Kick up the Kick-Watcher! Today sees the launch of Code Monkey Save World, a new 60-page graphic novel from Greg Pak and Jonathan Coulton, to be brought to life by the artistic team of Takeshi Miyazawa, Jessica Kholinne, and Simon Bowland. Wait – Jonathan Coulton, the musician, sir? Yes sir, that’d be him! The graphic novel is based around his work, you see, and will take several of the characters first heard in songs like Skullkicker Mountain, RE: Your Brains and Code Monkey and unite them into a single adventure, written by Pak.
If the target of $39000 is reached, then the graphic novel will be released digitally in four parts through Monkeybrain, with the full graphic novel collected later on. In order to find out more about the project, I spoke to both Greg and Jonathan about the project – how it came about, how the creation process has been, and why a super-villain would want to team up with a sad monkey.
Steve: Code Monkey Save World sees you adapting Jonathan Coulton’s music into an original graphic novel. How did you first become aware of Jonathan? And how did this project get started?
Greg Pak: Jonathan and I went to college together, so I’ve known about his musical genius for decades. And a few years ago, I became aware of his amazing “Thing a Week” project, for which he wrote a song every week and released it on the internet for a year. So I bought all of Jonathan’s music a couple of years ago and have been listening to these songs time and time again on my iPhone. And at a certain point I realized all of these songs featured fantastic characters — monsters and villains particularly. I got on the Twitter and joked with Jonathan about making a super-villain team-up comic book starring his characters. And he tweeted back, “DO IT.”
Steve: It’s a brave move, to let somebody take your songs and adapt them into a comic. Could you imagine anybody but Greg Pak putting this together?
Jonathan Coulton: It’s not THAT brave – Greg’s great at what he does, and he’s been telling stories in this format for a long time. He’s got a good feel for that wryly funny sci-fi direction that I always like, and he makes choices that are the right kind of weird. I was excited to see his take on these characters.
Steve: Was there ever a worry about putting your work into the hands of someone else? How have you found the collaborative process of making the story a reality?
Jonathan: As satisfying as it is to create something, it’s even more satisfying to see someone else turn it into something new. It always feels a little risky at first, because these characters and stories sometimes feel a little bit personal – they have pieces of me in them. But it’s a thrill to let go, and once you do, it’s a lot of fun.
Steve: Once the gauntlet was laid down by Jonathan, Greg, how did you start to plan the story? Adapting a film or novel into a comic is one thing – but adapting music?
Greg: It all made sense because Jonathan’s songs are stories. Every song I picked — including “Code Monkey,” “Skullcrusher Mountain,” “The Future Soon,” and “Chiron Beta Prime” — feature amazing characters and environments. The characters wants and needs are so clearly present in the songs it wasn’t hard to start figuring out a story for the graphic novel once I started putting things together.
Steve: How collaborative was the creation process? Did he allow you the characters and give you free reign, or did you work closely together on the story and characters?
Greg: I worked up an outline and sent it over and Jonathan pretty much gave me the thumbs up. We’ve definitely talked it through every step of the way, but he’s been very cool about all my insane ideas. Probably because they’re all riffing on his insane ideas. ;-)
Steve: What can you tell us about the story itself? Is this an all-ages title?
Greg: The story follows a coding monkey named Code Monkey who teams up with a super-villain named Skullcrusher to save his beloved Matilde from Laura the Robo Queen’s slave colony on Chiron Beta Prime. The twist is that Skullcrusher’s actually in love with the Robo Queen and might be more interested in impressing her than saving Matilde.
When it comes down to it, Code Monkey and Skullcrusher are both incredibly inept when it comes to romance. So the question may really be if Code Monkey is going to join Skullcrusher in his lonely villainy or find his own way in the world.
It’s not intended to be an all-ages title. Like a lot of Jonathan’s songs, it has a bright, fun, goofy sheen to it. But it actually deals with very adult experiences of loneliness and the struggle to find a place in the world. Which is actually what a lot of children’s literature deals with, when I think about it…
Maybe when it comes down to it, the question will be how much profanity or sexual innuendo makes its way into the book. I honestly don’t know just yet. But we don’t have plans at the moment to reference Jonathan’s “First of May,” so we have options. (And yes, please do go ahead and google “First of May Jonathan Coulton.” But don’t listen to it at work.)
Steve: Returning to characters like Code Monkey and expanding on them must have been an interesting experiment – pushing them into new stories?
Jonathan: Yes, I’ve been living with these characters for so long that we don’t have a lot to say to one another anymore. People often ask me when I’m going to write the sequel to songs like “Skullcrusher Mountain,” and really I feel like in the context of A SONG, there’s no more story to tell. But switching to a new medium means there’s room to stretch out, to find back story, and to make connections across the boundaries of other songs. It just opens everything up in an exciting way.
Steve: Jonathan’s songs go all over the place, with music about zombies, robots, Vikings… was it difficult to actually reign things in and cut ideas out of the narrative?
Greg: I started with Skullcrusher, the super-villain narrator of “Skullcrusher Mountain.” And I realized he could be the grown up version of the creepy kid who narrates “The Future Soon.” The character’s so great because he’s a straight up super-villain with a creepy mountain lair and half-monkey, half-ponies walking around. But his central emotion is hapless romantic longing. It’s a tremendous starting point.
Then I paired Skullcrusher with the monkey from “Code Monkey,” who’s much more innocent but just as romantically hopeless. And that becomes the center of our story — two misfits who plunge into an insane plot to win the affections of the different women for whom they long.
Once I had that central driving narrative, it became pretty easy to see how Zombie Bob and the Creepy Doll and even that giant squid could fit in. We’ve got it all, and it’s going to be a blast.
Steve: How tempting was it to set the entirety of the comic in Ikea?
Greg: Ha! I resisted in order to avoid trademark violations.
Steve: You’re working with Takeshi Miyazawa on the project, with whom you co-created Amadeus Cho and have worked with on several occasions. How was the process of working on a creator-owned project with Takeshi?
Greg: I love working with Tak so much. He’s kind of inside my head. He just about always seems to instantly get the characters and situations I describe to him. He’s got just the right amount of sensitivity and humor to totally nail these characters and this story.
We’d talked about doing a creator-owned book for some time — we actually just recently collaborated on “Los Robos,” a 10 page kid-meets-giant-robot story for the “Shattered” Asian American comics anthology. So when it came time to think about an artist for this project, Tak just made perfect sense.
Steve: How has it been to see Takeshi Miyazawa bring your characters to life? Did he make any design choices which surprised you?
Jonathan: It’s funny, I never have visuals in my head about these characters, and I don’t think I realized that until I started seeing Tak’s designs. So there wasn’t anything where I thought “Code Monkey should be taller.” But once his designs started coming in, I think Greg and I were both thrilled with the way he captured the little details of their emotional lives on their faces – Code Monkey is adorable and vulnerable but also has some latent menace. Skullcrusher looks mean, but also like he’s trying too hard.
Steve: The creative team are rounded out by Jessica Kholinne and Simon Bowland as colourist and letterer, respectively. What do you think their work brings to a project like this?
Greg: I’ve worked with Simon for years and years — he and I went through the trenches doing the twice-monthly “Incredible Hulks” series back when, and we had a tremendous time with my co-writer Fred Van Lente doing goofball SFX for the “Incredible Hercules” series. He’s going to do a great job with this book.
Jessica worked on my just-concluded “X-Treme X-Men” series. When I was talking with Tak about possible colorists, I showed him Jessica’s work and he immediately got excited. Jessica is pretty fearless when it comes strong color choices — she’s great with big sci fi stuff. But at the same time, she has great taste and knows how to color people and organic objects realistically. A perfect match for our story.
Steve: The comic will be 60 pages, cut into four single issues and initially published digitally through Monkeybrain Comics. What made you decide to first publish through Monkeybrain?
Greg: I’ve loved Monkeybrain from the minute I heard about it. A genuinely independent company run by comics creators to distribute creator-owned comics via new digital venues? AND every book they put out is phenomenal? Love.
So I was excited about doing this with Monkeybrain just on principle. But I also liked the idea of being able to provide Kickstarter premiums through Monkeybrain and Comixology. I’ll be honest — the easiest way for me to read digital comics is through Comixology. Those folks have always been very supportive of me and their software and interface work beautifully. So being able to provide premiums that way seemed to be a great way to make things as easy as possible for many actual comics readers.
Steve: Jonathan, you’ve long been one of the frontrunners for new forms of creator ownership and experimentation through the internet – how difficult is it to gauge which projects you should or shouldn’t commit to? What would you say for people who are still idling over whether to pledge to this Kickstarter?
Jonathan: I always try to stick with the stuff that feels exciting and maybe a little bit scary. I feel like you can’t do good work unless you’re trying to hit a target that you can’t quite reach from where you are currently standing – all the good stuff happens after you jump. And this project feels like just the right combination of “well of course” and “wha?” You always hope, but can never be sure that you are correctly identifying the ideas that are the good ones. But since we’re living in a future that allows for independent funding, creation, and distribution of these sorts of things, Greg and I can actually just start the engines and see where this thing takes us. I don’t think our Kickstarter is going to break records and make us millionaires or anything, but the beautiful thing is, it doesn’t have to.
Steve: Do you think this opens the gates for more creators to bring their work to comics? If this Kickstarter succeeds in the target, it may well bring a lot more attention to comics – and from unexpected sources.
Greg: Every successful Kickstarter project seems to open the door for more projects — I’ve definitely been inspired by friends and colleagues like Gail Simone and Jamal Igle who have paved the way with amazing comics Kickstarters over the last year.
Just what happens with “Code Monkey Save World” remains to be seen. But sure, I’m hopeful it’ll pull new readers into comics. Jonathan has a huge fanbase of folks who love his music. Presumably, “Code Monkey Save World” may be the first comic some of them have bought as adults. Fingers crossed that’ll hook ‘em! Actually, that’s another reason why the Monkeybrain/Comixology partnership excites me. Folks who like “Code Monkey Save World” may find it very easy to find more books they might enjoy by tapping on a few icons and seeing other Monkeybrain books, or books from other publishers on the Comixology app.
Steve: And finally, Greg — what’s your favourite Jonathan Coulton song?
Greg: THE HARDEST QUESTION ON THE LIST! It changes every few weeks. For a long time it was “Skullcrusher Mountain.” These days I’m very pro-“Creepy Doll.” Particularly the live version from the “Best. Concert. Ever.” album. There’s a big laugh he gets from the audience just for changing a repetitive three note sequence that’s pretty delicious!