Sci-Fi and Tenderness: A Chat with the Creators of The Venture Bros.

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Sci-Fi and Tenderness: A Chat with the Creators of <i>The Venture Bros.</i>

The Venture Bros. is one of those rare shows that transcends the animation format in order to tell stories that rival live-action programming in depth, scope and character development. The show mixes pathos with humor derived from the characters, which include two teenage clones, a secret council of super villains, and lovingly crafted superhero parodies. Paste chatted with Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer, the show’s creators, a few weeks prior to the premiere.

Paste: In a lot of interviews and write-ups, it’s clear that The Venture Bros. had its impetus in the days Jackson spent working on The Tick. What’s less clear is how Doc fits in. I’m curious about how the two of you met, as well as how much of the initial Venture Bros. concept was a shared vision. In other words, was it Jackson’s idea and you helped balance his sensibilities out, or was it actually something both of you ended up coming up with together?

Doc Hammer: [The Tick creator Ben Edlund] was our doorway to meeting. We both met via the world of The Tick, even though I wasn’t writing for it. I remember that Jackson had the idea, and the pilot was written and fleshed out for an early iteration of The Venture Bros. He was discussing it with Ben at the studio that became the Astrobase. I was painting in the closet, oddly enough, and just happened to overhear their discussion. Ben said Jackson’s idea wasn’t writable as it was, and that it needed work. Jackson wanted to work on it with someone, so, being there kind of randomly, I said I’d love to get involved. Ben and Jackson decided to write one, but Ben left in the first day. We realized we were the two guys working on this, and we clicked so well. The show is our collective voice. The human voice that everyone loves about The Venture Bros? That voice comes through because Jackson and I connect and pour ourselves into the world we created.

Jackson Publick: (laughing) None of that ever happened!

DH: By season 2 we wrote the show the way we could write.

JP: For me it started as a drawing on a post-it in the ‘90s. I thought about it a lot, and after we wrote and made a pilot Doc came in on it. He was the funniest person I knew who happened to be in the same room. Ben was gonna write one of them, but Doc and I just clicked in a way that it made sense for us to do this together. The show became what it is when we started making it. We write with more in common than you’d expect. Yes, we need heartstrings and humor and action—all of it’s needed—but we fill in each other’s gaps to make the show great.

Paste: The art gets a lot of attention, as it both mimics and improves upon the art style of classic Hanna Barbera cartoons. What are the influences for the show, both in terms of the actual cartooning and the general architecture? Some less obvious inspirations seem to be Bruce Timm and classic science fiction artists that depicted the future.

JP: The latter is the bigger influence. I really love advertising art of the ‘50s and the way mid-century design was often represented in jazzy, fast art. You saw a lot of that lineage in backgrounds for Jonny Quest, or even Super-Friends, which has a lot of respect for this kind of shorthand art that tells a story

DH: We’re like a band. The Venture Bros. is influenced by The Venture Bros. and seasons before it. Much like a band is always trying to write better songs, we’re always thinking about how we can make the show better.

JP: Story has sort of dictated character development. Initially, I wanted the characters to have this sort of Daniel Clowes look, similar to his art in Lloyd Llewellyn. I wanted to get that angular thing going, the flat-on-purpose look. We ended up creating this 3D world though, so we needed characters that could pull it off. Also, the show stopped being so referential and started selling real stories with real characters.

Paste: Last year, an art book titled The Art of The Venture Bros. was supposed to be released. Are there any updates on what’s going on with the project?

JP: It got delayed because it was a bigger project than we anticipated. We ended up approaching it differently, extending the book to be up-to-date. We did extensive episode by episode interviews with [writer] Ken Plume and put in a ton of art from season 6 and the special. We fell behind schedule because of how time-consuming production on season 6 was, but we believe they’re aiming for a late-year release, although we can’t say anything definite.

Paste: With characters like the Investors, which are maybe vampires, wind gods, folklore creatures, or some combination of the three, do you end up with a full comprehension of them, or do they sort of function as whatever they need to be in order to fit the narrative?

DH: For the Investors, I had books of info, but in terms of the fluidity of the show, it doesn’t matter. When we write for these characters, I’m persnickety and have background information on them, but the show kind of mirrors real life, and in real life, you don’t know much about threats or people beyond how they’re affecting you. Also, if we put every detail about these characters in the show, no one would want to watch it. Think of it like Superman: Yes, he’s a superhero that flies around the sky, but he also has a love life with a reporter despite being an alien from a dead planet. If a writer investigated all of it and tried to cover everything from every angle, it would be a horrible comic.

Paste: At this point, having completed the season with no renewal announced, would you want to do more seasons, or are you maybe eyeing other projects at this point, either separately or together?

JP: We’d be interested in doing another season, because we didn’t get to say all we wanted to in this one. I have a couple of other ideas, but for now it’d be impossible to work on anything else because the show’s production schedule is so demanding.

Paste: If they gave you an option for two more seasons or a feature-length film, would you be interested in one over the other, having experienced the production of full seasons and specials?

JP: It’s impossible to say, but (hopefully) we’ll be able to keep doing it as long as the ideas are there. When it’s time to move on, it’ll be because we feel that we’ve said all we wanted to. As far as the choice between a movie or a show is concerned, I don’t know that I’d get much out of animated movie apart from chance to labor over it, and if there were to be a live action movie, we probably wouldn’t be involved very much. At this point, it’s a tough question to really answer because there are so many unknowns.

Paste: The humor of the show is really organic, stemming more from behavioral acts and self-delusion than anything. Who or what influenced your idea of comedy? Do you keep up with anything now, be it Broad City or Chelsea Peretti or whatever else?

JP: I go a lot to shows my friends run in Brooklyn. John Hodgman, Eugene Mirman, Wyatt Cenac, Jon Glaser live near me. I run into them all the time.

DH: I check out things that are recommended to me. Usually a buddy will turn me on to podcasts or shows like Rick & Morty.

Paste: The Venture Bros. universe is populated with characters who have a deep love for post-punk and obscure pop. Now that the show is moving locales to New York, are there plans to engage with that passion more directly, either with Hank’s music or some other avenue? CBGB perhaps?

DH: CBGB existed as a collective; Hank’s not gonna be any closer to it if we place him there. The thing about a scene is that if you’re involved in one, you’re not gonna remember if you’re involved or not. History goes in a great moment, something that isn’t easily recaptured.

JP: We sort of touch on one New York scene, but it’s one that people didn’t realize was a scene. There’s an episode that heavily references Andy Warhol and the Factory. We try to mine things that don’t exist anymore—like Marvel comics from the 1960s—that have had enough time pass to make them malleable and adaptable for our mythology.

Paste: Have you discovered anything recently that you’d like to turn people on to?

DH: I’ve been going back and listening to everything I’ve ever listened to before as a grownup. It’s like discovering Caravaggio and going “this is amazing,” you never stop to think that it’s hundreds of years old. Music is the same way. You can pick up albums that came out long ago and just listen to it without context to the zeitgeist, just enjoy it. Take Suede for example. Bands can now put out important stuff when in the past, they’d have had to make room for the young, pretty boys. Suede are now writing songs that are as good as anything they’ve released before, simply because they have that history and are writing better.

The sixth season of The Venture Bros. premieres on Adult Swim on Sunday, January 31st.