Pat McHale is the creator of the Cartoon Network miniseries “Over The Garden Wall” and writer of the 4-issue limited series at BOOM with artist Jim Campbell who also worked on the show. In the few minutes before his first proper comic signing in my stomping grounds of Somerville, MA at Comicazi, we sat down to chat about his work, past, present, and soon to be. Don’t worry, y’all, this is a spoiler free interview.
Comics Beat: This was pitched as Tome of the Unknown way back when you first got out of school then other things such as Adventure Time. What was it like rediscovering personal work again when Over The Garden Wall came to be?
Pat McHale: Well at that time, I had a baby and a house that was new to me, all that stuff was new to me, but I was still working on Adventure Time as a writer. It was a time for trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life because if I’m not going to live in LA, then how am I going to survive? “After Adventure Time ends, what’s going to happen?” That kind of thing. Then Cartoon Network asked me if I wanted to pitch something again and I thought “Yeah, that’d be cool.” [,,,] I’d worked on other peoples’ stuff but I’ve never made a professional thing myself. I’ve done kinda experimental shorts and stuff but not like a professional piece. This was my shot, you know? I didn’t expect it to go any further than the short, Tome of the Unknown.
CB: Since there’s the direct pipeline between Cartoon Network and BOOM Studios, at what point did a comic for Over The Garden Wall become something to think about?
PM: As we were getting close to the end of production of the series, it got brought up to do a one-off thing and I thought it would be exciting to write it because I’ve never written comics before and wanted to try it. But it was right in the middle of production stuff, so it was kind of scary to do that and care about it at the same time as the show. The way I’ve written for cartoons is outline-based, then you go to storyboard and write the dialogue as you’re storyboarding, so with this, I wasn’t going to be drawing it, so it was just script. It felt really strange to do that, just describing what was going to be in the panels without drawing them. “Wirt picks up this and…” I’m still having trouble with it.
With the four issues coming out after that, I thought it was going to be easier than the first one but it’s not, I’m still having trouble not drawing it.
CB: Yeah, you do it once and start challenging yourself for more. How has it been working with Jim on the comic compared to working with him on the show?
PM: It’s sort of different. On the show, we’re trying to balance so much stuff that a lot of the time the board artists would do really good stuff and then it would come back to me and I would realize that I should’ve given them notes about certain things, like an different episode had changed so we would have to rework stuff. But with the comics, I just write the script, give it to Jim, and he does it – it’s really efficient in that way.
CB: Sounds like it could be a bit of a relief?
PM: In some ways, yeah. I can trust Jim with everything as if with the show, there’s all these other pieces. After you write it, the visual components are just on one person, it’s this whole group of people: designers, background people, layout artists, animators, editors, and all this stuff.
CB: I don’t know about you, but I feel like the initial marketing for Over The Garden Wall was huge, how do you feel, about 10 months after it was released, about the reception?
PM: It’s hard for me to even tell what the reception has been because I’m not in middle school or whatever. You know, I work with cartoon people and I talk to them; it was nice that other animation people like it, but in terms of kids…I have no idea what kids think. I’m not hanging out with them. Yeah, it’s hard to tell. All I can glean is from the internet, and there’s a lot of positive stuff there, but I can’t tell.
CB: Do you think Cartoon Network of a few years ago was ready to do a miniseries like Over The Garden Wall when you originally pitched it as Tome of the Unknown?
PM: When I was right out of college, I was pitching all sorts of different things and that was just one of them. They were considering doing a feature film department at the time, which they didn’t really end up doing, but they asked if I could adapt it into a feature-length story. I tried but it didn’t really work because it’s sort of episodic and it needs to be split up into little things. So when Cartoon Network brought up the idea of it being a miniseries – and we had kind of joked about it when I was making the pilot – we thought it was perfect.
CB: In respect to the animation, how did you feel constricted or limited with the narrative tools at your disposal?
PM: Oh, for sure. Well, for one, my draftsmanship isn’t where I would like it to be. So in order for me to get the right emotions and characterizations, some stuff had to drawn simpler and all that. Also everything having a black outline […] like in live action or stop motion, you can get atmosphere more easily so it was a lot of work to get as much atmosphere as we did in the show. That was all Nick Cross’s art direction work that he figured out. But still, I want dust particles and that image from Eraserhead with the dust and his hair waving up – you can’t do that easily with animation or else it looks really graphic. For me, if things look too design-y or too graphic then it takes you out of the realism of the cartoon, so yeah, it’s tricky.
CB: I think you had the added benefit with the music. That’s where it seems like a lot of the atmosphere and tone came through.
PB: Yeah, when we got to the music stage, it was always like “oh, there is it, thank you!” The Blasting Company, the guys who did the music were, as well as very talented, really supportive of trying to tell the story the way I wanted it to be told. So when stuff wasn’t playing well, they would make it work a lot of the time just by doing different kinds of music in different ways. Like, episode 10 really made no sense when you watched it until the music was in there. Once that happened, all the emotion made sense.
CB: Sounds like you had a superb collaborative team to work with.
PM: Yeah it was really hard to get people full-time because it was a such a short-lived project but the people we did have full-time were Nick, the art director, Burt Youn came on to help with the storyboards and stuff, our composers and yeah, it was great.
CB: What would you say are influences for Over The Garden Wall and what drove the homage style from episode-to-episode?
PM: I think a lot of it was trying to figure out why the story was being told in animation. It wasn’t necessary made for animation, it could be told in a book or anywhere else, but if it’s going to be animated, then we wanted to see how people had adapted stuff into animation before. If you read Alice In Wonderland, then watch the Disney movie or another adaptation of it, they figure out ways of adapting it. So in some ways, it felt like we were adapting it even though it didn’t exist before and trying to figure out why were telling it in traditional animation.
CB: Any examples, not to put you on the spot?
PM: [Laughs] Well, there was a bit in the sound that was reminiscent of early Disney shorts and there other homages too just ’cause we’re hanging out with animation people. Like with episode 8 [Babes in the Wood], by that point we were working on everything at the same time, the homages weren’t supposed to be such homages – we didn’t have the time to cover them up as well as we did with the other episodes. I still really like that episode.
CB: It’s got one of the best songs in my opinion. And to that point, will there ever be a full original soundtrack released?
PM: I really want it to exist. I don’t think there’s really a department for it so there’s no one to ask about it. People kind of just bring it up “hey it’d be cool to do a soundtrack” and I feel like you could just release it on iTunes, it’d be so easy, but I don’t even know if there’s someone to make that decision. I don’t know, I’m not sure, but I think just bringing it up and eventually it’ll happen. That’s one of the reasons we’re excited about the Composer’s Cut on the DVD. You can get the music and just let it play but I would love a soundtrack for sure.
CB: When Cartoon Network picked it up, did you have any aspirations or hopes of how well Over The Garden Wall would do what would become of it?
PM: It’s bigger than I expect…I think. Again, it’s hard to tell how big it is but I knew it wasn’t the type of show that was made to be Spongebob or Adventure Time levels of famous or popular; it was designed to be more of a Halloween special. The hope is that it would feel somewhat timeless and that you could watch it every year. That was the goal and I think we got that, I think it feels solid enough that you can watch it again and not be disappointed.
CB: To finish up, what’s next for Pat McHale?
PM: Um, well I’m developing something with Cartoon Network that hopefully will go…I can’t really talk about it much. I’m helping with a Frederator short Costume Quest which is a DoubleFine game that Zac Gorman did a comic for. He took that comic version and sort of adapted that to animation, so I’m helping out with that. I guess I’m directing it officially, but it feels weird to say that because he wrote it and designed it and stuff.
CB: Thanks so much for taking the time, Pat.
PM: Thank you too.
Pat McHale is an animator and recent comics creator currently living in Concord, MA. He created the animated miniseries Over The Garden Wall at Cartoon Network, released November of last year. He previously worked on Adventure Time and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. He is currently writing the Over The Garden Wall 4-issue comic series with artist Jim Campbell for BOOM Studios.
The Over The Garden Wall series will be available on DVD September 8th, complete with commentary, behind the scenes, and the very lovely Composer’s Cut, so be sure to pre-order!