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Q&A: Alex Hirsch and Rob Renzetti on Gravity Falls Fandom

Disney Publishing
Disney Publishing

Though the animated series and cult hit Gravity Falls wrapped in February after just two seasons, the show's devoted following is more dedicated than ever. Thousands of people joined in creator Alex Hirsch's Cipher Hunt over the summer, completing an international scavenger hunt that culminated in the discovery of a statue of the show's supervillain. And those same fans made Journal 3, a real-life manifestation of a key book in the series, a New York Times bestseller in a matter of days.

We talked to Hirsch and Rob Renzetti, co-authors of Journal 3, about the book, the show, the scavenger hunt—and where they get all of their fabulously weird ideas.

Journal 3 is packed with hidden info and ciphers to unravel—so much, in fact, that there’s no way fans have found it all yet. Can you give a hint to something no one appears to have discovered?

Alex Hirsch: The internet never ceases to impress me. For all the talk about how the upcoming generation has a short attention span, the moment you give these kids a riddle they drop everything and suddenly work together in perfect harmony like a military-level SWAT team to crack the code. It’s incredible. That being said, sometimes fans are often so focused on code-cracking they miss what’s in plain sight—the actual text of the journal! There are connections in there that even the savviest fans still have yet to notice.

Journal 3 reveals new details about most of the major characters, like Ford's Smash Mouth tattoo and the fact that Soos glues on his chin hair. How much of that existed as character development during the series, and how much backstory did you create just for the Journal?

Rob Renzetti: Alex could probably give you a more encyclopedic answer to this question. I think a lot of Stan’s backstory was something that he had in his back pocket during the whole run of the series. Other smaller things were definitely invented for the book. The chin hair bit was something I came up with as a throwaway joke that I thought said a lot about Soos. 

AH: I've had the backstories for many of these characters in my head for a long time. Especially Ford and Bill, and how Bill played to Ford's ego and almost destroyed the world in the process. Of course we still improvise and invent new things along the way. That’s the fun of writing—finding chances to surprise yourself. Ford's tattoo was a surprise to me, too—courtesy of our awesome illustrator Andy Gonsalves.

Courtesy Disney Publishing

One of the fun things about the Journal is that we get to dive deeper into some of the episodes. For example, Ford chronicles a few of the other dimensions he experienced while he was in the portal. What inspired those? In particular, the "M" dimension stood out to me as something that must have a story behind it.

AH: While writing season two, we wanted to send our characters through the portal into the multiverse but never found a way to quite make it work with our storyline. There were tons of drawings and jokes we came up with during our brainstorms—including the annoyingly pointless M dimension. We loved the idea of someone as scientific and rational as Ford having to fight his way out of what was essentially a Sesame Street segment teaching you about the letter M. It would drive him insane.

RR: The M Dimension came out of an unused story where Mabel went through the Portal and the Pines needed to go search for her. We were brainstorming ideas for alternate dimensions and the M Dimension was the most delightfully silly thing we could imagine.

Much has been made over how much creative control you were able to retain even though Disney’s Standards and Practices is presumably pickier than most. Was there anything you really had to fight for? Did you lose any of those battles?

AH: One day I'd love to release a coffee table book of all the crazy notes I got from Disney Channel's S&P and legal department. To give you a sense of what I was up against, one time I was told, "Make sure the target that Wendy throws a dart at doesn't resemble the target from the store Target." To which I had to reply: "The target isn't the target from Target. The target is a target."

Welcome to my hell.

Was anything vetoed from the Journal?

RR: I don’t remember any idea that we came up with being vetoed or changed. Disney Publishing is particularly awesome that way.

AH: Disney Publishing has been incredible. They didn't give me a single note on this journal. They understood the tone of the show, believed in my vision, and more importantly, trusted the intelligence of our audience. Working with them has been a dream come true. I wish the gatekeepers in kids TV were as savvy and in tune with the audience as those in Publishing.

Courtesy Disney Publishing

The Cipher Hunt was such a fun, interactive way to keep fans involved. Where did you get the idea?

AH: I spent 90 percent of my childhood playing SNES and N64, and my favorite games were the ones packed with secrets. I remember spending one summer being utterly obsessed with trying to get the legendary unreachable "Ice Key" from Banjo-Kazooie. What was so brilliant about that item was that it was literally impossible to get and just was there to torture players. Or so people thought. Until years later, someone discovered a code that let you find it. I remember thinking that if I ever had a chance, I wanted to create something that gave fans the same feeling. A last mystery after the game is over. Something so hard to find it reaches legendary status. Launching the hunt and watching the fans team up all over the world to find the clues was one of the most fun things I've ever done.

Do Mabel and Dipper's names have any special significance?

AH: I imagine that [their] parents see themselves as slightly counter-culture and chose purposefully archaic names just so their kids would stand out among the 12 Chrises and 14 Jessicas in Dipper and Mabel's preschool.

You’ve talked a lot about the real-life inspirations for many of the main characters, but I haven’t seen much about where McGucket came from. I thought it was interesting that Journal 3 showed that not only was he once a genius, he was actually the voice of reason before he got fed up with Ford.

RR: McGucket started as a throwaway joke character in "Gobblewonker" and just grew and grew in importance as the series went on. It just made sense to us that a character with such scientific and technological skill would be tied to the creation and the creator of the Portal.

AH: McGucket originally started out as just a wacky stereotypical hillbilly and a chance for me to scream into the microphone. (He was originally called Old Man McGuffin, which is a literary trope meaning something unimportant that sets a plot in motion.) But when our writers got deeper into the story we discovered that there was an exciting opportunity to connect him to our characters’ pasts and destinies. I'm very glad we did—giving Ford a friend humanizes him, as well as deepening the tragedy when they part ways.

Courtesy Disney Publishing

What's next for you both?

AH: Right now I'm developing a few different projects for a few different places, but it’s too early to comment on any of them. Like Grunkle Stan, I like to stay a man of mystery until the right moment to fleece rubes emerges once more.

RR: I’m serving as executive producer on a new show for Disney TV called Country Club created by the very talented Houghton brothers. It’s about a country family’s oversized adventures in the Big City.

Finally, a question from Lydia, my superfan 6-year-old: "Where do you come up with all of the weirdness?"

AH: I didn't come up with the weirdness. I was born in it. Molded by it.

RR: There is an unlimited supply of weirdness in the weird world around you and inside your weird self. Lots of people try to ignore it and lots of people try to stamp it out. But the best people allow themselves the freedom to be weird. Be the best, weird person you can be.

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literature
12 Facts About Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
George C. Beresford/Getty Images
George C. Beresford/Getty Images

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about venturing into the moral depths of colonial Africa is among the most frequently analyzed literary works in college curricula.

1. ENGLISH WAS THE AUTHOR’S THIRD LANGUAGE.

It’s impressive enough that Conrad wrote a book that has stayed relevant for more than a century. This achievement seems all the more impressive when considering that he wrote it in English, his third language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, Conrad was a native Polish speaker. French was his second language. He didn’t even know any English—the language of his literary composition—until age 21.

2. HEART OF DARKNESS BEGINS AND ENDS IN THE UK.

Though it recounts Marlow's voyage through Belgian Congo in search of Kurtz and is forever linked to the African continent, Conrad’s novella begins and ends in England. At the story’s conclusion, the “tranquil waterway” that “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” is none other than the River Thames.

3. THE PROTAGONIST MARLOW IS CONRAD.

The well-traveled Marlow—who appears in other Conrad works, such as Lord Jim—is based on his equally well-traveled creator. In 1890, 32-year-old Conrad sailed the Congo River while serving as second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. As a career seaman, Conrad explored not only the African continent but also ventured to places ranging from Australia to India to South America.

4. LIKE KURTZ AND MARLOW, CONRAD GOT SICK ON HIS VOYAGE.

Illness claimed Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone mysteriously insane. It nearly claimed Marlow. And these two characters almost never existed, owing to their creator’s health troubles. Conrad came down with dysentery and malaria in Belgian Congo, and afterwards had to recuperate in the German Hospital, London, before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to undergo hydrotherapy. Though he survived, Conrad suffered from poor health for many years afterward.

5. THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ALLEGED KURTZES IN REAL LIFE.

The identity of the person on whom Conrad based the story’s antagonist has aroused many a conjecture. Among those suggested as the real Kurtz include a French agent who died on board Conrad’s steamship, a Belgian colonial officer, and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

6. COLONIZING WAS ALL THE RAGE WHEN HEART OF DARKNESS APPEARED.

Imperialism—now viewed as misguided, oppressive, and ruthless—was much in vogue when Conrad’s novella hit shelves. The "Scramble for Africa" had seen European powers stake their claims on the majority of the continent. Britain’s Queen Victoria was even portrayed as the colonies' "great white mother." And writing in The New Review in 1897, adventurer Charles de Thierry (who tried and failed to establish his own colony in New Zealand) echoed the imperialistic exuberance of many with his declaration: “Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression.”

7. CHINUA ACHEBE WAS NOT A FAN OF THE BOOK.

Even though Conrad was no champion of colonialism, Chinua Achebe—the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart and other novels—delivered a 1975 lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and his ubiquitous short classic as “an offensive and deplorable book.” However, even Achebe credited Conrad for having “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation.” And others have recognized Heart of Darkness as an indictment of the unfairness and barbarity of the colonial system.

8. THE BOOK WASN’T SUCH A BIG DEAL—AT FIRST.

In 1902, three years after its initial serialization in a magazine, Heart of Darkness appeared in a volume with two other Conrad stories. It received the least notice of the three. In fact, not even Conrad himself considered it a major work. And during his lifetime, the story “received no special attention either from readers or from Conrad himself,” writes Gene M. Moore in the introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. But Heart of Darkness managed to ascend to immense prominence in the 1950s, after the planet had witnessed “the horror”—Kurtz's last words in the book—of WWII and the ramifications of influential men who so thoroughly indulged their basest instincts.

9. T.S. ELIOT BORROWED AN IMPORTANT LINE.

Though Heart of Darkness wasn’t an immediate sensation, it evidently was on the radar of some in the literary community. The famous line announcing the antagonist’s demise, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” serves as the epigraph to the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.”

10. THE STORY INSPIRED APOCALYPSE NOW.

Eighty years after Conrad’s novella debuted, the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now hit the big screen. Though heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness, the movie’s setting is not Belgian Congo, but the Vietnam War. And though the antagonist (played by Marlon Brando) is named Kurtz, this particular Kurtz is no ivory trader, but a U.S. military officer who has become mentally unhinged.

11. HEART OF DARKNESS HAS BEEN MADE INTO AN OPERA.

Tarik O'Regan’s Heart of Darkness, an opera in one act, opened in 2011. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House, it was reportedly the first operatic adaptation of Conrad’s story and heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now.

12. THE BOOK ALSO SPARKED A VIDEO GAME.

In a development not even Conrad’s imagination could have produced, his classic inspired a video game, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released in 2012.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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