OUT OF THE MOUTHS of babes can come surprisingly wise and clear-eyed insights. And in the case of Steve Breen, out of the mouths of boys can come inspiration for five years of imagination-bending cartoons, a new book – and, as of last December, an impressively pedigreed Hollywood movie deal.
All because a father relented and began drawing after hours to please and entertain his kids.
Breen, a two-time Pulitzer winner for his editorial cartoons, puts in long hours at the board as political cartoonist for the U-T San Diego (formerly Union-Tribune) newspaper. The original creator of the Universal Uclick comic strip “Grand Avenue,” he is also the author of the picture books “Stick,” “Violet the Pilot” and “Pug and Doug.” But at home, at night and on weekends, Breen’s kids began having other ideas about how he should spend his drawing time. Three of his sons would toss out ideas for illustrations that combined Lincoln and “Wolverine” Logan, or Trump and a Tyrannosaurus – when not imagining alien abductions or Jedi mutations or, in a particularly notable example, death by cute fantasy animal.
“The whole process was great. Completely different from the onerous comic strip and children’s book projects I had done,” ,” Breen tells The Post’s Comic Riffs of drawing for the eldest three of his six children: Thomas, now 15; Patrick, 13; and Jack, 9. (Disclosure: Breen and I both once worked at the Union-Tribune.)
“It was like I was 12 years old again, drawing sick and strange stuff for my classmates,” Breen continues. “There were [generally] no rules with these drawings … for the most part, it was pure creative freedom. I love being a professional cartoonist, but there are parameters: Be topical, be tasteful, make sense, have a point, etc.
“With these drawings, there was none of that.”
One day, Breen was lunching with his agent when the creative product of play-time with his boys began to take a new direction. “She suggested publishing a collection of these drawings with a provocative title,” Breen says of his agent.
And thus, “Unicorn Executions,” as a book project, was born.
“I was just excited at the prospect of working on a collection, because I could incorporate stuff I had done with my boys, as well as new art we could work on together … ,” Breen tells Comic Riffs. “We started a Twitter account called ‘Sketch Monkey,’ and began tweeting our weird drawings. After we had over 200, my agent found a publisher [Skyhorse] and we put the book together.”
The finished result, which came out in hardcover last month, is the beautifully illustrated, warmly created “Unicorn Executions and Other Crazy Stuff My Kids Make Me Draw.”
Breen’s agent, though, had another move up her sleeve. She packaged the book as a comedy project and pitched it to movie studios. Soon, several studios were vying for the rights, Breen says, and Disney made a very attractive offer. Ultimately, Universal was chosen, with Rawson Thurber (“We’re the Millers,” “Dodgeball”) set for the director’s chair, and the Emmy-nominated Simon Rich (“Saturday Night Live”) writing the screenplay. (Breen, Thurber and Rich are all represented by CAA.)
“I had no idea at the time a movie could evolve from this,” Breen says. “I was thinking maybe the rights could be sold for a TV sitcom or something — perhaps me as a younger version of the Ted Knight character in ‘Too Close for Comfort.’ “
“Unicorn Executions” may have already exceeded Breen’s expectations as a commercial property. But at its heart is still the 44-year-old father who channeled his inner 12-year-old – all while sharing the experience with his boys.
“Many of the drawings I have produced for my boys over the years didn’t make it into ‘Unicorn’ due to copyright issues,” Breen notes. “I had so many cool Star Wars and Marvel superhero pieces that never saw the light of day.
“But my kids liked ’em!”