Taking a Trip Down the Toonhole: A Candid Conversation with Cartoonist Chris Allison
Most times I venture across the virtual highway of the Internets looking for strange new friends I can invite over to the clubhouse for a chat. However, every so often I stumble upon a white rabbit that leads me down a hole of unexpected, creative awesomeness. One recent trip took me to the wacky world called TOONHOLE where I met today’s featured guest, Chris Allison.
A man of many talents – most of them illegal within the United States – Allison is also a damn fine cartoonist whose love for the art form has led him down a road full giant cocktopuses, drunken frog butts and live action slapdashery. Between you and me, I don’t think he’d want it any other way.
Thanks for making the trip, Chris, we’re stoked to have you here. First things first, though… is the “Cocktopus” real and, if so, are we in any immediate danger?
It was long thought to be extinct, but they recently found one off the coast of Japan that washed in during a tsunami. Now, it was a cocktopus corpse that could’ve been dead and preserved… all I know is, I’m not going surfing in Japan anytime soon and, if I do, I’m making sure there are no holes in my wetsuit.
Thanks for clearing that up. BTW – I brought some ham jerky and a Capri Sun… just in case we get hungry.
I’ve got Fig Newtons. We’re set.
How did you become interested in comics and animation?
I remember that my father and my brother always loved watching sports. I loved to PLAY sports, but I knew I was different when I would be immersed in cartoons and people would walk into the room and instantly change the channel. I tried to hide it at first, but at a really early age I came out as an open cartoonist.
That must’ve been a big step for you. So you were a Saturday morning rugrat like myself then. What were some of your favorite shows to watch as a kid?
Guilty as charged. I remember when Cartoon Network would play blocks of the old stuff; Looney Tunes, Tex Avery, and Tom and Jerry were just my favorites, but I did my fair share of 80′s/90′s stuff like Denver the Last Dinosaur, Go-Bots, and Ronin Warriors too.
So, you took your interest and decided to attend Cal State Fullerton (CSUF) a few years ago as part of their Animation Program. What was the most important piece of advice that you received there?
One of my teachers and now good friends Joe Forkan told me, “Inspiration is for amateurs.” He told the class when a bunch of students said they couldn’t come up with ideas for single panel comics after having already done two assignments. It really showed me that those that want something have to work at it. I’m definitely not blessed with the gift of divine inspiration [and] Joe Forkan made me feel good about that.
While at CSUF you were also hand-selected by Nickelodeon to produce your own short – that’s awesome! What was that experience like and what did you learn?
Through all the sleep deprivation, I almost forgot about that. I can’t believe your private investigators dug that up.
The project was called Cafeteria Crush about a boy making a valentine. It was a great experience working with a studio for the first time and having to work with executive’s notes. It was really eye-opening to work on a project where I had to manage people and conflicting opinions. The experience really taught me that you need good people/communication skills to work in studios.
After graduating you did an internship with Nickelodeon on The Mighty B!, right? What sort of projects are you currently working on?
Well, I after my internship I got hired on Ni Hao Kai-Lan, then did a short stint on Mighty B!, did some freelance for Penguins of Madagascar, and worked on the as-of-yet unaired Nickelodeon show Robot and Monster for one and a half seasons. Right now I’m over at Disney TV working on a hush hush pilot that’s coming along really nicely (despite the fact that I’m involved).
Sure you’re not hungry? *chewing sounds* This ham jerky is pretty damn good.
No, I had plenty of pretzels and glue before I rode my bike over.
Anyway, you launched Toonhole back in 2010, but the concept originated back at CSUF. What’s the motivation behind the site and who are its contributors?
At this point, we have 4 main contributors to Toonhole: Ryan Kramer, Mike Nassar, John Martinez, and my reluctant self. The motivation for Toonhole kinda stemmed from our early desire to have an outlet for work that’s unfiltered. It’s a different dynamic than studios (for better or worse) to be able to release work that’s not compromised and completely true to a vision, [which] means I’m totally responsible if the thing fails or not. It’s nice to have both studio work and personal work, getting to experience both the different dynamics of each individual one.
Also, in school, personal work was the place to test all the theories you learn about in school. I guess I’m somewhat skeptical in that I didn’t believe everything that teachers said on face value. I liked to make films and put theories to test. Toonhole is a logical extension of that, where I can test theories that I learn from other folks and those of my own. It’s the best learning tool I have in that I get feedback from an audience DIRECTLY.
Oh, and I like to draw frog butts.
Since you brought it up, tell us more about Lou the Frog. What makes him different than the other characters you’ve created?
I guess the difference is that I’ve finished stuff with him. I have lots of other characters, but they haven’t seen the light of day yet. Perhaps I chose him because I identify a lot with a drunk frog living in a cruel human world. *burp*
Many of the comics on the site seem to be gag-oriented, but there are a few story-driven strips like “Happy Hour.” Do you prefer one style over the other (gags versus story)?
I don’t really have a preference. I think that I’ve been doing a majority of gags because I’m still working on my technical abilities on bringing things to finish. Doing 3 panels is simply faster than a longer story. I’m trying to get faster [though]. I challenged myself to do Happy Hour (30 pages) in 40 days and see how that would work. Next time I get a chance to take some time off to do another longer piece, I’m going to try to hop on it tho.
I see a lot of John Kricfalusi in your work, both in terms of content and art style. Do you consider him to be an influence at all and, if so, how has he influenced you?
Yeah, I really liked Ren and Stimpy, and I think we have lots of similar influences. I remember reading his blog when I was in college a lot, but truth be told I think I’ve been mentored more by Spumco heroes Bob Camp, Jim Smith, and Vincent Waller. I actually interacted and got feedback from those guys on my work when I was in college. I think I draw more on their drawing styles than the wackier Milt Gross stuff that John likes. Man, Spumco is a goddamn institution tho!
Is there anyone/anything else that has influenced your work?
Jesus, what a question. First and foremost is probably the Toonhole guys. There’s a lot of friendly competition going on and we lift each other up by learning from each others strengths. I think that’s so important to have a group of people that are equally excited about stuff as you are because multiple people’s passion snowballs into something bigger than any one individual.
I’ve been really fortunate to be surrounded by people who are open and willing to share information. I just hope I’m not too sleep deprived to soak it all in accordingly.
Ever so often there will be a cartoon in the mix (Bar Flies, Moses: The College Years). How does the process for these animations differ from your regular strips?
It’s pretty much the same as comics. I run them by my Toonhole guys as well as my nonartist friends. Once I get something that people laugh at I’ll produce it. Cartoons just take a lot more hours. I guess it’s just a time factor.
You’ve started doing more short films as well. Is your collective vision for ToonHole to become a media production company?
I feel that my sequential storytelling and editing is a big weakness. My work so far has been really slow, so I’m trying to do live action to attack that weakness. It’s easier to produce live action footage than animation to learn this, so that’s what I’m doing. I have no preconceived notions of where I’m taking it, but a goal of mine is to do longer content (whether cartoon or live action).
Before we let you loose… er, I mean before we you go there’s one last question. What’s the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?
Every kid has a booger minefield. You know, where you wipe all your gross boogers. I remember mine was right next to my bed on the wall. When my family moved to another house, they must’ve moved my bed and found it. I don’t recall if anything happened, but whenever I think about it I get embarrassed. I’ve grown up a lot since then. These days, I keep my booger minefield hidden in a much better spot.