This week, Archie Comics announced a Kickstarter campaign to launch a bunch of new titles. If you read the comments at the link (which normally, I would never recommend), you’ll see people who object to Adam Hughes drawing Betty and Veronica because it objectifies the characters, seeing them through the male gaze.
First, let me say that I like Adam Hughes’ work. I think the women he draws, while beautiful, also look physically possible, more like movie stars with trainers than broomsticks with hair and boobs. If that gets me booted out of Feminism Camp, so be it.
But mostly, when has Betty and Veronica been about anything but the male gaze? Two beautiful teenage girls, interchangeable except for the color of their hair, wear the most revealing clothes the Comics Code would allow, mooning over a boy who is average at best. The fact that these have been described as “comics for girls” is an example of gender-role indoctrination at its most insidious.
And, yes, I kind of like them, too. I contain multitudes.
Anyway, this story, which might not be important in and of itself, seems to me to be part of a larger issue. We are in (I hope) a period of transition, as women and other groups who don’t look like studio heads and venture capitalists (i.e. by and large mostly straight white men) are trying to tell their own stories or, at least, see stories about characters who look like them.
This happens most felicitously when a variety of people get to tell their own stories in their own ways. It can also happen when talented straight white men who actually know a variety of people tell a story honestly.
It doesn’t happen when they take a straight white male hero and slap tits/black skin/brown skin/queer impulses on him. Unfortunately, that last option happens a lot. And when the hero is made female, she is too often cast because she looks beautiful, not heroic.
This was satirized brilliantly on a recent episode of Inside Amy Schumer. A jury of 12 angry men sat in judgment as to whether or not Amy Schumer was hot enough to star in a cable television show. They didn’t talk about whether or not she was funny, or a talented actor. They talked about whether or not her appearance gave them a “chubbie.”
Lots of women in show business have complained about this type of behavior, and for the most part, men – even sympathetic men — haven’t fully believed them. In fact, the show was inspired by a real event and a real idiot, a man with access to entertainment executives, a man to whom the industry listens.
It’s tempting, at this point, to sigh and make a (stereotyped and bigoted) joke about nerds who live in their mothers’ basements and don’t know any real women. Those jokes might even have a bit of truth to them. However, we live in a time when women who express opinions and demonstrate autonomy get death threats. Their jobs are threatened. The men responsible complain about the tyranny of feminism (in which case, where is my scepter?) and lament that women get to control their own bodies when deciding with whom they want to have sex.
(Note: I read that somewhere online in a comments section, and can’t find the link anymore. It might be the opinion of only one guy. I hope so.)
There will be nothing on television in the upcoming season that extreme because television exists on advertising aimed at the mass market. Instead, we’ll get a bunch of shows that pat women on the head for being so gosh-darned resourceful as to manage both a career and a vagina . All the women starring in these shows will be as beautiful as Betty and Veronica. and they will have gorgeous wardrobes. Some will be able to chase criminals while wearing high heels.
It is up to us, as the audience, to see to it that this condescending, patronizing kind of show falls flat on its face.
I know it says “Dark Circle” on the cover. In the past the cover has said “Red Circle” and before that “Archie” and before that “MLJ.” But it’s all Archie Comics to me, and I mean that as a compliment.
I think their first “Dark Circle” comic book was The Fox, by Dean Haspiel and Mark Waid. I loved it. I say “I think” because comics publishers do reboots faster than elves make shoes. Maybe the next Fox by Haspiel and Waid will restart the series again. But, for conversation’s sake, let’s say last week’s Black Hood #1 by Duane Swierczynski and Michael Gaydos was the second Dark Circle title.
And that’s where I got confused.
First, for the record, I liked this latest Black Hood. Like most contemporary comics, there wasn’t enough story in the first issue for me to make a real commitment, but I enjoyed what I read, deployed some clever concepts, and I look forward to the next issue. I can’t say that about a lot of costumed superhero comics these days.
But… well… damn… it’s still an Archie Comic. It says so right there on the copyright notice. And it was Archie Comics (as opposed to “Archie comics”) that heralded “approved reading.” It was Archie’s cofounder John Goldwater who created the Comics Code. In fact, after all the other publishers dropped the Code, Archie was the last publisher at the table. Briefly. They drank the last survivor’s wine and dropped out. That was in 2011.
I started reading comics about the time the Code came along, so forgive me when I say I’m a bit taken aback when I read an Archie Comic and encounter the word “asshole” twice, “shit” three times, and “fuck” seven times.
Yes, I counted.
Don’t get me wrong. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using such language. It’s been commonplace for a long time, and using the real words is much better than using stupid euphemisms that simply implant the censored word into the reader’s mind anyway. Fuck hypocrisy!
But… damn… it’s an Archie Comic! Does this mean they’re going to hire S. Clay Wilson for their Fly-Girl title? Hey, that would be great!
But it does make me wonder. Archie Comics is about to reboot Archie comics with the melodious words of Mark Waid. How many cans of Tree Frog Beer can Reggie Mantle chug? And what’s the real reason why they call Forsythe Pendleton Jones III… Jughead?
Maybe they’ll give a new answer to the time-old question “Are you a Betty, or a Veronica?”
This time around the honor of writing the last ComicMix column of 2014 falls to me, and I am grateful for the opportunity to taunt the gods and goddesses of irony once more before the Cherub of the New Year arrives, gets a good look around, and shits his diaper.
Many, if not all of my friends seem to be happy that this year is coming to an end. String theory tells us that such optimism is silly, but since I’m starting 2015 with a left arm different from the one I had last January – and the anesthesia almost killed me – well, sayonara old bastard and take your scythe with you. (more…)
There’s a scene early on in The King of Comedy where late night talk show host Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis) leaves his New York City apartment and walks through crowded midtown on his way to the studio. Fans greet him and kibbitz with him and Jerry, always on the move, waves, smiles, and tosses one-liners back at them. He gets waylaid at a corner by a woman on a payphone who gushes effusively—“You’re just wonderful. I’ve watched you your entire career. You’re a joy to the world!”—while he scribbles an autograph for her nephew, with whom she’s talking on the phone. Then, shoving the telephone at Jerry, she asks, “Would you just please say something to my nephew Morris on the phone? He’s in the hospital.” Jerry politely demurs, explaining that he’s late, and, in the blink of an eye, she turns from adoring fan to spurned maniac, screaming after him, “You should only get cancer! I hope you get cancer!”
Later, wannabe stand-up comedian and obsessive fan Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) shows up as an uninvited weekend guest at Langford’s country house, unsuspecting girlfriend Rita (Diahnne Abbott) in tow, in an effort to get Jerry to take a look at his comedy routine in the belief it will lead to an offer to appear on Jerry’s show. An earlier, brief encounter that ended with Langford telling Pupkin to call his office in an effort to get rid of him had only fueled the wannabe’s delusions that he and Langford were friends. Langford angrily dissuades the clearly baffled Pupkin of that notion and, like the woman whose nephew Jerry wouldn’t talk to, Pupkin’s response to his inappropriate demand on Langford’s time is immediate and visceral. Neither fan can understand how Jerry Langford can treat them this way. “I’m gonna work fifty times harder and I’m gonna be fifty times more famous than you,” Rupert tells him. “Then you’re gonna have idiots like you plaguing your life!” Jerry snaps.
It’s an interesting coincidence that the Blu-Ray edition of The King of Comedy, Martin Scorcese’s 1982 comedy about fame and obsession landed in my mailbox the same day Archie Comics released the news that their flagship character, was going to die in an upcoming comic book story which I wrote. The news thrust me into a Warholian fifteen-minutes of online fame. On Facebook, people who had earlier praised my work were now denouncing me for “daring” to kill off a beloved American icon, or vilifying me for my creative bankruptcy in participating in yet another comic book death “stunt,” feeling betrayed by my treatment of the character (that the Archie who’s dying is not the “real” Archie, but a future/what if?/alternate universe version of the character either escaped their notice or would have just interfered with their righteous indignation; the “real” teenage Archie remains alive and well in Riverdale.) On the flip side, strangers whose only connection to me was that most meaningless definition of “friend” ever coined, i.e. “Facebook friend,” were claiming reflected glory by posting that their “pal”/”buddy”/”friend” was behind this event, while others didn’t find it in any way inappropriate to email me asking to be let in on the secret of exactly how Archie was to die, or even requesting insider information on sensitive corporate internal affairs.
While my moment in the limelight pales in comparison with the plight of Jerry Langford, the experience did cause me to look at The King of Comedy from a very different perspective than I had in past viewings. I had always thought of the film as an indictment of obsessive fans, but it’s just as much a stark look at the price of fame. Rupert Pupkin is, in the very first scene, shown to be a member of the Day of the Locust-like swarm of obsessed, autograph seeking fans who haunt stage doors everywhere, but he holds himself above the hoi polloi. To Rupert, these aren’t just signatures dashed off by celebrities who probably didn’t even look at him while they were signing, but bonds of friendship between them.
Later, on a date with Rita, his high school crush, now a bartender in a seedy midtown tavern, he shows off his collection of signatures, casually tossing out facts and personal observations about the stars, trying to impress the clearly unimpressed and disbelieving woman. But Rupert can only see himself through the eyes of others and only in the way he needs to believe others see him. If he were deliberately inflating his talent and his connections to the stars, you would say he was shameless. But the sad, creepy truth is that Rupert, a thirty-something loser who works at a dead end messengers job and lives with his mother in whose basement he’s built a set where he hosts his own “talk show,” complete with life-size cardboard stand-ups of the stars, believes every word he says and is genuinely baffled when others fail to share his warped view of reality.
Jerry Langford’s reality is equally sad. He’s one of the most famous faces in the country, but his entire world is constrained by that fame. He can’t walk down the street without being badgered by everyone who believes that because he comes into their bedroom every night on their TVs he also belongs to them in person. Even a solitary dinner in his lonely apartment is violated by a fan who have somehow gotten hold of his telephone number and think it’s okay to call with their unreasonable demands on his time, attention, and, as we’ll see, love.
Aiding Rupert in their shared obsession with Jerry Langford is rich girl groupie Masha (Sandra Bernhard). But where Rupert wants Jerry’s fame, Masha wants Jerry himself, in body if not in soul. Where Rupert’s fanaticism seems constrained, at least at first, Masha’s is crazed and out of control; Rupert at least tries to see Jerry in his office even if his “appointment” is only in his head, while Masha stalks the star through the streets, forcing the frightened star to make a mad dash for safety. And, when Rupert finally accepts that Jerry will never voluntarily have him as a guest on his show, he enlists Masha as an accomplice in his scheme to kidnap the comedian and hold him for the ransom of a guest-shot on The Jerry Langford Show.
While it’s probably heresy to say, I prefer Martin Scorcese’s directorial efforts on films like The King of Comedy, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, After Hours, and Hugo over his gangster oeuvre. His humor is always dark regardless of genre, but it shines much brighter for me when I don’t have to wipe away the blood to get to it. And while his crooks and killers always brilliantly realized as the broken people they are, I have a hard time finding common ground with Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito or Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill no matter how real they are. But an ordinary guy like Griffin Dunne’s Paul Hackett in After Hours or the orphaned Asa Butterfield’s Hugo are relatable and, ultimately, have more to share with me as a viewer than even his greatest gangster.
While everyone expects high caliber performances from Robert DeNiro, it’s Jerry Lewis who steals the show here. As a life-long and unabashed Jerry Lewis fan (several of his movie posters and other paraphernalia decorate my living room) I am a bit biased in his favor, but, like many great comedians (Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Milton Berle, Robin Williams, to name a few) his dramatic chops are impressive, giving credence to the old line, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Even while trussed up by kidnappers Pupkin and Masha like a mummy with tape up to his nostrils, Lewis is able to convey his entire performance with just his eyes. (The King of Comedy isn’t just a lucky one-off performance under the guidance a great directors either; Jerry Lewis delivers as well in dramatic roles in Raising Arizona and Funny Bones and turns in TV series such as Wiseguy and Law and Order: SVU.) And both actors are backed up a solid supporting cast, including Bernhard and Shelley Hack, and 1980s celebrity cameos ranging from announcer Ed Herlihy, band leader Lou Brown, Dr. Joyce Brothers, comedian Victor Borge, and Tony Randall, as well as Scorcese himself as Jerry Langford’s TV show director, and the then-Tonight Show producer Fred De Cordova as Bert Thomas, his producer.
The King of Comedy Blu-Ray is a nice package, featuring the fully restored and remastered film as well as the usual assortment of extras for those who like that sort of thing, including a Tribeca Film Festival conversation with Scorcese, DeNiro, and Lewis, a “Making of” documentary, some deleted and extended scenes, and the original theatrical trailer. For myself, I prefer a film to speak for itself without filmmakers and actors explaining to me how and why this or that was done or without wading through excised scenes or trimmed footage; if they were so important, they wouldn’t have been excised or trimmed in the first place.
The King of Comedy stands the test of time and then some. In fact, it’s even more relevant today with our cult of undeserved celebrity, fueled by the rise of reality TV starring non-stars like the housewives of wherever, Snookie, and Honey Boo-Boo, nobodies made somebodies by virtue of appearing on television. Maybe if Rupert Pupkin had known how easy it would one day be to become a star, he might have rethought his strategy. Or maybe come to the conclusion that in a world where everybody’s a “star,” it just wasn’t worth the effort.
The alluring Vera Farmiga earned that Emmy nomination and much more with her portrayal of Norma Bates in A&E’s BATES MOTEL. Now the second season is set to start next Monday (10pm ET on A&E) and Vera shares a glimpse at just where we find Norman’s loving mama. Plus HEROES is back and Archie Comics invades the YA market.
You can tell when the year is coming to an end when media outlets start offering their various and sundry “best of” lists. We here at ComicMix are no exception, so for the third consecutive year, here’s mine.
I’ve changed from “Top 9” to my top comics pulls. This is because we no longer live in a world where any one character occupies only one title – yeah, I’m talking to you, Wolverine – and sometimes I want to note a series of character-related titles. Of the five I’m listing for 2013, three cover multiple titles. This doesn’t mean I won’t change back next year. Consistency is the hobgoblin on a small cerebral cortex.
I operate under the following self-imposed rules: I’m only listing series that either were ongoing or ran six or more issues. I’m not listing graphic novels or reprints as both compete under different criteria. I should do this as a separate piece, but I seem to have forgotten where I’ve put my memory pills. And, as always, I’m not covering Internet-only projects as I’d be yanking the rug out from under my pal Glenn Hauman, as you’ll see once again this March.
So, without further ado, my top comics pulls of the year.
Sex: Writer – Joe Casey, Artist – Piotr Kowalski, Publisher – Image Comics. I like Sex. I know lots of people who like Sex. Sex is good. Sex is great. O.K., I’m done now. This is a somewhat futuristic story about a rich semi-has-been living in Saturn City, and it’s another architecturally-driven series (hello, Mister X!). The protagonist is driven by his past who’s trying to get his act together and deal with a society that is quite unlike anything we’ve seen on this Earth. His antagonist is an ancient mobster with an unending sex life, one that gets our hero in trouble. Sitting squarely in the middle is the madam of a sex club that would have put the real Hellfire Club to shame. It’s a great journey, with the creators letting out the plot on a need-to-know basis. Ambitious stuff that actually pays off.
Hawkeye: Writer – Matt Fraction, Artists – David Aja and Annie Wu, Publisher – Marvel Comics. Our returning champion, this is about as far from a Marvel superhero title as one gets. It’s all about Clint Barton when he’s not working as an Avenger. It turns out his life is as screwed up as anybody’s in the Marvel Universe, but he’s not quite mature or grounded enough to pull his ashes out of the fire. He’s also got something of an estranged relationship with the female Hawkeye, a former Young Avenger. There’s plenty of action here, but this series is all about the characters and the issue of what, when he’s not on duty, is “normal” for a superhero.
Archie: Various writers and artists, Publisher – Archie Comics. While Marvel and DC are boring us to tears with endless reboots and mindless universe-changing highly contrived “events,” Archie Comics has been quietly taking their well-known characters on an evolutionary trip that, I think, would frighten the company’s founders. Archie Andrews is less interested in Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge and has been spending a lot of time with Valerie Smith of Josie and the Pussycats. That’s a very big deal; for the better part of 75 years the Archie-Betty-Veronica triangle has been as sacrosanct as the Clark Kent-Lois Lane-Superman triangle. Jughead left home for about a year’s worth of issues. The cast continues to expand… and they continue to launch new titles, including Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla’s Afterlife With Archie, which may very well be the only storyline involving zombies that I enjoy any more.
Sex Criminals: Writer – Matt Fraction, Artist – Chip Zdarsky, Publisher – Image Comics. Well, lookie here. Another Image Comic with the word SEX in the title. And, damn, another good one too. This one is actually sexier than Sex, probably a bit funnier, and exceptionally compelling. Great character work, science fictiony in the classic sense, and pretty much capeless. Plus, it’s got the best recap page ever.
The Shadow: Various writers and artists, Publisher – Dynamite Comics. When I learned how much this license was going for, I figured whomever got it would have to publish multiple titles each month in order to pay the freight. I was right, but I didn’t predict most of them would be really damn good. My favorite of the bunch is Shadow Year One, by Matt Wagner and Wilfredo Torres. There is also Chris Roberson and Andrea Mutti’s The Shadow, offering traditional 1930s-era stories, and The Shadow Now by David Liss and Colton Worley and set in contemporary times. These books do not contradict each other. There’s also a mini-series or two that usually involves other pulp heroes, legendary and original, which dominate Dynamite’s expanding line.
Batman Li’l Gotham: Story and art – Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs, Publisher – DC Comics. I’ve waxed on and on about how much I like DC’s original online comics, and most of them are quickly reprinted in traditional comic book format. Batman Li’l Gotham is my favorite of the bunch. Unlike what one might expect from the name of the book and from the artist approach, my friends at Aw Yeah! Comics have no fear of competition here. The characters are… little… and the approach is kid-friendly, but the stories are clever, entertaining and involving, and the stories aren’t padded out like most superhero books these days. The whole BatCast is featured, as are plenty of other DC Universe characters. All are unburdened by whichever version of the Official Continuity that DC may or may not be following these days.
There are plenty of other titles I would recommend, but these are the ones I pick as the ones you should check out tomorrow. Of course, your mileage may vary but, damn, finding good new stuff is why we’re comics fans in the first place.
The final ballot for the 2013 Harvey Awards is now available. Named in honor of the late Harvey Kurtzman, one of the industry’s most innovative talents, the Harvey Awards recognize outstanding work in comics and sequential art. The 26th Annual Harvey Awards will be presented Saturday, September 7th, 2013 as part of the Baltimore Comic-Con.
If you are a comics professional, you can vote online at harveyawards.org/2013-final-ballot/. This will enable easier and faster methods for the professional community to submit their nominees. Ballots are due by Monday, August 19, 2013.
When I started my first term at DC Comics back in 1976, DC’s then-VP of production Jack Adler told me the story of the biggest comic book the company never published: Blockbuster. It was purported to be a mammoth reprint book, not unlike their 100-Page Spectaculars but maybe five times bigger.
But it was a set-up. Jack said there had been this young artist – now a major comics legend – who had been coming into DC’s bullpen towards the end of the day to work at space vacated by one of the production artists. When nobody else was around, he’d poke around the production product to see what was happening. He would then leak noteworthy events to the fan press… and this pissed DC off. So in order to confirm their suspicions they mocked up a gargantuan reprint book called “Blockbuster” and left stuff lying around when only said leaker was around to see it. He did, he ratted the company out, and DC confirmed his guilt.
I won’t tell you who this artist was for two reasons. Number one, I was young once myself (I am now a 14 year old boy trapped in the pathetic body of a 62 year old who deserves it back). Number two, were I in that position at that time, I probably would have done the same. Actually, I might do that today as well, but I’d do it for ComicMix. The title name was later resurrected for a weekly title featuring revivals of the Charlton heroes, but they changed it to Comics Cavalcade Weekly and commissioned a lot of work before deciding not to do it after all.
You might ask what this has to do with Archie’s thyroid. A couple weeks ago Archie Comics came out with a digest comic with serious glandular issues entitled Archie 1000 Page Comics Digest. This book, of course, reminded me of Blockbuster – except it is real.
Don’t go expecting it on the checkout racks of your neighborhood supermarket. The book is an inch and three-quarters thick. In comic book terms, that’s about, oh, 1000 pages. It retails for $15.00, which is quite a bargain, and places like Amazon have it for a hair over ten bucks. It’s also available digitally in three parts for retail price which, given the cost of printing and shipping and returns, is comparatively a rip.
Unlike Archie Comics’ other recent, slimmer tomes, Archie 1000 Page Comics Digest is mostly limited to fairly recent stories. I enjoy the early stuff quite a lot, but Dark Horse and IDW have been covering those bases with several coats of paint. No cover repros, no intros, the only additions were creator credits. 1000 pages of pure story.
I’m reminded of a time when I was even younger and the saints were battling dinosaurs. My parents would buy me one or two of those Harvey 25-centers (thinking the Archie annuals were gender-inappropriate) or maybe one of those Dennis The Menace or Disney vacation specials, plop me in the back seat of the car next to my sister (who did get those gender-inappropriate Archie annuals, which I also read) and drive off to visit my grandmother in Indiana or maybe to a wooden vacation shack in western Michigan alongside the Burma-Shave signs. They were right: those big bargain books kept me quiet for most of the trip.
If I were in my parents’ position today, I’d buy my kid this Archie 1000 Page Comics Digest in a heartbeat. Evidently Archie thinks highly of the format: they’ve got sequels set for October and December.
More power to them. At this price, you just can’t go wrong.
Looks like it is just Interview Central around here these days, folks. Because following up on last week’s column, in which I briefly recapped my Awesome Con DC experience and posted my interview with the fantastic Phil LaMarr (go read/listen if you missed it last week! Good stuff!), I now get to share with you my Awesome Con DC interview with the excellent Billy West! Hooray!
Even if you somehow haven’t heard the name Billy West, before, I almost guarantee you’ve heard his voice. Voicing everything from classic cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Woody Woodpecker, and Popeye to four of the main characters on Futurama (Philip J. Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, and Zapp Brannigan), Billy has voiced characters on a myriad of other shows as well, including title characters for Nickelodeon’s Doug and TheRen & Stimpy Show; and is also the current voice of product mascots Red the M&M and Buzz the Honey Nut Cheerios bee. Billy was also one of the voices of The Howard Stern Show from 1989 to 1995, where he did astonishing impressions of everyone from Johnny Carson and Al Michaels to an ailing Lucille Ball. (His Jay Leno is uncanny.) As a voice actor, Billy has an amazing range – going seamlessly from one character and reaction to another; and you can see some fun examples of that here. For a good time, I also recommend the Star Wars Trilogy: The Radio Play video, shot at ECCC last year and featuring Billy and a number of other talented voice actors doing the script of Star Wars in some of their iconic voices (including, for Billy, Stimpy, Fry, Farnsworth, and Zoidberg). My absolute favorite bit is when he does Porky Pig at about 45 minutes in. Seriously. You must watch it.
But quickly! Before I get lost in YouTube again: let’s get to the interview! If you want to listen to the interview (listen to it! He does Richard Nixon’s head in a jar!) you can do so here. Or, you can read the (slightly edited) transcript below!
Hello, this is Emily Whitten for ComicMix, here with Billy West at Awesome Con in DC. Billy, thank you for being here with us – and Billy is busy, so we’re doing this while he eats.
I ain’t that busy; I can talk with a mouth full of vegan sandwich.
That’s fair! So you are such an amazingly storied voice actor, etcetera…
Aww, thank you.
There’s a lot to talk about, but I’m going to try to distill it down a little bit. Let’s start with the earlier things; so – how did you decide to get into voice acting? Because I know you also are and were a musician; so what was the career path there?
Well, I remember I was like a little freak, you know? I was always running around making noises, and doing voices. Every time I wanted to play the piano – we didn’t have one, but if we were at somebody’s house – to me that was a golden opportunity. I just wanted to hear it, touch it, and make it do something; because the sonic world that I had going on in my head would dictate that I would go over there; but the thing was: I couldn’t play. And down comes the lid: “Can you not do that?” I heard that more than any other kid, probably, in the world, “Can you not do that?” And I was always trying stuff; it was peripheral and surreal; abstract stuff, but, you know.
I had a weird childhood. My house was a horror-house, and my dad was just, like, certifiable, and a drunk and a crazy; so I was growing up kind of terrified. And I was very hyper-vigilant. I could tune in to things – like I could tell you what kind of a night I was going to have by the way the car pulled up in the driveway, or the way the key went in the door. I was so in tune with people’s behaviors – you know, out of survival mode. But it also trained me, like a cop. I was becoming an observer; an extreme observer.
So from your experiences, you were able to be observant about people and how they acted and how they behaved, and so that would help you later on?
And I loved radio. Oh, I loved radio so much, because of the voices. And there were still some radio plays going on when I was a kid. There was a radio guy named Stan Frebergthat had a radio show; and he had one of my favorite voice guys on it, whose name was Daws Butler, and he did a lot of the Hanna-Barbera stuff. He was a little ball of fire, this Daws Butler; and I just came to know these people. But there was no way you could know anything about show business in those days; because there was no emphasis on it. That was for “other people.” You know, “Well who?” It was like: nobody in my town. I was such a geek, I had to hunt down the only other kid who had comic books, and he lived on the other side of town. I just set my inner GPS and found him. I just walked and walked until I found him somewhere.
So what kind of comics did you read, when you and this kid were growing up?
Silly stuff; we read the Marvel stuff – I didn’t mean that that was silly – [Marvel and] DC comics were not silly, they were exciting. But, like, Gold Key Comics were silly; there was The Fly, which was Archie Comics, and he was their superhero – and he fell by the wayside because the other machines were a little more happening and powerful. But I had the original issues of some really important comic books. I had secret origins of like, Batman and all of those. They came out around 1960; 1959, maybe 1961.
Do you still have them?
No. No, it went up my nose, heh.
Back in the day?
Well, do you still follow comics these days?
I try to. I like the revamps of stuff they’re doing. Because there’s so much time that has gone by, that these characters have been around, and eventually they’ve got to morph. You know, they’re not going to get older on us, even though they can dance in and out of timeframes, to show old Superman, like where he wound up.
Yeah; they did that, of course.
Yeah! And there are so many comic books that it’s tough to keep track of them.
Do you watch the movies?
I try to go to movies, yeah, when I can. I’m writing a lot, and I stay up late, late into the evening.
Oh, okay, what are you writing right now?
There are a couple of projects that I’ve got going with my partner that I worked with on Ren & Stimpy. His name is Jim Gomez; and we’ve put together five fully developed shows, most of them animated. We’re pitching them around town, and we’ll see what happens. I love doing what I’m doing – you know, I can be an objective fulfillment machine for the rest of my life – but at some point I do want to create or own something, and give myself the objective.
I think all creators feel that way – it just makes sense.
Yeah – I mean, but I will still always go and work for somebody else, probably doing voice-over.
Now you said that you love radio, and you’ve been on the radio – and I know when I was growing up, I heard you on K-Rock; so tell me, what was that experience like? I mean, I used to listen to that in the morning, when I was getting ready for school…
Didn’t you feel like there was subterfuge involved with that? Like you couldn’t just let everybody hear that.
Yeeeaaah; don’t tell my parents, okay? They didn’t like that show; they didn’t like Howard Stern. I had to be subtle about it.
Of course not. Of course not; but the people who listened to it got it. They understood that everything was silly. It was all about being totally silly in the face of the most horrific subjects.
And pushing boundaries.
Yes, pushing boundaries. It was very organic. We didn’t play records. And Howard was a great ringmaster; he knew, okay, when something’s enough. We’d beat it so far, that’s fine, let’s go to commercial and we’ll start something else. He’d always keep things moving.
And how did you end up working there? I know you’d worked in radio before that.
I was in radio in Boston, and I wasn’t a disc jockey. I was very creative, and showcasing the works of others for a living didn’t turn me on; because I would always feel like a curator in a museum. But these disc jockeys were really pompous about playing records, and it’s like, “Dude, you didn’t create the statues; you just dust them.” And I used to get reamed for having that type of attitude. It’s like, “You’re not allowed to unmask these icons,” and it’s like, “Screw you. You don’t do anything.” I was always surly because there was so much phoniness that used to drive me crazy. My heroes were the artists, not people who were famous for some cottage industry reason – like disc jockeys or TV show hosts. They’re not creating anything. So my heroes were never celebrities. It was always artists. And if they happened to be a celebrity that was a byproduct of their great artistic talent.
Right. So being on a show like The Howard Stern Show, where you got to interact and do your own thing, that was what you were looking for.
That was very appealing to me. And you had to be ready for anything.
So did that help you prepare in large part for the voice acting? And were you also doing voice acting some when you were on the show, or did that come later?
Well I’d already been doing voice acting in Boston, on the radio, and then when I went to New York there was just more of an opportunity to open up and to push myself to see what I was capable of. Plus, I had one of the funniest people in the universe lobbing in little lines here and there for me. But people said, “Ah, Jackie wrote everything for you.” Hey, yeah, sure: let me just talk straight, in a character, for seven minutes. A guy can’t write every bit of dialogue that you say for seven minutes. He can put in ideas, and you integrate them into your conversation. I mean, he did it for Howard all the time. But Howard was very generous; I mean, that’s like loaning somebody a nuclear weapon, that he would let Jackie Martling facilitate me.
And now when you were doing all of this, I know you also played guitar and had a band, and you’ve played guitar with Roy Orbison, Brian Wilson…
Oh, I opened up for a lot of famous guys that I knew growing up, like Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry, The Four Seasons, and Jan and Dean… And later on in life I actually got to play with Brian Wilson.
When was that happening, in comparison to the radio and the voice acting?
Radio just started happening as I was phasing out of playing music.
Okay, so that came a little bit before?
Yes, and then after a moratorium, when I did pick up again, in the future, as the years went by, I wound up playing with one of my idols, which was Brian Wilson.
So what was it like playing with Brian Wilson?
It was so strange; because the first time I played with him, we were at a little hall in Santa Monica, by the beach; and it was me and The Cars guitar player – Elliot Easton – and we were playing with Brian, and then a friend of mine was playing bass. We put together a little band; but I mean, I knew every note of the whole catalogue, I knew every harmony, I knew every chord change, because I was so into The Beach Boys. The Beatles and Jeff Beck; the English stuff was good. But The Beach Boys were our band. And it was like a dream, you know, just playing with Brian Wilson.
And then next thing, we’re at Lincoln Center. And then we played David Letterman. And it was crazy, I mean I’m playing these songs with Brian Wilson; and I still can’t get over it. You know, he did all those hot rod songs – girls, and cars, and fun – and we did 409 onstage, and he was singing 409, which is the old hot rod song, and in the chorus, “Nothing can catch her, nothing can touch my 409, 409,” I started going (hot rod revving noises), and he looked over with this happy, astonished smile, like a little child. He’s like: “What’s going on? But I love this, whatever you’re doing over there.”
Oh, that’s fantastic. So now obviously your voice acting is a large part of your career, and Futurama is a huge part of that – and you developed Philip Fry, well Philip J. Fry, if I’m doing the whole name —
— Well that’s because most cartoon characters’ middle initial is J. Rocket J. Squirrel; Homer J. Simpson; Stimpson J. Cat.
Yes. So when you were developing that character; you’ve said that Fry is similar to you at twenty-five; so when they had you in auditioning for Futurama, did they ask you to develop that character; did you come in saying “this is something I have,” or what?
They showed me the pictures when I went in, and there was some dialogue they wanted me to read; and…you know what it’s like – something, you look at it and it just gives you an impression, and depending on your experience, or your talent, or your intuition, you’re hoping that you’ll come up with what they’re looking for. And all of them were pretty much very close to what I gave them. They described Fry, and I said, “You know what? I don’t do this very often, but I’m going to just use my own voice, like when I was twenty-five.” I remember, I was very whinyyy, and complainyyy, and I just know I had a plain vanilla voice. I had no idea I had this wild animal in my throat somewhere; this big clumsy beast that could do anything. You know, I really didn’t know back in those days. Because I was singing and playing. But I would go in and do voices on stage like when we blew up an amp, or a string snapped, or whatever. Out of embarrassment, I would just keep going and entertaining. Might not have been the music or anything, but people loved it. Launching into characters that I would make up, and imitate, or whatever.
Right. And now, on Futurama, you do a lot of the voices. How did that come about?
They would just keep showing me pictures, and I auditioned for everybody, including Bender. I played him as a construction worker, and John DiMaggio came in and mopped the floor with that audition. He played him as kind of a punch-drunk fighter.
Yes, Bender is a great voice.
Oh, it’s beautiful. And it developed into what it is. In the beginning, none of us sounded like who we were. I mean, that’s who we thought we were, at the time, but voices morph. You listen to an episode #10 from The Simpsons, and you listen to the 200th episode, and it’s like, “Huh?” Well, Homer Simpson was like (voice impression), and then later on he developed all of these other facets that make the character so interesting and believable.
Yes. Now in Futurama, or your other roles, what are your favorite characters to play or have played? And what were the most difficult?
I love doing all the characters, and I love them equally; so I can’t pick out a favorite. Because I just try to bring so much imagination to it. I was always trying to do something nobody had done, and that served me well. I didn’t want to mimic people. I could do it – I’ve held up franchises. I did four years of Woody Woodpecker; and Popeye…the works, you know? But you only make your mark for real if you start creating and it catches on. And you have faith that you’re just as good as those impressions that you relied on; that were your little power base.
Right, well because they were starting out once, and they made up those voices, and so why not you? And so what was the most difficult voice to do?
I don’t know; I know that I had become fearless; totally fearless. I’m not afraid of anything, and I’m willing to try anything. I’m willing to fail. I was like that in comedy clubs. Because it didn’t make sense to me – why should I memorize twelve minutes worth of material and then go out and pretend every night that I’d just thought of it? I needed stakes. I needed real things at stake like dying or bombing [on stage]. I really did, and I wasn’t afraid to.
Did you do a lot of stand-up?
Not a lot. A little bit, and then I got into radio, and that was it. Stand-up is very, very hard. There are guys that are just so, so amazing at it and everything. But my forte was not stage performance, doing stand-up. My forte was radio; and that was a bigger playground. You could dodge in and out of characters, and you didn’t even have to have written material; you could ad-lib while you’ve got these crazy voices going back and forth.
In your voice work, how much do they want you to or let you ad-lib?
They want to get what they want to get; ideally, what they had in mind. And then after you do that and they’re happy with it, they ask you if you thought of anything, or you want to add or bring something; and a lot of times I would, and a lot of times it made it in. A lot of it just winds up – they want more rather than less. Because that way they have options; they can play with stuff they didn’t think would work and all of a sudden, oh my God, it works beautifully.
Right. Because sometimes improvisation is the best part of life.
Yeah; but it’s also this constant wonderment of discovery – whether something’s going to work or not. That’s exploration. It’s like, you try to control every aspect of everything as much as you can, but when serendipitous things happen, like, “What was that thing you just did?” “Oh, you mean this?” and they’d say, “Yeah, what if he just goes right into that?”
Like when I did Nixon – I’m old enough to remember when Nixon was running for President, and John F. Kennedy, and they did the debate on TV. And I was astonished at how perfect Kennedy looked – like a game show host, with his perfect teeth, and his buttered-toast hair. He was made for TV. Nixon was made for wanted posters. He looked like a stolen car. And he was (in character) “shifty-eyed, and he was nervous and…ar-rar-rar.” And he was sweating. While the interview was continuing, he was getting worse, and his beard was coming in; you could practically see the bottom half of his face get darker and darker. And I said to my mom, “Mom, he’s going to turn into a werewolf!” Because I loved horror movies, like with Lon Chaneyslowly turning into the werewolf. Nixon was kind of almost there – lycanthropic. So he was just doing his thing, and I said, “That’s awful; he’s almost unwatchable.”
And then years later, I get the chance to do Nixon, as a head in a jar, and I would say something like, (in character) “You filthy hippies, get off the grass outside this White House,” and then all of a sudden I would go: (werewolf noises). Like I was changing. You know, just replacing words with noises and stuff.
Hah, wow. I know it’s hard work, but it just sounds like so much fun.
Well, you gotta keep coming up with new bags of tricks, and keep expanding them and everything. That’s how you keep working.
Now you were saying earlier that you have essentially had conversations with yourself. Some examples of that are Farnsworth introducing Fry to Zoidberg [in Futurama], and then Doug and his arch-nemesis. How do you deal with that; how does that work in your head? Because that seems to be even a double challenge over consistently trying to sound a certain way.
It’s like I had my boot camp training in Boston doing consecutive voices. Because I got a job as a producer; and there’s no producer school you can go to. I had to learn how to splice tape, and I had to learn how to write and create my own characters and bits; and then put it together so it could be air-able; with sound effects, and music, and everything. I didn’t quite know what I was doing, but I just did it.
And it works for you!
Yeah, I mean, I’m very strange in that way; like I still, to this day, can’t tie my shoes properly, I just can’t. And a necktie, I have problems with. I can’t do anything practical; but if you ask me to do something only like, four or five other people in the world can do, I have no problem.
So now as a voice actor, what’s the experience of celebrity? How do you experience that as someone who’s mostly known by different voices, so someone might not actually know, talking to you, that yours was the voice they’ve heard on shows?
Well, celebrities were never my heroes. Never. To this day, I don’t give a dismal damn, really, whether Kim’s having problems with her pregnancy, or whatever. It’s like, “Fuck you.” You know what? Anybody who can fart the national anthem can become a celebrity. Any stupid-looking bald guy can throw on an earring and a goatee and a leather jacket, and now he’s Pawn Stars. And they pose these guys like rappers, like album covers; they’re all big, bad, and bald – and they’re basically lucky imbeciles, because show business ain’t what it was anymore, now it’s supposed to be “reality.” These guys just have to be who and what they are. And then they learn how to act; because they go, “I like this ride very much;” and they know it’s going to be over, and they want to stay in that business. They don’t want to go back to oblivion.
Yes. So how do you interact with fans? And do some people just know your whole oeuvre? What is that experience like?
There’s people that know more about me than I do. Because I can’t remember every little fiddle-faddle, you know? But I’m just grateful; I’m so grateful – I mean, what are the odds that there would be people in this world that would put aside time in their life to know what you do, and to follow it? It’s mind-blowing to me; it’s surreal – and it still is, to this day.
Well that’s a great and very humble attitude.
Well, I mean, I know. I know the drill, I know the deal. You have to somehow connect in one way or another with people who admire you; and hopefully you’ll keep up the same standard of work that turned them on in the first place. So I always try to – whatever new thing comes along, I just try to come in like gangbusters; you know, get some attention. Like, I like to turn tables over, bash chairs. You know, when I first went to New York I was like a Terminator. I got all skinny because I knew I was going to be walking everywhere, and auditioning; and I used to listen to bagpipe music.
Yeah, because I’m half Irish; and when I hear bagpipe music, it makes this Celtic side of me boil, and prepares you to go into battle. I’d be galvanized, like I was marching into a glen with my compatriots, and we’re all going to get stabbed and shot; but it’s okay, because we’re doing it for the right reason. And I used to listen to all these bagpipes, going up 2nd Avenue, 3rd Avenue, to work, and I would get to the audition, and I’d feel like a Terminator.
Like you were ready. That’s fantastic. Speaking of getting ready for new things; what are you working on currently that we should be looking forward to?
I’m doing some kids’ stuff. I never used to get hired by Disney; because I wasn’t their kind of guy, you know what I mean? The stuff I did was very Gothic and dark-ish, like screaming and yelling and very dramatic. But I got this show called The 7D; and I’m playing Bashful, because the 7D are the seven dwarves. (Singing) “We’re The Seven D,” and they get a beautiful, cute song and everything. And I love it; I love it to pieces.
And is that out now, or coming out?
It’s coming out. And I was doing some voice work for Avengers Assemble. There’s a character called Rocket Raccoon. So I’m doing him. (In character) “Yeah, he’s got kind of like a Joe Pesci. And like, Steve Buscemi.” “Blood has been spilled, Jerry. I’m through fuckin’ around wit’ you, Jerry.” But somehow he has that voice. I thought it would be perfect to just tweak it; and it’s not a dead-on impression – I could care less about that. What it is, is: “Is it funny? Is it interesting? Does it fit?” I did a bunch of hours of recording the other day. And then I have my projects going. That keeps me busy because I’m always writing. I stay up all hours and stuff, but it’s a labor of love, so you feel energized somehow.
Yeah! Well I hope that we see some of that from you soon.
I hope you do, too.
And thank you so much for this interview.
• • • • •
Nope, it was totally my pleasure, Billy. You’re delightful.
Big thanks to Billy West for the interview, and big thanks to the ever-helpful Kevin O’Shea, producer for Made of Fail Productions, for cleaning up the audio file for me. (And as ever, check out the Made of Fail podcasts for fun geek-tastic discussions, in which I have actually appeared a couple of times.)
That’s all for now, and until next week, when I’ll be sharing my interview with the talented cartoonist Nick Galifianakis, Servo Lectio!
I have reported here and elsewhere about the goings-on at Archie Comics. While DC keeps on hitting the reset button like a monkey in a crack experiment, and Marvel keeps on doing endless – literally endless – mega-events, Archie has been slowly making history.
In the past several years they’ve added a major gay character and they’ve had Archie fall in love (on the cover, no less) with a black woman. They’ve taken ongoing looks into the potential futures of their characters, which plays against the assumptions held by our culture for more than 70 years. They’ve tried to make Riverdale look and feel more like the real world: even the hallowed Pop Tate’s has had to endure competition by national fast food chains. Archie Comics continues to be the major force in entertaining each next generation of comics readers; without their efforts and similar, but smaller, endeavors by Boom!, Bongo and others, we would have no future readers for the graphic novels published by Fantagraphics and Abrams.
And, I’m happy to report, now Archie Comics is just getting weird.
In Archie #636 (the alternate cover is shown here; the newsstand cover is done in sort of a traditional 1950s Archie style), the current issue, the Riverdale gang swap sexes. Yep, the boys become girls and the girls become boys. This doesn’t happen voluntarily; Sabrina the Teenage Witch has a snarky cat who casts a spell so that the kids can see things from the other side of the gender bend. Hilarity ensues, and the point is made. Two points, if one wants to infer a warning about the dangers of catnip.
Mind you, I like weird. Weird is the antidote to boring. It’s the elixir that promotes experimentation and new story concepts. But I doubt Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead and Reggie will be getting permanent sex change operations any time soon.