To one audience, Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty is a farcical sendup of science fiction tropes, peppered with absurdist humor, graphic violence and profanity. The story of a borderline sociopathic mad scientist exploiting his hapless grandson through myriad planets and dimensions, the animated series has skewered the 18-to-35-year-old demographic. “It’s a fun show for fun people,” one could say, to offer an adequate but temperate description.
To others, Rick and Morty is the poetry of our everlasting souls. And if anyone so much as tweets a less than utterly enthralled observation of Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s gift to the human race, we will find them, shove dirty forks into their eye sockets, and then do some other really mean, hurty stuff.
With so much expectation attached to the adventures—be they animated or sequential art or interactive— of Rick Sanchez and Morty Smith, the pressure of penning a satisfactory Rick and Morty comic could reduce a writer to a useless heap of quivering goo. However, Ottawa’s Tom Fowler remains upright and unquivering as he approaches a writing stint on the series, starting with March’s 12th issue.
A veteran illustrator who has worked on projects including Valiant’s Quantum & Woody, MAD Magazine and Venom since his late ‘90s break in, Fowler assumed the Oni editors only meant to stroke his ego when they asked him to pitch for their ongoing Rick and Morty comic. Oni would never offer this gig to an artist with a resume void of writing credits, so Fowler thought. By the time he realized he was wrong and the job was his alongside returning artist CJ Cannon, the process had already gone too far along for Fowler to second-guess his worthiness of the Rick and Morty mantle.
Paste dialed up Fowler as he lounged at home in the company of Zool the golden retriever to discuss what makes a good Rick and Morty story, why obvious jokes are awful and the strange, sad heart at the core of series. (Zool has nothing to do with Rick and Morty, but deserves a mention for being a good dog.)
Paste: So after somewhere in the ballpark of 15 years as an artist, this is your first time writing the words. Is that a difficult transition?
Tom Fowler: I’m trying to say this in a way that doesn’t make me sound like a dick: it wasn’t for me.
Your whole job as somebody who draws comics…you are the storyteller. You’re the one who realizes the story for an audience. In movie terms, and I hate that we even have to put things like that, but in movie terms, you’re the director. It’s rare that somebody gets astonished when a director has turned to writing a movie, as opposed to just muddling around with cameras. I’ve referred to comic artists as basically coauthors. You have a voice at the table, you’re the first person to notice when something isn’t working and the first person who can fix it. So I’ve coauthored, in a lot of ways, what I’ve worked on during the last five or seven years, within reason. I’ve come to the table and said, “Okay, what if we did this, this and this, what if we changed this and did it that way, and blah blah blah.” So having put myself forward in that way for so long, the transition to not having the safety net of having somebody say, “It’s going to be like this!” wasn’t…I’m not going to say it wasn’t difficult, but it wasn’t as big of a jumping-off point as I thought it would be.
Luckily, since I am that other source this time, I’m writing with a mind to layout. I know not to write 11-panel pages, and I know not to ask [artist CJ Cannon] to draw a battlefield full of robots and robot horses and helicopters and blah blah blah, A: Because it’s not very interesting and B: Because it’s a pain in the ass. The short answer is I’M HAVING FUN, Barry. I’m having fun!
Paste: Your writing on this thing is invariably going to get compared to Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, two of the greatest comedic minds of their generation.
Fowler: I try to forget that as much as possible.
Rick and Morty #6 Variant Cover by Tom Fowler
Paste: It’s like, NO PRESSURE or anything.
Fowler: In a weird way, it helps that I was not prepared for this at all. I wasn’t prepared for the offer, I didn’t go after it. When I was doing my initial pitch, I was freaked out that Justin and Dan were going to read it and think I was an idiot. That was about it. But I got over that pretty quickly. By the time I started to realize this had become a job, there wasn’t time to be freaked out anymore. I was able to divorce myself of fan expectations. When the books come out and people start tweeting their stupid reviews at me, then I’ll feel bad. I will stress this because I’m sure you have readers who are also reviewers: DON’T TWEET YOUR REVIEWS AT ME. I don’t want that.
But so far everything has been approved, and I know in some way it has to go through Justin, so presumably, he’s at least satisfied that I’m carrying the torch. Aside from that, it’s a job, I’m having fun doing it. I’ve already got ideas for my next run, whether or not that happens based on sales or interest or this, that, and the other thing, we’ll see. Maybe by that point I’ll have seen the second season.
Rick and Morty #12 Cover by CJ Cannon
Paste: Wait, wait, you still haven’t seen the second season?
Fowler: It doesn’t air in Canada. During the first season, Cartoon Network put it up on their site for free without an international blocker, so you could pretty much watch it anywhere. When the second season came out, it was entirely blocked. There was no way to see it legally, and no matter how much I begged, nobody official was willing to send it to me.
So far everybody’s been really cool about not spoiling the second season for me. I’ve heard the second season gets very heavy, gets even more Rick-ish and Morty-ish, so maybe it’s better that I didn’t see it and have it hanging over me.
Paste: Hm…Okay, so if theoretically a character were to die in the show, since the comics take place in an alternate timeline, that character could either come back or just not be dead, right?
Fowler: I look at Rick and Morty as being carte blanche to do anything, as long as you can come up with some kind of bullshitty scientific explanation that’s both coherently and comedically relevant. I think, because we’re not the originator of the show, in the end, you still have to bring stuff back to the starting point—the old television trope of As long as you reset to one by the end of the story, you can do whatever you want. I gather a major character gets killed, BARRY?
Paste: I did not say that!
Fowler: You bastard! I made it through two comic conventions without anyone spoiling anything!
Paste:: Hey, I could’ve said that no characters die, and that would’ve also been a spoiler, too, right?
Fowler: I’ve got a significant amount of blood on my hands, so I can’t really talk. My story sets things back to 1.5. I’ll put it that way. Things kind of linger.
Paste: How is your run going to be different from Zac Gorman’s?
Fowler: I’ve actually not read much of Zac’s. I’ll read them when I’m done. I didn’t want my books to be set to what Zac did, because Zac’s amazing.
I read a very little bit just to get a sense of, “Okay, what is a Rick and Morty comic book, as opposed to a Rick and Morty TV show?” And I came to the conclusion, “Oh, it’s whatever I want it to be.” So thank you Zac, for that. But basically I just completed the end of a three-issue story arc, and there are no backups or smaller stories or anything like that. I think I’m going pretty dark with some of it. While I like to write funny, I’m not a joke guy. There’s not a lot of jokey jokes. That’s one thing that always drove me nuts when I was drawing superhero comics. Every word spoken was some kind of funny, or “funny,” attempt at a quip or something. It actually lost me a job once, because I thought I was working on a comedy book. They’re like, “No, this is deadly serious!” and I’m like, “You’re sure?”
I think a lot of the comedy for me comes out of circumstances being ridiculous and strange. I don’t like to pepper in a bunch of jokes for the sake of writing a joke. That’s not to say Zac does any of that. I don’t know.
In one issue of Zac’s that I read all the way through, they’re in this alien death maze, and there’s only enough charge in the portal gun to get one of them out. Rick gives Morty some kind of excuse and shoves him through. Then there’s this beat where Rick is alone at the end of this maze. It’s a silent panel, and you just see how sad and like, existentially alone Rick is. That hit me in the gut, and I said, “Okay, that’s what I’m going for. That’s the thing I want to keep. Everything else can be drawn from whatever situations I or my 8-year-old can come up with.”
Rick and Morty #12 Variant Cover by Nicole Rodriguez
Paste: On the one hand, you can do anything you want because of all the sci-fi kookiness, but on the other hand, the characters are so well-defined and fleshed-out that there are rules. There are things Rick would do, and things Rick definitely would not do.
Fowler: I like 75 percent solutions, where things don’t get wrapped up. I hate morals. I hate having a story wrapped up all the way in the end. I like loose threads, because those loose threads allow a character to carry something on from their experiences.
What I love most about Rick and Morty is the characters are so well-fleshed out that they have room to be sad, and that sorrow is not cast aside by the end of an episode. Five episodes or five issues or however long down the way, they can refer back—at least in some emotional way—to a thing they went through, and it hits you twice as hard as it would’ve if they addressed it in the same episode where the experience took place.
There’s this great bit in the first season where at the end of the Cronenberg episode [“Rick Potion #9”], they find themselves a new universe where Rick and Morty exploded, and they bury their own corpses in the garden. The end of that episode is horrific, harrowing and affecting in such an amazing, beautiful, brilliant way. You think it’s put aside, but a couple of episodes later, Morty’s bringing it up to Summer in a way that’s so affecting on a deeper emotional level, to the extent where they don’t have to talk about it for that long for it to linger with you.
Paste: “Every morning, I eat breakfast 20 yards away from my own rotting corpse.”
Fowler: It becomes this boulder rolling down the hill that you didn’t even know was coming. In a nutshell, that’s the thing I’m trying. I don’t know how successful I’m going to be with it, but I want to keep that sensibility in what I’m doing with Rick and Morty, because to me, that’s what’s important about the show. It’s not just a funny yuk-um-up with science. It’s something deeper, something much more human than that. People don’t get better. They get 75 percent better. That speaks to me on a personal level as much as anything else, and I’d like to keep speaking that to the audience of the book.
Paste: On a stupider note, if you had a Meeseeks box right now, what would you ask a Meeseeks to do for you?
Fowler: Finish these layouts for me, so I can get some damn sleep.