Jeff Whitman Talks Every Shade Of Gumby In 50 Shades Of Clay

by Hannah Means Shannon

Gumby never seemed like an alien being to me. I had seen claymation cartoons somehow, somewhere, growing up, possibly a cartoon or two, and once at a school fair, I cashed in all my tickets to get a toy Gumby and Pokey. They became prized possessions. I knew Gumby wasn’t quite of my generation–he seemed to transcend that–but I also knew he was still relevant to me.

 

There’s been a resurgence of interest in Gumby in pop culture and thereby some new cultural creations celebrating our clay friend and his clay friends from the world of Gumby. There have been new comics running at publisher Papercutz since the summertime, bringing together diverse comics talent to revel in the strange humor of Gumby, and there’s even been a big art book retrospective about Gumby creator Art Clokey, and the little green guy, released by Dynamite this week.

The comics are delightful, and well worth a read. You’ll find some of your favorite comic creators very clearly having a lot of fun in the process. Papercutz Assistant Managing Editor and Gumby writer Jeff Whitman is here today to talk about Gumby with us and the collection of stories out now in Gumby: 50 Shades of Clay.

Hannah Means-Shannon: The series of short comics collected in Gumby: 50 Shades of Clay are presented in different perspectives and art styles, but as writer and editor, how did you decide what the “core” of Gumby and the other characters should be and help others understand where to find those cohesive points? 

Jeff Whitman: We really went back to the original body of work created by Art Clokey, referring to the episodes and movies for our inspiration. At times, a creator would submit an outline with a new character that matched an older, more obscure character. We would suggest they watch the episode and add that character. That is how Paul Plunk appeared in Mike Kazaleh’s “A Sour Note!”


HMS: What sort of adventures did Gumby get up to in animated form, and how do those compare with the experiences he has in these new comics?

JW: Gumby had adventures in all sorts of sizes. One episode could be about babysitting and the next about going into an oven to see dough people…we kept that sense of variety in our storytelling and not setting limits. Gumby can do anything. In comics we had more fun with the timing. Every episode of Gumby was crafted by hand, lovingly and painstakingly animated frame by frame with clay puppets and intricate sets. I think our team had a bit of an easier time making these comics!

HMS: How would you describe the sense of humor that accompanies the Gumby universe? How does that translate today?

JW: Gumby has an innocence to him. He is a boy experiencing the world, but also being the beacon of light to his group of friends and family. The humor has aged well, as Gumby is pretty timeless. Pokey would be complaining about the next new thing just as he would be complaining about a state of the art (for the 1960s) train set. The characters age well at the same time transporting us to a simpler, more wholesome time.

HMS: What do you think the appeal of Gumby has been, over time, and internationally? What traits to people find universal?

JW: The adventure! Gumby can escape into any book and become fully immersed. If only it were that easy! His bright yellow smile, wide eyes, and funny cast of characters are instantly recognizable. I think people respond to the simplicity.

HMS: Is Gumby himself “knowable” as a character with distinctive traits and characteristics that stay fixed, or do you think he has changed over time or is still changing?

JW: Well, physically, his eye color has changed over the years. He had black pupils in much of his TV career. But his features are very distinctive: the bump, the signature green, the yellow smiles and eyebrows. Gumby continues to mold into this generation, appearing in commercials selling cars, jumping in and out of a smartphone mobile game, and back in the toy aisle with new incarnations of collectibles for old and new fans alike. Gumby isn’t just nostalgia, he is constantly flexible and able to please every generation he has appeared in. His positive attitude has not changed over time and it is almost refreshing to read, in my opinion.

HMS: When translating Gumby and other characters from his world into the comics medium, do you notice new things that can be done with them, due to the new format, that might not have worked in animation?

JW: The gags that artist Jolyon Yates (with colorist Laurie E. Smith) did in “Goo’s Gone” revolve around Gumby, his dogs, and dino/dragon friend Prickle in Paris. The cover to that issue is Gumby (drawn by Ryan Jampole) literally immersed in a Renoir classic painting. That wouldn’t be able to be recreated easily in clay but we had a lot of fun crafting that story.

HMS: The title of the collection is pretty hilarious—50 Shades of Clay. What sort of process led that to be approved? Were you at all worried it would be considered too adult?

JW: 50 Shades of Clay was an internet meme staring Gumby. We repurposed it for the title of a romance novel for Gumby’s Granny to read in “Gumby’s Gran Adventure.” When we were collecting the stories in the graphic novel, Papercutz Editor-in-Chief Jim Salicrup did a mock up with the new title (combined with Art Baltazar’s stylized but classic Gumby and Pokey on the cover) and it stuck. We took it as a more humorous talking point, rather than something adult and provocative. Gumby has always been self-referential with a keen eye on pop culture-like entering a light saber battle with his robotic clone. Seriously, it happened!

Joe and Joan Rock Clokey, the surviving family of Gumby creator Art Clokey, are doing an amazing job preserving Art’s (and Gumby’s legacy) and furthering Gumby’s career. Back in the 80’s, Eddie Murphy lampooned Gumby in the popular SNL shorts…much to Art’s delight. The broad appeal has not changed. Like Pixar movies, Gumby is for all ages, with each age group finding something to enjoy, their own piece of Gumby.

Thanks to Jeff Whitman for joining us today!

You can find Gumby: 50 Shades of Clay online at Papercutz.

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