Jimmy Palmiotti is not a guy who does downtime well.
The prolific comics creator is currently recharging his creative energies with a slew of projects in the works, led by his latest Kickstarter, the grisly horror graphic novel Killing Time In America, which he co-wrote with Craig Wheedon. The project, the 10th Kickstarter Palmiotti has done, has already hit its goal of $38,000 with two weeks to go. That's a validation of the Brooklyn native's assertion that not only is there an underserved portion of the comics-buying audience that wants more hardcore horror books, but also that his fan base is after more than just his work on the Fourth Pillar of the DC Universe.
Palmiotti and his creative partner and wife Amanda Conner made headlines recently when they left their blockbuster gig overseeing the adventures of Harley Quinn for DC. For nearly four years, Palmiotti and Conner's wildly inventive and absurdly funny spin on Harley proved incredibly popular. In fact, their run is credited with turning her into one of comics' biggest superstars. But the monthly grind took a toll, and as Palmiotti told SYFY WIRE, he and Conner wanted a chance to take more control over the types of projects they worked on. Specifically, they wanted to focus on creator-owned works that allowed them the chance to have total control and ownership over the characters.
That's where Killing Time In America comes in. The 112-page hardcover book tells the story of four people on a murder rampage that they're streaming on the web. The story is graphic and twisty with regards to what is motivating the killers. Palmiotti says the story is his and Wheedon's take on updating an '80s horror film. He admits it's pitch black with characters that are hard to root for, but says these types of stories are what get him excited these days.
"If it makes money great, but that’s not my goal here," Palmiotti says. "Amanda and I put away a lot of money from our Harley Quinn run that we can kind of experiment on our own and I can do these Kickstarters." That type of experimentation is right there on the Kickstarter page, in the form of the live-action trailer Palmiotti commissioned to promote the book.
SYFY WIRE had a nice long conversation with Palmiotti about his new project and that rather audacious trailer. Palmiotti being, well, Palmiotti, didn't shy away from detailing why he chose Kickstarter for his new book as opposed to Image Comics or even DC's Vertigo Comics imprint. One of the savviest guys in the comics industry, he was upfront about admitting that his desire for greater control is driving his new career choices. He also shared updates on the status of the Jessica Chastain-produced adaptation of Painkiller Jane, and where The Pro stands in Hollywood's development pipeline.
When we talked last year for a video feature on Harley Quinn’s 25th anniversary, you hinted to me that your time on Harley was running out. How much of your decision to leave that book was due to the grind of doing two monthly books, and how much was a desire to get back to creator-owned work?
Two books a month is a lot for Amanda and I. If it were just that, it would be fine. But she was also doing covers and other things, and I’m working on scripts and other stuff. After four years, we were like, ‘OK, we’ve done everything we wanted to do with Harley. She became a monster seller during our time, which was cool, but at the end of the day, our work with Harley begins and ends with the comics. DC didn’t involve me in the writing of her outside the comics, in animation or any of the film stuff, even though that is my other job. So there’s a point you look at it and go, ‘OK, we made some money and made the company a ton of money [laughs], but ultimately, I don’t own Harley or a piece of it. I’m glad Bruce Timm and Paul Dini make money off what we did, but we don’t own any of it. Other than some royalties, that’s the beginning and end of it. You have to realize, during those four years, we didn’t get a chance to take a honeymoon, to travel… we just had four years of constant work. Although we loved everything we did, we knew we needed a break, not just to recharge, but to work on our own projects.
Is that how Killing Time In America came about? Or had you already been working on that before?
Killing Time was something that Craig Wheedon and I wrote the screenplay for, and we wrote that first. We shopped it and got great feedback. Some people thought it was too brutal, a little too wild, but in the end, we thought it would be a better graphic novel out of the gate. We got Justin Norman to be the artist on it, and we worked on Jonah Hex before and a bunch of other books. So Craig and I adapted our screenplay into a graphic novel, and I lined up Paul Mount to do the colors on it, and he’s amazing.
Tell me about the trailer for the book. You don't often see trailers for graphic novels, let alone live-action ones.
Then I thought it would be fun to do a Kickstarter on this and we should have something like a live-action film trailer for the book. I have a buddy, Chris Notarile, who does all these films on YouTube. Blinky Productions is his thing. I paid him to do a trailer using art that I gave him and the art direction I provided, and he did it in a day! He found actors and did a quick trailer in a single day. He nailed it. I thought it would be cool to do something like this for the book, and the reaction to it seems great. We’re almost fully funded (actually $978 above its $38K goal, as of this writing). With a Kickstarter, you have to be a store, and offer things that people will actually want.
That is important, isn’t it, offering the right incentives?
Absolutely. People want to support your work, but it’s a transaction. If they give you money, they want to get something in return. We have a hardcover we’re offering that we print to order, so it’s a real collector’s item. We have some prints, Amanda did a cover, we have all these different pledges, including a mystery box. It’s full of crazy stuff from around my house, and I always guarantee people its worth a lot more than $200 [laughs]. Also, my guys on the book always get paid. Craig and I aren’t taking a dime. If we were getting paid, the goal would have been much higher than $38,000. But my thing is, we hope to get paid down the line, like if a publisher would want to pick up the book and do a different type of edition. Because I always make sure the Kickstarter supporters have something nobody else has.
I make a connection with the audience at the grass-roots level. And I meet these people at a convention, and it’s just different. With Kickstarter, I can get experimental and put the book out there, and the audience decides.
I guess that’s the luxury of you have having worked in comics as long and successfully as you have, that you can take a bit of a risk on a project like this.
Honestly, I put money aside for a year to save up for this so I could pay everybody who worked on it. Even if this fails — and thankfully it looks like it won’t — at the end of the day, all my guys are paid anyway. They all have kids and families so I don’t want to put anyone in a bind. For me, I want to get the idea out there.
Tell me about the idea. Because Killing Time in America is intense, to say the least.
Killing Time is mine and Craig’s idea of an '80s horror movie, in a way. But it’s also a little Tarantino, a little Hostel. I just wanted to do something where I didn’t have any editorial interference. I just wanted to go in and write as scary as I wanted, as insane as I wanted, as disturbing as I wanted, and hopefully we find an audience for it.
Was the screenplay as violent as the graphic novel?
The idea of a graphic novel versus a screenplay or a novel is just different degrees of imagination. It’s funny, in the screenplay you say thing: ‘A woman stabs somebody in the car.’ Any person that reads that screenplay is visualizing it and thinking they need a car, they need lights, makeup, the special effects team has to come in… there are a million things that need to be considered when you’re reading a screenplay as a filmmaker.
But as a graphic novel, you have to approach it differently. And this was Craig’s first comic, and he said it was like going to school. It’s different. Writing a screenplay is for people to read it, while a graphic novel obviously has to be more visually driven. Sometimes a scene is spread out over several panels, for pacing. Not the same with a screenplay. This story is probably in its purest form as a graphic novel. If it becomes a film one day, it’s going to be different. Somebody will put their own spin on things.
The group at the center of the story is not just on a killing spree; they’re broadcasting it live on the internet. Were you trying to make some sort of commentary on today’s culture, which sometimes seems obsessed with becoming internet famous?
I was watching Hostel, and I thought, ‘Why not have Europeans come over here and do the killing?’ [Laughs] I know its ridiculous, but that’s what sparked it. And each of the killers has their own motivation. For two of them, the motivation is set in the past, so its like revenge for them, except its revenge on total strangers. It's like writing a story about bad guys, and each one is worse. As a reader, it kind of makes you feel like you shouldn’t be rooting for some of them, but you do. And I kind of like that.
The hero is an ex-cop named Toby, and we’re seeing the story through his eyes. It has a little twist or two, but for me, I grew up with horror films like Friday The 13th, and Halloween, and I wanted to hit on that kind of story. Comics for me, at least mainstream comics, have become too straightforward. And I don’t just want to read Batman books. So for me, I think this graphic novel will serve a certain audience that may like my work, but also may like the genre of horror. Books like Swamp Thing, are not really horror for me. They don’t have the same feel for me, because they don’t make me uncomfortable. And I kinda like that.
Any updates on your creator-owned projects, like the movie adaptations of Painkiller Jane and The Pro?
With Painkiller Jane, it’s in the screenplay phase right now and we hope to be moving along once Jessica [Chastain] is happy with it. Everyone’s on the same page with that. As for The Pro, I just know it’s at Paramount, we read the screenplay for that and we loved it. I don’t pursue it everyday because that kind of behavior will drive you nuts, because with a movie you’re dealing with thousands of people. I always tell my manager, 'Just give me the highlights, keep me in the loop and tell me when I have to be someplace.’ The other one that’s coming together for us is Random Acts Of Violence.
Is that the one with Jay Baruchel attached?
Yes, Jay is going to direct it and he wrote the screenplay based on mine and Justin Gray’s graphic novel. Hopefully, that one is ready to shoot at the end of this year or beginning of next. All this stuff takes so much time. That’s the thing. What’s great about doing comics and graphic novels is that I can do it within a month or two and they come out. That’s why I have so many film friends who love comics. They can’t believe how fast things come out! [Laughs]
With the reputation you and Amanda have, and all the relationships you two have in comics, why go the Kickstarter route with your creator-owned books instead of going to Image or even Vertigo, which DC Comics is relaunching with your idea?
That’s a good question. So if I go to DC and say, ‘Hey, this graphic novel is perfect for your Vertigo line, and it would be, the first thing they’d ask me is, ‘How many issues is it?’ Then I have to break it down by issue. Then they’ll tell me they own first rights, and they own this, they own a percentage of it, right away. And I want to own it 100%. They don’t have full ownership deals available for creators. It’s a partnership with DC. They do give you a good page rate and all that, but I lose control over licensing, marketing, and anything else that goes along with it. Now, to be fair, I have Warner Bros. behind me and that’s good, too. But when all is said and done, all I care about is the book. It’s a control thing, and maybe I’m being a bit of a control freak. But with DC it’s a partnership. With Boom and Dark Horse, it’s a partnership, and sometimes in those cases where you have partners, you never get the rights back.
Image is a bit of a different case. I love Image. With Image, they’re not going to pay me to do it, so I have to put up my own money and then you have to submit it to them to see if they want to publish it, and again, there are questions about how many issues it will be, and so on. So even though you control your own IP, I still have to go to the press on my own, and if I have to do all that … why not do it on my own? Image is great, and it’s the best deal out there for creators, by the way. Amanda and I actually have a book coming out through them later this year, Captain Brooklyn with Frank Tieri.
Wait, that’s supposed to be an all-ages book right? Except between you and Frank, two classic Brooklyn guys, there’s no chance it doesn’t have a ton of F-bombs. How are you getting around that?
[Laughs] Well, yeah, there’s that. The f-bombs will be there, but we’ll just cover them up with symbols instead of writing out the actual curse words. We’ll put an F-U with a $ sign so people can figure it out. But we don’t want to alienate a younger audience. When we were writing Harley, we always wrote her as an all-ages book, but it always bordered on being naughty. And that’s what we’re looking to do with Captain Brooklyn. As you know, Looney Toons were a big influence on us, and it’s a different experience watching those as an adult.
How’s Amanda enjoying her down time?
She’s doing great. We took some time to travel a bit, We’ve been running around, like to the Kennedy Space Center, got a trip to Hawaii planned… we’re looking to make up for lost time with each other. At the same time, she’s excited to do books that we work on. Whoever publishes it, she wants to do books that we do, with her writing as well.
Again, working for someone else for so long, although it’s fun and great, you don’t really benefit from the Harley Quinn madness, the toys and merchandise and all that. We get a tiny piece of it, which is nice. But imagine if you own that character? Or imagine any company, Marvel or DC, telling us why don’t you pitch us a TV idea on this character? Then we’d be working for one of the Big Two all the time. Which is why sometimes you have to go out and do your own thing to show people what you can really do. They appreciate you more when you’re not there.
Will Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti be doing a work-for-hire assignment anytime soon?
I'm actually in talks with DC and Marvel right now. I’m finishing up a book for DC that I can’t talk about yet, but it’s a one-shot. I’ve been talking with my guys at Marvel too, about a fun gig, something small. Amanda’s doing covers for a bunch of different people, but as for interior work, she’s taking a break from that. But we're not going anywhere.