Rhode Montijo - illustrator / writer / creator, "Pablo's Inferno" / "Cloud Boy" / "Happy Tree Friends"
Alternative Press Expo - Councourse Pavilion - San Francisco, CA - March 11, 2006
 
Rhode Montijo is cheery guy. Almost always on the verge of a bursting out a smile. His general demeanor is that of a child during the holidays who is anticipating some surprise from his parents. He also is an illustrator, writer, and creator of several titles that are becoming more infamous. Amongst them are the playfully terrifying “Happy Tree Friends” animated shorts, a comic book entitled “Pablo’s Inferno,” and now a selection of children’s books. We met up with Rhode [pronounced like “roadie” for a band] at the Alternative Press Expo - A.P.E. for short - in San Francisco, to have a chat with him and find out what makes his mind tick and to get some insight to the stories and characters that he creates.

K2K: When did you first get started in arts and animation?
RM:
With just drawing, my mom tells me I’ve been doing it since kindergarten or preschool. It started there, I guess. I did mostly clowns on bicycles when I was a kid.

K2K: Where did that come from?
RM:
(laughs) I have no idea. But my mom showed me a whole bunch when I was older, of drawings that I did when I was younger. A lot of clowns on bicycles.

K2K: How much Prozac made you forget, so that your mom had to remind you?
RM:
(laughs) No, I really have a terrible memory, so I don’t remember. Yeah, yeah.

K2K: I don’t even know where to go from there then...
RM:
I know. I’m sorry. (laughs)

K2K: Your style of drawing is unique. Who, and what were your first influences?
RM:
Clowns, and bicycles. That’s tough. For comic book stuff? Recently, with my comic book stuff, I’m influenced by Mike Mignola’s stuff. Kelly Jones, who did “Deadman” and some runs on “Batman.” I like his stuff a lot. I’m sure there are others, I just can’t think. But those are the main one’s that went into “Pablo’s Inferno.”

K2K: For animation?
RM:
I think... with the “Happy Tree Friends” specifically, it was the Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted kind of stuff.

K2K: When did you start “Happy Tree Friends”?
RM:
Ooh, uh... I don’t remember. I’m telling you again, it’s the memory thing. Let’s see... A few years ago.

K2K: Do you know where you live?
RM:
(laughs) Sorry, man.

K2K: How did you get started in the industries of both comics and animation?
RM:
Comics, I always loved them but never thought about doing them until a friend of mine, who graduated college, sent me some of his mini-comics he was doing. I ran into him one day and thanked him for sending these things to me. He said, “Yeah, if you’re ever interested in doing this, I work in a print shop so I can print them out for you.” That’s what started the excuse to do one. I didn’t even know any regular page count or anything like that. It was just an excuse. What was your other question?

K2K: Animation...
RM:
Oh, in animation. See? It’s bad. (laughs) In animation, I kind of stumbled into animation. It’s something that I’ve always loved, like with “Looney Tunes” and everything. It wasn’t a goal of mine, but I stumbled across it [while] working for this company, Mondo Media. They were doing cinematics for video games. They were going to start up animation for online things. I just happened to be there at the beginnings and got involved in that.

K2K: How old are you?
RM:
32.

K2K: Where did you get the idea for “Pablo’s Inferno”?
RM:
“Pablo’s Inferno.” My friend Dan Chapman, and I, just brainstormed. He knew that I liked to draw monsters, so we came up with the idea of what if there was a little kid who went to hell. It was just an excuse to draw monsters. The title... After we figured out what we wanted to draw, it’s kind of like a parody of “Dante’s Inferno.” We ripped on the title and made it a comedic “Dante’s Inferno.”

K2K: Are there nine levels?
RM:
No. I think we only got to two, and then it changed direction.

K2K: What’s the focus of the story? What’s the continuity?
RM:
OK. It’s just a boy who accidentally goes to hell. That was the excuse to do the comic thing. We really had no beginning or end figured out. We just wanted to draw it. I didn’t want to write it, because I wasn’t comfortable with my writing. My buddy Dan helped me with it. It wasn’t until I took a trip deep down into Mexico... I hadn’t been deep down [before]. I got really inspired by all the Mexican mythology and stuff like that. I wanted to put that into the book. I came back really inspired and felt confident in trying to write this thing. So, he [Pablo] ends up going to hell. He meets up with an ancient Aztec god. The two escape to the spirit world of Mexico. They battle Aztec vampires, coyote people... there are spider women... things like that, from Mexican mythology.

K2K: Is he just out to survive, or is he trying to get home?
RM:
He is dead. They’re in the spirit world. Basically, without giving it away, he finds out he’s part of this prophecy kind of thing. They have a mission to kind of help Mexico, but in the spirit world. But what they do in the spirit world connects to the exisiting, or real, life that’s going on.

K2K: Any thoughts or offers to make it into a movie?
RM:
I would love to. Some people have seen it and they like it, but they think it’s too big in scope. Some people are a little afraid of it. But I would love to, some day.

K2K: How did you come up with the horrific yet cute “Happy Tree Friends”?
RM:
“Happy Tree Friends.” This is a rarely known story. It was originally concieved when we were approached by “Hooked On Phonics” to do a violent cartoon. They wanted to do this because - not too many people know this - they wanted to do this because they wanted to say, “Hey, your kids could be reading, or they could be watching these really violent cartoons.” We were hired to do the really violent cartoons. We gave them violent cartoons, but not bloody cartoons. We were nervous when we presented it. It wasn’t “Happy Tree Friends,” but the idea of cute with kind of scary stuff. They said, “No, we want it bloodier.” We thought, “This is crazy. OK. We’ll give you bloody.” So the first thing we did was three woodland creatures hanging out by a tree stump, and a campfire, with a dinosaur playing a banjo. The strings break. The kids laugh at him and he loses it, and starts hitting them with the banjo. It wasn’t “Happy Tree Friends,” but it was loosely, but it wasn’t yet. Later on we concieved of that and developed it more. But that’s where the origins came from.

K2K: Is that available somewhere?
RM:
It is on the first DVD. I think they put it in there.

K2K: Is “Happy Tree Friends” the most violent cartoon there is?
RM:
I don’t know. Possibly.

K2K: With “Happy Tree Friends,” were you going for cuteness or shock value?
RM:
It was a little of both. Originally the inspiration came from, oddly enough, children’s books. The whole design, I don’t know if you’ve looked at it, but the intro is kind of like a little “Golden Book,” with the strip on the sides. We wanted to make no hint at what you’re about to see. It was just going to be this sugary sweet thing, and things would end up going horribly wrong. That was the concept behind it. From the beginning, if you’ve never seen it before, you would not know that something bad was going to happen.

K2K: Are there morals to the stories in “Happy Tree Friends”? Like “Don’t play with sharp things” or something like that.
RM:
There isn’t only that we try to, at the end, have a little nice message to leave on a light note. Like “If friends were flowers, I’d pick you.” Little things, just to leave with a little pleasance. You know, like brushing your teeth after you’ve eaten something.

K2K: Are these things said by the now-dead animals?
RM:
No, no. The end is just a written special note.

K2K: What about your co-creator Kenn Navarro?
RM:
When we would get together, we’d sit in the room and basically try to make each other laugh. That was the funnest thing. It was great working with Kenn because we were on the same page. Instead of explaining things, we both knew what we were talking about before we’d say anything. It was that sort of thing. It was really cool. Stuff was always flowing out. We’d sit there with a white board and sketch ideas and try to make each other laugh. It was fun. I no longer work there, but it's still going and being developed.

K2K: So you’re not there anymore. Are you collecting checks?
RM:
Not since I stopped working there.

K2K: You’re not getting any licensing?
RM:
No.

K2K: Even though you were the co-creator.
RM:
That is correct.

K2K: Doesn’t that suck balls?
RM:
I have no comment. (laughs)

K2K: Well, you can’t be happy about that.
RM:
No, really. I’ve moved on. I’ve got other things that I’m working on and I’m really excited about the new projects.

K2K: There’s a powerful term, “I’m moving on.”
RM:
I know, I know. While I was there, it was really fun to work on. I had a lot of great friends there.

K2K: And you’re hoping to keep them by keeping the answer vague. (laughs)
RM:
(laughs)

K2K: Who wrote the theme song, and who performs it?
RM:
The theme song was inspired by The Three Stooges. We wanted this really sugary sweet, annoying song. At the end of some of the Three Stooges shorts, they would have this high-pitched “La la la la...” So it was inspired from that. We all got in a room. The composer, R.J. Eleven, put us in there and had us freestyle music things that sounded sugary sweet. He later mixed it into what it was.

K2K: What about the voices? You didn’t have a language.
RM:
No. We tried to make it... When we were there, and they were working on other animated shorts, we would see people struggle with the writing. They would do all these rewrites and rewrites, and hold up production. We just wanted to have fun and have a visual show. Partly... I mean, not partly... Fully, out of laziness, we did not want to write things. So we made up just gibberish. It ended up working in our favor because now it’s viewed in Japan, and in Mexico. There’s no language, so anyone can enjoy it.

K2K: Do you yourself have dark, disturbing dreams?
RM:
I don’t. I don’t, actually. I do have them rarely. And when I do, I remember them because they’re so rare. But no, I do not.

K2K: Has anyone ever been offended by “Happy Tree Friends”?
RM:
Oh, totally. Totally. We would have a fun time going through our mail. It was always really pasisonate. Either they would really love it, or really hate it, and then tell us why. A lot of it was really ironic because, they would tell us, “We can’t believe that you’re killing these animals. We hope you die and your guts boil in hell.” and that sort of thing. We thought, “OK. We’re just killing cartoons.” And they would threaten us with, “We hope you die...” in this [particular or other] way.

K2K: Did anyone ever really think that you went home and really killed animals yourself?
RM:
I think some people did. It’s crazy because the cartoon itself is disturbing, but we would get disturbing letters, like “Hey, you guys like these mangled things. Look at these things. Look at these pictures.” There was just some random craziness.

K2K: Any favorite hate mail?
RM:
Oh, man. Yes, yes. Our favorite one, and Kenn and I agreed that it was this one... There was one character that we had on there named Flippy. He was a traumatized war veteran bear. He’s the only “Happy Tree Friends” member who flips out and does harm to the other ones. A lot of people ended up liking this character. One guy wrote in the feedback section, “You know, sometimes I wish I was like Flippy. But then there’s the jail.” (repeating with emphasis) But then there’s “THE” jail, you know? It was scary.

K2K: I read that it took you three to four weeks to develop one episode. What did you use to make the individual episodes? Software or hand-drawn?
RM:
It was a combination of both. Hand drawn eliments that were put into Flash by Macromedia, and then animated on there.

K2K: Do you think it will ever see TV syndication?
RM:
From what I’m told, it’s being developed for television right now. I don’t know the details.

K2K: Can people buy “Happy Tree Friends” or see it online?
RM:
I think they can see it, but not buy it on there. I think they have it [DVDs] at Best Buy or someplace.

[You can view “Happy Tree Friends” episodes for free at: http://mondo.happytreefriends.com - Ed.]

K2K: Who did the original licensing?
RM:
They had these guys who offered to do the merchandise. In the beginning we wanted to get our hands into it. Not making just any merchandise. We wanted to have a twist. So in the beginning it was fun coming up with ideas.

K2K: How do you like doing children’s books?
RM:
I love it.

K2K: How did you start?
RM:
I think it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. I started about two years ago when I put together some dummies of stories that I had. I went out to New York to visit with some editors. That’s how it got going. My friend Jamie Baker turned me onto a friend of his, Dave Gordon, who is doing his own children’s books. I showed him my stuff. He said, “Yeah, you should show these to these editors.” So I put together some stuff and pitched some ideas. They went for it, so that’s how it got started.

K2K: Who is publishing your books?
RM:
Simon & Schuster is publishing the one that I wrote and drew [“Cloud Boy”], and Henry Holt is publishing a series that I illustrate [“Melvin Beederman”].

K2K: How did you come up with “Cloud Boy”?
RM:
I took a course, after I graduated from art college... an extended course on children’s books. While I was in class, I was doodling in my sketch book. I was just wondering what if there was somebody up there who made the shapes in the clouds. That’s where it originally started.

K2K: What other children’s books have you done?
RM:
There’s “Melvin Beederman Superhero.” That’s a series of chapter books coming out with Henry Holt. I also did a book called “The Three Swingin’ Pigs,” which was actually my first book deal that I got. It got put on hold and these other ones came out first.

K2K: Where did you grow up?
RM:
I grew up in Stockton, California.

K2K: Stockton? Have you ever been to jail? (laughs)
RM:
No! (laughs) No, no. Stockton’s great.

K2K: I have to rib people from Stockton.
RM:
No, I love it. When I go back, I get recharged.

And with that, Rhode finally had to address the remaining autograph seekers and friends who were coming by his booth to chat with him before the closing of the 2006 A.P.E. show.
You can check out more of Rhode's work at:
www.pablosinferno.com and www.rhodemontijo.com
 
Written by Philip Anderson

Philip Anderson is a musician, in addition to being a writer/photographer. He has performed as a guitarist/vocalist, as well as songwriter, in several bands over the past 20 years. As a writer and photographer, he has been published by several magazines and in several books, and had his works appear on television.

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