Last Updated on Monday, 25 March 2013 23:28
MEET THE MASTERMINDS BEHIND LA'S NERD EMPIRE
Intro by Marco Beltran
Meltdown Comics, to put it bluntly, is fucking awesome. I’m sorry for using the f-word in the description to this place, because it doesn’t lend itself much to the imagination but I felt that any set of words that my 25-year-old brain came up with did not do the place justice. I tried. Honestly, I did. I had this whole thing about how walking into the store was like walking into a dreamscape, and that it was like how the child version of me imagined my room would look like when I grew up, but how would this help someone who’d never been there or never heard of this place? The store also changes a lot. I could tell you about the big “Big Boy” statues or the area dedicated Star Wars stuff, but then I’d sound like a liar and jerk if you, dear reader, read this and decided to make a trip and these things were not there! The truth about Meltdown Comics, as you’ll hear straight from the owner/co-founder Gaston Dominguez-Letelier, is that it’s the closest thing a building can come to being alive. It has a soul. It’s changing, adapting to the tastes of the staff and clientele, and serving as the epicenter for the LA comedic and creative scene. Several podcasts are recorded here: Harmontown, Mutant Season, Indoor Kids, You Made it Weird, to name a few. You can take comic book writing, illustrating, formatting, classes taught by industry professionals. It’s a hub for nerdom, nerd culture, and nerd-centric programming. It should be the first place you visit when you make trip out to Hollywood. Hopefully by the end of this feature you’re as inspired as we were, or at least feel validated in your pursuit of doing what makes you happy. That’s why we’re all here, right? To find happiness?
AN INTERVIEW WITH GASTON DOMINGUEZ-LETELIER, FOUNDER OF MELTDOWN COMICS
Union Weekly: Give us a little history on the Meltdown. How did this get started?
Gaston Dominguez-Letelier: It’s all online man. There’s a bio. Read it. Google that shit.
UW: We just wanted to hear it from you, your perspective on the story. People could just go online to get that stuff. I’m sure you have a different take on all of it.
GDL: It’s the same because we wrote it. [laughs] I don’t know. Back in ‘93 I was managing records stores and running a comic book store and got married back then, and decided to open our own that focused on more of what we liked, like Japanese robots and comic books, particularly small press books, not just your run of the mill superhero comic books, even though we loved those and we sell a lot of them. It was basically more of a pop culture set up. My partner Ilia, we’ve been divorced for like 15 years but she’s still the founder of this store with me, had the largest Spider-man collection at that time. You know all the toys and the tee shirts, just like a bunch of madness and we decorated the store to a point where people would come in and be like, “Whoa!” It was worth coming in to. It was right across the street like a 1000 square feet for a while, literally working 10 to 10, seven days. Maybe like three years building a massive base of customers.
We then moved further down the street to a 3000 foot, and knocked down a wall so we were at 4000 square feet. All along we were looking at the space across the street. It had this crazy name. It was a big baby store that had the name “Sid’s,” you know like sudden infant death syndrome? But it was owned by this 90-year-old man named Sid that ran it. We were like “Fucking awesome. This guy has no idea because he’s old.” So we’re like, “Sid when are you going to retire? Sid. SID! Come on!” So eventually the space came up and we moved.
The rest is family stuff. I got divorced, got married again. You know, three kids. For the last 10 years, I've worked close with my wife and partner, Hisami Dominguez-Letelier, who runs Meltdown2.0, LLC. This is the division of Meltdown that makes apparel, toys, events, live shows, and shows for TV and online. She is the mother of two of my kids and always cranking at a fast pace. And for 10 years we’ve been on this side of the street just basically turning the concept of the smaller Meltdowns into a theater. You come here for the experience. It’s like a three-ring circus. We have a signing with Paul Sheer tonight, we have a Meltdown University class being taught by Jim Higgins, a Cal-Arts and Otis professor who moonlights here. He does great. We have classes that teach you how to color, how to paint, how to ink, how to write. We have a life figure drawing class called “Extreme Cosplay.” Satine Phoenix runs it; it’s just basically models dressed as crazy comic book characters or super heroes from the video games or Game of Thrones. Ponies! Sometimes they dress like “My Little Ponies.” It’s insane. And a bunch of artists from Dreamworks, Disney, all the independant houses come in here to work on their chops because it’s just crazy. It’s not just nude models, it’s a person dressed like Elektra.
UW: Did you always have in mind integrating classes and entertainment things when you founded the store?
GDL: Yeah. To me, we’re only as good as the customers that come through our front door, and everything we sell you, you can get on Amazon for 40% off. It’s a fact. We are competing against that: convenience and the fact that people now socialize online. [So] what we’ve done is taken what we like and amped it to a point where if you’re not here to buy our comic book wares, you’re going to have to walk through the store. Like tonight with the Meltdown Show, run by Emily Gordon and hosted by Kumail Nanjiani and Jonah Ray. There will be 200 people back there tonight and they have to come through the store. They have to see the signing and the classes and they have to see all the new comic books that are out this week. [Once at a] show, when we were across the street, we had people like Patton Oswalt, Jack Black, and Brian Posehn. We had all these people that were just starting out, that were just finding their footing. All these comedians would just hang. You know Bob Odenkirk, Dave Cross. They’re now major movie stars and performers of a high caliber, and they still do our show. Robin Williams comes in and does our show. Just all these strange people that were customers first. [Then] we fgured out six years ago to take that energy and give it a base.
UW: It’s crazy. It must be exciting for you that you’re a part of this.
GDL: I’m blessed. Like I was telling you, I’m only as good as the people that come through the door. Who shops anymore? Nobody buys shit! Everybody just orders online or gets stuff given to them or whatever. I mean, we survive.
UW: What type of people take your classes?
GDL: They’re customers. What we found is that CAA and ICN, all of these big agencies, WME, they have top writers and people that create for one medium. Once they hit a wall, they come here to crack the sequential storytelling. To make a comicbook you have to break it down and beat it out in a different way, so we get lots of creators from there. People that do video games come in to take the classes to work on the storytelling components and elements. LA is a very creative town, and it’s impacted with people who need a refresher. So it’s just a fun thing to take.
UW: So you guys are also supporters of independent artists?
GDL: Yeah, like our gallery shows. We’ve had a gallery a good 15, 16 years and we’ve shown thousands of different artists from all over the world. Different calibers, different levels. We’re lucky, again, to be in LA where there is so much creativity and so many businesses that depend on artists, writers, and creators. Those creators, they befriend us and they tell us, “Hey man, I have a show idea. I want to get all my buddies and do a thing on balloons.” Yeah sure, why not?
UW: What makes this community different than another comic book shop?
GDL: For some reason we have this crazy magnetism for rad people, like the Yo Gabba Gabba show creators are all friends of the store, so they do crazy events here. We had, uh... what’s the name of that actress from the Twilight movies?
UW: Kristen Stewart?
GDL: Oh yeah, we had a Kristen Stewart Art Show.
UW: Like art about her?
GDL: Of her face. It was massive, I mean, our servers crashed because we had so much traffic. KPCC [radio] did a piece on it and their servers crashed because the traffic was so massive, because everyone thought we were making fun of it. But we were deathly curious about her look, and the show was incredibly successful.
UW: So in deciding who to bring in, it’s just who you think is cool?
GDL: It seems like there’s like a committee or something and there’s like a huge lengthy process, but it’s more like, “Hey bro I have this thing” like “oh yeah? That sounds dope!” you know? [Laughs] It’s ‘cause it’s just me, you know? It’s just us! The staff! Our base, our foundation and our core is comic book retailing. But going with the times that we live in, we have to make it a circus; we have to make it theater. Our staff are all amazing; they’re creators, they’re writers, they’re all artists.
UW: Do you think you’re ever gonna hit a limit where it’s like, "This is too much now"?
GDL: Oh yeah, man, that’s happened years ago. It’s just… we… we are Mom and Pop. None of us have business degrees. We’re literally people…doin’ it. ’Cause no one else is doin’ it. I mean, we have a lot of product; we don’t have everything. We hit capacity sometimes and can’t order everything we want. We can’t have everything that the big chains do, we have different terms. Everything we buy, we own. We order three months in advance, using alchemy and magic, hoping something’s gonna sell. And we own it. We BOUGHT it.
UW: Earlier you mentioned fringe and nerd culture. How do you feel about nerd culture being mainstreamed?
GDL: I think that happened in the technology and the science sectors. You know, nerds were left alone to become evil geniuses. They use all their wisdom. It’s just happened with technology: Microsoft, Dell, Apple. All these people that run these companies were fat, bald nerds who just focused on being better. Yeah! Better with what they knew to the point that they became mega moguls that have charities, and giant boats, and can be their own country if they feel like it…it’s true! I mean…Facebook! Look at that guy! That guy just wanted to impress girls!
UW: What’s your favorite thing that’s happening here right now? Like in terms of like a class or like a show.
GDL: The success of Chris Hardwick…the halo effect that has brought into our store. People come in and do pilgrimage photos in front of the Nerdist theatre sign, er, showroom. We don’t have a theater license. So his reach, the fact that he’s such a public figure…he’s just an adorable nerd! You know, there are certain people that when your friend’s like “Ohh, that guy’s a fucking dick,” and you’re like “Oh yeah? Well then I can’t be your friend,” ‘cause I mean, how can you hate Hardwick? There’s so many people that we’ve come in contact with. You know Justin Willman? He’s the host of Cupcake Wars? He’s become a friend of ours and he does a bunch of shows here, you know, Magical Meltdown. It’s funny, over the years, we’ve met generational levels of Disney and Nickelodeon TV kids that work all day, and then play video games and then intern here. They need to feel, they need contact, they need to be told to vacuum. And like the classes, you know, every bit, our partnership with Junk Food apparel. I mean, they’re doing these giant decals. Right now we have this 25-foot-tall, 40-foot-wide Star Wars-themed thing out in the front. And next week, they’re installing the bat cave, and redoing the whole front of the store in some crazy bang-pow thing, so that’s gonna be crazy.
UW: Do you ever feel like it’s going to get too big for the space?
GDL: We have too much space. I mean 14,000 square feet is just, I mean, we have too much space! We need less space; we could do more with less. Yeah, I think we have enough to accommodate everything that we’re doing, and make it even more fine, and compact and where you experience it better.
UW: Do you want the space to feel like a convention?
GDL: It’s more theater, not a convention, because conventions are transcendental. I mean, they’re not permanent; they’re nomadic. This is brick and mortar, we are embedded. We die by our bad decisions. Anything we call wrong, we eat. Any book we order badly becomes bonfire material because… what’re we going to do with it? We’ve collaged a seven-foot-tall Batman fiberglass statue with comic books. And either Kanye West or Jermaine Dupree bought it because they thought it was so cool.
UW: Of all the years that you’ve been open, what has been your favorite moment?
GDL: Well, my children growing up here reading comic books. I’ve lived 20 years of my life here. It’s like going out to sea on a boat and never seeing the shore. What we do is here in this space; it is specific. Like, if you make the time to be here, you see something rad, like Michael Jackson coming in and just buying everything. If you show up, you see things, but people don’t show up anymore. We’re really lucky that we have a community that wants to show up; that wants to support [and] that feels connected enough to buy our wares; to take on our shows.
UW: Is there anything you haven’t done yet?
GDL: We lucked out and we sold a show to HBO. I mean, it’s Los Angeles, it doesn’t mean shit. I don’t need a Lamborghini, I just want to put my kids through a good school. Until [the show] happens, I’m just a guy going, “Oh, I sold a fuckin’ show.” It doesn’t mean anything. We’ve travelled the world because of what we do. We’ve been able to go to strange locations and meet fantastic people. We’re literally one person removed from the President. You know, when he was running, the first comic book store that he followed was us, and we’re the only comic store that he follows on his Twitter account, you know? Which is [honestly], I’m sure, an intern going, “Let’s follow Meltdown; it’s fucking cool!” So it’s pretty funny [that] what we’re doing on Sunset Boulevard can resonate, and [that] there are stores open in New York and other parts of the country that follow us on social media, just emulating, trying to find the rhyme or reason, and there is none. We just do. And we fail so much, but we continue to try because no one will try for us. And we don’t learn from most of our failures! [laughs] You know, “Fuck it, let’s do it again; it’s been two years!”
UW: That resonates with us because every week we have to put this newspaper together by ourselves without any help, and sometimes it gets to the point where we fail a lot, too.
GDL: Do people give you feedback?
UW: Not enough!
GDL: [Well] it was like a cool email we got [from you guys], like who the fuck is this?
UW: Man that feels so good! Do you not get interviewed very often?
GDL: We…just don’t do interviews. We feel that the store needs to speak for itself. So it’s never us, it’s the store. If you Google me, I’m a ghost, you know? It’s literally just the store. People know me as, like, the dude with glasses, or Mr. Meltdown. I mean, nobody knows my name. If it becomes something ego-driven and self-centered, then my failures affect the store, my moods affect the store, my public persona affects the store. Right now the store speaks for itself. It has many moving components and it’s a breathing atom that pays people’s bills. There’s always a figurehead, but we feel that the store itself, it’s an entity that people gravitate towards, and that includes our staff. We get people from North Carolina, South Carolina, who just want to work here. They’re overqualified but they want to be a part of it. We call them our interns even though we don’t give them credit; our volunteers I guess. They WANT to be here; they’re all professionals that have jobs, but they take the time to come here. I believe most people don’t know why they’re bored because they went beyond boredom into the space of apathy for life. They want to go do something, but they don’t know how to do it, or society has made everything accessible on a phone, so more people basically just need to lose their shit and risk it all and open stores, and make them just like recreation centers. It’s just being personable, you know. It’s easy to let one success go to your head. It’s much more of a somber experience remembering all your failures and try to work from that space and try to find a base, a platform, hitting a critical mass that will let the store survive and the experiences we’re relaying to the public happen. That’s what we strive for. And on that I’ll close.
If you’ve ever seriously considered writing and/or illustrating a comic book, we recommend you apply to Meltdown University. And by apply, I mean show up to Meltdown with $25 and a dream in your heart, because that’s all it takes to enroll. Writing and drawing materials might also helpful. Meltdown U’s mission statement is to provide its students with the tools necessary to write and/or draw a comic book. They also offer classes in animation, inking/coloring, and web comics. Students will bring in whatever they’re working on to class and exchange honest, helpful criticism. The classes are geared toward beginners, as well as experienced writers and artists looking to hone their skills. They are also affordable and the environment is comfortable, so don’t let money, fear, or lack of talent stand in the way of your pulpy dreams. Jim Higgins is the man behind Meltdown U. An art instructor at Cal Arts and Otis and former editor for DC Comics, Higgins is a passionate comics veteran and nurturer for creative talent. We picked his brain about all things Meltdown U, so read on for his words of wisdom.
AN INTERVIEW WITH JIM HIGGINS, MELTDOWN UNIVERSITY'S PROGRAM DIRECTOR
UW: How did you get involved in teaching at Meltdown?
Jim Higgins: So I came in here in 2008. And there wasn’t as much going on as there is now, but there was a lot of stuff still. They had galleries, signings, comedy, and Gaston was like, “We’ve been talking about doing [comic book classes] for a year and a half.” So we collaborated. And now, I run the program, but this is the house that we live in. We do everything, and run the whole thing in a lot of ways, together. If I wanna make changes, I talk to Gaston and I get input from him. He’s always looking to have us do more classes. He’s like (in Gaston accent), “Dude, do more workshops. Just do more, dude.”
UW: What’s happening with Meltdown U as of right now?
JH: The classes we’re doing right now are all comics-related, comic book writing and drawing. I teach the flagship class which is where all the students come in as a writer or a writer/artist. The writers will write a complete comic book script for a short story by the end of the class. The artists will do a complete eight to ten page story, written, drawn, lettered, and ready to go and they make a mini-comic out of it.
UW: Is there any screening process to get into the class?
JH: No it’s really for anyone. I often get people who say, “My art is okay, but it’s not really super slick. How good do I have to be to be in the class?” I don’t care how good you are. I will teach you to refine or find your style and to make it work. Take a look at this comic (Shows me What Would Catwoman Do?) This guy is not going to be drawing for Marvel next year, but this comic is well-told and it’s interesting. Its use of blacks is really great, the way he uses it as a design element. And it’s hilarious. I spent many, many years reading all kinds of comics--a lot of indie comics. And there’s a lot of indie comics I’ve read that I say, “You know what, that artist was not great, but I love that comic.”
UW: What sort of skills will students learn in your comics writing class?
JH: So the students in my class will learn story structure, storytelling. They learn how to tell a story with pictures. Comic book storytelling is different than film because, in film, one image comes after another. [In comics], they’re next to each other. It’s sequential art; it’s designing one after the other after the other.
UW: What other courses do you offer?
JH: We have an inking and coloring class where they learn ink drawing. They’ll learn how to do it on paper, how to do it digitally, and then, in that same class, they’ll learn to do coloring on the computer in photoshop. We have a life drawing class, but it’s a cosplay life drawing class. Someone was dressed like Gambit last week; another was in a Victorian gown. So it’s fabulous and fun. You can draw naked people anywhere in town but drawing people in regular clothes is hard to find, let alone costumes. We also have a web comics workshop that’s every two or three months. We do a one-day workshop on doing a web comic: how you do it, how you make money, how you get the word out. We have a kid’s comics class, which is a comics class for kids between the ages of seven and 12.
UW: What is payment like for these classes?
JH: They’re $25 per class, pay as you go. We do get people who drop out. Obviously, if you pay for the whole thing upfront you’re more likely to commit and stay. But we also get people who drop the class and come back. I definitely see that often. We also get people who try out the class. We also lose a lot of people to the American work week, which has gone from 40 hours a week to 60. They realize that they just can’t get out of work frequently enough.
UW: What upcoming workshops are you excited for?
JH: There’s a weekend workshop on March 23rd for animation. It’s so cheap, like we’re not gonna keep charging $10. But yeah, we’re crazy. It’s five hours and it includes an interview with an animator, Kyle Carozza. He’s worked on Fanboy and Chum Chum and a bunch of other shows. And he’s at the point where people are asking him to pitch shows. He’s gonna talk about how to get into the animation business, what some of the work is, what you do. Then, everyone in the audience will break up into small groups and they will talk about what their focus would be. It should be a fun workshop.