SCOTT MORSE
interview by jim mahfood
illustration tag-team by debbie and mahfood

THESE DAYS, A MEETING OF POLITICAL MINDS USUALLY LEADS TO ATOMIC DESOLATION. LUCKILY, THIS INTERVIEW IS A MEETING OF CREATIVE MINDS. SO CHECK YOUR NUCLEAR ARMS AT THE DOOR, CRACK OPEN A BREWSKI, AND DIG IN AS JIM MAHFOOD TAKES US DEEP INTO THE WORLD OF THE TALENTED MR. MORSE.

Jim: Yo, this is Jim Mahfood, representing 40oz. Comics. I'm in L.A. with my buddy Scott Morse at his studio. Our friend Brian Larsen is also here. Brian works at Cartoon Network and he's down with the 40oz./Crazyfish Posse. He gets us our beer and our hos. We're here to talk to Scott today. Introduce yourself to everybody who might not know what you do.

Scott: Well, my first memory, when I was six months old--

J: You don't have to start at six months.

S: (laughs) Alright, good. I grew up in a goofy little town called Santa Clara, near San Francisco. By the time I left, it was known as Silicon Valley. I went to high school there. Then I went to Cal Arts from '92-'94, and got to train under a lot of cool people.

J: When you went to art school, did you have comics in mind, or was it more to pursue animation?

S: It was more the animation slant. I'd been reading comics since the fourth grade. It was fun to draw comic book characters. But I figured, if I wanted to actually make money, I should probably do something like animation. (laughs) Not to be the “sell-out artist,” but I had to think about that as well. I wanted to make sure that I was gonna survive. So Cal Arts was the best bet for that. I met a lot of really cool people at school-- people that I'm still good friends with, and who are getting bigger and badder in the animation industry every day. It's just getting to be a big, cool community. Everybody knows everybody. It's fun to feed off of each other; to expose each other to different art styles and ways of thinking. It's still kinda like college.

J: Does the fact that the animation industry is small and tight-knit ever become a pain in the ass?

S: Sometimes it gets kinda cliquey. (laughs) I guess Cartoon Network's a good example of that. Larsen and I were talking about that the other day. When I was there, I was working on Cow and Chicken. It was weird. We didn't really hang out with the other crews. And we were in the same building as Warner Brothers animation guys. They do Batman, and they were doing a really bad show called Hysteria.

Brian: (makes gagging noises)

S: That was Brian in the background gagging, everyone.

J: (laughs) We'll have to interview Brian for the next issue.

S: It was interesting because nobody really hung out with each other. It's still kinda that way for some stupid reason. The crew that you're working with, everybody's cool with each other. Outside of that, you may have one or two friends from other shows or studios. But, for some reason, you don't socialize as much. Maybe there’s a feeling that the show you're working on is always better than some other guy's show. I'm definitely not partial to that, because Cow and Chicken wasn't the best thing going on right then. But we had a really good time doing it.

J: It was an insane show.

S: It was pretty insane. The creator of the show, David Keith (cousin of comic creator, Sam Keith), would come into town all the time. And a lot of the craziness in Cow and Chicken was directly from him. The creators of the shows at Cartoon Network are still very much involved with all that stuff. Genndy (Tartakovsky), the guy that did Dexter's Laboratory and Samurai Jack, he's very much involved with every episode that comes through. Craig McCracken, the guy that does Powerpuff Girls, is very much involved with everything. It's cool because it's small enough that the guy who created it can still have a good amount of control over it. It's not so corporate that they just take it away and give it to a bunch of monkeys to animate it in some really small country in the Pacific somewhere. The suits haven't really taken over on this level, yet. But it's still nothing like comics. We have a lot more control in comics than animation.

J: Before we talk about comics, let's talk about Maurice Noble a little bit. I think it's a really big deal that you studied under him. Could you explain to people who Maurice was and what he did?

S: Everybody out there probably knows Maurice's work, but doesn't realize who Maurice is. His name goes by every time you see a Looney Tunes cartoon. He worked on Bambi, Dumbo, Snow White, Fantasia, Pinocchio-- he worked at Disney before they were doing features. He was Chuck Jones' main designer during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Chuck always came back to him, because he knew that Maurice's input was a big part of what made Chuck successful. What was cool about Maurice was, he never believed any of the hype on how cool he was. He just did it because it was fun and a paycheck. He was like that up until the day he died. He was in his early nineties, but he still wanted to go out to lunch every day. He wanted to hang out with a bunch of 21-year-old goofball guys and talk about comics, animation, music, etc. It was great to get his viewpoint.

J: He was into being around a younger generation of artists. He probably saw two or three generations of kids come up in his time.

S: There was a guy at Warner Brothers with me, he was in his fifties at that point, and he was one of the original guys that Maurice trained back in the ‘50s. It was weird working with this guy who'd been around a lot longer than me, but was also Maurice's student. When Maurice would train people, it wasn't a matter of sitting you down and putting you through art school. You would do work, show it to him, and he’d tell you what was working and what wasn't working. He'd let you fly on your own. He was very much into being alive. He wasn't into being a stocky old fart, like some of the people at Chuck Jones' studio were.

J: He lived a full life and left behind an amazing body of work. Talk a little bit about the work. A lot of kids our age are college students who are fans of tastes like chicken. And we all grew up on those classic Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons.

S: Definitely. Maurice was proud of what he did, but he didn't believe his own hype. That's what he was all about. He was very much looked over in a few different arenas. The Academy Awards being one of them. He co-directed two or three shorts with Chuck Jones that have won Academy Awards. But he didn't get a statue. Chuck did. And Chuck didn't mention him when he went up and took the Award, even though he co-directed. Nothing against Chuck. I don't want to taint everybody's memory of Chuck, because he was a great man as well. But at the same time, I think a lot of people overlooked what Maurice did with that stuff. He was in charge of composing the shots and the timing. He'd sit in with Mike Maltese (the story guy on a lot of those old Looney Tunes) and work out gags when other people weren't around. Maurice was really the main focus on that stuff.

J: He also worked on The Grinch.

S: Right. He designed the backgrounds for How The Grinch Stole Christmas. That was actually a sore point with him. That was one of the last movies he saw in the theater, and he cried because it was so bad. You gotta keep in mind, this wasn't Maurice being egotistical about his work. He worked with Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) in the Frank Capra Film Unit in World War II. Ted asked Maurice to design a lot of this stuff. So when you look at Maurice and Chuck's version of Dr. Seuss stuff, like Horton Hears a Who or The Lorax, that's all very much Dr. Seuss actually being involved in that and knowing the creators-- working with them on it and making sure it is what he wanted. But when Ron Howard came out with his movie, saying they were paying tribute to Dr. Seuss,.. I think it says something when someone like Maurice cries during the showing. It says that Dr. Seuss would turn over in his grave if he saw it.

J: Okay, let's switch directions for a minute and talk about comics. Tell me some of the stuff you've done.

S: Well, I started doing a book called Soulwind when I was 19. I was working in animation then, but I was still doing comics. I just wasn't trying to get them published. I was looking at books like Bone and Cerebus, and seeing all these indie guys doing it themselves. I was like, "I'm gonna finish these books, and, when I have enough money saved up, I'll publish them myself.”

J: Right.

S: So I would go to conventions and set up a booth without selling anything. I'd just display artwork and have pages to show. People would come up and ask, "What are you selling?" And I'd basically say, "Nothing. But the book's gonna come out eventually." I was just trying to get a presence, and I ended up meeting a lot of industry pros that way. That's where Jim Valentino at Image Comics saw my stuff. He called after San Diego and said Image was interested in picking Soulwind up. That was my big opening. That's where people across the country first saw my stuff, because it was an Image book. I started Soulwind with them, but I finished it with Oni Press. I did a book called Little Grey Man; it was kinda based on the whole alien craze.

J: And that was just a one-shot, right?

S: Actually-- (laughing)-- you and I ended up doing Voodoom.

J: Well, yeah. (laughs) We did a book together.

S: Zombie Kid and Little Grey Man kinda cross worlds. He's just a goofy, silly alien character. I was doing animation and working in development at the time. I was working on a lot of projects that would never see the light of day. There were a lot of people with their hands in the mix that don't know how to tell a story. It was getting to the point where I really wanted to start controlling my own stuff. I wanted to tell as many different kinds of stories as possible. I was doing Soulwind, which was this weird mixture of a bunch of different genres: fantasy, crime noir, etc. Then, Little Grey Man was this really silly comedy book. I ended up doing this book called Visitations with Image, as well. It's a lot more serious. It's based on some Japanese films. It deals with a woman's belief in God and three different ghost stories that this preacher uses to try and convince her that God exists. And she's got reasons why God doesn't exist after each of these stories. It takes you through a character change. Visitations was kind of a jump from the other books that I was doing. I started to get recognized as this guy who wasn't just doing one kind of book. I was doing four or five different kinds of stories at a time. I ended up leaving Image and going to Oni Press, and I did a gangster comic called Volcanic Revolver. It was a mafia thing set in the ‘20s. Then Oni started reprinting Soulwind. We did Voodoom with them.

J: Don't forget about Magic Pickle! My favorite! (laughs)

S: Recently, I just finished Magic Pickle. It's about a superhero pickle that was created during the Cold War to fight other goofy vegetables and threats against humanity.

J: With lots of bad puns.

S: A lot of bad puns. There're a lot of goofy bad guys, like The Romaine Gladiator. Actually, at Darkhorse this last year, I did a book called Ancient Joe, as well. I'm happy with how that turned out. That was spawned by reading a lot of Hemingway and weird Kerouac stories. I was mixing all these old legends from different cultures. The bulk of the story takes place in Cuba, so there's a Cuban legend that kinda works into it. After that, I've been mainly doing stuff for mainstream companies. I just did an Elektra book for Marvel. It's a four-issue miniseries. It's my first full-color book. In comics, that's a big step-- for an indie guy to be doing a full-color book. They let me paint it. They were really cool about letting me do everything in my own style. When I was done with that, I was offered a job by my friend, Bob Schreck. He's over at DC Comics, and he's in charge of all the Batman books. So I'm doing a book for them now, that I don't know if I'm allowed to talk about. But,.. um,.. why not. (laughs) It's a Batman story revolving around Commissioner Jim Gordon. There're paintings taped on my board as we're doing this interview.

J: This stuff looks amazing, man.

S: You're being silly again.

J: I'm just saying that because you're giving me a ride later tonight, and you and your wife are cooking me dinner. (laughing) Dude, this shit looks great! This is the best shit you've ever done!

S: Thanks. (laughs) I need to get this done before the holidays because, in January, I'm under a real crunch. I have a book that I'm doing for Top Shelf called The Barefoot Serpent. It deals with suicide, but it revolves around Akira Kurosawa movies and biographical information about him. His brother committed suicide, and he tried a couple of times. So it's this weird mix of themes and things from his films, with completely original characters juxtaposing a lot of those ideas. I'm excited about that one because it's one of the only creator-owned things I'm doing.

J: With all of your new releases, what's hitting next?

S: I'm doing covers for Queen & Country: Declassified, for Oni. Greg Rucka's writing that. The first issue just came out. I just did a Batman short story that was in Gotham Knights #34. This Batman book I'm working on now will be out soon.

J: You're a busy man. So, as far as influences and what inspires you to make your work, what do you look to?

S: The fact that I have to pay my mortgage is an inspiration. (laughs) I look everywhere for inspiration. This goes back to Maurice: I try to look at as much real live stuff as possible. A lot of my characters are based on people I know, situations I've been in, or things I've seen. Or with people I respect, like Kurosawa. I'll go back and analyze how he broke things down and try to make it fit a different medium. Music always plays into what you're doing. Whether it's just something in the background, or its lyrics and beat are something that affected you in some way that you can translate visually. Movies and TV definitely influence me. I try to read a lot of stuff other than comics. I just want to branch out and be as well rounded as possible. Lately, world politics have been affecting me a lot more. My wife gives me crap because I'm always looking at this website called Drudge Report, that's just a propaganda site. This guy, Matt Drudge, (who's kind of this fringe journalist) collects headlines and news stories from around the Internet. He gets stuff from reputable sites and tabloids. That's always good for story material, and keeping up on weird shit that's happening in life.

J: You just recently did your very first live art performance with me down at Central City Cafe in downtown L.A. on J-Logic's night. Did you dig the experience?

S: I had a blast! It would've been nicer to have been closer to J-Logic, inside the thing. We were right outside the venue, which was cool. It was still packed. We had people pressing us against our art boards the whole time (laughs). It was pretty amazing. It's a totally different crowd from people that have seen my shit before, but it was cool to see that they were still into it. You can play with a lot of crazy design and color in front of people, and they'll come up and ask you what you're thinking about. This one guy came up with full blown stories that tried to connect two or three pieces together.

J: It's not like a comic convention, where most people are geeks and sober. I mean, this is an environment in L.A. with funky people, and a lot of the people were drunk. They were saying strange things and offering to buy pieces. It's a different vibe.

S: It's a different vibe, but it's still interesting people. It's hard to say it's good for "people watching" because you're looking at an art board the whole time. But just hearing the people around you is enough to know that there are some crazy characters. It's a completely different experience.

J: Do you enjoy getting yourself into all these different fucked up situations, like making art in your studio alone, doing the whole convention thing, then the live thing? Which do you prefer?

S: Honestly, I like them all equally. It's good to be able to mix it up. It's scary that, right now, the two things that I'm mixing up are the live art and the conventions, versus working alone in my studio. It's two ends of a spectrum. I work alone all day long. I'll come home and see my wife or my friends, and I can't form sentences half the time because I'm sitting in an office by myself all day listening to music and drawing. So I'm kind of regressing as a human (laughs) on a communication level. But then I'll go into this situation where I'm bombarded by a lot of people around me at one point. And they all want to talk. They all have different ideas. It's almost too many people at once. Again, you're regressing because you don't know who to talk to and you’re trying to be nice to everybody. (laughs)

J: Yeah. I feel that way sometimes, too. Being antisocial and working all day alone-- it's a different way of making a living.

S: Yeah. I can tell it's making me moody and I'm turning into this weird guy. (laughs)

J: You're still one of the nicest guys in comics. But we'll see what happens if you get your movie. Can you talk about that?

S: Yeah. I mentioned earlier that I did a comic called Volcanic Revolver. It's been optioned by a company up in Canada called Taurus 7 Filmworks, and they're letting me direct it. We've got a pretty tight script right now. We're just locking financing. I've met with some really cool actors. Everybody would know their names, but I'm not allowed to say who they are because they aren't signed yet. (laughs) But they're all interested in it, and we'll see what happens with it. As soon as we get actors signed, we'll probably be shooting within six months of then.

J: Outside all this work, what other kind of shit are you into?

S: I'm into my wife.

J: She's a great woman. And a good cook

S: Which we'll be sampling in just a little bit. (laughs)

J: (laughing) It's time to end this interview and get outta here!

S: Yeah. I'm into walking my dog, and my little shit of a cat, that likes to fuck with people. And I like to hang out with my friends and have a good time. I'm trying to live life and not be some reclusive guy that geeks-out over Captain America. (laughs) I don't really care about that shit. I'm more into telling stories about life. And you can't tell stories about life, unless you're trying to live a life.

J: That kind of reminds me of how people always refer to you and me like, "Those are the ‘indie’ guys who made it into the mainstream." To you, is there that big of a difference?

S: I guess so. I don't think there should be. It's just like how animated films are still films. Comics are still comics. When the top selling book is selling 150,000 copies, that's not a big industry.

J: All comics are “underground” to me.

S: And, again, everything gets ghettoized. You end up working on different kinds of stories. There are very specific fans that like very specific things. So they're going to form opinions about you based on what you're drawing or painting at the time. And, at this point, who cares? As long as you're telling a good story,.. as long as it's entertaining and somebody's getting something out of it, great. As long as we're getting something out of it, first and foremost, and somebody else can relate to that, I think that's what makes it art. It's kinda depressing that comics are looked at as this thing for little kids. I was in a bookstore today in the humor section, and Maus was sitting there. It's a Holocaust story that won the Pulitzer Prize. It should be in the non-fiction section. It shouldn't be in the humor section next to Garfield. But that's where it was. That's America.

J: Well, it's weird to be interviewing you, because I know a lot of this stuff already. But I'm finding things out for the readers of tastes like chicken. I'm speaking for the people here! (laughs)

S: (laughing) Well, there you go.

J: Oh, speaking of the people, let's talk about Beth Shady from tastes like chicken!

S: Beth Shady! Yeah, what kind of name is that?

J: It's probably not her real name.

B: Rwoarrr!

J: We're all in L.A. and Beth Shady's out here. She works for the paper. She has recently joined our 40oz. Crew, and gone to eat Mexican food with us like we do every Monday. What were your thoughts on Beth Shady?

S: She's a cute little number. She's very social. She's very well-liked amongst our group,.. initially. She's only hung out once.

J: Do you think you could beat her in a fistfight?

S: I don't know. It looks like she might have a mean left hook.

J: She could probably take me.

S: She could probably take both of us at once.

J: (laughing) Right! Fuckin' Beth Shady!

S: I don't know if she'd give us the time of day to be able to try and take the both of us at once. She'd probably just look at us and scoff.

J: Yeah. She's in Beverly Hills doing her fuckin' hoighty-toighty shit. And we're down here trying to keep it real, and she just doesn't want to hang out with us.

S: I think it's fun that her first name is Bethany. I think that everyone should call her Bethany and not Beth. It just sounds so much more Beverly Hills and fancy.

J: Finally, do dogs have lips?

S: They do have lips. I was just looking at my dog’s lips. He's actually been working on forming consonants with his lips.

J: Really?

S: Yeah. He's got certain consonants and most vowels down. But it's funny to see him try to form an "o" with his lips. But that's how I know a dog has lips-- when he's trying to form an "o".

J: That's amazing.

VISIT SCOTT AT CRAZYFISH.NET