Interview: Jonathan Coulton and Greg Pak on their Kickstarter project 'Code Monkey'

Code Monkey comic

Today, Jonathan Coulton and Greg Pak launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new comic based on JoCo's signature songs.

With artwork by Pak's frequent collaborator Tak Miyazawa, "Code Monkey" will tell the story of a programmer who's drawn from the cubicle farm of one of a supervillain's legitimate business into a spacefaring rescue mission. He and his boss head off in an adventure against two chief adversaries: a robotic queen and their own general ineptitude. Code Monkey is at a strict disadvantage in any situation whose solution doesn't require him to manipulate an SQL server backend. And yes, alas, this includes affairs of the heart.

We interviewed the creative team via email.

TechHive: "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," starring the Bee Gees; "Harper Valley PTA," starring Barbara Eden; "The Gambler," starring Kenny Rogers; and of course, "The Christmas Shoes," starring Rob Lowe. And "Code Monkey" joins this list of songs that became fully-realized stories. What's the attraction?

Jonathan Coulton: As your list of hugely successful entertainment properties demonstrates, this kind of creative endeavor always works. It's basically like printing money (joke).

Actually, for years people have suggested to me the idea of creating some kind of larger work out of these songs that ties together the characters and common themes that seem to already exist in the same universe. A few groups have written and performed full-on Jonathan Coulton musicals, which is always fun to see. I've always liked the idea of getting these characters together and seeing what they have to say to each other beyond the internal monologues that already exist.

Greg Pak: Jonathan's my favorite current singer-songwriter because he's first and foremost a storyteller. Virtually every one of his songs features a strange, funny, relatable, and totally compelling character. Code Monkey's a perfect example. He's a hapless, put-upon computer programmer who seethes as his boss condescends and pines as the object of his affection ignores him. And he talks like the Hulk. What's not to love?

TH: Why "Code Monkey" and not, say, "Skullcrusher Mountain" or "Chiron Beta Prime," which seem to have direct storylines?

GP: Funny you should ask! Because the "Code Monkey Save World" graphic novel is based on several songs, including "Skullcrusher Mountain" and "Chiron Beta Prime"! The Coultonverse is a rich and varied place, and we're taking advantage of all of its strange nooks and crannies. Fans of zombies, robots, and curlers in particular may be pleased to know that we're also taking inspiration from "Re: Your Brains," "Future Soon," and "Curl."

Code Monkey comicTak Miyazawa
'Code Monkey' takes inspiration from several popular Coulton songs.

JoCo: Indeed, as Greg points out, we're trying to bring together characters from a few different songs. One of the challenges is the almost immediate retcon you have to take on in doing this—these songs were not originally designed to fit into a consistent single story universe, so you have to bend a few rules. I'm super excited about the parts of this story that are new, the choices that Greg is making as he brings the threads together.

It's always exciting when you get to watch someone talented build on something you've already created. That collaborative aspect means that even for me, the guy who wrote the songs, there's a whole bunch of new stuff that's going to happen.

TH: You guys are suddenly making it sound like a Marvel mega crossover event! What do you think the musical equivalent of the famous "Avengers versus Justice League" crossover would be, if you could incorporate characters from Jonathan's and any other band's songs?

GP: I pick Styx's "Come Sail Away." Skullcrusher vs. Alien Angels!

JoCo: I'd go with Leonard Cohen—you'd get a lot of intense, deep thinking, East Village types in there, slouching around being all interesting. I'd like to see Skullcrusher try to hang out at one of their parties.

TH: What's the basic storyline of the "Code Monkey" comic?

GP:  Code Monkey teams up with the moody supervillain Skullcrusher to save Code Monkey's beloved co-worker Matilde from Laura the Robo Queen's slave colonies on Chiron Beta Prime. Hijinks ensue.

The twist is that Skullcrusher is just as inept as Code Monkey when it comes to matters of the heart. He pines for Laura the Robo Queen, hopelessly. Unrequited love, fantastic heroism, seething villainy. We've got it all!

TH: I imagine that "Code Monkey" could have served as the whole "elevator pitch" for a comic story. Or, alternatively, just as the booster rocket that gets the story going and then gets jettisoned. Was it a good framework for stories that fit that kind of world, or has Jonathan been carrying around a clear picture of who the narrator is, and the life he led outside the song, all of these years?

JoCo: I actually don't have a huge framework in mind outside the songs. When I write I try to get deep into the character, and I try to empathize as much as possible. Best case, the writing comes from a very emotional place, so that it's almost personal, even though I'm speaking as a giant squid or a zombie or whatever.

And the larger story line that comes before and after doesn't enter into my process—I don't have the patience! So really I'm depending a great deal on Greg's talents as a storyteller, to take those characters and make them dance in a pleasing way, for longer than three minutes and 45 seconds.

GP: I've had all of Jonathan's songs in my iPhone for a couple of years now, so I've heard them all about one billion times each. And over the months, I've kind of internalized all of these different characters. Once I started thinking about how a story might work, the characters kind of fell into place very naturally. They're all so distinctive that you get great moments when you put any two of them in the same room.

But what really makes it all work is that there's a kind of shared emotion threading through all of these songs and characters—a kind of longing. These are all characters in motion, all yearning for something just out of their grasp. That motion and emotion generates conflict and drama. Just great stuff.

TH: The first time I heard "The Future Soon" I thought that the kid narrating the lyrics could have been the subject of a movie...the song crystallized a certain kind of "teenage nerd filled with dreams and desires, but whose imagination creates a lack of focus and a lot of obstacles" that was, alas, quite familiar.

JoCo: Yes, it's remarkable how many people find themselves in that character. Apparently we're all sitting alone in our rooms, plotting our delicious revenge. And really this guy is the heart of the story I think—the sad villain who no one appreciates seems to tap directly into who most of us think we really are.

GP: Exactly. While putting this story together, I realized that the narrator of "Future Soon" and "Skullcrusher Mountain" could actually be the same guy at different stages in his life. And yes, I was totally compelled by that idea of a nerd-turned-supervillain, particularly given the character's hapless and hopeless romantic longings. Incredibly creepy, funny, and affecting all at once.

A big part of the fun of the story will be seeing this character, whom we're calling Skullcrusher, serving as a kind of mentor for Code Monkey. He's a very bad mentor, of course—and the question is whether the more innocent Code Monkey will go down the same path towards miserable villainy. Drama!

TH: Which sounds kind of perfect, because there's probably nobody at any company with the power for greater good or greater evil than the folks who write the code that runs everything.

GP: Heh. In the outline we've worked up, Code Monkey actually works for Skullcrusher's legitimate businesses, SKM Industries. So he may have knowingly or not been contributing to massive evil for ages now.

TH: I think it's fair to say that "Code Monkey" has become an anthem for the brave men and women of the International Coding Corps. To actually draw this guy must be like being the first person to draw Doctor Doom without his mask on...even if a fan can't tell you what he looks like, they probably know what's "wrong."

Is Code Monkey even male? How do you get that figure "right"?

Tak Miyazawa: To be honest, I didn't know much about the Code Monkey phenomenon until Greg asked me to be part of the team. Living in Japan for the past 6 years... I've been in a bit of a bubble. Anyway, I think it's safe to say I was seeing it with fresh eyes. Greg gave me a short bio of each of the characters and I was free to draw what felt right to me. I feel very fortunate about the amount of freedom I was given and the fact that Greg and Jonathan liked them so much!

Code Monkey comicTak Miyazawa
Concept art of Matilde and The Robo Queen

GP: I'll just say that the instant I opened up my email and saw Tak's initial sketches, my head exploded from the awesome. Particularly that one little sketch of Code Monkey typing with that slightly dangerous arch to his eyebrow. There's a guy on the verge—who knows what he's going to become? Adorable—or deadly? I love it so so so so much.

JoCo: I'll second Greg's comment—not that I had any preconceived notions of what he looked like, or even if he was a monkey or not, Tak nailed it out of the gate.

GP: I will say one thing: from the beginning, I knew he had to be a real monkey. And if we can get away with it, I hope to never explain it.

TH: It must be fun to be surprised by something new in something that you yourself wrote. It sounds like your process for creating this comic will be a little like the classic Marvel Method of writing comics: the writer hands a synopsis, the artist breaks it down into pages, the writer then scripts through the artwork.

GP: Well, the Marvel Method really is about producing story pages that way. I've planned out the whole story, but at the moment, we've just had Tak working on character and cover designs. So yes, there's a lot of fun back and forth, with me tossing him a few lines about the each characters and Tak hitting us back with sketches. And Tak somehow has a direct line into my brain, because he's totally nailing every single design. 
When we get to the actual writing and drawing of story pages, I'll give Tak full script pages. I've done more Marvel Method writing recently—most recently with "X-Treme X-Men," and I've had a lot of fun with it.

But Tak and I have always worked with full script together and it's been great. Tak's absolutely amazing with character—particularly with very small, funny nuances. And I think we'll have the best chance of teasing out those moments if we go full script.

At the same time, I'm always hugely open to artists bringing awesome ideas to the table, and Tak's one of those endlessly inventive guys who finds fun bits to play with that bring out essential things about the characters. He created all the scenarios for those initial character sketches of Code Monkey—and I love them all so much, from the coffee mug to getting caught surfing the web to that dangerous raised eyebrow. Just solid gold.

TH: Jonathan, has the experience gotten you thinking about writing music specifically for a comic or film?

JoCo: I'm always thinking about that. Mostly I don't have the big idea yet for such a project, but it's certainly something I'm interested in doing one day. Who knows, once this thing gets going we may find there's a whole universe of stories there—musicals, movie musicals, novelizations of the movie musicals, and then ultimately a documentary film about all the conspiracy theories and secret hidden meanings in our enormous body of work. Fingers crossed!

This story, "Interview: Jonathan Coulton and Greg Pak on their Kickstarter project 'Code Monkey'" was originally published by TechHive.

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