Cartoonist Jesse Moynihan’s known to many fans for his Emmy-nominated work as a writer and storyboarder on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, but he’s also earned a loyal cult following for his surreal webcomic Forming, an epic mashup of every creation myth you’ve ever heard of and many you haven’t. The tale is replete with bright colors, deliberately crude figures and ultraviolence, and not a little bit of dark humor. You can check it out on Moynihan’s website.
Moynihan’s launching the second hard-copy collection of Forming from Nobrow Pressat the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) this weekend, and is finishing up a new animated short, Manly, that he’s launching through the Cartoon Hangover YouTube channel on July 31 (you can check out updates on this Tumblr page). We talked with Moynihan about his new and upcoming works.
Newsrama: Jesse, you’ve been posting about a new short you’re doing with Frederator Studios for Cartoon Hangover. What can you tell us about that?
Jesse Moynihan: Yeah, my brother and I, we co-wrote it about three years ago, just sending emails back and forth because he wasn’t living in LA yet. We wanted to do something that was based around the style I like to draw in, and that he likes to write about, and we pitched it to Frederator last year.
Nrama: Can you tell us what it’s about, or the major inspirations?
Moynihan: It’s so how to know how the seed of that thing started, because it was a bunch of conversations…we didn’t know who was going to pick it up. At first, we were trying to think of stuff we could pitch to Cartoon Network, but we got to brainstorming stuff that was what we wanted to write about, that didn’t have a ceiling on the age limit.
When we came up with this idea, it was about this girl that travels around the universe, sort of like the Silver Surfer in a way, or you could say the Little Prince. And we wanted to make something that could be very broad and operatic, but also introspective and personal. We’ll see what happens, if we get to make more episodes.
But it’s about a girl who flies around the universe defending it against super-beings that keep appearing to overthrow her dad – she’s like a killer for her dad, who runs the universe.
Nrama: That’s got to be a complicated relationship.
Moynihan: Yeah, that’s part of what we wanted to explore. But her dad will be real funny.
Nrama: But that seems to be a recurring theme in your work – that juxtaposition of cosmic, mythological concepts with more down-to-earth language and interactions and emotional junk.
Moynihan: Yeah, exactly. Whenever I’m doing something, if it’s fantasy or sci-fi or whatever, I know I have to take my personal work that I was doing before and inform that in there. I get frustrated with fantasy movies and stories where there’s none of that personal aspect put into it – no specific experiences, just broad ideas. I’ll check out ofstuff like that when you can feel the author’s personality coming through.
Nrama: And it’s like that with Forming, where you’re taking on any number of creation myths, but there’s all matter of modern slang and language.
Moynihan: Yeah, that’s a way in, for me. For example, I love Jack Kirby’s ideas, his concepts, and I love his drawings, but I always felt on a personal level his writing wasn’t that engaged. And it’s hard for me to stay with his work, to follow his stories, because they’re so removed, to me, from real human experience.
Nrama: In fairness, he was doing an awful lot all at the same time.
Moynihan: Oh, I don’t want to diss Kirby, but that’s my one complaint. (laughs)
Nrama: You’re at Book Two of Forming, but what made you want to go, “Okay, this is time for another collection?”
Moynihan: I had a rough number of pages I wanted to complete, but I also reached a cliffhanger where this felt like the end of an act. Everything was teetering on something, so I could pick up from there with a third volume and that would feel like the final act. It was like, “I’ve gotten to a part where it feels like it makes sense to close the door on that book.” It was very intuitive, you could say. (laughs) And also based on a lot of ideas about story structure and stuff.
Nrama: It always comes down to three acts.
Moynihan: Yeah, those three acts have really been drilled into me from four years of working on Adventure Time. The ideas of that three-act structure, of the classic epics, those are part of me now. I don’t adhere to it as strictly as some people on Adventure Time do, but it’s part of my DNA, and I respect the form.
Nrama: Well, you certainly have to do a lot in 11 minutes with one of those cartoons, and with Forming, you have all those myriad subplots…you have that freedom to explore a little bit more, but what’s the biggest challenge you’ve found in trying to brings those plots together?
Moynihan: It’s a big challenge, and it can make you go crazy. If you want it to work, and for all the pieces to fit together in the end, you’re going to have a nervous breakdown about it. The key is keeping all that stuff in mind, and keeping your eye out for convenient ways of connecting the story streams.
I think it’s a combination of thinking about it and feeling it, and you have to trust those instinctual…it’s hard to describe, but when I’m writing I put things in place I know I can use later, that an idea has power behind it. And if it feels right, that I know it can mean something later or that I can use it later, I put it in. And when I get to that later part, I think of all those dominos I set up, and try to use them. It’s a weird trust exercise with yourself.
Nrama: Artistically, you also expanded quite a bit with the strips contained in this volume –
Moynihan: Yeah. In that first volume, I think there was still some insecurity coming out of having done more personal comics, more diary-style works, that were inspired by reactions against genre comics and superhero comics.
My layouts were really strict, really conservative, and I was trying to work in color, but it was my first time working in color, so there was a certain amount of carefulness about that first volume.
With the second volume, I set out to explore more of what I could do with that format, so there’s more breaking up the page, and more experimentation with color, more use of color to convey meaning. You can see those moments throughout the volume, where I’m trying something new with layouts or coloring, and not being as uptight about crossing over into genre-comics territory.
I tried to strike a balance between experimental layouts and making sure the intention of those layouts made sense, and weren’t just showing off. Though I like to show off sometimes. (laughs)
Nrama: What’s an example of this that you’re especially proud of?
Moynihan: There’s a few parts where people are speaking to each other with their brains, so I have thought balloons reaching into other people’s heads, and fight scenes taking place in white space. Things like that, just messing around. I think because I was reading a lot of Mazzucchelli’s stuff, and the Kirby stuff, and really admiring their layouts, I was trying to incorporate some of their ideas into my work.
When I say “experimental,” it’s experimental for me, because everything’s already been done. (laughs) But it’s trying to break out of those indy-style formats.
Nrama: Well, that’s something you can do more of in webcomics:
Moynihan: Actually, when I’m doing webcomics, I’m thinking of how it will lay out in book form – I guess I’m a little conservative in that sense. I’d like to do something that was more liberated, more web-based for my next project.
Nrama: You’ve announced the return of Forming in January 2015 – obviously, that’s a ways away, though you have more than a few things on your plate! Why’d you pick that specific time?
Moynihan: I started Forming around January 2009, so that time just felt right, and I felt like I could generate enough ideas to take me to the finish line for it. I’ve been taking notes on the third volume – I’m not not working on it, but I want the architecture to be there before I work on it.
And I want to look for new ideas on how to approach the plot mechanics, what the conflict is going to be, some solutions for the conflicts that are maybe more philosophical and psychedelic.
Nrama: More psychedelic? You’re scaring the hell out of me, Jesse.
Moynihan: Yeah, more psychedelic! I want the third volume to be a big step past the first and second volumes – hard-hitting and hard…thinking, I don’t know. (laughs)
I like to think of it as my getting older and wanting my stories to be more knotted, harder to get into. (laughs) I don’t know. I change my mind about this all the time.
Nrama: And obviously, the supernatural has been a great, great influence on you – how much research do you do for this, and is it a continuing area of study for you?
Moynihan: Yeah, it’s a continuing area of study and personal experience. I feel like communicating those ideas are, for me, communicating to people where I’m at at the time. I’m not trying to tell people what to think or what to believe, but what my experiences are and what ideas I’m learning about.
I feel like those have to come through in my work. It’s about keeping the work honest and specific. If I wasn’t into that stuff, it wouldn’t be in my writing.
Nrama: How long do you see the third volume running?
Moynihan: Probably around the length of the other two volumes, about 120 pages. I want to use my space efficiently – tell the story and move on. Plus, I have some other stories I want to tell in comics, and don’t want to get too bogged down on this one!
Forming II premieres at TCAF this weekend!