Chris Reilly: Gumby Revival

A comics interview article by: Felicity Gustafson

Chris Reilly stopped by to give us some insight into the inner mind and workings of the verbarian himself. Recently, he took up the pen for a Gumby story that would make Art Clokey proud. Don't believe me? Go read it. His sleepless nights of research definitely paid off with an action packed, creative, flowing plot. Not to say that Reilly's only ever done writing. Once upon a time, he even dabbled in some artistry. Nevertheless, he gave us a pretty good idea of his inspirations and thoughts while working on Gumby and even hints at some of his dream jobs.

Felicity Gustafson: I believe you mentioned that Gumby was your first all-ages comic, and it's vastly different than the mutant zombies and demented puppets of The Trouble with Igor and Punch and Judy. Did you find it troublesome to switch genres? Do you like writing one more than the other?

Chris Reilly: I actually have never worked with zombies but don't feel bad, everyone thinks I have for some reason, but I never hopped that band wagon. Did you know that George Romero says that he has never written or directed a zombie film? In the literal sense that is actually true.

I didn't have any problem switching genres at all, which I really thought I would. What I had to get into my head was that pretty much everything I have ever created is all ages as long as the kid's parents did not do a number on 'em and that the parents (that may or may not have done a number on their poor kid) were not so grown up that they couldn't sink back to my level of my formidable immaturity. When I looked at Gumby, I was intimidated by the idea that I may have to tone it ("it" being me) down a notch, but then I just realized that I had to play by the rules of his universe and doing anything horrifically violent or depraved made no sense in that context, so it was really easy to write and I never had to do any self-editing mentally because it was a fun world to play in.

Gustafson: What was your drive to do this comic? Did you just have a lot of ideas or did you feel that Gumby was ready for a comeback? Did you have to do any research?

Reilly: Money. I wanted that Gumby gold. I also wanted a five-bullet review. In reality, I really wanted a crack at this character. I love Art Clokey's hypnotic mindscape and wanted to see if there was any way I could contribute to what he'd created without stomping all over it and at the same time not aping him like a stooge. The idea of working on a character that is literally a lump of clay and his physics are only limited by the imagination was so attractive. In a way, now that it's out there I can stop stumbling around that question at parties "so what kind of comics do you write?" Now I have one in the cannon that just about everyone's heard of. It was just a win-win situation for me.

Research? Actually, I did a lot. I was always a big fan of Gumby, grew up on it, saw every short several times, but I wanted to make sure that my story would make sense to the Patron Saint of Gumby, if there were one. If Art were still alive, I would want to be able to proudly hand him a copy of this book without fear of his disapproval. I wanted Art's heirs to like the book. I wanted to play by the rules and really not have this be the "Chris amuses himself in Gumby drag" show. I wanted it to ring true. Once I made the basic pitch and got a thumbs up I pulled out the DVD box set, DVR, comics, fan sites, YouTube and, over the course of three sleepless days, absorbed just about every breath the character had ever taken.

The five-bullet review was an unexpected, made-me-blush treat.

Gustafson: I have to admit, I don't think I've ever read a comic with as much packed content as Gumby. You had everything, from Vikings to astronauts, going on in there. Now any fan will tell you, anything can happen in the Gumby universe. The laws of physics and time don't really apply. Did you spend a lot of time wondering how to tie it all together without seeming to rush it? A little like how you threw in the pirates by using the flashback story Gumby told his family, rather than having the pirates randomly show up in the current story line?

Reilly: The information overload -- like Gumby telling his family stories about past adventures to include more characters -- is actually a result of a creative and personal affliction; I just tell stories in a roundabout way and eventually get back to the point, but not before a turning down a few side streets. The style I write in is pretty much the same way I would describe a walk I took to the market to you if we were talking on the phone. I used to think this was another one of my huge problems that would cause people to not want to read my comics, but then I read Chester Brown's Ed the Happy Clown and, in the same way Bob had done with absurdism in approaching comic book characters, Brown was there to show me that absurdism in narratives was just as amazing and relevant.

I hope that I will always love Brown's work, but it was not an influence as much as it was me looking at a published creator who told stories the same way I did. If your main character falls out of a window, why don't we, instead of watch him hit the ground, tell the story of the guy whose window he fell past? I am a scatterbrain, but I tend to come full circle.

Gustafson: Considering Gumby is a childhood classic for many people, was it at all daunting taking up the pen for a new story?

Reilly: Yes and no. It wasn't daunting to do a comic based on a film and TV character, Bongo comics aside, those books are usually not very good and people don't expect much. Daunting was the fact that I could/would be compared to Bob Burden's work with the character and judged in that way. Bob's the Hunter S. Thompson of comic books, with an absurdist mind without peer and one of my favorite creators in comics, so for me this was like following Alan Moore on Swamp Thing.

Bob was a huge influence on me and probably one of the reasons I create comics the way I do. I don't write like Bob, but early on he opened my eyes to the fact that you can write about superheroes and that they can be as weird and out there as an R. Crumb strip. Not in the racy sense, but that you could just go nuts and punch convention in the goons. Before I read his Flaming Carrot, I really thought the only way I could ever get people to read my comic book stories was to copy whatever the house style was at Marvel or DC in the 80's. I love a lot of that stuff but wouldn't be talking to you right now if I had tried write the standard three-act superhero comics, because I don't imagine I would have been all that good at it. So, Bob's that shark from Jaws that made me afraid to go swimming in a tub. I really still am nervous about the fact that the trades containing his work are out there and if I get slammed, that's the gun they'll shoot me with.

Gustafson: Was it difficult writing the American founding fathers and other historical figures while trying to keep them in character without going too overboard? Benedict Arnold was a nice touch, by the way. He might have been my favorite.

Reilly: The founding fathers were not all that difficult, in that I just used what I actually knew about them. Benedict Arnold was a bit trickier. I honestly knew him from what I was taught in fourth grade American history, which was nothing more than that he was a United States General during the Revolution and a traitor. I went to a few reputable online sites and found out there that he was a really fascinating person. He was a pharmacist, or whatever they called pharmacists in the 1700's, a very successful sea captain/trader, was hot headed, got into a duel or two and was a war hero who saved hundreds of lives. He reminded me a lot of E.C. Segar's original Popeye, but tainted, if that makes a lick of sense.

I was originally going to portray him as this sniveling, gutless weasel but once I read about him I had to make him more important. He was a scrapper, and there was no way he would put up with the undignified Pythonesque role I had cast him in, so that's why he does what he does at the end of the story. I had a lot of mumbling and speech balloons for him where he would respond to his degradation by pointing out one of his great achievements, but my British editor, Paul Birch cut all them all out! Seriously, Paul's an amazing editor and pointed out that, while amusing, Arnold's inner or subdued monologue cramped the panels and added awkward pauses in the flow of the story, so we agreed to nuke it.

Gustafson: Was it difficult to uphold the high moral standards of the Gumby series? Most of today's comics have a tendency toward more gritty realism, but Gumby is one of those characters from the good ol' days where everything's clear cut black and white.

Reilly: The 1950's were clear cut and black and white – maybe in a Zuzu's petals sort of way. Gumby was created in 1955, a horrible time in US history -- first McDonald's, they took Coca-Cola out of bottles and put it in cans, the Cold War was raging and Eisenhower had already sent troops to Vietnam. The world needed Gumby! Gumby was clear cut and black & white and that was something kids both wanted and needed back in the days when they were sure an atomic bomb was going to fall on their heads and they needed a place to go and be safe. Gumby was uninhibited, untainted, pure imagination during a time that, if a person in real life said and did whatever came to mind, they could get in an awful lot of trouble because what was acceptable in the 1950's was not all that clear.

"We want a union"

"Well, Ronald Reagan just ratted you all out, you're all communist and you will never work in this town again."

If ignorance is bliss, then it is also Latin for the 1950's. I am so happy I was not alive in that decade.
The morals of Gumby were really easy to adapt to, just because it is so hard to imagine an Art Clokey character doing anything terrible. Sure, the Blockheads are trouble makers, but their mischief is pretty innocent. Well, there was that episode they sold George Washington to some astronauts, which was a pretty dark thing to do if you think about it, but they were pranksters and we always knew Gumby would get the best of them. I just could not picture Gumby doing anything intentionally wrong. Gumby was that black and white that many nostalgic people like to pretend their lives were like in the 50's, but we all saw Back to the Future and know what mom was really up to.

Gustafson: Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you were Gumby? You'd basically be Mr. Fantastic from Fantastic Four. Just for fun, what would be the first thing you would do?

Reilly: I would run right into Dickens' Oliver Twist and cheer up all the kids at the Olive Creek orphanage. That story would have been a very different experience with a little green boy and his horse thrown in the mix. I think Dickens' ghost would then promptly murder me. I would also turn into a butterfly that a grade school scientist was about to pin to a cork board, freak him out and give him a stern talking to. I would fly to the moon and build a giant chocolate clock, so everyone on earth would know what time it was on the moon. I know that's three things but I would somehow do them all at once. If I were Gumby, I would be very happy.

Gustafson: What was your favorite part about getting to write Gumby? What was the hardest part for you to write?

Reilly: The ending was so hard. It had been plotted out but so much was happening that, towards the end, we were seriously running out of space. I got tossed a Hail Mary when publisher Mel Smith tossed me an extra four pages because there was no way, shy of a Brian Chippendale panel layout that this puppy was going to sleep in thirty-two pages.

Gustafson: As a fan, I feel the need to ask… Is there a chance for any more Gumby? Or is it really just going to be a one shot?

Reilly: I don't know where the license stands at this point, as I don't have much to do with the business end of things, but I know that if there is more, I am welcome to write some. Business-wise I am 99% out of the loop.

Gustafson: Have you ever considered doing illustrations for a comic? Just so you know, I do fully support stick figure comics.

Reilly: Actually, I started out drawing my own comics, but I am not very good so I over compensate with stippling and crosshatching. I would spend hours rendering a panel, making it busy enough to hide my shortcomings in perspective and just about everything else that would get you an F in illustration. Artists have told me they really like drawing from my scripts because I write like an illustrator, so they know exactly what I want.

Gustafson: Do you have a dream project? Something you've always wanted to work on, but haven't had the time or opportunity yet?

Reilly: I want to write a Batman Adventures (did the New 52 kill the kids line?) kind of stripped down Kamandi book. I have some pages that Chris Grine drew that were pitched to Mike Carlin at DC, but though he liked it (I think he liked it when he read it in front of me in his office), the vibe was that DC was just not really looking to do more traditional kinds of books. This was before the New 52, but DC was getting pretty serious at the time with the many Crises unfolding. I would also really like to write some Archie stories.

This new company Monsterverse is doing a book called Bella Lugosi's Tales from the Grave, and it is really good. I have dreamt about creating a Lugosi story since I first saw Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, so that's something new that I would love to pitch a story to. An Impossible Man story would be a blast, since he's the mischievous Gumby of Marvel. I have always had my eye on a Marvel Adventures version of Jack Kirby's Inhumans also. Just toss me anything Kirby created in the 70's and I'll be in heaven.

Feel free to visit:
The Gumby Website
Gumby Adventures Facebook Page
Chris Reilly's Website

Read Felicity's five-bullet review of Gumby here.

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