Jesse Moynihan talks about webcomic-turned-book, “Forming”


Editor's Note: The following illustrations contain some graphic images.

Los Angeles-based cartoonist and animator Jesse Moynihan draws “Forming” in his spare time when he’s not working as a story man and character designer for the Cartoon Network television show “Adventure Time,” nominated this year for a Daytime Emmy. Jessie took some time to speak to The Daily Texan on “Forming,” the East Coast indie publishing scene and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s sense of humor.

Daily Texan: First of all, let me congratulate you on getting “Forming” out as a book. It’s a beautiful volume. It’s got a cloth spine with pressed metallic ink, printed in Belgium—
Jesse Moynihan
: Thanks, man. I’ve seen copies of it, but I don’t own a copy of it. Supposedly, they’re sending me copies of it, but they haven’t arrived yet. Yeah, those Nobrow guys make really nice books. That’s part of the reason why I even [put out] a print version. They sent me an email, saying that they wanted to put out the first volume. Because I wasn’t planning on releasing it, as a book, until the whole story was done. And then the plan was to ask around if anybody would be interested. After it was done, I was going to go back and go through it; see if there would be anything I could add, edit out or change. I don’t know, maybe at one point I still might do that, but I’m not sure. I don’t know.

DT: Kind of like a director’s cut edition?
: Yeah, or I could just keep it what it is. I don’t know. What came out came out, and I may not want to revise it. Like George Lucas.

DT: You’ve published your own comics right? I read somewhere that you had been awarded a Xeric [Foundation self-publishing] Grant.
: Yeah, that was in 2000… and 6? I published two books with that.

DT: What were those about? From the descriptions I’ve read, they were autobiographical.
: Well, I was doing zines for quite a while before that. I was photocopying these zines for free, back when you could get free copies at Kinko’s. With that scam—I don’t know if you know about this, but back at this point a lot of people had free, unlimited copies at Kinko’s. You could scam the machines into thinking you had put money in.

DT: [Laughs.] Kind of like phone phreaking? What was it, a quarter on a string?
: You could mess with it. At least on the East Coast; I know that in New York and Philly and stuff, everyone was just making zines like crazy. So I was making this zine called Kine Agine, and I also started doing comics in this independent Philly newspaper. I developed this dude who kinda stood in for me. I started doing these dream consciousness comics, but usually based on something that happened to me.

DT: Is this the same Kine Agine that’s on your website?
: No, that was later. But then I got the Xeric Grant. I applied, and thumb[nailed] out the whole comic. I self-published two issues. And then, I changed it. It was based on my life, but then I gave it a more universal feel. Like, people could relate to it without knowing me, you know what I mean? The ones on my website, a lot of it is based on my life and things that happened in my life. Like, it was week-to-week. If I got bummed out one week, I’d maybe do a series of strips about that. But then I changed it, and kind of changed who I was speaking to. Then I added in all these mystical elements. I don’t know; it was a combination of what I thought were the coolest things I could do with the source material. So that’s my early comics; just kind of fantastical situations, but rooted in real life. A lot of that stuff is about breakups; I had this one five-year relationship that was a steady, up-and-down decline. I would just draw comics about that the whole time. We were fighting and stuff, and [the comics] were kind of a way to communicate with her without talking directly about it.

DT: Huh. Those don’t sound like the first ones on your website; they’re more like the stream-of-consciousness ones you mentioned earlier.
: Well, I came out with a graphic novel called “Follow Me” in 2009—

DT: You hooked up with Bodega Distribution for that one right?
: Yeah. Randy [Chang] (the Bodega publisher) had been distributing a mini I made before that. He didn’t offer me anything, but I gave him a sort-of transcript of an early draft of my graphic novel. He agreed to put it out. That one really detailed a lot of the problems I was going through. I think Randy’s still selling it on his site or something.

DT: That was your first graphic novel right? I mean, the first thing with a big story?
: Right, it was a 120-something pages. It was the first big thing I ever finished.

DT: So why “Forming” then? Why do it as a webcomic?
: What happened was — even though Randy was very supportive of me, and he was willing to help me out during that time that nobody knew who I was...I had a few comics friends; I would go to the conventions and act real nervous.

DT: This was back when you were based in Philladelphia?
: Yeah, plus all the conventions in New York and Maryland. SPX and MoCCA and stuff. I’d be in contact with various publishers and stuff; you know, the ones putting out stuff that I liked. But no one was willing to take a chance on me except for Randy. Let alone doing something expensive, like a color book. And that’s what I wanted to do, you know? I didn’t want to work in black and white anymore. The thought of basically trying to court a publisher into investing a huge sum of money into a color book, in a time where nobody’s buying books anymore... It seemed—I didn’t think anybody would be interested in it. I mean, I was showing it to people, but they weren’t sure if it would make any big waves. They said, “Ah, we’ll wait to see what happens. With your career, or whatever.” I’m like, “Well, if you don’t help me out, I’m not going to have one!” So that’s a whole thing in itself—courting publishers. Everybody’s got their stories. So I had this long talk with Dash Shaw, and this was right after “Follow Me.” We were hanging out in New York, and this was when he was just starting “Body World.” I had all these ideas. I knew what my next project would be; I had the idea to do “Forming”, this grand mythology thing. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. I had just finished “Follow Me,” and I showed him the draft of it. We talked about that for a few hours, and then he started talking about how psyched he was about webcomics. I was not sold on webcomics at all at that point! [Laughs.] All I had seen were these shi—

DT: Your webcomic, and Dash’s webcomic, they look different from any other webcomics on the internet. I mean, on a very material level. What do you use to actually draw “Forming”?
: I use acrylic wash to color it. It’s like this wash/acrylic hybrid; it doesn’t reactivate. You can treat it like watercolor, but you can go back and build up layers of opaque color if you want to. And also it comes in pretty bright hues, so you can really get it to pop, you know? I like it. And then I ink over it with a brush pen. I do the pencils, then I color it and ink it all on one page. There have been episodes where I’ve done some photoshop coloring where I think it works.

DT: When it serves the comic, you mean?
JM: Yeah, for when I want to go for something more artificial and soulless. There’s a sequence [later in Forming] where Noah has ascended to a higher plane, and is talking to this god-thing that’s all geometric shapes. I thought it would be cool to do that with Photoshop.


DT: That’s pretty cool. The webcomic-ness is still interesting, however. You had just completed “Follow Me”, a long one-and-done graphic novel, right? How does that compare with working in this super-serialized, one-page-per-update manner?
: It messes with my head a little bit. I’m working week-to-week, so that changes the dynamic of the storytelling. I don’t pace it at a leisurely pace, although I don’t think about that sometimes. I know when I have to let it breathe, when to let it soak in. You can’t just constantly move onto the next thing. But because people are following it week-to-week, you feel this impulse to have it be more exciting, or for each strip to have a punchline. If you read the book, you can see in some places how the format affected it. A lot of it has these one-page gags. Do you know what I mean?

DT: Yeah. The dialogue is really snappy too. I think that’s another one of those webcomic things.
: It’s an impulse when you’re doing these webcomics to do them as episodes. To make it snappy or exciting every episode. Sometimes I try and fight against it, when I have to have low-key moments for the sake of the story. Some low key episodes where nothing happens.

DT: That’s kind of the trap of webcomics, right? You got to keep the audience interested so they’ll come back week after week.
: Yeah, and it’s even more so since I’ve started working full-time. I’ve extremely cut down my production. I was doing two or three pages per week, and now I’ve cut down to one page a week.

DT: Sundays, right?
: Yeah. So I’ve got all these plans! I can’t wait to show people this part, or how I’m going to develop this plot point. But then I go, “Aw wait, that’s 30 weeks from now!” That can get pretty frustrating.

DT: So back to “Forming” proper: Where did the initial idea for the strip come from? With the Fletcher Hanks meets the Johnny Ryan Prison Pit dialogue? And with the stuff about mythology—I wrote in my review about the alchemical transformation of classical mythology into contemporary comedy. How did the dots get connected?
: I think I’ve always been interested in high concept/low concept. Or highbrow/lowbrow, or whatever you want to call it and the mixing of the two. I think the guy who does that the best is Jodorowsky. Do you know Alejandro Jodorowsky?

DT: Yeah, I actually just read his comic with Mobius, “The Incal.”
: His movies, like “Holy Mountain,” has got this really deep, uh, shit in it, [Laughs] but it’s also got these scenes that are so rude and funny. Mixed in with really serious philosophical and spiritual ideas. To me, if I like both things, why would I exclude two aspects? I really like lowbrow humor and I really like, well, deep shit!


DT: Well, what I really like about it is that it doesn’t just feel like cheap juxtaposition. I think they really highlight the strengths of each other. The silliness of the original myths is brought closer up to the surface.
JM: I think cheap humor coming from a character reveals a lot of frailty. It reveals the humanity of the characters. I didn’t want to do something that was completely iconic. You know what I mean? A lot of the time with fantasy or science fiction stories the characters, the dialogue—there’s this weird science fiction style, a way of talking, that isn’t natural. For me, it puts a wall between me and the characters. They stop being real to me as human beings, and become sort-of tropes. Something I can only relate to if I suspend my disbelief. Like watching “Stargate: Atlantis” or “Star Trek: the Next Generation!” [Laughs.] You have to go into this mode where you’re forced to accept how these characters are interacting with each other. It’s like watching stiff plays about an idea of people, but not actual people.

DT: It’s not a humanistic portrayal?
: There’s definitely something missing. Something dirty and raw that’s part of people. I feel like it needs to be there if I’m going to write a story about it. I try to avoid that [Jack] Kirby-esque type of dialogue. You know, with all those exclamation marks. I mean, in 10,000 B.C. obviously nobody talked the way I’m writing the dialogue, but for me it’s a way to enjoy the interactions while writing it. I want to make myself laugh. I want to be engaged in it, in a way that’s dutifully represented the way I think people actually communicated back then.

DT: But that’s just part of the magic right? That’s basic storytelling.
: Yeah, you just want to tell a good story, so you want good dialogue! People can sometimes cross that threshold. They can figure out if they want to stick around for the ride or not. At least it’s better than the dialog in “Legend of the Seeker,” you know what I mean?


DT: [Laughter] Is this another movie I’ve got to see? I’ve seen “El Topo,” but I guess I’ve got “Holy Mountain” and “Legend of the Seeker” to add to my Netflix queue.
: No. No! “Legend of the Seeker” was this shitty WB show. I don’t know if it’s still on or whatever.

DT: Is this a television show?
: Yeah, it’s like “Xena, Warrior Princess” or something. It’s this show with all this faux-Renaissance dialog. Some weird agreed-upon way that people talked. In the Middle Ages or whatever.

DT: I think that type of thing is the only thing stopping me from watching “Game of Thrones” right now, peer pressure be damned.
: Yeah, a lot of people seem to like that show, right?

DT: I guess. Anyway, you’re a third of the way thorough “Forming” right? Do you know how long it’s actually going to be?
: I think so. Well, I don’t actually know how long it’s going to be. [Nobrow] is saying it’s a trilogy, but we’ll see. I’ve got a story arc, but I don’t know how long it’s going to take. I know how it ends. I just don’t know how long it would take to draw it all out and get there.

DT: That’s apparently an issue with web-serialized graphic novels. I know this guy who’s been working on this one comic for three years. He said at the beginning, “This is going to take me one year and I’ll be done with it,” but it’s his third year. He’s three years into it, and he knows how the damn thing ends but can’t get it out. It’s this black hole.
: Hopefully it won’t take me three years, but I’m only doing one page a week.

DT: Well, one page a week of full color art is pretty reasonable, considering you’re also doing “Adventure Time.” But if you’re only a third of the way done, it’s going to be a while before we’re finished.
: Yeah. I’m further ahead on the web than in the book — that book ends on episode 69, and I’m on 106 right now. So I’ve got a little bit of a head start. But I only do one page a week. If I get vacation time, I might step it up.

DT: Last question: I noticed you use a lot of sound effects; what is your favorite sound effect or word?
: I think my go-to sound effect is ZOM.

: You know, when someone’s shooting a laser? Out of their hand or their gun, or whatever? ZOM. Sometimes I get a little self-conscious that I might use it too much. There are points were I deliberately don’t use them though. But yeah, I like sound effects.

Updated on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 11:40 p.m.: editor's note