A Local Pick for Free Comic Book Day
Creators of Punchline offer a super-powered narrative
By Wayne Alan Brenner,
11:45AM, Wed. May 1, 2019
Here comes Saturday, May the 4th, swinging in like an orange fist on the big rocky arm of Benjamin Grimm. This day is fixing to clobber us, quite happily, with dozens and dozens of free comic books.
Because it’s the annual Free Comic Book Day again, see, and so everyone’s favorite comic book store will be chockablock with newly minted issues to give away, comics featuring all manner of genres – superhero, mystery, comedy, crime, sci-fi, romance, et OMG cetera.
Yeah, and there’ll be a veritable explosion of fandoms on the scene – as if half of Tumblr suddenly manifested IRL – and a good, graphically enhanced time will be had by all.
Well, that’s the idea, anyway – right?
Another idea is: Why don’t we tell you a little bit about one of the comics that’ll be given away on Saturday?
In fact, why don’t we focus on a pair of Austin creators whose ongoing original title is published by an indie company right here in the Lone Star State?
The creators are writer Bill Williams and artist Matthew Weldon. The comic is a super-powered sort of narrative called Punchline, wherein one longtime caped crusader has been fired from her superheroing job and is now in the process of training her rookie replacement. The publishing company is San Antonio’s own Antarctic Press, who have a solid stable of other titles in addition to Williams & Weldon’s epic talespinning.
But it’s Punchline we’re gonna tell you about. And we’re gonna tell you about it because – simple enough and full disclosure – Williams sent your reporter an email pitch a few weeks ago. He sent it all blind and outta the blue – we don’t know the guy from Adam – wondering if there were any promotional possibilities, Austin Chronicle-wise.
Uh … like we have, what, scads and scads of spare time & effort up in here? Like we’re just sitting around watching HBO instead of battling to defeat the weekly horde of deadlines and all those relentless PR attacks? Like our cups of toil don’t already runneth the fuck over?
But, OK, maybe we’ll just take a look at this Punchline thing online, take a little internetted break from the same ol’ same ol’ for a moment. Just so our mind doesn’t go all non-euclidean with work fatigue, right? And of course we’ll be horribly disappointed, because it’ll be nothing but more shitty amateur material from people who can’t write or draw but who enjoy torturing the rest of the world by pretending they can.
YOU KNOW HOW IT IS, BABY.
But then, a few clicks of the mouse later, and – whoa.
Just a brief perusal of the online presence of this Punchline comic, and – WTF?
Quelle surprise, as they say in the land of fresh baguettes and naughty mimes: This shit … is some really good shit.
You know our methods, Watson: If a thing’s not worthwhile in the first place, we’re not gonna waste our keystrokes telling you about it. Thus, we’re suggesting that you make sure, when you’re getting your Free Comic Book Day on, that you pick up a copy of Williams & Weldon’s Punchline.
And, because we think you’re gonna like the engaging and clever story unfolding in its gorgeously drawn pages, we’re gonna provide a little background on the book and its creators right here.
Or, rather, we’ll just transcribe parts of the interview we recently did with the two sequential-art wizards (in a Freebirds World Burrito joint, no less, because that’s some damned good eating) and we’ll let them tell you what’s up:
Austin Chronicle: Okay, the characters in the story, the two main characters, they’re women. And but here’s two guys working on the comic, two men who created the story. And you’re doing a great job, I think, and not that it’s, ah, suspect, but – why female characters?
Bill Williams: I think that women have more dramatic potential than guys do, to an extent. Like, you’re never gonna see a wide range of emotions from the usual scowly, angry superhero. I wanted to do something lighter. I was at Tribe, the comic shop down near the Broken Spoke, and I was like, “Look at that rack of comics, look at those covers. There’s not a single character on that wall that likes their job.” So let’s not write something that everybody else is already writing, you know? And, say what you will about Joss Whedon, but I really like Buffy, I really like some of the stuff he’s done. So it’s not impossible for dudes to write books with strong female characters.
Austin Chronicle: You’re with Antarctic Press, a small publishing company in San Antonio – and more power to you and them, but – did you try pitching Punchline to the majors?
Bill Williams: We pitched it to Image. There’s an email address, and you send it in there, and if you don’t hear back, then they’ve passed on it. We pitched it to IDW, and they were really polite when they turned us down. And I was talking with another guy about doing some publishing, and I didn’t like their business plan, but I wanted to not have to do everything myself, you know? And he wanted us to throw out the first big chunk of story we had, and Matt was gonna have to redraw stuff. And I said, “Matt, I don’t wanna waste your time and throw out all your work, let’s find a way to fix my words and stick with it.” But as we were in negotiation with this third publisher, a buddy of mine who is the art director at Antarctic Press contacted me and said, “We’re gonna have a hole in our schedule – we don’t often have holes in our schedule, but – come talk to me.” So I drove down to their meeting. And it was basically in one big room, that’s the entire office, because comics is a backwards little media empire. So I go into the meeting and I stand around until someone gives me that why-are-you-here look. So I made my pitch, handed out some stuff, “This is the first three issues of the book.” And they were like, “Oh, you mean it’s finished?” I said, “Well, the first three are.” And they were like, “Okay, let’s do this as a miniseries.” And I said, no, I wanted to do it as an ongoing book – Matt’s really fast, let’s do that. So we argued about that, and I said, “Look, if the sales tank, we will suddenly make it a miniseries.” Which is the thing that Marvel does: They launched new Winter Soldier and Black Widow books recently, the sales weren’t there, so suddenly they’re a miniseries. And that’s the deal you make when you pitch to ‘em: I’ve got a deal for five, and if we go past five, we’ll do something else.
Matthew Weldon: This is all about getting that monthly exposure. I’ve had graphic novels come out in the past, but having a book that comes out every month is a really good way to keep the momentum going. It’s a big task, but the reviews, so far, have been really good – and I think people are more committed to a book that they know will be coming out regularly.
Bill WIlliams: Comic book fans are kinda trained to have low expectations about some things, you know? Like, if you don’t like the characters, give it six months and they’ll reboot it and it’ll be something different. We’re trying to avoid some of the things that other people are doing.
Matthew Weldon: Bill told me I could design whatever I wanted – superheroes and characters and stuff like that. He approached me with a couple of ideas, and, honestly, it was a weird moment in time, where we were like, “Do we come up with a story and figure out all aspects of the characters and all that other stuff before we design anything? Or do we just design a character and figure out the story around it? I think that’s what we did, because you really need to stand out one the shelves – especially with all the books out there. You gotta have a cool character design and a cool logo, so that’s my main focus before anything else. I agonized for a year on the character design.
Austin Chronicle: And – because, Jesus, your artwork is so fucking good – you’d rather be doing this, working with Bill on Punchline, rather than spend more time illustrating stories for one of the big companies? And, I assume, getting paid more?
Matthew Weldon: That’s a good question – because it looks like it’s gonna take a while before this makes any money. And who knows if it ever will, honestly. And I’ve pitched quite a bit, and there was brief little moment, when we were working on Punchline #4, where I was talking to DC Comics about doing an Aquaman and Mera book, and I almost got heisted to do that. And I’ve talked to Marvel quite a bit – but I’ve been told my style doesn’t fit with them.
Austin Chronicle: Your style doesn’t … ? Huh. What idiots are in charge of Marvel’s comics?
Bill Williams: It depends on who you talk to. But some publishers just have a house style they wanna stick with, you know? But there’s no reason we can’t do our book and talk to people about doing other books, too. You gotta understand: Everybody who wants to work in comics, they bundle up their stuff and send it into DC and Marvel. So there’s these huge slushpiles. And I would rather go in with a cool critically acclaimed indie book instead of just having my solicitation in a slushpile. You know? It’s better to go in as a guy who can make comics than as a guy who just wants to make comics.
Austin Chronicle: I can totally see that. And, okay, how did the two of you start out making comics?
Bill Williams: I was writing a different book, and I wanted to do a story where a character got fired and had to train her replacement – that was in the back of my mind, I was always thinking about it. And I’d met Matt a year or two earlier, and, like you said, the guy can really draw. So I figured we should try to work on something. So we got together and I pitched him a couple of ideas. The first one, about superheroes, he just gave me this blank stare. So I was like, “Okay, I’ve also got this high fantasy thing, like Lord of the Rings meets The Dirty Dozen.” And he was like, “Yeeeah, let’s go back to the superheroes.” So I elaborated on the pitch, and it was something he wanted to do – he had these ideas in the back of his mind that he’s wanted to do for a while, these designs. So we started on that, started making pages. And we spent a lot of time looking for publishers until we finally found a home in AP. And they’re an interesting batch of guys to work with.
Matthew Weldon: Initially we did half issues. And we put them up on Comixology for a dollar. We did that for a long time.
Bill Williams: Yeah, and then I went through and reformatted them, put them all back together and made bigger comics – twice as big for two bucks. You know how Woody Allen says a big chunk of life is just showing up? That’s how our book ended up coming out on Free Comic Book Day.
Austin Chronicle: Yeah, I was wondering about that. I mean, it makes sense, it’s a great comic, but what were the details of how Punchline was chosen to – to be promoted?
Bill WIlliams: Well, I was down at one of the regular Monday night meetings at Antarctic in San Antonio. And Antarctic does everything at the last minute. And they were like, “Okay, we have to turn in our Free Comic Book Day submissions right now. What are we gonna send in?” The year before, they’d sent in a Trump parody book, and Diamond [the FCBD distributor] passed on it. So I suggested Gold Digger. That’s a guy named Fred Perry who’s been doing his comic – writing, penciling, inking, and coloring an issue every month – and he’s at issue #260. It’s a feat of strength like Dave Sim on Cerebus. It’s not my thing, and I don’t actually read it – but I really respect the work ethic. So I said, “You gotta send in an issue of Gold Digger.” And they said, “Well, what’s your book like?” And I said, “We already turned in two of them to you – did you read ’em?” And they were like, “No.” So I said, “The second one’s good, but it’s a little stabby. How about we send in the first one and see what Diamond has to say?” And Diamond liked it. So out of the broad universe of comics, they picked our book from Antarctic Press.
Austin Chronicle: So this isn’t just a special deal that you and Antarctic Press are working with Austin Books or Dragon’s Lair or, I mean, it’s not just local shops, right? Y’all are – your comic Punchline is – being distributed nationally?
Bill Williams: Yes! And I’ve got a friend who does this comic called Love and Capes – that’s Thom Zahler, he’s kind of the king of romance comics. And he said that Free Comic Book Day was easily the best promotional thing he’s ever done. And, so far, a lot of stores haven’t stocked our book yet. A lot of people haven’t seen our book. So, on Free Comic Book Day, they’re gonna see it for the first time.
Matthew Weldon: Yeah, even with five issues out, there’s still a lot of people who don’t know anything about Punchline. So this should be good. We’re only starting to realize what a big deal it’s gonna be.