Northern Ireland's little podcast that could, Sunnyside Comics, has relaunched at a new location, sunnysidecomics.com. The show's mix of opinion and hilarious, scurrilous in-fighting has left it with the reputation of being the comics equivalent of The Ricky Gervais Show. The show has a similar tripartite chemistry (with PJ Holden in the outspoken Gervais role, Ron Abernethy as the droll Stephen Merchant lynchpin and Scott Ferguson as their Karl Pilkington), and a similarly irregular broadcast pattern.
Holden is a Belfast-based comic artist who's been working for 2000AD for more than a decade. In the U.S. he's drawn Happy Valley (part of Garth Ennis' series Battlefields for Dynamite), Robocop/Terminator (with Rob Williams) also for Dynamite, and Fearless (written by Mark Sable and Dave Roth) for Image Comics. His work is appearing in Judge Dredd for 2000AD. Ron Abernethy is a face and voice familiar to anyone acquainted with Belfast's music scene, and has worked for Northern Ireland's leading commercial media company. He's responsible for producing the podcast. Scott Ferguson is involved in the technical end of media production, and works on one of the biggest TV series in the world, Game of Thrones. Below, we speak to Paul, Ron and Scott about the relaunch and the trio's unique relationship.
Robot 6: Paul, do you think your forthrightness on the show actively endangers your career?
PJ Holden: I've wrestled with this a lot. I'm definitely showing off in front of company (as my old mum used to say) and I think, it helps the show - it keeps it moving and unexpected and funny - I'm not like that in real life (well, I'm a BIT like it in real life). I'm self absorbed enough to think that it might be having a massive impact on my career, but the truth is probably either no-one who can effect my career listens to it or, if they do, they realise I'm playing up for the mic or they don't connect the voice with the art at all.
Ron Abernathy: This is where I jump in usually and correct PJ. He means "affect," not "effect."
PJ: No I don't. HAHAHA NOW YOU LOOK STUPID!
Ron: Fine, BE wrong …
PJ: Wait, there's something wrong with my dictionary, didn't "affect" use to mean something different? Oh, FFS. I hate you, Ron.
Scott Ferguson: I don't think anyone who listens to the show would take PJ seriously. I don't think he has ever said anything just to be nasty, which sadly has become more common, certainly on comic websites. From the start we wanted the show to sound like an informal chat at your local comic book store. We originally had theme music that started with the 'ding' of a shop door opening, I can't remember why we changed it.
What are you guys doing so right that the show sounds so slick when every other comics podcast sounds like some guy talking into a bucket?
Ron: We don't use a particularly fancy set-up, but I'm a stickler for having the RIGHT tools. I'm always trying to improve the sound of the show, and occasionally there are screw-ups (read: often) but by and large the biggest challenge is keeping the guys talking INTO the mics and not AROUND them so they can see each other.
We record using Apple's Garageband, and we're at the stage where I could pretty much record the entire thing onto an iPad and edit it there, but there's an element of that would just be to say I was doing it, not that it would be more convenient. 3 medium quality condenser microphones, three working mic-leads, three solid mic-stands and one very simple mixer/audio-interface. I use the Alesis io4, which gives me four discreet channels that I can adjust after recording. This is all getting a bit technical …
I'd LIKE to be able to do the show over Skype if we need to, but PJ and Scott are a tad resistant to that as they enjoy getting together. Me, I'd relish not having to set up so much gear every time we want to do a show!
This is a good point to refer to your show's tendency to go wildly off-topic on lengthy tangential diversions, and the (uh) unique chemistry between the three of you. Absolutely nothing is off limits, is it?
PJ: Occasionally, pre-show I'll ask if there are things that people would rather not get into -- personal stuff, etc. Scott working on Game of Thrones was something we knew about for a long time before it was ever mentioned on the show, for example. But, sometimes, those things just sit there like balloons waiting to be popped. I have childlike impatience when we do the show, and if there's some big thing sitting on the horizon I'll just blurt it out, Ron can be more quietly mischievous and Scott, I like to think of, as just naive and over sharing (and ginger).
(Not that there's anything wrong with being ginger, it just makes me curious about how vehemently* he denies it) (*if this were a podcast, Ron would be correcting my pronunciation of this)
Ron: Sadly no, as the laughter about the demise of my marriage in the previous episode would seem to attest to.
But we genuinely like each other, and believe in the show. PJ and I maybe exorcise more personal demons on there than Scott, but he's younger and hasn't had a chance to be disappointed by life as much as we have.
PJ: On that particular show I asked BEFORE the show if this is a topic to steer away from, 5 minutes into it Ron just blurted it out - hence the laughter. It wasn't a reaction to the some sad personal news so much as a "Oh shit, I didn't think he'd say that!".
But yeah, I'm not sure if there's anything off limits really.
Ron: I think the show is moving more from being ABOUT comics to a venue where comics gives us the excuse to get together and have fun. And if we accidentally review something along the way, that's a bonus. And if someone's feelings get hurt, that's a bonus too.
Scott: If you listen back to the show where the guys find out I have a girlfriend I think you'll soon understand that nothing is off limits! Although the guys where very good in not mentioning Game of Thrones when I got the gig two years ago. The chemistry of the show is, I think, what makes us a bit different. It's a classic combination: the pro, the jaded ex-fanboy and the newbie. Most, if not all, podcasts choose to have a collection of hosts who have an encyclopedic knowledge of the medium, making the show as impenetrable as some of the continuity in the books they review. We have tried to do shows when only two of the three of us are available and they just don't work.
PJ: I love doing the show, I love listening to the show. I always forget other people will listen to it. I especially love that Scott always has massive plans for how Sunnyside Comics could be brand and a media empire, while Ron and I quietly laugh into ourselves safe in the knowledge that it's only the folly of youth talking.
Ron: And I like to encourage him, if only to bring on the inevitable disappointment with life that I spoke of earlier.
Scott: And yeah, sometimes I do have grand plans for the show, sometimes they don't work out (like getting a sponsor) sometimes they do (us having our own panel for the last two years at our favourite local convention, 2D in Derry/Londonderry. None have been as grand as PJ's plan to do a video podcast where we are played by puppets! And he's serious, he really wants to do it. We probably will, he's like a little round Energiser bunny.
I wonder if this is the point to try and steer the interview back towards comics, less we give Robot 6's readership the impression the show is just three Paddies bickering. There's plenty of comics content in the new episode, really. Most of the show is three guys discussing the hot topics in comics very passionately.
Ron: When the show was initially conceived I tried to impose a "no superheroes" rule. This didn't last long, but I felt that Marvel and DC are MORE than covered by every other show out there. I prefer to talk about books that don't get much mainstream notice, or that are interested in furthering the 'art' of comics. I much less interested in characters than I am creators and I'd prefer to see creators work on something new than aspire to write or draw Spider-Man.
I guess while I appreciate that many artists and writers grew up loving particular characters and stories, I don't understand why comics isn't more like the movie industry. I saw Jaws as a kid, but I don't want to MAKE Jaws again. It's a pretty depressing state of affairs from my point of view, and we're all complicit in it. Readers demand more of the same because they realise the publisher will oblige. Creators fetishize working on characters they loved as kids and see that as the pinnacle of success in many cases. And publishers realise that it costs less to promote existing characters than it does to develop and market new ideas. So why fight it?
It's a constant battle I have, and we go back and forth on this on the show quite a bit. I want comics to be GOOD and NEW. That's all. Haven't we said all could possibly say with The Thing at this stage? Imagine a comics landscape where instead of endless runs of comics they conformed to fairly useful narrative conventions like having a beginning, middle and end. No prequels, no 'more tales of' and no crossovers. Just lots and lots of books and series that can stand on their own and have the potential to become classics in their medium.
I'm a ranter. I rant.
Scott: My intro to comics came early with my grandad showing me (Marvel UK) Spider-Man weeklies and, oddly, issues of the first volume of Swamp Thing. I was always interested in comics and I had a few books here and there, but never jumped in until Marvel: Civil War and after spending a fortune on that I jumped back out again. The way you had to pre-order annoyed me, collecting my orders from the store every week annoyed me (as I lived no where near it), I did keep a few books going but nothing very interesting.
I really got into comics when Ron was selling all his old shit. He invited me 'round (we had never met at this point) and proceeded to flog me old Essential X-Men, Daredevil, Powers, Planetary, and recommended a bunch of other stuff that was outside the mainstream Marvel and DCU stuff. That's when I fell in love with comics.
PJ: Well, what makes the show interesting, from a comics perspective, is there are three very unique points of view - there's me, a comic creator (who, inevitably, reads very little comics) but has a big focus on the art. Ron who buys (or bought) everything - obsessively collecting, and then Scott who'd -- at the time of starting the show -- only read comics for about three months.
One of my favourite occasional features is "Scott Reads the Classics," where Scott would have a read of something Ron and I read long ago and Scott only just came to -- the latest episode has Scott reading The Dark Knight Returns. I can't even imagine what that'd be like to read the first time -- I read it first in 1988.
Scott: I still haven't finished it, Hopefully today!
Ron: If I had to nail down my perspective, it would be 'jaded ex-fanboy who now wants the medium to survive on its own merits, and not rely on characters created when my grandfather was young'.
PJ: I'll be honest, I mostly wanted to get out of the house. The comics just happened to be a handy nail I could hang a podcast on.