Derek Charm On ‘The Powerpuff Girls’ And The Spring Break Monster Invasion Of Townsville [Interview]
The Powerpuff Girls have been one of my favorite superhero teams since I was in high school, so I have been exicted beyond all reasoning by the renaissance they seem to be undergoing lately. Not only is there a new special set to air later this month, but IDW has revived the Powerpuff Girls comic series, and they’re handing two issues over to writer-artist Derk Charm for a story of the Spring Break Monster Invasion.
Charm is a favorite here at ComicsAlliance, so we spoke to him about his connection to the Powerpuff Girls cartoon, why he wanted to attack the city of Townsville with an army of monsters, and how it compares to his other work on the decidedly more adult-oriented Trip Fantastic.
ComicsAlliance: Given what I know of you from your other comics, I’m going to guess you were a fan of Powerpuff Girls when it was on the air.
Derek Charm: Yeah, totally. I went to school for animation, and Craig McCracken and those guys were my idols. I’d copy their style all the time, they’re so good. It’s always been a part of my style, I guess, even though it’s less pronounced recently. It’s still there.
CA: We’ve talked in other interviews about how you love to go with those big, bright colors.
CA: That’s definitely something that you saw on TV with Powerpuff Girls, and now again with the comic.
DC: I’ve been watching the show again, too, and they’re so good with color in that show. I’m excited to start coloring this comic, even though I’m not quite there yet.
CA: Is there a particular episode that you like for the use of color? Obviously there’s the Rainbow the Clown episode, where it’s the whole focus.
DC: There’s one episode where they go to another city, that’s very 1970s New York looking. It’s super gritty, and the mayor is super serious and doesn’t play by their cartoon rules. The color in that one is amazing.
It’s all super realistic all the sudden. It’s like a very serious cop drama that they’ve all the sudden just walked into.
CA: I was the same way as a fan of it. PPG and Dexter’s Lab came out right at the time when I was starting to find out about the people behind all the stuff I liked, when I was learning to tell the difference between Chuck Jones and Friz Freling. I was hooked on those shows, and they still feel fresh.
DC: They do, totally. I was surprised, I’ve been watching Dexter and Samurai Jack too, just for background noise while I’m working.
CA: Do you ever get distracted? Especially with Samurai Jack, where there’s so much that’s silent. It’s not good background noise, Derek.
DC: Oh, no, I stop and I just stare at the screen. It happens all the time.
CA: So how did you get hooked up with the new series? You’ve been doing covers since the first issue.
DC: Yeah, I did covers, and they contacted me and said they needed a fill-in artist. They asked if I had a pitch, and I came up with this one pretty much on the spot. It’s been going ever since.
CA: So this story was just the first thing that popped up?
DC: Pretty much. My editor, Sarah Gaydos, warned me that they might be asking at some point, so I started thinking about it, but not too seriously. Then it all came out. I was surprised that they asked. It was pretty cool.
CA: So it wasn’t something that you’d wanted to do going back to when you were a fan?
DC: Yeah, it popped up recently. I was watching the show to try to get some ideas, and I knew the bad guys were tied up in the ongoing comic storyline, and I wanted to work on monsters anyway. It all worked out.
CA: So the basic idea of the story is that you go back to the idea of Monster Island, which is in very close proximity to Townsville.
DC: Right, it’s just a quick pan over in the show.
CA: And there’s that great episode where one monster shows up in town and just explains their whole deal to the Girls, and how they invade Townsville to prove themselves.
DC: That’s the villain of this story, King Steve. He’s the main monster. He looks crazy, so it’s fun to draw him.
CA: Is it, though? The monsters on that show get really complex — and again, that’s by the standards of a show that has these very clean lines and simplified animation, but the monsters are weird. How many times did you draw that guy before you started regretting that decision?
DC: [Laughs] He’s easier than most of them. As I was watching it, I was screenshotting every time a monster was on the screen so that they’d all be in this comic. It’s a fun break, because the Girls and the Professor, they have to stay on model for this one. The monsters are kind of a break, to be able to go crazier, because they don’t have as strict models.
That episode is very comic-tied anyway. It’s about the Girls assuming superheroic personas like Spawn and people of the ’90s. I had an idea for a monster invasion story, and my editor, Sarah, is the one who suggested tying it in with Monster Island, which I forgot all about. It just fit together perfectly. It all made sense all the sudden. It’s mostly her, that idea.
CA: How much of it was a function of not being able to use the other villains?
DC: Well, my original pitch before I knew I couldn’t use any of the villains was just a monster invasion storyline. There was one villain in it, and I was asked to remove him, but it’s okay. It worked out fine. I replaced him with something much better.
CA: The idea of a monster invasion is interesting to me, because it’s not really one we’ve seen. Even in six years of the show, there were only a handful of episodes where even two villains teamed up. Was it tempting to go with that just because it hadn’t been done?
DC: For sure. That’s a big part of it, being slightly more than they’ve ever had to handle before. Originally, we talked about doing this as a mini-series rather than a two-parter, so I wanted to come up with a really huge story that could go different places. Definitely seeing them take on more than they have before was a big part of it.
I’m writing and drawing it. I wrote so many crowd scenes into this, and now I’m going and having to draw all these crowds of screaming people in the city. That’s more trouble than the monsters, filling the city up with people in the Powerpuff Girls style.
CA: There’s a really great cast of minor characters on the show to react to things, though. Talking Dog.
DC: I love the Talking Dog! He’s one of my favorite characters!
CA: He’s definitely my favorite Powerpuff Girls character that has a song about him by Black Francis.
DC: There’s one episode where he’s holding up traffic and he turns to the camera and says “I might be able to talk, but I sure can’t drive!” That’s when I realized I loved him. But yeah, he’s in it a few times in the first part, and a couple more in the second issue. He’s my go-to man on the street. There’s also an ungrateful jerk character in the crowd that I’m having fun with too, who looks like George Jetson.
There’s a lot of freedom here. They were so experimental with the colors in that show that I already had ideas of things I wanted to try even before we started. Not as crazy as Trip Fantastic, that’s not quite the style of Powerpuff Girls, but like that ’50s animation style they used for the backgrounds and character designs.
CA: You talked about how the Girls and Professor Utonium have to be drawn on model. Was that an adjustment for you? Even as someone who’s not an artist at all, those designs seem like they’d be deceptively simple.
DC: They are very deceptively simple. I learned while doing this that the slightest wrong line makes them look like horrible monsters. They’re just eyes and a mouth, giant eyes and a mouth. There’s a lot more to them, I’ve learned, than it looks like, and it takes a lot more focus than I thought it would. But it’s fun, and it’s turning out well.
CA: How long did it take you to crack the style? How many sheets of horrifying, off-model Powerpuff Girls did you draw?
DC: [Laughs] The covers I did before this issue were a lot of help. The very first cover, which hasn’t come out yet, they look kind of terrifying. I wasn’t quite as good at drawing them. I just looked up style guides online and started sketching, becoming comfortable and understanding how their eyes wrap around their heads. They can only turn their heads so far before it all falls apart. Just understanding the rules of it.
CA: The interesting thing about the designs on the show for me was always that everything other than the Girls was built out of hard right angles. Professor Utonium, the Buildings, even Miss Bellum is very angular, in a way. The Girls are all circles, they don’t even have fingers.
DC: And it’s funny, if you draw them holding something, it just floats in front of their hands. It’s a cray world.
CA: My favorite gag in the history of the show comes from the body swap episode, where Buttercup is in the Professor’s body and she tries to answer the phone.
DC: I don’t think I’ve seen that one! It sounds amazing.
CA: It’s great. She just puts her hand on the phone and tries to pick it up without using her fingers, and can’t understand why it’s not working.
DC: I’ve totally been wondering about that this whole time. It’s one of their magic powers.
CA: Is it fun to draw something so different from your usual style? Drawing the monsters, you get to loosen up a little bit, but even Townsville and buildings on fire and figuring out how to make it look like it does on the show.
DC: Oh, yeah, it’s totally fun. The thing about Trip is that it’s a more realistic style. This is more expressionistic, so you get to have more fun and be a little creative, doing those contrasting shapes. The City is super fun to draw.
It doesn’t look the same in any panel I’ve done, and apparently it just goes on for miles and miles of giant city. From a distance, it looks pretty small, but once you get in there it’s non-stop.
CA: Do you have a favorite non-monster villain?
DC: I like Him.
CA: I am shocked, to this day, that Him was on television.
DC: It’s so funny!
CA: He is genuinely scary.
DC: He’s the Devil. He has a cross-dressing thing going on.
CA: He’s the lobster-hand devil in high heeled boots, but the way they modulate his voice, the things he does, the fact that he’s this psychological villain in this cartoon… He’s very off-putting.
DC: [Laughs] For sure. There are surprisingly adult things that happen, and disturbing things that are dealt with in a very funny way, or just shrugged off. I wasn’t too young when it was on. He’s the main villain in the current storyline, or else I’d totally love to use Him. He’s my Plan B.