Few indie cartoonists have achieved the levels of commercial and cult success that Jhonen Vasquez has gained over the past decade. With a mix of horrific humor and a signature, scratchy style, Vasquez projects, from his earliest comics for Slave Labor Graphics like "Johnny The Homicidal Maniac" and "Squee!" to his Nickelodeon animated series "Invader Zim," have proven perennial sellers to a dedicated base of comic readers and non-comics fans alike.
And across all his projects, his success has allowed the creator a certain level of artistic autonomy – controlling each of his projects to match his non-mainstream stylings – and its that unique position he has that made Vasquez both a perfect and surprising fit for Marvel Comics' alternative comics anthology "Strange Tales." Added into the mix for this week's second "Strange" issue, Vasquez surprised readers with a twisted tale of Marvel villain M.O.D.O.K. appearing amongst other strips by the likes of R. Kikuo Johnson and Matt Kindt. CBR took a minute to hear what brought Vasquez to the Marvel U, learning about his secret connection to supervillainy, the way success has affected his comics output and what he'll be dressing up as for Halloween this year.
So I think it's fair to say that a lot of people were surprised when they saw your name on the contributors list in the "Strange Tales" solicitations, because early on we saw no mention of your M.O.D.O.K. story in the long line of teases and press releases surrounding the book's three-year gestation. At what stage in all this were you approached to do a story? What was your initial response at the offer?
I'm not sure, definitely not three years ago, but I think I came up as a "person of interest" sometime after issue #1 was finished, because I had already seen some of the contributions to that issue as enticement to play along. It worked, because as soon as I saw the lineup of other artists, there was no way I could turn it down. I get a kick thinking about just how bizarre it was that it was Marvel, of all things, that would put me together with a list of artists like that, and not the indie comics scene that I sort of lurk around in.
As far as WHY I was asked, I can only imagine some editor looked through the list of artists and materials and screamed out "I'm sick to death of all these respectable artists! Would somebody please find me the least respectable cartoonist out there to spice things up a bit?!" After speaking with that artist they decided he was still too respected and then called me. I don't know for a fact that's how it went down, but you can pretty much see it going that way. I do anyhow.
In terms of why my popping up in issue 2 might surprise a few people, as well as horrify many others, it's that I was originally announced for issue 3, but something exploded or someone's dog ate their strip for issue #2 and I got bumped up. I'm just climbing the ladder here, man, sleeping with editors and all that sort of thing. Playing the game, see?
I'd assume (probably along with a lot of folks) that Marvel superhero books weren't the kind of thing that you've carried a fan torch for. Maybe that's way wrong of me to assume as I don't know you. For potentially wrong people like myself, what is your background with Marvel like as a reader? Are there specific books you really dig or characters you have a connection to?
Marvel was a part of my childhood indirectly, thanks to an older brother who had the very common bug of being a young collector of caped avengers and such. Me, I was into pretty much anything fantastic – movies, books, cartoons – but collecting comics wasn't a vital part of it so much as simply having to grab something at the comic shop, anything from what was basically a weird toy store to me that early on. It's not to say that I didn't obsess over the goings on within the books, but I was crazy for anything where unusual sorts of things were going down, not strictly comics-related. Of the books my brother collected, I would always go back to those that were just bio after bio of characters, especially the villains. [I was] more interested in thinking of what kind of lives these hideous bastards would lead, more so than reading the actual comic books they were featured in. Seriously, when your head is enormous, are you so smart that you look beyond petty, superficial nonsense, or are you so aware of why you're disgusting to all the stupid, tiny-headed people that it just ruins your life? I loved sitting around, usually by myself, under a table, gently weeping, just dreaming this stuff up while my brother was happily bagging his comics for what my young brain imagined was some upcoming apocalypse.
It wasn't until he started collecting "Ninja Turtles" comics that something switched over in my head. To me, there was something just so different about those books that I DID start to obsess over them – the way the books felt dirtier in my hands, the filthy artwork and hero characters that never seemed healed over form their last battles. There was a sense of person just behind the printed page that I had never felt before, a thinner separation from production to my hands and eyes that just fired hooks out into me. It felt unsafe, ya know? It's like, the book itself was less removed from the initial moment a creator is excited about having just come up with some great idea to when they finally finish a thing, nice and polished and just a little dulled from before the thing was just another book. To me, anyhow. It's just what I interpreted the experience like, and I'm sure to a lot of people it was just a book about big mutant turtles.
I was still really little, though, and it wasn't until I was around 16 or so that I connected with comics again in any big way, poring through a friend's collection of "Love & Rockets" comics and collections with Charles Burns stuff and "Life in Hell" compilations. That was pretty much what sealed my fate right there. She was a bizarre girl who once, while in a car with me, giggled at a cow that was doing nothing at all on a hill, but it was her comics collection that stuck with me, that and the cow thing.
More specifically to M.O.D.O.K., he seems to be a character and visual that a lot of people gravitate towards based on the sheer strangeness of Kirby's original design alone. Was it those core building blocks that made you want to play with the character in your story?
Definitely. M.O.D.O.K. has floated around in my head from the very day I saw his entry in one of those books I mentioned (I don't remember what the names of those books were). There were certain pictures in books that, as a really little kid, freaked me out but kept me coming back. One was this painting of this grotesque Jersey Devil in a Time-Life book about supernatural dealings, another a still of John Hurt with the chestburster blasting out of his guts, and another was M.O.D.O.K., his revolting, giant head harnessed in that floating chair-suit of his. Why the mutation process even made his teeth bigger just confused the hell out of me and I used to wonder if it hurt to have giant teeth for some reason. It held some perfect element of absurd horror, the kind of thing I always loved as a kid and to this day, things so comically awful that, when you imagined what they would be like in real life, were just plain awful. The idea of a M.O.D.O.K. is just hilarious, but find me one person that wouldn't stop laughing instantly and spend the rest of their pre-blackout time screaming and throwing up.
Angsty mad scientist is certainly a huge part of the allure. I've always liked the thought of super beings with incredible abilities being bogged down with ultimately small-minded, very broken human qualities like jealousy and shame and the ever-classic GIANT HEAD. The Greek gods were some of the most famous examples of that kind of fun nonsense, but because human beings are inventing these characters they infuse them with all those wonderful, sad human qualities – in the case of Galactus, an eating disorder. What could be more isolating and angst-inducing than to be super smart and still be horribly aware of how disgusting you are to every eye that takes you in? You'd start putting that huge brain of yours to work for some of the saddest, most vengeful things conceivable when you COULD be out there curing cancer and inventing giant hats.
Your story kicks off with a trio of kids playing dress up, with the perils of picking a less popular character colliding with a horrific misunderstanding from M.O.D.O.K.. I found this pretty funny, as I'm sure there are a few kids these days taking shit for dressing up as Johnny or Zim these days. What did you like to dress up as when you were a kid?
I didn't really like dressing up as familiar characters for Halloween that I can remember. It was usually more some mish-mash of monster parts from costume shops and found objects. One time I wore a rubber fish-demon mask with huge fangs, a trenchcoat, my dad's filthy work boots and a Freddy glove. I have no idea what that character would be called, but just remembering it fills me with dread, so you know it had to be pretty badass. This year I hope to break that trend by dressing up as Wikus from "District 9." "Bloody nerd" I can pull off easily.
I'm glad you see it as a misunderstanding on M.O.D.O.K.'s part, too. I really wanted MODOK to come off as somewhat innocent and sad in the comic, doing something horrific in the name of trying to help someone in need, and not at all out of malice or any such thing. M.O.D.O.K. just comes off as being a bit mad from loneliness in the comic.
Overall, the tremendous amount of success your comics have had must be incredibly freeing creatively in that you can work on your own projects with the security that perennial sales from your older work provides. At the same time, working on bigger collaborative projects like films ,with the occasional OGN along the way, can, I'm sure, be frustrating in the time it takes to get a finished product approved and out there. Do you ever miss the daily grind of just being a cartoonist who works on books solo?
Yes and no. Even when I was doing comics regularly I was wondering if what I was feeling was normal, the urge to get up from my desk and run around screaming about how impatient I am and how sitting down all day to draw a page sounds like exactly the thing I don't want to be doing all the time. Going into animation was a bit the opposite of that, however, and I'd run around screaming about how nice it'd be to sit alone and be able to concentrate on just the simple thing of drawing a page all day, only on an animated show you don't have time to run anywhere but to meetings so you can explain why your character should slip on a banana without offending some portion of the country. Short answer, though it's already to late for that, is yes, I miss the comics process, but my process was never terribly peaceful, like I said, and I think I'd definitely need something to break it up a bit for any bigger, future projects.
One thing that it seems that your work in animation and video games has brought back to your comics is the more frequent use of digital drawing and production. I know drawing on the computer has revolutionized the way comics in general have been done since the '90s, but at the same time, the fact that your earlier comics had such striking ink work makes things like this M.O.D.O.K. story feel so much different ,though it's clearly still you. What for you are the advantages to working with the tools you have today as opposed to busting out everything on the bristol boards?
I actually think that it depends on the comic itself and the effect I want to get out of it. Aside from the digital lettering and color in the M.O.D.O.K. story, it wasn't that different from doing a page from "JTHM" or most of those early things. For M.O.D.O.K., I penciled on paper, scanned that and then printed in non-repro blue, inked that on bristol and then scanned for color and lettering. That way, I'm not messing up my pencils forever, and I still have a bit of control in the computer for cleanup and such. I had actually started doing the inking digitally for this strip, but didn't like the effect a few panels in and redid it with old fashioned ink on paper. To date, that's still how I do most of my illustrative work, with only a handful of things done entirely in Photoshop or Illustrator, and even then those are mostly shirt designs or other things that aren't full-on comics.
The reason M.O.D.O.K. doesn't look like the work in "JTHM" is partly because, well, "JTHM" was done a long time ago when I was still learning to use my arms, and because the more cartoony look of M.O.D.O.K. just fit the story better. The rounder and cuter M.O.D.O.K. looks, the more confused and innocent he would look, making the AWFUL things that happen in the comic feel more awful. If the whole comic was done with a very jagged, aggressive style I'm not sure it would be funny in the same way. It might still be funny, but it would also look meaner and more sarcastic instead of confusingly bubbly and simultaneously horrific. Same goes for the color scheme, which, admittedly, is almost painful to my eyes, looking like an entire spread of Sunday paper funnies all in one comic.
As with a lot of the folks I've talked to about "Strange Tales," I wanted to ask you about some of the other contributors. Whose work are you most excited to see, or whose stuff from the first issue really caught your eye?
Max Cannon's one I'm looking forward to seeing. SO used to seeing his Red Meat strips in short, controlled bursts that even just two pages (I have no idea how long or short his strip is going to be) will be like Max Cannon overload to me. I had already seen the Tony Millionaire pages, and of the stuff I've seen it's my favorite mainly for how mushy Iron Man is depicted and the fact that his nemesis is made of lunchmeat. Not gonna go into it, but lunchmeat with a will is one of my favorite of the classic dramatic scenarios. Again, it's just awesome being in that kind of creative company and it's a bit otherworldly to think that Marvel is the reason I'm able to say that.
And in general, what kind of comics are you following these days? I know you interact with a lot of fellow cartoonists at shows and online, but at the same time there's so much new work out there these days that it's way easier to find comics outside the superhero/sci-fi wheelhouse than it's ever been. Any particular favorites or books you feel fly under the radar?
I don't exactly keep a very current schedule of reading the latest stuff, even if I pick the books up when they're barely on shelves, since I stockpile books, sometimes for years, often from wandering around conventions in the two minutes I have to do things like walk around at them. It's not unusual, say, ten years later after grabbing a book I think looked interesting, to knock over what I thought was a huge, lumpy person in the house and realize it was just a giant, moldering tower of comics. There's no real rhyme or order to what I'm reading at any given moment other than it's what I woke up on with it stuck to the drool on my cheek or something like that.
I can look over on the table to my right and see a copy of "Labor Days" from Oni, that big Meathaus collection full of beautiful stuff, a psychotic "Biz and Buzz" comic Kevin Eastman gave me and a Titmouse Animation coloring book. I'm actually in the middle of moving and have just packed up a whole bunch of books and there are some "Walking Deads" in there, Kazu's "Amulet" #2, "Sloth" from Gilbert Hernandez, and something called "NYC Mech," all of which I've yet to read!