Founder and Editor in Chief for the Comic Blog Elite, self-publisher Matt Bergin also authors comic books and illustrated children’s books. Here he talks shop about this and that and the other thing.
Matt, where in the world exactly were you brought up? Would you say that the locale of your upbringing had any effect on your own aesthetic tastes, or are you the self-made man sort?
Where was I brought up, and what effect did it have on me, if any?
I was born and raised in the Bronx — Riverdale, New York, to be exact. And I never left! I have an apartment with my wife and two daughters in the same building I grew up in. I went to college locally while still living at home, and the few years I lived elsewhere, elsewhere was still only down the block, a two-digit difference on the address.
Perhaps growing up in the same place as Archie and Jughead has had some influence on my love of comics and sequential art. It is certainly one of those semi-true fun facts that makes for good conversation at the comic shop. (I say semi-true because Archie’s Riverdale is like the Simpsons’ Springfield, anywhere and everywhere. But it can be my Riverdale if I want it to be.)
Honestly, if anything about my hometown and upbringing have had an effect on my tastes and creative interests it would be the comfortable, safe, just-north-of-the-big-city locale giving me access to anything and everything imaginable without burying me in it, without forcing me into anything in particular. I have had the freedom to indulge my childish interests, to cultivate my immaturity, and to hone my nostalgia-based pop sensibilities by being a step removed from the NYC hustle and from some of the in-your-face hardship that, just a few blocks in either direction, might have turned me grim instead of grateful. I have had the leisure to be leisurely about my creative pursuits and to make sure I work on what I enjoy, that I make things I would want, and to not allow the pressure to succeed get in the way of my trying. Not that I have had tremendous success doing this or have been prolific in these pursuits (maybe just a little less leisure may be in order), but I can at least say the comics and, now, the picture books that I have worked on come from that cozy, self-satisfied center that I call home — a home I still have no intention of leaving.
That neutrality is actually pretty freaking refreshing. Very Zen. Did you have a Liberal Arts education, or was writing more of a hobby until balls started rolling?
The neutrality, as you put it, keeps me sane. It is safe, which is not necessarily always a good thing. Risk has rewards, right? But I have also found it rewarding to not make myself crazy/broke/desperate when it comes to the creative stuff. I have successful creative professional friends who I envy for their respective successes and wish I had a fraction of their talent and work ethic. But the path to that success and the “job” of it seems miserable to me. They want it more than me. They need it more than me. Eventually, I will come to either want it harder and will start pushing myself with their similar drive… or I will get it “easier” in my own time and on my own terms. I am still feeling my way around this thing.
I was a writing major in college. A “professional writing” major, to be precise, which was another deliberately safe decision. I took plenty of creative writing and literature courses. I took a lot of film and screenwriting courses, thinking I would be the next Quentin Tarantino. Instead, the only thing I managed to finish was a half-assed wannabe-Kevin Smith script. I did realize quickly that film scripts and comic scripts are pretty close in many technical respects, so this time helped lead me to writing comics. The natural progression there, then, was from comics to another form of sequential storytelling — picture books — which play more into my current mindset as a father of two.
But I was in a honors program that allowed me to craft my own path to my degree. I figured that path should lead toward a steady paying day job, so I focused on grammar, journalism, and critical writing. So far, that has worked out pretty well. ‘Well’ in this case being an editorial middle manager making more than either of my parents ever did. Not that they made much, but parents always want their kids to do better than themselves. I’m a parent now, and I feel the same way. So go me.
If I did a little less playing it safe, I might be more successful with the fun stuff. Maybe the fun stuff could be my day job. I am still determined to make that happen, but with a growing family and a 30-year mortgage, I am willing to stay Zen…measured, careful about it. It will happen. If it happens when my 6-year-old daughter grows up and co-authors a masterpiece with me (she wants to!), that would be okay. Ideally, it will be sooner. Maybe after I release my second picture book later this year.
Looking back over this answer, I remember another education-related detail that probably had the greatest influence on my wanting to play it safe. I am an okay illustrator. Not at all polished, but I have been drawing cartoons and comics since I was a child. So before I ended up where I ended up, I applied to The School of Visual Arts. I had no formal art training, no portfolio, and no clue. And because of these truths, I had no chance. I was shocked and embarrassed and really disheartened by it. In my mind, this was a huge risk. I was going to be a professional artist. I was going to draw comics. This was me putting it all out there. I threw together a portfolio without understanding how to put together a portfolio, and I got as far as some dude in a tie telling me I wasn’t good enough. What I heard, which isn’t actually necessarily what was said, is “You’re just not good enough for us to teach you how to be better,” and that really killed the thrill for me. I was angry and offended by the notion that I could be rejected from a school meant to teach me skills because I didn’t already have those skills. The injustice of it, to my immature untrained teenaged mind was enough to turn me off of pursuing it any further. Hence the redirect toward functional, practical education. The creativity and fun stuff would remain a hobby.
But where would founding the Comic Blog Elite fit into that ideal? It is far too structured and useful a thing to merely be a fun side-note. How did such a movement first take shape?
To be frank, CBE really is just a fun side-note. I get nothing out of it except the satisfaction that it is maybe, possibly, kind of helpful to the people who choose to be a part of it. And that was always the intent of it.
ComicBlogElite.com was born out of two things — my brother, an educator and nature blogger, wanting to branch out his own blogging and top-list network into something ‘entertainment’, and my personal frustration trying to make contacts in the comic community to publish, purchase, or promote the book I was working on at the time, “Division 18: The Union of Novelty Costumed Performers.” I wanted to provide the thing that we didn’t have at the time that might have made our lives much easier. (Again, looking for the easy/safe/sensible path.)
Without the CBE or something like it, my partner on D18, Jeremy Donelson, and I ended up scouring the Internet for brick-and-mortar comic shop contacts across the country so we could cold-call them to order our debut issue from Diamond. Between the two of us, we made several hundred phone calls over a looonnnng weekend. Ultimately, we only sold about 700 copies to the few retailers we got through to. Then issue 2 got the usual dramatically reduced order, which turned out to be not enough for our publisher at the time to put up the print costs. If book 1 sold a few thousand instead of a few hundred…if book 2 sold even just the 700ish that book 1 sold…maybe we would have maintained that momentum and done more than a 3-issue self-published print-on-demand collection.
So I don’t really make much effort to maximize the CBE for my benefit (selling ad space or farming out the member list to the highest bidders). If you email me with some PR, I might shoot a mass email to the members letting them know about your cool something. Usually, I only do that for contests or big events that I know could provide those sites with fresh content. Once in a while, my selfish abuse of power is to promote something I am doing to those members. But even then, I do it in a humble and helpful a way as I can, like when I sent everyone on the list a free PDF of my picture book, “Blank Slater: The Boy With The Dry-Erase Face,” and let them know I would be happy to do interviews. Some bite, some ignore. I don’t think anyone feels like those occasional contacts are much of an intrusion. And besides those not-intrusions, everyone on the CBE gets to make of it what they will, whatever that may be. I like to know that my keeping it there could be helping someone make the connections they need to make to maintain their own creative momentum. It also happens to be a nice little collection of comic and pop culture websites for anyone looking for an easy portal to entertainment.
Oh absolutely. I recall discovering the CBE around 2007 or 2008, when I was Managing Editor for a now defunct webzine, and the thrill of finding such a network and knowing it still exists continues to this day. But something about your story stands out in my mind. Your comic Division 18 is a very unique tale, covering a setup that nobody in my mind has ever really gotten into, and involving the unification of outcasts, after a fashion. I think in the real world, your Comic Blog Elite actually helps to serve a very similar purpose. Much has been said and done over the years from creators as diverse as Neal Adams and Michael Nasser to Tony Harris, of the need for a union of comic book professionals. I think an unacknowledged bane to that has been that bigger names tend to deal with contracts a bit more than the younger rookie off the street. A real union of creators should be more earnestly grassroots, from the ground on up the food chain. Is that correlation between your debut comic and the digital clubhouse you oversee intentional then, or just a fabulous streak of serendipity?
I’m going to go with fabulous serendipity. But if Neal Adams were willing to wear a furry mascot suit, I think we could make that industry union work. Did you know Neal’s son Josh contributed a bit to Division 18? We’ve also pitched a couple of things together… unsuccessfully, but, still.
If Neal Adams wore a furry mascot suit, at least it would be the best-damn-designed furry suit there ever was. He did literally design a sci-fi theatrical play in the 1970s. On a different matter entirely though, you’ve kept a blog of your own running for awhile, focused primarily on the meeting points of comics and charity. We actually began to connect after your consulting for the Solestar graphic novel from Siike Donnelly’s The Naive Project, which raised funds for the Brain Aneurysm Foundation and which I co-edited. Is the interest in funneling comic book talent into charitable endeavors some bizarre form of court-ordered community service, or do virtues have a steady place in where you want the world to go?
“Comics Cure” came from the same sort of place as the Comic Blog Elite. Something wasn’t working out, so instead of giving up completely, I shifted focus…sidestepped the hardship to find a safe and sensible path.
Now the specific details are important. With CBE, is was the pain in the butt of two nobodies trying to promote a self-published comic that triggered the idea to provide a means for other nobodies (said with love) to promote their work. With Comics Cure, I got cancer. So the thing that wasn’t working out was my health, and I needed to keep myself distracted by something less frightening.
The site was originally called “No Cure For Comics,” and featured my “Weekly Dose” of comic reviews. That lasted for only a few months while I was out of work recovering and then back at work easing myself back into a normal routine. The comic reviews were fun, but the site seemed a little too self-serving and unnecessary. Cute titles aside, who needs another review blog? I wanted to use the forum for good. I was going to be okay and I was feeling grateful and hopeful, so I wanted to give back to the universe. I changed the site name, presented it more as a movement — “Comics Cure” being a mindset and a call to action — more than my own subjective forum. I don’t know how far it ever spread, and I don’t post nearly as often as I did for those two core years of activity, but I think the little things, like helping back Siike during the early days of Solestar (when it was still a Superman pitch!), giving some promotion to small and large charities that might actually appeal to the Comic Con crowd, and focusing reviews on books or projects with a health or charitable angle, made it a worthwhile pastime.
And because I did make that point to set it up as a call to action instead of a place for constant content, it can still serve its purpose for anyone who stumbles upon it and reads the sidebar. Safe, sensible…I knew I wouldn’t maintain a daily blogging schedule, so I set it up to account for that.
So between Editing in Chief-ing the CBE and the Comics Cure blogging, you are arguably setting yourself up for some degree of leadership role in the comics field. I mean, you have helped to give blogger kids a unified banner, and you’re promoting outlets for harnessing that creativity beyond merely making more dough for men in suits. But then you went and did a really neat project that wasn’t necessarily a comic book at all. What was it like to author a children’s book — was the reception any different than the aftermath of building a comic book? And when’s the next one coming out?
Leadership role? No way. If anything, I’ve just tried a few out-of-the-box things to keep my name searchable on Google while I try to get one of my writing projects to hit. Until then, I am just a blip who’s tossed a few fistfuls of comic-related spaghetti against the walls of the Internet.
The picture book thing…more spaghetti. I mentioned that I have kids now. Parenthood changes your perceptions and your priorities. For me, it has also changed my creative impulses. I really love making stories for and with my oldest daughter, who is 6. I’ve been writing picture book manuscripts since she was born, overlapping with the time I was working on Division 18 and “Doctor Dremo’s Anthology of Tall Tales and Short Stories”. I’ve put a lot of time and energy trying to wrap my head around that world and break into that industry. More so, probably, than I ever have with comics. But here’s the thing — it is all just sequential storytelling. I go into Midtown Comics every Wednesday and see at least one or two picture books on the new release wall, alongside the latest floppies and trades. I am writing stories for an artist to illustrate.
I happen to love the instant gratification of sharing my ideas and, eventually, my finished pieces, with my daughter. She is a big fan — and not just because I get to decide if she has cookies before bedtime. It makes the toiling and the uncertainty of trying to sell a pitch or get people to buy my book on Amazon less miserable knowing that, if nothing else, I am entertaining and inspiring the most important young reader in the my life. I’ve self-published one book — Blank Slater. I have a second, “Monster of Monsters,” in progress and expected to sell by end of year. I may try to illustrate a third self-pub book myself, or, with two credits under my belt, I may take another crack at pitching fresh scripts to traditional publishers again. I don’t like juggling, so I’ll either stay focused on the self-publishing approach or fade back behind my query letters for a time. I recognize that self-publishing is, in pretty much every way besides getting paid, the safe approach. But that’s been my thing all along.
Matt, you are almost too level-headed to be dredging in the comic book industry. And I think real leaders are not elected, but define themselves as such by their actions. As long as I put that bug in your ear, that’s enough for me. Great, imaginative and lyrical work all around, and please — keep us in the loop on your future endeavors.
Thanks so much for giving me space to talk about myself. I invite everyone reading this to consider becoming one of the Comic Blog Elite and to take the Comics Cure challenge of putting some of your pop culture fun fund toward a meaningful cause (your choice which one, but might I recommend any one of the celebrity auctions on Omaze.com? Arnold Schwarzenegger + a tank!). If you do get into the do-gooding spirit, go ahead and brag about it with #comicscure. I also hope readers will check out my insanely affordable digital downloads of Division 18 and Blank Slater, available from Amazon Kindle and on Graphicly.com. These are self-published projects, so every link, tweet, review, and purchase goes farther than you could imagine. If you like what you’ve seen, look for more from me in the future, coming soon, at a safe and measured pace.
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