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The Problem Solverz Creator Ben Jones: Using Video Games 'Like Religion'

Ben Jones at the opening of "The Art of Problem Solving" at GR2
Ben Jones at the opening of "The Art of Problem Solving" at GR2
Photos courtesy of Giant Robot

Ben Jones doesn't like nostalgia.

"I hate those wedding DJs who have mash-ups of two songs from your childhood and it's totally wrong," says Jones. "However, I do want to be like the Geto Boys, using a loop from some awesome Detroit soul record and then it transcends the sample."

Jones is a multimedia artist long associated with the collective Paper Rad. He's also creator of The Problem Solverz, the Cartoon Network animated series that's the subject of West L.A. gallery GR2's current show, "The Art of Problem Solving." His work is a careful balancing act between the familiar and whimsical. There are references to a past you know, but it's never nostalgic.

Roba from The Problem Solverz
Roba from The Problem Solverz
Photos courtesy of Giant Robot

"There are these myths and symbols and I want to celebrate those and add on to those," says Jones.

Central to Jones' work is the influence of 1980s video games. The artist admits that when he "should have been reading" as a child, he was immersing himself in the worlds of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda.

"I was getting my narratives and fantasies from video games instead of reading Moby Dick," says Jones. "I think that type of imagery and type of storytelling has carried itself over to my work and influenced it more than anything."

The Problem Solverz is what the title would lead one to believe, a show centered around a trio that solves problems. The show is seeped in video game references. There are plot devices, like elevator racing and the Eternitron battle, that mimic game play. Then there are the details, tiny images that blink in the background and sound effects with an 8-bit vibe, that give the show a late '80s Nintendo feel. Jones says he's careful to avoid "Hey, remember the '80s!" moments.

"I use [video game references] more like religion," he says. Jones describes himself as "fanatical" about his use of references, using them not simply for comedic effect, but to create layers of meaning.

 

John Pham, lead designer of The Problem Solverz, second from right, with fans
John Pham, lead designer of The Problem Solverz, second from right, with fans
Photos courtesy of Giant Robot

There are three main characters in The Problem Solverz: Alfe, who according to Cartoon Network's site is "half anteater, half man and half dog"; Roba, a boy in robot clothing; and Horace, who more or less fulfills the straight man obligations. The characters have been a part of Jones' work since 1998 and have appeared in comics, web shorts and other media. One of the earlier incarnations is a short called Alfe in "Gone Cabin Carzy," which appears on Paper Rad's DVD release, Trash Talking. In it, the trio are housebound as apocalyptic noises fill their neighborhood. A series of almost random conversations evolves into a raver parody of Muppet Babies.

With its quirky characters and surreal situations, "Gone Cabin Carzy" has all the elements that make The Problem Solverz such a strange, yet endearing show. Around the time that the Trash Talking DVD was released, Jones had pitched the show to Adult Swim. Ultimately, the concept was restructured as a kid-friendly show for Cartoon Network.

Production art from The Problem Solverz
Production art from The Problem Solverz
Photos courtesy of Giant Robot

"There wasn't much retooling," says Jones of taking the show to a children's television network.

"In a weird way, I think that the 'voice' I have is more in the characters and the visual language of the show," says Jones, mentioning his unique perspective on relationships.

"That kind of stuff works great for kids shows," he adds. "The other stuff that's on the network, like The Regular Show, is completely like that. It's an examination of funny relationships."

 

"The Art of Problem Solving"
"The Art of Problem Solving"
Photos courtesy of Giant Robot

Though The Problem Solverz, which debuted last April, isn't currently airing on Cartoon Network, episode clips are available online. Jones confirmed that he is working on new episodes, which should air sometime next year.

In the meantime, "The Art of Problem Solving" is running at GR2 through December 7. Jones says that the GR2 show evolved from the pencil drawings created by The Problem Solverz's lead designer, John Pham. The available collection showcases production art, screenprint pieces and paintings created by Jones and Pham.

"A lot of the amazingness of the show comes from using computers and all these cool techniques," says Jones. "I think there's something really special about the physical artifacts of the show and I wanted to show those."

Follow Liz Ohanesianand @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter. Follow Liz Ohanesian on Facebook.

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