One of the most exciting announcements at ImageEXPO was the announcement of Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker's groundbreaking new arrangement with Image. I had a chance to ask Ed about this new deal, his forthcoming book, and the experience of seeing his Captain America work adapted for the big screen.
Kevin Schmidt: I'd like to talk about the new situation that you and Sean Phillips have with Image; I've already heard several different versions of it, and I'd like to get it in your own words.
Ed Brubaker: Basically, it's a five-year deal to do any project we feel like doing. We don't have to get approval from them ahead of time, we don't have to pitch it or go through the usual steps, it's just everything we do for the next five years is done under this contract. So we can just send in solicits with covers and send in the issues and we get approval over format and all the printing. Basically it's like we can do anything we want and they're backing us to do it. It's kind of insane. I mean, I'm pretty sure no one in comics has had a deal exactly like that, except maybe the Image partners. I'd probably the closest thing you can get to being a partner here without having to actually be a partner here. And since I only do two comics, that's never going to happen.
But it really is kind of a revolutionary thing for me especially, because I've spent fifteen-something years in comics as a freelancer and I've gotten lucky and been in the right place at the right time a few times, but there's something called 'Freelancer Paranoia' which is: Whenever things are going well, you're waiting for the bottom to drop out and it never goes away. I felt like Sean and I have this fifteen-year track record of every project we do builds bigger than the one before. Fatale is the most successful thing we've done together and our relationship with Image has just been so great that I thought, "What if we had a continuing relationship where we got to skip all the rigamarole and we get to do whatever we want and you guys publish it, and you'll back us and we can experiment and do whatever we want?" And Eric [Stephenson] said, "Yeah, why not?" I said, "I'm not sure anyone's ever made this kind of deal before", and that made it even more attractive to him, of course, because he's all about changing the way things are done.
A lot of people were saying — I've gotten a few emails today — "Is this an exclusive?" But it's not even necessarily that, it's a publishing arrangement more than anything. It's for the two of us, as a team and the way we talk about that, it's like a "Marvel/DC War" kind of thing where they're trying to get people tied down. We're not tied down. The deal is a commitment from them to us, so that's even better. We get to just be artists and be treated like artists and get to do our thing, our way. To me, that was just like, "Holy shit." I know Fellini said, "Ultimate freedom is the death of an artist." because you'll never turn in anything, but luckily for me, Sean needs pages every three days. If I was drawing it myself, during the five-year deal, I'd probably end up turning in one comic because I'd never figure out what the hell to do, but thankfully Sean's involved and he always wants to draw. The end result, I think, will be more comics from us than we're currently doing and more — I think better — comics. So far, the next thing and the thing I'm starting to noodle on in my notebook to do after that are going to be two of the craziest, riskiest, but best things we've ever done.
KS: Is there anything you can say about your next project, The Fade Out?
EB: I don't want to talk too much about The Fade Out, because it's probably July or August before it debuts so we'll be promoting it more in April or May. Basically, for fans of Criminal who've been following my career for all these years, it's the ultimate crime comic for us. I was trying to explain it to [Robert] Kirkman and he was listening to me and said, "So what you're saying is it's a dirtier, sexier, David Lynch-y version of Mad Men."
"Yeah, but with a giant murder mystery and this huge sprawling cast and it's really about the American Dream."
"It's a dirtier, sexier version of Mad Men."
"All right, that's what it is!"
Part of it is, though, on my shelf in my office I have all my Uncle's old bound screenplays from every movie he got made. That was my inheritance from my Aunt. I have all her old stories from Hollywood back in the day,since she was in the PR department in Fox in the 30's and 40's and he was a big screenwriter and I feel like Postwar America was just a fascinating period for me and I feel like a lot of stuff that is happening in our world right now, you can see the beginnings of back then. It's something I've really wanted to do and I felt like I wanted to do the ultimate Noir thing of all time. This is my version of that. It's kind of like our attempt at bringing back everything to this sort of meta-level. I would love to be able to say it's the Watchmen of Noir but that's not exactly what it is at all. That would be starring analogues of Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett, but it's nothing like that. But I think it's the most ambitious thing I've ever taken on. The amount of research that's been involved has been insane. I've had to hire a research assistant to help collate all the photo references and stuff — we want it to be completely accurate. I am really excited about it. I don't want to talk about it too much other than to just say it's really the ultimate-Noir-slash-dirtier-sexier-Mad-Men.
KS: In your future projects, do you see yourself experimenting with new genres?
EB: Yeah, definately. We've been talking for years about doing a sci-fi thing and I think the only reason that that isn't the next thing out of the gate for use after Fatale is that The Fade Out started dominating my thoughts and I started gravitating towards those research books. Also, at the time when I was trying to figure out what we were going to do after Fatale that was right around the time with Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin launched The Private Eye and I wasn't going to compete with one of my favourite writers and artists. I'll wait until they're done and then I'll get to sci-fi later. We've talked about doing a sci-fi thing for a while, we've discussed all sorts of genres. That's the thing, I want us to have the freedom to do whatever, I don't want us to get pigeonholed in any one thing.
I feel like our fanbase has proven to be incredibly steady and building. Fatale sells twenty-five to forty-percent better than everything we did before, and our orders every month for Fatale are exactly the same. Clearly, retailers aren't stockpiling them, they're ordering them based on how many they sell and that's a really faithful readership. Our orders now are exactly the same for our orders for number 1 were. We had this boost with all the extra printings for number 1 and the first three or four issues when there was that whole speculation thing and then it got back down to the amount of people who just buy the books to read them. Some of the people are trade-waiters, I get a lot of email from people who only read the stuff in trades. But I feel like we have this really steady audience and they seem to be willing to follow us from project to project so this five-year deal really helps brand us as the franchise as opposed to our having to do the same series for ten years or something and try to do it that way. For me, how my mind works is I kind of look at every project we're doing as a serialized novel and usually novels have an end.
As long as you're not George R.R. Martin. And we're still not sure if that will ever end.
KS: Hopefully it will.
EB: Hopefully. It fucking better. Well I know he told the ending to the guys who do the TV show, so they know how to end the show, even if the books never end.
KS: With this unique deal being out there, do you foresee this model catching on with other publishers? Or with other creators and Image?
EB: I don't know, honestly, because I can't think of any other people in comics who've stayed together this long. Bill [Willingham] and Bucky [Mark Buckingham] have done Fables together, but other people have drawn Fables, too. With Sean and I, it's always just been the two of us, we've never had a fill-in by another artist. We might, in the final issue of Fatale. I'm talking to a couple of different friends about writing short stories that would only be in the final issue and not in the collected editions. Just sort of letting a couple of incredibly talented friends play in our world for one time. But even that I feel a little weird about. I don't know, who else in comics has stayed together for fifteen years as a team? Even Stan and Jack didn't last that long.
KS: Not with the sort of consistency you have.
EB: Yeah. It's a deal that really makes sense for us and I'd love to see other people get that kind of freedom, for sure. I think part of what made it work for Eric is that we have a huge track record. It's not a risk for them, at all, because it's like, "We just want you guys to keep doing what you do and not worry about it. We'll handle all the bullshit, you guys just be artists." That, to me, after years and years in the freelance grind and the constant deadlines and having to jump ahead to start the next arc of something, while you're still writing issue three of the previous arc and all that stuff, I needed a creative palate cleanser or something. I needed to realize that I'm not just a machine that pumps out pages, I'm actually a writer. I feel like it's a really prestigious thing for me and Sean. No one else in the industry has ever done anything like this.
Just since we started talking about doing the deal, Sean's art has just — you can sense that he's just more excited about it because he realizes he's finally getting recognized. These people have basically decided to become our patrons. That's fucking insane. It's great, because we're really successful but we're not Walking Dead successful or Saga successful. I talked about this last year in an interview, where I said, "I think I figured out why Brian Vaughn's books and other people's books do so great; they write people you can root for and I'm always writing people where you're like "Well, I wonder how this is going to end."" So to be that kind of writer and to have someone just go and say "You know what? We love what you do and we're gonna help you do it." To me that was just, "Yes, let's do this." We have this for five years now, and that will bring us to twenty years as a team.
KS: That's pretty amazing.
EB: Yeah, pretty amazing. I can't wait to see the stuff that we've got coming out. Every day I get pages from Sean and that's amazing. Right now I'm working with two of my favorite artists I've ever worked with: Sean and Steve Epting and Bettie Breitweiser coloring everything and it's like a fucking dream. The other half of my time, I'm sitting and working on screenplays and working with producers and directors that I've loved for years. You'd think that I feel successful already but you never get rid of freelancer paranoia.
KS: You mentioned earlier during the initial announcement that some of your previous work with Sean was going to be coming over to Image, does that include things like Sleeper?
EB: No, Sleeper is owned by DC, unfortunately. We have a participation deal on Sleeper but it was done through Wildstorm, it wasn't a creator owned project. Now, looking back, I regret it, but at the time it was a great deal and Scott [Dunbier] and Jim [Lee] were a huge thing, putting us together as a team to begin with. I imagine we all look back at the contracts we signed early on with regret, but at the same time that helped us get where we are. But, Criminal and Incognito, all of our backlist, will be coming over to Image. It just makes sense to have it all there and Image is really good about keeping the books in print and getting them out into bookstores and stuff. I felt like we're putting all of our new material out and every new project helps sell your backlist a lot more. The bulk of my living that I make in comics right now is off of our backlist. If you can put out a lot of books and keep them in print, we've gotten to a place where we have fifteen, sixteen books in print, its key to actually being able to do this for a living.
KS: You mentioned your film work, is there anything you can talk about right now?
EB: Kim Jee-Woon who did I Saw The Devil and A Bittersweet Life is attached to direct Coward and I'm working on what I hope is the final re-write on that. I have another screenplay project that I'm not allowed to talk about publicly yet that I'm on the last couple days of nine months of work on. I've been working with one of my favorite directors in the world and becoming good friends with him and learning a lot in the process. I now understand why screenwriters do get paid so well. It is not for the actual typing, it is for the endurance of draft after draft after draft. Nothing makes you appreciate your comics career more than screenwriting. I actually love screenwriting and I love the form of it, especially after a lifetime of comicbook writing. You don't have to isolate the moments, it's a different writing, it's a different style of writing. A different form. I wasn't sure I'd be good at it, and I actually really like doing it. But the amount of people who get a say and the notes that you do, that really makes you glad that half the time you get to sit down and write pages and send them to an artist and they get drawn the next week. Nobody's telling you that this character needs to be this or that. It's a different world and there's a lot more people involved in that process. Luckily, the whole career of collaborating with people from Marvel and DC has really prepared me for being able to take notes. I still don't love them, but I like the part of my career where I don't have any.
KS: Speaking of film, I do have to ask if you have any thoughts on seeing your Marvel work adapted into Captain America: The Winter Soldier?
EB: I don't know how much I'm allowed to say yet, but what I will say is that with everything I've seen and the script that I've read: It's the best movie that they've ever made. I was blown away, being on the set and getting to meet Robert Redford and watching them do this stuff. The movie isn't a scene-for-scene adaptation of the comic by any means but there is a lot of the comic in the movie. There's certain moments in the movie where I'm just, "Shit, that's what I wrote." I'm really thrilled about it, I could not be happier, honestly. It came out so good.
Thank god it has the same name as the book and Marvel is putting out that nice deluxe hardback which hopefully the bookstores will realize that's the one to push on people. I'm hopeful that this is their new model because say what you will about the Watchmen movie, but they sold a million copies of Watchmen. (And I liked the movie.) I'm thrilled, I couldn't be happier. I can't wait for the premiere, to see the final cut of it with all the special effects and everything. I'm hoping to go visit the Russos when I get back down to L.A. and see some more stuff. Everybody there has been amazingly supportive and I've become friends with the screenwriters, so it's really great.
Actually where I live — I have a house in L.A. and a house in Seattle — our L.A. house is walking distance to Marvel now, because they moved to the Disney lot, so it's kind of crazy. I'll walk over and look at stuff if they'll let me. I have found a way to get into the Disney lot without ID. (No, no I haven't.) Or an appointment! (I wish.)
Kevin Schmidt is a freelance writer who can be found on Twitter as @moonandserpent or stalking the streets of San Francisco by the fog-shrouded light of the full moon.