LOS ANGELES — From cratering sales to diminishing creative returns, comic books seem headed for extinction. But comics-based everything else — from blockbuster movies to television series and beyond — is going gangbusters.
Who knew we needed to kill comics to save them?
Matt Pizzolo, that’s who. “Anyone who loves comics and sees them as a vital art form capable of telling unique and challenging stories must recognize that [the industry’s] business corpse has to be put out of its misery so a new one can be built,” said Pizzolo, a publisher and filmmaker who has been busy engineering the transmedia spine that will take comics into the future.
“Creators cannot survive doing only comics these days,” said Pizzolo — a still youthful but slightly graying 37-year-old who’s a dead ringer for a hip(per) Reed Richards. The co-founder of Occupy Comics publisher Black Mask Studios and founder of transmedia production house Halo-8, Pizzolo was dressed down in a black T-shirt and sweatshirt, jeans and red sneakers when we met at a cafe in Los Angeles’ hipster-friendly Silverlake neighborhood to talk about the future of comics while Black Mask’s new headquarters in nearby Eagle Rock was getting hammered out with office equipment and greenscreens.
The comic book industry’s built on “a mix of bad deals wrought by crooked publishers and an aging audience more likely to discuss ‘Would Hulk or Batman win a fight?’ during a funeral than at a party,” he said. “Now that the lion’s share of the 20th century’s pop-cultural capital has been consolidated into the intellectual-property libraries of two Hollywood studios, it’s time to wipe the slate clean and rebuild comics from scratch: new ideas, innovations, business models, blood and modes of storytelling.”
Pizzolo’s on the verge of releasing a web platform called Buzzworlds that will crowdsource the vast creative enterprise of extending a comic book world into other media, from videogames and art to short films and custom figurines. Based on the open source content-management system Drupal, Buzzworlds will empower creative fans — which Pizzolo prefers to call “constituents” — to flesh out their favorite fictions without fear of losing their shirts to corporate suits: The platform will give contributors an intellectual property stake in everything they add to the comic universe.
Pizzolo’s radical plan for rewiring the comics industry comes from years of experience doing just that. In 2008, his disturbing indie sci-fi dystopia Godkiller — with its mix of sequential art, CGI, motion graphics and radio play — prefaced comics’ inevitable transmedia evolution. Now Black Mask Studios is putting that experience into play, working on transmedia comics experiments from heavyweights like Grant Morrison, Transmetropolitan’s Darick Robertson and Wu-Tang Clan chieftains RZA and Ghostface, as well as an e-book on comics’ sociopolitical and economic history from Alan Moore.
Not bad for a Long Island punk screw-up bounced out of both high school and New York University.
“IT’S TIME TO WIPE THE SLATE CLEAN AND REBUILD COMICS FROM SCRATCH.”
— MATT PIZZOLO
“Most of my experience with comics and technology comes from getting arrested and kicked out of school for being a fucking idiot,” Pizzolo told Wired by phone ahead of our coffee chat in Silverlake. “That was my entry point, because I wasn’t allowed out of the house anymore.”
After getting arrested for graffiti, the high-school reject sought refuge in a respectable Long Island cultural arts center with a new playwriting program. “I wasn’t really an artist, musician or a dancer, so it was the only thing that I could apply for,” he said.
Even back then, he was mashing media, however accidentally: As part of the application process, he performed the opening monologue from Martin Scorsese’s crime classic Mean Streets, which his impressed audience confused with a play they had never heard of. Pizzolo cackled and skated in on the technicality.
Once there, he found other arty outsiders whose love of media and especially comics proved contagious. Pizzolo hustled his way into New York University’s playwriting program before getting ejected for ruffling feathers, specifically of media theorist Neil Postman.
Pizzolo ended up at St. Mark’s Comics in New York, which he called “the only comics store that I’m aware of which is open until 1 a.m.” St. Mark’s offered him a job after seeing his alphabetized three-page pull list consisting of many comics the store didn’t carry — and nothing at all from Marvel or DC Comics.
“In the mid-’90s, our two top-selling comics were The Death of Superman and Horny Biker Slut, the latter of which was mainly bought by women,” Pizzolo said of his time at St. Mark’s. “That’s the kind of place it was.”
Barely into his 20s, Pizzolo and some of his NYU pals piled these seemingly disparate creative concerns into an anticorporate DIY production upstart called Kings Mob Multimedia Militia, inspired by the ’70s prankster revolutionaries of the same name. Pizzolo’s Mob first rustled up a shoestring indie film called Threat, which tried to tap into the same gritty race, class and gender issues explored by similarly minded fare like Walter Hill’s cult classic The Warriors and Spike Lee’s snubbed masterpiece Do the Right Thing.
Assembling hundreds of interested kids from the hardcore scene, as well as borrowed equipment and even unused short ends, Pizzolo’s comics-inspired Mob dodged cops and filming regulations to craft a controversial chronicle of a ’90s counterculture that — whether in the work of pulp repurposer Quentin Tarantino or comics ubergeek Kevin Smith — would pave the way for a post-millennial corporate crossover.