This week sees the return of Five Weapons by Jimmie Robinson, which last year was upgraded by Image Comics from a five-issue miniseries to a regular ongoing story. Focusing on life at a school for young assassins, the series was met with huge acclaim – not least from The Beat, where the book was one of our favourites of the last year.
With the first arc now concluded and in print, I spoke to Robinson about his plans for the series now it’s going to continue on, and we also spoke about his creative process – he writes, pencils, and letters the book – as well as the recent discussion regarding diversity at Image Comics. He’s one of the smartest people to talk to about comics that I’ve had the pleasure to meet, and I’d encourage you all to try picking up Five Weapons #6 this Wednesday!
Steve: How was the reception to Five Weapons, as a whole? You were pitching to a whole different audience from Bomb Queen – how did people respond to it?
Jimmie: The critical reception was good. I appreciate all the kind words people have said about Five Weapons – and even the constructive criticism; I’m always trying to improve as a creator. At first folks were comparing it to my work on Bomb Queen. A lot of people were wondering if the new series would continue some of the mayhem and madness that I’m known for, but I’d say after the second or third issue that folks saw exactly what I was doing and that it was safe to come out and play in my new sandbox.
Steve: What made you decide to pitch for an all-ages crowd, to begin with?
Jimmie: Most people know me for Bomb Queen, but I really like all-ages material. In fact, when looking at my entire body of work, Bomb Queen becomes the anomaly. Ultimately I want to be a creator who can do any type of comic. I have published books for romance with Code Blue, Sci-fi with Amanda & Gunn, steampunk manga with Avigon, children’s books with T-Runt!, all-ages books for girls with Evil & Malice, mature insanity with Bomb Queen, superhero work on Wolverine What If?, and I won’t even go into all the anthologies I’ve worked on.
So I’m no stranger to switching gears. I’d even say that might be why I lack a solid position in the industry, because I’ve never been type cast as “that guy” who worked on “that book.” So coming back to all-ages is just another switch of the gears for me. However, this time I’m riding a fine line with Five Weapons, because it is an all-ages title, but the story is based on a school that uses deadly weapons.
Steve: At what point did you feel this was a series where you could continue on, beyond the five-issue miniseries? Did you finish the first arc with an eye to continuing the series, or was there, creatively a break between finishing the first five issues and starting the sixth?
Jimmie: Five Weapons was pitched as a mini-series to Shadowline with only one arc. I set out to tell a beginning, middle and end, and then get on with pitching the next series idea. See, I like to play things safe. This is one of the reasons I like Shadowline because it was originally the Image division that focused on limited series and non-superhero books.
You wouldn’t know that now because Image as a whole is using that model, but at one time most folks were looking to be the next long-running Spawn, Savage Dragon, or Witchblade. Sure there were enough exceptions, but in the 1990s Image Comics was still known as a place for superheroes. Things have changed since then. We have Image, Valentino and Stephenson to thank for that.
So I didn’t consider Five Weapons as an ongoing. That’s how I’ve always worked at Image. The exception would be Bomb Queen, which is a series of mini-series, if you get what I mean. But with Five Weapons (around issue 3 or 4) Valentino asked me if I wanted to continue it as an ongoing. That was new to me. The response was good and it has a future. Valentino will always leave such decisions up to the creator. He supports my decisions – even stupid decisions. But I had to really think HOW I could continue the story, because if I didn’t have that then I would walk away from the series.
After a bit of consideration I told Shadowline it can work, I just had to build the story continuity. The good news is that I originally over-wrote the mini-series, so I had plenty of content that never made it to the page. Stuff like the teacher backgrounds and the school history, and other flashbacks to the main characters, etc. However, by coincidence I also got a creative break because Image doesn’t maneuver on a dime. They have to schedule in a new series, set up the press runs, solicit orders in Diamond previews and promote the book. All those factors gave me time to work.
Steve: What will we see from the series now that Tyler – Enrique – left at the end of the first volume? What comes next?
Jimmie: Now we come back to the School of Five Weapons after the Summer break. It’s a new semester and a new school year. New students and replacements from the last story arc. At this point I’m trying to create compelling characters that the reads can follow. A decent ongoing series isn’t based just on concept. Reader will follow good characters through thick and thin, plot or theme.
As for Enrique, we see him return in a new capacity that keeps him away from weapons and keeps him using his head instead of his fists. When we get down to brass tacks that is what I really want to get across — how to solve problems by using your head, not by pulling a trigger. It’s basically Sherlock Holmes and Encyclopedia Brown wrapped up in Battle Royale meets the Hunger Games.
But NOW I’m setting up the ground rules for the world of Five Weapons. This time it’s not just about Enrique and his immediate problems, it’s also about the world outside of the school.
Steve: The new arc sees the actual Tyler Shainline arrive on the scene. What’s his motivation as the series kicks off? What is he looking for?
Jimmie: Tyler’s motivations are pretty clear. He’s mad that his family name has been ruined and he blames Enrique for his family’s loss of status among the elite assassins. He is on the path of revenge. In a school where everyone carries a weapon you would think it’s easy to get rid of someone you don’t like. But Tyler doesn’t want Enrique dead. He wants him humiliated just like his family was. This creates a rivalry much like Sherlock vs. Moriarty because both are smart, and they grew up together so they know each other’s tricks, strengths and weaknesses.
It has been a real brain twister to create stories where two students play head games in a school for assassins, while at the same time a larger threat is building right under their nose.
Steve: There are a lot of characters in the book – teachers and students both. How do you handle such a big cast, in terms of design? Do you have a ‘look’ which fits each of the different cliques in the school, and try to design characters to fit into that ideal?
Jimmie: This is the largest cast I’ve ever dealt with in a series. I don’t have a specific look for each weapon club. Originally I wanted the clubs to be part of the regular curriculum. I even toyed with the idea of students having a major in one weapon and a minor in another. Because of that original idea I didn’t go for a specific look – which is what I continued today. I’m fine with a diverse cast that doesn’t fit the stereotype of the weapon. In fact, as the series goes on even some of the background characters from the first mini-series arc will come into play.
Steve: The first arc told this really interesting moral story about pacifism, to me – do you have a similar theme developing for this new storyline?
Jimmie: I will continue that theme, but I don’t want to beat that same drum into the ground, so instead I’m building on top of it. Plus, there will be bigger fish to fry, because there’s a HUGE problem making its way to the school of Five Weapons. Enrique continues to be the main character, and he continues to be a pacifist, but the story will expand beyond him.
Steve: When you build a story like Five Weapons, do you tend to think of a moral or theme to place at the core, and try to build the narrative into it?
Jimmie: I did with the limited series because I only had five issues to work with, but my scope is wider with the monthly series. Solving school mysteries each issue won’t last forever, so we will see a larger-than-life threat coming soon. However, that larger threat will deal with moral issues across the entire assassin community, like classism, history, and even race. I plan to weave all these elements through the narrative. But don’t worry, I won’t beat anyone over the head with a heavy-handed didactic message, I still want Five Weapons to be fun and accessible.
Steve: Interestingly, you’re one of two books at Image which have been expanded into an ongoing recently, with the other being Five Ghosts. How much freedom do Image (or perhaps to be more specific, Shadowline) give you, if a series is working, to keep it going and try new things with it?
Jimmie: Shadowline gives me full freedom to create my book. Jim Valentino is very hands-on with the books that he publishes. His editorial control only comes into play if your book is going off the rails — which is what any good publisher would do. I’ve been fortunate with Five Weapons and I’ve kept it on the rails. I deliver what I promised in my pitch, you won’t find mature content suddenly appearing in Five Weapons.
As for how does Shadowline help with trying new things? They are very responsive to marketing and announcements. Marc Lombardi works hard to promote titles via social media and through the publisher’s website Shadowlineonline.com. Valentino cross markets his books in the back pages of other titles, and he’s a great advocate to have in your corner when dealing with conventions, press related issues and promotion materials.
Steve: One thing I wanted to ask about was the recent response to Image Expo, which I know you didn’t attend this year. With the talk about a visible lack diversity of talent on that stage, at least, how do you feel Image – and comics in general – are handling the process of diversifying and supporting new talents?
Jimmie: My personal view: I think we would be surprised by the amount of diversity if we list all the people in the comic industry, both working on the frontlines and behind the scenes. There are people we can easily point to on every level, by both race and gender. Granted, the numbers are not huge, but they are there.
Also, I think we limit our focus on the top 4 or 5 publishers and dismiss the wealth of creators working out there. When I say “comic industry” I include everything from self-publishers at alt-indy conventions across the country to the Hollywood corporate companies with blockbuster films. So I’d like folks to widen their view when they talk about “the industry.”
My general view: Sure there’s a diversity problem because reaching the full potential of comics means the inclusion of ideas from everyone. And by everyone I mean race, gender, age, religion and orientation. But that’s my personal view looking at the issue with a wider lens. Most folks see the top 10% or 20% of comics at their stores and conventions – and I’d say almost all of those are done by white guys.
So from an outside perspective, or from a stereotypical perspective, it might look pretty bad. It would be nice to have representation at the top to reflect the wider base of the industry, but I don’t think we need to demand it from publishers.
However, if I’m allowed to day dream here a bit, it would also be nice if comics found their way into new markets where people can view the books, get inspired and create the possibilities of contributing. So the question isn’t about what comic publishers should print, because we all know what the answer to that. Publishers should print good books. The question is why don’t we see a wide diversity of good books being offered?
My view of Image comics: As you said, I’ve been with Image for about 20 years. I’ve seen a lot of change at the company, from top to bottom, from creators to the office staff. I guess the man on the street view of a comic publisher is of white guys hiring more white guys to draw white superheroes (with a black sidekick).
But if you go to the Image office the idea that this is a white guy’s club doesn’t hold water. I live in the same city of the Image office. I can catch a single bus from my corner to their front door. I’ve been inside plenty of times. I know the staff. Image has always been about diversity from the inside and out. And if I can say the obvious, Image did not have 100% of their content on that stage. If they did the expo would take a week.
Image makes a LOT of books every year. Mine included. I’m glad to be on the team.
Steve: You’ve worked on projects with Image for twenty years or so, and they were the ones who came to you and invited you to pitch. If we say this is an industry-wide issue, then how do we go about settling that issue, in your opinion?
Jimmie: I’m not sure my path with Image is a good example, haha! In the 1990s Jim Valentino was actively creating the “Non-Line” for Image. He offered me an opportunity and those chances don’t come every day. Also, I’m pretty sure Valentino did not race-check me at the door (even though I was a black guy doing a comic with a black heroine). The fact is Valentino saw that I had eight issues of my self-published series already on the shelf. He judged me by my work, not my race.
I “Did-The-Work” – which is what everyone should consider when breaking into this industry. I don’t think the issue will be settled from one side — and to be honest, I don’t see this as an issue that will ever truly be settled. Diversity is a problem in several industries, not just comics. I see it as an ongoing problem. Not just in comics, but in society at large. I believe we can improve it, but it will be generations before we can stamped this as “settled” and walk away.
Steve: What would be your advice for any creators reading this interview? You’re a writer, artist, designer – what would be your advice for breaking into comics?
Jimmie: I know some folks are waiting for some pretty prose, or a quote for a motivational poster, but I’m gonna be the voice of tough love here. It’s not that hard to break into comics, it’s hard to stay in comics. The definition of “breaking in” varies. You can set up your own webcomic tomorrow and be part of the “industry.” You can be completely set up on the Internet and get a table at a convention in artist alley right next to someone like me who’s been doing this for 20 years. So “breaking in” is fluid.
Now, getting recognition from one level to the next is the hard part. And if you’re a person of color, a woman, or if you have a style that doesn’t quite fit the norm, then it will be even harder. Some say the door is open, and others say you can’t walk through a door that you don’t know exists. Both are true, but MY advice… is to just build your own door and climb your own mountain.
Once you’ve done that you can build a bridge to the other pre-existing doors and mountains, or just keep going on your own path. Doing that takes, passion, hunger, initiative, drive and risk. Now I’ll be blunt, I don’t think a lot of people want to do that. I think most folks want to “break in” by the traditional sense. They want to submit their work and be judged on that. That’s still an option. Just go to any publisher’s website and follow the guidelines. Simple as that. No advice needed from me.
But if you want to “break in” using your definition, your rules, your style, your terms, then you’ll have to work with blinders and a pint of oil. Blinders to keep focused on your work and a pint of oil for all the rejection and comments to slide off your back. Being on the outside means being treated like an outsider. Until you’re accepted and find a following it will be a rough ride that many will not make. Even I gave up a few times. And I won’t lie… there are times I still consider it. So the advice I give to anyone is the advice I still give to myself.
I’m not where I want to be and I have to work harder.
Many thanks to Jimmie for his time. The first trade of Five Weapons is out in print right now, and issue #6 of the series kicks off this Wednesday. You can also find him on Twitter right here.