Strange and dangerous Canadian cartoonists Justin Randell and James Pasieka do not seem to understand the human species. Like a pair of curious alien scientists, they use their online comic anthology Riotfish to conduct experiments on the minds of our planet’s occupants, now probing what makes us laugh, then stimulating the region of our brains that sends us running to our therapist, all for reasons best not explored. Their assortment of beguiling cartoon features are the kind that make you laugh before you realize you haven’t gotten the joke, or cause you to click to another page when you hear a co-worker approaching, even though the only thing on the screen was a smiling pink cloud.
I interviewed Justin and James recently to find out what makes them tick, and which wire we need to cut before they go off.
Jason: You are a writer/artist team, is that correct?
Justin: Actually, James thumbnails things out, so I guess that makes us both writer/artists.
Thumbnailing is not the same as art, Cathy Guisewite be damned. How did you fellows meet?
Justin: Didn’t we both take some sort of animation class together down around elementary school?
James: We went to the same high school, but maybe that was more like a coincidence. I don’t even remember.
Justin: It just made you recognizable come high school.
James: Then 3 weeks later we went to the same high school anyway.
Justin: Yeah that was a weird coincidence.
So you are childhood buddies. And how old are you now?
Justin: 1977, a very good year.
Whose idea was Riotfish?
Justin: The website? I can’t quite remember. We’d worked on comics together off and on for a good decade or more before the website came into being.
Was your collaborative work “Riotfish” before the site was born, or is that a product of the Internet?
Justin: I’ll go with James’ answer… I was probably bored, saw the Comicpress software in use in a few places, and asked him if he wanted to make a comics site.
James: It was supposed to be a placeholder so we could make Robotech comics, or weird comics I can’t even describe quickly.
Nothing about Riotfish lends itself to quick description.
Justin: Riotfish is a name I came up with… I also make electronic music, and that’s what I called my project… but he started out as a doodle in a sketchbook. He’s to my creative process as Glycon is to Alan Moore’s. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Did you both begin with a mutual interest in comics, or did one drag the other in?
James: Mutual interest I think.
Justin: We both came to comics fandom independently… we also came to Robotech fandom independently, and our first comic collaboration was a comic submission to whoever owned the Robotech franchise at the time. It took us so long to get it out that they license changed hands.
No giant robots in Riotfish, I notice.
Justin: No, I’m more a fan of tiny robots.
James: Robotech used to have this open door policy, which has now been totally obliterated, which puts Robotech on the back burner, probably forever.
So which of Riotfish’s many features was born first?
Justin: Well, I think James tried to think of a comic that he could have fun with on the Internet, and he came up with Newspaper Comic Strip… but I’ll let him verify or deny that.
James: Newspaper Comic Strip was an accident sort of. It was supposed to be a quick throwaway comic, but then it ended up being suspenseful.
The protagonist in Newspaper Comic Strip is a man who has discovered, in Twilight Zone fashion, that he exists in a comic strip. Do you find it more humorous or frightening?
James: I view it as both, unless I actually was Newspaper Comic Strip Guy, then it would be terrifying
Justin: Like the 80’s film Vampire’s Kiss, I’d call it equal parts humorous and frightening. I don’t know about James, but I love having a little homunculus to poke at.
Is Grant Morrison an influence on either of you? Will Newspaper Comic Strip Guy suddenly stare out of the screen one day and shout “I CAN SEE YOU!” ? Does he know he is being read?
James: I haven’t read The Invisibles yet, but Newspaper Comic Strip Guyseeing the audience is a possibility
James: He knows there’s readers, and he felt pressure early on but he’s completely forgotten about them since the wife showed up.
Justin: I heard about Grant Morrison’s pop chaos magick rap before I read any of his comics… I only discovered The Invisibles last year.
Justin: I have a triumvirate of influences in Dave Sim, Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore, so self-aware comic characters aren’t at all strange to me.
Justin: We did work a sigil into Newspaper Comic Strip’s Sunday strip header/logo though.
James: Yeah. But it’s not like we “charged” it. Just some weird thing we did because we needed an indecipherable cartoonist sig.
Justin: Yeah, there was no wanking involved in the creation of Newspaper Comic Strip.
I haven’t noticed any strips that feature “Riotfish”. Is he just your logo?
Justin: Riotfish is sort of the ringmaster of the site… it wasn’t designed for any particular comic strip.
Does he control the site? Does he control all of us?
Justin: I haven’t thought about Riotfish much lately, so he seems like an absentee landlord if he is in control.
Newspaper Comic strip was the first of Riotfish’s features. What made you choose to have such a variety? Was it your intention from the start, a potpourri of different stories?
James: We submitted Riotfish to a crit forum, Penciljack and Eatpoo, and we got mixed reactions.
James: We were new to Internet criticism… plus we didn’t think one comic was enough for a site. It was supposed to be a gateway experiment sort of thing. Then we started having more ideas- like Random Commerical Parody- to satisfy people that like their comics self-contained.
Justin: I’d tried my hand at self-publishing mini comics before we set up Riotfish and launched it with Newspaper Comic Strip. Long story short, we both had comics done up before Riotfish came out.
Riotfish is a pretty versatile set of comics. You run the gamut from cerebral to grotesque, poignant to lowbrow. Are you trying to hit a lot of notes, or does it just come out that way? Do you reserve certain sensibilities for certain features?
Justin: Quite frankly I don’t know why we keep running the site… our readership hasn’t grown in almost 2 years, but we’ve got some sort of peer respect or something… I don’t know quite what to think about the whole experience.
James: Like, both of us read Jerkcity.
Justin: Yeah, I think Jerkcity is probably the best web comic there is.
Justin: And personally, Cerebus is a big influence, and it definitely spans the spectrum, from cerebral to lowbrow; Cerebus being a 300 issue self published comic series by Dave Sim.
Are you two on an epic quest of that nature?
Justin: I thought I wanted to be, but God damn making comics is hard work.
James: 1989 is 12 issues in scope, that’s the longest term goal I know about.
Justin: I think something similar can be done with a variety of shorter, more self-contained works.
Explain 1989. It seems at first blush to have a coming-of-age angle, maybe something torn from your real life childhoods. and then suddenly I am staring at a person with his skin missing and his fat dripping like soap suds onto the floor.
Justin: Well, James isn’t really involved in 1989, so I’m mostly to blame for that confusing mess. Originally I wanted to do a dark homage to 80’s kid flicks, like The Goonies, Lost Boys, The Explorers… but it became something more surreal and hallucinatory than that.
James: Wasn’t there some specific movie that came eerily close to 1989 that you found out about later? About a hole suddenly appearing in someone’s backyard?
Justin: You might be thinking of The Gate, which stars a rocket/space travel obsessed kid who inadvertently opens a gate to hell in his backyard, which I hadn’t seen in my youth, but definitely knew about.
I use large swaths of my dream journal for 1989 plot points as well, so that could explain its herky jerkiness
James: 1989 is so early on its hard to know what you can say… there’s major reveals to come, something that ties it all together. Things like, the woman with the lollipop mirror ‘picking Ron’s brain’.
Is 1989 an important year for some reason?
Justin: Yeah, I had to create a scaffolding to hang 1989’s twisty-turniness on, so it didn’t totally mutate out of control– it’s a limited 12 issue book– each book, or chapter, takes place in a different month of the year. And the 12 issue book is split up into 4 sections… oh God here goes… and each section corresponds to a different season of the year.
But not only that, on another layer, each section/season also corresponds to the four inner planets in the solar system, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, and as such each section has attributes that are associated with those planets. So the first three issues are mercurial, magical, and in short, mad.
James: What are the next ones like?
Justin: Issues four, five and six will primarily be love stories. The mechanism that drives 1989 may sound retarded and insane, but it works out fairly well. For instance, issue six, February, takes place on St. Valentine’s Day. and the Mars issues revolve around themes such as war and the desolation of a once living planet.
I feel like 1989 has sort of an “Alice in Wonderland” quality too it, but more creepy and malevolent. Is it a coming of age allegory or more a story of weirdness for its own sake?
Justin: It’s a coming of age story in the sense that Arthur C. Clarke’s novel “Childhood’s End” is a coming of age story.
is any of it real? It’s very dream-like.
Justin: which is why the story is ballooning out beyond the ostensible main character Ron, and focusing on his friends.
I’m interested in the idea of synchronicity, which is when a motif or a theme seems to pop up into ‘reality’ of its own volition, causing reality to have a story or dream-like quality to it.
James: I think that’s the trick with 1989. It’s mostly real. I think the only dream sequence is where Ron sees a cantina alien playing the trumpet and that might not even be a dream.
Justin: Some readers thought Ron was hallucinating, but now the rest of the characters are experiencing weirdness, and not just alone, but as a group. So whatever has infected the world of 1989 is spreading.
How does the collaborative process work on something like Gunman vs Targetman or Random Commercial Parody?
James: RCP is easier to answer, I think the Max Air Bum is a good example. Originally he was just supposed to be a wiseass, making fun of the commercial. Then we decided that the Max Air Commercial actually happened to him and that’s why he screams at people in the park.
Justin: an RCP is born when James sees a commercial he particularly hates. He comes up with a basic idea, and runs it by me, in text form. We knock it about for a bit and he gives me a thumbnailed version. I then go looking for source material and do up more refined thumbs/layout.
There’s some back and forth in there, and some new ideas might come about during that process. But generally I just refine the original idea until we have a finished parody.
Do you have something to say about our consumer culture with RCP, or are the strips simply one-offs?
James: They do, it might not be apparent with what’s out there so far, but mostly we try to challenge the flawed premise the commercial’s trying to sell you as the basis for swallowing their reason.
I like how some of the commercials develop into intriguing soap operas, like the auto-tape slicer series.
James: That one might not even be over yet, the auto-slicer premise is so stupid it could go on for quite some time.
It’s brilliant, since commercials lead us briefly into a world where the product is the object of everyone’s life, such as the entire world dancing on their desks over Coca Cola. We never imagine a world where that never ends.
Justin: Yeah, I guess we try to expand upon the world of the particular commercial in question… showing the retardedness factor by taking the premise even more seriously than the original commercial.
James: There’s a planned RCP that degenerates into a fugue of commercial slogans. Ad slogans as graffiti has to be worked [into the strip] somehow.
Some of them are just frustration release, like that Axe one…
but I think it has the same premise.
Is that Axe ad parody the “Boom Chikka” one?
James: Yeah that one.
I thought that was meant as an indictment of “black” commercials.
Justin: No, I think James just hated the woman’s mating call
James: Yeah. Plus even as the viewer, some of them probably think the same thing to themselves, as this commercial gets played not once but 300 times over the course of a month.
A lot of your humor strips take either a psychotic “the world has suddenly dropped out from beneath my feet” feel, or else spin off into an unexpected arc. Are you trying to force the reader to break away from the Spectacle, as it were? Face reality?
James: I think that comes from what I’d want to see in a humour strip, or a commercial. I rewrite them as a form of self-defense to cope with how frustrating they can get, just in my own head.
Justin: There was one ridiculous commercial, a Lincoln commercial with Harry Connick Jr., which took a documentary style conceit, where they went to post-Katrina New Orleans. And Harry was driving around in his Lincoln, looking at the reconstruction he’d helped fund. We tried to square that with the reality of the situation… say, private military forces on the ground, keeping black folk out of their flooded neighbourhoods at gun point.
James: Cause Harry Connick Jr. needs the money from this ad and he’s delivering crawfish so please help, buy a Lincoln. Even though they don’t say that, they want you to associate those things.
So, what is he future for these various comics? A book?
Justin: We do have mini-comic versions of 1989 and Newspaper Comic Strip printed up in limited runs, but we’ve yet to offer them up for sale on the website.
James: Yeah we got the site functional. Step two: print minis or even try… what are they called… whatever Lulu is… and set up a store. When there’s enough RCPs they’d make an okay collection.
Justin: Once every year or two I go to a Vancouver small press comic convention called “Comix & Stories”.
James: I think 1989s have been to stores on the lower mainland, and NCS was sold at Comix and Stories.
Justin: They’ve filtered out to a few readers and stores because of that.
Any plans to take your work to publishers?
Justin: Not immediately. I’ve always wanted to write and draw a Magnum P.I. comic though!
James: Before we knew about web comics we mighta tried Slave Labor Graphics.
Justin: I think we’d like to try a more serious run at self-publishing before submitting to publishers again.
Justin: Which is the promise of web comics.
James: Most publishers no longer accept submissions or have “invite only” collective-sub labels. No idea how to break into that. Web comics solve a lot of problems we didn’t know how to get around.
So web comics allow you to get your work out there, but how do you plan to collect on your fame?
James: Having a book that people can buy and a site that people can navigate should help us, but I don’
t know how far that can get us.
Justin: Yeah, I’m not sure either. I think we’re still sharpening our comics claws, but we’re definitely going to amp up the self-publishing machinery in the near future.
James: Patience for a webcomic seems to be a hard sell! Plus, once we have a store, there’ll be more reason to attempt advertising, which people say is ineffective.
Well I personally would love to see you guys at shows like MOCCA, APE or SPX. I think there’s a wide potential audience waiting for this work in print form.
James: This is convincing me that we should ramp up priority on moving books and going to cons, ’cause increasing readership would probably improve artist morale.
Justin: Phase One or Two of our cunning plan to conquer the comics world is just ending, but the terror campaign will ramp up soon enough, and everyone will know Riotfish.