Back on the merry-go-round, spinning ever faster, Giggles, a rouge-hued bear with a heart-shaped nose and a pink bow, clings to a bar for dear life -- only to watch it snap in two and send her flying. A tree stump slices her in half, and a heartbeat later the broken carousel bar follows, impaling her throat. Cuddles, still whirling on the carousel, flutters in the wind, his arms stretching like rubber to hold on. Then, rip -- Cuddles' arms tear above the wrists, and he's thrown off, into the engine of an airplane, which promptly churns his corpse until blood coats half the jet. Lumpy doesn't realize what's happened until he stops spinning the merry-go-round and spots Cuddles' severed hands, still clinging to the bar. Abashed, the moose slides his hooves into his pockets, whistles in affected nonchalance, and slinks away.
And on a Saturday night in November, the 50 people seated around a big-screen television in Borderlands Books cheer wildly as the credits roll, accompanied by a theme song that's all childlike lalalas, as catchy/annoying as any Saturday morning jingle. Borderlands, with cardboard cutouts of Lumpy and the gang straddling shelves of science-fiction tomes, makes a strange milieu for an evening of cartoon-watching, but as the store's owner tells the crowd, "Humor and horror are often intertwined." And that's certainly true in the absurdist world of Happy Tree Friends, where the chaste and cheery lives of woodland creatures inevitably lead, through misadventure and circumstance, to untimely and unwarranted slaughter.
Judging by the laughter, most of the audience members are already familiar with Happy Tree Friends, a series of minute-long cartoons, animated with the Macromedia computer program Flash, that began popping up on the Internet about three years ago. In the brief period when cartoon "mini-shows" were hailed as the Next Big Thing, Happy Tree Friends stood above the crowd, distinguished by its sharp comic timing, no-holds-barred gore, and universal theme of bad things happening to good people. (It's huge in Germany.) Happy Tree Friends quickly became the most popular in the stable of mini-shows produced by San Francisco's Mondo Media, gathering a dedicated following among college students and those with a fast Internet connection. MTV showcased an episode, and Spike & Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation has made Happy Tree Friends a prominent fixture on its annual tour. Now Mondo Media is taking the bold step of releasing a DVD, Happy Tree Friends Volume 1: First Blood, in the hope that a cartoon created by and for the Internet can parlay an underground following into a wider, more mainstream audience.
But if the fans at the Borderlands screening are eager to see their beloved Internet shorts in the sparkling clarity of DVD, they seem even more curious about the two guys flanking the television: Rhode (pronounced "Roadie") Montijo, 29, and Kenn Navarro, 28. They are the creators of Happy Tree Friends, the men whose brains hatch plot after plot to send innocent and adorable critters to pitiless and gruesome deaths, and this is their first public event in support of the show.
"We have a lot of weird conversations, like, 'Where can we get the sound of a tongue being grated?'" Navarro tells the crowd. "If you just walked in without knowing who we were, you'd think we were serial killers."
The truth, however, is far geekier than that.
The South of Market offices of Mondo Media are divided into two sections: one for animators, one for everyone else. On a midweek morning a few days after the Borderlands screening, the artists' side is largely unoccupied. The shades are pulled, providing the appropriate amount of gloom for illustrators squinting into computer monitors, but most of the animators don't roll in until later in the day. Navarro's desk squats in front of a backdrop of toy Simpsons characters, a nearly complete collection that hovers like a shrine over the clutter on his desk. Montijo, a pencil-and-paper artist who lost his permanent job at Mondo during the dot-com crash (he harbors no ill will; he still freelances for Mondo and admits he doesn't have the computer skills to stay on full time), stands at an illustrator's desk in the far corner.
Montijo, whose angular features break into an eager smile at even the hint of a joke, wears a Dickies-style canvas jacket, drab pants, and a button with the name "Zooky" printed above a smiley face. (He doesn't know what the button means, but he bought it the second he saw it.) In contrast to the diminutive Montijo, Navarro, who grew up in the Philippines, is stocky and round-faced, with broad, jolly features, a gold loop in his left ear, and a deep, full-bodied laugh. They're both instantly likable, and when they adjourn to an empty conference room to retrace the history of Happy Tree Friends, Navarro and Montijo riff with a complementary deftness that suggests they spend a lot of time cracking each other up. (At one point, when Mondo's director of marketing knocks and enters with water, Navarro doesn't miss a beat as he leans into a tape recorder and says, "So, anyway, after the sexual harassment, Rhode was acquitted of all the child pornography charges.")