The Horrible Truth About Super-Science
Jackson Publick of The Venture Brothers on superheroes, satire, and the '60s
Mr. Fantastic is a sociopath who hides his super-powered brethren in a giant Arctic laboratory. The Scooby Gang is a collection of addled misfits with a talking dog that barks ominous commands only his pill-popping master can hear. And David Bowie's shape-shifting powers have helped make him the world's greatest supervillain.
This is the universe of The Venture Brothers, a series on the Cartoon Network that's currently in production for a third season. It's not the breakout hit of the "Adult Swim" lineup of late-night shows for older viewers. That would be the series that brought Boston to a standstill, Aqua Teen Hunger Force. And it's not the first Cartoon Network series to mangle the characters and conventions of classic cartoons and paste them back together like a William Burroughs cut-up. The first episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast debuted 13 years ago.
The Venture Brothers is a different beast. It flaunts all the elements required of a cartoon for hipsters: irony, social satire, pop culture parodies, uncomfortable pauses. But at its heart, as creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer frequently explain, the show is about failure. It's about the vision that inspired the science fiction TV shows of the 1950s and '60s, the optimism of the space race, and the baby boomers' beloved, indulgent idea that they could achieve anything they wanted.
These were ideas that satirized themselves. Giving its 1966 Man of the Year award to "the Young Generation," Time's editors saluted the boomers as the folks "who will land on the moon, cure cancer and the common cold, lay out blight-proof, smog-free cities, enrich the underdeveloped world, and, no doubt, write finis to poverty and war." Forty years later the boomers have disappointed no one as much as they've disappointed themselves.
This explains why Dr. Thaddeus "Rusty" Venture, the failed boy genius and father of the series' eponymous brothers Hank and Dean, is such a screw-up. As we learn in flashbacks across the series' 27 episodes (so far), Venture pere was a Jonny Quest figure who solved mysteries under the wing of his brilliant father, his friend Hector, and their bodyguard Swifty. His '60s were an era of superhero teams, super-science, space stations, and helpful robots. As Rusty grows up, all of that peters out. He drops out of college (after palling around with two other super-scientists and a Doctor Doom analog named Baron Underbheit), loses portions of the family business, and enters middle age trading off his family's successes while reluctantly raising his two rather dopey boys. When the Monarch, his butterfly-fetishizing archfoe, breaks into Venture's lab, the villain can't find anything worth defiling or smashing. "What can I do to this guy that life hasn't already?" he sulks. "I almost feel sorry for him."
Hank and Dean don't know all of this. They believe that their father is a genius and that the adventures they stumble into are legendary. They think nothing odd of the fact that he wears a one-piece "speed suit" and that they dress, respectively, like the Scooby Gang's Freddy and like Buddy Holly. They don't seem to notice that the villains they battle are poseurs or trust fund kids who usually belong to a hamstrung, bureaucratic supervillain union called the Guild of Calamitous Intent. They're blissfully unaware that nothing important has been invented for a long, long time. But when they inevitably screw something up or get targeted by one of their wannabe archenemies, their bodyguard Brock Samson steps in to save them with palpable boredom and a heavy sigh.
Not that the series is some relentless Bergmanesque downer. Far from it. The world Publick and Hammer have sketched out mashes together every trope from classic science fiction and boys' fantasies. The multiplicity of supervillains and influences isn't too surprising, since Publick (who was born in 1971 and whose real name is Christopher McCulloch) cut his teeth working for Tick creator Ben Edlund on the comic book, animated, and live-action versions of that superhero parody. It's the other pop culture lifts that are surprising. Depeche Mode's David Gahan shows up at a super-science yard sale. David Bowie is the superpowered figurehead of the Guild of Calamitous Intent.
Nods like these distinguish The Venture Brothers and make Hammer and Publick's ambitions a little clearer. The duo isn't simply slapping a show together. It's synthesizing everything Hammer and Publick like about pop culture into one narrative, one overarching science fiction vision. What Robert Anton Wilson did with conspiracy theories in Illuminatus!, Hammer and Publick do with superheroes, space age futurism, mystery-solving kids, and New Wave rock.
Associate Editor David Weigel interviewed Publick by telephone in April. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reason: Why create a sci-fi/adventure/action series about failure?
Jackson Publick: The basic idea of The Venture Brothers was taking the world of Jonny Quest and jumping back into it 30 years later, seeing how someone who grew up like Jonny—with that kind of space race enthusiasm and disregard for other cultures—would turn out. Dr. Venture is a boy genius who didn't grow up to be what he should have been. Doc Hammer has really said it best: The beauty of failure is the beauty of human beings.
Reason: And I suppose you're not just talking about the failure of superheroes, because these fantasy science stories were produced by a culture that was high on super-science—beating the Russians to the moon, curing every disease, etc.
Publick: That's the deeper thing behind it. It's me voicing my disappointment that we don't have that kind of magic going on any more, that level of enthusiasm and hope. That extends to the kind of cultural stuff that was going on in the '60s, a youthful generation thinking they could change the world. I'm voicing my displeasure at having been born in a time when some of that magic, for lack of a better word, is gone, and some of those promises that were made in all of our pop culture were never met. My laptop is the coolest thing that's come out of that. I'm still waiting on my jet pack.
reason: You seem to take some pleasure out of the terrible flaws you write into these characters.
Publick: Well, read any biography on one of your heroes or any great man. One thing you discover is that all of their closets were full of rotten skeletons. You find out Eisenhower had a mistress; you find out that Frank Lloyd Wright was an asshole.
Reason: But when you write in one of those '60s-style heroes, they come off pretty well.
Publick: We haven't done much in terms of casting those older guys in a bad light except through the prism of Dr. Venture's view of his father. The thing that always struck me about Jonny Quest is: What kind of parent brings his kid to the Amazon so that yetis can throw boulders at him? We were playing with that, that kind of callous disregard for proper parenting in the name of the pursuit of science. Other than that little hint of sadism, we haven't really taken the wind out of the '60s guys.
Reason: The chief antagonist for the heroes is the Monarch, basically a pathetic trust fund kid who wants an archenemy just for the sake of having one. What was the thinking behind that?
Publick: We look at the source material. I love old Spider-Man comics, but when I read them I wonder, what the hell do these guys want? What makes you put a costume on and start chasing somebody around? What makes you have a lifelong commitment to resenting a specific other human being? Because it's so pointless we've purposely made it more so.
Also, I've known a couple of trust fund kids. Their goals are strange and take…a little longer
to get to than some people who have to work a little more. It's pointless.
Reason: Like the Guild of Calamitous Intent.
Publick: With the Guild we've created a bureaucracy, a union of hate. Even the way they express that pointless anger is that it's just their job. That's the best explanation they could come up with. It's their job, and they have to deal with the bureaucracy, the paperwork that comes with hating someone.
Reason: What was the source of the idea?
Publick: Doc Hammer came up with the Guild. I had written for The Tick, which was a superhero parody show, and we came up with reasons for these villains to do what they do. That is the more superheroish side of The Venture Brothers. Doc comes at it at that exact angle: Why the hell do these idiots do this stuff?
Reason: You regularly tweak patriotism as a motivation for these characters. You hark back to the patriotism of the 1960s, but the contemporary government actors, like the president, are generally gullible morons.
Publick: It's a bit of a stereotype, and maybe not the most creative endeavor of our show. Anyway, patriotism is the wrong word to use. It's the self-righteousness that pretends to be patriotism that we see today. I don't think a lot of people are able to relate to genuine patriotism, a genuinely good feeling about our country and its meaning to the rest of the world. I think the bloom is off the rose. Any time you hear people who still talk with that mind-set, they come across, to me anyway, as just as ridiculous as our characters. You read books about their crazy experiments, like Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats.
Reason: About the military's "psychic spies."
Publick: Yes. You read stuff like that and realize that those people are crazy. Fundamentalists are crazy. They're the real-world equivalent to the evil geniuses of our spy fiction and our superhero comics. They want to mold the world into a specific shape that they really believe in, and if you don't believe in that, if you can't relate to that, it just seems crazy. What is the difference between wanting to develop insane weapons so America can dominate the planet and being the guy with the cat on his lap who wants to take over the world?
Reason: The clichés of this material, though, like the mystery-solving whiz kids and the Dr. Evil character, aren't ever treated seriously anymore. Not even in the stuff on the Disney Channel that's meant for kids.
Publick: All of that is so ridiculous that you can only buy it for so long. In the '60s they were servicing a gigantic generation of children. You had all these baby boomer kids in the '50s and '60s, a brand new market for sci-fi writers. There was all this stuff designed to make them feel included and celebrated. At some point you just have to say, "C'mon, children can't solve mysteries. Children lack the perception and the reasoning ability to do that. And they don't weigh much! A diamond smuggler could snap one in two!"
And the people who are making those stories are on a nostalgia trip. That automatically puts it a little bit at arm's length. Much has been said about how much the writers of my generation are slaves to irony. What we try to do is find the heart in those things, in a way. If I'm referencing something, it's me being naked about what my influences are.
Reason: Which is why the archetypes from all these different kinds of science fiction and comics make appearances?
Publick: Well, Batman and James Bond were both big in 1967, so why wouldn't they both be friends? All this stuff is connected in my head, so I'm kind of celebrating it and also trying to pick at it, to find the little faults of logic and exploit them. Like the Impossible Family, our version of the Fantastic Four family. I wonder: "What would really happen if cosmic rays deformed you? What kind of so-called powers would you really end up with?" So we play with the human frailty at the core of that story. We inject as much humanity into characters as possible. A joke may start with something as simple as, "Wouldn't it be funny to see a guy in a butterfly costume have to ride the subway?" But the more we get into it, the more we get into these characters, the more we find other veins of genuine character and humanity that we can pull other stories from.
Reason: What's the connection between all this and the pop culture figures you rope into the series, like Depeche Mode or David Bowie?
Publick: The connective tissue is first and foremost us: This is stuff Doc and I like. But a guy like Bowie is a natural for a series like this because he's so otherworldly cool. He has portrayed an alien more than once. He's so fucking cool that he's got to be a supervillain. We hit on Depeche Mode and New Wave stuff because, stylistically, those guys kind of look like supervillains.
Reason: Are you just cramming those real-world characters into these stories, into the whole science-fiction continuum?
Publick: I think Bowie was born out of this to begin with. "Space Oddity" was his first big hit, remember. You can't tell me that Bowie wasn't into that stuff when he was a kid. You can't tell me that didn't broaden his horizons. I'm sure he read a lot of science fiction when he was a kid and then started to embody these fantastical characters.
Reason: As big as they were in the '60s, these comic book characters and science fiction stories are even bigger now. They're the currency of Hollywood blockbusters. Why is that?
Publick: Being a solipsistic person, I like to think that's happening because I want it to happen. I was working at a comic shop when Tim Burton's Batman came out. That was a huge deal: We'd had Superman movies before, we had The Hulk on TV, but it never fully took over. Part of it was that the '80s saw the beginning of an acceptance of the comics medium as something valid, something critics should pay attention to. We were selling The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, all that stuff.
Reason: But it's far more dominant now.
Publick: Doc and I are really lucky that all of that is happening now, while our show is on, because that's our fan base. Lost is a result of this kind of thing. So is Battlestar Galactica. People are getting into these episodic science fictiony things, which can only help us because we've got a longer story arc in the background. I have no idea why it happened other than maybe my generation doesn't draw the line between high and low art. You also see that in the fine arts world. Commercial illustration is seen as a legitimate fine art form. These old cover paperback novel paintings have skyrocketed in price. You can buy books or prints of pulp novel covers. Old movie posters are huge collector's items.
Reason: And that's a good thing?
Publick: Absolutely. I think all those people, those artists, had a lot more creativity and worked just as hard as or harder than "fine artists." I put Raiders of the Lost Ark in the same category as Fellini. Maybe that's a generational thing, but it's a good thing that artists can be celebrated for doing that work, and that a lot of the elitism is gone. And it's good that Hollywood is cashing in on it. Maybe they're only making more of these stories because the X-Men movies did so well, but it works out for everybody.
Reason: But there are different levels of science fiction. Is there any less cultural value in the super-science stories than in the more ambitious philosophical stuff?
Publick: If I have to be honest, yeah, of course there is. But I only admire the kind of creative spark that occurs when a room full of guys has to crank out 100 boy adventure novels. There's obviously a lot of work and thought going in there. And there's a lot of crap, a lot of hack work. It is ultimately less valid, and it's there to be a pleasant diversion. But I was never that intrigued by the other kind of science fiction. It always kind of bored me and seemed a little pompous. I really just wanted the laser guns.
Reason: Do you think you've succeeded in creating characters and a universe that lives up to other science-fiction or superhero shows? Would you like to see other writers tackle the series?
Publick: I'd like to seem them try. Doc and I are so far up our own asses that I don't think we could even find people to take over if we wanted to keep the show going, like The Simpsons. I don't have any interest in making the next Mickey Mouse or seeing the characters mass-produced in other media. It's a personal thing to me and to Doc. If it wasn't a TV show, I'd be doing it as a comic book and Xeroxing copies out to sell at conventions.