It has been sixteen years since writer and artist Judd Winick appeared on MTV's reality television show, "The Real World," but the landmark reality television series was still very much at the heart of Sunday's WonderCon spotlight panel, where Winick sat down with Cartoon Art Museum curator Andrew Farago. Winick traced the history of his career and explained exactly how his television fame gave him his first break, inspired his move from comic strips to comic books and got his foot in the door at DC.
"Growing up, all I ever wanted to do was write comic scripts," Winick told the audience. As a child, reading "Garfield" inspired him to make his own cat comic strip, titled "Marvin." "I thought [Garfield] was the funniest damn thing I'd ever read," Winick recalled, adding that his tastes would eventually broaden to include strips like "Bloom County," but his ambitions would remain the same. While attending University of Michigan, Winick wrote a five-day-a-week strip for the Michigan Daily. The comic, "Nuts & Bolts," was a precursor to Winick's later syndicated strip "Frumpy the Clown" and trained Winick for the rigors of making a daily strip.
Once Winick graduated from college, his dream seemed within reach. United Syndicate approached Winick about syndicating "Nuts & Bolts," and he spent the next year developing the strip. "I thought, 'This is it. This is great. I'm 23 years old. I'm going to be a syndicated cartoonist. This is all I've ever wanted to do. My plan's working out just as I said it would. Terrific.' And then they fired me." The syndicate decided "Nuts & Bolts" wasn't viable, and a broke Winick moved back home. Applying to appear on "The Real World" sounded like a good way to get out of his parents' house.
Winick's stint as the "boring white guy" on "The Real World" did get him out of the house, simultaneously bringing him to the attention of the syndicates. "[Creators Syndicate] had seen me on television and literally called me." Soon, Creators Syndicate was distributing "Frumpy the Clown," although the strip's circulation was limited. "My strip seemed like a really obnoxious children's strip [to many newspaper editors]," he said. He estimates that, at most, "Frumpy" appeared in 20 newspapers.
But it was Winick's friendship with a fellow "Real World" cast member – AIDS educator and activist Pedro Zamora – that had the most profound impact on Winick's life and ultimately his career. When the HIV-positive Zamora became too ill to fulfill his lecture schedule, he asked Winick to fill in for him. After Zamora died, Winick said his work on "Frumpy" "just didn't feel that important." Eventually, he decided to try writing a comic book about his friendship with Zamora and the experience of losing him. Winick described the book, "Pedro and Me," as a personal turning point. At that point, syndicated comics had lost their luster and he became far more interested in telling longer stories. "The cartoonist I became," he said, "the one I am now, the one who writes all these screwed-up comics, things like that, was because I knew Pedro."
His experience with "Pedro and Me," Winick said, encouraged him to try writing a fictional comic book. "I wanted to do something just for me. I wanted to try it out."
He soon developed "The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius," a comic book about a cynical, foul-mouthed 10-year-old boy with a penchant for inventing incredible, if ill-fated, technological devises. In "Ween," Winick found the satisfaction and fun he had been missing in his syndicated strip. "If I could make a living doing 'Barry Ween,' I would," he said.
As Winick described his entrée into writing comics for DC, he answered critics who attribute his success to his "Real World" fame. "When people write about me, or – let's be clear – when they disparage me on the internet and say that the only reason I got into comics was because of the f-ing "Real World," they're right. They're absolutely 100 percent right." Comic book editor and Oni Press founder Bob Schreck happened to recognize Winick at San Diego Comic Con and asked him to do a one-page strip for an upcoming Oni book, "Oni Double Feature." That story, "Road Trip," was nominated for an Eisner. "One of my favorite quotes is that "success is when preparation meets opportunity. So, yeah, I got on this television show and I got a lot of opportunities; various people recognize me. But I still have to come up and know how to play ball. After Schreck became an editor at DC Comics, he offered Winick the opportunity to write "Green Lantern." Winick admitted that, at the time, he had no idea how to approach writing "Green Lantern." "Always say, 'Yes,'" he told he audience. "When given an opportunity in which you have no clue how to do it or what you could do and you want to do it, just say, Yes.'"
It's that attitude that led Winick into his first foray into animation. When Noggin approached Winick about creating an animated series, he developed the concept for "The Life and Times of Juniper Lee." Noggin ultimately passed, but Winick brought the pitch to Cartoon Network and soon found himself producing the series. "I had studied animation in college, but I had never worked on a television show before. And suddenly, I was the creator and executive producer of an animated program. No idea what I'm doing. No idea what I'm doing. But being a good boss is hiring people who know better than you."
Currently, Winick is looking forward to a return to "Barry Ween." "Thankfully, after, like, an eight-year hiatus, I'm actually – swear to God – I'm actually doing more 'Barry Ween.' I'm writing it now." He admitted that he's nervous about taking up the fan-favorite series again. "I haven't done it in a long time. Can I still be this funny? Do I still have this edge? I hope I do. It just takes a little while to get my 'Barry Ween' hat on again and make it work."
The next story will see Barry Ween in space. "I just had to find that inner monologue of what it was for Barry to be irritated about, and what Barry is irritated about is that space travel, for us here on Earth, is a joke. Just a joke. And there's nothing more interesting or inviting than space travel, and we don't care about it at all. People grouse about how much money NASA spends, but no one's ever going to get the job done. Who are the people who are going to get to space? The scientists at NASA, and we're not giving them any money to do it. These guys grew up watching way too much 'Star Trek' and spending way too much time at home going through books. These guys, these Asperger's-riddled, never-had-a-date-in-years guys need $30 billion just to get something even started, and we're not giving them that. Andy, by the way, wonders who wants to deal with us human beings in space anyway?"
Winick had originally announced "Barry Ween: Boy Genius in Space" years ago, and he said the book he's writing will be a bit different from the one he had conceived back then. "It's funny - when I started forming this idea way back when, it was all about 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars' references. And now it's gone all 'Battlestar Galactica' and 'Doctor Who.'"