Arm’s Length

I won’t lie to you; I’m a conceited guy. I probably possess an overabundance of confidence in my own skills. As I grow older, I try to temper this arrogance, because I’ve seen how it can drive others away; friends, loved ones, fans. But you must understand the importance of this feature (not a bug). In today’s world, you have to be crazy to get anything accomplished.

I have a “Messiah complex”, for which I blame no one but myself. My endless vitriol directed at the entertainment universe springs from the concrete belief that I can do better for you. I can give you what you really want. 

I can save you.

I constantly run out of money because it means nothing to me but food and rent. (Also weed and toys.) The defamed Louis C.K. once rightly proclaimed, “It’s never your money. It’s just the money.” What means more to me is growing an idea, and having that idea gain recognition alongside established works of film, television or print, without spending the amount that they cost. Showing the public “I built this for you, not for profit, but because I wanted to build it for you.”

Sometime just before the turn of the century, I conceived an anthology called Planet Saturday Morning. The core concept was a world where it was Saturday morning, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Everything involved was evocative of the days when TV networks competed with each other to keep kids glued to the screen for hours on Saturday. There was Guy, a man who awoke every day with a new and different superpower, which he had 24 hours to use judiciously. There was Sordid Hollow, a “funny-animal” strip, and a Bear With Searing Gas Pain (self-explanatory).

Also, there was a dullard whose career aspirations were so low he worked as a security guard at the city morgue, named John. 

Note Superior Friends wrist signal.

One late night, John didn’t have enough change for the soda machine, so he snaked his right arm into the hole where the cans come out, and became stuck there. Unbeknownst to John, the soda company added radiation as a secret ingredient. Thus, John didn’t become a superhero- his right arm did. 

This began the saga of John’s Arm. I even sang a theme song for the first animation, trying my best to evoke a sort of Mighty Mouse tone:

John’s Arm, John’s Arm;
Fighting crime with knuckles strong,
Only two and a half feet long.

In 2001, I didn’t have a Wacom tablet; every single asset had to be drawn, scanned, cleaned up as a vector image, then imported into Flash. Despite this, I learned how to make planets “rotate”, and other tricks that heightened the hilarity of a flying severed arm with a cape. All the voices were provided by me (and a pitch-shifter).

John’s Arm meets the Hyperboleans, from the 2001 short of the same name.

Many JA stalwarts first appeared here; Loofah-Lad, Defenestrator, and of course the intolerable Hyperboleans. To say the short struck a chord would be an understatement.

It was huuuuuuuuge.

Even though I posted the short on Newgrounds, my own site received more traffic than it could handle. This began a trend of buying more bandwidth, in dribs and drabs, to cover the onslaught. Three different networks came calling. I had my sights set on Cartoon Network’s nascent Adult Swim block, and set to work on the sequel short; John’s Arm II: Armcandy (2002).

Armcandy was the only time John’s “love life” was explored, and how difficult it was for him to get laid when his arm would randomly rip itself out of the socket and fly away. After this, John became too surly and gross to date anyone. I could never get used to the idea of John as a player of any sort. He worked better as a lazy lout, in sharp contrast with his heroic appendage.

This was the first appearance of Bonk (named later), of the Wakamolians, who existed purely to provide a “Whack-A-Mole” gag set to Aram Khachaturian’s immortal “Sabre Dance“.

Thanks to my friend, programmer Randy Rice, this became a playable game, called “Wak-Atak”.

Again- every single piece of what you see was hand-drawn, scanned, cleaned up, and imported into Flash.

John’s Arm III: Brothers In Arms (2002) fleshed out even more of the cast, including Chief Brendon, bespectacled neighbor kid Willis Ratliff, demonic southpaw “Lefty” (created by diet soda), and “Nameless”, who was traumatized as a child by photos of Johnny and Edgar Winter.

I’m particularly proud of the scenes with Nameless and his identical-twin henchmen (“A” and “B”).

This short also contains (thankfully) the sole appearance of “Urethro”, John’s imagined superhero wang. The end credits roll over Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein“, accompanied by still-frames of Urethro foiling a bank robbery, rescuing a treed cat, and retrieving a woman’s stolen purse. Urethro receives a kiss for his heroism. Yes, a lady kisses a flying, caped penis. Personally I think Brothers In Arms is the funniest of the original shorts. Your mileage may vary.

And so, we come to John’s Arm IV: Armed And Dangerous (2003), in which I packed all manner of bells and whistles. While the short loaded, you could peruse data files on the characters, or watch as a cell-phone user in the “theater” was brutalized. All the backgrounds were re-done in Photoshop, to make them more “realistic”. There were hidden buttons that allowed you to peruse John’s “porn pile”, and the fake video games and cheat codes created for the short.

Willis in front of John’s porn pile and leaking acetylene tank. Note random “Autobahn” poster. Sorry if the boobs offend you.

Much of the music was provided by my friend George, and our band Tailothepup. “Buggie”, the crackhead “supervillain”, made a cameo in a fake commercial intended to divert attention from the absence of a final fight. Mayor Bob Felcher first appeared here, for a terrible “ferret up the ass” gag. The “Sea-Homies” were the featured badguys; alien monsters who were dehydrated as punishment for their crimes. Literally everybody complained that they hewed too close to one of the “Mooninites”, from Aqua Teen Hunger Force. If you create small, colorful characters who talk “street”, you will receive this admonishment as well. Fans are only too happy to tell you when they think you’ve subconsciously plagiarized, regardless of whether you actually did.

Truthfully, this is not my favorite. There are two parts I really enjoy. The first is how John’s Arm reacts to his host’s new “friends”; by wrangling a department store mannequin, baking cookies for it, and having an intellectual discussion about Leon Uris’ Exodus with it, until John knocks its head out the window with a football.

John’s Arm and his new pal, “Ernesto”.

The second is when the Sea-Homies offer to play a game with John, called “Jackass”. This entails a plunger thrown into John’s face, and when he pulls it off, he begins to bleed profusely from the nose. John falls to the carpet, and the lead Sea-Homie strokes his hair creepily as blood pools under John’s head.

The Sea-Homies combine into a giant monster, signaling their arch-nemesis Scrotus, proud warrior of the Testites. John and his heroic arm can only watch as Scrotus swings his enormous testicles like a ball and chain, defeating the combined form of the Sea-Homies with a crushing blow to the face.

Chin, specifically.

After the credits, you had the option to watch a “critic’s review” of JA4, with buttons you could push to shut him up in a variety of violent ways (chainsaw, Urethro-through-the-ear, etc.). My rejection letter from Adult Swim came not long after the release of this short.

The only way to “top” what I’d done was to make a full-length feature. This was not originally the plan, but the script for John’s Arm V: Five Fingers Of Fury grew longer and longer, until it was inevitable. At first, JA5 was slated to be a parody of 1984’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension. That’s not a joke. I have no earthly idea where I was going with that.

Cooler heads prevailed. By 2005 I had a “shooting script” over 180 pages. I either didn’t know that a page equals a minute or didn’t care. I enlisted as many friends and loved ones as I could for help. My dad and I built recording booths. Even with a new Wacom tablet, I severely underestimated the amount of time it would take me to animate and mix the movie.

It took three years. It was called John’s Arm: Armageddon.

In late 2008, it won Best Animated Feature at that year’s Atlanta Underground Film Festival. On April 1st, 2009, it screened once at the Plaza Theater. It made more that night than Slumdog Millionaire. I was too wiped out to really appreciate it, and this was the death knell for my long-term relationship with my girlfriend. I had no idea how much strain I had put upon myself, and the people I cared about. It was too much. The past eight years had made me crazy as a bedbug.

That’s how it goes. I regret none of it. The work stands. If you want to learn who you really are, how far you’ll go to see a concept to fruition; make a movie. Nothing else compares to it. Hell, I’m not even sure it can be done anymore. The big studios have everything locked up. You can’t even get the equipment I used without going bankrupt. Even if you do succeed, as I learned the hard way, there are people who will keep you locked out. The “DIY” ethos is far too powerful. No production company wants to spend millions on a blockbuster, and get beat by some kid with a homemade cartoon. They won’t let it happen. Not with movies, not with music, not anything. You can’t afford the advertising juggernaut that they can, and that’s how they’ll bury you alive.

Billy Jack is the most successful independent feature ever made. It made more than The French Connection. I can almost guarantee you’ve never heard of Billy Jack, despite its historic ad campaign, which prefigured “saturation”.

Tom Laughlin, who played Billy Jack, was often accused of having a messiah complex. Of being conceited, and overconfident in his skills.

He was. That’s why his movies got made.

That’s how I made mine.

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