Before they were AMC’s Comic Book Men, Walt Flanagan, Bryan Johnson, Mike Zapcic, and Ming Chen were stalwarts of Kevin Smith’s comic shop in Red Bank, New Jersey, Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, comic creators, and diehard podcasters. Flanagan has managed the shop since 1997, Zapcic has worked there since 2000, and for Flanagan and Johnson, their relationship with Kevin Smith goes way back into their early days of comic fandom. For those who have followed the careers of Flanagan, Johnson, Zapcic, and Chen, it’s clear that things may have changed in big ways with the debut of the reality TV show in 2012, but for these guys, the important things remain the same. They still keep Secret Stash running, they still podcast regularly (with Zapcic and Chen on I Sell Comics! and Flanagan and Johnson on Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave!), and they still make comics. In fact, Flanagan and Johnson’s new series Cryptozoic Man, developed and pitched live to Dynamite Entertainment on the show, debuts the first week of October while Comic Book Men returns to AMC at midnight on October 13th.
At Baltimore Comic Con, the Comic Book Men were manning a Cryptozoic Man booth and taking part in panels alongside the screening of Jay and Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie with a Q&A session hosted by Smith and Jay Mewes. As a New Jersey resident myself, and Secret Stash customer, I jumped at the chance to ask them some questions about the show, current hot topics coming up on their podcasts, and just chat about comics. Fortunately, they had a few minutes to spare, a couple of pizzas to share, and took part in an interview that turned into more of a podcast roundtable. What could be more appropriate? Their candor reminded me that talking about comics is a natural thing for fans, that it creates lasting relationships, and that, more often than not, it pushes you to appreciate new ways of looking at the comics in your life. Friend and award-winning photographer Seth Kushner, whose most recent book Leaping Tall Buildings photo-profiles comic book creators, joined me to capture images of the Comic Book Men in their native habitat.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Would you have pitched a wild mash-up like Cryptozoic Man if you hadn’t had the encouragement of the show going on at the same time? How far back does the idea go for that, or was it a more recent idea?
Walt Flanagan: It was something that we were going to do regardless. It came up organically in the show. The producers said, “You know it would be a great idea if you guys pitched a comic book to a company, could get us inside, to show viewers what it’s like to create a pitch and try to get a comic book published. It was a concept that I had had, a lot of sketch work done for, a lot of villains and stuff created for it. With or without the show, it was probably something that I would have done regardless. This one was one I definitely wanted to do, and when that came up, I had to question that. Should I use this idea for the show? Should it be something maybe less kooky? Maybe a little more mainstream for Comic Book Men? But I had so much material ready to go and we didn’t have that much of a turn around before they asked so that I did have the stuff somewhat ready to go for a pitch.
Bryan Johnson: And self-publishing isn’t the mark of desperation it once was, so we had cultivated an audience on our podcast for years. So even if no one wanted it, we probably would have just done it ourselves to begin with. Because as Walt puts it, then we have “Walt-control”.
HMS: Walt, do you have a preference between drawing superhero comics or drawing horror comics?
Walt Flanagan: No, I like to do both. To me they almost feel the same. I don’t think I’ve ever drawn anything else other than horror or superheroes.
HMS: Do you interpret The Killing Joke differently in light of Morrison’s ending that he supplied recently?
Bryan Johnson: What’s The Killing Joke? (laughter)
Walt Flanagan: Yeah. Kevin Smith showed me and played me the audio and I have to now look at it differently and say “Yeah, that’s exactly what I had missed since 1989″. I didn’t see it, but now it’s like–Wow–It is there.
Mike Zapcic: For me it didn’t matter, because it’s still canon. Barbara Gordon is still crippled and there’s one striking line in there where Batman goes after the Joker and Commissioner Gordon says, “You bring him in. You bring him in alive. We have to show him that the system works”. And for me, Batman wouldn’t go against his friend.
Ming Chen: So you’re saying he didn’t die?
Mike Zapcic: No. He didn’t kill him. Just to me. I don’t think that Batman would have crossed that line.
Walt Flanagan: That makes sense. Your argument’s valid because he’s still alive. In 1989, he shows up again in a Batman comic book. Barbara Gordon’s crippled. The Joker’s still running around. So you could make the argument that he didn’t kill him. That book was in continuity. So there’s an argument to be made there that no, obviously he didn’t kill him.
HMS: Will there ever be any Comic Book Women? Would you like that to happen? Could they put up with your shenanigans?
Ming Chen: Yes and yes.
Bryan Johnson: No and no.
Mike Zapcic: I think it’s “No” because of “No”.
Bryan Johnson: Well, I think you take four guys who have been friends for a minimum of 15 years and then you try to pop in a female cast member simply so there’s a female dynamic. It just doesn’t work. Like if we had a female friend who had grown up with us and was just part of the gang, for lack of a better word, then it would make total sense. People find it offensive, saying “Well, girls like comics. Why aren’t there any girls on the show?” To me it’s more offensive just to pop somebody in there just to appeal to that demographic rather than to allow it to happen organically. I’m not like Ming. Ming’s a horn dog. A disgusting horn dog.
Mike Zapcic: Please make sure that gets in the interview. That Ming is a horn dog.
HMS: Would you like to respond to that with some further insults, Ming, to balance things out?
Bryan Johnson: I thought I was complimenting him! He doesn’t think “disgusting horn dog” is an insult.
Ming Chen: You don’t have to be so harsh about it…
Bryan Johnson: It’s on his Wikipedia page.
Ming Chen: If I had one.
HMS: How has notoriety affected your daily life? Has life changed for you all?
Ming Chen: Outside of the cons, I don’t think it’s changed that much. Bryan, you’re probably stopped more than us. You’re more recognizable with your striking features. And your hulking physique. Just now, you said you couldn’t get here in time because people were stopping you.
Bryan Johnson: No, it’s only in places like this. People want your picture.
Ming Chen: But that’s still fun. When it does happen, people seem genuinely happy to meet you. Or they’ll have kids with them and their kids just light up.
HMS: What about the schedule now, of having to go around all these shows? Is that harder now? Has your life changed, traveling more?
Ming Chen: We haven’t been going to that many. The ones we’ve been invited to, like the local ones, we would have gone to any way. They say, “Here, we’ll give you a table if you come out. Do you want to do a panel?” That part is fun.
Bryan Johnson: I like to travel, so I wish they asked us more often to travel.
HMS: What do you think of DC’s Villains Month and the 3D covers? Do you have any favorites?
Mike Zapcic: I’m a big DC fan. I like them.
Ming Chen: It got people excited.
Mike Zapcic: It did. I think just in general, it’s a nice little twist, but unfortunately you can only really do it once. Although they have done it twice. And these lenticular covers cost more. And they weren’t able to fulfill all the orders that they had and that made them more rare.
Ming Chen: When they came in, you guys had them in piles, and they looked cool.
HMS: Some of the local shops didn’t get their orders, right?
Mike Zapcic: Yeah, we were allocated and had the newsstand editions. The non lenticular covers. It just felt like the 90′s again.
HMS: Is there a lot of stuff that doesn’t make it onto the show? How is that decided?
Ming Chen: I’d say that most of what we shoot makes it on.
Bryan Johnson: Probably. But the show runner we have this year is more exacting and also the editor. It seems like he knows what is going to air prior to shooting so he compresses a lot of stuff and doesn’t waste time.
HMS: In the past, there was more extra footage?
Bryan Johnson: Last season they sort of went their own way and they seemed to shoot a lot of what they call “OTFs”, “on the fly interviews”. Even though they were told not to, they still went and spent a lot of time on that sort of thing.
HMS: Have you guys ever called Kevin Smith out on anything big? Have you ever pranked him as the “bad boss” in any big way?
Ming Chen: The house always wins. I wouldn’t want to risk it (laughter).
Bryan Johnson: He’s really not the kind of guy you want to prank. I remember when Andy Milonakis was on the show, they were talking about punking Kevin and Kevin said, “If you ever punk me, I’ll never talk to you again”.
HMS: On behalf of Bleeding Cool, I’d like to thank the Comic Book Men for taking the time to discuss our questions and talk about their projects and their lives. And special thanks to Seth Kushner for joining us to commemorate the interview.
Seth Kushner’s photography has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker, and others. He was chosen by Photo District News Magazine as one of their 30 under 30 in 1999 and is a three-time winner of their Photo Annual Competition. Seth’s first book, The Brooklynites (with Anthony Lasala) was published by Powerhouse Books in 2007. His second book, Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics (with Chris Irving) was released in 2012 by Power House Books. TripCity.net is the current home of Seth’s profile series CulturePOP Photocomix, and his comix series Schmuck. Seth resides in his hometown of Brooklyn, NY, with his wife, son, and way too many cameras and comics. The photo of the Comic Book Men in this article remains copyright Seth Kushner.
Hannah Means-Shannon is senior New York Correspondent at Bleeding Cool, writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org, and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.