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Acker Talks “Thrilling Adventure Hour’s” Journey From Podcast & Stage Show to Comics

by  in Comic News Comment
Acker Talks “Thrilling Adventure Hour’s” Journey From Podcast & Stage Show to Comics

“Thrilling Adventure Hour,” the popular podcast and live stage show that lovingly sends up old time radio serials and delivers deliriously original creations simultaneously, may be nearing the epic conclusion of its ten-year run in April, but die-hard fans will have a pair of prequel comics book series to ease their withdrawal in the aftermath.

Two of the show’s most enduring and popular segments, “Sparks Nevada: Marshal on Mars” and “Beyond Belief,” arrive this month from Image Comics, written by “Thrilling Adventure Hour” co-creators Ben Acker and Ben Blacker. The pair launched the comedy/musical performance in 2005 and eventually evolved it into a regular monthly podcast (currently available at Nerdist) and live stage show based in Los Angeles with regular and recurring cast members including, among many, many others, Marc Evan Jackson, Paul F. Tompkins, Paget Brewster, Busy Phillips, Josh Malina, Nathan Fillion, Molly Quinn and James Urbaniak.

“Sparks Nevada,” as illustrated by J. Bone, follows the adventures of the titular stalwart and square-jawed (but occasionally clay-footed) Earthman — played onstage by Jackson — as he protects the Old West-style Martian frontier from various alien plots, robots marauders and other galactic threats and calamities. “Beyond Belief,” with artist Phil Hester. chronicles the usually reluctant paranormal investigations of 30s-era wealthy, gin-loving sophisticates Frank and Sadie Doyle (played in the stage show by Tompkins and Brewster), where ghosts and other supernatural beings intrude on their never-ending cocktail hours.

Representing the writing duo, Ben Acker spoke with Comic Book Resources to discuss how the “TAH” legacy will live on in the funny pages, now that the franchise “mothership” is wrapping up its live-performance incarnation.

CBR News: You guys have worked in the comic book form a lot of late, but when did the idea get serious about spinning these two series out of your “Thrilling Adventure Hour” show?

Ben Acker: “Beyond Belief” and “Sparks Nevada: Marshal On Mars” have always been the tentpoles of our live show-cum-podcast “The Thrilling Adventure Hour” — available on iTunes as well as Nerdist.com and other places — so they always, to us, suggested the most story versatility. But of all the titles within “Thrilling Adventure Hour” — we love them all, they’re all our children, but these two were the ones we started with, and these two are constantly on our minds in terms of generating stories.

We always looked at the pieces of the “Thrilling Adventure Hour” as worlds to be built and then taken to other media. As Superman works as a radio show and a movie and another kind of movie and “Lois and Clark” and animated adventures, we hope that our worlds would translate like that. And so when we did the [“TAH”] graphic novel — I guess it was two years ago, now — all we wanted to do was keep making stories. Those two worlds are the most packed already coming in, transferring to new media and new audience. They seem like the two to hit the ground running with, and the two most engaging and inviting pieces of show.

From what I understand you’re designing it so that the comics can serve as entry points into the worlds that you’ve already created through the podcasts and the stage show. This is where people can kind of jump on and then discover the broader world you’ve already done and then get caught up as they read the comic book.

Absolutely. We’ve designed the stage show to be inclusive, so that if you come to your first episode of the stage show or episode of the podcast, you get the sense that there are more of the world than you know. But not in a way that excludes you from enjoying the experience of your first listening or your first time seeing it.

And, similarly, we’re designing these comics to reward the audience that we already have, in that they will get to see different aspects of what we already do. Not only not to the exclusion of new audience, but completely to their inclusion. This is designed equally for people who don’t know us, don’t know what we do, don’t know “Thrilling Adventure,” but maybe they like an Image comic. Maybe they like J. Bone or Phil Hester enough to give it a shot. We want them to feel like this is absolutely for them.

What was the easy part of translating it into comic book form? And what was the surprisingly challenging part of making it work in that format?

The easy part of turning it into comics is, we know the voices. We know the worlds. We know the right amount of — for Sparks, we know the right amount of sci-fi to Western. We’re starting their story — Sparks and his sidekick Croach the Tracker, a native Martian — way back in continuity, as compared to where we are now in the podcast. We kind of know precisely where on their journey they are, what their relationship is, and that sort of thing. It’s fun to play back in the beginnings of their friendship and to make that comic series. As the podcast is and stage show is, it’s really the story of a friendship.

In the “Beyond Belief” podcast, we know Sadie’s best friend is a vampire, but we’re jumping in before that so we’ll get to see how Sadie’s pal, Donna Henderson, becomes a vampire. We know broad strokes of stories we want to tell, I guess is the direct answer to your question, and the hard part is it’s a new medium. We’ve done a couple years in comics, but people do years and years and years in comics before they get their own series. So it’s exciting and a little scary to go to this other medium and have a whole visual element that we’ve only ever had to hint at for the radio conceit. To learn the nuts and bolts of how that’s structured. To know how beats move from panel to panel, from page to page, that technical stuff. We have a great editor Nate Cosby who absolutely knows that stuff and helps us where we’re uncertain.

It’s also vastly different amounts of dialogue in a comic versus a show that is 100% dialogue. But we’re trying, with these comics, to make them feel like the show, which means that there’s a lot of dialogue in there. One of the hard parts is finding the balance of dialogue and story and action in this visual medium.

Having seen your live show many times, I’ve seen what the actors have brought to both of these particular franchises. Now, your artists are filling up that “performance” void. What has it been like, working with each of the respective artists to help make this really fun, visually.

We’re giving the architecture of the story, but it’s up to them, both the artists and the actors, to tell the story to the audience and it is so exciting to work with J. Bone and Hester. We went in as giant fans of each of those guys, and to be able to trust our guys, as it were, with those guys — [we’re] super excited. What they do is bring the tone, which is the hardest thing, I think. They bring the tone and the feel of both what we do with the storytelling in the shows, and what we aspire to do with the storytelling and the comics.

J. Bone has built a John Ford-in-space world that is breathtaking. I feel like we jumped in with wanting to tell such a big story, because we finally have a big canvas for this first Sparks’ arc that is being escorted through the dangers of the Martian plains, and to our fault and to his credit, we crammed in way too many characters. There’s robot gangs and Martian tribes, and there’s Sparks’ deputy bots and people in peril. There’s just way too much stuff happening. I think that it’s a pitfall of new comic storyteller stuff, that we’re like, let’s put a million characters in every panel. And for J. Bone to be able to take that and make it feel like a classic Western, but also exactly our voice and also exactly his voice — he’s doing great work. I love that guy in “Rocketeer” and “Saviors,” and I feel proud to see what he’s doing on Mars. He’s killing it.

And Phil Hester, that guy — there’s nothing he can’t do and just nail it really well. We asked him what kind of monsters he wanted to draw, especially in a “Beyond Belief” story. We got his answer and were able to craft a story around some of the monsters that are those that are actually both in his wheelhouse and what drives him, so it’s an exciting collaboration that way. He brings such elegance, but also that smirking, eyebrow-raised attitude that is Frank and Sadie. He makes it feel like comics — and I say it with the most affection for them — I’ve loved since I was a little kid.

Do you have any sense why these two were the ones that really popped with the “TAH” following, with the podcast audience and the live stage audience? Why they’re the ones that just really rose to the top, even though all the other recurring things have their own followings.

Yes, everything has its own following. There’s something so clean about “Sparks Nevada.” It’s like really, at its core, Flash Gordon plus the Lone Ranger. There’s something so classic about it, and then there’s the chemistry between Marc Evan Jackson and Mark Gagliardi and Busy Philipps as part of that three-hander. I feel like that’s the complete wit of Marc Evan Jackson in everything he does, and the big, dumb heart that Mark Gagliardi can’t help but wear on his sleeve, even as he plays an emotionless alien, and just how tough Busy Philipps is, on and off stage, concerned that she might kick or your ass or give you a hug that also kicks your ass.

Then also Paul and Paget — God, their chemistry and the affection that they have for each other, and comic timing! To write for them is to feel the way that watching them as the audience does, I imagine. I think that’s why, not to the detriment of any of the other pieces — but also “Beyond Belief” is as clean a premise as “Sparks” is. It’s two things that really fit together so well, I think that’s what makes them the tentpoles of the show, the things that people keep coming back for. And it is our aim, with the comics, to capture with the art the chemistry of the actors that we have on the stage and to write them kind of the same way we do for the stage and the comics, in order to give the longtime listeners a real sense of the rhythms and the voices of the show.

Guest stars have always been one of the fun hallmarks of the show. Once you get your books up and running, do you want to bring some friends to do some things within the comics?

It is on the table. We not only know the wonderful people that do our shows, but we have a lot of friends now in comics, talents that knock us out. I can’t promise anything, but we’re having conversations with people to see if there’s any way to get them to play in our sandbox. We definitely want to write the hell out of these comics, but we also want to share with our friends.

How’s it going, bringing the stage show to its epic finale?

Man, it is all of the feelings, you know. I’m now having the experience of, after each show, trying to figure out where to stand to absorb as many memories as I can, because it is bittersweet. We’re super excited to evolve the show to whatever is coming, and we’ve got irons in the fire about what’s next. It’s also a thing we’ve been doing it every month for ten years, with the people we admire the hell out of and love as people. The group is as kind and nice as you could want them to be, and it’s a gift to be able to do the show.

So to be able to wind it up before anybody’s tired of it or done with it or any of that, it feels like a big responsibility to go out with gusto, and we’ve got plans to do that. We have “Sparks” plotted to the end, and ideas for “Beyond Belief.” It’s hard to even talk about it, because it’s a thing we love. To talk about an end is a drag because we’re so looking to make it an evolution.

Tell me about the other comics work you and Ben have lined up.

Right now, we’re in the midst of writing “Flash Gordon” for Dynamite, which is really cool. It’s a dream come true, a little bit. We love “Flash Gordon,” and we always have. Nate Cosby is also the editor of that. That’s how we got to know him. He reached out to see if we were interesting in taking over for Jeff Parker when he left. It was exciting for someone to see the show we do and go, “Hey, they’d be good at this thing” and give us a chance to do the less tongue-in-cheek version, the less comedy version of what we’re doing with the genre stuff. It’s so great. We’re having a lot of fun doing the straight version of “Sparks.” The dynamic between Flash and Dale and Dr. Hans Zarkov is a lot of fun to navigate and negotiate.

We did a short story in “Deadpool” #250 with Natalie Nourigat, who is an amazing artist. She did our USAA story in our “Thrilling” graphic novel. Great things come from her, and it’s a pleasure to work with her again. That is a fun little story about Kid Apocalypse, where Terry Duncan kills Deadpool, which is not a spoiler. But we’re looking around because it’s a great medium because we love comics, and we’re open to more comics work, if comics people are reading this interview and want to see what we want to do.

But you two remain a package deal.

I don’t know. What’s the offer? [Laughs]

“Sparks Nevada: Marshal On Mars” #1 is now on sale. The next Thrilling Adventure Hour live shows are scheduled for March 7 at Largo in Los Angeles.

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