5/12: The Con is ON, at the Center Lanes

Pow! Zam! Comics Conventions Aren’t for Shitty Highway Hotels Anymore… Focused upon Saturday’s Asbury Park ComicCon is CLIFF GALBRAITH, who joins with Pope of Popculturizm ROBERT BRUCE as promoters of  the city’s firstest-ever scholarly seminar/ swapmeet for the uplift of the sweetly sequential science.

One’s a satanic-bearded solid citizen who birthed unto the world a rodent named Roscoe, and a slew of instantly iconic screenprint ‘Sauruses. The other’s an all-seeing, all-knowing pontiff of Popculturizm; he who is invoked by name when conflicts must be resolved, and spot appraisals rendered.

Together they’re teaming up to fight crime — if by “crime” we mean the near-criminal lack of homegrown Comix Conventions here in the big-tent neighborhood that’s been home to so many comics creatives, not to mention some of the most influential collectors and connoisseurs the artform has ever known.

On this day, May 12, all will be put into perspective, as the first annual Asbury Park Comic Con at the Jersey Shore sets up its folding tables and longboxes inside the only venue that’s surreal enough to contain it — the atom-age retro rec room, tenpins taphouse (and alterna-arts odditorium) that IS Asbury Lanes.

Pencilled in between the hours of 10am and 6pm, the Con is the brainchild of two guys who’ve more than logged their share of hours on the frontlines of our nation’s flea markets, convention centers and drab Days Inn event rooms: Cliff Galbraith, the artist and writer behind RAT BASTARD — and Robert Bruce, the capo di tutti collectibles (and proprietor of the much-missed Groove Spot) who’s parlayed his mastery of the arcane and eldritch into a featured berth on Kevin Smith’s Comic Book Men teevee program.

That Red Bank connection — both Rob and Cliff are residents of the Basie-birthing borough that recently scored third on Smithsonian Magazine’s list of top American small towns for culture (right behind Relocated Bayway and Centralia, PA) — extends as well to the internationally renowned and bracingly branded Jay & Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, Lourdes-like grotto for all who make the Askewniverse pilgrimage and base of operations for Mike Zapcic and Ming Chen (who are slated to conduct a live podcast session from the Lanes on Sat afternoon). As for why this event isn’t set to take place in its spiritual homeland of Red Bank, well, more on that in a moment.

Like any Con worth its acid-free backing boards, the Asbury Park affair boasts some amazing guests — among them the dynamically married duo of Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer (creators, both together and solo, of Milk & Cheese, Action Girl, and Supergirl Adventures). The Girl of Steel’s formidable presence extends to the participation of DC superspecialist Jamal Igle, and there’s a welcome injection of beyond-Bizarro World madness from uncategorizable comicker Michael Kupperman. There are also some 35 vendors on board — and as of late last night Galbraith was putting out the BatSignal for more, in the wake of the new Lanes owners having reconfigured/expanded the available floor space.

In one of the most eleventh-hour interview scenarios we’ve ever entered into, we caught up with Cliff Galbraith at the recently relo’d Zebu Forno in RB, even as the earlybird bargainhounds were doubtless suiting up for the trip to our favorite Fellini-esque Fourth Avenue funnarama. More, at the flip of the pulse-poundingly pixelated page…

Guest creators at the first annual Asbury Park Comic Con include (clockwise from top left) Evan Dorkin, Jamal Igle, Michael Kupperman and Sarah Dyer. Also on tap: PBR, plus Steve Mannion, Danny Hellman, COMIC BOOK MEN’s Mike ‘n Ming ‘n more.

upperWETside: Well, the Red Bank comics contingent is certainly present and accounted for at the Comic Con, and you and Robert have really helped to put the town on the map as a regional capital of comics culture…but that kind of begs the question, why aren’t we talking about a Red Bank Comic Con?

CLIFF GALBRAITH: Because there just isn’t an appropriate venue anywhere in town…and because Asbury Park is such a great place to have an event like this.

I’ve been doing conventions for a long time…and I used to be in the clothing business, so I did a lot of clothing shows too…and I’ve seen too many shows that were well run by good people, but they’re in Nowheresville and nobody shows up. The problem with inland shows is you can wind up getting a bunch of vendors, and crickets.

To me the best shows are the coastal ones, the ones in destination towns, where you have places to go and see other than a hotel or convention center. And Asbury Park is a destination town…you’ve got the boardwalk and the beach a block away from the Lanes; all the other shops and restaurants. On Saturday it’s gonna be 80 degrees, the sun will be shining…spring has sprung, right? And they’re gonna line up at the door. We’ve sold out the online admissions, the ones that get to come in when the doors open.

We’ll have more tickets at the door at 11am. Mike and Ming from Secret Stash will be there, doing the podcast from the show, but I should mention that Walt Flanagan won’t be there like we originally announced. He’ll actually be in Red Bank…somebody’s got to run the store!

So how did you settle on the Lanes as your venue of choice?

It was accidental at first…I walked in there when they were doing one of their record fairs; I was watching people go through the boxes of records and I got to thinking, what else do people spend hours looking through boxes for? Comics of course. Rob and I got a price from the Lanes that was very reasonable…and so the journey begins. We started promoting this thing just about a year ago.

And this represents, for both of you, your maiden voyage as a, what, show mogul? Impresario?

Promoter. Like I said, I’ve spent many hours working the shows…I did the San Diego show before it moved to the big convention center; when it was in the old crummy husk of a building. It was really fun; no celebrities, no movie people or anything like that.

I’ve done some of the bigger shows in various cities…it’s how I got to meet people like Evan and Sarah in the first place. They always work these events together, and when they came on board and agreed to do the Asbury Park show, things really started to come together for us at that point.

I saw Stan Lee once, at Hotel Sofitel when the Chicago show was going on…he was in his late seventies then; he’s almost 91 now. He comes out of this restaurant and he’s like…I can only describe it as power walking; just the speed at which he moves…and now, whenever he goes anywhere at all people surround him; they just want to be near him, touch the hem of his garment or whatever.

I know you’ve had some choice observations to make about Stan Lee, especially as regards his relationship with Jack Kirby…maybe someday you and I can make time for a robust debate on this, but I absolutely credit Stan the Man with supercharging interest in comics to what it’s become today. More than anybody, I think he made us all cognizant of the people who made the comic books, and the evolution of something like “Bullpen Bulletins” was every bit as crucial as the introduction of an iconic character…

Sure! And there have been times when he couldn’t even bring himself to mention Kirby; like he couldn’t remember Kirby’s name. But seeing him in action was great, and seeing the way people gravitate toward him…you want to BE him!

Well, it’s probably not a bad time to be Cliff either…between you and Robert, it’s obvious that you guys live and breathe this stuff, and I’m looking forward to seeing what you have in store Saturday. 

We’re looking forward to seeing what’s in store ourselves. Who knows? For me, a comics show is a way for people to get together; to get a gang going and talk about the things that they love. It’s a celebration of the whole culture of comics…the people who go to these shows want it to be Halloween as often as possible.

It’s ‘the Circus comes to town!’ You have COSTUMES, you have FREAKS…and you have your death-defying acts of starting up a business; risking everything you’ve ever had!

Getting back to the San Diego event and what it’s become, it’s a freakshow of a different stripe anymore…it’s like Cannes for the movie business that makes movies people actually pay to see. Now that Hollywood and comics are so inextricably intertwined, do you think we’re fast approaching a saturation point with the comic book blockbusters? Is this like an Ultimate version of the housing bubble?

I don’t know, maybe it’ll all go away as fast as it came along…but for the most part we’re getting what we asked for. We wanted to see it on the screen, and right now. Sometimes it works out, like with Iron Man, and other times like with Green Lantern it doesn’t work so well.

People who don’t read comics, but who go to see these movies, think that comic books are the genre — but superheroes are a genre. Comics are literature. So many other movies have come from comics that people aren’t even aware of the source…Road to Perdition, American Splendor, the Daniel Clowes stuff like Art School Confidential, Ghost World.

One of the problems with the superhero movies is like whenever they do a Superman movie, they feel the need to explain all over again who Superman is, where he came from, who his parents are and all that. Same with Batman. You’d think by now that everyone in the audience is up to date on this stuff. Another problem is that when you deviate the slightest bit from the comic book, you catch shit from the fans — and when you make it as faithful as possible to the comic book, like they did with Watchmen, you get people telling you that it was too much the same as the comic; that there was no reason to pay to see it. So you can’t win a lot of times.

What I don’t get is why they insist on bringing back these outdated characters like The Green Hornet, The Shadow…characters from old radio or pulps, that don’t have any current sort of support or following. The Phantom, especially…what are we supposed to do about this guy, a white guy in the African jungle who wears a little black mask and a purple suit with a zebra stripe belt. Doesn’t he get hot running around like that?

I see a panel discussion on the topic, so hold that thought. And good luck with the one-day event at the Lanes, which I understand is a warmup to a possibly even bigger event in Asbury Park down the road… 

You can never be too far ahead…we’re definitely thinking of expanding the Comic Con to Convention Hall; we want to have 135 vendor tables someday, and we’ve already had two meetings with Madison Marquette. We got a good vibe from them, although they can’t commit right now to a date around this time next year, because of any future Bamboozle Festival. But it’s on to Convention Hall!

Admission to the Asbury Park Comic Con (additional tickets available at the door from 11am) are priced at $4.95, with kids under 12 admitted free of charge when accompanied by an adult. One dollar of each admission will be donated to the Hero Initiative — the nonprofit established to help comic book creators and their families (read up on the subject and you’ll find that many of the folks who created lucrative and long-running properties were “work for hire” freelancers who never shared in the cash-cow royalties and licensing) facing medical expenses and other financial difficulties.