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Feature Mon Jan 05 2009

The Work of Comics: An Interview with Josh Elder

Josh Elder is the Chicago-based author of several graphic novels, including Mail Order Ninja, which was named one of the 25 best graphic novels for children. Here he talks about his love-at-first read relationship with comics and how to make it as a working artist.

What are your earliest memories of comics and first favorite comic books?

Comics have been a part of my life for literally as long as I can remember. And I learned to read from comics. My mother was reading me an issue of the Transformers when she lost her voice. This was unacceptable as Optimus Prime was in danger, and I had to make sure he was going to be okay. Since I could follow the story through the pictures, it helped me figure out all the words I didn't know, and within a week or so, I was reading. I retired mom, and comics have been my constant literary companions ever since.

When you were graduating from college, were you sure you wanted to pursue a dream of working in comics, or were there other options floating around your mind? How did you decide which path to choose?

I graduated with a Film degree from Northwestern and a pretty good background in journalism. My first real job out of college (aside from working at Comix Revolution in Evanston) was as an associate editor at Wizard Magazine, a comic-specialty magazine. I learned quickly that the journalist life wasn't for me (though I still freelance as a graphic novel reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times) and concentrated fully on my fiction writing. It took a while, but that paid off, and now I do it full-time. I chose that path because it's all I've ever really wanted to do with my life. Everything else was either a way to help make that possible or a way to pay the bills while I pursued my true calling. It was my dream; it's always been my dream. And after I was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma I decided I wasn't going to wait to live my dreams because I may not have the time to waste. I recovered, but the sense of urgency remained. I knew with absolute certainty what I wanted out of my life, and I set about getting it. I haven't regretted a single moment since.

How did you make the crucial leap from "Hey, I have an idea for this comic." to your stuff getting published? I dunno how these things work. Did you get an agent? Self-publish? Find a shady character in a back alley with a printing press?

I was originally going to self-publish Mail Order Ninja my heartwarmingly hilarious tale of a boy who orders a ninja through the mail. I liquidated my savings account to pay for it, and then life took a happy twist when I won a national talent contest known as the Rising Stars of Manga. I was offered a book deal, and I've been a professional working writer ever since. But commercial success was always a secondary concern to me. First and foremost, I wanted to create art and share it with the world. So you don't need a publisher, and you don't need an agent -- all you need is a story and passion to share it with others. Then those people will find you.

What are you biggest artistic influences these days?

Frank Herbert, author of the "Dune" novels, was the man who inspired me to write in the first place. He created a fictional world so fully realized that it felt as real as the one outside my window. And it was a great story, too. One filled with Truth with a capital "T." I wanted to create something like that myself -- I'm still working on it, but I'm young yet. In terms of comics, I'm probably most influenced by writers like Grant Morrison and Alan Moore who constantly challenge themselves as writers. They move between genres, between styles and never, ever allow themselves to be boring or un-inventive. I would also say that the Looney Tunes are a big influence on my writing style when I work on children's material. The Looney Tunes are very funny on the surface. Anvils falling on to the heads of voracious coyotes will make any kid laugh. But the older you get, the smarter those cartoons become and the funnier they become but for entirely different reasons. I strive to accomplish the same things with my comics. They're for kids, but there's really something there for everyone.

How do you spend your days, now that you're a big-time writer?

Well, writing for the most part. But I also do a lot of reading -- I try to keep up with the industry and study what my peers are doing (so that I can rip them off... er, I mean, pay homage to their work) plus I'm still a fan so it's not a great burden to keep up with my comics reading. I also travel a lot in my role as Director of Operations for Kids Love Comics, a non-profit group literacy advocacy group. I do school, library and university events all across the country -- at least 50 a year and usually a whole lot more. For me, writing good books is only part of the equation. You also need to make people aware that that [comics] exist and convince them that they should spend their time and money reading them. And I don't just promote my own work, far from it. I promote every good comic out there. Because comics have been very good to me, and now I get to be very good to comics.

Out of the characters you've created, which one is your favorite and why?

That's a tough one. Probably Jiro, the titular Mail Order Ninja. He's just such the perfect straight man. He never speaks, but he communicates volumes with glances and gestures. And he's honorable to a fault and always does the right thing, but he's still cool. The best friend any kid could ever ask for. His effectiveness as a character is due primarily to the amazing artistic skills of my partner Erich Owen. Nothing tasks a cartoonist more than a character that doesn't speak -- and who wears a mask at that! But Erich rose to the challenge and went beyond any reasonable expectation. Jiro and Mail Order Ninja wouldn't be half the books they are without him.

Do you have any words of wisdom for would-be writers or artists of any stripe who may be interested in pursuing art full-time?

Make sure that you love art more than money. Because you probably won't have much of the latter. It is a hard business in which to be successful, and an even harder business in which to stay successful. I chose my path because I felt I had no other choice. It was a calling, and I had to answer or else I'd regret it for the rest of my life. If you feel that, then do it.

And if you do it, then don't be a romantic about it. Treat your career like a business. Be true to your art and be true to yourself, but think about the economics of the situation, study your market and become your own best publicity agent. If you create good work, then tell people about it! Share it and you'll make fans for life. You give away your first book and for every book you gave away, you'll sell ten more because those people will come back for everything else you write after that.

But it all really comes down to the love. If you have the love for what you do and the passion to make the necessary sacrifices, then do it. It'll be hard, but I assure you that it's worth it.

Learn more about Josh's work and other endeavors at www.joshelder.com.

About the Author

Lindsay Muscato is a Gapers Block staffer who escaped from a toaster fire in Buffalo, NY at the age of four. She now lives in a slanty shanty in Andersonville, has written and performed with Around the Coyote and 2nd Story, and she's the managing director of The Neo-Futurists. Read her scribblings at lindsayliveshere.org.

 
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