Meet the mysterious cartoonist behind ‘the weirdest thing on Adult Swim’
Recently returned to Adult Swim, the Afro-retro-futurist-absurdist “Lazor Wulf” was one my favorite shows of 2019, and it shows no signs of being less so in its second season. Arriving as if fully formed from the collective head of creator Henry Bonsu and his writers, animators and voice artists, it creates a perfectly real impossible place you visit as if a foreign country, whose language and practices you might imperfectly understand but whose authority you grant. “Lazor Wulf” knows what it’s about, even if it will take you a minute to catch up — or maybe you never quite catch up, which is after all one of the pleasures of travel, to be a little disoriented in a rich and settled Somewhere Else.
At its center, more or less, are three sibling wolves, Lazor Wulf (rapper Vince Staples), skeptical, fundamentally moral and not as lazy as he gives out (“My brand is a wolf with a laser on his back who helps the homies”); Blazor Wulf (Quinta Brunson, from “A Black Lady Sketch Show”), who wears a flamethrower strapped to her back and is smart, entrepreneurial and a little ruthless, “a grabber of opportunities”; and the hot-tempered, cannon-carrying Canon Wulf (WWE superstar Ettore “Big E” Ewen).
Regularly in their company are the emotionally needy Stupid Horse (J.D. Witherspoon), a horse, and the tracksuit-wearing, haiku-declaiming King Yeti (Andre Pascoe), a human. Residing above them, in the city of Strongburg, is an irascible, impetuous God (Reginald VelJohnson, who was Carl on “Family Matters”), a big head with a beard of cloud sending down to Earth for mozzarella sticks, and his aide-de-camp Wallace (the singer Shelley, formerly known as D.R.A.M.).
I spoke with Bonsu, 35, by phone recently. Having found surprisingly little information on him available — his only official photographs hide his face — I began at the beginning. The following has been edited for clarity and condensed.
Where you are from, and how did it form you?
Henry Bonsu: I was born in East Orange, N.J., lived like half my life there and then the other half in Upper Darby, Penn., which is kind of close to West Philly, and pretty much moved out to the West Coast about eight years ago. I was born in 1985; around that era there was so much influence in regard to what was happening outside in the world and at the same time what was happening on television. I watched a lot of TV. I read a lot of comic books.
The beauty of living in New Jersey — in what I could say was the ’hood at that point, not in a negative way at all, either — is I lived around my family. I had a large family, cousins, brothers, I was surrounded by all of them. My mom and dad are both from Ghana; my cousins and I were mostly first-generation born here. So there was a lot of bending and pulling in regards to parents coming in with their standards as to how they were raised and how things were here. That in itself I think is a major issue in the work. And everyone I grew up with was so present with their influences and the things that they loved, so eager to share it with each other. And I feel like an amalgamation of all those things.
When I was 12, 13, I moved to Pennsylvania, like 10 minutes away from Philly, predominantly, I guess, more of a white neighborhood; I think it’s a lot more diverse now, over the last 20 years. But moving from East Orange to Upper Darby was a culture shock in a huge way. But in a weird way.
How was it different?
Communication, how things were communicated. Growing up I was more used to folks being direct; that’s not to say folks weren’t direct [in Upper Darby], but it was not the direct that I was used to. Communication styles were way different — which is something I found myself even as an adult very interested in.
Did the places you grew up influence your conception of Strongburg?
You move to different places and you meet different people and sometimes things are culturally different. What I like about Strongburg is that it has a lot of things I’ve seen almost anywhere I’ve lived. I mean, there are no talking wolves or giant godheads, but in terms of the fun aspects of moving to a place and finding community, just that fun, that joy. I’ve been lucky enough, no matter where I went, to be able to find that, and I try to showcase that in Strongburg, within the TV-14 [limits].
It’s a very positive show. It has a sweetness even when things get crazy, a lightness.
I feel like that’s definitely the goal. It’s easy to present the crazy and messed-up stuff in a crazy and messed-up way. And I’m not knocking that. But I think what we like in the writers room and also with the artists is finding a way to take these crazy, sometimes seemingly esoteric concepts and making it weird in a funny way — like, being sweet or genuine or kind is weird to some people.
I also work for Adult Swim and weirdness is part of the brand, and I want to be almost the weirdest thing on Adult Swim, the strangest thing — it’s, like, the fun goal. How do you make this weirder? And for us, it’s making this strange, offbeat thing fun.
When did you start drawing?
I think when I was 4 or 5. My older cousin drew and was like an older brother figure so I wanted to hang with him and draw too. But just through comics and cartoons and wanting to tell my own story I drew more and more. It’s been been a part of my life since I was a kid. I draw a lot more now.
Did you have a goal? How did you see your future?
I wanted to draw Sunday comics. That was my introduction to comics, really — funny Sunday comics. Because I would have to go buy the newspaper for my uncle. For a time, I thought one artist drew all of them. “Oh, I guess the same person that drew ‘Far Side’ drew ‘Peanuts’?” And then you start looking at names and, it’s like, “Oh, wait no.” And I thought, “That’s a cool career — if I could draw comic strips for a newspaper I could work every day and draw every day, and I won’t have to worry about my financial well-being.” Even as a kid I was thinking that. That I could bank comics for months and then take a vacation for months. I was trying to finesse a job I didn’t even have.
How did you get to the job you have?
I moved from North Philly to San Jose, had like a small game-testing job. I was just drawing on my Tumblr for years, and posting online because at that point I didn’t know if I was getting a job or not but I still wanted to draw. The developing producer of Lazor Wulf, Daniel Weidenfeld, saw some of the work I did and he told me if I ever moved to L.A., let’s meet up and talk cartoons. I kind of took him at that and so like the next week or two I moved.
So I met Daniel and we talked cartoons and he kept in touch, but he also hooked me up with a meeting with his brother Nick Weidenfeld, who started Animation Domination. They had a gif department; he wanted to create gif news editorials. That was primarily the job for two, three years, and I was able to move up and become the creative director of that department eventually. And through that I met many of the people I work with on “Lazor Wulf” — original animation director Chris Cornwell I met through that job, up to the current lead art director Jeremy Sengley, our board director Jared Weiss, I met all there; so many people who do art for the show, I met through that job. So that was my college, in a way.
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Did Adult Swim come to you or did you have an opportunity to pitch?
I had an opportunity. I had met Daniel, who at the time was executive producing a whole bunch of Adult Swim shows, but having that little connection, I wanted to make sure I went to him with a solid idea I could get behind and that made sense. “Lazor Wulf” was a comic I had done and stopped — but I was also just working on it, trying to figure it out as a TV show. I went and pitched something, which he liked but not too much; “Lazor Wulf,” he was immediately like, “I should just try and pitch this.” There’s so much based on me and my family dynamic and things I’ve seen growing up but just translated in an absurd, surrealist way. Luckily it was something they were into.
So you have a brother who’s like Canon Wulf and a sister who’s like Blazor Wulf?
I would say that we all have aspects of these characters. The person who’s fully Stupid Horse, that’s the fully crazy person you’re dealing with in your real life — but we all have Stupid Horse moments. We all have Lazor Wulf moments. But yes, I would say I have a brother I can think of that, when Canon Wulf has a moment where he’s fully on 10, and not going to stop until this is all ashes, I can think of moments in time where my brother especially had tapped into that level. But by now, it’s so hard to see clearly — [the actors] bring a lot more to the characters. It’s cool to have this unique-sounding voice cast. Sometimes I just want to write episodes where they’re all in one room, a “Cheers"-type cartoon where they’re all in one room talking.
How did you come to cast Vince Staples as Lazor Wulf?
I loved his voice. Obviously I’m a fan of the music, throughout, but also his demeanor in a funny way — his take on so many things is always not what you expect [it] to be, not as easy as you thought it would be. But also, Vince came in to act. When we have him in as a voice actor, he’s not Vince Staples, he’s dead set on being Lazor Wulf.
Do you identify with that character? Is he you in the mix?
I didn’t really think so at first, but it’s funny when you’re getting notes from your bosses and you find yourself defending aspects of your lead character, you realize in a way you’re sometimes defending your decisionmaking. There are certainly some similarities, in how I might see the world, where someone might assume you have, like, a stoic or a dead-inside view, where it’s not that at all — what you read as cynicism might be someone being optimistic. In the end I find myself a little bit in most of these characters. Well, with Canon Wulf, I wouldn’t say I’m a “burn it all down” kind of guy, not in an active way. But I can definitely be kind of, like, “Eh, it’s going to burn anyway.”
The way I describe Lazor Wulf is he’s a character who’s very aware he’s in a TV show. And to a certain extent maybe the [rest of the] cast is aware of it too, or maybe they indulge him in his acknowledgment that he’s aware of it. We spend a lot of time in Season 2 especially acknowledging that absurdist aspect. What I also loved about cartoons growing up is while you’re watching “Animaniacs” or “Tiny Toons,” you know it’s a TV show, we can do whatever we want — and Lazor Wulf is that character. Some episodes he’s showing up to work just to say he clocked in, and then others he’s the reason this ball is rolling and it may get out of control.
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Many cartoons reference animation history, but with its flat geometric space and white backgrounds and use of text, “Lazor Wulf” feels very different. Were you influenced by graphic arts as much as by animated cartoons?
Yeah, I would say a lot. I love cartoons, but I also really enjoyed magazines, and magazine ads, like in old comic books, you know, from the ’90s and back. Sixties and ’70s psychedelic art — I really love the looseness of that style, but at the same time a lot of these guys, they can draw their asses off without question. I also like Lawrence Hubbard, who does Raw Dog comics and Real Deal comics from like the early, mid-’90s. A lot of ’70s- and ’80s-era manga. Old comics, independent comics. [African American painter] Jacob Lawrence. It’s all stuff I see in “Lazor Wulf” and it may not be directly there — like, “Hey, here’s a Jacob Lawrence painting” — but it’s there in the setting or the composition.
Even commercials on TV, they all are things that interest me. I might not necessarily like the ad, per se, but moreso the format — it all becomes a way to help tell the story, or build the world. You don’t even have movies in the theater without the trailer. All these things that we feel are separate from and infringing on the core thing we’re here to enjoy, whether you like it or not, it’s a part of it. I have a lot of ’70s and ’80s and ’90s Japanese commercials bookmarked on YouTube — there’s just so many cool ideas and aesthetics. Sometimes they’re selling a bar of chocolate but you wouldn’t even know they were until the end of the commercial. I love that. We can sit there and say It. Doesn’t. Make. Sense. But it does.
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