Written by Neil Greenaway
At Phoenix Comic Con 2016 I had the chance to sit down and talk with Denny "Dennmann" Riccelli of Cousin Harold comics about his take on publishing indie comics. This interview originally ran on Bleeding Cool on 6/04/2016, and you can read their version of it here.
Denny Riccelli is the Arizona comic creator responsible for Cousin Harold and Comics Never Stop. He also has a new action figure / comic line called Space Monstas debuting at Phoenix Comic Con 2016. I had a chance to sit down and talk to Denny (also known as Dennmann) about all of his projects, and what might be next.
Neil Greenaway: Let’s start with Comics Never Stop. Now this is a free newsprint comic that you guys have been making for how long now?
Denny "Dennmann" Riccelli: About a year. We started last September and the goal was basically to try to reach fans that are not coming into the comic book store; so people maybe that have read comics maybe throughout their histories in life but not walking in the comic book store and seeing our stuff. So we decided to kind of print up this newspaper, one page like an old style Sunday strip and distributing them in coffee shops, figuring that people would go into coffee shops and sit down and kind of dink some coffee and maybe need something to flip through or whatever and we thought hey if we had some comics we could make then chuckle and laugh and then direct them to hey where our other stuff was going on, maybe we could grow fans who are fans of comics but didn’t know that they were fans of comics because when they walk into the comic book store all they see is maybe the superheroes or this and they are not really sure where to go to look for the other things.
NG: What’s the feedback been on that?
DR: I’ll tell you what, when I take it around town I drop it off in Arizona from Mesa which is kind of far east in the valley, all the way up to the north, Peoria, which is far west valley. I spend a day dropping it off and when I’m going into those places the baristas at the coffee shops are excited and a couples places even clear off spots next to the register, put the right there immediately and before I’m out the door people have gotten up to get them. There are other places, one time I went into one shop and the girl working she goes “Oh my God, this is the new one?!” and she got excited and went over to start reading and realized she had other customers in line so then she went and put it down. I’m like here, here’s an extra one for you go help your customers, so it was kind of funny. So the places are excited we are dropping them off, so I’m assuming that the customers are excited. When I go back to restock when the new issue comes out I fond very few left. Whereas I notice we have a local newspaper and I always see stacks of those left there and I don’t know if it’s the new one or the old one, but it always seems like there are stacks; whereas I go and ours is depleted down to one or none. So it seems to be going well.
NG: Do you have a rotating cast of characters who are in it or do you have a stayed set of people that are working on it?
DR: So we’re kind of rotating, kind of have a set group. There’s a ton of talented creators in Arizona and we kind of invited our top 16 or the ones we are closest to, but we only had 8 pages at first. So some people stepped out because hey you don’t have enough pages I don’t want to have to dedicate time to this. Some people said oh I want to do this every single time and some people said hey I just don’t have enough time. So the goal is to try and keep some of the core people that are really involved in the community in it and then rotate other people kind of in and out. The other thing that’s kind of happening is we have so many people interested now, both in contributing and ads. Like we’re selling ads and add contributions to the strip are what pay for it, so we have so many people who want ads in it we’re running out of ad space. So we’re actually going to go from 8 pages to 12 pages so that we can start selling more ads, we can start increasing the amount of creators we include. The other thing I did, I am a math teacher by day, I sat down and figured out the math that if we increase the pages with the amount of money we’ll be bringing in we can actually print way more copies because we actually cut down the amount, the cost, per copy because adding that extra page doesn’t really add that much money to printing costs, but it adds a bunch of money coming in for us to pay for it. Also, while I’m not a non-profit whatsoever, we’re not doing it for a profit. It’s handed out for free, I’m not making any money. If I see like hey this event coming up like this Phoenix Comic Con, I printed an extra 300 to have some to give out here, we had some to give out at appearances that led up to this so that we could just hand it out, we want people to just kind of see it. The goal is not to make any cash off of it, it’s to say here are all the cool comic creators. In addition to handing them out at coffee shops, we hand it out at an event called First Friday we have here in Arizona. The first Friday of every month they kind of close down this one area of town and there’s a bunch of art galleries that open and stuff, so I stand on the street corner and I have a little newsboy bag that say Comics Never Stop and we just yell “Comics!” “Comics Never Stop!” “Get your free comics!” and we hand out 300 to 400 on that night doing it and people are very, very excited and are all “I love comics!” or “Give me some of those!” So the feedback directly when we are handing it out is unbelievable which gets me really excited and gets me wanting to make it you know?
NG: Have you had people come up to you and express interest in Cousin Harold after having read the book?
DR: You know I don’t know if it’s translating into other people making purchases from us. I know people are realizing either the paper’s name or “hey that’s the Cousin Harold guy,” or “I saw you last night at this,” or “you’re the guy who hands out the papers at First Friday,” I’ve had those types of things happening so we’re starting to make those connections, I thinks it’s just a matter of time. It’s hard to kind of get into someone’s psyche and change their responses to maybe things, so again they respond to Spider-man because Spider-Man’s been on every commercial for Civil War the last 5 weeks. So every time they are watching TV 5 times an hour it’s in their face, this doesn’t go into their face that often so I think it’s going to take a while but I think that we’re seeing those changes and there are some bigger institutes that are getting involved and helping us out while you know they’re charity organizations or whatever and we are donating, they are looking at the content and saying, “wow this is really good, we don’t mind our name being attached to this,” so that is pretty awesome.
NG: Switching track just a little bit to your other new property Space Monstas, what can you tell us about that?
DR: So maybe 5 years ago, 6 years ago, I was at this designer con in California and I saw people making bootleg action figures and they would bootleg like take a Boba Fett head and put it on a different body and call it the something or whatever and I thought wow this really cool you can make your own toys and they were packaging them up like Star Wars figures. But the thing I thought was kind of not fair was you were just making a Boba Fett, like you’re not really doing anything with it, is there any way to like move that into what I do in my comics? Could I make some of the comic characters toys? I looked at the current characters I was doing and I was like this is really hard I drew all of these characters kind of weird looking and stuff like that and they’re very cartoony and I was like they don’t look like normal humans so it’s very hard to turn them into these toys. So the goal was then now what could I take? So I looked and said what is public domain? What could I use that everyone knows? I realized basically like the Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein- those types of things are public domain monsters. So why are all those monsters kind of in everyone’s head? Why do we think about that? I said maybe these are what the aliens really look like. So I mean I kind of said maybe these guys came down from space at some time and that is why we have all these stories. So I decided that these races kind of all live there somewhere in space and I was going to start making stories about them. Space Mummy is the first character in the series. I decided to call it Space Monstas because when I did some internet searches for Space Mummy the name comes up so I said if I make that the title of the character and someone really owns that then I got a legal issue. I did some Space Monstas like Gangstas research and no one is really using that name, so I was like ok that one seems to be, no one is using this let me use this and then I can use Space Mummy as my main character as long as I’m not printing the name as the title we’re fine, I can’t really get in trouble, like it’s not a big issue. So I said ok now can I take one of those toys and can I kind of re-sculpt parts of it to match the way my drawing looks? Sure enough I was able to and then I learned the process of how do I make a mold? How do I make the resin toy? How do I paint it? How do I make the card? I bought like the little bubble blister, but how do I make all of these things to put together because all of my comics, everything is DIY, I try to make everything myself. You know my goal is I want to make the comic and everything that’s my piece of art, not just the story but the whole process. I mean I have trades and stuff that I have had printed up by other people, the newspaper is printed by the other people and I don’t have a printing press or a silkscreen machine so I can make t-shirts I have someone else make them for me. But I am in the process of trying to learn these things and do it because it is important for me to make it. So then I went kind of crazy and said what other characters can I make besides a mummy and I had a vampire and this and I made a bunch of cards and said these look awesome and I started making story ideas and now I have like five years’ worth of story ideas because it’s not really the main thing I am doing but I’m very, very excited about it. When I started drawing it, again I draw very, very, very cartoony, so my stuff looks like the cartoons you see on Saturday morning, you know Looney Toons style, rather than your superhero style; whereas the Space Monstas stuff is looking more superhero, it’s looking more like it‘s a traditional comic book with real people in it rather than these kind of cartoony characters. So I was impressed that I could do that and everything else and I could go on and on, it’s probably the most excited I am about anything I’ve done and I wish I could do it full time but I am also attached to the other characters I’m doing, so it’s definitely like I don’t want say like hey that girl is pretty, I’ll take her and leave the wife here- no this is the carrot that got me here I’m going to stick with it but hey I’m going to play with this one too. Not like I am cheating on my wife though (laughs).
NG: Speaking of that, can you tell us a little about Cousin Harold for those who might not know.
DR: So Cousin Harold basically is like my love letter to cartoons growing up. My dad had a rule that we were not allowed to watch anything except cartoons before 10am. He would have tons of VHS tapes on top of our television and if you couldn’t find a cartoon on TV you had to get a VHS tape and watch a cartoon. And the reason he did this was that once I got out to work I was going to know what the real world had going on and he didn’t want to know that before he left for work. He wanted to smile in the morning and laugh and giggle so he always made us watch cartoons. So I just grew a love of cartoons, all cartoons, but I really kind of got attached to the Looney Toons and then like The Ren and Stimpy Show and like the goofy stuff that was just kind of funny. So I created Cousin Harold as hey he’s a rat, he’s a detective, I wanted to do a detective story and in the first story he loses his cheese. This story I think I have reprinted about a thousand times so I am going to spoil the whole story idea right here because I have printed it a lot, if you haven’t read it, sorry. He loses his cheese in a typical place we’ve all lost our keys. So he’s looking all over for his cheese and then he finds that it’s in the other hand. Like I have had my keys in my hands and am looking all over the house going, “where are my keys, someone help me find my keys!” and they are right there in your hand. So then he finds his keys and now he thinks he’s this genius detective because he was able to solve where his keys went after walking all over town and asking everyone and everyone is kind of giving him a dirty look in the story like you’re kidding me right? Because they can see the cheese in his hand and no one points in out and they think he is goofing on them or something and he finally finds it, he’s excited and he thinks he’s a genius. So then in the next story I did he needs some money and he was going to steal some cheese, but they told him that that was wrong and you can’t just take it you need money, you need a job. So he’s like I want to do this and they are like you need to go to college and this and that on and on. Well finally he goes, well I’m a detective, I solved this case, I can make money being a detective. Then he solves a crime with a cat that ate a hot dog. Turns out hot dogs can actually cause problems for a cat. So it made the cat just pass out and the ketchup from the hotdog went all over the cat’s chest so he thought that the cat was dead, that he was stabbed. It turned out the cat was just passed out and came back to life and everything was ok and Harold was like look I solved the crime. So it’s always those types of crime. It’s not your straightforward crime of who did it and what’s going on. There is always some kind of weird switch going on. I did one story about an elephant that disappeared. It turned out that someone had just painted the background of the elephants cage the same color as the elephant so the elephant would just blend in and was like camouflaged. It was a white elephant and someone decided to paint the background white and as soon as you changed the color it was fine.
NG: Those are three fairly weighty projects, how do you find time to still be a math teacher?
DR: I have a time machine and I work it out. I’m really good at time management and that’s my time machine. I schedule my life, I have two kids and a wife, I mean I have a full, full life all the time, but I just kind of time manage- this is the time dedicated to this and this is the time dedicated to that etc. When we are leading up to shows like Phoenix Comic Con my wife gets a little upset because all time gets dedicated to comics and the is kind of recedes and she gets time back and you know stuff like that but leading up to these show it’s like I always do more, there is always something extra that can be done, you know I go a little crazy.
NG: Do your students know that you create comics?
DR: I tell them and sometimes they are like yeah whatever, and they see it and they see the characters. A lot of times if I am working on a cover I tend to make the cover my background on my computer so that I can stare at it so that I can find the mistakes. Because I am going to have to live with that cover forever and ever and that’s what I am going to constantly see on my table and if there’s a mistake that I find later, I’m going to flip out. So I don’t care so much about the mistakes in the stories, those are ok I’m not going to see those every day, the stuff on the covers I will. So I tend to put the covers up as a background. Then they look at it and they kind of get it, they sometimes don’t understand what’s going on. This year though a lot of my seniors that were graduating asked me for autographs, just like on a sheet of paper, an d they were like “you’re going to be famous,” and I asked why “we looked at Phoenix Comic Con and you are listed as a guest,” and I was like ok. So I was signing autographs for them and I just asked them do you guys just want some comics? So I brought them some comics and autographed them and passed them out. So they get excited some of them, some of them are just like ugh, whatever. I try to make it not public knowledge, but I don’t try to hide it. I don’t try to talk about it, it’s there, but I’m there to teach math I’m not there to talk about hey I draw a bunch of comics. I do tend to lead their struggles in doing math with my struggles in whatever I’m learning to do. So going back to the Space Monstas thing, when I was making the toy, I failed over and over and over. So every time I would fail over the weekend at practicing and trying to make the toy, I would come in with the story on Monday and explain to them that why this was the new thing I tried, this is what happened, this is how I failed, now I got to go find a new thing, so how do you apply this to what we are doing in here? Did you get an F on Friday’s quiz, what are you going to do this week to change that process and I was trying to educate them more on hey you’re trying to learn math in this class but you are also trying to learn how to learn. If the kids all know how to learn, they will learn whatever subject you’re teaching them, it doesn’t matter what you’re teaching. So if they understand that ‘hey I failed, this is how you can become successful after a failure,’ they’ll get that, so I try to do that through again, my comic creating, ‘here’s how I failed, here’s how I failed with the toys, here’s how I got better, and then I got it right and I go look, I had to talk to 4 different people to find these different things and each person gave me a different suggestion but ended up being the pieces of the puzzle that I needed.
NG: I think that about wraps it up for us. One more question for you, what is next? With all of this already going on, I assume there must be plans, what comes next?
DR: I’m thinking it’s probably a lot of Space Monstas stuff. I have some crazy plan that I have told my wife about that I don’t know how I am going to do. But I love comics from all over the planet. My friends will always joke that if an alien came down I would ask them, ‘do you guys have any comic books?’ because I have comics from Japan and I find a comic from this country and this country. I get excited to buy them. I don’t want a Superman that has been translated into Vietnamese, I want a Vietnamese comic. So I get really, really excited to see what different cultures are doing and how they tell their stories. One of the things I have always been fascinated with is Manga and the rate at which they make it. Now I know they have tons of assistants and stuff like that- every year I participate in what is called 24 Hour Comic Book Day, we are supposed to draw 24 pages in 24 hours. I usually complete 16 pages so I can’t get 24. That got me to thinking that manga people have to make 18 pages in a week and they have to do it every week. Well 18 in a week don’t seem like a problem because I can do 16 in a day. What if I did 18 a week for a month? Would I be able to keep up with that process because that’s what they have to do, they don’t get a break. Now they have assistants, but like could I get that done? So I came up with an idea that I want to call Manga Month where you try and keep that process of that they do, that 18 a week and 1 cover for the series and try to do that for one whole month. I told my wife, you’re going to lose your husband for a month because I don’t know if I will be able to do this, I don’t know if it’s possible I don’t know if I can keep it up. The first 18, that’s now a problem. The second 18 I can probably force myself to do. It’s that 3rd and 4th, like I’m going to be exhausted, I probably will not be a nice person to live with. So I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to do this process. That is kind of the closest big thing that’s on the horizon that’s in my mind and I keep on warning her because both of my kids are out of high school next summer, so my goal is to kind of reward myself with this crazy activity, I don’t know how my wife feels about it but I’m hoping she’ll be supportive and hoping I can maybe squeeze it into six days and make the seventh day of each week hers.
NG: One final little bit- if someone wanted to find you online, where would they go?