Nerd rocker Jonathan Coulton has one of the most diverse song catalogues in contemporary music. Whether it’s a cover of “Baby Got Back,” the totally reasonable demands of zombie office workers in “Re: Your Brains” or the legend behind a furniture mega-store in “Ikea,” Coulton’s repertoire runs deep with character and clever lyrics. So much so that in November, upcoming “Batman/Superman” writer Greg Pak took to Twitter, jokingly suggesting a comic series based on the characters in Coulton’s songs. Coulton responded “Do it,” and four months later, Pak and Coulton along with artist Takeshi Miyazawa, colorist Jessica Kholinne and letterer Simon Bowland have launched a Kickstarter project for that very project. Entitled “Code Monkey Save World,” the digital-first comic stars the eponymous Code Monkey from Coulton’s “Code Monkey” along with other settings, characters and ideas drawn from the musician’s library of songs. The Kickstarter has already reached its funding goal and funding continues to climb.
CBR spoke with Pak and Coulton about the unusual origins of the project, the challenge of adapting music to comics, reconciling seemingly disparate song worlds, the decision to go digital-first through Monkeybrain Comics and more.
Greg, the origins of “Code Monkey Save World” are somewhat unusual in that it was “pitched” to and encouraged by Jonathan Coulton on Twitter. Your followers got the opportunity to see the initial Tweets, but what happened afterwards? How did this project go from a quick 140-character joke to a full digital series of comics?
Greg Pak: After Jonathan and I traded those initial tweets, I e-mailed him and said, “I’m serious!” And he said, “So am I!” So I worked up an outline and we got together and talked about it and got very, very excited and five months later here we are.
The exciting thing is that because Jonathan owns all his songs and I own the fruit of my labor, we could just decided to do this thing. And amazing folks like our penciler Tak Miyazawa and colorist Jessica Kholinne and [letterer] Simon Bowland said yes. And now all these amazing Kickstarter backers have said yes, and we’re off to the races. It’s a whole new world, and I’m loving it.
What’s the general idea behind this digital-first series? How are you combining all of Jonathan’s songs into a single story?
Pak: At its heart, it’s really a twisted buddy story, with the coding monkey known as Code Monkey (from the song “Code Monkey,” natch) teaming up with super-villain from the song “Skullcrusher Mountain.” Code Monkey’s fellow office worker and unrequited love Matilde has been kidnapped by Laura the Robo Queen to work in the slave colony on Chiron Beta Prime — he needs Skullcrusher’s help to save her. The twist is that Skullcrusher’s hopelessly and haplessly in love with the Robo Queen. And hijinks ensue!
How challenging was it to reconcile all these (seemingly) disparate song-worlds into a single world? How does Skullcrusher Mountain exist in the same world as an undead office building, curling and the abstract concept of something like “The Future Soon?”
Pak: It’s actually been remarkably easy. Maybe it comes from years of working in superhero comics. You get used to taking these crazy mythologies from different characters and just fitting them together. Hulk goes to Olympus! Why not? Let’s do it! Bob the office worker zombie from “Re: Your Brains,” the heroic curler from “Curl,” and even the giant squid from “I Crush Everything” end up fitting together in really fun and organic ways.
Jonathan Coulton: One of the most fun things about this process is watching Greg make choices about what to leave in, what to leave out and what to tweak — I definitely think it’s a kind of flexible storytelling that you don’t often see outside of comics. Taking Laura from “The Future Soon” (who isn’t a character as much as she’s a victim of that narrator’s fantasies) and setting her up as the leader of the robot army from “The Future Soon” is a really interesting twist, and one that opens up the relationships and the story.
How involved was Jonathan in the process of further developing the backgrounds and personalities of these characters who, in some cases, are really only mentioned in a couple lines?
Pak: I’m running everything by Jonathan all the time and we’re constantly brainstorming. Just tonight we traded e-mails about the office politics about the slave colonies on Chiron Beta Prime. We’ve basically done a lot of cackling and nodding, just getting excited about how this world works and how the different characters come together.
Coulton: I stay out of the way for the broader story decisions, because I’m a little too close to these characters to do that part well. But once Greg gives me a piece of what he’s thinking, I do like to spin out a little extra character backstory in my head, think about their motivations. That’s kind of the stuff that we’ll be chewing over together.
Bringing music to comics is incredibly difficult, especially considering that music has tools that comics doesn’t — melodic structure, tone, volume, etc. — how do you think the hybrid writing/visual medium of comics is able to effectively translate those tools?
Pak: Well, the funny thing is that we haven’t really talked about how or if the music actually enters the comics. We’ve just been talking about the characters and stories. I’ve actually thought a bit for other projects about how to render a musical on the comics page. I think Bryan Lee O’Malley’s still the person who’s done that the best with “Scott Pilgrim.” Just brilliant stuff — you can feel those power chords. But it hasn’t occurred to me to try that with “Code Monkey Save World.” But now you’ve got me thinking…
Comics and music have a decent tradition of interacting together, but they tend to be much more serious than humorous — like Image Comics’ anthology “Comic Book Tattoo,” based on the music of Tori Amos. How are you hoping to help broaden the genre of music-as-comics?
Pak: Honestly, I’m just in love with the characters from Jonathan’s songs and am totally stoked about telling the best damn story I can with them. I think comics is the perfect genre for this because Jonathan’s songs combine elements from two of the greatest genres in comics — the introspective, autobiographical coming-of-age book and the crazy superhero book. Comics can deliver stories in those genres like nobody’s business. Just look at those images Tak’s already drawn. It’s just felt so right from the beginning.
Coulton: It’s a perfect medium because these songs are already funny and sad at the same time, which I feel like is a pretty common flavor combination in superhero stories. You can laugh at how pathetic and needy Skullcrusher is, but at the same time you get to really understand what makes him that way, and that he’s mostly a victim of his circumstances who deserves your actual pity. It’s a complicated thing, but I think this genre of storytelling will help us get there.
Crowdfunding comics via Kickstarter has become much more of a common practice recently, why decide to go ahead and do the crowd funding model rather than something like what Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin are doing with Panel Syndicate?
Pak: Jonathan and I could work for free on a project like this. As a comic book writer, I can write four or five books a month — if I’m deferring pay on one of them, I can manage things. But there’s no way I could ask an artist to do that. Most comic book artists need at least five weeks to draw a book. It’s a full time job, and they need to get paid. So Kickstarter provides us a way to raise the dollars up front from people who really want the book so that we can pay everybody their going rate — or even more. That’s a hugely special thing for an indie project.
And now, as we surpass our original funding goal, we’re able to expand the scope of the book and add some crazy stretch goals. That’s a huge gift and we’re going to do our darnedest to make the most of it.
In the same vein, what drove the decision to go digital-first through Monkeybrain Comics and comiXology followed by a print edition?
Pak: A big reason for this is that I just love what Monkeybrain is doing. It’s a digital distribution company run by creators for creators. Their terms are astoundingly fair and transparent and they’ve done a phenomenal job getting absolutely top-notch indie books out into the world. I also love the Comixology platform for reading comics. It’s where I read most of the digital comics I buy. So it’s where I wanted this book to end up. The clincher was that Monkeybrain and comiXology said they could provide us with digital codes for our Kickstarter rewards and that we could have the books exclusively available to Kickstarter backers for a month, which was essential.
So each chapter of the book will come out monthly from August to November (knock on wood). And then we’ll make a trade paperback of the collected story to send to Kickstarter backers in November. I liked this plan because it would let us have the fun of releasing the book monthly and we could provide our Kickstarter backers with the experience of being the very first people to get their hands on the collected physical edition.
“Code Monkey Save World” launches via comiXology in August.