For a community that's ostensibly built of outcasts bonding over their often misunderstood obsessions, geek culture was, until very recently, a homogenous and hide-bound club unwelcome to outsiders and resistant to change. That's the world R. Alan Brooks encountered as a young geek, and it's a paradigm he's actively trying to shift with his podcast Mother F**ker in a Cape, recorded live at Mutiny Information Cafe. Brooks, who wrote the spellbinding graphic novel The Burning Metronome, manages to combine an encyclopedic knowledge of genre favorites with a reformer's drive to make the comics community a more inclusive place. On each episode, Brooks welcomes a guest from an underrepresented corner of geek culture for insightful and far-reaching interviews conducted in arguably the most sonorous speaking voice of anyone on the Denver podcast scene. Westword caught up with Brooks (over coffee at Mutiny, appropriately enough) to discuss nerddom's changing landscape, networking at DINK and Mother F**ker in a Cape's upcoming series of episodes discussing sexual harassment in the comics community.
Westword: So from what I understand, Mother F**ker in a Cape is the first Mutiny Transmissions podcast. How did you get it going? Did you approach Jim Norris, or did he approach you?
R. Alan Brooks: It started during the first DINK; are you familiar with DINK?
Yeah, it just happened again a couple weekends ago, right?
At the first DINK, I hosted the awards show. I've hosted it every year, but this happened at the first one. I hosted the show and a couple of panels, and after the awards, somebody came up, and he was kinda faded, but he was like, "Man, you were really funny, man! Do you have a podcast or anything?" And I was like, "No, but I could!" So I thought about what I'd want to be talking about, and since comics have always been a part of my life, I thought it would be cool to do something at Mutiny. But I didn't just want to hear myself talk. Okay, so I say this in the intro to the podcast, but when I went to comic-book conventions as a kid, it was different; it was just me and white dudes in their forties. I was the only kid, I was the only person of color, and also there would only be two or three hundred people there. So things have changed.
Now it's thousands.
One hundred twenty thousand at Denver Comic Con last year. So now it's gotten big enough that I can actually talk to people who were marginalized within the comic-book community. So one of my first interviews was with a woman who's a sex worker who makes comics.
Oh, yeah, I listened to that one.
Oh, right on! It was really interesting, right? She told me how she got into both things and just had so much interesting shit to say. So anyway, I kinda pitched the idea to Jim, like it would be cool to do something once a month, and he was down for it. And we've just kind of been taking it from there. So it's been a little of that, but it's also about talking to people who are creating stuff and what they're working on.
I've noticed lately that you had a whole series of episodes about taking a project from the idea stage to the completed-product stage.
Yeah, because that plagues me in every artistic collaboration I've ever had, man. I did music for a lot of years, and people would talk to me for years and years about how they were still working on the same album. I had a friend who had a studio in his bedroom. All he had to do was get his ass out of bed and record his album, and instead he talked to me about it for seven years, you know? You've got the stuff right there. Just finish!
I think sometimes people sublimate by talking about their ideas. It's a kind of expression, and some people find their creative outlet in a way that doesn't actually yield anything.
Also, there's a lot less risk, you know? If you put it out into the world, people can criticize it, but it's safe if you're just talking about it.
That's one nice thing about standup. There's no time for that. The amount of time between having an idea and putting it out in front of people gets condensed into minutes, sometimes seconds. Like, "Oh, that's a funny idea; I'm up in two, so I'm gonna try it."
So you're a comedian, too?
Yeah, every creative in Denver has to wear like three different hats.
You know I host an open mic at Ophelia's twice a month?
Is it usually a music open mic?
It's usually music, yeah. But it is open. I've had people do poetry. I provide a drummer and a keyboard player to back you up, so even if you wanted music behind your comedy, they could do like a jazz thing. Just a walking bass line or whatever.
Oh, man, that sounds awesome.
And it's any genre of music. I had somebody go up and do a hula-hoop performance. We'll put up anything as long as it's real. This one dude got mad at me last time because he wasn't playing an instrument. He wasn't singing songs; he was just humming a bass line for like six minutes. And I was like, "Man, you do you. Are you serious right now? Is this something you're seriously doing?" It killed the crowd, and when he got off stage I introduced him as Andy Kaufman, and it offended him — which was not my intention. I was mostly just trying to bring the crowd back in.
If anything, he should be flattered by the comparison.
That's true. So anyway, you're welcome to do that. As far as the podcast goes, most of them are recorded with an audience, but once in a while I'll do shorter one-off interviews.
Did you record any of those at DINK?
Yeah. I'll be featuring some of the panel from DINK, too.
I guess since we're talking about it so much, could you explain what DINK is and how you got involved, for any uninitiated readers?
So it's the Denver Independent Comics and Art Expo; it was founded by Charlie LaGreca, who was one of the founders of Denver Comic Con, and then he moved on to do this other stuff. DINK focuses more on independent comics, so there's not a lot of superheroes and not a lot of cosplay. There' just independent comics creators from Canada, Mexico, all over. It's a really cool, boutique kind of show. I usually have a table there for my comic, The Burning Metronome, which I write in conjunction with my partner, Matt Strackbein, who does colors and letters. We also usually have another artist — right now our artist is Jolyon Yates, who also draws Tales From the Crypt and Gumby. And he lives in Baker. He's a British dude who lives in Baker. So, yeah, you meet a lot of cool, creative people from all over the world at DINK, and it happens every year downtown at the McNichols building.
Well, it was in motion before DINK, but I think the community that gave rise to DINK is what made it possible. I was going to the Denver Drink and Draw, which is a group of comic-book artists who get together once a week — to drink and draw. I don't even drink. I just do the drawing part. But I got attached to the community that way, and there are a few comics collectives in town: There's Red Team Go, there's Squid Works. The more you show up and get to know people, the more collaborations become possible. So Burning Metronome grew out of that. I met Matt at a birthday party for Scorpio Steele, who is one of the best comic artists in town, but I don't know that he gets enough pub. But we met there, ended up talking about what we could do, and then ended up collaborating. The first book we did was with an artist named Dion Harris, and now we're working with Jolyon, and it's great, man. What DINK did, the sort of momentum from that made me think of ways I could interact with the community of people who were interested in these things, and I thought maybe a podcast would be a good idea. But, again, I didn't want it to be self-indulgent. I don't want to hear myself talk for an hour.
Yeah, that's not a podcast; it's a manifesto.
Right. So I thought, "Well, let me just get interesting people to talk about interesting things." And it's been pretty cool. There's an audience there when we record, and the people who listen to it are getting a lot wider. People have come up to me and told me, "I listen to your podcast, and it inspired me to try this thing." I got an inbox message on my Tumblr page from somebody in the Springs who listens to the show. She just moved here from Russia, and she was saying the show had inspired her to work on her art. That was the first thing I got like that; I sent that one to my parents. Like, check this out!
Look! It means something to somebody!
Well, my mom really didn't like the name of the podcast at first, but she listened to it later, and now she likes it. So people have been able to tell me some cool stuff. I went to Europe two summers ago, and I was able to interview a woman who started a convention that was 80 percent women on the staff, and that was cool. Because that's, like, unheard of.
In the comics industry? I'll bet.
And I interviewed a guy in Berlin who owns three comic-book stores, and we talked about American comics versus German comics. He said he was a big Captain America fan when he was a kid, but he never got to finish any of the stories because nothing with Nazis in it was allowed in Germany.
So, what, did they just redact all the Hitler-punching?
Yeah, he'd get part one, but he'd never get to read part two, so he'd be like, "I don't know how Captain America got out of that trap!" So it wasn't until he was in his fifties that he got to go back and finish those stories.
Finally find out who Red Skull was.
Right? So that was cool. And it's interesting. This podcast has led to a lot of cool opportunities for me. There's a yoga/activism/music festival called Arise, and they heard me and hired me to emcee their main stage, so I'd be introducing all the bands and getting the crowd hyped, stuff like that. And that's directly from the podcast, you know? So it's been a cool way to connect with people. The live audience is small, probably ten to thirty people. But we all usually go hang out afterward, so it's also a way for people in the comic-book community to come and get to know each other. And some alliances are forged there.
This is a bit of a generic question, but which episodes would you recommend to new listeners looking to get the gist of the podcast?
The episode with the sex worker is really powerful, because she's talking about why she got into both of her professions and why she likes them. And what's another good one? I had a talk with some cosplayers about what it's like to work on their craft, and what it's like to have creepy dudes approaching them and stuff like that. So that's a good one. They had an interesting perspective on things. So, yeah, maybe start with those two.
Do you prefer to interview somebody from a field like cosplay or sex work, where you don't have any personal experience, or somebody like a fellow writer you have more in common with ?
I guess I do have more fun talking to somebody who has a different experience or perspective than me, because there's a lot to learn from them. Like, I'm pretty deep on my old-school comics knowledge; I know comic-book characters from the ’30s and ’40s. This geek shit runs deep, man. I have friends who could maybe outdo me with that kind of stuff, but that wouldn't be an interesting conversation to me.
It'd be more of a nerd-off.
Exactly. No one wants a nerd-off. But to bring people in – even people who are other comic creators but they're telling a story I'm not telling – I want to listen to what their perspective is, what they're thinking about, what inspires them. Not only is that cool for me to hear, it inspires me, too. I hear what pushed them forward and think, "Oh, yeah, I'm going to go and tell my story." It gives me more resolve and energy.
Do you have any white-whale guests, like dream guests you'd have on if you could?
I mean, yes. But I'm working on it!
Okay, well, let's not spoil anything, then.
I mean, frankly a lot of comics creators working now are interested when they hear the name of the podcast. But I mean, it'd be great to talk to somebody like Stan Lee, or Shatner, or somebody big like that. I'd love that.
Poor Stan Lee doesn't seem to be doing too well these days.
Yeah, these are hard times. I met him a couple years ago and took a picture with him. I'm glad I had that moment.
It'll certainly be the end of an era when he's gone. Even the movies will feel different without his cameos.
Certainly. I mean, dude's in his nineties.
I read somewhere that they filmed a bunch of those cameo scenes ahead of time.
That's probably smart. I mean, he was in his forties when he created Spider-man. He's been doing stuff for a long time.
He's one of those guys who was just kind of always old.
Right, like George Burns. I watched — you know Alan Thicke? He used to be on Growing Pains?
He had a talk show called Thicke of the Night — yeah, that was real — and you can find an interview where he's talking to Stan Lee on Youtube. And he's so condescending to Stan Lee about comic books. And Stan Lee's kind of always been the evangelist for taking comics seriously, so you see him being like, "Well, they're being used in schools. They're educational," and it's just so interesting because obviously Stan Lee became a much bigger star than Alan Thicke ever was.
He outlived the guy, too.
He did! It's just interesting that at that point, comics were still a joke to people.
How do you feel about comics becoming mainstream? I know it hasn't necessarily boosted the sale of actual books, but they're more culturally relevant than ever.
Yeah, the sales are challenging, still. I think there are a lot of old-school, hard-core geeks who resent not being part of a secret club anymore. Because it used to be you'd see someone wearing a Thor T-shirt maybe once a year and be like, "Yo, are you into comics?" And you could have a good conversation. And that's great, but I also love the fact that it's grown so much that we can have these really cool movies and toys that never existed before. We have Hulk hands! Electronic Iron Man masks, Black Panther masks that talk! None of that stuff would have been possible when I was a kid, because it wasn't popular enough. So I love that. I love seeing all these iterations of these characters that had been a part of my life for my entire life. And for the people who still want to do the secret-society stuff, we'll just go deep. Be like, "What was the Shadow's secret identity?"
Wear a Blue Beetle T-shirt, but everyone thinks the symbol is for the Tick.
Seriously. But as far as the comic-book industry in particular goes, I feel like [it] sort of engineered its own demise in a lot of ways that it's still trying to recover from. In the ’90s, they took advantage of the speculative market — the idea that we as collectors would buy things because we thought they would increase in value. So then they started releasing twelve different versions of a single issue, with foil-embossed covers, gold covers, silver covers, that kind of thing. You know, they made a lot of money off of us, and then the market crashed because we felt like we were being taken advantage of. They also wrote a lot of terrible stories. I think comics sell like a third of what they sold in the ’90s these days, so now it's almost like a slow rebuilding of trust.
I can't remember the last time I bought a single issue of a comic book. I just always wait until the trade paperbacks come out.
That's another thing. Comics are too expensive. When I started reading them as a kid, they were like sixty cents. And now they're like three to five dollars each, and a trade is $15 to $25, so you might as well just buy the trade. You get the whole story and you spend less money.
But if you're not supporting the monthly issue, it's hard for the series to continue. So everybody's just trying to figure out what the business model's going to be. Even as an independent, with The Burning Metronome, we released one single issue for the first issue, then we released a hardcover book that had all six issues in it. From a business standpoint, spending a few thousand dollars on each single issue and trying to recoup that separately was not practical. With the books, we make our money back.
It's kind of too bad, because a single issue comic is a perfect afternoon read.
Yeah. I guess the other thing is that a lot of companies don't give you a full story in a single issue, so you spend five dollars and only get a bit of a story. I see some people moving back to it. I've been reading Tom King's run on Batman, and they're all self-contained adventures. He's a really good writer. He breathes new life into some very familiar Batman tropes.
So, a big part of the mission statement you have with Mother F**ker in a Cape is to feature these underrepresented voices in the comics industry and the geek world. Do you think think there would be this groundswell for representation if comics weren't so mainstream now? You know what I mean?
I think I get it.
Like, the market has demonstrated an appetite. Wonder Woman and Black Panther made all the money. I don't think movie producers got woke all of a sudden; they can make pop culture more inclusive or ignore a giant bag of money.
I totally agree with that. I think two things. One: More people are aware that this form exists and that they can express themselves through it, so then people who weren't creating comics before now think, "That's a way I can tell my story." And also, like you said, the market is bigger, so there are more segments of the market people can reach out to. There have always been underground comics, although I will say underground comics were probably dominated by the minutiae of white men's lives. "There was a pebble in my shoe today" — that kind of thing. That'd be a whole story, right? But now you have LGBTQ representation, all these people who might not have been making comics thirty years ago finding the medium and telling their stories in a way they can control. It's not like I have to raise a film budget. I just have to sit down and write it and draw it. So a lot of cool stuff's coming out of that.
What do you think the medium of comic books allows you to express that you couldn't express in, say, a block of text?
I think comics are engaging to the reader in a different way than other media is. Like, if you're watching a movie, the movie is in complete control of the pacing. If you're reading a book, you're imagining the characters and settings. A comic is a collaboration between the creators and the reader, so there are things a creator can do to encourage a reader to go slower or faster, or to establish a tone. But the reader has to participate in that, because as a reader, you have to determine what happens between the panels. Because it's just snapshots of a story, and so you have to use your imagination to fill things in based on the template given to you by the writer and the artist. So it's a collaboration between all of us together, and I don't really think any other medium does that.
Okay, let's talk about your upcoming episodes on sexual harassment.
Yeah, so there's three episodes. It's a little outside of the purview of what I normally do, but I figured as a man, this is my forum, so I'm just going to use it. So in the first episode, I interview an anti-harassment trainer from CU Denver who gives us a legal definition for harassment and strategies for dealing with it. Second episode, I interview some women who've been harassed. And then in the last episode, I interview men who have harassed. They talk about what they did and how the learned it was wrong. And that was really interesting. And two out of three of those guys didn't know what they were doing at the time was harassment, but the third guy just flat out admitted that he'd been raised to believe that this sort of behavior was his birthright.
But he married a feminist, and over the course of the years, he's changed his thinking. So it's really interesting, and that's the main reason I wanted to get this interview out. I want people to hear these stories because I think it provides a context. I think with any form of oppression, we most often hear the voices of the people being oppressed and how they try to address it. But the real problem is with the people who are doing the oppressing, right? So since men are most often the perpetrators of sexual harassment, then it's men who should be talking about how to dismantle this problem and address it.
Maybe there's even some redemption there.
Yeah. Recently I've heard more and more white people saying that it's white people's responsibility to fight racism, and I think along those same lines, we as men need to figure this shit out. There's nothing women need to do differently. It's us. The first episode premieres on April 30, which is the last day of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and then it'll be every Monday following that.