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LITSCENE: TONY AND KRISTEN FROM MILLION YEAR PICNIC

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How long has Million Year Picnic been around?

Tony: It’s been around since March, 1974.

Wow.

Tony: Yeah, it’s the oldest comics specialty shop in New England. We’ve been doing a little checking, I think we may be the second oldest continuing store of our kind in the country. There’s another store in Eugene, Oregon that I think is a new months older. But most of the other old comic book stores in the U.S. are a year or two younger.

What are your connections to comics and how did you get into them?

Tony: It’s funny. I think I started reading comics as part of a routine of going to the barber shop, so I’d go to Connie’s Barber Shop in Los Angeles, and we’d go on a Saturday, and it’s a busy day, so it might take an hour before you could actually get to a chair. The guys are talking sports and stuff, and we would stop at the little corner drugstore a few doors down from Connie’s, and I was reading the Carl Barks stuff, Uncle Scrooge primarily, but that’s what I really started reading when I was six or seven, when I was first getting into comics.

Do you also write and draw them, or is it just primarily reading?

Tony: Just a reader. Never had the talent to write and draw.

Kristen, how long have you been working here for?

Kristen: Two years! Two glorious years.

How did you get into comics?

Kristen: I have been writing and drawing and putting those two things together pretty much since I could write and draw,

I just didn’t realize that I was doing comics until that was pointed out to me in fifth, sixth grade, something like that, and I started really doing them in a serious way my senior year of high school when I did a senior thesis about comics.

Did you write a paper about comics, or was it more hands on, like writing a comic?

Kristen: I did research, I made a comic from start to finish and published it, I had a mentor, I had an essential question guiding my research, and I had a community outreach project, where I contributed to my school’s library a number of comics that I thought they should have. My high school was pretty rigorous, so I made a comic, but it was more than that, too. Self publishing ever since! You can find my comics at this lovely store called the Million Year Picnic. You might have heard of it.

So what are some of the best and worst parts about both of your jobs, here?

Tony: As owner, the worst part is that sooner or later, it all falls on you, and particularly with a rocky economy, you carry the economic burden of good times, bad times. If something goes wrong, if there’s an emergency, you’re always the person of last resort.

The good thing is just the relationships. This has been in the community for a long time.

 I’ve been working here, I’ve been part of the Picnic since 1983, so there are a lot of people that I’ve known through the years, customers, co-workers, neighbors, and I think that the great thing is feeling like you’re part of an extended community.

As cliché as it is, the TV show Cheers, you form a community sometimes. We’ve got our regular customers, sometimes there’s a particular routine—which people you’re going to talk comics with on a Tuesday, and who you’re going to talk baseball with on a Wednesday, who you’re going to talk politics with on a Friday. You’re always meeting great people, interesting new people, and you try and avoid the pitfall, and the pitfall is, maybe you interact with fifty, seventy-five, a hundred people in the day, and the one or two negative interactions dominate your day. What you really have to do is emphasize what’s really positive about all the people you come in contact with.

From a comic book specific point of view, the thrill of hoping that any given day, you’re going to see something you have’t seen before.

As long as I’ve been doing this, still, sometimes people will bring on things, or I’ll go out to look at a collection of, and I’ll see a bunch of books from the 1940s or 1950s that I’ve never seen, before. Or, somebody will walk through the door with a brand new mini-comic they’ve done, and it’d be great. You’d look at it, and the art will jump off the page, the story will be engaging. Those are the particular thrills of being in a comic book store.

Kristen, how about you?

Kristen: Pretty much the same things, I guess, just on a more workerly scale. I’m gonna say, my co-workers are amazing.

How many co-workers do you have?

Kristen: There’s us.

Tony: Not enough.

Kristen: Craig, Kelly, Adam. There’s five of us running the entire shop.

Tony: And Mike.

Kristen: And Mike. I always forget, because he’s here on Fridays and I’m usually not here on Fridays. Anyways, they’re all great people, and then, extending that out, the comic book community in general is incredibly welcoming. That goes for people who are just starting, banding together, commenting on each other’s stuff, trying to help each other. They’re always trying to help each other, up to professionals, who will take a moment of their extremely busy, busy day to try and give you a leg up, and try and help you. Wanna tell stories?

Tony: Sure, it depends upon the story.

Kristen: They’re good stories.

Tony: Okay.

Kristen: For example, we had John Porcellino come in and sign here. He does King Cat comics, and he’s been self-publishing for twenty years? Something like that?

Tony: Yeah.

Kristen: Seventy-nine issues, so far? Might want to check me on that, but anyways, he’s been doing this, I mean basically for as long as I’ve been alive. When he came here, he sat down with me and I asked him how does one make this into a job, how does one get into distribution, all that, and even though he was here for a signing, and here for business, and here for a million other things, I was just the shop girl. He put time and thought and effort into his answers, and gave me his business card, and said, “if you ever have more questions, contact me.” That’s awesome. And that’s just one of so, so many people who have reached out to just me. So, if you multiply that by how many other people are in my position, and how many other people have reached out to those people,

it’s just an amazing, connected and friendly community. I’ve never seen a comic book artist ever try to short change or cut down another comic book artist. I think that speaks for something.

The downside is how much comics do not, and cannot, pay. Right now, I work here and I’m self-publishing my own comics. From all of my self-publishing exploits, I might have made a hundred, two hundred dollars since 2007. So you can imagine why I would need another job. Given the economy, and given how luxuries are one of the first things to go, although comic books are amazing, they are a luxury item, so, in this economy, it’s hard to keep everything moving.

Is there anything that you guys do for Free Comic Book Day? Are you doing anything special this year, have you done anything special in previous years?

Kristen: Yes, why yes. Every year, we have groups of artists and writers and comic book creators come in and, all day, we will have signings, free food, soda, and free comics, of course, main event. We’ve had those the past two years, and this year, as well.

I know that The Avengers is coming out, the movie, so do you have anything planned?

Kristen: It’s coming out the day before.

Yeah.

Kristen: We don’t have anything…

Tony: We’re supposed to be an Avengers party store, and I’m not quite sure what that entails. We signed up for something, and we had to choose whether we’re going to be an Avengers store, or an X-Men store, and we chose to be an Avengers store, so I haven’t quite decided ….I  do know somebody who’s going to be writing astonishing X-Men, so it would have been perfect for being an X-Men store, but…

Kristen: We can just bring them in and be like, “hey, we’re crossing sides, look at us!”

Tony: Or, even better, bring her in. She’s Marjorie Liu, who used to write X 23. I think she’s moving to Astonishing X-Men.

Who was the writer?

Tony: Marjorie Liu. I’m planning to do something else at some point soon, but I haven’t quite figured out what that’s gonna be. It’s funny. I haven’t seen much of the fallout from the mainstream superhero movies, economically. I do see on a higher end, that people are selling Tales of Suspense, which is the comic book Iron Man was in, Journey Into Mystery, selling those old issues from the 60s, yes, the movies have bumped the back issue market up. I haven’t necessarily seen enormous sales benefit to new comics, and new graphic novels. The things like Watchmen, or V for Vendetta, where I think that people have been told that the source material, the original material was really interesting and compelling, and then that’s sometimes more compelling than the movies.

I think that with things like The Avengers, you’ll see the movie, a thing in and of itself, and it’s kind of hard to look at an Avengers movie, or a Hulk movie, or a Thor movie, and say that it came from this one book, or this one story arc.

Usually, those movies are an amalgamation of a bunch of different things from thirty or forty years of continuity, sprinkled with some new ideas. I don’t think those have driven sales as much as, even a movie like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which made, I think, nothing at the box office, sold an incredible number of copies of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Or the same with From Hell. All of those are Alan Moore books.

Kristen: Maybe it’s the Alan Moore effect!

Tony: Sin City, Hellboy, those things, I think, saw more sales just because people were able to go, “okay, it’s these two or three books that he’s based upon” and the books have such a great reputation. Certainly, I think the quality and inventiveness of a lot of mainstream comics is certainly a lot greater than it was twenty years ago. I’ve really been able to, from coming into fandom, to working in a store, to being a buyer for a store, to owning a store,

it’s a total shift in the emphasis being placed on who draws the book, to the emphasis really being placed on a generation of really good comic writers.

I think that even now, DC did their new 52, their relaunch, that I think for me, when I was looking at the creative teams, the question was “who are the writers they’ve got coming in to do these books, whereas, when I first started buying comics, you can even pick up a price guide now, and you flip into the guide, the bottom of say, the listing for Avengers, all of these are artists of note. They tell you which issues Jack Kirby drew, which issues Terry Austin inked. You’re not gonna see anything down here that says “by the way, Alan Moore wrote these issues” or “Jack Stanley wrote these issues.” It was all about who drew the books. Now, if you said “there’s a brand new Warren Ellis book coming out”, it’s because Warren Ellis is the writer. Whoever’s drawing the brand new Warren Ellis book, sometimes it’s almost an afterthought. It’s great when they put him together with a good artist, but really, the comics of the last eight to ten years, I think, starting with Alan Moore and continuing with Neil Gaiman, now with an explosion of good American writers, and also a ton of great writers from the UK, that’s really changed the dynamic of the comic book industry, and the dynamic of running a comic book shop.

How does it change the dynamic of running a comic book shop?

Tony: In terms of what I’m looking at buying and how I’m organizing my store, I’m putting together books not just by publisher, not just by character, but I’m creating sections of books—particularly in the mainstream—based upon who wrote the books. In the world of underground comics, it’s always been different. People tend to both write and draw their comics. There isn’t this delineation of jobs that exists. In Europe, it’s a mixture of the two. You’ve got people like Hugo Pratt, who wrote and drew his books, and you’ve got people like Moebius, who for the most part draws a lot of his stuff while working in collaboration with other people. In America, in the mainstream and the underground, you have this difference, where you get a few people, like Frank Miller, who wrote and drew, and you can go back to Jack Kirby, but for the most part, a lot of mainstream cartoons chose to do one role or the other.

It’s even interesting seeing some people, like Bill Willingham, who started off as a guy who wrote and drew comics, and, as he got older, became a guy who just writes comics.

He writes Fables, which is a very popular Vertigo title. But when I first saw Bill Willingham, he was doing a book called The Elementals, and it was a superhero book that he drew. Ed Brubaker, who’s another fantastic writer who does, right now—Captain America, Criminal, a really fun run on Daredevil—this is a guy who’s very obviously crime/film noire influenced. When I first saw Ed Brubaker’s work, he was an underground cartoonist doing a book called Lowlife, that he wrote and drew, and so Ed Brubaker as a cartoonist, that person seems to no longer exist. Brubaker’s purely a comic writer. Part of that is, sort of, the system, when you start working for Marvel or DC…Brian Bendis, one of Marvel’s top writers, the first two or three things he did were crime books, Jinx, and those were books that he wrote and drew. And somehow, they were never going to draw well enough, probably, to be given a major superhero book, but it was their writing that made them catch the attention of publishers.

Kristen: Do you want me to do the quick and dirty manga version?

Sure, why not?

Kristen:

It is my understanding that manga are supposedly written and created by one creator, but they have a number of assistants working under them if the manga gets popular enough.

For example, Eriichiro Oda, who is the creator of One Piece, writes, draws, creates all the characters, creates the storylines, etc. Since he’s so popular, and he has to put out something like between forty to ninety pages a month, as opposed to the American—twenty-four. He’ll have a whole studio working under him. If you’re just starting out as a manga artist, it’s just you making all of those pages until you show that you’re stock is worth something, and they will put people on you.

Tony: When I first started doing manga comics, there was one guy I really loved, Ikegami, and I love the fact that Ikegami combined the cartooniness of Japanese characters with photorealistic cityscapes, automobiles, and impressionistic foliage. Later on, I realized that those were probably different people, that it’s not one guy drawing this wide variety of styles. There probably is someone who draws the cars and the buildings, and there’s probably somebody who draws the trees and the bushes, and that maybe he’s doing the figure drawing. And he’s laying everything out, but he’s got assistants who are doing finishes.

And even Tintin, by Herge, Herge had a studio. He once held a book up six months because there was an assistant who was supposed to draw a trashcan in a scene set in Asia, and the assistant couldn’t get photo reference for it. He refused to do it until they could get photo reference for an authentic Japanese trashcan. In fact, there was this great story, this Austrian comic book that Herge, at a certain point, decided he had enough Tintin, he wanted to retire, and that he called his staff together and said, “I’m going to stop doing comic books. I’m headed to New York, I’m going to hang out with Andy Warhol.” He wanted to be around that thriving American art scene of the sixties. He leaves, and his assistants are terrified, because this is their life, this is what they know how to do, even the ones who are doing their own books. This was their security, so what they did was start a new Tintin adventure without him, did four, five pages, and then leaked it to the French press that there was a new Tintin book on the way. Herge’s in New York, and he finds out about this, and he’s got two choices: one of which is he can confirm to the world that, “I didn’t do this, these are my assistants. I don’t actually do all the Tintin.” Or, he could go back and finish the book.

 So, it’s blackmail.

Tony: Yeah, because they extorted his return, and finished the book, and went back to doing Tintin. I think he also made them destroy all the pages that they had done while he was not there to supervise, because they weren’t up to his standards.

Kristen: Although, of course, that being said, all of these are guidelines. There are a number of famous creators and famous studios that do not quite conform. For example, the manga studio Clamp is made up of, it changes, but about five people, and they are all each other’s assistants on their various projects, and they all share equal recognition.

So it’s more collaborative.

Kristen: Yeah.

Tony: Is it a collaborative of women, too?

Kristen: Yeah. Card Captor Sakura, Gray Earth, Tsubasa, a number of very famous, mostly, although not all, magical girl type things. And they have, the studio has a very distinctive style, even though it’s actually five people working together, so…

Tony: Will Eisner, who’s a legendary creator going back into the thirties or forties—

Kristen: Coined the term “graphic novel.”

Tony: His studio, the studio he ran back in the, the birth of comic books, publishers were setting up to create comic books, but they didn’t have creative staffs, so what they would do is farm it out, so

Will’s company would do these comics that were published by other companies, and he had it almost set up like a slave galley.

He would sit at a desk at the front of a room, and there’d be two rows of desks going back to the length of the room, and so he would come up with a plot outline, work with a couple of writers, and it would go down one row, and those were the pencilers. In the back, there would be the letterers, and they would letter in the captions and dialogue, and then the other tables would be the inkers, so the book would get inked coming back to Will.

And Jack Kirby, who worked at Marvel comics and created Captain America, Thor, Hulk, most of the major Marvel characters except for Spiderman, Kirby worked there.

Bob Kane, who created Batman, worked there. Will actually turned down Simon and Schuster, who did Superman, because he thought they weren’t good enough. All of these people who were great comic book creators got their start working in this studio.

So, did they enjoy it?

Tony: Probably not. Did they make really good money? Probably not. I mean, Bob Cane left Eisner’s studio because Eisner might have been paying him six dollars a page, and DC comics offered him nine dollars a page. If you could pencil two, three pages a day, making twenty-five, thirty dollars a day, back in the forties, that was great. Because it was freelance, you could do it from home, and you were doing something you wanted to do.

Kristen: Which very much sounds like the reality of self-publishing, today. You do it because you love it, and this is what you want to do.

Sometimes, you’ll make it, but sometimes, you do it because you love it.

Oh, the times have changed! Except they haven’t.

Tony: But the other thing is, you did it without benefits. You did it without vacations, without health coverage, without dental health, without pension.

So it was really a labor of love.

Tony: It took a real sense of discipline, in many ways, to be a freelance artist. It’s like the difference between being on a staff of a paper like the Dig, or being a freelancer, selling stories to a number of different magazines. There’s a certain level of freedom, but for that freedom, there’s a lack of security. In print, now, is there security anywhere?

Do you know of any new comics that are being released in the next couple of weeks or months that seem really interesting?

Kristen: Avengers versus X-Men? New 52 hardcovers? I want the next Atomic Robo and The Unwritten.

If you ever want to talk to people who love comics, stop by Million Year Picnic in Harvard Square. Both Kristen and Tony love to talk with customers, so don’t be shy about asking questions! They’re friendly and they’ll give you great recommendations (and, if others are in the store, you’ll probably end up talking to them, too.)

For more photos that Kristen has drawn of cats as comic book characters and other drawings, check out her blog, Life Imitates Comics, here.

[Million Year Picnic. 99 Mount Auburn St. #2 @myp_comics. themillionyearpicnic.com]

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