First, Free Comic Book Day, and Then – Ka-Baam!!
Comic books and comedy improv go hand in hand, sometimes with repulsor rays
1) Nobody gives a shit about superheroes these days. We left those hyperbolic spandex-stretchers and their banal melodrama behind with the Crunchberries and the footed pajamas, didn't we, moving on as the drug-infused, hippie-dippie, late-Sixties underground of Jaxon and Crumb and Shelton and company phased through further explorations by Bill Griffith, Shary Flenniken, Jay Kinney, Trina Robbins, and so on, a rising wave of innovation that crested itself with Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly's Raw anthology in the Eighties just before breaking over the mainstream of what's called culture and irrevocably dampening even its most highbrow shores. Now, among scores of other notable nonhero comics, there's Los Bros Hernandez's Love and Rockets and Julie Doucet's Dirty Plotte and Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve and the holy navel-gazing trinity of Chester Brown, Joe Matt, and Seth; Spiegelman's Maus won a Pulitzer; Jessica Abel's La Perdida debuted in hardcover from Pantheon; Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, filmed, took an Oscar; and Chris Ware's New Yorker covers are almost as frequent as the seasons. Sweet Winsor McCay, do I need to go on? But, yeah, on the other hand ...
2) Everybody gives a shit about superheroes these days. Are you kidding? With Spider-Man and Batman and X-Men generating box-office millions; with top writers like Brian Michael Bendis and Joss Whedon and Grant Morrison revitalizing the genre in page after four-color page of self-reflective yet often violently compelling struggle; with Alan Moore hilariously upping the heroes-per-square-inch ante in his Top 10 series; with that same Moore's seminal Watchmen (finally) in film production up there in the Great White North; with artists like god-of-watercolors Alex Ross, retro-wonder Darwyn Cooke, multiplatform maestro Paul Pope, and so many talented others visualizing the infinite science-fantasy, Kryptonite-riddled, Skrull-infested multiverse; with current real-world technology slowly catching up to the futuristic miracles of Stark Industries ... it's like every day is National Superhero Day up in here. What time is it, people? It's fucking clobberin' time.
3) Everybody likes to get something for free. How about a comic book? How about several comic books? How about almost as many as you can carry? You can do this, at independent comic-book stores all across North America, on Saturday, May 3. It's not exactly a new idea: It's been going on, annually, for six years.
"It's the first Saturday in May now, every year," says Brad Bankston, affable head honcho of Austin Books & Comics. "It's mostly a celebration of comics and a sort of giving-back to the fans, but it has multiple purposes." He counts those purposes off on fingers faintly stained from the back issues he's been attending to in the store's vast archives: "Getting people who already read comic books to try something new, maybe a different comic than what they'd usually buy. Getting new people, who have never read comics before, into comics. And getting people back into comic books – who might have read them in their youth and given them up for various reasons."
This doesn't mean that you can just walk in on Saturday and snag any title you want, of course; this means that a myriad of companies and stores have joined forces with big-daddy distributor Diamond Comics to offer comics specifically for this day: introductory stories, tie-ins to currently raging story arcs, whimsical one-offs. It's a fun-for-the-whole-family sort of event, with comics geared to different age groups and access restricted, so as not to offend, um, sensibilities, lest the ghost of Fredric Wertham be raised, whining, from the bone orchard or some yutz decides to sue because his precious sprog saw a cartoon drawing of Picasso's penis. For a list of available books, see www.freecomicbookday.com.
There will be reality-based comics available on this day, and there will also be, yes, illustrated stories starring any number of familiar or obscure superhero-types flexing their derring-do while wearing what seems to be their underwear on the outside. But suppose you wanted to see a few superheroes right before your (very) eyes – in the flesh! – gaining powers, honing skills, battling some power-equivalent Bad Guy to save the world?
4) Improv is the answer, and the answer is, "Yes, and ..." Coinciding with Free Comic Book Day this year, the Hideout presents the premiere of its newest comedy improvisation series: Ka-Baam!! This is an improv show where the classic audience suggestion will decide the sort of power a hero will have, before the performers unleash their wild narratives in bringing him or her to larger-than-life existence onstage.
Now, there's an excellent idea. But can it work as well as we might hope?
"There's always a danger, in getting suggestions from an audience, that they'll just throw out some jokey suggestion to get a laugh," says Asaf Ronen, the man behind the Austin incarnation of Ka-Baam!! "But I know that there will be people in the audience who are fans of comic books. And all fans of comic books have this idea of the comic book they would write if they had the funding. I'm hoping to get those superhero ideas."
Ronen didn't create Ka-Baam!! himself, but neither did he merely gank it from The Big Del Close Book of Rainy Day Improv Fun.
"It started sometime in 1998," says Ronen. "My friend Steve Wacker, who I was doing improv with in New York City, created the idea because he loved comic books. And I've been in the cast – every run of it, pretty much – since '98, and then at one point, I stepped in to direct it for him. Steve moved on to be an editor at DC Comics. In fact, DC Comics discovered him at Ka-Baam!! – they came to see the show, and from that he got an associate editorship. He's since moved over to Marvel – he's an editor there now. But, yeah, when I moved to Austin, I wanted to revive the show." And indeed he has, courtesy of the Hideout and a sponsorship from, whattaya know, Austin Books. And so each night of Ka-Baam!!, there will be a different hero, and –
"There will be three heroes each night," amends Ronen, whose black-hair-going-gray-at-the-edges might remind one of a certain Dr. Stephen Strange, "and we're gonna improvise origin stories for each of them. We've been studying the different styles of origins: the legacy hero, like Green Lantern; the science hero, like Spider-Man or the Flash; the self-made hero, like Batman; et cetera. We're also gonna have a guest artist each week, who'll draw cover art for an adventure for those three heroes – while we're doing the origins onstage. And then, based on that cover art, we'll do a half-hour team adventure. We've got artists lined up, people like Kristin Hogan of Dead Squirrel Girl and Rob Osborne, Rivkah, a few other folks I've met along the way. And we've got a nice mix of improvisers to pull this off, too. I've been trying to bring people in from all the different troupes rather than keeping it too isolated, because I want as many different styles of play as possible. So we've got Kacey Samiee from Girls Girls Girls, Jason Vines from Improv for Evil, Audrey Sansom from Improv Shakespeare, Kaci Beeler and Roy Janik from Parallelogramophonograph, a bunch of others. And we're gonna rotate the cast, too, over the weeks of the show." He grins, perhaps imagining the first night's superpowered antics in his mind's theatre. "It's gonna be a lot of fun."
By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, we can't disagree.
Wanna actually buy some comics? Brenner has four recommendations for you.
Free Comic Book Day
Free Comic Book Day takes place Saturday, May 3, throughout the nation. Participating area stores include:
Austin Books & Comics
5002 N. Lamar, 454-4197
2700 W. Anderson #402, 323-9600
2121 W. Parmer #107, 339-4251
Dragon's Lair Comics & Fantasy
6111 Burnet Rd., 454-2399
2025 Guadalupe #256 (Dobie Mall), 478-9718
2110 Slaughter #147, 282-1302
Kenny's Collectibles of Austin
440 E. St. Elmo #400, 748-9718
100 12th St. #105, Pflugerville, 512/251-0110
Rogues Gallery Comics & Games
1601 S. I-35 #360, Round Rock, 512/279-8888