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Posted at 2:30 PM ET, 10/20/2010

The 'Riffs Interview: 'CYANIDE & HAPPINESS's' Dave McElfatrick tackles visas, viscera & American humor

By Michael Cavna


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DAVE McELFATRICK might be a new author, but nothing about his career has been by the book.

Already in his professional life, McElfatrick has managed to abandon his computer-science education for that ever-secure field that is online cartooning. He decided to enter the creative and commercial venture "Cyanide and Happiness" with three Yanks whom he didn't meet for years. And the self-described "stupid Irishman from Coleraine" has recently left the Emerald Isle for the culture and landscape of the Lone Star State.

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Clearly the word "fear" is not in the 25-year-old cartoonist's lexicon. (Either that or this transplant simply can't comprehend the term when spoken with a polysyllabic Dallas drawl.) Whatever the case, McElfatrick's most trying test yet of career-oriented willpower, moxie and sanity might have come in recent months, when the Irishman with the quick wit and sometime-scatological pen tackled perhaps his most daunting obstacle: trying to obtain an American visa.

"I hold in my sweaty mitts an 0-1 visa, allowing me to work on cartoons with [Texas-based co-creator] Rob [Denbleyker] until 2013 at the very least," McElfatrick tells Comic Riffs with all the glee of an impertinent upstart who has just pulled a prank on an unsuspecting principal. "I think the hardest part for us was convincing the old farts in U.S. Immigration that I was an internationally recognised [sic] cartoonist."

"They kept asking for more evidence that 'C&H' was worthy of the 0-1, which only delayed the process a lot more," McElfatrick tells 'Riffs. "The folk who make these decisions, I'm guessing, wouldn't know much about the Internet other than going onto eBay to buy parts for their scooter or something -- so having to prove to them that 'Cyanide & Happiness' is a large franchise was another big ol' hurdle. Thankfully, our fans came to the rescue, with over 140,000 of them signing a petition to get me into the country within a week or two."

The petition noted that "Cyanide and Happiness's" four creators -- who also include Kris Wilson (of Wyoming) and Matt Melvin (California) -- all live in different parts of the world. Their plea read: "In order for us to make more animated shorts, we need to get Dave into the States from Ireland. ... Unfortunately, the powers that be believe Dave's work is not notable enough to qualify him for an O1 visa (for extraordinary artists). We created this petition to give evidence that this is untrue; that his work and the comic he's a part of have a huge global audience."

As a result of the campaign, McElfatrick says, "The immigration office approved me within three days of us sending the petition off to them" in September.

"Ain't life grand?" he says. "The rest of the experience was the same bureaucratic nightmare that you'll always get when having to deal with the public sector, so I can't say anything too new on that. All I can say is that I'm very glad to finally be here, making cartoons and making folk happy! Life is keraaaaaaaazy."

"Cyanide and Happiness's" "krazy" journey began when Wilson began drawing his cartoons at age 16 and sharing them on his site Comicazi and the forum Sticksuicide.com, run by the other three skewed-view cartoonists. The guys launched Explosm.net, which now features their stick-figure (some would say "sick-figure") webcomics, their animated shorts and their highly popular reader forums.

As the "Cyanide and Happiness" quartet releases its second book, "Ice Cream and Sadness," this month, Comic Riffs caught up with McElfatrick to discuss art, immigration, off-color humor -- and which of the four guys is most obsessed with cartoon arson.


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MICHAEL CAVNA: So first off, Dave, can you speak to the fact that you guys did the strip for roughly three years before ever even meeting in person? How did these four equally deviant minds spanning the globe ever manage to e-find each other, let alone create a hilarious comic so seamlessly?

DAVE McELFATRICK: We really did work together on the cartoon for years before we'd met. In fact, we knew each other long before "Cyanide & Happiness" was born. I'd say the first time I ever spoke to the other fellas was ... around late 2001. Basically, instead of going outside and doing normal teenage things like drinking Sunny Delight or arson, I'd sit in and make these little animated cartoons that I'd upload to the Internet for people to enjoy. Silly little things usually depicting stickmen dying in ludicrous and humorous ways. Stuff like that.

At that time, there was a quickly growing community of people all over the world doing the same sort of thing, and I came into contact with Matt, Rob and Kris through all that. The other guys were essentially kids like me who were into the same thing, and we all thought each other's work was really funny. Eventually, we decided we'd all try something new out under a single name, and so Explosm was created and "Cyanide & Happiness" was born. The rest, as no one at all probably says, is history.


MC: Speaking of four delightfully deviant minds, we'd like to settle it once and for all: As humorists, who is the most twisted among you four?

DM: Ooooh, I dunno. I don't like to play up to the image that we're inherently "sick" or "twisted" people because of the perceived nature of the comic. We're just cartoonists who enjoy having a laugh, and it just so happens that we laugh at some pretty unpleasant situations -- cartoonized, of course. We certainly don't set out to be offensive with the cartoon -- we just draw what is funny to us, and by the same token I think we've made plenty of comics that have been funny without being perverse in the slightest. See the "graph" comic by Rob in our new book, for a shining example! If I were to answer your question more straightforward though, then I'd probably say Matt. I think he likes to touch upon "taboos" more than the rest of us.


MC: Wading into that last question a little deeper -- albeit watching carefully where I step -- I've gotta say, Dave: Your strips seem to most often come to the bloodiest of final-panel denouements, with much red ink -- and other bodily secretions -- being spilled. So speaking in cinematic-comic terms, are you the Mel Gibson of the foursome -- and to what do we attribute this funny bloodlust? Did you not get enough red pens as a child?

DM: What gives you the impression that I could be the Mel Gibson of the bunch? Have you been tapping my phone calls with my girlfriend? Haha. Nah, but really, I'd honestly never been aware that I was the one drawing the most viscera. It's certainly not a conscious decision on my part. Like I said before, we all met each other through a community that embraced the art of making stick-men die very violently, so I think the violent side of "Cyanide & Happiness" is a natural progression of that.

If [readers] go and look at some of the old stuff that that whole community produced, you'll see a lot of resemblances of elements that help make "Cyanide & Happiness" what it is today. Incidentally, that old community is still going strong, so if [readers are] especially bored and curious about where the early "C&H" "ethos" came from, check out a site like www.sfdt.com or www.stickdeath.com.


MC: As long as we're recklessly comparing the four of you, I've got to ask: Who would you say is the flat-out funniest of you four? Who most cracks you up?

DM: Oh you're putting me on the spot here. I can't tread on toes, everyone makes me laugh! Whether it's Kris's silly stories, Rob's zany observations or Matt's hair, I'm always LMAO'ing all over the place. It's why we work as a comic quartet, we all give each other fits of the silly giggles.

MC: So in the comic, Kris and Matt especially seem to have some serious fire fascination and pyro tendencies, no? If "Cyanide & Happiness" offices and publishing houses begin to go up in flames, who among your cohorts would you most presume is the resident arsonist in the group? Or Option B: Is fire just plain funny?

DM: Hey, what can I say? Fire's flat-out funny. I think we quite often treat our characters like little lab rats trapped inside the comic panels, and we like to let loose upon them whatever cosmic combination of elements crosses our minds at the time. Why not? People on fire in cartoons are inherently hilarious. I'd say Kris is the most likely to start a fire. Probably a habit he grew out of being bored in Wyoming for so long.

"BARBERSHOP QUARTET PERFORMS SURGERY":


MC: Visually, the loose, brush-like look of your panels is actually rather elegant and eye-catching. What materials or media do you use for your "C&H" strips?

DM: Why thank you on complimenting my panels -- I saw you eyeing them up all night from across the room. We all use Adobe Flash to draw our stuff. It's what we all originally used to make those stick-men animations (it's the high-end standard for animation on the Web) and it's what we all use to draw the comic now. It's definitely the backbone of what we do. I traditionally draw the comics with just a mouse, but I'm feeling a little curious about using a graphics pen so I can draw on my computer like I would with a pencil on paper.


MC: Perhaps more than the other guys, you write a fair number of comics than employ "face humor" and twists on visual expressions. Is that something you're aware of, and do you have any artistic influences or comedic inspirations in terms of your visual humor?

DM: I feel a little jolt of excitement in that you've picked up on that, actually. I definitely put a lot of thought into the facial expressions of my characters, as simple as they may look. Even if a character looks completely indifferent, with no expression whatsoever, it's because I sat and mulled over it, and decided that it was the best choice for that panel. I think a huge influence in my drawing style comes from old UK childrens comics called The Beano and The Dandy. When I was a kid, I'd read them religiously and a lot of the characters were very crazy. They were expression-filled and non-stationary looking, and I think it made reading them a lot more fun. I like to try and recreate that sense of dynamism and motion with my comics.

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MC: While some of the other guys do "Extreme Sports Christ" cartoons in the new book, I see that you do, say, Buddha puns instead. Can you speak to where you draw the line with spoofing religion?

DM: I've done plenty of Jesus jokes in my day too. I'm a big advocate of everything being fair game in humor -- everything should be made fun of equally, and without a sense of genuine hate or anger. Just poking fun at stuff for the fun of doing
so, you know? Our comics generally avoid preachiness of any kind, unless it's something petty like Rob's jibe at "Twilight," for example. We get away with silly, petty stuff like that, because that sort of opinion really doesn't hurt anyone at the end of the day.

Going back to the Christian spoof thing, I certainly have nothing against Christianity and Christians. Our comics never openly denounce a particular belief, or anything like that. It's all just for fun, and that's why you'll never read a punch line like "Christianity is stupid", or whatever in "Cyanide & Happiness."


MC: I've interviewed a number of artists who have faced visa matters when working
in the United States. What's your current visa situation -- am I right in hearing that just weeks ago you secured a 0-1 visa for three years, so you can work in person with the other guys? And what was that process like -- relatively easy for an internationally acclaimed cartoonist, or a serious pain in the arse?

DM: Yes, you are absolutely right! I hold in my sweaty mitts an 0-1 visa, allowing me to work on cartoons with Rob until 2013 at the very least. I think the hardest part for us was convincing the old farts in U.S. Immigration that I was an internationally recognised cartoonist. They kept asking for more evidence that "C&H" was worthy of the 0-1, which only delayed the process a lot more. The folk who make these decisions, I'm guessing, wouldn't know much about the Internet other than going onto eBay to buy parts for their scooter or something -- so having to prove to them that Cyanide & Happiness is a large franchise was another big ol' hurdle.


MC: Related to that: I know folks from Ireland who insist that across-the-Pond humor generally "travels better" heading westward rather than the return trip East. (Case in point: Everything from Monty Python to Ricky Gervais to Sacha Baron Cohen.) Do you see any truth in that? And do you think the Internet -- and in their own ways, webcomics -- are helping knock down any cultural barriers to humor?

DM: Good question! I think I can see a truth in that, to be honest; but then I would say that, being a smelly paddy and all myself. Folk back in the UK and Ireland are a bitter bunch compared to those in the U.S., and they really get a kick out of being that way. Mainstream humor, in my experience, is generally a lot more black and po-faced over there. There's quite often little to remind you that it's still a joke -- stuff like laugh tracks aren't used much anymore. Humor is far less family-oriented and sugar-coated, and certainly a lot of my favorite UK/Irish shows would maybe be considered controversial if aired in the US on a freely available channel (as they are back there, and are often hugely popular).

Another huge differentiation, to me, is in the characters. Look at traditional U.S. sitcoms like "Friends" -- everyone's a good-looking, successful, smart-talkin' young gun who frequents trendy coffeehouses and has a smartass answer for everything. Back home, everyone prefers the fall guy who's meager attempts to get by in life always end up in ruin. I guess it's a cultural difference. I have noticed that there's been a lean towards
more UK-styled humor over here more recently, however; stuff like "The Office," "Human Giant" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," all fantastic shows and all popular back home. I feel now, to add more context, I should mention some great shows from the UK/Ireland that might interest your readers if they're feeling a little curious about TV over there, so here's a list: See if you can find stuff like "The Inbetweeners," "Peep Show," "Brasseye" or "Darkplace." You'll either hate them or absolutely fall in love with them. Go on, check 'em out. I'll be your best friend if you do.

As for the Internet -- I think the Internet is definitely breaking cultural barriers in that it's making the world much much smaller. Kids from all around the world are now connecting with each other on a daily basis. "Cyanide & Happiness" just as popular in Europe as it is in the United States, and we have huge fan bases in places like Brazil, Australia and South Africa, too. I like to think we're doing something right! Our jokes very rarely reference specific pop-culture references or stuff like that. I try to avoid jokes that are purely colloquial -- we like to make fun of things that the entire world can relate to. I think that's part of "C&H's" appeal.

MC: I like Randall Munroe's intro for the new book. So once and for all: What is the funniest stick-figure web comic on the planet -- and who would win a cartoon cage match between the "xkcd" characters and your Purple-Shirted Eye Stabber, let alone Superjerk?

DM: I'm pretty sure The Purple Shirted Eye Stabber would take them all on -- after all, he has a knife. I imagine the most wieldy weapon an "xkcd" character would have at its disposal would be a piece of chalk, or something. Maybe it could choke-slam The Purple Shirted Eye Stabber onto an easel for some heavy-duty damage. Randall's a fantastic person and he's been very good to us over the years -- he helped me out a lot with getting my visa. I've always been a fan of "xkcd," but I gotta say... I think "Cyanide & Happiness" has the edge. Mainly because there's a bunch of us and one of him. So we could probably beat him up a little more than he could beat us up. But only a little more.

MC: Lastly, creatively, do you hope to still being doing "C&H" in five, 10 years?

DM: Who knows? I'd ideally like to see "Cyanide & Happiness" explode as a popular franchise without us having to compromise our writing and art in any way. Thankfully the internet has no rules, and we are still thriving five years after the first "C&H" comic was created. I think we want to do more than just comics and online animated cartoons eventually, though... watch this space!

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By Michael Cavna  | October 20, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Webcomic  | Tags:  Cyanide and Happiness, Dave McElfatrick, Kris Wilson, Matt Melvin, Randall Munroe, Rob Denbleyker, xkcd  
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