In November 2013, cartoonist Rob DenBleyker was banned from Facebook for 12 hours. The reason: he uploaded a comic that depicted a stick figure using the Catholic cross as a workout device. Tied to the cross with a rope (unlike Jesus Christ, who was nailed to it), the stick figure wriggles out of captivity after flashing a range of laborious expressions. Eventually, he dismantles the cross and walks away, with a triumphant (read: badass) expression on his face.
Its reference to Christianity and the perceived slight to the cross irked a few who reported it as ‘abusive’ on Facebook and the comic has since then been taken down. In retaliation, DenBleyker did something rather amusing: “I decided to remake the comic with asparagus, so that I could put it back up without getting banned. Because, if there’s one great evil that needs to be quashed in the 21st century, it’s people getting offended on the internet.”
And that is what DenBleyker’s comic, Cyanide & Happiness, stands for — an uninhibited expression of humour. “I like to remind our readers that there’s a big world of internet out there and they don’t really have to read my stuff if they don’t want to. I have no intention of toning it down,” says DenBleyker. This outlook seems to have struck a chord with the audience as Cyanide & Happiness boasts of more than 11 million followers on Facebook. We caught up with him on his recent trip to the Mumbai Film and Comic Convention 2015.
An online date
For DenBleyker, it all started in 2001, when he was 15. He had recently established StickSuicide — a website devoted to animation and games, graphically depicting violent deaths of stick figures. Consequently, he met cartoonists Kris Wilson and Dave McElfatrick online, as they shared a common interest in animation. The three eventually went on to co-found Cyanide & Happiness in 2005.
In the pre-Facebook era, the authors devised a sharing policy that encouraged readers to repost and re-blog the comics, allowing anyone to spread its content. “Back then, we made comics just to make each other laugh. We never expected anything more than our friends and mothers getting a chuckle or two out of them,” says the 29-year-old.
DenBleyker finds it interesting to see how the comic has evolved over the last decade, especially because he never imagined Cyanide & Happiness to garner the kind of following it has. “It definitely came as a surprise. I was simply illustrating the stuff that I’ve always found funny,” he says.
Offence not taken
So what prompted him to make jokes about serious themes like abortion and AIDS? “My inspiration came from people, and how horribly they treat each other,” says DenBleyker. “I don’t give a lot of thought to what’s okay and what’s not — it just has to be funny for me.” For instance, a conversation between a father and a son, where the son is afraid of the dark, is spun into a racist joke.
Interestingly, their fans are just as bizarre as the comics. “We signed a guy’s brain tumour once. It was in a little jar. He’d had it successfully removed, and told us he read our comics a lot during the process. I’ll always remember that,” says DenBleyker.
The authors don’t have a fixed production process either. Instead, it’s left to the author’s mood. As a result, it can take DenBleyker anywhere between 30 minutes to a year to finish a comic strip. “Sometimes I’ll be casually joking with friends at a bar to see what silly subjects we get on to. Then open a text document and write, just free think to see where it goes,” explains DenBleyker.
For this “free thinking” process, DenBleyker revisits some of his childhood favourites for inspiration. “My work is influenced by the comics I read growing up: Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. And, I read comics such as Deathbulge and Channelate, to name a few,” he says.
Most importantly, it is the adoration of fans that keep DenBleyker going. “Art and animation can feel like you’re working in a vacuum due to the non-stop deadlines. Meeting the people who laugh at it makes it all feel worthwhile,” he says.
To read the entire Cyanide & Happiness comic collection, visit explosm.net