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QRD #28, January 2005
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John Ostrander Interview January 2005

John Ostrander wrote the hit 80's comic GrimJack for First Comics who were probably one of the five biggest comic companies at the time.  It's a sci-fi-noir story.  An aged soldier become private investigator (or mercenary depending on your point of view) trying to stay true to himself in a corrupt city where all the dimensions of the universe meet.  Somehow I blur GrimJack into my vision of a Jedi Knight, which is interesting since Ostrander currently writes Star Wars comics.  Anyway, here's the interview....

QRD - So I guess the big news is the straightening out of rights for GrimJack. Have you been working on that since back when First Comics went under?

John - Off and on. Discussions, negotiations, breaking off negotiations, talking again. It wasn't until about three years ago that the discussions started getting really serious and, better, constructive. Even after that, it still took a lot of time and work, mostly on Mike Gold's part.

QRD - Every once in a while in some of your other comics (Hawkman comes to mind) there seemed to be a character in the shadows who might've been GrimJack, has GrimJack made any unofficial appearances? 

John - Not really, not that I've done. Chris Claremont liked the character and setting and did a version in an X-MEN story. Roger Zelazny did a version that appeared in one of the later AMBER novels. But I've always been careful to make sure GrimJack was NOT part of what I did elsewhere; I didn't want to confuse the legal and copyright questions any more than they were.

QRD - In GrimJack when the initial John Gaunt character died (to be replaced by his clone), did you plan to end the series?

John - No, not at all. His return was part of that arc. But I wanted to do something that the readers might not be expecting and then have them go, "Okay, how are you going to get out of THIS one?"

QRD - Why did you decide to start a new GrimJack series in a prequel setting rather than after the end of the initial series? 

John - First of all, we had Tim Truman back and Tim wanted to draw John Gaunt. And I'm not an idiot (okay, not a C0MPLETE idiot) ? having Tim back would get the fans real excited and, frankly, would jazz me no end as well. Secondly, it actually makes good sense. There's plenty in the backstory that we've never explored that the old fans would be interested in. PLUS it would be more accessible to new readers and we want to be reader friendly. Third, not all the characters' relationships are quite as set as they would be later. Nor does Gaunt really have the same street cred at this point. Having to see him earn that, see how it came about ? I thought that would allow us to do something slightly different yet with everything that would appeal to old readers as well. We love our old fans!

QRD - I'm under the impression you were raised Catholic & went to Catholic school. How do you think this tradition has influenced your writing? 

John - Yeah, I was raised RC and even thought of becoming a priest, to the point of going to the seminary for a year until I decided my "vocation" was just an overdose of "Going My Way" (the TV series, not the movie). I think my later QUESTIONING of religion as I was raised in it has informed more of my writing although moral questions are a strong part of my writing.

QRD - Your story‚ “Retro Active Abortion‚” from Wasteland makes a pretty powerful argument towards the conclusion that life starts at conception within a 2000 AD style story. Is this your personal belief & do you think there's a lack of people willing to discuss such controversial issues in comics? 

John - What's interesting about R.Ab. as a story is that people on both sides of the abortion issue think it is espousing the OTHER side's view. The idea that "life starts at conception" is your conclusion, not mine. I think there is a tendency to shy away from the controversial in comics mainly because the publishers want to SELL comics and offending part of the paying public is not perceived as good business. Not unless the controversy helps sell the book.

QRD - Why did you decide to do the GrimJack graphic novel instead of just telling that story within GrimJack? 

John - Because First Comics wanted to do a GJ graphic novel and wanted to feature Flint Henry who was the current artist. Given all that, it has to be a pretty important story to justify the fan spending that kind of money on it, IMO. We counterpointed it with telling the story of the DEMON WARS in the regular comic while Flint was off drawing the graphic novel. The GN came out almost right after the miniseries within the series. Both could be read separately but, together, I felt they added a deeper punch.

QRD - With the regaining of rights & the current trend of comic book movies (from American Splendor & Ghost World to Spiderman & Daredevil), do you foresee a GrimJack movie in the near future? 

John - I'd love it! The technology (with CGI) is there now in ways that it was never there before and, needless to say, I think it would be a big hit. But I may be SLIGHTLY prejudiced<g>!

QRD - What comic book movie has been your favorite & what one have you found truest to the story?

John - In the past several years there have been several good movies made from comics, including both X-MEN movies, HELLBOY, AMERICAN SPLENDOUR and SPIDER-MAN. All keep pretty true to their roots although, for me, the best superhero movie in recent years was SPIDER-MAN 2. It was filled with nice little touches that worked so nicely if you knew the comic well.

QRD - Do you feel that Black Jack Mac might have been influential to the character design of Morpheus in The Matrix?

John - Not really. I think the actor who played the part was more influential to the character design.

QRD - I know you used to write a lot of eight page stories (from the initial GrimJack stories in Starslayer to Munden's Bar to Wasteland). Do you feel the eight-page story is a format that should be revived in comics? 

John - Oh yes. It's a really good place for a writer to go and check their fundamentals. Keeps you sharp. I don't know if it's commercially viable, especially as self-contained stories, but I think it's a great way to hone your craft.

QRD - Suicide Squad is often seen as a major influence to some of the early Vertigo titles like Doom Patrol, Shade, & Animal Man. However you never really seemed to get too involved with Vertigo yourself, is there a reason why? 

John - I don't know as there really was an influence there. Most of those books were being developed at the same time so I'm not even certain the writers on those books ever read Squad.  Most of my work seemed to work fine in the DC Universe and I guess that's just where I stayed.

QRD - Over the past 20 years the dominance of straight ahead super hero comics seems to have receded a bit. Do you think the realization that a lot more stories can be told will eventually lead to an acceptance of comics as not just for kids? What do you think would have to happen for a greater acceptance & how would it effect the industry? 

John - Don't kid yourself; the mainstream market is all about superheroes. And with the popularity of the superhero movies and superhero type movies (including martial arts films like "Hero"), I don't think that's going to change. It'll be modified and the CONCEPT of superhero may change but, in the American market at least, I don't see a big change. What is more likely to bring about change is the phenomenal growth of manga in this country and the audience it hits which appears to be outside mainstream American comics. One of the bigger problems that I see is that there isn't ENOUGH comics for kids these days; kids go elsewhere for their entertainment and even their fantasy (look at the success of Harry Potter). I think we have to stop worrying about whether comics will be "accepted" by the mainstream (and maybe worry a little more about what happens if it is) and just get on with what we do. Expanding the types of comics sold would be great, but I don't know if the major companies are ever going to be into that.

QRD - Do you find it easier to work with characters you've created or within the constraints of an established character? 

John - Well, my own characters are easier because I have more control over them (in theory anyway). But working creatively with established characters is not difficult if you're given a little latitude and room to work.

QRD - Besides the problems that occasionally arise with payment what are the differences between working for an indie publisher & a major publisher? Do you feel Dark Horse has crossed over to be classed as a major publisher? 

John - In quality, Dark Horse is certainly a major published. Arguably, in its importance to the industry, that's also true. I don't know about sheer volume; that remains difficult. It's terms of sheer longevity, DH is a major player, and in terms of its properties going on to other media, that's also pretty much true. I'm enjoying working with IDW a lot at the moment and the major difference right now for me is that a smaller publisher can give you more focus and really push your project. At a major company, your project can get lost in the shuffle and suffer from lack of PR. 
With a much smaller publisher, there's always concern if they're going to be able to make payments to you. CrossGen has gone out of business and Todd McFarland's part of Image has filed for Chapter 11 protection.

QRD - Lately there have been a lot of experiments going on with online comics. Is there anyone doing this in a way that you feel has a good business model? What do you see as the major pluses & minuses for paperless comics? 

John - The major minus in a paperless comic, IMO, is. . .the lack of paper. To me, reading on screen is a different sensation than holding a comic in your hands and reading it. I might argue that it's even a different art form; the format that something is in affects the content. Early television was thought of a "visual radio" until they started defining what worked for THAT medium as OPPOSED to what works for radio.
I really haven't worked with the online format so I don't feel qualified to pontificate on it. 

QRD - You interact a lot with your fans by hosting a discussion board on your website where you post everyday. How important do you think this fan connection is to your writing & why don't you think more writers interact in this way? 

John - Can't speak for other writers but I feel that you have to WORK to earn fan loyalty. If the fans get to know you, if they feel a personal connection with you aside from the work itself, I think they are more likely to follow you from project to project. I also just enjoy doing it.

QRD - I know you started writing comics because of an invitation to do some work at First Comics, when did you realize it was potentially a full time career? 

John - The moment I was able to quit my survival job and just write. I was a professional actor in those days which meant I didn't work much and certainly didn't make enough from that to live on. It's when I decided that I would rather write than act and retired from the stage that I knew I was a full-time writer.

QRD - Do you deliver completed scripts to the artist you work with or alter things somewhat from your original intentions based on the artists interpretations? 

John - I can do either depending on the artist. Some artists I never see or talk with; the script is there. Some others, like Jan Duursema on STAR WARS, I tinker a lot. Some artists, like Tim Truman or Tom Mandrake, I prefer to work plot first and then script. You adapt to the needs of the story, the artist, and/or the company you're working with.

QRD - It seems within Marvel & DC there is a trend to have some major characters have a series appealing towards more adult readers & another series oriented towards children. Do you think this is a sound idea? Would you be interested in working in the younger reader format? 

John - I tell stories. I don't worry about who they are for. As a kid, I read a lot of things that others thought were over my head and I think kids today can do the same thing. OTOH, at Cons, I might steer a very young child (below 8 or so) from certain of my books and the parents are always very thankful.

QRD - With the growth of indie cartoons on Adult Swim as well as the internet, do you foresee yourself ever becoming involved in cartoons? 

John - Never say never but my inclination I actually want to go more towards books and novels.

QRD - How much do you think comic books should cost? Do you think the current price of around $3 is fair? 

John - Given the cost to produce it, I'd say yes. Of course, as a fan from WAY back, I think comics should cost a dime or, at most, a quarter. GrimJack, of course, is worth its' weight in gold. GOLD, I say!

QRD - What comics do you regularly read & why? 

John - POWERS, ASTRO CITY, PLANETARY, THE ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR, JSA ? lots of others. What links them all is the writing. I tend to follow writers that I like/admire a lot. Brian Bendis, Kurt Busiek, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Geoff Johns, Alan Moore, Mark Waid -- all writers that I like to read, who tell a good story, who professionally I need to see what they're up to. There's lots of others, including some friends, who I didn't mention and I hope I didn't offend any of them. I'm just hoping to keep the list within manageable lengths. My buddy Tim Truman is also a helluva good writer. Damn him.

QRD - Do you think collected books should replace collectible high priced back issues or that rarities are a part of the fun of comic books? 

John - I think the reality is that collected books (TPBs ? trade paperbacks) HAVE replaced back issues. You get more for the money and they stand easier on the bookshelf, I think there are fans who want to own the original comics and that, for them, that will always be part of the fun of comics. And should be. But for a lot of people, they're interested in a certain character or a certain story and want to read that.

QRD - Anything else?

John - Yeah. In addition to GRIMJACK, Jan Duursema and I have been doing a lot of work on STAR WARS REPUBLIC, especially since the CLONE WARS started. Folks, these are beautiful COMICS. I don't care whether or not you're into the films or not ? as science fantasy or what we used to call "space opera", this is terrific stuff and Jan has been doing of the best work of her career. Artwise, it's as good as anything out there. A lot of fans pass them by because they're not into Star Wars and I think that's a big mistake. These really are just good comics and anyone who likes GrimJack would like our rogue Jedi, Quinlan Vos. As a better comics writer than I was known to say, "'Nuff Said".