Ming Chen became a comic book geek in Michigan.
He was 6 years old in Jackson when a first-grade classmate handed him a copy of Avengers #214, with the Ghost Rider battling Iron Man on the cover. "You see something like that as a 6-year and your mind is blown," remembers Chen, who's now 44 but still has "Vernors running through my blood." "It's like, 'What IS this? Who ARE you guys?!'
"All I had to do was open up that cover, and I was hooked." For life, as it turns out.
Chen — who was born Cliff Ming-Si Chen in northern Ohio — has made comic book geekdom his life. The University of Michigan alumnus is best-known as a member of filmmaker Kevin Smith's universe and part of the cast of the Smith-produced "Comic Book Men" on AMC, which was canceled last year. He also helped create the website for Smith and fellow pop culture hero Scott Mosier's View Askew Productions, and he co-hosts the weekly podcast "I Sell Comics!"
In doing all that, Chen, who now resides in New Jersey, has become a pop culture icon himself and a fixture at conventions such as this week's Astronomicon in Sterling Heights.
"I used to go as an attendee and line up to meet an artist or someone from one of my favorite TV shows, and now I get to be on the other side of the table," Chen says in a phone interview. He still has fond memories of meeting actors such as Mark Hammill, Chris Evans and Adam West at conventions. And having a foot in both worlds serves him well.
"I've been on both sides, so I know that experience of the fan who's maybe a little nervous, so I'm able to put them at ease. I know all about the toys they're selling and the books they read and the shows they watch, so we're able to talk and get into some finer details. I'm able to talk to them as a fellow fan. I think that's cool, and I think they appreciate that."
Chen's own fandom, launched by that first Avengers comic, grew throughout his life. "Star Wars," he says, "is my religion," though he's also a disciple of the late Marvel Comics co-founder Stan Lee.
"His writing style and creativity is something that entrances me and even entrances kids these days," Chen explains. "He created characters that made you go, 'These guys are cool — this guy with the shield, this guy with the armor, this big green guy that smashes everything, these mutants banding together to fight evil.
"As a kid you see the colorful costumes, and the story lines are simple enough to follow. You know who's a good guy and who's a bad guy. And it takes you to other dimensions, other worlds. It's all about escapism, which is a great thing if you're a kid behind a desk, listening to a teacher drone on, or an adult in a dead-end job, paying taxes and bills. You want to be bitten by a radioactive spider."
Being able to turn that passion into a career, however, was something Chen never expected.
"Mom and dad were like, 'It's a hobby. You're never gonna make money off that. No one's going to pay you to read comic books,''" Chen recalls. "Lo and behold they were wrong — dead wrong. That's why I tell people, whether they're kids or adults, to do what you love and don't let people discourage you from what you love."
Chen — who's encouraging his 13- and 11-year-old sons to pursue "their own fandom" — is giving himself that same pep talk in the wake of "Comic Book Men's" cancellation. "I Sell Comics!" is still going strong, however — "I'll be podcasting till I can't talk any more," Chen says — and he and podcast partner Mike Zapcic have launched a studio to produce other programs for that sphere.
"I'm still going to as many conventions as I can, while people still care and know who I am," Chen says. "But I think it will be OK. We're doing a lot of good work. I'm an old man, kind of, but I think loving pop culture and reading (comic) books is keeping me young."
Astronomicon — featuring guest appearances by Dee Snider, Linda Blair, Bam Margera, Dustin "Goldust" Rhodes, Bill Mosely, Sig Haig, Kane Hodder, Ming Chen and many more — takes place Feb. 8-10 at the Wyndham Garden Hotel, 34911 Van Dyke Road, Sterling Heights. Tickets are $25-$65. Call 586-979-1400 or visit astronomicon.com.
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