“We Want Comics To Survive”: The Jason Latour Interview


FIFFE: I want to talk about “going up against the big two” a bit, more precisely the Eric Powell video that you kind of defended on your blog.

LATOUR: I wasn’t really defending…

FIFFE: You empathized with his stance. In the end, he took the video down.

LATOUR: I don’t think he should’ve taken it down. I don’t agree with everything he said, but I don’t think it should’ve been taken down.

FIFFE: I don’t think so, either, but he was getting a lot of shit for it.

LATOUR: He was taking a lot of flak for it, a lot of undue shit. My only real feeling about it is that I thought it was if you’re gonna rally the troops, you have to give them more than just a flag. If you’re gonna call it a war and act like it’s a big “us versus them” thing, then it’s one thing to excite people but it’s another thing to actually educate them on how to go about making these changes. I know for a fact that when we did our Image book, Expatriate, it damn near killed me because I didn’t know what I was in for. We were excited about what we were doing, but excitement can only carry you so far. So for that video, or essentially that movement, you gotta give me more than enthusiasm. Guys like Eric and Steve Niles, they’re clearly wildly successful creators who have some knowledge about going about how to do it.

FIFFE: But after shouting the rallying cry, Eric went and worked on Godzilla. So they’re criticizing the system, yet perpetuating it. Robert Kirkman made a video criticizing the work relation between company and creator, but he then built a work-for-hire company.

LATOUR: Well, they’re essentially in the role of being parents at this point, and that’s what parents do, right? Do as I say and not what I do.

FIFFE: Yeah, but they’re not our parents and we’re not children.

LATOUR: I know. That’s just the role they’re taking on. I hesitate to blast them too much nor do I want to get on the team, so to speak. I want to have both careers, which may be a little presumptuous and impossible. I find that I’m standing in the middle of that fight. I do think it was well intentioned and ballsy in some ways but perhaps a bit too much jingoism and not enough substance.

FIFFE: I initially thought Powell’s video was calling out the treatment of creators under work-for-hire conditions, but really it was for folks to create their own properties.

LATOUR: [The majors] aren’t concerned about anything other than the other big companies. I used to think that they were concerned about the indies, but they’re really not sitting in their offices worrying “ugh, this guy’s trying to crush us or lead the uprising.” They don’t have the time, nor the energy to devote to anything other than what they’re trying to do. As far as they’re concerned, if the relationship is mutually beneficial, then great. If not, they don’t have time.

FIFFE: I think it’s natural to want to create your own property, but now that Marvel and DC are bigger than they’ve ever been, which is scary how dominant their presence really is, the “us vs. them” approach is futile. It’s a different ballgame.

Wolverine sketch cover, (c) 2010 Marvel Comics
LATOUR: Right, and I think there’s a freedom in that, knowing that they’re not your enemy. You’re not going to topple them. It’s silly to use that energy. Think of all that energy you spend trying to figure out how you’re going to beat them at their own game, when you can actually focus on your own stuff. Jeff Smith didn’t become Jeff Smith by thinking he was in competition with the Big Two. He just did his thing to the best that he could do it. I’m sure he doesn’t like a lot of that corporate stuff but it has nothing to do with what he’s doing.

FIFFE: I think we should always keep in mind that Marvel and DC produce properties and iconic licenses. You and I love those characters and we love the creators of their stories, but essentially you’re working with product logos. The only real difference between Iron Man and Kool-Aid man is that Iron Man has a neat origin story.

LATOUR: Well, Iron Man started as a story.

FIFFE: But now he’s there to sell underwear or cereal or whatever. That’s not meant to undermine all of the work going into Iron Man stories, but when you strip all of the cool stuff, all of the artistic contributions by our heroes, you’re left with the Quik Bunny.

LATOUR: To me that’s what makes it interesting.

FIFFE: Frankenberry: Year One.

LATOUR: Taking the Quik Bunny and making a legitimate thing out of it is interesting.

FIFFE: Sure, but can they be literary vehicles?

LATOUR: They are vehicles at their best. At their worst, they’re what you’re saying, they sell underwear. That’s their art, the same way I was saying that genre is art. There’s real skill, real passion that goes into a lot of this stuff, maybe not as often as you and I would like. You can’t make the assumption that the effort of artistic intent with the Quik Bunny is less than somebody’s own character.

Superman Meets the Quik Bunny, (c) 1987 DC Comics & Nestle Food Corporation

FIFFE: Hmm, right. Okay—

LATOUR: It’s just a big assumption to make.

FIFFE: Well one is clearly a commercial property to sell product.

LATOUR: I can tell you for a matter of fact that when I draw work-for-hire stuff, I get into the idea that I’m drawing Wolverine, the guy from the stories I love. I’m continuing his tale. I don’t think that I’m drawing the dude on the underwear. I legitimately love Wolverine as a character.

FIFFE: Sure, we love these characters. I know it’s difficult to see it under that light. They’re still selling watches, and that’s not a wrong thing, it’s just a fact.

LATOUR: No, you’re right, but I don’t think that’s why I do it for a living, at least in my experience. I heard Ed Brubaker say that he treats all of his stuff like it’s creator owned stuff. That’s the only way I can do it. I feel like I’m wasting my life otherwise. Listen, I have seen Wolverine juice boxes. I know that ridiculous thing exists. But the fact that it does, in some way, makes me feel like I’m getting away with something. Like knowing the depraved person I am and that I put all of my energy into drawing this Wolverine story, and then I turn around and see some kid with a Wolverine toy, and that seems subversive to me. I slipped some possibly bad, possibly raunchy art, into that kid’s life. You just get caught up in it while you’re working on it. If you care, it’s really hard to think of it as underwear. And sure, it’s overwhelming and sickening to walk into a Walmart and see nothing but Spider-Man bed sheets. Sometimes, under the right light, that’s kinda cool, though.

FIFFE: How do you reconcile the two?

LATOUR: I was with some friends of mine and their kids were playing with toys of characters they wrote and I thought that was pretty neat. Like, how cool would it be if your dad wrote Wolverine and you’re a kid playing with Wolverine toys. That’s pretty fucking rad. In writing these things, if you do them right, they don’t have an expiration date on them. We’re a nation of grown up children and I think this nostalgic thing where we buys things from our childhood that we still get something out of is just so weird. But one of the things I love about reading an old comic or examining an old character is when I discover a lesson, an actual story in them. That’s the benefit of these comics. Given where most of their origins lie, I don’t think they’re false. Growing up with Marvel and DC, to me they weren’t a moral compass but more of a moral reinforcement. My parents told me why I shouldn’t do something and then I would actually see it playing our in these comics. If I get to play with those toys, that’s what I want to do with them. But yes it’s tough in the world of selling bed sheets.

FIFFE: [laughs] No, but I think you’re right, it depends on the stories and the writers. Any character could work. I mean, Alan Moore made Kool-Aid Man readable.

LATOUR: What? Really? Like Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Man?

FIFFE: He wrote a Kool–Aid Man story in Peter Bagge’s Hate.

LATOUR: [laughs] That sounds awesome. Y’know, I think we all tend to start hating on stuff for being over saturated. Frankly, I think our jaundiced eye comes form the fact that we love the stuff so much. We want it to be something it’s not. Yet there it is selling underwear. I think what you’re saying is that we should see a thing for what it is and not what we want it to be.

FIFFE: Right, but I also understand that you can’t see it like that all the time.

LATOUR: If you saw it as the Quik Bunny all the time, then why would you read it? Why do you want to do it? The thing about this stuff, and this is where it’s tough, is that your commitment level is as much as you want it to be. You don’t have to walk around being upset that they killed Captain America. The saving grace for that is that he’s probably coming back, and if you want I guess he can be dead for you, too. You simply stop reading and find a new story. And I don’t think that devalues what fans care about, it’s just that it’s not always gonna be for you. Things move in cultural waves.


FIFFE: Speaking of clinging to the stories and authors we love, how do you feel about this whole Alan Moore thing with his recent statements on the world of comics that have gotten everyone so riled up?

LATOUR: It didn’t bother me. It really didn’t because he’s not talking about me. I am clearly not on his radar. I know Jason Aaron didn’t like it, and he spoke out about how much he didn’t like it. I don’t want to put words into Jason’s mouth but a lot of what I think Jason took exception to was that it seemed personal to him. The people he works for he considers his friends. They’ve been nothing but good to him and there’s a nurturing, mutually respectful relationship there. So maybe he feels protective. But personally, I don’t think Moore was singling anybody out. I think he placed the blame on the companies, DC the entity. He just feels that the companies don’t allow creative people to try new things. That may be a weird read on it, but that is what I took away from it.

Scalped #43, written by Jason Aaron (c) 2010 Vertigo

FIFFE: The only evidence we can have of that is through the results.

LATOUR: His criticism is of companies that don’t exist anymore. There’s been a lot of turnover. A lot of people that he originally dealt with don’t even run those companies anymore.

FIFFE: But it’s company policy he’s still having issues with.

LATOUR: I’m completely behind him in the idea that those are his books and if he doesn’t want to put his name on the movie, he shouldn’t have to.

FIFFE: He feels swindled and he has every right to feel that.

LATOUR: Really? Swindled?

FIFFE: Well, you can make the argument that Moore didn't know exactly what he was getting into, especially with Watchmen. No one knew that a comic book would go into second printing, and that was the linchpin of the agreement.

LATOUR: Yeah, that’s not really swindled, that’s just the unprecedented popularity holding sway. Nobody could’ve foreseen that that would’ve happened. For one, they went out on a limb to do that book, that book was “weird” for them. They’ve certainly taken advantage of the gray area. Moore probably feels that he entered into a good faith agreement based on practices of the day. But it took off, and suddenly he’s in a bad contract. A movie comes along and they offer him money to put his name on spin-offs and tie-ins that he doesn’t endorse. He didn’t take any money and they’re going to do it anyway? I guess they do what they have to, but I respect where he stands. If he takes the money, he loses the morale high ground. I respect that. But I think he was naive.

DD: B&W #1, (c) 2010 Marvel Comics

FIFFE: I wouldn’t rush to use “swindled” for the Watchmen issue, but in the case of WildStorm…

LATOUR: Why did he keep doing it? Signing these deals?

FIFFE: No, Moore was doing several creator owned projects under Jim Lee’s WildStorm imprint. Well, a portion of them were creator owned, and so the non-creator owned properties were the main, if not only, reasons DC bought WildStorm. But Moore continued to work there in order to keep his artists employed. That’s the ABC line.

LATOUR: Yeah, I don’t know. That’s interesting.

FIFFE: Readers just took Moore’s anger at these companies so personally, and that speaks to the relationship we were talking about, between the characters and the creators and their fans. The fans now put more stock into the characters rather than the put into the creators. They’re not even listening to what one of our more esteemed creators has to say.

LATOUR: Yeah, well to some degree it’s on comics. No need to feel offended, comics. I’m happy for what he gave us. Let him disappear if he wants to. If he wants to be an angry old wizard up in the mountains let him do that. I mean, somebody asked him a question and he gave his answer.

FIFFE: If they can do it to Alan Moore or Jack Kirby, they can certainly do it to anyone. You’re going up against an unstoppable force, bringing it back to Eric Powell’s decree.

LATOUR: But they are a business. At least be armed with the knowledge that they have their own interests. Don't be blinded by your fandom. I think the only mistake creators make is putting complete trust in a company, in the entity itself. You can often trust the people that work for the company, but you can‘t trust a company. Look, I can be best friends with an editor-in-chief and turn around tomorrow and suddenly he’s not the editor-in-chief anymore. All the trust we’ve built and the plans we’ve made may go out the window just like that. But you can’t fault Marvel for doing what Disney wants because they’re now their bosses. You just can’t fault the individuals who work for that company, either. It's chain of command. That’s where you have to be cautious. I don’t know if Stan Lee fucked over Jack Kirby or not. I think both men could think they’re right, but I don’t know what was going on at Marvel back then. At the same time I can’t fault Kirby for thinking he had a buddy agreement with Stan.

FIFFE: In the end, all Marvel comics had a “Stan Lee Presents…” on them.

LATOUR: Which is a travesty, but a lesson learned. You can take something negatively or positively, that’s up to you. I tend to believe that people are generally good but have institutions that they have to serve. In some cases those institutions are good, at least for periods of time. But they are prone to change. Change due to issues that are now larger than our funny book industry. I don’t necessarily like that but I can’t do anything about it. You have to stay armed with the knowledge of what they are.

FIFFE: I have to say, the last time anyone was a real threat to Marvel and DC…

LATOUR: Was Image Comics.

FIFFE: Right, Image Comics. I think that’s the last time the readership, by and large, cared about creators more than they did characters.

LATOUR: That’s probably fair. They were so popular that a lot of those guys’ work still translates to selling points at the Big Two. You put Rob Liefeld on your books and to this day you balance how many readers you’ll gain against how many you’ll lose.

FIFFE: Yes, but Image back in the day represented a movement against those huge companies.

LATOUR: Here’s the thing, I don’t want to pretend like I know what was going on in their heads, and maybe they did think that it was a revolution or whatever, but at the same time they were clearly testing the water.

FIFFE: Some of them were ready to go back to Marvel just in case.

LATOUR: A lot of those books had major delays, right? They printed one issue and made millions off of that issue and they probably weren’t prepared for that. They created a monster. I have a hard time believing that they thought of it as anything other than a smart business move. In a sense, it’s evolved. Now they publish interesting work. I have to give them credit. I don’t know what those dudes’ motivations were, but Image still exists. There have just been so many versions of Image’s story. Listen, we’re all storytellers so....

FIFFE: Sure. All I know was that back then I wasn’t a collector or a pro or a retailer. I was just another kid, a fan. To me, Image showed that there were independent possibilities and they branded themselves as a movement.

LATOUR: I gotta tell you, I dropped out. I liked a lot of those guys when they were at Marvel. I was such a Marvel head and I sort of didn’t care about Image. I liked the stories at Marvel and when Image started it was... all image.

FIFFE: You were that small percentage.

LATOUR: Yeah, but when they left, Marvel it clearly lost its mojo. So instead I went out and discovered Mignola and Miller and those guys. The product just looked better. Not to say I had great taste, I had terrible taste. But yeah, I don’t have an Image connection. Like you said, it might as well have been Kool-Aid Man.

FIFFE: You were a Marvel zombie. The readership likes reliability. X-Force showed up every month, Youngblood rarely did.

LATOUR: Yeah, and y’know, if I got a royalty check for a million dollars at 25 years of age, I would lose my fucking mind. I would live in a giant Jell-O mold. [laughter] I would swim in a pool of Mr.Pibb or something. I don’t even like Mr. Pibb. Maybe a tub of Cheerwine. I would be like Richie Rich gone crazy until it was all gone and I’d go and draw another one. [laughter] So I can’t fault them at all. God, what kind of Rorschach test did I just take. What did I reveal about myself?

Captain America #616, written by Cullen Bunn, (c) 2011 Marvel Comics

FIFFE: It’s too bad you didn’t get that royalty check.

LATOUR: I don’t know what the terms of revolution are, if Image was going for that or not, but they were the first ones to take a chance on me. I owe them and I’ll always feel allegiance to them. I may be reading this wrong here, but indie comics more or less evolve out of areas of concentrated culture, places like New York and Toronto. Image reaches across the aisle and you can live anywhere and still be able to make independent comics. Independent in the sense that you’re putting you own blood, sweat and tears into it. It’s a service they provide for whatever reason, it’s valid. I don’t care what their intentions may be. Revolution or not, they fill the gap that other companies don’t.

FIFFE: It’s funny how there’s nothing like Image out there now, in terms of heavy hitters making a grand independent move. If every hot writer and artist got together, I don’t think the readership would follow in proportionate scale to Image’s first year.

LATOUR: Nobody’s that big anymore. So, yeah, you’re right, Image was the last time people cared about creators. I think it’s cyclical, though. If people stop buying the crossover events, they’ll stop doing them. If a Frank Miller comes along, people will follow no matter what. It’s a matter of timing and luck. Me and my buddies think that there’s a Cool Hand Luke-ness to all of this. We’re all in this together in a jail of our own making...

FIFFE: Except we’re all the ones eating the eggs.

LATOUR: We all keep getting hit in the face and getting up. As long as there’s a cultural underbelly to it, I think everything will be all right. That’s the thing I feel best about, is that I feel like there’s more and more support for people that aspire to do this for a living, more than there’s ever been. I mean, I don’t know for sure, but I feel like that and I think that speaks volumes as to how things could go.