Brian Michael Bendis, Matt Fraction, Jeph Loeb, Rick Remender, Scott Snyder – they’re some of the biggest names in comics and also among the numerous creators who have appeared on the pop culture interview podcast Word Balloon with John Siuntres. AiPT! felt it was time to turn the tables on Siuntres and let the Word Balloon host answer a few questions for a change.
Word Balloon is not Siuntres’ day job, which makes his consistent output of in-depth podcasts all the more impressive. Currently the production director for Chicago’s WSHE 100.3 FM, Siuntres has an extensive background in radio. In fact, his podcast’s origin can be traced to one of the self-proclaimed “broadcast nerd’s” previous radio gigs.
Back in 2005, Siuntres was working for the Sporting News Radio Network, which was owned at the time by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The philanthropist also happened to be the founder of Seattle’s EMP Museum (previously the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame). Siuntres noticed on the attraction’s website that it would be hosting a comic book seminar and asked if the museum would be interested in a series of interviews with comic book creators to build buzz around the event.
“I got a really nice response back going, ‘No that’s okay, but that’s a fun idea, you should just do it yourself,’” Siuntres said. “And I’m like, ‘yeah!’”
One year earlier, Siuntres and a videographer had taken a stab at making a documentary film about comic books, featuring interviews with Brian Azzarello and Max Allan Collins. The project stalled, but Siuntres asked the videographer for the audio from the interviews, which provided the foundation for WordBalloon.com – a website where the journalist could host his creator interviews.
Siuntres began to reach out to comic talent like Jeff Parker for interview requests, but it wasn’t until 15 months in that Word Balloon embraced its destiny as a podcast.
“A listener was like, ‘You know, you’re doing a podcast,’” Siuntres said. “’And by the way, iTunes is a place you could put them and people might hear them.’”
As for the name Word Balloon, Siuntres felt it was clever enough for a podcast that wouldn’t be restricted to comic book-related interviews alone.
“That’s generic enough,” Siuntres said. “It’s dialogue and that’s essentially what I’m hoping to do with each show – obviously have a good dialogue with each guest.”
From Fan to Friend
While Siuntres aims to keep Word Balloon fresh by constantly interviewing new talent, he also can’t help but invite back creators who he truly enjoys conversing with. Bendis, Fraction, Loeb, Ed Brubaker and Kelly Sue DeConnick are among the many guests he considers favorites.
Then, there are the guests who Siuntres has grown to respect through Word Balloon, such as Rob Liefeld.
“I must confess I was not a ‘90s Rob Liefeld art fan, but God I love talking to Rob and hearing his perspective,” Siuntres said.
With creators coming on Word Balloon multiple times, the bond between the host and his guests has strengthened to the level of friendship in some cases. But envious comic book readers should know that Siuntres is by no means taking part in any type of friends-with-benefits scenario (meaning early access to upcoming storylines and industry gossip, of course).
“I don’t want to be spoiled, I want to read the books,” Siuntres said. “I like my presents on Christmas day. You can’t avoid spoilers in a lot of cases. That’s the destination, the journey is the story. So when you find out that Batman is going to die in Final Crisis and you read those lines, ‘Batman misses and Darkseid kills Batman,’ alright, but what does that look like? There’s no real emotional impact, let me read it.”
Crisis on Word Balloon
Unfortunately, when you’re interviewing people on a consistent basis, you’re bound to get someone who leaves a little to be desired. This was certainly the case with Crisis on Infinite Earths writer Marv Wolfman, who Siuntres admits he probably caught on a bad day.
“I asked him just the classic, ‘Hey, can you take us back to the inspiration for Crisis on Infinite Earths,’” to which Wolfman responded, “You know I’ve written about it in every form of collected version and it’s in magazines, do I have to do it again?”
Siuntres finds the whole story funny now, and it’s possible Wolfman was expecting the interview (which took place in the podcast’s early days) to be a lot shorter than it ended up being.
Word Balloon’s Moby Dick
So who is the one guest Siuntres would have on in a heartbeat? It’s none other than writer and artist Jim Steranko, known for his groundbreaking work on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Siuntres has certainly tried to land a Steranko interview, and even shares a mutual friend with the creator. The most recent attempt at an interview occurred at San Diego Comic-Con where Steranko was selling prints from the 1976 illustrated novel Chandler: Red Tide. The artist told Siuntres there’s a great story behind the illustration, which prompted the podcaster to pull out his tape recorder.
“I gotta ask, would it be okay, can I record you telling me this story,” Siuntres said. “And he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘John, I really appreciate the way you asked me that, and the answer is no.’”
What Siuntres is Reading
Despite his busy schedule, Siuntres manages to keep up with what’s happening in multiple series. Here’s a quick rundown of just a few of his favorite comic books on the stands these days, along with commentary:
Amazing Spider-Man – “Dan Slott may be the most underrated major comic book writer.”
Dr. Strange – “Really loved the first issue.”
Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “A very nice surprise.”
Invincible Iron Man – “Brian’s been great, loved the first two issues.”
Sam Wilson: Captain America – “Really great.”
Secret Wars tie-in series – “I’m stunned at how many I really enjoy.”
Star Wars – “Crazy how good it is. Jason Aaron gets it.”
Batman – “Scott Snyder’s amazing.”
Bizarro – “It’s really a beautiful book and it’s going to be a great trade. It’s just a really fun humor book.”
Grayson – “Probably my favorite DC book.”
Justice League of America – “A classic Justice League story.”
The Kitchen – “A great Vertigo mini-series.”
Five Ghosts – “One of my favorites of the newer titles out there.”
Southern Bastards – “It’s amazing.”
One of Spider-Man’s Amazing Friends
Not many comic book journalists end up joining the fictional universes they write about, but Siuntres is now part of Marvel canon – or at least an alternate version of Siuntres is.
Principal Siuntres (as in Ultimate Peter Parker’s high school principal) first appeared in Ultimate Spider-Man #108 in 2007, and was drawn by legendary Spidey illustrator Mark Bagley. Artists Stuart Immonen, David Lafuente and Sara Pichelli later provided their own takes on the character.
Bendis let Siuntres know he had become a Marvel character simply by sending two pages of art via email and saying, “Look at this.”
As a longtime comic book reader, Siuntres said he’s certainly thought about taking a stab at writing his own graphic novel, but that would be more of a vanity project, in his opinion.
In the not-too-distant future, Siuntres is more likely to release his Word Balloon interviews in print in some form or another. As he closes in on 600 episodes of the podcast, with multiple episodes dedicated to talking to creators like Bendis and Loeb, Siuntres believes he has enough material for a couple of books.
A Word of Advice
With the 600th episode of Word Balloon right around the corner, it’s safe to say Siuntres knows what he’s doing when it comes to podcasting. So what advice does he have for those who’d like to launch their own podcast?
“Having something to say is one thing, and don’t get into it for the money,” Siuntres advised. “I believe in the future of podcasting. I do think we’re still a few years away from figuring out a feasible, sustainable thing where people can do it. And also, you may not get the audience to a level where you can make money off it.”
While Siuntres has certainly grown a decent-sized audience, he still believes there are thousands and thousands of listeners he hasn’t reached yet. Nor does his audience compare to the size of pop culture news websites such as Bleeding Cool and Newsarama.
And for those who listen to a podcast and think they could do it with ease, Siuntres thinks back to his sports radio days when guest hosts would come in for a single show.
“They would say, ‘This is really easy,’” Siuntres said. “Try to do that five days a week, 12 months of the year, especially during those lean months between February and July when it’s too early to talk about playoffs.”
Ultimately, podcasting on any subject is about having a point of view and commitment to the audience, whether it’s comprised of five people or a thousand, Siuntres said.
What’s clear from talking to Siuntres is the Word Balloon host is dedicated to producing high-quality, in-depth interviews for an audience he is truly loyal to, and comic book fandom is all the better for it.
To listen to the latest Word Balloon episodes, visit WordBalloon.com or subscribe on iTunes.