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Two Thumbs Up! An Interview with Chris Shadoian

Chris Shadoian used to do Streets of Northhampton for Modern Tales and now does the movie-oriented webcomic, Popcorn Picnic. In our interview we talk to Chris about movies, munchies, and making webcomics.

Tell me something that most people don't know about yourself.

Um, let's see. Oh! I've acted in two movies! I appeared in and co-directed The Shading -- an obvious Shining rip-off my writer friend Steve Clark and I tossed together in two days with a borrowed video camera. We didn't feel the need for such encumberances as, oh, a script, so it went pretty quickly. It was no exception to typical filmmaking difficulties, though. We'd originally planned to wrap things up in one day, but the camera battery kept running low so it took two.

A few years later, we tried to make a movie as a final project for a class on Italian film. It was significantly better than The Shading, but still only got us a B minus. I still think it deserved better, but we went for parody, which was an obvious mistake in retrospect.

I doubt the professor appreciated the humorous view of her personal passion, but we couldn't resist. She was kind of a twit. She'd sweep into screenings and make pronouncements like, "I don't want to spoil the ending for you, but when the sister is crucified and dies in the final scene, it'll tear your heart in half." I could never stand that aspect of academia. I mean, who does that? What kind of professor are you if you're so wrapped up in deconstructing something that you're incapable of enjoying it?

I've also done a teeny bit of voice acting for a coupla video games.

 

I've admired your art style since Streets of Northhampton. Your style seems to me to show strong Archie Comics/DeCarlo influence. Who have most influenced your art style?

Y'know, a bunch of people've said that, and there's no denying it's a compliment -- DeCarlo was an amazing artist, and I don't think I possess anything even resembling his raw ability with a brush -- but I've rarely made a conscious decision to emulate the Archie style. I'm sure I've got little copied scribbles of Archie and Jughead somewhere, and probably Betty and Veronica -- since what self-respecting, straight, male cartoonist didn't have crushes on one of 'em at some point? Or both! They were identical, after all, except for their hair and their bank accounts. But Archie comics always struck me as . . . . Well, if I were going to try to find a single word to describe 'em today, I'd have to say "lacking." They were great comics, fun, silly and safe, but they always left me wanting more. More substance, more action, more angst, more . . . MORE!

I tended to lean towards old Peanuts and the horror of Charlie Brown's life in particular (I'm not sure I realized how horrible his life really was back then, but I definitely identified with him). I read a lot of Superman and Batman comics, 'cause they were pretty much total escapes from reality, which was what I was looking for from first through sixth grades.

Loved the old Kirby stuff, and Neal Adams, Alex Toth. I tried for a long time to draw in the George Perez Teen Titans style, but I just can't hold on to that halfway hyper-realism. I don't think I can draw reality, for the most part, because I don't think I can even see it.

My style is much more about the simplification of representation, which is a fancy way of saying I see the world a one big cartoon. I've drawn all kinds of stuff intended to represent "reality" but no matter what I do it just ends up looking at least a little cartoony.

My favorite books as a kid were definitely the Tintin stories. Man, I couldn't get enough. The first one I ever read was the first Captain Haddock one, The Crab With The Golden Claws, when he was still a full-time drunk and the books were still totally racist. I didn't realize the racism bit at the time, of course; I was still learning the language of comics back then, and so many of the older stories, the ones my dad had collected and gave me to read . . . well, that was just the way they were. If I ever have kids, I'll probably hesitate to give 'em my old Tintin books. Oh, I'll probably end up giving them to 'em, but not without some kind of explanation of Hergé's race representations. Though, hm. I can't say I remember ever getting that sort of explanation. I'd say most of my feelings about race, sex, etc., were formed by reading tons of books and comics, watching everything on TV, and seeing pretty much any movie I could manage, which all ended up filtering down to form a super liberal guy. My parents certainly pointed me in the right direction on occasion, but for the most part they just wound me up and let me go. So who knows?

Anyway, if DeCarlo influenced me at all, it was indirectly. I have a much clearer recollection of Wally Wood's Starchie parody story for Mad, with the burned-out, cruel version of Archie and Jughead, than anything actually "Archie." And I'm pretty much in love with Jaime Hernandez's stuff. He pretty much feels the same way about DeCarlo, I think, but he's way better than DeCarlo could ever hope to've been. Jaime's some kind of god of comics; I honestly don't know how he does it. A friend of mine suggested that his ability to portray just about any kind of character -- sex-starved, post-adolescent shy-boys, lesbians, super-human female wrestlers, you name it -- is due to some kind of ability to transcend sex and race and understand people on a gut level that exists below all that stuff. Unlike most creators, who have to attempt to understand people different from themselves from the outside, Jaime's somehow able to dig in and look at virtually anyone's point of view from the other side in a way that makes it impossible to avoid seeing the world through their differences. Now that's a skill to envy.

And in case anyone's wondering, I guess I'd have to go with Betty as an overall better choice for Archie. No. Not 'cause she's blonde.

 

Who influenced your storytelling and humor?

A better question would be who hasn't!

I find interesting approaches in all sorts of weird places. Obvious ones would be Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes), Scott Adams (Dilbert), Carol Lay (Story Minute), Tom Tomorrow (This Modern World) and Berke Breathed (Bloom County and Opus).

But I'm well-versed in the classic guys, too -- Al Capp, Walt Kelly, guys like that. Pogo was a work of genius, though I often don't understand it 'cause the subject matter refers so specifically to then-current events.

I devour every comic and cartoon printed in The New Yorker, I think Steve Weissman (Yikes!) is a genius, Kaz is great, Tony Millionaire (Maakies), John Allison (ScaryGoRound) -- it's all over the board.

If I had to point to a trend in terms of what I really admire and aspire to in terms of humor, all you gotta do is look for weird stuff that still makes sense. I don't tend to venture too far into the avant-garde realm -- I like comics to be interpretable without having to search for sly Oedipal references hidden beneath multi-layered . . . ugh. I've even lost interest in trying to write that last sentence. I like hidden stuff, and I strive for unpredictability both in my own work and in the work of others, but there's a point to which it gets taken too far sometimes. Bryan Lee O'Malley' Scott Pilgrim is a perfect example of weird stuff that still makes sense. There's really no predicting that story. Issac the Pirate, by Christophe Blain is just about the least predictable comic story I've ever read, yet when you reach the end, it's easy to see the road that got you there.

I honestly think that's the best thing a writer can do: write something unpredictable. Unfortunately, it's also the hardest thing. Ironically, most of the movies I see are ridiculously predictable, but I guess I see 'em for those few times I end up surprised. Woody Allen's Match Point did that for me. I thought I had it all figured out, but I didn't at all. Moments like that give me genuine pleasure, and that's the sort of thing I hope to do each week with my little comics. They may not always make you fall out of your chair in a fit of laughter, but I like to hope the resolution of each strip can't be predicted based on the first panel the way it can with 95% of "humorous" newspaper strip comics.

 

Who's your favorite character? (Personally, I like your takeoff on Brando....and then there's the evil little sister...)

The Brando and Roger Johansson (the actor who played E.T.) characters are way too much fun to write and draw, and have probably lent themselves to my funniest strips, which is why I try not to use them too often. I realize that doesn't seem like it makes a lot of sense, but I want to find the funny qualities in everyday life, since that's the point of view from which everyone reads the strip, and Brando and Roger really don't represent that. They're way too weird, Brando especially. The great thing about him is that I can get away with putting him in just about any situation, have him say just about anything, and even if it doesn't make any sense in general, it makes sense 'cause it's coming from Brando. I mean, he was one weird dude! He hired an actress to dress as a "native american" to accept his best actor Oscar for The Godfather! HA! So in my Superman Returns strip, when he calls Roger "baby Kal-El" just to screw with Roger's drunken head, it makes a twisted sort of sense. At least, it does to me.

By the way, my representation of Brando and Roger comes from a set of storyboards I drew in an attempt to get a storyboarding gig at Pixar after The Incredibles came out. The scene was based in reality; Brando tried to collaborate with Stanley Kubrick on One Eyed Jacks, but they didn't get along and the project fell apart. Some of the stuff Brando pulled during meetings was amazing, and lent itself well to a scene, but Steve, who was co-writing the script, felt bad about putting words in the mouths of the other real people who were involved. So we decided to set the scene with Brando and Kubrick, and the actor who played E.T., Steven Spielberg and Michael Jackson. Oh, and a bunch of geishas, of course, 'cause I couldn't imagine Brando employing anything even close to a normal houseworker. I have to admit,

I'm quite fond of both Jesse, Jonesy's evil little sister, and Barry the monkey. I like his name so much! When I decided to introduce him in my review of the new Omen, I went through all the usual monkey names -- Kong, Dr. Zaius, Mr. Pepper, Gleek -- and they all seemed so predictable. But something about "Barry" just fits him. Heh-heh. BARRY. I have a personal attachment to that name, though, so maybe I'm biased.

 

Best movie ever? Best movie this year, so far?

My favorite movie, artistically, is Chinatown. I adore that film -- get more out of it every time I see it. Man, it's such a tightly constructed movie. A close second's probably Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, which is way better than Citizen Kane, no matter what anyone else says.

Favorite movie for pure emotional grip? It's a tie between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman: The Movie. And now I'm revealing the warring aspects of myself I've stuck into my characters. Jonesy exists because I can be a real snob when it comes to movies. That's why I didn't see Wedding Crashers or The 40-Year-Old Virgin in theaters. I know, I know! I should've! They were great! I'm sorry! But there's no denying that most comedies stink, so I end up choosing to spend my ticket money on something I won't leave the theater hating. Every once in awhile, some fantastic comedy comes along, like School of Rock, surprises the hell out of me, and makes me believe that comedies can be more than a bunch of rehashed fart and boob jokes. So I head out into the world with renewed hope, and, well, you can probably guess what usually happens. Let's just say that directors need to take a lesson from Finding Nemo. I wouldn't call Finding Nemo unbelievable by any means -- I mean, let's face it, it's no Incredibles -- but it contains exactly one, teeny, carefully placed fart joke. And it's hilarious! Would it have been funny sandwiched between 24 other fart jokes? I doubt it.

Simultaneously, I can't get enough of directors who grab onto the ridiculousness of movie making with both hands, which is where Danny takes over. John Woo -- well, he used to be, anyway -- is amazing for that reason. His early stuff, like The Killers, was nudging into that, but Face Off and Mission: Impossible 2 are so, SO stupid and over the top, and so much fun to watch as a result.

Anyway, I can't get six seconds into Superman: The Movie's soundtrack without getting a stupid swelling feeling in my chest. It's the dorkiest thing ever, but what'm I gonna do? Deny it? Nah. That movie just nailed me, mesmerized me. I felt the same way during the opening credits of Superman Returns, 'cause they look just like the credits from Superman I and II.

Best movie this year? I probably shouldn't answer yet, since I haven't been blown away by anything so far, and since my thus-far answer is gonna seem a predictable choice for a comic guy to make. But it's July already, so I guess I'd better. So. V for Vendetta's my top 2006 pick.

But I'm disqualifying An Inconvenient Truth -- 'cause it's good, but essentially a fancy Powerpoint presentation -- and United 93 -- 'cause I really hate that it exists. It was a great movie, incredibly well made, but I'm really sick of having 9/11 crammed down my throat by a government that's used it as an excuse to get rid of civil liberty after civil liberty after civil liberty, so Hollywood's decision to try to make tons of money off 9/11 while people are still being killed daily in Iraq and Afghanistan . . . well, that's just a horrifying decision to've made.

 

Worst movie ever? Worse movie this year, so far?

Y'know, that might actually be one and the same. Ultraviolet was just AWFUL. I thought Aeon Flux was bad, but Ultraviolet took the cake and rubbed it in Aeon Flux's face. It might literally be the worst movie I've ever seen. I wasn't expecting much, really, but between the bad CG, the terrible, plotless dialogue, and the odd choice to keep Milla Jovovich bundled up (why do you think anyone went to see it in the first place?), it was a masterpiece of horror, and not in a good way. And the real problem, the thing that makes it really bad, is that it wasn't bad in an enjoyable way. It was just BAD.

I'd like to mention; although it doesn't belong anywhere near a worst-ever list, I was pretty disappointed with Cars. I just saw it; I wouldn't call it bad by any means, but Pixar's capable of better. I was skeptical from the get-go -- I've always had trouble attaching myself to anthropomorphic, cartoon cars -- but I was willing to believe it could be good, 'cause it was coming from Pixar. Physically speaking it was unbelievably beautiful, really amazing in terms of modeling and animation, so far beyond what any other studio is capable of; but the characters just weren't there. There wasn't much in the way of motivation for any of 'em, and, well, that's what drives a movie for me. Pun intended.

Other contenders for worst film ever are Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Days of Thunder, Gigli ('cause, sorry, but none of the lesbians I've ever met would be wooed over to heterosexality by a moron who equates sexual attraction between a man and a woman to that belonging to a bull and a cow), Moonraker, and 95% of all the movies based on comic books. And Star Trek V: The Undiscovered Country. Oh, yeah.

And I couldn't possibly get through a worst-movie-ever question without mentioning A.I. I actually loved A.I., but the ending ruined the whole thing for me. I'm a big fan of Stanley Kubrick, but his last bits of existence on Earth were a real shame. Eyes Wide Shut . . . ugh. I like boobs as much as the next guy, but gimme a break, dirty old man. And A.I. 's ending is probably the shmaltziest, ham-fistedest attempt at creating a heart-warming resolution I've ever seen in my entire life. Everyone says that Kubes had it all planned that way before Spielberg ever touched A.I., but I refuse to believe he would've left it that way if he'd ever started making the movie. And he probably would've had a heart attack before hiring Robin Williams to be in a dystopian sci-fi movie.

Wait a minute . . . . He did!

Jude Law is just friggin' AWESOME in A.I., though. I've got such a man-crush on him in that movie. Or would that be a robot-crush? Anyway, if you haven't seen it, go out, rent the DVD. You'll get to this part of the movie where it'll feel like it should end. When you hit that? Turn the damn TV off. Do it. Don't be curious. Don't open Pandora's Box. You can never un-see the actual ending of A.I., so do your best to avoid seeing it in the first place.

 

Best movie munchie ever?

I go back and forth on several kinds of candy. Mike & Ikes, Reese's Pieces, Necco Wafers, Raisinettes (if I'm feeling health-conscious), Junior Mints, Twizzlers, stuff like that. I have a pretty serious sweet tooth (also inherited from my father).

I tend to shy away from multiplex popcorn. I never loved it, but I worked in a theater for a coupla years, and although there's nothing really gross about it -- I never found any dead rats in the "butter flavoring" or anything like that -- the experience pretty much put me off big theater popcorn for good. I'll almost always get popcorn at smaller, artsy theaters that make small batches and use real butter and real salt.

That's one of those symptoms of big theaters I can never understand. Hollywood's always talking about how attendance is down, but what's their solution to lower turnout? Higher ticket prices, lower quality food (AND ridiculously high prices), and to top it off . . . more ads before the movies! If theaters got rid of pre-movie ads and cut prices in half? They'd triple attendance. At least. Just sayin'.

Oh, my God. I can't believe I almost forgot Rolos. Rolos are definitely the best movie snack ever.

 

What movie is your favorite guilty pleasure? (I.E., bad, but you love it anyway?)

Strangely enough, the first thing that popped into my head when reading this question was the TV movie version of Stephen King's The Stand. Not the whole thing, though, just the opening sequence. It's really silly, but y'know? It works! Death and destruction, and people struggling to escape, and then, out of the blue, you hear that goofy "Don't Fear the Reaper" song and the credits come up. Hee-hee-hee! So silly, but SO good at the same time. Can't you just hear that guitar? Right now? You can. I know you can. Of course, that all happened in the first ten minutes. Anyone who hasn't seen it? Just shut it off after that. It's all downhill for the next six hours.

I also loved the early Van Damme movies. Kickboxer, most especially. I couldn't explain it if I tried, but I still like that dumb Shwartzenegger movie, Predator. Ugh. Am I only gonna be able to think of action movies? Dumb action movies are probably my biggest guilty pleasure. Speed: dumb and awesome.

You've been involved with webcomicing for awhile now, to appearing in Modern Tales to Popcorn Picnic appearing both in Flak magazine and in the upcoming Modern Tales Free. What do you see as the future of webcomics? Any advice for anyone starting out in webcomics?

It's funny you ask this question, 'cause I've been thinking a lot about it recently. There's a segment of the upcoming film, Adventures Into Webcomics, in which I'm featured as a speaker on a panel at the San Diego Comic Con. And, well, I don't want to say anything that contradicts the film, 'cause the guys making it have been absolutely great, and you can see just how much they're really pouring their hearts into the whole thing, but the bits with me were filmed four years ago, and I seriously doubt my opinions are the same now as they were then. I definitely believed everything I said back then, and I'm as enthusiastic about comics on the Web as ever -- most of the best comics being made these days are being made on the Web -- but four years is a long time, especially given how young the Webcomics industry was four years ago. I'm not sure how I'm going to feel about my four-year-old presence in the movie. I loved my time with Modern Tales, and Joey Manley has been just about the most supportive person in the world after my parents, but I'm not sure how I feel about the subscription model anymore, at least in terms of Webcomics. I think it can work for some people -- Shaenon Garrity, who draws Narbonic, for one -- but her strip's both daily and good, which are the two hardest things to achieve with a Webcomic, and even she has to struggle against common misconceptions. Interestingly, she's leaving the subscription thing behind for now, too, though I couldn't speak to her reasons. I dunno. I've read various blogs that said they wouldn't subscribe to Modern Tales, not even to read Narbonic, because they'd read the first few freebies and didn't like the artwork. And I won't lie: that's what I thought when I saw her first strip. But the strips I drew in college weren't any better, and Shaenon's writing, even way back with strip number one, went beyond anything I've managed with my own work. And her art's really great now, too. I've drawn some backup/guest stuff for her, and I'm honestly copying her character style most of the time in an attempt to capture the life in her characters. Yeah. Sure. My art's a little fancier-looking 'cause I use a brush and ink and stuff, but there's something in the way that Shaenon draws Helen and Dave and Mell that achieves something I haven't ever been able to do. Her characters exist within HER artwork, and no one else can portray them the same way.

Subsciptions are obviously a tough sell for webcomics. Simultaneously, there's got to be a model other than using comics as a delivery service for selling t-shirts. For people just starting out? The only advice I can give is to not get too caught up in the Web. You can get very famous, very fast on the Web, and still not be making a cent. It can, in fact, cost a lot of money to be popular. So start small. Don't try to please everyone and don't be afraid to experiment. Publish your initial attempts on sites that won't cost anything, like Blogger or LiveJournal, which are advantageous because they're also communities that're filled with other creative types. I'm absolutely serious when I say that most of the best comics in the world are being published on the Web, and part of the reason for that is because people aren't constrained stylistically by some guy in a suit who's too busy lighting his cigars with $100-bills to understand what makes a good comic.

 

What are your future plans for Popcorn Picnic? Any other projects coming up that you can tell us about?

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of people have told me the Brando/Roger strips are their favorites, so I'm thinking a lot about that. I'm not sure what that means -- I'm certainly not going to draw a comic that features the two of them exclusively -- but it's an overwhelming opinion that's kinda hard to ignore. I also desperately want to be updating on a daily basis. There's no way, at least while working a full-time job, that I can crank the currently-weekly incarnation of the strip out daily. If I knew, for sure that there'd be enough of a readership interested in buying merchandise, original art, etc., to make a living at daily PP? I'd do it in a second! But I'm in the same catch-22 anyone else is: it's impossible to go full-time without a guarantee of income, but it's impossible to know if there money's there without going full-time. I'm noodling around with some ideas on how to in-between my time commitment level without half-assing the whole thing. You can't trick people into coming to your site. If I'm gonna ask people to come to Popcorn Picnic daily, I'm gonna make it worth their time to do so. In terms of other projects, I have this script I really want to draw, written by Steve. He's written a bunch of scripts over the years -- he'd like to be a screenwriter -- but this one's the best one, I think, and he's more-or-less given me free reign to adapt it if I want. It's kind of a horror story? Yeah. I guess I'd peg it as horror for lack of a better describer. I've done some cool character illustrations for it, but it'd probably end up being a couple-hundred pages long, so again, there's a time issue. The other project I want to do -- and this is the one I want to do more than anything else -- is an expanded version of my Streets of Northampton story, The Deserted Ernest Giles. The story I told about Ernest Giles in my, oh, 40-page graphic novella just scraped his surface, but to do it up right, I absolutely have to go to Australia to do research, and I'd have to go for a good chunk of time. Finding specific stuff about him isn't going to be super-simple. He's kinda unknown over there despite his historical importance, and he did the bulk of his important work around the time of the U.S. Civil War. So it's gonna take some digging. Plus, it'd be stupid to go without experiencing some of what he experienced, and what he experienced for the most part was surviving in the desert. I can't honestly say I'm looking forward to that.