Arsenic Lullabies: An Interview with Douglas Paszkiewicz
By Graig Kent
It’s a terrible shame if there’s a single reader of CHUD that isn’t yet familiar with Arsenic Lullaby. Reveling in the depths of morbid and/or black humor, Arsenic Lullaby would be upsetting if it weren’t so absurd, and angering if it weren’t so earnestly funny. Recurring characters like Voodoo Joe and his zombie fetuses, the alcoholic donut chain mascot Baron Von Donut, and the bizarre but wholly unthreatening alien cows intermingle with sketches that often feature such delicate components as dead babies, holocaust victims, and starving Africans in their punch lines (although, it should be noted, rarely as the punchline). If it sounds offensive, to the PC patrol it most certainly is, but with fearless wit, and a surreal grounding in a tangible world, it’s just damn funny. You would wonder how such elements could possibly be mined for comedy: well that’s the X-factor of the book. That’s Douglas Paszkiewicz.
The title was created by Paszkiewicz over 10 years ago, and has been intermittently self-published by the comedian/writer/illustrator ever since. Through hard work and hilarious material, Paszkiewicz quickly turned Arsenic Lullaby into both a critical and audience pleasing favorite, and after his first year of publishing, he was nominated for a “Best New Talent” Harvey Award in 2000. In the years since, Paszkiewicz went on to contribute to Too Much Coffee Man Magazine, Pete the P.O.’d Postal Worker, and for the past three years to Mad Magazine in addition to continuing to publish his series and the occasional spin-off and operating an acerbically entertaining blog.
As if to celebrate the tenth anniversary of one of the few success stories in the self-publishing world, Arsenic Lullaby has received another prominent nomination, for an Eisner Award in the “Best Humor Publication” category for Arsenic Lullaby Pulp Edition No. Zero. Riding the wave, Paszkiewicz is also releasing the latest volume of the serires, Pulp Edition Omega in August.
But a recent announcement, which will no doubt be of great disappointment to both new and long-time fans is “Omega” will be the end of Arsenic Lullaby in print. Instead Paszkiewicz is turning his energies towards a self released animated version, looking to break his edgy comedy into a new medium. Through email, we had a rare chat with the notoriously forthright Paszkiewicz about his past, present and future.
Firstly, congrats on the Eisner Nomination.
I was just reading that the forthcoming issue of Arsenic Lullaby (“Pulp Edition Omega”) is also going to be the last after ten years. Is it *actually* the last, or is it more of an indefinite hiatus?
Indefinite hiatus is the perfect phrase… I wish I had thought of it. Basically unless the cartoon fails (which isn’t bloody likely), I won’t do another issue.
You were nominated for a “Best New Talent” Harvey Award early in your comics career, does this Eisner nomination feel like a feather in the cap or validation in any way?
It’s gravitas, credibility… you look at the judges and between them they have probably read about 300 million comic books… so when they give you the nod it means at the very least that there is something very worthwhile about your book. The final judging is done by my “peers” so that’s a total crap shoot.
You’ve been steadfastly self-publishing for over a decade, do you have any thoughts on the way the industry’s attitude has changed towards self-publishers over the years, and has any of it impacted your decision to stop publishing Arsenic Lullaby?
The attitude is basically the same: 90% of self publishers are losers and numbskulls who don’t want to work hard enough or grow up and take direction in order to work for larger publishers and that their work is sub par nonsense created in pot educed hazes of trying to impress their girlfriends OR mid life crisises. That is what the industry thought of self publishers when I started and that is STILL what they think…and they are correct.
Looking back, what was your initial motivation to start Arsenic Lullaby?
The motivation was that I thought everything else sucked or simply wasn’t written for people like me. So I had to do it myself.
How hard was it for you to establish yourself when you started Arsenic Lullaby, and what have the challenges been towards maintaining and growing your audience? Do you think it would be possible to do that today?
It was rough. It took about a solid year of making deadlines and publishing quality work before people realized I was here to stay… or at least here until I felt like leaving. This was 1999-ish. The internet was not what it is now, so I had to print posters, stuff envelopes, mail flyers… all things that can be done more effectively now with the internet. I didn’t even have a website until issue 8 or 9. ON THE OTHER HAND…things that are now easier for me are also easier for everyone else. It’s still all about the quality of the book and how hard you hustle, in comparison to your competition.
Now you’re moving on from self-publishing comics to self-producing an animated Arsenic Lullaby. What inspired that decision?
That was always the plan. Arsenic Lullaby was meant to be a stepping-stone, which is why I believe it is so good… I have constantly been overshooting making a good comic book, and trying to make the comic book as funny as comedy in any other medium.
How is production going, and do you have a projected date when to expect it?
I’ll have SOMETHING by next Comic-con International.
What can you tell us about the animated Arsenic Lullaby, in terms of visual style, stories, etc?
It will basically be the comic book in cartoon form, visually, humor wise. I don’t see any need to change the recipe or water down anything on the first run. I’m funding this bastard myself so it’s no going to be a situation where someone comes in and tells me a focus group thinks Voodoo Joe shouldn’t have feathers on his mask. Baron Von Donut, Voodoo Joe, the Alien cows all have storyboarded shorts ready to be adapted directly from the comic book.
Anyone who’s come across your blog or MySpace page is aware that you are quite opinionated, and you tend to express yourself with a biting honesty rather than the facade of provocateur, do you ever fear ostracizing any readers/fans who mistake the strength of your opinion as an attack upon them? Or is this a way of keeping them at arm’s length?
Nah, they are all big boys and girls. Arsenic Lullaby is very dark and abrasive; if they can handle reading that then they should be able to handle the same writing style directed towards real life events. There is a phrase “a true friend won’t let you walk around with dirt on your face”, if there is a prevailing attitude out there that I think is mindless and stupid than it’s my duty, as someone who can articulate why it is mindless and stupid, to say so… even if it puts me at odds with 100% of my readers. And I make it very clear that I’m not Jesus Christ… anyone can let me know that they think I’m full of crap if they have a logical counter argument.
The blog (which I have also moved to my own website [arseniclullaby.com] because myspace likes to take down my more provocative blogs) was actually written to take some of my mystique away. People like to imagine I’m Hunter S. Thompson or Ernest Hemingway or something. I’m just a very talented jerk, and I don’t like it when people put me up on a pedestal or are nervous talking to me or that sort of thing. So I made the blog to let people know I’m an average guy… oddly enough I think the blog has been counter-productive in doing that. Too many stories about me accidentally killing myself in some hair brained scheme.
Your blog entries can take pretty dark, introspective turns. It’s been said that the best comedy comes from dark places. Do you find this to be true, and if so what about your own personality that you think makes your work so funny.
Well, yeah I think that’s true, but I also think some of the best comedy takes time to set up. You have to know the characters well, and the situations well in order to get certain humor to work. The reason your best friend can make you laugh harder than a T.V. show is because you have a better understanding of him, and so when something funny happens it’s a more visceral reaction, less clumsy and overwritten.
So as far as my personality, I think it’s just that I have put it out there so honestly and matter-of-factly that allows for a lot of funny stuff to be written. If I don’t have three or four blogs about heartbreak and my past regrets then the recent blog about how much I miss my 78 el Camino isn’t as funny. The readers learn that I never learn.
You’ve been contributing to Mad Magazine regularly for about three years now, how did that come about?
The Univesal Press Syndicate was semi-interested in having my do a Far Side-type newspaper strip, but no matter how much I watered it down it just wasn’t a good fit. So I had all these sample lying around and just mailed them to Mad for the sake of not wanting them to got to waste… the rest is history.
How has the process been working under an editor at Mad rather than for yourself, especially given the edge your humor has? Have you found yourself censored at all or are you good at self-censoring to avoid that?
I like working with Mad, I can blame someone else if the joke isn’t funny. They have let me get away with more than I thought. And hey…it’s not my magazine, so in the end I don’t feel the need to butt heads over stuff getting watered down, because I can always just keep it and use it myself. But I have definitely gotten better since working with them. It helps to have an extra set of eyes that is knowledgeable in making with the funny in this medium.
Arsenic Lullaby is known for pushing the boundaries of comedy where it seems little is sacred. Is anything off limits, even to you?
Sure…politics, sex, religion, and I’ll tell you a big reason why; if you have a book revolving around these topics the people who pick it up are picking it up not because it’s good but because it’s written about whatever they want to thumb their nose at. Or, in the case of nudity or sex, they are picking it up to look at a boob. That gets in the way when you are trying to lead them into a punch line. You want a reader who is focused on the story, not on his politics, or crotch.
I guess in a similar vein, despite its provocative humor, Arsenic Lullaby isn’t all that foul or even really obscene. It seems to be more conceptually humorous in nature rather than trying to get laughs out of cheap visual gags or words, although you’re certainly not averse to a quick shock. You also seem to avoid pop-culture referential humor. Are these conscious decisions, to stay away from more teen-friendly, anatomical, gutter-style and populist comedy?
They are absolutely conscious decisions. When I started Arsenic Lullaby, having a “mature audience” label meant a whole lot of stores were not going to carry you. So I learned what the guidelines were and made the most despicable book within those guidelines.
But also, this book is what I PERSONALLY find funny. Dick jokes, jerk off jokes…these things bore the crap out of me because I’m not in third grade anymore, and those jokes haven’t changed at all since I was in third grade. A fart joke is basically plagiarism…someone farted. End of joke. It’s been told a million times. If you consider yourself a comedy writer and you include a fart joke in something, go hang yourself.
It’s 2009, we should be writing material that is BETTER than material from the past. Yet how many “comedies” will come out this year that are as funny as Ghostbusters, or Monty Python or THE FLYING DUECES FOR THAT MATTER. The suicide scene that Laurel and Hardy wrote for that movie is funnier than anything I’ve seen all year. Funnier visually, funnier in premise, funnier timing and funnier execution of the joke.
Do you think your humor lends Arsenic Lullaby to being translated into other languages, for other cultures, whereas a lot of American comedy can not transpose as well?
Maybe…I think it helps in this regard: if someone is going to publish your work in another country, in most cases they A) are successful/have money, or B) have an interest in comic books that goes above and beyond the normal fan. Now that type of person is not going to waste his time and effort bringing a book full of dick jokes across the pond. He’s going to look for something smart, clever and unique. Look, it’s tough to get dumb people to understand a smart joke sometimes, but it’s nearly IMPOSSIBLE to get a smart person to enjoy a dumb joke. Plus 95% of women don’t like gross out humor…and never will, and they are the majority of book buyers so…
You’ve been focusing more on storytelling in the “Pulp Editions”, less one-pagers. To me it’s like the difference between sketch comedy and stand-up. Do you prefer one over the other?
Not really. Like you say, it’s two different animals. I approach them differently. The one pagers are simply set up / joke / punch line…all I’m worried about is fitting it into the page and making sure all the information on the page (words, scenery, expressions, panel formation) works to give the joke the biggest punch. With the longer stories I sort of let a character’s persona and premise take center stage, and if there is no actual punch line, that isn’t a big deal because the comedy stems from the character’s interactions. I like them both, and when I am in a rut with one style it’s nice to change gears for a little while.
You’ve slammed any number of comedians, writers, artists, actors, politicians and the like on your blog. So I guess the question is, knowing your stance on celebrity worship, who do you admire, or rather who would you consider a peer? Were you influenced or inspired in comedy or artistically at any point.
I dunno… there are a few people in the industry I respect but I don’t like spending my time plugging other people. I mean, I wish them well but screw ‘em. Plus every time I mention someone, someone else gets pissed because I didn’t mention them. It’s funny too because you meet people and get to know people outside of their work, so there are people that I respect that do books that no one who reads Arsenic Lullaby would enjoy.
That’s a cop out… as long as I am saying “screw ‘em” I might as well name names and say “screw ‘em” to the people I accidentally leave out. Rich Koslowski, John Kovilak and Raven Gregory immediately come to mind as people who work their asses off trying to put out the best stuff they are capable of.
As far as influence I would say I studied a lot of Jack Cole’s work, Wally Wood, David Bosewell…. I tried to study everyone under the sun who was a top notch illustrator/story teller and dissect what it is that they did that make them so good. The art in and of itself is secondary to how well they tell stories with words and pictures…the techniques they use to get the point across with no sound and no movement are what separates the men from the boys.
Writing wise, most of the influence came from stand up comedy. Rhythm, timing, structure of a joke… that I learned from George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Sam Kinison, Richard Lewis…actually I would say I also learned a lot from Steve Dahl who was a radio talk show host in Chicago and not actually a stand up comedian. But I defiantly learned a lot of how to set up longer jokes and create characters from him.
On a similar point, what entertains Douglas Paszkiewicz?
Right now I’m watching a lot of Breaking Bad and Deadwood… especially Deadwood. I really relate to Swearengen. Not a day goes by where I don’t feel like I’m surrounded by illiterate shitheels who don’t understand that I’m trying to do something big and if they would just stop trying to think for themselves everything would be fine.
Finally, are you planning a speech for the Eisners or are you going to wing it if/when you win?
No, I’ll have a speech… well, I’ll have written a speech, but I’m more than likely to trail off of it and start complaining about the cab ride. Tell you what… I’ll send you the transcript after the ceremony.
Sounds great. Thanks for your time, Douglas.
Arsenic Lullaby Pulp Edition Omega from A.L. Publishing is now available for preorder in this month’s Previews (page 180) from comic shops everywhere. SNEAK PREVIEW
Check out some sample pictures here, here and here.