Why Do Humans Need Stories? A Conversation about Genius Animals? with Vali Chandrasekaran and Jun-Pierre Shiozawa

I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Jun-Pierre Shiozawa and Vali Chandrasekaran about their new graphic novel, Genius Animals?. We talk about the creation of their hilarious story, their creative process, influences, and what it was like for veteran TV writer and producer, Vali (30 Rock, Modern Family), to approach writing for comics. All eight chapters of the graphic novel are available - FOR FREE - at geniusanimals.net, so go take a look at if after you've read through our discussion. Or, read the story and come back here to learn some great insights about the publication from its creators. 

Mike McCann: Let’s start with the genesis of Genius Animals? Vali, after years working on successful television comedies, what got you interested in a graphic novel project? 

Vali Chandrasekaran: I was writing for 30 Rock when I first wrote the script for Genius Animals?  Our hours on the show were very long and I was married but living away from my wife. After work, I’d come home and not really know what to do with myself.  So I decided to write something purely for fun, an unfilmable movie script that I figured I could use as a sample to help me get other work.  So I did that and it was everything writing for one’s self was supposed to be -- fun, creatively fulfilling.  And it did end up getting me other movie writing work.  Success... right?  It didn’t fully feel that way.  (I suppose I wouldn’t be a writer if I could simply enjoy a good thing.)  The problem was I really liked the story and world I came up with, but only a handful of folks had read it.  I wanted to share Genius Animals? with a wider audience.

The central question of Genius Animals? is: Why do humans need stories?  And what happens to a person when she can no longer trust the narrative she’s created?  A medium where the reader has to fill in parts of the work herself is perfectly suited to explore those ideas. - Vali

As I was trying to figure out what to do with the story, I became increasingly interested in what different mediums do well.  Why do we laugh out loud more at movies and TV shows than comic prose?  How is a good tweet different from a good stand-up joke?  With comics, I was particularly fascinated by how interactive they are, how the space between the panels requires the reader to interact with the book. It’s not possible to passively read a comic like one can consume music or a movie.  Reading Scott McCloud’s great Understanding Comics made me think about how our minds need to fill in that space, create a narrative to explain it.  

The central question of Genius Animals? is: Why do humans need stories?  And what happens to a person when she can no longer trust the narrative she’s created?  A medium where the reader has to fill in parts of the work herself is perfectly suited to explore those ideas.

Also when you throw in Werner Herzog, Bugs Bunny and a conspiracy theory radio show, you have genre-blending story that can't be told anywhere except in an indie graphic novel.

Mike: I'm glad it made it to the graphic medium, Vali. You're right, there are some stories that can only work in the sequential art format, especially when something blends genres like Genius Animals? does. Jun, what was your entry point into the project?

Jun-Pierre Shiozawa: I lead watercolor painting workshops around Europe and I met Vali at one of my watercolor workshops in Ireland. His wife (who I was already friends with) attended along with Vali to do some painting and have some family time in this beautiful region of western Ireland. From there we kept in contact and later that year I did a mini comic of sorts for Inktober, which centered around my parents’ lives and how they met. After seeing that work Vali reached out and asked if I had ever done graphic novels before. I hadn’t, but it was something I’d always wanted to do, if there was the right story to commit myself to such a big project. Vali sent over the script for Genius Animals? and I’ll never forget--it was over the holidays and I was with my family outside of Genoa, Italy. I read it on the train coming back from the trip straight through--I was totally hooked and into it. I knew immediately that I wanted to help in developing it somehow and that it would be an amazing book to draw. I said I’d be up for doing it and Vali gave the thumbs up. Once Vali and I were able to clear our schedules to focus on the book more we just hit the ground running.

Mike: I love hearing that kind of story. It's great to see how casual connections can morph into a creative partnership. 

Vali, I’m always curious about how stories enter our consciousness and develop or morph by the time they end up being produced. Was this a story that had been marinating for a while? Did you originally envision it as a graphic novel?

Vali: Oh, man.  This story has been with me for a very long time.  I came up with the mystery at the center of GENIUS ANIMALS? Almost 20 years ago.  I wrote it as a movie script ten years ago.  And Jun and I started turning it into a comic three years ago.  During this time the story became both bigger and more focussed.  Meaning, with Jun’s help, I got better at building a big world for the story to live in.  At the same time, I matured as a writer and learned how to write a story more focussed on the core themes I wanted to explore

Mike: Jun, same basic question: were your visuals - your character designs, their animated expressions and body language - projects from your sketchbook or ideas you had been working on, or did you create everything based off of Vali’s script?

Jun: It was primarily based off of Vali’s script. The story and its characters are funny and I wanted the visuals to be expressive enough to convey the slight silliness and absurdity of the characters, all while being rooted down in this mysterious, slightly ominous world of the story. I was aiming to strike the balance of designing characters that felt familiar and real, without being too realistic and loose and expressive, without being too cartooney. Another aspect of the story that really struck me was the constant shifting environments, and how we’re following Alexandra move from scene to scene meeting all different types of crazy, mysterious figures. I wanted each setting to feel like a new destination point on Alexandra's quest to find Todd so I would have a specific color palette and tone for each scene. It was also important that the environments were rich with background detail and filled with activity to convey that while all this craziness is going on with the main characters, life goes on, people are minding their own business and no one is aware of this potential looming threat. So I wanted there to always be this tension between the growing inner stress and paranoia that Alexandra was facing made all that much worse by how normal everything and everyone seemed around her.

Should we just write “nod, nod”? To convey a nod? Usually we opted for the simplest, more direct approach in those situations. - Jun

Mike: I think you definitely captured that vibe, guys. There is a punchiness to this story, Vali, and Jun’s visuals bring the humor to life. Vali, you’ve written for 30 Rock and Modern Family, two comedies known for their timing and cascading jokes. There is no room for chuffa in a graphic novel. So, what was the process to make sure the jokes landed? Did you require a lot of back and forth? How was it different than bringing a teleplay to life?

Jun: I really felt that with many of the jokes I had to do my best to just make sure the characters felt natural whenever they were delivering their punchline. In a way I was trying to just “get out of the way” of the joke, by making their body language and expressions echo or amplify the joke that’s written in the word balloon. Sometimes very subtle gestures like a nod or an eyeroll are tricky in comics and Vali and I would discuss back and forth, should we add an extra panel to get that nod? Should we just write “nod, nod”? To convey a nod? Usually we opted for the simplest, more direct approach in those situations.

Stuff like that I found to be the trickiest part of making the joke work, and knowing how much we could keep in or not would be an ongoing conversation throughout the book. 

The easier gags would often be the ones that are purely visual--for example when Finnegan is telling the butler how she likes her Arnold Palmer drink--they’re almost more like easter eggs. I could play with them as the main visuals are going on and whether or not the reader would pay attention to it or not was besides the point, just putting it in there was part of the fun.

Vali: I really wanted to make a book that would make my comedy writer friends laugh.  Every gag or joke we put down, I’d think would Tina Fey enjoy this?  Would The Simpsons writing staff be impressed by this?  Thinking like that can be scary but it also makes me buckle down.

In my TV and movie work, I typically write really talk-y characters and have been fortunate to work with amazing comic actors who know just how much to ground any given moment or line in reality.  The interesting thing about comics, is everyone reads with a different voice.  Except for when reading Batman, maybe.  I bet everyone reads him as moody and dark now because of the movies.  To account for this, in Genius Animals? I stayed away from “performance based” jokes, shortened the dialog in general and worked with Jun to find ways to convey comic timing through the art and lettering.

Mike: I think both Tina Fey and other comedy writers would love this story. 30 Rock and The Simpsons are two of my favorite shows, and I certainly laughed out loud often while reading. So you have my endorsement at least! 

As I read Genius Animals, I tried to think about possible graphic novel influences, and the once that jumped out at me was Giant Days, but I also get a Pynchonian vibe as well. Vali, what influences were in your head as you started your script?

Vali: Pynchon was a huge influence.  Like any proper annoying nerd, I read Gravity's Rainbow twice in college and The Crying of Lot 49 at least five times while we were making the book.  Alexandra Lakshmi, the protagonist of Genius Animals?, is spiritually related to Oedipa Maas.  Jun and I also talked about the Coen Brothers a lot, particularly The Big Lewbowski and the movies of Miranda July.  The most obvious debt is probably to The Far Side though.  Gary Larson created the funniest, strangest universe of sentient animals earth has ever seen.  

Mike: Jun, your style has an animation aesthetic to it. The visuals are fluid, and your character construction is perfectly suited for Vali’s comedic script. What artists spoke to you as you illustrated Genius Animals?

Jun: There were definitely some artists such as Fiona Staples, Jaw Cooper and Amanda MacFarlane (@theanimatedlife on Instagram) that I was looking at, for their combination of expressive, natural figures and animals. I think old school Disney movies from the 60s and 70s was also in my mind, the slightly lankier, looser designs and coloring of films such as Robin Hood, the Jungle Book and the Sword in the Stone because those characters always seemed so alive and and expressive and I wanted that feeling of movement to always be present, even when two characters are just sitting around talking.

Mike: Genius Animals is part satire and part genre story. Was it important to include the paranormal/conspiracy element? Aiming this at a certain age group, did you want to channel things like the X-Files as part of a nostalgic connection?

Vali: I’m sure on a subconscious level I wanted to channel some X-files nostalgia. The story I told myself though was that every section, every world we dipped into, was an exploration of how humans used stories to make sense of the world. 

Alexandra works as a documentary film editor, literally trying to order snippets of film into some sort of narrative that’s true.  As the graphic novel progresses, she starts to find that truth more and more elusive.  When she turns to her boss, a character based on Werner Herzog but is named Werner Notzog for joke legal reasons, he reveals he doesn’t even pretend to find his narratives to be 100% true in Alexandra’s sense of that word.  He knows that’s impossible.  

Similarly, when Alexandra dips into the world of Sea to Sea, a conspiracy theory radio show, that was an exploration of another method giving order to our experiences.  Those weirdos are people who, like Alexandra, wanted to make sense of a world so fantastic they found the need to invent (or, if they were right, unearth) vast and sweeping conspiracies to make sense of it.

Jun: Tonally and visually I think it was very important to include the conspiracy/paranoia element. As Alexandra learns more and more about the conspiracy and mystery behind the book, the look and the aesthetic in the story changes and reflects the overall sense of confusion and obfuscation underlying the overall secret plot that Alexandra is discovering. So the ping-ponging back between naturalistic lighting and coloring to more moody, darker, spotlighting is very deliberate, especially as the story progresses toward the ending.

Mike: In terms of the satiric elements of the story, one that makes me laugh particularly hard is the send up of mid-to-late aughts hipster culture, namely the death of irony. Alexandra and Todd bond over their collective eye roll, but they’re not that far divorced from that world themselves. Todd has a man bun, for instance. What is it about parody that requires that level of immersion or participation?

Vali: Oh man.  This question hits close to home.  When I first wrote this script I was living in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.  Now I live in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.  Add that I make independent graphic novels to that and… I don’t think it gets more hipstery.  Am I making fun of that culture or am I part of the problem?  For the sake of my mental health let’s call it embedded reporting.  

These questions are starting to feel a lot like a therapy.

Mike: Oh no, I'm not trying to pry too much. I think any good parody has to be embedded in what it sends up. If Mel Brooks didn't love Westerns, Blazing Saddles wouldn't have been as funny. 

Jun: Yeah, so much of it was a wink wink to things without really going into it so much. Just stating, “Sometime in the late 2000s, somewhere in Brooklyn” at the very beginning of the book sets the scene of a certain type of world and aesthetic for the readers as a way to prep them into the type of story and humor inside. I think by starting it off from the beginning that way, with Todd and his man-bun and everything, we could then launch off into the mystery and journey of the story without the exposition about who these characters and their backgrounds are because we’re already all so familiar with that particular hipster culture scene.

Mike: Early in the book, as Alex and Todd’s relationship buds, there is a wordless sequence that extends many pages. It’s a great element of storytelling. What was it like collaborating on that sequence? Was that a particular idea, or did it evolve organically?

Jun: It evolved organically. All of those moments in the love story montage were written in the script with a high degree of detail--from the restaurants they go to, to the way the two characters are becoming closer and more comfortable with one another. Originally there is a voiceover that continues from the very first conversation that begins when Alexandra and Todd are making out and Todd says, “I’m Todd by the way.” That conversation was overlaid over the entire opening scene, something which I think could have worked really well in film, but in comics was a little clunky and jarring. It was hard to figure out the rhythm and placement of the word panels and how they corresponded with the images. Finally after much of the art was done we realized that the ongoing conversation wasn’t necessary as we got the sense of the two’s relationship from the visuals only. After the book was completely finished though we decided to “close” that montage scene, and added two more pages to give more time with Alexandra and Todd together. I think those two pages are crucial because they help us to see just how deeply those two have fallen, and why it’s so strange that Todd goes missing. Plus, it allows Todd to have more speaking lines, because after we cut out that conversation from the book, there weren’t many Todd lines in the entire book!

Vali: Working this section into its final form was so fun and taught me a lot about what comics do so well, the advantages it can have over film.  I think the lack of dialog, the fact that the reader has to do a little work to figure out where the scene breaks and time jumps are, make the section more interactive and satisfying to consume.  It’s now one of my favorite sections of the book. 

Mike: How badly does the world need something like Looney Tunes right now? Why was it important to include the Looney Tunes send up? 

Vali: Bugs Bunny might be the funniest character of all time.  What amazes me when I go back and watch the early Tex Avery and Chuck Jones cartoons is how Bugs didn’t really evolve into the character we know today, he arrived almost fully formed.  Some of my favorite Bugs gags --  the way he talks circles around Elmer Fudd, the way he can dive into a hole then close it up, etc -- appeared in very early cartoons.  To me, the Bugs Bunny bit in Genius Animals isn’t really a send up.  (Though I love cartoon send ups, my favorite being The Simpson’s terrific Tom and Jerry parody -- Itchy and Scratchy.)  I think of the Bugs Bunny bit in the book as our attempt at acknowledging Bugs as a work of profound genius.

Jun: We so definitely need something like Looney Tunes right now! Just the manic, silly energy that Bugs and company provides is like some sort of humor therapy that I think elevates those cartoons to some sort of high art. They’re just so funny and well done, and Bugs as a character is like a type of superhero of some sort.

Mike: Yes, perhaps send up wasn't the best choice or words. It truly is an homage. And I agree, I think Bugs is indeed one of the greatest characters ever created, and its kind of depressing that young people don't get exposed to the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies reruns we saw as kids. Vali, you have a professed love of Werner Herzog, and you include a Herzog pastiche in the story. He functions somewhat as a commentator, a version of the Greek Chorus. He interacts with both the reader and Alexandra in different ways than the other characters. Explain your love for Herzog and why a Herzog stand-in was an important component of the story.

Vali:  Hergog has made some of my favorite movies and documentaries of all time.  They are profound and serious, concerned with man’s place in the cosmos and within this earth, yet they are also really funny.  And Herzog the man is really funny too.  I don’t mean funny without meaning to be either.  Herzog knows exactly what he’s doing.  A few years ago, I saw a screening of Aguire: The Wrath of God where he spoke afterward and he was thrilled that the audience laughed at all the same parts he found funny when he was making the movie.  His obsession with finding an “ecstatic truth” -- a term I find both hilarious and deeply interesting  -- is one of the obsessions of Genius Animals?  Many of Herzog’s movies have no business working, yet they do.  That’s one of the best qualities a piece of art can have, I think.

Mike: Jun, as the story progresses, your style shifts ever so slightly. Occasionally, it’s the use of color, but you also vary up your linework and texture. Can you talk about this part of the process and the intentional ways you looked to interpret the script?

Jun: Thank you for noticing that! I definitely was hoping that the style would reflect Alexandra’s state of mind a bit. I wanted the initial love sequence to feel beautiful and romantic because that’s what it’s all about, these two characters falling in love. But as Alexandra finds herself alone on her quest I was trying to find ways to show her sense of loneliness and longing and confusion visually--harsher lighting, more abstract color choices, a more reduced color palette that feels uncomfortable and intense (like in the “Give Me Death” bar scene). Hopefully that would show that the stakes were rising for Alexandra and as she was getting closer to the truth there was more of a threat. So technically speaking I was coloring more openly and painterly in the beginning of the book and towards the end I was using more muted colors with bigger, more substantial inks.

Mike: Talk about how the pandemic affected the production of Genius Animals and why you ended up talking the book online. Specifically, Vali, what was it like ending Modern Family while finishing up this book all amidst the quarantine?

Vali: Like everything with the book, Jun and I had no idea what we were doing and simply stumbled forward.  Originally we thought we’d put the book out through an indie publisher.  Then the pandemic happened.  Nobody knew when normal printing would resume, when conventions would start back up -- any of the usual ways new creators put out and promote a comic.  So, partly to distract ourselves from quarantine and partly just to experiment, we put the book online for free.

We’ve been pretty pleased with the results.  A lot of friends from the comedy world who don’t go to a comics shop checked out the book because it was easy to access.  And they ended up the whole thing.  The experience made me feel like there’s an under-served market for non-superhero indie comic books for grownups.  Especially ones that are funny.  Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics do great work on this front.  I wish other publishers joined them in developing this space because, selfishly, I want to read more books like that!  I know there are creators out there who want to make them too.

Jun: I think Vali said it best--with the pandemic and everything shutting down we just didn’t know what type of timeline we would be looking at if we put Genius Animals? out with a small publisher. We had the book finished and ready to go and we just were thinking: everyone’s stuck at home now, maybe we can share something that we’ve made. In that spirit we built the site and released the book. It feels really good to have done it this way because for me it has been a big part of coping with this entire crazy experience we’re all living with. Knowing that Genius Animals? Could have provided a little bit of entertainment and respite during this time for readers has been huge and it’s been really great being able to finally see what people think after all the time and effort we put in to it.

Mike: I think that was ultimately a great decision. Many creators put out quarantine-specific material in the early months of the pandemic, but I'd prefer content like Genius Animals for the very reasons Jun articulated - as kind of a respite from the world around me. I think we're close to wrapping up. Any closing remarks?

Vali: The whole book is free online at geniusanimals.net!  Tell your friends.  Tell your enemies’ friends as a way of isolating your enemies further.  We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoy consuming it.

Jun: It’s been an awesome journey so far. Working on a book that started off as a kernel of an idea for Vali almost 20 years ago and now is a finished book that can be read in full online has been an amazing experience. Thanks so much for reading the book and for sharing it. It’s been truly a labor of love.

Mike: I had a blast reading Genius Animals, but I had an even better time corresponding for this interview. You two clearly have great creative chemistry, and I hope you continue to work together. I expect to see both your names gracing the covers of graphic novels for years to come.

Vali Chandrasekaran is a television writer and producer best known for his work on Modern Family and 30 Rock. This is his first graphic novel. He can be found on Twitter here.

Jun-Pierre Shiozawa is a freelance artist and art instructor living in Nice, France. He has a diverse portfolio in addition to his work with Genius Animals?. Check out his website here or find him on Twitter and Instagram.

Genius Animals? is the duo's first collaboration, and it is available entirely for free at geniusanimals.net.