The John Rozum/XOMBI Interview, PART ONE
By Park Cooper
Over ten years ago, I wrote this paragraph, as part of the conclusion to my four-part series, _The Most Useful Ideas In Discussing Comics_ (only the 11th thing, if you count all four parts as one unit, that I ever wrote for this column) and this part was filed under X for Xombi:
Xombi, Mosaic, Kid Eternity: My holy trinity of incredibly intelligent titles that were horribly, painfully cancelled. As time goes on, I've come to grips with Kid Eternity. How could I or anyone have expected this to last even as long as it did? It was too cultural, too intellectual, too Ann Nocenti for the planet, with her dialogue style that sounds like a cross between Claremont and Kirby with a touch of Morrison. But god, what a title. She put Madame Blavatsky and Neal Cassidy into a comic. As, for a while, RECURRING CHARACTERS. But Mosaic? Noooooo don't cancel my Mosaic! And Xombi! How could you destroy the worthy successor to Grant's Doom Patrol? You vicious bastards in black hoods with giant axes. Hate you.
But now, once again I stress MORE THAN TEN YEARS after I wrote that, Xombi is coming back, with the same writer, John Rozum, whom I befriended on Facebook.
Now would be a good time to preorder, if you, you know, buy comic books.
John Rozum does all these interesting cut-paper art things, too:
PC: Let's start by something I'm dying to ask. What’s up with the paper-cutting art? How did you get into that?
JR: By accident. I made a change of address/Christmas card back in 2000. It turned out that while I can draw well enough to convey an idea, but can barely draw a straight line, I could do a lot of things with scissors. I sort of felt like Louis Armstrong being handed his first trumpet. The down side is that because it is completely done by hand it is incredibly tedious so I do far less of it than I'd like to.
PC: How did you come to do stuff involving the Karloff estate, as I recall you did?
JR: That was something of a commission. I know a lot of folks in the horror community. Mike High, who headed the yahoo Karloff group asked me if I'd be interested in doing three portraits of Karloff from different times in his life as a birthday gift for his daughter Sara. I was happy to do that, though I only had time to finish two; One from when he was in his 20s and one around the time he was doing "Thriller." I wasn't at the convention where they were presented to her, but I'm told she really loved them.
PC: Okay then, let's move to the obvious: comics, starting with Xombi. Or should we go more chronological? Hmm, yes, let's. How Did You Get Into Writing Comics?
JR: That was also by accident. I'd read comics on and off my whole life, and even made some as a kid (most of which never got past the covers), but the idea of doing it as a profession never even occurred to me. When I was attending NYU I was friends with Dwayne McDuffie and Gregory Wright who were both assistant editors at Marvel. I'd often meet them at the end of the day to go to a movie or something. While waiting for them to finish up, I'd wander the offices and look at what was being done. Reading someone else's script I thought "I could do this" and began submitting stuff, often removing post it notes from then editor-in-chief Tom Defalco which said "This is great. Use this." from other people's scripts and putting them on my own. Most of what I did back then was really short filler stuff, but as a college student it was better money than I was making at the library, but even then I still saw it as extra cash and not a career path. Little did I know.
PC: Okay... talk to me about the conceptual start of Milestone's Xombi. And let me say again officially that I read it, loved it, I believe I managed to get every issue without missing any, and that in my opinion and the opinion of others, it really stood out and was different.
JR: (Thanks for the compliment.) When I was brought into XOMBI by Dwayne McDuffie, there was already something of a bible for the series put together which was quite a bit different. I may be wrong on some of the specifics, but, Xombi was an African-American 20-ish year old named David Saunders whose grandmother was killed in a drive by shooting. He may have been employed by a pharmaceutical company to look into traditional medicines and discovered the concoction that gave him his immortal, regenerative powers. He was revenge motivated, using his powers to eliminate gangs and so forth, much more of a Punisher styled character. I played around with this a bit, but felt that this would get old really quickly. Dwayne seemed to agree with me and told me to just go and do whatever I wanted with the character with the one change being that he was now going to be Korean-American. I think the traditional medicine idea ended up being the basis for issue #18 of the first run, when David met the other xombi.
PC: Sounds much more like a traditional superhero book. Why did you take it... well, weird? And what did Dwayne think of the new directions?
JR: As far as I know he was very happy with them. I was pretty much left alone to keep doing what I wanted to. I never received any editorial notes. I know Dwayne really loved issue #6, which seems to be everyone's favorite, even though I was really disappointed when I turned it in, because I felt that only about 75% of what was in my head was transferred to paper.
The change in direction really came from me feeling that I’d soon lose interest in what was geared as more of a revenge natured comic with the gimmick of finding new ways to damage the protagonist each story so we could see him regenerate. I felt that if I lost interest then the audience probably would too. I didn’t purposefully set out to make it as radically different as it became. I simply looked at the basic premise and asked myself what would be interesting about a character who found himself suddenly unkillable, and if the reader knows he can never be killed, or even hurt, then what are the stakes? Those two questions drove the entire series, and really drive the new series as well. The rest of the stuff was introduced to support my answers to these questions. It ended up being not about a superhero simply because I thought that a scientist who found himself radically transformed would be a lot more invested in trying to understand his new condition than they would in putting on a costume and fighting crime. There were already a lot of characters already doing that. Instead I wanted to write about a character who was fighting against what he’d become.
PC: I'm sure the readers appreciated it, because Milestone, even Vertigo hadn't been giving us anything like Xombi at the time for a while, and had NEVER given it to us in quite that ratio of normal-to-weird, especially in so concentrated a form... Vertigo was supposed to be sort of edgy, preferably supernaturally so. But Xombi went more surreal, in my opinion...it was more like there were all sorts of flavors to the universe, but that the various other superheroes only were comfortable exploring a few... and Xombi went all over the place. Personally, incidentally, I liked that the group book Blood Syndicate sometimes sneaked over to the not-your-normal-super-powers type of stuff as well...
JR: I didn't really think it was that weird -- to me. I had been pitching things with a similar feel for years with no luck whatsoever (I even tried really hard to become the successor on Doom Patrol when Grant Morrison was finishing with it). It was incredibly frustrating because everyone said the stuff was too weird. When I came across Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol it was a revelation at first because here was someone doing the same type of stories that I was being told were too weird for comics, but it was also aggravating, because that one title wasn't enough to show there was a demand for more of it. I just always felt that comics were a place where imagination could – and should-- run wild. Anything you could think of could be drawn and you didn't need a humongous special effects budget to do it. I’ve never really worried too much about pushing things too far. There’s something inherently silly about a lot of genre material, including most of mainstream comics, but rather than pretend that there isn’t, as a lot of people do, I’ve decided to just embrace the wackier aspects. . I wanted to do stuff that went beyond two guys in colorful costumes posturing and hitting each other. So, I pretty much wrote what I wanted to read in comics. My favorite comic books are the ones where Jimmy Olsen is turned into porcupine and worries about how this is going to affect his social prospects, or where the Flash finds himself turned into a wooden marionette. Nobody tells these stories anymore, which is a shame. I understand, in a way, why. It took until Batman: the Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and Maus for comics to move beyond the campy “Biff! Bam! Pow! kitsch that the 1960s Batman tv series made them, and for them to be taken seriously as a legitimate form of storytelling that it was okay for grown-ups to read. Unfortunately, everyone has been afraid to let that go, and now all comics are more “realistic” with explanations for how everything works that they’re often not very interesting and certainly not as exciting
PC: It was all quite a blessing for us-- YES! To us Doom Patrol fans, I was about to say. Tell me a little more for a moment about being previously told that things were "too weird for comics."
JR: I found reading a lot of other comics that tried to follow the Vertigo pattern that there were a couple that felt like the writer really understood what they were writing like on Sandman and Doom Patrol, and there were others that felt like they were trying to write that stuff but it was unnatural to them and you could tell it was fake. This was just how my brain was wired. Probably from watching a lot of Doctor Who as a kid.
"Midnight, Mass." for example went through a number of incarnations. Once, it was a group of Marvel characters. The plots of the stores I wanted to tell were similar to what went into Xombi and Midnight, Mass., but I was told it was too weird. It then was reworked as a Mark Merlin relaunch. Same thing. I even pitched it as a tv show, and was told that no one was going to want to watch a man and a woman investigating the paranormal every week. This was a couple years before the X-Files. It was also supposed to be a spin-off from Xombi, but the cancellation of Xombi and demise of Milestone ended that.
PC: I don't suppose you happen to remember WHICH Marvel characters? My readers will wish to know, if you can recall...
JR: I think the Marvel characters were Hannibal King, and was there one named Drake? Blade was only a occasional supporting character. This was also before that 90s Marvel horror wave built around Ghost Rider.
PC: There was a Drake, yes...
JR: That would be them. A paranormal detective agency. The idea wasn't weird. It was the stories themselves.
PC: Yes. But then Xombi came to an end. Because, as I recall, all of Milestone came to an end.
what was up with that? Milestone's sales numbers became a problem? Do you feel Xombi got a chance for readers to find it? I remember many people talked of the different approach to coloring at Milestone...
JR: Milestone came to an end for a number of reasons. I’m hardly an authority on the details. They were still publishing for another year or so after I was no longer writing for them. Sales were a factor I’m sure. A lot of stores apparently wouldn't carry them because they were perceived as "black comics." I don't think these store owners actually read them. There was also a lot of media attention at the time given to these other black creator owned comics that clearly had political agendas behind them and I think Milestone was lumped in with them. The only agenda Milestone had beyond publishing good comics was to provide titles which contained characters of a much wider range of backgrounds than were being depicted by other publishers at the time. This wasn’t just about publishing more black characters, but there were more varieties of black characters as well as latino characters, asian characters, characters with different religious backgrounds, body types, age, gender identification, sexual orientation, etc. It was basically saying that America had changed a lot since the conservative white Eisenhower years, and these comics were going to reflect that. People didn’t seem to be too interested in that though, and many that did complained they couldn’t find these comics at their local retailers.
Xombi had the additional problem of being tough to label, I suppose. It was typically shelved with superhero comics where people weren't picking it up because it wasn’t enough like the other superhero comics. Vertigo readers weren't picking it up because they thought of it as a super hero book. I'm told stores that shelved it with the Vertigo and Fantagraphics books did pretty well with it.
PC: OMG "black comics"
JR: Exactly. OMG "black comics" it didn't matter that they were well written with some great art in them.
PC: Well— to clarify: I was specifically remarking OMG I can't believe someone judged these by saying "black comics." And STORES? I thought stores just reacted to what their readers/buyers reacted to, but this sounds like the stores judged before the buyers even got around to it...
JR: Exactly. I know of at least one store owner that wouldn't stock comics if he didn't like the artist. I kid you not. I guess he felt if he didn't like Mike Mignola, nobody else would either.
PC: Right. And, if you don't mind talking about this... there was talk about NBC and MMass for a little while there...
JR: There was. Twice. The first time it was a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. NBC, Warner Bros and Joel Silver all had a stake in it and all wanted different things. They commissioned a bunch of pilot scripts which were more like CSI than "Midnight, Mass." none had any humor, and nobody in charge liked them (and they were done by good writers). I'm told Joel Silver suggested asking me to write a script but NBC wouldn't go for it because I wasn't a "name screenwriter," because people watching TV are so aware of the names of the writers. I don't know what killed it the second time but the "name screenwriter" thing kept me from writing a script. I'm sure it will surface again some day.
I'd be happy just to write the comic book again.
PC: Do you feel Milestone was properly marketed? Because once it was all over... hey, let's make Static a TV cartoon! So obviously it wasn’t the salability...but during Milestone, there may have been a feeling of “Milestone? Static? What? Who? Where?”
JR: I honestly don't know much about that end of how things were done. I know that whenever they attended a convention, the booth was mobbed, and not just by black readers either. Xombi was particularly popular as a book given to girlfriends and wives by men who read comics trying to get their better halves interested. A big percentage of the mail I got every month was from girl friends and wives, or men thanking me for writing a comic book their girlfriend or wife wanted to read.
PC: …Of course, it's not like Milestone was the first and last imprint to start and stop... Epic, Minx, Helix, Paradox... and lots more...
JR: Milestone wasn't really an imprint. It was its own separate entity. It was just published and distributed by DC. I think DC handled much of the promotion as well, and that may have been not a good thing as they were certainly going to promote their own books first. But they did advertise Xombi in places like Locus magazine. I think a lot of it was based on the perception of retailers and fans on what these comics were about without actually reading them. There was a notion that I'm not of this ethnic background, so this book won't appeal to me. But they had no problem with Martian Manhunter.
PC: Actually, I wrote my dissertation on postmodern narrative strategies in the African-American novel, and while working on that I learned: there's a lot of resistance in America... and there's also a lot of resistance to perceived preachiness, even where there isn't actually any. Sometimes tossin' an alien in is a way that people are a lot more comfortable exploring race. Or, you know... white, attractive people with mutant powers.
JR: I agree. The main purpose of Milestone was to show that there was a lot of diversity in ethnic groups as well. There are black republicans as well as democrats. You never hear anyone on the news referring to "the white vote." Before Milestone you'd be hard pressed to find a black character in comics who wasn't called "black" something or who wasn't a physicist or gang member prior to becoming a superhero. None of the comics though really spent a lot of time dwelling on ethnic issues. They were all about individual characters going through the same trials and tribulations we all do; work place politics, family life, relationships, school, self-replicating supervillains, etc.
PC: Mmmmm. Hit me with a little Kobalt insight before we move on.
JR: Kobalt was actually something I tried to sell to Marvel when Dwayne was still there. He remembered it when Milestone was getting ready to release a second wave of titles and asked me if I wanted to do it there.
PC: You know, actually, it has a slight Marvel feel. Namely, the "there's a whole universe of interacting characters in play here" factor.
JR: I made a mistake with that book of writing for a perceived audience rather than just writing for myself, and the book suffered for it. I tried to shoehorn in more grim and gritty superhero stuff than I really wanted to. The book was supposed to be a lot more fun and funny, something like DC Comics of the 1960s. I finally found my way back to that just as it was cancelled. The three issues that would have come next (all of which were written) were what the book should have been.
JR: The universe of interacting characters is something I always try and do. I like creating things with an implied back story. I think it immediately makes something feel richer and makes the reader wonder about what's happened before which is good. I remember as a kid watching those Hanna-Barbera action cartoons like "Space Ghost" and "The Herculoids" and there was always this moment where the heroes intimated that they had encountered the villains before. This gave a sense that there were all these episodes I hadn't seen yet, and kept me watching. Only when I ended up with complete runs of these shows did I realize those episodes didn't exist. I find it gives me options if I need to tell back story, or take a break and focus on something from the past or put one of the supporting characters in the spotlight.
PC: Quick gear change for a second-- I wanna jump to the present briefly. Let’s talk about Xombi coming BACK now.
JR: Okay. What would you like to know?
PC: Well.... how the heck did that happen, firstly...?
JR: Beyond simply the merging of the DC Universe and the Milestone Universe, Xombi has been my most popular work for some reason. I get more email about that than anything else. Apparently, Dan Didio was getting similar requests, so this really was a case of the fans making their wants known and getting them granted. Now they all have to buy the series to keep it going. I never expected, especially after so long, that I'd be writing it again. It’s a very pleasant surprise.
NEXT TIME: The dramatic conclusion to the John Rozum interview.
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