Rich Johnston is the sole relevant gossip columnist for an entire artistic industry in America. Sometimes scandalous, his columns have broken major stories and changed the face of comics historicism, radically breaking it away from the regurgitation of company press releases and creators’ self-promotion. But he is more than a controversial and important figure in American comics: he is also an award-winning writer and artist who has worked extensively in advertising.
JULIAN DARIUS: Hi, Rich. Thanks for the interview.
Where were you raised and what do you remember most about your childhood?
RICH JOHNSTON: A town called Pontefract, in West Yorkshire, in the north of England. No comic shops but Marvel U.K. reprints to bring me up. Lee / Kirby reprints — great to read when you’re 8 — even if they were 20 years old by then.
DARIUS: I understand that you started writing a comics gossip column in the early 1990s for the usenet. This was presumably while you were studying at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where you earned your B.A. in 1994. What were the circumstances that led to you this kind of reporting? Did you have connections in the industry at the time, or did these early writings not resemble the ones you do now?
JOHNSTON: I started reprinting bits from Comics International‘s gossip column, then undistributed in the U.S.A. That’s it. The column started to attract e-mail from comic book pros and fans with their own stories to add. It became the column I wanted to read; the audience has only ever been myself. Now it’s reprinted in Comics Internationalevery month. I believe that’s called the cycle of life.
DARIUS: Or at least a sign of success. At the time, what did you want to be when you grew up?
JOHNSTON: A writer. Turned out quite nicely.
DARIUS: Did you see yourself as a columnist or did you want to write original comic books? I mean, was DC or Marvel or 2000 A.D. your dream gig at the time?
JOHNSTON: I wasn’t even thinking about comics. I just wanted to write something, anything, and find a way to get paid for the privilege. Advertising just kind of snuck up on me when I wasn’t looking. As for comics — I don’t know. The only franchise properties that’s ever really appealed to me were probably that Captain Britain world created by Moore and Davis, and The Authority. I’ve entertained a thought or two about comics I could write in those worlds — but mostly it’s been my own weird stuff that wants me to write it.
DARIUS: After that, you started the first incarnation of the gossip column on the web at your own website. Was that the Twist and Shout Comics site?
JOHNSTON: That’s the one.
DARIUS: Then your column moved to NextPlanetOver. This was a big gig at the time, as NextPlanetOver had a massive advertising campaign and seemed to become a major comics site overnight, particularly for ordering comics online. It seemed like the Amazon.com of comics for a while, though it rapidly declined and as of this writing is up for sale. Apparently, your column only lasted a mere two weeks there. I understand that there was some interference from the industry… cue horrid tale… .
JOHNSTON: Four columns were written — they paid me for four; they printed only two. There are two versions of the story — one that it wasn’t getting enough hits. The other is that Kurt Busiek and Mark Waid told NPO that they would do no interviews or features with them while I was employed there. Bless them. Anyway, NPO dropped the column and soon after dropped itself.
DARIUS: Then you were hired by Silver Bullet Comics, where the column appeared as “All the Rage”. Was there a time lag between the abortive NextPlanetOver gig and being hired at Silver Bullet Comics?
JOHNSTON: Nope. I was writing an opinion piece for them anyway; the column took its place.
DARIUS: The column now appears as “Lying in the Gutters” at Comic Book Resources. What were the circumstances of your move there? I can imagine that they wanted to improve their list of column writers; they hired Mark Millar at about the same time.
JOHNSTON: They offered money. I liked that idea. It appealed to my sense of greed. I would like all your money, please. In fact, how much are you paying me to do this interview?
DARIUS: Errr… moving on, you’ve also done a number of comics, both in print and online. For Twist and Shout Comics, there was Dirtbag #1-7, about a teleporting sentient trash heap and its inhabitants. There was also X-Flies, an X-Files parody, that saw four issues and two specials in 1996 and 1997, I believe. What am I missing here?
JOHNSTON: That’s the main stuff. I drew for Foul!, The Factor and did a number of small press projects. These days, I find my time’s at a bit of a premium to draw — although the recent 24 hour comic at 24.ninthart.com was good way to do a lot of work quickly. I’m currently planning an original graphic anthology for next year.
DARIUS: Any details or is it top-secret?
JOHNSTON: Not really, just a collection of short stories. Calling it Meme Streets. That might change.
DARIUS: You’ve also done commercial work, particularly in advertising, including web banners for Cartoon Network, others for Hewlett Packard, and some hilarious work on Nescafé’s “Metropolis” iced coffee drink. Could you elaborate on this portion of your life? Were those lines in the “Metropolis” ads, like “chugging down a Nescafé Metropolis might make you realize the mundane futility of your brain-deadening existence,” yours? If so, I’m quite jealous.
JOHNSTON: ‘Fraid so. Um. Advertising pays me a lot of money to write silly stuff. I’m currently writing mobile phone ads for Radioville.
DARIUS: There’s certainly a subversive strain in those ads. Is this a problem for the companies involved?
JOHNSTON: I’m paid to write what they want me to — generally giving clients a choice of tone or approach. What you see is what they chose. The John Smith’s work is probably still my favourite, subverting the usual point-of-sale message: “Two For The Price Of Two”, “Buy One, Get None Free” kind of thing.
DARIUS: Regarding the 24-hour comic that you recently completed … I particularly enjoyed seeing 9/11 as a brand logo, but I was wondering: is the rather scathing depiction of advertising executives seen there based on your experience in advertising?
JOHNSTON: Oh yes. All advertising executives are scum. Still, they buy rounds of drinks so they can’t be all bad.
DARIUS: I see that you were awarded Punch Magazine‘s Young Writer Of The Year Award for 2001 for an essay on playing horrid downloaded music in the office. What prompted you to write an essay for a contest, especially one for young writers?
JOHNSTON: I didn’t! I wrote it for a BBC TV website spin-off called www.seethru.co.uk, from the TV programme Attachments. It was picked up, I was asked how old I was, and about a year after I’d written it (and it was topical), I got a cheque for five hundred quid from Mohammed Al Fayed. The magazine promptly folded. Attachments was cancelled. [The website] seethru is gone. You see how these things work, don’t you?
DARIUS: What do you prefer to do these days — original comic books, advertising, or your columns?
JOHNSTON: Neither — my favourite is writing radio comedy scripts. I’m reworking something called Holed Up! as a series of linked radio sketches, hopefully to broadcast on the internet next year. It’s about an American isolationist family holed up in the Idaho mountains against the pinko commie government who want to take their guns. And grenades. And surface-to-air missiles. It’s your average American family sitcom with semi-automatic weaponry, basically.
Or I might do it as a comic.
DARIUS: Some people might find Holed Up!, along with your other comics work, pretty violent. Is there a philosophical basis for this or is it just plain fun?
JOHNSTON: Violence is an immoral, sick disease — when it’s done well. I am constantly intrigued that people, as well as being a highly advanced sentient mindspace, are also a collection of matter, blood, guts and sinew. I have a hard time marrying the two philosophically, so blowing people up plays with that dichotomy for me. Which is a real poncey way to justify explosions.
DARIUS: I don’t know. I think it may be one of the deepest issues we deal with as humans, this mental self separated from our bodies of both beauty and rot. Incidentally, I read your proposals [in your new "Waiting for Tommy" column at Dynamic Forces] for Marvel characters with Joe Quesada’s responses attached. I thought they were hilarious, particularly the Punisher one, in which he begins killing in the hospital where he was born, strangling a nurse with his umbilical cord. Were those really Joe Quesada’s responses?
JOHNSTON: Oh yes. Watch for DC’s turn in the next few weeks.
DARIUS: Are you personna non gratta at the major companies, or do you think a DC or Marvel comic would ever appear with your name on it — as in “written by” as opposed to, say, “In this issue, Wolverine guts Rich Johnston”?
JOHNSTON: I don’t believe I could ever be employed by a company while writing the column. I occasionally entertain fancies that such a thing might happen, but that’s all they’re likely to be. Although that Marville rumour did intrigue… .
DARIUS: Could you explain that for our audience?
JOHNSTON: Apparently, if Marville does go beyond its allotted six issues, it’ll need a writer. Marville‘s sole intent seems to be to drive Paul Levitz up the wall. Now, who else has a history of doing that?
DARIUS: It occured to me that this might be a relatively cheap way for Marvel or DC to get rid of your column. You know, “Hey, Rich, want a contract for twelve issues? Oh, you’ll have to cancel your column to avoid conflict of interest. That’s a shame. I hear Paul Levitz is all broken up about it. But we’d love for you to write The Punisher for a year… .” Perhaps somebody should suggest this to them.
JOHNSTON: Well, you know, if anyone fancies it… certainly, if I were to write Marville after Bill Jemas’ run as some folks have mentioned, the column may have to go on hiatus. Possibly. We’ll see, eh?
DARIUS: I suppose that leads into the more nitty-gritty stuff about your column.
Let’s start with terminology. I don’t imagine you over-sensitive on the subject, but how do you regard yourself? You may be a gossip column, but not in the old sense of Louella Parsons. Do you prefer “rumor” to “gossip”? Is something like “speculative news” more accurate? Does it matter to you?
JOHNSTON: Well, I don’t make any of it up — hell, I don’t need to. I generally go with gossip / rumour. I find myself writing closer to Ephraim Hardcastle, Media Monkey, Popbitch, Matthew Norman, [and] Miranda Hyde, I guess, than anything else. My stylistic influences, you could say.
DARIUS: So your response when you see yourself referred to as “comics gossip / rumor columnist, Rich Johnston” is … ?
JOHNSTON: Hello, that’s me.
DARIUS: How long does it take you to prepare a column? What’s your writing process?
JOHNSTON: It takes a week. I get e-mails, I read stuff, I follow things up, I annoy Patty Jeres, and I spend quite a few hours on the weekend writing up everything I’ve gathered.
DARIUS: Who’s Patty Jeres?
JOHNSTON: DC’s PR guru, also known as Head Censor.
DARIUS: You clearly have a number of at least occasional sources within the industry. Yet you also, at the bottom of your current column, provide an open call for information. How would you say your sources break down?
JOHNSTON: Sobbing, pleading for mercy.
DARIUS: Nice. Preferably after they’ve received the blackmail photos.
I suppose that your sources vary week by week, but I noticed in your call for information that you ask for those who have simply overheard things. How often does someone overhear that their buddy’s girlfriend talked to an assistant editor who said that Joe Quesada’s going to cancel Uncanny X-Men?
JOHNSTON: Very occassionally. But it does happen. Mostly it’s the pros themselves.
DARIUS: I get the sense that sometimes people associated with a company project will call you to leak information, either for promotional purposes, to throw you and anticipating readers off, or to vent about mistreatment as a kind of retaliation. Is this an accurate characterization of the motives for industry leaks, or am I missing something?
JOHNSTON: That can happen, yes. I especially like that last one. Jenette Kahn, e-mail me!
DARIUS: We should all be so lucky.
I also sometimes get the sense that people float stories to test an idea on the public, sort of like the first rumors that Hillary Clinton might run for Congress in New York state, a sort of testing of the waters through media manipulation. Sometimes I suspect that stories, such as the “Ultimate-ization” of the Marvel line, are similar idea floats. How often does this occur, do you think?
JOHNSTON: Rarely but I’m sure it’s there. Remember, watch those traffic light signs!
DARIUS: Right. You’ve always, at least since “All the Rage,” been careful to rate how believable you find the rumor or story you’re reporting. Have you ever been seriously burned and had to retract something you’ve rated as reliable or all-but-certain? Could you recall such an instance that sticks in your mind?
JOHNSTON: Frank Quitely on Daredevil.
At this point Johnston mimes hitting his head with a hammer repeatedly.
DARIUS: This was after he left The Authority for a secret Marvel project, right? I think I remember a week in which you asserted that he was on Daredevil despite rumors to the contrary, apparently trusting a particular source. Is that right?
JOHNSTON: Oh yes. Oh yes. Oh yes yes yes yes. Give me back that hammer.
DARIUS: Mark Millar has openly said that he likes your column, and he’s said that a surprising number of industry insiders, particularly creators, do as well — though they won’t admit to it publicly. Do you think this accurate?
JOHNSTON: Oh, totally. Many who hate it as well, though.
DARIUS: What kind of story would you not report? I’m sure you’ve heard of certain creators’ sexual orientation and I don’t think you see that as news, right?
JOHNSTON: Yeah, I’m less keen on personal lives stuff — unless it’s a really, really good story. And then I generally like to blind item such things.
DARIUS: You’ve mentioned creators being given prostitutes, and Mark Millar has alluded to one creator being paid in cocaine as well as a few transsexuals working in comics. Do you not report such stories on moral grounds or legal ones — or some combination of both?
JOHNSTON: Oh I’ll report them — just keeping the names hidden. Moral, legal, me being afraid of being beaten up by a certain six foot six creator… the usual.
DARIUS: Have you ever been sued or been threatened with a lawsuit for what you’ve written?
JOHNSTON: Yes. Grant Morrison, Rob Liefeld, Neil Gaiman, and Adam Goldmine have both threatened or implied the possibility of lawsuits.
DARIUS: Liefeld I can understand. I’m slightly surprised about Morrison and Gaiman, particularly since I can remember you saying good things about Gaiman, such as that you haven’t heard almost any dirt on him compared to Todd McFarlane, who had threatened to somehow publicly expose Gaiman. What stories — or lines of inquiry — did these people object to?
JOHNSTON: Um, Grant Morrison I never did find out. It was a strange phone call. Neil Gaiman over an allegation of tardiness by someone close to Chris Bachalo. Goldmine over the reporting of Dave Campiti’s version of events about the Chaos! bankruptcy and Liefeld over allegations of non-payment by a freelancer.
DARIUS: How often do you receive nasty e-mails from industry insiders?
JOHNSTON: Less than I used to. I guess the people who have a problem ignore me these days.
DARIUS: Kind of hard to do, in some instances. Like when you’re an editor and having unedited versions of pages appear online… .
JOHNSTON: I believe that the editor, while not exactly approving of this or not making his job easier, wasn’t exactly displeased that the pages appeared somewhere.
DARIUS: Speaking of which, I should confess that I regard your publication, in your column, of material that never saw print a major contribution to comics scholarship. I’m thinking particularly of the many unpublished or modified panels from The Authority, but also things like the “Marvel Vagina” from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I don’t know if these sorts of things would ever see publication otherwise, especially so quickly.
In other situations, like the censored L. Ron Hubbard story from Tomorrow Stories, not only did you cover the story but background it impressively, explaining how DC had published stories relating to the same disputed L. Ron Hubbard anecdote in other publications, in that case Wasteland and The Big Book of Conspiracies, if I’m not mistaken. I wonder if you realize how important a service you provide, not only to fanboys but to scholars as well. Is that something that matters to you?
JOHNSTON: Anything that feeds my ego matters to me. This is no exception.
DARIUS: How big do you think your fan base is? It seems that everyone I know reads your column.
JOHNSTON: Readership varies. I seem to get about 20,000-30,000 individual readers online, with another 8,000 or so in Comics International. Now, if I could only get each one of them to give me a dollar.
DARIUS: What moments in your column-writing history have made you the proudest?
JOHNSTON: The interview with Joe Illidge. The original pages of The Authority. The Knight Of the Long Knives at the Batman offices. The “Sentinels, Not Senators” CCG Code meeting. And I’m hoping up my current investigation into Chaos! Comics will also come up trumps.
DARIUS: I think we covered the original pages from The Authority, and the Chaos! Comics story refers to their recent surprise bankruptcy, leaving many creators without payment. Since I’ve talked enough, could you explain the others and why you’re proud of them?
JOHNSTON: Joe Illidge — a man leaving DC Comics decides to spill his guts. Caused a small uproar at DC, a lot of creators backing his allegations of mistreatment up — and a fair number condemning him for treason. It made a fuss — probably my main motivating factor! The Knight of The Long Knives was when a bunch of Batman creators were dropped off the books in a conspiratorial way, so they couldn’t ring round and get the jump on the company. Simultaneous faxes, from separate machines, last thing on a Friday night. “Sentinels, Not Senators” — that was the inside look I gained at the last Marvel Comics Code meeting. As well as these, exposing the Elseworlds 80-Page Giant pulping was a good one, the original cancellation of Stormwatch and the commission of The Authority was one that boosted my profile and maybe even the headhunting of certain DC types by Marvel. I understand that DC promoted Axel to VP in the week I was insisting he was moving to Marvel — and I was ridiculed by certain DC staff as a result. I believe a few people still didn’t believe it after he’d gone.
DARIUS: I’d forgotten about your role in some of that. More evidence of my hypothesis.
Finally, a few personal questions. In half-ironic imitation of James Lipton, what’s your favorite curse word?
DARIUS: Excellent! Well-played! And what, pray tell, would be your ideal afterlife?
JOHNSTON: An Eternity Comic! Eternity pages, to be written and drawn in only eternity!
DARIUS: Any final thoughts? You get the last word.
JOHNSTON: Bookmark my column at litg.comicbookresources.com — then tell your friends.
Other Sites of Interest
- Rich Johnston’s Stuff: Rich Johnston’s personal site, including his CV and information about his advertising work.
- “Waiting for Tommy”: Rich Johnston’s column for Dynamic Forces.
- NinthArt: Featuring Johnston’s recent 24-hour comic in its entirety.
- Twist and Shout Comics: Rich Johnston’s self-owned comic book publishing house, and the site on which his column first appeared on the web.
- Silver Bullet Comics: Home of Johnston’s column when it was “All the Rage,” and still home of the archives.