Interview with Ricky Henry, Creator of ‘Monster Management Security Bureau of Cincinnati’
Artist, Teacher, Musician, TV personality, Father… it sounds like you’re a pretty busy guy. How have you managed to balance so many different roles in your life?
That’s a great question, and I’m not really sure exactly how to answer that. I suppose you could say that it has something to do with placing some of those things into rotation. What I mean by that is, you know, I’m a father 24/7, and being a graphic designer is my full-time job. Depending what kind of wacky event is coming up in my life, I get into different “modes.” For example, every year I perform chiptune music at the Lousiville Arcade Expo in Kentucky. So, from like, January to March, I’m completely focused on building a set and composing songs to gear up for that event while comics, TV and all of that other stuff gets placed on pause.
I will say though, that next year’s Louisville Arcade Expo is going to be my swan song as far as chiptune performances go. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it or anything like that, but I’m at a point where I do have way too much stuff on my plate right now, and it’s not really something that helps advance my career in any way. I’ll miss performing for sure, there’s nothing quite like it, but pushing buttons on my genetically enhanced Gameboy doesn’t help pay the bills!
When did you first become interested in art, specifically cartooning and comics?
Oh man, all of the above. I always call back to a very specific point in my life when people asked me how I first became interested in art. It’s because of my grandfather. He wasn’t necessarily a particularly great artist or anything, but I have these vivid memories of being very very young, sitting in his car while my grandmother was shopping and drawing on old envelopes. He taught me how to draw this very specific thing, what he called, “the old old-fat papaw.” I can’t really describe it… you’d just have to see it.
Anyway, he’d give me assignments, and I could tell his was impressed with my ability. I kept wanting to impress him [and] could tell he was genuinely impressed. I’ve never stopped drawing since. No textbook, church bulletin, or old envelope was safe from that point on.
Did you watch a lot of cartoons as a kid? Play a lot of video games?
Naturally, I loved drawing my favorite cartoon and video game characters. I was always drawn (pun intended?) to the Walter Lance characters like Woody Woodpecker and Chilly Willy, they were my all-time favorites. This drove my family crazy, because I’d ask for all kinds of Woody Woodpecker stuff for my birthday and Christmas, and by this point in the mid-eighties, retailers weren’t necessarily flooding shelves with Woody memorabilia and novelties. They got creative and it made for a fun chase I’m sure! I had mt fair share of Woody stuff!
And this led you to a career as a designer?
I suppose you could say that. Graphic design is sort of how you make a career out of being an artist these days. It’s insane though, because I went to a very conservative southern baptist-rooted high school that didn’t offer any sort of art or creative classes. We were forbidden to even dance at our “prom” which we called a “junior/senior banquet.” I have no idea how I managed to survive this, but my only outlet for creativity was taking a journalism class and doing page layouts for the school newspaper. I’d draw original comic strips and I sorta dug using the design software. It was at this time that I discovered a web comic called Penny Arcade, and I’d watch Mike do these tutorials in Photoshop and Illustrator. That’s when I was like, “yep, I want to do this for a living.”
You’ve described your style as being “new retro.” Can you explain what that means in a bit more detail?
Sure! It’s that zingy, stylized look that you’d see in shows like Dexter’s Laboratory or Fairly Odd Parents… a super-stylized throwback that draws a lot of inspiration from the old Hanna-Barbera style. Simple lines and curves, uncomplicated anatomy and basic shapes for hair and faces.
At what point did you decide that “the student had become the master” and decided to take up teaching?
When I was a graphic design student they were really impressed with how quickly I picked up on the software and hired me as a student-worker to maintain the computer lab and tutor students. After graduation, I cut my teeth in the industry for a few years and remained in contact with the school. Eventually, [I] met the state requirement of five years experience to return back to my alma mater and teach! I will say though, I just recently stepped down as a full-time teacher after five long years. I still teach a few classes part time in the evening, but I currently work in television for a local CBS/CW affiliate making graphics for the news and promos.
Let’s talk about MMSBC (Monster Management Security Bureau of Cincinnati), you’ve been working on it since 2005. Is it true that this project began life as a film?
Yes, and it went through several different phases and incarnations. Since I’m giving everyone a bit of a history lesson, I actually almost chose film and video as a career path at one point. Doing a public access TV show while in high school had a huge impact on me. It really just came down to, “Can I actually make a living doing this?” Since Cincinnati is such a big branding and advertising hub (thanks P&G!) I figured graphic design was the safer bet, and film and TV would remain my passionate side-hobby. But yeah, MMSBC, my loving-homage to super sentai (Voltron, Power Rangers) began as a film project.
Prior to beginning production, I had managed to make a few short films. One of which was Bizarre Love Triangle, an artsy black and white indie geek film. We had a very positive screening at MAGFest in 2007, and it really motivated me to get the ball rolling with this idea that I’d been cooking up for a really long time. At first, it was going to be strictly a comedy. I believe that in the first outline, the gaggle of kids get their powers from answering a classified ad in the newspaper. [That's] when I took a step back, and realized why people liked Bizarre Love Triangle so much, it was because how real the characters seemed, and how raw and honest the dialog was.
I had based every character in that movie off of people that I knew and situations that I had been in, so it’s no wonder that it was received as such. I took that same approach in writing this story, and the idea of gaining super powers and changing into something spectacular was now a backdrop and a metaphor that mirrored my own struggles and frustrations as a twenty-something. I really believe that I had a great script that would resonate with people who were dealing with a lot of the same issues that I was.
What led to the change in direction, from film to graphic novel, and would you have done anything different looking back?
Well, here’s the short version. I honestly thought that I could make this movie for $10,000. I also thought I had a producer that I could trust. The whole thing turned out to be a giant disaster. Time, resources, and so much money was wasted. It was probably one of the most difficult things I have ever dealt with. It’s hard to say whether or not I would have done anything differently. I met some great people whom I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise who are now lifelong friends. I guess, looking back, the smart thing would have been making it into a comic book first, and then letting someone who knew what the heck they were doing make the movie later.
What’s the general premise of the book and who are the main characters?
The main character is a twenty-something named Jonas. He writes fantasy novels and has been struggling with making a career out of it. His longtime girlfriend Maria has been out of state attending college, and it pressuring Jonas to move across the country, away from his comfort zone to move in with her and attend college… basically grow up. Girls who read this book cheer for her, and boys who read this recognize her as an instant heel.
He begrudgingly agrees to make the move, but before he packs it all up, he organizes one last big pitch for his novel at a local anime convention. He convinces his friends to dress up as characters from his book to make his panel a big-time spectacle. During this time however, deep in a galaxy far away, the evil Queen Amista has her sights set on conquering the planet earth. She is specifically targeting the midwest, and choses Cincinnati as her base of operations. Why? Well, every 17 years the periodical cicads arise from the ground by the millions in that region, and she plans to mutate them and enslave them as soldiers in her army. It’s up to her arch nemesis, the heroic Dr. Wallks to beat her in a race to earth, and bestow extraordinary powers on a select batch of Cincinnati natives. Gee, I wonder who!?
You mentioned earlier that the story is based on situations and people that are close to you. Would you say that many of the themes in the book parallel your own life?
They certainly did at one time, that’s for sure. Personally and professionally, I am such a different person than I was 4 or 5 years ago. When I was writing the book, yes, everything that you read is exactly what I was going though at the time. There are exact phrases and bits of dialog that I remember writing down or text messaging to myself thinking, “I have to use that in the script, that was stupendous.” I’d be in an argument or fighting and in the back of my mind picturing this as a scene in the movie. That’s a little messed up, right? But it’s real!
To help promote your next issue you actually designed an Atari 2600 game! What inspired you to take such a unique approach?
You have to stand out, and having an old TV with an Atari at my booth at the comic book conventions will really get peoples attention. Not only that, but this is just another thing I can check off on the “dream project” list. I love old video games, and I grew up on the Atari 2600. This book, and a lot of the characters are hung up on nostalgia like myself, and nothing is more nostalgic to me than the Atari 2600. Plus, even though this book has a lot of talky moments, it’s still a sci-fi action adventure! That’s ideal for a simple little Atari game!
Where can people learn more about the game as well as the next issue?
I’d say check out my personal website. However, I’m about to go through a pretty major redesign, but I’ll keep people posted on current happenings there. If you want to buy a copy of either, you can check the online store that I run with my wife which is shopbitpop.com.
What were some of the challenges you faced putting together such a retro-style video game?
There were two major challenges. The first was trying to do something on the Atari 2600 that is unique and hasn’t already been done before. I’m happy to say that I think I managed to come up with something fresh on a game system that turns 40 this year. Second, was really learning the technical limitations of the system. I had a great partner in Jason Santuci and the communty at AtariAge.com.
Video games seem to a common theme in your life. You also play in a pop rock band, Shael Riley and the Double Ice Backfire, that uses a NES and Game Boy as instruments, right?
These are half true, and I’ll explain what I mean by that. Shael Riley is a dear friend of mine whom I met while working on Bizarre Love Triangle. I was a fan of his work on Overclocked Remix, and I asked if he’d like to lend some music to the movie. He agreed, and we got a chance to meet at MAGFest. Shael and I soon became great friends, and began collaborating on some music projects and even went on tour together!
It was while we were touring that we came up with the concept for the Double Ice Backfire, which was originally going to be the two of us covering songs that were originally performed by females. Eventually, it evolved into a pop-rock outfit with a stellar musician named Ty Guenly, and Shael scrapped the idea for his solo album in favor of doing this. We played a handful of shows together, and I wrote about 1 and ½ songs for the album, but having three band members living in three separate parts of the country (Ohio, New York, and New Mexico) make it really hard to… well… be a band.
As noted earlier, I am a very busy guy, so I haven’t been officially kicked out of the band yet, BUT I’m sort of quietly fading out and retiring from that scene. I think the album (Ultimate Songs from the Pit) is radio worthy and certainly worth more press outside of the nerdcore bubble. That part is so hard. The Double Ice Backfire is good enough to be sharing stages with the top indie acts in the country, yet only gets booked within that nerdcore bubble.
There is an audience for rapping pirates and stuff, but there’s no reason why Shael shouldn’t be on the Warped Tour or something similar. Oh well. And yes, video games tend to be a common theme in a lot of my projects, however my first love will always be pro wrestling. In fact, when you’re reading my books or checking out my work, you’re actually more likely to find some oddball pro wrestling reference.
Whatchu gonna do, brother?! *laughs* Alright, before we let you go, what’s the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?
Oh man. Really? Do I have to narrow it down to one thing? There are some things, and I’m not joking when I say this, that were so strange, that after so many years I wonder whether or not I really did them or if they’re just dreams that I had. BUT! If I had to pick one, I’m going to lump my best friend Andy into it too.
Andy and I co-hosted a public access show in high school, but prior to that, we had some practice in the form of a show that we called “Wild Wacky Fun” (WWF! Get it?). It was formatted in a similar style as our actual TV would become. We taped these shows when we were probably 12 years old. There was no studio, and this was just a VHS camcorder recording us talking about pro wrestling or Star Wars or whatever, which seems like harmless fun, right? Well, we thought it would be a good idea to have callers on the show.
Obviously we’re not live, so instead of letting friends or whomever know ahead of time that they could be on the show, and we’d select a time to call them, we instead decided to just choose random people to dial out of a phone book. Now, I wouldn’t exactly say random. We’d find a “Peter Parker” or a “Mike Nelson” and just start asking them random questions like, “What did you think of Bret Hart and Sid from this past Monday’s RAW?” Insanity!
The best/worst time however, is when we found a “Hugh Morris” in the phone book (humourous!) and decided that he should be on the show. Andy asks, “Hello, may I speak to Hugh Morris please?” A quiet, soft spoken elderly voice says, “Mr. Morris is now deceased” and hung up. We both just sat there, camera still rolling, completely frozen. We were some strange kids.