July 2005

Colleen Mondor

features

Oni Press: "Comic Books for People Who Like to Read Books"

Recently one of my husband’s step sisters was visiting from out of town and during the obligatory walk through our new house her mother could not resist pointing out the boxes that house my comic book collection. All of them are bagged and boarded and standing up in alphabetical and numerical order, a testament to my decade long love affair with Batman, Daredevil, Nightwing, the Birds of Prey and numerous other titles that comprise the 1,700 or so comics in my current collection. “Can you believe it?” she said, shaking her head, “Colleen collects comic books.” And then a pause as they both stand there, staring at me, before I finally say, “well, yeah, but I read them all.”

That didn’t impress them as much as I thought it would.

I am utterly exhausted with trying to explain why I am 36-years old with numerous (count them baby, numerous!) college degrees and yet I still buy comics. In fact, I am such a comics geek that when I moved cross country last year I was so worried about finding another good comics shop that I set up a monthly delivery system with my guys at Famous Faces and Funnies in Florida before I left. Fenced in yard for the dog? No. Shop space for the husband? No. But hey, my comics were still coming. It’s all about priorities people.

I have realized that explaining comics to people who don’t read them and have no interest in reading them is really a lost cause; you can’t convert the unconvertible. But there is a huge segment of the reading society who are slowly learning that comics come in many forms and address many subjects. With the success of titles like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Art Speigleman’s In the Shadow of No Towers the graphic novel form is starting to seem like a way in which comics can slip into the mainstream without freaking anyone out. (Get caught reading Astonishing X-Men and you’re a fanboy, walk around with Maus and you’re a hip intellectual. Go figure.) I’m done making excuses for myself but I’m happy to point potential customers in the direction of comics that are different from what they expect -- that aren’t all capes and masks and guys like the Joker. The superhero story might not be your cup of tea and while I cannot understand that, I can still respect it. The best place to look, then, for those who are mildly curious but slightly intimidated is outside the standard "comics box." And once you get past the capes, there is no place better to fix your sights then the wonderful, imaginative, always impressive, Oni Press.

I first found Oni through the guys at Famous Faces after an ad for a comic about a goth girl named Courtney Crumrin piqued my interest. They led me past the displays for DC and Marvel and into a whole new world, the section of the store for independent comics.

Whoa.

I never really thought about comic book publishers before that moment, I mostly concentrated on keeping track of my Bat-titles and Daredevil and making the occasional foray into the world of Image, Dark Horse or Vertigo. I wasn’t a particularly discerning purchaser. But cruising the comic shop like I do a bookstore had not occurred to me; I was just there for my weekly titles and that was it. Plus I grew up in the world of comic shops as home to every loser and freak you can imagine; I got used to walking in and out and making as little eye contact as possible. (Do not speak to the comic shop employee – the employee might start spouting obscure references to B-list superhero battles from twenty years ago!) Of course it’s not at all like that anymore, and Rick and Kevin and the rest of the gang I deal with at Famous Faces are always friendly and engaging on every level. However, I was safely in my rut and just never looked past it. That’s how I missed Oni in the first place and it’s why I’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

Oni Press was founded in 1997 by Bob Schreck and Joe Nozemack, two guys who were thinking so far outside of the box that it’s amazing the company survived, let alone thrived. What they wanted to do from the beginning was to publish comics that were “in line with the real mainstream.” This means that rather than march in step with the superheroes, Schreck and Nozemack were looking to bookstores as their guides. In essence, what they wanted to do was sell comic books to people who just liked to read books, people who read romance, suspense, horror, drama -- anything really. Oni was looking to bring this writing sensibility to the comics genre and to publish, according to Nozemack, “The comics that we wanted to read, that weren’t coming from anywhere else. We couldn’t be the only ones who wanted something new, and we knew the books could hold their own.”

This confidence in their strategy and the writers and illustrators they chose to implement might seem a bit naïve at first, maybe even foolhardy. There is a reason after all that DC and Marvel are still the kings of the comics industry, they have fans and those fans stay with them forevvvvvvver. (The proud member of the “I love Batman” fan club since around 1975 shifts uncomfortably in her seat for moment.) Oni wanted to bring new readers to a new company with a new style. That usually spells death in the comic book world, and as former editor-in-chief Jamie S. Rich recalled recently, they knew it was a very serious risk.

“The belief that Oni could be a viable publishing concern was actually rather simple and naïve. We somehow brainwashed ourselves into this very youthful state of mind and said, ‘if the books are good, we can’t fail.’ We knew the market was down, but we all saw it as the opportunity we needed to make a splash. When everyone else was boring and stuck in place, we would be bright, shiny and new. A lot of early projects were ones that Bob and I had seen around that the established companies didn’t have the guts to pick up. By gathering those sorts of people around us, we felt like a gang. Banded together, we could smash the comics world.”

One of the key components into bringing together that band of independent thinkers was to allow the titles to all remain creator-owned. Anyone who has followed the recent Stan Lee vs. Marvel Comics war will understand how unique this is in comics. Generally speaking, the guy who comes up with the character, the history, the entire story, doesn’t own his creation, the publisher does. That’s why Batman can appear dark and mysterious in one issue and almost cartoony in another. Realistically, since Batman dates back to 1939, the mantle had to be passed on to new writers and illustrators, but that was easy to do because Batman belongs to DC, not the estates of Bob Kane and Bill Finger, the men who invented the caped crusader. What Oni decided to do was something that has long been discussed in the industry but is relatively new when it comes to actual implementation. Creators come up stories they’d like to tell, propose them to Oni and then the company goes from there. The end result is a relationship that has brought many creators back time and again to do more projects with the company and has kept it one of the most eclectic presses in the business.

As to the specific titles themselves, I’m reminded of a comment that Nicola Beauman made about Persephone Press when I interviewed her for Bookslut last year. She wrote then, “If I allow myself pride, I am proud that the fifty books [published by Persephone] form a collection -- I suppose I hope that if you bought all of them you wouldn’t need any other books -- hence cookery books, poetry, funny, serious, deep, lightweight." Although the descriptions would be different, this is exactly what Oni Press has accomplished as well. The genres they cover include fantasy, Western, gangster, teen, horror, mystery, family drama, “slice of life," romance, espionage and even a few cape titles albeit with the special “Oni twist." And how do I even begin to define my personal favorites, like Courtney Crumrin or Hopeless Savages? Where do you put a wisecracking smart ass whose parents are a couple of vapid twits and who lives with her great uncle in a Victorian mansion that includes “night things” and the nearby goblin kingdom? Harry Potter with a goth twist? Maybe, but I prefer miniature Nancy Drew with major attitude and tougher cases. And a lot smarter, too. No matter how you look at it, Ted Naifeh’s creation has garnered tons of fans that can’t get enough of Courtney’s adventures or her sarcastic outlook on life. Right there with her, although without all the dark, is the Hopeless-Savage family which roughly translates as a book about Sid and Nancy all grown up with kids. Yeah, right. The Hopeless-Savages are all about punk rock and attitude but manage to be more of the 21st century Ozzie and Harriet than Ozzy and Sharon could ever be. Jen Van Meter and crew have created a great family story with the Savages while keeping it all so hip, cool, and funny that you don’t even realize how heartwarming the damn stories are until you’re finished.

And what else is there? Antony Johnston and Mike Norton have proof of why all mad scientists must die, immediately, in Closer and Brian McLachlan and Tom Williams have the story that High Fidelity wishes it could have been with No Dead Time. (It has to be one of the stranger boy/girl stories ever written, and I mean that as a compliment.) Scandalous is all about the 1950s gossip magazines and combines history and show biz drama with an ending that is completely mind-blowing while Sidekicks gives us capes in high school and Love Fights gives us true love in a world where capes have publicity managers and dodge the paparazzi. (I told you things were different at Oni!)

Love Fights is written and illustrated by Andi Watson, who writes some of the most endearing and intriguing relationship comics out there. He brings a whole new dimension to the world of superheroes with Love Fights, which is a more grown-up version of what the Incredibles did so well. He also has Breakfast After Noon with Oni, which is about staying together when the real world (in the form of sudden and devastating unemployment) makes even getting out of bed every morning a challenge. Watson is one of my favorite writers, inside and outside of the comics industry. His current series, Little Star is about how fatherhood changes a man, and not at all the kind of syrupy ilk that the Lifetime channel inflicts upon the world. He writes about life, in the same way that Ray Bradbury put small town America on Mars and Caitlin Kiernan brings horror into the living room. It’s just who we all are, but with Watson it comes in the hands of a talented craftsman who nails those little human dramas again and again.

Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir crafted a great Native American detective story with Skinwalker and then followed it up with what looks like a crime novel in Three Strikes, but is really an indictment of the entire criminal justice system. And this one has another ending that will blow you away, even though intellectually you had to see it coming. I honestly don’t like this book that much because it makes me so angry. Instead, I love it because it won’t ever let me look away.

DeFilippis and Weir also wrote one of my favorite family stories for Oni, Maria’s Wedding. This funny take on family gatherings and infighting will read well for anyone who has ever had to endure the dreaded family event. It has a bite, though, an unexpected peek into the dark and disappointing side of what being family really means. There are people I could send this book to if I wanted to make a point. The problem is they wouldn’t get it. Isn’t it always that way?

And then, then there’s Greg Rucka. Bob Schreck met Rucka in San Diego and as Schreck put it later in an interview with Ninth Art:

"…I went up to the top of the San Diego convention center and sat in the sun and talked to Greg for about an hour and found that he was a really nice guy and he really knew comics, so Joe Nozemack and I gave his novel a read. He was indeed a great writer and the rest is history.

"That's really how so many of these things happen. One person says one thing to another person and if it strikes your fancy you give it a shot. The rest of that tale was that at the time Greg didn't really understand the art angle of things... and left that up to me. I was at a con in Portland and I'd known and worked with Steve Lieber before. I showed Rucka Steve's amazing art and Greg trusted my judgment.”

The result of this meeting was Whiteout, an outstanding crime story in Antarctica that pits U.S. Deputy Marshall Carrie Stetko against both a murderer and the elements. It is an outstanding story and the research is rock solid; these guys clearly knew everything about Antarctica and life for the scientists and staff who rotate in and out of the frozen continent. Rucka's biggest contribution to Oni was yet to come, however, when he unleashed the ongoing espionage series of Queen and Country. Following the adventures of Agent Tara Chace, Q&C inhabits classic spy versus spy territory, with the requisite gun fights and car chases but also a healthy dose of intrigue and brains. As reviewed online by the Fourth Rail, “Tara Chace is not James Bond – she doesn’t get the guy, drink martinis and go home to a fabulous hot tub and swanky lifestyle.” James Bond is great, but we all know going in that it is pure fantasy, with Q&C you get the feeling that this is how it really is, and that level of authenticity makes it an irresistible read.

All of these books are what Schreck and Nozemack were hoping to discover when they started Oni and they have found their way to the press because the creators knew that their stories would at least be heard there, and valued on their merits and not how they fit in a larger story universe. “What I think is different about us is the diversity and letting the creators run free,” says Nozemack. “And after that it basically comes down to one thing, is it a good story that we think someone, anyone, would like to read.”

That means that the hard hitting Q&C will stand side by side with Scott Morse’s Visitations, which is a meditation on the existence of God. Will the same reader reach for both? Maybe not, but that isn’t Oni’s goal. They just want to be there for the reader who is reaching for something different, something that appeals to their personal interests; their curiosities. And while that does not translate into competing with DC and Marvel, it also doesn’t mean that fans of the superhero titles won’t find a lot to love at Oni. I’m proof that you can have your Batman and your Rucka (and your Watson and your Van Meter and your DeFilippis…) you just have to take the time to leave your rut and see what else is out there. As Maryanne Snell with Oni puts it, “They [the big publishers] offer a continuity that’s really appealing to a lot of people… but it makes it difficult for new guests to join in and as a publisher it has to be difficult to make sure that your new and old guests are equally entertained. We can take risks on new and inventive projects that we’re passionate about, and, in effect, make each book a new party. Some of the guests will be the same but everyone’s welcome, and able to have an equally great time.”

So feel free to check out Oni and join the party. Because they cast such a wide net, you are pretty much guaranteed to find some title that appeals to you. As for me, the next time someone shakes their head in surprise over my comics collection I’m going to throw them a copy of Three Strikes. Why do I read comics? Because some of the smartest writing around is in those pages and if you don’t know that already then you really should be taking the time to find out.