Stranger in an Un-Strange World: An interview with Brad Neely

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Having forgotten to ask Brad Neely for permission to use his work as illustration, we must make do with a sketch of the man himself.

Brad Neely’s drawings work, because you read them in an instant.

The images tend to move, but Neely isn’t really an animator. His drawings are all single instances, flashing by, at a pace that’s slower than ordinary film, but still fast enough to keep you focused.

And as he piles on layers of madness and weird moves – George Washington eating brains, snorting cocaine, making rough love to bears and radiating gamma all in the span of one brief video cartoon – you absorb all of it, cause every panel’s done just right.

Brad Neely provided the headline. He is at once cartoonist, musician and video director, and strange and hilarious creations emerge from his pen and brow. In this interview he talks about his characters, how he fleshes out the world surrounding them, and how he works as an artist.

First up: How come videos?

The big steps in my life are blind. I’ve never really considered my videos to be “videos.” I’ve always wanted to make movies, but I was poor, unconnected and uneducated about the process. So, I couldn’t make movies, and I lacked the discipline to draw real comic books in a professional sense. Somehow I found a place in-between that I could afford and control by myself. It’s a bastardized process, but it works. I guess.

Like a lot of people I came across your work when I saw the Washington video. It’s funny, and then after a while you realize that the song’s a hit. Is that how you get inspired – by writing songs and then illustrating them?

Yes. Some of the time. Music is a great starting point. Sometimes I start with an overall feeling, an abstract place that I want the piece to evoke. Music sometimes is the right tool to use first. Sometimes it’s the pace of the language; sometimes I want to try for plot. With intention I have a lot of options.

What’s the basic work process for a video?

I have a list of about 200 or so concepts. Sometimes I draw from that list to start and sometimes I have a need to start fresh. Once the idea is decided upon I write the script. If I will be working on a song video I first devise a melody and a loose idea of the song structure. I revise the script or song. Then I record. In the recording process there are lots of new revisions. Then I draw in pencil.Then I ink. Then I scan. Then I color. Then I edit the audio and visual together, all the time cutting and pushing and pulling.

DRAWING STYLE
I like the clarity and precision of your drawing style. Even the most bizarre ideas and postures are easily read, even if the individual image flashes by in a fraction of a second. How do you design and make your drawings?

First off, thank you for your kind words about my drawings. I labor over clarity and emotional content quite a bit. My stuff doesn’t move so I try to make up for that with expressive drawings. Hopefully my visuals convey gestures and emotion that support the characters in the story. I look towards the greats of print comics and how they have much in common with the visual storytelling processes of filmmakers. John Buscema, Michael Lark, Frank Miller, John Paul Leon, Mike Mignola and countless other comic book artists know how to suggest pace tone and performance through a series of panels. I learn from their greatness. I came out of a fine arts background. I love great paintings. I love the great cinematographers. What do you put in the box and what will it mean emotionally for the audience? That is fun.

I talk a lot about hating drawing now. This is due to having to do 200 or so drawings in one day. Plus, the way I am drawing for these videos is not the only way I draw. So I am drawing in one way all the time. This is akin to an actor only performing on role in many different settings and styles. It hurts the hand as well as the heart.

CHARACTERS
I read that Baby Cakes and Frank and Steve were created in a short period of time, when you had to come up with something for Superdeluxe.com. But there seems to be quite a bit of universe construction going on in your work. What’s the source of these strange characters and their worlds?

I did conceive of BC and the Prof Bros in a couple of weeks. I was under the gun. But after the first few moments of reflection I realized that the time didn’t really matter as long as I didn’t make anything that boxed me in. I needed loose open characters that had reasons to tell stories. I wanted to explore the way people told stories. So I thought a diary would be a good, open-ended format. And I figured that a teacher might be able to tell stories. So that was the real beginning: a diary and a teacher. The rest of the development came afterwards, the voices, the relationships, the settings. This all was easy to work up because I hadn’t boxed myself in at the beginning. If I had set my people in space, or in the Spanish inquisition or an asylum I would have had less room to move. Maybe.

I recently ran into an anthropologist who explained something about the life of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. Basically, learning the skills required to survive as a primitive man require life-long education, whereas a farming skill like plowing can be picked up in a matter of days or weeks. And you could argue that living like most of us do in the US or Europe takes very little practical knowledge of any kind whatsoever. Baby Cakes can certainly be seen as an extreme example of that kind of estrangement from the real world, big and bloated and full of irrelevant lore. He makes me question, whether the notion of a knowledge-based society is maybe just a lot of bullshit. Any thoughts on that?

Wow. That’s fun to think about. Thanks for that. I know what you’re getting at. BC is seemingly pretty useless if you’re talking about benefiting society. He eats, gets drunk and makes music for no one. He barely goes to college just because his dad is a teacher and he can go for free. He’s 30 and living off a relatively small inheritance that he shares with his dad. And yes, I do feel that he stands for a lot of us. What good is he? What good is a life like that? Right? Well. That is a very dangerous question to ask. Life is life. BC is a sweet guy who is emotionally intuitive and existentially inquisitive. Life has no empirical meaning, life is useless, knowledge is impossible, trust is impossible, truth is impossible, communication is flawed and the world is overpopulated with people who are doing nothing to make it better. Yes to all of that. BUT, meaningless doesn’t equal value-less. We are here and there is no one to show us the way. We are making our ways or deciding not to make our ways or we have never even thought that a way is needed. This is our predicament, BC’s predicament. Everyone’s predicament. It’s okay. We’re going to be okay. We’re better than we were 100,000 years ago right? Maybe? Who knows. But estimating people’s value by their societal input, or personal achievements is quite dangerous. Especially in a world where (Thank God) achievement is still a term with relative definition.

My sisters are pretty scared of your work. Maybe that’s just the satire working. But do you actively set out to creep out your readers just a little?

Not at all. I try to talk to everyone honestly with the videos. I’m working up some solid women characters to even out the “Man’s World” feel of my cartoons. However they won’t be moral compasses or boring understanders. My girls will deal with what it is to be a human. That means they will look foolish and seem desperate and have small triumphs and large vices. Pony and Crystal are their names. I hope to hell they make your sisters happy. (Ha)

Baby Cakes is ignorant of the simplest things, and socially retarded, but he also seems to have a pretty complete worldview, which makes all his introspection funny. How did he end up like this?

I never think about BC as retarded. I think he just has never had reason or need to worry about a lot of day to day stuff. I think about him and I love him. I think, “If I never had to worry about a job, if I never had my mom around, if my Dad was distant and communication rare in the house, if I had all the time in the world to do whatever I wanted… I would be BC. I’d walk around, get fat, look at girls, think about death, hate on liars, make songs, get drunk, read comics and I would try to figure out what it meant to live, to be living.

As a reader I sympathize with Baby Cakes, his sadness and isolation. On the other hand, even if his world is shallow, it seems to be shallow in a different direction than any other person’s world – and that gives him a kind of strength. Do you see him as a hero?

I definitely see him as a hero, because he has hope. Even if that hope is selfish or desperate or doomed, he still can smile and he laughs and he feels okay sometimes. If a person can feel okay sometimes, they have achieved something. Feeling okay is vastly under-rated. If you can smile, if you can laugh, if you can love you have won. Even if it is for a few moments. There are many that are without this.

Sure, he is a stranger in an un-strange world: ours. He can’t believe what he sees but he is incapable of seeing the irony. He is incapable of metaphor. I love him. I feel like I can find myself in him. That helps me. He’s doing a little more than just trying to get by. He is asking himself (and us) what the hell this life is. He wants to know. To me that desire to understand himself makes him a hero. I love him. Plus he is seven feet tall, bald and clammy. Perfect.

THE PROFESSOR BROTHERS
There seems to be a lot of middle-aged frustration, nihilism and disappointment in Frank and Steve. They’re cynical and whimsical, but they also seem to abide by certain weird ethical codes. Or maybe they lost all that at some stage?

Definitely. What’s wrong with nihilism? It’s better that delusion. HA! I really don’t set out with entire character plans in mind. I don’t plan out the character’s worldviews and levels of understanding. That is all something that has to be felt out in the writing process. Even the stuff I said above about BC, that is all new thought. I can’t really speak for them. I just do what feels right for their stories. I try to make what feels like real people. Sure they are cartoons and do larger than life stuff for the sake of making comedies, but it has to feel right. These are what I think real humans have in them as far as honest motives.

Anyway, these guys are tricky. They have more layers than BC. They are out for no one but themselves, it seems. I think they are just trying to get by. They just get their checks, try to have some sex and try to be the more important brother in the room. I know they are petty and horrible. I know they are shallow and chauvinistic. I guess I want to talk about this through them because I see these kinds of guys everywhere. I see them in me, in my best friends. I don’t want to say they are bad people. I don’t really think about anyone that way. They have goodness in them. We’ll see that more in the future.

Maybe you could share some thoughts about what these characters want? Certainly, there’s something gentlemanly about not giving a shit about the rules, or the curriculum.

I do think their rebellion is one of their few attributes. It, along with the desire to drink and to fuck, is the only thing they rise up and shine for. They get a kick out of fucking things up. Sometimes they fuck things up just as a side effect of not caring. But I do believe Frank cares about the orator position inherent in being a professor. He likes to hold court and he knows how to tell a story. He cares so much about story that truth might just be expendable if it means he can be a bit more compelling.

(Yeah, for a little while I was imagining a live action version of the Prof Bros. I imagined Gary Oldman as Frank and William Hurt as Steve. I thought the movie might be about them competing for the department head position in the History Department. Then I realized that neither of them would want it. They would try to not get it. They would hate the responsibility. Anyway, that casting is just a fun daydream.)

In any case, I get the feeling there’s a strange kind of morality at play in all your characters’ worlds?

I appreciate that. I think it might be easy, and totally okay to see my stuff as absurd poop joke cartoons. But I honestly try to say something with everything. I want to be funny, first and foremost. But I also want to be important. That’s not something to be ashamed of right? Is it immodest to try to make important things? To consider cartoons that way? Maybe so. Maybe I am a dick.

Like Baby Cakes the brothers, although balding and often pitiful, seem to be lords of their own private fiefdoms. There’s the dean above them, but the students are entirely in their power. Is that something you like to explore – the idea of a separate world, where the freaks are successful?

I think we all seek a position of authority; whether in our families or at our jobs or in our hobbies or on message boards. I see that urge as beyond human. Apes do it. Heavenly bodies do it. It’s funny. KING ME! REVLOVE AROUND ME! Hilarious.

THE CARTOONS
Could you say something about the work process – from idea to finished panel? The readers of the Metabunker, many of them cartoonists themselves, are always interested in the technicalities of drawing and writing.

I think about a feeling first. A way to laugh. Then I try to figure out how to put an audience there. I have a list of do’s and don’ts. I am a list-aholic. I have a list that I consult when I’m starting out.

1) Find overall feel.
2) Define peak moments.
3) Clear message.
4) Clear story.
5) Find a funnier way.
6) Find a more exciting way.
7) Don’t over-think.
8) Set up a question for the audience.
9) Make pleasurable sound and vision.
10) Funny First.

I use a .9mm Draftmatic Alvin mechanical pencil with H lead. I then Ink with a Prismacolor Premier 03 on very thin vellum. I use Photoshop to color and to make final corrections. I use Imovie for editing. I use Cubase for recording with an SM7 for vocals.

I really like the idea of the reader pondering a one-panel cartoon and maybe even bringing it to a different conclusion than the author imagined. The bearstranauts, for example, it’s such a pleasure to imagine the circumstances that led serious, highly trained engineers and scientists to agree that bears in space were a great idea, worthy of years of funding and research.

The funny thing is your conclusion is exactly what I had in mind. I love to think about the blindness of the commitment. Yes, the money and time. That’s fun. Thank you for that. I think you and I will be instant friends!

The man pondering his toolbox of hands has a bit of the same – where does stuff like that come from? Wild brainstorming? Dreams? Free drawing?

This one has baffled a lot of people. Therefore I feel like it is a failure. The idea is to capture the predicament of having a lot of tools and a lot of capable time but being incapable of decision. The thought balloon is full of thought, but the thought is meaningless. The toolbox is full of hands (arguably the most important tool ever!) but the man just blankly contemplates his pointless opportunity. He could be thinking anything, he could be doing anything, he has been given it all… and yet he is a blank.

Creased Comics – Brad Neely’s homepage which contains, among other things, vast quantities of single frame comics. superdeluxe.com – Host to a great deal of video comics by Neely, including his relatively recent four part epic, China-Illinois. George Washington – A link to the Washington song that made Neely web famous a few years ago. Christoffer Zieler is a cartoonist and maintains both a webpage and a blog, both of which you must check out.

6 Responses to “Stranger in an Un-Strange World: An interview with Brad Neely”


  • First of all, great interview Christoffer. Brad rocks; I got hooked on George Washington in college and must have pulled the vid up at every party I was at for a month straight after I first saw it.

    Second, thank you a TON for inquiring about the “technicalities.” I never tire of hearing how others work their magic.

    Cheers!

  • Very nice interview – I found Neely’s work quite strange when I first saw it, but by now I’m a huge fan expecially of Baby Cakes and the Brothers. It’s now wonder that the guy behind it all seems to be an intriguing person himself.

  • Brads stuff is just awesome. It makes me think and laugh. The kind of thing that art is really suppose to do. It can help the audience understand the world a little better than when they started. It was a good interview and it was interesting to get an insight on how Brad thinks and works. It was also good to get another perspective on his work. I thought BC was retarded also, so don’t feel bad.. I don’t think Brad really wants us to have a high regard for any of his caricature’s personally. They are usually so self absorbed the rest of the world doesn’t really matter to them at all. I like Brads stills a lot but not as much as his other stuff. When he mixes his comic strips and his music ( each that would fail on there own ) some kind of crazy magic comes out of it. It radiates genus in every direction. From matching a mood to the relevance of whats going on in the story. In a blunt world thats so unique and disturbing it defies proper description for me. I pray Mr Neely may soon find a proper venue for his work. One that will properly reward him financially WITHOUT making him jump threw any hoops to make him PC or “appeal to a larger demographic”.

    Thank you for realizing Mr. Neely is well worth interviewing and exposing to a larger audience !!

  • That’s true. I’d totally rather be fucking than writing this message.

  • Awesome interview. I’ve been a fan of his stuff for about 3 years now. I originally got into it because it was so funny but I ended up being able to connect with it. I think it’s because his characters are selfish, like he says, and that would make sense because we’re all selfish. But that’s okay.

    Again, great job with the interview.

  • Thanks for the friendly comments. I feel I should apologize for the illustration – I have come to realize that it looks very much like a Danish colleague of mine, Mr. Baggersgaard, and it is, therefore, statistically unlikely that it looks very much like Mr. Neely (we didn’t meet), although I DID make it with reference to googled images and video.

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