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AICN COMICS Q&@: Bug talks with the guys behind the webseries EXPO!!!

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AICN COMICS: Q&@ is our new semi-weekly interview column where some of your favorite @$$Holes interview comic bookdom’s biggest, brightest, newest, and oldest stars. Enjoy this latest in-depth interview filled with @$$y goodness and be sure to look for more AICN COMICS as we gaze into the future of comics every week with AICN COMICS: SPINNER RACK PREVIEWS every Monday and then join the rest of your favorite @$$Holes for their opinions on the weekly pull every Wednesday with AICN COMICS REVIEWS!

Q’s by Ambush Bug!

@’s by The Guys Behind EXPO!

Hey folks, Ambush Bug here with another Q&@. This time around I had a chance to talk with friend of AICN Comics Shawn Martinbrough and his team, Kevin McCarthy, Joseph Phillip Illidge, and Milo Stone about their new web project EXPO. Check out what these talented chaps had to say…
AMBUSH BUG (BUG): So tell me a little bit about EXPO. How was it conceived?

Shawn Martinbrough (SM): For a minute now, the publishing industry has been suffering from diminishing sales, bad business decisions and continuing to dismiss the growing dominance of the internet. I knew a number of writers and editors (at the New York Times and Simon & Schuster to name a few companies) who were either getting laid off, taking buyouts or having their rates cut. Meanwhile quite a few bloggers and blog sites were flourishing. I found the growing conflict between seasoned journalists and amateur bloggers fascinating. On the one hand, you have those who studied journalism, cut their teeth in editorial rooms, and on the other hand, you have a person sitting on their laptop with no formal training writing a daily blog or column. Both consider themselves to be writers. One medium is clearly kicking the other’s ass but does that equate to the quality of the writing? More importantly, do people really care about the quality of the content as long as they get new information? Now, what if the seasoned, professional writers had to work alongside these amateur, upstart writers at a blog site? I thought this would be a great concept to explore.
I ran the idea by my partners as a project we could produce online and then I approached my friend and very talented artist Kevin McCarthy about coming on board as a co-creator and artist. My visual style is way too realistic for social and political satire.
Kevin McCarthy (KM): Shawn approached me with the premise of this failed LL COOL J-type rap artist who uses his industry connections (and objections) to create a Hip-Hop HuffPo, where the kind of cranky, colorful characters that should be blogging (and a couple that absolutely shouldn't be) are given a forum to do just that.
EXPO is a B-list celebrity’s vanity project that gradually blossomed and then suddenly exploded into a bookmarked pop culture phenom, with all involved getting hit by the shrapnel. There was a lot for me to sink my teeth into here, and my enthusiasm is evident in the blogs I’ve written and the strips I’ve drawn.
The VERGE partners knew that a ‘dramedy’ with fictional characters working at an online entertainment news site covering real events and interacting with real people was a concept I’d feel at home with, having helped translate aspects of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY into comic-book form.
Just like with that project, we’ve purposefully blurred the lines between reality and satire, homage and ridicule with the intent of creating the backdrop of a believable universe against which our characters can do some unbelievable things.
Joseph Phillip Illidge (JPI): Shawn came to me with the idea of creating a digital intellectual property in the form of an entertainment website. I thought it was an intriguing premise, and we got together with Kevin to start creating the backstory for the fictional company, Expo Weekly.
The task of creating a whole history that sits alongside our own was exciting, and I knew the characters had to have detailed origins to make their relationships to real hip-hop stars, Rolling Stone magazine, and cable network BET totally convincing.
The conceit is that the Expo Weekly cast exists in our world, and people would either know who EXPO founder Jamal Turner is based on his encounters with Will Smith, Jay-Z and so on, or they wouldn’t because so many celebrities go though the grinder that they’re only remembered if they’re disgustingly successful or a has-been who had a very humiliating fall.
The Verge partners and I worked with Kevin to create the Expo Series Bible, a comprehensive booklet that lays out the saga of Expo Weekly for its first two seasons, with the end-of-season-two climax that adds a new competitor in the mix for EXPO for season three.
Verge partner Milo Stone designed the website, which was the final element to realize everyone’s collective vision.
Milo Stone (MS): Expo is a Live-Pitch (patent pending). Imagine if the creators of "Cheers", before the show began, had opened up a real bar called Cheers and hired actors to populate the bar with a Sam character, a Norm, etc., and then invited NBC execs to the bar to watch the hijinks ensue. That's what we've done with EXPO. In a television format, Expo is a show about all these characters that run a blog site, so why not create the blog site for real and introduce these characters and their universe to the internet.

BUG: With such a multi-layered cast and various storylines created for EXPO, how did you decide on a jumping on point to introduce the characters to the reader?

SM: This was tricky. Since EXPO would be a combination of blogs written by these fictional characters and cartoon strips featuring them, we thought it would be best to introduce our characters by letting the viewer read their blogs first. Once the perspective and personalities of the characters were established, we would run new strips featuring the characters in action.
KM: Since there’s no way to know where a visitor to EXPO will land first, and navigate next, we’ve designed the site to link organically across the various blogs and into the Web comics relevant to a particular character or sub-plot. Of course, the Web comics are numbered, and the blog entries dated, but there’s also an intuitive, almost cyclical aspect to the site that we’re pretty proud of.
So when our ruthless gossip columnist, Devin Cho, is assaulted by the bodyguard of a ridiculous rap star we call Lil Yung, you can click through to the incident that led up to the attack if you haven’t already arrived there by following the story in a more linear fashion. Like a video game that doesn’t have to be played in any particular order, the reader can immerse themselves in the world of EXPO at their own pace and along different paths.

BUG: What's your role in the production of this webseries and EXPO in general?

SM: I play the role of editor in chief and co-writer. I’ll suggest new characters, storylines and topics that would be interesting for our players to tackle. I check in with everyone to make sure they stay on schedule. I’ve gained a newfound respect for my editors Axel and Sebastian over at Marvel Comics.
KM: I'm one of the creators of EXPO, a contributing writer, and the sole artist. And though I’m a writer and an artist both, lately I'd been getting mostly writing assignments, like “The Death of the Escapist,” a story of mine that was drawn by Shawn for Dark Horse’s Michael Chabon Presents THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF THE ESCAPIST, the Eisner Award-winning anthology in which I served as editor, writer and artist.
I welcomed the opportunity to stretch my drawing muscles but I also do my fair share of the writing for EXPO, including the web comics as well as the online blogs for Boris Ryskin, the resident comic-book pundit, and for Devin Cho, EXPO’s answer to gossip gurus like Harvey Levin and Perez Hilton.
JPI: I co-created the cast, fleshed out most of the characters, and put together the interlocking histories of the EXPO world.
Mainly, I write the blogs and op-eds of the main female characters (Editor-in-Chief Keisha Parks, Creative Director Cassidy Chase, and Global Affairs Reporter Eleanor Wakefield), all of whom are different ages and appeal to different demographics.
I also co-wrote the 8-part weekly webcomic strip called “The History of EXPO” with Shawn.
MS: I built the website and set up all the technical stuff so I guess I'm the key grip. I also write the blogs for several EXPO characters, but I'd rather not say which ones at the risk that Robert Zemeckis will hold a grudge for the “Christmas Carol” review.

BUG: Joseph, as a one-time editor for DC Comics, Milestone Media, and Archaia, how did your organizational and creative background come into play for EXPO?

JPI: If there’s one thing people respond to well in fiction, it’s “The Big Story”, the over-arching narrative that famous writers, show runners, and television series producers manage on a regular basis. The same applies to EXPO. I know the big story in all its acts, twists, and turns, so I work with the EXPO partners to figure out the best ways to reveal the story in stages.“The History of EXPO” was born from that kind of thinking.

BUG: Kevin, what was your process in designing the characters for EXPO?

KM: As the artist on EXPO, it is my job to dream up an overall look for these characters we've created, and bring them to life as individuals who can believably interact with one another. Sometimes I would draw from a fairly detailed description provided by the VERGE partners. Other times, I was left to my own devices.
At the same time as I was designing the EXPO characters, I was writing and drawing what would become the web comics as a way of fleshing out the characters’ personalities and to hint at their rich back story. These would accompany the pitch to suggest springboards for possible storylines down the road, and give a sense of EXPO's tone in a way that a dry, pitch paragraph couldn't.
SM: Joseph, Kevin and I developed the characters when we created the series bible. Joseph and I would give Kevin notes on a character and then he would come back with a design. I’ve been a fan of Kevin’s artwork since we were students at The School of Visual Arts in NYC so it was like X-Mas morning when I would get an email with a new character design or strip from him.
JPI: When I create and develop characters, I start to visualize them with detail, so in working with Kevin on EXPO, I sent him lots of photo reference for fashion and famous people whom I felt captured the vibe of our cast. He really nailed them, and by doing so, created one of the most diverse casts I’ve ever seen in cinema, television, or print. Having worked in the superhero sector of the comic book industry, which has a world population that in no way matches our world, it was important for me that EXPO’s cast be more reflective of Planet Earth. EXPO’s comic book expert and critic Boris Ryskin is Russian, advice columnist Fatima Said Ali is Somali, and rap star Lil’ Yung was born in Atlanta, GA, but he’s of West Indian heritage.

BUG: What are some of the topics in “The History of EXPO”?

JPI: It’s a juicy secret origin story about the rise, fall, and resurrection of the fictional company Expo Weekly, so there’ll be lots of controversy, personality clashes, attitude, and glamour, along with a dash of Al Qaeda.
In developing the storyline with Shawn, we mined the EXPO Series Bible to pick the highlights and hot spots of the company’s messy, complicated past. Add Kevin’s storytelling to the mix, and we give the readers something that feels real because the entertainment world is both strange and sexy. Also, The History of EXPO is a manual on how to become successful by hiring people who are more talented than you.

BUG: Webcomics is a highly debated medium these days. What do you see as the benefits of releasing a comic as a webcomic?

JPI: Exposure and reach. When I co-edited the Batman line of books for DC Comics, my hands were in about thirty Batman (and family) comics a month, but not one of them even reached a quarter-million people, and Batman’s one of the most popular characters in the world. Over three hundred thousand people bought an iPad in its first weekend of release. The potential reach of entertaining stories done in comic strip and graphic novel format is unlimited, so we wanted EXPO to get to the global audience.
MS: Obviously, printing and selling a book based on brand new characters is risky. Even if it’s well received there are only so many people buying comics. It makes sense to publish our entertainment for free online where the entire world has access to it. Also, EXPO is dual layered in that we're presenting web comics, but also the web comic characters' blogs, so our audience gets a more fleshed out picture of these characters and the storyline. Remember, we can update these storylines LIVE. That's something you can't do with a book.
SM: It also tied into the basic concept of the series which is an internet blog/news website.

BUG: Are there any setbacks to doing a project in this manner?

JPI: Not really. In fact, it’s better because of the immediacy. As a writer, I love being able to get my thoughts out into the world five minutes after I’m done with the blog. Writing comic books and graphic novels for DC Comics and other clients did and continues to require more patience of me, because of the two month wait before the comic came out in print. Now, it’s a zero wait scenario.
MS: The internet has a bigger audience than any other entertainment medium, but it’s also the most crowded. If television has slots for 100 or so prime time shows it's easier for an audience to know a show exists, there is that viability. The internet has 100 gazillion websites, so we've relied on social sites and word of mouth to get people hooked and it's had a snowball effect. Our traffic has gone up 1,000% since we launched.
SM: It is a completely different animal compared to working in a printed medium. Being able to spread the word virally is key to marketing a product in any medium these days.

BUG: There seems to be a sort of social commentary going on in EXPO, at least in the serials I've read. Can you touch upon some of those themes?

JPI: Fanaticism, adultery, people with more money than sense, the ongoing bipartisan wars, and whether or not AVATAR was the most important film of the 21st century. Every time I write a new blog or column for EXPO, it’s my job to hold up the mirror that makes people see just how crazy and loony we are.
SM: I do think that a huge percentage of people respond to social commentary over traditional news reporting these days. It’s also great just to have a forum to rant about something that pisses you off.

BUG: Tell ‘em about the movie critic named Vic Manuso. What was the inspiration for his character?

MS: Vic Mancuso is a mix of a few people I know. He acts like a tough guy, but inside he's that wannabe Hollywood player that thinks he has all the answers and believes he doesn't have Bruce Willis' career because he's never been given a fair shot. Already in his forties, Vic's biggest acting role to date has been as an extra in “Dracula 2000”, yet he still thinks things are going to happen for him.
Vic's movie reviews show his ignorance of movie history (he thought Scorsese made “The Godfather”) and his plain bad taste (Seagal's last straight to video movie was Vic's choice for Best Picture). While you might snicker behind his back (never to his face), you have to give him credit for not giving up on his dream of being the next Richard Greico.
SM: I love all of these characters but Vic is truly one of my favorites.

BUG: So what type of person do you think should check out EXPO?

SM: While the smart answer is probably still "white males ages 18-49," I am happy to report that EXPO covers a wide cross-section of topics that should appeal to almost anyone.
So if you're the type of person who likes to see cringe-worthy photos of celebrities in candid, compromising positions, we've got you covered. If you prefer a frank discussion on Dick Cheney or foreign wars, we've got that as well. If you think there are too many (or not enough) god-damned zombie comics on the stands, we'll happily agree to disagree with you in our Comics section. Did your favorite NFL team just make a terrible draft pick? We've got you.
JPI: Anyone who’s breathing with working senses, because EXPO has something for everybody. The music fan, the comic book and graphic novel geek, sports followers, the political animals, fans of good writing, fans of people taking a whack at the rich and famous, and anyone who likes bad movies but thought they were alone in the world. You are not alone. We’re creating fiction for you.
MS: Network executives, and their children if they are easily influenced by them.

BUG: Where do you see EXPO going in the future?

SM: Even though EXPO is designed to work in any medium, the endgame for me was always to see EXPO developed as a sitcom with teeth.
JPI: EXPO’s a living, breathing organism with legs, so we’re going to explore all digital and print options. We’re talking with some people about EXPO as an animated series, and the world is rich enough for live-action treatment. I developed the characters with rich histories so that any actor or actress could read the EXPO Series Bible and know Keisha Parks in-depth, or know Cassidy Chase as well as their best friend from high school. Paula Patton should be able to play Keisha on screen just as comfortably as Gina Torres could be her voice in the animated series.
Also, we’re planning more celebrity interviews, as follow-ups to the EXPO one-on-ones with film producer Reginald Hudlin and horror novelist L.A. Banks.
MS: It could take on several forms. Ideally it would be a TV show, and to supplement the show, the blog site would continue in a daily edition for fans to follow.

BUG: What other projects are you guys working on at the moment?

SM: Marvel’s keeping me busy illustrating some interesting graphic novels written by Charlie Huston, and they just released the hardcover collection of my LUKE CAGE NOIR miniseries. The Verge guys and I have a few other projects on deck on the literary and animation fronts.
KM: I have a full-length story in the 100-page RED SONJA #50, out in June from Dynamite Entertainment, with art by the talented Johnny Desjardins. And I am three issues into a mini-series I'm writing for Top Cow that will likely be announced officially this summer in San Diego.
JPI: I’m writing a digital manga comic series for a Fortune 500 client, tackling my first YA novel, and about to sign a deal with a French publisher to write a crime noir/science fiction graphic novel.
MS: Beginning development on an adventure/horror game for iPad, as well as some publishing ventures for Android and iPhone mobile platforms.

BUG: And why should folks move their mouses and click on THIS LINK and check out EXPO?

SM: I think there’s some funny and well written material here and the overall story of these diverse characters working together is pretty interesting and relevant. Plus, I think Kevin’s illustrations are pure gold. For example, that strip of our intrepid reporter Manny Caballero interviewing the prison based rapper with the foot fetish cracks me up every time.
JPI: There are so many sites with real people talking about stuff, and let’s face it, if real people were interesting, we wouldn’t buy so many movie tickets and DVDs, or care about what’s happening on an island with Sawyer or Locke. Unlike any other site of its kind, EXPO has a cast of characters that make it smarter than the average bear.
MS: Because it's free and there are no pop-ups.

BUG: Thanks, guys, for answering these questions. Be sure to follow THIS LINK to check out EXPO!

Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, reviewer and co-editor of AICN Comics for over eight years and one of the original @$$holes. Check out his comic book shorts from Cream City Comics’ MUSCLES & FIGHTS VOL.3 and MUSCLES & FRIGHTS VOL.1 on his ComicSpace page. Bug was interviewed here and here at Cream City Comics and here and here about his comic from Bluewater Comics, VINCENT PRICE PRESENTS: THE TINGLER #1-2. Look for more comics from Bug in 2010, including ROGER CORMAN PRESENTS DEATHSPORT in July, and the just announced vampire miniseries NANNY & HANK in August (and check out Jazma Online’s new interview with Bug about NANNY & HANK here). Bug’s latest comic is VINCENT PRICE PRESENTS #21: WITCHFINDER GENERAL on sale July 2010. Fanboy Radio recently interviewed Bug about it here. Order VINCENT PRICE PRESENTS #21 in May's Diamond Catalog order # MAY10 0828.

Editing, compiling, imaging, coding, logos & cat-wrangling by Ambush Bug Proofs, co-edits & common sense provided by Sleazy G

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