Jamie S. Rich is a familiar face on the Portland comic book scene–first gaining attention on the editorial staff at Dark Horse Comics almost straight out of college, and then as editor-in-chief of Oni Press from 1999 to 2004. Since leaving Oni, he’s carved his own path as a freelance writer, publishing (among other things) the prose novels Cut My Hair, The Everlasting, and Have You Seen The Horizon Lately, as well as the manga-influenced comic series Love the Way You Love, several short stories, and the gorgeous (and currently out of print) graphic novel 12 Reasons Why I Love Her.
His latest major project is You Have Killed Me, an upcoming graphic novel from Oni Press that features his frequent collaborator (and neighbor) Joëlle Jones. Read on as Jamie talks about his beginnings at Dark Horse, his special relationship with Grendel, and whether or not Jamie is a girl’s name.
TFAW.com: Hey Jamie, thanks for meeting with me! Let’s start from the beginning: when did you start at Dark Horse?
Jamie S. Rich: 1994. I interviewed in ‘93, and I had a week-long internship with Diana Schutz. She had me sit in her little tiny office with a typewriter and type rejection letters for the submissions, and if I made one typo, I had to retype the entire thing. That was my internship. When Diana became editor-in-chief, she hired me to be her assistant.
TFAW.com: You also worked with Bob Schreck, right?
JSR: Yeah, I went from Diana to Bob, and worked mainly on the creator-owned books and Dark Horse Presents.
TFAW.com: You brought Usagi Yojimbo to Dark Horse, right?
JSR: No, [Stan Sakai] came over on his own. Mirage was ending, and he needed a publisher, and David Scroggy and Diana were all over it. They assigned it to me as my first solo editing gig. I think the thought was, Stan Sakai knew what he was doing at that point, so it would be easy to test somebody out on Usagi Yojimbo. I did the first 20 issues or so. I was spoiled–Stan’s the greatest guy in the world, and he didn’t really need much help at all. I think I only asked him to change one thing one time.
I also got to be in Usagi Yojimbo #100. I did a couple of pages in there with Andi Watson.
TFAW.com: What else did you work on while you were at Dark Horse?
Actually, I’m the editor for Madman now–I edit it for Mike Allred freelance. When I was editor-in-chief at Oni Press, I was his editor, so I’ve been his editor since he stopped publishing at Dark Horse.
TFAW.com: So Mike Allred must like you.
JSR: Yeah. Actually, in Madman #16, which comes out in May, I wrote a short story, drawn by Joëlle Jones. It’s a rare honor, because a lot of people have drawn pinups for Madman, but very few people have been asked to draw or write a story. It’s about the Atomics, who are a rock band but also a group of superheroes. I wondered, what would it be like to be a fan of this band, and they’re your life, and every time you turn around, they’re flying off into space? What does that mean? Should be fun.
TFAW.com: There’s a lot of music in the work you’ve done–do you pick a soundtrack for each of your books?
JSR: Yes, and I think that’s part of why Mike and I got along so well when we worked on Red Rocket 7. There was a time when I stopped reading comics for a while, and I got really heavily into music. When I write, I always have it on, and it always influences my work. You know, if I need to get in the headspace of this character, I’ll play this. I usually put the playlists on my blog if they’re not in the books.
TFAW.com: So what’s the soundtrack for You Have Killed Me?
JSR: Actually, that’s the strangest one, because it’s the only one that has nothing. It’s a period piece, so if I wanted to include a playlist, I would have had to educate myself about music in the ’30s, which Joëlle probably knows a lot more about than I do. There’s jazz music in it, because there’s a jazz club, but I don’t really listen to jazz. The difference with that was, I ended up watching a lot more movies when I was writing You Have Killed Me. Whenever I had the chance, I was watching another film noir.
TFAW.com: Which ones?
JSR: One called The Scar, and also Night and the City with Richard Widmark. I tried to watch things that had less of a detective/murder element, so I wasn’t ripping stuff off, but it was helpful for getting me into that mood and capturing that dialogue.
TFAW.com: What can you tell me about You Have Killed Me that isn’t in the solicitation copy?
JSR: The most important thing is, Joëlle and I are both fans of ’30s crime drama. Joëlle is more into hard-boiled and detective fiction, and I was more into film noir and old detective films, and we wanted to bring both of our loves together in this book. It’s a murder mystery, and the main character, Antonio, is a private detective, and at the beginning of the book, a young woman comes to him, whom he knows–
TFAW.com: Is it an ex-girlfriend?
JSR: It’s the sister of his ex fiancée, and she says, “My sister has disappeared,” and that’s the mystery, where she’s gone and why. The little sister was in the bedroom, and the older sister was in the bathroom that connected to it, and there’s only one door out, and if there were a window, it would go straight down a cliff–so the question is, how did she get out? Also, it’s a couple of weeks before her wedding.
TFAW.com: To another guy?
JSR: Yes. Antonio Mercer, the detective, is a rich boy who wants to deny his fancy lifestyle, so it all comes crashing down at once. Her family says, “You know her better than anybody, so you are the one who can find her.” So he starts sifting through his two-sided life. There is the high-society life that he’s from and that she’s a part of, and there’s the criminal underworld that he works in and she’s been dabbling in–horse races and jazz clubs, etc. So it’s him trying to figure out where she went, and why all these dead bodies keep showing up.
TFAW.com: So is this the third time you’ve worked with Joëlle?
JSR: This is the second full run we’ve done together. We’ve done a bunch of short stories, including a story in a book called Portland Noir. It’s for a series of books by Akashic Books, where they go from city to city and hire writers to write crime stories set in their towns. We’re the only comic book story in the Portland book, which–as you know, living here–there are a ton of comic book artists and writers here. So among all these prose stories from crime writers is this cool little comic.
TFAW.com: So how did working with Joëlle this time around compare to working with her on 12 Reasons Why I Love Her?
JSR: With 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, by the time I met Joëlle, the script was done. We had a more tentative relationship then. Joëlle hadn’t done much at that point, besides a Sexy Chix story for Dark Horse, and I had worked with newer artists before as an editor, but not as a writer. So there wasn’t as much collaboration or talking about the story as it developed, because it was already done.
With You Have Killed Me, we talked a lot more about what we wanted to do. For example, the horse race was something that she wanted to draw. The script really grew from our conversations and her recommendations.
TFAW.com: Do you two have any other projects coming up?
JSR: I actually just finished the first script for an Oni series called Spell Checkers, which is a high school comedy with magic, about three girls who rule their high school as witches. That was based on a sketch that Joëlle did. I don’t remember how it came up, but she said, “We should do something with these three girls,” and she forgot about it and then was surprised when I came up with a script for it.
The main story will be drawn by Nicolas Hitori De, and Joëlle’s drawing a bunch of flashback scenes for it. It’s kind of like Hopeless Savages, an Oni book I edited, in that there’s a flashback in every issue. Now that we hang out all the time, that’s how our collaboration goes–it’s influenced by us talking and sharing what else we’re doing.
TFAW.com: So did you choose Joëlle for 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, or did the editor choose her?
JSR: I found her through Diana, through Sexy Chix. I asked Diana who Joëlle was and if she needed work, and Diana said yes, she should be drawing more comics, and it turns out we live in the same neighborhood, and we probably ran into each other and didn’t know it at our various jobs. So, yeah, I needed an artist, and as soon as we met, it was pretty obvious that I wanted to work with her.
TFAW.com: What drew you to her work?
JSR: I love her line work, her style, but her real talent is in her acting; her characters are always so alive, and her backgrounds are as alive as her characters are. As a writer, you can only dream of having an artist where you can ask for anything, and they can pull it off. The only time she’s changed stuff is when I’ve asked for some bizarrely subtle gesture, and she says, “Yeah, that’s not going to work.”
TFAW.com: There’s an element of romance in many of your comics. Do you consider yourself a romance writer?
JSR: It’s weird, because when I started out, I would tell you that I was a romance writer. Now I don’t say that as much, because it got me pigeonholed a little bit. I think You Have Killed Me shows that I can do other things. Spell Checkers will be my first comedy, and there’s actually no romance in that.
Actually, I recently had a friend tell me that my “brand” is heartbreak, which is true, that’s what I think I do more than flowery romance. Overall, it’s the human element that interests me. So even when I’m doing a zombie story for the Dark Horse Book of the Dead or a crime story like You Have Killed Me, I’m focused on the characters.
TFAW.com: So where does Love the Way You Love fit in there?
JSR: There was a character in my novel The Everlasting, a supporting character named Tristan, and I realized that there was another story I wanted to tell. He’s actually in my other novels, too, but it’s in The Everlasting that I refer to a specific subplot in his life. But I needed another venue to tell that story, it didn’t fit in the novels, and that’s when I started thinking about doing it as a comic book.
TFAW.com: Love the Way You Love Sides A and B have been recognized by the Young Adult Library Services Association as 2009 Great Graphic Novels for Teens. Did you mean to write toward a young adult audience?
JSR: To a point. I was reading a lot of Shojo manga, and I wanted to write something more upbeat. I’m not one to really think about the audience so much as what I want to write. It just so happened that the characters were young.
TFAW.com: What advice do you have for people who want to break into comics? How did you get your start?
JSR: I originally got into comics because I was a huge Comico fan. I was buying Robotech from Comico, and then Elementals, and then I got into Grendel, which kind of changed my mind about what comics could be. So I was already writing letters to comics at that point, and I started writing to Grendel–
TFAW.com: Did you write in as “Jamie S. Rich”?
JSR: Oh, yes! I’ve been Jamie S. Rich since the fifth grade. That’s when I started writing my signature, and I was tired of all the Jaime Summers-Bionic Woman jokes, and people saying I had a girl’s name, and I was trying to make it more sophisticated.
So I was writing to Grendel every month. I was 14. And I went to my first Comic Con at 15, and I walked up to [Comico editors] Diana Schutz and Bob Schreck and introduced myself, and Diana was like, “Are you Jamie S. Rich from Quartz Hill, California?” So that was essentially how I got into comics. I had no idea that a lot of people got into comics that way at that time. Now you write a blog. When I was in college, I was still writing to Diana, and she said, “When you get out of college, give me a call.” I don’t know if you can do it that way anymore. But, you know, I’m awesome.
TFAW.com: Ha ha ha ha!
JSR: He said laughingly! Write that part down.
My thanks to Jamie for his time! And readers, be sure to check out our 10-page preview of You Have Killed Me!
So, has anyone tracked down the hard-to-find 12 Reasons Why I Love Her? (I have, and it was worth it.) Are you looking forward to You Have Killed Me? Post your comments below!