I’m not going to mince words, the comedy that fuels Cyanide & Happiness is not for everyone. The webcomic which launched in 2004, is effectively characterized in the opening paragraph of Brigid Alverson’s recent Unbound review: “The Cyanide & Happiness formula is pretty simple: Stick men (and women) do shocking things to one another. There are four different artists, but the style and humor are fairly uniform; a situation is set up in the first panel and resolved, by stabbing, boob-grabbing, or shouting ‘You have cancer! LOL!’ in the last. My kids love this comic, because it’s what teenagers are all about: Working your way through every possible taboo, in public. So in C&H we have Seizure-Man falling down and frothing at the mouth, bungee-jumping childbirth, and lots and lots of stabbing.”
If that description gives you pause, I would advise you skip this interview. But if it doesn’t give you pause, jump on ahead. Last month, It Books released a collection that “highlights 150 of the best comics, including 30 brand-new strips, each packed with inappropriate jokes, irreverent characters, and deviant behavior, guaranteed to leave you laughing despite the gnawing guilt.” The strips are created by four different writers/illustrators who “live all over the world — Kris Wilson in Fort Bridger, Wyoming; Matt Melvin in San Diego, California; Rob DenBleyker in Dallas, Texas; and Dave McElfatrick in Belfast, Northern Ireland”. I was able to interview Dave, Kris and Matt via email. Before jumping in, though, I have to apologize to our female readership and the creators for my ignorant assumption (in one question) that the audience for this work was predominantly male.
Tim O’Shea: How do you develop a sense for when the shock value of the joke outweighs or obscures the comedy of the strip?
Dave: You don’t, really. You just kinda go with what you think is funny, and if that involves either something shocking or something incredibly tame, you go for it. We don’t focus on shock value, we just go with what makes us laugh.
Kris: The humor has to come first. It’s not as if we’re trying to offend people. More often than not, people just get offended at what’s funny.
O’Shea: Do any of you in retrospect think there was ever a joke that went too far?
Kris: Not yet as far as the strip goes. When it comes down to a joke that actually offends me personally, I save it for Depressing Comic Week.
Dave: I have before, but they’re always received positively by the fans. I guess I’m just paranoid!
O’Shea: To the other extreme, can you each single out a favorite strip of the many each of you have done?
Dave: People have asked me this over the years and I still say the same one. I adore a comic I made about Munch’s The Scream. I completely trivialized that painting in three panels.
O’Shea: Is there any subject that you guys won’t tackle for a punchline?
Matt: We tend to stay away from politics in general. Video games get touched on every now and then, but surprisingly less than one would expect.
Kris: Personally, I don’t like to go after things like racism unless it targets every race.
O’Shea: Do each of you excel at certain taboo subjects, for example are one of you considered the “cannibalism” go to guy?
Matt: I’ve done a ton of necrophilia jokes. I’d say a good majority of them are very sexual in nature, whether it be necrophilia, pedophilia, STDs or just good ol’ fashioned sex jokes.
Kris: I consider Matt the “buttsex” go to guy.
O’Shea: Am I wrong to assume that your audience is predominantly male?
Matt: Very much so, actually. We’re close to an even number of male-to-female fans — slightly favoring males, but not by much. Girls use the internet, too! Although, it might be due to our ever-present feminist slant.
Kris: Surveys and conventions have shown us that our audience is split pretty evenly. So, in theory, you’re about 52% wrong.
O’Shea: How do you split up the creative responsibilities on the strip–do each of you both write and draw? Do you try to all keep similar styles or do each of you have a signature style that makes it clear when each of you are drawing the strip?
Dave: We all help each other with writing sometimes, but generally each of us take turns in both writing and creating the comic on a given day. We all have our own little drawing styles and they can differ substantially, so fans can definitely tell who drew what.
O’Shea: How did you all pick the 30 new strips that got included in the collection?
Matt: Trial by fire.
O’Shea: Who would you say are your respective comedic and artistic influences are?
Dave: A lot of my artistic influences come from old English childrens comics called The Beano And The Dandy. A lot of their strips had very particular styles and I think a lot of that has rubbed off into my characters. They can be quite dynamic at times.
Matt: I never really read comics growing up, expect for The Far Side by Gary Larson and Life in Hell by Matt Groening. Comedy-wise, I’m a huge sketch comedy nerd, so I grew up idolizing The Kids in the Hall, Monty Python, UCB and Mr. Show.
Kris: For me, it’s Don Hertzfeldt, Bill Hicks, White Ninja Comics, Monty Python, and David Wong.
O’Shea: Given the stick nature of the strip’s characters, how many “Hangman” ideas were rejected before you finally went for it with the sausage punchline?
O’Shea: Anything I neglected to cover that any of you would like to discuss?
Dave: I’d just like to point out that a plumber gave me a brief history of the toilet earlier this afternoon. He was very passionate about toilets. I think that’s admirable.
Matt: Contrary to what it says on the back of the book, my mother is not, in fact, dead.