Amanda Meadows And Geoffrey Golden On The End Of ‘The Devastator’ And The New Line Of Comedy Titles [Interview]
Over the past five years, The Devastator has occupied a pretty unique place in the world of comics. As an irregularly published comedy magazine with each issue built on a specific theme, it played host to some fantastic humor in the form of comic strips, prose, infographics, and even the occasional fake advertisement for a service that would match a lonely otaku with the right love pillow. Now, though, that's coming to an end.
The Devastator #13: Space Epic marks the final issue of the anthology, but the people behind the magazine are shifting over to Devastator Press with a focus on publishing single-concept humor books meant to appeal to the same audience. To mark the occasion and find out more, I spoke to Devastator publishers Geoffrey Golden and Amanda Meadows to find out how they recruited comics talent for bizarre comedy, what they learned trying to sell their books at comics conventions, and what we'll be seeing from Devastator Press in the future.
ComicsAlliance: You started The Devastator as a magazine a few years ago.
Geoffrey Golden: Five.
Amanda Meadows: Five and a half. Time flies.
GG: We started working on it in December of 2009, and we published our first issue in May, 2010.
CA: So what was the impetus behind getting started? How did it all come together?
GG: We had both done a lot of work as internet writers, working for various comedy websites, and we were frustrated that our work didn't last. It was just like, "oh, you wrote an article, it was #1 on Digg for a couple hours," and that's the last you'd hear of it. So we thought, wouldn't it be cool to do something like MAD, where there are archives of it, where you go back and read them and enjoy them, and that's what we wanted to do. There hadn't really been a print humor successor, a new one, in a while. The Onion was 20 years old, and MAD is... way, way old.
AM: [Laughs] It's ancient.
GG: Older than time itself! So there hadn't been a new comedy magazine in a long time, so we were like, "Hey, we'll do that!"
AM: "And hey, all of our friends are artists or humor writers! Let's get everybody together and write the things we want to write!"
CA: Up until recently, comedy has been a very neglected area in mainstream comics --- meaning superhero comics --- so when you decided you wanted to incorporate comics and some of the ideas that would play off of superheroes, how did you go about it? Was it just a matter of having Michael Kupperman's phone number?
GG: We're also friends with and connected to some webcomic people, and I think humor is very well-represented in the webcomic space.
AM: For sure.
GG: We worked with a number of web cartoonists over the years, folks like David Malki, Frank and Becky from Tiny Kitten Teeth, and it's always a pleasure working with those guys. In alt comics, too, there's plenty of humor.
GG: This is definitely a project that falls outside of the scope of the Big Two, but several of our contributors worked for Marvel's Strange Tales and DC's Bizarro World anthologies.
AM: We've also had a lot of spot illustrators and artists hired to draw other people's comic scripts that had worked for Marvel or DC or Dark Horse in the past, so it proved to us that there was a thirst for humor, no matter what genre you normally work in professionally. People always got excited when they got an email from us, because it was like, "Oh great! I can do something fun this month!"
CA: Each issue of The Devastator was built around a theme, and they were very comics-fan-friendly. There were the larger genre issues, like Horror, but you also had these very specific things like the Otaku issue that was all anime parodies, or the Space Epic issue that just came out.
AM: Our Indie issue. [Laughs]
GG: That was by design. We knew that our major source in terms of distribution would be conventions.
AM: It wasn't obvious at first, but by our second book, the Science Fiction issue, we were like, "Oh, yeah, the main way we can do this is by going to conventions."
GG: We wanted to make a geekier magazine, because we ourselves are geeks. We also knew that conventions would be in our future, and that's why we tended to pick these themes. The hope was that you'd bring in people from different fandoms to The Devastator. You'd do a fantasy issue, and then people who like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter would read it out of curiosity and might stick with the series. And they did.
AM: Yeah, for the most part, that worked. The greater, broader reason is that in general, people like to group themselves and their interests off by genre. People would ask us, "Do you have any zombie stuff?" or, "Do you have any Star Trek stuff?" The customers basically told us what they wanted, and as our fan base grew, at every subsequent convention, we'd get questions like, "I really liked this, but when are you going to do this?" We took that to heart whenever we looked at the big board of themes to tackle in the future.
Doing conventions was really helpful in that regard; we were able to get instantaneous feedback on what everybody liked, and luckily, we were also making the things that we liked. Our interests meshed in that way.
CA: Let's talk about conventions, then. You've done a lot of shows that I've seen you at, like Emerald City and San Diego, but I've always wondered if you found it a difficult sell at those shows, because the audience might not be there to pick up a short-form humor anthology.
GG: It was. It was a very difficult sell, at least at first. What we didn't understand was that people's interests are very specific. In general, you don't geek out over a genre, you geek out over a specific thing. You might like superheroes, but you probably love Spider-Man, so which are you more likely to buy: A book about superheroes in general, or a book about Spider-Man specifically?
What we started doing, kind of by accident, was making these reverse books. On one side of The Devastator, it's a collection of comedy and comics based around a theme, and then when you flip it over, there's another cover that's a mini-parody book. What we noticed at conventions was that those were more popular than the anthologies themselves.
AM: It's a single concept that you immediately get when you look at it. That's another thing: It turns out that a lot of people our age didn't have the reference point for a mixed-format publication that's humor. It's only the nerdiest people our age who remember National Lampoon, comedy nerds specifically, and those are harder to come by at a comic convention. You really have to be in a certain city to encounter those guys, so yeah. The reverse books were a great way in for people, and then they'd flip it over and go "Oh, there's even more stuff on that theme."
GG: Somebody flipping through from the front cover might say, "Oh, that's a funny parody of Sailor Moon, but I don't get this Miyazaki parody" or whatever, and they'd put it down because they didn't feel like they understood the whole book. Someone who liked the Dick Note side of the Otaku book, who thought it was a hilarious parody of Death Note, would be much more interested in it.
AM: Imagine being told up front what a sketch in a sketch comedy show was going to be before you watched it. [Laughs] It's that kind of weird, disorienting way to dive into an anthology series. But when you do read it cover to cover, even if you don't get all the references, each piece has a narrative thread and its own game that's funny on its own.
CA: Did you ever have any experiences at conventions with people who just did not get it?
AM: Oh yeah. [Laughs]
GG: Of course.
AM: The one that we get the most often is when someone just sort of glazes over halfway through trying to figure out what it is. It's usually a mom or a dad in a Jedi family, where they're all in their Jedi costumes and it's just adorable, and they're like, "Oh, this looks fun," and then they look through it and go, "Oh, this is... creative!"
GG: When I hear "it's creative," I know they're not going to like it.
AM: And the correlation between the likelihood of someone saying your thing is "creative" and then signing off with "good luck" when they leave is very high.
GG: Oh yeah.
AM: "Good luck" is the worst thing to hear from a stranger.
GG: I don't necessarily want to be wished bad luck.
AM: But "good luck" assumes that the odds are stacked against you, and it's very unlikely that anyone would ever want this and that you'll ever succeed. [Laughs]
CA: So there have been 13 issues of The Devastator as a magazine...
GG: Which is pretty good, I think.
AM: Yeah, not too shab.
GG: Thirteen issues of a print comedy anthology series from 2010 to 2015. I don't know, who else was able to do that? [Laughs]
CA: Well, I didn't want to drop the math on you, but I did notice you dropped the word "Quarterly" from the title.
AM: Oh yeah, "quarterly" was something we thought we were going to be in issues #1 and #2. By #2, we knew that wasn't happening.
GG: The books are surprisingly expensive!
AM: And they take a really long time, because they're made to order. We have a curated pitch system, where we send out the prompt for the theme and what we're looking for to a group of people, and when we get the pitches in, we have to go through them, select them with the staff, and then work through each stage of production with the writers and artists. It's a very time-intensive process!
GG: Typically, just to give you an idea, the way these projects work is that there's no theme, they'll just have the quarterly issue of... Fart Magazine, or Fart Digest, or Fart Monthly, or whatever. They're just constantly getting pitches from people. The thing with our themed books was that they were tightly edited and fun to read because they were all surrounding a theme, but it means that you can't do a blind submission process. Not everyone can just submit whatever thing that they're thinking of.
AM: Not that it was a mistake. We're control freaks, so the whole idea was that we were going to make everything all within the same editorial ecosystem, where nobody writes or draws anything without our editorial fingerprints on it, so that when everything was put together in a book, it all felt cohesive.
CA: What led to the decision to end the magazine?
GG: We talked about those reverse books, right? Those started doing really well, even from the very beginning.
AM: By the Apocalypse issue, it was like, "Oh yeah, this is what people want."
GG: In 2013, we decided to start making single-concept humor titles. We took ones that were popular, some that we'd used in the magazine. We did Grosslumps, for example, which was a collection of Goosebumps parodies, and Wizards of Cockblock Forest, which was originally a roleplaying game fantasy in the Fantasy book. What we discovered very quickly was that those books were surpassing the sales of the anthology series very quickly. More people were interested in them, and more people seemed to like them.
AM: It's just easier to pick up something like The Enemies of Twentysomething Mega Man.
GG: If you're a fan of Mega Man, it's an easy decision, which is cool. I love easy decisions. So basically, in 2014, we decided to make more of the single-concept books, and they started doing even better, so when we were putting together the slate for 2015, we were just like, "Well... we should probably end The Devastator. It takes up most of our time and resources, and people seem to like these other books better --- or at least they seem more likely to purchase them."
AM: On a macro level, it's really easy to grow a small press when you're releasing more books. If we're only making The Devastator, we can only release them so fast. In 2013, we released three Devastators in one year, and that was pretty tight. We were also doing Frankenstein's Girlfriend, Geoffrey's novella, but once you get to eight, ten, twelve releases in a year, you can actually grow a small press and play the lottery of being a full-line publisher, where you can take chances on weird ideas and formats. As long as the concept make sense and it has that same sense of humor, the same contributors getting a chance to spread out and do something a little weirder and more challenging. The product is way better, because it'll definitely appeal to some people, as opposed to making a publication that one hopes to appeal to as many people in a market.
GG: The irony is that we picked key subjects specifically to have a narrower focus than, say, MAD or National Lampoon, which were meant for wider audiences, and it turned out our focus wasn't narrow enough.
AM: It gives us more time to write comedy. We were worried at first that doing twelve books in a year would mean that we were just basically tending an assembly line, but we're writing more and editing more than we ever did with The Devastator, and that's why we started this in the first place.
GG: An anthology, or at least our anthology, was so difficult to produce that producing six to ten single-title books is easier than producing two of those anthologies. Each one had thirty people you were working with, writers, artists. It's a lot of emails.
AM: Too many emails.
CA: What do you have coming up for the audience that was coming to you at comics conventions, or reading about you on sites like ours?
GG: We're still going to conventions. We're very happy to announce we just signed a distribution deal with SCB. They're excited to represent our weird catalog. Before, we were only carried in select comic book shops. Starting in 2016, our books will be available in bookstores internationally, and in 2017, interdimensionally. Coming up, we've got TARDIS Beat, which is our cross between Tiger Beat and Doctor Who.
It parodies Doctor Who and Doctor Who fandom in a way that's ridiculous. It's written by Patrick Baker, who's a writer for Regular Show on Cartoon Network, and it's incredibly geeky. If you're a Doctor Who fan, you cannot live without it. You need it directly in your veins.
AM: It's pretty ridiculous. We also have Kenny Kiel, who's been a forever friend of The Devastator, and is one of MAD's best contributors right now, who has a fully illustrated comic/activity book hybrid called Stay At Home Scarface. It's 52 pages of Tony Montana as a stay-at-home dad, in comic form. It's going to be great.
GG: He has mountains of baby powder on his desk. He's a mobster of the parenting world. He's a demon in the world of being a dad. We've also got Toys 4 Cheap, a parody of toy catalogs from the '80s and '90s, illustrated by Jimmy Hasse, who's the Senior Graphics Editor for The Onion, and it's written by Asterios Kokkinos, who's been with us since the beginning. He's written for Cracked, the Nerdist. It's a catalog for the world's worst toy store. Everything is super cheap because these are the defective, terrible, unwanted toys that no one would want.
AM: Everything's covered in lead paint.
AM: It's actually taken from a piece that we did for the Toys and Games issue of The Devastator, because we as a staff just pitched a bunch of really awful toy ideas. It was a lot of fun to do.
GG: It has the Magic One Ball, My Digital Stepdad, the Smorfs..
AM: My favorite is Blade Man, the Man of Blades.
GG: He's not safe, but he's edgy.
AM: He has a lot of edges.