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Greg Pak Talks ‘Code Monkey Save World,’ His New Kickstarter Funded Project With Jonathan Coulton and Takeshi Miyazawa

Yesterday, Greg Pak launched a new comics project called Code Monkey Save World with musician Jonathan Coulton, in which Pak and artist Takeshi Miyazawa take characters from Coulton’s songs and put them into a grand supervillain team-up adventure. It launched on Kickstarter with the promise of sixty pages of comics and a new song from Coulton, and within the first few hours, it smashed through its goal with no signs of slowing down.

To learn a little more, I talked to Pak about how a project that started out as a joke on Twitter managed to raise over $50,000 in less than ten hours and why he’s embracing Kickstarter as a way for fans to pre-order comics, and we even get into an argument about Styx. Who’s right? You decide.ComicsAlliance: According to the press release you sent out, this entire project started out as a joke on Twitter.

Greg Pak: Yeah. I’ve been friends with Jonathan Coulton since college. We went to college together, and I’ve listened to his music and been a huge fan of his stuff for years, and I’ve listened to his songs again and again. I’m a genuine, honest-to-gosh Coulton fan, and at a certain point, I realized that a ton of his songs basically star these heartbroken monsters and supervillains, and I thought “wow, this could make a great story.” A supervillain team-up, basically. So I tweeted that, and Jonathan tweeted back right away, and all he said was “do it.” I emailed him a little bit later and said “I’m serious,” and he said “dude, so am I.” That’s how it happened.

He owns all of his music, and when I do this kind of stuff, I own my work as well, so if he said yes and I said yes, and when all the folks who are pledging say yes, it can happen. It’s exciting.

CA: I was curious about that, whether he knew of your work or if he thought you were someone joking around about making comics based on his songs.

GP: I definitely was in a good position to get his attention, because he knows me. [Laughs] We know each other, so I’m fortunate in that regard. He didn’t grow up reading comics all the time, he didn’t have an LCS as a kid, and so he was aware of the fact that I was writing comics, but my guess is that the first comics he’d read in a while were comics I’d put in his hand a year or so ago when we were just hanging out. I think he just trusted me and my sensibilities, particularly when he saw the outline I sent him. I said “hey, this is what I think we could do,” and he got really excited, and we went for it.

CA: You talk about the characters from the songs teaming up, and as someone who’s more familiar with your comics than his music, was there already a shared universe there? Was that something he’d gone into those songs wanting to build through music?

GP: No. There’s no crossover between the songs — no intentional crossover, anyway. I just think that there’s no reason these folks can’t exist in the same world. As I started really analyzing the songs really closely, I started realizing how many interesting ways these things could cross over, and how this universe made sense.

For example, he’s got a song called “The Future Soon,” which is basically a song sung from the point of view of a kid who’s maybe 12 years old, who’s pining after a girl in his class. This is a strange kid who ends up concocting this fantasy of building a robot army and taking over the world in hopes of impressing this girl. Then there’s another song called “Skullcrusher Mountain,” about a full-grown supervillain who lives on Skullcrusher Mountain, surrounded by his savage wolf guards and he makes half-pony, half-monkeys and all kinds of nefarious stuff, but he also longs after a woman. It just occurred to me that the character from “The Future Soon” could be the kid version of the character from “Skullcrusher Mountain.” Stuff like that.

There’s a lot of interesting places where these songs fed into each other, and could totally live in the same world. And when it comes down to it, the characters are so strong. He’s got these great characters who are weird and funny and a little scary, and most importantly have so much heart. Even the villains are vulnerable in a very endearing way, and they’re filled with all this desire. It makes for great drama.

CA: How does that affect your approach to writing them in comics? Is it more challenging for you because you have to make it work with the songs, or is it like coming on a superhero comic, where you just put your spin on it?

GP: I think it’s both. A song has a little less content in it than, say, a comic book, so there’s a little less detail. I run a little less risk of contradicting previous continuity in that regard, there’s just fewer words [laughs]. But I haven’t even had to really worry about it, because I just love the characters. I love the way he set these characters and situations up, and it’s a ton of fun to work with them. There are certain things that I’m tweaking a little bit, but I can’t even really think of anything I’ve got in the story that contradicts what’s in the songs. It’s just putting them together in interesting ways.

CA: Let’s talk about Takeshi Miyazawa a little bit.

GP: Yes! Oh my God, Tak, he’s amazing. We worked together for the first time on the Amadeus Cho origin story back in the day.

CA: In Amazing Fantasy #15.

GP: I loved what he did there. He’s one of those artists who’s just in my head. There are certain characters and certain stories that, if I give it to him, I know he’s going to show me whatever was in my head that I didn’t even know was there. He did that with Amadeus, as soon as he sent the pictures, I was like “Oh my God, that’s the guy!” It was perfect.

Same thing with Code Monkey. I described Code Monkey to him and just sent him a few words about these characters, and he sent back sketches that just captured it completely. With Code Monkey in particular, he made him cute, but also slightly dangerous too at the same time. He’s seething with repression, he’s totally repressed and unhappy and there’s something dangerous there. He’s a guy who could become a supervillain, and that’s sort of the excitement of pairing him up with Skullcrusher, that Skullcrusher could pull him in the wrong way. He’s an innocent, but he could go in that bad direction, and Tak totally captured him on the verge like that. It’s just amazing.

Tak also draws normal people like nobody’s business. I think there’s a huge amount of attraction to stories that take normal people and put them into fantastic situations. That’s what we’re doing here with this book, and there are some very normal, everyday people that Tak draws beautifully. He makes them totally compelling while at the same time making them realistic. He knows how to draw regular people’s clothes, and he understands fashion, the way people wear clothes that reflect their personalities. He’s great, and I’ve been thrilled, thrilled, thrilled to work with him.

CA: You’ve worked with him a couple of times since Amazing Fantasy, though, right?

GP: Yes. We did a couple of things for Marvel together. Another Amadeus Cho story that was in one of the Hulk books, almost a bookend to that original story. Then I finally roped him into doing a creator-owned thing. We did an eight-page story called Los Robos, which was about a kid who finds a giant robot, and that was in the Shattered Asian-American comics anthology that came out last year. Now this. He also did character designs for the Vision Machine comic.

It’s funny, because I feel like I’ve been working with him forever, but I’m really excited because this is the biggest chunk of pages I’ve done with him. He’s one of those artists that I basically want to work with all the time, and I’ve been able to work with him here and there, but now we really get to dig deep.

CA: Was he someone you brought in, that you told Jonathan Coulton “I know exactly who should draw this?”

GP: Yes. It’s funny, this whole process is new to Jonathan, so he’s been excited to see all of this art, but he’s definitely been very happy to hear me yammer on about it. For example, when we were talking about colors and everything, it’s just new language to him, to think about what to ask for and how to critique stuff. It was as if I was going to go into the studio and watch him make a song. I hope I get to do that, it’s going to be really exciting, but yeah. He was thrilled to see the stuff that Tak had done in the past, and when he saw the new character designs, he was blown away the way I was.

CA: So you’ve got the team set up. You’ve got Jonathan Coulton behind it. You’ve got a publisher in Monkeybrain.

GP: Yeah, for the digital comics.

CA: So why Kickstarter?

GP: Because we want to pay everybody what they’re worth. We want to pay everybody what they ask for, and if we were not doing this via Kickstarter, we couldn’t pay people. We’d have to be waiting to see what kind of money would be coming in from digital distribution, and I’m not comfortable at this point asking an artist to work for a month and not get paid. As a writer, I can do that. I’m working on other creator-owned books that are coming out in other ways, and I’m just not going to get paid up front, and that’s fine. A writer can write five books a month, if you’re organized with your time. An artist can’t do that. A lot of artists need six weeks to draw a single book, and it’s just not feasible for most of them to work on spec. So if there was a way to avoid that, I felt we needed to try to find a way to raise the money to actually pay people.

Also, Jonathan has a huge fanbase. He’s got people who go on cruises with him! [Laughs] He’s got this JoCo Cruise every year, and people literally go on a cruise with him. It’s a whole event. He’s got really excited and dedicated fans, and it seemed like this would be a fun thing that people would want. That was our hope, and it’s panned out so far.

CA: As we are talking right now, the Kickstarter has been up for, what, 12 hours?

GP: Two minutes from now, it will have been up for exactly 11 hours.

CA: And you have $17,000 more than your goal.

GP: That’s crazy.

CA: So it’s fully funded. It’s going to happen.

GP: Yeah. And what’s awesome is that now, we can increase the page count, and we have some other cool things that we can do now. I think it’s gone up like a thousand since we’ve started talking.

We’re insanely grateful that folks are excited about it. But Kickstarter for comics, it’s basically pre-ordering. So people are pre-ordering it, and then we get to make the book and put this money directly into the hands of the people who are making it. It’s an amazing gift that the world has given us. It’s an amazing tool, and I love all these folks who have jumped on board and were willing to pony up a few bucks to make some awesome stuff possible.

CA: This isn’t your first digital comic. You did Vision Machine.

GP: Yeah, and having done Vision Machine set me up with the knowledge to run a project like this. It’s actually a very similar scale and similar undertaking. That was a book that was funded by the Ford Foundation, and we released it digitally first, issue by issue, and then we printed up a bunch of copies of paperbacks that we were able to give away. That was the intention from the beginning, it was what the grant was for, so that we could give it all away. Code Monkey‘s a little different in that we’re actually selling it. We’re giving it to the backers, and then down the line — the backers have an exclusive window where they get it first — we’ll release it beyond that.

The experience of having done Vision Machine showed me that it was possible. I learned the different steps of doing the whole thing, so I was grateful for that opportunity.

CA: Along the same lines of asking why you wanted to do kickstarter, I’m curious as to why you wanted to go with Monkeybrain, as opposed to self-publishing it. Was it just because there’s infrastructure there?

GP: There are multiple reasons. One, I just love what Monkeybrain does. I think it’s a company that was put together by independent comics creators that wanted to take advantage of digital distribution and make it work for independent creators. Sheerly on principle, I wanted to be a part of what they do, and they were incredibly supportive and interested from the get-go.

Also, on a practical level, I really like Comixology. I like reading comics using that Comixology app. Monkeybrain talked to Comixology and we figured out how it could all work, and they gave us the codes to fulfill the pledges so that people could read the comics through the app, and that’s how we could deliver the comics. I was really excited about that, because that’s how I read comics. I also read them in PDFs when I get those, but honestly, it’s trickier to do. There are more steps involved than doing it through Monkeybrain and Comixology, so doing those things together mattered to me.

They’ve also got Monkey right in the name. It was destiny. Karma. Whatever you want to call it.

CA: I notice that they get the smallest logo on the cover. Greg Pak gets the big logo.

GP: They’re all the same width! They had to fit the width, that’s all.

CA: So is the story just a one-shot?

GP: We’ll see. The sky’s kind of the limit. We’ve been talking about it, trading emails, thinking about it. We don’t know how high this is going to go. Right now, what we’re doing as of 10:33 Monday night, what’s definitely going to happen is that we’re doing four digital issues that are released digitally through Monkeybrain and then will be released as a full paperback graphic novel. That may be it, or, if folks keep pledging, we may do another book. We might expand the book we’ve got, or do a whole other one. The advertised page count is 60 pages, but we’re going to bump it up.

There’s sort of an endless amount of story potential, honestly, in the JoCo Universe. There’s a whole realm of opportunity, so we’ll see.

CA: What other musicians do you want to make comics with? Because there’s an interesting backstory with GWAR that I don’t think has ever been fully explored.

GP: My first choice would be to talk to Styx about the “Come Sail Away” graphic novel.

CA: The dumbest song.

GP: No!

CA: The absolute dumbest.

GP: Shut your mouth, Chris Sims. That song is awesome. There’s nothing more awesome than that song. I listen to it at least once a week, sometimes multiple times.

CA: It has a twist ending.

GP: Yes! It’s terrific. It’s genius.

CA: Right now, you have over 1,450 readers. Where would that put you on the Diamond charts?

GP: [Laughs] It’s kind of funny. If you look at just strictly the number of people backing, it’s smaller than you’d see on the Diamond charts, but the money ends up being bigger, because the premiums have extra stuff going on. We have mugs and t-shirts and you can buy an ad in the book. A lot of people are paying a lot more than you’d normally pay for a graphic novel, because there’s a whole level of experience going on.

One thing that I’m really excited about, I thought “what’s a crazy thing that we could do that would be helpful to people and be fun?” And one of our levels is the Code Monkey Secret Insider Package, and if folks pledge $250, they get on a super-secret mailing list where they get an advance look at every stage of production. They get the outlines, the scripts ahead of time. I can’t do that through Diamond.

Back when I was doing improv comedy all the time in New York City, there was a really smart guy in our improv group who said “Look, we’re in New York. People have a bajillion different things they can do on a Friday or Saturday night, so why are they going to come to our show?” The only way we can get them is if somehow we make it an event. If you’re going to do something, and people don’t know you, you have to create an event. You gotta create a reason for people to come, you create a story, an event. You make a little show out of it, and I think that applies to comics now, too. This whole Kickstarter thing is beautiful, because it allows people to be a part of something. You’re involved in the whole production when you pledge, or you can be. That’s fun. I’m happy to be playing in this particular sandbox right now, and I’m very grateful.

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