WARNING: If you are offended by the term “zombie fetuses,” you should probably stop reading this interview. Now.
For a decade, Douglas Paszkiewicz has mined the depths of the blackest of black comedy in Arsenic Lullaby and its spinoffs. Now, he’s introducing a variety of all-new material, including an omnibus collection of his comics, and an animated TV pilot. Should you wish to see what we’re talking about, risk your soul by reading this X-Mas story with Voodoo Joe.
We had a chance to talk Arsenic Lullaby with Paszkiewicz, which turned into a surprisingly thoughtful discussion about comedy and what truly constitutes edgy material in today’s world. Also, zombie fetuses. We warned you.
Newsarama: Douglas, for those unfamiliar with your work, explain Arsenic Lullaby. I'd try myself, but...I'm not sure anyone would believe me.
Douglas Paszkiewicz: Well it's got a witch doctor who has zombie fetuses, and a guy with no skin, and a census agent who kills babies so he doesn't have to count them...some alien..uhm...it’s like The Far Side..except longer and darker…way darker.
It is a book full of horrible, despicable things and vile characters that somehow makes you laugh.
Nrama: What's in the new collection?
Paszkiewicz: This is a collection of the entire run of Arsenic Lullaby comic books – 99% of the stuff that was in those original Eisner-award-nominated, Harvey-award-nominated, cult favorite comics is here.
The only things missing are a few stories that were so embarrassingly poorly draw by my current standards that I couldn’t bear to look at them…and a cover or two that is lost forever. Arsenic Lullaby started back when some printers were still using negatives. And some of those early negatives are long gone.
Nrama: You said a while back that you were done with the series -- why the return?
Paszkiewicz: I said I’d not be doing any new issues unless the cartoon flopped. This is a reprint, there’s nothing new but the cover…so I get off on a technicality.
Nrama: Tell us about the animated pilot.
Paszkiewicz: It is Arsenic Lullaby the comic book animated...nothing else. We didn't change anything for the sake of mass consumption. We didn't give it the typical watering-down that everything else gets that goes from comic books into another medium gets.
It was drawn and written and directed by the creator of the comic book - me. The voice actors where all comedians or musicians that I know...nothing is on the pilot in any way other than how I thought it should be.
No compromises, especially in the stories we picked...the pilot has Voodoo Joe and the zombie fetuses in it, and they aren't called “monsters” or “spirits” – they are identified as “fetuses.”
However...I'd like to remind people that this is a pilot. It is our first attempt, and it was created as a tool to pitch to networks (which we are currently doing). So don't think it's going to be as polished a cartoon as Arsenic Lullaby was a comic book.
I have 10 years of skill under my belt creating comic books. I have nine months of animation training. Having said that...it's pretty decent. It's funny, it's well-drawn, some of the animation ain't going to win any awards....but it's no worse in that regard than the early Aqua Teen Hunger Force episodes.
Nrama: What's been the most interesting reaction you've had to the comic over the years?
Paszkiewicz: I think the most interesting reaction isn't the reactions themselves, but the people who react positively. My readers are from all walks of life. I guess every demographic and every group of people has a few sick bastards among them.
My booth at comic conventions will have blue-haired tattooed somethings shoulder-to-shoulder with little old ladies...all laughing maniacally. It's a little disconcerting. You people shouldn't turn your back on anyone out there. You never know who is going to rob you at the cash machine just for a laugh.
Nrama: Is there anything you won't do, a line you won't cross?
Paszkiewicz: I stay away from nudity and religion And here's a big reason why: There is shock that helps a joke, and shock that takes away from a joke. People who want to read something knocking religion or see nudity have their own agendas, and this supersedes the joke you are trying to tell.
In essence, they are going to read it because they have axes to grind or prurient interests, and their head is filled with those thoughts and agendas at the sight of those elements, and their brains won't be lead to the punchline properly.
It's red meat for them, and they won't notice the difference between steak and ground chuck.
Also in this day and age, that stuff is shock as a tool for the reader and not shock to the reader. By that, I mean those people want to have a book like that as a accessory to the idiom that they are showing the outside world...they want to say, give organized religion the finger so they buy the book, but they themselves are not shocked by it, and possibly not even entertained by it.
Whereas if I write that same person a story about a talking donut, and that donut is burned up by some Nazis...then you have something that shocks them. You have a interesting juxtaposition, you have a well-told joke that actually entertains them on its own merit, and not because it speaks to their agenda.
These two subjects are cop-outs for a writer who considers him or herself “edgy” because knocks on organized religion and lots of sex / nudity are everywhere. There is no risk in doing stories with those elements anymore.
I also try to stay away from science fiction for core reason I stay away from those other two things...the people who want to read stories with anti religion, nudity, science fiction...will give anything with that element in a try...so there is less challenge there.
Nrama: How do you feel your style has evolved over the years since you started this?
Paszkiewicz: I don't know that my writing has changed much, I was already a pretty accomplished comedy writer from doing stand up when I started Arsenic Lullaby, but my illustrations and ability to tell a story with words and pictures has gotten much, much better.
It's really a subtle skill getting everything right. Setting up the timing, the mood, leading the reader’s eye around the page, leading the reader’s eye to or away from certain elements for the sake of the story...it's difficult, but I am defiantly better at it.
To get into the minutia of it to answer your question...in early issues, I focused on the page composition as a whole, i.e. laying out the panels so that they create an interesting composition regardless of what is in each one. Now, I focus more on individual panels and how the composition inside each one works together with the others on the page.
Nrama: What, to your mind, constitutes truly "edgy" comedy?
Paszkiewicz: First let’s be clear that “edgy” and “shock” are two different things. “Shock” is just knee-jerk action producing a knee-jerk reaction, and “edgy” is something that speaks to your thinking, reasoning brain. It involves skill, knowledge and subtlety.
Shock is Bruce Lee’s retarded brother. Sure, they are both strong, but if you were in a bar fight, you’d want Bruce…unless the people attacking you had candy in their pockets. Then you might take the retarded brother in a pinch.
Now then…there are two ways of looking at “edgy,” first as in the subject matter. Shock itself is not “edgy,” because shock changes with every generation. Years ago, showing someone smoking pot was edgy – now that's on prime time network TV. In order for something you write to be edgy you have to surround it properly.
Someone smoking pot now couldfg still make for an edgy story if the writer builds it up properly so that that person smoking pot is shocking because of their personality, or the life they lead, or the current situation they are in or their motivation.
Seth Rogen smoking pot is not edgy, Seth Rogan jerking off is not edgy, Seth Rogen sleeping with a nun is not edgy, because he's been established and as a dope head/jerk off. So, it is not out of character for him, and society is not shocked by the acts in general anymore.
Now you take Bob Newhart and have him smoking pot...that's closer, because he’s old and established as not the type, but we still need some other elements. So let’s say you have Bob Newhart smoking pot to lower his sperm count, because his 78-year-old wife is trying to get pregnant...now you are starting to get somewhere.
On a writing level, I think “edgy” is taking risks with the writing style itself. How the joke is told. We tell jokes far differently now than we did when Jack Benny was a star. Jack Benny makes me laugh out loud, but the jokes are drier, more matter-of-factly delivered. The delivery system was witty dialogue.
When Bill Cosby was doing standup, it was all observational comedy. The delivery system there was pointing things out. Whereas now, writers are making with the funny buy combining visual elements, combining different elements from the pop culture, juxtaposition is the big delivery system.
So to me, “edgy” would be someone coming along and telling a joke with a different delivery system than the rest of the world.
Nrama: For that matter, is there anything you've done that you now regret?
Paszkiewicz: I regret most of what I’ve done, personally and professionally
Nrama: What's next for you?
Paszkiewicz: I'm having a blast working on the cartoons right now. It's fun because I’m learning and it's challenging, and I get to work with other people. It's interesting, having other people read the lines you wrote.
I gave no real direction to the voice actors. They read it like they thought the comics sounded in their heads, and for the most part the comic book is funnier in other people’s heads than in mine, so I just said “perfect...just how I wanted it” and kept their versions (laughs).
But I can honestly say that they all added a lot to making the cartoon funnier than if I had done it alone or given strict direction. Baron Von Donut, Tex Buckaroo, and the Devil all still make me laugh, and I’ve heard the thing a thousand times now.
I'll continue that unless it flops...then maybe I’ll just go back to being an auto mechanic. Are there still carburetors on cars?
For more information on Douglas Paszkiewicz’s new projects, visit http://www.arseniclullabies.com/PREVIEWHOWTOORDER.html, and check out the cartoon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsCcQpf7s6A!