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Unicorn Being a Jerk: C.W. Moss and His Friend Lemonade 'Unicorn' Steiny On Their New Graphic Novel

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Wed, Nov 2, 2011 at 2:14 PM

click to enlarge Unicorn Being a Jerk, published by It! Books, is being released on November 8. - COURTESY OF C.W. MOSS
  • Courtesy of C.W. Moss
  • Unicorn Being a Jerk, published by It! Books, is being released on November 8.

It's not so easy being a one-horned mythical beast. People freak out. Or they follow you around. Worst case scenario, they begin to worship you.

That last one is the case for Lemonade 'Unicorn' Steiny, a fuzzy, rainbow-horned creature who says he is one of the only living unicorns on Earth. (He claims he's searched for brethren, but has so far failed to find any). Steiny is the main source of inspiration for Unicorn Being A Jerk, a graphic novel illustrated by his human friend C. W. Moss, which seeks to discredit the myth of the friendly, all-glitter-and-rainbows unicorn.

Moss and Steiny share a number of surprising similarities: they both grew up in the Midwestern town of Joplin, Missouri, share the same age, height, and curiously enough, have the same voice. (Just to clue you in: they look very similar and are never seen in the same place at the same time. Steiny was featured at the end of our recent story on Miranda July.)

Moss explains their odd friendship in a dual interview with him and Steiny: "We met in high school, at this party of a friend named Joey. There were these not-so-friendly jocks who were picking on Unicorn, so I stepped in. That's how we got to know each other." They now live in L.A. and collaborate on various projects with each other.

click to enlarge A portrait of Lemonade "Unicorn" Steiny and his cat. - COURTESY OF C.W. MOSS
  • Courtesy of C.W. Moss
  • A portrait of Lemonade "Unicorn" Steiny and his cat.

Moss is an affable twenty-three-year-old with a mane of floppy blond hair and a goofily original mind. A graduate of Otis College and self-described 'maker and doer,' he has already released a previous graphic novel following Steiny's adventures, Unicorn Having Fun. After self-publishing the book, Moss got it into bookstores around L.A.; it became an online cult hit as well. Moss then signed a book deal with HarperCollins in his senior year at Otis and created Unicorn Being A Jerk, natural sequel to Unicorn Having Fun. Moss began working on it after agreeing with Steiny that it might be important to spread the message that unicorns -- like humans -- often display ambiguous moral behavior in real life.

In the book, Unicorn runs through the whole spectrum of jerkiness, from staring at a breast-feeding mom's nipple, to writing a Wikipedia page about himself, to denying the Holocaust. It's quirkily brought to life by Moss' pastel, Gary Larson-esque panels, full of a dark, dead-pan humor.

Moss, however, is concerned about letting people know that the book is not, by any means, a realistic portrayal of his friend. "I hope people understand it's a characterization of him. One of the things I know he'd get particularly upset about, because he is an animal -- putting a kitten in the microwave -- he'd be upset about that," he worries. Steiny has certainly had people react to him differently after the book's appearance online. "People who saw the book when it first went up online thought that I was a bit of an asshole," he comments.

While he may not be an ass, Steiny admits that a lot of the material is true to life. "There are definitely instances of truth in the book. I have TP'd someone's home. I generally try to avoid peeing the pool, though. I have not brought a guitar to a party, though someday I hope to. I've photocopied my rear end, and I have done graffiti. I have not written a Wikipedia page about myself, but I feel like I might soon do it if no one else does," he says.

While Steiny is mainly interested in raising awareness of the ordinariness of his unicorn life, Moss has used the project as a playful way to explore society's moral compass. "I think 'jerk' is a really basic word that a lot of people understand -- as you get older, there are more choice words, but I feel like it fits it as a general title." Yet many of the activities featured in Unicorn Having Fun could also be considered jerk-like, e.g. the part where he's "exposing himself." It all depends from what standpoint you approach it.

click to enlarge Unicorn "pretending to understand abstract art." - COURTESY OF C.W. MOSS
  • Courtesy of C.W. Moss
  • Unicorn "pretending to understand abstract art."

Moss, drawing inspiration from a line of artists and illustrators such as the New York Times' Christoph Niemann or the famous New Yorker cover illustrator Chris Ware, positions his work as both child-like and adult comedy. It belongs less to the domain of comics than illustration, a field in which children can understand and enjoy books -- even if their content is for grown-ups.

In many ways, Moss understands Steiny as child-like, though he is portrayed as adult in the book. "The thing that always kept Unicorn and I close is his naïveté," Moss says. "It's really refreshing. It's similar to hanging out with children, sometimes."

In that way, Steiny subtly questions norms in a gentle way, poking fun at society's social and behavioral expectations through his unicorn ways. And generally, he approaches human life with a care-free approach; when asked how he gets through the day without opposable thumbs, he simply says, "I would say that my hands are kind of like magnets. They attract things, and just work." He rollerblades; rides bikes and carrousels; and occasionally documents his daily doings on YouTube (as well as people's reactions to them).

Though Steiny doesn't get out as much as he'd like, he has experienced quite a few strong reactions when he's appeared at a party or an event. "There are two ways that people react to me. They either have this Beatlemania moment -- or they are like, 'Uh oh, that's a unicorn, make no eye contact, walk away,'" he explains, adding slyly, "Some people tend to have a natural inclination to become sexual when I come around. It's probably the fur that drives the women and men wild."

More reasons, we're hoping, for Steiny to begin making more regular appearances about town. Moss will attend the beginning of his book release party at Meltdown Comics on Nov. 4, but then unfortunately has to leave to fulfill another engagement. Instead, Steiny will show up and has offered to marry people, if they so desire (he's an ordained minister). He's hoping to turn a photo booth into a Vegas wedding chapel for the event.

That evening will also feature the release of a brand-new documentary by filmmaker Andrew Rivera, following Steiny's life. Steiny admits, "There's a kind of exploitation going on -- I've become my own genre," and to a certain extent, he's right -- both Moss and Rivera have cashed in on Steiny's unicorn nature. Yet with this documentary, Steiny is also excited about being part of a project that will finally tell the truth about unicorn life.

Moss is working on many new projects of his own, as well. "I've been doing a lot with fear in America, and thinking about human relationships. It was important for America's societal development; I think fear frames a lot of what people do," he says. So far, he's been working on a series in which he works out these themes through illustrations and writing, entitled Untie a Knot.

However, we can be certain that Moss and Steiny's collaboration is long from over. They still have a lot of ground left to cover together, whether that includes documenting future jerk-like behavior or setting the record straight again. Steiny says, "This is the addendum to Unicorn being a Jerk; I hope that people understand that I am not a jerk. I do everything I can to be a nice person. I open the doors for women; I say please and thank you; I recycle."

Meltdown Comics will host a book launch party for Unicorn Being a Jerk on Nov. 4, from 7 to 9 pm. For more information, see the Facebook page "Say 'I Do' to the Horn: A Unicorn Release Party." Both C. W. Moss and Lemonade 'Unicorn' Steiny will be in attendance.

Follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.

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