Every now and then I run across a book that makes me stop in the middle of reading to consider why, exactly, I am so entertained by things that could easily be seen at best as done in questionable taste. If pressed, I’d probably admit that’s the primary reason I avoid so-called reality television like the plague it is—too often it’s just an excuse, if not an actual showcase, for behavior that would embarrass even those possessed of the crassest of sensibilities.
Yet, sometimes there’s something hidden, perhaps only hinted at or briefly glimpsed, an underlying current that shares the same spirit with by the very best work by our most gifted of social critics and satirists. There’s a sense that all may not be as simple as appearances might suggest, that there’s more on offer than meets even the most jaded and cynical of eyes. True, it’s not something that I encounter all that much, but when I do, I immediately want to investigate it, and the creator or creators behind it.
All of which leads us to today’s guest, the creator of Unicorn Being a Jerk, C. W. Moss.
C.W.’s the mercurial talent behind both a webcomic and book series focusing on the antics of perhaps that most revered of mythical creatures, a unicorn, as he navigates the often troubled waters of this modern life. The result is a reading experience that is often hilarious or horrifying and sometimes a strange mixture of both emotions.
For those who haven’t encountered it yet, how would you describe your new book?
Unicorn Being a Jerk is an absurdist satire about a unicorn doing things humans often do.
How about your work in general? How would you describe what you do?
On my own work, I have to admit that I always feel odd trying to describe it and what it is that I do. It has always seemed inappropriate to me, because my understanding of what my work can do is constantly shifting. I know I make work about people because I want my work to appeal to people. My general ethos, across the board, is to produce work for adults that can be understood by children.
So, where’d this all come from—and why unicorns? Is this all a result of some deep-seated mistrust of mystical creatures who only listen to virgins—perhaps because one of them betrayed you in your youth—or do put all blame on global warming and/or the Occupy movement?
Unicorn Being a Jerk is really the leftover ideas that didn't fit under the umbrella of Unicorn Having Fun, which is the first book I produced about Lemonade “Unicorn” Steiny.
The whole thing was really built out of the moral crisis that happened while I was in college. I grew up in Missouri, and moving to California exposed me to a completely different mindset.
Or, it could be that I found myself particularly malleable. For me, college was a search for self and, thankfully because of my teachers, a kindling for a deep-seated interest in the world. Los Angeles, probably any metropolis now that I think about it, is a moral playground—and I'd never really lived in anything like it. Everyday there is the possibility that I can wake up and pretend to be someone else, live a different way, ignore others, help others, et cetera. There are lots of choices, and the making of this book was a chance for me to really consider what I thought it meant to be a jerk.
Well, how do you create one of your cartoons? Does it all start with a scenario, an image or perhaps an idea ripped from today’s headlines that’s translated into your own unique visual language?
The technical process begins will a long list of ideas, that is refined and further refined as a clearer idea of the feeling of the book emerges from the rubble.
Next, I sketch at a really small scale, and from there I start translating them onto larger illustration boards—at about three times the size of what they are in the book—with pencil, and then I follow that with a .05 waterproof, technical pen. After that, I bring in watercolors - doing specifically the colors - and after that I do the shading.
The process for the illustrations, from beginning to end, usually takes years. Unicorn Being a Jerk—from here on out known as UBAJ—was conceived of during the writing of Unicorn Having Fun. There were a lot of ideas that seemed unjustifiable if they were going to be presented as Unicorn Having Fun.
UBAJ was an amalgam of everything I had seen, been through, or done in my life at one point or another. It is intended to be taken as a critique mixed with a question mark.
Well, how do you know if an idea will work? Is it just instinct, or is there something specific that tips you off that one idea will be particularly effective?
I have a really solid core group of peers and friends who are kind enough to tell me if an idea is horrible—which happens really often. They are really great for helping me figure out why something might not be saying what I think it is.
Generally, I know I have a good project when, at the earliest stages, the idea won't leave me alone. With so many things worthy of talking about, more often than not, the biggest problem I have is finding the most effective way to say something. As an example, there are a million ways to tell a lover that you love them, but its effectiveness is determined mostly by the delivery. That's what I think of when I come up with an idea: what is the best way to say this with an image?
You know, while reading it, it struck me that some of the ideas in the strips could be well, really upsetting for some readers. And that led to me wondering if you’ve had to deal with any fallout from some of your more edgy jokes, or if you even worry at all about that kind of blowback?
Surprisingly, I haven't gotten much flack directly, but there were some really incredible debates going around in the comments section of websites that posted the book when it first went viral online. It was fascinating seeing what pushed people over their personal edge. I mean, there are obviously illustrations that are in bad taste, but what I find most fascinating is watching what images some people are more willing to reconcile with themselves as appropriate.
Well, this kind of brings up a question that I typically ask much later in an interview: What do you want your readers to get from the strip? Is it all about laughter and entertainment, or perhaps are you being clever and trying to make a point with this work?
Well, first I think I should say that UBAJ never really lived as a strip, at least in the way I think of strips. When I first put the work online, everything was put up at once.
And, to be honest, I would be wary to present most of the images from the book on their own, though some can operate as a single panel. When one image is presented by itself, it offers a skewed perspective of the work as a whole—and UBAJ was always intended to be seen as one [piece of work].
When people read the book, I hope they take a moment to reconsider what the term jerk means in a broader context.
I suspect I know the answer to this one, but do you ever worry about running out of ideas for the strip?
I feel like I've somewhat exhausted what could be Unicorn Being a Jerk, at least the ideas that are worthy of seeing the world. As for Unicorn as a whole, the project is really in its early stages - and very far from feeling exhausted in my mind.
How about bored, for lack of a better term? Does the nature of the strip, both its format and the slant of its content, ever feel restrictive or leave you yearning for something else?
It's hard to say whether I will or won't ever be bored of Unicorn. Right now, I still love his rainbow horn.
On the format, the one line and one image is intended to be restrictive, because I tend to overwork things. It's a natural filter to make sure I keep to the point.
I've definitely tried Unicorn in a few other ways, but the static image is it for now. The only other form I'm really interested in seeing is animation. It’s filled with so many opportunities that aren't possible in a static image.
Well, aside from what you’ve mentioned earlier, what do you get from doing these sick little puppies for our entertainment?
Part of me loves the idea that my crisis of conscience is having a discussion with someone else's morals every time someone reads UBAJ.
The other part loves that it UBAJ has come to serve as an almost litmus test for qualifying new people in my life. Depending on which jokes people laugh at, I can usually tell how well we'll get along. It's odd, but the system seems to work.
How about creating art, in general? What does that do for you that you can’t get from the other things in your life?
First, I should say that I think good art is a tombstone to a time period. It should encapsulate an idea, and say it better than words could.
When I'm making work, the beginning seems to be the most enjoyable because it happens without the fear of how it might be received. When an idea begins in my mind, it exists solely to solve a problem that I'm having—and, from there, I have to figure out if it could be relevant to society, in its initial form or slightly shifted.
For me, art is the chance to be part of a conversation much larger than oneself, and that a possibility that always brings me back—even if I've had a bad experience or poor reception.
Well, what’s coming up for Mr. Unicorn in the near and far terms?
If you're talking about Lemonade 'Unicorn' Steiny, he told me he was really going to make a good run at producing a lot of videos next year.
For the characterization that I draw of him, there should be another book online early next year. After that, there has been some talk about a Unicorn television show. I've been trying to get the right people involved, and so far things have been great—but the project still has a considerable way to go before it becomes a reality.
What about you? What plans have you got cooking that you can tell us about at this time?
Recently, I've been fascinated with relationships—what makes them work, how our minds work for and against us, the changing face of monogamy, et cetera. Last year, I wrote a book about fear in America called Untie a Knot: Fear. The (new, still untitled) book will probably approach the subject in a similar way. I'm hoping to get to that once I finish the next book.
And how about unicorns? What do you hope that your work does for or perhaps to...those horny horses?
I hope it can help people understand that things are as real as you make them.
Anything else you’d like to share before I let you get back to work?
If anyone is interested in the relationship between Lemonade 'Unicorn' Steiny, the main character in UBAJ, and me—we were recently part of a documentary called The F— Was That: A Unicorn Documentary. It can be seen here.
Also, in case anyone was wondering, Lemonade and I resolved our differences. He is kind of an asshat, but we've mostly resolved our differences after not speaking for a bit after UBAJ came out. It's really a good thing though, that he and I are talking again - professionally and personally. I think he is going to have some nice contributions to the next book too.
Finally, anyone interested can always sign up to follow me via Twitter.