Phillip Villarreal interviews Jennifer about Unicorn Jelly
What inspired you to create Unicorn Jelly?
The RPG game I had been driven to create for the past 14 years had became a dead project. The loss, and the failure of this struggle simple devastated me, and in the midst of this defeat, I felt only hollow numbness. Then, as it is with Muses, something seized my creative faculties and began to make demands. Though I could barely move from my depression, this new Muse would not be denied, and somehow I found myself doing little witch sketches, first on dinner napkins, then more seriously, directly on my computer. I did not know what this Muse was demanding of me, but She was a strong one, and fairly stern as Muses go. Soon, quite before I knew what I was up to, I found myself doing the Title art for 'Unicorn Jelly'. After the first strip, my Muse gave me a strong feeling that my online mangastrip would have a point, a meaning, and gave me a glimpse of how the whole thing would one day end. I only wanted to do the strip in the simple fashion of what became the Alternate Universe sidebar strips, but the muse...and my spouses...preferred more detailed art. I wanted to do a weekly strip, because it was less effort, but my Muse was very stern that it should be daily...finally a compromise was reached, where I only do the strip five days a week.
Every night I must sit down after dinner, and do another strip. As I said, this Muse is rather stern, and also does not like me bitching either. Butt in chair, mouse in hand, get to work, is the operating principle here. I have no idea how the story will go, but my Muse does tell me the rough outline of events, if there is something big coming up, so that I will not be utterly unprepared. I start drawing, kind of just let the strip draw itself, and the Muse do the work. In a way, it's kind of fun watching myself draw this strip, and waiting to see what will happen. Afterwards it all makes sense, sometimes amazingly so, and that feels quite magical. It's all helped me cope with my grief, and I have started to see the whole thing as less of a burden, and more of a Gift now.
Can you describe the story in a nutshell?
As far as I have been told by my aforementioned Muse, the point of the whole thing is to make a statement about the conflict between the Intellect and the Heart. On the surface, Unicorn Jelly tells the story of a wretched little Slime monster that, after a peculiar event, finds itself apparently evolving into a miraculous and sacred Holy Unicorn. At least, this is what it believes. The mangastrip follows the adventures of little Uni, as the Slime, now a Jelly, is called, and the beings that become it's friends. There is Lupiko Kazemahou, a roughly 18 year old professional Witch, and her adopted daughter Chou, who, do to an unfortunate accident has become infected with a self-replicating crystalline life form native to the universe in which they all live. Uni, the Unicorn Jelly, represents an absolutely faithful Heart, essentially a magical outlook on reality. Chou is exactly the opposite, as her computer-like part-crystal mind sees the universe as a cold and mechanical place, where everything can be explained through Reason alone. Lupiko, in the middle, also is philosophically in the middleground as well....she wants to believe in the magical thought she was taught as a student Witch, but cannot deny the accuracy of Chou's cold reasoning.
Key to the entire story is that the conflict between what seems to be magic, and what seems to be science, is never, ever, fully resolved. In every case, there are two explanations to fit every occurrence in the plot, one Mystical, one Rational. The reader is challenged to, at first, discover which world view they tend to lean more towards, and then, to -ultimately- permit both views to coexist.
In effect, Unicorn Jelly is a very long, illustrated Zen Koan, designed to force the mind of the reader into a state that can hold two opposing "truths" in a suspended, coexisting state. This ability is the primary requisite for advanced thought and consideration, and I suppose my Muse is attempting to teach this.
She has made it very clear to me that I am never, ever allowed to nail down any such detail within Unicorn Jelly. She is very firm on that point. Is Uni REALLY a Holy Unicorn, or is Uni just an accident of chemistry and physics? The answer is both yes, and yes, no, and also no. Are the flying brooms the Witches of the Unicorn Jelly really magic, or are they just bizarre machines, made of three kinds of chemical elements unique to that universe, which make use of the local physical laws? Both views are equally true, depending on one's point of view, yet they conflict with each other. Paradox.
Adding to all of this, is a political struggle between the ancient academies of Witchcraft and Alchemy. The Witches stand for tradition and faith, and the Alchemists stand for unbridled technological advancement, and both support the fragile survival of the humans that live in the harsh and bizarre Tryslmaistan Universe, the universe of Unicorn Jelly. Uni, Lupiko, and Chou become swept up in this ancient rivalry and this is what is destined to put the story into high gear.
How long have you been drawing?
I first started drawing just before kindergarten, around the age of five. I made my first animations then, too, imagining, with a naive mind that I had invented the 'flip-book'. I have drawn, sketched, painted, and attempted all manner of artforms ever since. I am not a grandly skillful artist, a sad fact that I have had to accept. Indeed, my talent can best be described as adequate. However I am possessed of an extraordinary level of raw creativity, and I dare to make computer games, draw online comics, and occasionally write stories, on the conceit that my creative ability makes up for my lack of actual skill.
When did you start the series?
The first Unicorn Jelly strip is dated September 6th, 2000, and at the time of this interview there are now 136 Prime Universe strips, and some 40+ Alternate Universe strips. The Alternate Universe strips are bonus side strips where I am not under the thumb of my personal Muse....rather I can draw anything I choose. Sometimes I draw bits that reflect on the ongoing story, or that flesh out the background of the Tryslmaistan Universe, or that show what other characters are doing behind the scenes. Other times I just do silly parodies or take-offs of Unicorn Jelly, making fun of my own work, and also, of myself.
Does your story follow a set path or do you come up with it as you go along?
Like the basis of the strip itself, the answer to this question is both yes, and no. As I think about that, it makes me chortle at the cleverness of whatever this Muse of mine actually is. In one, perfectly acceptable sense, I just plunk down and draw straight from my unconscious mind, and somehow it ends up telling a cohesive story. All just done on a whim, without rhyme or reason, without a thought to the consequences.
Another, perfectly acceptable explanation is that the cohesive story and deep meaning behind Unicorn Jelly is the work of a mysterious Muse, a source of inspiration, that has set up residence in my life, and demand that I push pixels for her every night. I have agreed to do this because it beats moping over my lost game project, and because I have become caught up in whatever it is She is trying to accomplish.
Which do I believe? Both, actually. Kind of the point, if you think about it. I must say, though, that my rational mind does have a bit of difficulty exactly explaining why the story actually makes sense. Then again, I have a very harsh, very cold, very Chou-like rational mind. Which is odd, because if anything, I am the most like the character of Lupiko.
Ultimately, I am 'told', or if you prefer, I get brief imaginative glimpses of, important events in the plot on occasion, so that I will not muck things up before the plot gets there. In my heart, it feels like the whole of Unicorn Jelly is already written...somewhere...and I am just being spoon fed a translated version of its source material. In my intellect, I am just half crazed over the tragedy of my game project, and my unconscious mind is keeping me busy so I do not grieve too much. Somehow it has managed to roll the dice well enough to make sense, but at any minute, the whole strip could plunge into incoherence.
Heart or Intellect? I don't know...I just draw the strip.
Have you had any problems?
Actually, yes! One time, a month or two back, I reached the pinnacle of my internal bitching about having to do the labor of drawing the strip every night. I wanted to play games, and I did not want to spend 3 to 4 hours every evening pumping out some web comic for some stern, hard to believe in, spook Muse in the back of my head. I didn't want to wear myself out for some silly refugee from some turn-of-the-century spiritualism foolishness. I complained so much, that when time came to do the strip, my 'Muse', or whatever you want to believe it is, went on strike. It was miffed. I felt that it was upset with me for complaining so much, and not seeing the whole thing as a gift, not appreciating it. I was stuck. I could draw just fine, thank you, but I had no idea what to do next with the characters. I was lost. Everything I tried just stank on ice. It did not fit the story, because I had no idea what the story actually was.
None of this stuff got posted. Nothing got posted, in fact. It was awful. Finally I realized that my strip meant something to me, and to my readers. I needed to keep doing it. I needed the feeling of accomplishment, and I missed the fun and weird feeling of watching my hands draw a really cool story in which I could not know what was next.
So.....I told my skeptical mind to shove it, suspended my disbelief, and....apologized to my Muse. As though She were real. Now I am not saying that I believe in..well ANYTHING, to tell the truth....but, after I apologized, my Muse came right back, and everything has been fine since. The story flows out, and I get the thrill of drawing something that surprises me every night.
When push comes to shove on the debate between being Rational and being Mystical, I guess I am pragmatic. If it works, I will use it, regardless of whether it fits Rationality or not. Pragmatism comes first.
How do you fight writer's block? Do you ever get writer's block?
The only time I had writer's block was in the event that described above. I suppose it could be argued that I cannot have writer's block, because in at least from one, fairly looney perspective, I do not actually write the strip...I just illustrate it. As long as I do not piss off my Muse, the story never chokes up. So...I now try to be polite to my Muse, whatever it ultimately is. Thank you Muse, whoever, or whatever, you are. Goddess, but it is very strange to be an artist!
Do you have any future plans?
I would really like to see Unicorn Jelly gain a larger audience, I hope to someday create some software based on Unicorn Jelly, and eventually I hope to get better at my drawing skills. I have noticed a definite improvement in my style since the first strip, so perhaps the constant weekly practice will pay off. I will never stop hoping that somehow, some way, I might finally get to do my game, the one that helped initiate Unicorn Jelly in the first place. Whatever the case, I intend to see Unicorn Jelly through, all the way, to that far distant ending I briefly was shown, back at the first strip. I have learned my lesson: Muses may be task masters, sure, but they are also incredible Gifts, and one should be grateful for them. Whether they are Real, or not.
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