The first time I saw the preview clip for Ben Jones' Cartoon Network show, The Problem Solverz, show up on Youtube, I felt crazy, like something in reality I had taken for granted had been undermined. The show felt "off," in a way which was sort of like an Invasion Of The Body Snatchers scenario: Uploaded to the Paperrad Youtube channel, looking really great, but moving according to this formula that seemed dumbed-down. Eventually the revelation came: Oh, it's for kids now. The Adult Swim pilot, produced by PFFR, distinctive as it might have been, had jokes in it that weren't prefigured on the assumption of an adult audience the way that Adult Swim shows increasingly have been, with offensiveness a part of its underlying premise and as such impossible to remove. That was fine by me, but I felt what I was seeing was something else: Someone looking at the surface of Ben's aesthetic and running with it, thinking that was all that was there. A sort of aggressive ecstatic randomness, based around videogames, food, neon, butts, etc. This felt especially jarring after years of seeing this aesthetic copied elsewhere and feeling like I had to explain the difference between the real thing and the copycats.
This interview then explained to me the thing I was really detecting, in a way that made sense to me: Ben isn't writing this show. He cares about it, is invested in it, but is directing his energies towards the visuals, delegating the writing to Hollywood-comedy-writers-looking-for-work. (I looked up the person writing the episodes up online and found a LinkedIn profile showing a resume that I wouldn't begrudge anyone, but definitely is that of a journeyman looking for work writing comedy after an Ivy League education.) It reminded me: Oh, yeah, right: "Artist" has a tendency to mean "visual artist," which was sort of the underlying principle behind all the drawing and gallery installation and whatnot. The comedic voice, while it might not have been secondary, existed to supplement visual ideas. Now, with a mainstream venue, the visual ideas are the driving idea, as that ended up being the thing that had gained the most traction in the larger culture anyway.
(This is sort of a bummer to me as someone who was basically into writing first, narrative, humor, and then got really inspired by some bits of visual language that felt more immediate than the sort of drawing I was seeing in comics I bought for the writing. But that little personal narrative is just an aside to the story that I am trying to tell currently.)
I disagree with Dan Nadel's assertion in his interview that Ben is the first underground cartoonist to make the leap to having a mainstream animation venue since Matt Groening. It forgets about Jhonen Vasquez making Invader Zim. Maybe Nadel wouldn't count him as an underground cartoonist, but I think it's pretty important to note, especially since the currently existing dominant internet 4chan culture evidenced in the bulk of webcomics and Cartoon Network obsessives talking shit on the look of Problem Solverz comes from that place in goth culture. It might seem too prevalent to consider underground, what with the presence of Hot Topic in every mall in America, but hippie was huge as well, and so was hardcore after that. I also think that being aware of and fascinated by trends/fashion/youth culture is a pretty big part of Paper Rad's work, especially the stuff the Cioccis did/continue to do in their solo work.
Anyway, with the lens of "visual art" on, the fact that Problem Solverz is sort of Ben Jones gone through the looking glass then allows for the fact that, thanks to Youtube, you can see Problem Solverz through the looking glass, reflected through the eyes of internet-savvy kids, who upload videos of them just videotaping the show, or doing dubs where they talk all over the dialogue. It is kind of annoying when I am just trying to watch the newest episodes, but I imagine that Ben must be psyched as hell to see these weird 21st century distortions popping up, marveling at how weird kids are, and what they are receptive to.
This all is sort of the follow-up to the Riff Raff "Ice Thunder" video I posted a while ago, where a white dude bedecked in cornrows and ostentatious jewelry rapped at the viewer in a boardroom using Garfield references while a Jerky Boys decal hung behind him and there'd be cuts to cartoon Ninja Turtles merchandise. Dude is currently cluttering up my twitter feed with use of the word "obtuse," used much the same way Lil B would use the word "based," but rather than Lil B's reclamation of negative drug-talk to constitute a sort of absolute freedom, including from that of language, Riff Raff's use of obtuse just makes me think of the bit in the BJ And The Dogs book where Alfe is sitting in a car and says "does this rod have to be at such an obtuse angle?" and then puts the car in neutral/reverse causing it to roll backwards. Look at this fucking goofball, and be amazed at how culture works in 2011 America. It is maybe important to also note that Odd Future, when they are not rapping about rape and not having dads, are being absurdist and shouting out Cartoon Network shows. Does any of this make any sense to any of you? Youth is a thing that doesn't have any memory, which is why the people at the last few Extreme Animals shows have been the same handful of people that have been going for years- It might even be a smaller crowd than it was in 2006, to hear the tale be told. Through the looking glass, caught up in reflected light's glare.
Maybe I bemoan the loss of the Paper Rad crew telling stories in their narrative voice because the emphasis on spirituality and humor really helped to ground it in a world I could understand, (that of human beings with individual consciousnesses) rather than just having it be this kind of abstracted dialogue told in fashion and juxtaposition of imagery. That thread is gone, and now there is just this cacophony which is fairly pleasant and interesting to contemplate, but lacking the immediacy of resonance to be found in classical forms like storytelling.
Anyway. I'm looking forward to Ben's Black Math/Men's Group book coming out this year, along with his contribution to the just-announced-today Kramers Ergot 8, (with a cover designed by Robert Beatty, who I mentioned in the last post) and I'm looking forward to the world getting weirder and harder for me to parse. Getting old, I believe is what people call it. The future belongs to folks that place audio of themselves talking over TV shows and upload it to Youtube. I saw a thing on Twitter yesterday about Al Roker watching season two of Archer on an iPad while riding on a plane. I'm not really into that show, but the lead animator is my buddy from college who hung a Paper Rad poster up in the school animation lab. I still work crappy jobs and have no influence on the larger culture at all, and somehow that is assuring and gives me peace.