Sunday, January 30, 2011

Shrunken-Head Joe in The Terror From The Desert

In 1998 my friend KW Monster created a character called Shrunken-Head Joe to star in a comic strip in the local free newspaper. Joe was a swinging singer/adventurer who traveled the world with his inexplicably hot girlfriend Gwen. Oh, and Joe just happened to have a shrunken head. I read it in the paper, became a big fan, contacted KW by email, and a friendship was born.

In 1999, we collaborated on a second Joe comic strip. This time I wrote and penciled the story and KW co-wrote and inked it. The end result is interesting; the art sort of looks like both our styles, but not quite. It's a weird synthesis of the two. KW often accused me of packing excruciating detail into each panel, knowing that he would have to ink over it. I don't know where he got that notion. Doesn't everyone draw every single leaf on a tree?

Our collaborative strip was planned for 12 issues but ended up running for 14 and was a moderate hit; for many years after we would get compliments from local citizens. Then one day the editor of the paper actually read the comic and we were unceremoniously fired. Shrunken-Head Joe, we hardly knew ye!

Anyway, without further ado I present our strip, Shrunken-Head Joe in The Terror From The Desert. Obviously you'll have to click each image in order to read it. I'll try and keep my comments on each installment to a minimum.

The story is an homage to 1950s sci-fi giant insect movies such at THEM! and The Deadly Mantis. I wanted it to have a definite B-movie structure and feel.

KW, who in addition to being an artist is also a fine musician and song writer, wrote the lyrics to all the songs that Joe and Gwen sing in the story.

That Joe really knows how to treat a lady, doesn't he?

That's the classic "Something The Character Can See Just Offscreen That The Audience Can't" trope there in the last panel.

Just for fun, I named most of the characters in the story after those in various giant monster movies. Patricia and Professor Medford were named after characters in THEM! Mitch Macafee is named after the hero of The Giant Claw (one of my all time favorite movies). I can't remember what movies Sheriff Andrews and Joe Burch's names are from. It's been too many years.

Obviously Patricia Medford's appearance owes more than a little to 1950s pin-up queen Betty Page.

Note the sign in front of the diner in the second panel: "Get your Supper, Dessert & Dinner at the Super Desert Diner!" That's KW's joke. He noticed that if you double the middle consonants of "super," "desert" and "diner" you get three new words all related to meal time. Weird. He's always sitting around noticing things like that.

As I mentioned earlier, I penciled the strip and KW inked it, and he accused me of packing way too much detail into the panels in order to torture him. Look at the bottom left panel. Now I ask you, does drawing the cups and plates underneath the diner counter seem excessive to you? I call it attention to detail.

Another song written by KW. If I'm not mistaken I think he actually recorded this one, singing the lyrics and playing all the instruments himself.

As previously mentioned, I wanted a 1950s B-movie feel here. To that end, I wanted the Ant Men to look like they were men in rubber suits, and tried my best to draw them that way, complete with seams and eye holes.

Panels four and nine are sporting a definite manga influence. As for the last panel, I was never one to pass up an opportunity to show some gore. 

I love this chapter, if I do say so myself. One of the hallmarks of 1950s giant bug movies was the ridiculously inaccurate science, usually involving radiation or radar doing things they can't possibly do. I did my best to come up with the most preposterous "scientific" explanation possible.

So in what era does this story take place? The 1950s? The look and attitudes are definitely from there, but I'm not sure. When I was writing it I honestly didn't think about whether it was taking place in the past or a weird version of the present. Maybe it's like the universe in which the Universal Studios Frankenstein and Wolfman movies occur. Those movies had castles and villagers with torches, yet people were driving cars and using phones.

Hey, we get some visual Com-O-Dee there in panels eight and nine. Wakka wakka!

Also note the wiener dog in panel five. That's KW's dog Lucy. For some reason I drew her in at least one panel in each chapter. Take my word for it, she's in every one.

I tried to always make sure that the characters in the background were "acting;" that is doing something as opposed to just standing there like mannequins. It makes things seem more realistic. For example, in panel two Mitch isn't listening to the Sheriff and is trying to keep an eye on Patricia, who he thinks is devoting a little too much attention to Joe.

Ah, the old "The Monsters Don't See Us As A Threat So They're Ignoring Us" trope there in panel eight. If only I had a dime every time that's been used in a movie.

Again, KW accused me of deliberately adding too much detail. I don't think it was unreasonable to draw every single person visible in every one of the hundreds of giant pods, do you?

Say, that Ant Queen's kinda hot!

I actually felt bad when I killed off Sheriff Andrews, but someone needed to die to show that the group was in actual danger, and he was the only character I could spare.

Finally we get to see why Joe would bother dragging his guitar with him down into a dangerous giant anthill.

Note that everyone's word balloons have normal straight lines except for Joe's, which are all wavy. That's to show that Joe has a weird, monstery voice. KW once said he imagined Joe sounded like a cross between Boris Karloff and Humphrey Bogart.

In virtually every giant insect movie from the 1950s, a civilian would invariably end up commanding or at the very least strongly influencing the military.

General Buskirk was named after a character in The Giant Claw

Ah, the giant pile of something to lure the monster into the middle of town. Another classic B-movie trope.

When you get down to it, Joe's really a sadistic and manipulative bastard, isn't he? And yet he's still somehow likable. 

Always end your movie with an explosion.

The strip was not without its problems though. Each month I'd dash to the local grocery store to pick up a copy of the free paper and eagerly turn to the back to see our comic printed in glorious black and white. I'd invariably be disappointed as it would be a fuzzy, downright muddy mess. All our hard work and detail was for naught. In some cases you couldn't even read the text. I didn't understand what was wrong; each month I'd email a crisp, clean jpeg image to the editor of the paper, and each month it would print out blurry.

After many inquires we eventually found out that instead of simply using the file I emailed him, the editor would download my nice clean jpeg, then print it out to paper and then scan the printout in order to get it into his computer! Why he was doing this, I have absolutely no idea. We explained and explained and pleaded with him to stop doing this for months before it finally took, and finally the last three or four chapters were readable. Some people's children!

By the way, the free paper paid us the princely sum of $30 for each comic we drew, which KW and I split. So we definitely weren't doing this for the money.

We also had quite an elaborate Shrunken-Head Joe website going for a while back in the late 1990s. Then in 2000 the company I worked for folded, and since they were hosting the site, it vanished as well. 

I think there's still some life left in Shrunken-Head Joe. Maybe one of these days we'll bring him back.


  1. I love your comic strip! I am so happy you posted it!

  2. wow very interesting that is how you and keith met. i am a big fan of shrunken head joe you guys did great together!

  3. Wow, now that I've had time to forget the pain and torture of the microscopic lines that couldn't be drawn with any pen they sold at the store, and read this fresh for the 1st time in 10 years, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    I'm serious, some of those people's faces were the size of the tip of the ink pen. I don't know what kind of pencils you were using.

  4. Thanks, Dawn!

    Thanks, Brad. Yes, you could say Shrunken-Head Joe brought KW and I together. Notice I say you COULD say that. I wouldn't say it though.

    Yes, KW, I remember well your monthly gnashing of teeth and rending of garments every time I'd hand you my penciled pages.

    Naturally I was using a really, really tiny pencil.


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