Exclusive: Ken Kristensen Talks Todd, The Ugliest Kid On Earth’s Origin
It’s no secret that we here at Comic Book Therapy really dig Ken Kristensen and M.K. Perker’s new series Todd, the Ugliest Kid on Earth. Image recently decided that they would pick Todd up as an ongoing series. With that exciting news and the release of the second printing of the second issue coming up on the 27th, I got a chance to chat with Todd’s creator. We covered a lot of ground, talking about things like the book’s success and how Todd came about. We’re giving you the first part of the interview today, then on Friday we’ll cover what the future holds for Kristensen, Perker, and everyone’s new favorite bag-headed youngster. Fasten your seat belts and read on to find out how this hilarious and crazy ride got started:
Were you surprised at how successful and how quickly Todd caught on? A lot of comics take a little while to find their feet, but Todd sold like crazy with #1.
We were all really surprised. I did have an indication that it was going to at least have some buzz, because we have a Todd Facebook page that has over a thousand likes on it. The “people are talking about this” indicator said there were like 4600 people talking about it. I was thinking “how could that be?” I looked at some movies that had Facebook pages, and they had like 200 people talking about it. The book hadn’t even came out yet, so I thought, “there’s something wrong with Facebook. That can’t be right, there must be a glitch.”
I was doing two signings on January 16, the day the first issue came out, and the second signing was at night. It was about 8 o’clock at night here in LA and I was at The Comic Bug, a great store in Manhattan Beach, and the owner of the Comic Bug said we were sold out. He went over and pulled up the Diamond website and goes “you’re completely sold out” and it’s only the first day. There was no Todd inventory available at Diamond at all. That night I went home from the signing and emailed Image and said we’re totally sold out. What are we going to do? Are we going to do a second printing? They were like “hold on now,” they were skeptical. “Are we really sold out?” Then the next morning they called me and said “yup, you’re right. We did sell out. We’re going to do a second printing.” It was a surprise and everybody was thrilled, obviously. M.K. and I co-created the book. It’s been a long time that we’ve had this book in development. It’s been a labor of love for us, but it’s also been something where when you’re doing a book like this you’re putting a lot of blood, sweat, and tears over several years. You just never know if anybody is going to read this book — is it going to be a total flop? We were thrilled. It obviously meant we were going to be able to make some money off of it, which is good because we can’t do it for free forever. Recently Image decided that they wanted to do it as an ongoing series, which we were really thrilled about. What started off as something limited is going to be ongoing and we’re really excited about that.
Can you talk a little bit about how Todd came about?
Todd came about initially…MK and I were working on films together. I was a student at Columbia University in the graduate filmmaking division and MK and I became friends. At the time he lived near Columbia University in New York City. He wanted to get into storyboarding and I met him through his wife who was the manager at the coffee shop where I used to write my short films for school. His wife approached me one day asking what I was working on. I said I’m a film student and I’ve got to shoot these short films. She asked if I wanted a storyboard artist. I had done all the storyboards myself with my crude stick figure drawings. I said yeah, I’d love a storyboard artist. She said her husband was an artist and he really wanted to get into storyboarding so I’d like to introduce you to him. I thought he was going to be some kid, some aspiring artist. He showed up to the meeting with his portfolio and it was all his illustrations for the NY Times, all his illustrations for the Wall Street Journal, all his illustrations for these major magazines! I looked at him and was like, “you want to be my film school storyboard artist? Are you serious?” He said it was something he always wanted to do. I was more than happy. After that, I would walk into class with essentially a comic book every class. It would be like here’s my 3 minute short film and here are the storyboards for it. Everyone’s jaw would drop because M.K. does not do sketches. If he’s going to do a drawing, he inks it and colors it. He’s all in. You will rarely find a M.K. Perker pencil sketch. He is not programmed to sketch. My storyboards looked like comic books in film school.
He was my production designer on one of my films. He is just a real artistic genius. He’s really interesting and hands on. He has a great vision. After doing a few student films with him, we were in the mindset…we’re both comic book fans, and he had been a comic book artist for years in Europe. He came to America and at this point hadn’t broken into comics yet. I said you’re so talented, we’re going to go to Comic Con together and meet these publishers and pitch some books. That’s how we started together. We’re really into crime fiction, so we came up with a crime book. We went to Comic Con and we pitched it to several publishers. We got people’s attention, but we didn’t end up setting that book up. One of those people was Eric Larsen. We stood in line like everybody else. We went up and talked to him and he thought we had enough talent. He encouraged us. He said this isn’t for us, but come back with your next pitch and send it to us. Meanwhile, we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do. We were disappointed we weren’t able to set up this first book. It was a real hardboiled crime fiction story with a completely different tone from Todd. So we thought let’s go in a different direction. One of the wonderful things about M.K. is his art has a lot of diversity to it. He can do something that’s very hyper realistic or something that’s very cartoony. He can do something that’s very noir or something that’s like a children’s book. He’s so diverse and has learned to do that over the years. If you look at his New York Times illustrations, it’s like a surrealist cross-hatching black and white. If you look at what he’s known for on Cairo for example, it’s completely different.
Todd, again, is completely different from that. We decided we were going to find something else. It was over the summer between semesters and I was lucky enough to work on a Todd Solondz movie. Todd Solondz is one of my idols as a writer and director. I saw an ad and reached out to work on this job, and I got it. I was working on the movie and it was a pretty small film, so I was able to have a relationship with Todd where I could pull him aside and talk to him anytime I wanted to. It was a pretty big deal. I knew M.K. was a big Solondz fan, so at the end of the shoot I asked if he wanted to come to the set and meet Todd. I took him to the set and introduced him to Todd. The three of us had a great conversation together. The next day when we were back in New York City, because we were filming upstate, M.K. drew a sketch of a kid with a bag over his head. Underneath he wrote Todd, the Ugliest Kid in the World. We ended up changing the title, but he had this inspiration to sketch this character. We didn’t have personality for this character, we didn’t have a storyline, and we didn’t have a world.
Coincidentally that week my nephew, who was four year old, came to New York City. He had never been there before and M.K. and I were showing him around. You walk down the streets of New York and you see these really ugly things. My nephew would interrupt these really nasty, ugly things in such a positive way. The one thing that really stood out to us was one day I was carrying my nephew around on my shoulders because he was so small and we were walking through Times Square. There’s a million people in Times Square and I didn’t want him to be overwhelmed. At one point we heard him say “oh look, that man fell over and spilled cranberry juice all over himself.” I looked over and there’s a guy on the sidewalk covered in blood and about five feet away from him was this cranberry juice container. They had nothing to do with each other, it was just a coincidence the cranberry juice happened to be near this guy who had blood all over him. My nephew, being naïve, put that together that the guy must have fallen and that it was cranberry juice that was what was all over him, not blood. M.K. and I were talking about it and laughing about it, and we realized that’s Todd! That’s perfect for Todd.
We started brainstorming about the character, his world, and his family. Because we love crime, we decided let’s put a crime at the center of the story. That would satisfy our need to do crime fiction and at the same time you’d be able to have this really outrageous comedy where the ugliest kid on earth is actually the most beautiful kid on the inside. It’s his world that’s ugly. Very quickly we determined what was fun about the character is you’d never know if he’s really ugly under that bag. That would be part of the fun- is he really ugly or are his parents so sadistic they make him wear a paper bag over his head even if he’s a completely average looking kid? We knew right away this was a character we loved. Pretty quickly we started developing the world around him and fell in love with the world, and fell in love with his parents, and the police chief and the maniac killer. Everything we thought of suddenly made a lot of sense. We’ve had more fun working on this book more than anything in our careers. That’s been great too, to work with your best friend is a lot of fun.
Perker’s art works amazingly well with the book. I agree with what you said about it being almost like a children’s book. The first two issues where kind of bright and cheery even though all these dark things were happening.
We love the irony of that. Issue 3 came out, and one of the things we regret about it is the colors are a little darker. We feel like for the trade we’re going to lighten the colors. We want the themes to be dark in the book, but we want the art to be bright and have that almost children’s book feel to it. We are working with the colorist to make sure issue 4 isn’t as dark as issue 3. When we do the trade we’ll lighten the colors. M.K. has got a great background. He did stuff for Mad Magazine, so he’s got a great cartoonish background as well as a serious fine art background. It’s really easy for him to draw in a Mad Magazine or a children’s book style. He actually did a children’s book years ago that was never published. I absolutely love it and still have the artwork. Hopefully one day we’ll be able to set that book up with a publisher.
Speaking of issue 3, that seemed to be a big issue. The first two issues Todd’s parents aren’t very likeable and they’re there to make Todd’s life bad. You really explored their character and emotions in issue 3. Was that the plan to set them up and explore and flesh that out a little later on?
Initially when we pitched the book, we pitched it as a graphic novel. I wrote the script as a graphic novel script and last summer we decided to make it a miniseries. The plan all along, because the script had been written as a graphic novel, was you’re introduced to his parents and you despise them. What I love about storytelling is when you can introduce a character and the audience hates that character, then 50 pages later you find yourself on that character’s side or at least able to emphasize with the character. Early on you never thought that was possible. So being able to push the reader’s emotions from “I hate this guy, he’s such a terrible parent and superficial character. He just drives Todd crazy and makes his life miserable” then 40/50 pages later “oh, this poor guy. He’s so pathetic. I’m feeling something for him now.” I’m at least connecting with his need to make his life better. Both of Todd’s parents, I love those characters, because I feel as horrible as they are and as neglectful as they are toward Todd I think of them as real people.
There are plenty of real people who are terrible parents, but you can still understand they’re human beings. I never wanted Todd’s parents to be cardboard cutouts. I wanted them to be real. I think we all know people who are terrible parents or who made wrong choices in life. Sometimes people make the choice to have kids and they never should have done that. They either had kids too early or thought they wanted kids for the wrong reason. For me, Todd’s parents are people who got married to each other and either fell out of love or they got married and they weren’t in love and now they’re looking for something else. They’re clinging to the idea they can turn their lives around. If that means going off and being with other people, that’s what they’re going to do. Issue 3 was a lot of fun to write because finally you got a breakthrough into who these people are, what they want out of their lives, why they are so neglectful and finally getting in deep with who they are rather than the first two issues where they just served as antagonists to Todd’s desire to make friends.
I love the adults in the book as much as I love the kids, and I felt like the adults were getting bashed. Everybody loved Todd — you can’t help but love a kid who’s so beautiful on the inside. A lot of people thought his parents were terrible, and I wanted to be like “wait, wait until issue 3!” You may not love them — they’re still pretty rough characters — but at least you’ll understand them better.
Todd is a really original story, but was there anything you took inspiration from? TV shows, movies, other comics?
I love comedy. I’m a student of comedy. I think the best comedy is when the characters have a noticeable blind obsession with something. Todd is blindly obsessed with the idea that the world is a positive, fun, happy place. He doesn’t see the ugliness around him. It’s about perception. I think the message there is our perception shapes our reality. His parents have their own blind obsession. His mom is blindly obsessed with the idea that everybody is stupid. The world is a stupid place, her kid is stupid, and her husband is stupid. That manifests stupidity. She makes stupid choices because she thinks the world is stupid. Todd thinks the world is beautiful, so beautiful things tend to happen to him even if he’s in the shower with a bunch of convicts. He makes a friend instead of getting raped. The blind obsession the characters have is really where the story is rooted.
You can look back at literature hundreds of years…Don Quixote there is a character who is blind to the world he is in. He manifests his own reality because he sees things in a certain way. He doesn’t perceive things the way other people do. I also look at a character like Buddy the Elf. Buddy has his own perception of the world too. He is blindly obsessed that the world, again, is a positive place. Throughout literature and film and television you can see characters that have these blind obsessions. For me they’re always the most interesting and successful comedies. Dumb and Dumber is another great example of that. It’s a comedy tradition. I think Todd is a unique take on it, but it’s certainly not something we invented.
Be sure to tune in this Friday when we post the second part of our chat with Ken. We talk about censorship, what the next storyline is about, and if we might see Todd on the small screen anytime soon. Until then, you can keep up with all things Todd by checking out the official Facebook page by clicking here. You can find Ken on Twitter @KenKristensen. Todd is also on there: @ToddTheUgliest. We want to thank Mr. Kristensen for letting us bother him for a while and letting us in on what it took to make Todd from inception to the finished page. Kristensen and Perker are a great team. It’s interesting to hear about how they met and started working together. They mesh well together and really make Todd feel like nothing else that’s out there right now. If you like what they’re doing now, you’ll be excited to hear what they have cooking next.