Who Are You?: An Interview with Neil Kleid (Action, Ohio)
What if superheroes, created by analogues of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were real and based on actual people with powers? What if they were hidden away in a sleepy town since the 1950’s? And if there are superheroes, are there supervillains?
Action, Ohio, written by Neil Kleid and illustrated by Paul Salvi, was originally one of the hopeful competitors trying to win a contract with Zuda Comics. The comic follows heroine Andi Bruce, a Detroit detective with a sad past, who is compelled to solve a brutal murder. Her investigation gradually leads her to learn about the existence of superheroes in a town on the Michigan-Ohio border. Eventually, she must decide between solving her case or protecting the heroes’ freedoms by keeping things quiet.
I first encountered Action, Ohio, when Jack, Anthony, The Doctor, Delos, and I did a round of reviews at Comic Fencing. I heard about the comic again when Neil sent out a press release that the comic had moved to Shadowline, an Image Comics affiliate that begun publishing webcomics in October 2008. I did some quick research, and it quickly dawned on me that Neil Kleid was prolific. Winner of a Xeric Award (for Ninety Candles), writer for several print comics published by NBM to Slave Labor to Image, art director for Comedy Central and Miramax campaigns, creator of several webcomics…. Good God, y’all.
A large sample of his work can be found at his Rant Comics site.
I contacted Neil if he’d like to do an e-mail interview, and he graciously accepted. Neil had already conducted two excellent interviews with Newsrama and io9. I wanted to touch on subjects that hadn’t yet been covered at the other sites: what it was like working for Zuda and Shadowline, what common themes were within his body of work, and … why Ohio?
WCO: Action, Ohio, has been hosted on Zuda Comics (an affiliate of DC), and Shadowline (an affiliate of Image). Some independent webcomic artists, like Spike from Templar, AZ, insist that the benefits of self-publishing are more rewarding. You’ve seen both sides of the story, having worked on the Late Night Block and Todt Hill at The Chemistry Set. What are the advantages with working at Zuda or Shadowline?
Neil: Well, right off the bat there’s the same advantage of self-publishing versus working with a place like Oni, Dark Horse, Vertigo, etc — the fact that you don’t need to deal with the administrative end of things. Don’t have to worry about hosting fees, don’t have to deal with maintaining the site and so forth. More importantly, though, you get NAME CACHE. See, name cache is important — especially when you’re trying to focus eyes on a new product by new talent. In the sea of self publishing, out in the deep waters of the back half of the Diamond Distributor catalog, trying to get a new comic book noticed is nigh impossible unless you’ve got NAME CACHE — i.e., there’s a name talent on the book or you’re connected to another book or publisher that has a name. New Avatar titles use “from the publisher of Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, etc.” and Oni books get a bit of reflective shine from SCOTT PILGRIM. It’s a itme honored tradition and it works, especially when you get right down to it and realize that the Diamond catalog ain’t all that big.
The internet, however, is freaking infinite. Scoring hits to your webcomic, when coasting the void on your own, is a trial. You need to be creator, editor, publisher, advertiser, marketer and PR guy all in one. Many can handle it — you got your Jeph Jacques, your Scott Kurtz, your Gabe and Tycho, R. Stevens and more. When your comic is hosted on a publisher-connected hub, though, you can focus on THE WORK and let the name cache bring viewers in. A webcomic on the Shadowline hub has the advantage of being connected to a) Image Comics b) Jim Valentino c) excellent cartoonists like Carla McNeil, Trudy Cooper and others. Getting in with the Zuda crowd means that you’re part of the Warner Bros/DC Comics media machine and surrounded by well known webcomics like HIGH MOON, BAYOU, NITE OWLS and more. Plus, you know, you get paid.
And at the end of the day, should your webcomic flourish at either site, odds are pretty good on a print collection.
Now, sure — you can do all that on your own if you’ve got the moxie and business sense. Personally, I’m not a businessman nor a marketing machine. I like to write comics. I like creating them within nurturing, friendly studio environments which is why I’m with Shadowline. For me, being able to be on the hub is happiness enough. Everything else is gravy.
WCO: Have you seen any big differences between how Zuda and Shadowline run things, from the standpoint of corporate culture, editorial influence, etc.?
Neil: Besides the fact that Zuda pays a rate and Shadowline is all back end, if anything?
Yeah… there’s a lot more freedom at Shadowline. Jim and Kris Simon tend to be pretty hands off when it comes to editorial influence vis a vis the webcomics. As long as the comic is awesome, go with god. They see something in each webcomic they add to the site and trust in the creators to shepherd the strip to its potential awesomeness.
Zuda, of course, differs in that — unless you’re the lucky few that receive instant winner status — you need to jump through it’s American Idol style hoops. It’s frustrating at times and kills the month you’re in the contest, and if you win it’s great and you’re in like Flynn… but the losers don’t really have that post-Zuda studio affection you see on Idol. Even Chris Daughtry and Kellie Picker get post-Idol props; the ex-Zudas tend to stay best left forgotten unless the creators find a home elsewhere (like ACTION and HANNIBAL at Shadowline, SAM AND LILAH at Act-I-Vate, etc.)
I will say this regarding editorial influence: I’ve made no secret about the fact that ACTION began as a Marvel proposal, and as such some of the characters are my reinterpretation of classic Silver Age Marvel characters. When the strip first ran at Zuda, there was a to-do about the fact that I showed some kids in a hospital that looked a bit like the original X-Men. The editors basically asked me to change the characters, explaining that a webcomic on a DC Comics site could not depict Marvel characters. Paul and I altered the offending panels but it kind of irked me (especially as no one even said boo at the obvious Peter Parker homage!) and I kind of like that Jim and Kris tend to let us push the envelope where possible.
WCO: Action, Ohio, was eventually voted out of the Zuda competition. What do you think of Zuda’s selection process? Also, given your past history with Jim Valentino, did you, in the back of your mind, have Shadowline as a fallback in case the Zuda thing didn’t work out?
Neil: I think the Zuda selection process is kind of a mystery to me; the editors bring in a diverse range of comics but I’d always though that in order to get accepted the comic really needed to be top shelf — otherwise, well, DC/Zuda could get stuck with a stick figure interpretation of “Little Women” if it got enough votes. I don’t know — we had a pretty tough month and all the comics up there were really deserving, but I’ve seen some months when… oh. Damn. NO.
Ever since we had to wrap THE INTIMIDATORS up at Shadowline, I’ve always wanted to do something with Jim and Kris again. Working with them has been the best, most fun editorial experience I’ve had in comics yet, and I’m still looking to do something else with them as far as a print book. Admittedly, when ACTION was running at Zuda I didn’t think “Oh, if I lose I can take it here or there” but there was a question of what we’d do if we lost. Paul and I were going to turn it into a print proposal for Image Central and I was also considering running it past friends of mine at Marvel to see if we could resurrect it in it’s original form. But the second I heard about the Shadowline webcomics hub and the starting lineup, I had no doubts that I’d approach Jim and Kris at San Diego to see if they wanted to bring us aboard.
WCO: What’s the very first comic book you’ve ever read?
Oh, dear lord. Who remembers? I seem to recall it being CAPTAIN CARROT & THE AMAZING ZOO CREW #1. But it could have been an old DIAL H FOR HERO or something.
WCO: You’d originally pitched Action, Ohio, to Marvel Comics as Marvel, Ohio. Was this going to be a story populated with alternate versions of actual Marvel heroes, like Matt Cherniss and Peter Johnson’s Powerless mini-series?
Neil: Not quite — but to tell you more might give away the rest of ACTION, OHIO. I was planning on using the REAL heroes of the Marvel Universe: Steve Rogers, Peter Parker, Tony Stark, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and so forth… but Powerless? Nope.
WCO: Wikipedia says you were raised in the Detroit suburb of Oak Park, Michigan. As a former Motown resident myself, I got shivers of happiness by all the local references — especially the signs perched on the state boundaries. Is there any reason why you decided to visit your old hometown?
Neil: I’m a sucker for setting my books in the Great Lakes Region. INTIMIDATORS was set in Detroit and I’ve pitched a few titles out there that are located in Chicago and parts of Michigan. Honestly? Every book out there is either set in New York, Los Angeles or London and I sometimes wonder if it’s because, well, that’s where the writers are from. It’s the locale they know best. That’s why Brian Wood’s LOCAL is amazing: it takes you to shithole towns in little known suburbs and allowed the creative team to get outside their comfort zone. Me, I want to shine a light on my comfort zone because apart from the pre-Crisis JLA, how many superhero books take place in Detroit?
Ohio, honestly, got picked for this strip for one major reason: DULL. AS, PAINT. My wife and I take road trips from NYC to Detroit to visit family and dread that 4 hour drive across the vast emptiness that is the Buckeye State. Nothing but trees and fields as far as the eye can see. Seriously — if you’re driving across I-80 through Ohio, you’re counting the miles down as fast as you can, hoping to either get to Indiana or Michigan post-haste, or if you’re a resident you’re doing your damndest to get home. It’s just tiring, is all; a parking lot for truckers who had to stop for some shuteye because the endless void and miles of country western music stations lulled them to sleep. It’s a long, bad stretch of road that nobody wants to dawdle along… so much so that you speed past exit after exit, hoping to reach daylight or Chicago before it’s too late. So wouldn’t it be the perfect place to hide something? Especially a town?
(Interviewer’s Note: as someone who’s always associated Ohio with the smell of cowpies, I have to agree. Sorry, Buckeyes.)
WCO: How did you hook up with artist Paul Salvi?
Our eyes met across the crowded internet; he bought me a drink and I took him back to my place, chained him up and we’ve been making sequential romance ever since.
WCO: The story starts off on a somewhat fanciful note — chock full of Silver Age nostalgia — when we’re introduced to the origins of Action, Ohio. But when the story switches to Andi Bruce, we plunge into X-Files territory: mysterious and full of foreboding. Can we expect Action, Ohio to be more of the former, or more of the latter?
Neil: That’s kind of a stylistic thing, to show the difference in not only time, but place. Andi’s world — or the “real world” — isn’t a happy place and Paul and I wanted to reflect that in the art, tone and colors. Action, on the other hand, is four-color excitement and as the strip rolls on we’re planning on jumping back and forth. You’ll get mystery and foreboding, but you’ll also immerse yourself in what I call “the Mike Parobeck” animated style that Paul illustrates deftly in the first eight pages.
WCO: There was a Bill Willingham essay, circulated heavily among us unrepentant geeks, that superhero comics should strive for classic ideals of good vs. evil. A return to “truth, justice, and the American way,” if you will. This was a response to the continuing trend of grim-and-gritty comic books and their influence of the shade-of-gray atmosphere dominating modern day movie and TV adaptations. Do you think he’s got a point?
Neil: Boy, do I love FABLES.
Honestly, man? As long as they’re telling a great story, let comics alone. You want Superman to be mom, baseball and apple pie? He is. You want Superman to be, as Five for Fighting says, a man in a funny red sheet looking for special things inside? He is.
There’s room for Tobey Maguire as Spiderman, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, SMALLVILLE, IRON MAN, Christian Bale’s gravelly Batman and Deidrich Bader’s happy go lucky cartoon Brave and the Bold Batman. Don’t we have better things to do than worry about this?
WCO: Previous to Action, Ohio, your two most prominent works were the Xeric Award-winning Ninety Candles — which the Rant Comics site describes as “the life of one cartoonist, from cradle to grave, one panel per year” — and Brownsville — a comic about Jewish gangsters. I haven’t read either of these yet, by the way, but I’ve got to say that their quirky premises makes a story about superheroes living in an Ohio commune seem downright conventional. What would you say are the unifying themes that define your work?
Neil: Family and legacy. I’m fascinated by that sort of thing and themes of fatherhood run through both CANDLES, BROWNSVILLE and my upcoming graphic novel, THE BIG KAHN. While ACTION doesn’t focus on fatherhood, per se, it does shine a batsignal on legacy in superhero comics — the rules and responsibilities one generation hands down to another. It deals with family, in the form of Andi’s obsession with her dead brother. I’ve always been interested in looking at generations of heroes — the Golden, Silver and Modern Age Flashes, Green Lanterns, Blue Beetles, Captain America, the Invaders and more – how they react to their predecessors and successors, the respect, the resentment; all that jazz. ACTION, OHIO sinks it’s bloody fists into all that and more as we bear witness to two generations of secret superhumans and how their differences end up destroying their existence.
WCO: And finally: do you think the Red Wings are taking back the Stanley Cup this year?
Neil: I’m fishing for octopi as we speak.