One Lithuanian Artist’s Challenging Comic Underworld

One Lithuanian Artist’s Challenging Comic Underworld

Why you should care

Because the humor of hookers, hypodermic needles and hirsute rodents may fuel more laff riots than you could shake a rubber chicken at.

There’s a science to making people laugh.

Honest laughter is wholly involuntary, and getting it pulled from you requires a special sort of alchemy involving your headspace, the medium of exchange and the gag creator, all uniting in a burst of unapologetic merriment. Which is why trying to explain what’s so funny to a roomful of people listening to you snicker at the heroin-addled, cigarette-smoking, shiv-strapped, eternally-on-the-hustle characters in the Underworld comic is so very challenging.

a caucasian man wearing a suit stands and poses for a picture next to a statue

Kazimieras G. Prapuolenis (aka “Kaz”)

Which, we would venture, is precisely how the 55-year-old, ever-youthful Lithuanian comic artist and animator Kazimieras G. Prapuolenis wants it. Because when this legend of the underground comics scene isn’t penning the demented, formalized anarchy of Underworld, he’s working on some of the most popular and critically acclaimed children’s cartoons of the last decade — shows like SpongeBob SquarePants and Phineas and Ferb. Explain that.

“I thought it was the coolest thing to be a rebel,” says Kaz, a transplanted New Jersey kid now making his home where he makes his business: in L.A. And the rebellion thing? Very likely hardwired. Both of his parents beat it out of Cold War Lithuania just a few steps ahead of the Communists on the one side and the CIA on the other. They ended up in Hoboken, New Jersey with a distinctly reduced set of life circumstances, mostly in the form of seemingly endless factory work.

“My parents were always fighting and my mother was an emotional time bomb,” Kaz says. “She was probably bipolar and was quite physically abusive to my siblings and me [a twin sister and two younger brothers] when she was in an angry, manic state. It was easy to rebel against my parents. They had thick accents and old world values. America was bewildering to them. They pretty much hated anything new, while I loved everything new: comic books, rock and roll, monster movies, cartoons.”

Kaz began escaping into his imagination with drawing when he was six years old, and his talent started to flower when he hit junior high school. “I certainly felt I was in control of nothing in my world except for my imagination,” he recalls. Despite some local, fleeting fame as a cartoonist at his high school paper, he was a poor student who had trouble concentrating, which landed him in a place that was almost painfully predictable: the same sort of factory work his parents had done.

A year of which wised him up and got him making plans. Well, that and punk rock. In 1976 punk had hit, and what he saw bands like the New York Dolls and the Ramones do with music, he wanted to do with ink. “I became the first punk rocker in my town. People automatically got pissed off at me as soon as they saw me,” Kaz says with the same sort of pride and cranky contrariness that marks his strips’ bristling humor.

… his work is cool without being smug; sometimes mean, but without being mean-spirited.

- Jim Blanchard

He began attending New York’s School of Visual Arts (SVA), taking classes with fellow cartoonists Art Spiegelman, Drew Friedman, and John Holmstrom, young turks who would later fill the pages of the iconoclastic comics magazine, Raw.

But despite being drawn to all the outsider-y stuff, Kaz was deeply affected by the unlikeliest of comics: Peanuts and Dick Tracy. “Peanuts for the very smart character humor and witty dialogue. Dick Tracy for the grotesque villains and violence. When I discovered underground comics, I flipped over the work of Robert Crumb. For the first time I saw a completely unhinged cartoonist doing exactly whatever they wanted and getting published. To this day, Underworld is a combo of Peanuts, Dick Tracy and Robert Crumb.”

“The best thing about Kaz,” says cartoon great Jim Blanchard, “is that his work is cool without being smug; sometimes mean, but without being mean-spirited and always just a good laugh. Minus all of the insulting-your-intelligence stuff that’s so much a part of mainstream cartooning.”

I can easily tap into the thoughts, fears and desires of when I was a child.

- Kazimieras “Kaz” G. Prapuolenis

It was precisely this amalgam that caused television to come calling. In 2001 Kaz joined the creative team behind SpongeBob SquarePants, a show that in its third season was already the most curious case of animated genius around. Kaz went from being a loner freelance cartoonist to banging it out with super talented, funny people on a show that was geared toward kids but found a dedicated adult audience as well. During his three years there, the oddball cartoon grew into the most-watched show on cable — and a major merchandising cash cow.

“Yes, sometimes there is tension when I disagree with [studio rules about] what is appropriate or not for children,” says Kaz. But there are other avenues and angles to swing through for the workaround. “I can easily tap into the thoughts, fears and desires of when I was a child.”

Which jetpowers the two not-so-competing sides of his career full-speed ahead.

colorful drawings of weird characters and animals

”Underworld” characters

Right into half a dozen books with publisher Fantagraphics, and his comic work was appearing in the likes of Raw, Details, The New Yorker, the Village Voice and Bridal Guide, fer chrissakes. His TV animation work kept rolling as well: Kaz went from SpongeBob to Camp Lazlo, another kid’s show that had a three-year run on the Cartoon Network — and which garnered Kaz and team a 2008 Emmy for Outstanding Short-format Animated program.

He also took a shot at running his own show with Zoot Rumpus, based on a kid-friendly version of a character from the Underworld strip, but it never made it beyond the pilot stage. Now he’s on another animated series that’s nearing cult status: Phineas and Ferb. The show has been nominated for dozens of awards and has had a run of buzz this year for its crossover episodes, along with an air of mystery about the series’ future.

“You know my rebellion was always internal and artistic,” Kaz says. “I mean I had my share of minor delinquent stunts: trespassing, shoplifting, fighting, underage drinking and drug taking. But when I realized that I was lucky I was never arrested, I hunkered down and started drawing instead of running around at night. My goal was always to be a cartoonist.”

Which is where you’ll find him: Monday through Friday on the TV show, nights and weekends on his own stuff. And in between all of this? “I take days off and go to the beach. That’s right, a former CBGB’s punk-rocking underground cartoonist goes to the beach in Malibu and chills out to the waves. Which amounts to getting drunk and falling asleep under a beach umbrella. Which I got a ticket for the other day. I guess there’s still a teenage rebel inside me.”

A teenage rebel who wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

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