The Goon Turns 20 And Hits The Road – Eric Powell On Returning To Lonely Street
by Hannah Means Shannon
Eric Powell’s The Goon turns 20 years old this year, and with that anniversary comes a momentous development in the beloved character’s publishing history. The Goon returns as a series, and now finds its home at Powell’s only carefully built imprint Albatross Funnybooks. The curated imprint has been growing over the past few years bringing several series, including Powell’s own Hillbilly, to comic shops. Now it will be carrying on The Goon series, several Goon Omnibus collections and the future of the character.
For those who might be new to The Goon, it’s a highly individual series featuring gorgeous artwork, a depression-era feel, and a distinctive horror flavor. In the new series, the first issue of which landed last week, our protagonist and friend Franky return to his home base of Lonely Street to find that things have changed in their long absence and a “hoard of unsavory characters” have taken their place. Sounds like some punching is going to happen.
Powell is going on a large-scale tour to celebrate the new Goon series and the 20th anniversary celebration, and after an opening party the first week of March, this week sees the first stop on his signing tour, taking place March 19th in Alhambra, California.
Powell joins us today to talk about the milestones his comic character and series have reached and his thoughts and feelings about the development of Albatross Funnybooks. And also why he has such a dark sense of humor, of course.
Hannah Means-Shannon: It’s a really big shift in some ways, toward taking on all the publishing duties for the back catalog of The Goon and bringing out the new series.
Eric Powell: Yes. It’s a bit of a daunting task for a new, small publisher, but so far so good! Hillbilly was kind of a test to see how the company would do, and if there would be a market for a real indie book by me. I was kind of shocked by the response it got, so it’s been snowballing from there.
HMS: That was a really interesting choice to start with Hillbilly. I think it shows a lot of wisdom, testing the water. Also, the workload of running an imprint and carrying it through to the direct market is quite a thing. Anyone who thinks it’s going to be simple is really in for it!
EP: Oh, no. You have to be willing to put in the hours for sure. I’m exhausted every day now, but I haven’t felt this kind of enthusiasm during my entire career since ’94 or ’95, when I was first breaking into comics. It’s the most rewarding experience of my career, definitely. I couldn’t really say why, but there are no filters. If I think something’s fun, I just go do it. I really function off of enthusiasm, and there’s no damper on that.
HMS: It must be amazing to have it all in your hands and be able to see the real-world effects of your decisions pretty quickly. That’s another thing, though this takes time, you are in control of the pace of release. You can decide when you want something to come out and reach the public.
EP: Yes, definitely. When you first want to release something, and you’re putting it into solicitation, to the time it hits stands is about six months. That seems like a long time, but when you’re working on stuff, it goes by in a flash, and there never seems to be enough time in the day. But we’ve been doing a pretty good job of keeping a creative business model running. Our model is that we do just a few titles, and it’s kind of like a “boutique” publisher, though I don’t know that it’s the right word. We really focus on doing quality work and not trying to oversaturate the market. That can have drawbacks. Publishing at a higher volume brings extra discounts. At the same time, I love having a few titles, where the readers and the retailers can order every volume, and it’s not going to break the bank.
HMS: That must make for a great retail relationship. It also must be a point of pride that there are few enough books for them to have all passed through your hands and you’ve been involved in them.
EP: I usually tend to give some editorial notes, for the books that others have created, but mainly at the beginning, and then let them do their thing. It’s been a lot of fun picking the stuff that I would want to read.
HMS: I think that people who like to read your books are going to be the same kind of people who like to read the books you’re picking as a publisher. Since the same personality informs both. I don’t know that I could put my finger on the similar qualities between Albatross books, but they are definitely there. They are all very independent, for one thing. They have their own personal vision and a very big focus on high quality artwork as a focus for storytelling.
EP: They are all a little odd [laughs]. That’s the only real binding factor among these titles. They are a little odd in their own way.
HMS: So, are you accepting and zen about the fact that it’s been 20 years since the creation of The Goon, or is that kind of a shock to you?
EP: It’s weird to wrap by head around. That amount of time seems like it went by in a flash. It’s still kind of odd to me that I have been able to sell any of the books at all, much less enough to be able to make a living for 20 years. I still wake up every day waiting for the bottom to fall out, I think. Luckily, it hasn’t yet.
HMS: Maybe this year will convince you that this is not going away! What with all the events and collections coming out.
EP: I hope so. It would be nice, but I’m a pretty pessimistic person, so that’s probably not going to change.
HMS: Have you felt any pressure, in your own mind, to try to coalesce and unifying the different qualities and traits of The Goon comics now that you’re hitting this mile stone? Especially with starting a new series based on the idea that we’ve now hit a 20 year mark.
EP: I’ve always wanted the Goon to be the kind of book where I could tell any kind of story I wanted, and with the last couple of miniseries that came out a few years ago, when I wrapped up all the previous storylines, it got really dark. I started thinking about the things I wanted to do when I brought the series back, and I personally want to have more fun with it, and work with subject matter that’s so depressing. So, I thought I really should take it back to its roots and make it more of a dark comedy. At the same time, the world around us is pretty crappy right now. And if I can give people a moment of levity, and let them forget about things for a little while, that would be a pretty good thing.
HMS: How long have you been planning the new series out? It sounds like awhile now.
EP: I always had the 20th Anniversary as a mark I wanted to do something with. Even though I wrapped up The Goon a couple of years prior, I thought the anniversary would be a good time to bring it back and do another series. So, I had been putting thought into it and the directions I wanted to take it. It was a meaningful milestone that would be sad to pass up.
HMS: In the meantime, of course, you’ve been creating Hillbilly as well as publishing other peoples’ works. That series is really beloved, I have to say. I’m from Western North Carolina and I don’t get to read that many books that remind me of my regional influences, and that one certainly does. Did you reach a stopping place for that series, so that you could focus on The Goon? I can’t imagine drawing them both at once…
EP: My plan is to possibly have one Hillbilly miniseries out per year and keep the character alive and the series going. I do have other stories. Of the three volumes that I’ve done, they are stories that interconnect and form one larger story, so I wanted to get that out of the way. Then I wanted Hillbilly to turn into a weird fairytale. I wanted to do specific little spot stories putting the character in weird situations in a way that would feel like folk tales and fairytales. I think there’s a lot of ground that could be covered with that character and with that approach. Then, you don’t know if a story you’re hearing could be part of continuity, or could be something that a character heard and is making up along the way.
HMS: Yes, Hillbilly really lends itself to the one-shot and short story arc format. It’s like what we talk about when we think about The Canterbury Tales, for instance. It’s an accordion file system of storytelling, one where you can “fold in” episodes in different orders and the stories still stand. But the order in which you place them might have thematic bearing. That way readers can also dip in at will and not feel out of place. They aren’t too burdened by continuity.
EP: Yes. I tend to prefer short stories and condensed format where you have a beginning, middle, and end. But I also love having little things thrown in that make a larger world, little connecting pieces. I tend to do that a lot in everything I’ve worked on. In The Goon and Hillbilly, there are always little things that connect to other elements in the stories.
HMS: You’re challenging the reader to look for easter eggs. Are the two series in same universe? That’s something I’m not totally clear on.
EP: We did have Buzzard in issue #2 of Hillbilly, but he kind of becomes Death. He takes over the mantle of, basically, the Grim Reaper. So, his travelling to Roundel’s world is not necessarily a confirmation that they are in the same universe. It’s just that Death himself would be able to move between realities. That’s more the angle I was going for. That there isn’t any boundary to death, so it touches multiple worlds.
HMS: That’s an awesome idea, that the big thematic elements can cross over.
Well, in the press info about what’s going to be happening to celebrate The Goon this year, it says that there are going to be some other creators working with you. I don’t know how much you’re able to say about that yet, but is that the first time this has happened?
EP: There have been people who’ve come in before to do smaller things before. Evan Dorkin wrote an issue of The Goon, and we’ve had artists and writers do short stories. But this will be the first time where I turn over the art reigns to another creator for a significant run. We haven’t made the announcement yet of who the first artist is, but I am really excited. I think his style and approach fits The Goon perfectly.
Part of the reason for this is that I am the publisher and I have to make sure this comes out on a timely basis. As much as I have the ideas to do so, and as much as I would like the book to come out several times a month, I can’t do it because I’m not Jack Kirby and I can’t handle that kind of workload and handle the publishing aspect of the company.
To maintain some fluidity with our schedule, I’m going to have other people jump in on The Goon. But I don’t think anyone is going to be disappointed. I’m going to be pretty picky about who gets to touch the book.
HMS: I can imagine that, especially after the years you’ve put into The Goon. Regarding schedule, you’re also not a minimalist artist by any means, and you put a lot of detail on the page. That must take a long time. Have you gotten any faster over time at doing Goon pages?
EP: NO! [Laughs] I’m getting slower with age. I don’t know that I’m necessarily getting slower, but the amount of hours I can spend at the drawing table has changed. I’m 43. I used to stay up and pull all-nighters to get stuff finished, and I just can’t physically do that anymore. It’s diminishing returns, since I won’t be able to function the next day.
HMS: I don’t know that all-nighters are healthy for anyone in comics or elsewhere.
EP: The trade-off is the focus you get with age, and the “patience”, I guess would be the word. To be able to focus and shift my work habits a little and be able to work a little earlier than I used it. It’s been a morning to night schedule of taking care of creating the books and taking care of running the company.
HMS: I want to ask you a little bit about the new series, and the first issue is called “A Ragged Return to Lonely Street”, which is a very telling title. And in the first issue, you actually make a reference to a possible graphic novella coming up. Is there anything you can tell us about it?
EP: Yes, when I ended the last mini-series, I had the idea to do this really pulpy story. I didn’t know if I was going to do it as a series, or a graphic novel. I was still trying to figure out what it was going to become. I wanted to do a really Doc Savage, pulpy take on The Goon and some other characters. It was going to be called “The Lords of Misery”. And that was supposed to take place between then and the upcoming anniversary. But unfortunately, my schedule just didn’t work out that way. I had some unforeseen complications on a book that led to juggling things a little, so I had to push it back. Then it didn’t seem right to put out a Goon side-project on the 20th Anniversary. It seemed more appropriate to put out its own series and then come back to the project. But I didn’t want to leave anyone hanging, so I make reference to it in the first issue. We’ll be telling that story pretty soon.
HMS: Awesome! That sounds great. Well, you mentioned earlier that you wanted to bring a dark sense of humor to the new series that reached back to the roots of The Goon. Looking through the first issue, I definitely see that, since horror and death are part of the first issue.
But, there’s an energy there, and a kind of exuberance there, too. You clearly enjoyed drawing these traditional horror characters we see in the first issue. I enjoyed reading them, certainly. Is it tricky handling the subject of death in a way that’s funny? Or is that something you’ve always found natural to you?
EP: Yeah, I have a morbid sense of humor. I think it’s very funny. I don’t know if that’s a defense mechanism, something I grew up with. Maybe it’s one of those things where if you don’t laugh, you’d cry. I don’t know that I really think about how to juggle that. It’s always just an instinct thing. If something strikes me as funny, I kind of go with it. The fact that so much of the humor is wrapped around death or dark themes speaks to my own sense of humor.
HMS: I think it’s definitely something people need, now more than ever. Best of luck with the celebration party and all the books coming out this year, including the Omnibus!
Thanks so much to Eric Powell for talking to us at such length about the return of The Goon.
Catch up with Eric on his massive tour, listed above!
Check out Olly MacNamee’s review of issue #1 of the new Goon series right here.