Skip to Main Content
Popzara Interviews: Ratfist and Earthworm Jim Creator Doug TenNapel
Game Features

Popzara Interviews: Ratfist and Earthworm Jim Creator Doug TenNapel

We sit down with the acclaimed creator of Ratfist and Earthworm Jim to talk comics, controversy, and everything in-between. Groovy!

Spiffy Rating Image
Review + Affiliate Policy

Fans of videogames, comics, and animated cartoons are in for a special treat today, as we’ve managed to lasso none other than Doug TenNapal, the multi-talented polymath and Eisner Award-winning artist who is perhaps best-known to millions of fans as the creator of Earthworm Jim. With a long history that spans crafting some of videogame’s biggest cult-classics to an impressive collection of original graphic novels, to his work on several animated hits (including Nickelodeon’s Catscratch and Kids’ WB! Earthworm Jim, both based on original properties he created), as well as his current project, the webcomic Ratfist.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for TenNapel, who’s recently weathered some criticism for comments he made online concerning the topic of gay marriage, and we thought it might be a good time to dig a little deeper and speak with the man himself. From controversial comments to videogame reflections to coming home to where it all started, there isn’t much that TenNapel isn’t willing to dish his opinion on. Fans of his “dorky hero genre”, including the classics Earthboy Jacobus and Creature Tech, should should definitely make some time to check out his frequently-updated webcomic, Rafist, to see what all the fuss is about for themselves.

Without further adieu, we present for your reading pleasure Mr. Doug TenNapel!

To tell you the truth, I really wish this interview was filled with the same-old questions about Earthworm Jim we’ve all heard (and you’ve answered) a million times before, but you know that cannot be. At least, not with the recent brouhaha over comments you made inside the comment section of your webcomic, Ratfist, where comments made about gay marriage – taken from a larger conversation – were copy and pasted throughout the internet, and onto gaygamer.com in particular.

While I won’t repost the offending comments in their entirety here (readers can review the original post HERE), might I ask what events led to this particularly heated exchange taking place underneath a comic about a vigilante rat hero?

The comments are only offensive to some people. It’s not offensive at all to others. It’s hard to believe that this is about my own offensive words when I am saturated in what is easily the most offensive culture using the most offensive form of communication they can muster. And yet, I believe in the inherent value of my opposition. I want to treat them with dignity, and they have coming to them the kind of soaring rhetoric that every man, no matter how wrong, deserves.

In the heat of debate, I was asked why I’m against two men getting married. Once that question is asked, there’s no way to answer it without offending the people on one side or the other. I answered that I was against it for the same reason I was against a man using the ladies room. I used the term, “taking a dump in the ladies room.” A coarse phrase that nobody should tolerate, but given I was already in a conversation where “homophobic”, “Bigot” and “Nazi” are regularly thrown around, it was obvious to me that concern for being offended had long left the building.

I’ll let your readers decide if my comment is the new N-word, but to cut that post and paste it on a gay site out of context is one of the more offensive assaults I’ve seen of recent. If you argue against Israel on the Palestine/Israeli conflict and then I copy the worst of your comments about the Jews being oppressive then post them on some conservative synagogue’s site, does that say more about you or me? Are you trying to enlighten Jews or set the place on fire? It doesn’t excuse my blunt response, but the people I debate with don’t appear to have a problem with bluntness, or even using deliberately offensive terms, they have a problem that I think marriage should continue to be defined as one man and one woman.

The comments were clipped and taken out of context, but the bottom line is that nobody is really offended about comparing the sexes of a marriage to the sexual partitions in restrooms. The real offense is that I’m an average Christian Republican…they call it homophobia, because apparently the tender desire to avoid offense comes and goes depending on the beliefs of the opponent, not the statements made. We have a word for that.

The reason why this bubbled up from the comments section of RATFIST is that my web comic asks deeply philosophical questions of its readers. I dignify my readers. I love them…even the professionally offended, I made my comic for them as much as for the guy who agrees with me on everything. The general statement of Ratfist is that we treat the opposition poorly, and when one side gets into power, they will use that power to go after the other. My low view of human nature has yet to be refuted by my adventures in real life, of course.

Like all political debates, these topics quickly sprawl out into interconnected fields like abortion, racism, the poor and taxes because these views are unified and built upon opposing philosophical theories. It’s why I once blew this vegan’s mind (duh, she had a hemp bag) by telling her what her position was on abortion, gay marriage and I could tell her the last two people she voted for president. What does abortion have to do with being a vegan? Nothing…unless our political theories are tied to a unified superstructure of philosophy. I can’t bring up limited government ideas without some guy saying, “Isn’t getting into who should or should not marry an expansion of government?” Fair enough. Let’s talk about that. But let’s talk about that without you inferring that I’m a racist-bigot-homophobe-sexist.

You anticipated the backlash in advance, stating the online conversation would “be used by your people to justify a permanent boycott” of your work, adding “this argument isn’t about laws and marriage; it’s about cultural witch hunts.”

The LGBT community has certainly kept themselves busy protesting anyone (or anything) they feel might threaten the civil rights of its members, with recent campaigns against Target superstores, Rockstar (the drink), the state of Utah, and even those ‘misusing’ the word “gay”. Just the other day I saw another one against Urban Outfitters is in the works. Apple was even pressured earlier this year to pull an App from their online store that purported to “cure” homosexuality. Any chance the fervor against Doug TenNapel might reach similar levels of media-designed frenzy?

I want to be careful here, because as I’ve said before this is not ultimately a gay issue. I would never let “the council of churches” answer for me, and I don’t believe in an “LGBT community position”. I won’t insult every “LGBT” by insinuating they all act like crybabies, victims and dictators. Some do, some don’t. Right wing gays don’t act this way, don’t use words like “homophobic” and don’t demonize the opposition. So this isn’t about ‘gayness’. It’s why just as many ‘straight’ leftists hated my comments on Ratfist and tried to use them against me. It’s also why more gays came out on my behalf and defended me than jumped on the dog-pile. Celebrating the victimhood of being offended is an equal opportunity employer, and not a gay thing by necessity.

As a lover of argument, I collect friends of differing viewpoints and religions. I cherish them, and am fascinated precisely by our disagreements. As G. K. Chesterton said, “My best friends are all either bottomless skeptics or quite uncontrollable believers, so our discussion at luncheon turned upon the most ultimate and terrible ideas.” I have a high view of my opponents and I have good philosophical reasons for that, it’s why I don’t like betraying those ideals with sloppy rhetoric. And it’s safe to assume that any comment about gay marriage can be taken out of context by some people.

I don’t really care if this blows up into something huge, or goes away. For the record, I don’t care if I got nothing but grief from everyone else in the world about my support of traditional marriage. Hold a gun to my head and try to get me to speak a lie. You’ll either have to put your gun down or blow my head off. I don’t take a poll to decide what is true. Don’t buy my work, or call me a name, attack my friends, and you still aren’t going to change my mind. You can’t change it by attacking my friends, and you only reveal yourself to be a particular kind of lizard to go after them and not me. Nobody has yet to address the actual argument I made, and that’s telling that this about emotional outbursts, crowd manipulation or worse and not a debate of ideas among equals.

It’s actually really easy to change my mind. Just present me with the truth.

I was surprised to see several responses to their article written under the name “Doug TenNapel”, which could mean anything these days. I’m curious if that was that really you chiming in on their forum, and if so, you’d have to admit the comment (in response to someone hoping you’d get punched in the nose) “I’d be fine with this so long as you didn’t have an open sore on your knuckle” was a little harsh, right?

Absolutely. But would you rather be called a name, or punched in the face? If the tables were turned and I threatened to punch him in the nose I doubt if you’d be asking if he was the harsh one between the two of us. Still, the bottom line is that I thought I was being all deep and ironic, flushing out hypocrisy. It was a move that was below both me and my opponent.

It made headlines when actor Zach Galifianakis lobbied to remove Mel Gibson from appearing in the sequel to The Hangover, owing to his so-called ‘racist’ and ‘anti-Semitic’ rants that went public. Yet, he didn’t seem to have any problem working with convicted rapist Mike Tyson in both Hangover movies. I realize that it’s fashionable to like Iron Mike again (the show on Animal Planet is pretty great), but I can’t help but sense a bit of selective outrage here. Any thoughts on why this is?

The most important part of the phrase Political Correctness is the word Political. It’s not a pursuit of Correct Correctness, after all. It’s already selecting for something other than what is right. It’s like Social Justice, because just plain old Justice doesn’t accomplish the right political ends.

One guy encouraged others not to read my work though he admits to loving Roman Polanski movies. Now, I know that being a Christian Republican is offensive to some, but worse than a guy who drugged-and-raped (sodomized)-an-under-age-girl? To say that they have a problem with scale and consistency is an understatement. They justify their judgmental boycott by asking, “Would you buy comics from a Nazi?” I’d rather hear, “Buying Doug’s work is like a man taking a dump in the ladies room.” I would consider that downright gentlemanly conversation from what we’re used to.

Speaking of hypocrisy, post-election reports had well over 70% of registered black voters – and over 50% of the Hispanic vote – supporting California’s Proposition 8 (which restricted the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples only) back in 2008. No other group was as politically motivated to vote against gay marriage in the state as the African-American community, and yet, the well-publicized protests by gay activists almost universally focused on the various Mormon churches that campaigned hard for the measure. I don’t recall seeing any of their rage outside the black-centric churches that essentially helped drive it to political victory. What’s your take on this?

The Mormons took the biggest hit on the gay marriage issue, and many Christians sat back in the crowds and let them take the heat. This is about the cowardice and unfairness of all types, myself included! Example: I didn’t put a Pro Prop8 sign on my front yard because I live next door to a gay couple. They know my position, but it doesn’t stop us from being civil to each other. I didn’t think they needed to see that sign on my yard every time they came home. It didn’t seem right they should have to draw the curtains in their living room to keep my politics out of their life. So I’m not perfectly consistent with the expression of my politics either. Politics tend to be opportunistic. Pro Gay Marriage advocates aren’t going to go after a community they keep trying to tell everyone they identify with. Again, anyone who compares a law that says “one man and one woman” to “one white man and one white woman” has a problem with scale and consistency. Especially when they won’t then extend the comparison to “one man and three women.”

Switching things up a bit, I’d really like to get back to your online comic, Ratfist, which I’ve been an avid fan of since you debuted earlier this year. I read that you really wanted to really sink your teeth into the online format, letting you move away from purely digitally-produced comics and reconnect with your pen and brush roots, as well as the so-called “dorky hero genre.” Apart from the incident above, what’s the overall experience been like for you?

It’s been great! My eyes have been opened to yet another category of the broad medium of comics. Web comics are unique, and even including the incident above, I couldn’t have been more blessed with a great audience, a stimulating challenge, and a unique story-telling structure to explore. I’m still learning how to put out the content in daily bites. That was the biggest adjustment from my usual graphic novel format. It’s also been great for marketing my work, because more people have read RATFIST than any of my other work. It doesn’t cost them anything to try it, so it’s the ultimate test in the confidence of my own work.

This is probably a stupid question, but has there been talk of an offline version of Ratfist for those who might prefer their comics a bit more traditional (i.e. on paper)? Or, dare we dream, perhaps for those of us who may want to add a printed version without killing our inkjet printers in the process?

A print version is coming. I just don’t really want anything to interrupt the online digital experience. I feel like the moment I announce the print deal that my digital readers will say, “Oh, so THAT’S the real reason! He’s doing the printed book!” It’s not. Everyone keeps waiting for advertising banners, for merchandizing, for the book deal, and I’m just really satisfied with the web comic and focused on making that singularly great. Every comic I’ve made, no matter how dumb, was printed up as a book. I don’t see a problem with getting Ratfist published.

I have to sneak one Earthworm Jim question in here, but no worries, as I don’t think that it’s one you’ve answered before. Last year, Gameloft released an “updated” version of the original game, with full high-definition graphics replacing the original sprites. I know that I’m supposed to be amazed at these super-clear and ‘superior’ visuals, but they just look like shiny plastic to me, and lack the depth and nuance of their 16-bit pixilated counterparts. Capcom did the same thing back in 2008 with their ‘updated’ version of Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, but the HD replacement sprites felt cold and sterile to me.

Am I crazy for thinking this? As someone who’s worked in multiple genres and across the digital divide, I’m curious what you think about all of this?

The game was good, not great. That’s all I’m really going to say about that.

I’ll get beaten up if I don’t ask this, but might we see you return to your gaming roots anytime soon? With everyone so hot and bothered over mobile apps and the rise of independent development, it seems like the perfect time for someone like yourself to jump in and test the waters. Perhaps a mobile Ratfist game would help your career come full-circle after all these years?

I didn’t leave games. Games left me. I love the idea of making great games, with innovative play and solid, relatable, funny characters. I love the idea of making game apps, etc. There’s a couple of kids already playing around with a Ratfist game. I’ve always loved games. I love playing them a little too much, if you know what I mean. I had to take Plants vs. Zombies off my computer after finishing the game to keep from playing it any more. If I ever bought WoW you’d never see me again.

Thanks again for chatting with us today, although I wish it could have been instigated by more favorable circumstances. That said, I’ll leave the final word to you, and about what fans might expect to see in the near-future? Feel free to plug away, and I’m not against an illustrative goodie (or two) if you’ve got them to share!

My take home from the Ratfist controversy is that our culture of communication isn’t exactly at a high point. Tolerance is only used by the left to fool their opponents into thinking it’s reciprocal. As for my projects, I’m just wrapping up page 150 of Ratfist, which should end some time this summer, my graphic novel BAD ISLAND is coming out on August 1st, and I’m writing another web comic that might get started even before Ratfist wraps.

About the Author: Nathan Evans