You may not recognize the name, but Aaron Alexovich has as impressive a resumé as you’ll find anywhere for adult fans of cartoons originally geared towards kids. Over the course of his career, he’s animated designed for Invader Zim and Avatar: The Last Airbender, among others. However, he’s currently most enthused about creating more comics like Serenity Rose and Stitched. Keep reading to learn why that’s where he feels most creatively fulfilled, the difference between comics and animation, and his evolving art style.
You worked on several of the most stylized cartoons in recent memory. Were you drawn towards them or I’d they find you?
I think it was luck, mostly. Zim was my first job out of art school, and it sort of set the tone from there. I dove straight into the “designy” end of the animation pool.
Invader Zim is most similar in tone to Serenity Rose. How much did your experience on Zim inform your series of graphic novels?
It’s kind of hard to say… I came up with Serenity Rose a few years before I started on Zim. She was the main character in a bunch of short films and animation tests I did as a student at CalArts way back when. Jhonen came across one of those films while they were crewing up for Zim, and thought our styles would mesh pretty well. We both do that sort of “horrifying but strangely adorable” horror/comedy mashup kind of thing. I’m sure being forced to work in Jhonen’s style for two years affected the way I draw somehow, but I’m not sure how much. Things were definitely more angular for a while, but eventually, everything returned to my standard rounded squishy lump people. That said, I definitely have Jhonen and Rikki Simons (Zim colorist and fellow comic maker) to thank for encouraging me to do Serenity Rose as a comic in the first place. It probably wouldn’t exist as a comic at all if I hadn’t met those guys.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is such a fascinating property, blending anime and traditional Western animation to a new level. Did you and the rest of the team know how unique and special a project it was from the beginning?
Oh, for sure. There just wasn’t anything like it being made in a Western studio at the time. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I was pretty sure it would be huge. Anime and manga were having this huge surge in popularity there in the mid-2000’s, so it was only a matter of time before an American studio tapped into that. But anime audiences are pretty smart. They can tell if something is insincere or cash-grabby. Avatar wasn’t that. Bryan and Mike created a really beautiful, EXTREMELY detailed and well-thought-out world for people to spend time in, and the audiences were there for it. I’m really lucky to have been a small part of it.
Were you comfortable with the anime-inspired art style, or did you have to adapt to it?
Not comfortable at all! Especially coming from something as stylized cartoony as Zim. I had to remind myself how real anatomy works! It was good for me though. Definitely informed my comic work from then on.
How much of your own ideas and style can you imprint on an animated series created by someone else?
Not a whole lot. It depends on the creator/art director, though. Some are more hands-off than others. Jhonen and Bryan both had really specific visions for what they wanted on their shows, so my job was to get into their heads and try to see things the way they see them. It’s a fun challenge, and I’m proud of the work I did on those shows, but I don’t see much of myself in those designs. That’s why I generally prefer making comics.
You were the lead designer for Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja, your (as far as I can tell) most prestigious position in animation to date. What new freedoms did that provide you?
I was actually the lead character designer for season two of Zim, so Randy wasn’t like a crazy “level up” experience or anything. Randy was interesting because I didn’t come on until the second season of that one. The style was pretty locked-down by that point, so I had to adapt to what they were already doing. Got to draw some really fun stuff for that show, though. Every episode revolved around a new central robot/monster threat, and the writers were pretty loose with the descriptions. They’d basically just put “RAT DRAGON!” or “BANANA SLUG BOT!” and let us go nuts. It was fun!
Do you have an idea for an animated series in your head that you’re eager to make a reality?
I have a bunch of ideas that would probably work in animation, but I’d rather do them as comics. Doing everything myself is much more appealing to me than managing a team. I’m GREEDY that way.
There are so many animated series on Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, etc., that are beloved by many outside the target audience. Is that on your mind as you’re working on them?
Nah, I think in general animation artists are thinking about what THEY’D like to see, or what THEY think is cool, or just frankly what their boss needs them to do. Worrying about target demographics is more for producers or marketing people or whatever. If you’re thinking about that kind of stuff too much while you’re drawing/writing, you just end up with a pandering mess no one’s happy with. I mean, obviously if you’re making a kid’s show, you’re going to want to limit the number of severed heads and spurting stumps, but other than that, you’re just trying to make something cool.
What do you think of the state of “kids” animation today?
I don’t know! I’m ashamed to say I don’t watch a whole lot of kids’ animation. Gravity Falls was awesome, obviously. And I think The Amazing World of Gumball is one of the greatest animated series of all time. I need to explore more!
Serenity Rose feels chaotic, messy, and irreverent. Did it serve as an escape from the more structured working environment you worked under as an animator?
Yep! For sure. Comics are a place where I’m 100% in control of every aspect of the story, characters, environments, dialogue, every single thing that goes into every page, no compromises. For better or for worse, it’s all me on every page, unfiltered. Sometimes it turns out horrible! But at least it’s me. I have pretty serious social anxiety, and I HATE getting into arguments, so super-collaborative environments like animation crews really aren’t the best place for me. My voice just dissolves. Not in my books, though!
Did you choose to self-publish Serenity Rose for similar reasons?
The first couple chunks of Serenity Rose were published by SLG way back when actually. They still keep Jhonen’s stuff in print, but sort of pulled back from putting out new things over the past few years. Comics is not a financially forgiving business, y’know? But I kept Serenity Rose going as a webcomic, then just a few years ago we did a Kickstarter for a sweet hardcover collection of the whole thing. That was one of the most stressful but psychologically rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life. The Kickstarter wound up raising over ten times what we were hoping for! So satisfying… It meant so much to me to find out how much the series had meant to people over the years. Then we had to ship 1200 3 lb. hardcovers out of our second-floor apartment a few months later. That was the dark side. Worth it, though!
What different muscles do you get to flex as a cartoonist versus as an animator?
I haven’t done a whole lot of actual animating since college. Animating is a lot of fun when it’s going well, but man, it takes a LOT of patience. I guess the big difference between comics and animation is that in comics, you have to find the ONE pose or expression that perfectly captures the emotion you need to convey in that moment. Each panel is one moment frozen in time, so you better pick just the right moment. In animation you’re teasing out a whole performance, so no single drawing is all that important. You have different priorities.
Do you plan to make more comics, either with a continuation of Serenity Rose or something new?
Absolutely! I’m working on a children’s book right now, but later this year the second volume of my spooky-cute kids’ comic series Stitched should be coming out. My pal Mariah McCourt wrote that one, and I’m just in love with the characters. It’s about this Frankenstein’s Monster-esque girl who wakes up in a vast, mysterious cemetery with no memory of who she is or where she came from, and she goes on a quest to find out where all her constituent parts came from. And she has various werewolf and witchy monster-type pals to help her along the way. I’ve got some other comic projects brewing, too, and hopefully, I can talk about those, soon. And don’t forget the Zim movie! Just wrapped up my design duties on that one. The animation just started coming back, and man, it’s looking incredible!
Matt Chats is an interview series featuring discussions with a creator or player in comics, diving deep into industry, process, and creative topics. Find its author, Matt O’Keefe, on Twitter and Tumblr. Email him with questions, comments, complaints, or whatever else is on your mind at [email protected].