Before the Daily Monsters became the Daily Monsters they were the Upstairs Neighbors. The first one appeared to me in a vision as I was driving home on the freeway. It curled around my arm and smiled at me. I knew right away that I had to draw him and how.
Where the Daily Monsters are usually drawn around one ink splat on its original sheet of paper, I frequently assembled the Upstairs Neighbors from a number of ink blots, drawing elements separately and assembling them in Photoshop. This makes things easier, because I can place eyes and mouths within the black areas. I’ve done it on the Daily Monsters, too, but it involves drawing the part separately, and then cutting matching holes into the drawing and the patch, so I can make a paper inlay. Which is fine—It’s not difficult—but it takes some of the fun out of the filmed Monsters. But all that came later. Early on I was still free to cheat my way through a lot of the process.
Over the next few months I made dozens of drawings, and decided to gather the best ones in a book. I had hit on the title “Upstairs Neighbors” while complaining about my actual upstairs neighbor at the time to my friend Lenny Feldsott, and realizing that it might be all in my head. With that little spark, ideas started to form. The first drafts of the book anticipated the Love Medals with detailed descriptions of each creature, and 344 Questions with long lists of questions about them:
How to present the characters in a way that’s fun and interactive and—ahem—skirts the need for a plot.
In the end I settled on introducing each Neighbor by name and apartment number, and asking one question about the character. I thought this would be a great format to let kids make up their own stories. When I started posting the Daily Monsters I went back to this basic idea, and hundreds of stories came in from all over the world. Long before then, though, Arthur Davies was the first person to answer the questions, coaxed by his dad, my old friend Russell Davies. Russell and I had worked together at Wieden + Kennedy, and he’d since asked me to design the identity for his consulting firm, the Open Intelligence Agency.
Two spreads from the first complete comp.
Brilliantly, Russell didn’t just read the book with Arthur, he taped Arthur’s responses, so I could hear his reactions to the creatures. Based on that recording, I created a little movie that I sent to publishers. I remember putting it together on a flight to a meeting with a potential publisher in New York. My battery ran dry at the end, so I sat in the terminal until 2am to get it finished. I could have gotten up early the next morning to complete the thing, but if you know me you know that’s not feasible. I digress. Check out the little movie of Arthur and Russell. It’s fun!
Three years earlier I had sold my first book All Access on nothing more than a one page essay for the KarlssonWilker book “tellmewhy” and a three page pitch I’d typed up in a few hours. Following that, the process of actually making the book ended up being rather bruising. In reaction to all those battles I decided to sell the Upstairs Neighbors book differently. Instead of a loose, open presentation I’d present what could be a finished book.
Before flying to New York, I had spent weeks creating a layout, and making beautifully saturated printouts of each page on hideously expensive specialty paper. I had my friend Alice Vaughan bind two hardcover copies for me in a sumptuous dark gray linen. David Mayes at Typecraft printed and laminated two large dust jackets for me that unfolded into double-sided posters. These books were gorgeous as pure objects alone.
The bird on the inside jacket is one of my all-time favorites. I nicked the folding idea from Chris Ware.
I also comped up a whole line of Upstairs Neighbors merchandise to show the scope of the characters. Mugs, posters, shirts, and notably a Monster Maker Kit that I loved, but then forgot about until after I’d launched the Daily Monster Monster Maker app. If it’s a good idea, it’s clearly worth having twice.
The blank box existed (with a single cutout), the rest is photoshop. By contrast, I actually made that clock.
Chronicle Books was high on my list, so I adapated the characters to some of their existing formats.
T-shirts are always essential. It’s not real until it’s a T-shirt.
Some things were less on point than others, but personally? I’d buy both of those products.
Was all of this enough to persuade publishers? It wasn’t. In fact, it was counterproductive, and the beautiful book comp proved particularly damaging. More than one person looked at it and said, “Well, this is beautiful. This is clearly the way you want it done, and that’s not going to fit into what we do.” I’d tell them that this was just my best guess at what it should look like—that I was willing to go other ways with it—but they didn’t believe me. Here are a few more of the spreads from the book at that point:
Luckily, the excellent Robb Pearlman at Rizzoli was interested in the characters, and spent a few months working with me on shaping the Neighbors into something more easily recognized as a children’s book. Based on his guidance I condensed the book from over 100 pages to 36, and created a parenthetical story that would introduce and wrap up the parade of odd characters. It would be about a person griping that his upstairs neighbors were driving him crazy with noises and smells and their gruesome appearance. As with all my books, there are autobiographical elements.
Initially, I styled myself into that character. Robb wisely suggested that we make it a kid instead, what with it being a children’s book and all. I asked if he’d want it to be a boy or a girl. “Make it a boy. Boys won’t read stories about a girl, and girls don’t care.” Which is sad to me somehow, but explains a lot about why life is the way it is. But I understood, and morphed my cranky avatar into a cranky little boy.
It’s like looking into a mirror…
Next, I rewrote the text to make it more concretely about actual upstairs neighbors. I liked the contrast of the fairly straightforward complaints with the outlandish characters. It’s the same idea that drives the Aardman “Creature Comforts” short film, which I love, so I figured that this would be my version of it. I also rhymed the whole thing, which of I was quickly dissuaded. Apparently, publishers frown on it. Dr. Seuss has that market covered, I was told. I don’t know. I liked my bellicose little couplets. But I wanted to get this book made, so I rewrote everything in prose, which wasn’t as fun. Luckily, my friends at Saks Fifth Avenue didn’t get that memo, and let me rhyme away on The Yeti Story six years later.
After many months of valiant attempts by Robb, the publisher passed, as had all the others. Which was sad, but not without its use. While I was waiting for the decision I had gotten bored and frustrated, and decided that I had to do something to keep myself (and the publishers) interested in these characters. So I started filming myself drawing them. Those became the Daily Monsters, and you can read their story here.
Part of the merch ideas was making Ambrose Clark, the Floor Monk, into a plush animal, presaging the Yeti.
A few years later, I revived the Upstairs Neighbors name—now a bona fide registered trademark thanks to my friends at Leason Ellis LLP—for a series of drawings that I captured using a Wacom Inkling pen. It was another way of putting my various pet complaints and anxieties on paper. I do still hope to make these original Upstairs Neighbors into something real one day. As it is, they were the seed for the Monsters, and that’s pretty good already!