On July 18th, Dark Horse Comics will be putting out Go Team Venture! The Art and Making Of The Venture Bros, a massive hardcover clocking in at 376 pages. Somehow, that still doesn’t seem like nearly enough ink for a show that’s plumbed nerd cultures as funnily and intricately as The Venture Bros.
The imminent return of the Adult Swim adventure parody makes this a heady time for Venture Bros. fans. As a lifelong Jonny Quest fan, I’ve loved the show ever since first I first laid eyes on it more than a decade ago. As time went on, Venture Bros. grew from being a loving lampoon of one specific thing to something that awkwardly embraces as much nerd culture as it can.
A few weeks ago, I spoke to Venture Bros. co-creator Chris McCulloch—better known as Jackson Public—about the upcoming season and book. Go Team Venture! The Art and Making Of The Venture Bros. was assembled and written by Ken Plume from months of interviews, and McCulloch likens the tome to a print version of their commentary tracks, except they actually talk about how they make the show.
io9: What was it like going back and re-visiting personal archives or developmental stages of the show over the years?
Chris McCulloch: Every year there’s a stack of notes for episodes that I just don’t get to, or I don’t break the story for. So, I was kind of already living with piles of my notes floating around every season that I would try to dig through again, like, “was there anything golden that I just forgot about that I should pull out…” Other than that, I’m not too precious about the past and left a lot of that stuff in a box. It’s mostly embarrassing and we’ve kind of made a point of just pushing forward with every season and not revisiting stuff. I say that as someone who’s made a show that’s so steeped in its own continuity that we can’t even understand it anymore. Fortunately we can keep all that crap in our heads.
So, what is it like to open those boxes and interrogate your own decisions over the last, what is it, 12 years?
Chris McCulloch: Twelve years? Oh, it’s more than that! Some of the sketches and notes and stuff that show up in the book are like… you know, I wrote the pilot in 2000. Yeah, and we didn’t end up making it until 2003, I guess? So, it’s weirder to me to have to look at the old, finished episodes. Because those, I really don’t look at. At all. I have all my scripts around in case I need to look anything up. Like, “What did we say about this character I want to bring back? What are his vital stats?”
I don’t really have a DVD player anymore, so I rarely pop the old episodes in. And we also just strive to make it look better and better every season. It kills me to look at early seasons in the 3/4 aspect ratio and the different animation style and background style. That’s weird to me. But I think [co-creator] Doc [Hammer] actually took a trip [back in time] before we started writing last season. He wanted to reacquaint himself with the show as a whole and may have binged all of it. He’s a better man than me.
What was the weirdest thing you guys dug up doing the book? Some odd revelation or anything that might surprise people?
McCulloch: Honestly, I don’t know if there will be any surprises if they’ve listened to our commentaries on the DVDs. This book is almost that. I think the biggest surprise is that we actually talk about the work, for once, and the thought process going into it. The book is very much an interview between us and Ken Plume; it’s very conversational in how we present the information and the side tracks we go off on. But you know, we do actually talk a lot about what actually went into it, and talk about the influences and stuff on the production and everything else.
Probably, if there was anything really surprising, we’d have kept it to ourselves, because we’d go, “Oh, we should save that.” There were some sketches I pulled out and I was like, “Oh, you know what? That’s a cool doodle, but don’t show that one,” because that’s a character and an idea I’ve had kicking around for 10 years and I keep meaning to get to it, I still haven’t.
On that note, whose look changed the most from inception to execution?
McCulloch: Nobody important, you know? The main characters have pretty much... it’s only the depth of their personalities that have changed. One-off joke characters have become major players, you know? So, in terms of visual evolution, it’s all about the same. Translating from my doodles to, like, Molotov Cocktease looks different. My original drawing for her was in the title sequence, and she’s just a sexy woman with a Molotov cocktail-thing, before I hit on the eye patch and whatever the costume was. But she’s not a major character. Everyone’s pretty much just been refined. Characters like 21 have maybe changed the most. And we’ve made that part of the show—his physical transformation from anonymous single, chubby henchman to the Monarch’s right hand man who went through this whole thing with his friend dying.
When I think about the new Venture Bros. episodes that are on the way, I’m reminded of what I asked Ben Edlund two years ago about the new Tick: With shows like yours, the world has moved around you and the things that were made fun of as sort of a niche pursuit are now the main course in pop culture. How do you react to that?
McCulloch: For us, it’s more vindication. We were not completely assured there’s somebody out there who will get all our jokes and references. You know, when we started the show… what did we have, one Spider-Man movie and one X-Men movie? In the early seasons, we’d get a little bit of flack from [Adult Swim’s] Mike Lazzo about some of the deeper nerd stuff. He wasn’t particularly fond of White Billy or even necessarily 21 and 24's nerd culture conversations and stuff like that.
But yeah, we grew this underground audience and yeah, nerd culture just exploded. So, it’s vindication and just knowing, “Okay, none of this is over anybody’s heads.” And, you know, everybody had the internet anyway, so they can Wikipedia anything we mention. But that’s been kind of amazing. When we did the first live-action Tick, that was a big stumbling block. The network was like, “I don’t know about all this superhero stuff...” [Those reactions] are probably a bigger deal when you’re making a multi-million dollar show for a network, then your little late night cartoon for a largely stoner audience.
Were you able to watch the new Tick?
McCulloch: Yeah. Ben’s one of my best friends, so, you know, I’ve been privy to everything in that development and I helped out a little. Just as a friend on the phone shooting ideas back and forth. I got to visit the set a couple times, which was cool. And this season—I actually got to read all the scripts, because I was sticking my nose in there—didn’t feel like a complete surprise to me. It’ll be kind of interesting to watch the next season without knowing anything.
But it’s fun and kind of amazing to see Ben revisit a character who’s been with him so long and find a new way into it for who he is now and what the world is now. What the cultural landscape is now. So that was kind of exciting to me, to kind of reinterpret things. What do I have to break? What do I have to fix? How do I make this compelling and interesting? Because some of the old tropes don’t work anymore, you know?
My favorite episode of the cartoon is “The Tick vs. The Tick”, with the Evil Bomber What Bombs at Midnight—but there’s no way you can do that character in 2018 now.
McCulloch: No! We could barely do him then. I think when we were making the cartoon, we weren’t even allowed to bring him back, at some point. Yeah, I think he was just a background character making a joke. He certainly wasn’t talking about his bombs, you know? That’s touchy and… oh, what a sad world. But yeah, I love that episode.
You talk about feeling vindicated since nerd culture has taken over the world. Do you feel that broadens the palette for what you’re able to do now? Literally, no joke is off the table. It felt like Dr. Orpheus was a deep cut but Doctor Strange has been in multiple movies at this point.
McCulloch: I know! Yeah, I mean, we don’t really think about it. The only thing we have to look out for is, “has it already been done to death?” Making any kind of Batman or Superman parodies, like when we did Captain Sunshine, we ask ourselves, “‘is this not fresh enough?” But it’s not like we consciously think about it. “Who are we going to pull out of obscurity and make fun of and see if anybody gets it?”
We just both tick on things that amuse us and hope either enough people remember it too, or think that we’re geniuses for thinking up some brand new thing they never saw. You know? Sometimes a reference goes over people’s heads and they just think you made up a weird guy that happens to have stretchy powers. And you’re like, “No, that’s actually a whole Fantastic Four thing...” But cool, I’m glad you liked them anyway. The jokes worked and the characters worked. Yeah, if you let Hammer off the leash, I’m sure he’ll start digging into 19th century painters as a source for weird characters. Believe me, that guy can one-up anybody on obscurity if called upon do to so.
You also have stuff like Deadpool—that character broke the fourth wall in comics and now does the same in front of millions of people. And he’s referencing the tropes that operate in superhero fiction. Do you feel attacked?
McCulloch: Um, yeah... I mean, I’m not saying I feel attacked, I’m saying I know what you mean.
He’s crowding a space you guys were operating in...
McCulloch: Sure, sure. But if that’s all we had to offer, we’d be screwed anyway. We got over the hurdle of this being just some kind of parody before season one was over, and then spent most of our time just developing these characters on their own terms. Taking them through weird, pop culture-inspired journeys is more about messing with them and seeing what they’d do in certain situations. So it hasn’t really been about, “What’s the thing we can goof on this week?”
That’s not really where our stories are born from. A few stories this season, we try to remind ourselves we’re supposed to be that? We have to tell ourselves to do more of that, because otherwise we’re just likely to write drawing room comedies that take place in the Venture kitchen.
What’s been your favorite superhero movie adaptation and what’s been the one that let you down the most?
McCulloch: Oooo... huh. I mean, I personally think The Dark Knight is probably the best superhero movie, ever?
I respect that choice. I’m a Black Panther man, myself.
McCulloch: I mean, I still have problems with the kind of rushed fourth act and the ultimate problem of, “Oh, I gotta pretend I killed Two-Face!” For bizarre reasons. Even as the Joker just tried to kill everybody in town and we could easily blame it on him—“I’m gonna take the heat on this one and run away.” I didn’t get that one. And to build the whole third movie off that lie, it was just… I hated the third movie. So maybe that’s my biggest disappointment, The Dark Knight Rises.
Other than that, I’m especially enchanted by how well Marvel has made movies about characters I did not give a shit about before: “Jesus, they’re making a Thor movie?” Ughhh. And those are not the best movies in their panoply, although Ragnarok was a lot of fun… but still you’re like, “Wow, they made a halfway decent Thor movie. Who’d have thought?” I like all the Captain Americas. It’s not popular to like the first one, but I find it so charming. I like its spirit a lot and I love retro stuff and I love The Rocketeer. So, Captain America’s good and Winter Soldier, that was great. And you know, I couldn’t have cared less about a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and then they made a fairly entertaining movie. I do not like cosmic stuff very much.
I feel like one of the consequences that has happened with nerd culture becoming ascendant is all this toxicity in the fandoms has started to bubble up more noticeably. Do you feel that’s something you guys have to talk about?
McCulloch: I only catch wind of it once in a while. I’m not big on Twitter and I don’t go on message boards anymore. I’m really busy and I’m 46 now. And so I don’t really catch wind of it, unless there’s some big stink of it being made. Like, “did you hear what so-and-so said?” I am vaguely aware that everybody’s upset about The Last Jedi. I... you know... I actually don’t want to talk about it because I’ve met Rian Johnson, I’m a huge fan of everything he did and really, really like him... I didn’t thoroughly enjoy the movie, but I couldn’t say there was anything wrong with it.
I respected every decision he made and gave him the credit for why he must have made it. Like, “Good for you throwing all these interesting curveballs at us.” Not doing the expected thing and messing with us. But I didn’t love it. I just didn’t walk out going, “Yeah, that was great,” except for certain peak moments that were awesome. But, again, I’m 46. I don’t know if I’m capable of getting excited as I used to about bands and movies. I’m not sure.
For me, the most important takeaway from your reaction was you did not feel the need to scream at me from the hills about how your childhood…
McCulloch: And I never would! That’s why I’m not that privy to the toxic nerd-dom stuff. Because it would never dawn on me to go on the internet after seeing something I liked or disliked. Maybe if it seemed like a small diamond in the rough that people should made aware of and could use the signal boost? Like, I’d go, “Holy crap, I just saw this little movie, you should go see it.” That’s about the most I’d do. I can’t imagine complaining to the internet about not liking a movie and here’s all the reasons why, because it wasn’t the movie I would have made even though I’ve never made anything in my life, you know? I don’t understand any of it. So if it’s getting ugly out there, I’m sorry. And I do not support yelling at a poor woman who did a good job acting or anything like that.
It’s wild out there. I’m turning 46 myself next month and the last thing I ever thought would happen was, “We nerds get what we want and then, somehow, it’s not enough.” Or you find yourself casting aspersions on the folks who were making these things. I wonder if it’s people who’ve been stewing in solipsism for decades now and can’t let go...
McCulloch: Well that’s the great and terrible thing about the internet: it gives everybody a voice and not everybody needs to be heard. Yeah, the solipsism of thinking your opinion matters more than others. I don’t even go on Facebook very much anymore.
The things that bother me the most is when people go on the internet to say “Meh...” about something. If you’re so unmoved by something, like why go out and say it? Say you hated it, say you loved it. Although I WISH there was more “meh” now. There’s just anger and weirdness. We’re in a strange time. The political climate and everything else, I feel, has given license to ugliness, you know? Everybody’s flipping out way too much about everything. Everything offends everybody. Everything needs an apology. And yet, man, pick your battles, because there are some really horrible things out there, you know?
Last question: What do you think is the secret element to how you’ve been able to hold on for all these years?
McCulloch: I mean, as far as coming back to make more [Venture Bros.], it’s kind of the best job in the world. To be able to make up silly stuff and take some off-the-cuff conversation we’re having in a filthy painting studio and have that be on TV next year and have it quoted back to us? It’s great. And the show is a big enough umbrella that we’ve been able to funnel so many stray ideas into it. We’ve been able to go anywhere with the freedom that Adult Swim has given us, and that the show crosses so many different genres just means it’s open to do a lot of stuff with, and we’ve fallen in love with our characters, so we want to keep doing stuff with them.
Doc and I have a specific sense of humor and sensibilities; there’s a lot of crossover between us. That’s kind of a rare thing. But, we’re fiercely different people in other ways and that’s what makes it interesting to see the other person’s work. Because they go somewhere you wouldn’t. So, creatively, we couldn’t ask for a better situation. We just get to make whatever we want. So why not keep doing that, especially if they’re paying you to?
And as for the audience sticking around, you know, I think they sense the care and love we give to it, and the fact that two guys have been doing this the whole time. I think they sense that it is really personal and has a specific flavor and voice and, you know, it’s not going to be for everybody? But yeah, I think they see that and appreciate it and know we’re not going to phone one in or give them a filler episode, at least not intentionally. We’re not always going to be great. Every once in a while we’re going to suck, but, we will have sucked trying and failing as opposed to not trying. And we’ve grown and I think we’ve given them something to grow with, you know? My favorite bands in the world, they all grew and changed and a certain amount of their fan base went, “Ehhh, it’s not like their first album. Not as good as the second album.” And then other fans are like, “No, this is good. This is growing with me. I’m not into what I was 10 years ago, thank god these guys changed, too.”