BILL JEMAS On NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD Revamp, State of Industry, 'Crazy High-Priced' Digital Comics

Double Take
Credit: Double Take
Credit: Double Take

Bill Jemas is back, and he’s got an army of zombies with him.

One of the most prominent names in comics in the early 2000s, Jemas’ reign as Marvel Comics' publisher had him and then-Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada return the company to creative and market prominence in a series of attention-grabbing, sometimes controversial initiatives. Since leaving Marvel in 2004, Jemas has produced a few comic book projects, but has taken on his biggest property since his Marvel days with Double Take Comics, a comics division of Grand Theft Auto and BioShock video game publisher Take-Two Interactive.

Double Take has launched 10 different series set against the backdrop of the original Night of the Living Dead film (which is in the public domain), and has chronicled all matter of the zombie apocalypse in such books as Honor, Spring, Soul, and more. They’re launching their first collections of their series, which, in an unusual move, feature significant portions of the story and art updated for the collected editions.

Newsarama spoke with Jemas about these collections, his plans with Double Take, how the industry has changed since his Marvel days, and more.

Newsarama: Bill, tell us a little bit about what you’re doing with Double Take.

Jemas: We just finished our first 10 graphic novels, and that’s after finishing our first 50 comic books. So we have 10 titles, all of which started in the universe of Night of the Living Dead, and we published five comics for each of those series, and we shipped the last of the storylines in July and August.

So then we spent some time tearing the individual comics apart and putting them back together, doing a lot of rewriting and re-drawing, so what you have now are 10 collections that feel more like director’s cuts. If you read the first five issues of Honor, and were confused a few times, there’s no need to scratch your head now. And the parts of the artwork you might have found ugly – no worries, it’s been re-drawn.

We’re giving readers 10 solid stories, that have been polished for these collections.

Credit: Double Take

Nrama: That’s certainly not something that is done often in collected editions of monthly series. Given your own role in building up the backlist of collected editions and a bookstore presence of collections at Marvel in the early 2000s, what do you feel is the major issue in presenting something in a collected edition with differences from the single-issue release?

Jemas: That’s a good question. Back in the day – and I remember the actual day when Marvel embarked the graphic novel initiative, it was in Joe Quesada’s back yard, for a low-budget but really fun corporate creative retreat. And I’d just looked at Marvel’s sales figures and they were tremendous, for that Alex Ross book. And we were talking about why that was our only graphic novel. And we decided that the problem was we were writing our comics like soap operas and not like movies, I’m sure you’ve heard that before.

So the major change back then was to stop with the soap operas and start with the movies. With Double Take, the challenge was we were starting from scratch with new creative teams. And while I thought the first issues were really good, I read every one and thought they had something exciting, something funny, there were some great true stories in the back…they were still a little rough.

And while the second issues were a little better, they were not as good as the third, the fourth, the fifth. And with these collected editions, I thought we owed it to our fans to go back and spend the money, do the work, and come up with a nice director’s cut that tied up all the loose strings.

I’ve also got here Michael Coast, who is our senior editor and lead writer on at least half our books. Michael, anything to add…?

Credit: Double Take

Michael Coast: The only thing I want to add is that we went back and wrote a little more for each issue, in terms of the background characters and ancillary characters and people who just turned out to be sort of there. We went back and tried to add some more story, some more jokes, some more scenes, and really tried to fill the page in a lot of places.

Nrama: Well, what was the biggest challenge in doing that, and how has doing that affected your perception of writing a longer story as a unit, as opposed to single issues?

Jemas: Michael, I know your answer for this and I like it, so go ahead.

Coast: I’ll use Honor as an example, like Bill did. That was the one that was most re-ordered. When we looked at the single issues, we saw there was a lot of teasing, to the effect of “hey, this character is still out there, we’ll do something with them later on.” When you do a graphic novel, you don’t have to worry about that - it’s not three or four months later, and you don’t have to worry about bringing back a character from issue #1 and having to remind the audience who they are. It works for single issues, but not as well in a graphic novel.

Nrama: How do you feel this will affect your work on the individual titles, and how you produce them?

Credit: Double Take

Jemas: I don’t think it’ll change things materially – the single episodes are single episodes. As Mike said, you want to give a nod to every single character, end each book with a cliffhanger, open each one with a recap.

We’ll probably keep doing what we’re doing, but with more confidence, more efficiency. The reviewers seem to have really liked it, some have noted you can pick up issue #5 and it feels like issue #1. You want to be welcoming to new readers every step of the way.

Again, I think it’s just that we’ve learned a little bit more, but the premise of doing serialized stories in periodicals is something we want to keep doing.

Nrama: What’s been the biggest difference in this from your previous experience in comic books?

Jemas: One thing I learned is how hard it is to be an independent publisher. What Marvel was able to do, and what we did really well, was that we kept comics fans looking over here at us. So we did a lot of things that I thought were really kind of smart and fun, that I thought we should have been doing anyway, but every time we did them, we got attention from the comics press and sometimes national attention.

We had smoking all over our books, for example, smoking in books that were being sold to kids. So we banned smoking, and that got national attention. We pulled the Comics Code, and that got attention, instant PR.

Now, we do things at Double Take, and the fans we already have get excited, but the rest of the world doesn’t notice. So what we’ve learned to do is be better at general marketing, do things that made more sense in terms of sampling and PR and retail promotion vs. national chain promotion. We’ve learned how to operate as an independent company.

Credit: Double Take

Nrama: You’ve got Night of the Living Dead, but it’s a different type of branded property – I’d imagine it’s got a different base of recognition, of iconography.

Jemas: We have a lot of Night of the Living Dead fans in the office, very hardcore fans. What we’ve found is the Night of the Living Dead brand does not mean too much to the average comic book reader. It’s an important film, meaningful to the genre, but in terms of it having a fan base and a following, it doesn’t really translate to comics. At its nadir, Marvel had 200,000 junkies; Night of the Living Dead, before we picked it up, had about 1,000. Which is a significance difference.

Nrama: Well, what’s the solution you’ve found for this so far?

Jemas: Sampling, absolutely. The more of this we can get in the hands of fans, in the hands of retailers, the more we’ve found that the people who read them, like them. Seventy-five to 85 percent of the people who read these books like them. That’s more effective than advertising. Every time we’ve sampled, it’s turned into sales. I think that’s wonderful. And with the graphic novels, we’ve priced them at $10, which makes them easier for readers to try, and we’ve offered deep discounts for retailers, so they have a chance to make some serious money on our books.

We’re going to go to New York Comic Con  next week and give away 10,000 graphic novels, and it’s going to cost a ton, but we want to find the comic fans and get into their hands our graphic novels. And we believe that could generate 10,000 new fans.

Nrama: Where would you like to see the company be a year from now?

Jemas: I’d like to see us getting some movie and TV deals – just because that’s fun, and it gives you the opportunity to merchandise your product. So I very much want to see that happen.

Nrama: What would you say has been the biggest change to the comics industry in the years that you’ve been involved with comic books?

Credit: Double Take

Jemas: Well, there were two shifts. First, the industry went from coughing up blood to being really healthy. And I think that has a lot to do with the team that got together to make Marvel make sense.

Two is just how solid, how consolidated the industry seems to be. Now, I’m on the short end of the stick now, because I think there were more opportunities for indy publishers 20 years ago than there are now. The indy guys who are doing well are doing it with licensed products – the shift has been harder and harder for individual creators and small companies to make money on their books, and there’s been a movement toward Hollywood to sign up properties to do as comics. There’s more licensed books doing well at independent companies than right now, like Back to the Future at IDW.

Nrama: What do you feel is the biggest thing the comics industry is not taking advantage of right now?

Jemas: The biggest thing I think we’re not taking advantage of is the online audience. The comic-book readership from newsstands has all but disappeared, and with bookstore chains closing, that avenue is disappearing more and more.

Outside of the traditional readership, I don’t think that the industry has taken advantage of digital books in any meaningful way. One reason for this is because digital books are way overpriced compared to our brethren in other areas – I just think digital books are crazy high-priced. And the second is that some of the tools like Guided View on comiXology, the PDF scrolls on Madefire, they are just not good ways to read graphic fiction.

One thing that Double Take spent a lot of time and money to develop is our storyboard style, so they read panel-by-panel on your smartphone clearly. I’m hoping that in time, more and more graphic fiction publishers will try and do things like that.

Credit: Double Take

Nrama: What would you say is the biggest niche you’re trying to fill with your books?

Jemas: Overall, there seems to be a trend towards some people going to comic shops just to read Marvel, and some to just read DC, and the rest are maybe looking at indy books. That’s a classic breakdown. But I think among the Marvel readers, among the DC readers, and among the indy readers, there are readers who like the tone that’s being established by other books – what Mark Millar has brought to the forefront with his Millarworld books, and what we’re doing with our books.

I don’t think it’s so much this demo or that demo, it’s that we write with a particular style – the books are funny and exciting all the way through, and we give you some real facts, some actual history in them. Our watchwords for our creators are “interesting, informative, funny.” And it’s our goal as independent creators to do books that are a little more interesting and informative and funny than what Marvel and DCare doing, and crack open that audience.

Mike, anything you want to add…?

Coast: I think that’s an important part of our books. People enjoy finding things about history out, and they’re getting this really immersive experience, some extra value with our books.

Nrama: Anything else you’d like to discuss that we haven’t talked about yet?

Jemas: We’d appreciate it if people went to DoubleTakeUniverse.com. We have all these books for free, 30 issues in total, that are designed to be read easily on your smartphones, and we think if you read them, you’ll enjoy them.

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