Interview: Joseph P. Illidge on the Intersections of Comic Books

IMG_7308 Black and WhiteJoseph Phillip Illidge started his editorial career at Milestone Media, Inc., the first Black-owned mainstream comic book company and home to Static Shock!, the award-winning Warner Bros. cartoon. The first African-American to become an editor of the Batman line of comic books and graphic novels for DC Entertainment, a subsidiary of Warner Bros., Joseph was also the editor for the company’s top-selling female action-adventure comic, Birds of Prey.

After his tenure at DC Comics, Joseph became the Comics Editor for Archaia Entertainment, publisher of the critically-acclaimed graphic novel “The Killer” — optioned by director David Fincher for development at Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Pictures. As head writer and editor for his production company Verge Entertainment, Joseph works for various clients on film and graphic novel projects.

Joseph has been a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics, and politics at Digital Book World’s forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, Purdue University, on the panel “Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books,” and most recently at the Soho Gallery for Digital in New York City.

J. Skyler: So great to be speaking with you, Joseph! What was your first big break into the comic industry?

1103212-hardware1_superJoseph P. Illidge: My first job in the industry was at Milestone Media, Inc. in 1993. Milestone was the first Black-owned mainstream comic book company, and they had a publishing deal with DC Comics. I wanted to learn everything about the business from top to bottom, so I started on the business side, working as Assistant to the President. After learning about the structure of Milestone under the mentorship of Derek T. Dingle, I made a lateral move to the editorial department. Co-founder and editor-in-chief Dwayne McDuffie took me under his wing and trained me in the craft of editing comic books. After working as an assistant editor on various titles, Dwayne gave me the job of acting as sole editor on Milestone’s flagship title, Hardware.

It was a great experience, working for a company created by people of color, publishing comic books with heroes of color. Milestone broke ground and made an indelible mark on the medium and industry, and I was honored to be a part of it.

This year is Milestone’s 20th anniversary, and the company’s books and characters are loved by old and new fans alike.

JS: Was the editorial position something you pursued, or was it offered to you?

JPI: I pursued a job in the Editorial department. Once I learned everything of value on the business side, I re-engaged my creative side and wanted to make a different kind of contribution to Milestone. I spent two years in Business and two years in Editorial.

JS: When did you begin working for DC Comics, and in what role?

JPI: I was invited by DC Comics to join the Batman editorial group in 1998 as an associate editor, which meant I was also editor on a handful of ongoing series and projects, including Birds of Prey and Batman Beyond.

JS: Insiders, as well as readers, often talk about the impact of editorial decisions on the comic books.  What, exactly, are the primary responsibilities of a comic book editor?

JPI: An editor’s job is to work with each member of the creative team to make sure the book comes out on time, maintains a creative standard, and functions continuity-wise within the larger fictional universe of the company.

Being personable, having project management skills, and possessing an understanding of writing and art are, ideally, part of the requirements for a good editor, as well.

JS: Do you have a favorite storyline you worked on as an editor?

JPI: I really enjoyed working on the year-long Batman: No Man’s Land storyline.

JS: What was so intriguing about it?

1126675Batman: No Man’s Land set a precedent. Nothing like that had ever been done in comics. It was a year-long, weekly storyline that separated Batman, his allies, and Gotham City from the rest of the DC Universe. It provided the opportunity for a lot of creators that either didn’t work in comics or didn’t handle mainstream superheroes to join in.

The storyline was actually run like a television show, with the editors acting as showrunners, and the stories assigned to different creative teams. Various Marvel Comics events over the last few years have followed a similar model.

In addition to Batman: No Man’s Land, I was thrilled to edit the Birds of Prey storylines in which Barbara Gordon confronted The Joker in a Silence of the Lambs-style issue, and the arc that showed the first meeting between Oracle (Barbara Gordon pre-New 52) and Black Canary. Working with Chuck Dixon and Winter Soldier artist Butch Guice, along with the rest of the creative team, on those books was one of the highlights of my time at DC Comics.

JS: As an intersectional feminist, I’m always analyzing how characters are portrayed in relation to their sociological privileges and oppressions, including ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, and [dis]ability and if these power dynamics are accurately depicted. As an editor, have you taken any stance on cultural sensitivity (or lack thereof) on projects you have overseen?

Birds_of_Prey_Vol_1_21JPI: Yes. I feel that as a Black man, it’s my responsibility to examine and contribute to the positive representation of Black culture, as well as other cultures. It turned out that working at DC Comics made it necessary for me to look out for the representation of women, as well.

Working on Birds of Prey was my opportunity to contribute to the positive representation of women in comics, shepherding a great female-driven adventure series that did not diminish women in ways that appear all too often in comics.

I actually got into a mild argument with a higher-up at DC Comics because I took Birds of Prey supporting character Power Girl out of her stripper costume, deflated her breasts, and had her wear a full-body uniform. He told me I was sabotaging licensing potential for Power Girl. Heh heh. I considered myself to be closer to Gloria Steinem than Mattel at that point in time. Sue me.

Additionally, I had to take great care of Oracle’s representation as a disabled character. At one point, there was an internal debate between the Bat-office and another editor as to whether Oracle, as a disabled character, should be depicted as a person who engaged in physical combat as well as mental combat.

15-1JS: So there was an argument framed as either/or? As in: she should only be allowed to fight physically or be depicted exclusively as an intellectual crime solver?

JPI: Instead of both, exactly. As Batgirl, no one would have even thought to make it an issue. Since Oracle was wheelchair-bound, the range of her abilities was called into question. A high ranking editor once tried to argue this point with Denny O’Neil, then-supervisor and editorial guru of the Bat-office. It was ridiculous.

I had another editor come to me after reviewing an artist’s rendering of Oracle wearing designer high heels, telling me Barbara Gordon wouldn’t wear those shoes because she couldn’t walk.

Clearly, his understanding of women and their fashion was limited.

JS: And of people living with disabilities, obviously.

JPI: Exactly. People inside DC Comics were questioning the character of Oracle on various levels because she was a martial artist and didn’t exclusively wear sneakers, due to their perceptions of a disabled hero. It just didn’t make sense to me.

JS: Over on Twitter, you, Derek Halliday and I had an interesting conversation on the mischaracterization and devaluing of Michael Holt/Mr. Terrific in Cartoon Network’s Beware the Batman. One of DC’s most high-profile Black male characters, he is reduced to a businessman with questionable ethics, wholly unlike his genius engineer and physicist counterpart in the comic books. Have you come across similar unsavory reinterpretations of minorities in your work?

mighty2JPI: You’re very generous to call any Black male character at DC Comics one of their “most high-profile”, because really, does that company have a lot of Black male characters in their universe, not counting the Milestone characters?

To your question, I didn’t like the depiction of Luke Cage when he became prominent again in the Marvel Universe a few years back, because he was characterized as an urban buck. It didn’t match up with the ethically-grounded and evolved character that Luke Cage became, based on contributions from both Black and White writers.

In Alias #1, Luke Cage was depicted as a Black man who engaged in forceful sex with the White female star Jessica Jones.

JS: And that is frequently recurring narrative that demonizes Black men.

JPI: It reduced Luke Cage to an obsolete stereotype. When you have so few Black male heroes, such a portrayal sticks out. Luke Cage has since become less of an emotional stereotype, but is still quite the visual cliché. Yes, he’s going to lead The Mighty Avengers, but he’ll do so in a t-shirt and jeans.

Still work to be done with Luke Cage, but he’s better than certain Black characters at other companies.

JS: Speaking of Black characters, we’ve discussed before how odd it is that Storm from The X-Men has never been given an ongoing solo title, despite being one of the industry’s most iconic Black women (if not the industry’s most iconic Black character period) and one of Marvel’s most popular characters. There is always talk of how “difficult” it is to sell books with female leads, but one would think there would be some advantage with a character as popular as Storm.

xmen2013001varcovJPI: I don’t get why there hasn’t been an ongoing Storm title when, by comparison, Marvel is a more progressive company than its rival. We have plenty of examples of Black women in popular culture who have amassed an enormous following, from Oprah Winfrey to First Lady Michelle Obama to Kerry Washington in ABC’s Scandal. It’s obvious that Black women have strong leadership roles in real life as well as in entertainment, so would not a Storm series be tapping into the zeitgeist?

Marvel could also consider bringing Black writers back into the mix. They had Django Unchained producer Reginald Hudlin writing monthly series’ with Spider-Man and Black Panther at one point.

JS: How privy would you say comic book creators are to the impact of misrepresentation on readers?

JPI: It depends on the creator. Some creators are more progressive than others by virtue of their life experiences, friends and associations, and/or lifestyle.  Creators who are conscious of dynamics of race, sexuality, and culture, or care to know more, will be better at depicting diverse characters, in my opinion.

xmen2coverJS: Have you ever felt the need to remove yourself from a project for ethical reasons?

JPI: There was a time when I was co-editing Catwoman. I felt that the visual portrayal of Catwoman objectified her to a point I was uncomfortable with, but I didn’t have the authority to change the artist on the book. Also, it wasn’t my place to ask to be assigned to a different book, so I did my job in spite of my personal feelings.

I petitioned to become the editor of Catwoman after Batman: No Man’s Land was over and the entire line was being relaunched, but the powers-that-were wouldn’t let me have both Catwoman and Birds of Prey, so I had to choose.

JS: I’ve always noticed in discussions of women in comics, the argument is always framed in terms of sex appeal, whether female characters have too much or too little, but even within that limited dialog, individual personalities are almost never taken into account. I thought writer Sam Humphries and artist Kris Anka gave a great example of how Psyclocke’s redesign for X-Men was something she would wear because it fits her personality and suits her functionally, as opposed to someone like Emma Frost who consciously uses sex appeal as a psychological weapon.

CatwomanSBSJPI: If you look at mainstream superhero comics, there seems to a lack of understanding of the difference between sexy, sexuality and offensive. You look at Catwoman, who is one of the most interesting female characters in comics. The mentality that controls the character is that in order to be sexy, she has to have a skintight suit that looks like it’s painted on, protruding buttocks, and regularly bend her body in unrealistic positions.

In Selina’s Big Score, a brilliant Catwoman graphic novel by Darwyn Cooke, none of the aforementioned conventions were used. Nonetheless, Selina Kyle a.k.a. Catwoman was still well aware of her sexuality and did not have to be objectified by it.

The ridiculous depiction of female heroes in comics is a big problem and it’s born out of the fact that there are still not enough women in editorial departments of mainstream comic book companies.

JS: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) characters have been making great headway in mainstream titles as of late, and I always find it interesting (and unsettling) how people argue they are “taking over” or being given “too much prominence”, in spite of their relatively small numbers in comparison to heteronormative characters.

BatwomanKissJPI: I think viewpoints like that come from a fear that the comic book fictional universes will actually reflect the real world in which we live. If you’re an open-minded person, why would an increase of LGBT characters in comics scare you? Or why would you characterize their prominence as a “takeover?” That language indicates something hostile and unjust.

JS: DC Entertainment has been a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Entertainment for decades and Marvel Entertainment was famously bought by The Walt Disney Company in a multibillion dollar deal. Despite having the financial backing of two of the biggest media conglomerates on Earth, both DC Comics and Marvel Comics continue to struggle with sales of monthly publications. You’ve stated in the past that Time Warner and Disney offer enough support for their comic book subsidiaries to survive, but not thrive. Can you expand on that?

JPI: Without expanding their audience, without considering real-world demographics in their marketing strategy, comic book companies are left with stagnation, which will not lead to thriving business. If you don’t capture a larger audience, erosion of the existing audience is inevitable. The only things that seem to address audience erosion, without bringing in those real-world demographics, are “events” and line-wide reboots. Band-Aids for the bleeding patient.

JS: Aside from your work as an editor and writer, you are also the co-owner of Verge Entertainment. Can you explain your company’s mission and goals?

NOIR_JoeJPI: Verge Entertainment is the production company founded by myself, Shawn Martinbrough, the illustrator on Robert Kirkman’s critically-acclaimed Image series Thief of Thieves, and videogame designer/programmer Milo Stone. We are developing live-action and animated projects for film and television, and graphic novels for print and digital formats. The goal is to produce shows and books for a wide audience, with stories that have culturally-diverse casts and characters.

JS: Are the properties you developed limited to any genre or theme in particular?

JPI: Verge Entertainment is not limited by themes or genres. We develop kid-friendly projects, female-centric stories, and so on. All of our intellectual properties depict people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds.

In fact, my latest project with Shawn is a graphic novel which takes place during the Harlem Renaissance called The Ren. It is a 200-page story, co-authored by Shawn with art by Grey Williamson. The Ren will be published in 2015 by First Second Books, a division of New York-based book publisher Macmillan. It’s a story scripted by Black writers and illustrated by a Black artist about a prominent time of Black history, and American history in general.

1343861670 JS: What is the premise of the story?

JPI: The Ren is a love story between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war and spotlighting the relationship between art and the underworld. Well- known historical figures will make appearances in the story.

With the HBO series Boardwalk Empire poised to feature the time period and people of The Harlem Renaissance, it’s clear The Ren is quite timely, and will have an audience ready for its release.

JS: It sounds fascinating. I can’t wait until it’s in print! Thank you for your time. It has been a pleasure and I hope we can do it again soon.

JPI: Thanks for having me! Looking forward to a sequel!

 

 

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  • DTHalliday

    Great interview!

    I was in highschool when Milestone first started publishing, and I got every one of those first issues, polybagged with the Skybox (I think) cards inside. It was exciting stuff that I had never seen before. My favorite was HARDWARE, which had some amazing art and some even more amazing ideas. I really liked the idea that his costume was never the same…that he could outfit it with different weapons depending on what he needed to do, but later on I started to really get into BLOOD SYNDICATE because I loved how the characters interacted. It was a great line of books, and I loved them right up until they were gone, which was a sad day.

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