For members of an industry that fought so long and hard for a shred of mainstream acceptance, comics fans are oft quite weary of outsiders. It’s not entirely unjustified, of course. With an increased pop culture profile comes more opportunity for exploitation at the hands of the mainstream. As anyone who has attended Comic Con in the past several years can tell you, the place is just crawling with Hollywood types attempting to snatch up every unclaimed product license in the cavernous halls of the San Diego Convention Center.
With the agents, the producers, and the like, come an equally opportunistic brand of writers who view the medium as little more than a chance to pitch potential blockbusters. Given the atmosphere of the scene, Rob Schrab is understandably a bit hesitant when I suggest that he has used comics as something of a “stepping stone” into the larger entertainment industry. He doesn’t, for a second, deny that he had bigger things in mind when he started drawing Scud: The Disposable Assassin (“on my kitchen table,” the artist is found of saying), but admittedly, a phrase like “stepping stone” seems to imply that sequential art is somehow “less than.” It’s a view that Schrab certainly doesn’t hold—a fact to which a page from any of Scud’s 26 issues (and multiple offshoots) can happily attest.
More than a decade after its heyday, Scud remains one of the most beloved independent books of its day, a rare mix of action and comedy that manages a slam dunk on both fronts. Schrab, of course, has moved on since wrapping up the series. He’s become a successful screenwriting, co-writing Monster House with his longtime writing partner, Dan Harmon, as well as a director, having helmed a good portion of Comedy Central’s The Sarah Silverman Program, a show he co-created with Harmon and Silverman. Schrab and Harmon were also the driving forces behind LA’s Channel101 film festival, which was responsible for launching such classic Web comedy series as Cross Hatch personal favorite, Yacht Rock.
Even Schrab and Harmon’s Hollywood “failures” have been successes on some level. The duo teamed up with Ben Stiller for the now infamous Fox pilot, Heat Vision and Jack, a live-action series starring a relatively unknown Jack Black as a former NASA astronaut with radiation-induced super powers and Owen Wilson as his talking motorcycle. The late Ron Silver, naturally, played an evil version of himself. Fox, perhaps unsurprisingly, passed. The single episode of the show, thankfully, has gone on to have a second life as bootleg and unexpectedly viral Web video.
In fact, it was another failure of sorts that brought Harmon and Schrab out to LA in the first place, as Scud became yet another target for those aforementioned Con-trawling Hollywood types. The book was optioned by Oliver Stone’s people, following the success of Natural Born Killers. Suffice it to say, the project never made it to far beyond the initial stages. Schrab now regards the failure to launch as something of a blessing in disguise—now intimately familiar with the workings of Hollywood, it’s difficult for him to imagine such a project having turned out particularly well.
There’s no reason, however, to suspect that Harmon and Schrab have taken the possibility of a Scud film off the table entirely. But with Harmon’s steady gig on NBC’s Community, and Schrab’s plethora of directing gigs and personal projects, it certainly seems a ways off. In the meantime, there’s no doubt that both will keep plenty busy.
I tried to set up an interview a year or two ago, when the Scud anthology came out, but Image said it wasn’t a great time. You seem like some who keep pretty busy.
Yeah, I keep pretty busy. I always have something going on. It’s hard for me to just sit still. Now is a good time, though. I just got back from Canada. I’m just writing, but I can always take a little break.
What brought you to Canada?
I was shooting two episodes of a show for Spike TV called Blue Mountain State. It’s a show that was actually developed by two writers who worked on The Sarah Silverman Program, and were also big members of the Channel 101 community. It’s kind of cool, because they started out just like us, shooting stuff for the Web. We got along great and after Sarah hired us, we hired them for the staff, and then the moved on and got their own show. And now I’m working for them. It’s kind of funny how that works.
Are you usually directing your own material, these days?
Yeah, yeah. This year I’m trying to branch out a bit, because I have only directed the stuff that I’ve developed, and pretty much just hired myself. I want to see how other shows do it, how other crews work together.
It’s very interesting, earlier this year I worked with David Wain and Rob Corddry on their Adult Swim show, Children’s Hospital, which is premiering this Sunday. I did—I believe it was either the fifth or sixth episode. It was great. I’ve been a huge fan of both of those guys, and I got to work with Paul Scheer of Human Giant, who I’m a big fan of, and kind of hit it off with him, so we’re kind of working on a project with him.
This is a great group of people. It’s really, really fun and fast—it’s short. It’s like the 11 minute Adult Swim timeframe, so it’s just joke, joke, joke, joke, joke, joke, joke, and then it’s over with. It’s really fun.
The difference—well, one of probably a number of differences—between the comic book scene and the comedy scene, is that, while there is a scene or scene in comics, the art form is pretty solitary. In comedy, it seems as though, once you’re in with a group, you’ve got access to an unlimited number of projects.
Yeah. That’s the thing about working on a show. Whether you’re a writer, director, producer, or even a grip or a gaffer or a sound person, is that, while you’re working on one show, people are talking about, “hey, after I’m done here, I’m going to work on something else. Would you be interested in coming over there?” And if you’re available, you just hop on the train and go. That’s a lot how it works.
But there are some similarities between comic books and the comedy film and TV scene. There’s definitely that kind of clique of, “this is independent comedy.” And there’s this broader version of comedy. There’s the TV comedy. There’s Two and a Half Men and Everybody Loves Raymond. And then there’s the Lonely Island/SNL level, which is kind of teetering on the cutting edge, but is still with the working class man’s universe, where they can get in on it. And underneath that, there’s The Office, 30 Rock, and [Dan] Harmon’s got Community now. And then under that there’s Modern Family and It’s Always Sunny [in Philadelphia]. And then under that, there’s The Sarah Silverman Program and Tim and Eric Awesome Show.
And when I say “under that,” I don’t mean that one is better. But as you go down, the audiences shrink. And I think it’s because, from where I’m standing, I’m kind of tailoring my work to a very specific kind of audience, which is a smaller audience. Just like Scud was tailored to a very specific audience. It was in black and white, it had a very anti-DC, -Marvel, even Image style—Image back in the day, definitely. It was more referencing film and old school TV and animation, rather than color comic books.
Everybody wants to break in and do good. Everyone just wants to keep working. That’s the fear. And I think that’s the fear in doing comic books, too, is ‘what if this book I’m investing so much time into bombs, and I can’t get anybody to buy the next one?’ It’s such an investment of time and energy and emotion, that every time you do it, it feels like it gets scarier. It feels like it gets scarier, as you get older.
And it falls on you entirely if it fails, versus the group input of doing a TV show.
Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, the way I did Scud, I self-published it. I wrote it and developed it. I co-wrote it with Harmon, but mostly it did fall on my shoulders. We didn’t get paid. Nobody in Fireman Press got paid, unless I finished the book. It was a lot of pressure. It was almost like doing standup, where you get up on-stage and it’s just you. You’re kind of out in front of the audience, and then, the minute you look scared or incompetent, they can turn on you.
So I always try to be honest. I always try to keep one foot out of my work, and watch it as though I were a person tuning in on TV or opening up a comic book. I want to entertain myself first. I think all creatives do that. Because that’s really the best way to find out if you’re doing a good job, if you’re enjoying it, if you’re laughing.
Every once in a while—it doesn’t happen very often—I’ll draw something where I’ll just have to stare at it for a really long time, and just soak it in and enjoy it. When you’re drawing, you’re looking at this inch-by-inch square of inking or penciling at a time. Once it’s finished, that’s when you can take in the whole thing. That’s where the joy is, in the business, where you’re just going, ‘wow, this was really painful to get here, but I’m just getting off on staring at this page I did.’
It’s the same way when you’re writing something. I’m working on this script now, and I just wrote a scene that I particularly enjoyed, and I’m just reading it over and over again, and just laughing outloud at myself. It’s sounds kind of…
You’re fully clothed when you’re doing this, right?
Oh yeah, totally [laughs]. I just stare in the mirror… A friend of mine, who I work with a lot, Todd Bishop—who actually produced “Robot Bastard” with me—was editing another one of his many projects, and a family member came up to him and was watching him edit. I don’t know if you edit or know anybody who edits, but I don’t trust an editor, if you’re not constantly swearing at the computer, going, “fuck! Goddamn it!” Or just pounding at the keys and screaming, “it’s not working!”
A lot of chainsmoking, probably.
Yeah, a lot of caffeine, a lot of going, “broooof!” Writing’s like that, too, especially in comedy. And the family member was watching Todd doing this and said, “when does it get fun?” It’s hard to tell people who don’t do this sort of thing, creatively. When I would work on Scud, I did pencils and inking and all of that zipatone, all of those dots, I did all of that by hand. It was before computers or anything like that. I even did the last four books the way I did it, back in the 90s.
The friends that I have made in the industry, who didn’t know me during the comic book days, would sit there and watch me and say, “holy cow, how long have you been at this?” And I would say, “this will be eight hours, and I’ll have to draw and ink for another three or four, if I’m lucky, and get done in time. And I have to do this every single day for 30 days, in order to get done with a 30-page book.” And they had the same response: “when does it get fun?”
And I have to say, the fun starts when you get finished with it, and you’re just staring at the book or watching something you shot. You just watch it over and over, and it’s like the best drug in the world. It makes you so happy.
It is fleeting, though. It goes away very quickly, in a sad degree. I would say that you work for an entire month on a comic book, and then you sit and stare at it for…um, 10 minutes—maybe an hour. And then it’s gone. And then you start getting depressed, because one, you want to do it again, and two, you know how painful it’s going to be.
And that’s a big reason why it took so long for me to get back into the swing of things with Scud, because, once you stop that momentum of working on a book constantly, when you say, “aaah, I’m just going to take a couple of months off and then pick out another book,” it is hard. It is hard to do it, because it is a very huge commitment, especially when you’re not making a living off of it.
That’s another reason. I worked on Scud for free for a long time, plus I had to hold down a part-time job, for a long time.
[Continued in Part Two.]