Creator Download: Matt Howell and Jacob Balcom

How a fan podcast led to hosting a major Marvel screening event

Comic-book fans Matt Howell and Jacob Balcom launched Werewolf by Night (since re-branded as Bronze-Age Monsters) in September 2020 during the COVID pandemic, as a way of sharing their enthusiasm and keeping themselves sane. Their unique spin on a niche topic picked up a legion of fans globally, including Marvel Studios’ composer and director Michael Giacchino, who invited them to host a Q & A at the premiere screening of the Marvel special-event television movie Werewolf by Night.

Now in its fourth season, the podcast has built a continually growing audience and a loyal fanbase, with revenue from Patreon and merchandising. We talk to Howell and Balcom about building a community around your passion, and how a positive approach to creativity can change your life for the better.

How would you describe your podcast?

Balcom: We do deep-dives into 1970s monster and horror comics, the so-called Bronze Age. Each episode we go issue by issue, panel by panel, talking about where it all fits into comics history. Our friend, comic-book writer Joe Keatinge, calls it the Grindhouse era of Marvel, where anything goes. It was the first time a lot of kids who were reared on early Marvel comics started to become creators. They were fans first – they weren’t just old-school crusty professionals, and there’s a level of passion that wasn’t there before.

Howell: The Comics Code was relaxed in the first couple of years of the 1970s. Comics approached more mature themes, such as social commentary, drug use, stuff like that. This was the same age group as people protesting about Vietnam and other cultural revolutionary things. They’re freaks, in the best ways.

Why did you start your podcast?

Howell: I loved the character of Werewolf by Night as a kid. I always felt that he was underappreciated. During COVID I posted a picture of Werewolf by Night on Instagram and said, “Does anyone want to make a podcast about this guy?” Jacob and I have been friends for 20 years, and a few weeks later he said, “So when are we doing that?” Two weeks after that, we recorded the first episode, and we’ve never stopped since.

Balcom: It kept us sane during COVID. Matt said multiple times as we were recording, “Well, this is cheaper than therapy.” When you’re a middle-aged man you need excuses to hang out with your friends, and this gave us an excuse every week to get together and talk comics. We just recorded our conversations and hoped people liked it. And it turned out they did. We didn’t have a tonne of listeners the first year, but it kept growing.

What advice do you wish you’d been given when you first started?

Balcom: I’ve gone back and listened to a few of our earlier episodes, and some of it is a little cringy, because we didn’t have the rhythm we do now, but most of it was actually pretty good. If you do a show with one of your best friends for 20 years, someone you’ve played music with and shared all these different milestones with, you already have that natural rapport. That’s a lot of what makes a good podcast. The breakdown of why people listen to a podcast is 10% what it’s about and 90% whether you want to hang out with these two people for an hour. 

How many people does it take to create an episode of your show?

Balcom: It’s just us two. I do a lot of the historical research and booking the guests. Matt does all the editing and technical stuff. We collaborate on everything else.

Howell: We started on Skype, and it wasn’t very good, so we upgraded to the paid version of Zoom. We record our tracks separately and I use Adobe Audition to edit. The latest hack I just discovered, after 10 years of podcasting, is that in Adobe Audition you can change the time on all your tracks and edit the entire thing at twice the speed. That really has cut down my editing time almost by half.

Do you monetise your podcast?

Howell: When we first started, the dream was we would get enough engagement to put ads in there and pay for our show. But the numbers didn’t bear that out in the first season. So we started the Patreon, and it’s more than kept the lights on. We offer four different tiers for people to support us, and it’s paid for the promotional stuff we do, hiring artists to make graphics, all kinds of stuff. To be crowdfunded by your fans, I think that’s the way for a podcast at our level to sustain itself, and maybe pay us a little money as well in the future.

Balcom: When you do something like Patreon, there’s a lot more work because you want to make it worth people’s while. We do a bonus show every week for our patrons, where we talk about movies, we talk about comics, what we’ve been reading and other more personal stuff about us. 

How do you promote your podcast?

Balcom: We have a podcast community we’ve become attached to, and that helps. We’ll go on their shows, they’ll come on our shows, and that definitely helped grow our listenership. When you’re in niche entertainment, like vintage comics, it’s good to cross-promote with other podcasts that do a similar thing, because your audience is similar.

Howell: We’re also active on social media and we run a Discord channel for followers of the show. It’s become a really important tool for communicating with the fan base in a personal way. It keeps people listening and makes them feel like they’re part of this family.

What have you learned about yourself since starting your podcast?

Howell: I am a very sensitive person who wears my heart on my sleeve, so I kind of protect myself with an armour of cynicism and sarcasm. A lot of people who know me, when they listen to the show, are shocked by how positive I am and how I bathe these things in love and care, without tearing them apart. I love 1970s’ monster comic books, they make me happy, and that was something I was looking for in ‘COVID summer’. It was a safe space. Plus we’re making each other laugh the whole way through the commentary. I’ve realised that your attitude largely affects the way your life goes. I’ve been a happier person since I’ve chosen to be focused and more positive about something.

Balcom: I’d have to agree. I’ve heard lots of comics podcasts, where people just shit on the stuff and talk about how stupid it is. And yeah, we might not like everything that we talk about, but generally we try to stay positive and that’s bled into our lives. The best example is that, during our first season talking about Werewolf by Night, we realised that [Oscar-winning film composer] Michael Giacchino followed us on social media. He sent us a very nice email saying how much he loved the show. 

Then we heard there was going to be a Werewolf by Night movie and Michael Giacchino was going to direct it. Ten days before it premiered, Michael contacted us and said, “We’re doing a screening at the Disney lot for friends and family. We’re going to have a Q & A on stage and we need you guys to run it.” So he flew us down, put us up and treated us like royalty. It was one of the most amazing weekends of our lives. We had backed into being the foremost experts on this topic in the world. 

Now we consider Michael a dear friend. When he wanted to do a screening in Portland recently, we organised that for him. A lot of people in the comics industry showed up and it was a roaring success. A significant portion of the audience were people we knew from the podcast and other people in Portland who had followed us. We never expected any of this, but we feel lucky and privileged to have all this happen because we started a weird comics podcast.

Who listens to your podcast? 

Balcom: The majority of our listeners are fans of comic history and older comics.

Howell: We’re middle-aged guys, but we do hear a lot of comments from younger people who say, “This is the first time I’ve ever had the initiative to dive in and read some of this old stuff.” And there are also culture-vulture art goons; just people who like art, creative people.

What was the last podcast that you listened to?

Balcom: For me it was Marvel by the Month, another comics podcast out of Portland, who we’re great friends with.

Howell: The last thing I listened to was called Legal AF by the MeidasTouch network. It’s a bunch of lawyers sitting around talking about how fucked Trump and his cronies are. It’s like an independent and progressive counter to Fox News.