On the edge of the desert, there sits a lonely town – not Desert Bluffs – where strange structures randomly appear and disappear, where there’s a tiny society living under the fifth lane of the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Fun Complex, and where the PTA is presided over by a mysterious Glow Cloud that occasionally rains down dead animals.
If you’re in town, you might hear about the upcoming mayoral race between the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home and Hiram McDaniels, who is literally a five-headed, 3,500-lb. dragon, or encounter one of the Mysterious Hooded Figures from the Dog Park grabbing a slice at Big Rico’s Pizza (though you should not go in the Dog Park, or allow any dogs inside the Dog Park, and ignore any mysterious lights or noises from inside the Dog Park. Do not go in the Dog Park).
And of course, you can keep up with all these goings-on via community radio host Cecil, who’s always happy to update on his relationship with Carlos, the scientist with the strangely perfect haircut, and sometimes even tell a story about You (not to be confused with you).
Welcome to Night Vale.
Over the past two years, Welcome to Night Vale has become the biggest podcast online, hitting the top downloads on iTunes ahead of such mainstays as This American Life. Every two weeks, a legion of fans tune in for weather, traffic, finance and creeping existential dread alongside updates on townfolk such as the time-and-space-lost Intern Dana, John Peters – you know, the farmer – the angel-conversing Old Woman Josie out near the Car Lot, and many more.
Night Vale has also struck a major cord with comics fans, with depictions of host Cecil Palmer (not to be confused with his portrayer Cecil Baldwin, who does not have a third eye like his fictional counterpart, we think), Carlos and others one of the biggest features on Tumblr, and an increasingly popular source of cosplay at comic book shows.
Night Vale itself has started scheduling its hugely popular live shows at comic cons, having appeared at New York Comic-Con, Emerald City, and a recently-announced crossover with The Thrilling Adventure Hour at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. The creators have even worked with webcomics artist Kate Leth (Kate or Die, Adventure Time: Seeing Red) in creating merchandise for the show through popular webcomics merchandise vendor TopatoCo.
We got to talk to series creators Jeffrey Fink and Joseph Cranor just before their big live show in NYC celebrating Welcome to Night Vale’s second anniversary, and the climax of some of the show’s longest-running plotlines. We found out about their real thoughts on the fan art and cosplay, how they craft the show’s plotlines, their favorite comics – and much more.
Venture forth to discover the secrets of Night Vale…if you dare.
Newsarama: Jeffrey, Joseph – first off, congratulations on the tour, which sold out all over the country. What was the experience of the tour like?
Jeffrey Cranor: It was great. We had a real blast doing it. We went to 21 cities…22, if you count Emerald City Comic-Con. One of the things about doing a podcast – you record it with your friends in your homes, and you upload it to your computer and then put it out there…but it’s another thing to turn it into a live theatrical show and go out there and see how people are responding to it, and touch base with all your fans and meet them in person. It’s such a great experience.
Nrama: You mentioned Emerald City, and I know you have a live show at SDCC coming up…Night Vale has really caught on with comic people, particularly with the fan art and cosplay scenes. And it’s so interesting to see such a visual aspect attributed to something that is, well, radio. Why do you think the characters have such a visual appeal for fans?
Cranor: One of the nice things about what we do, in terms of people who like to do visual things, is that we describe very little. There’s a lot more room for visual interpretation compared to, say, a TV show, where there’s a certain limitation on how you can draw on what someone looks like, because there’s an extent where people still have to be able to recognize the character.
With our stuff, there’s a hole there, and all manner of visual aspects that you can use to fill that hole. I think that allows for a bit more of a personal voice from fan art than people interested in larger things.
Nrama: What was your reaction when the third eye for Cecil became kind of the standard visualization? Because I have gone over the early eps and transcripts with a fine-tooth comb, and that is not mentioned in there…
Cranor: We get asked that a lot. And there wasn’t really a moment where we realized that, because we weren’t going over the fan art as it was coming out, we just saw a whole bunch of it at once. There’s a kind of unique graphical element to any drawing, but after a while, it just became more common.
I’ve heard a lot of theories about where it came from, but you know, it’s not the way we’d draw Cecil if we had to draw him…in part because we’re not talented visual artists, so we might just draw Cecil as a stick figure. (laughs) But, you know, it’s great – I think it’s really cool that fans have taken it upon themselves to interpret what the characters look like.
The thing that gets us the most excited, though, is when fans find unique ways to interpret the characters. There’s the third eye and sleeve tattoos and purple vest for Cecil, and that’s kind of a cool design, but we love it when someone comes up with a Cecil we haven’t seen before. We just saw one where a fan drew the Night Vale characters as snails! (laughs) It’s so innovative and creative and interesting and weird.
Joseph Fink: I would say I have no proprietary feel about any particular depiction, because none of them come from us…so, yeah, what really interests me the most is fan art that seems to be looking for something new, or interesting, or different.
Nrama: It’s almost become a thing like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And that’s the legend, that Cecil has a third eye and a purple vest – it’s what you see at conventions mainly.
Fink: I’d say yes and no. I try not to follow along with this too much, because I want to focus on writing the show, but there are a certain contingent of fans who are pushing back and finding new ways of what that character could look like. I don’t think that it’s become as uniform as maybe it was at the start.
Cranor: It’s interesting when you meet people at a con…it’s pretty easy to spot the Glow Cloud in a crowd, or someone like the Man in the Tan Jacket, or a Faceless Old Woman with some costume element covering her face. So you have unique interpretations like those, and other elements like the purple vest and third eye and stuff like that give people a jumping-off point for other cosplayers.
But people don’t have to limit Cecil to a certain visual, or body type, or even gender. And it’s great to see people giving him their own visuals within their own visions, taking their own liberties.
Nrama: It has been cool, though, to see how quickly people have latched onto these characters – I imagine when you started this podcast, you had no idea people would be dressing as them.
Cranor: Oh no, not at all.
Nrama: And now you’ve gotten to a really interesting point in the show, because you’ve come to the cumulating of these stories that have been going on for a while – the race for the mayor, StrexCorp taking over. I imagine these were things that emerged on their own as you were writing the show, but how much has it gotten to a point where you’re planning ahead on storylines?
Fink: Pretty much all the storylines happened on their own as we were writing the show, passing scripts back and forth. We started taking notes, and keeping track of stories. At a certain point, though, we became aware that a larger story was forming, and if we wanted to be able to move things forward in a satisfying way, we had to plan ahead a little bit.
So we started planning a number of things, leading into our live show on June 4. We’re still kind of allowing ourselves to find the moments of stories that come up as we’re writing them, because those are what’s most interesting to us – you start making connections between characters, and seeing what happens.
Cranor: The thing about the show is that it’s an ongoing show. We don’t have an end date; we don’t have to be beholden to a yearly season, like a TV show. So it’s kind of fun for us to say, “Hey, we want this episode to kind of self-contained, tell one story,” and other times go, “Hey, let’s build this one big story with this StrexCorp thing.”
As a writer, it’s fun to have a story play out over several months, and then there’s stories that kind of play out, like news stories do in the real world. But we’re always trying to keep a few months ahead of ourselves.
Nrama: You’re in an interesting place with the show right now – and I have to give my boy Travis credit for this – in the contrast between Night Vale and Desert Bluffs. With Desert Bluffs, everything is sunny and friendly, but totalitarian and controlling. Night Vale is…Night Vale, but there’s still free will. So there’s some interesting elements of dualism in there, that philosophical edge, and I’m curious how much that reflects your own philosophies, or interests.
Cranor: I think we’ve always thought about Night Vale as a reflection of our own world – it’s absurd by the standards of the world we all in real life experience, but it’s also filled, just like the real world, with terrifying things – there’s an intrusive government, it’s filled with dangers that are weird and scientifically-befuddling, and can kill you.
And it’s filled with a lot of really great things too, a lot of joy. In our own lives, we say, “Hey, this is a dangerous world we live in, but we still have to move about, and do our mundane tasks,” just like the people of Night Vale do. You know, people are born every day, and people die every day, and people still go about their business, just like in Night Vale.
I think that finds its way into a lot of things that I write. Philosophically, you brought up duality – that’s a topic I’ve always been interested in, and it’s shown up in a lot of my writing. You see things a lot in writing, or in TV and film, and they show up in your own writing, because you’re interested in them and want to see them explored further.
Fink: Regarding Desert Bluffs and Night Vale – what I think it comes down to is they’re both dystopias. One’s kind of a government-based dystopia in Night Vale, where everyone’s under surveillance, and watched by this world’s government, and then there’s Desert Bluffs, which is this kind of capitalist, corporate dystopia, where everyone works for this one company that controls everything.
They’re both kind of based around the real problems with government and capitalism blown up to these absurd levels. It’s interesting, as we’ve set up this plotline with Desert Bluffs and Night Vale at odds, that you have people cheering for Night Vale as an organization, even though it’s a town that throws people in prison for voting the wrong way, regularly censors thoughts…it’s interesting that people suddenly become very forgiving of those aspects of Night Vale. Whichever town wins, people are still stuck in a dystopia, it’s just a question of what kind.
When you ask about how much of this stuff comes from us – the obvious answer is all of it, as we write all of it! We write the script together and have these discussions, and talk about what a particular character would say, but it all comes from us, these arguments we have in our own writing.
Nrama: This being a comic book site, I was curious if you read any comics, and if any have been an influence on your show.
Fink: I’ll admit I’m not a huge comics guy, in that they’re not a huge part of what I read, there are a number that I really love. I never read a lot of superhero comics growing up, but there’s quite a few I’m into now.
Matt Kindt – I think his stuff is really amazing, Super Spy and Red Handed…
Cranor: Mind MGMT is just great.
Fink: I love his storytelling – he takes simple stories and completely hacks them apart and puts them back together in bizarre ways.
I really love Love & Rockets. I would say if I only had one comic book to read for the rest of my life, it would be Love & Rockets, especially the Maggie and Hopey stories. There is some stuff that has seeped into Night Vale from that – those strange, unsettling moments that happen in everyday life. For example, the visions Maggie has of the Devil as a dog that walks on hind legs, worked into what is otherwise a realistic story…I just love that book.
Cranor: I’ve been catching up on comics lately – Kate Leth gave me a big list of books, and Lauren, our tour manager, gave me another list of books, so I’ve discovered a few things recently.
Sex Criminals is fantastic. I’ve really enjoyed reading Saga. Locke & Key is great. I’m really enjoying Hawkeye, and Rat Queen, and Lumberjanes.
As a kid, though, I was really into comics, and as an adult, I just stopped…I ran out of friends who also read them. But the books that were big to me in high school were the X-Men’s “Fall of the Mutants” storyline – I can’t remember how many times I re-read that. The idea of some kind of underworld evil coming into the real world, that’s always an interesting motif to me.
The other comic I read growing up was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I don’t know how much that influenced Night Vale…the comic that did influence me was The Tick. The Tick came out when I was getting into comics, and I thought it was brilliant and hilarious. That kind of dry, absurd humor, is how I try to write when I try to write funny things.
We work with Jackson Publick, who used to work on the animated Tick series – he’s been pretty heavily involved with Night Vale. I love that comic…I loved every aspect of it.
Next: In the conclusion, the Night Vale boys talk about the radio and horror that’s influenced them (and it’s not what you think), their favorite webcomics, and some hints at the upcoming Welcome to Night Vale novel.