless you’re on staff.

Branding is very important for creators, but it has to be real. Honest. True. You and your story and your art are the brand. Fake can be smelled a mile and a half away, and the competition is fierce. If you do your job right, you won’t have to create the brand because it will be evident…but you will have to get the brand exposure. That will be the continuing mission. Get exposure. Increase exposure. Maintain exposure.

MT:Okay, I have to ask this. Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan?

JI: You’re joking, right? Bruce Lee! The Master.

Thank you Mr. Illidge! Fans, be sure to keep your eyes open for news on The Ren, due out in 2015 from First Second Books.

Read More by Mark Turner


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