As if you need yet still more proof that there's more amazing material floating out there on the web that you've never read, I bring you the brilliantly bizarre Prizon Food, serialized on the 2d Cloud website. The creation of Eric Schuster and Joe (Party Food) Gillette is an alternately surreal, silly and strangely touching story of space aliens, skeletons and a talking pig, all created in an 8 bit video game style.
It's one of those brilliantly bizarre comics that could never have found a home a few years ago but now is expanding the vocabulary of comic books. I had the delight of talking with Eric and Joe via email and it's fair to day that the interview went a completely different way than I expected. This was a fascinating conversation that I think anyone will enjoy, whether a fan of the comic or not.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: So… 8 bit video games, huh? Why did you decide to create this strip as an 8-bit comic?
Eric Schuster: I'm not really a gamer, and I at least initially wasn't trying to make it look like a video game. I was switching over to doing mostly digital art and was trying different tools, and I'd had a friend recommend a pixel drawing program. I've been a fan of Joe's homemade muppets for a long time and drew them while I was playing around with it, and it ended up being the official look of the story we wanted to tell.
Joseph Gillette: Prizon Food had been dreamt up as an animated or interactive comic, back when we started the artwork in 2008. In our original outline it would have been more like a "choose your own adventure" computer game. Figuring out the mechanics of all that came slowly, but the pixelated aesthetic was an immediate attraction to us. It's a fun departure from what both of us normally do. Maybe it's partially about nostalgia, but it's also about the simplicity. We were thinking of the characters then more like "sprites."
Eric and I have been friends and accomplices for 10+ years now, and Prizon Food was predated by a performance-and-video art project I started in 2006 called "Party Food." Hanging out in my old basement apartment, Eric would sometimes draw my characters and costumes as "warm ups" for his own work, we soon found ourselves in a nice groove for collaborating. After many different styles and mediums, the pixel art was something we were both strongly attracted to.
CB: You create your own Muppets?!
Eric: Joe does. All these creatures exist as costumes that Joe's used in one man shows since ‘06. Periodically I'll find things that I know he can cannibalize and turn into a puppet or a prop. A giant novelty teddy bear that I inherited through some strange circumstances got turned into the life-size pig puppet that's been in pretty much every show since. I believe the Waltar costume's face is a plastic mask liner that I gave him as well.
Joe: It's true! Eric was the catalyst and the impetus for many of my costuming-breakthroughs. If I'm not mistaken, one day back in college… he left a big purple monkey (the kind you win at a carnival) in my studio while I was out one day. I came back to find it sitting there, gutted it, ripped the face off, climbed inside, and Waltar was born.
All the characters were created first by piecing together old junk and toys and fabric I had in my studio. Then I refined them in my drawings, and then back to the junk, etc…. Once back in 2008, I was minutes away from going onstage for a show when Eric showed up with a pair of boxer shorts that had a fake foam butt sewn into them and it was the piece that really tied everything together for that particular show. But puppetry *butt-puppetry?* is just a casual interest of mine… everything is usually built to last for one show or sometimes just one shot on film. It's all held together with staples and hot glue so to compare myself to The Master (Jim Henson) is a stretch, and I wouldn't dare!
CB: For those of us who only know you through this work, what is your other art like?
Eric: My favorite subject matter is actually unglamorous and mundane things. I like drawing the buildings in my neighborhood, household objects like lamps or bikes, and people doing everyday tasks. I've filled pages and pages with sketches of people on the bus. I think my favorite piece of comic work I've ever done is 5 pages of two groggy people making each other breakfast after a pleasant one-night stand. Prizon Food is actually very counter-intuitive for me, because my approach to things isn't wacky or colorful. It's "casting against type" I suppose.
Joe: Most recently I've been working on the art of pizza-making. I like the kind of art that brings people together. My other Party Food stuff is louder, more physical, in-your-face performance and music shows. Messier, more abstract, making even less sense than this story might seem to. Other than that, I do a lot of collage. I like texture and color. I like a little "too much" of everything. Maximalism. Surrealism.
CB: How do you approach creating for digital versus analog creations?
Eric: If I'm working with a pen or a brush I'll get more into capturing something gestural and working quickly. I generally won't work things over as much. With digital you can refine something a lot more, save it in different stages, and undo mistakes with a keystroke. It's much more forgiving, so I tend to do a lot more experimenting. I don't prefer one over the other.
Joe: It's all the same to me. Everything in the Prizon Food world is half analog, half "SFX." I used to shoot everything in front of a green nylon tablecloth and use a computer to add in the backgrounds. Actually, I kind of still do that… I have resolved to go with whatever solution works the best and the fastest to communicate my idea. So I go between both worlds quite a bit and try not to get stuck in one or the other for too long.
CB: For someone who's never read Prizon Food, how would you describe it?
Eric: "A man in a monster suit goes to alien jail with his pet pig."
Joe: "A story about 2 best friends who find themselves up a UFO tractor beam without the proverbial "paddle." Or what Eric said.
CB: This comic is a crazy mash-up of pop culture references – the old Batman TV show, aliens, Playboy centerfolds… are those all red herrings or do they fit the larger storyline you're telling?
Joe: Everything is a clue — please, dig deeper! "Party Food" began as a multimedia project, woven from various Pop Culture threads and "sampled" materials. My stories are influenced by TV shows like Twin Peaks, which is set in its own bizarre universe that somehow feels timeless and totally relatable because it relies heavily on cliches, loaded symbols, archetypes… "classics," if you will.
Eric: It's more the medium than the message.
Joe: OK that's a much more sensible answer.
CB: It's interesting how Twin Peaks has almost become its own cultural touchstone these days. I've talked to so many people who reference that show, and how it's influenced people to think about symbolism and inexplicable actions in interesting ways. So my questions are… do you think it matters if David Lynch was making that story up as it went along? Did it matter who killed Laura Palmer? Is that the greatest TV show ever?
Eric: David Lynch is really incredible when it comes to visuals and mood. I don't look at his work for examples of storytelling because the way he does it is so left field I don't think it's really something you can duplicate. I'm a big fan of Wild at Heart and I love Eraserhead as much as one can love a movie like Eraserhead. There's certainly no arbitrary decisions in it and it's interesting to see a piece of work that you know is exactly what the artist wanted to make, even though it took him five painstaking years. I've seen almost all of his movies multiple times but I've never actually seen all of Twin Peaks. That said it'd have to be pretty damn good for me to put it over The Wire.
Joe: Twin Peaks is an anomaly in the history of network TV, but not the greatest show ever. I was a fan of the first two seasons of LOST for the same reasons — brilliant, symbolic storytelling with great characters, drenched in psychosis and mood. I think being able to surrender yourself to the creative process ("making it up as you go along") is a true art in itself… I think having a set goal will sometimes stop you from finding creative solutions. One thing that I always think about when making "Party Food" stories (the comics, the films, the live shows) is "surfing." I saw a lecture by Brian Eno where he said the creative process was "like being on a surfboard, trying to find the perfect balance between surrender and control." I like that.
CB: What is the deal with the pig, anyway? Is he the secret to what the hell is going on here?
Eric: The pig thinks it's pretty smart, but I don't think it's going to be all that helpful.
Joe: The Pig is the archetypal "Fool," who wanders blindly and carefree, but who wanders out of trouble as easily as he wanders into it. Walt, as his best friend and cellmate, is stuck by his side for better or worse.
CB: Is there a master story that you're telling here? If so, how much is improvised as you go on?
Eric: There's a basic story and some big set pieces we have in mind, but there's potential to wander if something's promising. I know where we'll end up, and the things that are important to getting us there.
Joe: We are slowly establishing the sinister underpinnings of this mysterious alien prison, and you'll see Walt and his Pig getting deeper and deeper. It's a story about the underdog.
We have an outline of all the action, scene-by-scene, but the dialog is typically the last thing we fill in. Other than that, very little is improvised. We've been writing the voices of the main characters together for 5 years, so we can let their personalities guide us when we get stuck. The logic that drives everything is hard to explain, and it's unfolding slowly because we are serialized on a weekly schedule.
But if you read the stories as we've written them (we're about 100 "pages" ahead of our release schedule) it's pretty epic. The pacing is influenced by the more dramatic serial comic strips I remember from childhood (the ones I would never actually read; I was a Calvin and Hobbes kid), and I try to write a "hook" or a cliffhanger or a punchline for each week.
CB: How do you approach creating these stories? This can't exactly be your standard Marvel Comics type production line.
Joe: We work from a basic outline that we wrote together. Eric draws the pictures and chooses the "shots" and compositions, then I start filling in the dialog and arranging panels. After
that we kick it back and forth, filling in gaps or embellishing things where necessary. It's not that far off from what I understand the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby arrangement was back in the day. And those are the classics for me!
Eric: I'd say the simplest breakdown is I draw the story in moments, and then Joe "writes" it from there. He'll assemble it, put in the dialogue, tweak the art, and I'll jump in and add flourishes or clarifications when we need them. We have a ballooning Dropbox folder we both play with, and a million different drafts and variations of things.
CB: How long will this series run? How far into it are we at this point? Are either or both of you working on anything else while you work on this?
Eric: If I had to give an estimate, I'd say the story could run a year if all we do is hit the beats we're already planning on. But the story as it is basically a skeleton, so I'd imagine there's going to be a lot of surprises on the way. The way we work leaves itself open for a lot of serendipity.
I'm always working on other projects, on my own and with others, but Prizon Food's been my top priority for at least the last year. We've been working on the webcomic itself, and other promotional things for comic conventions and the like. We did a full deck of custom playing cards with a small army of talented artists using the Prizon Food characters and imagery. 2D Cloud has got a lot of other interesting things on the horizon for us as well, which means I'll be spending a lot more time in this universe.
Joe: Exactly. Working with 2D Cloud has been great for that reason — they know we've got a plan, and I think they really enjoy watching us play in the mud. The Prizon Food story has a lot of room for play, and serializing it 10-panels-at-a-time has made us rethink some of the storytelling beats, slowing it down just a tad. I don't want to run for the finish line yet, but I can't wait for the readers to see where this is going.