Even if you don’t recognize the name of Matt Maiellaro, there’s a good chance you know his work.
Maiellaro has been involved in the animated shows of Adult Swim since the network’s debut as a programming block on Cartoon Network, beginning with “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast” and “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” — shows that redefined irreverent animation. While most of his work to date has been rather chaotic, featuring random insanity utilized to generate maximum humor, Maiellaro enters the world of structure this April with his debut graphic novel from Kickstart Comics.
“Knowbodys” is a detective story centering around two super-powered parents who work for a government agency that polices supernatural activity. Their job ranges from yelling at an overly-loud werewolf to talking down a poltergeist from a bridge — and then heading home to spend time with their kids.
Maiellaro spoke with CBR News about his debut graphic novel, making the transition from animation to print, the 2007 “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” Boston bomb scare and retitling the upcoming season of “Aqua Unit Patrol Squad.”
CBR News: Tell us about “Knowbodys” — what the general story and who are the people involved?
Matt Maiellaro: “Knobodys” is really a detective story involving a family that is able to see supernatural urban legend worlds. They basically police that whole world. They work for a section of a government program that keeps all that in check so the supernatural world doesn’t come zipping into our human world and screw everything up. It revolves around a family called the Knowbodys. The parents do all the work and their two kids don’t know what they’re doing — it’s a big secret. Ultimately, I think it’s about the fun of policing the supernatural world, but it’s also about family. It’s about recognizing what’s important to you. Maybe your work takes over your life and you don’t see what’s important in your immediate vicinity. It’s a lot about focus.
The story mainly takes place in New Orleans. What was the reason for that particular setting?
It’s one of the most haunted cities in America, next to Savannah, Georgia. I’m from the south — Florida — so I grew up going to New Orleans all the time. I love New Orleans. It’s such a decadent place to be and when you’re there, you can walk through fog of Voodoo. You can feel it. I think it’s just a fun town for that kind of exciting supernaturalism. It just makes sense to have the crux of the whole story in New Orleans. It’s such a great set piece for this.
So Mom and Dad both have these extra-sensory powers — what about the kids? Do they have powers, too?
No, they’re just normal kids. They don’t have these powers. They’re fifteen and seventeen years old, your average cool kids. They’re pretty much in the dark about what their parents do for most of the story. The parents get relocated and there’s the problem of moving to another state. They keep moving around and get kind of tired of it. They don’t feel settled with changing schools, making friends all the time. There’s some family tension.
Was it difficult transitioning from writing the average family life to the adventure and powers sequences?
Well, the adventures and powers were fun and easy because that was almost limitless. [Laughs] Doing the normal family was also pretty easy. I worked with Samantha [Olsson] at Kickstart and we nailed it down. It’s not my typical work, which usually involves talking food items, but I always wanted to do this story. I felt like there was a great story in your average, run-of-the-mill, everyday family where you never know what they really do. It wasn’t hard, but it did take a long time. It was a lot of work for Samantha, working on seventeen books, but it was great. I’d do it again, today.
This is your first graphic novel, and, obviously writing a comic book is a different activity than writing an animated series like “Aqua Unit Patrol Squad,” but could you speak to challenges you’ve faced in making that transition?
You know, the struggles and challenges were really just aesthetics. It wasn’t hard to tell the story, it was hard to tell the story in the amount of frames and words I was allotted per page. When I first wrote the story, after Samantha and I agreed on the synopsis, I basically turned in a 90-page-screenplay thinking, “Okay, there’s the screenplay — now you guys make the comic book.” [Laughs]
She was like, “No, no. This is how it works: page one, panel one. We can do up to six panels per page.” It was just the aesthetics and wrapping my head around getting specific. Every panel, the challenge was — in one panel — you have to be able to tell a whole lot, even though there are three words in it, describing the action, what’s going on, what’s happening. That was all new to me. I do admit, that bogged me down a little bit, trudging through it, but I always had the story there. I just overwrote, overwrote, overwrote, and I let Samantha come in and help me edit. She made suggestions and we finally narrowed it down and made it work. Overall, it was just a different style, a different actual format.
So, was “Knowbodys” originally intended to be a screenplay?
Well, yeah. I had written it a long time ago, thinking it would be a great TV movie for a kid’s channel, back when people were doing movies of the week and stuff. I fleshed out the treatment that way. Obviously it’s different than what the book is, but it turned into a screenplay working on it with Samantha. After that, it turned into, “this is how you write a comic book.” I had a little Comic Book 101 course and started working on it.
You’re working with artist Jesus Redondo Roman on the book — how did the two of you find each other and partner up for this project?
Jesus came to me through Samantha. She had sent me a bunch of people’s work, people [Kickstart] wanted to work with who they hadn’t worked with before. Jesus was one of those people. I never got to meet the guy — he lives in Spain. I started seeing his pencils of the characters and I was really surprised at how close he got to what I had envisioned. I really think he nailed it without really any sort of — maybe it was just my magical descriptions that he translated into Spanish. [Laughs] He’s amazing. The look of the book is great. It’s almost timeless, like it could be any time, anywhere. He did a fantastic job.
From the way you describe it, it seems like “Knowbodys” is pretty different from your previous work in animation. What kinds of specific differences will fans of your work be able to expect?
“Knobodys” is a cohesive story. It has a structure — it has a beginning, middle and end. “Aqua Teen” and “Space Ghost” didn’t have any structure. They were designed to be anti-television. We just did what we wanted — we messed with the English language, we confused people on purpose. Tthat was the fun of those shows, and it still is.
With “Knobodys,” I just wanted to show people I could tell a real story where you get emotionally involved with the characters, you really liked them and you want them to win — you root for them. I think it’s got some pretty silly stuff in it that, if you know my other work, you’ll read some of this stuff and — like when they have to go tell the werewolf next door to shut up because they’re too loud, and when the Mom climbing a bridge because the poltergeist feels like he’s not doing a good job anymore and she has to convince him to go back to his job. There’s stuff like that in there that speaks to the animation stuff I do.
Speaking of your animated work, what’s the current status of the “Aqua Teen” movie sequel?
We’re working on the sequel called “Death Fighter.” I don’t actually live in Atlanta any more, so my writing partner and I have been batting it back and forth — but we’re working on it! We just have to convince the network to do it. Since the movie was such a — for us, it did really well. It did giant profits even though it was a fan-based film, the way it was marketed an distributed. It just seems like it’s a no-brainer. We’ll just do it. I hope! [Laughs].
By the way, the title — “Aqua Unit Patrol Squad” — has changed again. The new season is going to be called “Aqua Something You Know Whatever.” We have a whole new theme song, a whole new open and we’re going to change it every year. [Laughs]
I can’t actually tell if you’re being serious…
No, I’m totally serious! It’s just something fun for us to do. The show is fun to do, but it’s a little bit the same for us. We try to create fun and interesting, crazy stories, but to be able to go in and do something fresh like change the open and the close all the time is really fun for us. Our latest theme song is — we hooked up Schoolly D with a mariachi band and kind of mixed those two genres. It’s sounding really good.
So is every season from now on going to be “Aqua Teen Adjective Noun” or something to that effect?
Yeah. Well, it’s actually called “Aqua Something You Know Whatever” and they sing those words in the song! The next DVD will say “Aqua Teen Hunger Force – previously known as Aqua Unit Patrol Squad, now “Aqua Something You Know Whatever.” We’re going to have to get bigger DVD packages to get all the words on there!
That reminds me a lot of “Mad Libs,” the film — you’re doing some work for that as well, aren’t you?
Yeah, I’m still with that. I teamed up with the producer that owns the option for the whole “Mad Libs” empire and have written two different takes on it. We’re out with a spec right now. We’re talking to some studios who had garnered interest — one, lately, totally out of the blue. We didn’t think these guys would ever be interested in this thing. So yeah, we’re pushing that really hard. It’s been a three-year endeavor for me, but I feel good about it and I have faith in it. The film we have right now in script form is really fun and great. It’s a really organic way to use the book and not have it be some magical book that just makes stuff comes to life. Hopefully that’ll happen soon.
I actually live in Boston, where in 2007 there was a bomb scare featuring a promotional material for “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” specifically the Mooninites. There’s an episode of the show that’s never been released in any format called “Boston,” and it’s a response to that situation. Could you speak a bit to that episode and whether we’ll ever get to see it?
Yeah. Well, the episode — first of all, it’s really tame compared to what you might think. If this had happened to “South Park,” they would have just ripped Boston a new one. We actually approached it with [the attitude that] we know the network is really sensitive about this issue, so let’s write an episode that doesn’t make it look like — that just calms it down to a “this could happen” level. There’s nothing to do with bombs or anything like that. We went through a couple of actual versions of the show. It’s probably one of the only shows where we went back in and re-wrote the whole middle section because the network was a little nervous about it. They ultimately just said, “No, it’s never going to air, it’s not going to ever be on a DVD.” It’s a hidden gem. What we should do is throw it onto a DVD and hide it somewhere in America and put out a big scavenger hunt. [Laughs]
That was an unfortunate incident for Boston and for us. Within a week of shutting Boston down, the city was blowing up anything they didn’t understand. They were blowing up those things that cars drive over to catch cars on the highway. I think we rattled ’em pretty good. We didn’t mean to.
That day was so surreal. We were all standing around at the network staring at that little Err figure — I actually do the voice for Err — and I was just thinking, “This is not happening. I can’t believe this is happening.” People crawled out of the woodwork I hadn’t heard from in years, calling me — it was just crazy. [Laughs]
That’s got to be one of the weirdest Adult Swim stories ever.
It is, it’s so weird. I was on a panel last year at Comic-Con International for Kickstart. It was me and six of the other authors up there and it was a really serious panel. I’m used to panels where people are just throwing the water pitchers at people and stuff. This was just super comic book aficionados and new people that wanted to get into the business. They’re looking at us like, “You have done this — how do we do what you’ve done?” I was the greenest one up there when it came to this — and somebody did ask, “How do you get your work out there? How do you get people to look at it?” Some of the more experienced authors responded with the right words which were, “Distribute it yourself, put it online, put some of it on your blog, never give up.” I just said, “Or you could just wrap a bunch of Christmas lights around it and hang it on a bridge.” [Laughs] Then people will probably notice your comic book!
Could you tease a little of the randomness in store for the upcoming season of “Aqua Something You Know Whatever?”
Eventually, every character is going to die off and we’re going to replace them with other characters. There’s also a cool twist on how we get our characters back. It’s going to be 12 episodes. By episode 3 of the 12, there’s going to be no more Aqua Teens, but we managed to fill it up with a lot of interesting characters. It’s super fun. We’ve been on the air now 12, 13 years. I think we beat out “M*A*S*H” [Laughs] We’re not running out of ideas — it’s fun to do, but it’s easy, too. Anything we throw at the wall sticks and we do it! [Laughs]
It must have been really interesting, then, to go from that unstructured environment to working on “Knowbodys,” which seems to have a really strict story structure.
Oh it was. It was, and the structure — I had been writing screenplays for a long time, just because I like to write movies. I was used to the structure and I understood it. Every day you learn a new way to get more experience, but I was finally able to do it for real in a medium that was going to go out to America. It was very exciting. It was great!
You’ve been doing promotion on “Knowbodys” since summer 2011 — why has it taken so long for the book to come out?
It was supposed to come out for Halloween. I was talking to a lot of people and doing a lot of online interviews and then it kept getting pushed — I’m not sure of the reason. I do know that Kickstart set up a deal with Wal-Mart and Target, so they’re getting more exposure than the typical comic shops. I hope people check it out and like it because I like it. I think it’s great.
It did take almost two and a half years to finish, but there was a point where I didn’t want to look at it or read it for a while because I had worked on it so much. I think that’s true of anybody with anything they do a lot. Like when we make an “Aqua Teen,” by the time we’re done with it — obviously, I don’t watch it when it airs. When we get the DVDs, I don’t even take the shrink-wrap off, I just put it up on the shelves because I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it.
You’ve mentioned before, you’re not a huge comic book guy. After having done “Knowbodys,” have you gotten a little more into comics? Have you found you’re a little more interested in the medium?
Not as a reader, no. I was never exposed to it when I was a kid. Nobody around me was doing it. We were doing other things. The comic books I looked at were comedy things, I never really picked up on any of the superhero stuff. Now, I like superheroes! I like that stuff, I just don’t read it.
After starting “Knowbodys,” I went out and bought about five graphic novels. I think I skimmed through one, but I didn’t want to be influenced by it. I’d already been through treatment with Samantha, so I felt like I was on the right path. She wasn’t putting on the brakes, so I didn’t go through the rest of the books. I would love to do another one, but it hasn’t made me want to go out and read them.
What do you think the major merits are of the presentation format as compared to animation?
I’m probably going to reach a totally different audience with this coming out. I think the merits are it’s going to be good for me, it’s going to be good for a whole new audience. This stuff is also going electronic. It’s just going to broaden my audience, I hope, because I’m going to find people who have never heard of “Aqua Teen” that just really love to read comics — well wait, maybe that doesn’t jive. [Laughs]
You never know. I’m just going to meander on this, but I’ve run into people in parks that are in their late 50s and when I mention the cartoon, they totally know the cartoon. Somehow they know it. I don’t know if that’s the audience that’s going to read this book, but I love publishing. I’m happy I got published and I hope people dig it.
Besides “Knowbodys” and more “Aqua Teens,” is there anything else coming down the line this year for you?
I’m writing a pilot for FX right now. The deal is almost closed and we’re working on that really soon. It’ll be an animated show. I’m screwing around with a show that Ringo Starr wanted to develop, so we’re messing around with that right now. I’ve got a couple of shows in the works. I’m just trying to collect the right people and materials to get them out there and get them up. If I can’t do two movies a year or 25 comic books a year, then I want to have six shows running. My goal is to have a show on every network — or every cable outlet at least! [Laughs]