Since its debut two Sundays ago, Kevin Smith's new AMC reality program Comic Book Men has, for better or worse, been the talk of the comics community. Co-Managing Editors Danny Djeljosevic and Nick Hanover sat down with Senior Television Analyst Dylan Garsee to discuss the show, its current feud with Comics Alliance and whether the program is redeemable.
Nick Hanover: Last week, Chris Sims of Comics Alliance wrote a scathing editorial/review of Kevin Smith's new reality show Comic Book Men, effectively stating that it was "a compelling argument against comic book stores." Naturally, this resulted in a shitstorm of rage on both sides of the equation, with the biggest volley coming from the show's own Bryan "Steve-Dave" Johnson, who sent an e-mail to Sims and crew alleging that it was actually Sims who represented the worst of comic fandom before signing off with a creepy attempt to get Sims to help Johnson get a date with CA's Editor-in-Chief Laura Hudson.
With all the venom being spewed on both fronts, I feel like rather than do a typical review of this show, we should use it as an opportunity to discuss the debate and what a show like Comic Book Men owes or doesn't owe to the community it's theoretically about. Dylan, first off, what did you think of the first two episodes of the show itself, from a quality standpoint?
Dylan Garsee: Although we're only on the second episode of the show, I was rather disappointed in Comic Book Men. I either love or vehemently hate any Kevin Smith project, yet this is the first time I was just bored with something of his. It was somehow both all over the place tonally and paced incredibly slowly.
It wanted to be Pawn Stars and Oddities, yet lacked the charm that made those shows the successes they are.
Nick: You've hit on what I feel is the biggest problem with this show, which is its inability to decide what, exactly, it wants to be. On one hand, we've got a pretty straightforward glimpse at the behind the scenes interactions between Kevin Smith and his crew as they record their podcast. On another hand, we've got a reality show about people trying to sell collectibles to a comic book shop. And then on yet another hand–because we're mutants–we've got an odd examination of some people with aggressive anti-social tendencies a la Hoarders.
Dylan: As someone who watches way too many reality shows, what makes them successful depends on two ends of the same stick. The stars and characters are either incredibly happy and quirky, and relatable (Pawn Stars, Oddities, Ace of Cakes) or disgustingly unlikeable and used to fulfill the voyeuristic tendencies of us all (Jersey Shore, Real Housewives of . . .). The characters in CBM are a combination of the worst parts of both of the successful traits. They speak to the uncomfortable happiness in all of us, yet have the sort of unrealistic narcissism of the most annoying reality show villains. While I have no right as a person to critique someone's personality, as a TV critic, I feel the characters are the biggest problem of this show.
Nick: And it's the characters that have caused the outrage over this show, specifically because some critics, like Sims, see them as a significant example of a larger problem, which is the looming extinction of brick and mortar comic retail outlets. Since the show has received almost universally poor to mediocre reviews, it's easier to go after it for ideological reasons. Had the show been a successful pilot, with a coherent idea and a well handled execution of that idea, the way it presents comicdom could have at least been minimized if not entirely forgiven.
Instead, what we've got is a show about comic retailers appearing after a comic book adaptation that just so happens to be the most successful cable show of all time. It creates an extremely jarring contrast. It’s between something that represents the possibilities of comics that mainstream audiences had likely never thought of before leading into a program that confirms every suspicion that same mainstream audience has about the medium. But let me ask you this, as a program likely targeted primarily at Smith's large, vocal cult following, should anyone have expected anything else from this program? Do you feel it succeeds as a Kevin Smith enterprise even if it doesn't succeed as a television show or a diplomatic representation of geekdom?
Dylan: Kevin Smith has spent the last decade or so doing projects simply because he is Kevin Smith. He can guest-star on Veronica Mars, direct Jersey Girl and Cop Out and buy his own film at Sundance after an all day bidding war. However, he did those just to be contrarian against his largely "nerdy" fanbase (and I hate that term, because I feel The Big Bang Theory has completely ruined it, but that's a different article). With Comic Book Men, though, he's actually doing a project about something he deeply cares about, so the failure of it is actually something that needs addressing.
Nick: What I find particularly fascinating is that this show comes off as a more casual Clerks. What you said about this being a project Smith deeply cares about really strikes me, because you're exactly right–if Clerks was about the service industry world that Smith and friends were so desperate to leave, how come this show about their labor of love is so similarly venomous and bitter? Even though the guys seem to enjoy their work, they approach it just like Dante and Randal, sabotaging each other at every turn, whether it's breaking plates or telling customers that their co-worker is a sex criminal, and just generally appearing incapable of treating customers or each other with any respect whatsoever. That lack of respect appears to have hit a nerve for a lot of viewers, as it's something so many comic fans have to deal with on a daily basis at their LCS. At least in High Fidelity's similar retail scenes, you had Dick to balance out Barry and Rob situated in the middle between the two. Here you've got a troublesome asshole who hangs out in the store for no real reason and does his best to look like the Unabomber and three guys who put up with him and enable him.
Dylan: I want to come out and say, besides 52 and History of Violence, I don't read comic books. However, my issues with this show and the representation of those in the industry have nothing to do with the artform itself.
Nick: That's actually why I wanted you in on this discussion, though. I'm curious to hear your perspective as someone who's not used to having to go and deal with these kinds of people every Wednesday.
Dylan: It's hard to tell which came first, the bitter comic book storeowner, or the quickly dying brick-and-mortar stores.
Nick: Considering I've been at this since I was since 6–which, conveniently, would have been right at the peak of the speculator boom–I can tell you that b
rick-and-mortar dying off on the whole cannot carry all the blame for this attitude.
Dylan: I'm looking at the situation like the record store crisis of the past 20 years or so.
I always hated going into my local record store even though I loved seeing the history and the sheer amount of product they had. But up until recently the employees, probably due to a combination of an uncertain future, a decline in customers and sales, and being in such a minority of people, were mostly bitter. And I would be too, if something I loved so passionately was falling apart right in front of me.
The record storeowners and employees, instead of trying to show people what brought them so close to records, pushed them away because they saw average customers as the very people destroying the industry.
There are other factors, of course, to the declining industry. But in the aspect of the human element, I feel that the music industry and the comic industry have that in common.
Nick: I've never worked in a comic book shop, but I have worked in a record store and I can confirm that a significant portion of people who work at these kinds of retail outlets almost view it as a challenge to make customers feel like shit. I've never understood that desire myself because I've always approached music, film, literature and comics as an evangelist. Which is probably a big part of why I have wound up a critic. I used to love trying to figure out what song some kid was trying to track down, or what someone's mom had just heard on the radio and I saw it as a challenge to help them find great stuff they might not have heard rather than scaring them off of shops forever and ever.
Admittedly, being on the other side of that experience, stuck as the person dealing with shitty customer service courtesy of a plethora of LCS's, I've mostly resigned myself to just not visiting them and avoiding comic retail outlets as much possible. But Danny, you actually manage to frequent comic book shops AND have good experiences at quite a few. I know you hang out with people like, say, CB's own Matt Rios, who works at an LCS. Have you had a chance to talk to any of those guys about Comic Book Men? If not, how did the show compare to your experiences?
Danny: I'm a big fan of the comic shop experience because I've been to some really, really great shops. The South Florida shop I grew up won an Eisner retailing award a few years ago and it's this all-encompassing nerd mecca that doesn't short-change its comics section, so I have a pretty high standard for shops and can't suffer the undeodorized neckbeard troll caves that have become the stereotype. And here in San Diego, even if Matt didn't work at his shop, I'd still think it was pretty good.
I haven't talked to him about Comic Book Men, but I've talked to him A LOT about the retailing experience. It used to be a regular segment on CB's very own podcast even! The whole experience of people bringing in collections is pretty common, but it's usually just fools who think their boxes of bad overprinted '90s comics are going to make them more than 50 bucks–hardly ever as interesting as some meathead bringing in a Bob Kane sketch or a lunatic who brings in lobby cards in handcuffed briefcases. Mostly these shops are 1) actually populated and 2) populated by relatively normal people who just want their weekly fix and the odd unsocialized confluence of grease. But they're hardly the norm these days.
Nick: I think what's frustrating is that this show in a way glamorizes being a jackass to customers, even if so far that element of the show mostly came out in the flea market segment and the girl trying to sell a Chucky doll. But it's hard for me to fault it the way Sims did because I honestly don't expect anything else from Smith and crew. His entire career is built on this concept of "empowering" geeks by giving them an outlet for belittling and attacking "regular" people, passing off snarky aggression and bitter infantilism as a reasonable approach to bettering the geek community.
Nick: Smith is either incapable of or uninterested in taking a non-juvenile approach to minimizing the divide between geeks and mainstream folk. Honestly, though, I think the worst offense here is the choice of who to emphasize in the show because Smith himself actually comes across pretty well, functioning as a kind of cool and collected figurehead who has taken care of his buddies and given them a safe haven for their particular brand of nerdistry. Whoever decided to let "Steve-Dave" be the star of the show deserves most of the blame.
Danny: I have many problems with Kevin Smith as a creator, but as a dude who says stuff, he's so incredibly enjoyable and funny. But God, fucking Bryan Johnson is intolerable–beyond him reiterating every nerd stereotype, he's just flat out dislikable, which is a surprise for a guy who made a movie where some dudes rape a clown.
Dylan: He was created by AMC executives so the zombies who watch the The Big Bang Theory will be comfortable with their (false) perception of a nerd.
Nick: The most telling part may have been when they were discussing how unfortunate it is that there aren't girls out there who are attracted to men who have a wealth of obscure, trivial knowledge. That, to me, summarizes what's wrong with this branch of geekdom. These are guys who look down on everyone, who take glee in belittling those people out there who know less about the history of Catwoman's costumes and who are clueless about social interaction. Yet they have convinced themselves that the reason why they aren't more popular and why they don't have more dates is because everyone else just doesn't get them. Clearly their difficulties in finding dates has everything to do with women being so fickle that they don't value continuity knowledge and absolutely nothing to do with how generally unpleasant and terrible at human interaction these people are.
Danny: Yet Bryan Johnson alludes to having a girlfriend, which blows my mind because I can't even deal with observing that guy, much less interacting with him. Though he'd probably just try to fight me at a convention or something. Which brings me to something that screams "missed opportunity" in this show–what are these guys' personal lives like? I mean, if you want to observe the fanboy in his natural habitat, it's not just the comic shop–how do these guys interact with their families? Does Bryan Johnson's girlfriend cotton to him talking about wanting to bang Squirrel Girl? Does Ming have a basement full of toys and comics that his kids aren't allowed to go into? Is there anything of note about Mike?
Dylan: The show doesn't treat them as people, just as pawns in a comic book store.
Nick: I get the feeling that that's because we're not meant to see them as people anyway. We're clearly just meant to see them as vessels for terrible, reductive humor.
Dylan: The cast of Comic Book Men are in a strange position as television personalities. The Kardashians and the cast of the Real Housewives can be incredibly unlikeable because in the end, they're only hurting themselves. Although the Kar
dashians have become a brand name, they aren't representing an industry.
The cast of Comic Book Men–even if they are supposed to be just characters–shine a bad light on the owners of comic book stores. Similar to how the cast of Jersey Shore has tainted the state of New Jersey, Comic Book Men represent something bigger than themselves.
Nick: You also have to factor in the Smith element, though, particularly in the second episode, which saw Jason Mewes making an extremely awkward and forced appearance to "check in" on the staff of the Secret Stash. That "twist" made it clear to me that the real angle of this show isn't giving a glimpse into comics retailing but instead to offer easy laughs for Smith cultists who just want to see their hero being a normal dude, making gay panic jokes with his old chums and brushing off the former heroin addict sidekick he's professionally stuck with.
Danny: Everything about Comic Book Men is cheap and easy, except the crap the people are trying to sell. Two episodes in and we've had "Batman and Robin are gay," "which superheroine would you bang," "what would you do if you could time travel" and the "what superpower would you have" conversation. I'm about as interested in hearing these bros talk about these things as I am in having those conversations myself.
Dylan: Could it be that CBM just hasn't found its footing yet? The first few episodes of 98% of television are usually awful. Look at Parks and Rec; no one even talks about the first season, except when they talk about how no one talks about it.
Nick: That's a fair question and I think the answer depends on your level of optimism. Historically, Kevin Smith isn't very open to criticism, and on numerous occasions he has vocally and publicly taken on anyone who has spoken out against his work. Likewise, the show has received a nasty bit of publicity thanks to "Steve Dave's" e-mail to Comics Alliance, which was simultaneously sad and utterly fucking creepy. Personally, I'm leaning towards "no," because I don't get the sense that either Smith or his crew are particularly interested in changing their behavior or schtick. They don't seem to really think there's anything wrong with how they behave or how it might be received by both the non-comics reading public and those of us who are desperately trying to get comics out of a pop culture ghetto.
Danny: Given the people on display in this show, I'm pretty sure the only way Comic Book Men could improve is if Kevin Smith fired his entire staff and replaced them with actual human beings.
Dylan: The Greendale Human Beings?
Danny: Oh god, that would be a show I'd watch on repeat for weeks.
I gotta say, Episode 2 is an improvement for at least having a customer that wasn't a total yahoo: Jonathan Baylis, creator of the indie comic series So Buttons.
Nick: True, the customers were better in episode two. But considering how pathetic the glimpse at the quasi-personal lives of the staff was–they played a Clerks-aping hockey game against a crazy clown and a girl they used as set-up for "hilarious" old guard chauvinism–I just don't see how this show can sustain itself. Are there enough Kevin Smith devotees in this post-Jersey Girl era to tune in each weekend?
Danny: Gawd, I hope not.
Nick: That leads us into a different, more theoretical line of questioning. If Comic Book Men turns into an epic commercial failure as its critical failure grows, what does that potentially mean for the future of comic book television?
Dylan: Time for a Dylan story: In high school, I was actually chosen to be on that MTV show Made. So the weekend before they were coming to start filming me, they planned out every possible minute detail of everything I was going to do for three days. Even though I am a selfish fame-whore, I decided at the last minute to not be filmed. They wanted me to be prom king and that was fucking stupid. Anyway, where I'm going with this is that I hope that these people are actually just incredibly manipulated by the producers, because that wouldn't be too out of place for reality TV producers.
Nick: I swear Dylan, if I didn't know you in real life, I would have a hard time believing you weren't fiction.
Danny: That's AMAZING.
Dylan: I'm actually a figment of y'all's imagination.
Nick: We willed you into existence in order to cancel out Comic Book Men.
Soon to come from Comics Bulletin: Comic Book Gays.
Dylan: "Guys, which Catwoman outfit do you think is the tackiest? And you can't say all of them."
Nick: "Which superhero would you most want to turn gay? And you can't say Batman."
Dylan: Wolverine, because he'd be fun.
Danny: Wolvie is SUCH a bear.
Dylan: More an alpha wolf, but that's besides the point.
Nick: Speaking of bears . . . what do you guys think of Kevin Smith's role on this show, anyway? I know I briefly went into my feelings on it, but I'm curious to see what others' reactions are. He was more diminished in episode one, taking on a kind of host role, but in the second episode he was far more involved. There was also an interesting tension between him and the rest of the staff, who seemed to have a difficult time deciding whether to view him as hero or boss. Bryan especially seemed to slip into fanboy mode fairly often.
Danny: I said this earlier, but I like Kevin Smith a lot. He's charismatic and funny even when he's being a lazy artist. As the only likable guy on the show, the more we get of him, the more palatable this show gets. It means that the other guys talk way, way less.
Nick: They do tend to lock up when he's around. The only thing I truly enjoy about the show is how he just cuts everyone off constantly to add in whatever ad lib he feels like providing.
Dylan: So, besides the inconsistent plot lines, the socially awkward/socially retarded characters, the cliche talking points and an over reaching boss/producer/leader/idol, what do you think needs to be changed about this show in order for it to be successful? Or would a mercy killing just be better for everyone involved?
Nick: Honestly, I don't think this show is salvageable. The only way it would be remotely enjoyable is as a solo Kevin Smith venture and if you're getting that scalpel happy, what's even the point? I'd rather just get an entirely new comic reality series, one that's fairer to the community and does a better job at diplomacy, whether it's on the retail front or the creative side of things.
That's not to say I want comicdom to be whitewashed, because anyone who reads this site knows that we're not exactly strangers to the weirdness of comic fandom and the problematic hostility that fills so many corners of it. But there's a difference between sh
owing that reality and reveling in what this show itself has termed "Peter Panism."
Danny: They should cancel Comic Book Men and replace it with two half-hour shows: One where Kevin Smith talks shit and one about an interesting comic shop that people would actually want to venture inside of. No beards allowed.
Nick: The sad thing is that this show is still representative of a terrifying percentage of comic book shops. I can honestly say that I can count on one hand the number of shops I've been to that aren't remarkably similar to the Secret Stash. But I agree that we should be showing off the exceptions, not the rules.
Danny: Also, guys, when did Jason Mewes become Bubbles from The Wire?
Dylan: The day I became Omar.
Danny: DYLAN COMING!
Nick: Jason Mewes was fucking depressing in the second episode. I felt like I'd wandered into some kind of geek adaptation of The Basketball Diaries for a moment.
Danny: "Gimme these comics for free! I'm good for it, dude!" I feel like this episode would be better paired with Breaking Bad.
Nick: It would end with Mewes' head being attached to an explosive remote controlled Spider-Van model.
Danny: Come to think of it, I would rather see a reality show about a comic shop manned by Badger and Skinny Pete.
Nick: A comic book shop is what Jesse chose to use as his front instead of a goddamn car wash.
Badger and Skinny Pete Try to Sell Some Infinite Crisis
Nick: So now that we've moved on to Breaking Bad jokes, let's end this not with a rating but with a prediction for what's going to go wrong in the next episode.
Danny: In Comic Book Men Episode 3, special guest the ghost of George Carlin haunts the shop and they send Ming into the Stash at midnight with faulty Ghostbusting equipment. Then they make fun of his peed pants. Also, somebody wants to sell a Garbage Pail Kids trading card set. Walt talks them down to eight bucks.
Dylan: In Episode 3 of Comic Book Men, the remaining designers will have to design a red carpet look for a fashion icon: Miss Piggy.
Nick: Episode 3 is the very special episode of Comic Book Men, in which Ming snaps after Bryan makes one too many pedophile jokes and suggests Ming come to work dressed as Astro Boy to aid in his seduction of little boys. By the end of the episode, only Walt is still alive and that's because he was forced to stab Ming with that replica of Bilbo's sword Sting that's been hanging in the shop forever.
Dylan: Next week, on an all new Comic Book Men, Princess Celestia pays a surprise visit to Ponyville, but Kevin Smith hasn't organized his library and Ming is nowhere to be found. So the gang must go looking for him, before HM Celestia sees what a mess Kevin Smith has made.
I need to get out more.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine (drawn by Eric Zawadzski) will debut in Spring 2012.
Dylan Garsee is a freelance writer/bingo enthusiast currently living in Austin, TX. He is studying sociology, and when he's not winning trivia nights at pork-themed restaurants, writing a collection of essays on the gay perspective in geek culture. An avid record collector, Dylan can mostly be seen at Waterloo Records, holding that one God Speed You! Black Emperor record he can't afford and crying. You can follow him on twitter @garseed.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.