Red Ketchup, the long-awaited animated adaptation
“When we pitched [Red Ketchup] to Teletoon,” says Red Ketchup series director Martin Villeneuve, “it was the first time in my life that after an hour and a half of pitching that they said ‘we want the project and we want it like this, like you just pitched it’, and this for a creator is the best thing you can ever hear because you know that you are going to be supported by the production team, by the broadcaster. We all want to do the same show.”
After numerous attempts to adapt Red Ketchup to other media, the bande dessinée québécoise (Quebec comic) finally receives an animated adaptation in 2023, debuting in French on Télétoon la nuit and in English on Adult Swim (Canada). Red Ketchup co-creator Réal Godbout works alongside Villeneuve (Mars et Avril, the Imelda short film trilogy, The 12 Tasks of Imelda) and Sphère Animation producer Jacques Bilodeau on the initial twenty half-hours.
As to whether Red Ketchup finds success outside of Canada, Teletoon production executive Hugues Dufour doesn’t think Red Ketchup is “specific to Quebec and that only Quebecers can understand it”. Bilodeau, for his part, believes “Red Ketchup is mostly international...the humour is not specifically Quebecois, even though the project was born in Quebec and the humour was born in Quebec. We think it has an international appeal more than any comedy series that we have done in the past.”
Debuting in 1982 as a side character in Réal Godbout and Pierre Fournier's Michel Risque, a serialized comic in Montreal humour magazine Croc, FBI agent Steve ‘Red’ Ketchup’s solo exploits first appeared in Croc’s all-comic spin-off Titanic in 1983. Red Ketchup returned to Croc in 1984 when Titanic ceased publication. Collections of Red Ketchup’s exploits followed, domestically through Croc Publishing and abroad through Dargaud, until Croc’s collapse in 1995 and a brief run in Safarir. Montreal comics publisher La Pastèque republished and eventually furthered the Red Ketchup collections starting in 2007.
“I knew Red Ketchup,” remembers Bilodeau, “because I grew up reading Red Ketchup when I was studying at university, so I was quite excited about the potential of the project.” Adds Dufour, “I know that Martin [Villeneuve]...courted [Godbout and Fournier] for a very long time and finally got their trust. Culturally it’s a very, very important property in Quebec. It means a lot to many people, including me.” Red Ketchup, according to Villeneuve, was “a good four or five months into production when [Teletoon] announced it”.
Despite the American-based setting – Red Ketchup being a response to 1980s American action films – [adult swim canada]’s version is the first English-language adaptation of Red Ketchup. It’s also the first successful adaptation overall after the failure of numerous projects, including a proposed live-action film version that broke ground for the animated series. Red Ketchup co-creator Pierre Fournier, who died on November 12, 2022 at the age of seventy-two, worked on the animated series’ early development.
The animated version follows the lead of the comics by setting the series in 1986, initially using the Cold War as a backdrop. Mirroring the comic’s many genre shifts, which over Red Ketchup’s run sees Red Ketchup handle conspiracy theories, time travel and a stint in Hell, Godbout points out that “[Red Ketchup is] not only political satire. There are sides of science fiction, too, and fantasy, adventure and...parody of James Bond movies. The point of view is different.” Said flexibility, Martin Villeneuve says, “is what attracted me the most to the project. This is very unusual that you get a chance to have such a tall order to meet, and to be able to define a playground for the creatives to have fun, and this to me is extremely stimulating.”
Red Ketchup’s relative brevity, given its origin as serialized installments in Titanic and Croc, requires expansion of the series to fit a twenty-episode order. To do this, says Villeneuve, “the B-stories will focus more on the lives of the rich supporting cast.” This includes Red Ketchup’s sister Sally, and enemies Red faces such as Doctor K and Olga Dynamo, as the series welds the first three stories into a twenty-episode arc.
“Most of the work in development,” explains Dufour, “was working on the secondary characters to make them relatable and engaging.” According to Réal Godbout, said characters deviate from the comic by appearing in the first episode. As to how the animated series builds its secondary characters around Red Ketchup’s missions, “the place given to the secondary plots may change throughout the episodes, but they have to be connected somehow to the main plot. They’re not just independent stories,” notes Godbout. “Most of the time, Red’s sister Sally is at the centre of those plots. Brother and sister can meet once in a while, but not very often.”
“In terms of social environment,” says Dufour about the Cold War setting’s relevance to 2023 audiences, “it’s surprisingly apropos to talk about the Cold War...we thought we’d been done with the Cold War and it seems that, unfortunately, we aren’t. There are things that are still quite topical now that I thought belonged only to the ‘80s, but they’re quite there. Even those references to [Ronald] Reagan that you have sometimes in Red Ketchup still resonate.” Villeneuve feels most of Red Ketchup's themes in the comic series "got more and more relevant to the point that it's a mirror of today's world. I could picture our politics of today in the Red Ketchup comics if there were more to be produced." Réal Godbout is currently working on Red Ketchup’s tenth volume, The Orange Agent, revolving around Donald Trump.
With a will borne of Vietnam war service and an abusive father’s parenting, Red Ketchup – on the surface – is a hard-nosed agent with a notably high tolerance for both pain and drugs. Where the man ends and the chemical ‘enhancement’ begins is part of the character’s foundation as an implacable force of duty. “[Ketchup] doesn’t take them for fun”, Réal Godbout points out. As befits a character that at an early point in Red Ketchup injects antifreeze into his body, the drugs are “just to keep him going. They are food to him.”
Godbout, as Red Ketchup’s co-creator, keeps the agent in perspective by pointing out that “Red Ketchup may be a three-dimensional character but basically, he remains a one-track-minded maniac. That’s what makes him interesting, and the other characters are there to humanize things a little.” In keeping with Red Ketchup’s overall tone and satirical bent, “we’re not too sure who’s good and who’s bad in this story.” Adds Hugues Dufour, “he’s a bit on the robotic side. He’s almost like a RoboCop character.”
“Unstoppable when it comes to completing missions,” explains Martin Villeneuve, “he’s like the Russell Crowe character in L.A. Confidential – clearly troubled, self-loathing, numbing his own pain with drugs, alcohol, violence, and work...Red has an on and off switch, but no dimmer function.” As Villeneuve defines the animated version of Red Ketchup, “Red has limits – for instance, he won’t hurt women or children, and he’ll always stick up for the little guy. He’s also searching for a sense of belonging and a place to call home.”
Available from April 20 at 10pm on Télétoon la nuit and from April 23rd on Adult Swim.