Throughout his career in comics, openly gay writer/illustrator Phil Jimenez has taken on some iconic and mythical characters and worlds, most notably that of queer icon/Amazonian hero Wonder Woman.
Now he's whipping up whole new mythologies and beings of his own in his first creator-owned comic series, 'Otherworld' ( Vertigo ) .
'I think my obsession with mythology comes from two things,' Jimenez muses, sitting in one of DC Comics' midtown offices. 'One is probably being an only child spending a lot of time by myself. I was constantly into exploring other worlds, escaping from the mundane one I lived in. I'm assuming that being gay is part of that connection. Going to these other fantastical worlds where everything is heightened. Heroes are more heroic, villains more villainous, extraordinaries more extraordinary. I'm also obsessed with the way mythology works culturally. The notion of myth, even the mythology we create about our own lives, gets us through the day.'
Stunningly illustrated by Jimenez, inker Andy Lanning and colorist Jeromy Cox, 'Otherworld' is a 12-issue monthly maxi-series from DC Comics' edgy Vertigo imprint.
The first issue debuts March 30.
'Otherworld' imagines an alternate universe where a war wages between two distinct nations—one mystical and magical, the other scientific and technological ( sort of like Lord of the Rings versus The Matrix/Tron ) . Suddenly, the war shifts into a whole new gear thanks to the arrival of a group of super-powered humans from ... Los Angeles! In issue one we're introduced to these gifted young Los Angelinos including college student Siobhan, her boyfriend Jason, best friend Billie, Aussie bartender Donnie, and gay dancer Kevin. By issue two, they grapple with their newfound superpowers and a whole lot of creepy androids that seem determined to kill them.
The pitch is an unusual one indeed. Jimenez, who first conceived of 'Otherworld' in college as a reaction to the Gulf War ( and a metaphor for struggles between religion, secularity and technology ) , spent more than 10 years shelving, taking out and developing, and re-shelving it again.
'Finally after 9-11 I pulled it out again, retooled it a bit and showed it to editor Will Dennis,' he recalls. 'He believed the socio-political nature of it could be relevant and it was accepted. A long, long journey, but its roots are over a decade old.'
Roots on display in 'Otherworld' include characters based on composites of college friends and many Los Angeles landmarks ( slightly altered for trademark reasons, of course ) .
Jimenez was born July 12, 1970 in Los Angeles. A fan of TV's Wonder Woman as a child, and a burgeoning artist by junior high, Jimenez cites George Perez' run on the Wonder Woman comic book ( 1987-'91 ) as a major influence and inspiration. In 1989 Jimenez moved to NYC and attended the School of Visual Arts, but due to financial shortcomings dropped out after only two years. Fortunately, DC Comics, to which he had submitted material for some time, called with work three weeks later.
Jimenez' first boss at DC was senior editor/creative director Neal Pozner, who later became his boyfriend and mentor. In 1994, Pozner died from AIDS complications. As a tribute and dedication. Jimenez came out and discussed their partnership in the letters column of a 1996 mini-series he was writing/drawing, 'Tempest.'
'I think everything I do that's good is a tribute to Neal,' Jimenez says. 'I remember pitching [ Otherworld ] to him over 10 years ago and he told me what was wrong with it and I'm glad I didn't do anything with it then. So it's an homage to him. I have a job because of Neal. A career. His support, his death, all that shapes my goals. I think I care about DC Comics and its characters the way I do because he did. In hindsight he didn't have the best reputation. Only after he died did people really deal with how they felt about him because he was such a ball-breaker. A lot [ of that ] had to do with the fact he loved these characters and material and wanted to see it succeed and be treated well. He fought very hard to do that and very hard against mediocrity. When I fail him is when I give in to any sort of mediocrity, do a gig for the money. The nice thing to me about Otherworld is it's not a gig for the money. It's pretty heartfelt.'
Jimenez's incredibly detailed, tight illustration style on books like 'Team Titans' made him a much-desired artist at DC and with other comic publishers ( and earned him an Eisner Award—comics' Oscars—nomination ) . His resume is quite impressive as a result: he's worked on writer Grant Morrison's GLAAD Award-nominated 'The Invisibles' and 'New X-Men,' writer Warren Ellis' 'Authority/Planetary' crossover, and, most famously, 'Wonder Woman.'
His run on the latter, from 2000-2003, is credited with revitalizing the series and stirring up controversy. Points of fan contention included a pair of lesbian Amazons, an African-American romantic interest ( 'When I introduced the Trevor character ... someone said 'Phil, get your black bottom boy fantasies out of my comic book!' And the editorial office got calls that were shocking in their racism, they were so angered by this character' ) , and a more introspective and cunning than fisticuffs-prone Wonder Woman.
'Their biggest problem was that my Wonder Woman wasn't aggressive enough,' he recalls. 'I made sure that in the first three story arcs or so that when she won a fight it wasn't by beating somebody up. One of my big detractors on the [ comic's online ] message board was a gay guy who used to get beaten up a lot in school. He said that one of the reasons he sought out that kind of action in comics was because in comics at least the good guy could beat up the bad guy and win. In his life that wasn't the case. He was young and effeminate and got beat up all the time and never got to beat back. It definitely made me realize these comics are fantasies for people to invest in, and our characters inspire a real person connection with readers. Including myself!'
For Jimenez, there's a significant personal connection to Kevin, 'Otherworld''s young gay character. 'He's roughly based on me,' he admits. 'Kevin is 19, half-Mexican, lives in West Hollywood but wants to move to New York because he wants to go to Julliard and be a dancer. His drive to move has a lot to do with the fact that if he can become this success in NY, get his name on a marquee in lights, and become the success he dreams of, maybe being gay won't be so bad to his family. That's a big motivator for him. The other bigger story for him has to do with his seduction by the technological world, which is a metaphor [ for the secular world ] . The more traditional religious worlds are often oppressive and discriminatory, so in many ways I think the secular worlds are more appealing to gay people. But the problem with that is by embracing only the holy consumer secular world they eliminate and or forsake a part of their life. The meditative, the spiritual, the thing that connects them to the unconscious world. With Kevin I'm hoping to explore this. Why a secular world is so seductive and why consumerism is so seductive and why ultimately only living in that world is bad for him intellectually and spiritually. I think his youth and upbringing play into that seduction so my hope is gay readers will see a bigger picture I'm talking about.'
Kevin will also, unlike Wonder Woman, kick plenty of butt. 'A lot of it!' Jimenez laughs. 'He's a telepath and telekinetic and quite powerful.'
Jimenez certainly invests a lot of his energy and time into his gay audience. He's a regular attendee at weekly get-togethers of NYC's chapter of the Gay League of America ( gayleague.com ) , an organization/resource for gay comic fans and professionals. He's an advisory board member of another queer comics organization, Prism Comics ( www.prismcomics.org ) , and is regularly profiled in their annual Your LGBT Guide to Comics. 'I'm always amazed to find out the difference in tastes gay collectors have,' he admits. 'They're as diverse as we are.'
Yet, surprisingly, his boyfriend of two years isn't a comic or sci-fi nerd whatsoever, or even much of a fan. 'We have this great argument,' Jimenez admits with a grin. 'He didn't understand why when someone is unplugged from the Matrix and died they couldn't just be plugged back in. I explained it's like life support, you can't be plugged back in!'
Still, the boyfriend could end up—like some of Jimenez's other friends and acquaintances—as a model for a comic book character. 'I'd like him to let me use him as a model for Superman,' Jimenez says. 'He's very chiseled-jaw kind of handsome. So if this 'Otherworld' thing fails I'll be knocking on DC's doors downstairs, asking 'hey guys, can I work on your characters again?''
Designing Women ... and Otherworlds
Phil Jimenez spends four-five weeks drawing each issue of 'Otherworld,' and he says that most of this time is spent on design, from the look of a barstool to characters to costumes, rather than drawing itself.
'It's a world from scratch,' he notes.
That said, some elements are based on photographs on real places and things, including many Los Angeles locations ( Sunset Boulevard's Tower Records becomes 'Wild Choir Music' ) and characters.
One of the protagonists, Stephanie, is based on a girl Jimenez met at a comic convention. 'I looked up from my desk where I was drawing and she was a perfect look-alike in my head for the character,' he recalls. 'The [ funny ] thing about my models is they'll go 'I'll be a model but [ I don't want to be depicted a certain way ] . I'm going to be fat in this book? I don't know ... .' Like one model's big concern was that her character not be a whore. She used the word 'slut'—like 'I can't be a slut! Because I'm not a slut!' I thought that was really funny because they're just models for these characters.'
Some of the most astounding original designs in 'Otherworld' are its costumes. Jimenez, who considers events such as San Diego's annual Comic-Con as the 'ultimate drag party—just a different kind of drag' for their legions of fans dressed as their favorite characters, hopes that he sees some 'Otherworld' entries in the future.
'This will make me happy—I'm very proud of the costume design so if nothing else there will be beautiful costumes. The Hindu goddess character, I would love to see somebody in that costume. I'd give whoever does that a page [ of art ] —but only the first one!'
Interestingly, one of Jimenez's most unusual design jobs took place a few years ago—and not on a comic book per se. His hand doubled for Tobey Maguire's during a scene in Spider-Man during which Peter Parker is designing his costume.
'Someone I know working at Sony Pictures asked if I could recommend him someone to do it,' he recalls. 'I said I'll do it and it turned into this wonderful job.' Asked whether he'd be interested in doubling for, say, Christian Bale's hand in the upcoming Batman Begins, Jimenez laughs.
'Yeah, if Batman is putting needle and thread through his costume. But I would rather do—my dream job—is to work in the art production office of the Wonder Woman movie. Use my hands to actually make art for something rather than be on camera.'
— Lawrence Ferber