Now entering its fifth season, AMC’s Comic Book Men continues to charm viewers with the wonderful and likeable personalities that run the comic store. Recently, we had a chance to talk with Ming Chen, one of the stars of the show, about all things comics and the keys to success for the show itself.
Earlier in your life, before you became a video store employee and Kevin Smith follower, were you a comic book fan and if so what were some of your favorites?
I was and it started in sixth grade when a classmate gave me a copy of Avengers #214. On the cover was a picture of Iron Man taken down from behind by the Ghost Rider and as a kid, heck even now as an adult, I look at the cover and just said wow, it’s one of those covers that make you want to buy the comic and read it right away. I kind of fell in and out of comics as life went on, there was boy scouts, baseball, later on there was girls and high school whereas guys like Mike and Walt from the show, they never fell out. They always read and the never got distracted, they never stopped collecting. In college I got back into it and there was one title in particular from back in that era called Preacher that really caught my attention. I was so messed up, I loved it! It had all this religion, drunken vampires and abominations, this was an awesome story and from that point on I really go back into it.
So how excited and/or scared were you when Kevin contacted you to create a website for his production company?
Back in 94’, 95’ I had access to some pretty sweet high end computer gear, I was learning how to build websites at the time, and I wanted to create a site for Clerks which I had just seen and fallen in love with. There were a couple of Clerks sites out there already and I wanted to make mine better than all of them so what I did was I went out and bought the first laser disc which is basically the precursor to DVD, and they had these deleted scenes that I took off of their disc and put onto mine. This of course was a total copyright violation but I didn’t care, I just wanted people to look at the website. If you did that nowadays, you’d be hit with cease and desist orders, lawyers would contact you and Warner Brothers and Miramax would be giving you a call. Thank God for Kevin who had the foresight to say this is kind of cool, not a lot of people have access to these deleted scenes, so instead of coming down on me he ended up hiring me. He saw it in an Internet café back when they were popular, dropped me an email and I called him and now twenty years later I’m on a TV show with him.
Where did you first meet your co-stars from Comic Book Men?
I met them shortly after I met Kevin, actually. Kevin had told me he had just purchased a store and when I made my first visit to the store Bryan Johnson was working at the counter. This was probably the last time he had a real job, in this early incarnation of Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash. Shortly after that I met Walt Flanagan and Mike Zapcic came in about five or six days later. We hit it off pretty quickly, we had a lot of the same interests. For example, we’d bring up something like whether or not the Back to the Future timeline would actually work, Bryan Johnson would call us all stupid, we’d defend ourselves and then it would just carry on from there, usually with a joke at my expense.
What are some of the biggest changes that you’ve seen in comics over the past twenty years?
I would have to say the biggest thing would be the storylines. They are somewhat darker, more adult and overall pretty good. If you read Amazing Fantasy #15, I don’t want to say cheesy, but it’s very toned down and mellow. A lot of comics these days have storylines that rival television and movies. They are a lot more detailed with dark and edgy imagery to go with the stories. I grew up loving superheroes, I always wanted to be Spider Man or Captain America or Iron Man but as I get older I’m more interested in really good storylines. The Walking Dead for example, it has really good stories and I can relate to them easier I guess as a man of my age. In one way it’s kind of sad because it means I’m getting old but the other end of that is I can enjoy and appreciate these stories more and I want to share them with everybody. I’ve gone as far as buying a book for people at the store, customers I don’t even know, I’ll buy something for them and tell them they can return it if they don’t like it, I’m that passionate about certain titles and stories.
Comic Book Men is getting ready to start its fifth season. What do you think has been the key to its success?
Honestly, I believe it’s been a combination of things. It’s been the love that I never knew existed between geeks getting together and talking about meaningless topics. I didn’t know that, there are a lot of people that love that! I knew I would totally watch something like that, guys sitting around and talking Star Wars, Star Trek, video games, comics but I had no idea there were so many other people who love that as well and luckily they tune in after The Walking Dead every Sunday.
The other part of the success, Kevin Smith definitely, but I really think that Walt Flanagan and Bryan Johnson, two characters that I’ve known for over twenty years, they just have these weird and unique personalities. When I met them I thought they were fun and weird and crazy and believed that people outside our little circle would like them as well. Walt is a guy that is very adamant about what he likes but he has a lot of weird qualities too. For instance, he has never eaten a sandwich, never eaten a hot dog, his thoughts on things are very unique. Bryan is the consummate storyteller, he’s done so many weird and crazy things, I could listen to him tell stories for days. Well actually, I do listen to him tell stories all the time and when you have the two of them together, exposed to big audience, it makes me and a lot of other people very happy.
Of course, the customers who bring in toys to buy or sell is a big part of it as well. The older people like me now, who watch and say a combination of ‘wow, I had that toy’ and ‘wow, I wish I still had that toy’ happens a lot. Even if you don’t like comic books everyone has played with toys so I think that’s a big part of it as well. You can never underestimate that nostalgia factor that tugs at the heart and thankfully that resonates with a lot of people.
Comics have exploded on both the big screen and television. Do you think these two mediums are doing a good job representing the comic world?
Yeah, I think they’re doing great. Marvel is just hitting it out of the ballpark. DC has a little catching up to do but where they’re winning is on TV. Gotham is great, The Flash is amazing, Arrow started off a little slow but it’s great right now and you’ve got Supergirl coming out as well. On the Marvel front they’ve got Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D. and Daredevil on Netflix is perfect, they really nailed that. I think they’ve hit the point now where they know what they’re doing, they know what’s good and bad, Marvel and DC, Fox maybe not so much although they are doing very well with X-Men. I think we are in a very good time right now, as comic book fans, as sci-fi fans, as geeks we are in a very good time right now and I hope everybody is appreciating it as much as I am.
Can you tell me a bit about how you got involved with the two nonprofit organizations that you’re a part of?
Yes, for sure. One of them is The Kenny Gordon Foundation which was started by a friend of Kevin’s that used to work at Miramax and contacted me because he knew I was into doing websites. Anytime anyone needs help with anything I usually jump in, I have a hard time saying no to people. Helping friends and their friends, especially when it involves saving lives is something I’m always up for. That is what The Kenny Gordon Foundation was all about, preventing heart arrhythmia. The other one was Street Poets Inc. which was started by a friend of a friend and was an organization to put an end to gang violence by channeling violence through poetry. That was an approach that I had never heard of before and I thought might work so I said anything you need I will definitely will help you out. Honestly, a couple hours out of my day is no big deal at all.
Speaking of Comic Book Men, sadly the day will come when the show will unfortunately end. Do you have any plans for the future or have you thought that far ahead?
I don’t know man, I like to live in the moment. I should probably plan for something like that but I really haven’t. Right now when I’m not at the store I’m going to a lot of comic book conventions. It’s something I discovered I really like doing. One of the side benefits of the show is I get invited to a lot of the comic book conventions going on now and I love being there. You get to meet fans of the show which is always neat, you get to meet people who like the same things that you do and these conventions are ones I would go to as a fan and now I get to go as a guest, so who doesn’t want to do that? Besides that, right now I’m still enjoying being on TV, it’s really a lot of fun.
I want to thank Ming for taking the time to talk to us. You can catch the premiere of season five of Comic Book Men Sunday October 18th, starting at midnight with two back to back episodes.