A wounded Confederate soldier sprawls and bleeds across a corpse-strewn comic panel. To his dead comrade: “You probably don’t want to hear this right now, but this kind of thing is really beautiful to me.” Cartoonist Brad Neely’s work represents a uniquely weird synthesis of exactly these sorts of rhapsodic, non-sequitor asides pictured alongside bodies and their various fluids. The maladaptive and impossibly weird are made to work and operate in a world obviously not built for them. Demons never get around to causing sorrow for any humans because they are too busy fucking and killing each other to ever get anything done outside the house. In 2004, Neely released a spoof audiobook soundtrack, Wizard People, Dear Reader, to be played in conjunction with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Warner Brothers took action against theaters playing the feature. I dislike describing things—comedy in particular—as “dark,” but Neely’s work is certainly extreme. In the fictional universe of China, IL (originally detailed in a series of online videos) we see the actions of a pair of self-centered and sex-crazed professors, a singing duo of neoliberal apologists, and a freestyle rapping 30 year-old man-child as they are brought to bear on one another. If you can stomach the stomach-turning moments, there are occasional pearls of tossed-off, strange wisdom: “Have you ever heard that Freud was a motherfucker? Like…a real one?” The universe is currently in its television iteration; China, IL, is now in its second season on Adult Swim. We talk here about vomit, blood, and Ken Burns.
The College Hill Independent: You’ve progressed from still comics to online videos—which are composed of stills shown in succession that imply a sort of motion—to an animated television show.
Brad Neely: The earlier versions online were not necessarily an aesthetic choice, it was sort of the only thing I was able to do. I’m not an animator. I did all those by hand—I did them on paper and just scanned them in. It was kind of out of ignorance and not having a whole lot of options. So it was kind of the only way I could tell those stories visually to accompany the audio I was doing. That said, the restriction really paid off and I enjoyed the form. I’m going to go back and explore that form some more when I have some more time. But, it never was something I felt I was needing to defend or stick to, or that it represented me artistically. It was just one of the styles of storytelling that I could adopt. Moving on to fully animated moving images, that came with a whole other set of rules. We found out that, without pupils, the characters felt like zombies when you saw them moving around. So it was my idea to put pupils in, and that activated the characters more. I had to learn along the way, not having any background or education in animation really, but luckily I had a lot of really smart people around to help me do it.
The Indy: The aesthetic it always reminded me of—and it seems sort of characteristic because I know you have a scrapped Civil War project—was Ken Burns with his archive images. We pan slowly over these Civil War photographs.
BN: Yeah, absolutely. Those were definitely something that made me feel it would work. Seeing that Ken Burns Civil War documentary and realizing the small amount of things you had to do visually, as long as you had something compelling going on with the storytelling interacting with those images then you would be fine. Those things really helped me out through that period, Ken Burns’s work, for sure. But he panned and he zoomed and he pulled back. Those are the thing that I was just too stupid to know to do.
The Civil War project is a book. It’s an actual novel. I still work on that. It’s an active part of my life. It’s become something that’s probably pretty unhealthy, but I keep it up. People will see it when I die I guess.
The Indy: A lot of your work takes place at a community college, in the shared universe of Baby Cakes and the Professor Brothers. You’ve been there a very long time, certainly longer than the show has been on the air. What do you find compelling about that world?
BN: I hate to correct you, but we really have been making efforts to make sure that people know that it’s not a community college. It’s just the best state school Illinois has to offer. I just like the college atmosphere because it’s kind of a world within a world. I didn’t really have a genuine college experience. I dabbled with it, but only really as an art student and I got out pretty quickly. So all of my information about college is living near one and having sort of vindictive assumptions about it. My sister’s a professor. My closest friends are professors. But I didn’t fit well in a college environment, so maybe that informs my perspective on it.
The Indy: Well it seems like most of your characters—Baby Cakes in particular—are themselves incredibly maladjusted for that environment. They can’t make any sort of sense of it.
BN: Say that in a different way.
The Indy: The central characters can’t figure out what’s going on. Baby Cakes doesn’t really understand figurative language or metaphor.
BN: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I feel like he’s, in a lot of way, representative of me and my attitude towards the world of academia and the world at large. He’s kind of moving through it, mostly drunk, looking for pleasure. I split different aspects of my personality amongst a lot of the characters in China, IL. That’s the part of me that’s shown by Baby Cakes.
The Indy: And then the scatological angle is played very well too. It seems like most of the characters in your show really embrace the fact of “I have a body; I am an animal.”
BN: Yes. That, I think, is one of my primary interests. Boiling things down to what is common between all of us. I think it’s funny to talk about poop and vomit and blood. But I think that really that’s kind of what links us all together, having that stuff in common.
The Indy: But at one and the same time the characters have an alienation to them. Their capacity for sense-making is fairly low. It’s sort of off. Despite the fact of their having poop and vomit and blood in common, they still come from this place of total weirdness.
BN: Yeah. I think that reflects my general attitude about communication and sharing between people. I feel like it’s an easy thing to get wrong. I think it’s easy to misunderstand each other and also misrepresent yourself. I feel like that’s grounds for a lot of comedy for me, that general misunderstanding between people, even people who spend all their time together or are brothers even. I feel like that’s super funny, how people really have a hard time communicating.
The Indy: And within this universe, the people that self-present as having their shit together are the ones that are being sent up. We see it with the “America, Now” singers. There are these very bourgeois or neoliberal people with total confidence who are the actual brunt of the joke.
BN: I think that’s an instinct for me, to mistrust authority figures and anybody who is firmly espousing any kind of rule or law. My primary instinct is to tear that down, remind them that they shit and puke.
The Indy: Music plays a large role in the early videos.
BN: It’s been a large part of my life growing up. I’ve played music in bands since I was a kid, with friends. I can’t keep it out of my life. I did songs for the show that will be peppered throughout the season. As far as taste is concerned, I hate to sound like a generic dad, but I like pretty much all sorts of stuff. When it comes to making comedy, I gravitate mostly to the stuff I listened to as a kid or heard as a kid. 80’s music mostly.
The Indy: Are you a father, when you describe yourself as “a generic dad”?
BN: I have a two year old daughter.
The Indy: That must be ripe for you.
BN: She was born when we were doing season one. So I had two things growing in front of me shitting and puking.
The Indy: It’s been ten years or so since the release of your “Wizard People, Dear Reader.” With a little bit more perspective on the franchise as its ended, do you still agree with the character of Harry Potter as you portray him, as this myopic, young deity?
BN: Yeah. I never read the books so I wasn’t a step ahead, I’ve only seen the first one. And I feel like I nailed it. The kids are drunks. He’s a god. I don’t think they were hiding any of those facts. They’re celebrating it. “The world’s dangerous. Let’s get drunk. And by the way, Harry is God.”