Cliff Galbraith (left) and Robert Bruce, co-founders of this weekend's Asbury Park Comicon
I’ve known Cliff Galbraith for at least a decade. We first met at the Comic-Con International: San Diego, where I was walking the floor in search of interesting stories and he was hawking copies of his gloriously anarchic, highly entertaining comic Rat Bastard. We hit it off immediately, and enjoyed catching up at every show we both attended for years.
But Galbraith had already lived a full creative life even before we met. He first found success as the creator of the Saurus Gang line of T shirts in 1986. It was an incredible success, the kind of thing that would have been enough of a full career for many other, less restless artists. However, Cliff eventually tired of that business, selling it off before he began publishing his own comics full time. But even his life-long love of comics couldn’t contain his muse, and so he moved on to a variety of other projects, most of them outside the confines of the comics industry, and we began traveling in different circles.
Fast forward to the 2011 New York Comic-Con, when I again ran into Cliff at his booth and we simply picked up the conversation where we’d left off, as if no time had elapsed. It turned out that he’d returned to his East Coast roots and making comics, reviving his signature Rat Bastard title even while launching a new series, Unbearable.
And then Cliff dropped a bombshell, revealing that he’d recently decided to take on a new challenge, adding the title “Comic Convention Promoter” to his already impressive skill set. His first show was already scheduled to happen the next year, just across the river in New Jersey.
By all accounts that inaugural outing of the freshly minted Asbury Park Comicon was a raging success, and naturally led to an expanded rendition that will take place this next weekend. Galbraith took a few moments from last minute preparations to discuss what attendees can expect from this year’s con, why he founded the show in the first place, and even hint at what the future holds.
How would you describe the Asbury Park Comicon to someone totally unfamiliar with these types of events?
Years ago the circus would come to town—today it’s the comic convention. It’s a fun day for people of all ages, all walks of life, who share a common interest in the medium of sequential art, from mainstream super heroes to unique indie comics. And you can meet the people who make the comics—some of them are living legends.
And what kind of activities can attendees expect to see, and perhaps participate in, during this year’s gathering?
Comic conventions are known for comic artists and writers signing comics and art. So you can get a unique treasure from someone you admire—I’ve never gotten over that. Then there are the panel discussions—where accomplished comic creators discuss their careers and have some great stories. We also have a costume contest. You can get your picture taken in a replica of the '60s Batmobile.
Who are some of the creators who will be attending the show this year, and what about their work is particularly notable?
Al Jaffee of Mad magazine is our biggest star. He’s been making the fold-in page on the back page of Mad for almost 60 years. He’s also responsible for the “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.”
Herb Trimpe will be joining us, he’s the co-creator of Wolverine and he drew the Incredible Hulk for much of the '70s and '80s.
Michael Uslan is the producer of the Batman movies and is originally from the Asbury Park area, as well as Allen Bellman who drew early versions of the Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, and Captain America when Marvel was called Timely Comics.
Now, some shows include famous actors from various mainstream or cult films and television shows, as well as models and other folks from the wider reaches of the entertainment world. Yet, they really don’t seem to play that big a part in your convention. Was that a conscious choice on your part, or has it just worked out that way?
We’re really trying to return the comic convention to being about comics first. We have some cast members from the AMC TV show Comic Book Men, but their show is about guys who work in a comic shop.
Many shows are just paying lip service to comics. They’re really pop culture shows. We want the comic creators at the top of the bill.
So, just how difficult is it to put together something like this? How much time and effort are involved in setting it all up? I mean, is this one of those “I’ll do it the weekend before” kind of things, or is it a bit more involved than that?
I’m an indie comic creator myself, but nine months ago I put it all on hold to make this con the best possible event I could. That meant designing posters and flyers, a web site, display materials, and a hundred other little things to brand the con. I had to contact and maintain relationships with our guest artists. It’s very time consuming.
I needed to convince the Convention Hall people that we could hold a successful event. There’s fire marshals, security, staff, floor plans, hotels and car service for guests, insurance, selling tables to exhibitors.
Then there’s a percentage of guest artists who drop out for various reasons. Some of the greats are really up there in years, so there are health issues that arise. Then there are other artists that just flake out and don’t show or do something unexpected. So we have to have deep bench in case of the unforeseen.
Obviously you really couldn’t do everything all by yourself. So who else has played a big part in making this happen the way it needs to, and what kind of contributions have they made to the cause?
My friend and neighbor Rob Bruce got involved from day one. He’s a collector, dealer and appraiser of rare toys and comics. I know a lot of people in comics and he knows the people I don’t know. We contacted everyone we knew and got enough exhibitors to start our first con. It’s been a blast working with Rob.
The guys from Secret Stash here in Red Bank. Mike and Ming have been promoting us on their podcast for months. Also, people like former Marvel editor and historian Danny Fingeroth, artist Dean Haspiel, photographer Seth Kushner, author Christopher Irving, and many other people have helped me get some great guests.
Evan Dorkin, Sarah Dyer, and Jamal Igle committed to my very first show in the bowling alley. It’s one thing to have connections, but I’d much rather have friends. And my friends have made this a much bigger event than I could ever have made it on my own.
Well, what lead to the creation of this con? What were the circumstances behind its founding, who were the people initially involved, and how long did it take to make it a reality?
On a Saturday in the summer of 2011 I was at a record fair at a small bowling alley called the Asbury Lanes that doubles as a rock club—it’s its own little scene in Asbury Park. I noticed people digging through white boxes for records and it reminded me of collectors looking for back issues of comics at conventions. I went over to the manager and asked if we could throw a little comic convention and booked a date. Nine months later the first Asbury Park Comicon launched with 35 exhibitors. That was May 2012. It went so well we did another one in September with 48 exhibitors. After that we knew it was on to Convention Hall with 170 exhibitors.
Did you encounter any major hurdles to mounting the show, and if so, how did you surmount or get around those?
We got a scare with the first show at the Asbury Lanes, when it was two months before the event. The manager is a friend of mine, so we never had a contract. The new owners eventually honored our deal, but it was touch and go.
More recently, the Convention Hall was hit by Hurricane Sandy. The boardwalk was destroyed. Parts of the building were torn off. There was sand everywhere, water damage. This con almost got cancelled a few months ago. It’s been a nail-biter. The people who manage Convention Hall went above and beyond to make this event happen.
And how about pleasant surprises—have you experienced anything along those lines during that same time?
Well, when the producer of the Batman films calls and asks if you need his help, that’s pretty amazing. Michael Uslan lending his name to our event is a big deal. Bob Camp of Ren and Stimpy contacting me was a hoot.
Al Jaffee telling me he’d like to come if he’s still around after his 92nd birthday was a big day.
At some point every day seems like Christmas. All these amazing people and national newspapers and TV stations keep calling, and today [March 24, 2013] I was in the New York Times—that’s not a bad day.
What do you get from doing all of this very hard and sometimes grueling work, be it personally or professionally?
It’s like throwing a party—why do people do it? When you throw a party you lay out money, do all the work, and all your friends show up and have a great time and you run around all day and really don’t have much fun. But when you throw a party, you’re saying here’s my home, here’s my music, my style, my hospitality; enjoy!
I’m inviting the comics community to my home, in this case the Jersey Shore. And by doing that, I’m showing them what an amazing place I get to live in. MTV didn’t help what the public thinks of the Jersey Shore with their idiotic show. Snooki and many of her friends on that show aren’t even from N.J.—they’re from New York. That show made people from Jersey look like jerk-offs. Well, at least Jon Stewart is a Jersey guy—that makes us look a little better. So putting on a con in N.J., hopefully a very special con, will make people think a little differently of N.J.
New Jersey didn’t have a con of its own, yet there’s a huge population in this little state. It just didn’t make sense. We deserve some respect, some positive attention. And Asbury Park is a really special place. There’s artists, musicians, hot rodders, punks, hip hop artists, surfers, a huge LGBT community, lots of clubs and bars, and of course in the summer it’s a great place to go to the beach. This is my playground and I wanted to turn other people on to it.
As a comic creator, I’m in a unique position running my own con. I get to choose my guests, and throw a con that I’d like to go to. I get to try things out. Maybe have a positive effect on how comic conventions are run in the future.
What do you hope that the professionals attending the show get from their experience?
How about the fanboys and -girls, and other attendees? What do you want them to get from attending the Asbury Park Comicon?
Same thing. They should have a great time. Meet some comics greats. And they deserve respect and love as well. We’re not running a meat grinder here — I want the fans to feel this is their con. I’m interested in who they want us to bring in next year as a guest.
Let’s say someone out there is curious, but they’re really not sure that it will be worth their time and the cost to attend the show. What might you say to them to help convince them that they should show up and dive right in?
We’ve got Bob Camp of Ren and Stimpy, Al Jaffee of Mad magazine, and Batman producer Michael Uslan, come in and meet them. Ask them about their creations, their career. Where else can you do this?
And what about any parents who might be wondering if this is going to be a place that they want their kids to be? What assurances can you offer them that this is not only going to be a fun and cool place for their kids to hang out, but also somewhere safe?
I can’t think of a safer place than a comic con. And plenty of other kids, too. There’s a costume contest. And they can meet one the creators of Wolverine!
Well, what’s the cost to attend, where can you pick up tickets, and what else do those people planning to attend the con need to know ahead of time?
Tickets are available on line for just $12 at the con’s website. The day of the con—Saturday, March 30, 2013—they’re $15 at the door and the line could be long, so try to get tickets in advance.
Also kids under 12 years get in free when accompanied by an adult. Parking is free.
Anything else to add?
Just that we’re already planning a bigger, two-day event for next year. Once we go to two days we’ll bring in more artists, a costume parade on the boardwalk, and involve the city of Asbury Park much more. It becomes more of a festival.
Hooray for comics!