Talking Comics with Tim | Michael May
It had to happen one of these days, a Robot 6 interview of a fellow Robot 6er. Michael May has a quirky sense of humor, as quickly revealed in the recently released anthology that he has written–Cownt Tales, the comedic struggles of a vampire cow. Had I been thinking more clearly, I would have gotten May to reveal the parallel narrative trends between his work and this past weekend’s smash success, The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Seriously though, it’s a unique experience to interview a pal (that’s not to say most of my interview subjects are my mortal enemies …) Enjoy our chat, folks.
Tim O’Shea: In addition to the Cownt, you introduce some interesting characters in this issue. What are the odds we’ll see Penny or the doctor in future stories?
Michael May: Oh, that’s a sure thing. Even though the Cownt is very silly, he still gets some character development; mostly in his relationship with his udder. Both Penny and Dr. Frye play huge roles in that. The Cownt wants the doc to remove his udder, but she won’t do it without making him go through a ton of counseling first. There’s a ton of story potential there (including the Cownt’s trying to raise money for the operation), so the doc will be around to help him process that. She’s sort of the straight man to his shenanigans.
In Penny’s story though, the Cownt seems to get a bit more comfortable with the udder. He’s still a long way from embracing it, but he takes a step. In an entirely inappropriate way.
Not that Penny’s all that interested in helping the Cownt come to terms with the udder. She’s got her own agenda – killing him – and we’ll be exploring that too. Listen to me talking like this is some kind of literature, but even though the primary purpose is to make people laugh, there’s a story going on too.
O’Shea: You gave the book a diverse and wacky supporting cast, care to discuss how some of these characters came into being?
May: Whenever I’ve talked about the Cownt with anyone, the question that always comes up is whether he’s a boy or a girl. He has a masculine name and I always call him “he,” but he’s got that big-ass udder. I knew that we’d have to address that in the first issue or people would be distracted by it, so we did an origin story and also the bit with Dr. Frye. The doc was created purely to help the Cownt figure that out, but Paul Taylor made her so expressive and fun when he drew her that I’ve kind of fallen in love with her.
We also decided that the Cownt needed another reminder of his previous life – one that he couldn’t remove surgically – so we gave him an old boyfriend: a sweet bull who doesn’t understand what’s happened and is still in love.
Penny came about because every vampire needs a hunter. And since we’re fully committed to the Barnyard Horror genre (and since Jess draws cute girls), we decided she needed to be a farm girl.
O’Shea: Do you want to keep the Cownt as an anthology concept, working with different artists–or do you hope to stay with one or all three of the artists on this anthology?
May: The plan is to keep all three artists on board for as long as they’re interested. Everyone’s up for doing more issues; we just have to work around schedules – especially Paul’s since he stays very busy updating Wapsi Square five times a week.
The original idea for the anthology came from one of Warren Ellis’ newsletters where he talked about forming a “band.” I forget all the details he suggested, but one of the concepts I really liked involved how to handle book collections of the material. Instead of just collecting the anthologies as they originally appeared, you collect each artist’s material. The challenge of course is to write stories that feel connected in a single issue, but aren’t SO connected that you need Paul’s story to understand Gav’s or Jess’.
Having said that, Jess is one of the Cownt’s biggest fans and she and I have talked about doing some longer stories where she’s the sole illustrator. We haven’t done any planning about it yet, but we’re both interested.
O’Shea: Who came up with the lactose-intolerant angle for Penny?
May: I think that was me, but it’s hard to be sure. Most of the gags come about by just sitting around with friends and giggling over each other’s ideas. Sometimes I forget who said what first, but I think that particular one was mine.
O’Shea: Would you say family, movies, TV, stand-up comedians, or comics have helped shape your sense of humor the most?
May: Wow, that’s a good question. I think family gets the win for the most influence though.
My dad especially has a great sense of humor and a love for playing with words. There’s no doubt that at least the latter of those rubbed off on me, my siblings, and our kids. That often shows up as puns (which Cownt Tales is full of), but also it leaks into everyday conversation. I love listening to people talk and discovering alternative, often funny meanings that they didn’t intend. If I pointed them out all the time no one would ever talk to me again, but I love finding surprises like that.
And that translates into other kinds of humor too. I love that little shock that you get when something takes you by surprise. Especially when it’s completely inappropriate. I don’t like mean-spirited humor, but there’s something wonderful about laughing at something that you know you have no business laughing at. I can probably blame early Eddie Murphy for that.
O’Shea: In the notes of this issue, you give partial credit to Steve Niles for making this project happen, to an extent. It strikes me as quirky that someone as good at horror could inspire or indulge in comedy. But if you consider horror and comedy masters like Sam Raimi, it makes sense. Why do you think there is often kindred spirits between the arts of horror and comedy.
May: Laughter’s sort of a natural reaction to horror. Whether it’s nervous giggling or scoffing bravely into the dark or whatever form it takes, it’s a coping mechanism. I mean, the source of all horror is the fear of death or some other meaningful loss. Horror fans like the genre because it allows us to engage that fear in a safe way and – having squirmed through the experience – emerge stronger and better prepared for having endured it. Laughing at it helps take away its power. It makes us feel better about it. It’s like Professor Lupin’s technique for defeating a Boggart in Prisoner of Azkaban. You overcome your greatest fear by turning it into something ridiculous.
Bonus parenting tip: This totally works on kids, by the way. My son conquered his fear of mummies by picturing himself using their wrappings as toilet paper. He’s also learned to turn vampire fangs into candy corn that he can then eat.
O’Shea: How hard is it to come up with refreshing udder comedy?
May: I don’t know. So far, I haven’t grown tired of it, but then I’m twelve years old. The udder stuff is easy because it looks so ridiculous on this creature who really would prefer to be feared and respected. When I get bored with that, I expect it’ll be the end of the series, but I can’t imagine it ever being not funny to me.
Writing comedy in general is really hard though. At least for me. That’s why I make sure I have lots of help.
O’Shea: Your brother-in-law, David Roof, co-created the character–will he be writing any upcoming tales or was he COWntent to be involved in the birth and leave it at that?
May: Ha! I’ll answer that in a second, but you nailed right there the reason that this is such a fun book to work on and – hopefully – to read. A great deal of the writing work is just me and some friends sitting around and having fun making horrible cow puns or thinking up stupid scenarios to put him in. Dave’s still a vital part of the creation process because he’s one of those friends.
As far as I know, writing isn’t one of his ambitions, but he’s an hilarious guy and I can always count on him to come up with ways to make stuff funnier. I remember one time, back when the Cownt was going to be a member of a larger team of goofy supervillains, I needed him to sneak into a college to steal something, but wasn’t sure how to make it funny. Dave’s idea was that the Cownt disguise himself as a hippie.
Heh. I’d forgotten about that one. I’ll need to use that later.