An interview with Blinky and Sal creator, Jonathan Burrello.
Staci: So, you and I last saw each other when you were teaching in Madrid and I saw an improv show you did down there. Catch me up on the last couple of years.
Jonathan: Since Madrid, I’ve moved to Montreal and have been continuing to do stand up comedy and cartooning.
Staci: It sounds like you’re making a more established community there in Montreal.
Jonathan: Every new place you go, you have to start from square one. Rebuilding each time. I guess I’m focusing a lot more on comics than I was in Madrid.
Staci: Does comedy influence where you move?
Jonathan: It has been a driving factor. I love to be onstage. But the real reason was that I had some very good friends here and I wanted to spend more time with them for a bit before I shove off again.
Staci: Let’s talk about cartooning. How long have you been drawing?
Jonathan: Since I was a kid and I first encountered The Far Side and Bloom County and Peanuts, and I wanted to make stuff like that.
Staci: When did you start developing your own style?
Jonathan: Early on, I guess. I had a comic about a bear called Soggy, and he and his friends became a series in my high school and college newspapers. I started doing Blinky and Sal in 2013, right after I moved to South Korea.
Staci: What made you change from Soggy over to Blinky and Sal?
Jonathan: I just felt like I wanted to do something a bit different and darker. I felt that Soggy was too cute—as much as I liked him. I wanted to do something that was “soft edgy.” Existential dread and depression with a dash of squishy cuteness.
Staci: Do you think that moving to a different country for the first time influenced your conscious shift toward something more serious?
Jonathan: In a way. I was also going through an ideological shift. I grew up very Christian and I was coming to terms with not having those beliefs anymore—I kind of wanted a clean slate to explore some of the things I was thinking about. Comics are a good way to pick on ideas you don’t like. But I also used it as a platform to be more vulnerable about myself.
Staci: Since this book (Straight from the Pit of Hell: a Blinky and Sal Collection) is a compilation of five years’ worth of work, can you, as the author, see some of those ideological shifts emerging?
Jonathan: Yeah. And I can see the style changing too. It used to be just black and white lines, and then I added a shadow gradient and then some color to the speech bubbles. But, of course, also the evolution of ideas. I think some people may think that I don’t like some of the characters: namely, Spatsby, the open-mouth straw man of the cast. In my head, he’s filled with literal straw. But I actually like him. And I think he’s interesting. I’m currently working on a 4 part mini arc where he has a near-death experience. I want to explore that character more, because I think I beat up on him the most. But his beliefs are real to him and he means well.
Staci: Do you have an overarching narrative from beginning to end, or do you mostly focus on individual storylines?
Jonathan: I mostly focus on short, one-off gags. I would prefer to do longer stories that have a bit more depth and character building, but because of the nature of many webcomics and wanting to get things shared on social media, the less context needed the better they perform. I’m still very much in the “newspaper funnies” spinoff universe of webcomics.
Staci: As you continue to build your following of regular readers, would you try to experiment with longer storylines?
Jonathan: Oh, for sure. I haven’t done a long story in almost a year, because it loses readers. But I really want to tell longer stories, not just gags, because you’re not able to be as nuanced in four panels.
Staci: What can you tell me about the two main characters, Blinky and Sal, and how they interact with each other?
Jonathan: OK, so Blinky and Sal sort of represent what I’ll call two warring parts of my own brain. Sal is a mustachioed eel-like creature that lives in a hole and is basically a strict materialist and nihilist, but responsible and principled, and he’s sort isolated and lonely because of his intelligence. He’s very much like, ‘“yup, there’s ultimately no point to anything, but you do it anyway because you gotta—Don’t be a whiner.” He’s sort of an old-school, no nonsense, empiricist, atheist liberal. Blinky is a vampire bat and more optimistic and naïve, and he’s still searching for meaning. He really wants to believe that there’s hope and something else. He’s sort of a baby humanist, still learning the rules. And he’s a bit more fun to write for because he can learn and change, whereas Sal is set. It’s harder to give Sal much of an arc. He’s rigid like Spatsby.
Staci: So, about Spatsby?
Jonathan: Spatsby is sort of a very stereotypical hardline right-wing evangelical type. And his beliefs and the things he says mirror that. He’s a little bit of who I used to be and also who I sometimes see in other people still, but he is very much a caricature. I mean, I know some folks who are that extreme, but most people are not (I hope). So my hope is someone with sincere beliefs can recognize that [Spatsby] is a cartoon and he doesn’t necessarily reflect everyone’s beliefs, but that those people do exist.
Staci: And what about some of the other side characters?
Jonathan: Eleanor is a narwhal who is just walking, blubbery ball depression and insecurity. Blinky used to be more the vessel for insecurities, but people liked the narwhal so I kept bringing her back. And I like her too. And there’s Luna who is a mad scientist and perhaps the most weakly defined in terms of ideology. She just wants to perform science experiments and she’s not about politics.
Staci: Are you going to develop her more?
Jonathan: I want to. Yes. But I don’t want to give her too much political baggage because I don’t think that’s what she’s about. I don’t think worldview is as important to her and I don’t want it to be. I think that’s mainly for the realm of the three central characters. But I would love to give her some problems she has to deal with and see what she does.
Staci: What about Tim the Pervert Tree?
Jonathan: Yeah. Tim. I’ve done three with him and I’m not sure where else to go with him. I have kind of an idea for a mini story where the tree and the beaver character go down in a plane crash and have to work together to survive. I have no idea how I’m going to realize that because it’s just a tree, you know, completely stationary object paired with a nonverbal eating machine. So part of me wants to do that just because it will be hard, but we’ll see if it actually happens. I think it would be fun to get away from the main characters for an extended period of time. Maybe throw Luna and Neil DeGrasse Bison in there too.
Staci: What are your creative goals for the next phase of Blinky and Sal? How long do you want to keep these characters going and what do you want to see come out of them?
Jonathan: I think about this a lot. I don’t know how much longer I’ll do them. If it has to be gag related for the internet, I might branch away from the characters and do more one-off comics. But I do want to put them in a few more mini stories. And then I want to work on bigger things, more story-related and in print. I have a couple I’m working on. Very slowly.
Staci: Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Jonathan: I’m afraid if I say too much, I’ll jinx it and they’ll never happen. They’re humorous but maybe a little more serious. Part of the reason is I wanted to challenge myself. I do like to keep things morally ambiguous and let the audience figure it out.
Staci: Do you worry about putting yourself in a box, or being too pushy?
Jonathan: I do. Like I don’t want to be like an atheist version of Jack Chick. That’s not what I want to do. I like keeping it so all the characters have very different worldviews so if you identify more with Blinky, or with Sal, or with Eleanor, whoever, you can pick the one you want. People may be able to figure out more or less who I am, but I don’t think that’s important for the reader to enjoy it. My favorite comics I’ve done are the ones that are sad and nebulous. I enjoy paradox. Like, despite my skepticism regarding the supernatural, there is a deity in the Blinky and Sal universe [Todd Almighty] and the comic treats him as more or less real and he has his own wants and desires and things. He’s capricious and fickle. I just like playing with that idea. The god concept is a good model to toy with. People may disagree, but I don’t think he’s a disrespected character. He’s humanized and fallible and that’s just more interesting to me than an inconceivable, invisible, perfect god being. He has his own things going on and the characters that worship him see him how they see him.
Staci: Coming off of that, have you gotten any pushback from people saying “you shouldn’t do that?”
Jonathan: Mostly from family maybe. And this is sort of the line that I’m walking because I know I’m probably upsetting some people who are very close to me, but I feel like these are the stories I have to tell. I’ve gotten more pushback from Reddit users, but mostly for misusing a philosophical point, and for political things like saying gun violence is a problem, or implying that racism exists, but overall not much. I have had a couple people ask me not to make fun of religion or belief systems and I’m like, well, that’s going to be hard because that’s a big part of the universe the characters live in. Because it mirrors our own. Religion is everywhere. And it always sort of upsets me that most entertainment doesn’t acknowledge religion at all. Most mainstream films or books are just about humans and then they go on a heist or they fight the bad guys and there’s no real presence of actual belief systems that exist because it’s hard to talk about without offending people. I get why it doesn’t happen. It’s marketability. But it’s just not reflective of the world that I live in which is full of different ideas and religions and politics and views on social issues, etc. And I think it’s important to acknowledge them and maybe frame them in humor.
Staci: As we both know, that’s a big part of a lot of people’s lives. Maybe ignoring it just to be palatable just seems like the easy way out?
Jonathan: Yeah. And I don’t, like, demand that every superhero movie or whatever feature religious characters or promote humanism. I just like exploring those things myself and I think it’s important.
Staci: So your book title, Straight from the Pit of Hell, obviously comes from religious ideas. Can you tell us a little more about the title?
Jonathan: “Straight from the pit of hell” is a phrase I heard a lot growing up, especially from my grandmother. And she would say this about Batman or Anastasia, anything that she felt was evil or she didn’t like. She would tut and go, “Straight from the pit of hell” and say we shouldn’t watch it. And it stuck with me because she would say this about a lot of the things I was drawing as a kid. And I don’t think I ever drew anything that bad. I drew dinosaurs, and I liked to draw wacky characters and extreme expressions, but I think she would have preferred me to draw flowers and smiling, happy people or religious imagery. She died last year and she was a very important part of my life. I never wanted her to ever see the comics, but I still kind of wanted to remember her in a weird way.
Staci: Sort of like an ironic homage?
Jonathan: A little bit. I don’t want it to be like I’m making fun of her, or that I resent her for saying that: I don’t. I think it was hilarious and beautiful. I think that one of the reasons worldview is so important in the comics is because this is the only thing I was fed for most of my developing life, so it’s hard for me to not think about these things. And I’m trying to figure out my own self through the comics.
Staci: I know that you do a lot of other things: can you tell me a little more about your other creative endeavors?
Jonathan: I still watch and write about film. I even started a show in Montreal in the same vein as Mystery Science Theater 3000 and How Did This Get Made, called This Won’t Be For Everyone. I’m really enjoying doing standup comedy. I’ll be going to the Edinburgh Fringe for the second year in a row. I’m having fun performing in Montreal and also when I did it in Korea and Spain. Maybe one day I’ll park it in the United States again. I want to write more. I wrote a play with Tricia Audette in Madrid and that one’s still being performed. I’m happy to see she’s still doing it. I’m thrilled it has a life outside of me. And that she and comedian Claire Jones are still doing the standup show, Stand Up Yours, we started there. It’s kind of awesome. I’m happy to have left a little bit of myself behind.
Staci: What are your goals for the next 5 years?
Jonathan: I’d like to finish one of the secret projects I’ve started to tinker with. I’d also like to find a place and maybe settle down in a regular base of operations. I think. That actually scares me a little. I’ve been a bit of a nomad for the past several years and it’s tough thing to break. Identity crisis, you know. Also, I’d like to be able to make most of my money through cartoons.
Staci: Let’s help you out with that. Do you have a Patreon people can go to?
Jonathan: I do. https://www.patreon.com/biginsanehappy. Thanks a lot
Jonathan Burrello is an American cartoonist, comedian, teacher, and traveler. His comic, Blinky and Sal, appears twice weekly on Patheos-Nonreligious. You can follow his descent into madness in real time on Twitter and Instagram.
Staci Jackson and Jonathan attended college together 12 years ago (has it been that long?). Staci is a San Diego-based real estate agent and travel blogger. Follow her as she scratches the incurable traveler’s itch (is there an ointment for that?) at The Voyageer or on Instagram.