Babes, blood, and boners -- it reads like the "B" section in a book of teenage boys' favorite things. But for cartoonist Jason "Jay" Howell, they're artistic muses, and thanks to their inspiration over the past two decades, he's now a successful animator whose work is seen by millions every day on the popular Nickelodeon series Sanjay and Craig, currently in its third season.
Howell, 40, says he always wanted to be an artist. But when he started drawing as a kid, technique was not a priority: he had a lot of ideas, and he just needed to draw them fast. He cranked out dozens of zines and short films as a young adult, always laughing at what he made -- be they naughty pen-and-ink drawings or in-depth comics about a Black Metal singer getting lost at sea.
Those manic bursts of immaturity put to paper would garner him one very important fan in Loren Bouchard, the creator of successful cartoons for adults such as Home Movies and Dr. Katz. Bouchard hired Howell to design the characters for what would become a hit series on the Fox Network, Bob's Burgers. Not long after, Nickelodeon executives approached Howell and his creative partner Jim Dirschberger and asked them to pitch a children's cartoon to the network. The result, Sanjay and Craig, follows a 12-year-old boy and his anthropomorphic pet snake; the show has received overwhelmingly positive reviews since its premiere in 2013.
But Howell hasn't forgotten his first loves. Recently, many of the zines he published were collected and released in anthology by Last Gasp publications called Punks Git Cut (a name he often used for his self-published creations). Howell, a one-time San Franciscan, makes a victory lap through his old home on Thursday, Nov. 12, when he appears at a book signing party at 111 Minna Gallery.
Between reminiscing about punk bands of yore, we asked Howell (now a Los Angeles resident) a few questions about his path from zines to cable TV.
How did your style of drawing come about?
I was afraid for a long time when I was younger that I wasn't a good enough artist. But I always wanted to do little comics and draw little funny things, and when I got older and out of school I realized you don't have to be the best technical artist; you can just have good ideas. At the time, there were a lot of skaters and zine-makers that I got turned on to, and though their art might not have been the best, they were telling cool stories and putting themselves out there. It made me realize that I could go on and show my stuff. I could have my own unique voice.
I found a David Shirgley book at the Museum of Modern Art when I was younger and I realized I was doing what he was doing, but way worse. But he was in the Museum of Modern art and he made these crude drawings that were really funny.
What were the zines that influenced you?
I really liked Cometbus, which was made by a guy named Aaron Cometbus, who was from the Bay Area. He was putting out professional-style books years ago and I thought, "If this punk kid could do this..."
There was also a woman from New Hampshire named Lisa "Suckdog" and she put out a zine called Rollerderby that was really influential on me. She was just nasty and funny and did whatever the hell she wanted.
What is so inspiring about Harlequin Books?
Essentially once I draw on a page, I can pretend I was a part of finishing something bigger. Of course I know it's not true, but I like that feeling of adding to something that been completed.
But with Harlequin books, it's the titles; those titles are ridiculous. I probably have 1,600 over those things -- you can buy 300 at a time for like $30 on eBay. But the titles are so funny, it's like they speak to me. And there are so many of them. I never read any, but right away I thought they were beautiful. After I started adding to them, I wanted to do a lot more. I've done hundreds of those.
But the paper is really fragile, so I've had to add a clear coat first so it could be painted on and still hold together. I've had to buy multiples of every book. I'd search them out -- if I found a good title and I f*cked it up, I tried to find three more of the same one, just so I'd have it. But those titles would never not be funny.
You met Loren Bouchard while you were working at Atlas Cafe in San Francisco. How did that happen?
He had a studio just around the corner, and he'd come in every morning and order coffee. And someone said, "Hey, that's the guy that did Home Movies," and I was like, "Those shows rule and I have to meet that guy." Someone introduced me and it was very casual, and he became one of my regulars. He'd come in and I'd show him my new zine or whatever, and he was always excited and would talk to me about art because he's such a cool dude.
Then he started coming to my art shows and watching animations, and then one day he asked if I wanted to come work on something, because he had an idea for a family restaurant show. It just spiraled from that moment on into a life in cartoons.
How did the show Sanjay and Craig come together?
My partner since 2006, Jim Dirschberger, and I were really into G.G Allin and punk sh*t, biker gangs, horror movies and stuff like that. We really like the f*cked up stuff in life.
Then Nickelodeon contacted us, telling us that they really liked our work and asking if we ever wanted to pitch a kids' show. At first we said, "No!" [Laughs] It was like they were handing us our dream job but we'd have to do it in a way we'd never tried before.
But I'm an opportunist and I like to challenge myself. They gave me this opportunity to do something and it seemed fun so we went with it and it really worked out.
You love dogs. Why a snake for the main character and not a dog?
The idea came from a zine I wrote called Sanjay and Craig about a snake charmer and a snake in India who f*ck around and date girls and get drunk together. It was this funny little buddy story and I probably made a couple hundred copies of this zine.
When we were thinking of ideas of what the TV show could be and I said, "What about this show, but with a boy and a snake instead of a man and a snake?" It was the only idea we really had for a kids' show.
That zine isn't in your anthology, is it?
Nah, it's not. I think I forgot. [Laughs]
Have you run into any resistance with the network over your ideas? I mean, one of the first episodes of Sanjay and Craig is about a butt transplant.
I was just talking about that with Chris Hardwick and Maulik Pancholy (the voices of "Craig" and "Sanjay"). They were telling me that I had done some "f*cked up stuff" on the show and we were like, "Yeah, we have!" [Laughs]
We've gotten in trouble before. They've told us that we were being too gross and needed to pull back a little bit. But Nickelodeon has been really easy to work with. They know we're this wild show, and people like it like that, so we haven't had many problems. Maybe at first, when we were trying to find the voice of the show, we had arguments with the network. But other than that it's been easy sailing.
I think Nickelodeon has had a lot of success with shows like Ren and Stimpy, [The Adventures of] Pete and Pete and other off-the-cuff kind of alternative things. I think our show was Nickelodeon seeing if that kind of thing could work again. They were like, "Let's make something that people will pay attention to right away, so you can go for it." So we thought "butt transplants, that's hilarious." ("Brett Venom M.D.," about "the world's first butt transplant," was the first episode of Sanjay and Craig.)
Do you see yourself ever doing more of an adult-themed, Adult Swim-style cartoon?
I can only allude to this, but my partner and I have another deal with another network, and it's going to be an adult cartoon. It's going to be punk as f*ck. It's going to be South Park bad. We attached an insane Hollywood actor to the project and it's going to be bananas.
Did you ever think when you started drawing zines that it would turn into a career?
I really rolled the dice with my life. I'm 40 now and when I was 18, I was committed to being an artist but I didn't have any clue how it was going to work, at all. I'm kind of a clueless dude. I knew my art was narrative and I liked drawing cartoons, but I never thought I'd get to this point.
Punks Git Cut Book Release Party at 111 Minna Gallery in San Francisco is on Thursday, Nov. 12 at 6pm. Go to the event page on Facebook for more information.