With the AMC show Comic Book Men about to air in its third season, Kevin Smith and the Comic Book Men took part in two roundtable interview sessions at New York Comic Con which Bleeding Cool was fortunate enough to join in. Smith fielded questions that were mainly about the show and behind-the-scenes reactions from cast and crew during production, but also detoured into his personal hero-worship of Walt Flanagan, his admiration for “the boys” and how they keep the show on the air, and, lastly, what comics make him cry.
Smith was incredibly candid in his discussion of the show, detailing two situations in which he had to raise some hell about things that weren’t working out, one of them dealing with dismissive treatment of Stan Lee by filming staff. Here you get the perspective of the man himself on the rise and continued success of Comic Book Men with plenty of expletives to reassure you that this is Kevin Smith talking, and we better fucking listen. Comic Book Men is currently airing on AMC on Sunday nights at midnight (11 Central), a time slot which Smith feels is ideal, according to this interview.
Q: What’s the most unique thing that happens in the upcoming season of Comic Book Men?
Kevin Smith: I’ll be honest with you. The most unique thing that happens this season happens right in the first episode. And it’s something you never fucking see on television. There’s a before and after picture of Bryan Johnson. In the first episode of season three, Lou Ferrigno comes to the store and trains Bryan for awhile, so Bryan is brave enough to whip out an iPad and show pictures of himself since before he gained a bunch of weight. So it’s like 180 degrees. He looks like a different person. And that, to me–you never see that on TV. Nobody ever says, “Look at how bad I look and look at how good I used to look”.
Q: Did he still have a beard back then?
KS: He didn’t! It doesn’t even look like him. He looks like his kid. So when I first saw that I was like “Fuck. Nobody ever does that”. I thought it was brave. So I called him up and was like, “Dude, that’s ballsy”. And he was like, “Just own it, bitch”. And I was like, “Own it? I hate it. I’m ashamed of it”. That, to me, it was brave. I’d never seen it on TV before, someone going, “Yeah, that’s what I used to look like”. One of them’s like a topless shot. It’s kind of hot.
Q: How’d you get Lou Ferrigno involved?
KS: We reached out. We’d seen him at cons for years. And I think it was last year at one of the cons, we ran into him and were like, “Hey, man. Would you like to be on the show?” And he was like, “Yeah, maybe”. And boom, it happened. So this year we pull in a few people from the world of comics. Lou Ferrigno is there. George Perez is there. Scott Snyder, who does podbusters with us where we sit around and talk about the new Batman book. So, in a show called Comic Book Men and you’re going into season three, as much as the show is all about the boys, you want to acknowledge, like “Hey, man, there’s a deep community out there and here’s some fucking cool faces from them”. And we talked about Perez so many times over the course of the first two seasons, to have him show up in season three just kind of made sense. You get to see Walt go to pieces over him and shit. The closest I’ve ever seen Walt to being like “Awwwww”. Over George Perez. He was very modest. It was sweet to see.
Q: You said that when you started the show, the guys were surprised anyone would want to watch it. And they are just regular guys. Do you think, personally, things have changed being friends with them? Has it made it a difference?
KS: No. The best thing about this, the podcast, the show, is that they haven’t changed. It’s not like, “Oh, they’re the fucking same”. We all change and evolve as we grow, but the fundamental key points of what make up Walter Flanagan have not changed, by my estimation, in 25 fucking years. And that doesn’t make him like he hasn’t evolved. He just knows who he is and has always knew who he was. This is the guy that kind of showed me and taught me without sitting down and teaching me. He was the guy that showed me that you could enjoy comics out loud and proud. I was about 18 years old when I started hanging with Walt. Walt was a couple years older than me. And he was a metal kid in school, long hair with fucking denim jackets, fucking Metallica paintings on the back and shit. Real hard ass, hung out with a hard ass crew. And then when I started hanging out with him and talking to him at the Rec center, somebody was like, “He likes comic books”. And I was like, “Get the fuck outta here. I used to like comic books, but then I put them away for high school”.
So then over the course of our friendship, I was like, “You never got weirded out by your comics, didn’t want people thinking you were a kid or what not?” He goes, “Fuck no! What’s more badass than The Dark Knight Returns?” He was like, “I don’t give a shit. If someone says comic are for kids, fuck you, read this”. This is a guy who knew exactly who he was and that to me was very attractive because I was like, “I want to be like that”. That insanely self-confident. And not like he’s better than people, but just like, “I know who I am. I know what I like. And I don’t give a shit what people say. This is who I am and this is what I like”. So that guy hasn’t changed in 25 years. He’s still very much the same fucking person. You know, he’s got a nice couch now, and a pool and shit, but other than that he’s pretty much the same guy.
Bryan has remained Bryan forever. Ming [Chen] and Mike [Zapcic] are still the same guys. Yeah, the show is successful enough, but not the point where it’s like they’re Duck Dynasty or something like that. Like “What do you do in your private life?” Nobody gives a shit about their private life. In fact, they’re like “Stop telling us”. So because the show was successful enough to make a season three but not successful enough and popular where it’s just like money’s being thrown at them left and right and shit, you’ve seen no change or attitude. They’re still the same people that they are. And that’s kind of heartening. It’d be really sad to see them go Hollywood at the ratings they’re at!
If they had Walking Dead ratings, I’d be like, “Your’e right! Go Hollywood”. But the ratings they’re at, I don’t know if it justifies going, “You can’t fuck with the Comic Book Men”. And these guys were never those dudes anyway. You’re talking about people who know exactly who they are but generally didn’t have the self-confidence to pursue it. Like Walter and Bryan have always been role models and heroes to me but the one thing they could never do was start. Not self-starters. So that was me. I’m the ignition guy. I was like, “Let’s do this man”. Sometimes you just need someone to push you and I was the push guy. So I’m glad they haven’t changed. You can hear them on their podcasts like Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave!, as opposed to just watching the TV show, if you listen to the podcast, you hear their inner psyche all this time. And they are the same people they were when they started the podcast 5 years ago, or whatever it was, 3 years ago, 4 years ago. But that’s nice. It’s absolutely nice to see that they haven’t become assholes and stuff. And this is a business where they throw a lot of money and favors at you and stuff, and do favors that other people can’t, and it turns some people into fucking pricks, and that hasn’t happened to these guys at all.
Q: The shop looks so much nicer now…
KS: Thanks. The idea was, last season they added the second counter so that rather than do transactions all up here, since the show is so transactional, with people coming in trying to sell stuff, they were like, “Let’s build a second counter in the back”. And people went for it. The idea was we were able to break things up a little bit better. It just looks visually interesting. But Walter hated the second counter and still does. He was like, “They’re taking it out, right?” And I was like, “No, dude, this is it!” And he was like, “Why do we need a second counter??” And that’s one of the other things I love about him. He got a TV show. You’d imagine he’d be like, “Woo-hoo!” And instead he’s like, “Why is this counter here?” He couldn’t wait for the show to be done. I tease him about it, but the fact that he does the show at all is a real fucking favor. He ain’t into this shit. He don’t want to be on TV. It’s like everything that Walter does we kind of push him into except comics. That he’ll go forward with on his own volition. But even on Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave!, with the podcast. He was like, “I’ll just do it to help Bryan. And Bryan will stop doing it. And after a couple episodes, that’ll be that”. But now he’s in it for the long haul because Bryan won’t stop.
And the same thing with the show. Like initially, I was like, “They are going to do a show!” And he was like, “No they’re not’, click. He didn’t want no part of it. So I was like, “Please, dude. The last magic trick I have up my sleeve is that somehow a show, and not just a show but a show on the network that we watch. The network where Walking Dead is”. So he went for it in the kind of way like, “Ok, this means something to you”. And every season, he’s the glue. If you watch the show, the dude turns on and has to lead conversation, he leads the conversations. And it’s just like he’s normally not that guy. But the fact that he’s doing it is a strong testimony to our friendship because he’s like, “This means something to you, I’ll do it”. And the money’s nice too, don’t get me wrong. He gets a check but it offsets what, to him, is absolute inconvenience. I.E. having anyone in the store, let alone a fucking camera crew”. He’s like, “Customers!” So the idea of having all those people and cameras. He’s not Joe-fucking-friendly. But he does it every season and it sounds weird to say, but I feel like he does it for me. That’s the only reason why. If I was like, “Walt, I don’t care about this”, he’d be like, “Good. We’re done”. I think that’s another reason why they haven’t gotten carried away. It’s just not in their makeup.
Q: Would you say that there’s anything you’ve had to fight for or against because it’s a reality show?
KS: The only thing we fought for was we had some problems because last season they brought in some people to shoot the first half of the season. And they didn’t get the boys at all. They wanted to do these on-the-fly interviews. And that was the only place where we kind of butted heads. Because I was like, “Why do that? Who does that? We have a way to get away without doing that. Let’s not do it”. And for awhile we were getting pushback. They were like, “Nah, we’d like to understand these items more. We want to understand the people who come into the store and people watching the show may not”. That was the philosophy in the first season. But by the time you get to the second season, you figure out who the audience is and they’re all like familiar with this stuff. There’s nobody watching the show like, “It’s impenetrable to me”. You know, they’ll figure out, “Oh, these guys like this stuff”. So the argument was, “Do we really need somebody backing up on camera and going, ‘I’m selling this because it used to mean a lot to me, but I’m going on vacation'”. They kind of do a lot of that in the transaction. So there was butting heads about that last year. And then it went away. It never made air so that was cool. That’s the nice thing about AMC. If you’re passionate and they’re like, “If this is the hill you want to climb, if it means that much to you, we’ll let it go”. So they’ve been great creative partners to work with. But they haven’t been like, “Do what ever the hell you want”. They’ve definitely had constraints along the way, but nothing all that bad.
And there was that one other time I called up and it was about, again, the creative team that’s gone. But we had Stan Lee on the show last season and at one point, there was a piece that ran in The New York Times blog. They’d come down while we were shooting. And they were writing about Stan being there. And I wasn’t there because I was doing something on the West Coast, so it was the boys and Stan. And they referred to Stan talking to a kid on camera. The cameras were rolling and stuff and the kid asked Stan about Marvel, and Stan was sitting there telling him. And then the people behind the scenes were like, “Ok, we got that. Let’s go”. And moved on. And were like, “We got that. Let’s go? Dude, that’s movie talk. These cats start talking, you don’t fucking jump in. That’s the deal here. There’s no script. These cats are necessarily TV friendly, but when you turn on the camera, they will generate a fucking show. It’s unscripted that way”. So it’s one thing to say, “Stan, stand over here and then we turn on the cameras”. It’s another thing, once cameras are rolling to cut off fucking the comic book Mark Twain from talking to a child about comic books. It’s like, you’re defeating the whole fucking purpose of the show if you shut Stan Lee up, you know? And plus, he’s 93! He doesn’t live in Red Bank. He came to Red Bank to do us a solid. And you’re going to tell him, “You’re done, old man”? That drove me nuts.
So I called up AMC, Mary Conlon who’s our exec and I was like, “There are very few people in this world who I actually give a fuck about. That I admire and that I look up to. Stan Lee is one of them. And Stan Lee I’d like to consider a friend and you fucked up my friendship with Stan Lee. I don’t even know what I’m going to do now. Did you read this article in the New York Times, how he was treated down there?” And boom, just like that, AMC got rid of that creative team and got our old creative team back. They had been on another show. By the time we got picked up, our season one creative team had gone on to another show, so we had to start season two with somebody else. Then they got rid of that creative team and we got our old team back. So AMC, every step of the way, has been like, “Look, we get it”. If you’re passionate enough about it and they can tell, and I was like, “This is Stan fucking Lee, an American icon. He’s not a prop. This is not a fucking television show. Well, it is a television show but it’s unscripted. It’s not like an episode of Happy Days where Stan has to hit the jukebox at a certain time so the music goes on. It’s like let him fucking talk to a fucking kid about comics”. And they were like, “We get it, Kevin, we get it”. And right away, everything changed. They were so sweet, they’ve been really cool to work with. So those were the only two instances I can think of where I had to get my dander up. And I felt like it was for the good of the show. It wasn’t like, “My boys need a jet, you pricks!” It was like this is protecting what we’re trying to accomplish with the show.
Q: So, it’s creating more of that reality atmosphere that is kind of absent from a lot of reality television?
KS: Well, I can’t even point to other shows and be like, “They’re not real”, because the moment you bring a camera in, it’s artifice. That’s why I like that AMC calls it “unscripted” because it takes it out of reality. Because reality seems like a really ridiculous word at the moment because we’re all going to be there at 6. And there are going to be cameras, and there’s going to be a snack table and shit. That ain’t reality. Reality is like it just happened and somebody happened to have a camera there on or something like that. So by calling it unscripted, it feels a little better. Maybe it just seems like a play on words or something like that, but to me it’s absolutely true. There is no script. There is a schedule, and as much as we all have to show up at a certain point, but after that it’s all up to the boys. The cameras are on and if they don’t say anything interesting, and nothing fucking happens, all that’s been wasted.
And the good new is that they’d been podcasting three years prior to that and they were sharp as tacks. Like that’s what we heard, the reports back on the first season, that made me so proud of my boys. It was that, Original Media, our partners on the show, they produce a lot of reality TV, whatever it is, the Alligator Hunters or the Crocodile Men, wherever it is that the dudes go out and hunt gators and shit. So these cats are used to shooting like competition shows. So we heard back right after the show and they were like, “What’s amazing about your guys is that your guys can do stuff that most normal people on reality shows can’t do”. And I was like, “What? What?”. They were like, “Talk. Most people on reality shows can’t”. The reason they sit you down and have cameras pointed at your face is because in the footage, they can’t tell you the story. So they need that shit as cartilige to connect the bones. But our guys, because of all the podcasting, as soon as you turn those cameras on, they could just talk. As long as they didn’t have to memorize the fucking script and they could just be their fucking selves and talk about Ming or talk about comics, boom, they were off. So I loved that. As a talker for a living, that was the highest compliment they could pay my friends to be like, “These fuckers know how to talk more than most people”. I was like, “Right? Right? That’s why I love them. They’re such talkers”.
Q: What are some of the advantages of moving to the midnight time slot?
KS: Well, we started in season one used to be Walking Dead, Comic Book Men, then Talking Dead. Which I never understood because you’re done watching the Walking Dead, wouldn’t you want to watch Talking Dead? But they staggered it because of the satellite, because it was live on both coasts. So it gave people an extra hour to watch the show Walking Dead and then come back for Talking Dead. So that was season one. Season two they were like, “Hey, we’re going to do Walking, Talking, and then Comic Book Men at midnight”. And we were like, “Fucking great! We’re a midnight show, though?” And then it didn’t matter, because my people, they are up at all hours watching TV anyway. Adult Swim does just fine at fucking midnight. So I was like, “Great! After Walking, Talking Dead, who gives a shit?” So that was season two A, and they told us “In season two B, we’re going to do this experiment where we start a new night of programming, looking for Thursday, and we’re looking for three other unscripted shows”. And I was like, “Ok. Fantastic”. So they moved us to Thursday. And our ratings went in the toilet right away. And these cats weren’t like, “You’re fucking finished!” I was scared. I was like, “Are we done?” And they were like, “No, no. This was an experiment. We’re trying something new. We’re trying to build it. You can’t expect results on fucking week one or whatever. We’re going to double book the show, though. We’re also going to air it on Sundays after Talking Dead and just see what happens”.
And then the Sundays after Talking Dead were pulling stronger ratings than the Thursday original airings, so it was like, “Let’s go back to where we belong”. What you saw a lot of on Twitter and Facebook is that people were like, “I used to love watching Walking, Talking, and you! Just geek night all the way through. Why’d you move it?” As if I had a choice! So thankfully AMC…We sweated the whole season. We were like, “We’re not coming back. Ratings don’t dictate it”. But they were like, “No. This show pulls enough of a particular viewers if we double book it”. And the show is not expensive. It’s unscripted, so it’s not as if you spend a lot of money shooting the show, and in existing location like the Stash. So at that point, they were like, “Look, don’t worry about it. This is us. We’re figuring shit out. We’ll let you know what’s going on for next year”. When they called us to tell us that they were renewing us for season three, we were like, “Ahh. Thank God”. And they were so sweet, they said, “It’s like 90% sure that you’re probably going back behind the Deads”, and were were like thank God.
If we have to do the heavy lifting by ourselves, obviously you could see from last season, we couldn’t do it. Getting people to come to Thursday night, watching other shit…but if you’re on behind those two massive juggernaut shows…I know that that means on some level that I’m never figuring out if I can carry my own weight in television. But it’s tough enough carrying my own weight in the real world. I’ll happily hitch my wagon to the fucking star of Walking Dead if it makes my shit a little bit easier. So being at midnight? I will never complain about. The only thing…I would never even complain about being on on Thursday. But Thursday was tough. We needed an engine. Sundays, Walking Dead‘s the engine, and Talking Dead and Comic Book Men connect up and trail behind it. On Thursday night, Comic Book Men was the engine. And we just weren’t a strong enough locomotive at that point. So I’m very happy to be at midnight.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Is there a comic that’s made you cry?
KS: Oh, fuck yes!
HMS: What’s your best example?
KS: Oh, hands down, let me see…The Dark Knight Returns always makes me cry. The splash page from Born Again, Daredevil Born Again, Frank Miller’s Born Again, where Karen Paige is about to get killed, and she’s trying to get one last fix. And boom, the dude gets hit with the billy club and she looks up and the next page…I can already feel that I’m starting to get glassy eyed…You turn that page and there he is holding her, and she’s in tears. And he’s not in costume. He’s got the beard and like a Michael J. Fox bubble coat on and shit like that. But it’s like one of the greatest panels in comics. It’s a full-page splash page. That one does it for me all the time.
Q: Who would you cast as Batman if you were doing Man of Steel?
KS: I would have cast Affleck! My only problem if I was doing Man of Steel is that I would have cast Affleck as Superman and Batman. And have him fought himself! That’s my only fucking problem. Batman is fucking Ben Affleck. Superman is Ben Affleck.
You can listen to the rather sharp and clear audio recording of Smith’s 20 minute discussion here:
[*Stay tuned for a report soon on Part 2 of these round table interviews, the second one with the Comic Book Men, on Bleeding Cool.]
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.