There are certain places where you wouldn’t want to be trapped during a freak supernatural occurrence. A few that come to mind include graveyards, abandoned hospitals, or a lone cabin located deep in the woods. But how about a zoo?
This is the situation and setting for Doug TenNapel’s (Earthworm Jim, Tommysaurus Rex) latest Image Comics graphic novel, Monster Zoo. An Ungabe idol found in Africa that houses a vengeful animal spirit is sent to the Los Angeles zoo to help boost attendance. As one might expect, things go wrong, and it’s up to a gawky teen and his friends to save the day.
If it sounds as though the premise has all the makings of a great time at the Cineplex, you’re not far off. Filmmaker Sam Raimi (Spider-Man, Evil Dead) has optioned the property for feature film development. In a way, this occurrence helps bring the book full circle as its inspiration was rooted in the silver screen.
“I’m a huge fan of 1980s Amblin movies, so I set out to pay proper tribute to Gremlins, The Goonies, and Jurassic Park. Monster Zoo is what came out,” writer-artist TenNapel told CBR News. "A lot of it has to do with the spirit of youth. The hero, Ty, just lost his father in the war on terror. He was a sharp-shooter in Afghanistan, and Ty wonders if he’ll ever be as big of a hero. It’s as if he feels his father’s ghost hanging over his shoulder. But Ty knows he doesn’t have what it takes to be a soldier. He’s gentle. He loves animals.
“The core of the story is actually really personal. It’s about the heroism that youth is capable of. Now, the vehicle of the hero is that he is an animal-lover. There’s also a bit of a tribute to our heroic troops."
Considering the types of films mentioned as the template for the graphic novel, Monster Zoo falls into some fun albeit frightening genres. “I just see it as adventure. It is child-friendly in that there isn’t going to be imagery that would scar or jade a kid. It’s supposed to still be scary for all ages, but I don’t have to go into Saw territory to do that if I do my job right.”
In addition to its adventure label, an early review of the book stated that Monster Zoo could fall into another sub-genre — “eco-horror.” TenNapel, however, only seems to partially agree with this point of view. “I would never go out and preach eco-horror, but it really is a legitimate name for the genre and it’s been around long before the modern environmentalism became the fashion,” explained TenNapel. “Movies like Godzilla, Alien, Evil Dead 2, Night of the Living Dead, Cloverfield, Lord of the Rings, Jurassic Park, and Star Trek IV all have elements of eco-horror to them; although I prefer to call it ‘man against nature.’ While I don’t think the story is eco-horror based, I think it could easily be read that way. The main bad guy is a greedy businessman and that could also feed into the interpretation. Again, I’m fine with this and am happy that the story can be enjoyed on different levels.
“But it really is supposed to primarily be a ‘fun’ story. It was sure fun to draw.”
Indeed, one of the things that excited TenNapel most about working on Monster Zoo was simply “Drawing monsters! I was so hungry to make this book because as I drew these mutated zoo animals, I just loved the idea of them turning into these abominations.”
So, how does one turn a cute little zoo critter into an abomination? From the artist’s telling of it, it doesn’t sound as though he struggled with this task at all. “I have studied animals my whole life, and part of what I love about them is their amazing design,” he said. “They are the ultimate in form follows function — what I call ‘natural-looking’ things. So the Ungabe idol was like this pagan abomination that would assault the natural look of animals.
“The Ungabe curse transforms the animals that betray their form to take on a new evil function. So the body will just split open and expose teeth, the tail becomes the head, and the head becomes the tail. I came up with them by just drawing the source animal first, and then thought of a way to really insult the beautiful form. The monster versions of the animals look scary and tragic all at once.”
TenNapel has drawn monsters before, but his style in art shifts as appropriate for the tale he is telling. A big departure for the artist was his graphic novel Black Cherry, with which, TenNapel admitted in an earlier interview with CBR, he had some fun “slamming ink on an art board." Looking at the art of Monster Zoo, the artist’s style appears very clean — almost as if geared towards animation. This shouldn’t comes as too much of a surprise, however, as TenNapel’s vocation is as an animator, with two of his best known creations being Earthworm Jim and Catscratch.
“My style is a mystery even to me,” he said. “It’s such an amalgamation of my influences and it’s not set in stone, so it floats from book to book. I like to keep things cartoony in general because, well, I’m a cartoonist! But it’s not that I’m trying to tilt the book into the animation genre.
“I was working pretty rough on Black Cherry and I found it hard to tighten up on Flink [TenNapel’s subsequent graphic novel]. I think I succeeded in reigning in my art a little more on [Monster Zoo], which is tighter than most of my books. It definitely takes longer to work this way, and there’s a time and place for tighter work. I think the horror of monster animals wouldn’t have as much impact if I made it looser and sloppier. I also find that because I can’t draw realism very well that I rely a lot more on reference.
“I went to the L.A. Zoo and took photo references of everything, including animals. So when I work from a realistic source, it’s going to constrict my art more than if I’m just drawing some cartoony idiot like [Black Cherry lead] Eddie Paretti.”
By virtue of his career in animation, Doug TenNapel is already working in Hollywood and dealing with studios. Nonetheless, it is still somewhat surprising how quickly the film rights to Monster Zoo were snapped up by Sam Raimi — especially when one considers the book hasn’t even hit the shelves yet. According to TenNapel, this order of events is all part of his plans.“I sell the movie rights to all my books before they are printed. Once I get the editor’s proofs back from the publisher, I usually send those pages out to a few producers in Hollywood. I usually know within a few hours if the book is something the studios want or not. The material is either something they want or it’s not. If it’s not, there’s nothing I can do to convince them that it would be perfect for them. I actually think some of my best work for a movie adaptation is still available, but it’s just out at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
TenNapel continued, “The graphic novel always comes first because the story has to work as a comic before it works as a pitch. I’m still working from a script, but I write scripts that are about half the length of a feature script, since I don’t want to make a 500-page comic about kids getting chased by monster animals in a zoo.”
Fans of TenNapel have often noticed a theological/Christian theme to many of his works, and the author has never been shy about acknowledging those influences. But for readers looking for such content in Monster Zoo, the creator said, “it doesn’t exist.”
Two of TenNapel’s earlier graphic novels that were optioned for film development — 2002’s Creature Tech and 2004’s Tommysaurus Rex — feature Christian themes very prominently. Neither projects have yet made it past the development stage and into production. While such delay isn’t unusual in terms of Hollywood, it still raises the question: is the apparent difficulty in the projects’ movement due to their Christian content?
“The religious themes did give Creature Tech a rough start,” TenNapel confirmed, “but we’ve got a writer who can work around some of the themes that give the studios hesitation. He’s a great writer, and I completely trust him with the edits he makes on the religion in that story. We’ll just have to see.”
He continued, “I think everyone has a point of view they want to put into a story, including the point of view that a religion other than their own is offensive,” TenNapel said. “It doesn’t really bother me in that it’s human nature. Philosophically it doesn’t bother me, but as a businessman it really bothers me, because I think the broadest market really warms up to America’s most popular religion.
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to make Billy Graham movies. That’s not what I’m here to do. If I wanted to do that, I’d go make Veggie Tales, and there are already people who are better than me telling those stories. I just want my characters to be able to tell the truth.”
Considering TenNapel is someone with Hollywood experience, the possibility always exists that he could be involved in the development of one of his properties. His services haven’t yet been requested for work on Raimi’s Monster Zoo, but the creator doesn’t sound concerned — he just wants to see his creations grow to become the best films they can. “Once the book leaves my hands, I become a member of a team. That team’s job isn’t to obey my wishes and desires, it’s to collectively entertain a broad studio audience. I’m available to help. I’ve done drafts of scripts, and I’ve also done nothing on movie adaptations. I’m here to serve.”
As far as “team members” go, any production would be blessed to staff someone with TenNapel’s famous work ethic and considerable experience. He’s overseen animated series, he has a pilot at Cartoon Network, he’s constantly working on new pitches, and he remains fairly consistent with his annual graphic novel output, something that certainly cannot be said of all those who straddle Hollywood and comics. If you’re looking for his secret, it’s three words: work, work and work. Well, that and a love for comics.
“I will always make comics,” TenNapel said. “It’s the perfect medium.”
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