Underground Film Journal

Jeff Nicholson Interview Part Two

Colonial Times logo Colonia ship

Bad Lit: Can you explain generally the difference between self-publishing and being published by another company. According to a text piece you wrote for COLONIA, I inferred that Kitchen Sink meddled in the creative affairs of your FATHER & SON comic series to a degree.

Jeff: No, Kitchen Sink was great to work with. You may have heard me grousing about working with Vertigo. They were not too editorially constraining, but just took too darn long to make the thing happen. It took two years of delays and red tape from their invitation to the publishing date for a single comic. But they did give my issue extra promotion, because it had such a strong cover by Dave McKean.

Kitchen Sink also went the extra mile with promoting the first issue of FATHER & SON. To me that’s the prime difference in self-publishing and being published: the level of promotion. When you are published you don’t control the promotion, which can be a good thing if they promote you, or a bad thing if they do not. As a self-publisher you can promote yourself like there’s no tomorrow if you think it’s a sound investment.

Bad Lit: How long did ULTRA KLUTZ run time-wise and why did you eventually decide to bring it to an end? Lots of small publishers seem to focus their entire careers on their one idea, e.g. Dave Sim’s CEREBUS, Wendy and Richard Pini’s ELFQUEST, Harvey Pekar’s AMERICAN SPLENDOR.

Jeff: Well, since I created it as a kid in 1973 and it ran ’till ’93, it actually ran 20 years from my perspective. I thought it would be a life-long prospect like the examples you mentioned, but the series developed a split personality. It wanted to go the way of “more serious” and “more funny” at the same time.

Colonia Trio of Portraits

Somehow Sim could marry the two with CEREBUS, I think mainly because the humor is dry and wry, while in ULTRA KLUTZ the humor is more ludicrous and slapstick. So the last several issues were CEREBUS-like, with the intrigue and big power struggles, but then the humor seemed jarring amongst that. But I couldn’t just leave it hanging, so I wrapped it up in the creepy and humorless “Lost Laughter” series. Meanwhile, Ultra Klutz dreamed about funny short stories that became a separate series.

You know, I recently abandoned the idea of ever reprinting the “Lost Laughter” series or issuing an ULTRA KLUTZ BOOK TWO. But I was talking to Shannon Wheeler (creator of Too Much Coffee Man) at the APE 2000 (Alternative Press Expo) show and he said he has all his comics on the web, even though they are also for sale in print. I should just put up ULTRA KLUTZ #24 through #31 and “Lost Laughter” up on the web. If anyone reading this wants to e-mail me a nudge of encouragement, please do so!

Bad Lit: ULTRA KLUTZ, or even THROUGH THE HABITRAILS, seem like concepts ripe for Hollywood to take advantage of and butcher into being lame movies (á la MYSTERY MEN). Were you ever approached by Hollywood?

Jeff: ULTRA KLUTZ was optioned for two years by Rankin/Bass (producers of many beloved Christmas specials) in 1987-88 during the Ninja Turtle craze. Nothing came of it and I didn’t put too much hopes in it, unlike one of my peers at the time who thought his option was a sure thing and went $16,000 in debt assuming he would recover it from Hollywood. Bhaw-ha-ha!

Since then, one of the major players was courting Kitchen Sink Press for FATHER & SON when they held it, but they only offered $500 for an annual option and KSP turned them down. I don’t blame them, since I got $1,000 annually from Rankin/Bass when I was only one part of an anthology TV show.

Colonia Boom

Then Nickelodeon (or an agent thereof) courted me on a FATHER & SON movie. Why a movie and not a show I have no idea. I was game but interest dissolved. To answer your question, I would love to have something I’ve done translate to film. You can only know by the end result if it sucks when it screens, but I’m open to the potential. I think a demented young filmmaker could do something quite sweet with THROUGH THE HABITRAILS (which has never been optioned or approached; come hither!).

No, I am not against having a pile of money fall in my lap if it will see me through the rest of my natural life.

Bad Lit: The “outside world” generally views comics as junk literature made for children. What’s ironic is that the comics that seem mostly geared for kids, like all the adolescent superhero crap out there, is totally inappropriate for children with their excessive violence, gore and implied and not-so-implied sexuality. Yet, a quiet book like COLONIA is terrific for both kids and adults. How much consideration goes, or went, into making your book an “all-ages” one?

Jeff: I definitely wanted to look back to what I loved as a kid and figure out just what those elements were. I decided that a sense of wonder and a feeling of “anything could happen next” were core elements of comics like KAMANDI, books like the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, and TV shows like LOST IN SPACE. And on top of that, you wanted to be there. You wanted to leave school and chores behind in live in those crazy unpredictable lands.

I also realized the main protagonist was usually a fairly benign character who became your eyes. When I was a kid I used to make maps delineating all of their journeys. I want COLONIA to be the ultimate experience of being an imaginary explorer. If I was a kid I would be chomping at the bit for Jack and company to get into the interior of the continent.

Bad Lit: Since for most of your career you have been your own publisher, do you feel like you’re caught in a never-ending hustle of pushing your books? Or do you just create what you like and see which way the market accepts it?

Jeff: It is tiring always trying to beat the drum, and you’ll notice my career is punctuated with retreats to other publishers for that reason. I feel some comfort in having COLONIA received and recognized by the market now, and can focus more on the story. But I can never just abandon promotion entirely.

Bad Lit: Do you do any outside illustration work outside of comics?

Jeff: None at all. I swore off illustration after the experience that inspired HABITRAILS. I went back to freelancing briefly in 1995 only to swear off again. I would much rather do some sort of menial labor task than fork over my artistry for money. I don’t know why that is, except that I feel like if I’m to be drawing it should be a comic page, and so I resent drawing anything else. But if I’m doing something menial then I feel like I’m just earning an honest dollar like everybody else.

Bad Lit: Do you have any formal art training? If so, what are your feelings about the concept of being “taught” art?

Jeff: I don’t have much formal training. I did have an art minor in college. Classes like color theory, design and typography had much more of an impact on me than drawing classes, because I could usually illustrate better than the teachers. Some of that resentment of drawing anything but comics was going on in school, too, especially in the younger years. Even my more recent decision to use more reference was a self-motivated one.

Colonia Stuck in the Hold

Bad Lit: Do you do a lot of intense research for COLONIA? Or are you more of a casual historian?

Jeff: It’s pretty casual. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself, so I actually have a number of books I haven’t even read yet. I don’t want it to be like it was on ULTRA KLUTZ, where I had 30 issues worth of notes ahead of my current drawing point in the story. I want COLONIA to stay more fresh and I don’t want my brain to explode.

Bad Lit: How long have you been doing websites to help promote your work? And do you think the internet has helped you sell more COLONIA?

Jeff: I created the Bad Habit site in Spring of 1998 and the COLONIA site last Fall. I think they are a great tool for people who already know of you to find you quickly and easily. I don’t think they magically bring new readers to you. I think what’s possibly helped sell more are the other sites that review or plug it. My own sites are just a home base.

Bad Lit: Do you get more feedback from fans since you got an email account? Do you find that situation more/less rewarding than when you didn’t have email?

Jeff: That’s a tough one because there used to be so much more fan mail activity in the Eighties. You sold more comics back then, but also that kind of intimate communication has died off for some unknown generational or cultural reason. If e-mail existed in the ’80s I’m sure I would have been buried in messages. As it is now, I get about as much e-mail as I did paper mail in the 80’s. Which means without e-mail I probably wouldn’t be getting enough paper mail to feel I’m really connecting with my audience, and so I love e-mail!

Bad Lit: Comics are a marginalized industry. Self-published ones even more so. Is there any rational explanation you can give for going into this business?

Jeff: No. But seriously, you would have to go into this with full awareness that you are going into a fringe artform. I think kids know that now so they will have more realistic expectations. It was rough on my generation, because we grew up with Jack Kirby as a role model, but by the time we reach the age and skill level of a “journeyman,” the market is gone. But there are still goals to aspire to. Telling yourself you are doing your best work is a pretty lofty goal, and there are the Eisner Awards (the Oscars of comics) and the reviews to be had. And if you want numbers as a goal, selling 3,000 instead of 300 is a major challenge these days.

Bad Lit: Quick off the top of your head: Favorite comics, both now and of all time?

Jeff: That is always such a daunting question, but if I may plug some local talent that I have been very fond of for the last three years or so, please check out and buy the work of:
Trevor Alixopulos @ APE HEAD PO Box 524 Fulton, CA 95439
Jennifer Feinberg @ LITTLE SCROWLIE 5979 Telegraph Ave. Apt B, Oakland, CA 94609; or
Robert Syrett @ XIP! PRODUCTIONS 510 Concord Dr. Menlo Park, CA 94025
The work of all three are very unique, insightful, fun, experimental, engaging, and worth checking out. I also just got copies of Jupiter #1-5 from Sandberg Publishing, 1825 Trailway Drive #3, Eagan, MN 55122 and they are some of the best reads I’ve had in years.

(Ed. To find out more about COLONIA or Jeff’s other work, you can check out his own website at www.coloniapress.com. Check these sites out, too, to see where I ripped all this artwork off from. All art on these past two pages is © Jeff Nicholson and used with his permission.)