One of the Best Political Podcasts in the Game Is Centered Around Comic Books
ComicsVerse’s Justin Alba and Kat Venditti break down how comic books can save the world (through discourse!).
Welcome to PodFodder, where I talk to the people behind podcasts about why they created their podcasts. Yeah. Cool. Let’s get into it.
Today’s PodFodder features Justin Alba and Kat Vendetti from ComicsVerse, and they’re here to talk about the site’s podcasts. But be warned: These aren’t your grandma’s comic book podcasts (that is, if your grandma listened to podcasts as a youth, but like, I won’t let potentially anachronistic notions get in the way).
Instead, Alba, Vendetti, and their crew of swell contributors use comics books as a jumping-off point to talk about topics like race, gender, sexuality, inequality, religion, and more in the hopes of promoting acceptance through pop culture. Recent episodes have included discussions about Marvel’s Muslim female superheroes as well as how the latest X-Men edition addresses globalism versus nationalism.
So, let’s jump in to find out more about how these podcasts are constructed (spoiler: they take a ton of research) and why you should be giving comics a second look if you’re unfamiliar with ‘em.
The Queue: You were told to think of this one beforehand. Describe your podcast in haiku form.
Justin Alba: ComicsVerse podcast. Uses comics to discuss. Social change through art.
The Queue: First and foremost, how did this particular podcast get started?
JA: I grew up reading comics and I always had a really strong kinship with them. When I was younger, I didn’t have the greatest time in high school, [and] I didn’t have the greatest time before that. Comics really had a major impact on me. So I kind of fell out of that for a while and I went to Columbia as an older student, and I took a class called Comic Books and Graphic Novels as Literature in the summer of 2012, and it rekindled my love for the medium.
One of the stories I really like telling is that the first time I ever read a book by this guy [Chris] Claremont. Columbia has all these notes for their comic book library and the rare manuscripts library that they have there, so for some reason, we had to do something there and they let us in and things were all over the place; they were still cataloguing and adjusting it. In the room, I took the last available chair and I sat down, [and the] first thing that confronted me was the actual scripts that he wrote in the 70s for the first issue of the first comic I ever read. I was like, wow, I should really do something with this.
I really wanted to have a place where people were talking about comics the way Inside the Actor’s Studio was talking about movies, but without the pretentious message, and I thought we could talk about other art mediums as the high art they are. Not every comic book is a work of high art; some of them aren’t necessarily a work of quote-unquote ‘art,’ but there’s so many that are, and I felt like they weren’t getting attention. That was what was behind it at first.
TQ: A follow-up to that is, why podcasting as a medium? I know ComicsVerse does a lot besides podcasting, but what specifically does a podcast bring to the table that a blog post doesn’t?
JA: Number one, there’s an element of spontaneity in it. And I wanted to replicate the sort of conversations I had with my friends when I was younger and the conversations that I had in class, where we would build on each other’s ideas and get inspired by them. And podcasts are a great kind of long-form content. What I’ve found — and thank God this was true because I took a gamble — was that people were starved for this kind of information.
TQ: Something I really, really like is that a lot of your podcasts really deal with topical issues, so it’s not just, ‘oh we’re going to rehash the plot in podcast form’; it’s [about things like] Marvel’s Muslim superheroes. I know one of the podcasts I listened to also had some examples below about Kellyanne Conway, and sort of this interesting intersection of pop culture and comics with what’s going on today. Has that always the intention, or was that something where it’s gotten more topical as you’ve gone on and as the world has gotten a little more political in general?
JA: That was always our intention. I think that at first I wanted to focus on issues and political issues that people don’t pay a lot of mind to. Even now, I feel like we’re not really talking about what’s going on in Uganda in terms of the treatment of homosexuals and we’re not really talking about what’s going on in the Congo and the Lords’s Resistance Army, and these are really big issues for me; it’s so hard to find information on them in the news. So I wanted to use comics as a platform to discuss these kinds of issues.
But then of course Trump happened and it became a situation where we have to celebrate women characters because what a horrible year for women it was last year. Now we need to celebrate Muslim characters because what a horrible year that was. We try to use comics to talk about these topical things.
Just to give one example and then I’ll let Kat expound on this — there was a comic called Inhumans vs. X-Men; it was maybe not the most amazing comic I’d ever read, but it was really, really good. When we took a deeper look at it, it was so parallel to what was going on during the election of 2016 and really what was going on in all of the West. When that book was out, it was the whole Theresa May thing, and it became an argument over globalism over isolationism or globalism versus nationalism. I’m not sure Kat and I are both experts on that, but it was still a great opportunity to say hey, these things are going on in the comics and they’re also going on in real life, and how can we use the comic to learn about this? How can we use real life to learn about the deeper aspects of these characters?
Kat Vendetti: To go off on that, X-Men has always been pretty political, especially because there’s the whole situation where the X-Men and mutants are marginalized people, so a lot of their stories really go into that. We can make so many parallels with modern-day politics with X-Men for sure.
TQ: How do you, out of the huge world [of comics], decide what topics to focus on or which comics to use for [podcasts]? How does that process work of putting together the podcast?
JA: It’s interesting because I definitely changed my outlook on comics after that class [in college]. I always loved comics, and when I took that class at Columbia, I thought “I’ve already read every X-Men comic so this’ll be super easy.” And then I find out the first day of class that comics are just another medium just like film or literature. There’s superhero comics, which are considered a genre, and they aren’t an actual medium, so there are a lot of comics that we try to focus on that are independent or from smaller publishers, like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which is a play on Broadway (and Alison Bechdel is well-known for creating the Bechdel Test for film), so we try to focus on that stuff too.
However, the superhero genre is really, as Kat was saying, rife with political metaphors’ the X-Men have always been into it. I think that the process is different every single time. I go by what in the world do we think we can bring attention to and how can we get people who normally wouldn’t care about this to care about this through comics, and what kind of comics work to bring people into that?
TQ: To switch directions here a bit, what are the biggest challenges you have logistically with podcasting?
JA: Scheduling is a big thing, I would say, right Kat?
KV: That was going to be what I was going to say.
JA: For us, research is huge; we have to do, like, semester-long reading lessons before a podcast. I don’t want any of us to come off like we’re experts in comic journalism, but I also don’t want us to come off as uninformed; I want to give everyone all the information. So the research part is difficult. It’s hard because you have to do your research in terms of what’s the best process for you if you have a big rotating cast of panelists, so I typically use a [podcast] mixer. At first I had everything going into one channel, and I didn’t really know what it meant to have everyone in a different channel. And once I discovered that, life was a lot easier.
[Other challenges included] realizing that I needed a lot of computer space and realizing I needed the right mixer for the right amount of people that were recording stuff in the right way. I was already familiar with podcasts before, but I kind of honed my skills doing this, and eventually we did so many that I hired an outside editor.
It’s hard to pick one thing that’s the hardest. I think the hardest thing to realize is that it’s a part of production. For me, it was difficult; for example, we have a podcast on homosexuality in comics on Saturdays. But it’s a whole week to prepare, even though I have Kat helping me with schedules and stuff; I actually have to do the reading two or three times, I have to come up with a script. I have to write down everything I say. Sometimes — Kat will tell you — I’m completely off the script the whole time, sometimes I’ll follow every word. People don’t realize it’s a lot of preparation. It really just isn’t a bullshit conversation. The conversations are organized, but it’s the illusion, and I think that comes from the fact that we want everyone to have an opportunity to speak and speak their mind.
KV: There is definitely a lot of planning and research that goes into it; there have been episodes where I’ve read hundreds of comics [and] a bunch of academic papers to prepare. I also help Justin organize the casts for them. We try to make sure the people who are on are people who work well together, who communicate well together, and ideally [are] a diverse cast. For example, we had an episode on women in X-Men and Muslim characters. We made sure that there were people who were representative of the characters we were talking about, so it wasn’t just a homogenous group of people talking about characters they can’t relate to and who don’t have an experience to contribute for that particular episode.
TQ: This is an open-ended one, what do you think makes a great podcast?
KV: In my experience, what’s made our podcasts great for me is that the panelists all get along so well and we all really care about the subject that we’re talking about. We go in knowing our feelings on it but also being respectful of each other’s opinions on it too. We’ve never really gotten into any arguments or anything like that, we’ve always been really respectful of how each other feels about the subject, and we always ask questions about it. And I always come out feeling like I learned something new.
JA: I think for me, it’s funny, like should we stage like a Real Housewives type argument? I never think we could do it with a straight face.
But for me what goes into a good podcast episode is a combination of preparation, spontaneity, [and] the right cast. I don’t think you need to be an expert at it, but I think you need to have a perspective, and that perspective needs to lead to other conversations. I think there are a lot of podcasts that are what I call emotionally masturbatory, and people are just saying things because they like the way it sounds and just like hearing themselves talk. And for me, I just want to ask the questions, do the intro and the outro, and I’m very cool with just guiding the conversation.
I think when I hear a podcast where people are pushing out their perspective not because they believe in their perspective but because they want to be heard as a human being, I think there’s other forms for that that would be better, like spoken word poetry or something. Just write a poem. But I think — speaking of — Kat wrote that awesome haiku.
TQ: Yes, it was great. A+.
JA: There needs to be openness too; in our older podcasts, we had a few people on who would talk for four or five minutes while answering a question, and that really doesn’t help because we have to skip everyone else. Since episode 45 and on, it’s been really great because everyone gets that this is a community, and our job is to make sure everyone’s heard and everyone looks good. We want to give people the opportunity to say what they need to say.
TQ: Last question and a follow-up to that as well, what advice do you have for those who are starting out creating a podcast?
KV: I think the advice I would give is do [a podcast] based on something you’re passionate about; I mean, of course at ComicsVerse we’re really passionate about the stuff that we talk about in our podcasts. Have fun, and it really goes into a lot of what Justin was saying before about having that spontaneity and being respectful, and have fun.
JA: Don’t worry about being an expert. I think there are some people who feel like they need to be a CNN pundit or something, [but] I think it’s totally cool to go into a podcast, which is democratized radio, just having your perspective. What that also means is that you need to do your research, and you need to make sure you have everything together in terms of the technical stuff.
So before anyone dives into it, I would say have conversations with friends about that kind of stuff and see where it goes, get some inspiration from that. Just be as much of you as you can be. Also research the technical stuff. It does mean a lot; it takes weeks and months. Figure out what kind of stuff works for you.
KV: Yeah and just don’t be afraid; everybody has a unique perspective. Just get out there and share it — people are going to want to hear it.
Transcription provided by Christina Tucker.
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