Written by Neil Greenaway
At Phoenix Comic Con 2016 I had the chance to sit down and talk with Josh Blaylock of Devils Due Publishing about his take on publishing indie comics. This interview originally ran on Bleeding Cool on 6/11/2016, and you can read their version of it here.
I have heard Josh Blaylock described as one of the hardest working people in comics. Between being the publisher of DDP, writing his own comics, managing a merger with 1First Comics, and a breakneck tour schedule, it is surprising that he ever gets a chance to sit and talk at all. But that is just what happened at last weekend’s Phoenix Comicon 2016.
Neil Greenaway: I am sitting here at Phoenix Comic Con talking to Josh Blaylock of DDP Publishing. How are you doing today, sir?
Josh Blaylock: Good. It’s been a great show. So I’m riding high on the momentum of the show.
NG: Well right off the bat, last night you were a part of a live event at The Crescent Ballroom, can you tell us a little about that?
JB: Yeah, it was just a cool local monthly thing an artist named Dumperfoo does, it’s called Blunt Club. It’s like a real total merger of the Phoenix Underground Hip-hop and comic book scene. A lot of really well known, talent came out of that area. Like Jim Mafood is originally from there and Jay Fotos is from here. If you’re into that scene, there’s a lot of DJ’s and stuff that come through and people know when they’re coming to Phoenix. Anyway it’s just a big fun live art thing. So lots of music, dancing and people painting on the spot and just pulling stuff out of their head.
NG: And I see that you drew Mercy last night.
JB: Yeah. That’s actually kind of a new version of the very first Mercy Sparx picture I ever drew, where I came up with the idea.
NG: How did the idea for the original image come about?
JB: I was like hungover at a con in Orlando and I drew this devil chick twirling a halo on her finger and having a feather in her mouth, like in her teeth. And I was like, oh that’s a really cool idea, and it just came from there.
NG: Now we had spoken yesterday and you had said that you’ve been writing Mercy for years, but kind of spottily, off and on. I have noticed that it’s been picking up more recently. Is there a reason for that?
JB: That was part of the… well, part of it was just that things took so long to happen in the advertising process, distribution process, creation process. So when I re-launched Devil’s Due Entertainment about three and a half, four years ago, I always loved Mercy but I didn’t have immediate plans to publish it. And it was from all the people asking about it that made me realize that it was something to bring back. So then fast forward six months. Now we’ve got it together (the creative team), and then it comes out. At the same time I am trying to run the company, and I'm putting out other books. So the next thing you know you blink and the year has gone by and you got three issues out. Finally we got momentum going and now we’ve got multiple trade paperbacks and more people are picking up on it. Then with the merger (Devil’s Due/1First) that helped just continue the momentum and increase our shelf presence.
NG: And If I’m not mistaken, there is a Mercy Sparx omnibus on the way.
JB: Yeah, it’s at the printer right now. It’s going to have a cool foil stamp cover on it. It’s a badass image design that Nick Apardi, our designer, came up with. It’s Mercy from a Jen Broomall cover where she’s kind of looking through a halo, almost like a scope. But it’s got a neon cross, almost like a Vegas church neon sign you know, which the image is inside of and like a cool pattern on the outside. It’s going to be every issue of Mercy ever published up until issue 9 of the ongoing series, and it includes the Hack/Slash crossover.
NG: Nice. Do you know how many pages it’s going to be? How big is this book?
JB: It’s like 400+ pages.
NG: Wow, all right. Is there more Mercy to come? Are there future plans?
JB: Oh totally, yeah. So the current series wraps at issue 12. Then we are going to go right into Mercy Sparx: Year 1. So obviously, that’s like an homage to all the year one comics out there. But it’s her first year on Earth, because we skip over exactly one year in the series, she wakes up on Earth… For people who don’t know about the series, she’s a devil girl who hunts down rogue angels from Heaven. So she’s basically cleaning up Heaven’s dirty laundry that no one is supposed to know about. She doesn’t volunteer for the job, they pretty much abduct her and put her on Earth. She wakes up as this blonde chick, no longer a devil, and freaks out. Then she realizes she can change back and forth. She lives with this genius/stoner/metal dude that makes gadgets for her. He’s kind of like her Q. She gets a paycheck every two weeks from Heaven, doesn’t know where it comes from. Just fun stuff like that. Then it opens up to this bigger serious universe. She’s not actually from Hell, she’s not really a demon either when you really get into the story. There’s different species of supernatural characters. She’s a devil or a deviling, and she’s from Sheol, which is from the Old Testament. Before the concept of Heaven or Hell existed, the old scriptures had that when you died you just went to Sheol. I guess you just hung around there or something. It was pretty much just like Hades, that’s basically what it was. In my universe Sheol is this place where everyone lives who just doesn’t fit in with in the system of human/demon/angel. Or they are born in the wrong place, wrong time in the divine realms, that’s where they live. They abduct Mercy from Sheol, put her on Earth and tell her she’s got to do this. And then halfway through, someone else from Heaven shows up, after she’s been doing this for a year, and says “What the hell are you doing here? This is totally not allowed. Your presence here is going to get you in a shitload of trouble”. So she’s totally confused but has to clean up her own mess that she never really created. So it really starts to get into like bureaucracies and someone being caught between just trying to get through life and the system. She just wants to drink whiskey and party and not do anything.
NG: Something I often ask of creator-owned books, do you see a definitive end? Does the story have an end point or is this a universe that can just keep expanding forever?
JB: Yes and Yes. Oh, so the year one thing, it’s her first year on Earth, it’s also her childhood in Sheol. But time doesn’t exactly work the same way there. Just some fun things. Her father figure that popped up in the Free Comic Book Day special is like a biker but he looks like an ancient Sumerian or Babylonian. So you’re like "What’s going on here?", and we’ll get into that. I’ve had an idea on how I thought it would always end. They are not super dark but they’re usually not very happy. There’s this thing with Mercy, when people write characters it’s like an experiment of all things. It’s kind of along the lines of the same philosophy that Louis CK uses in some of his characters (and I also noticed this was very intentional in Napoleon Dynamite), whenever the character has the opportunity to evolve you kind of intentionally f-ck it up. Like in Mercy’s new position where she’s really getting deeper and deeper into the crux of some major shit going on between Heaven and Hell, Humanity, and the universe. And it’s like the person who totally wants nothing to with this. Usually characters don’t evolve from bad writing but it’s never a conscious choice. I’m having some fun with that. Maybe she’ll reluctantly evolve.
NG: You might argue that if it went well for her she wouldn’t have evolved.
JB: Yeah, true.
NG: Going back a little bit, you mentioned the merger with 1First, is that something you can talk to me about?
JB: Yeah, 1First, for people who don’t know what that is, 1First was like a big independent company in the 1980’s. It was actually like one of the only companies of its kind. They were going basically as big in comics as you could get without being Marvel or DC. A lot of really big name creators got their start there. Anyway, it was a bunch of corporate dealings, and the company went public and got sold off. They got tied up in the dotcom boom. So it didn’t really go under, it just got sold off and then it kind of went away. So one of the original co-founders, Ken Levine, he ended up getting the rights back to everything, to the name and a lot of the characters. So over the 20 year span since then, he’s an entertainment attorney by trade and he sort of manages creators. He was one of the only people who really cared about comics who was in Hollywood 15 years ago. So one of the key things he set up was Road to Perdition from Max Allan Collins, which kind of became like one of the poster child books there. It was not a capes and tights book. It was not even like supernatural in any way, it was just a straight up gangster story. And that’s when Hollywood really started to see articles and were like, this is a graphic novel? Who knew you could tell real stories in comics? That was the beginning of Hollywood really starting to pay attention. Then Ghost World came out and the cycle began. So I call him the ‘illuminerdy’ because every single high profile creator you can think of has some deal you’ll find out he was somehow involved in. But no one in the fandom really knows anything about him. He’s currently the executive producer on Preacher, and helped develop that with Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg. So anyway that was just to give some background on that stuff. They brought 1First back about 3 or 4 years ago around the same time I did this big re-launch of Devils Due. But they were just like pumping books out, they were just building content. They would print some and go to conventions, but they weren’t really publishing them and distributing them. So we formed, kind of like doing Image Central backwards, we already had our companies and we created a new umbrella above it which is Devils Due/1First. That’s how we distribute the books through the stores, and it allowed 1First to plug into our whole infrastructure of all the crap behind the scenes you need to get the books done and our whole convention touring system. So now there’s about half a dozen to maybe 10 books a month now between comics and graphic novels that are coming out. It’s been almost a year, it will be a year in September. The one thing we have in common is the variety of genre. So there’s no house style. It’s every genre you can think of. No one comes and buys all of our stuff, it’s usually like a couple things they’re into, and then they can go deep in those titles.
NG: Now earlier this weekend I had a chance to talk to Team Ash about Squarriors.
JB: (Ash & Ashley are both at the table) Uh-oh
NG: Yeah it was pretty wild. What are your thoughts on that book? What does it feel like to have that under DDP?
JB: Well obviously I like it. I saw the picture that Ashley had done of the original cover of the Kin with the ax just screaming. They posted it online to be a web comic. I think the reaction was kind of overwhelming. Like, oh shit, people really want this. I saw it and said that looks f-cking awesome but then I didn’t know anything about either creator. I looked up all this work that Ashley had done in the past. And the story that Ash put together, I knew it was something I could really help build and I was right. We plugged it on a major tour, like 40 different cities, 40 different stores and conventions. That one image was really the key to being able to build it from nothing. Like I would go to these stores and set it on the counter and like just make sure the retailers had it on the counter the whole time there was a signing going on, and it worked. There are so many things you have to do when you’re building up something like that, like there are key retailers. One of the guys was part of the Phantom groups which makes the special exclusive covers to like a dozen different stores. Another was the guys at Midtown Comics which is one of the biggest comic accounts in the country. Just getting the right people to see it and making sure they fall in love with it. It didn’t hurt that certain blogs picked up on it. Bleeding Cool loved it and it just was the perfect formula.
NG: I recently backed the Kickstarter for the hard cover. It looked pretty awesome.
JB: It’s going to be amazing. We got the proofs when we were in Kansas. I literally had them Fed-Ex'ed to the hotel and the pages are much bigger. You get to see the art blown up and see more of the pencil strokes.
NG: A while back when Archie had tried to use Kickstarter to get their stuff going, there was a lot of backlash about an existing publisher using Kickstarter. Did you face any of that being DDP? I know you aren’t huge, but you are existing.
JB: No I didn’t. I had never done one, but we had thought about it. I thought about it myself and then we actually thought about it for the merger. Because by then I’d done tons of Kickstarter campaigns. I never got any flak about it and since the beginning, I see it as the future and the way things are going. It’s the ability to do books you could never do before without losing our ass financially, it’s phenomenal. It’s giving creators the power to not need a publisher if they really know how to handle things themselves. We have completely interwoven it into the traditional publishing system. Things are timed a certain way, set the print runs a certain way. I get why they got flak, I just wonder what would have happened if they had just stuck to their guns and just did it. I really think it was a vocal minority of people bitching.
NG: Being perfectly honest, I considered backing Archie’s campaign. It got shut down before I even had the chance, but I was thinking about it.
JB: I don’t get why there’s this big stigma, even though that company has money. And if they really want this to happen they should like go get this and do it and blah, blah, blah. And it’s really weird because it’s pre-sales. It’s seeing the excitement. When someone wants to do a movie for a million dollars they aren’t getting that type of reaction. So it was weird and they had to make the right choice, because sometimes it’s about perception and how much sense it makes. And like they‘re on fire right now. They have been killing it the last couple years with all the re-launches.
NG: The books are coming out a little slower, but they are still doing very well.
JB: I confess I don’t actually read any of them. But I thought for years like, I know there’s the classic Archie integrity. They want to keep that look but why don’t they update anything? I never understood that. Then they finally started updating stuff and it was awesome. They look really good.
NG: I have really been digging the horror line, Archie doing horror blew me away, and then to do it well, that was completely unexpected. That was an odd move. Getting back to you though – what’s on the slate in the future? We talked about Mercy, but what else do you have coming up?
JB: So Mercy will be continuing. Currently the Squarriors summer series is going on. Plume Vol.3 is close to happening. We have a new really fun sci-fi action series called Galaxies for Hire. It’s by Sherard Jackson who is the artist and Shawn DePasquale who’s the writer. He’s actually here. He’s helping us run the company booth. It’s like Firefly meets Voltron in an all-female cast. They are outlaws travelling through space and it turns out their spaceship is the missing puzzle piece to a giant robot that now the galactic government want to get it’s hands on. The two lead characters are twin sisters, and one of them goes legit. Which causes strife between the group until she realizes, and then she kind of turns back over because of realizing what the significance of the ship is. There’s like a sex bot, there’s a weird alien kid genius, there’s a big giant bird lady who is like their enforcer, so it’s really fun really smart writing. They smuggle, basically shrooms, from one planet to another. They steal them from one place where they are used for religious purposes and sell them as drugs somewhere else. It’s really funny.
Then there’s Lord of Gore, it’s new horror series. All right, there’s a whole section, we’re kind of getting a whole new horror group again. It’s funny, I have never been a big super horror movie guy, but we’ve always attracted this good high quality group of horror books. Like we published the first Hack/Slash and a book with Whitley Strieber, The NYE Incidents, Chuckie – The Child’s Play books, all kinds of stuff. Lord of Gore is done by Daniel Leister who is the artist on Hack/Slash, Army of Darkness, a bunch of stuff. Him and the writer D.B. Stanley have this really cool slasher comic concept. It pulls you into the world of the actual horror movie industry, like at the cons, horror conventions, some of the infighting going on. It brings in this conspiracy that there’s a really popular franchise called Lord of Gore with a slasher – The Headsman – and the reason why this franchise even took off in the 80’s is because someone tied to the film was murdered in real life. And the guy who played The Slasher went nuts. And now in present day one of the screen writers has learned that all these rumors of conspiracies are true, just as the actual real slasher is coming into the world and killing everyone. Her plan with the visuals is that was this was an old franchise so like a really shitty 1960’s version. There’s a 70’s version. The classic 80’s version. The shitty late 90’s version. And then there’s the current version. Then Dirk Manning is a real force of nature unto himself. He’s a writer. Does horror comics. And we started publishing his book, the Tales of Mr. Rhee, who’s a paranormal fixer. Imagine if Armageddon happened one day, the rapture happens and demons are roaming the earth and you’re stuck here, uh oh they didn’t take me. You’re ready for years of tribulation and then, three days later everything was back to normal. So that’s the world and there’s already, within a few years, people are erasing that this ever happened, people are in denial of how it was. And Rhee is a magician, kind of a wandering fixer, he knows something is wrong. So there’s one volume that’s all these short stories intertwined together. They’re really crazy and really well done messed up psychological horror and gore. But he’s just like the normal guy going through it all helping people out. There’s two volumes after that. Volume 3 just funded on Kickstarter. Then we’re bringing in Rhee… the character Mr. Rhee comes from the Nightmare World series, which there are 3 trade paperback collections that Image produced, and now Dirk’s bringing them over to us with the fourth volume and we’re going to do a giant Nightmare World Omnibus. So really this whole big horror universe, and it really all goes to Lucifer colluding Cthulhu to pre-emptively kick start Armageddon so he has more control over the outcome. So that blends like biblical, Lucifer and Armageddon, with Lovecraft. And he has another book coming out called Love Stories About Death, so tons of stuff coming out there. I’m working on a new concept, a little bit in the GI Joe flavor of what we used to do. It’s a rebel task force in the future and some of them are humans and some of them are robots. They’re basically a team and they all have this camaraderie. And what they do is they go around together secretly taking out artificial intelligence technology that’s threatening the world. And the backstory to that is: What if John Connor and the rebels in Terminator were the crazy radicals, and Skynet was the good guy that had saved the planet? It’s working title, it’s called The Circuit. It will be a total departure from the Mercy Sparx stuff. Something else to do.
NG: Do you have any kind of time line on when you expect to see that out?
JB: I’m really pushing. I have to lock in the art team first. I’ve been doing all the designs myself so far and I’m making progress on those. I put some really, really small teasers out on my Facebook page, but I’ll start to release more of those.
NG: If people wanted to know more, where can they find you? What are your next appearances going to be?
JB: We do these crazy tours, more like an indie band or something. So now we’ve gotten to the point where we got a tour van and drive around and hit as many stores as we can on the way to different conventions. The next one is a couple weeks, Heroes Con in Charlotte, NC. We’re going to go probably down to Ohio, down through Louisville, and then we’ll get to Charlotte. Then on the way back we’ll hit maybe some other parts of North Carolina, Nashville, Tennessee, come up through Indiana. We just recently did a bunch going out west of Chicago, going towards Iowa and Omaha down to Kansas City for Planet Comic Con. I guess after that we are definitely doing the Cincinnati Comic Expo in late September. That is one of our absolute best shows. I went to high school in Cincinnati, but I don’t think that has anything to with why we sell a lot there. It’s just a really good show and they take really good care of us. Planning to do New York Comic Con. Check out www.devilsdue.net, my Facebook page, look for Josh Blaylock. I Instagram as Josh C. Blaylock. I’m on Snapchat as popcultivator. When you look it up it will say Devils Due. There’s a Devils Due/1First. If you’re looking for any of the 1First stuff, it’s spelled 1First and they’ve got a ton of great stuff. They have the classic Badger character, the craziest superhero out before Deadpool. He’s back. There’s a book called Public Relations which is really funny. It’s fantasy meets The Office kind of comedy. It’s like the cast of 30 Rock smashed up with Game of Thrones. They’ve got just as many, or more, titles than we’ve got now. So check it out. That’s pretty much it I guess. Twitter is @JoshBlaylock and @DevilsDue.