I’ve known James for a number of years, so at Salt Lake Comic Con, I sat down with him for a few minutes to talk about what he’s been working on past and future. I hope you enjoy!
Gama Ray Martinez: I am here with author and illustrator James Artimus Owen. Among other things, writer of the Imaginarium Geographica series. James, you’re pretty well known in the industry, but could you tell us something about yourself that our listeners may not know about.
James Artimus Owen: Wow. Okay, that’s a great start for an interview. Something the listeners may not know about. I still like to build treehouses. That’s a big thing for me. It was a big thing as a kid in the trees that my grandparents had in Arizona, both their vacation home in the White Mountains and in Mesa. I still do that with my son Nathaniel. Tree forts and swings: that’s a big zen activity for me. It’s a creative thing. We talk about using your imagination in writing and we write these fantastical stories and that kind of goes back to it. That’s a part of childhood that I certainly never left and is still very important to me. If push came to shove, I still like to play in big cardboard boxes and pretend the carpet is lava too.
GM: Thanks for that. The first time you were an exhibit at San Diego Comic Con, you were the youngest exhibitor ever. Can you talk a little about how that happened and that whole experience?
JO: Sure. That was 1986 and my best friend and I had started a comic book publishing company, Fantasy West, and my first comic book was called Pryderi Terra, and we wanted to find a way to actually market it and sell it and make people in the industry aware of it. I realized the best way to do it would be an exhibitor at the San Diego Comic Con, and in those days, they had a two day trade show that was professionals only so publishers, authors, editors, marketing people, and I wanted to be at both shows, the trade show and the consumer shows. I’d been a retailer since I was 13. I’d been selling comic books and doing mail order and designing my own catalogs so I followed the retailer news and I knew about the professional side of it. I arranged a bank loan with the help of my mother and a great banker so we could get a booth and rent a U-Haul to take my comic books and I had an actual booth at the show. I’m sure there were younger people there helping family and friends, but I was the youngest one whose name was actually on all the billing. At the time, there was a distributors group of about a dozen of them that handled all the comic distribution, and they were scheduling private meetings with publishers. I walked in, and they ushered me out. They said, “No, we’re having meetings with publishers,” and I said, “I know. I’m your next appointment.” They thought, “Well, where’s your dad.” I said, “No no, I’m the one. I’m the publishers.” So they let me into the room, and the head of marketing for DC comics was at the front of the room giving his presentation, and he waved me up. So I walked up to the front. He took my box of comics out of my hand and asked me to get him a coffee. He thought I was a delivery boy bringing him Batman samples. He kept talking and didn’t look at what he was passing out. He started handing out my comic book to all the distributors who looked at it and knew it wasn’t a DC comic book, but he wasn’t paying any attention. Finally, someone pointed out to him, “You’re handing us these,” and turned to me and said, “What did you bring me?” I said, “That’s my comic book, and you’re fifteen minutes into my presentation time, and what do you want in your coffee?” So the head of marketing for DC comics actually presented my comic to all the distributers. Then, when it was my turn, they said, “Well, you’ve already got the best guy in marketing who has given us your comic so what can you tell us about it?” It kind of started from there so I have a long history with people still in the industry that goes back to before I could drive.
GM: That’s hilarious. Thanks for that. You’ve also done a couple of Kickstarters. In fact you’ve just recently finished one for coloring books for adults. Can you talk a little bit about that?
JO: Yeah, Kickstarter is a great tool for crowdsourcing funds to do a project. We’ve done a few things like that in comics with retailers, preordering books, and if you got enough retailers to preorder a book, you had enough money to go out a print a book and sell it. Kickstarter is a way of streamlining that. It’s not a marketing service like a lot of people mistakenly believe it is. You have to have some sort of presence already. You can’t come in cold and finance something with Kickstarter, but I did it with a nonfiction book, Drawing out the Dragons, I did it with a hardcover collection of my Starchild comic books that went extremely well, and I’ve done it twice now with coloring books. It’s a great way to connect directly with fans and help finance things that otherwise, with a traditional publishers, wouldn’t even be on the schedule for a year and half. We just finished a Kickstarter for this coloring book trio, three books in one, and the funding closed about a week and a half ago, the goal was met. In about a week, they’ll be going to the printer, and they’re going to be shipping a few weeks after that. That’s amazing, to be able to have the potential to do that.
GM: So why coloring books?
JO: Because coloring books are the hottest freaking category in publishing right now and no one knows why. It’s started with Johanna Basford in England doing a couple of these coloring books targeted at grownups. They’ve been around for a long time as a concept, but she’s the one that got some real traction with it and sold about one and a half million of these coloring books targeted at adults and that kicked off a trend that I wasn’t aware of when I started the Kickstarter for the coloring book of images from my novels. All my drawings are pen and ink, and people have bought prints for years. Every once in a while, people have commented that it would be fun to color, and I did some color pages of it for a calendar a few years ago, but I thought “That might actually be a fun thing to do,” so we assembled it and launched a Kickstarter. Halfway through the Kickstarter I started seeing all these articles about how this is the hot new trend. Purely by accident, I stepped into something amazing. I did a Kickstarter for three more, and it overfunded too. It’s all art from the novels that I’ve had, which is the amazing part that so many people are excited to help pledge and support a project that’s full of art from books that have been available for nine years.
GM: Sounds like that was a happy accident. So you also mentioned you did the nearly complete essential Starchild. Why nearly complete?
JO: Starchild was the graphic novel series that I did through my own company, Coppervale Press and then through Image Comics through most of the 90s. We hit a new decade. In 2004, I had done magazines and I’d done a few other projects, but then I started really working on novels. When the first the Imaginarium Geographica book, Here there be Dragons came out in 2006, that started a whole different kind of career, and it was a full time one. I’d never finished the last Starchild stories I wanted to do. We never had any one single collection of those. We had different trade paperbacks and hardcovers, but a lot of people who bought the dragon books wanted to buy all the Starchild stuff, but there was no one source. There was no one volume or collection that they could go to so we decided to do the 20th Anniversary Nearly Complete Essential Starchild. We called it nearly complete because I never finished the last storyline. There are several hundred pages of comics and lots of sketchbook sections and cover art. There are two complete graphic novel and a partial graphic novel in that story. I never finished it because in all the years I was drawing and writing the dragon books, my style changed. It matured and developed enough that finishing the comic book series, it would not have matched. I had developed too much so what I decided to instead was reinvent that story and I’m reinterpreting my own favorite best work as a series of illustrated novels called Fool’s Hallow and I’m combing all the things I learned doing the comics and all the things I learned doing the novels into this one project, and that’s how I’m going to finish the story. There were things in the comics I can’t duplicate in the novels. They deserve to have their own showcase in that big essential Starchild book, but to really finish it, and tell the story the best way that I can. It needed to be started over from the beginning.
GM: Thanks for that. You also mentioned the Kickstarter for Drawing the Dragons which has since expanded into the Meditations trilogy. Can you talk a little bit about those?
JO: When I started doing school visits for Here there be Dragons and the other novels Simon and Schuster published, I realized pretty quickly I didn’t want to stand in front of a group of kids and do a book commercial for my books. If I had the opportunity to talk to students especially, I wanted to tell them things that I thought were more important to share about how to make decisions about your life and how to overcome obstacles to do the things you love. That turned into a talk that we call Drawing out the Dragons that at one point we had a recording of it, and I had it transcribed and that became an ebook, Drawing the Dragons. Then we did a Kickstarter to turn it into a print book that we then turned into a publishing deal that then turned into two other books in a series called the meditations and we’re actually in the middle of negotiating a publishing deal to do hardcovers of all three. That talk has turned into the most popular thing that I actually do at school and libraries so most of my personal visits after signings is doing talks based on Drawing the Dragons so becoming a bit of a motivation and inspiration speaker and writer seems to be a natural extension of what I was already doing with the novels and comics.
GM: Thanks for that. That’s a very powerful presentation. One of the things you’re most known for is the Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica. How would you describe that series to someone who hasn’t read it?
JO: The best way to describe it is that the IG is an atlas of maps to imaginary lands. Every lands you’ve ever read about, every myth, legend, fable, and fairy tale has a corresponding map that’s in that atlas and caretakers in the real world have taken care of this book through the centuries. They’re people we know people like Chaucer and Shakespeare and Charles Dickens and Jules Vern and Mark Twain. There are a lot of real world characters that I mix into this so people like Jules Vern wrote novels we think are fiction but were actual events that happened to him in the lands in this atlas, and so my take was to start in WWI with three young men who are initiated as new caretakers of this geographica and the adventures they have together learning about these fantastical mythical lands.
GM: Your situation is a little unusual in that you actual did the cover art for those. How did that come about?
JO: That came about because I’m stubborn and a little nervy because most authors typically don’t have a say in the design or covers of their work. I had illustrated my own work for a couple of decades because of the comic books, and we made that a selling point that I also illustrated the books and I wanted them to look like James Owen books. We turned down a couple of publishing offers because they didn’t want let me do the covers or the illustrations. Then we found Simon and Shuster who liked it and liked it because my stuff is line work. It’s old school pen and ink work that has color added for the covers which makes them stand out from a lot of the soft focus air brushy photo shop colors that a lot of covers use now. The first one won a gold medal at the New York Book award for best cover on a hardcover book, and after that, they’ve never blinked. Early on there was a little dissention about it, and I told them, “Listen, I’m going to unplug my phone, go home and draw the cover.” The one that I gave them is the one we used. The art director came up with idea of using a monochromatic color scheme so the first one is blue. The second one is red. The series is recognizable, but across the bookstore, you can tell each one distinctly from the other. It was a great design. The very first signing I did for that book was at Jim Hanley’s Universe in New York City, and the first guy in line had copies of Pryderi Terra that I published as a teenager at San Diego. He had copies of all the Starchild paper backs and hardcovers and comics. He had five copies of Here There be Dragons, and he said “I bought all of your publications here. I’m going to keep buying them as long as you keep doing books.” My editor and art director were there and they said. “You buy comics mostly. This is a comic book store. Why did you buy the novel?” He said. “Because it’s a James Owen book. Look at the cover. It’s obvious.” My editor turned to the art director and said, “I’m really glad we let him do the cover.”
GM: How long does one of those take you to do?
JO: Typically, one of the covers or one of the illustrations is one to three working days. Some go slower. Some go faster. That original cover for Here There be Dragons took about three days to do. The cover for the last book in the series which is call The First Dragon, I did the initial sketch in 10 minutes, and it came out perfectly so we enlarged it and transferred it to an art board. It took maybe six or seven hours to ink, but the initial sketch is identical to the finish cover so sometimes, the magic just works.
GM: There’s also been some concession to the art director as I understand. The Indigo King originally had a different image altogether and the Dragon of Winter was a different color. How did that happen?
JO: You are a well prepared interviewer, Gama. Wow. You are absolutely right. The Indigo King, the third book, had a cover of the cartographer who made all the maps in the atlas being exiled to an island called the Keep of Time, and he was in a small boat. It was this beautiful pastoral image. Purples, reflections in the water. Marketing wanted a bigger dragon, we took one of the interior illustrations with several dragons and enlarged it, colored it purple. That was the cover. The only place the other one ever actually appeared was on the back of the original paperbacks of number two, so it’s a collector’s item. Then, on book six, The Dragons of Winter, I had arranged all these in the colors of the rainbow, and this was partially job security. That meant from the start, I was telling them there were seven books so my publishers always expected there would be seven books. It was supposed to be the orange cover. My agent called up and said, “Well, the art director he like it, but the head of marketing and sales said Dragons of Winter needs wintery colors. This is orange, and it’s too warm.” She said “They were afraid to ask you because they thought you’d be upset, but then want to make it teal. So kind of a light blue.” I said “Okay”. She said “What do you think about that?” and I said “Whose suggestion was the teal?” and she said “Head of sales of marketing.” I said “I love teal. That sounds great.” You have to decide what hill you want to die on. You know, making the head of sales and marketing over just a color change on the cover, that’s one of those easy decisions.
GM: Sounds like it. You mentioned the caretakers of the Imaginarium Geophraphica were these famous authors. I understand you started a project to take some of their public domain works and basically rebrand them as part of your universe. Can you talk a little of that.
JO: Yeah, we’re kind of calling it the hundred books projects. What it is is that some of these great works of literature, Three Musketeers, Around the World in 80 Days, they’re public domain, obviously, and there are lots of publishers that do them. I’d always wanted to illustrate some of these works. I’d love to illustrate Shakespeare, for example. Love to illustrate the Illiad. Finding a publisher that wants to do that, it’s hard to get a lot of enthusiasm for a book that fifty other publishers release editions of, but then I realized I was in the unique positions where I could connect all of these authors because I already had. Most of these legendary authors have appeared as characters in the Imaginarium Geophraphica books. I thought “If we called this collectively the Imaginarium Geophraphica classics library, I could do editions of 20,000 leagues Under the Sea with a cover by me. Then the actual, unabridged worked. Then a portrait of Jules Vern and a two page vignette of how he became a caretaker of the Imaginarium Geophraphica. We do a nice trade paperback of it, but also put it out as an ebook. They match the dragon books. We’ll also have a guide, a teacher’s guide, that annotates all of the literary references in my novels, and then connects them to the actual novels so teachers can teach the Indigo King and the connect it to Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Mark Twain and then teach Mark Twain with my own edition of Mark Twain’s book. It sounds like way too much fun not to do so we’re hoping to be starting that sometime in the next few months.
GM: All right, I look forward to that. From time to time, there’s been talk of an IG movie. Is there any news on that front?
JO: That, we’d originally had the right for Here There be Dragons with David Goyer and David Hayman. David Hayman did the Harry Potter movies. Goyer, of course, wrote Batman Begins and a lot of the DC Comics properties. I wrote the screenplay for it. Warner was supposed to be producing it. Then, we had a writer’s strike, and they split the last HP movies into two. At that point, I had some other producers on it that I wasn’t as happy working with. My attorney managed to get the rights back. We didn’t have Warner exercise the last options, so I had to turn down a big check, but I had signed this deal when no one knew if the books would be popular or not. Right now, Here There be Dragons is in 20 languages. If I could get the rights back, I wanted to. There’s been talk about developing it as a TV series, kind of like Game of Thrones with less sex and violence. Everything is Game of Thrones with less sex and violence. That’s been in the works, but everything in Hollywood is hurry up and wait and it takes lots of time, and I’d still like to see that happen. We have three new omnibus editions of those books coming out form Simon and Shuster that spurring a renewed interest in that, so it’s always possible. With Hollywood, the only power you have is saying no. If you want things done properly, you say no until you finally feel like you can say yes. That’s what we’re doing. Still have hopes for it.
GM: How much time do you spend on writing related tasks as opposed to art or drawing related tasks?
JO: Lately, it’s been fairly evenly divided because I just finished illustrations for a nonfiction book called Bandersnatch about Tolkien and Lewis and their inkling friends at Oxford. Then, I did a corresponding coloring book, both for Kent State University Press. Those have been almost entirely art. I’ve had a couple of other projects where it’s almost entirely writing like my Mythworld novels that WordFire Press publishes. Fool’s Hollow is kind of half and half because it’s full page illustrations. It’s frontispieces. It’s chapter headings and spot illustrations so it’s more illustrated than a typical book so it’s kind of evenly divided. That kind of keeps the work fresh because if you get tired of doing one, you can switch to doing the other. You get tired of both, you watch the West Wing for two days.
GM: Anybody who knows you even slightly knows you really like Superman. What draws you to that?
JO: Originally, I was just a big comic book fan when I was a kid. I spent a lot of time in a hospital when I was in fifth grade. I found a paperback Superman: Last Son of Krypton that really had an impact on me. It had a big effect on my life. Because I had all that down time, I really got into reading comic books and Superman was the thing. He’s that nice guy. Something I’ve always tried to be is the nice guy when I was growing up. When somebody’s in trouble reaches out to help. He doesn’t think about. He doesn’t ask what’s in it for him. He just shows up and says “What can do? How can I help you?” That’s what Superman does He loves his mother. He loves his dog, and my favorite distinction, actually is somebody had said “Superman is what he can do. Clark Kent is who he is.” To me, that metaphor works really well. Clark Kent is the nice guy that everybody trust. When he needs to, he has these other abilities that mean he can do things no one else can do to help you. Can you think of a better role model?
GM: What are you working on now?
JO: At the moment, its’ primarily Fool’s Hollow. We’ve also had these four coloring books, All the Colors of Magic, which we just finished the Kickstarter for and then I’ve got a new series of coloring book mysteries where the objects you color help solve a riddle or a puzzle called the Mysterium Mystorium Myster books, and they’re coloring books that have a mystery woven in. Again, they’re targeted to grownups and something that’s a little more fun to do. Also hopefully, a couple of film projects in the works. Basically, I’ve got my schedule pretty stacked, but it’s all stuff I really love to do. Even the Imaginarium Geogrpahica has some new work because I’m actually working on something I’ve teased about for years. It’s a series of graphic novels with the caretakers of the Imaginarium Geographica. It’s a plot thread I left dangling from the fourth book, and I’m going to it as a miniseries that we’ll the collect into a graphic novel. I’ll actually be co-writing that with my friend Kristin Luna. I’m going to be doing the covers and working with several other illustrators on the actual project. Because it’s me, it’s going to be cannon. It’s not somebody we hired. It’s not something licensed out. It’s me, the creator, doing a graphic novel series of the Imaginarium Geographica stories. How do you get more full circle than that?
GM: That sounds great. That was all I had for you, James so thank for taking the time to do this interview.
JO: Thank you much, Gama. I enjoyed it a lot.