The most ridiculous question I’ve asked myself all week is, is this “the greatest comic book story ever?” Who the hell knows? The answer to that question is in the mind of the beholder, and in the case of my mind, well, I change my mind so fast I voided the warranty long ago.
But… this one is damn close.
When I was but a tiny brat, I fell in love with Mad Magazine. I copped a copy from my sister’s comic book pile, read it, was completely enthralled, and I coerced my mother (I was seven years old at the time) into buying me the then-current issue, #40. By the end of the day, I got her to get me a subscription.
Later on, my sister started dating this guy who was about eight years older than me, my sister being only seven years older. He became aware of my passion for Mad and asked me if I knew the original Mad was, in fact, a comic book. I looked at him as though he had just morphed into Fin Fang Foom. What? A comic book? Yeah, even then I was a serious fanboy. He brought over a copy of Mad #20, one of the last before it became a magazine, and I nearly fainted. Figuring the best way to my sister’s heart was through her brother’s passion, he gave me the issue. It was my first EC comic, and I instantly became a post-event EC Fan-Addict.
In an unrelated incident a couple weeks later, my sister dumped him. I remain grateful, but, well… c’est la vie.
The second story in Mad #20 was titled “Sound Effects!,” and it was drawn by Wally Wood. By this point I had consumed the first three Mad reprint paperbacks and Woody had become my favorite comics artist. At the time I didn’t know I had joined a very, very big club. I didn’t know the writer’s name – of course it was Harvey Kurtzman – but I admired his ability to tell a very clever, very funny story that satirized the very medium in which he was working, that brought out the best in one of the all-time best comics artists… and was written entirely without any dialog whatsoever. One can argue the last panel, but… why? I’d reprint it here, but that would be a spoiler.
Self-satire is tough. It was a strong element in what Kurtzman called “chicken fat humor” which was prevalent at the time on teevee in such shows as Sid Caesar (he did several) and Steve Allen (he did a lot more than just several). All three of these guys were masters at it – and both Caesar and Allen later wrote introductions for sundry Mad reprint books.
I’d take this opportunity to praise Marie Severin’s color art, but if you’ve ever seen an EC comic book or her later work at Marvel, there’s no need. She was one of the absolute best, in a very crowded field of wonderful colorists. Ben Oda’s lettering is outstanding, and, as you can see, it is the very point of this story.
Together, Kurtzman, Wood, Oda and Severin produced magic. The most amazing aspect of this particular saga is, “Sound Effects!” is one of the very, very few Mad comics stories that was not reprinted in the Mad paperbacks of the time. I think it would have worked; obviously, “the usual gang of idiots” did not share that opinion.
“Sound Effects!” was reprinted in the Mad Archives as well as in various reprint books, and I know I am not alone in having them all. Hey, I’m a fan. If you have the desire to procure but one, I recommend you start with Mad’s Original Idiots Wally Wood. It was published way back in 2015 so it should be fairly easily accessible. $15 (at Amazon, at least) for 176 pages of Wally Wood and Harvey Kurtzman is one of the best bargains in comics, and it will be one of the most entertaining experiences in your life.
Next week: Turning off the lights. Or shooting them out. It will be an interesting week. Happy Thanksgiving!
Donald Trump has been trying very hard to do a lot to this nation, thus far with pathetically little success. However, while he might not be making America great, he’s most certainly been making American comedy fantastic.
Take Stephen Colbert. After he took over The Late Show, he has been losing badly to The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon. Then the Manchild from Hell won the election – thanks to a little help from his friends – and that very evening Colbert had something of a nervous breakdown, live on CBS. To his vast credit, he put all that energy into his job: making jokes at the expense of our Megalomaniac-In-Chief. Now, six months later, he’s leaped over Fallon in the ratings.
Certainly, there’s no shortage of material. Indeed, many other comics have made similar journeys on the Trump Turnpike (“what will that asshole think of next?”). Seth Myers, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Bill Maher, Trevor Noah… let’s face it, if you’re a comedian who is disliked by the far-right minority, your career has had a great six months.
And so, amusingly, has Mad Magazine.
When it was founded 65 years ago – yup, it can file for Medicare but it should move fast – Mad became a major influence in the development of adolescent rebellion. It was the cutting edge of American humor at a time when professionals such as Ernie Kovacs, Lenny Bruce, and Lord Buckley were breaking down the barriers that had been surrounding stand-up comedy. Mad had a major impact upon at least two generations.
But, over time even the sharpest knife finds its edge going dull. Eventually, television shows such as The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-Head and South Park became the rage (literally; parents raged against each of these shows) and Mad started to look positively geriatric. Sure, they struggled. They hired new talent, fussed with the format, and added interior color but, in my opinion, they remained trapped by that which always had been.
Last month, DC Comics hired a new showrunner for the vaunted magazine, and I don’t think they could have found a better person. Bill Morrison, who has been Matt Groening’s longtime collaborator and the first editor-in-chief of Bongo Comics (The Simpsons, Futurama…) was given the keys to the prop room.
But, as it turns out, it is Donald Trump who is holding those doors open.
During the past several months, Mad has been following the path of Colbert et al. They’ve been doing some great stuff, and much of that has been at the expense of the poster boy of the paranoia marathon. They haven’t turned their backs on their roots and Mad does not follow the path of the former Mad writer (and Yippie! co-founder) Paul Krassner when Paul invented The Realist. Pop culture references abound as always, and even the great Sergio Aragonés remains along for the ride.
Bill Morrison has one hell of a leg up. Whether he can restore Mad Magazine to its greatest glory remains to be seen, but now it’s The Simpsons and South Park that are beginning to show their age. I don’t see anybody else in the on-deck circle, so he’s got one hell of an opportunity to make lightning strike twice.
Sadly, I’ve started seeing the backlash. You probably have too. A lot of people are being contrarian and saying “I’m Not Charlie Hedbo” in response to this week’s shootings. The most prominent example is David Brooks in the New York Times, but I’m beginning to see similar comments from people I actually respect.
To which my response will be muted, because I’d rather not make this into a not-safe-for-work rant.
If you’re an advocate for free speech, you don’t always get the luxury of advocating pretty things that you approve of. You know – the nice stuff. Freedom of expression is not just limited to Michelangelo’s David and the pope who insisted loincloths be painted onto the Sistine Chapel. Sometimes you end up defending the words of pornographers. Or Nazis. Or Islamic fundamentalists. Or even Republicans.
And it’s the same with comics.
You don’t just get to defend Watchmen, Doonesbury, and Mad magazine. It’s not all Elektra: Assassin, Love & Rockets, Ms. Tree, Elfquest, and those issues where Green Arrow’s sidekick does drugs. If you’re committed to free speech, you have to defend Zap Comics and Mike Diana and Omaha The Cat Dancer and Howard Cruse and Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend and Swamp Thing meeting Jesus.
And yes, that means defending Charlie Helbo when they publish cartoons that tick some people off.
To say that the creators at Charlie Hedbo had it coming beggars belief. They courted controversy, they offended people. But they certainly didn’t commit capital offenses, and neither did the civilians caught in the crossfire, nor did the Muslim police officer who was shot doing his job to serve and protect the citizens of Paris. It’s bad enough when censorship is done with a marker, it’s horrific when done with a bullet.
The correct response to offensive speech is more speech, hopefully better speech, and perhaps even better behavior. And defending the right to speak of those who speak out even when they offend you, as you would want them to defend your right to speak when you offend them. Criticize their speech, but don’t censor it.
Because as we all know, the worst part of censorship is
Yes, I know. Our columnists here at ComicMix used to be pretty damn political. Eventually we drifted too far off of our happy little pop culture topic, and we retrenched. Well, sort of. Martha, Michael Davis and I moved our noisy political stuff over to www.MichaelDavisWorld.com . Therefore, at the outset I am telling you this column, delayed somewhat by my blind anger (thanks for filling, Emily!), iscompletely on topic.
You’ve probably heard about the bombing of the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo by militant Islamists. Two gunmen stole a car, drove up to the paper’s office in Paris, and started blasting away on their AK-47s shouting “We have avenged the Prophet.” Then they split the scene, postponing their visit with their 72 virgins.
As of this writing, 12 people have been confirmed dead, including the editor, two policemen, and noted cartoonists: Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier, Jean “Cabu” Cabut, Georges Wolinski, and Bernard “Tignous” Verlhac. Another 11 were wounded.
I’m not going to tell you a bunch of stuff you already know. This sort of thing has become all too common. Besides, comic book fan Salman Rushdie said it better than I ever could:
“I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. ‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.”
Our fearless disrespect. Every once in a while, a writer knocks out a phrase so perfect that I think I should retire.
I wonder how the late Mad Magazine publisher Bill Gaines would have responded. He was a libertarian from back when the word wasn’t jingoistic. I knew Bill some, and my guess is that he would have been really pissed. He would have felt a kinship with the staff and talent at Charlie Hebdo… or so I think.
Now here’s the funny part of the story. Somebody reading these very words right now is thinking “It can’t happen here.” After two bombings at New York City’s original World Trade Center, a bombing at the Pentagon, a bombing of a child care center in Oklahoma City, various individual serial bombers like George Metesky and John “Ted” Kaczynski, the bombing of the J.P. Morgan bank on Wall Street, the bombing of the Los Angeles Times, the armed attack on Congress by Puerto Rican separatists… it most certainly can happen here.
Fortunately, we’ve got an outfit that helps – helps – protect cartoonists here. It’s called the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. They do excellent work. I am proud to be a supporter; if you’re not already, you would be too. Check out their web page. They cover international incidents as well as domestic; today Maren Williams wrote a great piece about the Paris attack.
Relax. This isn’t an obituary. It’s bad news, but it’s not an obituary. And that’s the good news.
First, the headline. Legendary cartoonist Jack Davis decided to retire. One of the very last of the EC artists, one of the very best of the Mad Magazine artists and a man whose work graced hundreds of TV Guide and Time Magazine covers and movie posters and record albums and books finally decided that, after 90 years on this planet, it’s time to call it a career.
We kick the word “legendary” around a lot, but here the word is not rich enough to convey the quality and the width and breadth of his work. Jack is best known for his satirical illustrations, but he was equally gifted in storytelling. His comic book work includes most all genres – science fiction, westerns, war stories, horror, sports… and that’s just his stuff for EC Comics.
Second, the personal story. Some time ago, I was sitting at a massive table at New York’s Society of Illustrators with a bunch of other people, folks who were actually talented. We were judging a humor in illustration contest, and we discussed each entry. For me, this was akin to going to college. To the right of me sat Jack Davis. Not to put down any of the other gifted folks at the table, but damnit, I wassitting next to Jack Davis! He turned to me and made a comment that seemed to me like a sound effect from Charlie Brown’s parents. All I could think of was “how the hell did I get to be here?”
Actually, that’s the polite version. I might have been drooling, but if so, Jack could have drawn it better.
Finally, the clever Jack Davis anecdote. It’s one of the more famous, and it deserves to be repeated. Jack Davis was, and may still be, an inveterate golfer. I am told it is an addiction. One day he was teeing up and was reminded by a companion that he was right on deadline. Jack stopped, walked over to the golf cart, whipped out his pen and found something upon which to work and he drew the assignment right there on the cart!
As an editor, I cannot begin to tell you how much I admire that level of professionalism… not to mention his sense of priorities. He didn’t slow the game down at all, as his foursome had yet to complete the hole.
When called for a comment, Jack told Wired Magazine“I’m not satisfied with the work. I can still draw, but I just can’t draw like I used to.” Yeah, well, the rest of us could never draw like you used to, Jack, and I’ll bet my last barbecue brisket sandwich that your work today remains top drawer.
My dear friend Mark Wheatley said we knew this day was going to come, and of course he’s right about that. It happens to us all, probably. But, damn, I’ve spent an entire lifetime enjoying his career and now I can no longer live in denial.
Thanks, Jack. You are a master and your work will live long after the last tree is pulped.
Comics legend Al Feldstein died yesterday at his Montana home, at the age of 88.
Best known for his work as editor of Mad Magazine from 1956 to 1984, Al co-created, wrote and drew for most of the classic EC comics, including Tales From The Crypt, Weird Science, Panic and Shock SuspenStories. Prior to signing on with EC, Feldstein was a prolific comics artist with work appearing in comics published by Fiction House, Fox, and ACG, among many others.
Taking Mad over from co-creator Harvey Kurtzman, Al introduced many of the magazine’s most popular features, including Don Martin’s irrepressible pages, Antonio Prohias’ Spy Vs. Spy, Dave Berg’s Lighter Side, and Al Jaffee’s fold-ins. He also increased the visibility of company mascot Alfred E. Neuman.
A man of strong progressive political beliefs, he was the subject of an FBI investigation following his publication of satirical criticism of notorious FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. According to USA Today, two FBI agents demanded an apology for “sullying” Hoover’s reputation by using his name in Mad. No such apology was issued by Feldstein.
Over the years, Feldstein’s work at EC Comics inspired quite a number of movies, television shows, cartoons and Broadway musicals. The level of outrageousness set by the editor and his staff inspired later satirists such as Mike Judge, Matt Groening, Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Al devoted his retirement years to western painting, as well as the occasional “flashback” painting of the EC horror hosts, 1950s science-fiction themes and his late EC/Mad boss, Bill Gaines. He also appeared at numerous comics conventions where he signed autographs and sold prints of his painted work.
I doubt that anyone who cared was surprised when, last week, Diane Nelson, the high honcho of DC Comics, announced that the company was relocating to Burbank in about a year. The move had been rumored for a long time, particularly afterDC became part of a movie making company, Warner Bros., of which you may have heard. It was only logical: Manhattan real estate comes with a mighty price and so it seemed to make sense to leave New York and go where the parent company already owned property.
Once, on a business trip, Dick Giordano and I established very brief headquarters on the sprawling Warner’s lot, which had vacant offices we could use. So: empty space, huh? Interesting. And a publishing venture no longer much needed to be located in New York: electronic communications largely eliminated the required treks writers and artists made to midtown. No need to endure the subway when you could pop your work into a fax machine and, later, discuss it with your editor by telephone, all without changing out of your pajamas. And yeah, yeah, I know: fax machines – stone age stuff. But not to us, not then. And pretty soon, the technology got really nifty.
Sure, once in a while, usually when contemplating a complicated stunt, I thought it best to get some creative people together in a room and that was always possible – you know, airplanes and the like – and I always preferred to discuss plots with the writer and me breathing the same air, but that wasn’t strictly necessary. Mostly, editorial chores could be done with someone who lived in the United Kingdom as easily as with someone who lived in Brooklyn.
What we may not have been properly mindful of was that our most reliable product, superhero stories, weren’t about print and paper anymore; they had become about images on screens large and small, most serviceable in theaters and on television. They still have a place on paper and, I’m pretty sure, will continue to do so, and maybe one of you savants out there will write a monograph explaining why print is the proper venue for our characters but, bite the bullet, flicks and the tube are where the major action is. In the best superhero tradition, they’re going where they’re most needed,
My reaction? It’s never a good idea to get into a scrap with what is.
A few years ago, DC relocated some people, some of my former colleagues, from New York to California. In retrospect, that was the opening move, the fulfillment of an event long anticipated. Then the Mad Magazine offices became a suite of empty rooms: move number two. And now… amen. An era quietly ends.
Here we are again, in a bardo state. (Note: “Bardo,” as all you Tibetan Buddhists know – and among our readers, you are legion – refers to an intermediate state, as between one life and the next. I’ll use it to mean any state between a current important thing and the important thing one is anticipating. I don’t know what the Dalai Lama thinks about this, but I hope he approves.)
Where was I? Oh yeah, between the end of summer and the beginning of fall. For me, this year, it seems to be a time of nostalgia. Today, for example, is the anniversary of the day, 25 years ago, that I met a woman who had been, 30 years earlier, a girl to whom I’d given, as a birthday present, a subscription to Mad Magazine. Unknown to me, she had maintained that subscription all those years and so, learning that I’d become a comic book writer might not have been deeply surprising to her, (Maybe slightly surprising? I mean, does anyone really become a comic book writer?) I’d forgotten the gift subscription and what I find interesting about it is that back then, in my late teens, I still had some tenuous connection to comics. Before the girl-turned-woman gave me a reminder, I thought I’d abandoned comics much earlier, before I shut a figurative door with the cold breath of an individual I shall call Sister Henrietta still chilling the nape of my neck.
Then, off to school plays and speech contests and the misery men know as military high school and girls…one girl in particular. There was an annual bardo, that occurred just about now, when the frolicsome summer days were expiring and school loomed and you couldn’t help but wonder what lay between you and Christmas. (Note: the days weren’t always that frolicsome because, there was work to be done, my family being one of modest means sustained by a neighborhood grocery store and I’d better get out of this parenthesis before I begin ranting about how the kids of today don’t know how good they got it…and, work or no, we did manage some fun, and even a bit of goofiness.)
Okay, now imagine a montage of uniformed service and slum living and empty highways and empty rooms and empty bottles and Manhattan office buildings and hospital wards and protests and anything else you’d care to imagine and end your montage with me meeting the girl-turned woman in the vestibule of a church, both of us a ripe middle age, accompanied by our grown children, walking between the pews to the altar to speak vows I’d typed on file cards – not great vows, but they did the job. That was August 19, 1988.
Let me tell you, August 18 was for me one hell of a bardo.
So, ComicMix readers, as per my previous column, Awesome Con DC happened April 20 and 21…and, I say this unironically, it was awesome. I had a blast. I spent time with good friends; I met new friends; I walked the con floor and met comics legends (great chat, Larry Hama!) and witty and charming award-winning artists (hello, Ben Templesmith!); and was delighted with the strong turnout of talented local comics folks. I went to a couple of panels (amazing, for me, since I usually plan to go to tons and then don’t go to…any); and wore my Girl Jayne Firefly costume. And yes, naturally, I boughtsomestuff (surprise!). I also pretended to be Nick Galifianakis for awhile (don’t tell!) and did three fantaaaastic interviews: with Nick, and with the amazingly talented Phil LaMarr and Billy West. (More convention pictures here, and oh by the way, next year’s Awesome Con dates are already set! April 19-20, 2014! Woo!) So much fun!
This week, I get to share with you my Awesome Con interview with Phil LaMarr, who is so fantastic. Seriously, y’all. So fantastic. And multi-talented. If you don’t remember him from his many roles during his five year stint on the sketch comedy show MADtv, then you might remember him as Marvin (poor Marvin! So young, so shot-in-the-face!) from Pulp Fiction. Or you might have seen him on one of the many other shows in which he made guest appearances. Or you might know him from his voice acting, in such roles as Hermes Conrad (and Reverend Preacherbot) on Futurama; or as John Stewart, Green Lantern, on Justice League; or as J.A.R.V.I.S. and Wonder Man on The Avengers TV series; or as Samurai Jack on Samurai Jack; or from Family Guy, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Avatar: The Last Airbender, or Star Wars: The Clone Wars, or King of the Hill, or Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, or Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, or, or, or…really I could go on forever. But instead, why don’t we go to the interview?
If you want to listen to the interview (listen to it! He does voices! We geek out about comics!) you can do so here. Or, you can read the (slightly edited) transcript below!
Hello, this is Emily Whitten, and I am here with Phil LaMarr at Awesome Con, the first comic con in the DC area in something like eight years. Phil, thank you for joining me.
And I’m a big fan of your work; who isn’t?
And…there’s so much of it, I almost didn’t know where to start; so I’m going to ask you, what was the first time that you were on stage, or acted?
Ooh, wow; first time ever was eighth grade, in a school play; a production of The Phantom Tollbooth. I played Tock the Watchdog.
You played Tock!
That’s fantastic. So how did you like it; what was your experience there?
Oh, it was amazing. The play opens with the real-world version of Tock, who is the clock in Milo’s room, doing a monologue to the audience. So my first time on stage in front of an audience was alone, on stage, under a spotlight, talking to the full auditorium; and it was a transformative experience. It triggered something in me that has never been the same since. I mean, that’s basically the dragon I’ve been chasing – since eighth grade.
So then were you in all the other school plays after that, or did you feel your way out; how did that work?
Not all of them; I did tech crew, and stuff; you know – because I was in eighth grade. And then in tenth grade, I got the part of Bogart in Play It Again, Sam. Which was arguably the start of my voice work and impressions…I mean, because (as Bogart) “‘Cause honestly, I was doing a Bogart impression and I was fifteen.” When most kids my age didn’t know who Bogart was. I beat everybody out by doing it.
Well that’s amazing! Now since then, obviously you’ve done a lot of work.
I’ve never done Bogart again.
You haven’t? No! But you did do a lot of work for MADtv. Now, tell me how that came to be?
Well, I’d gone through The Groundlings program, so I’d done sketch comedy and improv and over the course of that, created a few characters. I didn’t get MADtv through The Groundlings – I wasn’t there when the casting people came – but I was prepared for it, from creating characters and writing sketches. I’d been at that point, doing it for…that was ‘95, and I’d been in The Groundlings program since ‘89. So I had a lot of experience under my belt doing it. And it translated nicely.
So when you went to MADtv, and you had the characters, like Slick Rick, and you had the UPS—I mean UBS guy…
Right…yeah, that always annoyed me; it’s like, “Really? We can’t say ‘UPS’? We can say UPS.”
It’s unfortunate! So were those characters that you had created and brought over?
The UPS guy I had done at The Groundlings on stage; and in fact the first UPS guy sketch that I did with Mary Scheer on MADtv; I had also done with Mary Scheer on stage.
Oh, okay – because she was in the program as well?
Yeah, she was in The Groundlings with me, and we both got the show at the same time. Of course, for some reason the producers made me change the ending; because, in my version, he got the girl.
Awww. As it should be, you know?
I love Jaq.
He’s great, you know?
Eventually they saw the error of their ways, and then they began to write sketches where he, like, really got the girl. It became increasingly sexual; it’s like, guys, guys: (as Jaq) ‘Well no ’cause he’s just all moving around-‘ it’s like: (exasperated sigh).
The video store one is probably one of my favorites, because you do the embarrassed not-quite-sure-what-to-do very well.
And the fact that he was kind of popping up all over the store, that was fantastic.
Right. Pretending to rent everything except the one he wanted. Yeah, I don’t know where that came from. Out of whole cloth, completely imaginary.
Right; you heard a story once, or somebody had an experience.
Although it’s funny that you mention that one, because that was the one sketch that I got writing credit for.
Well good job, well done you!
Now when was Pulp Fiction, was that before MADtv?
That was before MADtv. We shot that in ’93, and it came out in ’94; so yeah, next year it will be twenty years, actually.
Wow – and of course it is a classic already, even though it will officially be a classic, you know, when it’s twenty. …I guess, if that’s how you calculate.
It will be an ‘antique.’
Yes; well I hear cars are classics after twenty or something like that…
Oh, okay; and movies…are classic once they reboot them.
Yes, exactly; Spider-Man’s like twelve classics now.
So when you were working on Pulp Fiction, obviously you have a great but not huge part, but what was that like, and what was your favorite part, or did you learn something new from it that you found very valuable in the future?
It was interesting because – you know, I loved Reservoir Dogs, so I was chomping at the bit to audition, and I got the chance. And it was so much fun; because Quentin was just so generous. You know, in the audition process, and later on, you know, in the shooting process as well; and I got to audition with the Jules and Brett scene – Sam Jackson, you know, has the gun on Frank Whaley, and it’s just – it’s like reading fresh Shakespeare. It’s like: “So Romeo and Juliet; but they can’t get togeth-my God, this is amazing!” You know? It’s like, “Where do you come up with these ideas, Will??”
Yeah, it was amazing. It’s the sort of thing where when you’re preparing for the audition, by the second or third time you’ve read it through you realize, “Oh, I’ve got this memorized;” because the words just flow, one into the other; it just makes sense.
That’s really great.
Yes; it was the best set that I’ve been on; still, to date.
In terms of the people you were working with, or the atmosphere, or the direction, or everything?
The vibe and the atmosphere; which, oddly enough, I think came from the script. Everyone who read that script loved it, you know, and wanted to be a part of it. Bruce Willis took a – I mean, I don’t know how big a pay cut he took, but the budget for the movie was eight million dollars; so he took a hell of a pay cut. And again; I mean, I knew going into it that it was a very, very small part – it’s like, five lines; but I also knew, “Well, as small as it is, they can’t cut me out – or they lose forty-five minutes of the movie.” Where did all the blood come from??
Yeah, they call up their friend, and they’re like, “What do we do now?” And what would they do if there was no you? The [plot would] be in trouble.
So, okay, you had done some improv, and you had done the movie, and you’ve done voice work – between the three – or however many different kinds of roles you’ve had – what’s your favorite and/or what do you find the most challenging to prepare for?
Well it’s funny, because the most challenging to prepare for is my least favorite. And that’s things that are badly written.
Because honestly, that’s the most challenging to prepare for. It’s like, “Oh dear God. How can I make this work?” When something is great? When something is just a fantastic piece? It’s not work. It’s like, “Oh! Oh I could do this!” You’re inspired by what you’re given. So that’s not work at all. And it’s funny, because people always ask, “Do you like live action, or animation, or stage?” And I’m like, “I like things that are good.”
And the truth is, things that are good have more in common than just being something in the same medium. Like Pulp Fiction has more in common with Samurai Jack than Samurai Jack has with Pound Puppies.
But, now; being someone who’s known for improv and sketch comedy as one of your things, do people give you more leeway in roles that wouldn’t usually call for that, necessarily? Like do you ever go in and say, “Oh, but I could do it this way!” – because I know that can happen with any actor, sometimes, that they can go in and improv something; but do you find that people expect that of you, or like that from you?
At times. It depends on the project. Although, the weird thing is, even though I’m an improviser, as an actor I’m really, really text-driven. So my first impulse is not to go off script; my first impulse is to go into the script and figure out: “Okay, how best can I serve the writer’s intent?” But yeah, I mean obviously there are a lot of comedy things, roles in shows that you get on, where they’re looking for you to, like, “Make it better!” Which is a great challenge, and a great opportunity.
That’s really interesting. Now, speaking of the different kinds of roles, could you pick your top roles that were either the most fun or most challenging, or both? And I know we’ve talked about the connection between fun and challenging. But roles where you could look back and say, oh, my life was more complete because I did these things, or my career was more complete, my experience.
Hm, I don’t know, Justice League [for which Phil does John Stewart, Green Lantern] was definitely a lot of fun, just because it was a wonderful nexus; because I’m a comic book person, and to be able to play in that world was really, really fun and rewarding. It was also made by spectacularly talented people, you know: Bruce Timm, and Dwayne McDuffie, and Sam Berkowitz, and Len Uhley, and Andrea Romano; like basically everybody involved with it was at the top of their game.
Yeah, they’re basically legends in their field. And now you said, as I was aware already, that you’re a comic book fan. Tell me, when you were little, how did you get into it, or what’s your favorite character or storyline?
Well I think I was pretty much a casual comic book reader, until maybe ten or eleven? Then our neighbors had a son who came back from college, and basically bequeathed unto me his entire comic book collection.
So he was like in his early twenties-
-You can tell I’m excited about this.
Yeah, he just like, handed me this longbox.
The actual longbox, like what is it, like 300 comics at least in a longbox?
Right! And there were some amazing – I mean, I had some Mad Magazines, some of which I still have, that are older than I am. And I had great old Carmine Infantino Batmans; [and there were] twenty cent comics, and this was at a time when comics weren’t twenty cents anymore. And just a wide range. Stuff that I probably wouldn’t have picked up myself, but I got to read them. And it’s funny, because I’ve never been a “collector;” I’ve always been a reader; and the one time I tried to be a collector in the mid-eighties, I’m like, “Oh, there’s these new issues of this comic book coming out; I’m going to make sure I get number one!” and most of the number ones I have are, like, crap. I have Rom #1; Rom: SpaceKnight.
I don’t even know if I know that one.
No, you don’t. No you don’t.
I should, right?
No, you shouldn’t. It was really, really awful. The main character was a space robot.
Hmm, because “Space Knight” actually sounds kind of cool; but a space robot…?
But there was no there. There was no character, it was like, “No! He’s just a robot. From space. Doesn’t talk!” But I mean, I do also have New Teen Titans #1. So that was one I jumped on. And actually, I have Moon Knight #1, which wasn’t that great at the time…
Yeah, but he’s gotten a lot bigger, in the last, I don’t know, I would say five years? I feel like it’s been more recently that he’s gotten more attention and more development.
Well it’s a tough character, just because that initial thing is like: “Okay, so, he’s a rich guy. And a mercenary! …And also a cab driver!” It’s like: “Whaaat??”
Yeah, he’s a little schizophrenic in the character development.
And eventually they wrote that into the character. “No no no, he’s actually just crazy.”
I was thinking, “Are they going to retcon that ever, or is it just going to be part of him now?”
Yes, somebody’s going to erase that. “Oh, the moon came over and it erased that…mental disease that this hero has.”
Yeah…but still, having the #1 of that is pretty good!
Well, especially because it’s early Bill Sienkiewicz. It’s Bill when he was still, like, “Is that Neal Adams? But just with really…with more sketch lines?”
Yeah, I love that.
So yeah, that’s a good one, absolutely.
I’ve got to get him to sign that.
Yes, you should. He goes to cons, right? I haven’t actually run into him at one, but I’m sure…
He was at New York Comic Con last year.
Oh, then I’ve been at one with him and not – just kind of like how I saw you maybe from a distance at NYCC, I don’t know.
Yes, he’s very elusive.
Well I’m sure he’ll be at another one, and we’ll be at another one. So speaking of comics, I am embarrassed to say, that while I was –
That you’ve never read a comic book?
Hah, no! You know that’s not true!
“I’m, I’m just really pretty, aaaand…”
“I’m a fake geek girl, you know, ohmigoood…”
You are the fake unicorn. You are a horse with a horn glued on.
Hah, I am, I exist, the fake geek girl! No; I’ve read – my collection is quite impressive. I actually do have the entire-
You sound like such a dude when you say that.
I know, right?
You have a Ferrari – it’s a little red Ferrari: “My collection is massive. It’s really pretty impressive.”
“It’s amazing, dude. Bro!”
“You should see it. But don’t touch it! Or I’ll…”
“Dude, it’s all in the little bags and boards, and if you get your fingerprints on it, I’m gonna be like, ‘Phil LaMarr’s fingerprint versus a mint condition, I don’t knoooow…'”
…But I have the entire Deadpool run.
From the first appearance in New Mutants all the way through the current…
Yeah, I’m missing, like, a Black Panther that I cannot find. Black Panther #23.
So you’re kind of a completist?
Oh, I am. When it comes to Deadpool. And then when it comes to current runs that I’m reading if I miss one I go back and I get it.
Oh, well that just makes sense.
But yeah, I’m a definite completist when it comes to Deadpool; my collection is ridiculous.
How are you liking the Posehn/Duggan stuff?
I have to admit, I’m a little behind. Don’t tell! So far I’m liking it…
That’s the problem with being a completist.
I know! And I’ve also done some review copies lately so the stack [of stuff waiting to be read] is always changing. I have a stack right now that still includes Peter David’s X-Men: Gifted prose novel in the plastic and I got it for Christmas! But I read a little bit [of the Posehn/Duggan Deadpool]; I like it so far. But here’s what I’m embarrassed to admit: I was looking at your Wikipedia to prepare for this interview, even though I know some of your work, obviously, and I was like –
“He’s black! What the hell? No one ever told me!”
Right? “I didn’t know!”
No, but I was like, “He was in Spider-Man 2??” Which, I love that movie! And I love the scene that you’re in. And I was always so focused on Spider-Man; I went back and I was like, “Where is he, where is he, I have to find him!” This was last night; I have the movie, but I got on YouTube, because I knew it would be on there, because it’s the train scene – it’s the big scene. So I watched, and I was like, “And he catches Spider-ma – look at that!” How did you make that happen? No, I mean, they probably came to you and were like, “Phil. Come be in our movie.”
No! I auditioned for the Hal Sparks part; the guy in the elevator, when Spider-Man’s powers stop working.
Which is a great scene, where he’s like, “Cool Spidey suit, dude.”
So you auditioned for that…
And didn’t get it. And then they called, randomly, in August, and said:
“Hey, is Phil available to work from Wednesday to Friday?”
“Oh, Spider-Man 2.”
“Well, what part? Is it the part that he auditioned for?”
“Well what part?”
“We can’t say.”
“Well can you send over a script?”
And they refused to say anything! Like, “Well, what are we doing?” “They won’t tell me.” “Uhhhh…o-kaaay.” And I’m just racking my brains, like, “Well, this is Spider-Man, but…what am I doing?” And I told my agent, “All right: ask them, will I be working directly with Sam Raimi?” Because I knew, it’s a big, big movie; and I’m not going in there to be some sort of second unit, running from falling building blocks. And they said, “Yes, you will.” “All right, I’m in.” But I had no idea what I was doing. I showed up, and I’m like, “Whaaaaat are we doing?” And it turned out, [Sam] saw that scene, that fight between Doc Ock and Spidey, especially with Spider-Man losing his mask and keeping going, as the action heart of the movie.
And I totally agree!
That’s actually the reason I never noticed that it was you, because I’m so focused on the whole of the scene!
And it’s a fantastic scene!
Do you know, whenever I watch that movie, I actually watch that scene at least two or three times? Like, whenever I watch it. I cannot stop myself.
Because when else have you ever seen a fight scene at 100 miles an hour? In and out.
I know, with the windows, and the arms, and everything, and he goes in and out of the cars, and then at the end, when he’s stopping it with all the webs; it’s great! It’s fantastic.
Yeah, and the fact that it’s like: Is he going to stop it? No! He fails! No, he’s going to try again! And it’s just really – it’s just about willpower. But Sam knew that he needed emotion in this scene, and he said, “Okay, I’ve got, like, sixty extras,” and he sat us around and he said, “Okay, I’ve hired you eight actors so I can sprinkle you throughout this scene, so that I always have someone amongst the extras that I can cut to, to give me what I need at that moment, in the scene.” And I’m like, “I’ve never heard of that; that’s absolutely brilliant!” Like, if you have a crowd scene; yes, you don’t want to have to cut to extras to deliver the heart or the fear or whatever. And so he said, “I don’t know what the lines will be; we may be playing around with stuff; there’s nothing really scripted; but we may put some things in. You may not have lines, you might have lines, we don’t know .”
And you didn’t actually have a line, did you?
No; I had a line at one point that got cut out in the final cut.
Okay; but in that scene, I vividly remember people catching Spider-Man, and the emotion of it; I just didn’t realize it was you!
And you’re not supposed to! That would have been really distracting.
Well, and actually, the last time I had watched you on TV was more like Pulp Fiction and MADtv and stuff, and then I knew your voice acting; and so I don’t think I had connected the two of them as much. But that’s so great.
Yeah, it was fun. Well it was hilarious, because that two days turned into two and a half weeks.
Because that’s a huge scene! So how was it, working with Sam Raimi and everything?
It was great. I mean, a lot of sitting-around time, because on a movie with that kind of budget, they don’t really care if you sit around for twelve hours and don’t work. They’re like, “Your pay isn’t even going to show up on our budget,” you know what I’m saying? So it’s like, “Yeah, two weeks. Eh.” Actually, they didn’t even tell us that it was going to be extended. Just at one point, it’s like Friday, and it’s like, “Okay, so I guess it’s our last day,” and they’re like, “Oh, by the way, you’re on a weekly contract.” And I’m like, “Whuuu…?”
“See ya tomorrow!”
Right! “Oh, okay, I guess we…” But it was fun. It’s funny, because I wound up meeting Chloe Dykstra, who is a cosplay model and host, and she was fifteen, sixteen? And her dad was doing the special effects – John Dykstra – although it’s funny, because at one point – the subway train was pretty analog, like when the train rocked, there were a bunch of grips pushing a big wooden pole to rock it back and forth; and it looked very practical. They had practical Doc Ock arms, puppet arms that came in; and I passed John Dykstra one day on set, and I was like, “Well, this looks like a pretty easy scene for you, not a lot of special effects.” And he’s like, “…Not really.” And I was like, “Well what do you have to do?” “I have to create all of New York.” And he pointed up, and I realized that the entire three-story sound-stage we were in was a green screen.
Wow, and so he had to do everything rushing by, and when the webs go?
Everything you’re seeing – because actually, even some of the webs were practical; like when he’s holding them? Those were actual, practical webs.
I would think they would have to be, at least in his hands, so that they would look real.
But everything you’re seeing as it goes by, like all of the lighting, and all of the texture and everything – he created.
I find that stuff so fascinating, and I only know a little about it; and so I’m thinking, like, “How do they make his costume rip in just the right places, at just the right times,” you know?
The continuity was insane. And that was the other thing that was really impressive. Because Tobey Maguire was there on set, and at one point, we’re all carrying him. You know, it was that shot from above. And we were actually carrying him. And he was so nice, and I’m thinking, “If you’ve got me glued into a suit, where I can’t pee but once every eight hours? And then you’re going to throw me, with a recent back injury?”
Oh, he had a back injury?
Oh yes, I remember that. [Emily note: We were both thinking of Seabiscuit. Because, you know, movies with horses and jockeys, yo.]
There was this whole talk about, they weren’t sure if he was going to be able to do it. And it’s like, “And you’re going to have me carried by a bunch of extras?” I’m sure if I was him, I would have done it; but I would have been in a bad mood. But he was so amazingly cool.
Did you get to sit down and chat with him at some point?
A little bit.
Because I’m sure everything was rushing around.
Yeah. And you also don’t want to bother him.
No, because he’s concentrating, he’s the main guy, in the main scene…
Yeah; and you know that guy has to – you don’t know what that person’s process is to maintain their energy. Because there’s a lot of sitting around, but when it’s time to go, you have to be ready to go. And it’s all on him.
Well, and everyone has a different method, and some people want the silence and everything.
That’s so cool though. I’m so glad that you’re in that; now every time I watch it I’m going to be like, “Look, it’s Phil!”
I’m so glad I’m in it every time I get a residual check.
Hah, that’s fair to say! Well I supported you, then, because I have the movie, and I went to see it.
So just a couple of other questions. Obviously, in your voice work, we mentioned the John Stewart role; also Futurama, which is huge and amazing and fun, and you play Hermes Conrad…
(As Hermes) A thirty-sixth grade level certified bureaucrat!
Which is fantastic! And at some point he gets bumped down and then gets back up there. He’s a great character, and you did other voices too…
Yeah; I mean, it’s been ten, fifteen years…I don’t know how long we’ve been doing it; but over the years we’ve all wound up doing additional characters, secondary characters; because there’s always somebody else to do.
Right. And now with that voice work, I have seen where sometimes with voice actors, you go in and you’re by yourself, and you’re doing your part, and then sometimes there are other people. Did you each record your own parts for Futurama, or were you in the room with everybody?
For Futurama we do group records. In shows that are writer-driven and comedy-driven, where the writers care about the comedy? You do group records.
Because the chemistry just works so much better when everybody’s together.
And you can’t really tell if a joke works if you can’t hear the lines before it.
That’s a really good point, obviously.
But people do it all the time!
Yeah, I’ve seen where people are just by themselves, and I’m like, “Wow, that has to be even harder than doing it with the group.”
As an actor it’s really difficult, because you can no longer trust yourself. You can’t take in the line that you’re getting and then respond naturally. You have to basically guess. It’s like, “Well, I don’t know what my response would be,” so you just have to trust the director.
Have you done that too? Jobs where you had to go in by yourself?
So you have both experiences. I would much prefer the group to going in by myself.
Of course. It’s the difference between, like if you’re writing, having an editor you know and an editor you don’t know. It’s like, “Okay, well, I don’t know what this person likes, I don’t know what they hate, but I’ll just deliver whatever I’m going to.” You can do it, you still do the same job, but it’s less comfortable. And a lot of the big companies – Disney and DreamWorks – tend to do more individual records than group reads. Occasionally there will be a creator or producer who can insist on, “I really need a group read,” but generally, more and more of the companies lately are doing individual records.
Right; and I have seen some of that, because I follow the Deadpool fandom, and Nolan North does Deadpool for things like Hulk vs., so I saw some clips of that process. Now you actually worked on a project with him fairly recently; the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
And there are a lot of really great names in there, like Sean Astin, and Rob Paulsen –
– and Kevin Michael Richardson, and Jason Biggs, and Greg Cipes.
Yes! Lots of great names on there. So do you actually interact together, or is that one where you’re recording your separate parts?
Andrea Romano directs that, and Andrea’s very good and pretty old-school. So she does a read-through before, which almost nobody ever does, unless it’s a prime time show. But she does a table read the day of, just like she did in Justice League; like we would start the session by reading through the entire script.
Oh, right, so she directed both of those.
Yeah. She’s amazing. She did Animaniacs, Tiny Toons, Pinky and the Brain, Justice League…
Yes! Which – Rob worked on a lot of those, I know. Did you ever work on Animaniacs and all of those?
No, those were before I got into VO. But fantastic shows. So she tends to do group records. And the funny thing is, there are directors who have four hours, or however many hours, or an hour for an individual thing and can barely get it done. She has an entire group of actors for just four hours, does a read-through first, and will still get you out early.
Wow. So who have you recorded with for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
I’ve recorded with the gang.
So how did you like that? And is that coming back?
I believe so.
Okay, well, you should know.
I don’t know! No, the actors are the last to know. Seriously? If you’re putting something together, the last people you call are the actors.
I see. Well I haven’t actually gotten to watch [TNMT] yet, so I wasn’t sure exactly where it is right now.
I think they’re still recording episodes; but maybe they’re in second season; I’m not exactly sure.
Well hopefully there will be more of that. Because I’ve loved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from, you know, yea big, so I will want to check that out at some point.
You should, because the people behind it – Peter Hastings, and Ciro Nieli are just really, really talented.
Awesome. I will definitely do that. So tell me, is there any other current work you would like to talk about?
Hm, what’s going on right now…? I’m doing some on-camera stuff; I did a comedy series called Inside the Legend, that’s just been picked up by My Damn Channel. It’s a comedy interview show with characters from history, mythology, fiction, and legend; but they’re all a little tweaked. Like we did one where the female host is interviewing Albert Einstein. And then she introduces him, and he starts talking with a Southern accent. And she’s like, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry! Ladies and gentlemen, Mark Twain!” And they just keep switching back and forth, and she’s never sure which one she’s talking to.
Okay, I must see that! Where and when is that coming on?
Okay, well that’s fantastic; I will definitely put that link in, because that sounds just right up my alley.
Oh, and you’d also love – I’m also working on Chatroom of Solitude; Jeff Lewis from The Guild has written this. It’s for Stan Lee’s World of Heroes, and it’s really hilarious. It’s basically superheroes and supervillains on Google Chat.
I’m in love already. And that is also online?
Yeah. They’re both out now.
Well I’ll definitely check those out, because that’s fantastic. Yay! Thank you so much for this interview; and I’m going to do the thing that everybody [I assume] asks you to do…will you do the Green Lantern oath for me? Will you do it, Phil? I know you did it once today already, but…
Okay… Well, they’ll pick this clip, or the clip from YouTube, whichever:
“In brightest day, in blackest night,
no evil shall escape my sight.
Let those who worship evil’s might
beware my power: Green Lantern’s light!”
Thank you so much, Phil, this has been great.
You’re so silly.
Well, he’s right; I am. Big thanks to Phil LaMarr 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 excellent Billy West, Servo Lectio!
It’s not often these days when Mad Magazine is topical, timely, and funny but with the furor surrounding the European horse meat scandal reaching America’s Ikea shelves, they hit the bullseye with this cartoon.