We Talked To The Portland Comic Book Publisher Behind “Atomic Blonde”

As Hollywood increasingly farms its plots from comics, Portland has proved to be fertile ground.

Before Oni Press had even published The Coldest City, Antony Johnston's graphic novel was slated for a movie adaptation starring Charlize Theron. Five years after Coldest City's release,  that adaptation has made its way to the big screen in the form of Atomic Blonde.

As Hollywood increasingly farms its plots from comics, Portland has proved to be fertile ground. Along with industry titans like Milwaukie's Dark Horse and the recently arrived Image Comics, that includes Oni Press, which has just 16 employees releasing around a dozen comic books and trade paperbacks each month. Oni has long subsidized its own slate of original creator-owned material with comics licensed from properties like Clerks and Rick & Morty. The Portland publisher has also managed to become an influential source for feature films: Whiteout, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and now, Atomic Blonde, a highly stylized spy flick set in Cold War-era Berlin.

On the eve of Atomic Blonde's opening weekend, Oni publisher and Atomic Blonde executive producer Joe Nozemack spoke with WW about thinking outside the panel.

WW: Had you always wanted to work with movies?
Joe Nozemack:
Not at first. Then, around 2000-2001, once we kind of got comfortable, I started to notice comics becoming a real source for intellectual property in Hollywood. By then, we knew what we were doing on the comics side, and we decided it was maybe time to try the movie side as well. So, we talked to a couple creators about a couple of our books, they allowed us to represent the film rights and we started from there.

Related: "Atomic Blonde" Is Almost Like A Lengthy and Brutal Cologne Ad

How'd Atomic Blonde come about?
Charlize and her production company came onto the material before the book was even done. This is one of the few times that I've seen the Hollywood development thing work pretty seamlessly. She was looking for a property. Her production guys went through our catalog. We had this graphic novel in development that sounded like something she'd like. So, we sent her the script for the book, and it was exactly what she was looking for. Then, we just worked together to develop it for a film.

What was she looking for?
A strong, unapologetic female character.

Is the movie faithful to the comic?
It's very faithful as far as the character and the story arc goes. The book is very Le Carré—a kind of minimalist spy thing. Then, when David Leitch came on as director, they amped it up and added the fight scenes and the action.

What'd the creator of the comic think?
He loved it. You know, he understands the adaptation process. He adapted some novels into comics and video games into comics, so he knows what you have to do. Again, they kept the characters and story intact. There are even lines of his dialogue still in the movie. They just put their stamp on it. David did what he does, and it worked really well.

It seems like Hollywood's interest in comics has spiked recently.
That tie between comics and film … The connection was bound to happen sooner or later. When we first started, you know, people didn't really take comics seriously as material. Now, they're one of the main sources of inspiration for the [film] industry. Just seeing that transition in Hollywood over the last 15, 20 years has been really interesting. Originally, when they first made comic book movies, they didn't really sell books. The first Batman movie sold a lot of T-shirts, but they weren't selling comics. Then, when we saw Hellboy [based on a Dark Horse comic] come out, that changed. Hellboy sold comics, so, you know, in my mind, if I want to get some of these original books to start selling better, I need to get movies made.

At this point, do creators take it as a given that Hollywood will come calling?
Everybody thinks that. I mean, it's weird. You always try to let the book be a book. We like to work with creators that aren't kind of pre-programming that into the pitch for the book to begin with. I think part of why comics are working so well as content for Hollywood is because they're not being created with the thought of going through the Hollywood development process, so they're not self-editing themselves to get through the hurdles that are usually put there. When we first published Scott Pilgrim, we never thought that would be a movie. I mean, he's in there punching people and they're blowing up and turning into coins. So, we just did our cool little book, Edgar Wright ended up really digging it, and next thing you know, we've got a movie.

SEE IT: Atomic Blonde is now playing at Bagdad, Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, City Center, Clackamas, Division, Eastport, Fox Tower, Lloyd, Oak Grove, St. Johns Pub and Theater, Tigard, Vancouver.

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