Oni Press first appeared on the comics scene back in 1997, founded by Bob Schreck and Joe Nozemack. They started with the goal of being a publisher with a broader range and appeal than most. And on that they delivered.
Publisher James Lucas Jones joined the company in 1999, as a web developer and eventually as an assistant. He later progressed through the ranks, becoming Editor in Chief in 2004, and eventually Publisher just this past summer. We got a chance to sit down with James to talk about Oni, their anniversary, the industry and just our mutual love of comics!
James, thanks for joining us! We wanted to start by wishing you and everyone at Oni a happy twenty years! How does it feel for Oni to be twenty years old?
Super weird, to be honest. When Oni Press started publishing, I’d just gotten married and was working in IT and reading a bunch of comics. Back then, it felt like Fantagraphics was the only independent comics publisher with this kind of longevity. Dark Horse had just celebrated 10 years and Image was still relatively a startup. The market was kind of catering from a poorly managed speculator market. That didn’t scare off Joe and Bob though — they were interested in content and not collectibles from the jump.
I started freelancing for the company right around its second anniversary. Bob had left about 6 months before and Jamie S. Rich had taken over as EiC. I joined the staff six months later.
It always felt like we were the young bucks or the weird kids or whatever. It’s definitely an odd feeling to hit 20. That number makes us feel like a comics institution which is an interesting offset to the independent, DIY mentality I feel like we’ve always carried.
Can you tell us a little bit about your personal history of the company?
My first SDCC was also Oni Press’s. Joe and Bob were there even though they hadn’t put out a book yet. I was intrigued by the company, having been a fan of books Bob had edited at Dark Horse. I preordered Oni Double Feature #1 at my local comic shop later that fall and I read a bunch of the company’s output in that first sixth months. I ended up spending what was probably an obnoxious amount of time hanging at their booth during SDCC 1998.
Jamie was there hawking an upcoming comic called Geisha by cartoonist Andi Watson. I’d been a fan of Andi’s Skeleton Key series, but the passion Jamie exuded for this project really spoke to me. In my student days, I’d done a fair amount of publication work on high school and college newspapers and weeklies but editing comics wasn’t something I’d considered. At least not before I’d read an introduction Jamie had written for a Grendel Tales book by Darko Macan & Edvin Biukovik. It had been a nagging notion I couldn’t shake since then and meeting Jamie in person cemented it. On the trip home to Phoenix, I told my wife “I want that guy’s job.”
Over the next year, I read everything that Oni Press put out while also putting together a website for the aforementioned cartoonist, Andi Watson, and had spent a fair amount of time on Oni’s Yahoo Group. On that board I became friends with Jamie and I met up-and-coming cartoonists like Steve Rolston and Liz Prince. In fall of 1999, I took over Oni Press’s website on a freelance basis. I hung out with Jamie and Joe and a bunch of Oni Press creators at Alternative Press Expo in early 2000 and hit it off with the guys in person well enough that they offered me a part time job as an assistant.
Lucky for me, I’m married to the best person on the planet who enthusiastically supported me when I pitched her on quitting my stable, lucrative job in Phoenix so that we could move to Portland and start over in a brand new city for a part-time assistant job at a comic book publisher.
I balanced some freelance web development and that part time gig for about 6 months before coming on full time as an assistant/associate editor. I had a better handle on the technical/production end than a lot of newbie editors from my time, but it was Jamie who really taught me about editing comics. We were a three person shop back then. No in-house design. No in-house marketing or sales. Just Joe, Jamie, and I doing little pieces of everything to get it all done.
After about four years, Jamie left the company to pursue his own creative endeavors full-time and I took over as Editor in Chief shortly after. I spent nearly 13 years with that title, helping the company grow from 3 dudes in a single room sniping at one to a slightly larger indie operation with 16 employees and a massive graphic novel catalog. Over the summer, I transitioned out of the editorial department that had been my home for 17 years to take on the new challenge as Publisher.
(That was a ramble. Sorry. I probably should have included some kind of Scott Pilgrim anecdote in there to help keep folks from getting bored.)
How would you describe Oni Press?
A book publisher whose books happen to be comics. We know not every comic is for every person, but we know for every person there is a comic. Oni is a publishing house with a wide range of genres and intended audiences, tied together by compelling characters and creators who aren’t afraid to lean into their idiosyncrasies. A publisher that respects its creators, its employees, its colleagues, and its audience.
What is the advantage of Oni being an independent publisher?
Freedom to follow our gut. Freedom to do what we believe is right over what’s going to yield the highest profit margin.
Diversity in the comics industry is always a hot topic, and I would love to get your take on the situation and would love to know what steps Oni are taking to make the industry more diverse?
It’s not just a hot topic in comics. It’s books. Movies. TV. Theater — I mean, we’re living in the era of Lin Manuel Miranda (and how lucky we are to be alive right now). This isn’t a comics issue as much as it is a pop-culture issue.
I think the broad tastes of every iteration of Oni’s editorial team has put us ahead of the curve. The first book I edited at Oni was about girl adventurers at a boarding school. We’ve never been afraid to buck the comic market’s expectations.
I’d say Oni’s always been great about variety, but in terms of diversity, we had a ways to go. Executive Editor Ari Yarwood really pushed us to not be satisfied with the former when there’s so much of a need for the latter. It’s a process that’s not just about diversity, but representation, and how those concepts apply to both the comics and who is making them.
And we still have a ways to go. I hope we’re finding and fostering more underrepresented voices. It’s easy to make a case for diversity based on a couple titles but we try and be aware of who we’re publishing in a broad statistical sense. At the end of every year, Ari breaks down our books and creatives into a variety of demographic categories and we talk about those percentages. It’s not about ticking off boxes on some kind of diversity checklist but about being aware of how things are stacking and who is and isn’t getting a seat at the table. Hard data paints a clearer picture of that than anecdotal evidence.
When you became a part of the Oni Team 13 years ago, what were your goals for the company? What are your goals now as Publisher?
I took over as editor in chief 13 years ago. I joined Oni over 17 years ago.
When I joined the company I just wanted to help people make great comics and I think at the end of the day that’s still what it’s all about for me. We’ve spent our entire existence as a publisher focused on creators and their vision. As an editor my job was to help facilitate and support that vision. As publisher my job is to help facilitate and support the jobs of our editorial team, marketing, design, operations, and the creators to make books we can all be proud of and share in the success of.
Although I’m sure you’ve loved all the books you’ve put out, are there any specific projects that you’re particularly proud of?
I could talk about our books for hours! Argh. Okay. I can limit it to three — one that I edited, one that I didn’t, and one that I handed off at the finish line as I moved to publisher. The first is Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Lost at Sea. Everybody at Oni knows I’m overly fond of metaphors and one of my favorites is the editor as obstetrician. The creators are the parents. The book is their baby and they’re going to have to live with it forever. You can give the advice for what you think is going to make the best book/healthiest baby but they’re the ones that have to actually do it. I delivered a lot of books over my time in editorial, but Lost at Sea is like the baby born on a subway train during a massive blackout stranded in a tunnel. It’s the first long form book from Bryan and the first time I really felt like I knew what I was doing (a fleeting feeling, I promise).
The one I didn’t edit is Phil Gelatt and Tyler Crook’s Petrograd. We acquired this book as we were growing and I was part of putting the creators together but didn’t have room on my plate to be the editor. It’s Tyler’s first professional work and it’s maybe the best book we’ve ever published? We’ve published some really really great books, but Phil and Tyler’s tale of betrayal and revolution would have to be in any conversation about which is the best.
Finally, my editorial swan song is a middle grade graphic novel called Sci-Fu by Yehudi Mercado. Yehudi has been a friend of Oni for years but it took a beat to find the right project for us to work on together. Sci-Fu takes hip hop and science fiction and kung fu and turns it into some comic book magic with larger than life characters and an out-of-this-world setting. The first book comes out in March and I couldn’t be more anxious for it to be out the world. Desiree Wilson, who joined editorial over the summer, helped button everything up and will be editing the series from here on out.
Oni is sort of unique among small publishers, as you’ve been very successful without a large number of licensed comics. Can you tell us why you feel that is? Is your team a little more particular with license procurement?
Oh, I definitely think we’re a little picky about them. Licenses are a lot of work. They are friggin’ hard. Like I was saying earlier, I, and I think most of the folks at Oni, came onboard because we have a desire to help facilitate and support creators’ visions.
For books like Rick and Morty and Invader Zim, we went to the creators of those projects first to make sure they were into the idea of comics and that our visions for what they should be meshed before we approached Cartoon Network or Nick. Having that creator buy-in and in the case of Zim, intimate involvement, helps give the comics an authenticity that makes them more than just cash grabs. We’re also lucky to work with great teams at both Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, who really understand what we’re trying to do with the comics and are incredibly supportive.
Dead of Winter: Good Good Dog is a little different. Charlie Chu, our VP of Business & Creative Development, discovered the game and fell in love. He had the whole office playing. Through the miracle of GenCon he got to gush about it to the folks at Plaid Hat Games and despite his fawning they became pals. Then he got Kyle Starks addicted to board games and through another GenCon miracle they hatched the plan for a comic about the best dog of the zombie apocalypse. Plaid Hat gave the thumbs up and we were off to the races.
We’ll keep adding licenses in 2018 and beyond, but we’re also going to continue being selective because quite frankly we’re spoiled by the ones we have and want to do everything in our power to continue the streak.
How has 2017 been for Oni comics?
I gotta say, it’s been pretty great. We’ve gotten to publish so many awesome books by so many impressive people.
How does Oni go about finding new talent?
A lot of the first-time creators that we’re publishing over the next couple years came to us through the period of open submissions in 2015. Outside of that, our editorial team reads a lot of comics and books in a variety of formats — from minis and self-published works to webcomics to work from other publishers. We all cruise artist alley at every show we attend and keep our eye out for folks we think would be a good fit. Sometimes it’s a matter of seeing work in all of those contexts that makes the creator’s stuff click with the editor. Sometimes they know as soon as they see it. It’s a little different every time.
That all for part one, stay tuned for part two.
Photo of James Lucas Jones by April Baer.