It’s a MAD, Mad, Mad World — Interview with Animator and Cartoonist M. Wartella

Michael Wartella - Cartoonist

Photo Credit: Curtis Wayne Millard

You could call cartoonist M. Wartella a great many things, but none would describe him quite as well as “MAD.” Wartella is anything but angry, though. In fact, since becoming an animator for Warner Bros.’ MAD on Cartoon Network he’s been rather ecstatic. A lifelong fan of MAD Magazine, Wartella has been a part of the animated series since its debut in 2010. Before that, the New York native lended his artistic talents to shows like Wonder Showzen (he also performed the voice of the Horse Apples horse) and SUPERJAIL!. His work has also appeared in Interview, SPIN, Nickelodeon Magazine — he was even a contributor to Topps’ Wacky Packages trading card series.

Since today marks the official premiere of MAD Season 3 on Cartoon Network, we convinced Wartella to share a bit of his “MADness” with us here at the clubhouse.

Evil Medieval
© Warner Bros. Entertainment 2012

It’s so awesome to have you here with us, M. Congratulations on the debut MAD Season 3!

Alright! Well, thanks for watching, and especially for inviting me up into the clubhouse. You got it pretty decked out in here!

Thanks! So, the MAD cartoon seems to consist of a lot of different animation styles and techniques. What sort of animation process(es) do you have?

A tedious one! Everything’s drawn and animated completely by hand. It’s the only way to really make the drawings feel alive. Not like that soulless CGI crap. I mean, we also use computers of course, but it’s still entirely drawn by hand, just digitally on a digitizer pad in Flash. It’s traditional keyframe animation… just like the classics!

Sweet! Is it just you working on each one or do you have any animation assistants to help you?

For my segments, I design and draw all the artwork, set the shots, pace, the timing and all of that. Several of the segments are entirely animated by me, like You Got Ninjas which ended up in some of the Cartoon Network promo spots, but each one requires an insane amount of drawing. It’s a lot of work, so I also bring in other folks to help animate some of the longer segments.

I’ve been very lucky to have worked with some amazingly talented artists in their own right, especially Joy Vaccese (one half of the animating wonder duo Twins Are Weird), and other cool people like Funwunce‘s Shelby Hohl, Ian Miller, Ryan Ortgiessen, lots of folks. Josh Bayer even helped out on one short. We have a good time!

What sort of creative freedom are you given on the show? Has anyone ever told you to pull back because you’ve gone too far?

The people at Warner Bros. and Cartoon Network are great. They usually don’t ask to change too much, but every once in awhile there has been some funny stuff that had to be scrapped because it is a primetime show, after all. Everything has to fit within the MAD template, so it’s cool.

Do you ever censor yourself or do you feel that’s counter-productive to tapping into your imagination?

I try to amplify myself instead of pull back. It’s like they say, “Be Yourself… TIMES TEN!” That’s how we all should be! *laughs*

Let’s roll back the clock… what spawned your interest in illustration and when did you start making your own comics?

I had my first weekly comic strip in the local newspaper when I was ten years old, that was my first professional gig. I got hooked once I found out all the ladies love cartoonists!

You lived relatively close to Three Mile Island growing up. Did that influence the subject matter of your work at all?

Hmmm… I am kind of interested in mutations and hybrids…

TSA Comic
TSA comic by m. wartella (The Village Voice, December 2007)

Me too! Have you discovered any latent superpowers of your own? Spider-like agility? Mop-weilding prowess? Radioactive rage?

Well, I’m currently working on my remote viewing techniques. It requires an incredibly high coffee consumption.

Speaking of incredible, your site has an incredibly unusual name, Ackxhpæz. How did that title come about?

I just wanted something that was catchy, easy to remember, and simple to pronounce.

Is it true that pronouncing it backwards will open a portal to the Sixth Dimension?

Yes, but you have to be in a pitch-dark bathroom at midnight, looking at your own reflection in the mirror for it to work.

SNNFFY SMTH comic
SNNFFY SMTH by m. wartella

Oh, I am SO trying that out tonight! There was also a Ackxhpæz comic strip, did that open any doors for you professionally?

No, it got me banned from several newspapers.

That explains why you were considered an “underground” cartoonist during the 90s. Do you think the “underground” still exists or has just about everything migrated to the mainstream?

The underground ALWAYS exists. Anyone who can’t find it on their own has just gone too far into the mainstream, but you can’t have an “underground” or “alternative” or “street” culture without a mainstream culture. It’s like they say, “Dark is not the opposite of light, it’s the absence of light.”

R. Crumb's Head Comix (cover scan)

Visually, your work shares a lot of similar traits to other underground comix artists like Robert Crumb, Clay Wilson and Gilbert Shelton. Have any of these artists, or that scene in general, had an influence on you?

I take that as a huge compliment! That’s totally the scene I love. Jay Lynch too. All the underground comix artists. My first obsession was the classic MAD magazine artists like Don Martin and Al Jaffee. Then I keyed into the vintage MAD stuff and really got inspired by Bill Elder. Once I hit my teen years, I was lucky enough to discover a copy of Crumb’s Head Comix. The rest is history!

It would seem that you’ve made some influences of your own as well. Is it true that Johnny Ryan’s “Blecky Yuckerella” character is based on your name?

Heh heh… No comment.

Laffy Lama
© Warner Bros. Entertainment 2012

Who are a few artists whose work currently inspires you?

Modern? I’d say Andy Rementer. Classic? I love Raymond Pettibon’s stuff. New York has a pretty good comics scene happening now. I like artists like Gabrielle Bell and then what I call the “beyond” cartoonists like Marc Bell and Ron Rege Jr.

I also use audio as a source of inspiration. I love Rock & Roll music! Always play it loud. Then I layer up something on top of that, like some Art Bell or George Noory, a little Coast To Coast AM. Maybe some David Wilcock or Terrence McKenna talks, just let that run in the background, and before you know it I’m in the right state of mind to do some serious “ice road” animating!

Alright, M., before you mutate a pair of bat-wings and fly away there’s one last question. What’s the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?

Sneaking into the embalming room at my uncle’s mortuary. That was fun!

Michael Wartella - Cartoonist
Click to embiggen the awesomeness

For a full list of which Wartella-crafted toons have appeared on MAD, be sure to check out the official MAD Wiki.

Written by Rondal

Rondal is the Editor-in-Chief of Strange Kids Club and a creative instigator who tackles each day with Red Bull-induced enthusiasm and a mind for adventure. Rondal has written for other sites including Rue Morgue, Fuel Your Illustration and Bloodsprayer. His obsession with horror movies, 80s animation and action figures is considered unhealthy by medical professionals.

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