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March 13, 2012


CR Newsmaker Interview: Scott Dunbier On IDW's Artist's Editions & Going Back To Press On Wally Wood

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imageI see a lot of comics these days. Some projects stand out. One that's made a specific impression is the Artist's Edition series that IDW has been doing. These are the books printed at the size of the original art, featuring comics work such as the 1980s indy-comic classic The Rocketeer, a run of Walt Simonson's fondly remembered Thor, a primetime sequence of the Stan Lee/John Romita Sr. "Peter Parker on a motorcycle" Spider-Man and, most recently, a bunch of EC Comics by the patron saint of 20th Century cartooning, Wally Wood. In a comics world stuffed with high-quality reprints, these have stood out for me as lovely objects -- near-lunatic objects -- as well as their being a fine and sometimes even surprising way to re-experience some strong mainstream comics efforts.

I've been trying to interview veteran industry figure Editor Scott Dunbier for a few years now, and I thought I'd pitch him one more time with this specific project of his as its focus. Happily, he agreed. With the Wally Wood version of the series selling out and reportedly already going for a ridiculous premium, he let me know we even had a news hook. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Scott, now that we've noodled on this a bit via e-mail I understand you and IDW have a couple of things to announce: that you have publishing news about the Wally Wood Artist's Edition book and then some convention-related Artist's Edition announcements... I want to make sure that gets noticed, so I thought I'd just give you the floor right up top. What's going on?

SCOTT DUNBIER: First off, we're going back to press on Wally Wood's EC Stories: Artist's Edition.

SPURGEON: Huh. Okay.

DUNBIER: It was a difficult decision; from the start of the Artist's Edition program we had made it clear that these would be one-time ventures, [that] when they were gone they were gone. Part of that was based on pure financial reasoning -- these are big books, expensive to produce. And you have to realize, we overprinted Wood by a good margin. But retailers deluged us with reorders, and our direct-to-consumer sales were very brisk as well. This might sound corny but it's really true -- people demanded that this book be reprinted. I mean, we got reports of fights breaking out in stores over copies, how crazy is that?

SPURGEON: [laughs] I had not heard this.

DUNBIER: We're hoping to have the book available again at the end of May or early June. I urge people who missed it the first time to pre-order it with their local comic shop, or through the IDW web store. Additionally, we did print 100 copies with a variant cover -- like the Simonson Comic-Con version last year -- featuring a self-portrait of Wood from the classic story My World, and it will be available at the Wonder Con later this week.

imageSpeaking of Wonder Con, aside from the Wood book, we'll also have a limited edition of John Romita's The Amazing Spider-Man: Artist's Edition there as well. It will be limited to 250 copies, each signed by John Romita and Stan Lee, and with an original headshot of Spider-Man or another Spidey-related character. These will also be available on our on-line store by the time this posts, and you can reserve a copy for pick up at the show as well.

SPURGEON: Well, if nothing else that kind of satisfies my general curiosity about how the books are doing... I want to ask a couple of questions about the provenance of the Artist's Edition series. You said in an interview with Scoop last year that the germ of what became this series began with you making photocopies of comics and comics art. I have a photocopier and I have some comics art, but I don't make photocopies of comics art. Why were you making these copies, Scott? Come to think of it, do you have a background in original art collection, either with that side of the business or just collecting it yourself? I remember that when I saw you at a WonderCon a couple of years back, you seemed to know all of those guys.

DUNBIER: Before I was an editor I was a dealer of original comic art, and also a collector.

SPURGEON: Right, okay.

DUNBIER: For a short time I was also a member of CFA-APA -- Comics and Fantasy Art Amateur Press Association -- which is a self-published magazine that has something like 50 members at any given time, each one fanatical to some degree about comic book art, comic strip art, paintings, sketches, etc. APA's really are bizarre and crazy things. Each member produces an article on a given theme and prints out a number of copies that are sent to a central editor who then binds all the contributions together and mails them out to each member.

God, I'm getting bored writing this; I hope I don't put all your readers to sleep, Tom.

SPURGEON: This is the only part some people will read.

DUNBIER: The point about the making copies of art: I realized that I would get much better reproduction for my articles, especially for pencil work, if I made them in color. The good part was: they looked fantastic. The bad part was: it was the 1990s. Color copies were expensive, especially if I was doing 50 or 60 sets! [Spurgeon laughs]

Getting back to art dealing, I did that from the early to mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. As an art fan, it was a great way to make a living, but I eventually grew a little tired of it, became complacent, and when an opportunity presented itself -- by my friend Jim Lee -- to leave New York and move to San Diego to work at WildStorm, I decided to try it out. And the rest is history, at least to me.

SPURGEON: How did this specific project develop at IDW? I have only a rough sense of how you guys work, but it seems like the folks on the editor level have some independence in terms of developing projects.

DUNBIER: We totally do. It's really a unique place to work. I've said this a few times before but it's worth repeating: IDW is in many ways like WildStorm was in the old days -- there's the same kind of excitement about something new -- but much more focused. And that's really because of Ted [Adams] and the trust he has for the people who work here.

SPURGEON: How closely do you work with individual collectors on the books? I know you thanked Mike Burkey in the Romita book. Are the individual books dependent at all on unearthing collectors that have the material you need?

DUNBIER: Each book is different. For instance, you mentioned the Romita Spider-Man book. All the art came almost entirely from Burkey, but the Wally Wood work came from a number of sources. The Daredevil: Born Again book is possible because David Mazzucchelli saved most of his art. He actually did sell two issues of Daredevil a few years ago but, amazingly, he made great color scans of the art so we can now have the entire, seven-issue story and see all those gorgeous pages.

SPURGEON: You mentioned photocopying this material in color, and that this is important in terms of what you want to do. Can you tell me why? I'm not visually sophisticated in the way that I'd automatically know. I know that with color you're bound to see some blue lines, but is there another effect you get capturing the pages this way? How big a difference is it?

DUNBIER: It's essential. If you shoot the art in black and white then you will have a nice, clean looking representation of a piece of art. The Russ Cochran EC Library is a good example. Those pages were all shot from the originals in black and white. And, I want to point out, that library is the definitive word on EC comics as far as I'm concerned, but if you compare the stories in the Wally Wood Artist's Edition to the ones in the Cochran books, you'll see a world of difference. By printing the originals in color you are able to see the blue lines, as you mention, but so much more. You actually can achieve a feeling of real depth with these scans. You can see the paste-over corrections or, especially in the case of Wally Wood, all the different kinds of paper he would use: there are actually pages in the Wood book where he uses Duo-shade, Scratchboard, Pebble Board, and even Zip-a-Tone -- all on the same page! You can see the cuts in the EC art board and where Wood laid in these various papers from the back.

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SPURGEON: Something I didn't realize until I saw the staggering dimensions of the Wally Wood book is that you're letting the size of the original dictate the size of the book, or at least I think you are. Was that the idea all along, or was there any thought of going to one specific, oversized dimension on the books?

DUNBIER: Yes, to me an Artist's Edition is the same size as the art. And when I say "art" I'm also talking about the paper it's drawn on, to the edges. Looking at that is part of the fun.

SPURGEON: Is there anything you've been doing where you've been surprised at the dimension in which the artist was working?

DUNBIER: No surprises yet, but I'm sure there will be at some point! One thing that's a funny is I keep hearing the same joke over and over, that people will nail legs on them and have a "coffee table" book.

SPURGEON: The Wally Wood originals I've seen can be so beautiful they're almost daunting; I think I actually lost consciousness staring at a page in San Diego once. You mentioned Wood working in a variety of media... are there challenges in terms of the production process for individual books in the series?

DUNBIER: Yes, there are challenges. I prefer to be able to scan images here in San Diego, to try and keep the images as consistent as possible -- and then we can do color adjustments if any are needed. But sometimes the art is so valuable that the owners don't want to send it to us -- which is completely understandable! In those cases we figure it out as we go.

SPURGEON: Are you still working with Randy on these books? There are so many quality designers right now in comics, but I feel like I should know his work better than I do. Can you talk about a specific contribution he's made to the series?

DUNBIER: Yes, Randy Dahlk is my go-to guy. Luckily, he's not only a wonderful designer but he also loves these books as much as I do. Well, nearly. He won an Eisner award last year for Dave Stevens' The Rocketeer Artist's Edition. Check out his blog to see some of the other books Randy has designed.

imageSPURGEON: I thought doing a Simonson book was really inspired, in that while of course that Thor work is popular, and of course you're hitting that sweet spot for a lot of fans of that stuff who are at the perfect age to buy that kind of presentation of an old favorite, the book itself was really, really interesting -- I thought it flattered that material specifically in a way that was more than making it big, if that makes any sense. Why that book at that point in the series?

DUNBIER: A couple of reasons -- first, I happen to be a huge fan of Walter's work, have been since I read my first chapter of Manhunter when I was a kid. Also, his stuff is so big and bold and beautiful that I feel it benefits greatly from the Artist's Edition treatment. And I wanted to show that books like this could work with a variety of styles.

SPURGEON: What's it like to work with Marvel on a project like that? Are they a good licensing partner?

DUNBIER: Marvel has been fantastic. I wasn't sure we could convince them to let us license this material but when I sent them Dave Stevens' The Rocketeer Artist's Edition they were sold on the concept. After that it was just a matter of settling deal points.

SPURGEON: Can you give me an idea of how well these books have done? I'd prefer sales figures down to the single copy, but I understand if you can't go there. I take it from what you said earlier that the series has done well, though?

DUNBIER: The series has done well; the response has been very positive. As for actual numbers, I'm afraid it's not my place to release them. But they have done well, all but the Romita have sold out, and that one will be out of print soon.

SPURGEON: To follow up on that... a friend of mine and I were in a comics shop when we saw the Simonson book. He saw this massive thing behind the desk and asked me about it. I told him what it was, and he had the owners prepare a little space for him to check it out and he eventually bought it. It struck me while watching my friend basically take the book out for a special test drive that this isn't a typical item for a lot of stores. Do you have any sense how comics shops are doing with these books? Is it something a lot of them are prepared to sell? Do you get feedback from them?

DUNBIER: It depends on the store and how adaptable they are. My local shop here in San Marcos doesn't carry them because his clientele is geared more towards the nuts and bolts monthly periodicals. Chris Butcher at The Beguiling told me he could have sold 20 more copies of the Wood book. Cliff Biggers of Dr. No's sold out of his order very quickly. Most stores I talked to have done well with the books. But it's certainly not for everyone. But I also think it's something that non-comics fans can also appreciate, because at their heart these are art books.

imageSPURGEON: I wanted to ask a few non-Artist's Edition questions. The Rocketeer anthology. What was that experience like? Because it seems like you executed that one in laudable fashion in terms of working with the family and in assembling artists with affection for that material.

DUNBIER: The Rocketeer is a very special series. Dave Stevens' character really resonated with readers; it definitely did with me. I still remember how I felt when I saw that very first Rocketeer ad in the back of the first issue of Starslayer #1: I wanted more! And I don't think my reaction was the exception, but instead, it was the norm. Dave created something extremely rare and wonderful and it just hit people and made them almost giddy when they read it.

Doing the Anthology was a little dangerous, taking a character that was so beloved and doing new stories. Looking back it feels a bit foolhardy. But there were so many creators who wanted to tell a Rocketeer story, who loved the original stories, and who also wanted to take a crack at him themselves. So when the family gave us a thumbs up to move ahead it really wasn't hard to find great people to tell these stories. The reaction was gratifying: we got some nice reviews and did a second printing or two.

The second anthology begins this month and there is a whole new batch of creators telling Rocketeer stories, plus there are gorgeous covers by Darwyn Cooke.

And at WonderCon we will announce a new Rocketeer mini-series that isn't an anthology, but one big story. I wish I could tell you the creative team on it but I think people will be pleased with the gentlemen doing it -- tune in on Friday to find out who it will be!

SPURGEON That response is interesting to me, because while the project seems to have been assembled in a respectful way, it's also something that I have to admit I haven't sought out. I liked the original series very much, but what I liked about it was Dave Stevens, not so much the characters he made -- or at least I don't separate the two. I don't think I'm alone in that. What is about the character that you think stands up to, or even asks for, another round of interpretation? Is it just more Rocketeer, or is there something specific that you think the stories in the anthology and the forthcoming longer story add to that character, add to what Dave created?

DUNBIER: What drew me to that first Rocketeer piece I saw was the combination of Dave Stevens, who I had never heard of before, and this mesmerizing image that felt like it fell out of a time warp -- it was a cross between a classic pulp magazine illustration and an EC comic splash -- I loved it and found it shocking: how could such an incredible artist appear full-blown out of nowhere? How could I have never seen his stuff before? And when I read The Rocketeer -- anxiously waiting for each new chapter to appear -- it was the combination of story, art and character that captured me. Not to mention that Dave was a creator who thrived on collaboration. He wanted to work with other people. Look at the list of artists in the Complete Collection and you'll see what I mean: Arthur Adams, Sandy Plunkett, Michael Kaluta... they and others worked on the series. There was at one time a plan to do a Rocketeer/Superman crossover. Unfortunately it fell through, but Dave was going to do covers and splash pages, and have another artist do the interiors. Given that, I feel pretty sure Dave would have been fine with others working on the Rocketeer.

SPURGEON: I still think of you as a WildStorm guy... now that we've had a little bit of distance since the line's final days, are you satisfied with the way the first draft of history has been written there? Is there something that WildStorm did that you hope it's remembered for that people may not go to first when discussing its legacy?

DUNBIER: I'm very proud of the work WildStorm did, I was lucky to be there. It was a great place to work and there was a lot of positive energy. People wanted to be there.

As for history, I haven't really paid attention to what's been written. I see some things from time to time but haven't really dug into it. Someday, probably after I retire, I'll try to write about it. The one thing I want people to remember about WildStorm is that it was incredibly diverse. We published, off the top of my head: Planetary, The Authority, Danger Girl, Battle Chasers, Crimson, Astro City, Leave it to Chance, Zero Girl, Four Women, Ocean, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Promethea, Top 10, Tom Strong, Tomorrow Stories, Automatic Kafka, Wildcats 3.0, Ex Machina, Sleeper, Point Blank, The Spirit, The Boys, Gen13: Ordinary Heroes and others I'm sure I missed. We also initiated and oversaw the recoloring of Watchmen for the Absolute Edition. That's a lot of stuff! So the WildStorm legacy is diversity, at least to me. And that we put out some really good books.

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SPURGEON: I've enjoyed the Bloom County books you've done. I think an underrated achievement there was just getting Berkeley Breathed to agree to return to that material for archival editions given some of the bruising that seems to have occurred in his comics efforts since. Has that been a rewarding relationship from your end? Is there a specific memory you think you'll take out of those efforts?

DUNBIER: Doing books with Berkeley Breathed has been extremely rewarding to me, I put it right up there with doing stuff with Darwyn and Alan [Moore]. I had thought of doing these collections while I was still at WildStorm and nothing ever happened with them. When I came to IDW, it turns out that Chris Ryall, after a suggestion from our CFO Matt Ruzicka, had contacted Breathed, and Berkeley basically said, "Thanks but no thanks." So I reached out to Berkeley anyway, since if you don't ask the answer is always no, and got him on the phone and just sort of made him agree to let us put out these collections -- he was reluctant at first but I eventually wore him down. He really had no idea that people cared about him or his work. He wasn't fishing for compliments; he really believed no one cared, which I find remarkable.

One of my favorite memories of Berkeley is at Comic-Con in 2010. I had to practically beg him to come, and to do signings -- we actually negotiated how many he would do! Well, of course, he had lines all around our booth every day. He thought no one would show up for his presentation -- it was in one of those gigantic Comic-Con rooms -- and it was standing room only. And he got an Inkpot award and the first Bloom County collection won an Eisner award. I practically had to drag him on stage to accept it with me. I can't tell you how nice that was, because he was so genuinely surprised and happy about the entire experience, the whole tremendous outpouring of emotion and goodwill towards him at Comic-Con. That's a great memory, one of many.

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* Wally Wood Artist's Edition, the new edition pre-order
* Wally Wood Artist's Edition, Wonder Con pick-up
* Romita Artist's Edition, limited edition
* Romita Artist's Edition, Wonder Con pick-up
* the IDW shop more generally

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* cover to the Wally Wood Artist's Edition WC pick-up
* photo of Dunbier from 2010
* cover to the John Romita Artist's Edition limited edition
* cover to the now sold-out first edition of the Wally Wood book
* image of original art page from the Simonson book, swiped from Chris Ryall's blog (sorry, Chris)
* a cover to one of the Rocketeer anthology comics
* a cover to the first of IDW's Bloom County collections
* interior page from the John Romita Artist's Edition WC pick-up (below)

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