I’ve been reading comics since 1984 and I have seen the rise and fall of many different imprints and publishers. Companies like First, Comico, Broadway and Valiant. Hell, I’m now old enough that I saw the rise and fall of Valiant as well as their current resurrection. But there was one comic company and one line in particular that grabbed my attention.
Virgin Comics launched in 2006 with a fair amount of fanfare and it’s not hard to see why. With Richard Branson and Deepak Chopra backing it, this was a company with deep pockets and looking to hire some really good talent. They also tried to be a major player in comic-to-film properties as well as attempted to grab other markets, like India, that were previously untapped by other publishers.
At the time, the most exciting announcements from the company were regarding some really big names in Hollywood coming aboard and teaming up with some of the best in comics to develop titles with an eye towards the big screen. This imprint became known as Director’s Cut.
The idea behind Director’s Cut was loud and clear. Grab big name Hollywood directors, team them up with some of the best writers in comics and produce great comics that would serve as easy to use pitch material for films. On the Hollywood side you had John Woo, Guy Ritchie, Edward Burns, Jonathan Mostow and Shekhar Kapur (best known to the western film audiences for directing the two Elizabeth bio pics starring Cate Blanchett). They were teamed up with guys like Garth Ennis, Andy Diggle and Jimmy Palmioti. This idea was also expanded into another Virgin imprint called Voices that featured Nicholas Cage, Dave Stewart (from the Eurythmeics) and Hugh Jackman.
A number of the books in the Director’s Cut line are really solid reads. John Woo’s 7 Brothers for instance, is an interesting action comic that is handled pretty solidly by Garth Ennis and artist Jeevan King. Based in part on an old Chinese legend, seven men have their destinies united by a mysterious woman. Big action sequences, trademark moments of Woo’s flare and Ennis’s comic book sensibilities make it a fun, self contained story.
Guy Ritchie’s The Game Keeper is one of my favourite action comics of the last few years. The main character, Brock, is the survivor of a war that he’d rather not remember. He has settled down in England as a gamekeeper for a very rich man. Unfortunately, a team of mercenaries has come for something and Brock has to take them out. I picked it up from a discount bin and couldn’t believe how much I fell in love with it.
Now a lot of you readers probably have vague recollections of these books. You may remember seeing them when the were released or coming across them in the used or discount sections of your comic shop. Even then, there’s a good chance it’s two books in particular, John Woo’s 7 Brothers or Guy Ritchie’s The Game Keeper. I’m a prime example of that. I have limited edition hardcovers of both 7 Brothers (2500 copies) and The Game Keeper (1500 copies) and I found them both in clearance bins for less than five bucks.
But when you look at it on paper, you wonder what happened? I mean, even without the comic names, the Hollywood people should have been enough to drive sales, right? Combine that with great comic writers and new artists, why haven’t we seen more from this publisher, especially the Director’s Cut line?
In search of answers, I contacted Jimmy Palmiotti who worked on The Dock Walloper with writer/director/actor Edward Burns (The Brother McMullen, Saving Private Ryan, Public Morals). Dock Walloper was an interesting story about an orphan with a right hand twice the size of the other. A bit of an organized crime book with some humor and fantasy elements, it was a great but weird idea.
Given that Jimmy has worked for publishers big and small, as well as self publishing his own material through Paperfilms, I thought he could not only shine a light on how the Director’s Cut books were put together but also why the line, and Virgin Comics, aren’t flourishing today.
Brent: First off, how did you get involved with Virgin Comics?
Jimmy: I was friends with some staff and eventually a project that they thought would be a good fit for me came along that I was interested in an we went from there. It was like working with any other company. We talked project, then we talked price.
Brent: How did you end up working on Edward Burns’ Dock Walloper?
Jimmy: Ed wanted to work with someone that understood the era the book was set in and was in the NY area so we could work together on the series. I went into the office and met with Ed and we hit it off right away. He is a super intelligent, creative force that understands not only film, but all mediums of storytelling. We then worked out the outline and started writing the book together. It was a great experience for me and I like to think for Ed as well.
Brent: How much of the book was you and how much of it was Burns?
Jimmy: It was Ed’s idea that I built on and broke down with him into chapters and then into pages. After that, Ed let me do my thing and break down the pages, with him overseeing the dialogue and everything else. Looking back, the art was well done and beautiful but not a great match for the era we were trying to show. If I had my way, I would go back and edit it and have it redrawn. They had their pool of artists up there that were just not that familiar with the world we were trying to present. I think what Ed and I created could easily be revisited and would work as a cable series in a heartbeat.
Brent: As someone who has worked for every major publisher and has also been a publisher, what was it like working for Virgin Comics on a whole?
Jimmy: It was a pleasant experience overall and they really had a lot of wonderful people working for them. As a publisher myself, I saw a lot of money being thrown around that would never come back to them, but it was an exciting time and I made some friendships that still go to this day. The experience was a good one.
Brent: Why do you think the line didn’t catch on?
Jimmy: The line had a problem catching on in the American market mainly because you have to have a plan. A focus. The line itself felt like it was pushing many different agendas and didn’t have a sense of a bigger plan – even if they really did. I think a lot of money was spent on media outside comics which traditionally doesn’t translate to sales.
I think Jimmy pretty much has the number of not only The Director’s Cut line but Virgin Comics as a whole. Most of the artists had a very similar style and while they were great, you don’t want your entire line looking the same. Aside from the Director’s Cut line, a large amount of the comics were based on legends from India. While I think it’s a great idea to try and expand into new markets, Western readers tend to be stodgy about such things and the books didn’t sell. As a retailer put it to me when I spoke to him about Virgin Comics, he had plenty of customers who were of Indian decent or out right born in India but they bought what everyone else bought; Spider-Man, The Avengers, etc.
To be fair, Virgin Comics still exists… sort of. In 2008, the company underwent a restructuring that saw their New York office close down. Later that year, the company became Liquid Comics but very quickly faded from the public consciousness. As far as I can tell, they still exist today although in what capacity, it’s hard to say. Their website and social media pages seem to be inactive as of October 2014 but most of the Virgin / Liquid Comics library is available in various digital sources as of 2015.
Bear in mind, I know the company had a fairly strong base in India and there’s a chance they are continuing to publish new material there but I honestly couldn’t find anything on it.
Virgin Comic’s Director’s Cut line had some great ideas and in many ways, maybe it was just a victim of timing and lack of planning. Imagine if DC or Marvel did a similar initiative today. I don’t mean just one book with a celebrity writer but a slew of books with some of the best creators in Hollywood and some of the best in comics. It would really have some media legs behind it and might become something.
Special thanks go to Jimmy Palmiotti who is currently doing a great job on Harley Quinn for DC among his many projects. For more of Jimmy, check out the site and store at Paperfilms.
And remember if you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!