Among the Nerd's Nerds at Asbury Park Comic Con

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Asbury Park Comic Con

There’s no glamour inside the stripped-down Steinbach Ballroom at the Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Instead, the squat room is white-washed, narrow, and only half-filled with putrid salmon-pink chairs lined up in short rows. Only five or six bodies fill each row for Asbury Park Comic Con’s 3pm panel, “Graphic Novels and the Indie Perspective.” A stale smell pervades as the panelists shift in their seats perched on a slap-dash stage, eyes flicking across the small crowd as the moderator, appointed as a replacement at the last minute, scratches briefly at a notepad.

“The guy who made X-Men was just in here,” Retrofit Comics founder and cartoonist Box Brown commented. “We can’t compete with that!”

But the bodies whose collected odors contributed to the room’s pungency that afternoon belonged not to the colorfully clad X-Men fans (males, ages 8 to always). They were the die-hards, the artistes, the believers who closely follow the uber-personal, awkward, and just downright weird shit Brown and his fellow panelists have been contributing to the indie comic world throughout their patchwork careers. In other words, the nerd’s nerds.

Aside from Brown, whose upcoming Andre The Giant graphic novel just made my wish list, the diverse indie panel consisted of Andrew Aydin, co-author of civil rights memoir MARCH: Book One, Miss Lasko-Gross, most known for her autobiographical work, and Charles Forsman, Oily Comics publisher and cartoonist who achieved some notoriety for his graphic novel, The End of the Fucking World, last year.

“’Indie,’” Brown noted with finger-quotes applied, “has become a catch-all term for anyone that’s pursuing their own vision. It means I can create whatever ridiculous stupid thing I feel like doing.”

“Yeah, I had that moment of realization when I was drawing myself unclogging a toilet with my hand,” Lasko-Gross noted with a laugh.

“There’s something wrong with my brain,” Forsman added. “I can only do what I do.” As the loosely led conversation bounced from the obvious “why indie” into tangents about Kickstarter and the pain of postage before turning to the panelists’ relationship to superheroes, Miss was destined to bring up the inevitable: the representation of women in the comic book world.

As Miss described her ideal woman character at the request of an audience member, Box quipped, “It’s like they’re a person… but also a woman” to hearty chuckles from the comic choir.

The chuckles climbed at the following panel, “The Neat Stuff in the Mind of Peter Bagge”, a one-on-one conversation between two older folk. One was the infamous talent behind grunge-era Neat Stuff and HATE comics who also had a toe in PUNK magazine and Weirdo, R. Crumb’s lowbrow answer to Art Spiegelman’s highbrow Raw, and the other an adorable, shiny-domed moderator who did his best to interrupt Bagge’s motor-mouth ramblings to maintain some semblance of order and control.

Speaking of his days at School of Visuals Arts (SVA), then just blossoming into a hotbed of burgeoning comic talent, Bagge said, “It was hard to find a teacher that would actually teach you skills. There was a weird hippie, anti-skill movement going on.” But his teachers weren’t clued into what the kids were hip to: the punk movement.

“People were giving up art and starting bands,” Bagge remembers. “And those of us still involved in art were into making visuals that matched the punk vibe.”

“There was freedom in creating a form of art that wasn’t taken seriously,” Bagge said. “You could do whatever you want and fly under the radar. Art Spiegelman used Raw to argue that comics were art and should be taken seriously. And he won the war. I saw him recently at a conference and he was getting nostalgic, saying he missed the time when comics weren’t taken seriously—HA! I was thinking, ‘YOU ADMIT YOU RUINED EVERYTHING!’”

On the other side of the art argument, Bagge worked with Crumb on Weirdo, which was literally made up of art submitted by mental patients, prison inmates, and bums. Inspired by doodle sessions with his wife and roommate, Bagge launched his first title, Neat Stuff, in 1985 and started to pen the first few stories about The Bradleys—characters that would continue through to the present day (as long as Bagge keeps up with HATE annuals and new episodes embedded in collections of his work).

“No one seemed to think Meet The Bradleys was funny, but I did, so I kept going with it,” Bagge said.

The Bradleys and a number of Bagge’s other characters or stories “are always optioned, sometimes in development” and never quite make it to the screen—a process Bagge calls a “golden welfare check.” Recently, Will Smith’s production company was one of the contenders. Bagge was even contracted to write a pilot episode. But when the project hit Smith’s desk, he nixed it. “I got $50,000 of Will Smith’s money, and then Will Smith basically told me not to earn it. I love Will Smith!” Bagge cracked with a laugh.

Saturday’s programming finished up with an interesting concept, loosely executed, again, in the pink room (smells only thickening): Carousel, a traveling reading series wherein cartoonists read aloud panels from their works as they click by on a small TV screen—one step below animation. Helmed by a spacey dude who is surely some relative of Einstein’s, Carousel highlights included Danny Hellman’s “Novelties and Gifts of Distinction from Dirtco”, a series of one-panel mock ads set to elevator music selling everything from a book of 1001 insults to “drive weaklings to suicide” to a Zarathustra says so booklet to “dominate weaker men” to a cymbal-banging monkey whose description was approximately:

“Do you ever wonder if we been alive too long? Wind up this monkey and watch as he bangs his cymbals together with an unbridled verve that slowly tapers off to complete and utter silence. Will darkness never come?”

Hellman was followed by Dean Haspiel, who read a few sexually-charged chunks from his graphic novel, Fear My Dear: A Billy Dogma Experience. Billy Dogma, described as the last romantic anti-hero, mostly spends his time caught in tumultuous congress with his lover, Jane. The heat of their passion almost always results in worldwide destruction, and their seduction is hilariously overwrought with phrases like, “I’m about to get inconsiderate” and “I zigged when she zagged and it blew up into a misunderstood kafuffle.” The experience was enough to inspire revisions to anyone’s sex life.

Released from the den of the dorky, we pinkyed-up at the Watermark on Asbury Park’s boardwalk for some of the world’s best pina coladas before stumbling down to Bond Street in search of something a little more aligned with our usual taste buds: the Bond Street bar. Taking a wrong turn, we were quickly redirected by a woman chilling on a stoop, who told us “there’s nothing but houses and trouble” in the direction we were walking—just another reminder that Asbury Park rides a very fine line between cute and crack.

Three different kind of fried sides (fries, onions, and pickles) and a few cheap beers later, we found ourselves on Asbury Lanes’ stoop for the Screaming Females/Julie Ruin show, partially associated with Comic Con and partially with the Asbury Park Feminist Collective’s zine release party. For those who haven’t been, Asbury Lanes is a combination of three great things: bowling alley, bar, and venue. Like Brooklyn Bowl, you say? Fuck Brooklyn Bowl. Asbury Lanes is about a third of the size (if not smaller), and exponentially homier. Boasting 60s-era lounge chairs, two different sizeable bar areas, about six or so lanes, and two-stall bathrooms, it doesn’t get much more intimate or retro-punk than this.

As we walked through the door, Screaming Females hit their first note. Propped up on a stage just a foot above the crowd sandwiched between two rows of lanes, Marissa Paternoster bent her already tiny frame in half, wrapping around her shrieking guitar as a thick, stationary, crowd stared, drooling into cheap beers.

Paternoster is fucking fascinating to watch, and we all fell under a collective trance—with only a select few crazies bopping—as she hid behind her dark bob, only occasionally pulling her face up, mouth open, bottom lip stuck to the microphone, as she rolled her eyes back into her head. Contrasted with her deadpan, witchy singing voice, Marissa cutely introduced or commented between numbers with the sweet, little-girl voice you might expect to emerge from her frame if she hadn’t just spent the last fifteen minutes calling foaming demon-tongues from her belly.

Weirder still was the Julie Ruin, fronted by Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. Hanna emerged in a jean shirt one-piece, which she volunteered was the result of a late-night Etsy search. Hanna plus keyboard player Kenny Mellman equals an unexpected B-52s dynamic. While Hanna was the source of energy for the performance and her dance moves were undeniably kickass, Mellman, who looks like a might-be-gay uncle that spends a lot of time in his garage “doing stuff,” stole the show a bit with his oddball vibe. Front-and-center onstage, his serious clapping and goofy dance moves were all the more strange next to with the band’s model-hot blonde bassist and guitar players, who have all the stage presence of the girls in Robert Palmer's “Addicted to Love” and seemed to animate only to share looks about Mellman.

Amped-up, poppy, and definitely different, the Julie Ruin got the crowd bouncing around a bit more, and after they left the stage, crowds of brazen drunks swarmed Hanna, who wondered around gleefully taking pictures and collecting free fan swag. After the obligatory snap and oh-my-gosh-ing, we called it a night at the Hotel Tides.

Sunday found us too sauced on all-you-can-drink mimosas from near-by brunch joint Porta to do anything but wander through yet-unexplored rooms of the labyrinth-like hotel, gawk at Con attendees dressed in full-body spandex despite our proximity to the beach, and stuff our fucking faces with lemon shakes, funnel cakes, and foot-long hot dogs from the food trucks parked next to the Batmobile on the hotel lawn. Photos (thankfully not of the latter) below: