I met James while wandering aimlessly through Arizona Comicon in 2012. I, a clueless author of words without pictures was adrift in a sea of costumes and ink trying to understand how one might convert his writing into comic form. I had heard you needed something called an “artist” for this, and that the comicon was a good place to meet these strange creatures. James & his compatriots were there raising funds for their next book “In Sanity, AZ” and were kind enough to walk me through their process. I kept track of him via social media, and after “In Sanity, AZ” was released, I asked if he would be willing to do a short interview. He obliged, and so I give you our digital conversation:
C: “In Sanity, AZ” is such a crazy book, I feel like I need to start with something a bit grounded. How long have you been writing, and how did you get into writing comics?
J: I’ve been writing nonsense since I was twelve. It started with bad poetry and journals as requested by a therapist I was seeing. Once therapy was done I realized I really enjoyed writing and never stopped. When it came time to go to college I chased the writing instead of something sensible like, well, anything else. That led me to a degree in English: Creative Writing from Cal State University Long Beach. Though, at the time, I had no interest in comics.
I was into novels and short stories, mostly Beatnik. I had this warped idea that I was going to write the next great American novel and retire by the age of thirty, bathing in money and the adulation of millions. That didn’t happen. It never does. I still haven’t put out a novel yet…
The short stories I was writing got the attention of my buddy, Ben Glibert. He was into comics, wanted to make comics, and needed a writer. After forcing me to read some and filling my head with Gaiman’s Sandman, Ellis’s Planetary, Azzarello’s 100 Bullets, Ennis’s Preacher, and Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man, I was hooked. Not long after that Ben was heading up an independent publisher called Semantink and I was off and running on my first comic, MYTHOI.
C: Advice on becoming a writer runs the gamut from “Don’t write unless you’re a university English Professor and have a couple doctorates under your belt” to “anything scribbled on a napkin is art.” Where do you fall in the question of “how do you become a writer?” Do you think your college experience was beneficial or detrimental to shaping where you are as a writer today?
J: I guess I fall somewhere in the middle.
You do not need a degree in English to be a writer. In my opinion, anybody who says differently is a snob. Having said that, you do need to know English to be a writer. Understand structure. Have a grasp on grammar. Know the rules and then break them all.
Everybody can write. Not everybody can write well. Even fewer people can tell stories. Writing is one of the most diverse professions in the world, with everything from technical writing to writing for film, and each type of writing requires a different skill set. My only advice for new writers is to understand the field they want to get into. Know what is and isn’t done, then figure out why. If at all possible, break the mold. Try something different, but know why it is different and figure out how to make it yours.
My degree gave me a deeper understanding of the craft. After finishing college I knew why most of my work up to that point was structurally unsound, poorly crafted, or just plain stupid. Now when I sit down to write something I have a good sum of knowledge with which to build upon. So, for me, a college degree was the foundation I needed. There are a great many people in the world smarter than me that may already have what I needed at the time.
Use the internet. The entirety of my education can be found online…for free. Find a syllabus. Research the books. Write the papers. Do it yourself. You ay miss out on the class discussions and workshop feedback, but the basics are all out there, floating in the ether, waiting for you to pick ’em up.
C: The story goes that “In Sanity, AZ” was born out of a trip to a secluded cabin in the woods taken by you & the other writers. (A rather proper horror beginning in & of itself.) Tell me a little about the journey you took from that night that brought “In Sanity” to life. How did you assemble the artists and gain enough exposure for your Kickstarter campaign to get from creative round table to trade paperback?
J: I suppose the conception for the project happened over coffee. A small publisher I was working with at the time, Keyleaf Comics, was having a little get-together, and Joe, Marcel, Mike, and I happened to be there. I actually suggested the idea of a horror book with four writers and suggested we talk it over more if the others were interested. Emails led to phone calls, and next thing we knew the four of us were booking a cabin in the mountains just outside of Julian.
It was at the cabin that we conceived of the finer details: Forty pages of story for each writer, broken up however the writer wanted, with interconnected story lines, and a different artist for each tale.
All three days went like this:
-Wake up. Shower. Get dressed. Eat breakfast.
-An hour-long group writing exercise.
-Reading our work to one another, critiquing and editing out the finer details, and figuring out how to make stories bleed into one another.
All outside communications were turned off for the duration of our stay, forcing us to focus. We fought a lot. We drank a lot. And it worked.
The Kickstarter came a year later. Originally we were going to go through Keyleaf Comics. We scouted out the artists and Keyleaf started production. Then Keyleaf went under. So there we were with a half-finished book, and no money to complete it.
Once we decided to use Kickstarter for the remaining ten grand we needed, we treated it like a full-time job. Every day the four of us sent out emails, tweets, Facebook posts, and phone calls. We fought hard to get this book funded. There were too many people depending on us to fail. We utilized every resource we had and made a great deal of new ones. It came down to a ton of last minute donations as the campaign came to a close, but, thankfully, we made it.
Then we actually had to make the book, which was a great deal more difficult than we thought it would be. Keyleaf came with not just money, but designers, editors, and a team of people more experienced than us. We had to figure everything out on the fly. We probably spent thirty or so hours a week researching production, blogs, articles, and posts about making comics to create the best book we could. I think it worked. I think… We’ll see.
C: We first met at Arizona Comicon when “In Sanity, AZ” was still in the early art stages. At what point in your career did you start attending cons as an artist/author? Have you found the costs involved in participating in comicons ends up being worth the time and money?
J: I started doing shows as soon as I started doing comics. After the first issue of MYTHOI was complete, Ben and I took it to Long Beach Comic Con (which is a fun show) and got feedback from industry pros–a lot of feedback.
After making some tweaks to the book we finally had something to sell and got our first table at the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco. We made enough to cover the cost of our trip and began attending shows on a regular basis. Typically we would attend shows, then, if it seemed appropriate to our work, we would booth the following years.
These day I attend as many shows as possible. More often than not I am able to make my money back. Sometimes I make a little more, sometimes a little less. It’s a gamble. Conventions are never a sure thing. Preparation tends to be the key, but even then there are times that money just isn’t made. I try to utilize my time at shows as both a marketing expense AND an opportunity to make a little cash on my work–newsletter signups, localized campaigns, and visits to local comic shops have helped me ensure that, even if I don’t make my money back for the cost of the trip, I get the most bang for my buck as possible.
I was at Long Beach Comic Con in November and I’ll be at Amazing Arizona Comic Con in January. Come say hi!
C: With your success getting the book together, the next battle is always distribution. How are you selling “In Sanity?” Have you been able to get it into brick & mortar stores? Physical copies on Amazon or other booksellers? And if so, can you comment on the steps you’ve taken to get it into the hands of resellers?
J: Distribution is a pain in the ass. There are a great many hats that creators must wear and the salesman one is my least favorite.
I’ve been fortunate enough to make a few very supportive retailer buds in the last few years. Chris at 4 Color Fantasies in Rancho Cucamonga, the whole team at Villainous Lair in San Diego, and even the Jay Brothers at Jay Co. Comics who don’t have a brick and mortar shop, but hit the convention circuit with unprecedented fervor — all of these folks and more are willing to help out and push my work when I get it to them. Most retailers want independent books to succeed.
But that’s not the problem… The problem is printing cost.
Essentially there are two options: (1) print out a ton of books at a high upfront cost and hope to sell them, or (2) print out books on demand at a higher cost per unit. For people like me, without the money to dump into books upfront, the second option is the more realistic one. Unfortunately, that makes it more difficult for retailers to support me. Their profit-margin in slim and the price of the book is high. I don’t blame retailers for their reluctance — I totally get it. When you’re not a big name, there is no guarantee the books will move. The higher the cost, the more the risk. It makes sense, but it’s a bummer.
The first thing we did was break the book into three digital issues. Going digital first (something I learned during my time with Keyleaf Comics) allows us to build a bit of a nest egg for printing. The entire purpose of digital-first is, for me, to make money to print TPBs. Printing single issues is awesome and I hope to be able to do that someday, but right now I just don’t have the audience to support that (which is ironic since the best way to build that audience is to make printed single issues and utilize the assistance of retailers). It’s a vicious catch-22.
We’re printing through Amazon. Amazon allows us to print the books for ourselves and retailers at just under twenty bucks. For 180 pages at full-color, it’s not so bad. Obviously it’d be cheaper if we printed a higher quantity through a third-party printer, but again, we can’t afford that at the moment. The other thing that’s nice about printing through Amazon is the availability of the book. IN SANITY, AZ is available for anyone around the world on Amazon as both digital single issues and a printed TPB. Anyone, anywhere, can get the book on-demand at no overhead cost to me. It’s the best option for a bum like me.
Do I want to make these books more available for retailers? Absolutely. Every single creator should be doing everything they can to support retailers. We even sent out an offer to over sixty retailers that offered the TPB at cost, around $17. The SRP is $25. We’re not looking to make money on IN SANITY, AZ — not yet. Right now the goal is to work with people to get it in front of as many people as possible. The more money we make, the bigger hit we’ll be able to take down the road, which means more books in more stores. It takes time and requires an almost complete acceptance of zero profit. We’re playing the long-game. In the meantime we’ll do store signings and work out whatever deals we can with as many retailers as possible.
C: You’ve got a pretty thick stack of published works. What book should a new reader start with?
J: Hmm… I would suggest people start with IN SANITY, AZ (on Amazon). As my most recent work it’s probably as coherent as I’ve ever been (which says something terrible about me, I suppose). If you dig that, try out MACABRE RISING (on Amazon) or DUST: WITHERED EARTH (now on Comixology). Unless you’re a parent. If you’re a parent, give CHRONICLES OF A FULL-TIME FATHER a shot (on Amazon).
C: And once they’ve bought “In Sanity” and reveled in its twisted tales, (which crescendos delightfully into horrible coherence) what OTHER authors and works should my readers be reading?
J: If you’re looking for comics, anything by Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Josh Fialkov, Joe Hill, Steve Niles, Mark Waid, Gail Simone or Jimmy Palmiotti will do. Alan Moore is also worth your time. I’ve been moving backwards on all those guys and just finished Moore’s Swamp Thing run — brilliant stuff.
Fiction prose? Lately I’ve been eating up Elmore Leonard. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is great. The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey was cool. And Justin Cronin has been doing a great job with his The Passage series. If you’re looking for something a little more classic, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, and Cormac McCarthy (is he considered classic?) are some of my favorites.
At least, those are the ones I’m into at the moment.
C: With “In Sanity” on shelves now, what is the next project for you?
I’m working on a few one-shots that I’m going to self-publish. The first one, Samsara, should be out around February. The second one may be released by the end of the summer.
I just finished writing two different mini-series for some artists – one science fiction and the other horror. I think those are getting pitched as I type this.
There are two more mini-series that I’m putting together. One’s a fantasy epic involving some anthropomorphic badassery, and the other is a somewhat comedic romp through space. I hope to begin pitching the former in the next month or so, and the latter by the end of the year.
Methinks that’s all I can really share for now. Everything else I’m working on is kind of up in the air at the moment. When I know more, I promise to share.
– James Ninness now lives in Orange County and just released a new book called “Samsara” which is available here on Amazon for purchase. You can also get “In Sanity, AZ” digitally or in paperback. To learn more about James, visit his homepage at jamesninness.com.