Some stories at Comic-Con go under the radar. Some go way under the radar. Some can only be found using a metal detector while walking slowly and sadly up the beach. For some reason known only to the publicity gods, the Neil Hamburger Comics Digest was one of those stories that got totally ignored in the din of screeching barkers and mini-media moguls.
If you’re not familiar with America’s Funnyman, Neil Hamburger (the character worn with Kaufmanesque devotion by Gregg Turkington) is a sweaty, alcoholic mess of a lounge performer. If Steven Wright’s joke cadence is jazz, Neil’s is the bastard child of violent country, lounge sadism and brutal face-punching metal. He’ll think nothing of soaking an audience member with a drink or delivering ten minutes of Smash Mouth jokes that almost always end in sodomy or the toilet. A performer more than a comic, in that you won’t really understand the act until you see it. So of course that it makes sense that Neil would put out a comics digest.
Or did he? When you open the book (not you probably, it’s a print run of 500) you discover via the first strip that Neil’s manager lost Neil’s likeness rights and name in a poker game, so now Blank Stare Entertainment is going to put out all the Neil Hamburger merch they can and will sue the few remaining hairs on his head if he tries to perform or complain.
And of course it would be like this, when a performer commits to a character with the zeal that Turkington has the audience should expect nothing less than to ride out the concept regardless of medium. Though the book starts with a premise, it doesn’t stick to it to the point where it becomes a distraction. If anything once the ball is rolling readers are treated to a tour of comic history, with Hamburger as guide.
I was stunned as I read through it, at the time and care that obviously went into the book. I’m a sucker for movies about movies and I’m even more of a sucker for comics about comics, especially when a meta-textual character like Neil Hamburger slides even further into a fictional reality to add a bizarre and hilarious view to a well tread region.
The book has pin-ups, activity sections, paper dolls, and strips that go the distance from The Family Circus to Jack Kirby. The roster of artists that have pages inside is the reason why the book looks so good and drips with knowing, caustic wonder and humor. From a Darick Robertson cover to interior work by Batton Lash, Jeffrey Brown and Chris Wisnia, the Neil Hamburger Comics Digest team is stunning and worthy of praise and attention.
I spoke with writer and CEO of B.S. Entertainment, Phil Hellenmeyer about the book and the process of putting it together.
That was pretty nuts. Ryan and I share a mutual friend of Darick’s, and a few Comic-Cons ago we randomly (literally in the middle of a thousand nerds) ran into Darick on the floor. Our buddy, Brian ”Chunk” Kelly, introduced us and told Darick that we were working on a Neil Hamburger comic book. Darick was ecstatic that somebody was working on a project like this, and like any huge Hamburger fan proceeded by roll[ing] off Neil Hamburger bits one by one! We asked him if he might be interested in doing a pin-up and he assertively said, “I’ll do the cover!” It was definitely one of the highs of the project So it was really just dumb luck.
Now, given the premise of the book, I took “Blank Stare” to be a joke company name, B.S. comics being a winking nod at itself. Does Blank Stare just exist to publish Neil’s comics digest or are there other things coming out under the company imprint?
Yeah, we’ve definitely got more Blank Stare Entertainment projects in the works, more comics and other cool stuff. We are doing more projects with comedians/musicians, we would love to carve out a niche where comic books meet live entertainment. Nobody buys CD’s anymore but we’re banking that fans will pick up a comic book if the stories add something new and fun to the artists catalogue. The name kind of came about as of a goof that fit in with the feel of the book, but we also thought it sounded dumb and subversive… and we both at least consider ourselves dumb!
You’ve assembled a really impressive roster of artists for this book, underground names that span decades (Batton Lash) and other younger creators like Kristen Adam. How did you select the people to be in this? Were they all fans or friends of Neil? It’s such a small publication (the inside of the cover say that there were only 500 copies) and it’s such an impressive roster, I was just curious as to a little bit about the background of assembling it.
Batton Lash is a legend in comics and our mentor (whether he likes it or not). We all live in San Diego. He’s helped us from the beginning, was our initial artist, and introduced us to Bill Galvan. He also set us up with Dan Bois who did a great job designing the book and additional lettering duties. We had a whole gang of Chunk’s young cartoonist friends from San Francisco (Kristen Adam, Star St. Germain, Sam Harris and Tim Riherd) that made great contributions, we like to imagine them as a Little Rascals type gang getting into trouble in the wacky Haight- Ashbury.. Chunk is the unofficial third member of Blank Stare Comics…we need to provide him with a proper title. Robert Dayton and Julian Lawrence came by way of Gregg Turkington (aka Neil Hamburger), and we personally sought out Chris Wisnia! and Jeffrey Brown because we’re huge fans of their work. We did make a real effort to get a diverse set of styles in there to fit the specific genres (i.e Wisnia! with his Kirby monsters).
Is this a one-off? Once the 500 copies are sold will there be any more Neil Comic Digests? Or reprints of this one? If people want to pick it up, will it be sold at Neil’s shows or is there a website you’d like people to look to?
We’re not sure about reprints after the first 500, but if all goes well we plan on putting out another volume. People can get copies at Neil Hamburger’s live shows or at our website www.blankstareentertainment.com, (we’ll ship internationally too!) and we’re working on getting copies out to some cool retailers… if they’ll have us.
The old time comic ads in the book, at first I scrutinized them trying to find if they were jokes, but they seem to be actual old ads, what was the thinking behind putting those in?
The original plan was to do our own fake 50’s/60’s ads, a la “The Book of Subgenius,” but after doing some research and scrounging around old comic shops, we found that actual ads from the 50’s/60’s were much more ridiculous and awesome than anything we could come up with ourselves. It was a cool feeling, spending hours looking through old books and finding these amazing advertisements. We felt, it was our duty to get them out into the world again.
For a book that seems to be aimed at a very specific section of fandom (comics AND neil hamburger) it actually does a pretty good job of highlighting various time periods and genres of comic books, from the “Classics Illustrated” style strip, to the obvious Jack Kirby influenced one. Was this a conscious decision or a happy accident?
We know this sounds real douchey, but it was completely intentional and our initial pitch to Gregg was; drop Neil Hamburger and his world view into a “love letter” to comics history. We really love the digest format, from the Archie books our mommies bought us at the grocery store to the crazy underground comix digests that Crumb and friends put out in the 60’s/70’s. Sometimes, people forget how many genres comic creators have created besides superhero’s. If you look hard enough you can find comics in about any genre that exists in entertainment. Bottom line, we love all comics and have a bunch more stories where Neil will ruin other classic genres!