Old Guys Still Dream — Joe Janowicz Is Exhibit A
After 37 years at Kodak, prospering in a career that had him traveling the world to produce, direct and write movie and video projects for the company, Joe Janowicz is writing, producing and trying to turn his comic books into video
By John Addyman
It was that itch. The one he couldn’t ignore.
“I had retired. When I did, I said, ‘I’m done.’ I had offers to work with other companies, but I said, ‘I’m done.’ The first thing I did was shut down the computer, the cell phone, the messaging service, the Blackberry — everything,” Joe Janowicz said.
“And this was a blessing. We had two grandchildren here in Rochester and they were just babies. Our daughter and her husband both had jobs here, so my wife, Debbie, and I helped as much as we could in those formative years for the grandkids,” he continued. “Our son is in Denver and he’s married. Then we started helping him with his kids. Then Debbie and I started to travel and enjoy our time. We began to really enjoy our special time together. As grandparents, we happily enjoyed our time with our kids and grandkids.”
Leaning forward, he changed the direction of the dialogue.
“But I began to get that itch.”
Janowicz, 74, was sitting in the middle of his basement man cave in Greece, surrounded by the things that marked his career achievements and the creative things he loves so much — comic books, movie posters, autographed photos of celebrities he worked with, videos he produced, books, records and playsets his grandkids enjoyed under his watchful eyes.
After 37 years at Kodak, prospering in a career that had him traveling the world to produce, direct and write movie and video projects for the company, he pulled the plug and walked completely away from a job that had absorbed all his time and taken him almost everywhere.
He had an office in Paris where he managed European productions. He put on a parachute and took his camera on a sky-diving photo shoot that was going fine until the plane’s engine started to burp. He took a crew to the top of Mount Rushmore to X-ray cracks in the stone. On very little notice, he found himself on his way to Tahiti to direct a production there. He interviewed the top photographers in the world in their studios and watched them create their art.
The video productions won awards for PBS Television and Kodak.
“I became the director for 110 films for Kodak that were used by the company or sold to the public or shown on TV,” he explained.
And then, he had had enough.
Debbie Janowicz had weathered the long hours and the many long trips, but now the couple was ready for their time. And for four delightful years, they enjoyed each other, the kids and the grandkids.
Then the itch.
Janowicz reached back to a hobby that was born in high school – creating comic books. “Just before I turned 70, I started a second act in my life and created a new business venture of publishing comic books, books and screenplays,” he explained.
Wait a minute. “Second acts” are usually scaled back and tame. Janowicz was taking a three-pronged dive into the deep end of the pool.
Or was he?
When he was a student at Greece Arcadia High School in 1965, he and a buddy, Steve Cruz, put together a comic book, “Bazooka,” and sold copies at school, benefiting from a cooperative teacher’s access to a mimeo machine. (Remember those?) “Steve and I collaborated on my first comic book idea, sort of a “Mad Magazine” approach to superheroes because we were young and wanted to have some fun,” Janowicz remembered.
Cruz, Janowicz notes, has gone on to establish his own studio in Dallas.
But until recently, Janowicz only had filaments of a dream tickling in his brain.
And now he says with conviction, “Old guys still dream.”
He unraveled his thought process: “I wanted to do something, because I had a successful career. Because I have all these professional pictures and because I collect movie posters and because I collect and still read comic books — I said I’m going to get back into the creative end. But not being as young as I used to be and no longer able to carry camera equipment and cords and work from dawn to dusk with a film crew, I asked myself, ‘What can I do from home that I can satisfy myself and keep me engaged with my family?’ Then I realized as I was reading my comic books, which I’ve collected since I was a kid — they were always my brothers and sisters because I had no brothers and sisters growing up. My comics took care of my time growing up.”
The problem for Janowicz was that he can’t draw much beyond stick figures. When he says he writes comic books, that’s exactly what he does. The illustration is left to someone else. He jumped from retirement into the world of creating comic books about five years ago.
“I decided to write my first comic book, “Black Man/White Man,” a murder mystery, with Nigel Carrington, an artist from Trinidad living in Rochester. We just chatted one day in a comic book store. I told him I’d like to do a real mainstream comic. I had an idea. ‘Tell me about your idea,’ he said to me. A Black police detective goes to sleep at night and transforms into a white serial killer who goes out all night long. Neither of them know they’re one and the same and they’re both trying to kill one another. It is dark, but it would make a good TV series. I didn’t write it as being that dark, more of a mystery.”
Nigel illustrated the comic.
“We released the comic just locally in 2017 and it sold out at all the stores,” he said. “I was very lucky it sold out, probably for two reasons — Nigel is very well known and the idea of the comic just caught a lot of fans’ attention.”
Today’s comic books are not like what some of us remember from years ago — they’re slick, graphic, go well beyond the basic color palettes of our memory and are much more in-your-face.
With the local success of “Black Man/White Man,” Janowicz wanted to take his dream to a different level. “I wanted to transfer from writing comics to writing books,” he said.
The idea for the first book came out of visits he made to a nursing home where Debbie’s mom was.
“I sat in the lobby and talked to some of the older folks — I realized they all have stories to tell, stories that unless someone hears them, they’ll be forgotten because they’re all alone living in those facilities,” he said. “Being inclined to do a murder mystery, I came up with the idea about one night in this retirement home when a methodical killer goes from apartment to apartment, and in each chapter, hears the whole life story of another person, and at the end of the chapter decides if they’ll live or die. He’s the judge, jury and executioner.”
“That book, ‘Bang-Bang You’re Dead,’ came out in 2018, did remarkably well on Amazon and Barnes & Noble,” Janowicz added. “My reputation began to grow from comic book to novels.”
In promoting his first comic book, Janowicz had traveled to shows in Buffalo and Syracuse where he signed copies and talked to fans. In a Rochester show, Nathan Squiers, a writer of some note, approached Janowicz.
“Nathan said, ‘Let’s work together,’” Janowicz said.
They collaborated, with each writing about 50% of the book version of Janowicz’s comic, “Black Man/White Man;” each editing the other’s work.
Meanwhile, Janowicz had written another book, “The Naked Dead” in 2020 and followed with “Ghosts” in 2022.
He produced the comic “The Undead” with illustrator Eli Johnson and started the “Dreamer” series with Ken Wheaton doing the drawings. “Dreamer” is a departure for Janowicz because the audience is kids and their parents. The main character, Franklin, is young boy in a coma, from where he can enter the dreams of other children and help them with their disabilities.
Janowicz tapped Rochester clinical psychologist Kelly Newby to add her expertise into the messages for kids in the “Dreamer” series, which has its fourth issue coming out this summer. The town of Greece honored Janowicz and Wheaton with an award for helping children with disabilities through the “Dreamer” series.
With the success of the comic books and novels, Janowicz has been ready for the third leg of his stool and the one he’s most familiar with — taking something in print onto a screen in a theater or television production.
That’s where he’s been frustrated.
In his career at Kodak, he was connected. He could pick up a phone and move things. He had access. He had a Rolodex of people who could make things happen.
“Everyone has said positive things about the comic books and books, but I can’t get anyone to talk to Joe Janowicz. If you know someone, please introduce me,” he said. “I’ll cut a deal with anyone. I’d rather sell than not,” he said.
He noted that Netflix and many other streaming services have turned comic books into video. “The point is, I don’t have any contacts. That’s the connection I’m looking for,” he said.
Janowicz has developed “treatments” — scene-by-scene descriptions of how he’d shoot a movie, screenplays without dialogue. For “Black Man/White Man” he’s broken the story into nine segments, perfect for a bingeworthy TV series. He’s prepared sample scenes for “Dreamer” and new ideas-only productions including a heavenly comedy (“Pearly Gates”) and a Godfather-type story involving indigenous peoples (“Tribes”) plus a story about four female motorcycling vampires (“The Undead”).
Until recently, no one has been knocking on his door. But his “Ghosts” novel may break the ice, with Jordyn Gualdani, a director and former Rochesterian, thinking of pitching an eight-part adaptation of the book to Netflix.
“I’m not giving up the dream,” he promised. “I’m enjoying the writing; I’m not enjoying the frustration.”
What’s obvious about Janowicz is that he’s working the dream.
And on a dime, he spins into a proselytizer for guys who maybe think they’ve lost their juice.
“If you’ve got a dream, don’t give it up,” he said, determined, urging. “Even if none of these stories gets made into a video or movie in my lifetime, I’m hoping that some day one of my projects will be made into video. I want to share the excitement of these stories that have thrilled or excited or scared the daylights out of people or made them cry. On one hand I kill people; on the other hand, I save people. I’m looking for a middle. I gave it some time before I had that creative itch to do something, then I set about to do something — when I became the dreamer. I wanted to make a comic book because I always enjoyed reading comic books. But I wanted to make a professional one. And then I said I wanted to write a book; I’ve always read books. The dream was do it. I wanted to write a screenplay and make it sellable or marketable — and hopefully see my screenplay, book or comic actually turn into something on a streaming service, movie platform, whatever — where I have a legacy, where my grandkids, my family and friends can all look back and say — ‘Wow! He did it, he followed his dream.’”
“No matter what age you are, you should do the things you want to do. You should write and paint and draw. You should do carpentry. You should do anything you’ve never done before but that you said you wanted to do,” he said. “Follow your dreams. I say, be a dreamer, be a doer, make the dreams as real as possible, don’t live with regrets, saying, ‘Gee, maybe I could have. Gee, I should have. Gee, why didn’t I?’ Be that doer. Be that dreamer. And live and leave accomplishments you can be proud of or at least be able to say to yourself, ‘I did it.’”
“I guess that’s what I’m all about right now. I could just put my pen down and my computer away and just watch TV — I don’t want to do that. I want to still be active. I want to continue to do what I’m doing while still enjoying my family and friends,” he continued. “A lot of our life is based on the intersections we go through — you can either go right, left or straight, or back up. But a lot of times, you make the right choice and meet the right people. It just develops your own inner strength and character: it gives you different perceptions and the choices are so interesting. Old guys still dream.”