“A skeleton and a slime walk into a bar…” That may sound like the wind up to a very nerdy joke, but it’s actually the set up for a scene in James Parks and Ben Costa’s new YA graphic novel, , which, to be fair, is full of very nerdy — and very funny — jokes.
“We’re our main audience, I think,” says Costa, “[we write] whatever we think is funny.” In The Road to Epoli, that includes a goblin bureaucrat (full title: Chief Execution Officer), a very serious but very silly-looking pink-haired unicorn, and barking toadstools.
A few jokes did prove a bit too risqué for a teen audience, including a gag with an ogre sticking his imp minion into orifices as punishment. Originally, he stuck the imp up his butt; in later drafts, they changed it to his nose. That “was the funniest business meeting I've ever had in my life,” says Parks.
The book isn’t solely comedic, though. “It goes from whimsical to dramatic to harrowing to humorous pretty frequently,” Parks says. The Road to Epoli tells the tale of Rickety Stitch, a skeleton bard, and his best (really only) friend, the Gelatinous Goo, as they’re kicked out of their dungeon home and set out to solve the mystery of Rickety’s origin. Skeletons aren’t even supposed to talk, let alone sing, so there’s plenty of existential angst to go with the gross-out humor.
Much of the story arose from Costa and Parks’ long history together. The pair met in “the second-grade school yard, where we drew comics with crayons,” says Parks. That early bond grew into a long-lasting friendship: they read and discussed comics, made films, played Dungeons and Dragons, and even worked at Walgreens together. All these experiences informed parts of the final comic, from the D&D-inspired setting to the workplace humor.
Then, in college, they came up with the idea for a comic about a singing skeleton trying to figure out who he used to be and his gooey friend. “We loved the idea of the dungeon monsters being the heroes,” Costa says, “normally non-sentient creatures thinking, feeling, being funny.”
Despite coming up with the original idea in 2002, they didn’t start actually writing the comic until 2005. After a number of false starts, including a rejected book proposal, the pair finally settled on a version they were happy with in 2012 and have been working on it ever since. Both are ultimately grateful for the book’s long incubation period, though, since it gave them a chance to improve their skills.
The extra time also allowed them to really flesh out the world of Eem, where the comic is set. Inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien, they even wrote a bunch of supplementary material they call Lore that explains things like the history of The Dungeoneer, a magazine you see Goo reading in one panel. Giving everything a deeper meaning and a thought out history “just makes it seem more alive,” says Parks.
Because the two have been collaborating on Rickety Stitch for so long, they’ve mostly forgotten who came up with what. They work together to come up with ideas and write the script, and then Costa draws the art. “It comes pretty naturally for us just to bounce ideas off each other,” Costa says.
“It’s a benefit to having known each other for 25 plus years,” he adds. “We know each other’s brains pretty intimately.”
Alex Heimbach is a writer and editor in California.