This installment of “Palmer’s Picks” marked a distinct departure from the previous columns, although you wouldn’t know it at first glance.
When I wrote all of my earlier “Picks” for Wizard, I would do my research like I was writing a term paper: aside from amassing as many comics as I could find by my subject, I would seek out news articles and even information contained in the comics themselves—editorials and letters pages were a decent resource to find out information on a cartoonist. But this column for Wizard #26 was the first one where I conducted a phone interview with the artist I was profiling.
James Owen sent a package to me containing the early issues of his self-published Starchild series, along with a press release that contained his phone number. Since he was fairly new on the scene (only a handful of issues were available), the only way I would be able to have enough material to write a full-length column would be to give Owen a call. Being a shy 18-year-old at the time, I had to gather up a lot of nerve to pick up the phone and cold-call a complete stranger. Wizard was the top magazine about comics, but they mainly focused on the hot trends of the day. I sometimes thought that a lot of the cartoonists I wrote about would be appalled to be seen in a magazine like Wizard, like it would take away some of their “cred” or something. So you can see why the guy writing about independent comics for Wizard would be a little wary about calling up artists to talk to them. But my fears went away when I got on the phone with Owen. He was kind and helpful and willing to answer all of my questions. He was also very appreciative of the chance to get some attention for his comic in the pages of Wizard.
Since this was my first phone interview, I did things the old-fashioned way: I took notes on little index cards. That would explain why there are no direct quotes from Owen in my article. After this column came together successfully, I strolled down to the local RadioShack and picked up a recording device: a little suction cup thingie that attached to the back of a phone receiver and connected to the microphone jack on a tape recorder. The early ’90s really was the dark ages of technology.
Looking over my original index cards from that phone interview, I can see that I jotted down the rough outline for the entire 100 issue Starchild series that Owen conveyed to me, a few scattered notes about his earlier work, and not much else. It’s a miracle that I was able to assemble all of that into a readable piece of writing! I also must have used the opportunity of doing a phone interview to do a little networking, because I also wrote down the phone number of Jeff Smith, who was to be the subject of the next “Palmer’s Picks.”
Owen’s plans for Starchild were big. Aside from the aforementioned 100 issue roadmap, Owen pledged to release the series every month until it was complete. Did he stick to that schedule? Let me check the handy-dandy calendar…Starchild #9 has a cover date of May 1994, and the following issue is from August 1994. So, apparently the monthly schedule didn’t last too long. And how about that 100 issue thing? Well, when you add up all of the issues of the story published over a variety of mini-series, you end up with a little over twenty.
I’m not pointing this out to detract from Owen’s achievements. Instead, it illustrates just how bad the comic book market became for self-publishers in the late ’90s. Marvel Comics bought it’s own distribution company in 1994, kicking off a frenzy of other publishers locking up exclusive deals with the two largest remaining distributors, Diamond and Capital City. Owen was savvy enough to ink a deal to take his Coppervale Press exclusive with Capital, but Diamond had secured exclusives with DC, Image and Dark Horse, giving them a clear advantage. It was only a matter of time before Capital was acquired by Diamond, securing a monopoly on direct market distribution that exists to this day.
As a result of all of this turmoil, a lot of self-publishers had to regroup. Some sought refuge at Image Comics. Others used their self-published work as a springboard for mainstream work. And others left the comics industry completely. After a brief, unfinished run of Starchild: Mythopolis at Image, Owen moved on to a more successful career as a novelist. He’s written a series of best-selling fantasy novels, The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica, and has announced plans to finish Starchild, this time as a series of prose novels. In the meantime, you can check out the original Starchild comic stores repackaged in a variety of formats, and my original profile of James Owen from the summer of 1993.
Owen Producing A Shining Starchild
by Tom Palmer Jr.
One of the growing problems in the comic industry is the lateness of many of the books that come out. It is a difficulty that plagues virtually every comic company, large or small. In fact, it’s very easy to count on your fingers the number of publishers that adhere to a schedule with all of their books. When companies are late with their titles, just about everybody along the line, from creator to reader, is affected. Artists are forced to either scramble to make up for lost time or just let their lateness pile up; distributors waste space in their catalogs for books that might never arrive; stores are forced to tie up their money in unfilled orders; and fans are kept waiting for the next issues of their favorite titles.
While it is virtually impossible for a publisher to maintain a perfect schedule with all of its books, some have been able to take action to ensure that their comics come out on time. One of these publishers is Taliesin Press, which is entirely owned and run by James A. Owen. The company’s sole title is Starchild, a gothic fantasy series created, written, and illustrated by Owen. Despite an incredibly rough start, Owen has committed himself to publishing Starchild every month until the conclusion of the series at issue 100.
James Owen is a relative newcomer to comics, with a background in animation storyboarding and lithography. He published a comic during the “black and white glut” of 1986, and was luckily able to survive without losing his shirt. After some time away from comics, Owen tried to return with an adaptation of George Eliot’s Silas Mamer for First’s Classics Illustrated line. Unfortunately, First went bankrupt before Owen could finish his adaptation. He bounced some ideas around at some other publishers, including a Superman Elseworlds proposal for DC, before deciding to self-publish.
Owen decided to publish Starchild, a story he had been working on for nearly nine years. The first issue of Starchild arrived on schedule in September of 1992 from Owen’s Taliesin Press. The second issue arrived late, but Owen arranged to make up for it by scheduling the third and fourth issues two weeks apart. Everything seemed fine until a horrible tragedy struck in November, when Owen was involved in a car accident that seriously damaged his drawing hand. In one small instant, he had lost just about everything he had worked for. His schedule was shot, Taliesin Press lost the small but significant recognition it had gained, and it remained to be seen if Owen’s hand would recover enough for him to continue drawing.
Fortunately, Owen’s hand got better, but there seemed to be no way for him to make up for what he had lost. To fix this problem, he decided to publish a special prequel to the series, Starchild #0, with help from some other comic artists. Owen provided the story and layouts, with finished illustrations by Will Eisner, Colleen Doran, Dave Sim and Gerhard, Paul Chadwick, and others. The comic was a success, and it brought Owen and Taliesin Press back bigger than they were before. Owen is now ahead of schedule, and has promised to publish Starchild monthly until the completion of the story at issue 100.
By the end of the year, the first 12-issue book of the story will be finished, and Owen will be able to package his first collection. The Starchild storyline is roughly made up of a series of extended stories separated by a series of four-issue short stories titled “Fools’ Hollow.” The titles of some of the longer stories are “Metropolis,” “Childhood’s End,” and “Archipelago.” With all of this advance planning, it is apparent that Owen definitely has a direction that he hopes to follow, and a story he has to tell with his comic.
Starchild is a mix of many different influences and stories, ranging from highly-detailed fantasy artwork to the Superman mythos. The art in Starchild is heavily influenced by the Studio artists of the ’70s, most notably Berni Wrightson and Barry Windsor-Smith. Since his car accident, Owen’s artwork has become cleaner, while still retaining the fine-line quality of his influences. The storytelling and writing of the comic is reminiscent of some of the best writers in comics, like Alan Moore, Dave Sim and Neil Gaiman. Owen has already been able to find a voice of his own, mixing tightly-woven plotting with lyrical writing and sly inside humor.
Over the summer, Owen has been promoting his comic at several trade shows and conventions. Interest in Starchild is on the rise, with many distributors and store owners showing their support of Owen and his work. Buyers are interested in the art and storytelling in Starchild, while stores and distributors are attracted to the monthly schedule that Owen has announced. Despite all of this attention, it might still be a little difficult to find Starchild. If this is the case, order directly from Taliesin Press.
Coming up: Next month I’ll cover Jeff Smith’s Bone, which I have mentioned several times in the past. I’m still open to any suggestions or questions you might have, so just jot them down and send them to Palmer’s Picks, c/o Wizard Press,
100 Red Schoolhouse Rd, Bldg. B-1, Chestnut Ridge, N.Y. 10977.
Tom Palmer, Jr. isn’t feeling clever today, so instead of being witty, he’ll just tell you that he’s a pretty mellow guy. Right now, he’s being mellow in New Jersey.
Tom’s Recommended Reading
Starchild— It’s pretty much James Owen’s first work in comics, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to track down all of his work. All issues have been published by Owen’s own Taliesin Press, and are in black and white with full-color wraparound covers. The seventh issue should be out as you read this, and future issues will appear on a monthly schedule. Second printings of the first and second issues are also available. Both include eight new pages of story, and the first includes a recoloring of the cover illustration. If you have trouble finding any issues of Starchild or any of the goodies listed bellow, you can order all of these items directly from James Owen at Taliesin Press,
1750 South Alma School #119, Mesa, Ariz. 85210-3017. Single issues are available by mail for $3, and subscriptions are $36 for one year.
Number Zero-“Gatherum”—Features guest illustrations by a long list of big-name artists such as Will Eisner, Dave Sim and Gerhard, Colleen Doran, Paul Chadwick, Martin Wagner, and P. Craig Russell, based on layouts by Owen. The comic was designed as a sort of benefit book to help Owen through his recovery from his car accident, and to get Starchild and Taliesin Press back on track.
“The Study”—This is a black and white print by Owen, limited to 245 signed and numbered copies. The image is a preliminary drawing for the cover of the second issue, reproduced on heavy, acid-free stock. It can be ordered for $23, postpaid. Forty of the prints were signed with a thumbprint instead of a signature due to Owen’s accident. Because it is more scarce than the regular signature, some stores are charging more for the thumbprinted version.
“Rebirth”—Due to the success of the first print, Owen has produced another black and white print. This time, the print is a new illustration of the Starchild from a future storyline. Once again, the image is printed on heavy, acid-free stock in a fine line process to reproduce all of Owen’s pen work. Copies can be ordered for $23, postpaid.
“The Pre-Raphaelite and Otherwise Artistically Influenced Starchild T-Shirt”—This is pretty much self-explanatory. You buy it, you wear it, and you like it. Its an ash-colored shirt with an image from Starchild on the front and the Taliesin Press logo on the back in black and burgundy. The price is $11.95, and can be ordered from Taliesin Press.