Mark Tatulli, “LIO” cartoonist: Mr. Media Interview by Bob Andelman

For anyone still mourning the departure of The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes from your local newspaper’s comics page, cheer up! There is a weird new kid on the street, and he’ll make you forget about your favorite strips from the last century.

LIO is the creation of Mark Tatulli, and he’s a fresh brand of weird and wonderful now appearing in more than 250 newspapers, with more adding the strip daily. If Far Side creator Gary Larson and Calvin creator Bill Watterson had mated, LIO is the character they would have produced. Tatulli’s brainchild, LIO, and that’s spelled L-I-O, is a young boy who combines elements of mad scientist, comic strips, science fiction, and the Adams family, and get this, LIO never speaks.

Mark, thanks for joining me today.

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MARK TATULLI:Oh, my pleasure.

ANDELMAN:Has LIO ever spoken in the strip?

TATULLI:No.


ANDELMAN:Will he?

TATULLI:He never will.

ANDELMAN:And he never will.

TATULLI:I mean, others around him may speak, and he may get visitations from other comic strip characters, but he will never actually talk.

ANDELMAN:I was talking to a friend whose history of comics goes back even further than mine, and we both came to the same connection. We remembered a character called Henry.

TATULLI:Sure.

ANDELMAN:Is that close to LIO’s lineage in some way?

TATULLI:Well, they are both pantomime strips, what’s called a pantomime strip, and those area basically strips that are driven by pictures in it instead of dialogue, so characters revealed by action rather than by words. I used to love pantomime strips when I was a kid. Henry is one, as you mentioned, and there was also Ferd’nand, which was, I believe that was not produced in the United States, but it did get circulation here.

ANDELMAN:So Henry was certainly a strip that you were aware of.

TATULLI:Oh yes.
ANDELMAN:There really hasn’t been another one like that in some time.

TATULLI:No, no, not since like the 1950s, and I just thought that with the space that they dial down to, that they actually allot to comic strips, I thought that it would be fun to do a comic strip that didn’t have any dialogue and any word balloons taking up any of that space, so I could utilize the entire space for illustration. It’s great fun on Sunday.

ANDELMAN:Is LIO mute, or is it he just doesn’t speak in the strip?

TATULLI:Yeah, he doesn’t speak, his father doesn’t speak, none of the characters really speak. Somebody might show up that you would expect to speak, like say Cathy from the Cathy comic strip or maybe Calvin and Hobbes or something like that, and you would expect them to speak because they speak within their world, but within LIO’s world, pretty much nobody speaks. There are sound effects, and there are billboards and so forth, but there is no actual dialogue.

ANDELMAN:Have you ever in the time you have been doing this strip, have you had an idea, you woke up in the morning or in the middle of the night or you are in the shower, wherever you get your ideas, you had an idea for the strip that would have required him to say something, and then you went, oh, and you slap yourself on the head and go, ah, that’s right, he doesn’t talk, it’s not going to work?

TATULLI:No, no, because I don’t think that way when I do these strips. It’s all visual, and so my brain is just switched in that mode. It’s odd, because I do have another comic strip called Heart of the City, and it is dialogue-driven or script-driven, and I hear their voices. I put them in situations, and I see how they react, and there is dialogue, but with LIO, because I don’t put any dialogue in, I just don’t hear a voice.

ANDELMAN:It must require a tremendous amount of, oh, what’s the word I’m looking for, I mean, focus, to not want to slip and go to words, especially because you have the other strip where you are used to putting words in people’s mouths.

TATULLI:Well, again, you know, I just don’t even think in terms of that. That’s not even an option. The other strip is dialogue-driven, and like I said, I hear the voices, but when it comes to LIO, I am just thinking visually, completely visually.

ANDELMAN:What other rules have you set for this strip? What parameters are there?

TATULLI:There are no parameters.

ANDELMAN:Okay.

TATULLI:It’s really a basic concept. It’s just LIO who lives with his father, and that’s basically it, and whatever I come up with. I set no parameters because I didn’t want to lock myself in. I mean, having no dialogue means that there is going to be no dialogue-driven gags, so I have to leave myself as open as possible to any kind of thing, so anything basically can happen.

ANDELMAN:Mark, you mentioned that LIO lives with his father, and I wanted to ask you about that. Is there no mother?

TATULLI:There is no mother, no.

ANDELMAN:Is he a product of a broken home, or is it that Disney tradition of kids only have one parent?

TATULLI:Well, I can’t imagine that a sane woman would stay in that environment for too long. Between the father and LIO, they are a couple of weirdos, so my guess is that she just about had it one day and just took off, but you know, it may make things simpler, because then there would be no dialogue between parents or anything. LIO’s father is kind of his guardian, more or less, and he just kind of goes with the flow.

ANDELMAN:Now, we frequently see LIO’s father in fairly treacherous situations. How do you envision their relationship? Is he tolerant, or is he in fear of his son?

TATULLI:Oh, he’s just tolerant. He just kind of goes with it. He just wants to, the interesting thing was that I had written the character of the father when I was out of work. I had lost my job, and I was feeling, you know, useless, and I kind of projected that onto this father character here, and he doesn’t really have a job. We never see him going off to work, and he just kind of sits around and watches TV and just kind of goes with the flow, and weird things happen, but, you know, he doesn’t ask too many questions, because I don’t think he really wants the answers.

ANDELMAN:Now, what are some of the, in your mind, some of the strangest things that have happened between LIO and his father?

TATULLI:Oh, my gosh. Every day is a new adventure, you know. They have been visited, well, I guess one of the strangest things would be that the father went into the refrigerator to get bacon and eggs, because he wanted to make bacon and eggs, and he found this enormous egg in the refrigerator and was very pleased about that, and the final panel is the egg has split open, and it was the alien from the Alien movie, the Ridley Scott movie, it wraps around his neck and was on his face, and LIO comes in and slaps his face, like, oh, my God, he’s getting in my experiments again. I would say that is among the most bizarre things, but those kinds of things happen every day, and everything is fine the next day.

ANDELMAN:That’s the amazing thing. I love that. It’s just like there is a giant octopus or something, and LIO is so in command of his situation. What elements of personality does he take from his creator, and what kinds of things have you given him that would you like to have in your own personality, perhaps?

TATULLI:Oh, geez. It’s mostly about fear. When you are a little kid, I was afraid of everything, because everything seemed so scary, and things that were even designed for kids seemed so scary. When you went and saw Sleeping Beauty, you know, the dragon in that was just really, really scary. Now to an adult taking the kids, oh, this is a lovely fairy tale I am taking my child to, and then you get there, and there’s this evil-looking queen, the most evil-looking queen you ever saw, and she turns into a dragon, and it just envelopes the screen, and it’s really, really horrific. Same thing with book illustrations. I remember being fascinated by Grimms’ Fairy Tales when I was a kid. Those stories are just downright sick, some of them. I remember, you know the story of Tom Thumb, but you don’t know that he actually is killed by a spider, and there was this illustration in this Grimms’ Fairy Tale of the spider kind of coming up on him and pounced on him and did battle with him, but the spider breathes his poisonous breath and then basically killed Tom Thumb, and you know, it’s shocking for a kid. LIO’s world is that way. Everything is kind of a shock or surreal or bizarre or scary.

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