Eric Powell in the Home Office
“I was up ’til 5 a.m.,” admits artist and writer Eric Powell as he shakes away his sleepiness during our interview, scheduled a mere five hours after his bedtime. This night owl isn’t club hopping until the wee hours – in fact, he’d be hard pressed to find many Paris Hilton-approved joints in his hometown 20 minutes outside of Nashville.
Instead, the creator of the original comics series The Goon was simply, “working late,” but his dedicated efforts have proved to be a worthy time investment. Cited by Ain’t-It-Cool-News as, “a wild ride filled with imagination, intrigue, horror, and laughs,” The Goon has quickly climbed the ranks from cult-favorite to critical darling, earning praise from Entertainment Weekly and The Hollywood Reporter while picking up a few Eisners along the way. (For those not familiar with the industry, the Eisner is the equivalent to the Academy Award in the comics world).
Things weren’t always so rosy for Powell – his ascension in the comics industry included a series of rejection letters and slammed doors. Powell first considered making comics a career goal while writing and illustrating stories in junior high. However, with a turn of events at the end of high school that included Powell becoming a young father, initial plans to attend the Memphis College of Art were put on hold. In addition to his concerns about being too far away from his family, a visit to the school itself proved less than impressive. “One of the sculpting students showed me their thesis, which was a giant bird nest made out of cow dung and I thought, ‘You got to be kidding me. I’m going to pay you to teach me how to do this?’ I wanted to learn more about the technique behind art, not ‘We’re crazy artists and we do crazy shit.”
From the Tattoo Parlor to the Comics Shop
Cover from Goon #17
Image Courtesy of Eric Powell
Powell occupied his time with a series of odd jobs and freelance art gigs, including painting helmets for Motocross and designing flash art for a local tattoo shop. He even entertained thoughts about becoming a tattoo artist himself, but the $1,000 apprenticeship fee and local clientele changed his mind. “I was a little wary about who I’d have to tattoo. I’ve seen people in this area who have tattoos and some of them I wouldn’t want to touch for that long.”
Powell continued to remain focused on his pursuit of a comics career, but his experience was less of a Cinderella, overnight success story and more of a Long Day’s Journey Into Night. “I got tons of rejection letters – I still have them all,” he says. His first real dent came as a result of attending a Bernie Wrightson signing at his local comics shop. “I put a bunch of stuff in a portfolio and went down to see if he’d look at it. Tom Sniegoski was there too – he was writing Vampirella at the time – and he looked at my work, too. I asked him if I had a shot, and he gave me his card.”Sniegoski and Powell ended up forming a friendship, talking occasionally via phone about working together. It wasn’t long until Sniegowski called with an actual job opportunity. “He said, ‘I have some work if you want it.’ I said, ‘Yes!’ He said, ‘Well you don’t know what you’re getting paid.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care.'”
Powell’s foot in the door (a gig for Acclaim’s Razor: Uncut series) lead to a steady stream of work from independent publishers for awhile, but once that dried up, he decided it was time for his own creation. “I had this idea for The Goon, which was just everything I like – nutty, don’t-take-yourself-too-seriously, dark comedy with lots of noir and horror elements in it.” The first versions of The Goon were less than ideal – not in terms of content, but quality. “I ended up going with a bad publisher because I didn’t know any better,” Powell explains. “They sat on the book for a year and when they did print the first issue, (the paper) was so bad, if you ran your finger across the page, the ink came off. I was pretty ticked off because I wasn’t going to make any money off the thing, but if the production value had been ok, that wouldn’t have mattered.”
Powell waited for his contract to expire, filling in his time with freelance gigs, but when he was free to shop The Goon around again in 2001, the response was…crickets. “I showed it to everyone – big and indie publishers – and no one wanted it. I really started feeling like, ‘Maybe I’m really this Ed Wood kind of guy and I’m making the worst shit possible and I’m the only one who thinks it’s good.”
“Maybe I’ll Just Go Become a Janitor.”
The 2001 Wizard World convention in Chicago led to what Powell cites as the make or break point of his career. “I had a table there, but I did zero business. I don’t think I even recouped the $100 I spent on the table. I went and showed The Goon to every (publisher) I could find at the show, and no one was interested. They just thought, ‘What the hell is this? We can’t sell this.’ The drive back from Chicago to Nashville by myself after that disastrous weekend was probably the low point of my life. But I got home and I was like, you know what? I’m going to go get a loan and self-publish it and if it tanks, then I know it wasn’t meant to be, and maybe I’ll just go become a janitor and mop floors.”Powell had some trade with a local printer saved up, a result of a previous freelance job. He cashed in his credit to publish a Goon color special and a black and white series and put on his business and marketing hat as well. “I got advanced copies about the time the book was being solicited, so I got the addresses of all the comic shops I could find. It’s pretty hard for (retailers) to order something from a creator they’ve never heard and don’t know anything about, but I sent them a copy and I think that worked pretty well. The (initial order) numbers were twice of what is normal for an independent launch. And it didn’t seem to stop – by the time the first issue of the series came out, it was getting a lot of buzz on the internet. Usually after the first issue comes out, the numbers drop off but that didn’t happen at any point.”
Greg Bennett, manager of Big Planet Comics in Bethesda, MD, concurs. “A lot of times we get sample comics in the mail, look at them, and say, ‘There’s one we don’t need to order. In the case of The Goon, it was, ‘Where did this come from? He’s amazing!’ And he keeps getting better with every issue.”
The success of the self-published version led to Dark Horse Comics taking a closer look. “I got an email from (Dark Horse Senior Editor) Scott Allie one day, and he said I don’t know why we passed on this book, everyone here is buying it. He put some copies on (Dark Horse President) Mike Richardson’s desk and Mike said he really wanted to do it, and that was that – I moved to Dark Horse.”
Mopping Up with The Goon
Image Courtesy of Eric Powell
These days, Powell’s dance card is more than full – in addition to The Goon, he’s one of the more sought-after cover artists for DC Comics, Marvel, and others. “I’ve gotten to a spot where I’ve got more work than I can handle – I’m getting projects every week that I have to turn down,” he says. Still, Powell continues to take on as much as possible, even if it means late-night marathon sessions, but it’s that type of work ethic that helped bring the success he enjoys today. Or sort of enjoys.
“I’m still a little paranoid that its all going to go away tomorrow and I’ll end up mopping floors, but I’m way more secure now than I have been.” Floor mopping doesn’t seem to be a part of Powell’s immediate future. The Goon has gone beyond printed pages, with a series of Randy Bowen busts as well as action figures from Mezco. The Goon might even see the big screen in the not-to-distant future – Powell and Dark Horse are shopping the film rights as he works on a screenplay. In the meantime, 2006 will bring a Goon: Chinatown graphic novel, which Powell cites as, “A pivotal back story. I’ve been hinting at it for a long time and I’ve got to get it finished and get it out there.”
When it comes to advice for aspiring comic artists and writers, Powell admits, “I’m too soft hearted to tell anyone that they’ll never make it, and besides I had someone tell me that once. So you don’t know how someone’s talent is going to evolve. A 13-year-old kid could bring you the worst possible thing you could imagine but by the time he’s 17, it could kick ass.”
Like many industry hopefuls, Powell’s first exposure to comics can be traced back to his early youth. “My uncle would let me look at his collection and he also drew and sort of copied the style of the artists. I still have a drawing he did of some robot from a comic book – I can’t remember which one. I don’t know if he just liked comics or if he actually wanted to become an artist. Maybe he didn’t have the ambition to pursue it?” Powell says and adds without missing a beat, “And then he molested me. So the comic book thing is a double-edged sword. Lots of joy, lots of pain.”
No need to call in the Law and Order: SVU squad – Powell is, of course, only kidding in regard to his last statement, but it’s that type of dead-pan humor that’s become his trademark. He counts Mike Mignola (creator of Hellboy) and Jeff Smith (creator of Bone) as two of his contemporary inspirations. “Those are the two guys that kept me going to have the confidence that you could do something that wasn’t a typical superhero, body armor, mainstream thing – that you could do something kind of quirky and weird and get away with it – that there was audience for different types of material.”
Powell’s in luck – that audience is present and accounted for, and continues to grow. And if their fever for The Goon is any sort of barometer for his future success, it appears that he’ll have no problem “getting away with it” for some time to come.