My favorite new comics team is a bit weird.
It’s not the amazing new Fantastic Four run by Jonathan Hickman and the great Dale Eaglesham. It’s not the hugely underrated R.E.B.E.L.S. by Tony Bedard. It’s not the Incredibles by the legendary Mark Waid. It’s not even Secret Six, the best comic ever created by humans in this or any other universe.
In fact, it’s not a comic book at all. It’s the VARIANTS, a new web series based around the staff and customers of a Texas comic book store, although it might as well take place in any comic store, because let’s face it, nerdhood is universal.
The story is told in episodes, and is based around the Eisner-winning ZEUS COMICS, a real live store in Dallas, Texas. It tells the often-hilarious adventures of the store’s bi-polar staff, who consistently seem to be ping-ponging between seen-it-all ennui and the irresistible happy geekgasm that comes from the smell of new comics day. Romances blossom, feuds and rivalries take place—it reminds me somewhat of a live action version of the popular webcomic Shortpacked (shortpacked.com), where the small pond allows for only so many big fish, and geek one-upsmanship leads to intrigue and envy, and lust, oh, yes, lust.
Because at its heart, a comics store is about lust, and the VARIANTS know that. Lust for new comics day, lust for the cute store clerk, lust for that amazing Bowen Loki statue or that Absolute Sandman edition. In our world, lust for colored pulp and articulated plastic toys is not only rational, but inherently understood. Lust drives every character in the story to some degree, lust for our vices, both four-color and otherwise, and lust for the things that are too expensive or out of our dating league.
I really enjoy this show. It’s professional, it’s original, it’s so much about my life in comics that I can’t help but be offended and delighted at the same time.
But mostly, it’s funny. Go take a look at: http://www.thevariants.com/
I decided to ask the brains behind the show about its genesis and future on behalf of my friends at Newsarama.Gail: Okay, let's do the scorecard thing. Who are the people behind the Variants?
Richard: Larry, Moe and Curly and I fully expect to be replaced by robots for the animated show. There are three creators: Joe Cucinotti, Ken Lowery and myself.
Joe: HA! The Three Stooges. Man, that was a great show!
Gail: And Richard, you own Zeus Comics, the Eisner Award-winning store behind the Free Comic Book Day event CAPE, that much I do know. Whenever I see you, you are always crazy busy, so what made you decide to do this huge project?
Richard: I had this idea to film the wackiness of comic retailing years ago. If a tanning salon could get filmed why not a comic shop? It started as reality show concept but it would have been difficult to pull off unless it was partially scripted. Ken and Joe were practically a comedy show unto themselves every time they came into the shop so I turned to them for support. Really it had a lot to do with the success of the Guild. Felicia Day proved it could be done without producers, Hollywood or a budget. Plus the rise of G4 proved nerd culture was viable as a market.
Ken: Richard had the initial pitch, and the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. The WGA strike in 2008 freed up a lot of professionals to do web series work, and a lot of them talked about how freeing it was. I figured that was as good a cue as any, and agreed to help develop the show.
Joe: Hell. I was under the impression we were making porn. If only I'd known what I was getting myself into.
Gail: Comics are just like porn, except the diseases you catch are less glamorous. Tell us a little about the main characters.
Richard: First there's Joe - I think he's easiest to follow and get into. He represents all of us in our basic fandom. Keli brings the responsibility to the crew, while Barry gets to do all the awful things we want to do to customers. I play more of the punch line.
Barry: It’d be easy enough to say that my character is simply a more extreme version of real life, but anyone who’s ever worked a register for more than ten minutes can relate to him, which is that of the clerk who’s pretty much had it with playing nice. And that goes for pretty much everyone around him. Every once in awhile, I think you get to see a little sliver of humanity peek through, but it’s a rare occurrence to be sure.
Keli: I think Keli is just trying to keep everything together. She's a bit of the mother hen to the employees and the customers. She tries to keep everyone happy. :)
Joe: These characters are kind of a mess. All of them. They can be rude, greedy, selfish and a little unaware. But at the same time they have a sweetness to them. Keli will no doubt suffer from "the token chick" classification but I think the show will end up illustrating that (just like in real life) Keli knows her way around a comic shop. She can chat you up on story arcs both recent and classic without a moment’s hesitation. Which will probably only add to the "hot" factor. The guys are definitely more caricatures of themselves. Richard is really not the ship without a rudder that he seems in the show. He's definitely the most positive of our group... we've just amped that up to the next level. Sure, Barry is known to have that gruff exterior and defensive posture when dealing with people. In the show we focus more on the "grrr"... but in reality he's no different from a cute little cuddly cat. You just can't force yourself into his circle.... man, that sounds dirty.
Gail: Comics is a filthy business. In any case, it's a very funny show, but it seems like the audience is pretty specific, that is, comic book nerds, right? Or is your audience more general than that?
Richard: Our audience I think is broader. Comic culture no longer moves just in comics. We move in video games, movies and music - the Variants is about nerd culture with a healthy dose of retail and relationships.
Ken: Comic book nerds have the easiest entry point, but anyone who's worked a register or has owned (or worked for) a small business can relate to what we put into the show. Nerd culture is quickly becoming the dominant culture, so while this show might have been hopelessly niche even ten years ago, it's far less so now.
Keli: As the show continues, I think fanboys (and girls) of all natures will be embraced not just the comic-y ones. We cater to all kinds of geekdom. I know Joe and I want to get our love letter to Joss Whedon in an episode at one point.
Joe: All you have to do is look at the biggest movie releases of the past few years. The Dark Knight, Iron Man, the first Spider-Man and X-Men films. Those movies brought in HUGE audiences. Further proving Ken's point that the nerd is on the rise. The simple fact of the matter is this. The nerds back in the 80's and 90's have grown up. And while the jocks who made fun of us are now all working at their dad's used car lot, us nerds went on to create the next evolution of culture and entertainment. Us and tweens who pass out at Jonas Brothers concerts. Good company indeed.
Gail: I think the question we all want to ask is, wht do you guys do when you are all obviously pushed to the side by Stock Room Guy's massive popularity? He’s clearly your Fonzie.
Ken: No comment.
Joe: I look forward to that day. I've always felt that Vlad had the potential to carry on into a spin-off much like "Joanie Loves Chachi"
Keli: We kill off the character. I will not let Vlad steal my thunder!
Barry: Hopefully there’ll be some sort of massive no-holds-barred battle for top spot as most popular character, involving bloody fisticuffs and vulgar language---though I’d probably just stand to the side smoking and scowling and waiting for the dust to settle before actually getting involved.
Richard: It’s a comic book reality. He’ll get a mini-series, then a series and then he’ll appear in everything we produce. You’ll get Vlad four times a month! Keli is actually in a new horror film called Possum Walk. We have no qualms with putting her mug large on the DVD – (large typeface) Keli Starring in (small typeface) the Variants…
Gail: There's obviously a bit of romantic tension here. Would you say this is the defining story arc, or is there something else that carries the main narrative weight?
Joe: Do you feel that too, Gail? I was afraid that was just me. How you doin'? Rowwwrrr.
Joe: Seriously tho... there's maybe a smidge of romantic tension but it's important to me that we don't go too "Ross and Rachel" (or Jim and Pam for those of you not familiar with FRIENDS) When you build a show around "will they or won't they?" it leaves you very little creative room to grow. We definitely have other plotlines in the works.
Richard: For the characters it’s important to build three-dimensional people and that includes romance. I don’t want to reveal too much about that. You could also follow the journey of the small business as an important thread throughout the show.
Barry: As the unfortunate popularity of online slash fiction has proven, there’s a great demand for some sort of Barry/Joe “team-up”. I am fighting this tooth and nail, but my lawyers tell me that my contract is airtight and I’m pretty much bound by the producers’ whims. Expect more awkward double entendres in future episodes. Or not.
Ken: We've gone back and forth on this, though something Jenna Fischer (Pam from THE OFFICE) said about her character and Jim, way back in season 1, stuck with me: That Jim was not the guy for Pam, but the guy that let Pam know she could do better. Obviously it's panned out differently on that show, but I think that's a slightly more enlightened view than the typical "unrequited love" angle. Whatever tension exists between Joe and Barry, though, I wouldn't call it the defining arc.
You did mean Joe and Barry, right?
Keli: I have noticed a bit of tension between Barry and Joe but in the end I think they will end up together. Everyone loves a happy ending....ugh, that may sound dirtier than how I meant it.Gail: So, what's next in the story, can you give us a hint at what's coming up? Does Kurt Russell ever appear? Does Keli get her dinner and movie? And I heard a rumor that there might be some comics creators as guest stars?
Keli: Hopefully, lots of creators and guest stars will make cameos. We are really lucky to be in Dallas and surrounded by such talented people who are willing to help on the show. And that's a good question, where is my dinner, movie and reach-around, Joe?
Richard: We’d love to have you. And if Kurt is reading this and wants to come out – of course! There are ten episodes planned in this first season. You’ll definitely see a large arc over the show. Up next we do a zombie tribute episode because Zombies are so trendy right now. Episode five gets fun when we watch the store come undone from unruly comic guests. We called on a couple of comic industry friends to come out and be crazy.
Ken: Some comics creators have expressed an interest, and we can confirm Scott Kurtz will be starring in episode 5. The larger arc of the season will manifest itself in episode 6 onward, though the seeds have already been laid.
Joe: God, I wish Kurt Russell would appear. I don't want to give away too much but episodes 6, 7 and 8 will be a little experimental. Richard, Ken and I have decided to divide those three and write a full episode individually which I'm very excited about. While we work well together, we each have a distinct comedic style and approach and it will be awesome to get to see the world of The Variants from each person's unique perspective.Gail: One thing that impressed me right away was the quality of production. You've said it was made for no money, but it doesn't LOOK like it. Can you tell me a little bit about how an episode is made?
Joe: We called in favors. Lots and lots of favors!
Keli: I just show up! The rest is the awesomeness of Joe and Chris, Richard's husband.
Richard: It’s a collaborative effort, honestly. The equipment, the editing, the filming – its all done through our good friends and supporters.
Ken: If all our friends billed us, this would definitely not be a free show. (And we have sunk some change into this, mostly into the editing software and costumes and props.) Through Richard we happen to know a lot of talented people who, almost as importantly, have access to a lot of professional equipment, training, and locations. They, like us, are in this for the fun and the glory, and our extras don't get paid with anything more than a few seconds of screen time and maybe some breakfast food. God bless 'em all. That's the beauty of digital: it doesn't take a lot to look good, you just have to put the time in.
Gail: Well, it’s working. And finally, what's up for the Variants in the real world...how do you plan to expand beyond YouTube?
Keli: That sounds like a job for the creators. As for me, I just want my own action figure and maybe a bobble-head doll. Oh, bobble-head Variants would be so cool!
Joe: It's all baby steps. It's still pretty early in the game and I feel like we're jinxing it if we get too ambitious too soon. Ultimately, I'd like to see the recognition that they get over at The Guild. I mean, come on... they only have one cute red head. We've got TWO!!
Richard: Would you write the comic…hmmm? OOOoo I want to see my Nicola Scott nearly naked version ala Catman! Really that’s up to the audience. If the interest is there, we’ll continue to make more and push beyond 720 pixels. Right now we’re having a blast doing the show!
Ken: We're investigating realistic options for DVD distribution, and naturally we hope some bigger network or sponsor takes notice and allows us the opportunity to become hollow sell-outs. Seriously, corporate America: we are RIGHT HERE.
Richard: Ha Ken! Right? Logo here we come!
Episode 3 went up Wednesday October 7th!
Episode 3, “The Upsell,” the staff of Zeus Comics is faced with grim sales figures. To counter the decline, store owner Richard comes up with a promotion: get the staff to dress as their favorite heroes (super and otherwise) to drum up attention and sales. But you just don’t put the staff of Zeus into costumes and expect them to come out of the experience unscathed, not with the kind of crowd they pull in.
It’s good fun, seriously! Catch it at http://www.thevariants.com/