Interview: Genius Animals? creative team talk conspiracies, making comics, and pink dolphins
During the 1990’s, conspiracies were living the dream (mostly in basements with good internet connection and without the distractions of Tik Tok videos). A lot of it was owed to the cultural shifts that series like The X-Files and Unsolved Mysteries inspired in the minds of those who had an informational itch that could only be scratched with a good conspiracy theory.
Vali Chandrasekaran and Jun-Pierre Shiozawa have a clear understanding of that itch, and by tapping into something of a love story wrapped up in disappearances, talking animals, and conspiracy theorist radio shows, this creative team have come up with one of the most unique and strangely funny comics to have come out in a long time. It is called Genius Animals? The question mark is important.
The comic follows Alexandra Lakshmi and her search for her missing boyfriend, Todd. None of this information prepares you for what the book dives into after the initial setup. Alexandra’s journey leads her into a world of privileged information and conspiracy-making that she’s largely introduced to by an octopus holding a flash drive.
The best way I’ve found to describe the book is as a spiritual successor to The X-Files’ funny episodes. Fans of the series will remember that the show had a set sequence of episodes lined up to keep the story from being overwhelmingly lore-heavy. It had a creature-of-the-week episode, main story episode, and sometimes there would a comedy episode that poked fun at some of the show’s more serious elements.
Genius Animals? embodies that type of episode by expanding it into an entire comic book series, keeping the comedy present all the way through. This isn’t to say the book takes itself less seriously because of it. Much like the funny X-Files episodes, Genius Animals? approaches lore and world-building with jokes, with an odd sense of goofiness and satire propping everything up. Each instance of funny adds to the narrative and colors it.
Visually, the book takes a few stabs at wordless sequences to play up some of the absurdity and some of the comedy behind the premise and it succeeds in very unexpected ways. The lack of text in these sequences means there’s no written punchline. Each panel, each movement, has to be capable enough to carry the comedic rhythm of the story. Shiozawa takes full advantage of these sequences and makes them dynamically approachable. You’ll want to look at every panel carefully to spot any other jokes or visual gags that makes the sequences even funnier.
Chandrasekaran’s script is surgical with its jokes, especially because there’s so much going on behind each one. It’s as if every joke in the book is a world unto itself. They’re less about the punchline and more about how they can help explain the conspiracy-ridden world Alexandra and her friends navigate. They’re storytelling jokes.
I sat down with the creative team behind Genius Animals? to talk about the good old days of conspiracy and why Warner Herzog should be in more comics. It follows below.
Ricardo Serrano: I actually wanted to start with how you guys got into comics in the first place. Have you been lifelong fans or was it something that you’ve always been interested in and just decided to jump into?
Jun-Pierre Shiozawa: I think the first time I actually saw a comic, held a comic in my hands, I just saw the potential of what could be done with it. I was struck with how much drawing could be done. I was always drawing as a kid. And I could see that comics were an outlet for somebody who, like me, just loves to draw continuously. I remember I would go into art classes (from high school into university), into fine art classes, and it was mostly about abstract and conceptual work, not so much straightforward rendering and drawing of figures, spaces, and environments. People would come up and say your work is more illustrative, you know, as kind of a diss. It was a little bit pejorative. I was actually told that by my high school art teacher, that my work was a little too illustrative. And I was like, that’s kind of cool.
Vali Chandrasekaran: He got it! Great!
Shiozawa: But the thing is, where else does an artist just have this freedom? The freedom to say and draw what you want in such and extended way. It takes a high degree of discipline and range of knowing how to draw different things. Looking at that as a kid, looking at the way that cars are drawn, how figures are drawn and facial expressions or fights, planets even, it really inspired me growing up. When I got to university, that’s where I started meeting other people like me that were interested in comics. They were submitting and just doing their own comics. I was like, okay, maybe I can make my own comics.
Chandrasekaran: I came to comics from the side of loving jokes. Like from when I was a kid, I always loved jokes. I loved comedy. So I was really into the funny pages and my era of that was Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. To this day, I think The Far Side is the funniest thing in the universe. I mean, I think there’s a lot of it in the DNA of Genius Animals. It’s both weirdly philosophical and very childish at times, which I really love. But it wasn’t until college when I started looking into other comics. I didn’t really read superhero comics that much, but then some friends gave me alternative comics where I got to read Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, and later Sam Henderson’s Magic Whistle.
I was suddenly into this new kind of comedy I’ve never even seen before. These guys were highlighting the absurdity of everything in a tone I’ve never seen before in my life. So I started getting into it as a different form of comedy, more of an outsider alternative comedy, which was taking hold when I was in college in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Serrano:. Both of you know how hard it is to pull off comedy. In TV and movies you have the benefit of movement and sound. Not so much in comic books, where everything on the panel gains movement and sound in the reader’s mind, to a certain extent. You might have some very funny jokes written down, but you have to find a way to both textually and visually make them funny. So, what’s it like to write comedy for comic books?
Chandrasekaran: That was the biggest things we had to learn while doing this, because the comedy of it was very important to me. And I had no idea how to do it in a comic book. Jun had a way of delivering jokes visually that really worked. We continued to refine it in a way over time, because sometimes I would get panels and pages back and I would say “Jun, this looks great. Everything is right. I just don’t know why it’s not funny.” Jun would say let me try one more thing or let me try something else and then we would get to where we wanted.
I would say an example of this dynamic can be found in how Alec Baldwin and Ed O’Neill approach comedy. These two comic actors do something with their performance that’s called ‘throwing away a joke.’ They don’t really try to nail the punch line to tell you like this is a joke. I remember being in script readings where one of them would turn around and reach the punchline without anyone seeing their face, which many people think is key when telling a joke. The joke is almost always funnier when you’re in somebody’s face. But no, they’d play around with the delivery. What they were doing was creating a real comic persona, over time, rather than just delivering jokes.
And so one thing Jun and I would talk about is whether there’s too much pressure on a particular line on any given panel and is it sustaining the panel or not. We then figure out a way to make it work. Jun would either reorganize the panel or he would have the bubbles from coming off the panel as if from another page. It was a fun process because I didn’t have the language for it. I would just kind of say what I’m saying now and then we’d figure it out.
Serrano: I can see how setting up a punchline can basically telegraph the joke way before it has the chance to be funny. In film, the camera stays with the person saying the joke and if that person’s facial reaction isn’t too funny it kind of gets ruined. That’s not a problem Jun has with his characters’ facial expressions, which are hilarious when they need to be, even if it’s in the case of a dog looking at you the wrong way. So how did you approach that, Jun?
Shiozawa: Well, I found that a lot of times I wouldn’t really know how hard to get the punchline across. Sometimes the joke would be just in the text, right? The text is there, you see it, and it’s just a funny line. But then in other cases I had to think about the timing in the visuals or the delivery, all these other things that might be a little bit more elusive or a little bit more subtle. In those cases I actually found that often it would be necessary to push the joke to make things a little bit sillier.
Sometimes you just have characters that are saying things that are funny enough and then what you have to do is give them a design that looks like the jokes have been specifically written for the type of people they are. A lot of it is in their facial expressions. You have to basically know when to let the text just do its job knowing your character designs will do their part.
Chandrasekarana: I specifically remember a scene where we kept working the comic rhythm of it. Eventually, what we landed on was having the speech bubbles strung together in a way where they overlapped each other, a lot. So you’ve got the sense that they were talking in rapid fire. It was fun to work on because by changing the image and the way the text was presented in it, you could hear the joke differently.
Serrano: Okay, let’s talk about Werner Herzog. He’s in the comic, under the name Werner Notzog, and he is hilarious. The line between reality and fiction blurs with him because of his own abstract and cryptic ways. If you’ve ever seen a Herzog documentary or have just listened to him talk, you’ll know Herzog in Genius Animals is the real deal. How did he make it to the story?
Shiozawa: I have to say, the Herzog material totally came from Vali’s script. When I read the words in the very beginning of the story I was like, man, this is hilarious. And so specific. There’s a scene where we’re in his office and there are all these different things in the background. It looks like a volunteer put it all together. A lot of it was just like, we need to have this and that because it’s all part of the total ambiance of the character. And I love his films, but I think I wouldn’t have had, frankly, the courage to actually put him down on paper like that unless he was the driving force behind the story and have to just go for it. So I just was like, alright, here we go. Let’s put him in the forest, put him in the Amazon jungle, and just get him to come in as like a superhero basically.
Chandrasekarana: In the beginning of chapter two, when we see him first in the forest, that’s one of my favorite images. And then one of my favorite jokes is, when he’s in his office, he’s sitting at his desk and behind him there’s a photo of himself wrapped by a boa constrictor and one of his assistants is about to shoot the boa constrictor.
Serrano: I noticed! And then having him end almost all his interventions end with “humanity must embrace madness.” Stuff that you hear him say over and over. It’s just a very unique source of comedy. In fact, it speaks to one of the other strengths of the comic: its unpredictability. Genius Animals was described to me as a mix of The Big Lebowski and The Crying of Lot 49. But then I start reading and I see that it’s a kind of love story functioning as a metaphor for relationships and secrets.
And then every page turns into something completely different that I couldn’t have ever imagined. There’s some X-Files stuff in it, the funnier episodes where all types of odd and weird things are played for smart laughs. In some parts, even, it also felt like The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror stuff had made it in too. What was the thought process behind this story? When did you start writing something and only to say ‘you know what, this needs conspiracy theories and talking animals or else it’s not going to work?
Chandrasekarana: You know, there were a couple things coming together at the time, when I was coming up with the story. One was I was working on 30 Rock. And I loved that show. We did something on that show that was very specific. I met Tina Fey and she knew she didn’t an a normal TV show. You know, Jack and Liz aren’t going to end up together, things like that. We didn’t want to know what the show is about on purpose. So I was playing at subverting expectations.
As a result of that I had spent a lot of my professional career writing jokes, but I never wrote about people in love, really. I was almost running away from it. So I thought, this is the major emotion people feel and chase. I’ve been wanting to come up with something funny and strange in that world.
I was also at the time really obsessed with the very notion of narratives, like why human beings need narratives. I like the idea of trying to come up with a scenario where narrative is important to the characters themselves. If you get into reading about mindfulness, the main thing they get at is we need narratives, because it’s what gave us an evolutionary advantage. If you see some mammoths coming towards you, for example, you think “Oh, this is going to be a bad area for us to set up camp.” See that’s the idea behind it. But because of that, it also creates the problem of consciousness, which is like our brains are constantly trying to string together narratives to justify why we need to do certain things. And it makes us crazy.
Over all of recorded human history, there’s always been mindfulness movements that are basically about stopping us from getting too much information, be it from radio or the internet or TV. You know, things like looking at the stars will make you lose your mind and then you’ll never get it back. It makes you crazy to have this overwhelming stream of information all the time. So I wanted to come up with a story that was like, “Well, what would you do if you can’t or don’t want to believe your mind?” That means accepting that you’re crazy. Or if you do believe your mind, it’s the craziest thing in the world. I was interested in what happens if you don’t like any of the two choices. What then?
Serrano: And the art captures this so well in the process. In fact, Jun’s visual style also taps into the type of weird and odd storytelling bits that you would see more of in 1990’s film, TV series, comics, and so on. Was that something that was in in your mind a lot in terms of imagery for the Genius Animals?
Shiozawa: I think I was trying to definitely get some Big Lebowski into the overall vibe. There’s Coen Brothers imagery where it’s kind of like the real world but it’s also a little bit off and maybe a little bit ominous around the corners. But then it’s also really funny as well, like silly and absurd. I wanted there to be this feeling that this is our world. But if we really take a good look at it, like, everything is a little bit off. I was going for things that were a little off kilter.
In a way, I wanted the comic to come off like this odd black and white world that’s anything but black and white in the story, but I just felt like color and facial expressions and jokes and humor and all of that were part of the fabric of the story. I felt like that whenever I would just read the lines from the script. It’s what it evoked for me. So I said to myself that I shouldn’t fight it too much. It was all so well imbedded in the script.
Serrano: Moving on to conspiracies. Your approach to conspiracies in the book forces your characters to go through a lot of fantasy in their pursuit of the truth, to try and see what sticks as truth and what doesn’t. It’s a bit old-school 90’s in that regard.
In today’s world, where we have QAnon and Pizzagate and all of these other full-fantasy conspiracies making the rounds, where do you think Genius Animals? stands in light of them. Is there such a thing as a good conspiracy? Can they still be a source of some truth or are they just all populated by people who pee on bunny skeletons?
Chandrasekarana: It’s interesting because Genius Animals? came up a while ago, when it felt like the more silly conspiracies were slowly disappearing. We took it as a return to the idea of narrative and how we try to find meaning and explanations of the world.
I was always fascinated with that Art Bell radio show Coast to Coast (paranormal-themed deep dives into conspiracies and unexplained phenomena). That show came up with the craziest explanations possible for what was happening behind the scenes. People really bought into it. I mean, you have those very classic UFO abductions stories that gave people a burning desire to know everything about it. We need to explain stuff! It’s like non-negotiable.
I was just reading about a South American legend of the pink dolphins the other day. Apparently, there are these pink river dolphins that live in this like sort of mystical, magical underwater city underneath the Amazon river. According to legend, at night they’re supposed to turn into very dapper handsome fishermen and seduce women, and then go disappear back into the river. And so if someone has a baby, and they don’t know who the father of the child is…it was a pink dolphin.
So you have this lie, basically, that people came up with that we as a society all decided like, okay, we need that in our lives because it creates a social explanation, a social function, and we’re going to all publicly believe it. I find that to be sort of fascinating and very fun.
Shiozawa: That’s exactly how I felt when I was going through the script and trying to capture that old-school conspiracy look, where radio shows and Bat Boy was what was on everyone’s minds. These were the conspiracies we grew up with. Mom and pop conspiracies with the Roswell UFO mystery leading the charge. There was a point when we were making revisions where we discussed not making our characters look like they’re QAnon enthusiasts or anything we’re explicitly seeing today. The closest we got was we ended up putting in the Men’s Rights activists in the bar scene, where every conspiracy group meets for a drink in their own little tables.
Chandrasekarana: And even then we wanted to make sure they looked like losers.
Serrano: And that’s, I think, a great closing remark to cap off this conversation. Moral of the story? Return to the conspiracies of the 1990s. Get some X-Files in your system and believe responsibly. Thanks for the time, guys!
Chandrasekarana: Thank you!
Genius Animals? can be read in its entirety online at https://geniusanimals.net/.