Sunday, October 17, 2010

In the wake of the Alternative Press Expo

Holy shit.

This weekend Manuel and I took our first real go at a comic convention table, taking the weekend off to peddle our crap and meet a ton of incredible people at the Alternative Press Expo. (We bought a table at last year's APE but didn't have much to give out -- plus, I was at a wedding most of the weekend. This felt more like a real go at it.)

Manuel and I are both reeling from the experience, so while it's still fresh, let's do some decompression:

1. Creative people are awesome. I know that doesn't exactly read as a bold statement, but my God: my favorite thing about this weekend was the richness and diversity and the fucking ballistic enthusiasm of the people with whom we shared the con. I don't mean everybody was running around like Tom Cruise on a couch -- for a lot of people, something like a table at APE with their work sitting on it is a hard-won reward, and some folks were still recovering from the energy burn it took to get there. But almost without exception, the dozens of creators we met were there providing some inspiring proof that it has certainly not all been done before.

2. Everyone doing something awesome is dealing with serious roadblocks. I get this stupid idea sometimes that Manuel and I can get a pass for not working hard enough because we both have Real Lives to Deal With. I feel a little dumb admitting that, today, because pretty much everyone we met who had incredible stuff to sell or trade to us* is working a 9-to-5 just like everyone else in the world. Nobody's running around with a free pass; they all have to work on their art in their own time. And they're all doing it. I love meeting people who kill your excuses.

* Which reminds me...

3. Trading goods with the other exhibitors is insanely fun. I have to give big fat thanks to Josh Shalek, a fine gentleman who prints collections of his webcomic and brought them to the show, for introducing me to this phenomenon. I was walking around meeting people, shaking hands and learning from as many of these people as I could, when Josh noticed my exhibitor badge. "If you're exhibiting, I love to do trades!" he said. My brain told me he meant trade paperbacks and that he was asking if I was a publisher, so I said, "Uh, I'm just a writer in a writer-artist team, trying to scrape a little money together to get by just like y'all." Josh was kind and gave me a little laugh at my weird, inappropriate response (thanks, dude), but then I figured out what he meant and HOLY CRAP THAT WAS FUN. Manuel and I spent a good chunk of the last hour of the show swapping our prints for other people's prints and, in a couple cases, their books! I never knew people did that and I'm totally stoked. To be honest, we were giving them black-and-white cardstock prints and we were getting some pretty stellar stuff in return, so I have to thank everyone for their generosity. I'm proud of what we had -- the prints came out great and sized at 11" x 17" I thought they felt nice and substantial -- but seriously, some of what people gave us in exchange was unbelievable.

4. The show ended with everyone applauding everyone else. Were you there for that moment? How amazing was that?

5. Telling people about your ideas is a lot of fun, and it's also terrifying. Manuel and I each pitched our book to an easy two dozen people or more, and every time I was grateful for their interest and for the chance to tell them about our work. But there was this moment of paralysis that tried to take hold every time -- a jolt of fear that wanted me to shut up, play it down, evade expectations and swallow my words. Each time, I tried to just take a breath, think of a place to start and get moving. The principles of inertia took on a kind of social context; a little forced confidence to get the ball rolling tended to get an encouraging response from the folks we talked to, and their interest (or generosity) helped us grow some more organic confidence. By the end of the pitch, almost every time, I felt like I'd learned a little something and everyone I talked to seemed genuinely interested. That alone was worth the money we spent on the table.

That leads to a second thought. Having gone around the con and heard a ton of pitches, stood to the side and watched several more as a non-involved third party and given my own pitch to so many people in a short time, one element stood out as a crucial one:

6. Spontaneity can make or break a pitch. Just to be clear about my terms, when I say "pitch," I mean it broadly. To me, a pitch is what you're giving any time you're talking with someone in whom you want to encourage interest in your work. It doesn't matter if they're a potential audience, a publisher, a colleague or someone else; y'oughtta treat everyone the same. Why I think spontaneity is important to this is that it lets the other person know and feel you're actually having a conversation with them. I saw one or two people over the weekend who were clearly reciting a planned, rehearsed pitch. The polish may have been what made them feel comfortable putting themselves out there, but each time I watched it I could see their energy falling through, kind of a bucket-with-a-hole-in-it situation. It was also fairly annoying. Knowing that our pitch for the book we're working on is still pretty imperfect, I'd already made the decision to try something new each time, to shoot from the hip as much as possible so I could learn what people respond to and what tends to dull the shine. As a pleasant, unplanned side effect, I had to tailor the pitch each time to the person I in front of me, and that person felt -- I hope -- less like a cash machine and more like a person I was happy to be talking with. Don't get me wrong, it's important to have your ducks in a row and know your shit when someone asks you about your business, but boy, this con was a rewarding lesson on the value of being in the moment with people.

6 and 1/2: It's way more fun to listen to someone being real than someone being clever. Manuel and I have a tendency to force each other into honesty, and it's a big part of how we work together creatively; nobody gets away with anything and eventually nobody tries. Part of what made the con so valuable to us was, as Manuel put it, the opportunity for honest, enthusiastic abandon. We got a ton of it from y'all and we gave our own to everyone we could.

7. That said, I finally stumbled into our one-sentence pitch for the book. As much as I'm all about keeping things fresh and improvised, this is a sentence we will sometimes need and had yet to work out for ourselves. After a weekend full of practice telling people about the book, which I've sometimes been worried was too complex to explain to someone in that short, sharp shock, I did it by accident. A friend told me he'd had some trouble explaining the book to his other friends, and I said: "Tell them it's a black comedy about the afterlife breaking down." Whew, that only took four years to figure out. Thanks for helping us get there, everybody! Next stop: a title!

8. Seriously, everybody at APE is awesome. Covered that in the first item, but I'm closing out for the day and just wanted to throw that out one more time. It was an inspiring weekend and we're grateful for everyone we met. See y'all again soon!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Spitball hits the airwaves!

Recently, Spitball Press was featured on Creepy Kofy Movie Time, in an interview with Balrok and No Name!

We knew we needed to do something special with it, so we worked up a comic in which our hero, Earl, is forced to... well, take a look:

Thanks to our hosts on the show! It was a great scene, with old-time hospitality like you wouldn't believe: kegs to the side, a 200-pound pit bull, goth strippers everywhere and of course, the gentlemen in charge, who made us feel really welcome.

We'd never done anything on camera like that before, and I have to admit I was increidbly nervous. But Balrok sat down, in his amazing blue demonness, and... well, he talks like a regular Joe. It's really funny. And he just calmed us right down. His questions were great and we had a ton of fun!

There's another post on its way soon, too, so check back next week!

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Posse

The first characters to take some life in this impending tale of doom Manuel and I are fixin' to tell were The Posse.

Now, this is what happens when the wait staff at a restaurant gets to bullshitting between plates of food coming out and walk-ins sitting down:

A: "What if people did't die?"

B: "What, like they lived forever?"

A: "Yeah, like what if the aging process just kept going and going but you didn't die from it? Like, what stage would come after the shitting-your-self, drooling idiot stage?"

B: "Your body would have to come up with something new. Like, you'd have to turn into an organism that didn't need coherent thought or the ability to move or digest food."

A: "Oh, man. I wonder that that would look like. OH, what if somebody did it on purpose?"

B: "Found a way to live forever but didn't count on it fucking their shit up? I think they kind of did that in Faust."

A: "No, it's be like a prank someone pulled. Like, whoever's supposed to be out there, God or whatever, all benevolent and loving, what if those guys decided to fuck with us, just to fuck with us and see what happened?"

B: "Ohhh, what if it was like when WE fuck with people? Like, instead of the person in charge, the grunts who do all the hands-on work could start fucking with the system and screwing up the works. Like when you use a fucked up accent at a table or hide shit from the other servers."

A: "Do they know I do that?"

B: "Not yet."

A: "So, what if Heaven, basically, not like Christian Heaven but wherever souls get processed and sent to life or taken back and all that, what if something got fucked up there and people couldn't die and all kinds of fucked up, grotesque shit started happening? How fucking funny would that be?"

B: "What if it was fucked up by some dudes like us, who just needed something to kill the fucking boredom of the work?"

A: "Renegade angels?"

B: "Incompetent renegade angels."

Something very like this conversation led to the invention of The Posse. I'll tell you more about them next time -- we've got some good art coming up we'll be able to show you of each one in his element.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Where we've been.

Okay, so far this blog has been mostly a storytelling exercise, but Spitball Press is also a fledgling publisher – part of what we want to do with these stories is give readers a sense of what Manuel and I do together, a taste of our creative flavor so that when we start asking for your money, you have some idea what you're getting into.

Yes, we're expecting parents, laboring over a book-length comics project we plan to put into print when we finish it, a labor of love now several years in the making. It started the same way the blog stories started -- with Manuel and I hunkering down after a long shift of work, swapping ideas and memories over wooden table tops laced with empty shot glasses and beer bottles, laughing and talking shit and describing the demented, unpredictable cast of characters in our personal histories, in our restaurant and in our imaginations.

The latter collection ended up creating a kind of world for themselves; we'd have one character pinned down when suddenly another character would bang up against him, fiction after fiction picking each other's pockets, slapping each other high fives and gumming up the works.

We ended up with a story. Made up people doing made up things in a time and place where they seemed to all fit together.

Here's an image we stumbled over:


Most of our major characters are in this poster.

The guy at the bottom? He's despicable. He's the biggest loser and the smallest man. He's anonymous. He's the end of the world.

The man with the drink in his hand? He's good at his job. He hates it. He's a straight talker and a crooked walker. He's Earl.

The creature to his right? That's Earl's co-worker.

The lady on his left? Her name's Hailie. She's a housewife, actually. Then later, she's something else.

The guys at the top are the posse. They're responsible for a lot. They're also pretty ignorant about what kind of damage they can do. But they end up giving it a shot anyway.

We'll get more into the actual world of the story in another post, but this should give a good introductory taste. This one and the next several are free. We're lousy drug dealers, Manuel and I.

Aw, hell: here's another one.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Manuel and the Wine Magnate

Manuel and I met during the first couple months we were both working at a restaurant called Aziza. It was my first-ever bartending job and they only had a couple shifts per week for me behind the bar, so I ended up running food out of the kitchen sometimes to make extra money and Manuel was back there as an expo, calling the dishes as servers asked the prep line to fire them, and telling me where to run the food.

It was pretty braindead work for both of us, so mostly we stood around at the line joking around and telling each other stories. Add some good times after work doing shots and drinking beers at the Irish pub across the street, and boom, we were pals.

But I remember specifically a story he told me early on when I thought, “I’m gonna be friends with this guy for sure.” And here’s that story.

So, back in the day Manuel was dating a girl named Gina, whose grandfather was Old Man Maroncelli, the California wine magnate. Manuel and Gina had met working at another restaurant where Manuel was serving and Gina got hired on as the new host.

“We were like, ‘New host!’ Every time there was a new host, there was a finite amount of time before someone was gonna make a move, and then you had to back off and give him a fair shake,” Manuel told me. “So I jumped first.”

Manuel made it happen and they’d dated for two or three months when she invited him up to the vineyard in Napa for a big family barbecue. Old Man Maroncelli was hosting and when Manuel arrived, he wanted to be a gracious guest, so he walked right up and held out his hand and said, “Hello, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” and thanked him for the invitation.

The old man turned around. No eye contact, no handshake, nothing. Just a complete and brutal snub.

“And nobody noticed!” Manuel said. “Nobody noticed but me! Like because he’s the patriarch he gets to get away with being an asshole. And I figured, I’m the new guy, so I tried to make some excuse for the man, like maybe he didn’t see me. Whatever.”

So, Manuel’s still eating a nice meal and drinking good wine in a beautiful vineyard with this hot girl he’s dating, so what the hell. He can still have a good time. And he goes about the party enjoying himself and giving the old man some berth, because the dude obviously doesn’t want to talk to this strange Mexican his granddaughter dragged in.

But as the old man is walking around hosting and checking in on everybody, time after time the guy makes a point of talking through Manuel.

“It was like I was literally a ghost. I’d answer somebody’s question and the old guy would just talk right past me, to the guy who was behind me. I wanted to kick him in the balls.”

As the night wound down, everyone got ready to go, and just as Manuel was putting on his jacket and heading for the door the old man came rushing up and took Manuel aside.

The old man put a hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eye.

He said, “I want to know what your intentions are with my granddaughter.”

Manuel smiled, and looked the old man right back in the eye, and said:

“I’m gonna get her pregnant and steal ALL of your money.”

By the time the old man recovered from his near-heart attack and started looking around for a gun, Manuel and Gina had left. To go spend some Maroncelli money and screw in the car.

When Manuel told me the story, I laughed so hard the chef almost kicked me out of the kitchen. And that, as the fella said, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Post-Script: As Manuel was researching this story and looking for the old man on Google to find a photo reference, he made an interesting discovery. The guy died in 2008. So, in a weird sort of way, consider this a tribute. The guy might have been a dick, but at least he left us with a story to tell.

Words: Sean Murray
Art: Manuel Martinez

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Delayed, or: The Russian Driver

So, we're behind on the blog this week. This is pretty much entirely my fault. We're going to be shifting to stories from Manuel's life for a bit, which I'm really excited about because the dude has some amazing stories. But I'm way behind on typing them up. I haven't even sent a draft Manuel's way yet for this week's story, so I suppose it's wise to just admit we're taking an off week.

However, I have a wee vignette to share. It's not really visual enough to have Manuel draw but it's one of those brief chance meetings that stuck out for me.


My birthday is the day after Christmas. I turned 29 a few weeks ago, and I celebrated with a bunch of great friends at a couple bars in North Beach, across town from where I live, in the Excelsior. This is a cutty neighborhood, way out at the end of the city. If I mention to people I live there, six times out of ten they ask, "Where?" And that's people who also live in San Francisco.

Anyway, I called a cab to get me to the bar. I was by myself, meeting some people there, but the cab that showed up was one of those big van cabs.

Well, that was pretty cool. I smiled to myself that I got to stretch out in this nice big van the whole way across town and sidled on in.

The cab driver was this blonde lady, with real short hair, maybe 45 or 50 years old. She seemed confused at first and had a hard time figuring out her way to the freeway.

After I talked her to the on ramp, I asked her, "How long have you been a cab driver?" I was curious if she was disoriented because she was new at driving around the city or because I lived in the boonies.

"About... a year and one half," she said. She had a striking Russian accent -- it was just a tiny bit husky, but still feminine and ornate. There was kind of a baroque trill to her sharp consonants and I realized I hadn't heard such a beautiful Russian accent in a long time. Usually the Russian accents I hear are shouted on the bus and sound like a German is throwing up while trying to remember song lyrics.

So, it turned out she was a bookkeeper who'd moved to San Francisco some ten years or so back to be with her family, "because it became very lonely for me in Moscow."

She'd done accounting for a jewelry dealer for many years, and when he moved his business up to Portland he offered her a job there, but she declined because she only lived in the States to get closer to her family.

They'd all emigrated here, I learned, but her. She had stayed in Moscow to be with her husband, who died.

She very much liked accounting and was good at it, but the economy made a new job in her field seem out of reach, so she took up the taxi to make ends meet.

"I like to drive," she said. "I am very good driver, but every day I thank God. I have no accidents and no crashes. Is amazing, if you drive so much, to have no accidents."

Later, in the midst of a shortcut she was excited to show me, we got stuck dead in traffic while the crowd from a ball game crossed the streets downtown. She apologized profusely.

"I am very fast," she said, "but there is nothing to do here."

Finally, having gotten to know her a bit, I complimented her accent. She held a hand to her mouth as if daintily blocking a little burp.

"I am embarrassed by it," she said. "I am here ten years and it doesn't go away. It sounds like pornography, like four-letter words."

Well, I liked it, I told her.

Nearing the bar, she got around to explaining why she was so afraid of accidents. Her husband had been driving in Moscow and was sideswiped by a car that left him completely paralyzed.

"I lived to care for him for three years and then he died," she said. "They said get a nurse or put him in a hospital, but no. I cared for him."

She must have really loved him, I said. We were at a stoplight. She put her arm over the shotgun seat and turned around to look at me, and she said:

"He was very nice man."

The whole ride was just great. Her name, I found out moments before leaving the cab, was Nina. I liked Nina. I liked how simple she felt the situations of her life had been, how in spite of being deeply difficult, their demands had at least been clear.

But maybe my favorite thing was something she said after I brought up her accent. She'd been here ten years, yes, and she spoke English now, but when she first arrived she didn't know a word of it. She stayed with her family and went to school.

In her first weeks in the city, she went for walks, she said, and one day she saw a man walking his dog. She saw the man order the dog to sit, and watched the dog sit. Stay, and the dog stayed. Heel, and the dog heeled.

"And I remember thinking I am jealous of that dog," she said, "for he understands English, and I have none."

Monday, January 11, 2010

Benjamin Franklin: The Homeless Stereo King

I met Benjamin Franklin as I was walking to Safeway ten years ago on a lunch break from my first real job. I was working for the San Francisco Design Center, a giant high-end interior design mall for rich people. One ironic thing about the place was that it was surrounded by some of the poorest streets in the city. The bus to work was full of homeless people and drug addicts and morbidly obese men and women in wheelchairs and dressed up blondes and gay guys on their way to work in the Design Center’s showrooms.

Me, I was learning how to do office work, planning events, getting screamed at by Louis, the psycho in accounting. I was also looking superfly in my black fur-felt fedora. I grew up stoked on old movies with Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney going around acting like badasses in hats. I thought men looked awesome in hats ever since, so I bought one with my first paycheck at my first-ever job, clerking at a video store. As much of an affectation as it was, I didn’t give a shit: I loved that hat.

So one day for lunch I was walking up to Potrero Boulevard, one of the liveliest, poorest streets in that part of the city, and I saw the Homeless Stereo King.

He was a tall, gangly kind of guy, but permanently bent and bobbing along with the music. Up against the chain link fence behind him was a pyramid of stereo equipment four or five feet tall: boom boxes, Discmans, Walkmans, busted-up speakers, radios. On the side of that was a shopping cart ALSO full of boom boxes and radios, but also with cassette tapes and empty battery packages and cracked CD cases.

The man in charge of this unbelievable cache of music machines had a tape running at top volume in one of the smaller boom boxes, playing some trumpety 70s funk as loud as its tiny tinny speakers could fuzz out. The man was swaying and laughing to himself, running his own personal, mellow dance party. He wasn’t flinging himself all over the place, just bumping side to side in a one-man, open-to-the-public groove.

I came walking up and, getting a fun vibe from the music and encouraged by a smile from this old guy, I bounced my shoulders and strutted a little.

“Well, look who’s here!” the guy said in a throaty, Creole accent. “It’s David Booway!”

I was so happy to be called David Bowie, and in an awesome accent, that I stopped and threw the guy a handshake. It completely made my day.

“What’s going on today, my man?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m just feeling love, brother, you know.”

“What’s your name, friend?”

“Ah, well y’see, MY name… is, ah… Benjamin Franklin,” he said, and he laughed this soft, wheezing laugh, as if he were getting away with something. I thought he was fucking with me.

“Did you just tell me your name is Benjamin Franklin?” I said.

“Yeah, baby, I AM Benjamin Franklin. Hoo, yah!”

Hell, if that’s what he wanted me to call him, that’s what I’d call him.

So we talked about music for a few minutes and then I headed off to buy some lunch. He didn’t ask me for any money, which was a relief. We’d had a fun conversation, and too often with San Francisco homeless people you find in the end it was basically an extended transaction. To have the conversation actually be just a conversation, just two people getting to know each other by talking, was really pretty cool to me.

I went back that way again a few days later and Benjamin Franklin was still there, this time with a different boom box playing, and we laughed and danced a little and I walked on to get my lunch. It ended up being something I did two or three times a week, just because the guy always made me smile. He was crazy, but something about it was okay: he didn’t seem lonely or sad, or even too upset about being so poor.

He never asked me for money, and he usually politely turned down any food I offered. The soup kitchen was right around the corner, after all. But once I came walking up and there was no music playing – he just leaned against the fence, not morose but clearly a little bummed.

“What’s going on, Benjamin Franklin?” I asked. He always called me by my full name (“Hey, look, it’s David Booway too-day! That’s a beautiful hat you got there, David Booway!”) so I always called him by his. And if he was conning me about the name, which seemed possible because every time I called him that he got that same mischievous, toothy grin on his face, I didn’t really care.

“Aw, baby, my batteries is all died,” he said. He turned to me with an almost conspiratorial, looking-over-his-shoulder posture, holding out a dirt-stained little tape player, and he said, “If it ain’t too much trouble, if you could bring me back some batteries from that Safeway, I could put ‘em in here and we rockin’ again.”

“Shit yeah, my man, I’ll get you some batteries.” He told me what kind he needed and I got a big pack of ‘em at the Safeway and gave him the handoff on my way back and when I walked by a few days later there he was, music back on, feeling good and dancing by himself.

Sometimes I’d see him with a little bit of money, and that was when I knew he actually was crazy. He’d walk out into the street, to a nearby manhole cover, and he’d jam dollar bills into the holes in the manhole cover. I saw him doing it once and I asked, “Uh, Benjamin Franklin? What the hell are you doing?”

“Aw, I’m planting that shit, baby.”

“Planting it?”

“Yeah, baby, planting that shit. Gone grow something.”


Well, it was harmless enough, I supposed. The guy was clearly able to eat and he seemed to have a place to go at night.

Well, one day in the winter, early in the year, I came walking up on my way to Safeway, and he was missing. The shopping cart and the mountain of stereos were still there, but all by themselves, weirdly still and silent. Something felt creepy about it. I figured he was getting lunch, though, because there was a line outside the soup kitchen, and I went and bought some fried chicken strips at Safeway.

As I walked back, somebody in line at the soup kitchen shouted, “Hey!”

I turned around and looked down the sidewalk.

“Hey! Yeah, you!”


“Yeah, come here! I gotta tell you something!”

I walked over. I’d never seen this guy in my life, but he seemed pretty clearly to recognize me. I walked up and I asked him what was going on, and he said a sentence to me I don’t think I’ll forget as long as I live:

“Something HORRIBLE happened.”

I actually had to pause a second because it was such a plain, simple, devastating thing to say I didn’t know how to react. But somehow I knew what was coming.

“What ?” I asked.

“That guy, the ol’ dude with the stereos?”

I nodded. And I knew where this was going.

“He got hit by a car, man. He’s gone.”

Turns out Benjamin Franklin was out there at the manhole cover, planting his money, and someone had driven by, hit him and sailed on, leaving a crazy old homeless man battered and dying on the street. By the time an ambulance arrived it was way too late.

I walked back to work in kind of a daze. I stopped at his spot, which now felt more like a shrine. I knew other people would arrive soon like vultures to take whatever they could find to sell for a buck or two, and I didn’t really mind: my friend obviously didn’t need this stuff anymore, and it might as well be of some aid to somebody. But I wanted some kind of memento. I saw a single, recordable cassette tape lying in the kiddie-seat of the shopping cart, and I picked it up and put it in my pocket.

I wasn’t sure how to deal with Benjamin Franklin’s death. When somebody close to you dies, you can go ahead and make a big deal out of it. A family member, a friend from school or work, somebody you spend your downtime with dies? You feel powerfully sad, and you can cry and ask people for space or for support or whatever you want to do. But as much as I liked Benjamin Franklin, as much as I enjoyed him and liked getting him batteries when he was out, he wasn’t that kind of person in my life. I was mournful for him, but I didn’t feel grief, and I didn’t want to do anything disrespectful or phony with his death.

I talked about it with Molly and Darren, who was living in San Francisco then. I showed them the tape and I explained it was the guy who called me David Booway, and repeated what I’d been told happened. They both gave me condolences but I paused and told them I wasn’t looking for sympathy, and explained the weird feedback loop I had going on in my head.

Darren thought about it a moment and said:

“Well, I guess you should just keep the tape, and then every once in a while you can tell somebody about him. And that way people will know who he was, and maybe that’s the best thing you can do for him.”

It felt like one of the simplest, wisest pieces of advice I’d ever gotten. And I followed it. And I’m following it now.

Benjamin Franklin, ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of Manuel and myself, for whom the acts of storytelling and audience are so personal and so important, thank you for reading about him, and thinking of him.

Words: Sean Murray
Art: Manuel Martinez