Read a page of Jesse Moynihan’s Forming. Really. One. They’re all available for free on his website for you try-it-before-you-buy-it types, and for those of you who don’t have a comic book store, or the type of store that stocks collections published by Nobrow Press. I’ll do it with you: I just flipped open my copy of Forming I, and a humanoid with a wad of pink chewing gum for a head is pleading with a sentient mound of cotton candy to not eat him. It’s 65 Million B.C., and even his cry of “I’m an artist with unrealized potential!” can’t save Nommo, a bureaucratic underling once underemployed by the cosmic entity Ahura Mazda, from being blasted by an unknown energy produced by his abductor and its friends.
Stop. It’s possible that just dropping in on a random page of Forming has left you confused. Click on the first page and realize that, but for these few introductory panels, the world of Forming is one of confusion, an all-permeating fog that rarely lifts for any of its characters, most of whom are left trying to create meaning on a world that wasn’t in need of one until recently in its history. That world is unmistakably our own, and that history is ours too, complicated though it is by the arrival of Mithras, the son of Ahura Mazda, on the shores of Atlantis. Soon, Mithras has a wife, a complex genealogy of children, a pyramid with a moat around it, a brewing class revolt on his hands, and a crew of hermaphrodite law enforcement agents spying on his mining operations. And all of this unfolds in the first twenty pages.
Forming rifles through an HBO drama’s worth of rich, weird characters, and traverses millions of years at a pace that is unnerving unless you’re already familiar with the pace set by shows like Adventure Time, the Cartoon Network show Moynihan is a writer and storyboard artist for. Moynihan is an incredibly busy artist, as Adventure Time is one of the most popular shows on television, Forming is set to begin serializing its third volume in January, and he has a new cartoon, Manly, debuting on Cartoon Hangover at the end of July. I was able to have a conversation with him about Forming, the merits of doing so much work, and the effect that publishing online has on his comics.
Forming is an origin story—in addition to the familiar names and faces that appear throughout, you’re constantly introducing new characters, explaining their origins, and sending them into the unknown. It’s also the origin story; ours, presumably. What drew you to creation mythology—comics, religion, something else? Is there a sense of satisfaction you get as an artist in going back to a point beyond human history and making it up as you go along?
I grew up in a religious/spiritual family environment while making friends with people of atheist persuasion. That created a tension in me as a teenager, trying to negotiate between my intellectual growth/disillusionment with authority, and the sensory experience of unexplainable phenomena. That tension stayed with me my whole life: making me interested in researching fringe science, philosophy, conspiracy theories, psychedelia, and spirituality. You can see those ideas in my early work, but with Forming, I decided to let it all hang out. I wanted to go big and really delve into trying to make sense of all the stuff I’m curious about.
What really sparked my ambitions was reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and getting into Sun Ra. I felt like these two things, comparative mythology and Sun Ra’s art-ritual-reality perspective, encouraged me to try my hand at re-writing history from a combination of my experience and channeling some kind of Universal influence.
Also, the further I get into this project, the more I think that maybe Forming is my reaction against prevailing materialist ideologies: the idea that there is One Absolute Empirical Truth about life and humans will discover It before we die out. It seems to me that we only have one shot in our current meat bodies, so why pursue such an oppressive line of thinking! Ugh! It makes me want to take a nap. I’m making up this story, and connecting the dots that come to me, and as far as I’m concerned, it might as well be true.
That disgust with materialism comes out almost immediately in Forming, I think. Here’s a panel of the stars. Here’s a panel of a space alien rocketing through them in 10,000 B.C. for an unknown purpose. The visual medium of science fiction—the Space Opera branch of it, at least—trains us to look up at the stars and pour over the details of an alien face (the better to remember it when you see that face as an action figure).
But Mithras, who initially is this figure of wonder for the people on Earth, is kind of us, now. He gets bored almost immediately and starts playing a game on his computer. And that’s a big difference from how a lot of sci-fi, and a lot of people who credit alien races for the birth of human civilization, portray the colonizers of earth. Everybody is doing fine in Atlantis, and then this dude from space drops in and ruins it! Mythology in large part exists to teach us the One Absolute Empirical Truth, but you’re diving into that and taking these stories back, giving them a new purpose. Even if it’s not the absolute truth, what’s the truth you’re arguing for here?
I might disagree with your assessment of the purpose of mythology. I think in a lot of cases the the purpose of these stories is to illustrate a way to break our ego from the constraints of external data collecting. Pulling back the veil as they say. Once the veil is pulled, I suspect that the truth we find there is at once personal and adaptable, but then again I have no fucking idea really! Haha.
I’m not arguing for a truth, I’m maybe arguing for an approach to seeking. In a lot of ways, Forming is my process of seeking, a plea for open mindedness, and acceptance of contradiction.
How does sexuality factor into that? There is a lot of sex in Forming, plenty of it between humans and their colonizers. Is the kind of sexuality you’re depicting throughout Forming part of that process of seeking, or is something else going on there?
Sexuality is just part of life. In this story I’m talking about how humans bred with aliens. Sex is essential to that story. There’s also this other element where I have hermaphrodite aliens walking around with their genitals hanging out. Why? I don’t know! Sometimes I wish I hadn’t made that choice because then when people flipped through my books, the prudes wouldn’t immediately assume it was some porno comic.
In my mind I’m working in the tradition of casual sci-fi nudity. Like in Fantastic Planet and Gandahar. In those movies, everyone is just naked and no one gives a shit. I saw those films when I was very young and the nudity didn’t even register for me because it wasn’t treated in a sexual way. Nudity is beautiful and also funny! And it can also turn sexual in a moment. I guess I play with that a little. But all the sex is played for slapstick sort of, or as a tool to move the plot forward, or as a way of illustrating an idea I’m thinking about. I like to use sex for humor, or sometimes tragedy. The last thing I want to do is give readers a boner. I don’t like that at all. I think that’s why I don’t really draw sexy characters, and I never prioritized making elegant lines.
Someone on the Internet got mad at the scene where Serapis rapes Eve. They reprimanded me for making a joke out of it, and I guess contributing to a casual attitude about rape. I was pretty floored by that, and a little outraged that they only engaged the surface elements of the text to further their blanket agenda. They didn’t give the text or the author the benefit of the doubt. In that scene, I was trying to convey the corrupting effect of spoken communication, and naming objects; identifying individual consciousnesses and building barriers between oneself and one’s environment. The character of Eve doesn’t have our modern Individual consciousness. When Serapis puts his penis in her, it doesn’t register as something weird or different from what was happening before. So that moment was a commentary on how far removed Serapis’ advanced society was from that original state of bliss. Eve had never experienced one person taking advantage of another, so it didn’t register as that for her. It was still a rape, and a horrible act on Serapis’ part, but from her point of view it meant nothing. I think that’s very interesting! That’s why I put it in there. When people read my comics, I really hope they have the patience and enthusiasm to engage the text. Despite my foul language and off-color humor, I am trying to write something thoughtful and nuanced. I suspect even writing this explanation could open up a can of worms on the Internet. In the end though, you can’t win against that criticism. It’s like the ocean. You just have to be sure that your writing is aspiring to the highest levels of expression, sincerity, and curiosity.
I was going to say that the sex in Forming is unlike what somebody who may only be familiar with mainstream comics would be used to. Batman and Catwoman have sex every once in a while, sure, but there’s still a pornographic lens applied to Selina Kyle when she’s in costume; in her regular clothes, even. You’ve got hermaphrodites walking around a pre-historic earth with their genitals hanging out of their suits, and the vibe is entirely different. It’s not clinical, not in the slightest, but it’s also not titillating, unless the word “jizz” does it for you. I went back and re-read the scene you’re talking about between Serapis and Eve, and, if anything, it seems even more stunning in the book than online because you have to turn a page and linger on it that much longer. But in a sense, I feel like we’re supposed to linger on those scenes, even if they mean nothing to the alien. The panel right after the rape scene is the two of them laying there, holding hands. Then Serapis resumes teaching Eve his language. Even were the act negotiated beforehand, there’d be a weird power structure element to the scene, but it doesn’t go unacknowledged.
That the negative reaction to that scene happened on the Internet opens up a number of things that I’m curious about. Forming isn’t the only “webcomic” to’ve been published in a physical format later, but it’s certainly different from, say, Hark, A Vagrant! or Hyperbole and a Half; for one, yours is a serialized, long-form story. Was Forming always meant to be an Internet project? Does producing comics online present any unique challenges from publishing your work physically? Is the response to the work different when somebody reads it in a book as compared to reading it online? Is your feel for the two mediums any different?
I’m always aware of that hyper lurid male gaze that goes on in mainstream comics. It runs through everything, regardless of what’s happening in the story. There’s a heavy priority on male fantasy eyeball fulfillment over naturalism and relatability. That’s what I see when I glance the shelves at the comic shop anyway. The issue I take with it, is the amount of assumptions many artists and writers are making when they produce their work. When you take for granted your medium and the modes you’re working in, that makes you a hack.
Yeah Forming was always meant to end up in book form. I’m not that into reading comics online, but I am into the sharing aspect of online comics. I like knowing who’s working on stuff; who’s staying active in the community. It takes years to make these things. Having a share-network keeps creators and audiences aware of each other. It’s the greatest thing that could ever happen to a comic artist.
Posting a page every week does affect my pacing. I think if I didn’t post a page for the public—my pacing would be a lot slower. Releasing these pages in increments creates the illusion of pacing. When I got my physical copy of Volume II, and read through it, I couldn’t believe how fast it moved. If I had been working on it in private, I think the story would’ve moved a lot slower.
There’s much more urgency to posting your stuff online. Especially if you have a comments section. If you have an audience, you are trying your best not to let them down. You want to release this stuff on time, and you want the wait to be worth it. That influences you give each installment some kind of impact. It totally changes the way you write and pace things out.
That’s something I noticed, too—the speed with which the story travels. Comic books of late are frequently charged with decompressing their stories so that they fit with the parameters of a trade paperback, but your book moves quickly and covers a lot of time, the vast expanse of space, an a multitude of faces—the genealogy at the beginning of the first volume doesn’t cover them all, and the web comic has the occasional summary page so that readers can catch their breath and untangle anything they might have missed. It’s all very complex, and in a very rewarding way.
When new readers click on to Forming, or when someone who buys the book from Nobrow or their local comics store reads it knowing you from your work on Adventure Time (or maybe not knowing you at all!), are they surprised by that complexity, or is this something people are starting to expect from comic books that lie outside the mainstream?
I’ve never seen anyone express surprise at my work. If they’re coming to it from Adventure Time, they seem to expect it to be super crazy, like I’m fulfilling their image of me as a drug addled Philip K. Dick person.
I feel like anyone who is familiar with indie comics is used to the spectrum of complexity and stupidity that’s been available since the Sixties. Casual consumers know and respect people like Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes. So they know what comics can express, I think. Although I was just at a library convention and it seemed like they were still stuck in the situation of trying to prove the “comics are literature” idea. Meanwhile most librarians that came up to me were asking if my comics were appropriate for kids. So there’s an obstacle there. Obviously I met some cool librarians there, too.
Librarians and educators seem to have it especially rough, I think. They’re caught in this zone between what children are actually exposed to growing up (beyond required school literature—cartoons seem to be especially groundbreaking right now, and the influence of an Adventure Time or a Regular Show or a Gravity Falls can’t really be undersold) and what legislators deem “appropriate.” There was that case in South Carolina where a public university lost state funding for assigning Alison Bechdel’s Fun House, less so because it’s a comic than because the book deals with same-sex relationships. I think John Waters said something to the effect that if a kid is knows about a book, then he or she is old enough to read it, but obviously that doesn’t play out in practice. What’s a cool librarian to do?
Are the folks who come up to you expecting you to be a drug-addled Philip K. Dick disappointed by the reality of you? When I read the book, the cosmic consciousness seemed less druggy and more akin to that of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World or 2001 adaptation. You’ve already mentioned Sun Ra and The Hero with a Thousand Faces. What else comes to mind when you’re sitting down to do a page of Forming?
I think usually a person who has a pre-conceived notion of me, will pull out the details they want to fit the picture. I’m usually fine with that on a certain level—although I’ve had a few night-time panic attacks about boxing-in my public persona, based on recent interviews and presentations; or even my Twitter. I don’t really want to be summed up in a blurb. I don’t want to define myself or be tied to a way of thinking. My hope is that I can keep changing for the better, in all aspects of my life. I don’t want to feel obligated to hold to any perception or statement I’ve made as a thirty-six-year-old dumb-dumb.
I’ve actually only taken a hallucinogen (ayahuasca) once in my life and it was a total life fuck. It took me around four years to recover from it about ninety-five percent. I do use that experience in my work from time to time. But largely I’m inspired by idealism and aspirations. I’m totally inspired by interpreting the Hero’s journey. I think about films a lot. Most of the ones that strike me, have characters that follow a linear path. They never return home. And if they return home, the lesson isn’t compromise. It’s the opposite of compromise! It’s walking through fire and being burned to a cinder—and the local paradigm collapsing as a result. John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest is a great example. Actually, all of his movies from that stretch of time are like that. Deliverance, Excalibur, Zardoz, and The Emerald Forest. All inspiring in their own way. I don’t think it would surprise anyone to know I’m way into Fist of the North Star, either. Manly P. Hall is also someone I repeatedly come back to for inspiration.
I saw Zardoz for the first time about a month ago, and it really blew me away. I think certain expectations get put on people who do anything creative in public, and the guy took the blank check Hollywood handed him after Deliverance to make a film where a giant floating head tells James Bond that the penis is evil. I don’t know if Boorman set out to make something that would subvert his audience’s expectations, or if he just set out to make something, but you’re right—his filmography is an incredibly interesting one to follow. He doesn’t just do one thing.
You’re obviously willing to try new things as an artist, even within the strictures of an ongoing series. The character design work you’ve done in Forming is evidence of that, as each character you introduce is stranger, more indelible than the last. You’re working on Adventure Time and launching a new cartoon, Manly, at the end of the month. You’ve done two volumes of Forming, with a third set to begin serializing online in January 2015. Not to sound so simplistic, but that’s a lot of work. What keeps it all going? Is there a desire to always be doing something different? You said that Forming was your process of seeking. Is the physical work that goes into this comic and into your other projects a part of that, as well?
At twenty-three I’d spent most of my life half-committing to my creativity. I just couldn’t focus on anything for an extended time. I wanted to, but the drive just wasn’t there. I sort of dipped my fingers in everything and waited to see what would come of it. I was always doing stuff, but not with one hundred percent commitment. I think that’s pretty typical of a young person. At that age, how can you know what you really want to get into? Well, some people do, but they’re the exception. I think all you can do at that age is wait for some revelation to punch you in the face and wake you up to your method. For some people, that never happens, and they half-ass it into adulthood. I don’t know if it’s luck or a curse or what. For me it was being inspired by Sun Ra, and Captain Beefheart: that one hundred percent committed art-lifestyle. I realized how important it was to live in a constant state of process. They both cultivated these bootcamp environments. I really liked that. No one leaves the house. Everyone rehearses all day. No relationships. No goofing off. So I transitioned into that mentality at around twenty-three.
Once you get into that mind mode, you figure out what’s slowing you down. You can see the fat in your life that needs to get trimmed. That stuff becomes a stupid bother to you: people wanting you to think in excess about small stuff. In this life, we’re encouraged to focus on these temporary event distractions. I try hard to streamline. All of my intention goes in a straight line. That’s how I try to discipline myself. Nothing makes me testier than someone trying to take up my psychic space with some messy, distracted shit. And then from there, as I get older and weaker, I start to watch myself compromise. How long can you keep up that discipline? Not too long I don’t think! Man, I play video games and look at Instagram all the time. I get into relationships, and that can be inspiring and healing—but also a time commitment. I guess everything is a race against time. Trying to say what I want to say before I die. It doesn’t seem like there’s enough time. Maybe I’ll feel differently about that if I make it to seventy-five. At least I’ve established a baseline mentality to work from. So I still get a lot done every day.
That bootcamp methodology is fascinating to me. Sun Ra and Captain Beefheart, they recorded like that, I would think, because they needed to. Their band members, though? We’re talking about some of the most talented musicians of their era. There are other rock bands, other jazz groups! Maybe they needed that, too. Maybe art was more than how they made a living. Maybe it was a survival mechanism? That you adopted that ideal at twenty-three says a lot about where you saw yourself at the time, and about where you wanted to go with the tools you had, but yeah, you can’t just slam the door to the outside world shut and leave it that way. I imagine that’s especially true of a comics artist, which in the era of the convention doesn’t exactly encourage anonymity. Is there any part of being known for your work that’s appealing, or do you still prefer the actual, physical and mental labor of it?
At twenty I was super desperate. I thought I was gonna die or something. The pressure to be a success in the eyes of other people was really getting to me. So it was nice to realize you could create a self-validating art environment and push the stupid outside noise out the window. You’re holed up in your Creation Castle, but now you also have the tools (Internet) to send a signal out. It’s a nice thing to have for art forms that demand so much time at the drawing table.
Going to conventions is like playing shows. Beefheart and Sun Ra had to leave the house, too. You gotta play shows and interact with people in real life. When you finish an album or a comic or a painting, that’s when you go out. You need those markers of change to break up your timeline. Does that make sense? If I didn’t get to meet other artists, and comic readers, I would lose my mind. On the Internet, voices start to blend. Everyone feels like the same person to me. I’m exaggerating a little, but it is starting to feel like that. Like the Borg. So make sure to get out of the house and give someone a hug, and have a long, self-contradicting conversation. I feel like I just contradicted myself in these two paragraphs.
I guess what I’m saying is, it’s a blend of these two ideas: Inside Artist and Outside Artist. People who are Outside Artist all the time; these people are the worst. They’re the vampires of art. They want to take as much as possible without putting any work in. I like the idea of art as sacrifice. Anything you make, you have to give up something. You give up a piece of your life. It’s a deal you make with the Universe, because it feels good to give up your life.
I don’t know if it’s contradictory, or if bringing those two things together is a way of moving forward. And maybe that’s a good place to leave this conversation: Progress. You’ve been doing Forming online since 2009. That’s five years of progress. Have you seen yourself change as a result of this project? As an artist? A person? Will Forming continue to be part of that progress, is there an end in sight after Forming III is serialized?
Yeah man I’ve changed here and there, for different reasons. Hopefully for the better. That’s the hope anyway. The worst thing is looking at yourself and realizing you’ve been treading water. In some aspects I’m still treading water. At least as an artist I know I’m progressing. I’m pretty sure it’s evident in my books and paintings. I think it’s also evident in the episodes of Adventure Time I work on.
Forming is a pretty direct reflection of my inner work. So it can be read that way if that interests people. After Forming, I don’t know. I have some ideas floating around. I kind of want to work on an all-ages thing. Just take all the cursing and genitals out and see what I can come up with. I like the idea of a little kid walking into a comic store and finding something they can sink their teeth into.
Colette Arrand is a writer currently residing in Athens, Georgia. Her work has appeared in Hobart, Monkeybicycle, JMWW, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. Online, she can be found at Fear of a Ghost Planet, Date with a Wrestler, Heathcliff Explained, and #wrestlingfashion.