Shawn James’ Interview: Life, Career, And Current State Of The Comic Book Industry
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Note to our readers: This article was originally published on our Animated Apparel Co. website. Since we’ve shut down that site, we’ve added this interview here for our readers. We hope you enjoy it! – Russell Crooms, Founder, Nerdgenic
Shawn James is one of the most interesting and insightful writers that I had the pleasure of meeting. I remember I started following him when I saw his comments on several social media platforms since we tend to be in the same circles and I was impressed by his knowledge of the comic book industry as a business, the importance of proper storytelling and dedication to make his characters really human and interesting.
He has been in writing books as an independent author for many years now, with The Man Crisis, John Haynes and Isis being some of his successful works, often reflecting his views and feelings about several aspects of life, especially when it comes to the black community. Instead of trying to pin black men and women down in a single trait or social group, he is a huge defender of people’s sense of individuality and diversity of thought.
I had the opportunity of doing this long interview with Shawn and we addressed several aspects of his career, plus his views on modern society, literature, the ups and downs of being an independent writer and the current state of the comic book industry. Hope you enjoy it.
Kevin: Thank you for taking the time to do this, Shawn. For those readers that perhaps are not familiar with you and your work, what can you tell us about yourself?
Shawn: Thank you for having me on Animated Apparel.
I’m a novelist, a screenwriter and comic book writer and a publisher. As a publisher I’ve been running the SJS DIRECT Imprint for the last ten years. In that decade I’ve written over 70 books in genres like African-American fantasy fiction, Goth fiction, women’s fiction, screenplays, and non-fiction. On the fantasy side my imprint is primarily known for the African American fantasy books of the Isis series, the E’steem series, The John Haynes series.
How did you get into reading comics and books?
I got into comic books when I was four years old. That’s when I saw all the comic books in my older brother’s comic collection. Thanks to him sharing comics with me I knew all who all the Avengers were before I learned how to read. All the comic books in his collection and the Richard Scarry books my parents got me were my gateway into reading.
What were the comics, books and writers that influenced you the most?
I’ve been an Iron Man fan since I was seven years old. I had a brain aneurysm at the age of seven and Tony Stark’s story always resonated with me after I got out of the hospital. Seeing Tony overcome his injuries in Vietnam made me realize as a kid I could overcome the limitations people wanted to impose on me when I was growing up like trying to put me in special ed. Watching him create the Iron Man armor from scraps in that comic made me realize that I could make something out of the nothing around me in my South Bronx neighborhood and that if I had the discipline, resolve and determination to push I could achieve the same success as Tony Stark.
In my teen years I was influenced by three Comic writers: David Michelinie, Chris Claremont and the late Mark Gruenwald.
The David Micheline/John Romita Jr./Bob Layton Iron Man run were the comics that made me a lifelong comic fan when I was a kid. And Jim Rhodes, Tony Stark’s best friend, was one of the things that made it a must buy comic for me when I was in high school. That was the first time I saw a black man presented in a comic in a way I could relate to. Jim wasn’t a superhero at the time, he was a guy like me, just doing his job and looking to do the right thing. No matter how rough things were he was always there for Tony, fighting right by his side against the bad guys. For me Jim was just as much a hero as Tony, even though he didn’t wear a suit of armor.
Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s X-Men laid the foundation for me to learn everything I needed to know about writing comics. Reading those comics showed me how to tell compelling stories and how much fun comics can be.
Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America showed me how to tell compelling stories for years and how to structure a solid run of comics to keep the reader coming back for more. Mark’s over 100 issue run on Cap is underrated by many comic fans, but I just saw the brilliance as related to plotting, character development and building rising and falling action from story arc to story arc.
When I was in college, DC’s Milestone Comics (Hardware, Blood Syndicate Icon and Static) were a major influence on me back in those days because they showed me it was possible for a publisher to produce a universe of strong and positive black superheroes.
Focusing more on your work, one of your most recent works was John Haynes: The Man With Nothing to Lose. What can you tell us about that book and where can we get it?
Readers can pick up John Haynes: The Man With Nothing To Lose on Amazon.com and other online booksellers in paperback and on Kindle. KindleUnlimited subscribers can read for free.
You have been writing for over twenty years now and you have done comics, novels, screenplays, non-fiction and you even have a blog and a YouTube channel. How do you organize yourself on a daily basis to work on so many projects at the same time?
Usually I manage my time with a schedule so I can get specific tasks done. These days my routine goes as follows:
In the early mornings from 7-9AM on Monday-Friday I film, edit and upload my YouTube videos.
Then after I upload my videos, around 10AM-2PM I do book promotion on social media. Usually I’m posting links of my books on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. In between posting links, I moderate comments on my YouTube Channel and interact with my viewers.
3-6 PM I take a dinner break and an occasional nap to think through the ideas I have for the chapters I’m gonna write later that night.
My nights from 7PM Monday-Thursday Saturday and Sunday are spent writing and revising books for the SJS DIRECT catalog while I watch TV or YouTube videos. I usually try to write a chapter every day of the Isis, John Haynes or E’steem story I’m working on. If I’m working on longer projects like a novel, like the upcoming Eternal Night, I try to write a chapter or a half chapter.
Friday Nights at 10PM-11:30 I usually do a livestream where I discuss a variety of topics. It’s where I connect with viewers, answer their questions, and promote my books. After that I do more writing from 11:30-1:30 AM before going to bed.
Saturday and Sunday I do more book promotion on social media afternoons and do some more writing and editing at night. Weekends are important because that’s the big sales period for books and eBooks.
Most days I’m so busy I barely have enough hours to get everything done. I’ve worked harder for myself over the last 10 years than on most of the jobs I had in the private sector.
What inspired you to make your own YouTube channel and what have you learned through that experience?
The main thing that inspired me to create a YouTube channel was increasing my book sales. I wanted to reach a larger audience of readers and share the books of the SJS DIRECT Imprint with them. Around 2014 was when I hit one million hits on my blog, I had come as far as I could generating sales with blogging and social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. And the only way I could expand my audience was to associate a face with the product. A person the audience could get to know. A person they could connect with and relate to. I figured if people saw me every day talking about comics, sci-fi, fantasy, and the Goth Subculture and saw how knowledgeable I was about those subjects, they’d take a chance and buy some of the stories I offered at SJS DIRECT.
Working on a YouTube channel and building my brand has helped me overcome numerous issues I’ve had in my life. Before I started doing regular videos I had major social anxiety issues due to several jobs I lost. At one time I couldn’t even speak in public because I one of my former employers thought my voice offended people. Over the last seven years I’ve managed to regain my confidence, rediscover my voice, and build a relationship with many of my readers and viewers.
I’m particularly curious, as a fellow writer, about your writing procedure. For example, I have seen in your YouTube channel that you’re critical of modern comic book writers because, according to you, they write as if they were making a novel. Would you care to elaborate on that?
Many of today’s comic book writers believe a single issue of a comic book is supposed to be like the a chapter of a book. However, a comic book was never designed to be a novel. Novels have a completely different story model than comic books.
Novels are sold by the book. So a writer can write a chapter from anywhere from 5-15 pages to set up their story and move it forward. And they can build their world slowly in a chapter because a book can be anywhere from 50,000-250,000 words. Because a reader is imagining the story in their heads, they can be drawn into a story with a chapter or two because they’ve already paid for the whole book.
In contrast, comic books are sold by the issue. And they tell their stories with pictures. If the action in those pictures isn’t compelling enough in the first 3-5 pages of that issue to make the reader care they don’t buy the comic. So writing a comic book like a novel isn’t going to work.
A novel’s first three chapters are mostly about setup, and no one is just going to pay $4-$5 for a 32-page book that is all about setting up a story. If most readers see a bunch of talking heads and don’t see any action happening in the first 3-5 pages of a comic they’re going to put it back on the shelf and move on to the next title.
The comic book industry is certainly struggling these days despite having his characters thriving on other media and this is something you address a lot in social media and YouTube. What do you think are the main problems of the comic book industry right now?
The biggest problem with the comic book industry as I see it has to do with the leadership in charge of editorial. There are a lot of individuals working at the top in the comic book industry that have no publishing experience. And because they have no publishing experience they have no idea on how to run a comic book publishing house.
Most of today’s comic publishers and editors don’t understand the business of publishing. And because they don’t understand the publishing business, they launch books without seeing if people are even interested in a character or developing a marketing plan to see if there’s an audience for a book.
Because these inexperienced editors have no training, they can’t establish standards for their comics. And because they have no standards they produce poor quality books with bad writing and terrible art.
Due to their lack of publishing experience, most of today’s comic editors and publishers use a throw crap on the wall and see what sticks approach. That wastes a lot of money they don’t need to spend and alienates readers when they buy a bad comic. What they don’t understand is a publisher only gets one chance to make a first impression on a reader and every terrible book they produce gives readers less incentive to go out and buy their comics.
As I see it the comic book industry desperately needs is leadership from a seasoned publishing professional. Someone who understands the publishing business. Someone who with an understanding of how to establish publishing standards and can teach things to editorial like house style, story models and paradigms, and can establish guidelines for content. Someone looking to build a small catalog of titles and generate big sales. Someone who will foster competition among writers and artists so we can get their best work on a project. And someone who can establish a policy for professionalism and conduct on social media and events where freelance talent represents the company at places like comic cons and shows.
As a big DC fan, one of the reasons I started to follow you on social media was because you are a fan and defender of the comics that DC put out in the 90s. Do you think that decade gets unjustified criticism these days?
1990’s DC is one of the most underrated eras in comics. And it doesn’t deserve all the criticism it gets. DC was staying true to its roots while taking risks creatively. A lot of great legacy characters came out of that era (Tim Drake as Robin, Conner Kent as Superboy, Bart Allen as Impulse, Cassie Sandsmark as Wonder Girl, Cassie as Cain Batgirl, Kyle as Rayner Green Lantern, Wally West as Flash, Jack Knight as Starman) some underrated new ones (Argent, Steel, Spoiler, Azrael, The Heckler,) And some great stories (The Return of Barry Allen, Knightfall, Reign Of The Supermen) Not to mention some of the most memorable DC runs of the last 25 years like Mark Waid/Greg Larocque Flash, Ron Marz/Darryl Banks’s Green Lantern, Jo Duffy/Jim Balent Catwoman, Peter David’s Supergirl and Aquaman, Chuck Dixon’s Robin/Nightwing/Birds of Prey.
While some people have their issues with some of the changes to DC’s characters I never had an issue with them. A lot of the changes in that era were organic and came straight out of older established canon from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. We saw older heroes passing the torch to new ones and new fresh takes on characters like Aquaman, and Green Lantern that got readers excited for those characters again While some of the newer takes on older characters like Dan Jurgens’ Teen Titans run and Guy Gardner as Warrior failed to catch on, most of the stuff in 1990s DC has become a significant part of DC’s canon like Birds of Prey, Young Justice, and the late 1990s run of Justice Society.
With the recent news of Dan DiDio leaving DC Comics, what do you think it’s going to happen with that company? There have been many conflicting reports recently about it.
Now that Didio’s gone I see DC as a lost directionless company. I don’t have much faith in Jim Lee because he bankrupted WildStorm years ago. And his passive approach at DC in the COVID-19 crisis shows me that he isn’t going to be someone who will be able to a tone or a direction to move DC Comics forward.
Perhaps your most popular and polarizing non-fiction work was The Man Crisis, where you address and claim that the current American educational and legal system is hurting both boys and men. Would you like to tell our readers about that book?
I wrote The Man Crisis because I saw so many men and boys falling through the cracks in our society. Because these men didn’t have their fathers and men in the community there to teach them, the male life skills they needed to survive in the world like having a work ethic, discipline, self-control or how to think critically, problem solve and conflict resolve, these men were joining gangs, getting on drugs, becoming homeless, winding up in mental health facilities or the prison system. In the most extreme cases they were committing suicide. I wanted to break down this crisis and its causes and I wanted teach many of those lost boys what they needed to do to correct the course of their lives.
What do you think are the solutions to fix this situation?
The solution to the Man Crisis is for America to make an investment of resources and time into boys and young men. For over 50 years we’ve put an excessive investment in girls and empowering them and forgotten about three generations of boys and men who have fallen by the wayside.
As I see it, that investment starts with America’s men taking a more active role in the lives of other boys and younger men. For too long men have allowed feminists to devalue and demonize men in gynocentric environments like schools and daycare where they were taught they were bad and that natural masculinity is “toxic.” When men invest their time in the lives of boys and young men they learn how to value their natural masculinity, how to get discipline over their aggression, control their strength and develop the ability to think critically and logically as they learn to solve problems and face their fears in the face of conflict. The small investments we make in teaching boys and young men today can pay off with huge dividends to society in the future.
In fact, I think that situation has influenced comics, with more and more claims that the industry didn’t have important female characters and writers and artists, which is clearly far from the truth. What do you think of those claims?
Those claims are completely false. The comic book industry has lots of important female characters. Wonder Woman, The Wasp, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Monica Rambeau, Rogue, Storm, and civilian characters like Sue Dibney and Lois Lane. Not to mention lots of strong indie heroines like Ms. Tree, Miss Fury, Cassie Hack and Razor.
And there have been lots of prominent women working in the industry since its inception. Tarpe Mills, the creator of Miss Fury, worked in comics from the days of the Golden Age of the 30s until her death in 1988. Linda Fite and Marie Severin were regular contributors at Marvel in the early days of the Marvel Age of Comics. Louise Simonson wrote a solid run of X-Factor and a run of Power Pack comics with June Brigman. Ann Nocenti oversaw the X-Men during the days when it sold 500,000 copies a month and wrote one of the most influential runs of Daredevil in the late 1980s. And Jeanette Kahn ran DC Comics for over 20 years while Karen Berger ran Vertigo from its inception till about the mid-2000s and turned it into one of DC’s strongest imprints. If anyone does their research they’ll see that there are lots of talented women working in comics all the time.
On social media you have also been very critical of the representation of the black community on mainstream media. What do you think it’s the problem with the modern type of representation compared to what it was twenty or thirty years ago?
The problem with the modern type of representation is that there’s no balance as to the portrayal of the black community in mainstream media. Most of today’s images of black people are as bad as the racist stereotypes of the 1970s and some like Monster’s Ball and Precious border the racist caricatures of the 1930s. Instead of viewers getting an objective and balanced portrayal of black life, they’re getting repackaged stereotypes.
And did that play a role in the creation of some of your characters such as Isis or John Haynes?
It definitely played a role in the creation of those characters and it’s the foundation for my mission as a writer and a publisher. I started writing again in 1990 because I saw start of the mainstream media repackaging those negative stereotypes about black people and black life with stuff like the NWA. So at 17, I dedicated myself to creating positive stories about black people and the black experience.
As I grew older I not only wanted to write positive stories about black people, but stories to show the diversity in black culture. These days I try to not only write positive stories about the black experience like A Recipe for Success like I try to but shine a light on those parts of black life and black culture the mainstream media and even some parts of the black community don’t know about. That’s when I started writing stories about black sororities like The Thetas and The Black Goth subculture like the books in the Spinsterella Trilogy.
One thing that impresses me about your work is that you have so many influences. E’steem The Sands of Time was based on classic fairy tale stories. Isis: Escape From Transylvania had a more horror story feel to it. And John Haynes seems more like a classic action-based story. How do you make those changes and still maintain your own style through all those stories?
A long time ago I learned that great actors like Robert DeNiro developed a range so they can play a variety of roles. And while they’re playing different characters they still manage to put their own distinct fingerprint on their performances. I wanted to develop that kind of range as a writer so I could tell different kinds of stories in case I ever got to work at a comic publisher. Since you never know what you’ll be assigned when you write comics, I’d wanted to be able to give readers a consistent reading experience from book to book when I jumped on. So I studied different genres of writing like fantasy, science fiction, horror, romance, mystery and women’s fiction and learned how the story models worked. As I worked with each model I was able to learn how to tell my kind of story in each genre.
Many of your characters are obviously black and I wanted to ask you about a quote I read by Christopher Priest a while ago where he stated that black characters don’t tend to sell in fiction. Do you agree with that notion? And if so, why do you think that is the case?
I’d have to disagree with that notion. Black characters sell well for me. I have no problem selling John Haynes, Isis, and E’steem series stories or novels like The Thetas or Spellbound. When I offer readers a bigger picture of the black experience and offer them stories in genres like Black fantasy, and stories about the parts of black culture most people don’t write stories about like black sororities or black people in the Goth Subculture, people all over the world are eager to buy my books. I’ve sold stories with black characters all across the globe and I have an international audience that is eager to pick up the next story.
The big problem with the publishing industry is that they want to push certain narratives with black characters. They only want to see black characters that they believe make white people feel comfortable. Stuff like single successful black women who can’t find a man, hood stories or the interracial romances.
I believe if were able to put my books in places like Barnes & Noble on a store shelf they’d sell very well.
Considering mainstream Literature and comics, what do you think are the biggest mistakes or assumptions people make when writing black characters?
One of the biggest mistakes people make when writing black characters is thinking most black people come from one experience. Many writers only think black people only come from the “hood” and that black people are all from the “streets” because that’s the only story the mainstream media presents of us. However, from my personal experiences, I’ve encountered black people who come from numerous walks of life and a diversity of cultures and lifestyles. What we see in mainstream media and comics doesn’t even scratch the surface as related to showing the world who we really are.
Many writers fear if they write a character who comes from a different lifestyle outside of the mainstream media narrative like a black suburbanite, a black skater or a black Goth their characters won’t be seen as “real” black characters by readers. Some believe that they’ll be seen as “acting white” and they’ll be called a sellout. However, black culture is extremely diverse. And the more experiences and lifestyles readers see black characters participating in will allow people see a richer picture of the black life and black culture.
I often think there’s a severe lack of understanding about the business side of things when it comes to writing fiction. What do you think writers should learn to succeed in this business?
Writers need to learn that this is a rough business. If a fiction writer wants to succeed in this business they’ve got to develop a thick skin. You’re gonna have to deal with a lot of rejection, and even downright hostility from friends, family and people online and in real life. But you have to persevere in the face of that adversity because you believe in your story.
I’ve had to deal with literary agents who were downright nasty to me when I submitted The Temptation of John Haynes for representation. I’ve had to deal with family members who don’t support my work and people on social media calling me colorstruck and getting into lightskin/darkskin arguments every time I post a new Isis or E’steem series cover. But I still go out there and keep promoting my work because I believe in my mission as a writer and I want to share my stories with those readers who will take a chance on them.
After so many years in the industry, what do you think are the works that you have done that define you the most as an author? The ones you would say it’s a good representation of who you are and what you want to convey?
The book I believe that defines me as an author is The Temptation of John Haynes. It’s such a powerful story. It represents everything I wanted to present about being example of Christ. The John Haynes character is just a common man. Not special at all. But what makes him a great character is how all the little things he does throughout the story help him overcome Lucifer’s temptations and have such a profound impact on E’steem that it makes her rethink her whole life as a demon.
I also believe that Spellbound is another one of my better works. It’s a story where I come from a lot of my personal experiences as a teenager in 1989. In Matilda’s story I wanted to show all the struggles introverts go through and all the obstacles we have to overcome in her journey towards finding her voice. As someone who grew up as a misfit kid, I wrote this one so that other misfit kids all over the world they didn’t have to fit into anybody else’s box and be acceptable to them. They could stand up speak out and show the world who they truly were.
Out of all my SJS DIRECT Universe books I always thought Isis: Wrath of the Cybergoddess and E’steem: Ascension were the best stories for of those characters. In both of those stories we see Isis and E’steem rise to the occasion to overcome the enemy by having the strength of character to stand on the principles they believe in.
I also think that Isis: Imitation of Life and E’steem: The Sands of Time are a great representation of my range as a writer. To go from Ancient Egypt to Jim Crow America and tell two powerful and compelling stories about two different eras in Black history shows my craft and skill as a storyteller.
Many of my readers say The Thetas is one of my definitive titles because the women were so well written they couldn’t tell a man wrote them. But those are what I believe are the best representation of me and my body of work as a writer.
You obviously work as an independent writer. What are the best ways to promote your work as an independent writer and what are the ups and downs of self-publishing?
The best way to promote indie books I’ve found over the last 10 years is through social media. I use Patreon, Blogger Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIN, MeWe Instagram, and YouTube to get the word out about my books. I post links on some platforms, on others I post up voice-over ads I created. The feedback on my voice-over ads has been extremely positive. Some people say I could actually have a career doing voice-overs!
The up part about self-publishing is you have complete control over the creative process. After you put in all the hours on your manuscript, laying out your pages and designing your cover you have a book that meets your standards.
However, the downside is you have complete control over the process. So whatever mistakes you make are on you. And in self-publishing, you make a LOT of them. Because there’s a steep learning curve.
The other down part of self-publishing is you have to fight for sales. When you’re an indie author you don’t have a publishing house to promote your books. So you have to go out and do all the promotion yourself. In order to get readers to notice your work you have to pay for the advertising, the marketing and make every effort to move as many units as possible.
What projects do you have in store for this year?
I have four books coming out this year:
The first is John Haynes: The Man With Nothing To Lose, which is now available on Amazon.com in paperback and KindleUnlimited. This is the third book in the John Haynes series where John Haynes takes on The Block, a man with nothing to lose because he lost his criminal empire after John had him arrested in the John Haynes sequel, The Man Who Rules The World.
The second book I have coming out is Isis: The Main Event, which is going to be available in Paperback and KindleUnlimited this April. In this story, the goddess next door steps in the squared circle and learns some things about the world of wrestling before she takes on the Beast From The Bowels in a steel cage match,
The third book coming out this fall is E’steem: Blast From The Past. In this follow up to the popular E’steem the Sands of Time, E’steem and John Haynes take on the demon E’steem who has been transported through time by Decadia, an agent of Chronos. If things work out, this book’s gonna feature the first SJS DIRECT Comic, an adaptation of E’steem: No Good Deed with art by Bill Walko.
The fourth and final book coming out this October, if I can get it finished is Eternal Night. Eternal Night is my eighth novel and tells the story of how Lilith Graves became a vampire and chronicles her first year as an undead in the 1990s Goth scene.
Thank you for taking the time to do this, Shawn. It’s a pleasure. Any important message that you would like to send to our readers? Where can we follow you on social media?
Thank you for interviewing me.
Readers can pick up all my books in paperback and digital format on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Shawn-James/e/B00379H1CG/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1
They can follow me on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/shawnsjames
Catch all my videos on my YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKKSEp3tTsbC_f8TIytyINQ/
And check out my blog at: http://shawnsjames.blogspot.com/