Judd Winick: Reflections on Barry Ween

Judd Winick: Reflections on Barry Ween

The Big Book of Barry Ween - in stores April 1st from Oni Press

Ten years ago, Judd Winick was mostly known for his role on the third season of MTV’s The Real World based in San Francisco. But a pointy-haired, foul-mouthed 10-year-old with a 350 IQ was about to change all that.

The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius, which premiered from Image in the summer of 1999, was a breakthrough work for the young cartoonist, earning raves from the likes of Matt Wagner and Garth Ennis. The initial three-issue run, along with two subsequent volumes from Oni Press, earned a cult following for

Barry and his equally profane friend Jeremy. It was action-packed, politically incorrect, and occasionally, even touching. You can read the first issue for free here.

Ween launched Winick into the spotlight, a position fortified by his acclaimed graphic novel Pedro & Me, chronicling his friendship with the late Pedro Zamora. The success of these books helped launch Winick into a successful and sometimes controversial career writing such Marvel and DC books as Exiles, Outsiders, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and most recently Titans.

Since 2002, the comics industry has been Ween-less. But all that changes on April 1 when Oni releases The Big Book of Barry Ween, Boy Genius, collecting all of Barry’s adventures under one cover for a mere $19.95. In celebration of this, we called up Winick for a spontaneous conversation about Ween, the book’s history, and whether he’ll ever return to his creation.

Newsarama Note: The following interview contains…well, a lot of foul language. This is Barry Ween we’re talking about. It is intended for “mature” audiences only.

Newsarama: So Judd, with this collected edition of Barry Ween in preparation, what has it been like looking at this older work?

Judd Winick: It has been a delight and enormously disconcerting at the same time. (laughs) When Oni sent me the proofs months ago, I was just supposed to check it out, move some graphics around, mess with it…and I wound up reading the whole thing. It was a good afternoon of reading my own Barry Ween collection.

So 1), it’s been great, I think it’s really funny and it holds up, and 2) it’s disconcerting, because I really think it’s my best work. (laughs) I really do! I read it and I enjoy it and I’m proud of it, and I’ll put it up against anything else I’ve ever done. And honestly, if there’s anything that’ll get me to get back on the horse and do some more of it, it’s this collection.

Like I said, I think it’s better than anything I’ve ever done. And you know, I’ve had many, many people ask, “When are you going to do some more Barry Ween?” You know what? Never before have I been right there with them as strong as I am right now. I’m going, “Yeah, I should do more Barry Ween.”

NRAMA: Well, you just named my big question for this interview – are you going to do more Barry Ween? I remember reading you were going to do “Ween in Space” at some point…

JW: Still am. It’s going to be the next story. Oddly enough, the references began, I don’t know, four or five years ago when I started working on it, and they were Star Trek and Star Wars, and now they’ve probably grown into Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who. That’s probably the only major difference (from when I started).

I think one of the things that tripped me up was…I finished the last Barry Ween in, God help me, 2001 or so. And then I got into television. I do two kinds of writing – stuff that I write, and stuff that I write and I draw. Barry Ween is what I write and I draw. It is a labor of love, because you do everything. It’s old-school. I write and I pencil and I ink and I do lettering, it’s all me.

So it’s rather time-consuming, but delightfully so. I enjoy doing Barry Ween more than anything else. But I got sidetracked in a good way – I got to do superhero comics, and I developed the animated show The Life and Times of Juniper Lee for the Cartoon Network. I don’t know how much your readers know about making animated television, but it takes a really long time…

I took this little break from Barry Ween, and I guess in 2002 or 2003 I started developing what would become The Life and Times of Juniper Lee. I began it for another network, and then it wound up on another network, so that was three years and change right there. But it was really satisfying, because I was writing and drawing.

You know, it was storyboards and designing characters and writing scripts, and that sort of artistically – which I mean in the least artsy-fartsy way possible – that was a very artistically-satisfying experience, writing and drawing on Juniper Lee.

We did Juniper for three years and change, and it finished up about a year and a half ago…and that’s when I just started losing my damn mind. Writing just the superhero comics wasn’t doing it, and the work started coming along slower, and that was because I wasn’t doing it, I wasn’t writing and drawing. I was just writing.

And I also wrote a pilot for NBC, which was a live-action pilot, and it sort of took all year, and then there was the writers’ strike…a million boring things just tripped me up.

But at the end of the day, which I guess is today, I’m doing a new book, a non-Barry Ween book, that’s got me writing and drawing again. Back in 2001, I was doing it old-school – it was me, doing it on paper, and I’d print out my lettering and paste it on the board. With this new book, I’ve updated – I’m still drawing it on paper, but I’m manipulating in the computer, the lettering will be done on the computer.

This is me getting back up to speed to being a working cartoonist in 2009 – combining the new technology of the computer with the old style of the past.

NRAMA: Can you tell us anything about the book you’re working on?

JW: No. (laughs) I can’t tell you anything at this time. I will say that it’s not a strict graphic novel. It involves a lot of drawing and sequential art…I’m just getting into it now, but I don’t want to reveal too much. I’ll also say that it’s an all-ages title.

I think it has a more mainstream audience than a lot of my other stuff, but it’s still something that fanboys can read and enjoy. I love all-ages books – not children’s books per se, but something that everyone can enjoy, cradle to the grave. (laughs) A lot of animated films basically work in that realm, and a lot of “family films” are…ugh. I like stuff like Doctor Who! Doctor Who I would call all-ages.

NRAMA: Getting back to Barry Ween, I’d like to talk about what it was like to work on the book the first time around. Where did you get the idea for Barry?

JW: Barry Ween is the perfect of example of, “You should do what you really, really want.” Now, if Barry Ween was the work that made me a multi-millionaire, that’d be the final piece of the puzzle. But instead, Barry Ween was the thing that opened some doors for me creatively, and showed me what I really wanted to do.

At the time, I had just quit doing the comic strip Frumpy the Clown, which was wonderful in its own way, but the limitations on it were vast. I mean, it was a newspaper comic strip. They’re tiny little four-panel stories, you can’t really get much out of them. And I’d just finished doing Pedro & Me, a long-form graphic memoir, and a work of non-fiction, which also meant the shackles were on in terms of how I could tell that story as well.

What I really wanted was just a big old “fuck it!” (laughs) Something that was really for me. I didn’t care who read it, I didn’t care who enjoyed it, I didn’t care if it embarrassed my mom. I really wanted to break out the four-letter words and go for it. I wanted to do what worked for me, and I love little kids who curse. And with that, Barry Ween was born.

I named the main character after my best friend, who is also named Barry Ween. It just took off from there. What was nice about it was that it was a very organic process. It was just supposed to be a story about Barry Ween, this boy genius, and then when I was writing it, I realized he needed someone to talk to.

And I thought it would be great to have a character who thought Barry was incredibly cool, but who would also call him out on his shit. And hence, his friend Jeremy was born. And it was totally by accident! I was on page three or four, and he just popped in there. It wasn’t by design – I hate these little buddy comedies and things. But it happened oh so organically.

It hasn’t happened like that very much since, because I’ve been predominately writing superhero comics. I’ve been playing with other people’s toys. Even if you believe you’re working on a much larger scale than you are, there are things that are being micromanaged. This was right for me, and it was born out of me going, “Who cares? If I want to say ‘fuck’ 35 times and blow things up, who cares?” Ween borders on the sociopathic. (laughs)

That’s the other interesting thing about Barry – he’s amoral, and I like that. And with Jeremy, he’s very grounded, and human. And toward the end, I was able to find all this pathos and empathy in the character. I still look at it and see how everything fell together by accident. So much of these stories are just about the characters dictating where the story was taking them.

NRAMA: What’s your favorite one-liner from the series?

JW: Ohhh, wow. If I flipped through the book right now, I’d probably find one per page….

NRAMA: My personal favorites are “Alzheimer’s and nursing home” and “Go away! I’m masturbating!” Which make very little sense taken out of context…

JW: (laughs) There’s two moments I dig, and they’re both where Barry actually gets to be funny, and they’re both one-liners. One is where Barry realizes that Jeremy likes Roxie the bigfoot girl. He’s standing there, and Barry leans in, eyes wide open, and goes, “You like the bigfoot girl!” Jeremy denies everything, and Barry just laughs like hell.

Another time he’s mocking Jeremy because Roxie’s asked him to the dance, and Jeremy’s just gone, “I’m single, man! Gotta spread the Jeremy around!” And Roxie asks him out, and Jeremy goes, “Yeah, spread it around!” Mostly I like it because I get a lot of people coming up to me and saying that. (laughs)

Honestly, there’s a lot of great one-liners in there. And a lot of great side characters, too! I love the Colonel, who seems to have a homophobic thing going on…the Outbreak rip-off. When Barry notices that the monkey got bit, and Roxie goes, “The little fucker bit me first!” And he goes, “You can take the girl out of the forest…” Okay, I don’t have any favorites! I love them all! It’s all gold! (laughs)

NRAMA: Oh! I also loved the running gag in the Wild Wild West story about Barry and Jeremy being mistaken for “boy whores.”

JW: Yes! That rocked! Let me tell you why – that’s another organic one. Those are little gifts from God. You have the saloon-keeper call them “boy whores,” and then later the Native American says the same thing. “Did he just call us hookers?” Because Jeremy doesn’t know the Native American language, but he just knows “hooker” when he hears it. I love that.

NRAMA: And of course, this is a weird question to ask, but even Warren Ellis pointed it out…the dick guns.

JW: Yeah. (pause) Ohhhh…I gotta say it was by accident. (laughs)

NRAMA: You just drew one, and it kind of looked like a giant penis, and then they all got like that…?

JW: You know what? I think all damn handguns are designed like that. Every gun just wound up looking like a penis, and then Warren pointed it out, and it was actually Greg Rucka who told me that Warren pointed it out. So, after that, I think I just started deliberately making them all into giant penises.

And if you asked Barry why he made them all into giant penises, you know, I think he’d probably say…”Just because. What else are guns supposed to look like?” (laughs) That’s the line. “Why do all your guns look like giant penises?” “Because Freud was right. Shut up and keep working.”

NRAMA: This entire tangent may well have been the lowest point in the history of Newsarama.

What were some of the challenges in doing Ween as a series of self-contained stories in the early issues?

JW: None! That was the beauty of it! I mean, I would basically rip off movies that I enjoyed and extrapolate from there. Sometimes, I’d even reference the movies themselves. You know, with the school dance, I’m ripping off Outbreak, and when they go back to the old west, I’m ripping off Back to the Future Part 2…Barry rescues the kids from the museum a la Die Hard…just conventional movie stories, and seeing what Barry would do. That’s how I come up with a lot of stuff: “What movies do I love?”

With Monkey Tales…that was just about what it was about. I love stories about monkeys, I love apes, and I had this idea of this giant ape, because who doesn’t like a giant ape, but he’s kind of quietly malevolent. And I put him in Barry’s world, and it gradually became a more serious story, which I love.

And the final pencils of that…I had just finished what had turned out to be the final issue of Barry Ween, not knowing it would be seven years…and I knew with all my heart that something special had happened. It was a very emotional story. And I had finished the pencils and put words in all the balloons so I could read it.

So I had it finalized, and I took it with me and my wife as we went to see The Lord of the Rings, and before the trailers came out, my wife was reading that last issue of Barry Ween. And our friends are joining us, they’re incredibly late, we can barely save seats, and the story she likes to tell is that she was utterly, completely engrossed in the story, and was done, and was in tears before The Lord of the Rings started. She just looked at me and said, “This is so horrible, and wonderful!” I was like, “Oh good, thanks, I thought I was reaching.”

That is the greatest compliment you can get: To write something so involving that right before Lord of the Rings, your wife forgets all about the film and is sucked into the story.

NRAMA: Aww!

JW: Exactly! Aww! That’s why we should write stories: To impress women.

NRAMA: What was your drawing process like?

JW: If you look at the progression – that’s what fun about one of those big books – if you look at the art over the course of the series, you’ll see a progression. I loved the stuff in the last three issues. It was very inky, very fanboy stuff. I liked the way the backgrounds looked, it had a nice groove. That’s why I need a tune-up before I get back to Ween – I have to make sure I have my chops up to speed.

I’m no Frank Miller, but one of the fun things about the original Sin City was looking at where the art started and where the art ended. Frank found a spiral within, and where Marv was at the beginning, he was in a different place by the end. So Ween has something in common with Sin City in that respect. I look at the first few drawings, they’re a little more sketchy, more like a daily comic strip cartoonist, and by the end, I’m more of a straight-up black-and-white alternative cartoonist guy. And I’m happy with that.

NRAMA: The strangest thing with Ween was that crossover with Greg Rucka, “Weenout.” Will that be in the collection?

JW: It is! It’s in there. And I think it’s in color. I hope it’s in color.

NRAMA: The Whiteout film is coming out this year, so you should totally promote Ween as a tie-in. Get some of Greg and Steve’s movie cheddar.

How did that story come about?

JW: Nothing, special really. Oni was putting together the Oni Press Summer Color Special, and they said, “What we really want to see is a Barry Ween and Whiteout crossover.” So we came up with the title, “Weenout,” and…it took me and Greg maybe 25 minutes to write it. (laughs)

It is so short, and it pretty much just writes itself. We did the structure, and then I popped in all the jokes, and Greg made sure, thanks to Warren, that the guns looked like giant penises, and Carrie Stetko called it out. She’s the only one to ever call Barry out. That was it – it was a lot of fun working with Greg.

NRAMA: What would you say Barry Ween did for your career overall?

JW: It’s hard to say. A lot of people in animation liked it, and were pretty desperate to do something with it. But I held pretty firm that I wasn’t going to do this as a children’s show. What makes it great is that he curses, and that it’s pretty blue. If you take out the cursing, it’s just another show about a boy genius. And the truth is, in children’s shows, they don’t want a protagonist who is snarky and sarcastic. They really want them to be more positive and chipper. And I was like, “So what the hell are we doing here?”

That said, a lot of people in children’s animation read it and turned around and said, “Can you do something like that, but make it palatable for kids?” I had a number of conversations like that. And I got representation because of it! It got me more attention from people. My manager, who is still my manager, came into my life because he read Barry Ween and came to me and said, “This is great. You should do more things like this.”

Ween always helps when I’m pitching superhero books – people know that I’m able to write more well-rounded material than just superhero stuff. While I’m on that, I’d say some confusion came in…I get tagged for a variety of things. People say I’m excessively liberal, that I’m constantly getting on a soapbox, that’s one thing. And the other is, I always play my superhero comics a little blue. You know, the characters will make jokes about sex, say things that are somewhat inappropriate.

And in my defense, this is who I’ve always been, and what I’ve always done! If people are a little upset because I’m writing Green Lantern or Green Arrow or whatever, and there’s a couple of double-entendres in there, forgive me, but this is who I am! (laughs) I came into this as a political cartoonist, that’s what I do in “real life.” That’s who I am.

But yeah, Barry has gotten me a lot of notoriety from people who are “inside baseball.”

NRAMA: If you were to come back to Barry, what do you feel you would bring to it from your experiences since you stopped doing the book?

JW: I hope very little. (laughs) That would be my fear -- that I’ve picked up some bad habits. I don’t often say this about the mainstream work I do, but I’m happy with very little of it. Let me explain what that means – I can keep working on a script forever. I really could. Well, it reminds me of the Pixar guys – they often say that they don’t release movies, they’re just forced to stop working on them.

I kind of feel the same way about comic scripts – if I wasn’t on a deadline, I’d keep going on them. I really would. I’m forced to make a lot of decisions that just shouldn’t stick. If I was asked to look at my body of work and pick what I would do over, I would say, “Pretty much everything.” These are stories I could tell five or six different ways, and just keep on going.

With Barry, that’s not the case. (laughs) I don’t look at the work and go, “Man, I should have done this…” I’m really quite proud of the work! I feel very, very comfortable with it. So if…when I go back to Barry Ween, I hope I feel that way again.

I’ve been saying “I’m coming back to Barry Ween” for years, and no one believes me anymore. That’s okay – don’t believe me ‘til I do it. But I will come back to it. I will get there, because my soul hurts. And when I get back to it, I don’t want to bring any bad habits to it except feeling the pressure of a deadline. I’m writing the story because I think it works. And I can wait around until a funny joke occurs to me – I’ll be driving around in the car, and the joke hits. A conversation between Barry and Jeremy will happen. That’s how it works, these funny, organic conversations.

So that’s what I hope to bring to it – that I can pick up where I left off.

The Big Book of Barry Ween, Boy Genius comes cursing into stores this April.

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