TORONTO - When Kevin Smith's "Comic Book Men" debuted on AMC in 2012, some female fans of the genre cried foul.
The unscripted series is filmed in Smith's own New Jersey comic book store Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash, which has an all-male roster of employees. He didn't come up with the title — AMC did, perhaps riffing on "Mad Men."
Still, the show's testosterone-heavy cast raised the ire of some on social media and comic book websites. And as "Comic Book Men" returns Sunday for a fourth season, Smith says he'd love to see an all-female version.
"I've been pushing since season one, 'Let's do Comic Book Women,'" he said in a recent phone interview. "I know for a fact there's gotta be some comic book store out there with an all-woman crew. So I'm all for doing it, man. Somebody else has to put up some loot for it though."
So Walt Flanagan, Michael Zapcic, Ming Chen and Bryan Johnson will be back on the small screen Sunday, geeking out over rare pop culture memorabilia and welcoming visitors to the Red Bank, N.J. store — among them Billy Dee Williams of "Star Wars" fame, Gene Simmons of KISS and Adam West, the original TV Batman.
The show revolves around sellers who come into the store to hawk their nostalgia-laden merchandise (in Smith's words, "Pawn Stars in a comic book store"). Once a week, the guys record a podcast with Smith, and video clips of the chats are woven throughout each episode.
In the season premiere, Smith's 15-year-old daughter Harley visits the store to learn how to be a clerk for her upcoming role in the director's film "Yoga Hosers." The movie is a spin-off of "Tusk," in which she had a brief role as a Winnipeg store clerk.
"The kid had a blast," said Smith. "When you do that episode, there's Walter, there's Bryan, who I've known for decades... next to my kid, who's only been alive for a decade and a half. It was really sweet."
The early criticism of the show for excluding women was also due to the fact that the network initially held auditions for a female cast member before deciding against the idea. Journalist Jill Pantozzi wrote on comic book website Newsarama that she was "disappointed" in Smith for "wasting a huge opportunity to help change the way the world views geeks."
But Smith said that rather than add female cast members to "Comic Book Men," he'd like to see "Comic Book Women."
"I think if maybe we got to season five of 'Comic Book Men,' I could make the viable argument for 'Isn't it time? Isn't it time for 'Comic Book Women?'" he said. "If we can survive at 12 (midnight), that means 'Comic Book Women' could survive at 12:30 for sure."
While talking about the show, Smith heaped praise on his long-time friends Flanagan and Johnson for its success. About a year before "Comic Book Men" went into development, the store was losing business and on the brink of closing, he recalled.
Even when AMC reached out to Smith for an idea, he didn't pitch the show as being set in Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash. He initially thought the cable channel could do a nationwide search for a comic book store with an acerbic, witty staff.
It was only when AMC requested a pilot episode that Smith realized, in an effort to save money and time, that it could be shot in his own store. Convincing Flanagan wasn't easy, however.
"When I called him and said, 'Dude, AMC's thinking of doing a comic book show at the Stash,' he hung up on me. I called him back and said, 'Did you hang up on me?' He goes, 'I don't want to do that. I don't want to be Snooki,'" Smith recalled.
"How I sold it to him was, 'If we do this, it's a free commercial for the Secret Stash. Maybe we won't close.'"
Flanagan finally agreed. Now four seasons into a successful run on the cable network, Smith is most proud of seeing his friends grow into more bold people.
"They were not self-starters and not dreamers. We don't come from a real world of dreamers where we grew up, where people are like, 'You can do whatever you want.' Basically, if you tried to do stuff you were ridiculed. 'Who do you think you are?'' stuff like that. So those cats were very much of that mindset," he said.
"To watch them go from being like, 'Don't do anything, you might get mocked,' to being the guys who have season four of a show on the greatest network on the planet — and on that show, they're not made to clown it up or sell out on who they are, they're actually encouraged to be themselves — That was an amazing metamorphosis to watch."
Smith is thrilled to see the show make it to season four, but said the best part was seeing fan reactions on social media.
"The reaction I like the most is this is show that 'I watch with my kids.' I don't get that with anything else. Nobody says '"Tusk" is a movie I watch with my kids.' ... So it's nice to have something where there are people watching the show with their five and 10 year olds," he said.
"The other thing I love reading about are people going, 'I haven't been inside a comic book store in 20 years. I just walked into one. Oh my god, it was amazing. Look at what I bought.' And they put up a picture. They're not talking about my store. That'd be nice but they just talk about going to a comic book store.
"Or: 'I've never been to a comic book store in my life and now I'm going.' That does it for me, man."