Saying that "Arsenic Lullaby" isn't for the faint of heart is like telling Charlie Bucket not to steal Wonka's Fizzy Lifting Drinks. Charlie knows there are consequences to such a brash action; that it's the wrong thing to do, but that doesn't stop the chocolate-loving twerp from indulging - and the next thing he knows, he's sailing head-first towards a lethal fan apparatus that is designed to eviscerate him, limb by fizzy-filled limb.
"Arsenic Lullaby" is the pulpy mess of limbs on the other side of that fan.
The blacker-than-black comedy series, written and illustrated by the Milwaukee-based Douglas Paszkiewicz, contains both short and recurring strips designed to bust your gut... either in a good or bad way, depending on your moral standing. Not only does the series showcase a plethora of zombie fetuses - yep, you read that right - "Lullaby" also features memorable characters such as Voodoo Joe, a witch doctor who is cursed to live in the suburbs and help people get revenge on one another; Tex Buckaroo, the ghost of an old television cowboy on the run from judgment and pretending to be a guardian angel; and Baron Von Donut, a magical, alcoholic corporate mascot that dies in every issue. Did we mention the zombie fetuses?
If you're still with us, know that you're not alone. In addition to fans that have supported the book over the last several years, "Arsenic Lullaby" has found respect from an unlikely place - the series has been nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Humor Publication of 2009. Of course, the nomination had to come after Paszkiewicz decided that this summer's "Arsenic Lullaby Pulp Edition Omega" would be the final issue of the series.
With both the finale of "Arsenic Lullaby" and the Eisner Awards on the horizon, Douglas Paszkiewicz spoke with CBR News about the comic book's history, its future as an animated series and his scathing hatred for all things Seth Rogen.
CBR: How did you come up with the idea for "Arsenic Lullaby?"
Douglas Paszkiewicz: It wasn't my idea. I started out doing stand up comedy and got involved with comics via some friends. I honestly don't remember [how it started]. It was more or less born out of disgust with the current crop of comics and nothing out there being written for jerks.
Do you have a formal education in illustration, or did you figure that out around the time you decided to hop into "Arsenic?"
I learned on the fly. I was fairly accomplished as far as writing a joke - it was just a matter of figuring out how the rhythm, timing and structure of a joke would work without movement and sound. So I just read everything I could on the subject and got large bodies of work from the people I thought were good and dissected everything they did. Why did this work, why did that work, why is the vanishing point here, why is this panel narrow... I probably know more about the techniques some of them used than they did.
You've described "Arsenic Lullaby" as for people who are jaded by and desensitized to what currently passes for comedy. In your opinion, what's everybody else doing wrong that "Arsenic" is doing right?
They aren't being funny. They aren't digging deep enough for the material, they aren't learning their craft and they are lazy. Seth Rogen doing a jerk off joke for the 300th time is not funny. It was mildly amusing the first time, but he's now on his 30th movie about jerking off. Seth Rogen is second rate at best and so are Paul Rudd and Jason Segel. That whole "comedy troupe" flat out sucks. They aren't as funny as the funniest guy the average person knows. They can't hold a candle to Monty Python for timing, material, or execution of a joke and Monty Python was 30 years ago. We should be getting better, not worse.
Go watch "Ghostbusters" or "Fletch Lives" or "Team America" - those are funny movies. These pieces of crap that Seth Rogen gets involved in are embarrassing. He's basically Jennifer Aniston. They just plug her into any half-assed romantic comedy script that's laying around and they do the same with these losers and whatever shitty comedy script is lying around. They really are just serviceable background character actors. Go watch "Monty Python and The Holy Grail" or "Spinal Tap," then watch "Waiting." It's absurd how far off we've dropped instead of learning and getting better.
Here's the thing: we are paid professional writers. We should be better at what we do than the Average Joe. We should be putting out a product that is better than what the Average Joe can do on his own. About five percent of comedy out there right now is better than what an average guy could come up with, and the rest is crap. Be rude, be crude, be gross - but do it better and with skill that you have honed and learned.
I really didn't talk about comic books there, did I? Umm - David Mack is a disgrace and should leave the industry. Anyone who pays that guy to do anything besides a cover is a fool and does not care if their product may be a piece of plagiarized crap. You readers out there: if you see David Mack's name on a book, be aware that the entire thing may be plagiarized and that the people publishing it know that and don't care, and by extension think you are a schmuck and will pay for it anyway.
We need to start calling people out. I don't hear anybody pointing fingers at people who suck at what they do. There are 300 million people in this country - I think we can afford to shun and replace the Seth Rogens and David Macks of the world.
Are there any books, or shows, or movies out there being made that you would give your stamp of approval for?
I approve of "Arsenic Lullaby."
What could other comedians, either writers or illustrators, learn from "Arsenic Lullaby" that would help their material?
Craftsmanship. This is a skill. Rhythm, timing, structure, premise... these all have to be better than the average guy and work together to pull off a good story or a good joke. Every time I come up with something I ask myself, "If there are a hundred comedians in a room, how many of them could come up with this?" If it's more than ten percent, I don't bother doing it. Then once I have a premise, all other aspects of storytelling have to help that premise be as good as that premise. You have to set a bar for yourself concerning every aspect of writing.
You also freelance for some publications like "Mad." What's the difference in tone between your "Arsenic" and "Mad" work?
I get away with a lot more at "Mad" than I thought I would, but it is sort of day-to-day what they'll let me get away with. I think it depends on how good the coffee was that morning. "Mad" has taught me a lot though. Their art director, Sam Viviano, has helped me a lot. I am definitely a better illustrator now than I was when I started there, and probably a better storyteller too.
I actually like the process of having my work filtered, in a sick way. When I do "Arsenic Lullaby," no one sees it until it's done except for me. I'll call someone up to run an idea past him or her once in a blue moon. But for the most part, no one knows what's going to be in an issue except me until it's too late. Part of the reason for this is, if I stopped to think about what I was doing and how other people would view it, I wouldn't do half of the jokes - I'd cut them. I have to be in a tight deadline, balls to the wall, no time to second-guess mindset or I'd have never done Holocaust joke number one. So I'm really working without a wire on my book.
But with "Mad," I have a lot of security and a lot of people making sure I don't fuck up and look like a jackass. And on a purely technical level it's good having people who know what they are doing giving you input on what is and is not getting the point across for a particular joke.
Are there any stories that you planned to include in "Arsenic Lullaby" but ultimately decided to steer clear of? Anything that was just too messy that even you didn't want to touch?
I've dropped probably 50 - 60 pages of stories over the years because they were too close to something else I had seen. "South Park" did a joke close to one I was working on a couple of times. I work hard to keep "Arsenic Lullaby" as original as possible so if something is close, even though I was there first, I pull it.
You said you enjoy having your work filtered, but in "Arsenic," you're doing all the heavy lifting yourself. In making sure your content is fresh and original, do you have to subject yourself to all of the terrible, unfunny, stuff on television and in movies and in comics? Is that the price you have to pay in order to create truly fresh content for "Arsenic Lullaby?"
Yeah, it sort of fuels the fire. You see absolute crap being passed off as funny and cutting edge and it motivates you. I see stuff get promoted as "cutting edge," and it makes my head spin. I have passing notions that are edgier than the watered down nonsense on Adult Swim.
Have you gotten any bad reactions from people within the comics industry that feel like you've gone too far?
Every time I do a Holocaust joke, someone calls the distributor and says I'm anti-Semitic... which is stupid, because if I were anti-Semitic, the joke wouldn't be funny. The point of the joke is how evil the Nazis were or that the Holocaust was horrible. If I hated Jews, there would be no joke there.
I haven't gotten much flak about the zombie fetuses. I think that's because neither side of the abortion argument can figure out which side I'm on.
What side of the abortion argument are you on?
Why would I answer that and leave myself open for the rage of the other side? And it never ceases to amuse me how much people try to read into the book to figure that out. It really has nothing to do with the abortion issue. Abortion exists. I used that fact to make a joke. All I'm concerned about is that the pages of "Arsenic Lullaby" are funny.
Do you remember the first time the idea of zombie fetuses cropped up in your brain?
It started out as a "Tom and Jerry"-type cartoon with an abortion doctor and a fetus. I did a few of those first. And when I came up with Voodoo Joe, I just sort of rolled the fetuses into that premise. It was back in the day when I had no idea if the book would sink or swim. If I had known how many issues of number one were going to sell, I might never had put a bloody zombie fetus on the cover of number two. I might have backed off if I knew I actually had a career to ruin.
How long did it take for you to get the design down for the fetuses?
Three minutes. Take one fetus, add hypnotized eyes.
You're going to conclude "Arsenic Lullaby" as a comic book after the next issue and pursue it as a cartoon. How'd you come to that decision?
It will be the last issue for a long time, at least. I'm going to be doing a lot of the work on the cartoon myself - storyboards, animation, producing, directing, etc. - so no time for comics, unless the cartoon is a total flop.
Going into that final issue of "Arsenic," did you approach the material any differently than if this was just any regular old issue?
Not really. The deadlines cancel out any of that crap. There's no time to second-guess yourself. I just get it done and move on.
What was it like when the final issue was complete?
I was glad it was done. I hate every issue when I'm done with it for about six months, and then I go back and read it and go, "Hey... that's funny."
What can you tell us about the final installment of "Arsenic Lullaby?"
It has Voodoo Joe versus his zombie fetuses while he tries to figure out once and for all how to break his curse. Baron Von Donut returns to Cuba to find his lost love. That one is really good... can you say Baron Von Donut Jr.? And there are two really pathetic blue-collar vampires that are lazy and fat and can't catch anyone. They eventually lower themselves to trying to bite elderly and disabled people.
How's the cartoon coming?
I personally won't get into it until after [Comic-Con International in] San Diego, but my editor has been tinkering with some things. It's basically in the beginning [stages], going to be done in-house and distributed by us just like the comic book. I've got a group of like-minded people I've met over the years who will be pitching in. For this first DVD at least, you won't have to worry about it being watered down. It's going to be 100% "Arsenic Lullaby." After that comes out and some network buys the rights, who knows what will be left of my baby.
Since you've done some stand-up comedy in the past, will you be doing your own voice work for the cartoon?
Yeah, I'll do some of the voices for the sake of saving time and money. Voodoo Joe and maybe an alien centaur, possibly Baron Von Donut's boss. We haven't settled on everything that's going to be animated, but I'll be a few of the characters.
Did getting nominated for the Eisner make you reconsider leaving the comic book?
It sort of did for a second, but I started this book as a launch pad to other things. And the industry has overstayed its welcome with me. I've had an assfull of trying to get a point across without sound or movement and spending half the time trying to get the bastard to fit on a page instead of putting that time into making a joke funnier. And as computers take over, I can't get any of the supplies I use. The lead I used has been discontinued, the brushes I use are impossible to find, they discontinued the ink I like. Plus, I thrive on competition - and the people I started out competing with are all gone now. They've either went under or moved onto other things. Time for me to do the same.
Are you proud to have the nomination?
Sure I'm proud. It's recognition, credibility... gravitas, if you will. I'm very pleased to have "Arsenic Lullaby" up there fighting it out.
What do you think your odds of winning the Eisner are compared to the others in your category? Will you be disappointed if you lose?
In the words of Steve Martin, "Either you do or you don't - that's 50/50." I have a slight disadvantage because I don't have a staff to vote on my behalf or a company to back me up and ask their other creators to vote for the home team. But hey, who knows. If I win, I win. If I don't, I don't. Just because you win that particular award does not really mean that you're the best in the category. It's subjective. I mean, "Arsenic Lullaby" might not win, and that would prove that's a flawed system. But being nominated by people who know their stuff is a good thing, and everyone who has been nominated should be pleased.
"Arsenic Lullaby Pulp Edition Omega," the final issue of Douglas Paszkiewicz's black comedy series, is expected to go on sale in late July or early August.