United Webcomics Interview
Michael Aston: Mike, I’m so sorry I took so long to get this started. i was called away for work, and things started to pile up in my absence at home. If your still happy to participate in the interview, we’ll follow the same format as the Dellheim interview: Where I’ll follow my notes and add additional questions dependent on your responses. Ok?
If you’re still willing to be interviewed, please start by telling us a little about yourself and your work.
Michael Balistreri: Hi, I’m Michael and I’m an alcoholic. Oh, this isn’t an AA meeting in the backroom of a Denny’s? And why does an anonymous organization make you start by stating your name anyway? But I digress..
Hi, I’m Michael and I’m not actually an alcoholic, though I wouldn’t blame you if you thought I was based on my comics’ seemingly obsessive focus on drinking and alcoholism. I started drawing comics for the web way back in my senior year of high school in the ancient era of 2001. The idea of a fundamentally flawed superhero who struggles with controlling his personal demons was what really compelled me to draw and attempt to tell a story.
Making an online comic book was the latest in a string of collaborations with my best friend, Alex Siquig, and it has been the one that has endured over the years when we lost interest in our other ventures. He likes to write and I like to draw, so it is a perfect match.
A little more about me… I live in sunny San Jose, CA with my lovely wife and two young kids. We just bought our first minivan yesterday, so obviously I’m a pretty cool dude. I attended UC Berkeley, where I got my degree in film, which I used to get a job filming all manner of cool things at Google (Want some examples? An interview with Barack Obama, a live cartoon demonstration by Seth MacFarlane, a rap video with Too $hort, the launch of Google Chrome, etc.). Once my contract was up I jumped into internet marketing, which is what I still currently do to pay my bills.
Deep down I’m just a big kid who enjoys drawing and thinks he’s kind of funny, so I do my best to entertain myself and hope that spreads to my readers as well.
Michael Aston: Whoa, let’s back up a second here, you met the big O? Is he as smooth as he seems in public, or does he slap his staff around as soon as the cameras are off?
Michael Balistreri: He’s a smooth talking man with a plan. It was during the election, shortly after he was chosen as the democratic representative in the primaries, so he was in full rock star mode. A very pleasant and cordial man. The beatings were minimal.
Security was pretty insane. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The only comparable experience I’ve had was an interview I worked on with Henry Kissinger and Eric Schmidt. Now that was fun. A couple of freaks there. A very funny awkward moment where they both wanted the same chair. Eric is a real creature of habit, while Kissinger is deaf in one ear, so it was a funny struggle.
Ralph Nader on the other hand…Very little fanfare or security for that wannabe President. Though he was very giving with the beatings. When a coworker asked him if he wanted a little powder on his face for his shine he replied with a growl “I don’t wear that shit!” He didn’t fare better in the election I’ll never know…
Michael Aston: Haha! Brilliant. I’m British myself, we don’t instil our politicians with personalities, they’re all identikit public schoolboys. The last one we had with any charisma was Guy Fawkes, and things didn’t work out too well for him. That’s quite an interesting career you have there. How did you wind up in Bill Hick’ favourite profession?
Michael Balistreri: Once my cool gig at Google came to an end I found myself sort of floundering in a competitive job market, as video production jobs are somewhat hard to come by even in good times. My uncle, who I’ve worked with on and off since I was a young teen, had been doing internet consulting for a couple car dealerships and needed help with some of the more technical stuff. Being somewhat of a nerd I had been playing around with my own websites for years, so I had the skills he needed.
It was supposed to be a temporary thing until I found a real job, but I had no luck getting anything. It is just really hard to find anything with so many people being unemployed, companies are flooded with applicants and can really choose overly qualified people for positions. I think this is even more true with all the high tech companies here in the Bay Area. Luckily for me things with my uncle took off. He was able to start offering a lot more services and my skills leaned more toward marketing, which was more in demand than consulting anyways, so suddenly we had a bunch of clients using us for internet marketing and I had employees working under me and it was a real company. Here I am four and a half years later still making a living with it.
Does helping people sell stuff online fulfill my creative dreams? Not so much, but there are definitely worse ways to make a living. Hell, I spend most of my time these days working from my couch!
Michael Aston: I have to say, I’m jealous. I have to drive to work every morning, I’d love a commute from the breakfast table to the couch. Lets talk a little about those “creative dreams”, Black Snow: Two Drink Minimum, reads like a noir crossed with a superhero parody, two genre that shouldn’t necessarily fit yet you make it work.
Michael Balistreri: Well, I try to make it work at least! Hopefully it does. I think the key is that it is not a traditional comic in any sense, so it doesn’t stick too slavishly to the conventions of any one genre. Aesthetically I am really going for that noir look mixed with some of the traditional trappings of superhero stories. As a film buff I just love noir. There is something incredibly distinctive and magical about it, giving those films an almost other worldly quality. And as a cultural geek I’ve always loved superheroes. Not necessarily superhero comic books, but moreso the general concepts of a superhero and the other mediums those comics have inspired.
To me the two genres are a natural fit. It was never about emulating anything in particular, but more about trying to come up with something unique and original. It’s about telling a story, so whatever that necessitates becomes a part of it. I would say it has a pretty nice mixture of elements, including drama, romance, a little horror and a healthy dose of comedy.
The goal wasn’t to tell a superhero story, but rather a story about people. Some of them just happen to be superheroes and villains. My favorite part of that has always been showing these types of flashy characters in between the normally depicted exciting moments, but more focused on the mundane everyday moments that they would have to deal with.
I also feel noir is particularly appropriate to this story given our heavy emphasis on the Detroit setting. We try to make the city almost like another character in the comic, and I think noir is a great way to represent it. There is the more obvious “urban” or “street” approach, but I don’t really think that projects the image of the city appropriately. Noir is my way of representing the feelings that the city can inspire and kind of making it larger than life.
Plus I think black and white comics are just beautiful. Originally with our older comics, it was more out of necessity because of a lack of knowledge and resources to do color, but overtime it became something of a theme and a choice.
Michael Aston: I totally agree, there’s something… romantic about black and white in general, be it cinema, comic book, or otherwise. In contrast going full colour for I’m Famous gives the comic it’s own style, and certainly reflects the more bombastic character, Lone Wolf.
Michael Balistreri: Yeah, if anything I think I’m Famous! could do with more color and flash. The Lone Wolf is basically a cartoon character who craves attention, so I imagine him to want as much glitz and glamor as possible. A review once called him the most obnoxious character they’ve ever seen, so that’s something to be proud of.
I’m Famous! is really a whole different beast. While Black Snow is about the subtlety and nuance of storytelling I’m Famous! is focused almost entirely on whacky shenanigans and humor. It’s there to make you laugh, so if it is your kind of dry wit you should enjoy it. If not, well then the comic is probably not going to entertain you.
While it is fairly strange comedy I think it has pretty broad appeal. As long as you aren’t hung up on really traditional comic strips and looking for obvious punchlines you’ll have some fun reading it.
As far as story, it’s pretty minimal. This eccentric egomaniac superhero wants to make a huge Hollywood film based on his life, and he’s got enough clout and popularity that people do what he wants. That’s the premise and that’s basically the story. There is really not much you have to know beyond that. The characters are based off our original Black Snow comic books (Two Drink Minimum is a reboot for the series), so there is more backstory if you want it, but it shouldn’t be necessary.
As a joke we’ve been planting the seeds for a much larger, more epic story involving the ghost of Rasputin, so someday that may play out more, but it’s definitely more of an aside. But yeah, I think I’m Famous! needs to be done in full glorious color.
Michael Aston: I think it would make a pretty good mockumentary, with all the reality t.v around these days, there’s definitely room for a egomaniacal superhero on the path to Hollywood glory.
Michael Balistreri: I’ve had a lot of people compare it to a sitcom in the past, which I feel is pretty apt, but a mockumentary would actually be dead on. I could see something really funny in the vein of Borat where people aren’t in on it, or maybe something based off of improv à la Curb Your Enthusiasm or Spinal Tap.
With my interest in film I’ve been told my comics often have a storyboard-like quality, and I think my knowledge in that field has been pretty impactful on my work. I never took any kind of formal class on making comics and I didn’t really grow up reading comic books. I did grow reading comic strips, but what really hooked me was cartoons. That was my dream as a kid, to be a cartoonist, and it is still sort of a dream.
I’d love to see one of my comics animated. Originally I really wanted to have a Saturday morning cartoon, but those barely seem to exist now. Plus my content is a little too risque for that. Maybe. Who knows, cartoons these days seem to get away with a lot. I could see Adult Swim being a real fit though. Or maybe even something like IFC or HBO.
At one point I really thought it would be funny to make a Saturday morning cartoon style issue of Black Snow, where everything was censored and dumbed down. They’d drink milkshakes instead of beer, the Anti-Nazi would be an Anti-Clown, etc. The idea still makes me laugh, actually. I also had an idea to do an issue like a sitcom, with a really formulaic plot and audience laugh track.
I really do find the connection between comics and film as visual storytelling mediums to be fascinating, and have tried to play with it in the past. I once drew a scene from Fargo and worked it into my comic with still frame exactness. I presented it in a film class at UC Berkeley along with the Sin City movie and graphic novel to show how they can mirror each other. The explosion of comic book based movies over the last decade or so has been pretty good proof of how well they merge.
I’m really interested in animated comics as well. They are really cool, but it seems like too much work for me to really jump into at this point. I made a rudimentary motion comic at my junior college based in flash that was more like a point and click adventure game than anything else. It was a hell of a lot of work, but I think things like that have potential.
Michael Aston: Well if you get round to writing that sitcom, be sure to put in plenty of canned laughter, and make sure someone learns an important life changing moral lesson within the twenty minute time span! You mentioned that you didn’t really read comic books as a child, I did, all throughout my adolescence, and a bit too far into my adulthood too, as such it has always been my aspiration to work, at least for a time, in the printed comic book industry. At ComicCon in 2010 I attended J. Michael Straczynski’s (I think that’s spelt correctly) panel, it was at that moment I realized that I wanted that to be me up there some day, that is probably my highest aspiration as a writer. Saturday morning cartoons aside, what do you consider to be your ultimate goal in life? What do you want to be remembered for?
Michael Balistreri: That’s actually kind of a tough question that I periodically ask myself, as my goals tend to shift over time. Originally my goal was to be rich and famous, and that was the heart of my motivations. Part of the reason I enjoy the Lone Wolf so much is that he kind of represents my unbridled id.
If I’m totally honest, money and fame is still a driving force, I’ve just learned to accept that they are unlikely to ever come to fruition. That being said, my new goal is just to entertain. I really just want to give people enjoyment.
Of course I’m not totally some selfless saint, I want to get some appreciation back. I want to know that I’ve developed a decent following of fans.
Basically I just want to feel successful and to quell my insecurities. To somehow feel validated for spending so much time drawing silly little pictures.
I’ve had little tastes of that over the years, like getting to know a few loyal fans, selling books at conventions, winning a few minor awards, receiving some positive reviews and having up and coming artists look to me as some sort of mentor. All that stuff is great and makes it feel worthwhile.
I’d really like to experience that on a larger scale, and on a more regular basis. I tend to live in a state of low self esteem, so it is hard for me to really accept that I’ve achieved much, so I guess I’m just searching for that magical, irrefutable proof that I’ve “made it.”
As far as what I want to be remembered for, or some kind of legacy…Hell, I’ll settle for just being remembered! If I could choose I suppose I’d like to be looked back on for being a decent artist with a unique style, a biting dry wit and an undeniable edge.
Michael Aston: I appreciate the honesty, most webcomic creators wouldn’t admit to wanting the fame, and money. Me? Shit I’d sell out in a heartbeat. Thank you for your time Michael, is there anything you’d like to add before I let you go?
Michael Balistreri: Thanks for taking the time to get know know a bit about me and my comics.
To anyone reading this that has not checked out any of my stuff…well, please take a little time to see what it’s all about at https://blacksnowcomic.com/ and if by some off chance you actually happen to enjoy it give me a shout out and let me know. Words of encouragement are much appreciated, and I’m easy to get a hold of.
If you are someone important and like my stuff, then definitely reach out to me and help me out. I’m not too proud to beg!
If you don’t like my comics…keep it to yourself! Of course I kid, criticism is always welcome as well. I just might hate you for it.
I prefer to think you are reading this years from now and I’ve long since become a megastar in the industry, and you are just salivating over every little insight into my genius. And if that is indeed the case, I’ll conclude with my traditional closing…