BEHIND THE ART: Michael Balistreri & Alex Siquiq, creators of Black Snow and I’m Famous!

Black Snow ComicsFollow the artist on (links): Comic Panda / Facebook / TwitterTell us a little bit about yourself, Michael.My full name is Michael Joseph Balistreri Jr. Being a junior I’ve always gone by Michael and my dad is Mike. In case you were wondering, being a junior is a pain. Give your kid their own name, dammit!  I’ve had many nicknames over the years, some of which I’d like to forget! The two that have stuck are Hawaiian Mike and alternately Pirate Mike. Why? If you have to ask you’ll never know.I’m born and raised in San Jose, CA and the only time I’ve lived elsewhere was while I attended UC Berkeley. Go Bears! If you don’t know San Jose just think of every large internet company you’ve ever heard of and it’s probably around here.With Alex at APEGo Bears! And of course, Tapas Media is located in San Jose, CA! Sorry, go on…

While I’d love to tell you that drawing comics pays my bills, I am in truth an internet marketer in a small family business which caters primarily to car dealerships. It’s a nice niche because they usually know nothing about the internet.

A few interesting facts about my legendary self:  I broke my leg on a boulder while white water rafting on my birthday. While contracting at Google I helped film an interview the soon to be President Obama. Despite being the whitest man in the world I’ve appeared in a rap video and worked with artists like Too $hort. My distinctive swagger is because one of my legs is shorter (and crooked) than the other.

LOL. And you, Alex?

I was born with the name Alexander Cesario Siquig, which is pretty dignified, in an unpleasant to say aloud sort of way. No one except one person who is now dead ever called me Alexander with any consistency. I’ve always been an Alex. When I get drunk and act stupid and annoying I am sometimes referred to as Balex, which is an exceedingly clever portmanteau of “bad” and “Alex”.

My main occupation is being Michael’s sidekick in most endeavors and his equal in a few.

When did your interest in webcomics begin?

Michael: I grew up reading comic strips like The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes and I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. However, I did not draw my first actual comic until I was a senior in high school in 2001. Alex and I had recently been in a faux history themed punk rock band, Taft’s Brigade, which was really just fake persona’s we created for the web (think a teenage, internet based Spinal Tap).  During that project I learned how to make websites, so as soon as we started working on Black Snow I put it online. It was a free GeoCities site and I had not really heard of webcomics yet, I just thought it would be a cool way to share our work. It wasn’t until several years later that I really learned about the webcomic community and made any effort to become part of it. Up until then I was just a nerd with some coding skills who liked to draw. Wait, I still am!

I didn’t get really serious about creating content on a regular basis until a few years after graduating college. Up until that point it had really been pretty sporadic with large breaks, but I realized it was something I loved and was going to do and I’ve never looked back.

Mystery MenSome of the artists who’ve really influenced me over the years are Bill Waterson, Gary Larson, Mike Mignola, Frank Miller and Steve Ditko. We were first inspired to create a comic after seeing the film Mystery Men, and I was specifically trying to create something in the vein of The Tick and Space Ghost, which were my favorite comic book/superhero related things up until that point. Along the way I’ve also been directly inspired by Scud: The Disposable Assassin, Hawaiian Dick, Hellboy, The Maxx, Spider-man and Batman.

My favorite thing about working in webcomics is the social aspect, as it’s really fun to meet new people. It feels really nice when a fan expresses appreciation for my effort, and I really enjoy the comradery that exists with fellow creators. It’s allowed me to make new friends all around the world.

Alex: I’ve always been into comics, and as soon as Al Gore invented the Internet I had a cursory interest in anything that seemed different or new. The medium has really exploded in a very egalitarian way in the last few years. Everyone has a web comic. Everyone is a DJ. I think this is both good and bad but on the whole good, because at least there’s a place you can plant your flag and shout your paneled nonsense to the world.

Get Your War OnThe first web comic that really stroked my fire was probably Get Your War On, which was basically just erudite foul-mouthed clip art that was a response to the jingoistic ramblings and maneuverings of the Bush Administration, specifically during his first term. That web-comics could be a source of scalpel sharp social commentary was an excellent reminder that PUNK IS NOT DEAD, bro…

The one web comic that I think has truly inspired me to be a better person would have to be Achewood, an incredibly charming tale of two best friends, a feisty dim witted but big hearted millionaire named Ray and a perpetually depressed computer programmer named Roast Beef. Ray and Roast Beef are cats. It is the realest, rawest, funniest, but mostly weirdest thing I’ve ever read. Or at least it was until it took a Simpsons post Season 10 type dive. Still worth reading and chuckling though, Alex said, meaningfully.

I think Michael and I realized that many web comics completely sucked and decided to throw our respective hats in the ring. In all fairness there are plenty of people that think our comics completely suck, so the Circle of Life continues.

How did you two meet and begin working together?

Michael: I met Alex at summer camp when I was 12 years old (on a side note, I also met my wife there!). I was friends with Alex’s cousin (who taught me all about Weird Al), who introduced us. We clicked very quickly, largely based on our similar sense of humor and penchant for mocking anything and everything around us. We were a couple of snarky teens who felt the need to remark on the stupidity of the world around us, which occasionally got us into trouble.

We were both pretty creative guys and tried all sorts of things: acting in short films and sketch comedies, writing short fictional stories, attempting to start a band, etc.  Alex grew up reading comic books and was a lot more familiar with them than I, but I liked to draw and we both thought it would be fun to make one. So we promptly wrote the first issue of Black Snow (in the year 2000 I believe), then like true slacker teens we didn’t do anything with it.

early Black Snow sketches

About a year later after watching The Tick’s short-lived live action TV show and writing/acting in a funny short film about superheroes, I remembered that we wrote a superhero comic book and thought I should probably start drawing it. Luckily we had misplaced our terrible first draft, so we rewrote a slightly less terrible version, and then I got drawing. Once I finished the book I knew it would be a huge success, and fame and fortune would be ours. I was not very bright.

Rowdy Roddy Piper No FearAlex: Michael’s take on our meeting is pretty spot on. Or is his story a lie? Let me tell you what really happened. There I was, the most popular kid at summer camp, being waited on hand and foot alike by nubile young ladies. I had the coolest No Fear shirts, loved listening to the Offspring, and was fairly decent at drawing the STUSSY “S” which all contributed to my insane popularity. Michael was a kid from the other side of the tracks. He wore rags and his face was dirt-smeared, but there was still a dignity to him, a propensity for laughter, a twinkle of mischief in his black eyes. As it happened we were both standing next to a pair of doors and started opening them for adults, all the while silently mocking people for pretty asinine reasons. Eventually we watched Mystery Men and decided to make a comic book pretty much devoted to making jokes about Mystery Men. It’s a good thing Michael can draw, and a good thing I can pretend I can write.

Describe your personal style(s) as a webcomic artist and as a writer.

Michael: I have very little academic drawing experience, so I try to learn from everything I do as I do it. I honestly don’t think I know what I’m doing a lot of the time, so I just try stuff and see if it works. I think almost everything in my life influences what I draw in some way, as I try to take inspiration from everything. I also think my background in film has a heavy influence on the way I envision things.  When I help with the writing I sometimes picture the story playing out as a movie first, then try to translate it to a comic later.

My style is constantly changing and evolving. It’s very inconsistent. The most important thing to me is to create a strong sense of mood. I really just want to convey a feeling and stir something in the reader. Usually it’s a laugh I’m going for, but I like to try to go beyond that and tap into all the emotions when appropriate. Sometimes that means drawing silly cartoons, traditional looking comic books or more photorealistic depictions. I’ve always really like minimal and expressionist art, and I try to incorporate some of those principles in my stuff as well.

Going to digital a few years ago had a lot of impact on my art as well. The template is a completely different world from the old pen and paper. I don’t think I’ll ever settle on one really specific style, as I’d probably get bored. Part of the fun is constantly challenging myself. So although it’s inconsistent, it’s also very personal and has some distinct things that are unique to my art.)

Alex: My chief influence for I’m Famous is a combination of my id and my super-ego. Anything to push the level of surreal annoyance on the world at large.

For Black Snow I think we’re aiming for a classic super-hero story with inspiration from things as varied as Seinfeld and of course Mystery Men. The first issue of the original run of Black Snow was 90% Mystery Men Jokes, 5% Joker rip-off, and some guys hanging out at a bar. Typical.

Black Snow Comics titles

Tell us about your current projects available on Comic Panda.

Michael: We have two title, Black Snow and I’m Famous!, which are both based on our earlier work in making comic books.

I’m Famous! is an over-the-top wild ride exploring the world of pop culture, celebrity and Hollywood from the insane perspective of the Lone Wolf, Detroit’s greatest superhero. I think he is pretty manic depressive, prone to extreme moods shifts and incredible flights of fancy. He is basically a lunatic and finds himself in this position of power over everyone around him that wants to turn his autobiography into a blockbuster movie. It’s an ongoing comic strip that is a bright, colorful comedy that has fun tearing down all the glitz and glamour of the movie star world.

In stark contrast, Black Snow: Two Drink Minimum is a black and white graphic novel that focuses on the dark side of trying to be a superhero in the ghettos of Detroit, and not really knowing what you are doing. Black Snow is a broken down old alcoholic wannabe superhero who has just never managed to achieve any sort of success, and now finds himself drawn into a plot which is truly over his head.  It’s something of a modern day noir, and there’s definitely some dark comedy mixed with a healthy dose of drama. I like to think it is a very unique story that takes a look at what it means to be a superhero from some new perspectives.

I like being able to work on both comics because they allow me to work on two very different extremes. I’m Famous! Is very easy for anyone to access and enjoy, especially if they enjoy dry wit and absurd humor. Black Snow takes a bit more investment to truly appreciate. It’s not something you want to casually jump in and out of, because you’ll appreciate it a lot more of you follow it closely.

Alex: Our current projects could not be further apart in tone and story-telling. Well, they could be…What I like about I’m Famous is that it is a feast or famine type humor that more often than not completely ostracizes the audience and sends them into a wasteland of “what the hell…” despair. But on the other hand when they GET IT it is a wonderful feeling. It’s the old “would you rather make 20 people kind of laugh or 3 people laugh REALLY HARD?” and I think the latter has borne out as the preferred option. Two Drink Minimum is a little more universal. I think though it has the trappings of a super-hero/noir story it is mostly about friendship.

Okay…let’s talk about something other than comics for a bit. What else do you like to do for fun?

Michael with sonMichael: I’m a dad, so that’s a full time job which takes up lot of my time. When I do get some leisure time I like to explore my other interests. I love exotic pets, especially lizards, and for the last few years I’ve been breeding crested geckos. I’m also into the paranormal, and spend some time researching and looking for things like ghosts. I also enjoy studying American history, reading comedic novels, learning about true crimes and vegging out to movies, tv shows and videogames. I’m fairly anti-social really, and usually stick to my family or a small circle of friends.

Alex: I like to shoot baskets endlessly and even make a few. I like to drive around and get lost at night. I like to read about long finished wars and which kings were boning down with which ladies in waiting. I like making short films and listening to the same song over and over again.

If you have one day to live, what would you do? What would be your last meal?

Michael: The honest answer is that I’d probably dwell on regrets until the end came. The more idealized answer is I’d spend quality time with my loved ones preparing for the inevitable.

Probably the more fun answer would be that I’d go totally insane. I’d finally try some drugs (someone I’ve made it this long totally drug free), get very drunk, eat all those sugary sweets that make me so sick, kill someone, bang some hot chicks, and just totally give into inhibition. If there is such a thing as heaven and hell I’m pretty sure I know which way I’m headed, so it’d be nice to have some fun on the way out.

Alex: I would probably eat some of dad’s spaghetti and watch all six seasons of LOST. That would probably prepare me for the afterlife sufficiently.

LostQ: What is your pet peeve?

Michael: People. Everyone is just so stupid it drives me crazy. In all honesty it would be very difficult for me to narrow it down to only one or two things. I get angered by a wide variety of things. I suppose ignorance and rudeness are the main unifying factors amongst the many things that set me off.

Alex: My pet peeve is girls who hate cats. Ugh, get real ladies. I also don’t like when people say “supposably” or anyone who describes their self as “random”. Oh man, I do not like that one bit! I guess most of my pet peeves are pretty valid and not at all dumb.

In ten years, I would be…

Michael: Rich and Famous!  Much loved for my comics and making enough money that I don’t have to do anything else. If I could just draw for a living and earn enough money to support my family comfortably, well, I think I’d be a very happy man.

Alex: It would be nice to not be too fat. Being able to write for a living and have my sweet lady to take walks with. Come home to cats. Watching LOST.

Going back to comics… Let’s say that you can travel to any world that exists only in comics. Where would it be?

Calvin and Hobbes

Michael: I’d love to live in the world of Calvin and Hobbes.  It’s a beautiful land of childhood imagination, philosophical examination, wondrous natural beauty and the ability to turn the banality of life into the extraordinary.

Alex: I don’t know.

Garfield Minus GarfieldWhat are your favorite webcomics / webtoons other than your own?

Michael: I enjoy Back Office by my friend Mark Egan in Oslo, Norway.  Becoming friends with someone halfway around the world based on our mutual love of creating comics has been one of the more exciting experiences I’ve had making webcomics.

I also enjoy Garfield Minus Garfield for the incredibly funny way it subverts one of my childhood favorites. I thought Three People Get It was really funny, but I’m not sure if Brian is still active.  After the Dream is one of the better looking and more interesting webcomics out there.

Alex: I will echo Michael once again, Garfield Minus Garfield is pure subversive genius. And to continue the echo I will also shout out Mark Egan, who has sublime joie de vivre and a real sense of the funny. There is also the aforementioned work of David Rees, whose credits also include Adventures of Confessions of St. Augustine Bear which is just as dumb and great as it sounds. An example of the dumbness and greatness: Click Here.

Alex at Big Wow ComicFest

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