An interview with Toby Gibbs & Jerry Voigt creators of The Mediocres
I grew up on cartoons. Yes, those famous 80s and 90s Saturday morning cartoons that everyone talks about. Some of my favorite cartoons were created by creative duos whose names were immortalized, not only because of the awesome work that they did, but also because the company names were made up of the last names of the creative duo. Who hasn’t heard the name Hanna-Barbera? They created greats such as Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, and The Jetsons. Hanna-Barbera was founded by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. The other company was Rankin-Bass, which was founded by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass. They were responsible for producing Thundercats, among many others. Their work was a big influence on me as a young creator. I recently had the pleasure of meeting another cartoon duo. The dynamic duo of Toby Gibbs and Jerry Voigt, who, in my opinion, are well underway to being a great influence in pop culture with their creation The Mediocres. The duo sat down with Indyfest Magazine to tell us about their project.
IM: Tell us a bit about the team, your backgrounds and how you started working together?
JV: Toby and I have been close friends for over 20 years. We first worked together in college, when I was assigned to create funny, accompanying illustrations for his humor articles for the university’s newspaper. After a few of these, I approached Toby about creating a comic strip, where he wrote and I did the artwork.
He came back to me with an idea called Sherman’s Alley. A comic strip that revolved around a couple of guys, Sherman and Brooks, living in a boarding house owned by Brooks’ Uncle Hugo, and the bizarre people in their immediate circle.
We produced Sherman’s Alley four days a week for almost four years, and it was very popular at the university. We had a book published, a compilation of our newspaper comic strips, called Lost on Sherman’s Alley. Though we made some attempts to sell the strip to the comic strip syndicates after college, we both had to get work.
Toby went into broadcast journalism, first radio, and then television news, and I began doing graphic design and, eventually, computer animation, primarily for advertising agencies and video production companies. I now have a small, independent animation company called Cartoonery Studios, (www.cartoonerystudios.com).
Though we live in different cities, we never lost touch with each other and never gave up on the idea working together on other comedy projects.
TG: As Jerry says, I’m a TV news producer. I work for the ABC affiliate in Lexington, Kentucky.
I’ve been a professional journalist and broadcaster my entire adult life. But, since high school, I’ve dabbled in comedy writing. I’ve written different kinds of TV and movie scripts, a comic strip, a newspaper column, a Bob & Ray-type radio show, and other stuff.
The newspaper column was in my college newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, at the University of Kentucky. Jerry was an editorial cartoonist there. That’s where we met and started Sherman’s Alley. We were both very proud of it.
IM: What, or who, were the major influences for you as creators?
TG: Keep in mind, I’m the writing half of this team, so my influences tend to be writers, rather than visual artists. I mentioned Bob & Ray earlier. Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding were a radio comedy team, at their peak in the 1950s and ’60s. They had a dry, understated, very realistic approach to comedy.
There was a wonderful, oddball radio sitcom in the l930s and ’40s called Vic and Sade, that’s had an enormous influence on me. I could talk for hours about that. Another radio comedian—Fred Allen— is a giant to me.
And I was a reader of Mad Magazine as a child. I was a big SCTV fan, and the early David Letterman just left me stunned.
JV: Though Toby is the writer, I’m actually the one who has an interest/love of superheroes, comic books, and science fiction. I actually grew up in the Silver Age, and was purchasing as many Marvel and DC titles as I could afford in the 1970 and 80s. And, though it’s a spectacularly unoriginal thing to say about comic book art, Jack Kirby always amazed me with his work. The strangest combination of simplicity, complexity of composition and details, and weirdly dynamic motion. Neal Adams, of course, was amazing at that time, too. Of course, The Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns made a huge impact when they came out, because they changed what comics were.
Like most American kids at that time, I watched syndicated reruns of the 1966 Batman series, which I still love, and it gave me a sense of humor about superheroes. And collecting comic books, I had the Marvel and DC universes branded on my brain at the height of the Silver Age. So the movies and shows being created now are all things I dreamed of as a kid.
As with Toby, Mad Magazine had a lot of influence on me as a kid. Though, in retrospect, most of the comedy falls a bit flat, artists like Jack Rickard and Jack Davis, who worked in black and white, really amazed me. But more than anything, I learned that good satire tries to look exactly like what you are satirizing. I certainly think that’s something that I try to bring to The Mediocres. I want people to look at an old ad, or a Mediocres-endorsed product image, and have to take a second to figure out if it’s real or a parody.
Comedy-wise I’m very much a lover of British comedy. Starting with Monty Python, then Fry & Laurie, Mitchell & Webb, and Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright. But certainly, early Simpsons had a huge comedy/cartoon impact. And Bob’s Burgers is one of the best-written things on TV.
Definitely a fan of clever. And just to brag on Toby a bit, he writes some of the smartest, most literate comedy I’ve ever seen, yet still it is funny and accessible to anyone.
IM: How many projects have you worked on to date, and which is your favorite?
JV: Though we’ve talked about and toyed with a number of project ideas over the years, the only ones that we have taken to the production stage are the Sherman’s Alley cartoon strip, where we first collaborated, and The Mediocres, which we have worked on for years in preparation.
I would have to say that The Mediocres is my favorite. It has developed into an amazingly rich concept. There is so much that we can do within this genre. And being able to satirize Marvel and DC comics through the years, as well as the off-and-on love that American history (and merchandising) has had with superheroes since the first ones appeared in the 1930s and 40s, this project is a conceptual dream.
Also The Mediocres is a loving parody of the superhero genre. I like to think of it like the movie Galaxy Quest and its love of Star Trek, all the while, hilariously mocking it too.
TG: Jerry and I have worked on some ideas that would then “morph” into something else. The two big things, as mentioned, are our Sherman’s Alley comic strip, during our time in college, and now, The Mediocres.
I have a fake news service on Facebook, called News on the Cheap. Jerry and some other friends have helped out with that.
A favorite? The Mediocres, though I’ll always love Sherman’s Alley too.
IM: What can you tell us about The Mediocres, how it came to be and your experience working on it?
JV: About eight years ago, I had been hired to do the animation for a series of two-to-five-minute animated segments for a show on Starz network. As the series run was coming to an end, I was asked if I had any animated show ideas that I might want to pitch to the producer. So, I immediately went to Toby and, within a week, he had come back to me with the basic concept and the four primary characters of The Mediocres. While Starz chose not to pursue it, we decided the idea was worth developing as a multimedia comedy project. And for the past seven or eight years, we’ve been slowly developing it.
TG: We realize this general idea— superheroes with limited, underwhelming skills—has been done before. But our approach is different. We’re not just satirizing the clichés and stereotypes involving superheroes. We’ve stepped back and spoofed the business and media worlds surrounding superheroes, as well.
For example, we claim there was a Mediocres radio show in the l940s, and an RKO movie serial about them. We claim there was a l960s TV show on NBC. We have fake sponsors, like Cold Wet Soda and Dust Bowl Farms Cereals.
The Mediocres are part of a larger comic book company that publishes other comic books. It’s all owned by a fictitious publishing company. We even claim that The Mediocres was created by someone else, and he has his own back-story. There are multiple layers to this, and we think that’s unique among superhero parodies. Superhero stories are rich with detail and multi-layered. Shouldn’t a parody be that way too?
As you can imagine, the experience has been an absolute joy, because of the limitless creative possibilities. This thing has gone in directions Jerry and I never imagined when we started.
IM: What was the main inspiration behind The Mediocres, and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
TG: Specifically, I have a memory of watching the 1970s version of the Superfriends on Saturday morning TV, and while I don’t mean to insult fans of it, I can remember, at the age of seven or eight, I was pointing out holes in the plot. It just seemed ripe for satire, even then. I watched the old Batman series of the 1960s, and even though it was a self-parody to begin with, it still opened my eyes to the satirical possibilities.
Taking a broader view, superheroes are just such a big part of the culture—from movies to TV shows to comic books—that, if you love spoofing the culture, this subject matter is just rich with endless comic possibilities. We’re spoofing superheroes, sure— but it doesn’t stop there. As mentioned already, we’re spoofing the products in comic book ads, we’re spoofing breakfast cereals, World War II propaganda slogans, 1960s rock groups, Star Wars, sports, TV Guide— you name it. Although the superhero angle is the main one, it’s not the only one.
JV: From the art side of things, I was greatly influenced by Genndy Tartakovsky, specifically Samurai Jack and Dexter’s Laboratory, as well as John Kricfalusi, who created Ren & Stimpy.
Oddly, rather than getting a regularly-published comic, our goal is to get The Mediocres produced as a television or online animated series. Which we plan to support with the same kind of social media posts that we are currently doing and, given the elasticity of the concept, to just see what else can be done with it.
IM: What is your assessment of today’s independent comic industry, and what do you think the industry needs?
JV: Obviously, with independent comics, there is the double-edged sword of the decline of all print as a medium, and the opportunities that just never used to be available in a pre-digital age. We certainly wouldn’t be able to do anything with The Mediocres like we are doing, without being about to post it online without financial risk or professional backing.
But I don’t really know what the economic model is to make indy comics work as an industry. So much content is available for free online, I don’t know how you make a living asking people for a couple of dollars for a digital download.
TG: I too am impressed by the online possibilities, and the new opportunities they create. But on the downside, it means you’re competing with more artists and writers than ever before. It’s harder to stand out.
IM: In your opinion, how difficult is it for an independent creator to make a living today?
TG: I would imagine very hard, for the reasons already stated. It’s harder to break through than ever before, with so many people doing this.
JV: Very difficult. I don’t even understand the current economics of the big two, outside of movies and TV. Are DC and Marvel making money off of print comics right now?
On the other hand, when you think back to the Golden Age or Silver Age creators, even people like Jack Kirby were paid remarkably little. And VERY few people could do the work. It was a very, very small pool of people creating. Right now has to be the most explosive time in history for individuals to create and to be able to show their work, literally, to a world-wide audience.
But the question is how to make it economically viable enough to devote yourself completely to your work as a profession and not just a hobby, and that’s a question that, at least, we haven’t answered yet.
IM: Do you use social media? How has it helped in getting the word out about The Mediocres?
JV: After years of development, we have only just put The Mediocres in the public eye, on Facebook, a few months ago. Soon, we’ll expand this to Twitter, Instagram, and others. It is the foundation of launching a project.
I come from a traditional advertising background, and the reach and opportunities of social media are the ONLY practical way to launch something or get it seen by the public.
We try to put out four or five new pieces of art/comedy per week. We’ve set ourselves an insane pace. But by repetition, perseverance, and, hopefully, good work, we hope our use of social media helps launch our project, while we also plan for social media to support it, should we get to launch our animated program. So, to The Mediocres, I think that social media is really the alpha and the omega. We will utilize it for every step of what we do with this project and other projects in the future.
TG: Being on social media has really inspired both of us. Because we’re posting several items a week on Facebook, it has required us to work harder and simply do more. It’s made us more creative. We’ve had to brainstorm more and, in the process, we’ve developed new ideas and characters we might not have created otherwise. That’s paying dividends in other aspects of the project. I didn’t fully realize it would have that kind of impact on our work.
IM: What are your future plans, and where do you see your career and The Mediocres on the next five years?
JV: As I keep mentioning, the real goal is an animated program, supported by comic books, merchandising, and our elaborate online fake history.
I think that, due to the subject matter of The Mediocres (superheroes), and the amazing, ongoing, and growing influence of superhero movies and television shows worldwide, that our concept is the perfect parody at the perfect time. The palette for satire is huge, and the way we have structured The Mediocres gives us the ability to parody everything from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster creating Superman in the 1930s, to the newest Marvel or DC movie. As well as everything in between, from the anti-comic book hearings of the 1950s, to bad Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the 1960s. From the rise of graphic novels in the 1980s to “gritty reboot” superhero movies today.
And with The Mediocres themselves, there are literally no limitations. From nuclear explosions to time travel. The superhero genre and our being a parody makes “shark jumping” almost impossible.
TG: I agree with Jerry. When you have a genre with other dimensions, with the possibility of visiting the past or the future, or other planets or galaxies, you can do anything. And we will.
And since this genre isn’t going anywhere, there’s no danger a parody of it will become stale or dated anytime soon. This works in 2015, but I’m confident it will work just as well in 2025.
IM: What recommendations would you give to an up-and-coming independent creator?
TG: Be distinctive. Be different. Something that’s the same as everything else isn’t likely to go anywhere. Why would it, when people can get the same thing a zillion other places?
JV: Certainly, work on your craft. If you write, write. If you draw, draw.
Reference EVERYTHING you can. Know what others have done and learn from what they have done that you love, like, and hate. Read a variety of comics. Watch all genres of movies. And all of it tells you details about what you want to emulate and what you want to avoid.
Also, be brutal with yourself. Not self-critical to the point you think “What is the point of even trying?” but too many people like to talk themselves into believing what they want to believe.
I used to have a friend, a guy with a unique outlook and a good amount of talent. But they were not self-critical and were simply hostile to outside critique. They would complain if I gave artistic critique saying, “Do you know how long this took?” And I said, “No one will either know or care how long it took. They will just care about the end product that they are looking at.” You simply don’t get ‘points for effort’.
If you are just creating for yourself, and don’t care about selling your product, do whatever makes you happy. But if you are trying to create work to appeal/sell to others, you have to figure out a unique angle for what you are creating. Not just create ‘another X, Y or Z’ that has been done a thousand times before. And that is no small feat.
Keep an eye on The Mediocres and this creative duo; they are well on their way to greatness. You can follow and support this project at the links below.
ONLINE FOLLOW THROUGH:
The Mediocres website: themediocres.com
The Mediocres on Facebook: www.facebook.com/themediocres
Watch the Mediocres intro commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBbXfXoeT3c