Tabling the Debate: Comics, The Cultural Mainstream, and the O>Matics

For The O>Matics, the Clifton, NJ-based rock trio, musical influences may not be the only multi-faceted aspect of the act. The band’s sound may recall They Might Be Giants, The Flaming Lips and even Buddy Holly, but the group also takes influence from an entirely different medium: the comicbook.

In 2002, what initially began as a ploy for website visitation became something quite different for one member of the group. Vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist Mark Mariano, stage-named Mark O>Matic, began to notice that his weekly comic strip on the band’s site garnered interest from both fans and Mariano himself in the form of a rejuvenated childhood passion.

“My interest in cartooning returned thanks to the O>Matics,” Mariano said. “After doing the webcomic, O>Matics in Comic, I was overflowing with creativity.”

O>Matics in Comic became a fictional chronicle of the band’s adventures, including intergalactic road trips, Christmas celebrations and coming across unexpected clones. Running from 2002 to 2004, the comic strip would eventually be collected in a 40-page book format and then return to the website in recent years. The tales include older brother and bandmate Chris, who accompanies Mariano onstage and at comic conventions promoting The O>Matics and Mark’s first graphic novel, Happyloo. According to Mariano, being a cross-media entity has several advantages for both passions. The band itself finds that the differing forms of The O>Matics work for each other in various environments.

“When we’re doing comic cons, readers are intrigued by the CDs and that the comic is based on a real band,” Mariano said. “Sometimes it’s the CDs that attracts convention-goers to our table. At our gigs, the comic attracts the fans to our merch table. Listeners find it hilarious that we have comics about us. Readers are introduced to our music and listeners are introduced to my art. It’s a win-win.”

Now, Mariano’s weekday schedule shifted to consist primarily of creating comic books. His daily itinerary, beginning as early as 5 A.M., includes drawing before and during the breaks of his self-described “real job.” Most evenings, Mariano can again be found working on his comic projects, including his upcoming graphic novel Flabbergast: Science Friction, during his evening downtime. However, Wednesday nights are reserved for the endeavor that began this particular one: band practices.

Mariano’s balancing act between working on comic books and The O>Matics provides weekends of either conventions or live shows. The success of his new career as a comic creator may be predominantly attributed to the band; historically, however, the music has not always preceded the art for Mariano. In fact, drawing was one of Mariano’s earliest endeavors.

“I have been cartooning since I was three,” Mariano said. “I used to create my own comics. My dad would copy them at work and I would sell them to my friends at school.”

Mariano would continue creating comic books until another hobby captured his attention. He claims that once adolescence had hit, “cartooning took a back seat to rock ‘n’ roll.” Mariano’s interest in music continued with various bands until the eventual inception of The O>Matics in 2000.

A few albums and line-up changes later, Mark and Chris would be joined by bassist, guitarist and vocalist Jumping Jamie O>Matic to secure the current incarnation of The O>Matics. Playing shows throughout homestate New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania, the band has played in famed venues including Philadelphia’s The Trocadero and New Jersey’s own Starland Ballroom. Much of the band’s touring over the years was made possible by Carol, a former school “shortbus.” The band had to retire Carol, but the transport lives on in upcoming comic book storylines.

Though Mariano, in the form of Mark O>Matic, also provides art, recording and mastering for the band, several duties for the group are split between its other two members. Chris O>Matic, when not playing the role of percussionist, takes care of the booking, videography and website management for The O>Matics. Jamie O>Matic also handles booking and promotion, while also updating the band’s Facebook and Myspace pages.

This year, members of The O>Matics are celebrating a decade of creating music. The band recently finished recording two full albums worth of material, including latest record On Parade . The band’s return to music players is accompanied by a return in comic form this fall. Plans include a week-daily comic strip and a new look–another in the ever-changing style of The O>Matics in comic form.

“The rock trio’s character design has gone through many changes over the years and I’m really happy with their new look,” Mariano said. “I have a new unique art style that I can’t wait to play around with for the strip. And a huge supporting cast of colorful silly characters will keep the comic funny and fresh.”

The O>Matics, as a music act, will be promoting On Parade and future releases with live performances during shows and even upcoming conventions. The band plans to provide live music for convention-goers, an uncommon event for many conventions that could both entertain and bring new readers to Mariano’s booth–another path to discovering his work in comics.

More than anything however, what Mariano does is table a series of debates for comicbooks and comics culture. There is a wonderful, energy to the band’s verging into other media. It is a spectacle that recalls a time when comics, like newspapers were part of daily living. It was during this period when comics became associated closely with wholesale optimism. This was an era when comics were marketed to adults, but specifically in a way so as to recapture the innocence and optimism of childhood. With Superman gracing the pages of the daily newspaper, what choice could there be but to summon up enough grit to bite through the hardest parts of the depression?

Yet with the shift to standalone comicbooks, not only was there a new marketing strategy of one full story in full color, but also a re-branding of the target demographic. Comics, were suddenly for kids, not adults. What Mariano achieves is a pure conjunction of the two notions. Comics as a mass medium again, comics as part of the cultural mainstream. And yet, comics as specifically targeted to the boutique audience of the band and the music itself. not unlike Warren Ellis’ and Ben Templesmith’s Fell, Mariano’s webcomic raises issues of medium, accessibility and distribution. Quoting Alan Moore, Ellis reminds readers that comics should be a ‘slab of culture’ ready to be bought for pocket change. And while Mariano may not resolve the problem, he goes quite a way to tabling the debate.

This winter, the band will also be premiering in yet another medium in the form of the web television show The O>Matics Fun Fort , featuring a cardboard set, puppetry and storytelling in the fashion of Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

Though members of the O>Matics may have a demanding schedule, the overall mood is still optimistic.

“It’s exciting times for the O>Matics,” Mariano said. “And it’s a perfect time to become an O>Matics fanatic.”