The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
In comics, it sometimes
helps to be a bit crazy

February 18, 1999
By Franklin Harris

Second of two parts

You'd have to be crazy to start up a comic-book publishing company these days.

In the past year, comics publishers have folded left and right.

Kitchen Sink, publisher of the works of R. Crumb and Will Eisner, no longer exists as a publishing house -- although I hear it still makes great candy bars.

Topps Comics, which held the rights to publish comics based on "The X-Files" and "Xena: Warrior Princess," is no more. Even once-mighty Marvel Comics threatens to collapse, taking the bulk of comics specialty stores with it.

And never mind all the other publishers that have traveled the dodo's path in recent years: First Comics, Comico, Malibu, Innovation and others.

Like I said, you'd have to be crazy.

And crazy might just be the word to describe Bob Schreck and Joe Nozemack, co-founders and co-publishers of Oni Press.

Oni's debut

Oni shocked the comics industry in 1998, although it came on the scene modestly enough, publishing an anthology title called "Oni Double Feature."

The first "Oni Double Feature" included a story written by Kevin Smith, acclaimed independent filmmaker ("Clerks," "Chasing Amy") and self-acknowledged comic-book fanboy.

Later, Oni published some comics based on Smith's films, and a strange thing happened.

Oni got noticed.

Wizard magazine, which rarely pays much attention to comics not featuring spandex-clad superheroes, declared "Oni Double Feature" No. 1 and the first "Clerks" comic to be hot properties.

Fans noticed, too, and both comics went into multiple printings.

Smith was hot stuff, and Oni had him.

Oni also published works by established comics giants like Frank Miller ("Bad Boy") and Neil Gaiman ("It's Only the End of the World Again," serialized in "Oni Double Feature"), as well as stories by less familiar artists like Paul Pope, Andi Watson and Scott Morse.

It's a funny thing what happens when you bring a bunch of creative people together and simply let them create.

And it's funny how many creative people want to work for you when you give them free reign.

In the midst of the worst recession the comics industry has ever seen, Oni Press is prospering.

This year, Oni plans more books from Smith and Morse, as well as projects by Mike Allred, who is best known for his "Madman" comics, and Paul Dini, the top dog behind the "Batman" cartoon series.

Also coming up is "Grrl Scouts" by Jim Mahfood, the artist on Smith's two "Clerks" books.

So far this year, Oni has taken a chance on publishing a comic by Penn Jillette, the more talkative half of the comedy/magic team of Penn and Teller.

And I, for one, am looking forward to more of Jillette's "Adventures of Rheumy Peepers and Chunky Highlights."

Lest I sound like Oni Press' publicity department, I should note that some of the "Oni Double Feature" stories thus far have been more miss than hit.

But that is how it sometimes is with anthology books.

And at least Oni is trying, which is more than can be said about most of the mainstream comics publishers, all of whom have more resources to spend on developing new talent.

Whether or not Oni succeeds in the long run may have more to do with the health of the overall comics market than with anything Oni itself does. But the comics industry's health could only improve if more companies took Oni's approach to publisher/creator relations.

The number crunchers and editors at Marvel Comics could learn a thing or two from Oni's creator-friendly environment and the success that environment has produced so far.

Monica's story

In other independent comics news, Alternative Press is making waves of its own.

President Clinton still may be in office, but the embarrassment goes on: "Monica's Story," a comic-book account of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, is now available.

"Monica's Story" is adapted from the Starr Report by Anonymous and features art by James Kolchalka and Tom Hart.

I'll have a review of all the dirty details next week.

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