By Alasdair Stuart
Alistair Kennedy is an evil genius, easy on the evil, heavy on the genius. He's been an enthusiastic and articulate commentator on all things comics for years now and it's been an honour to work next to and for him at Ninth Art and Robot Fist! Respectively. Five years or so ago, Alistair took the Black and joined the thin line of genuinely great comic podcasters. House to Astonish is an immensely fun show and now they're setting up to do a live, ticketed version for charity. I talked to him about the origins of the show, the decision to go live and imminent fatherhood. Also pro wrestling. And minifigs. We covered a lot of ground.
Alasdair Stuart: So, tell us a bit about House to Astonish. How did the show get started?
Alistair Kennedy: For the full story of that, you really need to go pretty far back. Actually, you need to go all the way back to the Warren Ellis Forum, circa 2001 or so. There were a few posters on that forum who were from Scotland, and eventually a few of us met up for a few drinks. I was one of those; another was Paul O'Brien. Paul, as a lot of people will know, has been writing reviews of the X-Men line since the mid-'90s, when he began his regular reviews under the title of The X-Axis. He and I were both later recruited to write for the much-missed comics journalism site Ninth Art, where we were both regular contributors. By this point Ninth Art closed down we were friends and drinking buddies, and a couple of years after that we were sitting around in the pub, talking about comics, and started thinking about whether it might be fun to do one of these new-fangled podcast things. A short time after that, House to Astonish launched, and now we're nearly 5 1/2 years down the line.
AS: What sort of approach do you take?
AK: In terms of the structure of the episode, we start off by discussing the news from the world of comics that's been making headlines for the past couple of weeks, and if the solicitations have come out just before we record then we would normally run through those too, highlighting things from the front half of the Previews catalog so you don't have to read it yourself. That's normally the first half of the show; we then review three comics (different ones each time out, with the emphasis on first issues, new story-arcs, new creative teams or other jumping-on points). Then we finish up with a bit of messing around called the Official Handbook of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, which is where we take a… lesser light, shall we say, from the Marvel Handbooks and see how they could be rehabilitated for the modern world. Not many of the things we come up with would make it out of a writers' summit unscathed.
AS: Do you just cover comics or is there extra pop culture stuff in there too?
AK: Our remit, as we see it, is comics and things that are comics-adjacent. So we'll talk about, say, a new trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy, but not a great new album we've discovered, or a wrestling show we're looking forward to, or a video game we've been enjoying. The way we look at it is that there are a lot of comics podcasts out there which have a wide pop-cultural remit, but that's not always what you're looking for in a comics podcast – sometimes you really just want to hear about comics. We have occasionally deviated from that, but in the case of the most notable example (where we interviewed Chikara Pro wrestling personalities Leonard F Chikarason and Kobald) we actually split that out into a separate show. Our basic viewpoint is that if you want smart, sharp, reasoned discussion of comics, then we're the podcast for you.
AS: What's the episode to date you're proudest of?
AK: There have been a few that really stick in the mind. We recently did a crossover episode with Graeme McMillan and Jeff Lester of Wait, What? for our fifth anniversary; for our 100th we had a round-table discussion with special guests (including our wives) ; our Christmas/awards episode for 2012 was for a long time our most-downloaded episode, and features a variety of guests from the world of comics (read: bad impersonations of comics creators with arbitrarily assigned accents). Of course, you can jump right on board with the most recent episode – no point one issues required in order to follow us.
AS: What led to the live show?
AK: One of the ambitions I'd had for the show for a long time was to do an episode in front of an audience. For a while, it looked like doing it at a convention might have been the way to go, but for various reasons that never happened. Knowing that I'm going to be a father soon, and with Paul having recently become a father himself, I figured that it was now or never, and we started looking into it at the start of 2014. Around that time, I lost my grandfather to dementia, and it was the decision to donate all the profits from the live show to Alzheimer Scotland that really got a fire lit underneath me and got us motoring on making the idea into a reality.
AS: If the live show is a success would you want to do more?
AK: We would never say never, but with the demands that are going to be placed on both my time and Paul's, we're looking at this as a one-off, at least for the moment. So, basically, don't hold back, folks! This could be your only opportunity to see two Scottish podcasters in the wild!
AS: What's the subject matter for it? Or is it still top secret?
AK: The main portion of the podcast itself is going to be a Q&A, which is something we've done successfully on the podcast itself a few times. We'll also be talking about the most topical issues in the world of comics (so, given that the show is at the end of May, that'll probably be the announcement of the Power Pack movie, the newly-unveiled Saint Walker series and the revelation that Charles Soule is actually a self-replicating army of androids who have seized control of both Marvel and DC). We're also going to be doing a live version of the Official Handbook of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, with flipcharts and visual aids, which should be agreeably chaotic. After the podcast itself is over, we're laying on a swanky buffet for those who come along, then we're hosting the House to Astonish Comics Pub Quiz, which will sort the JLA from the Young Justice as teams compete for some sweet comics and graphic novels. All this plus a private bar and maybe even some surprises. What's not to love?
AS: You've hinted darkly about t-shirts and merchandise recently. How's that going? And how long before the official House to Astonish minifigs?
AK: I'm not sure I'd call it "hinting darkly" – if that's what it is, then it's the most brazen and shameless bit of dark hinting ever, a bit like being an international superspy who introduces himself with his real full name to everyone he meets. We've got T-shirts available at our Redbubble store, and there's been a rumbling for a while of an ebook of transcripts of our best Official Handbook entries (though that latter one's not going to happen for a while, as I've got other writing commitments that are taking up my laughably limited spare time). As for official minifigs, from your mouth to Lego's yellow plastic ears.
AS: What's next for the show after this?
AK: Movie. Theme park. Moonbase. Apotheosis.
AS: Congratulations on imminent fatherhood, what books are you looking forward to reading with the newest Kennedy?
AK: Well, as this is Bleeding Cool, I think I'm contractually obliged to say Crossed. Aside from that, I'm storing up issues of Mike Kunkel's Herobear and the Kid, and Art Baltazar and Franco's Aw Yeah Comics. Down the line, I look forward to introducing our tiny Titan to The Phoenix (the World's Greatest Comics Magazine).
AS: Thanks for chatting to me, Alistair. Good luck with the show and congratulations on imminent fatherhood. I await the result of 'Reading Crossed With My Newborn' with a combination of fear and strange enthusiasm…
House to Astonish live is on May 31st at the City Café, Edinburgh. Tickets are available now and proceeds go to helping Alzheimer's Scotland.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelance writer and journalist who hosts Pseudopod, co-hosts Escape Pod and writes lots of things about lots of stuff for lots of different people. He's worked for a lot of people since he started doing this, many brilliant, some definitely not. Alistair Kennedy, who used to edit pop culture site Robot Fist!, definitely counts on the brilliant end of the scale.