“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
Since his start in the industry as an intern, Joe Illidge has seen comics from both the business and creative sides. His editorial work has taken him from Milestone to DC to Valiant and more; it’s also given him a broad understanding of working with varied creators across varied titles. Anyone looking to learn about the current comics landscape couldn’t find a richer source of information.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Editor
Your home base: New York, NY
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: I’ll lead off with the big question, as usual: Why comics? What attracts you to making comics specifically over other artforms?
Joe Illidge: The comics medium can uniquely do things no other medium can do. The strength of comics has yet to be fully exploited, in some ways because we’re too busy trying to emulate other mediums. If, as a community, we did the deep dive into the full power of the comic book medium, then we could make it globally understood as the most innovative form that may be out there. The way it brings together narrative and images, the way it fosters collaboration, the way we can push and pull on the boundaries, the way certain comics can be prescient, and we don’t catch up to them until decades later… It’s a unique artform.
KS: When did comics became more than just casual reading for you?
JI: When I was in college at New York School of Visual Arts in the late 1980s. That was when I first saw graphic novels in a library; that was where I did the deep dives into Frank Miller’s Ronin, revisited Watchmen, and started to appreciate the trade paperback format. I’ve been reading comics since I was a kid, but that was when the medium became truly important to me as a reader.
KS: Going to SVA, was your original goal to be an artist?
JI: Early on I did, before I realized that my path wasn’t the path of a comic book artist. I’m able to draw from observation but not imagination. But it was in college I met people who made me think about the story, the art of writing.
KS: Did you pivot directly from art into wanting to be a writer?
JI: At first, I wanted to be a writer. I used to send submissions to Marvel, because they’d just started an anthology, Marvel Comics Presents. I sent three different pitches but wasn’t getting any response. Meanwhile, I was working at an art supply store in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. One day, I came out from the back room, and my colleague told me Jimmy Palmiotti had just left. I ran out after him — I didn’t tackle him, but I told him I was a fan, I’d been sending these pitches to Marvel, hadn’t heard anything back. And Jimmy — who didn’t know me from anyone — took my name and said he’d talk to the editor. One month later, the editor of MCP wrote me a letter with comments on all three of my pitches.
That’s one of the reasons why Jimmy’s very much a friend and, as far as I’m concerned, the mayor of comics. Now, I try to be the same way when I meet people at panels or events or meet students at high schools and colleges.
KS: What was the first comics job you got paid for?
JI: I started as an intern at Milestone in 1993, back when internships were generally unpaid. After three months there, I went into the office of [president] Derek T. Dingle and told him that despite how much I enjoyed working there, I had to go out and get an actual job. Then, I went out to lunch, and when I came back they offered me a part-time job. So, my first official paycheck was as assistant to the president. I learned about company structure, finances, monthly operations — things of that nature.
I wouldn’t get into editorial until 1995, when [Milestone Editor In Chief] Dwayne McDuffie took me under his wing and taught me what an editor is. Once I really understood that role, I saw it as a viable career path in comics.
KS: I’ll ask you what I ask all of the editorial guests we have. What does it mean to you when you hear someone in comics described as a “good editor?”
JI: Number one, it means they have a good eye for talent. For identifying good creators and being able to nurture them and help them be better. It also means they inspire teamwork. And it means that, through the integrity of their editorial identity, you can tell it’s a book they’ve worked on even if you didn’t see the credits.
KS: While that identity may be obvious in terms of a writer or artist, how would you define it in an editor?
JI: Let’s look at Karen Berger, who will always be an inspiration to me. Karen has the ability to bring in talent from outside of comics and help them excel in the medium. When you look at Berger Books, you get a certain sensibility, certain narrative tones, certain interest in themes about society. When you look at Shelly Bond’s Black Crown imprint at IDW, you get a sense of her interest in music, pop art, and revolutionary mindsets. You can track those sensibilities back to the Vertigo books they both edited as well.
For myself, I feel like you could take a straight line going backwards from Livewire at Valiant, to Catalyst Prime, to Birds of Prey, to the work I did for Archaia. You would see certain consistencies of theme and interesting combinations of creators.
KS: Can you talk more about an editor’s role in assembling creative teams?
JI: One of the things I think happens in comics sometimes — and I think publishers realized this too late in the game — is that fans can reach their limit with a certain creative team. The last great extended run by a single team I can think of offhand would be Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting on Captain America — and even that had interruptions. There can be a tendency to always put the same people together: if this writer and this artist worked before, let’s put them on something else. Part of the fun of comics is being able to make interesting combinations; different artists bring out different strengths in writers, and vice versa. That goes for colorists and letterers as well. One thing I like to do is put people together who you wouldn’t immediately think of, in order to tell a certain story.
KS: Looking back over your editorial career thus far, what’s a moment of pride that really stands out?
JI: First would be my run on Birds Of Prey, specifically issues 15-22. I brought Butch Guice to the title, and what he, Chuck Dixon, [letterer] Albert DeGuzman, and [colorist] Gloria Vasquez were able to do together was really beautiful. I feel like we nailed it.
Another example would be year one of Catalyst Prime. To see those stories be able to stand on their own but also able to work as a unit, then to think back on the first writers’ retreat that kicked the whole thing off — when you look at those books, I think you see a love of comics and a commitment to a belief that everyone deserves heroes.
KS: Are you able to turn off your professional brain at all and read comics purely for pleasure these days?
JI: If they can surprise me. Christopher Cantwell’s Doctor Doom surprised me. I didn’t think you could do anything more with Victor that I would give a damn about. Immortal Hulk surprised me, because I was truly done with that character — then you read #1 and you’re hooked. Chrisopher Priest continues to surprise me.
KS: What’s your current routine as a comics customer?
JI: I’m a Wednesday warrior. I have two local comic stores I go to; I’m a pull-list person. Certain books are so good I read them twice, as a fan and then as an editor — not to pick them apart, but to see what they do with the artform.
KS: Let’s finish up by spreading some more love. What’s a graphic novel you didn’t work on that you’d recommend as an example of the power of storytelling?
JI: If you’re a superhero person. I recommend the Warren Ellis-Declan Shalvey run on Moon Knight. Nothing you watch on Netflix, or in a movie theater, can do what that volume did in the way it did it. That’s an example of something only comics can do.
I’d also say American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. After I read that, I never saw comics the same way again. If you want an introduction to what can be done in the comic book format, I would recommend that to anyone.
I really liked Jeff Lemire’s Sentient, too. That whole team came together and made a haunting, dramatic story that made you feel the desolation of living in space.
KS: Finally, tell us what you’re working on now/what we should be on the lookout for in 2020.
JI: I co-wrote [with Hannibal Tabu] the graphic novel MPLS Sound, which is about the Minneapolis music movement that was really spearheaded by Prince. It’s about a fictional band that tries to be Prince’s band before the Revolution in 1983. Meredith Laxton is our artist, and Tan Shu is our colorist. That will be published in October by Humanoids.
I’m editing at least two creator-owned projects for A Wave Blue World, which will be out in 2021. There are also some other things on the horizon that haven’t been announced yet.
[Author’s Note: Speaking of upcoming projects, after our conversation came the exciting news that Joe will be the new co-managing editor of Heavy Metal magazine.]