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A ‘creature’-controlled site

They’re not your typical Saturday morning cartoon characters. And even the creators of South Park might have a hard time defining their animation. At sarcastic humor and misbehavior are acceptable with characters that are simply referred to as “creatures” by the creators.

Homestar Runner, a marshmallow-like creature, blazed the path for the animation of his friends with rhyming names like Strong Bad, Strong Mad and Strong Sad. And then there’s Marzipan, Pom-Pom and The Cheat.

While the creators of the Web site, brothers Mike and Matt Chapman describe the characters as creatures — “not quite animals not quite humans.” Each one has its own personality.

Strong Bad, a short-tempered sarcastic wrestler, often greets his friends by saying, “Hey crap for brains'”when he isn’t kicking them in the shin. And Homestar Runner is the gullible guy willing to stick his hand in a pot of lava at Strong Bad’s command and overuses the phrase “seriously guys.”

Going into the site’s third year on the Internet, the Chapman brothers, from Atlanta, said these characters’ personalities evolved once the voices were added to their sketches.

The idea for an animated Web site, Matt Chapman said, originated from a small storybook they created.

“We got the idea in 1996, just on a boring summer afternoon and decided to make up the characters,” Mike Chapman said. “We sketched the pictures and went down to Kinko’s and made a few copies of the book. But we didn’t really do anything with it for four years, and we later discovered FLASH, which is the program we use to animate it.”

The characteristics evolved from the idea to have Japanese-like animation based on an original children’s type story idea, said Matt Chapman. But as some of the characters became more developed, Matt Chapman said they started to lack features, such as arms, which was intended.

“We kind of pulled from Hello Kitty and said, ‘Hey it’s for kids, it doesn’t have to make any sense,'” Matt, 25, said. “It makes it look nice and easy to animate, but we gave them no arms back before they were animated (on the Internet).”

Matt describes Strong Bad, one of the main characters, as a “mass wrestling bad guy” who has somewhat stolen the spotlight from Homestar Runner ever since he began answering viewers’ e-mails.

The e-mail answering session, which is conducted by Strong Bad, is one of the site’s most popular episodes. The wrestler sits in a business chair in front of a computer screen to answer actual e-mails from viewers. Usually it is an attempt to give the viewer advice by re-enacting experiences and most times picking on his friend Homestar Runner.

“When it was first created it was supposed to be all about Homestar Runner,” Matt said. “But everybody likes the bad guy best. We tried to exploit his pop because people demand Strong Bad. We just started doing this full time, so all we had time to do for awhile before that were the e-mails. But now we’re trying to shift the focus back to poor Homestar; I feel like he’s getting gypped.”

Because the site has about 30,000 regular viewers, Mike said they get thousands of e-mails each day to choose from to respond to an episode.

“A lot of times the story line evolves through selecting the e-mail,” Mike said. “We write them as we go with a basic idea and as we are recording we think of other details to add.”

But whether the characters appear in an e-mail answer session or a short cartoon, viewers can relate to the humor in instances, such as dealing with the person everyone dodges in the office or relationships.

“Just as much as any other writer or artist, all your materials are coming from what you know, but not more so than any other writer,” Mike said.

The personalities of the characters, Mike said, weren’t formed until the voices were added to the characters.

Matt provides the voices for all the characters except Marzipan, a bell-shaped vegetarian who stresses the empowerment of women, which is done by Melissa Palmer, Mike’s girlfriend.

Because it takes at least five hours to put together an e-mail episode, the Chapman brothers recently decided to work on the site full time. Freelance animation and web design help pay the bills, Mike said, as well as marketing products from their site.

Short cartoons on the site feature other characters like The Cheat, referred to as a “yellow thing” who has his own theme song, where the chorus repeats “The Cheat/The Cheat.” And Pom Pom, which is a colorful oversized bubble that absorbs most anything in his range.

The Chapman brothers said they have slowly been getting signs of success with a recent feature article about their site in Yahoo Internet Life Magazine and college radio station requests for them to record promotions.

Matt said he notices the growth with orders for T-shirts coming from Canada, London and Australia. And even more so from college students or those who work in an office.

USF graduate student Ryan Haczynski, and a teaching assistant in the religious studies department, tuned into the site during his spare time after a friend of his told him about the site. Haczynski said he shared the humor with his fellow collegeagues in the department.

“It’s nice to know we’re getting people to waste time from school and work,” Matt said. “We’re trying to grill a fan base. One of the real signs of success is a breakfast cereal. Once you have you’re own breakfast cereal, I think your pretty much set.”

Contact Grace Agostinat