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Jason Rodriguez, like many creators in the area, works on comics in his spare time. He’s a writer and editor whose new anthology of graphic stories on early American history, Colonial Comics, is out now. Many local cartoonists worked on the stories. We caught up with him right before he began traveling to promote the book.
What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?
I edit, and sometimes write, comic books. I specialize in editing anthologies, and recently I’ve been getting deeper into nonfiction comic anthologies. I also design the books that I work on and write some of the interstitials. When not editing comics, I do workshops and give talks on making comics and teaching with comics.
How do you do it? Traditional pen and ink, computer, or a combination?
Editing is all on the computer and phone. Adobe and Microsoft are my mistresses, and Google Drive tends to be where we meet late at night.
When and where were you born?
1978. Brooklyn, N.Y. Born during a snowstorm.
Who are your influences?
From a storytelling perspective, I pull almost all of my philosophies and advice from manga. I had a transformative experience back when I first started editing comics. I saw Paul Pope give a talk at the Smithsoninan back in 2003. He told this story about his experiences working for a manga-ka in Japan. He said the manga-ka (I don’t recall who it was) sat him down and said, and I’m paraphrasing, “We do comics different in Japan. In America, you’ll have a panel where Superman is flying through a window, the panel says, ‘Superman flies through a window!’ Superman is thinking, ‘I better fly through this window!’ and Jimmy Olsen is watching it all and saying, ‘Golly! Superman just flew through that window!’ American comics are more interested in showing you Superman, this other person, flying through a window. Japanese comics want you to know what it FEELS like to fly through a window.”
I tell that anecdote to almost every person I’ve ever edited. Don’t tell a story, show a story, and let your reader become the characters in your story.
Why are you in D.C. now? Where do you live in?
Came here 15 years ago for a job, as most people do. Lived in D.C. for a bit before moving to the Courthouse area of Arlington. Now I’m in Nauck.
What is your training and/or education in cartooning?
Completely informal and on-the-job. I started editing comics back in 2003, a small anthology called Western Tales of Terror. I worked with a lot of seasoned pros in that book and learned a lot about making comics from them. Carried those experience through bigger anthologies and just kept building. I really dove in as soon as I got the opportunity.
If you could, what in your career would you do-over or change?
Early on I fell into an impossible situation of getting ahead of projects. My first major book, Postcards: True Stories That Never Happened, was with Random House and I thought it’d be easy street from there on out. It wasn’t, honestly, and I should have tempered my enthusiasm. Many a dead project remained buried in late-2007/early-2008. I’ve learned to control my expectations since.
Postcards was an interesting project. Can you describe it for us, and tell us why you think it didn’t catch on?
That book was a lot of fun. I was in an antique store with my wife in January of 2006, looking at old, used postcards, when I came across one from a soldier in World War II writing home to his mom. I got to thinking, “This guy might have never come back—-this could have been the last thing he wrote and it was in a used postcards box in Hershey, Penn. for a quarter.” I got back to the hotel and started writing folks, asking if they’d want to do comics stories that extrapolated on the little bits and pieces written on used postcards. Less than nine months later we had a finished book—-it came together so fast.
As for why it didn’t catch on? I think price and lack of color where a definite issue. I think the book was priced at $19.95 for 169 pages? Some people really didn’t like it, some people loved it, but it just didn’t get the right critical buzz. That’s the easy answer. The harder answer is that I wasn’t really ready for that book. I kind of lucked into comics—-moved from submissions editor to full editor for a critically acclaimed anthology (Western Tales of Terror) and on to a critically acclaimed series (Elk’s Run). I’ve been doing comics for a little over a year by the time I pitched Postcards to Random House, and I didn’t know enough about comics or the industry at that point. So, ultimately, it was on me.
What work are you best-known for?
I think the new Colonial Comics: New England: 1620-1750 is the one that’s getting some lasting attention. It only came out in October, but it’s a different type of book—-scholarly, six pages of references—-people who read it tend to get it and it’s leading to workshops, talks, and events that I love to do.
What work are you most proud of?
Same, honestly. That book nearly killed me. When it was finished, truly finished and off to the printer, it was probably the proudest moment of my life, honestly. And then we sold out at the pre-release in under three hours, I knew we had something.
I see a lot of DC Conspiracy names in Colonial Comics, including Matt Dembicki, who’s edited two similar anthologies, Trickster and District Comics. Did Matt give you any advice or encouragement based on his experiences? I know he’s sworn off editing anthologies at the moment.
Yes it is! The second book stays in New England but focuses on 1750-1775. The third book moves down south to the Mid-Atlantic region so we’ll be focusing on Virginia and Pennsylvania, primarily, with a little Delaware and Maryland thrown in, as well.
You’re about to go on a tour for Colonial Comics, including overseas?
Yeah, there’s a lot coming up. Some workshops and smaller things in the D.C. area followed by a very busy March and April that include two talks at the American Library in Paris (March 17 and 20), a workshop at a history camp in Framingham, Mass. (March 28), a full tour in April that hits Philly, NYC, and several stops in Massachusetts, including the Concord Museum, Massachusetts Historical Society, and Harvard Bookstore. And May’s even crazier, with a workshop at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, a quick tour in the Denver area, and a panel at Awesome Con.
I’ll be doing a workshop from 3-4 p.m. at Fantom Comics on the 21st, plus the 10th anniversary party of the DC Conspiracy. I might be doing four more workshops at Fantom if we can work out the details, one a month.
I’ll also be taking part in the all-day Powhatan School Graphic Novel Workshop on April 11.
What would you like to do or work on in the future?
Science books! I’m buried in history comics right now but I’ve always been a futurist. I’m a scientist by training. I’m launching a program with the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences to do science outreach using comics starting January 2016 and I’m very excited about getting started in this realm.
What do you think will be the future of your field?
For me, personally, educational comics. I’m doing a lot of them, and plan on doing more. But comics as the whole—-we are in this golden age of inclusion. A lot of females and cartoonists of color getting big important books out there that build community outside of the 60+ years of comic community rut. It’s an exciting time.
What’s your favorite thing about D.C.?
How it constantly surprises you. There are a lot of creative people here looking for a community and they’re in direct juxtaposition of the politics and lawyers that D.C. tends to be associated with. If it wasn’t for the DC Conspiracy, I probably would have given up on comics a long time ago, but they tend to give comics in D.C. a focal point and a purpose. Whenever I think about leaving D.C., and it happens at times, I think about how much I’d miss the creative comics folks I met here and whether I can keep doing what I do without them.
D.C. is the capital of small talk, isn’t it? For every creative person I meet, I meet 10 people who can only talk about weather, traffic, and work. It’s why I road-trip, to meet better strangers. I try to road-trip once a year, meet locals, and get new stories. There’s not a lot of human-level inspiration in D.C., it seems. At least not enough to satisfy my never-ending search for personal stories.
Do you have a website or blog?