A Carefree and Chaotic Conversation with Cartoonist, Writer and Animator Steve Purcell
Much like Fight Club, conducting an interview has its own set of unspoken rules and guidelines. For instance, it’s never polite to ask the guest you’re interviewing a deeply personal question right off the bat. It’s also not proper etiquette to conduct an interview with a stack of questionable magazines sitting in plain sight (and not at least offering a peek inside). This time around we broke both those rules, but – come on – it’s STEVE PURCELL we’re talking about here!
As a master of alliterative puns, madcap mayhem and family entertainment (wait, what?) Purcell has crafted a career around learning new skills that have seen him go from working on comics to video games and everything in between – including his latest role as Co-Director of Disney/Pixar’s BRAVE! Thanks to club member Nathan Thor Christopher we were able to catch up with Purcell for a few moments of sheer geek-worthy awesomeness.
First off, thank you so much for joining us here at the clubhouse Steve. It’s truly an honor to have you as a guest.
Yeah, it’s a little cramped in here but the pirate flag and rope ladder are cool. Hey! What’s that pile of magazines under the cushion? Are those–?
Shhhh!! My mom might here you! Okay, let’s start off with something easy… would you rather have a live cod fish in your trousers or let a monkey trim your nosehairs?
Why should anyone have to choose only one or the other of those sensory smorgasbords? How about live tadpoles eye-droppered into the tear ducts? They’d be all tickly.
Hmm– you make an interesting argument. Well played, Mr. Purcell. So, do you fancy yourself as an Easy Cheese sort of guy or do you prefer hand-sliced cheddar?
Nothing beats Easy Cheese when you’re snacking while running from the scene of a crime. Hence the term “easy.”
Would you say that you had a pretty creative childhood? I believe that you and your brother, Dave, used to draw comics together.
We somehow managed creative projects aside from the solid TV watching that seemed to fill up every afternoon from the moment school was out until dinner. We made comics, Play Doh guys, horror-themed puppet shows with pre-recorded soundtracks and we frequently made haunted house tours for each other. I was always constructing life-sized dummies and puppet stages and making stop-motion GI Joe movies in the backyard.
Me too! As you grew up (a relative term) you continued to make comics. In fact, most people are unaware that you did freelance work at Marvel Comics before moving on to LucasFilm Games. What do you remember about your time there?
It was exciting to be working for a real comic book company. Something about receiving shipments of the pre-lined drawing paper with the marvel logo on it seemed all very glamorous for a young geek but I normally describe my contribution to “straight” comics as unremarkable. I penciled a fantasy mini-series, an issue of New Mutants and a bizarre and goofy toy tie-in written by Walt Simonson who did it for the same reason I did; to get a free set of the toys. Unfortunately, the toys were never released. I didn’t figure out what I was doing until I did a Sam & Max book.
One book you worked on, Defenders of Dynatron City, ended up as a TV pilot in 1992. How did you end up on that project?
The pilot came first. I was working at LucasArts and my boss, Gary Winnick, who I would refer to as “Master of the High Concept” came up with the idea as a game. It was green-lit as pilot and the comic mini-series followed. I drew the covers and wrote it and Frank Cirocco penciled. The show had Whoopie Goldberg and Christopher Walken who played the mad scientist. He was recast by the studio for god-knows-what-bizarre-reason. I thought he was hilarious as Dr. Mayhem.
Radioactive soft drinks and Christopher Walken as a mad scientist? What an insanely awesome concept! Did you also work on the video game developed by LucasFilm Games/LucasArts?
I think I did some concept art and a couple of production paintings but I honestly don’t remember if I drew anything onscreen.
Speaking of quasi-maniacal concepts, gamers were also getting acquainted with Sam & Max by then thanks to Sam & Max Hit the Road. At this point, how long had you been developing these characters?
I had drawn Sam & Max since I was in high school. They were also a strip in my art school newspaper and I had done the first actual comic book before being hired by what was then Lucasfilm Games. I was in progress on the second book as I was starting there.
The animated series, The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police, followed only a few years later. How did that experience differ from working in comics or video games?
It was NOT very much like doing a comic which for me is a solo pursuit. You just do exactly what you want and answer to no one. Doing the show was more like making a game in that you are collaborating with a team and attempting to get a group all on the same page in adapting the characters. At least with the game we had very little oversight from above. The design crews for LucasArts’ original games were pretty autonomous. On a network TV show there is a lot more scrutiny from the studio execs as well as the network. The standards and practices department was another monkey wrench in the process.
Were you ever forced to make any changes to the characters or storyline that you completely disagreed with? If so, did you ever toss any nuggets of subversive protest into the scripts?
There were always notes, mostly about things they would think are too violent or disgusting. If Max was balled up by Sam and lobbed through a window they wanted him to wear a crash helmet. For the show I usually chose to replace the implied violence of the comics with extra weirdness. I thought even in a tamer environment, Sam & Max felt very true to themselves. Some of the jokes are so obscure we actually were able to get a bunch of really strange ideas in the shows. Once, Max was in drag and Sam comments: “You look just like my Aunt Trudy before they took her cutlery away!”
*laughs* How much of Sam & Max’s morally ambiguous world references your own childhood?
There are many connections to my childhood in the road trips and obscure references. When I create even seemingly random details I like them to have some purpose or link into a memory or something that I can identify even if no one in the world would ever get it. It’s my way of organizing the otherwise completely random. The moral ambiguousness is not from my life but more a spoof on heroism derived from overzealous violence.
What do you think it is about these characters that have made them so iconic/enduring to fans and has inspired you to continue working on them?
I think if you are lucky in life you will have friends where your communication is a short hand language between you. You share a unique set of inside jokes and phrases and can endlessly amuse each other. I think people can relate to that in Sam & Max. I think the style of Sam & Max’s banter is “gettable” and I often talk to fans who have their own Sam & Max banter they share with their friends.
I’m sure you get this a lot, but are there any plans that involve the duo returning to print any time soon?
Always. I just need to find the time and discipline to see it through.
Fast-forwarding a bit, you’ve spent the past few years at Pixar as a story artist, screenwriter and… voice actor? Can you tell us a bit about that, is that something you’ve always wanted to do?
I always appreciate the opportunity to do a couple of lines here and there. It’s a different skill set that I enjoy trying and would love to get better at.
What’s your involvement with the studio’s upcoming fairy tale epic BRAVE? I understand you co-wrote some of the screenplay material?
I’ve been writing on it for a long time. I did a bit of concept art very early on. I was Story Supervisor for a stretch and ended up as a co-director.
Did you contribute your refined vocal talents to the film as well?
Alright, I know it’s time for you to go, but before you do I gotta know… what’s the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?
I thought if I tied a beach towel around my neck like a Superman cape I would be able to fly. Fortunately, I only took a short hop off the back porch instead of a roof. When it didn’t work out I sat down and sulked for hours.