Comics, cartoons and illustrations get stuck to your brain in such an effortless manner. Growing up, I remember being fascinated with Roald Dahl books simply ‘coz of the way Quentin Blake was able to portray the whimsicality of Grandpa Joe (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) through squiggly, scribblly lines and scruffy paints. As I grew older (not wiser), I began to appreciate the much darker side of comedy. This is when I came across the illustrations of Brett Helquist in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. The way he could capture the misery and angst felt by the Baudelaire orphans through a simple illustration made reading all the 13 books a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
It was around this time that I came across another cartoonist whose cartoons I’ve been addicted to ever since. Andy Riley is the author-illustrator of the Bunny Suicides series which consists of The Book of Bunny Suicides, The Return of Bunny Suicides, The Bumper Book of Bunny Suicides and Dawn of the Bunny Suicides.
I couldn’t control my excitement when I was told that I had a chance to interview him. I had a few quesntions that I was dying to ask.
Why bunnies out of all the others in the animal kingdom?
Andy Riley: When I drew the first book, I never thought about it. The first doodle was of a bunny and I never thought of changing it. When I started the second book, I did think about doing tortoises for a day. But there aren’t many ways to kill a tortoise. Then I figured out why rabbits are best. The white rabbit is a symbol of innocence, rabbits work well in black and white, you can suggest their presence with just a glimpse of the ear or tail. Also, I’m not very good at drawing cats or dogs.
Drawn in black and white with pen and ink, each cartoon shows one or more bunnies as they try to end their fluffy lives. They do this in the most creative manner: revolving doors, toaster, boomerang, grenades, cheese grater, guillotines and also by smoking several cigarettes.
Most of the cartoons are often drawn in a way that the bunny’s exact method of suicide is not immediately obvious, leaving the reader to work out exactly how the bunnies plan to end their lives. They construct elaborate contraptions to kill themselves, and the more complicated the setup, the more gruesome the suicide is going to be.
How hard was it for you to come up with suicide ideas for the bunnies?
AR: I never found it difficult. I just think of everything in the world, systematically, and then figuring how to kill a rabbit with it. After more than 300 pages it gets harder to think of really fresh ones, but it’s still possible.
There are several pop cultural references throughout the books. Several parodies from movies such as The Wickerman, Dr.Strangelove, Star Wars and also the Terminator series are featured in the books. One of my personal favorites is when a bunny is peppering the Eye of Sauron in direct reference to the Lord of the Rings. The books also contain more parodies of various recent cultural and historical events of this century, such as a bunny standing beneath the falling statue of Saddam Hussein and a bunny mocking the Nazi salute.
A while ago, there was a lot of hue and cry from concerned parents about the presence of Bunny Suicides in school libraries. What is the most hilarious argument you’ve heard in objection to Bunny Suicides.
AR: I got a complaint from a British charity called the Brown Hare Preservation Society. I thought that was funny because there are no hares in the book. You would have thought they could tell the difference, of all people.
Besides Bunny Suicides, Andy Riley has also authored several books such as Selfish Pigs, Great Lies to tell Small Kids, Loads More Lies To Tell Small Kids, D.I.Y Dentistry and many more. In the Selfish Pigs series – ‘Adorable Awful Little Swine’ (2009) is about pigs who act like well, ‘pigs’. They’re mean, selfish and sometimes just plain cruel.
“I was just in a very bad mood at the time, and drew a pig who looked the way I felt. That cartoon is actually in the book.” says Mr. Riley when I asked what inspired him to come up such an idea.
In D.I.Y Dentistry and Other Alarming Inventions, Mr. Riley pays tribute to William Heath Robinson, the granddaddy of cartoon contraptions, and shows his take on the world of inventions and thingamajigs. The first word that comes to mind when you see the cartoons is, MAD. The book has everything from a stand for your unicorn, to a GPS for toddlers in a merry-go-round, to a pick-remote-from-other-end-of-couch contraption. Great Lies to Tell Small Kids, is all about bamboozling kids for the entertainment of adults everywhere. Mr. Riley admitted that as a child, he too believed whatever bogus lies adults told him since he was ‘far too trusting’.
Well, he is a man of many talents. He is not just an author and a cartoonist, He is also known for his work in television, movies and the radio often in collaboration with his screenwriting partner, Kevin Cecil.
You have a ton of screenwriting experience with hit shows such as Slacker Cats, Little Britain, The Great Outdoors and films such as Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride and Gnomeo and Juliet. Which would you say is easier – screenwriting or illustration?
AR: Writing is harder. The longer a piece of writing is, the harder it gets. So, a sitcom or a feature film is much, much harder than doing lots of sketches of equivalent length. Most people have much more respect for the skill of a cartoonist. I always think it’s because most people believe they could probably write much funnier stuff than what’s on the TV; they just haven’t got round to it yet.
They say a picture can depict a thousand words, but Mr. Riley’s cartoons can most definitely bring about a thousand laughs.